Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Dragon Parenting: A better choice?

I just finished Amy Chua's book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom". Coincidentally, I saw an article with her on CNN about the time that I finished it and she was reflecting on how at the time when she published this book, her girls told her: "Mom, no one is going to read this."

Were they ever wrong. She's been rocketed into the middle of the universe with such a controversial parenting style. Chua said in the interview that in reflecting on her newfound stardom, she thinks the reason for the books acclaim is that she tapped into two "nerves"- fear of China, and fear of parenting. She wrote the book as a memoir and an explanation of how Chinese methods of parenting are far superior than Western parenting styles. Recently her daughter was accepted into Yale, serving as vindication of her methods.

Is it better? As a teacher in Asia I see many of my Asian students obsess over grades with such a heightened sense of drive and ambition, that almost seems humorous. "An A- is a terrible grade!" The extoll. I also hear of parents focusing on the grade, the grade, the grade, and don't really look deeper to see whether or not the learning objective was met. All it seems to be for many of these parents, is chasing a grade.

Although many of my western parents and their kids have a more subdued approach, they don't focus so much (I'm generalizing here) on the grade, but that process. They tend to ask more question such as "Does Johnny seem to be improving?" and more touchy feely issues. I think a happy medium is what is ideal.

Regardless of your philosophy, I think the reason Mrs. Chua has become such a coveted, and perhaps targeted figure, (she has received death threats) is that she is rude awaking for many parents whose children are jockying for places at universities around the world. With the rise of Asia upon us, she signifies us of the drive and dedication of millions of more parents whose children wield motivation unfathomable to a western value system of learning and education. How can one compete?

Monday, 20 February 2012

The case for assessment that matters

Our grade 7 math program has undergone some changes this year. Full differentiation. Different assessment practices. Hard final tests. We have come under a hailstorm of scrutiny as what were once "A" students are getting "B's" and "C's".
I challenge any parent to check out the "quality" of any test in any subject. One one end of the spectrum, you have multiple choice tests, which statistically students do better on, and on the other end of the spectrum, open-ended responses where students have to justify conjectures, explain their reasoning, break problems into parts and eliminate unnecessary information. We have elected to do the later.
Math curriculums have changed in recent years to included a strand entitled "Mathematical Reasoning". I think this is the most important strand of math and can't be assessed with your normal run of the mill multiple choice tests. Open-ended responses allow students to reflect on their decision making and make the case for reasoning. For many students that come from old-school assessment practices, this is a paradigm shift. For the first time in their life, students need to make the case for their work, the same way a lawyer would argue a case in court.
I want to challenge my students. I like to see them struggle. I think it does them a disservice that we give them easy "A's" in the name of uplifting their self-esteem to make them feel better about their mediocre abilities. I've known too many teacher's that make a policy of giving only "A's"; and what does that say about one as a teacher? That they're so good, or that their assessments don't matter at all? If we want to prepare middle schoolers for high school we have to create learning opportunities that force them to ask questions, come in for help, do their homework, and push the limit of their cognitive abilities.
Homework, quizzes, projects are all practice, because, let's face it, they can get help from others. So why should we grade them? We should grade students on what they can do without help from parents, friends or tutors. From this perspective, classroom lessons take on a "unstressed" approach as students do feel that every single thing that they do is graded. They know they can make mistakes and learn from them. Only the final tests and summative labs are graded and with a practice test to identify areas of focus, students can diagnose their own learning, and take responsibility for their own learning. Make no mistake, this is not high-stakes testing, this is a handful of assessments throughout the year where students can notice their improvement. With only 4 or 5 quality assessments that matter, students can see their improvement and not have a grade convoluted with too many assessments in the gradebook. So many teachers think that the more assessments in the gradebook is all the better, as it shows their diligence and oversight. I say the opposite. Too many grades don't allow a grade to change as its bogged down by equilibrium, and by mid-semester, nothing much a student does will actually matter.
Quality, not quantity of assessments will be a better indicator of student abilities in the future. We have seen countless articles of the schools in the United States "dumbing down" their tests to make them easily passable and create the illusion that their students have learned and their teachers are better than most. Just like in a larger stakes game of poker, these states jockey for competitive for federal funding and use inflated test scores as their hole card.
If that quality of student assessments are rigorous and indicate that students are doing "unsatisfactory" because they don't have higher order thinking skills, I think it's better to let them fail now in the middle school years in order to work harder now then set them up for failure later. Most long term studies on learning habits indicate that study and work habits are fairly ingrained by the time a student is an 8th grader. We need them to teach them to work hard now, and the first and last step is with assessments that matter.

Should students be allowed a retest?

I’ve undergone a renaissance in my philosophy to this question. The bottom line is, and I’ve always believed, that if students do not test above a certain percent proficiency, say 70%, a teacher has not done their job. In that line of thinking, it only makes sense that we allow students to retest over and over until they demonstrate proficiency and perhaps even raise their poor grade in the process.
We had a great workshop earlier in the year with “David Suarez” a teacher at Jakarta International School who ran into the problem of having 50% of the class sit a retest. Why didn’t those students prepare ahead of time? Because they knew they’d be given a second, third and fourth chance. There is an operation of schools (I won’t mention their name) that believe that a student should have as long as they need to demonstrate mastery of a subject. However, although some students there take months to demonstrate this and it drags on an on. Is that how we engender student responsibility? It seems like a recipe for breeding lethargy and sloth.

