Sunday, November 19, 2017

PBE part one - getting started

This is the first of several posts about PBE, Proficiency-Based Education. I am trying to set down my understandings and beliefs, give some advice from my (very) limited experience, and lay a groundwork for improving what we're doing in my school and in my state of Vermont.

I plan to discuss what I think my school is doing right, what I think they are doing wrong, and try to find the best answers that I can. Who we are is irrelevant; the entire state public school system is under mandate from the VT AOE to make the change to PBE in order for the class of 2020 to graduate having had four years of high school PBE.

Yep. We are a year behind. We, and almost every other school I know of, have been procrastinating badly. We've spent 4 years on this so far, and been required to write only four modules for our courses because teachers whine "We don't know what you are asking us to do" and, since the person in charge of PD doesn't really know what the end goals should be and what PBE looks like in practice, we waste lots of time making empathy maps, rating and watching videos that are demonstrably ridiculous, and other tasks that don't really advance the program.

The State A.O.E. reps have openly admitted that they have no idea about how this will work. When I ask for sample transcripts, I get "We don't know. This conference is for you teachers to tell us what a typical graduate should be able to do and be." Ask for sample curricula, or sample frameworks, or sample anything and you get "We can't tell you because we don't have any of that and you have local control." That law was passed four years ago and this conference was one month ago!

Much of the Vermont AOE website focuses on convincing people that this is a good idea, rather than on what this idea actually should look like in practice. Here, you can look for yourself.

The Supervisory Union has openly admitted that they have no real idea of how PBE is supposed to work. "We're not sure. Nobody has done this before. We're on the cutting edge. We don't know what the Graduation requirements should be -- you teachers have to decide. Write your modules to this template, but we're not going to look at them critically - you have to do that."

The principal and other school administration are just as much in the dark but, to their credit, are willing to let teachers do this exploration and possibly fail on our way to succeeding.

I'm going to focus at first on what I feel PBE should be and why I feel it's a good idea, then on some of the things that are really making this transition problematic and may end up destroying the initiative and ruining the educations of many students in the meanwhile.

Hopefully, this exploration will prove useful to both of us.

Another Problem with Computer-Based Learning

I am not a fan of computer-based courses except when the alternative is nothing. If the choice is Moodle or nothing, then Moodle wins, but it's not a great solution. Even a mediocre teacher is better than an online course. Charter schools who offload the majority of teaching onto computer programs are doing a real disservice to their students. Computer programs are far too often limited in what they accept as correct answers, too limited in their explanations, and not particularly well thought out.

Style and colors win out over physics.

The example that prompted this note is below. In the exercises for an online edition of a physics textbook, there was this unit conversion problem that asked students to convert km/hr to m/s, a fairly simple but important task. The student had to drag and drop circles onto a fraction structure - the task was to replicate this pattern:

This is the only acceptable answer, however. Any different arrangement was deemed incorrect:

Those "Learn more" links simply repeated the advice to convert the length measurement first without ever giving any reasons why the fractions should be in that order.

It's programmed that way. No exceptions allowed, even if they are correct.

The worst part? It hasn't been fixed. I sent a note three months ago. This content was written and published at least four years ago. Why the holdup?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Consistency of Message

Short speech this afternoon included the following statement:
"We believe that all students should be able to take any or all AP courses at our school."

This was the concluding talk of a day-long conference on Proficiency-Based Education which has as one of its guiding tenets that
"Students should not progress to the next proficiency until they have mastered the first one and should not be allowed to move from course 1 to course 2 until they have reached proficiency in all of the predetermined areas in course 1."
These two statements seem to directly contradict each other, yet both were met with applause and approval from the assembled. How can you take AP Calculus if you haven't reached proficincy in the topics of precalculus, and before that in algebra 2, and before that in geometry, and before that in algebra 1?  (Granted that the geometry course is not strictly in that place across the country.)

What am I missing?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

More PBE Idiocy

My school is implementing Proficiency - Based education this year. (Some people call it Standards-Based Grading)

We're behind the curve; the State of Vermont has decreed that ALL schools in Vermont will be using PBE so that the Class of 2020 will have had four years of PBE by the time they graduate. That's this year's sophomores.

Yes, that means we're a year behind. Our school's faculty made the decision last May to push forward with this initiative against the wishes of the SU -- we didn't want to wait two more years to begin, putting us three years late according to the directive from the State.

Our reasoning was that, if this is truly a Good Thing, then why should we wait to put it into place?

But our supervisory office and it's IT staff are hopelessly unready. Incompetent isn't a unfair characterization. They have no transcript format ready to go, no sense of how to ascertain academic ineligibility, etc.

So we faculty are doing it for them and fighting against their bad decisions the whole time.

Faculty: "Don't average proficiencies. In fact, don't even think of them as percentages."

"Hold my beer," they said.

Faculty: "Wait, you shouldn't do that ... and what's with the gaps between the levels? .... and what's with 'Not Attempted' being 0% to 15%?"

SU: "Uh, we don't know, and we don't know how to change it."
Faculty: "If you insist we keep percentages AND that they must average, would you at least fix the gaps?"

SU: "Uh, we don't know how to change it."
SU: "Uh, leadership team needs to make that decision."
SU: "Uh, it's your fault for moving too quickly."

Faculty: sigh.

SU: "Uh, you know there's two different scales, right?"

Faculty: "Wait, what? That's ridiculous, and wrong on so many levels. No one would do anything that stupid."

SU: "Yeah, check this out. Hold my beer."

Faculty: "Okay, so the percentages are the same but why is it called Approaching in this scale and 'Nearly' in the other?"

SU: "We thought it would be fun to change it two days before school starts, but not everywhere. You'll randomly see one or the other."

Faculty: "Whaaaat?"

Faculty: "By the way, if I enter a 3 out of 4, I get an NP. It should be Four Levels means One thru Four, but it isn't working that way. Please explain that."

SU: "Uh, we don't know what you're talking about and we don't know how to change it."
SU: "But, we just figured out that if you use a 5-point scale, and enter a 4 out of 5, then you'll get proficient. Think of it as a feature."

Faculty: "You went out of your way and insisting that it was four levels, not five. Would you please get it straight?"

SU: "BTW, did we mention there's a third scale? Check this out!"

Faculty: "WTF is with those percentages changes?"
Faculty: "If I enter a 3 out of 4, I get an NP again. Please explain that. While you're at it, why is 'Emerging' now 0%-50% instead of the 15%-45%?"

SU: "Uh, we don't know what you're talking about and we don't know how to change it, but all three are active in your gradebook at the same time."

Faculty" "Are you serious?" 

SU: "Yep. We're kinda proud of all the work we've done."

Faculty: "It's been all different, the kids and parents are fuming, and we're going back over everything and rescoring everything to make things consistent. THIS HAS NOT BEEN HELPFUL."

SU: "Don't be ungrateful ... BTW, you know how you asked that all of the Common Core State Standards for math be put into the gradebook?"

Faculty: "(Nervously) Um, yeah?"

SU: "We changed the names of each one of them."

Faculty: "Keep your goddamn beer."

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Don't Average Proficieny-Based Grades

Either you are proficient or you are not proficient.

You can pretend to other "Levels" but that is the crux of standards-based education, or Proficiency-Based Education as it has been recently renamed.

What you can't do is assign a percentage to each level, then average them to get an average proficiency, then average the proficiencies to get a final score.

How is "Nearly Proficient = 70%" even valid? Right, it isn't, but in the exciting world of education, there's a difference between what the state of Vermont mandated and what our school is doing and what the superintendent and the district chief IT person seem willing to support.

So we get to start the year with everyone up in our shit over Proficient being a 75% ... and instead of eliminating the percentages, they changed it to 80% hoping that parents and students would shut up and return to their homes.

Can we turn off percents already?

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Students You Have

Periodically, one hears the clarion call:
"Raise Your Standards and the Students will Rise to meet them!"


To paraphrase Dick Cheney:
"You teach the kids you have, not the kids you wish you had."

(Dammit. The history teacher reminded me that it was Rumsfeld.)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Education Research, part 2

Peer Tutoring is great. All the best teachers set it up in their classrooms. Research says it raises achievement. After all, studies prove that "Teaching something is the best way to learn it."

I personally hate it. I've hated it since 7th grade when teachers started "encouraging" me to tutor other kids. I hated it in high school because I always got paired up with kids I didn't like or who resented that I was smarter than they were. Call me selfish? Tough shit; I was a teenager. It was NOT MY JOB. Teenagers have enough stress in their lives.Telling them they're responsible for some meathead's education? Oh, yeah, that is a *great idea*.

I won't require anyone to do it. EVER.
Purely voluntary, "working together"? Absolutely.
Homework club? Bring it on.
Labs? I'll encourage collaboration but if a student wants to go it alone, I won't stop them.

But studies show ...

From dcox, Research is great until you have to use it.
The EEF toolkit rates ‘peer tutoring’ as having a positive possible effect. I could see this and tell my staff ‘I want to see ‘peer tutoring’ in all your classes because that will enhance learning by ‘+5’ months.
However, the evidence behind this summary wouldn’t support this action. It specifies that the tutoring is most effective with cross-age tutoring, with two years between the students. That wouldn’t be the case in one class in the UK.
And crucially it also states:
‘Peer tutoring appears to be less effective when the approach replaces normal teaching, rather than supplementing or enhancing it, suggesting that peer tutoring is most effectively used to consolidate learning, rather than to introduce new material.’
Research in the wrong hands and with superficial or no in-depth analysis can be dangerous….

John Hattie's Visible Learning is a great tool but you've got to pay attention.

Perhaps Dan Willingham's Bill of Research Rights for Educators is appropriate here.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Problem with Education Research

"Education Research." Even in these times of political ignorance of research, science, and fact-based decision-making, there's still a place in every American's brain for education research.

It's probably due to the ever-present mantra of "Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?" coupled with an ferocious need to believe that one's own children would be superstars if only the damned teachers weren't so terrible. Parents tweet, post, and search for information about "best-practices", proCCSS or anti-CCSS, pro-disease or pro-vaccination, in a desperate search for confirmation that they have a brilliant child.

The problem, of course, is that the searchers don't connect with the research.

Linda Graham, in an article on TES, Teachers Need to Trust Research Again, complained that
Just over a year ago, I was disturbed to read the suggestion – tweeted by a teacher attending a ResearchED conference at the University of Cambridge – that education academics should be made to pay schools for access to research participants. I was shocked because education research was clearly not being perceived as a public good; something we should support in the way that we do other forms of research.
I'll say this: it takes a certain chutzpah to complain that education researchers should be any different from others and pay subjects for their time. If you can't do that, then the taxpayer funded research based on studying taxpayer's kids in taxpayer-funded schools should at least be made available to read after its completed, without a $49.95 access fee. It's not that I think this research is a public bad, it's that few understand it and I want to see that it says and means what those above me think it says and means.

This giant game of "telephone" is getting frustrating. I've named it the "Workshop Effect". Here's how it works:
  1. Educational researcher (e.g., Kamii) presents results from her research (e.g., examining 3rd and 4th graders and the appropriateness of the common algorithm for subtraction) at large conference with consultants and workshop presenters in attendance. These folks take notes. Some completely understand what's being said, others less so. Not everyone is an elementary school teacher with a nerd-on for math.
  2. Consultants and presenters then travel, collecting $3000 for a day's workshop in Central Vermont. The presenter has collected several sets of research results and displays them all. Superintendents and Principals from K-12 are here because that's $3000 and "let's make the most of it."  They pick up some details to bring back.
  3. High School Principal hold faculty meetings or PD and mandate that "Research has shown that students should not be taught the common algorithm for subtraction." 
  4. Curriculum coordinators and teachers spend months adapting curriculum to the new paradigm. Anyone who objects, or wants verification, is called "Anti-Team Player", a "Naysayer", a "Curmudgeon", or is criticized or written up for "not obeying District policy."
And that's how the rot begins.  Why should my 10th grade Geometry students be bound by research on third-graders, research that expressly states that it is done on 3rd graders? Nothing in the paper said that extrapolating 7 or 8 years held any meaning.
Underlying much of the critique of research in education is the charge that it doesn’t tell stakeholders “what works”. My first objection to the “what works” mantra is that this is based on a very insular view of what is important in education. My second objection is that it completely discounts the importance of researching what doesn’t work, particularly from the viewpoint of the largest stakeholder group: students. Nonetheless, the value of research in education is increasingly being judged in relation to the “what works” agenda: if something works, then there must be evidence to prove that it works. If there isn’t evidence (perhaps because the research is not about what works but what doesn’t), then that research has no value.
Maybe the criticism that Graham reads is like this, but mine is over not being able to see the original documents. I am not going to spend the money to download and read this research. I only got the Kamii paper because someone sent it to me (Grant Wiggins, Dave Coffey, Bowen Kerins? I can't remember). I understand that research often is intended to find a connection, a correlation, and that a cause is more elusive. I understand that sometimes we need to run the same study again and again to confirm (or not) previous findings.

The problem is in the interpretation and filtering that happens between the researcher and the teacher. What did the research actually say, and what can I actually take from it?
Teachers are now being encouraged to “challenge” education researchers for “evidence” to support their views. That’s OK – if the request is accompanied by an understanding of the research process and how knowledge is accumulated.
Sure. It's called peer-review.

It would be nice to be able to tease out findings instead of leaving it up to the ex-fifth grade teacher - turned curriculum coordinator.

Publish your work or face the criticism.

If you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to work.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Please Stop Saying it, part 6

Things we really need you to stop saying, part 6.

Fun Fact:
"What you get out of it depends on what you put into it."

I'm their teacher, not their counselor. I agree that I can't be an asshole, but I'm here to teach and they're here to listen, learn, practice, contribute.

Otherwise, don't go to college.

"They won't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

We really need you to stop saying that.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Things We're really going to Need you to Stop Saying, 5b

part 5, update:

It's a goddam supercomputer. Why don't you just put it to use?
  • Look things up.
  • Calculator. If you turn the calculator sideways, it becomes a scientific calculator.
  • Desmos.
  • Formative Quizzes.
Then, they can put it aside and you can be a normal teacher with your worksheets. (I'm not being sarcastic. There's nothing wrong with worksheets for practicing a skill in isolation.)

The phone is just a TOOL. Use it for a purpose. Students need to experience when to use a TOOL and when not to. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Things We're Going to Need You To Stop Saying, part 5

False Dichotomy, aka. Twitter Broadside

Education seems to be full of these things, but perhaps they're in every business and I'm only paying attention to education. You see them often, pithy statements that fit into 140 characters by eliminating all the gray area and reducing everything to black or white extremes of "The Right Way" vs "What You're Doing". Often well-meaning but ultimately harmful:

If your exam questions can be googled, then you're asking the wrong questions.

Google is useful for information, less so for understanding. Googling the answer doesn't "show your work" and, given the nature of the Internet, isn't particularly trustworthy.

If kids in your class are more engaged by a fidget spinner than they are by your lesson, the spinner isn't the problem. Your lesson is.

Learning is hard. Kids fidget. Fads come, then go. Your lesson doesn't suck simply because two kids out of 25 are fiddling with this thing.

If your exam questions are multiple choice, then you aren't asking the right questions in the right way.

There's always a place for quick, multiple choice questions, even on summative assessments.

If your exam questions only use integers then they aren't Real World(tm) Questions.
If your exam questions require a calculator, then you're asking the wrong questions.

