“Send in the Drones” – My Anti-establishment Lyrics

My district mandates explicit direct instruction (“EDI”) as our sole instructional method.  While I applaud their desire to help all students, especially our underserved, low socioeconomic status students, their decision supplants a teacher’s unique, passionate pedagogy for a cookie cutter, “show and tell” instructional method, one that relegates teaching to a “paint by the numbers” task.

I have no issue with direct instruction, explicit or not.  It is the essence of teaching at some point in a lesson, which may stretch over multiple days.  I do have an issue with a heavy-handed “do as I say” approach to anything required of a professional, such as deciding on the most appropriate instructional method, when it is apparent that the mandated method does not universally apply across all classrooms, courses, or students.

The components of EDI are benign, and include:

  • Checking for understanding
  • Setting lesson objectives
  • Activating prior knowledge
  • Developing students’ skills by explaining, modeling, and demonstrating
  • Presenting content
  • Using guided practice

Like most things in life, these components are harmless taken a piece at a time.  The nefarious aspect is the insistence that these steps be followed in very specific ways, which while simplifying the observers task, does not necessarily suit the needs of students in the moment.  It cripples a teacher’s freedom to determine situationally relevant pedagogy based on their experience and expertise.

The district’s approach constrains and demotivates teachers rather than empowers and supports them. Mandating a single teaching method (EDI) harms our students far more than it helps them. Mandating EDI as the sole instructional method for a diverse student population:

1) Keeps education firmly cemented in a 19th- and 20th century factory production model versus a 21st century creative and collaborative problem solving model;

2) Institutionalizes lowest common denominator thinking / deficit thinking;

3) Acculturates students to view learning as a “training” expectation (you show me then I do) rather than a “thinking” model (I consider how to approach what you asked me to do then consult with peers and mentors for support);

4) Hinders the development of our gifted and talented students (they are not challenged in most, if not all, of their courses until they hit AP – we are failing our best and brightest students);

5) Forces students ill-equipped for certain courses to attempt work far outside of their zone of proximal development (ZPD) – we are failing our most needy students; and

6) Constrains a teacher’s professional judgment to a one-size fits all model of instruction, which benefits the observation process more than it benefits students.

Heaven help us.  And forgive me Stephen Sondheim.

Send in the Drones

Isn’t it rich, loving pair-share                                                                                                       Me here at last teaching – while you’ve been nowhere                                                         Send in the drones

Isn’t it bliss, all of these moves                                                                                                   One who keeps looking around – and one who can’t approve                                               But where are the drones – send in the drones

Just when I stopped – can’t be a volunteer                                                                           Finally finding the one that I wanted – was not even here                                             Making my opening again with my usual flair                                                                       So sure of my points – then sorry, no APK there

Don’t you love a farce; I think, I fear                                                                                           I thought that you’d want what I want – so sorry my dear                                                   But where are the drones? There ought to be drones                                                         Maybe next year.

Isn’t it rich, isn’t it queer                                                                                                       Losing my timing this late in my career                                                                                     But where are the drones – send in the drones                                                                     Don’t bother, they’re here.

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Trapped in an Echo Chamber

Student outcomes in honors precalculus first semester significantly exceeded those from last year while my AP Calculus AB cohort is on track, once again, to blow out the national average pass rate on the AP Exam.  Yet, my reputation continues to be maligned within select parent cliques in my school’s extended community.  Ironically, within these circles, my ability to improve students’ mathematical proficiency, and understanding, seems to matter less than perceptions of me.  I say this as a collection of anecdotes and factoids, interspersed among select facts, continues to circulate well past the expiry date of any truth and its associated resolutions.

While I have a contributing role in the events leading to this situation, and in hindsight could have done several things better, my past and ongoing adjustments, accommodations, supports, and outreach efforts unfortunately fail to quell the spread of my maligned reputation.  Like a wildfire roaring up the windward side of a mountain draw, my name sets off a frenzy of fear.  In fact, a few parents of middle school students with two to three years to go before they could possibly take honors precalculus recently expressed dissatisfaction that their child would be required to take my course if they wished to take AP Calculus BC.

Stunned, pained, and saddened by the unfortunate turn of events this past semester in honors precalculus, I continue to teach the course to the utmost of my ability.  In so doing, I recall that last year’s honors precalculus teacher left our school after suffering a similar treatment for two years.  In fact, in hindsight, I recall their emotionally devastated state after the first semester.  Unfortunately, in my depleted state teaching two courses per section, I did not have the energy, or time, to check in with my coworker as to the reasons for the parental disdain.  Naively, I even volunteered to teach the honors precalculus course this year, excited for the opportunity.

