Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Design Thinking in the Classroom: Setting the Tone for the Upcoming Year

I was fortunate over the summer to do some contract work for a social entrepreneurship in New York City.  The Future Project is a company that is attempting to change the lives of young people in a variety of ways, but most specifically, by inserting outside actors, called Dream Directors, into schools to maximize student abilities. At the time I joined the company, they had just revolutionized their Research and Development Department, and were beginning to train staff on these changes.  I was lucky enough to be a part of this transition, and also used their process to develop some ideas for future projects within the organization.  The lead designer, Anjali Balakrishna, was tasked with taking my teacher-brain, and retraining it to think using the Design Process.  This wasn’t necessarily easy for me.  I’m typically a person who jumps to solutions first, and has a difficult time removing my instincts and personal bias from my solutions.  This new way of thinking, however, demanded a more careful and intentful approach at the outset, and Anjali guided me through the somewhat bumpy process, allowing me to create work that was much stronger than it could have been had I used my previous way of doing things.
I think one of the biggest difficulties I faced was due to the amount of time I have spent within the educational system, both as a student and teacher.  For the most part, my experiences in education have been intensely personal, and it is rare that true collaboration or agency are offered. This unfortunately leads to some myopic approaches to my own learning and, I fear, the learning of my students.
After getting back into the classroom in September, I resolved to create a new version of my classroom, one that incorporated the ideals of Design Thinking, and made them available to my students.  I began looking into ways to foster this in my classroom, and came across the Stanford Design School, or d.school. The website is replete with resources and walkthroughs, and I decided to take my students through the Gift Giving Challenge, as a way of introducing them to this new way of approaching tasks. Before I could show them this new way however, I had to break them out of their previous ways of thinking.


Students came into a classroom that was a virtual blank slate.  I removed all posters, graphics, and color from the classroom environment.  The only thing that stayed in the room were the desks.  I informed the students that they would be populating the walls with a variety of infographics and tools, and that the classroom was not mine to decorate.  Each class was given a task, some were asked to create physical and digital tools for the room, like a variety of seating charts to fit the needs of each day, or an abilities tracker for students to collaborate throughout the year.  I gave a brief overview of what the requirements were, and then told them to get to work.  I sat in the back of the room, taking notes, as abject chaos ensued.
Students attempted to take the lead, others fled into themselves, consensus could not be found, and students began protecting their first ideas with borderline obsessive zeal.  Frustration mounted, and by the end of class, almost nothing had been accomplished.
After allowing the confusion to reach a peak, we discussed the things that had gone wrong.  Students in general were fairly accurate in their descriptions of their failings, and I promised them that we would be learning a better way to approach the difficult problems I had presented them.
Before they could get settled the next class, I had printed out worksheets, and queued up the d.school Gift Giving Challenge video on the projector.  I randomly placed the students in pairs, and began the session.  The video runs itself, and I merely had to clarify directions and remind them of times as the students moved through the activity.
The video runs about 80 minutes, and goes through each step of the design process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.  Watching the video prior to implementing it was very helpful, and allowed me to better direct the students.  It is designed to be fast-paced, and make the students uncomfortable, and it accomplished this.
When we were done, I had the students write reflections about what they learned, and we held a large in-class discussion around what we could take away from the experience.
For the next class, we went back over the original project that they were assigned, and we began using the language and techniques of the Design Process to accomplish the goals.  Each class still struggled with the process, but there was a noticeable difference in the quality and depth of their ideas.
The application of this way of thinking may seem like a stretch in a Language Arts class.  There are a couple of reasons that I would argue that it is actually vital.
My students are 9th graders, they have just entered a school environment that, for better or worse, will shape their lives tremendously over the coming four years. By giving them a better way to approach and solve problems, they stand a much better chance of finding success in the ever-changing economy that awaits them.  From a content standpoint, my students will be asked to complete a variety of papers and projects over the course of the year.  The approach we must take in writing especially, relies on the same approach utilized in Design Thinking.  We gather evidence, develop a plan, execute the plan, and then present it to an audience.  The process also lends itself to the reading of Literature.  The role of the hero, and the hero’s journey, is very similar to the design process, and plots in general.
Design Thinking has changed the way I approach tasks, and made my creativity and work stronger.  Instituting these ideas in your classroom is a great step in increasing both the quality of student work, as well as the collaborative and creative skills of you students.  I’ll check back in soon with the results!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Checking their Pulse: Consequences of Comparative Grading

John and I jogged around the track at Conard High School, dew tipping the long blades of grass that covered the football field.  We moved at an easy pace, talking about the game we would play later that day on the same field.  Lacrosse season was at its peak intensity, and we weren’t going to waste energy on the mile run we were completing in gym class.  
Even at our pace, we would finish under 10 minutes, and we chugged slowly by some of our less-athletic classmates, breathing heavily, or slowing their feet to a walk, beads of sweat dripping down their faces, like more blades of swaying grass.
I crossed the finish line as my gym teacher began walking towards me.  He was a small guy, more of a coach than an athlete, so it took me completely off guard when he reached for my throat.
I knocked his hand away out of instinct.
“Relax, Daly,” he said, “I’m just checking your pulse.”
He placed his index and middle fingers against my Carotid artery, and started counting while he looked at his watch.
“I thought so,” he exclaimed in disgust, moving his fingers away from my neck. “You’re an athlete, you’re supposed to be an example! And you’re not even trying!”
I turned back to the track, noticing the substantial number of my classmates that were still running.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked, pretty annoyed. “I finished before almost everyone! We have a game today, I’m not spending all my energy here!”
He shook his head, looking down at the track. “I understand that you guys have a game today, but this class isn’t about how you do against others, it’s about how you do against yourself.”
I used to tell that story for a different reason.  Usually it was to ridicule the teacher, and explain how crazy he was for grabbing my neck.  He was a bit of a clown, and it was easy to dismiss his opinions because I was young, and headstrong.
Now, however, I see the wisdom in the lesson.
Imagine the same scenario inside a non-physical education setting. Students are given a standard task, such as writing a 5-paragraph essay. A group of students that are already writing at grade-level toil appropriately at the task.  The students that are above grade-level are capable of breezing through the assignment, and the students that struggle are forced to work much harder to complete the task, if at all.
Now think about the way these students will be graded.  In general, the higher level students will receive the higher grades, and the lower level students will be assigned the lower grades.
We typically rationalize this behavior for one of two reasons.

  1. Fairness
  2. Getting them ready for “The Real World”

Let’s approach these rationales, and explore why they represent gross fallacies that may actually border on student oppression.


Often, when dealing with less progressive teachers, the subject of grades and fairness arises. At the middle and secondary level in most American schools, the A through F approach is still both a requirement and reality.
In theory, there is nothing wrong with this.
It is perfectly acceptable to assess a student’s work, and assign a number or letter to that work.
The problem arises in the way we are assessing, and the role that Personalization and Individualization, along with proficiency and growth, play in reaching that letter or number grade.
Dweck’s work on Mindset plays a key role here, as the importance of factoring a student’s effort into their grade, and how that effort is perceived by the rest of the class, is integral to developing grit and perseverance in our students.  To put it plainly, our grading and assessment systems need to promote the idea that EFFORT EQUALS ACHIEVEMENT. Anything that gets in the way of this is short term or arbitrary at best.
In order to be truly fair, we need to individualize student work, using standard acquisition and effort as the formula for grading.

The Real World

This fallacy is tied to the previous section as well.
We are often in positions as teachers where we are receiving pressure from some other entity above us, bemoaning the lack of student readiness.  In the public school system, this is always true, as the influence and anxiety that the college acceptance process creates looms large over all decisions in a trickle-down manner.
Proponents of this type of thinking see college as a hard deadline, one where their students must be up to proficiency at the end of the 12th grade.
This assertion is sloppy, lazy, and used to create excuses against innovation.
The real world exists, but we cannot use a child’s experience as a student in our system to pretend that what happens prior to their eventual high school and college graduation is a preamble to some “Real” life that exists.
I have been working now for around 20 years.  What makes me a good employee, and an effective worker, have been my ability to be resilient, to understand how important a work ethic is, to see myself as a learner, to know how to ask questions, to cultivate healthy relationships and communication with my colleagues, to be empathetic towards my students or customers, to care about what I do, and to show up day in and day out.
None of those skills are related to my ability to determine the points on a parabola, or name the capitals of 50 states.  The grades I received through my education, and the tasks i was required to complete were rarely things I have used in my adult life.
Imagine now that you are entering high school reading below grade-level.  You desperately want to improve, but none of the classes are built to specifically address your literacy deficiencies.  You are asked to read Shakespeare, or Salinger, Steinbeck if you are lucky. You are going to learn one thing very quickly: that you are unable to do. That you are stupid. That hard work is a waste of time.
Imagine instead that we reward resilience, learning as a process, grit, hard work, pushing yourself. These qualities couldn’t be more needed in a workforce and economy.  
We do need to get students ready for the “Real World”, but I would argue that comparative grading is getting in the way of that.

