Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why I Shudder Every Time I Hear the Phrase “Research-Based” Teaching Practice

I am being totally honest when I say I shudder when I hear educators and policymakers use the phrase “research-based teaching practice.” It’s like when someone runs their fingernails across a chalkboard. Those of us who remember chalkboards also remember the degree of inner discomfort that accompanies that experience. I even used it as an attention-getter in my earliest days of teaching, but I digress here. Why do I shudder with discomfort with the phrase “research-based teaching practice?” Well, for starters, I am not totally convinced that such an entity exists, at least well-enough to earn such a scientific label. Before the rotten tomatoes start flying in my direction, let me explain myself.

I first experienced this shudder when I started a teacher education program a quarter of a century ago. One of my first curriculum classes was one of those educational courses that tried in every way possible to masquerade as a “science” course. In this course, EL Thorndike and Piaget was everywhere. I was learning the “principles of curriculum design" and “education science.” My shudder happened when I began to labor over a curriculum unit design project where I was asked to design “performance objectives” using a recipe approach developed by the “educational researchers.”

As I wrote these “objectives” I was told that they had to be measurable, which actually was a maddening requirement for a future high school English teacher. So much of the things I wanted students to do with the great literature of the world along with their creative writing, came out knarled and unrecognizable when twisted into a “performance objective” recipe. Measurability was so much more than simply answering an “objective multiple choice question.” I shuddered then, but I wrote my “performance objectives” for my unit project, turned it in, and never looked back. This practice was simply too superficial to be useful in the high school English classroom.

Fast forward today, after 16 years in the high school and middle school classroom and 10 years as a principal, I think I now realize why I have always shuddered a bit when it comes to the mention of “research-based” teaching practice. It is simply this: such a phrase simply implies that its “research-basedness,” if I may invent a word, implies that it is validated through accepted standardized test results. It reminds me of that earlier “curriculum design” course from years ago. All that is worthwhile is measurable was the main principle of curriculum design I learned then.

My experience has been that “educational practices” that are validated through traditional, measureable results from tests ignores so much of the complexity of classrooms, teaching, and student learning. In fact, often what is advertised as “research-based teaching practice” is a practice that only works some of the time. Rarely, does any teaching practice work every time, no matter how much research backs its application. That is because there is so much in our endeavors as educators beyond our control, no matter how much we like to think otherwise.

I am certainly not saying that there is no such thing as “research-based” teaching practices, but I think the shudder I feel goes back to my own discomfort experienced in the curriculum design class years ago. As became apparent to me then, a great deal of what we do as educators is not “measurable” in conventional ways, and some ways may not even possible. To try to make it measureable distorts and twists the learning into something superficial and unrecognizable. Sometimes trying to force the label “research-based” on teaching practice distorts that practice in the same way that trying to force “performance objectives” did with my high school literature unit years ago. Today, I am glad that I shudder when someone starts throwing around the phrase “research-based” in education these days. That tells me my BS alarm system is still working.

The real problems of education are not empirical ones, but rather profoundly moral, economic, and political ones."

Emery J. Hyslop-Margison;Ayaz Naseem. Scientism and Education (Kindle Location 703). Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

3 Things Wrong with Test Pep Rallies

In 2011, I made clear my concerns with "Test Pep Rallies" with my blog post "Test Pep Rallies: Good Practice or Waste of Time?" I still feel that such practices are more harmful than useful. As in my earlier post, I still believe that:

  • Test Pep Rallies potentially harm students and learning. It's one thing to encourage a student to do his or her best; it's another to place emphasis on performance levels, where self-worth might be wrongly tied to test results. In my thinking, Test Pep Rallies have too much potential for making state test results too important, especially if held for the purpose of promoting test performance. Encourage students to always do their best, not just when testing season comes along.
  • Test Pep Rallies reinforce the "Culture of Test Prep" in schools rather than worthwhile learning. Very little worthwhile learning takes place in schools where test prep is the goal for everything the school does.Its one thing to use data in decision-making; its quite another to use test results to determine everything that happens. Test Pep Rallies are about Test Prep, not about celebrating accomplishment. They're shortsighted practices for the short term that has not lasting impact on anything.
  • Test Pep Rallies are a waste of time. Why do we even want to elevate a standardized test to such a high level? Students could be celebrating real learning and accomplishments instead of focusing on a test no one will pay attention to five or ten years in the future.
In the season of testing, it is so important for administrators to keep testing in perspective. Elevating standardized testing through Test Pep Rallies places too much emphasis on something that already consumes too much of our instructional time. 

