Friday, January 29, 2010

Teacher Evaluation + Student Test Scores + Merit Pay = Controversy

Author Disclaimer
A combination of President Obama's State of the Union Address, an NPR broadcast this week, and the ongoing debate in the media motivated me to write this particular post. It's a tough topic, but I'm going to attempt to tackle it with as much grace as possible. Please feel free to comment at the end and share your thoughts.

The State of Education
President Obama made an impassioned call for education reform in his State on the Union Address on Wednesday, January 27.

Now, this year, we've broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. And the idea here is simple: Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform -- reform that raises student achievement; inspires students to excel in math and science; and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city.

For many, this kind of reform means that teacher evaluation should include consideration of student test scores and even merit pay.

NPR Tackles the Issue
On Tuesday, January 26, NPR's show, On Point, broadcast a 30 minute interview (click here to listen) with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the number two teacher professional organization in the United States. She made a speech to the National Press club (click here to read the entire speech) in which she suggested innovation in teacher evaluation is needed. She is willing to consider student test scores as part of this discussion, but only in the context of the bigger picture. Here is an excerpt of her speech:

Classroom observations, self-evaluations, portfolio reviews, appraisal of lesson plans, and all the other tools we use to measure student learning—written work, performances, presentations and projects—should also be considered in these evaluations. Student test scores based on valid and reliable assessments should ALSO be considered—NOT by comparing the scores of last year’s students with the scores of this year’s students, but by assessing whether a teacher’s students show real growth while in his classroom.

In addition to these ideas from her speech, of course, merit pay was a consideration in the NPR broadcast, too. It's a tough topic. A few comments made me think. A few made me angry. A few made me question my own opinion. Here are some of the stand-outs:

Advanced Placement v. Special Education
Should a teacher who teaches AP be financially rewarded for teaching the brightest of the bright over a special needs teacher who teachers students with a variety of IEPs?
How do you measure success & achievement in a student and then in a teacher? Does the teacher working in an upper class neighborhood have the same challenges as those in the inner city? Do students always ‘click’ at the same time? Shouldn’t teachers be encouraged to develop students who are lifetime learners rather than great test takers?

Math and Science in a Global Society
I think that AP science and math teachers should make more than special ed teachers. While both types of teachers are needed, we need to attract top teachers in science and math so our best students can compete with those of China and India.

Public Schools v. Private Schools
Behaviorism, cognitive learning theory, open-concept schools, forced integration, back-to-basics, No Child Left Behind (I could go on) — each was supposed to revolutionize education. Teachers talk a good game. But the real innovation is happening in non-public schools, where the educators actually believe in something.

A Teacher Who Believes in Merit Pay
I am a teacher who agrees with the idea of merit pay. However, I don’t think that a teacher’s merit has anything to do with the subject they teach. In fact, I have taught both special ed and regular ed students and I think my best teaching practices were developed in the special ed classroom, where I had to differentiate instruction in order to meet my students at a variety of levels. I think we should reward teachers for the amount of work and innovation that they do, not the outcomes of their students. Yes, teaching is an important job, but I don’t think we can measure a teacher’s efficacy solely based on the tests their students take. Kids today face lots of risks that impede with their learning. The real question for me is, if merit pay is implemented, how is merit going to be measured?

Test Scores and Student Accountability
I am a high school teacher and I don’t really know where to begin. I have taught for 16 years and for each of those years I have jumped through every hoop that anyone has set for me in the hopes of improving test scores. Unfortunately, test scores tell us absolutely nothing about the ability of our teachers. And, until students are held accountable in some way for the outcome of these tests, scores will never reflect the true academic abilities of our students.

Other Ideas From Around the Internet in the Past Year
Here are some other articles I found on teacher evaluation, test scores, and merit pay.
Obama's Education Push Includes Merit Pay - Wall Street Journal 3/11/2009
Report Points to Risks of Merit Pay for Teachers - Education Week 5/14/2009
President Obama, Please Think About Merit Pay for Teachers While Your Shave - Dan Willingham 6/1/2009
Willingham made this video about merit pay, too.

Younger Teachers Favor Merit Pay
- eGFI 11/16/2009
Education Secretary Arne Duncan Says Merit Pay Should be Tied to Student Growth - US News & World Report 12/15/2009
Do Teacher Merit Pay Programs Work? - CBS News 1/6/2010
Merit Pay For Good Teachers, But Fire Bad Teachers, New Jersey Voters Tell Quinnipiac University Poll - Quinnipiac University 1/21/2010

What Are Your Thoughts?
There are many more comments on the NPR website and the callers on the show made their own interesting arguments. I encourage you to read the comments and, if you have time, listen to the broadcast too. I'd love to read your ideas and any responses you have to these controversial opinions.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

My Rant on ER Inefficiency in the Digital Age

My blog post is late this week, but I have a pretty great excuse. In the past 24 hours I fell skiing, felt a pretty horrible pain in my left foot, managed to make my way down the hill on just my right ski (only because I have been skiing for 26 out of my 29 years on this planet and I'm a decent skier), limped into the lodge to report my injury to my mom, iced/elevated/wrapped/ibuprofen..... and finally gave up and decided it wasn't going to get better. I had to go to the Emergency Room up here in North Conway, New Hampshire.

So here is my question.... why did my visit to the ER take so long? The process was inefficient and frustrating for me, and I was definitely NOT the patient in the most pain. I can't imagine how awful it must have been for the guy in his early 20s who had a separated shoulder, or the woman who was pale white and clearly nauseous.

Here is the process. First I went to the ER at 5pm last night.
1. Go to front desk.
2. Sit in waiting room to fill out paper work.
3. Turn in paper work at front desk with my ID and insurance card.
4. Wait for 1 hour to be seen by triage nurse.
5. Triage nurse asks all the usual questions -- Am I on any medication? How did it happen? Rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. Blood pressure. Temperature. Pulse.
6. Back in the waiting room.

At this point I decided that I was not going to wait another 3 hours (the estimated wait to see a doctor) so I went home to help my husband give our daughter a bath and get her to bed. I woke up this morning at 6am and went to the ER again since I still could not put any weight on my left foot. This time there was only one other person in the waiting room, and he had a migraine so severe that he was vomiting. I was OK with the fact that they took him in first.

1. Go to front desk.
2. Fill out paper work again because the lost my paper work from last night.
3. Turn in paper work at front desk with my ID and insurance card.
4. Wait for 15 minutes to be seen by triage nurse (ERs are significantly less crowded early in the morning).
5. Back to waiting room for 10 more minutes.
6. Go into registration room, which is on the opposite end of the waiting room and I have to walk... very painful for me... to help enter my information into the computer and receive my hospital bracelet.
7. Back in waiting room for 10 more minutes.
8. Limp, wincing, into an ER exam room with a nurse. Wait 5 minutes for a doctor.
9. Doctor examines my foot and leaves. Wait 15 minutes for X-Ray tech. (While I'm waiting I overhear nurses saying that they found my chart from last night and they don't know what to do with it!)
10. X-Ray Tech arrives and wants me to follow her. I had to ASK her to bring a wheel chair because I still couldn't put weight on my foot. (Apparently she had not looked at my chart to see what she was going to X-Ray before asking me to follow her out of the room!)
11. Get X-Rays.
12. Return to room and wait 20 minutes to see doctor after she has looked at the X-Ray.
13. Doctor says it is not broken (YAY!) but I probably have a bad sprain of the plantar fascia and I need to be on crutches for at least a week.
14. Wait 10 minutes for nurse to come in with discharge papers and give my the sexy boot brace and crutches.
15. Go to car and get in. Mom drives out of parking lot and onto main road just in time to remember that the woman at the registration desk still has my insurance card because I haven't paid the $50 co-pay yet. My mom drives back and goes in to pay with my credit card.

Why did I have to walk back and forth across the waiting room 4-5 times when I was clearly limping and wincing each time I had to put any weight on my left foot? Why did I have to ASK the X-Ray tech for a wheel chair so that I could get to radiology? Why wasn't I offered an ice pack? Why was the process so inefficient?

