Making Math Count

I can’t say exactly when I got off track with math, but it may have been the year I had to relearn long division after a hot summer of just being a happy kid and thinking no math thoughts at all.

It wasn’t until I had to take college statistics that I lost my “math phobia.” Portland State University math department legends, Mildred Bennett and her teammate, Ethel Lawrence, were ahead of their time with their highly effective teaching methods and student support.

Since that epiphanic time in my statistics classes, I have marveled at the importance and utility of mathematics in everyday life, from the complex economic models that determine the prime rate, to the use of algebra to solve fence-building problems. (I confess that I still don’t understand calculus, but I’m working on it — slowly.)

Today, over a half century after my difficulties with math, we still have students who struggle. The November issue of Educational Leadership is devoted to math education. Naturally, my favorite article is “Nine Ways to Catch Kids Up.” Access is free, along with some other great math pieces, so check it out.

Help someone catch up today!

Cross-posted on Straight Talk 13NOV2007

What’s "Fair"?

In a recent discussion with another teacher, I asserted that homework should be evaluated, but that evaluation, whether in the form of a letter or a percentage, should not be included in a report card grade if the purpose of the homework was to reinforce classroom learning (as in “formative assessment”).

Then the teacher asked what they should do if the student decided that, because the homework mark didn’t “count,” he or she would not turn in their homework.

In the case above, most teachers would try to control the errant student with punitive grading: a zero, perhaps, for non-performance, and then averaging the zero along with the letter or percentage items that determine the report card grade. The teacher I was speaking with thought that zero was the only option.

I said, “No, it’s not the only option. Stick with the principle of not adding homework evaluation to report card grades (summative evaluation).”

He said, “Then I should just let them skip homework.”

“No,” I said, “let’s back up a second.”

I asked if we could agree that homework should be thoughtfully assigned by the teacher, and the purpose of the homework should be to reinforce knowledge or skills taught in the classroom, and not assigned without consideration of the fact that students actually have a life in addition to school.

Yes, we could agree on quality homework.

Next, I asked if he would want to pursue every student who didn’t do any homework assignment. He said he would, because otherwise it wasn’t fair to the other students.

“Suppose,” I asked, “that the student in question has an A in the class and doesn’t need to do the homework?”

“Well,” he said, “it just wouldn’t be fair to the other students if I let that one go.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, it just wouldn’t,” he said.

“Can we talk about ‘Fair’?” I asked. “There’s two ways of looking at ‘Fair.'”

“Okay,” he said.

“First,” I said, “‘Fair’ has nothing to do with anything. With regard to that particular student’s achievement, it’s all between the state standards, that student, and you. Other students don’t figure into the equation. Remember, we’re criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced, right?”


“Second, and this is the way I prefer to think of it, ‘Fairness is not treating all students the same. Fairness is meeting each student at their level of need.’ So we consider each student, each case, one at a time, isolated from all the others.”

“Besides,” I said, “most well performing students are doing their homework anyway, and if they miss an assignment, there’s usually a pretty good reason. You’re a teacher, not a cop, so let it go.”

“If you’re concerned about the student who chooses to ignore homework because they may fail or perform poorly in the course without the practice, then you need to find a way to support them, and that takes some investigation into the reasons they are not doing the homework, as well as an enlightened administration that will provide before and after school, and lunch-time opportunities for students to have homework supervision and help.”

“Okay,” he said, “I get it. I’m a teacher not a cop. And I’m concerned with the value of what the homework produces for the student, not the process of making sure every kid does it or else. Homework is generally formative assessment, for practice, so it doesn’t go into the report card grade. If a student who doesn’t need the practice misses a homework assignment, I don’t need to sweat it, but if a student who needs the practice misses, I find a way to help him or her get it done.”

“Right,” I said. “And besides, in all the years that I’ve observed those homework policies, I’ve never seen kids try to take advantage of me. The ones who will do it on their own, do it. If it’s late, there’s usually a good reason and it comes in later. If they’re not going to do it, you have an opportunity to support them. And I’ve never seen that mythical stack of late papers on my desk at the end of a marking period.”

