Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Re: Intensive Small-Group Tutoring and Counseling - NY Times Article

This is a great and effective idea, except for one major flaw:  they are paying the tutors $17,000 per year to do this job.  This is well below poverty level in most urban areas.  Why is it that a lot of "solutions" to problems in our culture mean creating new, part-time jobs at poverty level pay?

I guess I get frustrated when solutions to educational problems include having people volunteer or accept very low wages - like substitute teachers. One principal said to me once, "Oh, but don't you get $100 a day?" I said, "Yes, so the maximum amount I could get in a school year, even if I were lucky enough to get jobs EVERY DAY, would be $100 * 180 = $18,000." 

Sure, these tutors could get part time jobs during the summer or weekends - if such jobs were available. So, as soon as something better turns up, the tutor leaves and the students get a new one.  

The tutors do well.  Yes, people should not be greatly surprised that, with 2 to 1 help, plus counseling, these students do markedly better.  That is a good, even great, thing.  But, does it scale up?  I am not so sure. 

I hear repeatedly the claim that you can't just "throw money" at education.  No, you can't.  But there are effective and less effective uses of money.  Millions of dollars spent on standardized testing?  Questionable.  Millions spent on adequate staffing?  More likely.  People cost money; really good people cost a bit more.  


Addendum: The school districts I work for are also increasing the number of half day jobs that are available for subs.  Since it is often very difficult to coordinate the ending time of one half day job with the beginning of another half day job, taking into account driving times between schools, subs frequently take only one half day job.  This cuts sub pay even further.  I suppose, to be fair, it does make it easier to take another regular part time job.  If a sub has another regular part time job that starts some time in the afternoon, that sub could take only morning half day jobs.  Still, it does make transportation costs a larger issue in relation to pay.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

I Didn't Do So Well

OK, first of all, it was a very snowy day and the school I had accepted a job for a couple of weeks ago was a long drive.  A commute that should have taken around 40 minutes took over an hour and I saw several accidents along the way.  So I was strained and on edge when I got to the school.  I had actually subbed for this teacher before and I like her and her co-teacher.  She was there when I arrived and walked me through a computer-based lesson that I was to give.  The technology was messing up a little though, so we spent a bit of time talking to the tech person and going over what to do if the technology didn't work. 

Then, I discovered I was missing attendance sheets, so I had to go back to the office to get them (they were in a folder I had accidentally left on the sign-in counter.  The lesson plans weren't long, but I had hall duty, so I glanced at them and stood in the hall until the bell rang. 

So, I wasn't really prepared for teaching the lessons.  The first lesson was a character lesson on cheating.  There were three videos to show.  They were supposedly tabbed on the browser for me to just click on, but, of course, it wasn't that easy.  The lesson plan pdf was supposed to be clickable, too, but that didn't work for me either.  I finally got each of the videos to work and the lesson went pretty well.  Then it was time for math.  I feel really confident about math and this was a curriculum I have taught many times, so that went fine, too. 

Then came recess.  I was supposed to keep some kids from recess, because they had missing math assignments they were to do.  The problem is that half of the students were in one class and half were in the other class.  And, I didn't know how to get copies of the assignment sheets, if the students had lost them.  AND there was indoor recess.  Instead of a calm study hall, it was a mass of confusion, with students wandering back and forth between classrooms, eating their snacks, me trying to check off students and completed work, and some students trying to get missing assignments finished.

After recess, I had to repeat the two lessons I had already taught for the other group of students.  So far, so good.

But it was at lunch I discovered that 1) I had had a packet with missing assignments for each class that they were supposed to do during the character lesson (only some of the students) and 2) I hadn't done the second page of the character lesson, because I thought it was a separate lesson and the first page had taken up the correct amount of time.  I also noticed that the teacher had wanted the character lesson completed even if the math lesson had to be shortened.  Sigh. 

It isn't that it was a bad day - although the level of constant talking was above that with which I am comfortable.  It is just that my own mistakes and failure to do what was expected were a disappointment to me. 

And then, there was a harrowing commute home again.  Two major accidents along the route.  I was thankful to get home safely and I was very tired. 

Early bedtime and I took today off.  Being able to take days off when I need them is one of the few advantages of being a substitute teacher. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Gifted Goal Setting

I was subbing not long ago and while I was cleaning up the room, some other teachers were having a planning session there.  They were discussing goal setting for their gifted students.  Whenever I hear people discussing gifted students, I listen.  They knew I was there, so I don't feel like it was eavesdropping - just interest.

