Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Call For Action: Narrowing the Curriculum

I believe the buzz phrase is "a mile wide and an inch deep."

Having coordinated curriculum, I've been guilty of parroting that phrase as well. Much like every other curriculum director Robert Marzano groupie, I have lamented how much time we spend covering so much in such little depth. Marzano listed the narrowing of the curriculum as the top factor a school can do to improve achievement, with the key being the world "viable", as in making sure you actually have enough time to teach effectively what you say you will. And of course, every time the TIMSS comes out, we have the pleasure of hearing about our wide, shallow curriculum as well.

So, when the Iowa Core Curriculum quotes that phrase, we shouldn't get too nonplussed. Much like the statement "rigor" and "higher standards", the phrase is not revolutionary. Rather, how to achieve it is.

The basics of the argument are that, as educators, we have felt the need to cover every possible topic in a curriculum, not leaving things out. In so doing, we cover things way too quickly, and therefore ruin retention.

As no surprise, I fully agree with the Iowa Core's calling to narrow (and thereby deepen) the curriculum. But, I'd like to add some caveats of how this is to be done.

1. Identify the most important skills - This is what the Iowa Core is attempting to do, and as far as I can tell, are doing successfully. Even the research shows that teaching less math topics doesn't necessarily improve scores... Singapore teaches more than the U.S. They just happen to emphasize equations, which has the biggest impact.

2. Multi-Task - Maybe the biggest problem is that we follow Madeline Hunter too closely; introduce one skill at a time, then instruct, guided practice, individual practice, etc. Authentically, that's not the way we work. When we think, we use multiple skills together. Introducing and working on multiple skills/concepts at a time suddenly eliminates a lot of repetition.

3. Be OK with skipping concepts - There is a fear amongst teachers (at least there was for me) that "if I don't teach them this, they'll never get it in life". Hogwash. The fact is, people glean the information they need outside of school all the time (in fact, many have to relearn the concepts they supposedly learned in K-12). Perhaps more important is helping students be resourceful enough to develop the concepts on their own when asked to.

4. Compact - If you are a teacher and don't know this term, that is telling. Research shows American teachers woefully underuse compacting. The end result is a lot of time wasted re-teaching concepts the students already know. We need to arm teachers with diagnostic tools to help them find what they can eliminate.

5. Eliminate the thick textbooks - Textbooks have adopted throwing everything into it to meet every state's standards. That's not a problem. Teachers who can't teach without the textbook...? There's the problem. If I hear one more "Gosh, I'm so far behind, I've only got my classes on chapter 8" one more time...

The Iowa Core will require districts to do a thorough alignment of their curriculum, which should help define their scopes and sequences. But I think pushing some specific caveats such as the five above will go further to make a difference.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Call For Action: Authentic Standardized Assessment

We need better standardized assessments. Which is truly an indictment on two things. As many would quickly assume, this is an indictment on the ITBS and ITEDs. But it is equally an indictment on the areas those tests don't cover, which are then covered by inadequate locally-made exams (if at all). Neither are appropriate.

In Iowa, we (mainly) measure our proficiency with the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Iowa Test of Educational Development, or ITBS and ITEDs. Published by Riverside at the University of Iowa, they have long been used as a norm-referenced test to measure student achievement in the classroom. With the advent of No Child Left Behind, the ITEDs/ITBS were suddenly used as the official achievement tests for accountability purposes. If students did not perform well on the tests, schools now faced consequences.

While there are tests in social studies, reading materials, and language, more and more schools are not taking those tests, as only math, reading, and science are required. Many outspoken critics of NCLB have mentioned that testing becomes a shell game, as schools teach to the test (or more linguistically correct, teach the test), and marginalize other curriculum for the sake of proficiency. More importantly in my estimation, they marginalize other students. Iowa requires being at the 41st percentile to be considered proficient, and a school needs a large proportion of its students to be proficient (79.3% in 11th grade, for example). From a statistical point of view, the students who are most likely to make a difference for a school are those students who are between the 20th-50th percentile. Many districts are implementing programs like Second Chance Reading, or Remedial Math to help those students, while not addressing the needs of the solidly proficient, let alone those who are in the top 10 or bottom 10 percentile. This is the equivalent to Obama and McCain putting all their money and resources into Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Virginia, because the other states don't matter.