Suarez makes a good argument: “Retesting is a privilege, not a right. Although we never deny the opportunity to relearn material, we may deny the opportunity to retest.” Students have to demonstrate and practice their student skills. We cannot place lack of student learning solely on the teacher as the student is inherently the learner. A teacher is a facilitator, and can lead the horse to water but cannot make them drink. If a teacher has helped the student identify what they need to review prior to a test and the student chooses not to do this, how can the teacher be at fault? Who do we want to inevitably be responsible for a student’s learning, the teacher, or the student them self?

In this context, we have allowed retesting on a case-by-case basis. For starters, it is only allowed for students that take advanced (Blue Level) assessments and their work leading up to the assessment must be sound. I have denied students a retest on the basis of poor practice test scores as the test was clearly too difficult and they shouldv’e chosen the standard (Green Level) assessment. I want students to make good choices, not think that they are entitled to the world and think that their teachers can be easily manipulated. I see this happen too often.

An assessment is a snapshot of what a student knew about that content area at one particular time. If a student does poorly, it should be a call to action: reminding them of the importance of asking for help when needed. If a parent sees that Johnny got a “C” on a test as the result of third retest, they may not feel the matter requires action. If Johnny got an “F” and that is non-negotiable the parent will stand up and take notice. This is what we need especially at the middle school level to help get students “on track” for the rigors of high school. Better to have a rude awakening in middle school where GPA resets every semester rather than in high school when it’s cumulative over four years.

Is it "Ok" to fail a student?

In the late 70's and early 80's, a movement in parenting and education started which was unofficially called the "Self-Esteem" movement. Basically, the philosophy of this was that in order to be successful at learning, we need to shelter kids from failure in order to boost their self-esteem and make them feel better about themselves, for if we told students they were "not good enough" they would, shut down, tune out, and turn into at-risk kids. Feeling good about oneself, it was argued, was the most important pre-existing condition as a learner, and if we didn't preserve that, we'd turn kids off of learning forever.

This wasn't validated by research. It was basically an opinion that got traction without any data or evidence, but notable figures in education were quick to spew support for this fad as it portrayed them as caring, loving educators. Some notables:

"Self-esteem is more important than test scores," said Mitchell, who became Loren Miller's principal this year. "If we're interested in raising lifelong learners, it's important that . . . we also address the emotional and social sides of children.“
-Principal Loren Miller

"When they don't excel, we say they have potential," Vail said. "You don't cast them out and say, 'You're not good or irresponsible or lazy.' You say, 'You didn't make it this time. Here is the mark we want you to hit and we're going to help you hit it.'
-Principal Michael Vail

Of course when some authority figure says this, people are told to listen. No one knows better about education than the principal, right? Why would we dare question their opinion?

Opinion is not fact. However, it's often claims to be the same. "The World is Flat." "Santa Clause is real." Both opinions that metasized as facts to the gullible, the uneducated and the desperate.
I'm reading a fantastic book right now called "The Self-Esteem Trap-Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance" by Polly Young-Eisendrath. She has shown how years of tracking generation X and Y generation kids have produced kids that are lethargic, apathatic, and entitled. The backlash she says is that by shielding kids from failure, we don't teach them how to adapt to it when they finally confront it. By allowing kids to retake tests, make-up projects and raise their grade accordingly, we have created a system where kids don't have to try hard because they'll get a third, fourth and fifth chance. Is that what real life is like?

I think if we're going to raise generations of motivated, autonomous learners, we can't let them play the system. "Yes, Johnny bombed his last test and while I will make every effort to reteach him the material, I will not raise his test score, because at the time the assessment was given, that was the level of his understanding." I've said lines this verbatim to some parents this year and they were shocked that I wouldn't "give" him a better grade. Grades are earned, not given. To this I have answered back "He did very poorly, but let this lesson of failure help him prepare better in the future by taking better notes, reflecting on his learning, asking questions and coming in for help." This, I argued, is was truely raises self-esteem. Want kids to feel better about themselves? Teach them how to do something for themselves. Don't candy-coat their failures.

“Assessments need to be accurate and honest; not inflated”-Tom Schimmer. If that means failing a student to help them overcome adversity, so be it. I've known teachers in the past to arbitrarily change grades right before report cards because they'll say "Janie got an "F" but she seems to have improved, so I'll pull it up to a C-". Janie will then learn that that C- doesn't really mean anything because it's inflated and not indicative of her academic abilities. What will happen to her when she goes to high school and college where grades are cumulative? What happens when she tastes failure in the real-world?

Let them fail now. Let them know what rock bottom feels like, because the only place they can go its up. Especially in middle school where grade point averaging resets every semester. Last semester, I had 10 students get an "F" on their major assessment of the semester. Did they shut down? Of course not! I retaught them the material, but didn't allow them the retest as I wanted them to learn the importance of reviewing, asking for help, etc. By the end of the semester, the number of students who were failing dropped from 10 to 2, and the 2 failing students still did make notable progress with their student skills.

“Having high self-esteem certainly feels good, psychologists say. But, contrary to intuition, it doesn't necessarily pay off in greater academic achievement, less drug abuse, less crime or much of anything else. Or, if it does pay off, 10,000 or more research studies have yet to find proof. “
-Fathers for Life