For whatever reason, it is as if my school’s community must have a scapegoat for the travails of their children as the youngest of them experience true setbacks for the first time in their lives.  Buttressing this belief, parents in my home neighborhood hold startlingly similar views towards our neighborhood high school’s honors precalculus teacher, and other teachers throughout the school; this school ranks quite high in the nation academically.

In both schools, it is primarily the social elite who harbor these beliefs.  Yet, they are very vocal and spread their perceptions to those who will listen irrespective of the validity of the information they share.  Admittedly, it is difficult to determine fact from fiction when it comes to complex social experiences, especially when there are snippets of truth sown in the perceptions.  Nonetheless, I believe these misguided attempts create more harm than good as they are only one side of the story, often distorted through the lens of overstressed students.  Ironically, parents are frequently the source of the immense pressure children feel as parents expect their children to achieve at the highest levels in nearly every subject often while juggling sports and other extracurricular activities.  Students often struggle to meet the expectations of their parents.  Yet, it is easier for both the child and the parent to blame someone else, such as a teacher, especially if the teacher deviates in the slightest from what students experienced in prior coursework.

As such, parents of younger high school students may need to consider that not all sophomores may be emotionally ready for the rigor of an honors precalculus course, especially those whose sole experience in mathematics consists of “memorize and repeat.” Also, in my course, for more than a few students, their level of prerequisite skill and understanding fell far below that needed to succeed in the course.

While I taught an accelerated algebra 1 course to rising freshman this past summer with similar rigor, and an emphasis on problem solving and reasoning, the smaller class size, coupled with the lengthy five hour days we spent learning together, may have helped these younger students cope with the demands.  And unlike my honors precalculus students, these students could drop the course if they felt unable to keep up.  Lastly, as the students came from three different middle schools, their parents were unlikely to have the opportunity to compare notes about their child’s struggles in the course in such a fashion to convince themselves their children’s struggles were not with the course content, its accelerated nature, or the increased rigor emphasized in the mathematics practices of Common Core.

Unfortunately, with close to 100 students initially this fall semester, spread over three courses, and three grade levels (sophomore, junior, and senior), I was unable to manage their difficulties with the increased rigor of the content and mathematical practices, or more specifically, their perceptions thereof.

Notwithstanding the ongoing emotional distress I feel, I continue to hold students to high expectations with content standards and mathematical practices, such as problem solving and reasoning, as well as procedural fluency.  I believe nearly every student, if they remain engaged in this honors precalculus course, will learn more mathematics, more deeply, and more meaningfully than they likely ever envisioned possible.

At the same time, I am not immune to a system’s need to remain at equilibrium.  My present challenge emanates from this natural phenomenon.

Nonetheless, I hope to elevate the systemic equilibrium state in honors precalculus much as I accomplished with AP Calculus AB, where the AP Exam pass rate before I arrived hovered at 30% and students were ill-prepared for the rigor of AP Calculus; last year, the AP Exam rate broke 82%.  While varying my multi-pronged pedagogical approach with supports galore, it took three years to arrive at a place recognizable to parents and students alike as worthy of the effort of all parties.  I suspect a similar period may be necessary in honors precalculus although a shorter period would be best for all.

In closing, for those that follow my blog, or know me, I am a second-career mathematics teacher on fire to teach our nation’s students, from any and all socioeconomic stations.

With over 25 years in high-tech, mostly in the wireless and GPS industries, my technical and business experience provides me with a solid foundation of content knowledge and skill with innumerable applications of mathematics to share with students.  My passion for teaching, and my pedagogical methods, increased considerably while I obtained my teaching credential and masters at one of our nation’s finest universities.  Its emphasis on social justice, equity, and access to an outstanding education for all aligned well with my desire to teach.  Their progressive philosophies rounded out the sharp corners in much of my highly traditional views and experiences with education, especially in mathematics.

My desire to teach is so strong, I left a lucrative career behind, took on over $50,000 in debt in student loans, and committed myself to learning as much as I could about teaching, which is an amazingly vast and complex field.  In short, teaching was not a low-risk, low-cost, retire in place position for me.

At the same time, I likely would not have selected this new career had I known the enormity of the challenges placed upon teachers from so many directions and sources.  Similar to the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back, if the pressures these parents generate in their social echo chambers continues to be directed towards me, I am not sure if I will be capable of sustaining my motivation, drive, and passion.  There is only so much negativity one can sustain in public service where the financial paybacks are small, the financial sacrifices are great, and the time we have on this planet is limited.

Peace.

Posted in Mathematical Proficiency, Pedagogy | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

An Algorithm for Assigning End-of-Semester Letter Grades

Assigning mandated end-of-semester letter grades to students is non-trivial. [1]  I refuse to constrain myself to a simple, cumulative percent score that automatically sets my students’ grades.  In my opinion, the accuracy as well as the precision implied in many quantitatively represented scores grossly misrepresents reality.  Furthermore, uncertainty abounds in assessments as in life.  Our role as educator requires a holistic approach to assessment.  No student is a number, and no number defines a student. [2]  Yet, chained to the perceived objectivity of quantitatively defined measures, teachers do their best to assign grades reflective of student mastery.

As an example, to honor my students’ efforts over the entire semester, I employ aspects of the following algorithm when determining their final grade.

Grading Algorithm - Single Slide

I say “aspects” as, depending upon the course or academic year, I alter the category weights and/or the inputs to the decision-making process where I select a maximum, overall percentage score.  Nonetheless, this diagram faithfully embodies the spirit of my end-of-course grading algorithm where I reward students for their content understanding and proficiency, even if it takes them the entirety of the semester to develop said understanding and proficiency.  This algorithm also accommodates the chaos ever present in a large collection of souls.

However, an unfortunate artifact of implementing this process with our district’s grade book software sets the stage for potential confusion.  When a student logs in to see their latest course grade, which is the subject of a future post, the software displays the overall arithmetic percentage it computes (see “in progress % score” in the figure) directly underneath the letter grade I assign, where the two may not align in my grading scale. [3] However, the letter grade never falls below its corresponding percentage score. [4]

Also, note that this process includes conditional logic, which most grade book software does not support, at least in a straightforward manner.  Hence, there is the need for a “human-in-the-loop,” which opens the door to cries of subjectivity.  Yet, with only one parental complaint and one separate, student complaint in nearly one thousand semester grades assigned to date, it seems to serve its design objectives quite nicely.  Both complaints arose last semester regarding my honors precalculus course.  [5, 6]

What process do you use to assign letter grades to your students?  Does your district permit the use of standards-based grading without requiring the use of letter grades?  How subjective are you in assigning final letter grades?  Does the use of an online portal to your grade book that is accessible by students and parents alike help or harm assessment and/or student efforts?  How long does it take you to assign a letter grade per student?

END NOTES

[1] My grading preference strays far from the traditional use of A through F letter grades to that of standards-based grading with its richer, more meaningful representation of student mastery learning.  However, my district utilizes a letter grade scale constraining my ideals.

[2] Unfortunately, in the name of objectivity, efficiency, and for a host of other reasons, a quantitative scale, interpreted as sacrosanct, too often solely defines student self-efficacy thereby overly influencing his/her future outcomes.  The fidelity and/or validity of the scale, measure, or data are rarely questioned.

[3] While I must assign letter grades, I have the freedom to define the relationship between a percentage score range and a letter grade. In so doing, I replace the district’s traditional ten-percentage points per letter grade scale with my own fifteen-percentage point scale, as shown below.

Grade Scale

I input the first two columns into the grade book software as a lookup table representing a teacher-defined grading scale.

[4] Last semester, informational dissonance from this misalignment descended upon three-fourths of the students in my three honors precalculus courses.  To offset its effect, I notified students via an explanatory email.

[5] One parent this past semester expressed extreme displeasure with the “subjectivity” implied in my grading algorithm where I allow myself to bump a student up to the next letter grade designation if they are within three percentage points of a cut score, which may simply be from a C- to a C, as an example, with no impact on the student’s GPA.  The parent went so far as to complain to my administration presenting a double-bind scenario where I might discriminate against his/her child by misapplying my process.  This person seemingly places their full faith and trust in a computed number, irrespective of the subjectivity inherent in scoring individual assignments, over that of the professional judgement of a teacher.

[6] Only one student complained about their grade.  However, his/her issue was not the misalignment per se.  As they retook the course solely to improve their grade point average, and unfortunately scored at a similar letter grade range (“-” to “+”) they wanted me to bump them up to the next highest letter grade.  I refused since in the process of assigning their final grade, I discounted their assignment score, which would have brought their “in-progress” / grade book computed percent score to a lower score than I assigned.

Posted in Assessments, Mathematical Proficiency | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments