Saturday, November 30, 2013

Dual Language Followup: The Power of Choice

You may recall that back in August, I looked into some issues related to opting out of Dual Language instruction.   Some HSD elementary schools are now 100% dual-language, but there were a subset of kids who were doing very poorly in this environment, and failing to acquire grade-level skills in either language.   Parents who wanted to pull their kids out were initially given a "hard sell" by the principal to try to keep them in the program, but in the end we found that the district does allow any child the ability to opt out by transferring to another school.  

This week I received a great followup email from one of the parents involved, and he gave me permission to share with my readers:

I wanted to update you on the progress of my second grader after being removed from the dual language program. She started second grade way behind state standards. She completely hated reading and writing. It is now 3 months into the school year. her increased abilities with basic academics has grown into a new passion for learning. she loves to read a book in her room when she's bored. She is now meeting state standards in all of her subjects. I was becoming suspicious of a learning disability last year because she was so frustrated because she wasn't able to grow with her peers... I think we both Agree dual language can be a great opportunity for some children, while others are going to suffer greatly by it, especially when there is no second language at home to help strengthen the foreign language in the child's mind.

It's great to hear when such a change is working well!   I think this feedback helps to reinforce some key aspects of the overall discussions we have been having in this blog:
  • While it is a positive element in many situations, dual-language is not a panacea, and for many students in early grades it is not the right method to learn reading and writing.  
  • Each dual-language-only school needs to work on making it clear to parents that they can opt out, and actively assist those who want to make this choice for their child.
  • In general, one-size-fits-all solutions are a bad idea to implement across the board- students have different learning styles and different strengths, and we need to provide multiple choices of programs to meet each student's needs.
I would love to hear more (good or bad) from parents in a similar situation; be sure to send me an email or post a comment here if you have a story to share.      


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Comments on the CPM Math Curriculum

By now you've likely heard about the parents who pulled their children out of Evergreen Middle School due to problems with the new CPM (College Prep Math) curriculum, newly adopted by our district this year in an attempt to comply with the Common Core standards.   There have been a lot of newspaper articles on this recently, but I'd like to point out a few details that many of these articles are glossing over.
  1. CPM is a radically new and different way of teaching math, not just a harder or more advanced curriculum.   A CPM-based class spends the majority of its time with the students working in groups to discover the mathematical rules, rather than having them presented directly by the teacher.    You can find many details at their website.  In Hillsboro we have implemented it across the board, all at once, as essentially the only available type of math class in our middle schools-- with our only in-house piloting being a 2-week trail last year.  So I'm not surprised that the new method of teaching math was a shock to many students and parents:  they are not objecting to math being harder, but to it being fundamentally different.     Was it a wise idea to make such a major change all at once district-wide?  
  2. CPM has been seen to create problems for students at the low end of the spectrum.   For students who find the math more challenging, there is no substitute for careful explanation from a skilled teacher.    Since the majority of the class is based on group work rather than direct instruction, some students are just not getting the straightforward teaching that would enable them to succeed.  I"ve heard from some parents that groups aren't even allowed to ask the teacher a question until the group has voted on it or arrived at a consensus as to phrasing.       Are some students pressured to just copy answers or pretend they understand so the group can move on, only to fail miserably when they have to work on individual assignments?
  3. CPM has been seen to create problems for students at the high end of the spectrum.   Many talented students are able to get the idea very quickly, and don't want to go through the motions of redundantly "discovering" a key principle to please their teacher, or act as supplementary teaching assistants for their group-- they want to move on.    This is especially frustrating for students hoping to get to advanced calculus and higher math classes by the end of high school so they can get a head start in STEM majors in college.
  4. CPM may be developmentally inappropriate for some students-- even very smart ones.   One topic sorely lacking in CPM discussions is the concept of stages of a child's mental development.   Children go through various stages of development , and only at the most advanced stages are they well-suited to truly discovering and generalizing mathematical laws.   Many middle schoolers, even very smart ones, are still in Piaget's "concrete operational" stage:  they can absorb facts and procedures that are directly taught, but are not ready to prove the validity of mathematical abstractions.   Thus I am not too surprised that some students who received As  and Bs in traditional math are severely struggling with CPM.
So, with all this being said, what is the district doing about it?   There have been several meetings between district officials and parents, and HSD is working to modify the CPM curriculum based on parental feedback to address the issues above.   I think this is a positive step, and am glad that we are looking at ways to incorporate more direct instruction, rather than sticking to a pure group-based CPM curriculum.    Personally I would have preferred that we offer a variety of choices of styles of math classes rather than a one-size-fits-all solution.   But a properly reformed CPM program, with a larger portion of individual instruction + group "labs" to reinforce the concept like in science classes, might turn out to be an excellent choice for a majority of our students.   