In James Popham's The Truth About Testing, he points out several problems with using tests like the ITBS/ITEDs as measures for accountability. They are a snapshot in time and could easily be thrown off by external factors (like whether the student eat breakfast that day). By being a normed-reference test, they require testing elements that separate students for validity, or in other words, questions need to have students miss. While NCLB wants all students to get the question right, Riverside would consider the questions awful if everyone got them right. (The test has not been re-normed since being used for accountability, by the way.) Moreover, tests have large amounts of bias for intelligence and social-economic status that cannot be distilled. While Popham says standardized data are useful, they just are not reliable for accountability.

In brief, I not only agree with Popham, I could also add several other reasons why they are not valuable. But that's not the subject of my post. I strongly feel schools should be accountable, and that schools should use standardized tests. They just need to be authentic ones.

There isn't a more un-authentic test than a multiple choice test. When was the last time you took one? Seriously? High school? What job requires proficiency via multiple choice tests?

We show our proficiency in the world through our performance. Can you compose an essay that illustrates the reasons why I should be for a particular argument? Can you create a pamphlet that gives the reader instructions on how to complete the task? Can you draw a conclusion through a set of laboratory experiments? Can you grow strawberries in your agriculture class? Multiple choice, at best, is a tool for formative assessment, and is primarily overused by teachers because it is wildly convenient.

And, that's why we use multiple choice tests for accountability... because they are convenient. A scantron can score them. To those who would say convenience has to be considered from a financial standpoint, I could not object more. Flat out, that convenience hurts kids.

So I propose a call for action. Let's establish quality authentic assessments for all our schools. To do this, we must have standards that we deem are essential for the world. The Iowa Core Curriculum, I feel, will do that for us. But unless we then have quality authentic assessments, how will we know how students are performing?

Let's look at an example. When I say a student "must be able to use technology to solve a variety of problems" as my educational standard, how do I know students are successful at this? The two options that are currently out there are inadequate. An ITED-esque standardized test won't tell us. But moreover, a locally-made criterion-test (aka "a teacher test") won't tell us either. We have no way knowing how well a school's instruction compares to other schools with locally made tests.

Right now, technology literacy, as defined by the federal government, must be measured in 8th grade. And it is a joke. I've seen quite a few school districts who use a random assignment or a class grade as the proficiency exam. These districts have no way of being able to tell me "Yes, Johnny has met the standards for technology and is ready for the world". We need a performance-based set of examinations that address the technology standards. Every technology teacher in the state will be aware of them, and therefore will help their students prepare for those. It creates the most apples-for-apples comparison out there. And, technology is not the only field. Writing, financial literacy, civics, scientific thinking, physical education, and the fine arts all need this as well. Until then, we continue to mis-prepare our students for the world.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Seashore and Nvu

Web 2.0 has greatly minimized the need to teach web authoring tools in the mainstream classroom. To emphasize a constructivist classroom, I would train students in Adobe GoLive and Photoshop in the "olden" days. With a blog or a wiki (or even iWeb), that training can be cut to nothing, which means more time spent on the actual curriculum.

However, I taught English. There is still a place for web authoring tools in the specialized computer applications and digital art classes. Web design still remains one of the fastest growing occupations which involves a lot more conceptual technology knowledge than just creating a blog. And yes, Photoshop and Dreamweaver (GoLive bit the dust Adobe's purchase of the program) are still excellent, robust, professional-grade programs. The problem is cost. Outfitting several labs in a school with the Adobe Creative Suite can cost as much as a mobile lab of laptops.