Moving away from static ways of assessment, and comparative grading, is the only way to ensure that all of our students are being treated fairly.  This can be accomplished through the adoption of grading platforms and structures that take into account growth, standard acquisition, and effort.  In order for this to occur however, we must move toward a policy of personalization and individualization of curriculum as well.
These days, I don’t run as much as I should. With my two children (with one on the way), work requirements, tutoring sessions, coaching, and the never-ending joys of homeownership, exercise has too often taken a back seat.

When I do get out for a run or walk, I find myself putting my two fingers to my neck, making sure that I am pushing myself, measuring whether I’m making the most out of the time that I have. 
Are we doing this for our students? 
Can we do better?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Good Kid, M.a.a.D. City: Trauma and Education:

Trauma and Education: 
Addressing the Needs of Struggling Learners in Heterogeneous Environments

I. Art of Peer Pressure

My sister graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia last Saturday. Our entire family was attending, so my brother drove down from his home in Boston to pick me up in Jersey.  Steve has always had a strong love of Hip Hop, especially the emcee’s that are associated with the Consciousness movement.  We listen to The Roots obsessively, and for years have talked at length about how underrated they are as a group. I remember, vividly, driving through the streets of our childhood town of West Hartford, CT, listening to De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. At that time, in our town, our high school experience was incredibly eclectic, our side of West Hartford boasted a very diverse population, both racially and economically. This diversity exists today, but it also calls into sharp focus the disparities at play between these different groups.
A homogenous experience would have created a myopic blindness around these issues.
In the car, Steve suggested we listen to an artist named Kendrick Lamar.  My only experience with him up to that point was an appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show, and some related passing articles by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  I knew he was a West Coast rapper, from Compton specifically, and that he was generally considered an up-and-coming artist.
Steve suggested that we listen to his major-label debut, titled “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City: A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar.” He explained that it was a concept album, and we began listening.
Track after track, and skit after skit, I realized that this was an experience as well as a collection of songs.  The album chronicles a young Lamar navigating his way around Compton as a 17-year old.  Over the course of the story, he details the various pressures and concessions he is forced to endure, often in brutal fashion.
Like the narrator of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” however, Lamar is viewing all of this through a lens of both art, and reflection.  The album was released when he was 25, a good 7 years removed from his time on Rosecrans.  Breaking out of the bubble allowed Kendrick to view his experiences from outside his singular frame of reference, and turn it into art.
As we drove, admiring the linguistic and sonic intricacies of the album, I felt myself becoming overwhelmed.  The album and its atmosphere were creating stress for me.  Kendrick’s portrayal of Compton put me in the car with him, driving around in a white Toyota with the constant threat of violence and death surrounding us.
At points, Lamar confronts these feelings directly:

“I suffer a lot, and every day the glass mirror
Gets tougher to watch; I tie my stomach in knots
And I'm not sure why I'm infatuated with death
My imagination is surely an aggravation of threats
That can come about,”

I thought about how suffocating, how madness-inducing that could become, and, as my mind tends to work, began to think about both the educational consequences and implications of that type of upbringing.
A child raised in that environment is almost certainly exposed to enough stress that it could be considered some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but the problem, is that there is no “post” anything, the children are in a constant state of trauma and anguish.

II. Allostatic Load

In his book, “How Children Succeed,” author Paul Tough outlines the ways that neuroscience can help us as educators better understand the human learning experience.  One of the topics he discusses at length is the concept of Allostatic Load, and the role of sustained adverse experiences on the developing mind.
Tough uses for a definition and its effect as  “...the process of managing stress, which [McEwen] labelled allostasis, …[which is] what creates wear and tear on the body.”
There are consequences to Allostatic Overload.  The same process that is designed to help our bodies deal with stress, can eventually turn on people, literally affecting them physically:

“Although the human stress response system is highly complex in design, the practice has all the subtlety of a croquet mallet. Depending on what kind of stress you experience, the ideal response might come from any number of defense mechanisms… But the HPA axis can’t distinguish between different types of threat, so it activates every defense, all at once, in response to any threat” (Tough, 13).

