Saturday, April 2, 2011

Solving Mr. Johnson's Dilemma with the Tools of a Writing Renaissance

April 21st Update: Teacher Magazine  features a wonderful collaborative writing piece and nice set of digital composing tools (e.g. Wikispaces, Google Docs, Glogster.)

Mr. Johnson, a retired English instructor, spoke of the instructional dilemma he had during his teaching days:  

"If I did it right and gave students the assignments they needed to increase their writing proficiency, I was overwhelmed as an instructor and ultimately unfair to myself.  But if I did it wrong by not giving enough assignments, I would be shortchanging the students.  Either way I felt guilty."

Over the long course of academia, the discipline of writing has stood alone where student assessment is concerned.  While some writers aspired to have their work read by large numbers of people 'one day,' nearly all needed to endure having their work read by a few readers at time-- their current English teacher, Mom, & maybe a standardized test essay reader more recently-- up through their undergraduate years.

Thankfully developments in the last quarter century have produced some fine ways for addressing "Mr. Johnson's dilemma:"

Process Writing is perhaps the most significant among them.  If you happen to be a parent of school-aged children, you may have never heard of process writing.  Mounds View High School writing instructor Liv Rosin, who is a curriculum contact person for a program called College Writing Lab, explained it is a formative type of instruction in which a writer's work-in-progress is subject to interventions by both an instructor and a student's writing peer group.  This approach, which is now the norm in many high schools, differs from the traditional writing approach where a writer works alone before submitting the final product for an instructor's judgment.

Most educators prefer formative assessments to summative ones due to their capacity to diagnose, then allow students to improve upon their work before moving on to the next class or grade level.

For those school districts who still find the labors of process writing instruction too heavy a curricular burden, long-time writing proponent Paul Carney has just the "online shop" for them.  A no-nonsense educator who saw far too many graduates receiving diplomas who didn't have the second "R" of  "readin', writin' & 'rithmetic" mastered, Carney developed  Step Write Up  for 8th graders and Ready or Not Writing for high school students.  Under both programs, students whose schools enroll in the free program can submit either school-assigned pieces or independently-crafted ones for a college ready assessment from a Minnesota college English instructor.

Nowhere does the virtual world of the internet become so practical as in the case of Carney's supplementary creations, which are recognized by both Democratic and Republican leaders at the Minnesota Department of Education who realize there has been a decline in the writing of many graduating seniors.

By now, you could be asking what type of feedback is available for addressing Mr. Johnson's dilemma at the elementary level.  After all, the group interactivity of process writing might fly a little high for K-5 kids, and students aren't eligible for the services of Step Write Up until the 8th grade.

A Minnesota-based website called Kidblog provides budding grade school writers the opportunity to have their work absorbed by the most intriguing audience type of all-- similar-aged students of other countries! Kidblog was recently the subject of this front-page, above-the-fold, Sunday feature:Pioneer Press Kidblog Piece. Begun by Matt Hardy-- an Eden Prairie, MN, elementary teacher in 2007-- the site not only makes keyboarding miraculously fun, it has also sufficiently allayed safety concerns enough for 500,000 elementary-aged writers & readers to be sharing their thoughts and life experiences with new friends across the planet.

Taken together, these new programs, processes, and platforms have combined to truly make the days we live in an unparalleled period for the art of writing.  Add in the technological changes allowing for the rapid, digital "deconstruction" of a piece and near-instant publishing capabilities-- and calling this period a Renaissance for Writing is not too strong a description.

At the very least, our educational culture now has what it takes to solve "Mr. Johnson's dilemma."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Does MN's Teacher Evaluation Bill Mesh with Secretary Duncan's NCLB Reauthorization Efforts?

April 3rd Item Update:  Gov. Dayton and MDE Commissioner Cassellius share a  desire to go where research findings lead them to improve teacher effectiveness and close the achievement gap.--- Attributed to Rep. Pat Garofalo in Star Tribune's This year, may this state witness the art of compromise by Lori Sturdevant.