Enter into this two freeware programs, Nvu and Seashore. Both programs are free, downloadable, open-source programs. Nvu is a website building program while Seashore is a Mac-based photo editing program (for Windows, try GIMP or Picasa). Now, neither one are as robust as Adobe's offerings, but they are close. They give the essential tools to a beginner and intermediate level. The tools are standardized, so learning marquee, lasso, and cropping in Seashore will transfer over quickly if a student were to pick up Photoshop in college. Plus (and this cannot be underestimated) I've seen quite a bit of mis-teaching of Adobe in the classroom. Simply put, too much emphasis on bells and whistles, not enough on technology being a tool to help learning. I've also seen students become overwhelmed with palattes galore on Adobe.

The obvious benefit is that it frees money. You can make any lab into a digital lab with these programs, and the money can be reinvested into additional computers. It is worth taking a look.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Public Perception of Failing Schools

As part of my reading, I've come across the following from Sam Harris in an editorial in Newsweek (9/20/08):

The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security … .

Interestingly enough, Harris is not focusing on education at all in this article, it is rather a commentary on vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. But I believe the very insignificant mentioning of education paints a picture I've seen a lot of this political season. In the litany of issues the next president will face, the fact that schools are failing is a given for Harris, without any data or exposition and support necessary. Harris isn't alone, of course. Consider this editorial from the New York Times...

I urge all voters to send a message to the candidates: Tell them they must stand up to the special interests that oppose fundamental reforms because America's failing schools are a national crisis that can only be solved with strong leadership.

And from John McCain's official website...

The deplorable status of preparation for our children, particularly in comparison with the rest of the industrialized world, does not allow us the luxury of eliminating options in our educational repertoire.

And from the Washington Post...

There is no question that No Child Left Behind has brought accountability to America's classrooms... But Mr. Miller is right in saying that students are still not achieving as they should...

It is hard to find any rebuttal to this in the national media. There is no request for data to support these claims as there would be for claims about a "broken health care system" or "foreign policy that violates human rights".

It has long been postulated by Gerald Bracey as well as others that this was the grand intention of No Child Left Behind: create an impossible accountability system that creates the perception in America's people that their schools are failures. I can't speak for the originators' intention of the legislation, but that looks to be the end result. Even Obama, derided by his opponents as "being in the pocket of the teacher unions" argues that America's schools are in need of massive reform.

There are two veins of thought, then, for educators at this point. One, let's admit the reality of the situation and learn to work with a re-shaped world view. Or two, let's be strategically organized to counteract the perception that is out there. Option one is depressing, option two is monumental.

Before we dismiss option one, consider some other scapegoats of Americans. One of my personal friends in Decorah is the owner of a gas station. He is a respected member of the community... a small business owner raising a successful family. People in Decorah think he is an honest man. Of course, the same people in Decorah, like everyone nationwide, curse under their breath the oil companies, and how the prices at the community's gas stations are nothing less than price gouging. There is a dichotomy between how we perceive the ambiguous oil company and how we perceive the actual person. As is often the case, getting to truly know an enemy often makes the enemy disappear.

When I asked him about this, he would shrug and say, "That's the way it is. If people knew about how much money I was making, they wouldn't be objecting." He mentioned that there was some truth in CEO's of oil companies being overly wealthy, but there would be thousands of angry investors if the oil company decided not to work for as big a profit. Plus, he has gotten to know several of the people on the ground floor, the oil truck drivers and the distribution managers. They too are in the same boat, lambasted as a collective whole, but respected when people know them on an individual basis.

I'd say congresspeople are in the same boat. The U.S. Congress as a whole is fighting approval ratings in the teens currently. And while their pay is above the median for wages in this country, those are not 9 to 5 positions. You have to work full time. Seriously, it makes you wonder why anyone would want to become a senator. The answer is, while the Congress as a whole is unpopular, individual senators are widely popular in their districts. It is hard to unseat an incumbent (no further proof needed than Harkin and Grassley). Ask yourself, do you have an unfavorable view of Congress, and yet vote Harkin and Grassley in every time? The reality, as objective and non-partisan as I can be, is that those two senators are doing a good job for Iowa, at least in the eyes of the majority of Iowans who have gotten to know them pretty well.

Education is the exact same. In Gallup's March 2008 survey of public perception of public schools, they asked Americans what grade they would give to schools as a country, schools locally, and schools their child attends. The most recent results show the same pattern as for oil and congress.

When asked about schools in the country as a whole, 44% gave schools a C, 18% gave schools a D or an F (that alone brings into question the perpetuation of the "America's failing schools" meme that is unchecked right now, as more people give an A-B than a D-F).

However, when asked about schools in their area, 30% gave schools a C and 16% gave schools a D or an F. And most telling, when asked about schools their child attends, 14% gave schools a C and 9% a D or an F. A whopping 72% gave their own schools an A or a B.

Perhaps we need to take comfort in the truth of this "collective whole effect". Go ahead and rant against us in the media. We know you love us on an individual basis. Perhaps we have to get over ourselves acknowledge there will always be continuous disrespect just like other professions... it is the task we have. Perhaps we need to reframe our focus, not on the public's perception, but rather back to the original task of increasing student performance.

Unfortunately, there is great anger on the behalf of educators, certainly the ones that I know. They, most understandably, won't just accept that "disrespect happens". As a whole, educators are an emotional, passionate bunch... that's why we became teachers, it is what makes us good for students. Disrespect hurts. And while it is possible to work as people in congress or owners of gas station do, and maybe even in our best interests to, it isn't likely that we adopt that approach.

Which brings us to option #2. If our goal is changing public perception, then this is truly where we are failing... all of us. From NEA and ISEA to SAI to IASB to the DE and AEAs and LEAs. We are doing something wrong.

Jamie Vollmer, he of the infamous Blueberry Story and one of the people who I genuinely respect in this area, has this to say about our fight. When institutions try to go from #2 to #1, they can't do it by extolling their own virtues. The public will say, "Hey, we already have #1... why do we need you?" No, instead they need to do what Pepsi and Apple have done, show you what is wrong with #1. Research shows it is the only way to vault ahead. Research also shows that the way for #1 to combat this is either to ignore the attacks as insignificant, or if the threats are significant, attack back at #2. If #1 just extolls their own virtues, it will begin to plant a seed of doubt in the public's mind that will grow as attacks continue to mount.

The problem for schools is, unlike Coke and Windows, we can't attack back. Not because we're too good for that, but rather because the attacks do not come from competitors (charter schools), but rather because they come from people in the public. Schools cannot push back against the public... it would be a disaster. So instead, people grow uncomfortable when educators push back on the charter schools who didn't start the fight.

Vollmer argues that there is nothing more we can do than a grassroots educational campaign. Full blown, over the backyard fence, stop and talk in aisle 3 of the supermarket, setting the record straight. Listening to people's concerns and then inviting them to see what we are doing in school. Let seeing be believing.

This is unbelievably daunting. It is what we are failing at, perhaps due to lack of organization on this type of campaign. But if we don't like the alternative, we'll have to start.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Call For Action: Going Green in the Classroom

When I was a teacher, I had a digital classroom-style curriculum. Every student had a computer. We took as much time discussing online as we did discussing in class. And most content was gathered through student discovery and sharing through the web as opposed to teacher instruction. I modeled this based on what my experience told me was the way students preferred to learn, through a discovery model enriched with the collaborative, productive technology.

There was one powerful thing with this digital classrom that I wouldn't have thought possibly in my wildest dreams. The class came up with an original social awareness project and created a high amount of class unity. We did this by going paperless.

Let me start by saying this was not easy and wasn't 100% successful. Especially for me, the photocopy-addicted louse that I was. Suffice it to say, I love materials. Lots of handouts that give graphic organizers or differentiated assignments. Handouts to help students manage time or work for visual learners. Handouts to make obscure concepts like theme and style become more concrete. And while students in general like the bevy of resources at their disposal, they did kid me about killing too many trees.

