Archive for the ‘ Uncategorized ’ Category

Merit pay for teachers versus competitive salary

Imagine this conversation:

Administrative team: “If you try twice as hard, we’ll pay you twice as much!”

Teacher: “But… I’m CURRENTLY doing about as much I’m able!”

A great horse, but not a race horse

The concept of ‘merit pay’, or awarding teachers financially for their students ‘results’ (what are we truly measuring?) is certainly a hot topic. Teachers are like jockeys (bear with me here):

  • a great jockey may push their top-notch horse to win The Triple Crown
  • a terrible jockey may break their top-notch horse, through poor guidance, not knowing when to push and when to save their horses strength
  • a great jockey cannot win any races riding a Clydesdale, a horse bred for strength, or with a 1 year old “thoroughbred- to-be”
 (note that the Clydesdale and the thoroughbred-to-be are wonderful horses – but either the task is not right, or the timing is not right.)

I follow Chris Lehmann’s blog, and his post about Making Teachers Rich suggested that being rich, is not the point for teacher. I agree with this. Apparently, so do teachers, because we start this career knowing full well that the salary will never be as high as an engineering salary.

And THAT, is the problem. I always wanted to teach, but I got my degree and first jobs in engineering because the pay offered more stability. When I left engineering, my mentors and the VP of operations called me to say “Listen, I want to teach tooo when I have some money saved up. Right now, you should think of your financial future.” These people WERE great teachers for me, although we diverged on this final point(they were family men – I have no wife or kids).

I contend that if starting engineering salaries are $50,000/yr, starting teacher salaries should be $55,000/yr. Let undergraduates compete like crazy to get teaching jobs, just like we did for engineering jobs.  I’m afraid that the teaching profession loses great teachers because they fear the comparable hardship of a low paying salary. Particularly with rising college tuition costs, the degree needs to pay off.

I agree with Mr. Lehmann, that we shouldn’t just make teachers rich. I also think that paying teachers for student performance will not lead to REAL performance improvements for teacher and student. However, let’s put teaching on an equal playing field with other professions, and let education compete with other careers that traditionally pay more money.


Why we aren’t doomed

My holiday conversations with family and friends often involve “the state of American education”. There’s some doom and gloom surrounding the performance of US students when compared with other nations in math and science. It’s understandable to be nervous about the future when so much is changing so quickly, and that we want to prepare as well as we can.

I am not nervous. I know that things will change for the worse in some ways. I also know that technology and the ‘global intelligence’ provides an accelerating capacity to make changes for the better. Predictions of these changes would not be accurate, even if we tried really hard.

Three things in which I believe:

1. People are resilient and resourceful, and this diminishes with age. Young people adapt better than old folks – like myself.

2. The principles that provide the foundation for success do not change with time. It has been, and always will be some combination of these traits:

  • the mental practice of searching for and evaluating information,
  • the maturity to create an appropriate response to that information, and
  • the motivation and drive to execute the chosen response

3. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Point #1 won’t change. Point #3 unfolds on its own – it’s hard to ‘force’ necessity. Point #2 are things that can be learned in school, out of school, out in “the wild” (playgrounds, streets, etc), or (most likely) some combination of the the three. They aren’t easy lessons, but they can be learned anywhere. With them, everything is possible, ESPECIALLY in the face of change. Without them, our communities don’t really flourish – it’s more survival. In both scenarios, the “safety value” is Point #3. If things get REALLY bad, people need to make amazing things happen, and they will do it.

Point #2 is a part of US culture to some degree, and part of human nature. In American educational systems, we focus on Point #2 to some degree. For this reason, other countries still look to US education to see what we do. Also, while there’s focus, fear, and mania on standards, we continue to create better educational methods. The efforts to create national standards (Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS), even if you disagree with them, seem like they are being developed with the intent to incorporate wisdom and democracy with these latest methods. I’ll elaborate on NGSS in another post.

For now, I’m satisfied knowing that educational methods are making good progress. Teachers may not adopt new skills overnight, but students are constantly learning new things outside of school too. I know that a clever person will always be able to enter a job and begin to make a difference by learning the needed skills.

In summary, my forecast for my personal holiday vignettes about education is “mostly sunny”. Happy winter, everyone!


The future of textbooks

Using textbooks in the contemporary physics classroom

I follow Frank Noschese’s blog Action-Reaction because he records thoughtful reflections on his inquiry and non-cookie cutter teaching efforts. In his post about visualizing average velocity, he alludes (offhand) how textbooks are utilized in his classroom. I love it.

Uses of Textbooks:

Textbooks make wonderful reference tools. They provide well-worded explanations to revisit after the lesson is over. Using the teacher edition carefully can give great insights on how to structure learning, and provide ideas on differentiation for more students.

They can also provide good, stable blocks to hold up a table.

Why is this OK

To a good teacher, a textbook is one of many tools we can use to create meaningful learning experiences. Used creatively, a textbook brings images and enrichment opportunities. Teachers who proudly do NOT use a textbook are missing the point and missing out on a great resource.