Integral answers allow students to show their work, are useful to the learning process because the arithmetic is secondary to the learning. Integral answers can also encourage students to search for different solution methods. Decimal answers that require a calculator are great for Real-World data but Real-World data is often confusing and isn't usually appropriate during the learning process. Learn first, then use the learning. Calculators make guessing too easy and encourage kids to waste time with it.

If you are asking questions at all, then your students aren't agents of their own education. 

This is just silly. Teachers are there to teach. Sometimes the students "lead" the class down the carefully prepared road through the weeds ... but the teacher has laid the groundwork for that.

I am really tired of this nonsense. These blanket statements that reduce the complex world we teach in to just two colors (what you're doing and the right way) are unnecessarily reductive. It encourages simple-minded extremist fads that wither away after a couple of years of damage to children's education.

It's a false dichotomy and we're really going to need you to stop saying it.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Repoped Search

Just what is a Repoped Search anyway?

Assuming its for a teacher ...

Ah, yes. I always wanted that job, but I wonder why no one has noticed it yet? It doesn't make applying there very appealing.
"Windsor Schools, in Windsor, Vermont is in search of a high school Geometry teacher to join our middle and high school math department, beginning July 1, 2017. Windsor Schools is a PreK-12 educational facility and implements the Eureka Math Program across all grade levels. All candidates must have a current Vermont Educator's License. Experience and familiarity with the following is preferred:
-Universal Design for Learning
-Habits of Learning and Vermont's Transferrable Skills
-Effective Communication and Collaboration

Perhaps a candidate with proofreading skills, as well?

Friday, April 21, 2017

PBGrading Pitfalls

Two of the selling points of Proficiency-Based Education are the elimination of the "False Accuracy" of percentages and the averaging of things that have nothing to do with each other.

We will score a test on Quadratics as 90%, score a test on rational functions as a 40% and then average those two scores to a 65%. Throw in a couple missing homework assignments and it's a failure. Add a bunch of homeworks handed in (100% each, weighted average), another test on square roots (80%), "Participation points" for having a pencil every day and not being an asshole, and some "extra credit" for a well-done project on exponential functions that was mostly a rehash of something done in Algebra I, and now this is a C+ or a B grade. If it's 79.43%, then it's a C+.
  • How in the name of Cthulhu can we be that accurate?
  • Why does having a pencil raise your grade?
  • Why does missing homework lower your grade?
  • How does "extra credit" on one topic cover the fact that you don't know what you're doing on a second or third topic?

Can't solve an equation, can't find asymptotes or holes, can't factor quadratics if a != 1, can't determine the missing terms in an geometric sequence ... but can grub points here and there, and "Boy, he's trying really hard and he deserves to get a few extra points so his grade is above 80."

How can you assure the Pre-Calculus teacher that this kid is ready for it? How about the college professors who are constantly droning on about freshmen in remedial math classes?

Look at those standards. Sure, they're all about working with quadratics in some form or other, but skill in N.CN.2 does not equate to skill in A.SSE.3 or in F.IF.7. So how does the good grade we get in part of this "help raise" the poor grade in another?

Shouldn't we be asking for skill and understanding in each of these? Don't we want proficiency (to some standard) in all of these before we say "Algebra 2" on a transcript?

And so we arrive at Proficiency-Based Grading.

At its ideal, it's perfect.
  • List all the proficiencies.
  • Set up a scale: Proficient w/Distinction, Proficient, Nearly Proficient, Emerging Proficiency.
  • Assess: Decide the rubric/scoring method, be consistent, ignore the names, begin.
Let's pretend we've decided that proficiencies #1 through #10 are required for a credit in algebra 2. Determine (using as much time as needed) whether each student can do the things you want understood for Algebra 2. If retakes are needed, do that. If they're good on 9 of those standards, then they haven't fulfilled your requirements. No credit until they understand all ten.

