Monday, July 06, 2015

Idea #5: At Least They've Still Got Their Health

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the fifth of an undetermined number of blog posts that will explore some of those ideas. (Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank; Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It); Think Differently About Time; Think Differently About Classes)





Name of Administrator,

When I was younger I didn't really get the phrase, "at least you've still got your health." But as I've gotten older, and as I see folks deal with everything from relatively minor colds, to more chronic conditions, to serious illnesses, I get what a huge impact health has on everyone's lives. Our health not only impacts how we feel, but our ability to do what we want to do and, crucially, our ability to learn. That's why it's so curious to me that "physical" education seems to be such an afterthought in our school.

I don't mean to imply that our physical education teachers aren't thoughtful or don't do a great job, they are and they do. But physical education is clearly not an emphasis or a priority at AHS. We require 12 hours of physical education to graduate at AHS, including a required swimming class and 2 credits of health. That works out to an average of only 1.5 class periods per week over the course of our students' high school careers.

Yet what is more important to our students' present and future than health and physical education? This is one area where we can clearly answer the question of, "When are we ever going to have to use this?" Unlike, say, the quadratic formula or the periodic table, the first bank of the United States or Macbeth, the ability to conjugate aprender or to make a table in Microsoft Word 2013, we can guarantee that health will be important to each and every one of our students for the rest of their lives.

The healthcare system in the United States has lots of problems, but some of our biggest problems are self-induced. So-called "lifestyle diseases," such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease are threatening to actually lower the quality (and perhaps duration) of our students' lives. So why wouldn't wellness education be just as high a priority as subjects we deem as "core"?

In some of my previous posts I've questioned whether "classes" are the best way to approach learning, and whether a "one-size-fits-all" approach makes any sense. I still believe that, but this is one area which I think all students should learn every day, and perhaps in a form that looks somewhat like a traditional class with a regularly scheduled time. I still don't think it needs to be one-size-fits-all, it can be customized to meet the needs and interests of each student, but I do think that every student needs to participate in physical activity and health education every day.

I think every student (and staff member - we should do this together) should have at least 30 minutes of physical activity scheduled into each school day. We should also have regular, on-going education around wellness, including nutrition, exercise, sleep, emotional health, and brain and learning science. Our students cannot reach their potential, cannot learn and grow and contribute their best to society, if they aren't as healthy as they can be. This is truly a "core" subject and we should give it the emphasis it deserves.

I look forward to having this "healthy" discussion with the entire staff.

Karl

Friday, July 03, 2015

Idea #4: Think Differently About Classes

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the fourth of an undetermined number of blog posts that will explore some of those ideas. (The first was Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank; the second was Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It); the third was Think Differently About Time.)




Name of Administrator,

In my last post I suggested we think differently about time, and I touched on the idea that the idea of "classes" was something we should think more deeply about. In this post I just want to briefly (really, it's going to be brief this time) explore that a bit more.

Modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years. Our current conception of education in the U.S., with comprehensive K-12 education for all students, with the goal of preparing them for at least four years of higher education, is really a post-World-War-II phenomenon, so has existed for about 60 years. That works out to 0.03% of the time that modern humans have been learning. To put that in perhaps a more understandable context, if we think of modern human history being a calendar year, January 1st through December 31st, the school system as we know it began at 9:22 pm on December 31st.

Here's the problem: we think it has to look this way. Because humans have evolved to view the world in a linear fashion, and because we have short lifespans, the perspective that you, I and all of our colleagues share is completely encompassed by the 60 years of our current system. So when we have conversations about what we might do differently, the anchor point for our discussion is the current system. And, because we are products of the system working in the system, our perspective is also the perspective of the system.

I'm suggesting that these perspectives are misguided. We should use those big brains that ushered in the era of the modern human to realize that just because a school system has existed for the last two hours and thirty-eight minutes of the calendar year, that's not the only way the system learning can look.

We currently view the concept of a "class" much the way that scientists used to view the concept of the atom. 'Atom" literally comes from the Greek word "atomos", which means  "that which cannot be split." Some scientists initially thought that atoms were the fundamental unit of the universe, that you couldn't get any smaller or more basic. We now know that isn't true, there are subatomic particles such as quarks, leptons and bosons. In schools, we often behave as though "classes" are the fundamental unit of learning, that they can't be split and that, in fact, they are the building blocks of learning. But that's making the fundamental mistake of viewing learning from the perspective of the system instead of the perspective of the learner. We can do better.

I'm not suggesting there is no place for the concept of classes, I still see some value in classes for certain needs and in certain situations. But they shouldn't be the default assumption, the fundamental building block of learning. While we don't typically think of it this way, our current goal for our students is to be successful in completing our classes. The class is the fundamental unit of our system, so we design and define everything in terms of the class. We can do better.

Instead of thinking in terms of learners completing classes, let's just think of learners. What do we want for our learners? Most importantly, what do they want for themselves? What is the best way to help our learners figure out what they want and then pursue that? We need to think differently about classes. If we focus on the learners, and not the system, we will do better. I look forward to having this discussion with the entire staff.

Karl

Friday, June 26, 2015

Idea #3: Think Differently About Time

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the third of an undetermined number of blog posts that will explore some of those ideas. (The first was Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank; the second was Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It).) Warning - this will be extremely long, somewhat rambly, and very narrative/descriptive.



Name of Administrator,

In my previous two big ideas I suggested that there were three major areas that needed to be explored: our system/schedule, our curriculum, and our assessment/reporting system. I argued that assessment/reporting and curriculum were fundamental to everything we do, and drive so many of the decisions (and assumptions), and that both needed to be radically rethought. In this post I want to examine the schedule and, more specifically, how we think about time.

As we look at a school day at AHS, here is the typical way we think about time. Formal academic time starts at 7:21 am and lasts until 2:16 pm, with six class periods of 59 minutes each, passing periods of 5 minutes, and 30 minutes for lunch. Beginning at 2:16 pm and lasting until 5:00 pm or so is time for sports practices (and sometimes games) and other after school activities and clubs. Starting around 6:00 pm and lasting until about 10:00 pm is a combination of sporting activities (games), activities (concerts, performances, dances), personal time for students, and some informal academic time (homework, we expect two hours a night Sunday through Thursday). This is for Monday through Friday. On Saturday and Sunday we don't expect any learning to occur, although we have lots of sports and activities on Saturday, and there are those two hours of homework they're supposed to do on Sunday night.

I think there's a huge problem with this view, and it all stems from a simple matter of perspective: we're viewing time from the perspective of the school, of the system, and not from the perspective of the learner. Even the basic concepts of the "school day, " the "school week" and the "school year" are so ingrained in our thinking that we can't see all the assumptions that are baked into those phrases. We are making an implicit assumption that the vast majority of learning happens (and should happen) when kids are at school in a formal academic setting (class), with some additional preparation and reinforcement that can happen in the evening (homework).

But students' lives - and their bodies and brains - are not limited to the artificial constraints of a system designed to mass educate a population to be successful in a factory-dominated society. There are twenty-four hours in a day for a student to learn, why do we keep insisting that the important learning can only happen between 7:21 and 2:16, and can only happen in formal classes? From simply a mathematical perspective, we've consciously decided to limit learning to less than 30% of the day. It gets even worse when you think about the "school week." This learning is expected to happen during just five of the seven days of the calendar week, so from a mathematical perspective we've now limited learning to less than 21% of the hours in a week. And, of course, there's the "school year" - we only expect students to learn during 180 days of the year - so about 14% of the time available to them in a year.

So what if we stopped looking at learning as being defined by the "school" anything? What if instead we looked at - and consciously designed - learning from the perspective of the learner? Each and every learner has twenty-four hours each day, 365 days a year. Why limit learning to 7:21 to 2:16, Monday through Friday, for about 36 weeks each year, and dividing up that time into formal classes where we have predetermined what those learners should learn? What if we designed learning around the needs of the learner instead of around the needs of the system?

Right about now you may be thinking that this all sounds great philosophically (or perhaps not so great), but the reason we have a system is because there's simply no way to efficiently accomplish what I've suggested. While I'll admit that's it's a complicated and most likely messy task, I'm not willing to concede that it's impossible. After all, if we'd been having this conversation a couple of hundred years ago and suggesting the school system we have today, most people would've said that was impossible as well.

And I would also strongly argue that our goal is not necessarily "efficiency", that's a word that only makes sense from a factory-model, system-oriented framework. Our goal is to help our students learn. Our goal is to help our students discover and pursue their passions. Our goal is to meet the needs of our students. If we truly do those three things, we will more "efficiently" meet the needs of society than any one-size-fits-all, standardization system designed to create identical widgets. After all, society only makes sense as a concept if it improves the lives of all the individuals that make up that society. We talk a lot in education about having high expectations for our students, isn't it about time we have some higher expectations for ourselves?

In my last post I talked about one possible vision of what transitioning toward such a viewpoint might look like. Clearly that post still approached the problem from mostly the system's perspective of time, not the learner's, although I think it at least took baby steps in the right direction. Let's try to take more of a birds-eye perspective (or perhaps satellites-camera perspective) of time, learning and scheduling and see what we can come up with.

Each learner has twenty-four hours in a day, seven days in a week, 365 days in a year (and an increasing number of years - our current system presumes that learning "stops" at age 18 or perhaps 22). That's a blank canvas on which we can co-create a learning experience with our learners, without per-determining the dimensions of the canvas or whether we're using oils or watercolors. There's no reason that it has to start at 7:21 and end at 2:16, Monday through Friday only, for each learner. Let's design it with the goal of creating learners, of helping our students achieve their goals, not the system's goals. Instead of designing it with "the end in mind", with that standardized "end" defined by the system, let's design it with the journey in mind, and the journey is defined by the student (with the help of the community around her).

By this point I've either completely lost you, or you're still hanging in there but are thinking, "Okay, but give me some specifics. What does this look like?" I don't know what it looks like. There is no one way that it looks like, or even one hundred ways it looks like. That's what scares us so much. We think we have to have a detailed schedule planned out, that takes us from point A to point B, from start to finish. But we don't, and we have plenty of precedence to base this on. You're a parent - when your kids were born did you have a detailed plan of what their lives were going to look like, from Point A to Point B, from start to finish? Of course not, nor would we want their lives to be like that. So why should their learning look like that?

Now, there are a few semi-specifics that I could suggest as starting points for discussion.

First, and most obviously, is the start time for our "school" day. While I don't think there should be one time for all students, and I don't think formal classes are the only - or even the best - way to learn, I still see a role for some time-bound, scheduled learning activities (and some folks would clearly prefer this). If we are going to have something like this then we should start no earlier than 9 am. I imagine you're as familiar with the research as I am; starting at 7:21 for students aged 14 through 18 makes no sense at all. Starting later will not only improve "academic" performance, but will also cut down on car accidents, reduce suicides and other mental-health issues, and generally improve the well-being of our students. All the reasons that are typically given for why we can't change the start time are either bogus or can easily be addressed (I won't take the time in this post, but would be happy to discuss).

Second, don't think of the "school" day in terms of schedules and classes, but in terms of learning. And that learning shouldn't be divided up into artificial subject areas, with a bell ringing every 59 minutes so we can respond like Pavlov's dogs, conditioned to move to our next "feeding" when we hear the tone. In fact, it doesn't have to be "divided up" at all (although it could be if that made sense for some learners). Instead, we should design each learner's school day to meet their needs. For years we've been required by law to create IEP's for our Special Education students. I'm suggesting we create them for each and every student. Not IEP's as we typically know them, which are too often hoop-jumping paperwork nightmares, but true IEP's, focused on personal learning. I'm not sure how important the name is, but I'd perhaps suggest PLP's - Personal Learning Plans - although I'm still not completely convinced "plan" is the right word either, as that almost presumes a fixed, defined starting point and end goal, a Point A and Point B, but it's a place to start the discussion.

Third, we need to radically redefine the role of "teacher". Our current model presumes subject-matter experts who deliver a pre-defined curriculum to students. Instead, we need master learners, who still probably have some subject-area expertise, but whose focus is on helping learners achieve their goals, not master our subjects. If we redefine this role, it then allows us the freedom to think about "time" and "schedules' very differently.

Fourth, we need to discard the idea that "school" or "learning" only happens when students are at school, in formal learning activities, directed by adults, and only up to the age of 18 or 22. If we truly believe in "lifelong learners," then we need to design our learning experiences with that in mind. It's a continuum of learning, both in terms of what those learning experiences look like, and in terms of when they happen. With extended lifespans (serious researchers have suggested that the first person who will live to 150 has already been born, and that most newborns have a decent chance of living a healthy life to 120), shifting population demographics (by 2060 children will be barely more numerous than any other age group up to 65), and rapidly advancing technology that is changing the face of employment (automation has already dramatically altered the face of employment and is only going to increase in our students' lives), our students are going to have both an extended lifespan to learn and much more "free" time (not spent working for a paycheck) to do it in. We need to discard the idea that time is a scarce quantity - for our students over the evolving course of their lives, it's going to be abundant. What should "high school" look like if many of our students are going to live to 120 and work fewer hours each week?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to include our students when deciding when, how and where their time is spent. We need to fully educate them about what their lives are likely to look like (see the links in the previous paragraph), and have them help design their own path through life. It is no longer good enough (if it ever was), for the time we call "high school" to "prepare" students for the rest of their lives. It needs to be a time for helping students design how they are going to lead their lives. Shouldn't it be focused on helping them decide how they want to live, on defining what a "good life" is? Isn't that so much more important than all the requirements we think are so important in our current high school experience?

We need to think differently about time. We need to view time from the perspective of the learner, not the system, and from the perspective of a life-time of learning, not a school-time of learning. I look forward to having this discussion with the entire staff.

Karl

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Idea #2: Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It)

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the second of hopefully several blog posts that will explore some of those ideas. (The first was Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank.) Warning - this will be extremely long, somewhat rambly, and very narrative/descriptive.




Name of Administrator,

In my previous big idea I suggested that there were three major areas that needed to be explored: our system/schedule, our curriculum, and our assessment/reporting system. While I felt that assessment/reporting was fundamental to everything we do, and drives so many of the decisions (and assumptions) we make regarding what we do, curriculum is a close second.

For me, talking about curriculum with educators is analogous to trying to talk to a fish about water. If you ask a fish how the water is today (go with me on this), she's likely to say, "What water?" Water is so omnipresent for fish, such a "given", that it almost doesn't even register as a variable in their environment: it is their environment. Curriculum is the same for educators. We have spent a large majority of our lives immersed in school that has been defined by the curriculum.

First we attended 12 or 13 years of K-12 schools, then typically four years of college, and - for many of us - a year or two or three of grad school (not to mention numerous professional development opportunities that operated similarly). And as educators (particularly if you are a career educator) we have spent our adult lives in schools that have been defined by the curriculum. As a very specific example, I have spent 45 of my 51 years (not counting those professional development opportunities as additional time) in formal, traditional (for lack of a better word) educational settings. What water? What curriculum?

Over all those years in formal, traditional educational settings, we have lost track of some of the basic assumptions we have made (and continue to make) about what school is. One of the most basic assumptions we make is that a pre-defined, standardized curriculum is not only necessary, but is central to the basic idea of what school is. In many ways, it has become the de facto purpose of school. So, for this post, here is my basic assertion: When we create and "deliver" a pre-defined curriculum to our students, we are robbing them of the essence of what it means to learn.

Because we have been so immersed in "school" as we know it, because curriculum has both visibly and invisibly shaped most of our lives, we have trouble seeing the pitfalls inherent in a curriculum. Here's a basic truth about curriculum that I would hazard to say we rarely share with our students: it's a guess. Some folks would argue that it's a well-informed, educated guess, but it's a guess nonetheless, and it's a guess that's made using some very faulty assumptions.
  • The first assumption is that we know what is essential to be "educated." We don't.
  • The second assumption is that we know what is essential to be "successful" (which we really need to define) in the future. We don't.
  • The third assumption is that the future is going to be very similar to the past and present. It won't be.
  • The fourth assumption is that the only way to prepare students for their future is to have them learn a pre-determined, fixed set of knowledge and skills, in a certain order, at the same time, and within a certain time frame. I remember Will Richardson referring to in a presentation a long time ago as "just in case" education. But today's world - and so much of what we know about learning - requires a more "just in time" approach.
  • The fifth assumption is that all students need to know the same things, at the same level, and at the same age. They don't.
  • The sixth assumption is that, even if you agree with the previous five assumptions, our system as it is currently constructed is well-designed to accomplish those things. It isn't, and it doesn't.
What does it mean to be educated? I don't think we really know. If you ask most people this question, the response will typically include some or all of the following:
  • literate
  • numerate
  • critical thinker
  • knowledgeable
  • lifelong learner
  • problem solver
There are many more, of course, but those tend to be the top responses. I don't necessarily disagree with these, by the way, but I disagree with how people are typically defining them. Let's take "literate" as an example. What does it mean to be literate?

When I was growing up, being literate basically meant being able to read, at about the 8th or 9th grade level. Now we've done a ton of work in the last 40 years or so and have improved the definition of literacy tremendously. It's not "just" being able to read, but to be able to think critically about what we read, and write, and communicate, and it includes numeracy, and scientific literacy, and artistic literacy, and a long, long list of other "literacies", skills, and habits of mind. Even the National Council of Teachers of English has laid out a much broader and more nuanced definition of literacy:
Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the 21st century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities, and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to
  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology; 
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes; Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information; 
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts; 
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.
Notice that it's not a single "literacy," literacy with a capital L; but multiple literacies. And those literacies are "dynamic and malleable." That means they are constantly changing, shifting, adapting, and are shaped by the learners themselves. What percentage of our staff do you think meets the above definition of literacy?

As another example, let's look briefly at "knowledgeable." What does it mean to be knowledgeable in 2015 (and beyond)? When nearly the sum total of humankind's knowledge is a click (or a voice request, or an automated computer request) away, what does it truly mean to be "knowledgeable"? How valuable is it to have a built-in, random-access storehouse of "knowledge" in a local repository we call our brain so that we can recall individual factoids on demand? To be clear, I'm not suggesting knowledge isn't important, it is. It's necessary, but not sufficient. But how important, and how much knowledge, and what kind of knowledge? I'm suggesting that our current emphasis on knowledge acquisition and retrieval is misguided. It's not (just) how much you know, but it's what can you do with it? Knowing isn't enough, being able to do something with that knowledge is what we want for our students. And, increasingly, it's not (just) what you know, it's who you know.

Lifelong learner. This is a buzzword that educators have been using my entire career. We love to give lip-service to it, but do we actually believe it? The irony is that the assumption of a fixed curriculum is antithetical to the concept of being a lifelong learner. Why do I have to know Algebra by the end of 9th grade if I'm a lifelong learner? Does everyone have to know Chemistry and, if so, do they have to know it by age 17? If I'm a lifelong learner, shouldn't I be continuously learning, and if I need to learn Algebra or Chemistry or whatever at the age of 24 (or 44, or 64), can't I do that? (And, by the way, while Algebra may not be changing so much, Chemistry certainly is, so a decent portion of the Chemistry they are "learning' in 2015 will be outdated when they are 44 or 64). If our goal is to create lifelong learners, why are we so fixated on making sure they are "learned"?

Okay, so I could go on about this for a long time (you probably think I already have), but I'll stop with this part for now and address the next logical question: so what should we do instead? Again, as I said in the previous post, this is something that needs to be a school-wide discussion and, to be perfectly clear, I do not think there is one right way to do this. But I have learned previously that sometimes it's helpful for folks to have at least one possible vision of what it could look like in order to get the conversation started. So here's my conversation starter.

While I personally think we should throw out the curriculum (as we know it) for all four years at AHS, I think that is probably too radical of a step to take all at once (and very unlikely to happen). So my suggestion is a bit of compromise, but one that I think still holds reasonably true to what our students need while simultaneously having at least a small chance of being adopted and being much easier to practically implement as we transition from our current system. I would propose a hybrid solution, with freshmen and sophomore years staying somewhat traditional, and junior and senior years being radically different.

I'll delve into the details a bit to sketch out the idea, but will try not to delve too deeply since this is just one possible vision of what it could look like. The basic idea is that freshmen and sophomore years would still look fairly "traditional," and by traditional I mean that students would have a schedule of classes with somewhat similar requirements (core, elective, hours, etc.) as we do now. This would help address concerns that ninth and tenth graders aren't ready for the radical changes I'm going to suggest for juniors and seniors, that they will need to transition from the schooling they've known to this new approach, and then we need a couple of years to bring them into this new culture of learning at AHS that we are trying to develop. It would also address some of the practical matters regarding graduation, state, and college requirements, as well as provide a place for existing staff that might not be quite as ready to jump into the radical innovation portion.

While this would resemble what AHS looks like currently for ninth and tenth graders, it would not exactly duplicate it. All of our "courses" would undergo some changes, some more subtle and some more radical, all designed to begin to transition and transform our students to be prepared to be successful, more independent learners in their junior and senior years. This would have to be part of a coherent vision of the four years at Arapahoe, and a coherent vision of what it means to be a learner today (and in the future). There would be a lot of heavy lifting involved in making these changes and I could foresee some significant changes in required courses in ninth and tenth grade given the radical changes I'm suggesting for 11th and 12th.

So what then does 11th and 12th grade look like? There are lots of possibilities here, and I think it's important to realize up front that it will not be one-size-fits-all. It will - and should - look different for different students. But I envision much more personal learning (not "individualized" or even "personalized", although I think personalized can be interpreted similarly to personal). In brief, "individualized" learning is something we do to kids; we try to deliver the existing curriculum in individualized ways to be more successful with each student. While I prefer that as compared to non-individualized learning, that's not what we're going for. We're going for "personal" learning, which is learning that kids do for themselves.

We want students to become (with our help) master learners. We want them to pursue their passions, to engage in relevant, meaningful and deep learning that matters both to them and to the world around them. We want them to have the ability to spend two months (or two years) pursuing an idea deeply if they so choose, and our job is to help them do that as successfully as possible. This could take many forms, from internships, to apprenticeships, to independent or small group studies. Or it could even look somewhat like traditional courses for those students who feel like that will best meet their needs at this time. The power of the approach, however, is there is no one fixed path, and - for most students - it's likely to include all of the above approaches (and more) put together in unique combinations.

If our goal is to help students become lifelong learners, who are literate, numerate, and knowledgeable critical thinkers and problems solvers, then we need to give students the opportunity to do those things right now, in high school (not at some unspecified "later" in the "real world"). We underestimate the ability and the passion of our students. To paraphrase Marianne Williamson,
Our greatest fear is not that our students are incapable, it's that they are capable beyond our expectations. It is the fear of what might go right, not the fear of what might go wrong, that most frightens us.
At this point you may be thinking that this sounds interesting (perhaps even "great"), but what about having students "college and career ready?" I would take issue with that phrase. Over the last few years this phrase has been developed with good intentions, but I think with three underlying, and faulty, assumptions.

The first faulty assumption is that we truly know, starting in Kindergarten - at least 13 years before students will enter college or a career - what they will need 13 years (or 17, or 37, or 57) years in the future. Even if you shift the start to ninth grade, it's the height of hubris to assume that we know what our students are really going to need in their career in 2050.

The second assumption I think is really a slightly disguised bias toward college. At least in my recollection and personal experience, the phrase "college and career ready" started out as "college ready," and then the "career" part was added on later when folks figured out both the elitist and impractical implications of saying all kids should be college ready. The bias, I believe, is that while they say "college and career ready", the strong belief is that college is better and, well, if you can't be college ready, then okay, you can be career ready. I also think the assumption is that if we design our schools to produce students who are college ready, they will also be career ready. I'm not sure I completely follow the logic of that.

The final assumption this phrase makes is that "college and career ready" should be our goal. I would strongly argue that, while I believe the approach I'm describing will actually make our students more "college and career ready" than our current approach, that really shouldn't be our goal. Again, I would reference the saying we have prominently displayed in our cafeteria, "Not for school, but for life, we learn." If we are "preparing" our students for anything, it's for life (although I'm not a huge fan of focusing too much on "preparing" vs. actually living). While "college" and/or "career" will likely be a sizable portion of many of our students' lives, it is not their entire life, and we should be "preparing" them for all of it. (And since "college" is really just "pre-career", this phrase really implies that we are preparing them solely for careers; for jobs, to be workers, which I also think is problematic.) If we believe that education is about more than simply preparing students to be good employees, than "college and career ready" cannot be our goal.

Again, I could go on for a long time, but let me close with one more issue that is likely to be prominent in any discussion regarding a plan that looks anything similar to what I've proposed. What will teachers do with those juniors and seniors? This is more than just a practical question, I think it actually is a fundamentally philosophical question about what it means to be a "teacher" in 2015.

If this idea were presented to staff I think it would engender many reactions, but I could perhaps envision dividing teacher reactions into four groups. A small, but not insignificant, number of our teachers would be ready to jump in with both feet. A small, but larger number of our teachers would be intrigued and ready to jump in with one foot, but would need some time to think through this and adapt. A similar-sized group of our teachers would be willing to dip a toe in. Finally, a small, but not insignificant group of our teachers would not want to even get near the water. I think all four groups, but especially the last two, would express something similar to, "But I"m a (fill in the blank) teacher. What would I teach?"

This reminds me of something I've heard Chris Lehmann say many times, "I don't teach "English" or "Math", I teach students English or I teach students Math.) I think another obvious, but perhaps unintended, consequence of defining school as delivering curriculum is forgetting the fact that we aren't here to teach subjects, we are here to teach students. I think I might even go a bit further than Chris's statement and suggest that even the phrasing "I teach students (fill in the blank)" is perhaps still not quite what we're going for at AHS in 2015 (and beyond). If our goal is to help them become lifelong learners, then even saying "I teach students mathematics" is too limiting.

I just finished reading Will Richardson's From Master Teacher to Master Learner, and I think Will does a much better job than I would in describing this shift. (I highly recommend you read it, in fact, I think it would make a great follow-up book study for the staff after Mindset.) But, briefly, let me try to convey my interpretation. The role of the teacher is no longer (and perhaps never should have been) to deliver a fixed body of knowledge to a student; rather, the role of the teacher is to be a master learner and to help students become master learners. We need to model learning for and alongside our students and, in the process, help them become the best learners they can be.

So instead of Chris's phrasing (which I still like), I would initially change it to "I help students learn (fill in the blank subject area)" and, then, one step further, "I help students learn," and, even further, "I help people learn." Limiting it to just "students" ignores the very concept of lifelong learners - we are all students, if we needlessly delineate students as a separate, and often by implication inferior, category, then we are limiting ourselves and everyone around us. This touches on my personal mission statement that I tried to compose a while back,
To help myself and those around me become better learners and discover and pursue their passions.
Maybe a little better, but it's awkward with the multiple 'ands', and I still don't quite like the phrase 'better learners.' So then I'm reminded of another post where I reference something David Jakes wrote talking about culture, and I wonder if somehow my mission statement should try to talk about a culture of learning.
To help myself and those around me develop a culture of learning; one where we help each other discover and then pursue our passions.
In my suggestion for how we transform AHS (particularly junior and senior year, but also transitioning to and developing the culture for it in freshmen and sophomore years), the role of the teacher really does shift from "teaching" in the traditional way we've defined that to "learning, helping others learn and become better learners, and developing a culture of learning." Some teachers (perhaps many) will not initially (or perhaps ever) be comfortable with that definition or role but, in the end, it is the role that our students need us to fill. We need to make a decision, are schools designed to meet the needs of our students? Or not?

Clearly, there are many more details I could go into, including a suggested timeline for this transition (initial thinking, between two and five years), but I think this is probably enough to lay out the general idea and to get the conversation started. I look forward to having this discussion with the entire staff.

Karl

Monday, June 15, 2015

Idea #1: Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the first of hopefully several blog posts that will explore some of those ideas. Warning - this will be extremely long, somewhat rambly, and very narrative/descriptive.



Name of Administrator,

You asked me to think of some "big ideas" that could help Arapahoe improve and meet the needs of our students even more effectively than we currently do. A former administrator of ours used to refer to this as "taking it to the next level" (and the gaming culture refers to this as "leveling up"). While well intentioned, I grew to dislike that phrase over time because I felt like it was too ambiguous and was too often for "show" and not for "substance." It also implies that there is a "level" we are at that applies equally to all students, a one-size-fits-all approach that suggests there is one right way to meet the needs of all of our students. I, of course, disagree with that, both in theory and in practice. So as I began to think about your request I decided to frame it more in the context of educational "first principles" instead of "levels"or even "improvements."

As I began sketching out a few of those big ideas, I quickly realized that some ideas were bigger than others, which meant I had to make a decision: do I start with the smaller big ideas or the really big big ideas? Many folks would suggest that we should start with the smaller ones, because - while big - they are still much less threatening to the existing structure and therefore more likely to be adopted or at least partially adopted. But as I thought about first principles, I decided to take the alternate approach. We should start with some of the biggest ideas first, because so much of our system (both current and hopefully future) flows from some basic decisions (assumptions) that we've made and often don't even go back and question. That doesn't mean that any of the ideas that follow can't stand on their own or aren't worthwhile even if we don't adopt the biggest ideas, it just means we should do the hard work of tackling the biggest ideas first because they will not only have the biggest impact, but will shape all the other ideas to come.

I've written previously about mission statements and how I don't think ours is a very good one. I think the problem boils down to first principles, and that we haven't truly identified what our core values and goals are for our students (or even for ourselves as educators). Clearly it wouldn't make much sense for me to to try to identify those core values for our school by myself, so I'm not going to try to do that here. But as I thought about what I could suggest that might be one level of abstraction removed from those core values, I thought of three majors areas: our system/schedule, our curriculum, and our assessment/reporting system. All three of those are worth discussing in depth, but for this first idea at least I've decided to focus on the last one: our assessment/reporting system.

Here is my basic assertion, which I would suggest is a basic truth about our current system: When we have an assessment and reporting system for learning that undermines the learning, the reporting system is fatally flawed and needs to change. To me, so many of the "problems" I see with our current system, and probably the single biggest impediment to meaningful change, is grades. Specifically, letter grades, and especially because those letter grades are typically assigned by averaging percents across multiple discrete assignments over an arbitrary amount of time (a semester). We then compound that huge mistake by translating those letter grades into GPA (more averaging of discrete and unrelated items), and then use that GPA to establish a Class Rank for each and every one of our students. In my view, this is both morally and pedagogically indefensible and needs to stop. Which is why it's the first of the "big ideas" I think we should discuss as a school.

There are a myriad of different ways that grades (along with GPA and Class Rank) undermine the learning; I will mention just a few (although I'd be happy to go more in-depth on any of them if you'd like).

Ask any teacher at AHS in the last two weeks of the semester what is frustrating them the most, and one of the first things out of their mouth will be students asking what they can do to improve their grade. (We even have a name for this, "grade grubbing.") It's frustrating because the students are basically asking what they can do to get more "points" - the conversation is not at all about learning. As educators, we complain endlessly about this, but fail to acknowledge that we have created it. If we want the conversation to be about learning, we need to remove the whole idea of "points" and "letter grades."

The idea of assigning a percent to what a student knows on a particular assignment, and then averaging those percents over an arbitrary amount of time to come up with an overall grade, is indefensible mathematically, pedagogically, practically, and based on what we know about human development. If we value learning, if we value growth, if we value effort, then letter grades must go.

Our staff has been asked to read Dweck's Mindset this summer so we can discuss in the fall. The central tenet of the book is that by focusing on a growth mindset, you will maximize potential, growth and achievement. Our current system undermines that every chance it gets. As an example, take two hypothetical freshmen starting at AHS in English 9. The first student has struggled previously and starts the year unable to write a complete and coherent sentence. By the end of the semester, that student has made great strides and can now write a pretty good paragraph, but still hasn't managed to put four or five of those paragraphs together to write a good essay.

The second student has had many advantages over the years, including an affinity for reading and writing, a supportive home life that has provided not only the encouragement but the background knowledge necessary to be a successful reader and writer, the fine motor skills that allows the student to physically write fairly effortlessly, has had excellent teachers over the previous nine years of schooling, and has the "slack" in their life to be able to recover from any minor setbacks they may encounter. They begin the year already being able to write a terrific five-paragraph essay and, by the end of the semester, can still do that.

In our current system, the first student is likely to get a 'C' or a 'D', and the second student will get an 'A'. If we believe that all students can learn, if we believe that our role is to help students improve and get better, if we believe that a "growth mindset" is key to helping all students achieve their potential, then letter grades must go.

GPA and Class Rank have never made much sense to me, even when I was in high school and an active participant in the "race." I still remember my counselor, one of my teachers, and several of my friends who all strenuously argued with me about a couple of my class choices. We had a weighted GPA system, where courses that were designated "college prep" received extra points toward your GPA (5, 4, 3, 1) vs. "regular" courses (4, 3, 2, 1). (At AHS, of course, we do the same thing with AP Courses.)

The classes I chose to take were a Typing class and some Accounting classes. Because I chose to take these instead of "college prep" courses, it "lowered" my GPA relative to other high-achieving students and dropped my class rank. Those classes, of course, turned out to be some of the most useful classes for my adult life. Being able to "type" quickly and accurately has completely altered both my level of productivity and what I've been able to achieve as an adult. Those accounting classes allowed me to get a job in high school and college working at a credit union, which not only helped me pay for college but spurred a lifelong interest in financial matters. As I've pursued that interest, it has allowed me to be very successful financially compared to my earnings "peers", has allowed me to serve on district committees to help negotiate salary and benefits for all employees, and has allowed me to be elected a Trustee of PERA, helping oversee the accounts of more than 500,000 members and more than $44 Billion dollars in assets. Yet our system values those classes "less."

This hasn't changed. When I was a full-time math teacher and taught Honors Trig/Pre-Calc, I often had students in class who didn't seem to be very interested in mathematics or even to like it very much. When I asked them why they were taking an Honors Math class if they weren't interested in the field, the response was always the same: I need to take this so that I can take AP Calculus so that I can keep my GPA and Class Rank. When I asked if there were other classes they would rather be taking, they could easily name 5 or 6 without even thinking about it. Even though I'm not a full-time math teacher at present, I still hear student conversations every year around scheduling time talking about the classes they "have to take" in order to eventually get the weighed GPA that AP classes give them.

We need to ask ourselves what the purpose of GPA and Class Rank is. I really, truly don't see any valid purpose, but here's my understanding of what advocates say is the purpose. We need an easy way to rank and sort our students, to determine who is "better" and "worse" than other students. Because that's the way to identify who is "successful" and who is "not," the way to provide "feedback" and to hold teachers and students "accountable" and to "motivate" students to do their best, and, of course, to make it easier for college admissions officers. I would suggest that only that last one is actually true, and I don't think that should be one of our core values and goals. (Since I know college admissions will be a sticking point for some, I will point out that some of the most elite schools in the U.S. don't give letter grades and their students get into college just fine, and so do home school students. And, of course, I think college should be the goal of only some of our students, and probably a lot fewer than most people expect.)

One last example. The students who just finished their Freshmen year at Arapahoe are the Class of 2018. As you would expect, there were a wide variety of GPA's among our freshmen class, but I think most observers at a distance would consider a 3.5 GPA for a freshman to indicate a fairly decent outcome (our freshmen don't take AP classes, so this is out of a straight 4 point scale). The interesting thing, however, is that a student who just completed their freshmen year at AHS with a 3.5 would currently be ranked 230th in the class, with little or no hope of having that be significantly higher by the time they graduate.

Exactly how many of our students is class rank actually helping? I would argue that, at most, it's helping the top 10 to 20 students; and even for those students, given all the other pieces of their admissions portfolio, I would question whether the class rank is much of a factor at all. For the other 500 students in the class the class rank is either useless, or actually hurts their college admissions process. Which is why many high achieving high schools - even ones who would disagree with the rest of this big idea - have eliminated class rank. They've figured out that it actually does a disservice to their students (and that's not even including the philosophical reasons not to do it).

All of these problems exist, of course, even if we assume that our grading process is fair and accurate. As I've written before, it's not. So the obvious next question is, what should we do instead? How should we assess and report student learning? (Note that I chose student "learning" very carefully as opposed to student "achievement", I think they are two different things and our focus on "achievement" has been a big part of our problem.)

Again, this is something that needs to be a school-wide discussion and, to be perfectly clear, I do not think there is one right way to do this. But I have learned previously that sometimes it's helpful for folks to have at least one possible vision of what it could look like in order to get the conversation started. So here's my conversation starter.

I think we should radically alter our current assessment and reporting system. I think we should eliminate letter grades, GPA and Class Rank and replace them with assessment and reporting that is not only much more accurate, but much more meaningful to students, parents, employers and colleges. I don't want to wade too far into the details, but I will get into the weeds just a little bit to give you an idea.

I think we should focus on providing on-going, meaningful feedback for students first, and then reports to document that feedback second. Feedback for students is only meaningful if it's actionable; if students actually act on that feedback and use it to help them learn. Our current system of feedback is typically very poor at accomplishing this. Again, ask just about any teacher at AHS about what happens when they return a graded assignment, and most of them will bemoan the fact that students just look at the grade, ignore the feedback, and then throw the assignment away. Instead of bemoaning this fact, we should change the system that has created this behavior. Since research indicates that providing feedback to students without a grade attached is the most successful at accomplishing this (as compared to only letter grade, or even to letter grade and feedback), we should focus our efforts on providing accurate, timely and effective feedback. (As an aside, I think that would be an excellent focus for our staff development efforts over the next year or two.)

Once we have dedicated ourselves to providing accurate, timely and effective feedback to our students, how then do we "report" out student learning to students, parents and the community? I would suggest one of the best ways to do that is with narrative reports. Instead of the false sense of precision that a "78%" in the grade book seems to give us, let's provide thoughtful, meaningful reporting tailored to each student. At this point many teachers are immediately objecting about the amount of time this would take and, for some of them, how hard this would be to do for each student. So let's address both of those.

First, the time it takes to do this. I would suggest that providing meaningful feedback throughout the school year is something that is essential to what we do and something that we claim to do already. So while shifting away from "points" and "percents" to something more in-depth might take more time throughout the semester, it will increase student learning and isn't that our goal? I also think that at least some of that time will be recouped by the time saved not figuring out points and entering assignments in the grade book. Since we presumably want something in the grade book throughout the semester, to indicate progress and for things like eligibility, I would propose a system that looks something like this.