It was in one class that a student suggested that we go paperless. And after the appropriate amount of "Betcha can't do it Mr. Abbey!", we as a class decided to go paperless. No printouts. All assignments would be made as word documents or pdf's and put online. Students would not be allowed to print off drafts for their essays... they all had to be done, edited, and submitted electronically. Resources for our research projects would be kept on the computer. Tests would be done online. You get the drift.

For the most part, we were successful. I did note some students who printed things out outside of class at first, and there were times where I printed out an email to read it (one of my telltale signs I'm a digital immigrant). But, there was a sense of pride among the students in the class that we were doing something truly green. We coupled it with a look at the Daniel Quinn book Ishmael and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, and experimented with keeping the classroom lights off. The fun part of the assignment was the challenge for the students, and therefore the sense of actual accomplishment when they were finished. This was the mythical "Quadrant D" activity that the rigor/relevance framework calls for.

My challenge is for schools to take the initiative and go paperless. At least, in some segments of the school. Do a cost analysis of what ink and paper cost you, and then try investing that in computers. It not only saves money and environmental resources, but also is cutting edge and addresses digital natives. It requires teachers to be creative, to not depend on the photocopy master. It requires us to focus on current event resources... what is happening in the news today that supports the curriculum. It moves us from static learning (filling in a worksheet with pre-determined "correct" answers) to dynamic learning (collaborating and creating meaning with others digitally).

What are your thoughts?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Call For Action: An Iowan Virtual Academy

It is time for me to add a different purpose to my blog starting with this post. Yes, I want to raise awareness about different tools to use in the classroom. Yes, I want to continue to give updates about what is happening with education in Iowa. And yes, I want to continue discussion with news events as they happen. But my ultimate goal is to put forward 12-15 broad themes, musts for the state of Iowa, and continue to develop those. I'm labeling them "Calls for Action", as they require second order change for both educators and state officials.

The first is most closely tied to my position. We are severely shorting our students by not having a virtual academy. We need to act, to push the legislature, to find best practices and quality curricula, to build the proper technologies, and to secure the infrastructure to make this happen. And yes, we will need the funding. But, I can think of no initiatives in education that will pay for themselves the way a virtual academy would.

Of all the required data elements from NCLB, only one unequivocally predicts future success: dropout rate. Students who drop out from high school earn only 75% of what students who graduate do, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. That goes to 44% of what students who earn a B.A. make. And it gets progressively worse as a person gets older, where those who do not graduate do not get raises that meet the increases in the cost of living. If we are truly aiming for "No Child Left Behind", our aim should be directly on 100% graduation rather than test scores.

Here is the item that makes this difficult: students who drop out do not have bad test scores. As a principal, I was unable to draw any correlation between the ITED scores and the dropout rate... in fact, there were several gifted students who were falling through the cracks. It's not content knowledge, it's engagement with the learning process where we are failing.

In the past, we clung to a belief that students would come around to our model of education. They would follow by our rules and be engaged by what we found engaging. If they didn't, then they would suffer the consequences, which meant dropping out. It was their choice. Of course, that view of education might have been somewhat successful (at least not glaringly out of date) before the world flattened and our societies shifted. When the educational program we offered didn't change, our old world view was exposed as being the model of inflexibility it is.

Bottom line: we need as much a variety of learning environments as we can so that we can meet the needs and interests of the full diversity of learners. We need ultimate flexibility. And, by stubbornly suggesting that learning only takes place best in a traditional classroom with a traditional time schedule period and a traditional method of instruction with traditional grading for assessment, we are losing our learners. Worse, we are being un-democratic. And there is no bigger shame for the American school system than that.

A virtual school offers us an unbelievable array of flexibility. I've shared the story before of the student in our school within a school program who stayed up until 2:00 in the morning studying, only to sleep in until noon the next day and miss his classes. Why can't we take the learning to him when he is ready... during the evening hours? Or, there are those students who feel the need to work to earn money, and feel a stigma about coming back for a 5th year of high school to get their diploma. Why can't they take the credits they are missing online, away from the stigma?

I base my decisions on the democratic model instead of the market model. If we need to do something for a student's education to be just, then we need to do it, regardless of cost. The absurdity is, the virtual model makes sense from a market standpoint as well. When a student, just by earning a diploma, makes $7000 additional a year, that is money that can be taxed and brought back into the fold. It reduces crime rates and brings better health care options. It saves us money. It is one of the best investments we can have.

At-risk students drive the urgency for a virtual academy, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. When I taught talented and gifted students, there were many occasions where students were beyond what the classroom teacher or I could offer them. With a virtual academy, I've just expanded my challenging options, be it biochemistry for 7th graders or algebra for 5th graders. English Language Learners coming into a new school system have little in terms of quality education as they learn the language, especially in small rural districts which can't afford full-time ELL staff and find native speakers. An online class can act as an academic bridge until a student's language development catches up. And with the inequity between our rural and urban offerings, a virtual school levels the playing field. I told you about the gurus that I have worked with, and undoubtedly there are many more out there in the state. Wouldn't it be great if our students could benefit from all the gurus, regardless of geography?

We need the virtual academy now. This needs to be a state-run entity, or else we will slip into territorialism and competing policies between districts. It needs to have our best and brightest minds tackling this. And, it needs the blessing of the Department of Education as a necessary corollary to the Iowa Core. If the state doesn't act, (if we don't put enough pressure on our legislators), this will be lost and the times will leave us further behind. Districts will be forced to act on their own, and the haves will further outpace the have-nots. It is truly a shame when Florida is well outpacing us in innovation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Create Debate

Another new tool, and one that has some promise. Create Debate is an online debate tool. A person (the "moderator") can pose a question and allow respondents to debate the question. Then others can rate the effectiveness of their arguments. Those questions can be an either/or argument, or what is called a "popularity contest", which the participants can throw out their own possibility (such as, "who do you think will be president in 2016?").

There also is a feature where a person can provide links in their arguments. When the program formats your response, it puts a tag at the bottom of your response called "Supporting Evidence" with the link.

I haven't played with it enough to know if there is a way to create a closed debate, so only your class could participate. But it looks promising, nevertheless, even for hosting debates outside of a specific class period (have your 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th hour debate, or team up with another school and debate).

Friday, September 12, 2008

New Heartland Resource

For teachers in the Heartland AEA area (or even for those not, actually), I'm putting together a new resource on the web 2.0 tools. It can be found at http://www.aea11.k12.ia.us/tech/resources/. Over on the left is a screenshot of the resources I am starting with.

In the past, when I have created resource pages, I've made the mistake of finding everything possible out there on the web and slapping it on a page, which was overload. So I've tried to simplify things into the resources that will help teachers the most. (I want to thank Lee Lefever at Common Craft for the creation of the "In Plain English" videos)

A standing offer for any teacher in the area who'd like help getting started, I'll come out and meet you at your school. And if you are not in the area, feel free to email me for feedback... I'd love to hear what you are doing.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Death to the Scientific Method

Perhaps it is because its an election year, but the rate of the incredulous seems to be picking up. I do expect very political positions being spun back and forth on the economy, foreign affairs, and even education. Those are par for the course. However, I'm rather taken aback by what I see as a growing mistrust of the scientific method amongst the American public.

I'll admit, this is way out of my realm of comprehension. I fully espouse that the scientific method is right, that it is proven, that it is the best way for a community to progress itself. Perhaps I espouse it too much, because I am troubled when people don't.

One of the most prevalent examples is the challenge being raised to the Iowa Core's use of global warming as a possible topic to demonstrate essential scientific skills. Deborah Thornton's letter to the editor contains complaints against the Iowa City School District's use of global warming in the curriculum, her words approaching the level of "scathing". And while comments on blogs are not always a good measure, there seems to be quite a few people who agree with her.