In schools we are able to submit grades online and post assignments to websites. In our day-to-day lives we communicate easily with email and text messages on our PDAs. My daughter's pediatricians' office is completely digitized. Why aren't ERs? They, by definition, should be more efficient than a regular doctor's office, right?

I just saw this commercial on TV while watching the NFL playoff pregame show on ESPN.
THIS is what I'm talking about. This is the efficiency I needed in the ER last night and today!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cool Tool for School: Weebly

What is Weebly?
The National History Day organization runs competitions around the country in which students in both junior and senior divisions are challenged to conduct broad scholarly research and demonstrate their understanding and analysis of a topic through papers, exhibit boards, documentary movies, live performances or websites.

This year NHD introduced a new free website design tool called Weebly. Since some of my sophomore honors students would be using this tool to design their NHD projects, I thought it would be wise to learn the tool myself. Since then, I have become inextricably hooked and have used Weebly in a variety of ways.

Uses for Weebly... So Far!
1. Freshman Research Project
Freshmen arrive at high school a bit bleary-eyed and overwhelmed. Often, but not always, high school is their first introduction to in-depth research and annotated bibliographies. Instead of introducing the research process with the traditional paper assignment, I thought I could challenge my 9th graders to design websites using Weebly. The results were impressive. Here are only two examples:

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Paul Newman

2. Hosting My Class Blog
Each day, one of my freshmen students must write a blog post that reflects on that day's class, any assignments or activities we have tried, and any upcoming work. In addition, that student must explain and give his/her opinion on a current event they find online, in newspapers, or on television. Weebly is not only a web-hosting tool, it also has a feature that allows students and teachers to host blogs. I invite you to visit our class blog, read, and PLEASE add your comments in the Guest Book. My students loooooove comments.

Mrs. Gallagher's Class Blogs

3. Faculty Training
Ellie Freedman, principal at RMHS, and April Goran, our technology guru, asked me to put together a presentation for teachers about how blogging could be used (and is already being used) in classrooms here at the high school. Rather than use Power Point or Smart Notebook software, I thought I might compile information and resources in a more interactive way.... using Weebly. I introduced the website at a faculty meeting yesterday and the response so far has been positive. The beauty of using web-based tools to present a training is that I can add or change the information available as the needs of the high school teachers change. I've already added another link to a blog hosted by our Jazz Ensemble! Please add your suggestions or comments to the Feedback Blog page. I'd love to hear your ideas to improve the site.

Blogging at Reading Memorial High School

How to Get Started
Since I have used Weebly so many times and in so many ways, it MUST be user friendly, right? Right! If you can design slides using Power Point with text boxes and pictures, you can use Weebly. If you understand how to drag-and-drop, you can use Weebly. If you enjoy making your work interactive with video clips from YouTube, polls, and blogs.... Weebly is the tool for you.

Although this demo explains the tool's uses for creating a wedding website, I'm sure you can imagine the possibilities in your classroom.

Let me know if you want any tips, but the best way to learn this tool, as with many other web 2.0 applications, is to create an account and start playing. Enjoy!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Wikipedia: A Reflection on My Editing Experience

My most recent assignment for my graduate class was to make an edit to Wikipedia that remained for at least one week.

Although I now teach high school, I spent the last two years teaching at the 8th grade level. I attended training for and taught throughout the school year using the History Alive! curriculum. So, I thought I would see what Wikipedia had to offer regarding their programs. The only entry happened to reference the text that my district purchased to fit the new curriculum map for Social Studies 6-12; The Medieval World and Beyond, so I had experience working with it. I was disconcerted to notice that the entry was extremely biased and, although backed up with links to outside information, contained no balanced information whatsoever.