From an evolutionary standpoint, our body’s ability to transfer resources, and allocate oxygen and antibodies to specific areas of our system is important if we are being chased by a Sabretooth tiger.  We escape, maybe with a few wounds, but this is followed by down time, a period of safety.  During that time, our bodies switch back to a normal state of being.  Unfortunately, the body cannot differentiate between threats, and is actually harmed by a state of constant stress.
Consequently, as teachers, we are faced with a system that contains children that are in dire need of intervention, and in a heterogenous environment, where these students may appear as simply “struggling learners”, it is incredibly important to have a way of mitigating the stress of these students.

III. Empathy and Individualization

If anything, the knowledge of neuroscience should at the very least result in a change in our attitudes toward struggling learners.  Developing an empathetic view of your students should be a non-negotiable on a personal level, but this must be reflected in our practice as well.  Gone are the days of a learning environment that is at best, static, and at worst, comparative in nature.
Looking at the mastery of standards called for in the Common Core, it is the height of oppression to gauge students successes and failures as tied to the achievement of their peers.
When we combine the idea of educational empathy with the movement towards a standards-based approach, a necessary change in both practice and classroom structure becomes paramount.
The only ethical way to mitigate the problems presented by these new understandings is to individualize curriculum at the district and classroom level.  The oft-referred to concept of differentiation breaks down under true heterogeneous groupings.
Many of the charter schools that have demonstrated “success” in helping struggling learners have made their hay from moving in the opposite direction.  The use of mnemonic devices or songs, strict emphasis on rote memorization, and even the implementation of dress codes and public shamings, seem to work initially due only to the homogenous makeup of said schools.  As the data has shown, intervention in this way has only created change at the schools where the students attend, with alarming dropout rates spiking after the student leaves.
A balanced or blended learning environment addresses the needs of individual students within any system, however, this is vital to the success of schools with heterogeneous populations. In schools where the label of “struggling learner” exists due to comparative norms, there must be a system in place that can adapt to student need at the structural level.
By using a mixture of technology, flipped instruction, direct instruction, small group and individual intervention, and a strong screening tool, schools with a wide variety of students can better assist students in taking control of their learning, regardless of their environment.

IV. Good Kids, Mad Cities

The ultimate realization that frees Kendrick from the cycle of violence and fear that surrounds him, is a focus on his art.  He uses this skill to escape his toxic environment, and much like the protagonist in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, returns enlightened to shine a light on his experiences. I worry about the students that don’t have the ability to transcend their situations through raw talent and luck.
What are we doing with our systems of education to combat this?  How can we better provide access for these students that so often slip through the cracks?
These questions are at the core of not just the problems we face in inner city education, but in the suburbs as well, where a wider variety of learners often reside.
I dove into the album after the car ride, using Rap Genius and other sites to compile as much background as I could on the songs and messages it contained. The cover art is a picture, a purple Dodge Caravan, circa the late 90's. It's the same car I drove around the streets of West Hartford. I know for a fact that the worries and anxieties I felt within that car, were radically different, trivial at best, when compared to the night, one of many, that a young Kendrick experienced in his neighborhoods.
Schools must become outposts on the front line of triage. In order to do this, we must build systems that are able to handle the many issues and traumas facing all of our children.

Works Cited

Lamar, Kendrick, et al. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City [sound Recording]: A Short Film. [Deluxe ed., explicit version]. Santa Monica, Calif.: Aftermath/Interscope, 2013.

Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. New York: Mariner, 2012. Print.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Grit. It's a word that is thrown around quite often in the world of education. It's the word of the moment. Despite its recent pop culture explosion, grit is a concept I buy into wholeheartedly. Here's why.

Grit is the single most predictive factor of success, as told by Angela Duckworth and her research with the University of Pennsylvania. Despite this, Grit is something typically overlooked in the American public school system.  From what I've observed, the bulk of what we value as educators, is "accuracy, correctness." This mindset not only shortchanges students, but also reduces the educational process. Students who frequently get the answers right are often missing this essential life skill. There will be a time when these students don't know the answer and don't know how to find it.

I've often heard this tale in Algebra 1. Students sailed through elementary and middle school math with A's, then by midyear in Algebra 1, they are lost. They don't know how to study for math, because they never had to. Frequently, this snowballs into lower math grades, feelings of frustration,  and most significantly, a lack of willingness to put in the time and effort needed to learn the material.  

"The other behavior that seems to explain why grit is a marker of future success is deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is the sort of practice experts to do improve...In the National Spelling Bee, for example, gritty finalists log more hours of deliberate practice, and this time uniquely predicts final ranking whereas less effortful and more pleasurable forms of practice do not" (Duckworth). It is obvious, for long-term goals which demand a continued practice and attention to skill, grittier individuals will exceed their peers. The question becomes, how do we instill grit in our students? Is it inborn or is it something that can be cultivated over time? In my classroom, there are small adjustments I've made in an effort to promote grit. 

First, an assignment is never truly considered "done." I put a grade in the system, return work to my classes, but students can revise and rewrite to their hearts' content.  I see no problem with allowing a student multiple opportunities to improve his/her work. As long as this continued effort doesn't interfere with the class period at hand, there are no problems. Second, in a question and answer session, I try not to move on when I hear the answer I want;  I probe, inquire further, and encourage students to challenge each other's thoughts.  There is often a "right answer," but why not push the student to think further?  The word "elaborate" works wonders in a class discussion. Lastly, a major project that requires precision and time is a unique approach to promoting grit. Last year, my students completed a large mural based on the work of Sol Lewitt.  Although it was "easy" work, it was evident that most honors students did not have the grit to master the product. They were impatient, hasty, and made simple mistakes because of their lack of sustained effort and precision. Large-scale projects like this are messy and ambitious to implement and manage, but the student perspective that can be gained is unparalleled. In any classroom, designing assignments that require slow work and precision is a great way to harness grit.

The willingness to struggle through a seemingly impossible task is not only an academic skill, it is a life skill. Character is built in moments of frustration, anger, and failure...moments which often evade our brightest students until they reach high school, or for some, college. It's not to say that there is no merit in positive reinforcement, there absolutely is, but the stamina that comes from sustained effort and the momentum it builds has a decisively more substantial impact on a student's life. Motivation is often what eludes so many of our students and promoting gritty activities can help build true, intrinsic motivation which lasts and extends beyond the classroom walls. Whether through a job application process, a difficult time with family, or a time-consuming project, grit makes navigating demanding tasks much easier. 

The idea may seem trendy, but the heart of this dogma is at the core of American culture. As LaBoeuf said in True Grit, "You'll find I go ahead with what I start."

"The Duckworth Lab." Research Statement. University of Pennsylvania, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

"True Grit" (1969). IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Complexities of Simplicity: The Importance of Common Core Aligned Curriculum Planning and Implementation

Comic by Scott Adams

It stands to reason that the simplest explanation for some unknown phenomena is probably the best explanation.  This concept, known as Occam’s Razor, has been used to eschew excesses from theories, and was even used as an explanation for the existence of God. This reliance on simplicity however, can sometimes be lost on the true application of the idea:

Occam's razor is often wrongly applied. The key is the the phrase "praeter necessitatem" in the Latin formula. Not all complications are forbidden. On the contrary, complications necessary to cover the facts are not only allowed but required. However simple or even beautiful a theory may be, if it does not cover the facts, it is not viable. A complex theory may be a sign that the thing it is trying to explain is not yet deeply understood. But it may also be the correct explanation of a genuinely complex phenomenon” (The Principle of Simplicity).

