Monday, August 22, 2011

One Week to Go

So here we are in the latter half of August with September bearing down on us with all speed.  It's been lovely having the last few weeks off.  I've been able to visit family and friends in Chicago, do some sightseeing, a lot of cooking, cleaning, and spending time with the dog.  I've also been able to see friends in the area and read for pleasure.  Of course there have been wasted hours of watching dumb movies and playing games, but we're all human, right?

I made my triumphant return to Wrigley Field to see my Cubs beat the Reds, cheered heartily at the return of the NFL season and learned to run the dog ragged with a frisbee.  I haven't had too many good photo shoots, but some new software gave me the long awaited opportunity to turn a bunch of old shots into good panoramas.  If you'd like to see the results, I've added the album here.



But, as I mentioned at the start, September is just around the corner, and with it, the return of graduate coursework.  This fall I am enrolled in four classes: Pedagogy of History, Fundamentals of Teaching, American Legal History, and British Medieval History.  Although I am admittedly less than thrilled to be returning to homework, it will be good to be making forward process again.  In particular I am excited about the British course because I have not studied that period at all, neither formally nor independently.  I'm equally excited by the Pedagogy of History course, because, let's be honest, that's the primary skill set I hope to improve through this Master's program.

Before those courses even begin I embark on an even more exciting journey, the beginning of my student-teaching.  That's right, next week I begin heading down the street to the high school and observing the local history department.  Typically I will be spending two days a week in the high school observing, and likely helping out here and there, but next week I will be observing almost the whole week to get a good grasp on how the school year starts from a faculty perspective and start to establish my role with the students.

I am unbelievably excited for that to get underway.  Finally, after years of thinking about it, thinking about what I'll do and who I'll be, I will start acting.  It is worth reflecting that the point of this blog is to record my mistakes and the lessons learned through them.  That means that in just one week, I'll be in position to start filling it up.  Yep, one week til the mistakes inevitably start.  Let's all just hope and pray that the lessons are learned and acted on shortly thereafter.

Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Vacation Reading

Well, I've managed to once again not write here for long enough that I feel a bit guilty about it.  Job well done Greg...

For the last month and a half I have been positively swamped by my courses and am finally enjoying some time to breath upon their completion.  It was great to get a chance to spend five weeks meeting my colleagues, discussing, studying and debating concepts of education, and building the first tools for use in classrooms come this fall.  Still, I'm happy it is vacation time.

I am actually currently in Chicago with my wife visiting my old stomping grounds, friends, and even playing tourist in the city for a while.  It is wonderful to get back here and see so many friendly faces, not to mention all of the excellent food and fun.  Had lunch at Lou Malnati's yesterday, and I'm still experiencing that warm, happy, full feeling that only the best Chicago deep dish can provide.  Good times.

Perhaps the best part of all this free time, though, is the opportunity to read for my own pleasure.  Most recently I read David Egger's Zeitoun and am now making my way through David McCullough's extraordinary biography, John Adams.  For those of you who have not read either book, I strongly recommend them both.  Although they are both non-fiction, they are both written with a strong narrative voice and are eminently readable.  Just yesterday I was struck by a common thread in the two books.  Zeitoun follows the story of a Muslim American family in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina.  It is a phenomenal depiction of the possibilities inherent in America and the problems that arise in a crisis for which nobody has prepared.  Sadly, one of the main themes of the book is the overlap between America's post-9/11 institutionalized racial paranoia and the FEMA-organized response to maintaining law and order in the flooded city.

As a counterpoint to this story of panic and unchecked law "enforcement" I was struck by a quotation from John Adams during his famous defense of the British soldiers who had fired upon the crowd in Boston in the incident immortalized as the Boston Massacre.  Adams posited that, "it's of more importance to community, that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished."  This statement rang true to me on every level and raises so many questions that I was immediately swept into a revery of how I could teach from it.

Of course, as I've alluded, my immediate tie was to the panic response in New Orleans that led to so many wrongful arrests.  But to draw out the string farther, Adams' quote can be seen as an argument against shadowy military tribunals in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the reactionary policies in the Patriot Act and the historical Alien and Sedition Acts, and even debates over such topics as civil rights and the death penalty.  What a wonderful debate could be had over whether the prime goal of the judicial system is to punish the potentially guilty or protect the potentially innocent!  What lessons could be learned by considering the same question in the light of the court of public opinion, especially the junk media.

As is often the case when reading the writings of America's Founding Fathers, I am inspired by this one line, this one thought.  I hope that I can hold onto it and challenge my classes to consider its implications through history and their own lives.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Lesson #1: Agenda

Happy Canada Day!