In any case, we need to make sure that we are properly meeting the needs of students at all levels of the math spectrum.   If you have a child in an HSD middle school, please be sure to discuss their math classes with them, take a look at their homework, and make sure the class format is working for them.    If your child seems to be falling behind, or if the class does not seem to be sufficiently challenging them, be sure to raise the issue with your teacher and principal.   (And consider escalating to the superintendent and the board if you do not receive satisfactory resolution. )   As a board member, I will be sure to follow up with district officials on the progress of the CPM changes resulting from this discussion.    There are many further improvements and changes that can still be made here if needed-- but we need parents to speak up.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

OSBA 2013 Wrap-Up: 3 New Rs, Character, and Charter Schools

This past Friday and Saturday I attended the Oregon School Boards Association annual convention, another chance to share ideas and war stories with fellow school board members from other districts.   It was more of a grab bag than this past summer's conference, with less focus on training for new board members, and a broad selection of available topics. 

The Day 1 Keynote by technophile David Warlick was called "Literacy In The Digital Age:  Redefining the Basics".    His basic premise was that for the first time, we can't even envision the world our students will be facing in 20 years, so we need to enable them to learn and process information.   This would lead to redefining the 3 Rs:
  • Reading:  Need to learn to critically examine information and ask the right questions, to separate the good and bad information.   For example, it's not enough to just read a Wikipedia site, you need to compare to independent sources & decide what to believe.
  • Writing:  It's not just about the written word, kids need to learn to use digital video and multimedia presentations to communicate ideas.   He gave an example of a powerful anti-sweatshop video by one of his students.
  • Math:  Need to be able to process large amounts of information, using available tools.   The key example here was a page of earthquake data from a government site, which Warlick (in real time) copied to a spreadsheet and was able to plot as a graph.
Unfortunately, some of Warlick's examples undermined his main points:   the anti-sweatshop video for example, while a powerful propaganda piece, was a one-sided presentation of disconnected context-free factoids from various left-wing websites-- I think that student needed a refresher on Warlick's next-generation "Reading" education.   And he claimed that editing music in an app was an example of using "Math", since all the notes were treated as underlying numbers by the system-- but this is true of anything you can do on a computer.    Overall, I can see Warlick's ideas being used effectively to supplement traditional curricula, but I don't see them truly replacing the foundations every student needs in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The second day's keynote was less radical, "The Hidden Power of Character" by Paul Tough.   He was basically pointing out that success in life is determined by more than traditional IQ.   Non-cognitive traits such as willingness to recover from failure, "grit" and persistence, and ability to deal with conflict are just as important.   Getting practice recovering from failure is key:  students need the opportunity to fail and then learn from their mistakes.   Buying into the self-esteem movement so much that kids can never fail is counterproductive.   But we have to work hard to protect students who are from environments where they experience constant failure and are in permanent states of stress; that destroys rather than building character.   The best times to intervene in these areas are early childhood and adolescence.   Lots of great points, but I was a little disappointed that he didn't touch on many practical issues of how to teach the positive character traits day-to-day in a classroom.

I also attended numerous smaller sessions.   One on tablet usage in classrooms was pretty interesting.   The speaker was pretty confident that the balance of good peer-reviewed studies shows that tablets in classrooms really can be a game-changer for a lot of kids.  But before adopting tablets, a school system needs to ask key questions:  Are they properly accounting for long-term costs, including support and bandwith?   Are they following a real plan, or just copying their neighbors?    Is there a strong enough code of conduct & culture of good behavior in the school, to prevent students from doing counterproductive things like playing games in class or using tablets to snap photos of tests?   And do the teachers want them, or are teachers facing a burden due to the need to monitor misbehavior on tablets? 