Repeat to the students, "There are ten things you need to know before you can say 'I understand Algebra 2' and can take that to the next course."

Ah, but this is education, and now we need to "fix" things.

First, having only ten grades in the gradebook is not going to cut it with secondary level administrators.  You need to include all of your formative and summative assessments.

Then, because we have to use PowerSchool, we need to list all of the standards for math, even if we are only focused on those 10 for this course. The other math teachers need their 10 things, and Powerschool can't be configured differently for each course ... blah, blah, blah. Probably it can, but the tech people and the curriculum coordinator can't figure it out, so fuck you.

Every column needs a grade, so the pilot teachers enter E for everything not covered in Algebra 2. (That's a lot)

Parents immediately complain that there are all these Es, "Why is this?" So we make a fifth category, "N/A, Haven't done this yet."

People who should know better insist that everything have a numerical value. So we label the levels 1, 2, 3, 4 (and 0 for the Haven't Done it Yet" category) ... and PowerSchool promptly averages the scores.

That's right, it takes the old problem of averaging things that have nothing to do with each other and magnifies it by averaging Ordinal Data of things that have nothing to do with each other.

"Advanced Understanding of Adding and Subtracting complex numbers" combined with "Nearly Proficient in Graphing Functions" somehow equates to 3, Proficient.

Not only that, but if you have something like N.CN.2 which you have determined to be only a 1, 2, or 3 scale ... well, your students are going to be shocked when they can't "get a 4" for the course.

XKCD: 937
Ordinal data is qualitative data; you can't average qualitative data. Doing so is a sin against mathematics. It would be akin to a newspaper writing this headline about a marathon. "The top ten people averaged fifth-and-a-halfth place" -- how stupid is that statement?

Then there's accuracy. How accurate is that 3 or 4, anyway? The teachers who piloted this program in the other building began to think that "this 3 is different from that 3; I want to show progress" and promptly began to use halfs.

Then came re-takes. If I give a ten-question assessment of N.CN.2, and a student is deemed nearly proficient on those ten questions, does that mean the student is proficient? Probably not. Let's test him again. He takes four more tests over the next few days, scores proficient all four times. His average is less than 3. To be exact, 14/5 = 2.8

So we compensate by telling PowerSchool to "take the most recent four scores" every time, thinking that we want to see improvement. The kid who scores 4 because he absolutely understands it and can use this knowledge to write a computer program to run a Lego MindStorm robot to draw the function on the hallway floor, still has to take the test three more times so PowerSchool can find an average of the "most recent four". And, just to be funny, he scores 4, 4, 4, and 0, and lets PowerSchool average that to "Proficient".

Remember that comment about needing all of the formative and summative assessments?  Formative work is simply assignments and quizzes that help your students learn. They try, and fail, then try again. You need to assess this work, but it doesn't count. All you want here is "Does the student understand N.CN.7?"

I said that formative be recorded but be worth  0% - enough to be noticed but not enough to matter. Of course, telling admin that something won't count means they assume that students won't do it, so it has to count. Those "in charge" at my school decided formative was 25% of the grade, summative 75%.

Thus, formative scores of 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, and 3 (because the student is still learning) and then summatives of 3, 3, 3, and 3 (all proficient, meaning this kid understands this topic) will result in a final mark of 2.7 (nearly proficient).

How does this make sense? It doesn't.

I'm certain that many of you are saying "Hey, the old way did most of this, too?"

Yes, Mr. TuQuoque.

My point is that we should have Proficiency-Based Grading without these pitfalls. If PowerSchool can't do it properly, then you should stay with the old grading methods until you get a proper gradebook.

Warning Signs that you're Doing it Wrong:

  • You find yourself using 3.5 because the student is "More Proficient than just Proficient" but not quite "Advanced Proficient"
  • You average what shouldn't be averaged.
  • You let the learning process alter the proficiency measurement. 
  • 90% of the marks in your gradebook are 0 because those standards aren't in this course.
  • Workarounds of any kind in PowerSchool.