Another example that comes about is the renewing of the "creationism in public education" debate, re-ignited by the nomination of Sarah Palin as the vice-president candidate. To be fair to Governor Palin, I haven't heard her say on the campaign trail that she is currently advocating this. However, unlike other smears, conservative pundits and bloggers haven't responded with "these claims are lies!" They instead have responded with "she's a champion for the rights of students." In other words, the ground support fully supports her supposed position, whether she does or not.

This morning, in my daily check of the blogosphere, I ran into this from Scott McLeod. Over half of the American public believes parents should be allowed to exempt their children from mandatory vaccinations. While many argue that it is the principle of liberty that is behind this, I can't help but thinking that this is more of the same.

What do these three examples mean? Well, I believe there are two lessons. One, topics like evolution and global warming remain highly politicized. I honestly felt the average American was moving more towards the trusting of scientists in recent years, as even the president, who for years claimed he needed more evidence of global warming, has recently shifted his position. But apparently we haven't moved far enough to trust us to teach the findings of scientists. I will maintain this: when issues are politicized, they become nearly impossible to teach in our schools, even if they are very important.

The other lesson is more important for educators. This really isn't about evolution or global warming. This is about what principles do we use to agree on factual nature. If we don't have a method for agreeing on whether something is fact or not, we cannot progress as a society. We'll continue to live in relativism and personal belief.

The scientific method is the ultimate checks and balances... it makes our government's checks and balances look like nothing. Al Gore did not invent global warming on a whim one day. It took years of evidence gathering, hypothesizing, experimenting, critical review and skepticism by experts to come to the postulate we hold today. These checks and balances are a good thing. It gives me trust in our system of knowledge that it has been thoroughly tested. But, it seems that we must give pause to popular opinion, or the rights of the minority.

With these issues, no one is arguing that these are not relevant topics. In the fine line that is determining a curriculum, when districts have to make choices of topics they think are the most relevant, no one objects that global warming and evolution are not as important as something else that isn't taught. They argue that they aren't true. The scientific method is under attack.

We should probably extend this to its logical conclusions. Where's the push for the geocentric view of the solar system? Like evolution and global warming, if we use just our senses, it appears the earth is at the center of the solar system. Why propagate the uncertainty that the sun is the center of it all? Don't subject my child to your dogmatic views. And, don't get me started on subatomic theory!

Bottom line question... what do we do as educators to protect the scientific method from politicization?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Iowa Core Talking Points - 9/8

The Department of Ed is veeeeerrrryyyyy carefully rolling out its core curriculum for Iowa schools, putting forth talking points every so often. With a tight control over it, the department is doing its best to navigate what could be a thorny situation: telling many communities used to the last bastion of local control in the U.S. that their curriculum will be changing, all while avoiding any misinterpretation. It appears the Department of Ed is trying to avoid some of the rampant speculation that followed NCLB's rolling out earlier this decade.

With that, here are the official talking points:
• The intent of the Core Curriculum is a) to ensure all Iowa students engage in a rigorous and relevant curriculum, and b) to provide educators with a tool for assuring that essential subject matter is being taught.

• The curriculum emphasizes essential concepts and skills, doing so in literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, and 21st century learning skills (which are civic, financial, technological and health literacies).

• The curriculum aligns with Iowa's mandated core content standards (passed by the Iowa legislature in 2007).

• According to Judy Jeffrey, the curriculum will benefit students by ensuring that they grasp the big ideas (the essential concepts), moving beyond superficial knowledge to higher-level thinking, providing students opportunities to learn rigorous content, and enhancing student engagement.

• High schools are required to have implementation plans in place by July 1, 2010, with full implementation to occur by July 1, 2012. K-8 plans are required by July 1, 2012 with full implementation in 2014-2015.

• Schools will be provided with different "entry points" into the process based on their current readiness.

• Currently there is a network made up of area education agency consultants and representatives from the Urban Eight working on the delivery of training and facilitation needed by schools for the Iowa Core. This delivery will be in 3 stages: Leadership Development, Content Alignment, and Alignment of Instruction and Assessment.

• All school districts (public and non-public) will engage in the Leadership Development this year. Timeline for starting has been pushed to October. The purpose of this stage is to help leaders develop their district's Core Curriculum Implementation Plan.

• At this point, teachers should review the essential concepts and skill sets of the Iowa Core Curriculum.

Those are the department's talking points as of now. Stay tuned.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Fair and Blanced

Here is a summary of the GOP convention's statements on education

John McCain-
Education is the civil rights issue of this century. Equal access to public education has been gained. But what is the value of access to a failing school? We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice, remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward good teachers, and help bad teachers find another line of work.

When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them. Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school. But they will have that choice and their children will have that opportunity.

Senator Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucracies. I want schools to answer to parents and students. And when I’m President, they will.

Cindy McCain
(I see) Mothers with no choice but to send their children to unsafe and underperforming schools.

Tom Ridge

Sarah Palin

I signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education better.

Rudy Guiliani
The party (GOP) that believes parents should choose where their children go to school.

Joe Lieberman

Fred Thompson

For the most part, the GOP wanted to stay away from anything substantive on education as possible, only coming in for standard boilerplate on choice to rouse the base, without offering any specifics on what that would be. Nothing from Sarah Palin, who will become education's new top enemy (I'm amused by her sneering at Obama's Harvard education, as though the hard work that Obama had to put in to be successful at one of the toughest academic institutions in the world is to be derided). I expect plenty of "teachers are whiners" comments out of her.

I actually was impressed McCain spent as much time as he did on education... it's more than he has spent than on the campaign trail all summer. Unfortunately, he continues to offer nothing new. His line about schools being accountable to parents and students when he is president is almost identical to Bush's, and McCain gives every indication he will follow in Bush's footsteps and be pre-occupied with foreign affairs to be troubled by educational matters.

I'm wondering if there is any chance of a federally elected Republican congressman who is an educator. The party line on education shows it is created by non-professionals looking at the issue from the outside (much like the position on health care without the thoughts of doctors and nurses). Here is McCain's official statement on education, which I'd challenge him to articulate without an aide or a prepared script to help him. He mentions... "the school is charged with the responsibility of educating the child, and must have the resources and management authority to deliver on that responsibility." He then doesn't give any new money to schools despite frequently calling them "failures". The only money he is apportioning is for online/distance learning... so rather than improve the neighborhood school, let's have the students opt out and sit in front of the computer to gain that world-class education. Actually, since America is so bad with education, perhaps we can have our distance education teachers be in Norway and China and other industrial companies that are beating us!

Who do we blame if students don't succeed then? Can we put the Chinese distance learning schools on the watchlist?

Until education dominates discussion as much as economy and foreign affairs, I refuse to believe that they are being sincere when they say we are in crisis. And that's too bad, because we are in a crisis. And this is a winning issue for the party who is ready to learn the specifics of it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


One tool I was initially excited about was the tool Diigo. As a social bookmarking tool, it is similar to del.icio.us in the way you can create bookmarks to your account and tag them with keywords. Then, you can search other users for similar bookmarks or similar tags, thereby increasing your own research of the web.

The best part of the tool is that you can create annotations on websites. You can highlight text, and then add a floating note. This notation then can be saved for future trips to the web page, where you can pick up where you left off. You also can share your notations with others. For teachers helping students discover note-taking and research skills, this is an excellent tool for assessment and guidance of student progress. Plus, the tool can be used over distances, making it very handy for online learning classes.

The problem I've seen is that... no one is using it. There were a couple of notations on a George Siemens' article I was reading, and that's it. There is that uncanny feeling that this will be another wasted tool, to be replaced by more popular ones. It eliminates one of my initial points of excitement, that I might possibly have some help decoding and analyzing the websites that I browse from a field of experts out there.

All that aside, I think it is still a neat tool, offering a different set of features than del.icio.us. Given the crucial nature of students being able to digest printed text and extract important information, this is a tool that helps teachers teach that nebulous skill.