While grades could be (and should be) adjusted more frequently as teachers gather more information, teachers would be asked to, at a minimum, have updated grades in the grade book at 6, 12 and 18 weeks. (As another aside, and to forestall some objections, I would point out that this is how we used to do it, so it can certainly be done that way if we choose.) The "grades" we enter in the grade book would not be letter grades, but our professional judgement as to how the student is currently progressing. Again, the details would have to be discussed and decided on as a staff, but as a starting point I would suggest three designations (if you wanted it slightly more granular, you could divide it into four categories, but I would definitely not go any further than four):
  • Progressing
  • Partially Progressing
  • Not Adequately Progressing (yet)
There are at least three ways these grades could be reported. The simplest would be just one grade in the grade book that is the teacher's overall assessment of the student at that point in time. Many folks might be concerned about the potential complications of this, but I think we need to step up and own our assessment and reporting. Most educators have been complaining that we wished the public and our elected representatives would trust us more, would trust our professional judgement. Well, here is an opportunity to walk that walk. Instead of relying on the false precision of meaningless points and percentages, we need to know our students well enough to accurately assess their progress.

As an alternative, we could get a bit more granular with the reporting. I see two ways of breaking it down further, either into major themes of the course (what we used to refer to as "essential learnings") or even further into specific standards. If we decided on essential learnings, then each course would have between 2 and 5 categories in the grade book, one for each essential learning, and at the 6, 12 and 18-week mark would be responsible for updating those 2 to 5 "assignments" with the student's current progress (again, could be updated more frequently, but at a minimum).

If you wanted to get more granular still, you could break it down to the standards level, and assign the Progressing/Partially Progressing/Not Adequately Progressing (yet) grade to each standard. Personally, I think this is too far, not as helpful as the first two options, and is in danger of replicating many of the problems of our current system, but I wanted to include it because I think an argument can be made for it.

At the end of each semester teacher and students would jointly develop a narrative report to document their progress. This would replace the less-than-meaningful "report cards" we currently generate with something that is both more accurate and more useful. This would take a significant amount of time and effort, but I think it is both doable and worth doing. My suggestion for how to find the time to do this is simple: eliminate final exam week and parent/teacher conferences.

Final exam week seems to be in direct contradiction to what we say we believe in. If we believe all students can learn, that learning is a process that is never finished, and that our goal is to create lifelong learners, why would we pick an arbitrary time to give a "summative" assessment? The idea of giving a "final" exam to a teenager is ludicrous. (In fact, it's ludicrous no matter one's age, but especially so for a teenager.) We even have a saying prominently displayed in our cafeteria, "Not for school, but for life, we learn." If we believe that, then final exams must go. (Note that if teachers are doing on-going assessment really well, we are constantly giving assessments that are both formative and "summative" - in the sense that they are summative up to that point. Teachers can still choose to give a somewhat summative "exam" at the end of the semester if they wish, we just wouldn't dedicate four entire days to it.)

In addition to eliminating final exams, I would propose we eliminate (at least in our current form) parent/teacher conferences. In the fall we currently spend two nights and two school days (one in-service, one "comp" day) on this, and I think most folks would agree that the actual results are not worth the time. In this day and age, we can easily communicate with students and parents whenever we need to, not at some arbitrary time partway through the semester that fits well in our calendar. This includes meeting face-to-face if necessary, and without the artificial constraints of parent/teacher conferences (meeting in the gym with hundreds of other people, with a five-minute limit, and usually without the student present).

When you combine the four days sacrificed for final exams and the two days for parent/teacher conferences, that frees up six days for end of the semester assessment for conferencing without cutting instructional time. (Second semester is slightly more complicated because we do scheduling after final exams three of those days, but that can be addressed.) My initial proposal is that we designate each of those 6 days for one of our six periods. So the first day would be to meet with students in period 1, the second day in period 2, etc. (There are obviously some teachers that have MWF and a TR class the same period, but those details can be worked out, including the fact that most teachers have a period completely off - which translates to a conferencing day that is freed up. Lots of details, but all doable.)

Teachers would meet with each student for roughly 10 minutes and have individual conferences with them. This could be done in a variety of ways, but I think the two most likely approaches would be teachers and students jointly developing something written ahead of time and then discussing and finalizing, or simply writing up (or audio recording) the 10 minute conversation (or a combination of these two approaches, depending on teacher preference and what works best for the particular course). With the technology we have available (Google Docs and Drive for writing and/or storing of the audio, cell phones or computers to record and easily upload the audio to Drive and share), this process is very doable. (Since one-size does not fit all, there might be several variations on this based on what teachers think would work best in their course.)

Given our class sizes and the nature of these conversations, these would be long, intense days, and I think teachers would be both exhausted and not at their best if these were 6 back-to-back days. So my suggestion would be to use the Monday and Friday of the last three weeks of the semester for this. (Using this fall's schedule as just an example, that would mean conferencing days on November 30th, December 4th, 7th, 11th, 14th and 18th). That would spread out the days, allowing three school days or two weekend days in between the intense days. The schedule for the three school days in the middle of each week could be adjusted to provide equity between classes that meet on different days. (Again, details, but very doable. And, again, this is just one possible way to give folks an idea of how it could be done.)

That addresses the time to do it; the second concern I expect to hear is how hard this would be to do for each student. I agree, this would be difficult, but I think it's what we signed up to do. To paraphrase President Kennedy,
We choose to do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Because it is what's necessary to truly meet the needs of our students, to provide them the education they deserve and that we have promised them. It is a challenge we are no longer willing to postpone, but one that we willingly accept.
If we truly believe that meaningful feedback for our students is the only way to help them learn, to grow, to achieve their potential, to fulfill our mission, we will accept this challenge. I look forward to having this discussion with the entire staff.

Karl

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

In The Real World

"In the real world . . ." is a sentence starter you often hear in schools. In fact, I've said it many times myself. We need to stop.

Our students spend the better part of 13 years of their lives in K-12 education. This is their real world. The time our students spend with us is real. The experiences - the joy, the sadness, the learning, the relationships - those are all real. No matter how well-meaning we might be when using that phrase, we trivialize our students' lives when we use it. Their life in school is no less real than adults' lives outside of school. (And, as someone who has devoted their entire adult life to teaching, I've spent the better part of 40 years in K-12 school - it certainly seems pretty real to me.)

The phrase is typically used in one of two ways. It's either used to lecture students on how good they have it in school because, "in the real world," life would be tougher. Or it's used to justify some practice of ours, "you better get used to this because in the real world . . ." Both of these uses may indeed be well-intentioned but, in the end, they're manipulative. We use them because we don't have a good reason (or, at least, aren't willing to think long and deeply enough to articulate a good reason) for what we are doing. It's a crutch we rely on when we don't really want to answer a student's question.

I think we also abrogate our personal responsibility when we use this phrase. If our practices in school are different than practices "in the real world" (outside of school), why is that? Is there a good reason for it, or not? When we choose to be more "lenient" in school (typical use #1), there's hopefully a good reason for that practice. When we choose to operate in school in the same fashion as outside of school (typical use #2), there's hopefully a good reason for that as well. And we conveniently seem to forget who has created the "non-real" world of school: we have. So if the world "in school" is different, either in a positive or negative way, we need to own that.

As I've been writing this I've been thinking about the argument on the other side (which I pretty much do every time I write a blog post). As I've thought about it, I realize that maybe I've got it wrong, because here's a list of things that are true "in the real world."
  • In the real world, people don't spend 59 minutes discussing literature, have a bell ring, then spend 59 minutes discussing Algebra, have a bell ring, and then spend 59 minutes thinking about U.S. History.
  • In the real world, people don't have to ask permission to go to the bathroom.
  • In the real world, people are generally allowed to eat and drink as they work.
  • In the real world, if you forget something, you can generally go back and get it.
  • In the real world, people generally call each other by their first names.
  • In the real world, there are deadlines, but they often are not hard and fast, are often set by the person themselves, and they are not arbitrary.
  • In the real world, people are generally encouraged to work with each other; to collaborate, to discuss, to divide up tasks, to rely on each other's strengths.
  • In the real world, people are allowed (in fact, encouraged) to make use of whatever resources are available to them, whether that be a calculator, the Internet, books, or other people.
  • In the real world, there are often other people evaluating us but, day-to-day, it's our own self-evaluation of how we are doing that's most important.
  • In the real world, we often have to do things we don't particularly want to do, but we generally chose to engage in the activity requiring us to do those things.
  • In the real world, we usually choose what we read.
  • In the real world, there's rarely one right answer . . . and three wrong ones. 
  • In the real world, you're rarely assessed using a percentage, and more often using pass/fail. And even when it's pass/fail, you can usually attempt it as many times as you want.
So, maybe those folks on the other side are correct, school really isn't like the real world. And whose fault is that?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

This Week

This was my daughter's schedule at school this week.

Monday: Regular bell schedule, but she had MAP testing for two hours (no Math or Social Studies class)

Tuesday: School starts at 11:30 am due to mandated state ACT testing. Has each of her regular six Tuesday classes, each for 23 minutes. (Side note: Total passing period time is 25 minutes, or longer than any individual class.)

Wednesday: School starts at 12:06 pm due to PLC day and PARCC EOY testing. Has three of her regular Thursday classes, each 40 minutes.

Thursday: School starts at 11:05 am due to PARCC EOY testing. Has the other three of her regular Thursday classes, each 60 minutes.

Friday: Regular bell schedule, but she has tests for two hours, one in Science and one in Spanish.

Totals for the week:
Passing time: 70 minutes
Instructional time: 910 minutes
Testing time: 756 minutes
I wonder if she could've done something better this week?

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Teach This, Not That

I think I've made it pretty clear in previous postings that I'm not a fan of standardization, but I realize that most teachers don't have a lot of choice and are required to teach to certain standards. Given that, teachers still often make choices about which standards they cover (since there's never enough time to cover them all) and how in-depth they go on each standard. Since my daughter is currently taking Algebra, I'm helping a home-bound student some with Algebra, and I occasionally teach Algebra myself, I thought I would pick an example from Algebra for my first (and perhaps last) "teach this, not that" post.

I was recently helping that home-bound student with the polynomial unit in Algebra 1. She did some marginally interesting topics, but - since I get to cherry pick for this post - she also did an assignment that I'll excerpt below.

Here's a screenshot of some of the problems she had to do.

And here's a screenshot of the answers.

Later in the semester she'll get to explore exponential functions a bit, so we'll see what types of activities she gets to do for those, but one typical way they could explore exponential growth would be a compound interest type of problem.

Now, every teacher is different, but based on my experience, if an Algebra teacher has to choose one of these two things to cover in an Algebra 1 course, they often pick the first one. Why? Because polynomials seems to "fit" better in the Algebra 1 curriculum and exponential growth does not, and compound interest problems are often presented in a way that it's mostly just plugging numbers into a formula and computing an answer.

From my perspective, however, it should be exactly the opposite. There may be some reason why some people might want to know that a certain polynomial is a quartic trinomial, but I have to think that for most of our students that's not a particularly good use of their time. Compound growth, however, is something that could be life-changing for them and their families (credit cards, car loans, mortgages, savings accounts, investments - and that's just financial applications), yet even when we do teach it, we often teach it as simply "plug-n-chug."

Here are two problems that I think would be interesting for every high school student to explore (and probably most of the high school staff, for that matter).

(Please note that while the math in these examples works no matter what, the feasibility of these scenarios is much more likely in a middle class or higher household. Those happen to be the students I work with, but I understand and empathize with folks who might be frustrated with these examples because they work with students in poverty.)

Scenario 1: Save for your retirement . . . before you graduate from high school.

Many students in my school get a job in high school, often over the summer after their sophomore year. If they work full-time over the course of that summer, they could easily gross $3000. Now, being the teenagers that they are, they are most likely going to want to spend a fair amount of that money. And they should. But I would suggest that by exploring the mathematics a bit, they - and their parents - might also want to invest it.

So, if this were my daughter (we'll see if she chooses to get a job after her sophomore year or not), I'd suggest she invest at least a bit of that money in a Roth IRA. And then I would contribute the rest up to whatever her gross earnings were for the year (we'll say $3000 for this example). Here's why:
  1. She won't owe any income tax on that low of earnings, so even though Roth IRA contributions are "after tax" contributions, this would effectively be "no tax" contributions for her, and all earnings will be tax free.
  2. I would suggest she invest that money 100% in a low-cost equity index fund, reinvest dividends, and never touch it again until retirement. (No reason not to be 100% in equities for this type of investment and time horizon.)
  3. Current assumptions (which I think will change, but we'll go with it), is that a current 16-year old might retire at age 67 or so, so we're looking at a 50-year + investment horizon. What will $3000 grow to in those 50 years? And there's the exponential growth question.
So, what will $3000 grow to in 50 years? Well, to be sure, no one can answer that question, but we can estimate based on a lot of data from past experience. (This is assuming that the way economies and capital markets work will not dramatically change, which I think is perhaps not a good assumption, but for estimating purposes it's the best we've got.) Since 1930, the long term annualized return of the S&P 500 is about 9.7%. If our 16-year old would achieve that kind of return over 50 years, she'd have about $307,000 at retirement. Just from that one summer's investment. If she works after her junior and senior years and puts in an additional $3000 each summer, she'd be looking at over $900,000.

But since we're talking about 50 years, I think we should at least consider investing in riskier equities that - over time - are likely to achieve a higher return. Since 1930 Large Cap Value has returned 11.2%, Small Cap has returned 12.7%, and Small Cap Value has returned 14.4%. Now, most folks would look at that and say that certainly the amount she'd have in the end would be higher, but I'm not sure they'd realize how much higher.

For the $3000 investment, the total after 50 years for Large Cap Value would be over $600,000, for Small Cap would be over $1.1 million, and for Small Cap Value it would be over $2.5 million. For $9000 investment (3 summers), triple those numbers. Keep in mind, that's all tax free, and all with not contributing any money to her retirement account after graduating from high school. (With the assumption that even if tax laws change, they will grandfather in existing accounts.)

Of course now would be a good time to talk with our student about inflation, and how that $7.5 million ($9000 for 50 years in Small Cap Value) in 2067 won't buy the same amount as $7.5 million today. So let's assume an average annual inflation increase of 3.5%. Lots of interesting discussions to have here about how students could use that information to calculate the end result but, simply discounting our returns by that amount turns that $7.5 million into about $1.99 million in today's dollars, which translates to being able to spend about $80,000 a year - (today's dollars) using the 4% rule. Still pretty darn good, which is why I think this is a worthwhile scenario to explore with students and why I think this might be a better use of time than learning about quartic trinomials.

Scenario 2: Don't go to college . . . and retire much earlier.

Yes, it's provocative, but that's part of what makes it interesting. I've written before about our assumption that college is the default goal for our students, but let's look a bit closer at the mathematics.

Like most parents, I've paid attention to the tremendous increase in the cost of attending college. We also started saving for college even before we adopted our daughter, using a tax-advantaged 529 plan. We invested in Colorado's plan because, in addition to earnings and withdrawals being tax free, contributions are exempt from Colorado state taxes (which is like earning 4.63% right off the bat). Due to our diligent saving and investing, and the benefits of compound growth (even with 2008), we have about $120,000 set aside in our 529 for our daughter's college expenses.