There were also three different sessions on charter schools:  "Charter Schools 101", "Charter Schools 201", and "Charter Schools Legislative Update".  Mostly discussing things I had heard before, but I picked up & was reminded of some interesting charter facts:
  • Portland Public Schools has 10 charters, with 4% of their student body in charter schools.  (They have 47.5K students, making them about 2.5x the size of Hillsboro, and have 10x as many charter schools.  I think that shows we have room to grow in this area.)  They have been consistently getting 3-4 more applications every year.   Due to the large number, they are seeking changes to the law that allow them to be more picky once a district's total charter attendees exceed 3% of students.
  • Some recent changes to state charter school laws expand some of the application/decision timelines, and add options for the state BOE to remand applications back to a district after appeal rather than making a final decision.
  • Since charters get 80% of the per-student funding by law, there is sometimes conflict with district over whether the last 20% "really" deserves to be spent on services impacting charters, or should totally be at the district's discretion.  The best solution is to be very detailed about all such issues when setting up the charter agreement.
  • Charter school teachers must be included in district's reports of percentage of "highly qualified" teachers.  This can create some conflict, because charters are allowed to use alternative criteria in hiring, which can reduce a district's on-paper % in this area.
  • Oregon actually makes it much tougher than many other states to start charter schools-- fewer charter-granting agencies, more control of charters by districts, inability of charters to independently apply for several types of grants.
Anyway, that pretty much covers the highlights.   Another solid conference with lots of good information, though once again a bit overwhelming by the end!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Lamenting The Bond, And Other 11/12 Highlights

This has actually been a pretty busy week for the Hillsboro school board-- in addition to our regular monthly work session meeting, we had a parent rebellion against the new math curriculum go viral, and the annual Oregon School Board Association Covention .   Rather than try to cover everything at once, I'll discuss the meeting highlights in this post, and the other two items will be in upcoming posts.  Stay tuned!

The first major issue discussed at the meeting was, of course, the failure of the bond issue.   Most comments centered around the thoughts that there was insufficient salesmanship & energy to bring out the small number of potential Yes voters in the district, and that we should try harder next time.   There was also discussion of the fact that voters seeing their tax bill just before the vote hurt the turnout; personally, I find it a bit offensive to suggest that we would prefer voters to have less information so they vote our way.   We also need to keep in mind that the economy in general makes this a bad time to ask for any kind of tax increase; we may have to face the fact that a significant increase in resources is simply not going to happen.   But I'm still of the opinion that a key lesson here was that our voters don't want more salesmanship and manipulation-- if we try again & sell the bond on a basis of openness and frankness, as I discussed in my blog post on the topic, perhaps we will have a shot.

The other major discussion was a followup on the equity emergency, where two schools in our district were rated in the bottom 5% statewide.   Superintendent Mike Scott presented a reasonable $250K plan that was proposed by the schools involving techniques such as more teacher training, additional tutoring and other attention for the at-risk students, and community outreach, based on methods that were successfully used in other at-risk schools to improve educational quality.   We approved this plan, as I do think bringing these schools to an equitable level should be a priority.   But we also discussed a graph showing wide variance across the district in the proportion of poor and at-risk students, with the ones at the most risk concentrated in a small selection of schools.   A few items to consider here:
  • Mike mentioned that we may need to consider moving more funding and resources into schools based on their needs.   This may prevent more from sliding into the lowest quality level in the future-- but is likely to be very controversial, at it would seem to punish schools with talented students, more involved parents, or local fundraising and direct donors.   (I'll be interested to hear from any of you who have a strong opinion on this.)
  • I know you're probably tired of having me repeat this-- but I think it's only fair to mention that it constantly came up that smaller class sizes would be a key factor to help improve the low-performing schools.   Has everyone already forgotten the statement in an earlier meeting that charter schools are able to have "unfairly" small class sizes due to our current regulatory structureSo why aren't we trying to reach out and attract more charter schools in response to our current problems?  I didn't bring this up at the meeting because I didn't want to rathole the meeting with more anti-charter tirades, but will be sure to bring this up as a factor if any charters do apply.
  • An interesting solution I heard from a friend in another district is to reduce the concentration of at-risk students in particular schools by increasing school choice within the public system.   In his district, every parent lists their top 3 school choices each year on a form, and the district then assigns students to schools based on the lottery system.  This also creates incentives and competition within the public school system, even without charter schools, and results in distributing kids more evenly rather than having a bunch of economically homogeneous islands.    Of course, before we could start such a system, we would need to bring our bottom-5% schools up to par (otherwise parents lotteried into those would scream bloody murder), so this is more of a thought for the future.
The final major item discussed was state legislative priorities for the 2014 session.    It's unclear if many bills will be introduced, so it may be a moot point, but we will likely continue our usual uncontroversial ones of PERS reform, funding, unfunded mandates, and regulation.  One key issue I brought up is rather than our vague generality of unfunded mandates, we really need a full, itemized list of them.   It's very important that we can show our legislators not just the big-ticket items, but a full list of the many state requirements that are costing us money.   For example, new emissions requirements have significantly increased the cost of replacing old school buses-- would a waiver of this mandate just for school buses really have a noticeable effect on the environment?

At the end of the meeting I brought up the parent revolt over the math curriculum.  But given the various twists that has taken in the media, I'll leave that for it's own blog post.