Never. Honest.

Brain-based What?

Over on What It’s Like On the Inside, The Science Goddess is aptly referencing the Broadway musical Young Frankenstein in her discussion of “brain-based learning strategies.” You have to read her post for yourself and pay special attention to her links that will lead you to a short rant about the similarities between brain-based and butt-based learning strategies authored by Professor Plum, who may or may not still be stirring up the edublogosphere.

Maybe the reason I enjoyed her post so much is because I’ve always struggled with what to call my favorite focus (brain potential) on teaching and learning strategies (in addition to “grading for learning”). After all, we weren’t born with brain-use instruction manuals attached to our big toes…

I finally decided, after considerable deliberation over the years, to go my own way, depart from popular education research reporting, and call all the “stuff” under the heading “brain-based” by somewhat different names, to whit, “brain-friendly teaching strategies,” and “brain-friendly learning strategies.” My students could deal with that and so could their parents.

To be perfectly frank, my students and I never put much time into brain physiology, which seems to be an obligatory preface to discussing (and practicing) brain potential for learning, but in the end, useless.

What the brain can do is what lights up my Christmas tree. My students and I had lots of conversations about learning potential being virtually infinite, and old age being no barrier to continued learning (thank you, God). And, at the beginning of the school year, I promised to share with them ways to access this incredible potential.

Tomorrow, I’ll share the difference between the instructional and learning techniques, and some of those techniques that helped my students harness their own brainpower. It’s not your ordinary, everyday classroom stuff. Two of the ideas I’ll highlight helped me get a 4.0 in graduate school, without a brain transplant or any increase in I.Q.

I’ll include some references in case anyone is curious about how to maximize their students’ achievement potential by applying some of these concepts.

Educational Technology That Works…

…is the title of a promising wiki (like I know so much about wikis, novice that I am) that is devoted to classroom instruction integrated with Web 2.0 (about which I’m still learning).

I’m excited for several reasons.

Marzano’s work — featured on the wiki — recognizes the convergence of education research and he emphasizes the practical application of the research.

This wiki may be a good model for the experimental Edubloggers wiki.

And most interesting of all, this wiki is an electronic version of six publications (plastic comb flip-books) that were put out by our district curriculum and instruction department back in 2000 to remind teachers of the main things to remember about the instructional strategies we were then beginning to promote: differentiated instruction; individualized instruction; cooperative learning; brain-based research applied to learning and instruction; multiple intelligence theory application; and assessment literacy (Stiggins, et al).

Those little books were fantastic — they are collector’s items now (for the geeks among us, anyway), but they were expensive and time consuming to produce. The wiki takes the place of all that and even spreads the joy of contributing around to whomever is willing and qualified.

All this discovery is total fun!

Best Website on the Internet for Interdisciplinary Folk

Our friends at the Education Policy Blog have reviewed, a resource you’ll want to get acquainted with. Rather than repeat what they’ve said, check out the treats for yourself.

Education Policy Blog: Best Website on the Internet for Interdisciplinary Folk

Unfortunately, the EPB link doesn’t work for Bookforum, but this one will.

Auspicious Beginnings…

The family’s back home safely (if you consider home to be in two widely spaced geographic locations), charged up with coffee, and back to work. Wife’s at school and my favorite guide is on a three-day trip on the River in the Canyon.

My first clue that this would be a good year was when the supe came in the door of the commons area of one of our high schools where he and the board were hosting the New Teachers’ Luncheon and introduction to us last Wednesday. He said, as we shook hands, “you’re going to like what I have to say.”

The luncheon included all the new teachers, and their principals and vice principals (33 schools). I sat at my old middle school’s newbie table, one of two for that school. The supe and the rest of the board got there after I did, and by that time the TOSAs (Teachers On Special Assignment, i.e., admin training) had created a “special” table for dignitaries, but I stayed with my home school newbies. They need to know what happens to teachers who retire and want to keep their oars in the water.