Three Reminders for Educators on the Eve of the Spring Standardized Testing Onslaught

Of course we all acknowledge state standardized tests can't possibly measure everything that matters. Our state even forbids the use of state test scores as the sole basis of making high-stakes decisions. Yet, as the season of testing falls upon us, the obsession with bubble sheets and number two pencils begins anew. But we need to be reminded that tests are only a small piece of information that matters about our students and our teachers. Before we start scheduling the "Test Prep Pep Rallies" and giving our students those motivational speeches that elevate these tests higher than they should be, we need to be truthful with our students: in the grand scheme of public education, these test scores do not measure what's most important, and the results certainly do not come close to capturing what it means to be an excellent teacher, especially when excellent teachers impact lives more than test scores.

Recently, a Florida teacher wrote this letter to her students just before the onslaught of state tests. I think perhaps it reminds us that testing should always be put in proper perspective, not elevated to some major life goal or achievement. No one is going brag 10 years down the road that they made a "Level 5" on their English End of Course Test or their Biology End of Course Test. As this teacher points out, there are many more things worthwhile to brag about.

"My Dearest Students,

This week you will take your Florida State Assessments (FSA) for reading and math. I know how hard you worked, but there is something important that you must know. The FSA does not assess all of what makes each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you the way I do, and certainly not the way your families do.

They do not know that some of you speak two languages, or that you love to sing or paint a picture. They don't know that your friends can count on you to be there for them, that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day, or that your face turns red when you feel shy. They have not heard you tell differences between a King Cobra and a rattler. They do not know that you participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that despite dealing with bad circumstances, you still come to school with a smile. They do not know that you can tell a great story or that really love spending time (baking, hunting, mudding, fishing, shopping...) with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be very trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try every day to be your very best.

The scores you will get from this test will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart. You are smart! You are enough! You are the light that brightens my day! So while you are preparing for this test and while you are in the midst of it all, remember that there is no way to "test" all the amazing and awesome things that make you, YOU!

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Please keep all kids in the state of Florida in your thoughts tomorrow. Thank you."

Here's my own three reminders to educators as we find ourselves on the eve of another "Season of Standardized Testing."

1. As we move into the "Season of Testing" let's remember that we don't teach test-takers; we teach real human beings with interests, hopes, dreams and passions that can't be reduced to multiple-choice questions.

2. As long as students and teachers give us their best, we acknowledge and celebrate that. Celebrate accomplishments such as poems written and published; hours of world-changing community service served; and songs written and sung. Celebrate what the bubble sheets ignore.

3. Keep testing in its place as one piece of data. Don't elevate it needlessly. Don't hold school-wide pep rallies that elevate these things superficially. Leave in their place.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Is It Time to Question the Place of Football in High Schools?

“Tough men do not cry. Placing your hands over your head and complaining about the effects of concussions are deemed as signs of weaknesses.” Bennet Omalu, Play Hard, Die Young: Football Dementia, Depression, and Death

As it becomes clearer and clearer that repeated blows to the head while playing football causes CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, perhaps its time to question whether we can really guarantee that the thousands of young men who play high school football can really be safe from serious future brain injury. The truth is, parents trust that when their child puts on a football uniform that there is some degree of safety involved, but what is apparently becoming clearer, repeated blows to the head have long-lasting serious health effects.

I think it is past time for high schools to begin questioning whether the sacrifice of future health and well-being is worth the fleeting moments of glory wrought on the high school football field. Sure, the argument can be made that taking risks is a part of life, but do we really in good consciouse want to ask a 16, 17, or 18 year old to sacrifice their future well-being for a game?

I realize that high school sports have a strangle hold on public education. For many schools, the only succeess they experience is on these fields. Yet, we do need to be conscious of all that we’re asking our students to sacrifice when they choose to participate. As a high school football player who suffered a life-changing injury many years ago, I can’t but wonder how my own life would have been different had I knew 40 some years later the physical damage it would have caused.