While it is tempting to view the planning of curriculum as a simple, step-by-step process, it is important to not lose focus on the fact that proper curriculum planning is an incredibly important, and incredibly complicated task. The design and implementation of curriculum is a highly difficult and nuanced process that requires an understanding of student learning styles, proper implementation and review, and an evaluation system that tracks efficacy. While the introduction of the Common Core State Standards may seem to be a panacea in the process, thorough work must still be done at both the educational and administrative levels for it to be implemented properly.
The topic of learning styles, and the many different approaches that have been taken over the years, have given educators a wealth (perhaps and overabundance) of psychological and philosophical approaches to instruction.  This makes the planning stages of the curriculum especially difficult when we take a standards-based approach.The educators and supervisors involved in the decision making process must take into account the idea that not all students learn in the same manner, and therefore, the curriculum must reflect both this understanding, as well as guide the construction of frameworks that provide this necessary differentiation. There is a general consensus in education that “Learning theorists and researchers have not arrived at a universally accepted, precise definition of learning” (Parkay, et al., 189). This is a potentially disturbing admission for those that consider themselves educators.  What must be understood by curriculum planners, before anything else, is that the curriculum will be implemented upon students of vastly different backgrounds, shema, and learning styles. “A program should strive for the optimal match between learner capacity and level of experiences provided. Some children have greater facility with abstract thought, critical reasoning and meta–cognitive skills than others (Braggett et al., 1999). This means that to avoid underachievement a curriculum needs to be developed that will both challenge and stimulate students appropriately” (Differentiating the Curriculum). To not take this into account, is to guarantee the weakening of any curriculum that is produced.
The supervisors in charge of the curriculum design process must be sure not to simplify or overly downplay the significance of each curricular decision, as it is there job to ensure proper implementation of the curriculum after it has been accepted.  Failure to act in the developmental design stages of the curriculum will almost certainly result in a flawed and therefore ineffective document. The Common Core Standards are able to fill an important gap in the implementation and design of the curriculum.  As most school districts use a “Backwards Design” model of curricular planning, the standards become the jumping off point.  The more clear and precise these standards are, the more likely the prescribed curriculum becomes the enacted curriculum. Too often, this process is short-changed. “Jumping from the standards to create lesson plans misses a crucial middle step of developing a coherent curriculum. The absence of this more complex work of creating a local curricular framework for the district, which informs the sequence and breadth of instruction (usually referred to as “scope and sequence”), will result in weak implementation of Common Core” (Honig).  Using the CCSS correctly, and determining them as the basis for subsequent discussion of scope and sequence at each grade level subject simplifies the process of planning, and makes the implementation more clear for those tasked with using it on a daily basis.
In order to determine the success of the curriculum, supervisors need to be vigilant in collecting data that concerns the efficacy of the program.  Is it being properly implemented?  Are their benchmark assessments? Are PLC’s functioning in making the curriculum stronger? Do teachers understand that the curriculum is a document that by all means evolves over the course of its existence? The state of New Jersey released a Powerpoint to principals and supervisors during a recent professional development. In addition to the many pages of common sense approaches to CCSS and curriculum evaluation, they recommended a prioritized list of goals for every school district in terms of curricular evaluation:
“On the three highest priorities:
1. Ensure that a coherent curriculum with standards selected by a team of teachers is actually taught and tested with common assessments.”
Clearly, the State takes great interest in the supervision of instruction as it relates to curricular alignment, as well as the use of Common Assessments to achieve this end.  Teachers will do themselves a great service by routinely discussing in their Professional Learning Communities the type of instruction they are using, and the data that backs its efficacy.  So to must administrators be present in these meetings as a way to guarantee that this work is being done, and has become an accepted practice in their building.
While the Common Core provides us with a useful and unifying framework at the start of the curriculum planning process, it must not be seen as the curriculum itself.  That work must be undertaken by group of educators, administrators, and community members tasked with its success.  Only by starting off with and understanding of student learning styles, developing and implementing the curriculum through shared outcomes and common assessments, and ensuring the implementation is occurring through proper supervision, will the curriculum designed by these stakeholders do what it has been tasked with, namely, increasing the education of the students it serves.


"Differentiating the Curriculum." Differentiating the curriculum. NSW Department of Education and Communities, n.d. Web. 12 June 2014. <http://www.curriculumsupport.education.nsw.gov.au/policies/gats/programs/differentiate/>

"Shifting Gears! Using the CCSS, PARCC and Educator Evaluation to Drive Student Achievement." . State of New Jersey, n.d. Web. 12 June 2014. <http://www.state.nj.us/education/sca/ppt/gears/MSUPricipal.pdf>.

"Understanding History | The Principle of Simplicity." Understanding History | The Principle of Simplicity. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 June 2014. <http://www.umass.edu/wsp/history/outline/simplicity.html>.