What were their goals for their gifted students (elementary age)?  Academically:  they should score a 4 on the state tests in either math or reading (depending on their area of identification).  How would they accomplish this?  They should be included in the higher group of math class or the higher groups in their classes for reading.  Affectively:  they should display good social behaviors.  How would this be accomplished?  They should attend the counseling sessions for GT identified students. 

I am still thinking about these as goals, but I am disappointed that they seem so canned.  Are all of these GT kids so similar that they have nearly the same goals?  Are high scores on state standardized tests our best measure of acceptable achievement?  Is simple attendance at group counseling sessions a measure of success? 

A few years ago, I had a job as a GT coordinator for a school.  I wasn't in the job when the goals for these students were developed, but I did have to evaluate the achievement of the goals at the end of the year.  I was pretty taken aback by some of the goals.  I don't remember them exactly, but they were on the order of:  "Get A's on all of my work."  "Win the hockey tournament."  "Turn in 80% of my homework."

It seems to me that we need to think a bit more about this goal setting requirement.  What is a good goal?  How can we encourage kids and teachers to set good goals?  How detailed do the plans have to be for achieving the goals?  Who decides if the goal has been met?  How often do we look at setting goals?  Who is involved in setting them?  Ideally, the goals need to be set for each particular child.  Achieving a 4 on the state test in math may be a good goal for many students, but it is rather limiting.  Is the only math worth learning that which will be tested on the state tests?  What if the student could have achieved that 4 without learning anything new for the whole year?  What if the student is a model student, does all of the work, gets all of the answers right, but has no idea why math is of any interest other than just filling in bubbles or clicking boxes? 

Teachers are overworked and I do not blame them for looking for simple, canned goals, especially since they are required to set these goals with little (or no) training in gifted education.  But I am sad for the GT kids.  One teacher remarked, as they were entering the goals on their computers, that they do these things already.  They have groups for math and reading and the bi-weekly counseling session.  In essence, she was pointing out that they don't need to do anything different.  Goals set; learning plan implemented.  Now it was just up to the state test to determine if the kids met their goals.  Done.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Engage Me vs. Engage Myself

In a Facebook discussion the other day, SH and I were discussing corporal punishment.  I am still on the fence about it, but I find his arguments interesting.  And, I agree that we need disciplinary options that currently aren't available or aren't working.  For instance, the favored disciplinary option in the US seems to be either lunch or recess (if there is one) detention.  After school detention usually isn't available in the US, at least where I have lived, because of bus schedules.  Even recess detentions are problematic, with the already too short lunch period (frequently just 35 minutes) and the demise of additional recess times. Add to that the complaint, usually valid, that the kids who earn the detentions with their behaviors are also frequently the kids who need recess the most, and there is a real problem.  What options do teachers have?

I am, as I said, on the fence about corporal punishment, but I am very concerned about the lack of other disciplinary options. I have had some very bad experiences subbing in high schools, middle schools, and even some elementary schools, all three of which needed some more consistent and more frequently enforced options for controlling student behaviors. The favored mantra in most schools now is "Get the students engaged and then they will behave". But I am not convinced that that is the proper causality. More and more, I am thinking that we need to get the students to behave and they pay enough attention to the lessons to actually become more informed and more willing to become engaged.

SH pointed out that the mantra "Get the students engaged and then they will behave." puts all of the responsibility for students' behavior on the teacher.  The student is not given the primary responsibility for his/her behavior.  If they misbehave, it is the teacher's fault for not giving them something that they can take an interest in.  But, in my experience, the students are misbehaving well before the teacher even has a chance to give them something to take an interest in.  And, on top of that, some of what they need to learn in school will inevitably NOT be highly engaging.  School is not an endless video game. 

I was subbing in 3 beginning German classes several weeks ago and they were a "challenge". The students would not listen, would not even attempt any of the work, and actively tried to do everything they could to disrupt the class and prevent anyone else from learning. I taught (full time) in a class several years ago, where about 10 of the students (out of 35) begged me to ignore the impossible behavior of around 6 of the students, so that they could actually learn the material. The discipline in the building was impossible. (long story) In both of these cases, the student misbehavior was high, in spite of interesting projects and attempts to make the material more relevant to the students.  I think it is high time we acknowledge that students also need to take responsibility for their behavior and for their engagement in the material they are to learn.  

Kids will sometimes tell me that I have to EARN their respect. I don't know how they got this into their heads, but the respect should be there BEFORE they even meet a new teacher. If the teacher does something to have that respect taken away, that is another issue, but the respect should be given to the position and the authority until it is "un-earned".  Similarly, the students should have an open mind about the material to be learned.  They may find it much more engaging if they actually make some effort to understand it.