In 1912, the textbook was an invaluable tool for education, for the following reasons:

  • students leaving the 1912 classroom with out skills in memorization and execution would not go on to be contributing members of society
  • teachers did not have the opportunities for ongoing education. Paying a teacher to leave on a 5 day trip to a far away college to continue learning every few years would be impractical.

Why we must do more than only textbooks today

The spinning pumps water from the well

You really have to grind the good out of people – it doesn’t just vanish quietly. Kids are attracted to the idea of accomplishing important things, and they only stop trying if they think that it’s unlikely that the effort will pay off. Using stale textbooks can grind people down.

It’s unlikely that teachers can give a world-class education using just a textbook these days. Their pedagogy may be good, but students are inspired by bigger audiences. Current events are presented freely in a myriad of media formats. The product of a lesson on torque can be more than just 20 problems repeating the concept. It can be creating a better water well for people in a far-away land.

In conclusion – Frank has done a great thing. A teacher must do miracles with limited resources. We should all use books, the internet, a student’s cell phone, relationships with other schools, private and commercial funding in creative ways to keep our students thinking, learning, and loving the entire process.


Exploring the 5E model

The exact definition of the 5E model varies from place to place. Some have expanded the model to include 6Es or 7Es and standards. Let’s accept the variations and avoid symantics, for the sake of a short post. The common intent is to provide a (mostly) sequential path for student learning that engages the student and lets them explore a concept before getting into vocabulary or the textbook.

Before my lengthier definitions, here’s an overview of the Es:

Engage the student, allow the student to Explore the concept in some way, ask the student to Explain what they’ve experienced, Elaborate on what was learned to apply to other applications and Evaluate the learning, and Extend the acquired knowledge to new situations.

One teacher I know is curious about this model of instruction, but is reluctant to jump in with both feet. He has explored his own version by doing his lab activity first, THEN going through the lecture experience and notes as needed.

Here’s a more in depth discussion of each stage, primarily distilled from a introduction by the Miami Science Museum that I think explains it nicely:

Engage (sometimes “excite”). The teacher grabs the learner’s attention and outlines why the learning is important and why the student should be interested in the concepts to be learned. The teacher provides opportunities for the student to makevery clear connections with past and present learning experiences.

Explore. Learners explore the concept that will be taught, and all students will now have a minimum level of experience with the concept shown. They have the opportunity to use materials or refer to phenomenon that show some of the interactions that result from this concept. This is a good place for students to ask questions “what happen if…” and then try it out to see the relationship.

Explain (sometimes or “expand”). Learners start to form explanations for the relationships they have just witnessed. Effort is made to sequence events into a logical format, and communication occurs between peers, the facilitator, or within the learner himself. The teacher can start to introduce vocabulary for the concepts that the students are attempting to explain. The teacher can also clearly and methodically use the experiences to help students overcome misconceptions. Learners make apply their generalizations to situations outside of the classroom.

Evaluate (sometimes “elaborate” or “exchange”). The teacher and learner evaluate the progress made towards learning goals. These assessments should include student reflection, informal teacher observations, rubrics, small group discussions, checklists, student interviews, portfolios designed with specific purposes, project and problem-based learning products, and embedded assessments.

Extend (sometimes “enrich”). The student takes the learning and applies it to a new set of circumstances or a more challenging situation. Students propose investigations that permit further exploration and inquiry into the topic at hand. Applications may include collaboration with other students locally or globally, investigating a local or global issue – current or historical – that relates to the concept, creating artwork, media, or writings connected to the concept.

The Miami Science Museum goes on to say “the learning process is open-ended and open to change. There is an on going loop where questions lead to answers but more questions and instruction is driven by both predetermined lesson design and the inquiry process.”

I hope that gives you something to think about. I hope you’ll share comments about your experiences with 5E.

Bathroom or bust (literally)

At an Illinois high school, students are being asked to make up for lost instructional time when they use bathroom breaks excessively, by serving time after school. A detention. I can’t imagine making such a big deal about this with students, for the following reasons:

1. Students will ‘hold it’ when great things are happening in the classroom.

Certainly, no teacher wants to compete with Angry Birds for attention. However, if we provide great classroom experiences, there’s a major decline in bathroom breaks and “inappropriate use of technology” (cell phones). It’s a barometer for the success of your teaching: lots of pit stops is a great indicator that instruction could improve.

2. Save “political capital” for the rare and truly important situations.

There are rare times when things boiling over in your classroom – anger explodes between students, or your plans blow up in your face, etc. In these times, you need to be able to say

“I don’t have time to explain myself, and you probably won’t like what I’m about to ask you to do, and I’m sorry. Will you support me anyway?”. If you’ve shown respect to your students, and you’ve earned their trust – they will support you.

If you are fighting daily battles with students about something as trivial as bathroom breaks, you won’t have enough respect in the “interpersonal bank account”.

3. Most importantly, if you EVER wrongly accuse a student of abusing bathroom privileges:

If this happens, you have personally failed that individual student, and broken trust with all your students for years to come.

You will have mentally abused that student to some degree. You have asserted your authority over someone else, and that person may model this same behavior when they are in position of power at some point in the future. Whatever embarrassment happens for this student will never be forgotten.

Your reputation as an unreasonable person will quickly spread to students in your other classes. They won’t want to trust you or your judgment in the future. Younger brothers and sisters of current students will hear of your reputation and may hold it against you.

Thoughts on handling excessive bathroom use:

  1. If a student is constantly leaving for the bathroom, just do a GENERAL “check in” with them – not mentioning the bathroom use. “Hey, I don’t want to pry, but I’ve noticed you’ve seemed less interested in class activities lately. Is everything going OK at home and in your other classes?”. It seems like 80% of the time, this question gives me some context as to why class isn’t the top priority at the moment.
  2. If a student asks to go in the middle of class, suggest they wait for 3 minutes, because you’re about to transition to something else. This may cause the distracted student to ‘forget’ they needed to go.
  3. If a student approaches you one on one, say something like “Oh, can it wait?” If they say it can’t, you can really insist that they go. If it WASN’T urgent, you’ve appealed to their higher nature and shown respect. If it WAS urgent, you’ve built some trust with that student, and people don’t like to lose someone’s trust.
Please share your own comments – what do you think about the bathroom issue? Do you have strategies or troubles of your own?

Protecting the STEM reputation

Some high security science and engineering jobs in the US require that the people in those positions are US born. Whether you feel this is good policy or not, the reality is that fewer students qualify for these positions.

As a result, the Department of Education and leading organizations like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are all investing heavily in STEM education. Bills proposed to revise No Child Left Behind are also including language in support of STEM.

People are promoting their solutions as STEM-related that have nothing to do with a truly integrated environment. As a result of this dilution, the STEM process can seem unhelpful and disorganized.

The blog EducationNews, a new segment appearing on Sesame Street is said to have STEM content. On closer inspection, the Grover 2.0 segments are good exercises in observation of simple machines and phenomenon occurring with magnets. Observation skills are certainly important, but exercising those skills isn’t the same as a meaningful integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Using the STEM acronym too liberally will turn it into a meaningless phrase, and can give good education a bad name.

Defining True STEM Education

Our schools have evolved to teach these skills in artificially separate subjects, like Chemistry, OR Math, OR Engineering design. Then, we anticipate that students will combine these skills later in their career to solve a problem.

True STEM teaching occurs when students are taught to use the combination of many skills to solve a tangible problem.

Creating a classroom environment that is designed to authentically pull these skills together is very challenging, and requires a teacher to have an understanding of a wider range of content in real ways. When teachers look for support in implementing STEM education, we will waste too much time finding the true STEM experiences if they are grouped together with other loosely related resources.

It’s important for those of us who believe in STEM education to routinely describe it accurately to others, and set a high bar for our own efforts of integration. The STEM moniker doesn’t mean the same thing to every person, and I’m afraid that people will lose hope that integrating subjects is a valid pedagogy because it’s so watered-down.

Developing a suite of teacher tools

Stephen Anderson compiled a collection of how teachers are learning to use Twitter to help start conversations that support better teaching. He writes that Twitter is helpful for advice or ideas, but not a good tool for sharing classroom resources. Trying to put all our tricks into one giant bag can be time consuming. We can now use 3 bags for 3 different kinds of tricks:

  • Advice on improving the classroom design, relationships (student, parent, admin)
  • A collection of cutting edge classroom activities AND all the classic activities
  • Tools and support for our students during out of class learning or if you’re implementing a flipped classroom.

Advice on improving the classroom design and relationships:

As Stephen’s article discusses, this is a natural fit for Twitter. This is more effective than listservs, because it doesn’t clog your inbox. It can be used like a cocktail hour with teachers. A major difference is that you get to invite only your most inspirational teachers! You have access to teachers from around the world and mentors that might normally be busy writing books or teaching seminars.

Collection of cutting edge classroom activities

Edufy was designed to solve this problem. This is more effective finding links to multiple websites or meeting once a year to share best activities at a conference. Edufy provides activities that fit, not lesson plans that don’t. Use checkboxes to customize any activity. Comments and voting on activities let you know if your peers consider it to be quality content. No documents to download or links to follow.

Tools and support for our students:

Websites that share files like nyscienceteacher, videos at Khan Academy, or interactives at Howard Hughs Medical Institute are a great way for students to experience concepts in new ways, or to get additional materials for review. These are better options than having a student flounder at home with homework, emailing files back and forth, and certainly higher quality than anything we would be creating on our own.

Do you have other tools that you use that give you access to support in a specialized way? What are your experiences with the tools I’ve listed?