Honig, Bill. "Coherent and sequenced curriculum key to implementing Common Core standards." EdSource Today. EdSource, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 June 2014. <http://edsource.org/2014/coherent-and-sequenced-curriculum-key-to-implementing-common-core-standards/56704#.U5kFXZSwIjA>.

Parkay, Forrest W.. Curriculum Leadership: Readings for Developing Quality Educational Programs. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010. Print.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Equal" Doesn't Equal Fair

A mounting frustration for any teacher is a concern for failing students.  "He didn't complete this, so he got an F." "She didn't turn in the last project, so it's a zero."  It seems very logical, a student who fails to do the work, gets a zero, fails the assignment, and with enough zeroes will fail the marking period or the year.

In my personal experience, I never understood why "not completing an assignment" was an acceptable reason to fail a child.  Of course, in theory, I understand it very well-there was something assigned, he or she didn't do it, so he/she receives a zero.  In practice, though, it is not that simple.  There are a plethora of reasons why a student may fail to complete an assignment.  Sometimes, those reasons deserve an F, such as laziness, insubordination, or pure apathy (although, even these are often not the fault of the child).  Other times, however, there is an abusive parent at home, a lack of internet access, or a myriad of other issues that lead to that zero.  As teachers, a core issue we face is dissecting those reasons.

First, due to confidentiality laws, we are not always privy to personal information about a student.  Second, even if we are, we have to decode whether a student is exaggerating, lying, or is too shy to tell us the real story.  There is a great deal of detective work that goes into figuring out why a student failed to complete an assignment.  There is no a-ha moment to this paragraph, just an honest explication of a challenge that teachers face everyday.

Next, we have the students who do the assignment, but fail it. Either they were inaccurate, got things wrong, wrote poorly, or have some other deficiency which in our minds warrants an F.  In speaking with another teacher recently, I asked why a student had a D, his response was, "he failed the last two quizzes."  In my mind, I thought, "Okay, he failed.  If that content was important enough for you to quiz him on, shouldn't you insist that retakes it, or completes another assignment showing that he has some knowledge of what you felt was quiz-worthy?"  I don't mean to say I offer extensions, retakes, and alternate assignments everyday, however on major grade-determining assignments, it seems that if the content or skill is TRULY important, you would want the student to master it, despite what may be "equal" or what options the other students received.

It seems that we get caught up in "equity."  There is no equity in education, and there never will be, what we should be aiming for is what's fair.  Fair is equitable with Just, as the above cartoon illustrates. The world is a harsh place, that does not care about someone's circumstances, however, school is not the real world.  I do believe a twelfth grader should be held to a standard of equality more rigorous than say, a ninth grader.  What may be fair for "Sue" who has a ride to and from school, a nice house, internet access, and doesn't worry about from where her next meal is coming, probably isn't fair for "Jane" who is between two residences, has social anxiety issues due to her parents' divorce, and walks herself to and from school.  It's obvious that in the real world, these circumstances become irrelevant, but for a fourteen year old, they shouldn't be.  Equal doesn't equal fair.  

This brings me to the age old debate, does an F mean "incompetent in this skill or content, unable to master the work" or does it mean "failure to be compliant?"  The negative connotations work both ways; we have students who are VERY skilled, but refuse to do the work, so they receive F's.  On the other hand, we have students who can get by, but truly have not mastered the skills, so they pass.  Therefore, in looking at a gradebook, you frequently can be mislead.  The students with the A's are not always the smartest, of course, sometimes they are, in fact I would say usually they are, but almost every class has some exception.  Similarly, all the students who fail aren't "below level."  In an English class, where 20/25 students are reading below a 9th grade level and have not mastered the skills, one would assume they should fail.  Seems fair.  On the other hand, if they try, put in effort, and improve, then maybe they should pass.

These are my nagging thoughts day in and day out.  Grades and numbers fail to capture the student's whole story.  The story of an academic year is complex: a student who begins with an F, and ends the year with an A, will end up with a C on his or her report card.  A student who went from an A to an F, will end up with that same grade.  It essentially tells us nothing about the student's story.  The grades are equal, but they are not fair.

There's no major point to be made, except that grades and "equality" are serving us poorly in today's schools.  Data can make extraordinary things possible, but still fails to make "possible" a reality for many students.