A quote from the article as I found it:
The book was criticized for having religious propaganda and stating Muslim myths as fact. When a reviewer on Textbook League asked an officer of TCI to tell him what the source or sources of the textbook was, the officer refused to reply.[4] A principal at Houston Elementary said that the book does comply with a California state standard that requires students to learn about diverse religions which is false. The book was removed from the Scottsdale, Arizona school district's curriculum in 2005.[5]

I added some unbiased information about the book. Also, I added links to some sample resources that come as part of the package from TCI (the publisher) and several internal Wikipedia links to other articles such as "Renaissance," "Inca," and "Crusades."
History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond is a textbook, with companion resources, from Teacher's Curriculum Institute that is intended for middle school age students.[1] It's curriculum covers the fall of the Roman Empire, feudalism and the role of the Roman Catholic Church in medieval Europe, the Byzantine Empire, Islam beliefs and culture, the Crusades, west African culture, Imperial China, medieval Japan, the Maya, Aztecs, and Incas in the Americas, and the European Renaissance and Reformation.[2] Purchase of the textbook includes lesson plans and activities that provide students with activity based learning. [3]

Click here to see the article.

Since I made the edit and then forgot to check in a week later, I'm glad to see my edits have survived for almost a month!

On another note, the disconcerting part of my editing experience is what stuck with me. The article I edited was, and still is, an "orphan" and a "stub." This means that there aren't very many other articles that link to it and that the article itself is relatively short. Without my edits, a student who decided to do some research on this textbook would only find the biased information. I would hope that student would bring his concerns to a teacher so that an educated conversation could follow. Although each and every opinion on this text should be considered before a school district adopts it, the information on Wikipedia was not balanced. It would not give a student a fair representation of the value of the text when the information is taught by a teacher with an eye for delivering content in the proper balanced fashion. This kind of critical evaluation is something we need to teach our students. When starting research, I often advise my high school honors level students to start with Wikipedia. They can get a decent overall review of their topic and good articles have links to legitimate scholarly resources at the bottom. While Wikipedia cannot be cited, many of these linked resources can be used and cited in an annotated bibliography. My hope is that my students read Wikipedia with a critical eye. Although the biased perspective expressed in the entry I edited is a valid point of view, it is not the only perspective on this particular textbook. Would most students know that? Or would they assume the entry is accurate and take that point of view as the only valid one?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ten Years of Tech: Life Will Never Be the Same

As we ring in the new year, and the new decade, there are many things for me to reflect on. Over the past decade I have graduated from college, started a teaching career, gotten married to a handsome and patient man, started and completed law school, passed the bar exam, and had a beautiful baby girl. 2010 is the year I turn 30. Surprisingly enough, I'm not upset about it. I remember when my husband hit the big 3-0 he lamented the loss of his twenties. As I look back, though, I feel as though I have come a long way. I have earned those years and I'm proud of them. While some of my contemporaries long for our careless college days, I wouldn't want to go back in time knowing that there are so many more exciting things ahead.

I truly believe that education has come a long way in the past decade too. Much of that progress is due to the incredible dedication of teachers who are always looking to improve their instruction. Those of us who are constantly taking classes and trying new things in our classrooms have to acknowledge that technology has been the greatest catalyst for change within the four walls of our schools. Sometimes technology has lifted our lessons and sometimes it has let us down, but I know my teaching has changed dramatically since I had my first students in 2002.

In the same vein, technology has changed the way our students live their daily lives. I found these interesting articles about the positive and negative ways that technology has changed their, and our, lives.

The Digital Decade: 20 Things That Forever Changed Childhood

#%*@#! The top 10 tech 'fails' of 2009

Here are some highlights:

Okay, technically, Google started in the '90s. But mass use didn't begin until the 2000s. Now, just about every child knows how to find just about anything by Googling. It's opened the world to our children -- sometimes bringing in too much, too soon -- and parents found out it was up to them to teach their kids to surf safely and responsibly.

Homework will never be the same. But kids have to learn that not everything they read is true.

These pocket pals brought about texting, sexting, and the horrendously dangerous texting while driving. Hand your teens iPhones? They'll make videos and upload them to YouTube and their Facebook pages (though the No. 1 use for phones remains ... checking the time). Parents: Don't text your kids in class. (We know you do.)

There is a lot more in the articles, including links to reader comments and polls. Interesting stuff. Check it out.

Image sources:
Cell Phone