It has been a while since I've written, but I have a decent excuse: I started my program!  My current courses are Adolescent Psychology, Foundation of Education, and Modern American History from a Global Context.  All are interesting, but with the term only lasting five weeks, it is a lot of work in a short amount of time.  So, I've been reading nearly 750 pages a week and have plenty of writing to do as well.  In fact, as soon as I finish this post I'll be going back to reading "Taking Haiti" by Mary Renda.

This is not why I am writing today, though.  I am excited to say that for the first time, I will be using this blog for its original intended purpose!!!  I have made a mistake and learned a lesson.  Huzzah.

This past week I was asked to facilitate part of my Foundations of Education course in cooperation with a couple of my classmates.  We took it very seriously and created a thorough lesson plan that addressed several key aspects from the readings.  We provided a variety of different activities to address the class as a whole, in small groups an individually.  We implemented various methods of teaching to convey messages to different types of learners.  I don't want to hurt my arm patting myself on the back, but I think we did a pretty darn good job for a first attempt.

So, where was my mistake, you say?  Right at the beginning.  At the start of the class we dove right into our first activity.  From there we continued straight through without a hitch.  The problem?  We never gave the students an idea of the plan that we had worked out so carefully.  We did not give a schedule for the day or any sense of our expectation for the flow of the conversation.  Essentially, we gave the students all of the meat, but no skeleton to hang it on.

Henceforth, I will remember to put together a simple slide or write an agenda on the board at the beginning of class.  It should not be so detailed that there is no room for adjustment to flow, but it is beneficial to at the very least demonstrate to the students that you do have a plan.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Definition of Statistics

Environment
  1. Budget Factor (BF) - Comparative level of school budget to state average.  This factor is based on an average school budget within the state equaling 1.00 and the percentage difference moving above and below that mark.  For example, a school budget that is 50% higher than the state average will score a 1.50, a school budget that is 27% below the state average will score a 0.73.
  2. Professional Development BF (PDBF) - Comparative level of professional development budget within the school to the state average.  The scale for PDBF is identical to BF but reflects only the portion of the budget that is earmarked for the professional development of faculty members.
  3. Socioeconomic Factor (SEF) - Comparative level of average family income in the district the state average.  This factor is scored on the same scale as BF and PDBF, but the data is drawn from the census data, not the school budget.
  4. Community Education Factor (CEF) - Comparative level of average highest degree earned in the district the state average.  This factor is a composite of three scales.  The city/district is compared to the state average for highest educational attainment as a percentage of population.  The three measures will be high school diploma, bachelor's degree, and professional degree.  These three will be placed on the 1.00 rating scale and then totaled as such: (2*HS+Bachelors+Professional)/4.  The High School diploma statistic is double to reflect the added importance of having reached that level as a minimum.
  5. Staff Ratio (SR) - Ratio of teaching to non-teaching staff members in the school. This measure is intended to show the level of administrative support that may be available within a school.  The assumption is that a high level of non-teaching staff will result in less pressure on the teachers outside the classroom.  As with the rest in the Environment category, it will be measured on a 1.00 scale in comparison to the state average.
  6. Student - Faculty Ration (SFR) - Ratio of students to teaching staff members in the school.  Measured on the same 1.00 scale as above with the basis as the state average.
 Each of the environmental factors is based on a scale starting at 0.00, with the state average being 1.00.  This means that the majority of numbers will end up somewhere near 1.00 and the sum of each factor would average 6.00.   As the environment is serving as a factor to the total equation, a number below 1.00 (the final sum is divided by 6 to show the overall average environmental factor) will increase the final teacher's score and a number above 1.00 would decrease it.  The goal of this section is to boost the statistics of a teacher working without significant school and/or community resources to assist and slightly deflate the scores of a teacher who has all of the benefits or a full budget and dedicated community.

Experience
  1. Years Teaching (YT) – Number of years the teacher has spent actually teaching in the classroom.
  2. Years in Related Field (YR) – Number of years the teacher has spent involved in their field outside of direct teaching (research, professional experience, etc.).
  3. Courses Taught (CT)Number of actual courses taught, not just length of time teaching them.
  4. Years in Courses Taught (YCT) – YT/CT – Designed to show the amount of career time dedicated to each subject.  The supposition with this statistic is that the greater amount of time spent in each course will reflect a higher level of preparation and experience, specific to that course.
Experience is one of the most important factors for a good teacher.  No course can teach a teacher as much as one year in front of the students.  However, the experience factors are designed to be weighted against the Classroom Engagement and Academic Success areas.  This is intended to try to reflect that experience, while important, is of little importance without results.