Well, that sets up an interesting scenario for a problem about exponential growth. What if she didn't go to college and, instead, invested that money now (we'll take a tax hit since it's not being used for college, but I'm willing to cover that), immediately got a job that didn't require a college degree, and continued to add to that investment over the years? Lots and lots of messy details here, which is why it's such a good problem situation to work through with students, but let's look at a simplified version with lots of assumptions just to get the feel for it.

We'll use the same investment return information from Scenario 1, including investing in index funds with 100% in equities, since she's young and has a long investment horizon. We'll assume that she'll get a job paying at least $25,000 per year to start off with, and that each year she'll get a raise that's at least equal to inflation. We'll also assume that she'll be able to save and invest an additional $3000 each year. I realize that can be tough when she's starting at $25,000 per year, but that works out to a reasonable 12% of her income, and perhaps we'll let her live at home for the four years she would've been in college to help her start off. I'm going to make one more assumption, which is that she could retire comfortably on $40,000 per year. That's for just her, if she gets married she would obviously have additional income, additional investments, and additional expenses that would complicate it a bit; but as a family of three we are currently spending about that much (when you take away what we're saving for retirement), so I don't think it's an outrageous assumption for one person.

Well, the numbers are pretty interesting to play with, especially with the excellent FIRECalc tool. Lots of choices to make here as well, but on the first tab (Start Here) I put in $120,000 portfolio to start, with anticipated spending needs of $40,000 per year (today's dollars), and wanting it to last for 80 years (50 years after she retires). I left the second tab blank, meaning I'm assuming no social security or pension income (there probably would be some, but we'll leave it at 0 for now). On the third tab (Not Retired?), I put in a retirement year of 2045 (so that's assuming working for 30 years, starting now), and that she'll add $3000 to her portfolio each year (adjusted for inflation). For the fourth tab (Spending Models), I chose Bernicke's Reality Retirement Plan. The fifth tab (Portfolio), I adjusted to 100% equities. When I do all that, it gives me this. (You'll have to click submit if you follow that link to see the results page yourself, but here's some of the verbiage):
Following the "Reality Retirement Plan" as described by Ty Bernicke, withdrawals after age 55 are reduced by 2-3% per year until age 76.

Because you indicated a future retirement date (2045), the withdrawals won't start until that year. Your contributions will continue until then. The tested period is 30 years of preretirement plus 50 years of retirement, or 80 years.

FIRECalc looked at the 64 possible 80 year periods in the available data, starting with a portfolio of $120,000 and spending your specified amounts each year thereafter.

Here is how your portfolio would have fared in each of the 64 cycles. The lowest and highest portfolio balance throughout your retirement was $120,000 to $56,587,349, with an average of $15,925,319. (Note: values are in terms of the dollars as of the beginning of the retirement period for each cycle.)

For our purposes, failure means the portfolio was depleted before the end of the 80 years. FIRECalc found that 0 cycles failed, for a success rate of 100.0%.
You really should explore FIRECalc some more but, based on a lot of baked-in (but not half-baked) assumptions, it tells me that for the 64 possible 80 year periods that the historical data supports, not once would she have run out of money (and usually would leave quite an estate). Note that has her retiring at the age of 48 and living until 98. (If you want to change it to constant spending power instead of Bernicke's Reality, then you still have an 81.3% success rate. But working just 3 more years, so retiring at 51, would have had a 100% success rate.) Keep in mind all of this is assuming no pension or social security income, which you definitely would have if you worked for 30+ years. After playing around, you can even discover that she could retire in 2036 - so at age 39 - with a 97% chance of success (and with 59 years of retirement, and usually a sizable estate). So, at an age when some college graduates are still paying off their college loans, she could be retired. Provocative enough?

FIRECalc even lets you download a spreadsheet based on your inputs that you could analyze with students to examine (and perhaps manipulate) the formulas. Again, I would suggest this is not only more interesting than quartic trinomials mathematically, but also practically for students. And, of course, there's nothing preventing our student from doing both Scenario 1 and Scenario 2.

That's just two examples. Lots and lots more you could do with debt (credit cards, car loans, mortgages), governmental policy (budget, entitlements, social security, medicare), and on and on and on. But I don't know anyone that really does, because there's always one more standard we need to cover, and students just might get asked to name a quartic trinomial on some test sometime. It's probably a good thing, though, since we wouldn't want our students to be financially independent and able to retire before we can, would we?

Friday, April 03, 2015

Mission Impossible

My school, like many schools and other organizations, has a mission statement. I can't tell you what it is. This despite the fact that we've had it for just over seven years now and I - along with the entire staff that was here at the time - helped create it. While I haven't done a scientific survey, I feel fairly confident in saying that if you asked five random staff members at my school what our mission statement is, there's a pretty good chance none of them would be able to tell you. And I feel even more confident that if you asked five random students at my school, they wouldn't know either. Which means it's mission impossible.

That doesn't mean I don't generally like what's in our mission statement (and, for that matter, our longer vision statement). You can read them here (pdf). I do want students to achieve their potential, collaborate and be life-long learners, and contribute to society. The problem is that when you have a mission statement that no one knows, and that has generic statements like that, it ends up being pretty meaningless. I've written about this previously, talking about core values and whether students can articulate the vision, but clearly it's still bothering me. I'd like something that's meaningful, and that we can post in each and every classroom so that each day, students and teachers could refer to it. Any student would be able - and expected - to ask, how is what we are learning today going to help fulfill our mission? And if the teacher doesn't have a good answer, then they should stop teaching it. Similarly, every teacher would be able - and expected - to ask the same of what students were doing with their time.

So I was feeling all good and outraged, but then I asked myself, "What's my mission statement?" Uh-oh. I don't have a good answer for that, even though it's something I've thought about. Some of the Language Arts teachers at my school do an activity with students called "What's Your Sentence?," based on an idea in Daniel Pink's Drive. In the past, they've put out an email to staff asking for their sentence that they can share with students, and I always star it in my email and stare at it for a week before feeling guilty and not replying. This will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog, but my problem is that I can't figure out just one sentence that captures it for me.

I usually start with a sentence something like this:
To help those around me become more passionate learners.
But then I start picking at it. Shouldn't I include myself in there? But that makes the sentence awkward.
To help myself, and those around me, become a more passionate learner.
And learner about what? Do I really want them to become a more passionate learner about something that isn't meaningful for them? Say, perhaps, our somewhat arbitrary curriculum? And so I try something like,
To help those around me discover and pursue their passions.
But then that doesn't explicitly mention learning, and becoming a better learner. And it leaves out "myself" again. So then I try something like,
To help myself and those around me discover and pursue their passions by becoming more passionate learners.
or perhaps
To help myself and those around me discover and pursue their passions by becoming better learners.
Yuck. It's about now that I remember why I was better suited to teach mathematics than language arts, and then I dial back my outrage (at least a little) about my school's mission statement. So I try changing the order,
To help myself and those around me become better learners and discover and pursue their passions.
Maybe a little better, but it's awkward with the multiple 'ands', and I still don't quite like the phrase 'better learners.' So then I'm reminded of another post where I reference something David Jakes wrote talking about culture, and I wonder if somehow my mission statement should try to talk about a culture of learning.
To help myself and those around me develop a culture of learning; one where we help each other discover and then pursue our passions.
Getting closer, but I'm still not sure I can really do it in one sentence. But when I start adding sentences, it gets too involved and less clear. So does that mean it's "mission impossible" for me as well? If I can't articulate what I'm trying to accomplish, what my purpose is, does that mean that I'm doomed to fail? Maybe.

What about your school's mission statement? Or your sentence? Do you have something straightforward and meaningful that your school - and you - can rally around? I'm obviously still struggling with my own, but I think for those of us working in schools, it's something important to talk about. And, even if we don't come up with one perfect sentence or one perfect mission statement, I think we should be willing to post what we do have in each and every one of our learning spaces, and ask our students to hold us just as accountable as we hold them.