The supe was the featured speaker, and he is good. Short, to the point, but funny and comfortable. Based on what he said when he came in the door, I’m thinking, good, he’s going to emphasize exemplary instruction and talk about our district goals for the classroom.

Well, I was right about that, but he went on to give the new teachers a heads up that we are moving toward cleaning up secondary grading and he quoted a bunch of Ken O’Connor’s main points on good grading practices, while confessing that he himself had committed every grading atrocity known to teachers, but that if we were going to maximize our instructional effectiveness, we had to get grading and reporting under control.

This has been coming for a long time, and I was joyful. We are finally actively moving to fill in the missing piece from the research on student achievement

BTW, We’re not looking to duplicate elementary level rubric/anecdotal report cards, but rather make our As, Bs, and Cs reflective of actual student achievement relative to standards. Until higher education has more sophisticated achievement data processing capability, high schools are pretty much stuck with the alphabet (but we can sure make it more meaningful!).

The supe also let the newbies know that they would encounter policies in their school handbooks that are contrary to his grading suggestions. Then he said, “So buck the system!”

He totally galvanized the audience — literally. You could see new teachers startle in their seats, then laugh and applaud.

Monday, ETS/ATI grading conference info was distributed to the troops, so our district may break some ETS/ATI attendance records. We already have 20 spots reserved for secondary principals and VPs. Board members are making separate reservations so that they can get up to speed for the policy amendments they will need to make in the future so the newbies are no longer “bucking the system.”

2nd Annual Conference on Sound Grading Practices

Educational Testing Service/Assessment Training Institute is holding the premiere international conference on standards-based grading December 6-7, 2007.

The continuation of this conference is a sure indicator that grading for learning has hit critical mass, and I’m way happy to say that our district will be well represented.

I’ll be doing a couple of breakout sessions (those will be listed later) and I’d very much enjoy meeting any of you who can persuade your district to send you. At the risk of sounding like an old-time sales dog, “Last year was a sellout, so talk to your administrator today.”

Don’t Worry, We’ll Make It!

The best of plans can run into rough water, but the deep pool coming up next is calm and has good fishing.

The wiki kick off has been revised and will not require so much attention that principal’s will be shaking their collective heads saying, “So that’s where my star teacher lingered instead of getting ready for the first days of school!”

We anticipate many different conversations on different education topics. Not everyone of us burns with the same enthusiasm for each of them, so appearances at all gatherings are not expected.

If you’re an edublogger with an interest in instructional improvement and you’re curious about what grading has do with it, speak up here and maybe join the conversation.

From this point RepairKit may reference the Edubloggers wiki occasionally, but my blogs on “grading for learning” will be independent. I’ll be looking for you on both sides! 😉

New Wiki In Town! 2

Here’s an update on our wiki…

First, participants discussed wiki goals, use, and format. Then Eric edited and finalized the Front Page that outlines where we are at this point.

We’ll begin our exploration of standards-based grading with a warm up wherein we analyze a couple of grading situations that made major metro papers. In SBG Warm Up Draft 1, we’ll look at the articles separately, comment on each of them, then compare the situations and draw some conclusions about what’s being described in the articles. (Articles are on this page.)

Standards-Based Grading, or SBG from here on, is also known as “grading linked to standards,” and “grading for learning.” (Thanks to Exhausted Intern for the new term and three-letter acronym!)

The end goal is to produce a document or series of wiki pages that can 1) serve as a primer for educators new to SBG, 2) facilitate a quick review for educators who have been exposed to the concepts, 3) be a training tool for professional development sessions.

This topic is red hot and ready to roll.

New Wiki In Town!

Eric Turner of Second Hand Thoughts has been hard at work constructing a wiki for edubloggers to share and polish thoughts about the education topics near and dear to their hearts.

While poking around in Eric’s new construction zone, I came upon the above image. It’s from Eric and it pretty well sums up the aim of the new wiki.

Any more conversation/ideas about how it’s going to work? Let’s hear from you!

Eric’s my choice for ad hoc wiki foreman at least till it’s up and running. How does that sound?