Classroom Engagement
  1. Course Drops (CD) – Percentage of students in class that drop the course after the first day.  This percentage will be simply converted to a whole number.  For example, if 6% of the students drop the class, the CD will be 6.  While some drops are appropriate, an inordinately high number is a cause for concern and should be addressed.
  2. Disciplinary Referrals (DR) – Percentage of class that receives disciplinary referrals (detention, principal’s office, etc.) due to disruptive behavior in the classroom.  It is important that this number be a percentage and not a cumulative of referrals, as one bad apple should not be allowed to spoil the bunch.  However, a teacher who is giving out disciplinary referrals widely is not gaining nor keeping the respect and attention of the students.  As with CD, DR will be a conversion of a percentage to a whole number.
It is unfortunate that these are the only two measures of classroom engagement available and they are both negative.  Yet, without an effective method of calculating exactly how engaged students are with the lessons, these will have to do.  This area leaves the most to be pondered for future improvement and innovation.

Academic Success
  1. Standardized Test Results (STR) – The average scores of the teacher’s classes on related standardized testing.  The trickiness with STR is choosing which test to base the results on.  My opinion is to go with the closest approximation available.  Most states are required to test at each grade level in each subject due to the requirements of NCLB.  Regardless of the issues that I, and many others, have with the efficacy of standardized testing, they are the best single method of measuring the amount of relevant knowledge that each student has acquired.  Until someone can design a standard method of measuring critical thinking and problem-solving within various disciplines, the standardized test will reign supreme.  STR will be displayed in the form of the environmental factors (the average test score is 1.00 with variation from the norm reflected above and below that scale).  The teacher's score will reflect his or her's class average.  This does raise the issue of different scores in different classes, and it would be worth building a slightly simplified formula to measure teachers in relation to their efficacy within specific topics.
  2. Matriculation Rate (MR) – The success rate at moving students on to the next grade level at the completion of the year.  Aside from testing, the primary bar to measure a teacher's success is how many of their students pass the course.  Therefore a percentage passing rate will be multiplied by 10, making a 100% pass rate a 10.0 and a 78% pass rate a 7.8.
  3. Preparation Rate (PR) – Percentage of students who fail the subsequent course.  Unfortunately, MR can be significantly impacted by teachers whose goal is simply to pass along students who have not actually learned the material.  To this end, it is important to measure the success of the students in the next course year.  This will show, in conjunction with the data points, the full preparation that the student received from year to year.  It is risky to measure a teacher on the subsequent teacher's influence, but a school is a community and responsibility for the students' futures must be shared by all.  Like MR, this rate will be measured on a 10.0 scale reflecting the percent matriculating on from the subsequent course.
  4. College Enrollment Rate (CER) – Percentage of students who go on to enroll in post-secondary education.  Long term preparation is the ultimate goal of any teacher and any school.  This measure, also on a ten point scale, will show the first half of this academic preparation.
  5. College Graduation Rate (CGR) – Percentage of students who obtain a post-secondary degree.  CGR is the second half of the measure of long-term preparation that CER starts.  It will be measured on the same 10.0 scale.

Continuing Education
  1. Bachelor’s Degree (BD) – Recognition for holding a Bachelor’s degree in a related field.  Value of 1.
  2. Master’s Degree (MD) – Recognition for holding a Master’s degree in a related field.  Value of 1.
  3. Doctoral Degree (DD) – Recognition for holding a Doctoral degree in a related field.  Value of 1.
  4. Professional Degree (PD) – Recognition for holding a Professional degree in a related field.  Value of 1.
  5. Continuing Courses Taken (CCT) – Number of related courses taken, outside of degree requirements.  Value of 1 per full credit course take.
 The value of an educated teacher is high.  More time spent formally studying the subject matter typically results in higher understanding and more examples to convey knowledge to the students.  However, there is a threshold to useful knowledge.  A Bachelors degree gives the strong base of knowledge needed to be a K-12 teacher, while a Masters can help boost an area of expertise.  However, a doctorate or professional degree (JD, MD, etc.) will likely only provide details that are above the skill level of even the most ambitious of high school classes.  So, these higher degrees are weighted less in the actual formula.  What is most important is that a teacher continue to learn, so each continuing education course completed is awarded a full point.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

W.A.S.T. Continued

Well, it certainly has been a while since I last wrote here and it is good to be back at it. I'd like to thank those of you who gave me input on my last entry, it has really helped with my thought process.

I did run into some confusion and think that this would be a good opportunity to explain exactly what I am trying to do.

First, this is an intellectual endeavor. I am not trying to create a tool to be used to identify bad teachers. Rather, I'm hoping to explore and understand the difficulties inherent in trying to differentiate between good and bad teachers with the available tools to do so.

Second, I am attempting to frame this work as a "real world" exercise. In other words, I am only using tools and statistics that are readily available and relatively standardized across the nation. This means that there are some areas that may be very helpful in evaluating teachers (class participation rates, student satisfaction surveys, etc.) that are either unmeasurable or non-standardized to the point that they are not a useful metric. I fully intend to take some time later in the exercise to review what seems to be missing and discuss what could be done to improve upon current metrics.

Third, while my goal is to create a formula, such as the one found below, the exact values can only be determined through lengthy statistical input from a wide variety of sources. As the formula grows and adjusts, I welcome anyone interested to send me the relevant data for teachers in their experience to begin compiling a database that could be used to test the efficacy of the formula. Any current or former teachers who'd like to self-evaluate, please do, your reactions would be priceless.

Moving on, the response to my initial list of statistics was strong. TT (Time as Teacher) seems to be the most contentious as it is the most related to style and so I am omitting it from calculations for now. STR, on the other hand, was universally considered a top priority, but there are some issues with standardization. I have, at this point, decided to simply recommend that STR reflect the results of the most applicable standardized test for that teacher's grade level and subject. To adjust for wildly different scoring scales, STR will itself be a composite reflecting the variation above or below the test average. Definitions of the metrics can be found in the next post.

Finally, I was repeatedly pushed to consider that a teacher cannot be measured independent of their environment. In other words, a good teacher may be hindered by a tough school/community and vice versa. Therefore, I have developed a number of factors that attempt to reflect the environment in which a teacher works. I consider these factors to influence the composite score of each of the previous for areas (Experience, Classroom Engagement, Academic Success, and Continuing Education). The Environmental factors are:

Budget Factor (BF) - Comparative level of school budget to state average.
Professional Development BF (PDBF) - Comparative level of professional development budget within the school to the state average.
Socioeconomic Factor (SEF) - Comparative level of average family income in the district the state average.
Community Education Factor (CEF) - Comparative level of average highest degree earned in the district the state average.
Staff Ratio (SR) - Ratio of teaching to non-teaching staff members in the school.
Student - Faculty Ration (SFR) - Ratio of students to teaching staff members in the school.

Each factor will be based on a calculation that places the state average at 1.0. This will eventually result in a compound formula where the environmental factors will be found as factors to the whole equation, leaving the numerator as a useful tool to consider teacher scores independent of the environment. An example of how the formula may end up looking is this:

The next post will explore how each of these, and the previous list of factors could be mathematically defined.

Monday, May 9, 2011

W.A.R., Part 2, Building a Stats List

In developing WAST (Wins Above Substitute Teacher), it is important to remember that WAR (baseball’s Wins Above Replacement) is a composite statistic. This means that it isn’t a simple matter of measuring one area of performance and calling that the whole picture. Imagine the uproar we could cause in the baseball community if we established that the only viable statistic to judge a player is the number of triples he hit. You’d have an awful lot of slow power hitters chasing you. But, at least you’ve pissed off the slow ones and have a shot at escaping…

Anyways! In order to develop an accurate WAST we need to take the same composite approach. To do this, however, we first have to develop a set of statistics that can be used to show some aspect of teacher performance.

I have begun a list of statistics below, but need help. Please suggest whatever statistics you would use to measure a teacher in the comments field. Keep in mind, though, a good statistic must be measurable and replicable. Weighting of various stats will be debated once the list is created.

The list below is a list of ideas, not my personal feelings on what are appropriate statistics or not, that discussion can come later.

Experience
Years Teaching (YT) – Number of years the teacher has spent actually teaching in the classroom.
Years in Related Field (YR) – Number of years the teacher has spent involved in their field outside of direct teaching (research, professional experience, etc.).
Courses Taught (CT) – Number of actual courses taught, not just length of time teaching them.
Years in Courses Taught (YCT) – CT/YT – Designed to show the amount of career time dedicated to each subject.

Classroom Engagement
Course Drops (CD) – Percentage of students in class that drop the course after the first day.
Disciplinary Referrals (DR) – Percentage of class that receives disciplinary referrals (detention, principal’s office, etc.) due to disruptive behavior in the classroom.
Time as Teacher (TT) – Percentage of class days that are spent watching movies, documentaries, or other multimedia that allows the teacher to disengage.

Academic Success
Standardized Test Results (STR) – The average scores of the teacher’s classes on related standardized testing.
Matriculation Rate (MR) – The average success rate at moving students on to the next grade level at the completion of the year.
Preparation Rate (PR) – Percentage of students who fail the subsequent course.
College Enrollment Rate (CER) – Percentage of students who go on to enroll in post-secondary education.
College Graduation Rate (CGR) – Percentage of students who obtain a post-secondary degree.

Continuing Education
Bachelor’s Degree (BD) – Recognition for holding a Bachelor’s degree in a related field.
Master’s Degree (MD) – Recognition for holding a Master’s degree in a related field.
Doctoral Degree (DD) – Recognition for holding a Doctoral degree in a related field.
Professional Degree (PD) – Recognition for holding a Professional degree in a related field.
Continuing Courses Taken (CCT) – Number of related courses taken, outside of degree requirements.

That is my list so far, I’m sure there’s a lot more to add. Please send me your suggestions and comments!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Wins Above Replacement, Part 1

What makes you the best?

It is incredible how difficult that simple question is.

For many professions, the answer does seem simple. The best businessmen make the most money. The best lawyers win the most cases. The best engineers produce the simplest, most cost-effective solutions. For nearly any profession, the best are rewarded with the best contracts, the best opportunities, the most fame. Of course, there really is no profession that works quite as hard at identifying and rewarding the best than professional sports. In particular, professional baseball.

Baseball is the statistician’s dream. Every little action in baseball is calculated, quantified, accumulated, averaged, and dissected. I guess there’s something to be said for a sport that not only provides sample sizes so huge that margins of error diminish to negligence (who else plays a game almost half of the days of the calendar year?) but also provides so frequent pauses in the action that you literally have nothing better to do than math? Scoring a baseball game during the actual event is a time honored tradition passed down from father to son for generations. When was the last time you saw a young boy at a basketball or football stadium calculating the results of each play? But I digress…

In the world of baseball statistics, there are calculations of nearly every action taken on, and sometimes even off of the field. Yet, the sole point of all of these statistics, all of the innumerable hours of calculating, are designed to answer one simple question: who is the best? ERA (Earned Run Average) tells you which pitcher is able to give up the least runs, certainly a useful skill for the guy holding the ball at the start of each play. But, is a pitcher really that good if he has to rely on amazing defensive plays by those around him to keep everyone from scoring? We look to DICE (Defense-Independent Component ERA) to show how well the pitcher pitches without the help of his teammates. Still, a pitcher that gets a lot of double plays is a pitcher that can get a ground ball in the right situation, and that’s got to be a valuable skill, right? So, why don’t we compare that pitcher to all the other pitchers in the league who’ve benefited or been hindered by the unique dimensions and quirks of a certain ballpark or league? No problem! Just use ERA+. And this is only a few of the stats kept on one of 10 baseball positions (9 in the National League, of course)!

With all this, there is one statistic that stands out to me above all others. WAR. Huh? Yeah. Good god, ya’ll, what is it good for? Well, it is good for trying to measure one player against the imaginary guy who could take his job at any minute. WAR, or Wins Against Replacement, is essentially a statistic that pits your real flesh and blood player’s statistics against a fictitious “replacement.” This statistical chimera is given a set of statistics considered to be slightly below average for a big league player, and then, through the magic of fuzzy math, you find out if your real life player is helping your team to win more games or less than some bum you just pulled out of the minors would.

What a fascinating concept! Could you imagine it being applied to any other field? I have to say that there is a small part of me that would love to slip into Dunder Mifflin and explain to Dwight that his attitude is costing his company six sales per season over the other employee they could’ve hired. Something tells me this wouldn’t sit too well on the Schrute Beet Farm.

Fortunately for us all, there really aren’t those kind of statistics out there. We don’t necessarily have the data to say to a teacher, “Your replacement would have brought three less students all the way to graduation, congrats!” But for discussion’s sake, the question of how we could ever measure that is valid. Shoot, in today’s political climate, it seems to be more important than ever to prove that a teacher is doing their job “above replacement.”

So, this is the beginning of a series of discussions about, essentially, creating a WAR for teachers, and how to stay on the positive end of the results. What statistics could be used? Where can teachers be measured, and what measurement is desirable? Are the best teachers like pornography, or can we actually find a way to define it before we see it? How do you measure the best teacher, and more importantly, how do you live up to those measurements.

A good baseball player will go to his batting coach and take some extra practice swings when he sees his batting average turn south. Is there a tool, or tools out there, that can warn a teacher when they’re off their game? Is there a teaching cage to go to for practice? Is there a coach in the wings?

This is what I want to know: what makes the “best” teacher? How do I get there? How do I stay there once I do? How can I help others along the same path?