Original Entry of March 30:

Memo to MN Education Policy Makers: Before approving the groundbreaking new teacher evaluation bill that cleared its first hurdle in the House of Representatives, please consider U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's ongoing campaign to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act.

"I've said repeatedly our department must continue to support and encourage innovation, not force compliance," Secretary Duncan testified to the House Education and Workforce Committee on March 9.

In the currently available version of Minnesota's HF 945, Article 1, Sec. 1, Subd. 1: teacher effectiveness would be linked to student performance with this language: 

"When determining a school's effect, the data must include both statewide measures of student achievement and, to the extent annual tests are administered, indicators of achievement growth that take into account a student's prior achievement.  Indicators of achievement and prior achievement must be based on highly reliable statewide or districtwide assessments."

Sect. 5, Subd. 1 of HF 945 then constructs a teacher evaluation structure by establishing a  "mechanism for translating the performance data into a five-part teacher effectiveness rating scale."

Big Question #1: Should we take MN's "effectiveness" language to be the innovation that Secretary Duncan encourages or the compliance that he warns against?

We've often heard the phrase "hold harmless" where education policy is concerned.  On the topic of reauthorizing the now 10 year-old NCLB law, Secretary Duncan specifically holds the NCLB Act responsible for the challenges districts and states face:

"Almost everywhere I go, I hear people express concern that the curriculum has narrowed," the Secretary has said. "I think the law is too punitive, too prescriptive, and it's led to a dumbing down of standards, and a narrowing of curriculum," Secretary Duncan stated regarding a "must-make" policy change at the federal level.

Duncan asserts that 80% of the nation's schools will be labeled as failures this year, and by law, all of them will be subject to an identical set of interventions, regardless of a given school's individual student needs.  If that happens, the schools with the widest gaps in achievement are most at risk of continued failure, which worries him deeply since the whole point of the law is to ensure that the schools with students most at risk are served. Duncan also contends the current law "created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed."

In its place, Secretary Duncan does support a system of accountability based on individual student growth, one that "recognizes  success" and "holds all of us accountable for the quality of education we provide to every student in the nation." This shift in policy direction would represent a "sea change" from the current law, which simply allows every state to set an arbitrary bar for proficiency, and measures only whether students are above or below that bar.

Duncan also advocates a common sense law that is "tight on goals and loose on the means of achieving them", instead of the reverse as it is now. Towards that end, many states are are already developing robust student data systems so they can measure student growth, so the academic bar can be truly be raised.

Big Question #2: Will the passage of HF 945 properly leverage the longitudinal data systems being built in Minnesota school systems?

By mandating  and prescribing "one size fits all" solutions, Duncan says: "NCLB took away the ability of local and state educators to tailor solutions to meet the unique needs of their students, and that is fundamentally flawed.  This law is fundamentally broken, we need to fix it, and we need to fix it this year."

Secretary Duncan himself is not averse to the idea of teacher evaluations:

"At the end of the day, the best way to make  a difference is with effective, well-supported teachers.  The best way to achieve that is with stronger teacher recruiting and training programs linked to rigorous teacher & principal evaluation systems.  That work is underway all across America, and if we do our part by fixing the law, we can accelerate that progress."

Calls for meaningful teacher evaluation have been issued by everyone from Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Casellius to the Minnesota Education Association to the American Federation of Teachers to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Big Question #3: Would the teacher evaluation methodology set out in HF 945 accelerate progress toward a rigorous educator evaluation process-- or will it decelerate it?

Given the landmark nature of this teacher evaluation legislation, let's all hope & pray that any such efforts adequately address some important questions before the bill becomes a full-fledged law.
You can listen to Duncan's entire 13-minute set of remarks to the House Education Workforce Committee (the primary source for this analysis) between the 10:40 and 23:40 points of the following C-Span video: