Online classroom could replace 'snow days'

Online classroom could replace 'snow days': "In Kentucky and Ohio, the states' education departments are working on creating an online school program for use during snow days, reports Cindy Kranz for the Cincinnati Enquirer. In Ohio, the state has already launched a pilot project to provide online assignments to snowbound students as a way to satisfy the requirements of a school day. In Kentucky, the education department is planning its own pilot program, as early as next year, asking the districts in eastern and central Kentucky that often miss up to three weeks of school due to inclement weather, to participate.

For rural students, treacherous or impassable roads often close schools for extended periods of time. Online classwork could help reduce the number of snow days, but not before a number of hurdles have been cleared, including lack of home Internet access for many children. Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said superintendents with high numbers of snow days would prefer that students not have the big gap in learning that snow days create. But they have to be able to reach all of the kids. 'It's not impossible, but we don't have in many of those counties the Web-based infrastructure to pull it off right now,' said Hughes.

Teachers must have five days of lesson plans prepared ahead of time that are appropriate to the course of study. 'We want these lessons to be directly related to what is being emphasized instructionally at the time of the calamity day and aligning these in the short time frame we have when the weather is bad is problematic,'' said Greg Power, director of curriculum and instruction for the Little Miami School District in Ohio. (Read more)"

Online classes could replace more than just snow days in rural areas. Distance learning labs are already very effective. Would seem to be a viable option in the era of the New Normal.

Rural Retaining

I just posted about recruiting teachers in rural districts.

Here is just another article about the same topic- this time focused on the difficulty of keeping math teachers in high-poverty areas.
Some school districts have resorted to recruiting math teachers from overseas, while others have offered perks such as signing bonuses, housing assistance and student loan forgiveness.
Hmmm...never had an offer like that as an English teacher...

A Framework for Understanding Poverty

Just a few words today on a great book.  Ruby Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty is a really worthy read whether you are a teacher or not.  It is certainly worth the read if you are in any form of human services.

About five years ago, my district focused on poverty for the entire year's professional development.  Teachers who were around for The Poverty Conference still talk about it.  It still influences how they go about their day here in a district with more than 40% free and reduced lunches.

Dr. Payne's chapters are Definitions and Resources, The Role of Language and Story, Hidden Rules Among Classes, Characteristics of Generational Poverty, Role Models and Emotional Resources, Support Systems, Discipline, Instruction and Improving Achievement, and Creating Relationships.

The best section was the chapter on hidden rules.  She breaks down simply (chart form simple) the differences between poverty, middle class and upper class when it comes to things like possessions, money, education, family structure and more.  It's a really nice comparison; things this white kid from the suburbs hadn't really considered before.

We also talk a lot about generational poverty here (as compared to temporary situational poverty).  In many cases, that's exactly what we are dealing with: matriarchal family structure, fate, polarized thinking, living in the moment.

And like the proper handbook it is, each chapter wraps up with implications for schools.

Love this book. It informs what I do and how I think about things around here.


Busy day today with catching up on grading and heading off to a track meet. Thought I'd share a few covers from the past week or so.

It started with the Newsweek story and cover.

Then two other publications shot back. New York Teacher with this...

And, normally above the fray, Educational Leadership dropped this one...

Primary Class Size

I've been thinking about the cuts that are going on everywhere.  Wall Street didn't generate the tax receipts New York is accustomed to, The Gov has decided his last act is going to be a slash-and-burn fix of the State budget.  And, icing on the cake, the area is seeing declining enrollment.  So...cuts. Cuts to programs, cuts to staffing. The cuts have to be so deep that districts have even asked teachers to open their contracts up. The teachers blame the district and the State for fiscal mismanagement. The district and the newspapers blame 'those damn teachers.'  Everyone claims they have the students' best interests in mind.

Long rant to make my point I suppose.  But at the least class size is going to increase. Let's say districts find away to get coverage for all existing classes. Let's say the budget passes with sports included.  Class size is still going to increase.  So how much will that affect students?  Will the changes negatively impact them? 

Here, here, here and here are summary reports on the research that has been done.  Most of the research is actually more that a decade old. Some goes back as far as the 1970s.  I didn't see much recent research. I figure 1) the research already done was very thorough, especially Tennessee's STAR and 2) class sizes steadily declined during the Roaring 2000s- class size wasn't much of an issue.

This is what I learned...
  • Class size reduction (CSR) at the earliest grades (K-3) raises student achievement.
  • The results for CSR are most clear at the K-1 levels, less so at the 2-3 levels.
  • Class sizes should fall as low as 13-17 students per class, certainly below 20.
  • CSR for 2 or more consecutive years will have the most lasting effects.
  • Minorities and low-income students benefit the most.
  • Adding aides has no positive effect.
  • CSR may be expensive upfront. Really important right now.
I still wonder...
  • What effect will early CSR have on secondary education?
  • What would CSR do if implemented at the secondary level?
  • How much the researchers took teacher quality into account?  Would better teachers influence the results?
I'm not sure how much I've answered my own questions that started this post.  What my limited research has done is reinforce my belief that the earliest interventions are the best.  The sooner you address potential issues, the easier things are going to be for all parties involved. 

Recruiting in Rural Schools

One year, a new Technology teacher taught for a week in September. Over the first weekend, he called the school to say that his grade book was on his desk, he was not returning.

More than a few times, a teacher who was supposed to start in September decided to teach somewhere late August.

One year I was asked to teach Spanish (I'm an ELA teacher by the way).

At one point, my sophomores had had five Spanish teachers in three years. Five.

Foreign Language teachers are among the hardest to staff and keep. There are just so few around and are in such demand, they can have their pick of assignments.  Why should or would a teacher "fresh out of grad school" settle on any backwater district?

Here's a story from the other end of the country about staffing advanced science teachers.  Up here, about an hour away is a major university and the State capital- there is no shortage of well-paying civil service jobs, especially for scientists and lab rats.  Why deal with the high school classroom and public education salary schedule when there is that option?

The New York State School Board Association conducts an annual survey of teacher contracts. The average starting salary for teacher with a Master's is $45,876. The low (read upstate, rural) is $30,676. The high (read downstate, suburban) this year was $64, 319. That's an amazing starting salary to me. I have 11 years in; I would have to work another three or four to come close to $64,000. I might be going on 40 years old and making what some 24-year-old is making!

So what's the answer to recruiting in rural schools? Sell the benefits.  I have smaller classes making it easier to innovate and root out individual issues.  I have less administration looking over my shoulder giving me true academic freedom.  I teach in a community where the school is the center piece.  The town really puts great energy into all things school.  And the view can be incredible- my drive to school passes three lakes in the state forest preserve; I can literally swim, fish or kayak from the front parking lot or be at a trail head in minutes to bike or hike.

Alternative Paths to the Classroom

Our Board of Regents recently approved programs for prospective teachers to get their Masters. Our new Commissioner is the former Dean of Hunter College School of Education as "is best known for his leadership of the national effort to transform teacher preparation and improve teacher quality." In one of his first speeches to the State, he said his and the Regents' focus would be on remaking teacher prep colleges and the requirements to be met for hopeful teachers here in New York.  So, the news from the Board really shouldn't come as a surprise.

Here's the part of the story that makes me pause:
Teacher education programs are infamous for overemphasizing gobbledegooky theory rather than useful knowledge and skills.
Newbie instructors too often emerge from ed school stuffed with the ideas of everyone from Thomas Dewey to Brazilian Marxist theorist Paulo Freire (author of "Pedagogy of the Oppressed") - but clueless about how to help kids learn.
I understand the drive to practical skills. Heck, I've hosted student teachers who could quote researchers and literature going back a hundred or more years, but couldn't manage a classroom if his degree depended on it.  There should be a way to make teaching about teaching more practical. I've heard the idea of making prospective teachers more like medical interns a few times- longer period of training under the direct watch of some sort of mentor.  My own training in Albany was more practical than theoretical. I had tons of hours of field experience before student teaching, and my Methods professor refused to answer some of our more abstract questions, forcing us to figure them out in real time.

But I hope we don't lose the theory and history.  Understanding the history of public schools matters when you are trying to figure out why you shouldn't always lecture the large group.  Understanding the developmental psychology of students of different ages matter when you are creating projects and asking them to focus for X number of minutes at a time. Reading theorists and historians forces a candidate to think.  Teaching is a thoughtful, scholarly vocation. No one method is ever going to always work.  We should constantly be figuring out how to do better, to build on what the past as taught us.  That starts with names like Dewey and Freire and Bloom and Maslow.

Teachers shouldn't be just practitioners.  The best teachers think and reflect and research and experiment and share their findings and, of course, manage a classroom as well.

Rural Dropout Factories

EdWeek ran a piece recently that doesn't get much air time: the rural schools with dropout issues.  I've always said that we have just as many problems as urban districts, but often we have fewer resources.  I think we also get overlooked because out populations are so much smaller.  From a sheer numbers point of view it seems to make sense.  Go solve the problems in areas with the densest populations and you've truly made a difference.  But imagine how great a difference you could make directing resources to the smaller districts.

There are 2,000 high schools in the U.S. that are "dropout factories." 400 of those are rural. I was curious about the similarities between these schools and my own.  The town in one example has "a convenience store, a dollar store, three churches and a gas station." Check. "We have generational poverty, a lack of aspirations." Check. An online credit-recovery program similar to our TAC, Alt High and strong CTE programs- check, check and check. Hmmm...

The generational poverty is a hard one to overcome; certainly will take at least a full generation of hard efforts to improve.  The lack of aspiration certainly goes hand-in-hand.  A child is raised in uneducated poverty with a mindset that this is enough.  There is no city center nearby as an example of striving and achieving. There are no or few older relatives who are in college or in a white-collar profession.  Getting by is enough. It is certainly evident in school- C and B grades are ok; losing sports teams are ok.

The alternative paths to a degree are easy to put in place if the district is willing to dedicate staff.  An Alt High program and a TAC program each need staffing.  CTE at BOCES is available but expensive.  Making these options available shrinks class size significantly- occasionally too small to justify other classes (good-bye electives, anyone?). The scary thought is the cycle this could start: the school caters to the neediest, inadvertently neglecting the "top" students. The top students' families find better placements leaving behind a proportionally more needy population...

The dropout factories are focusing on the graduation rate (which is actually cohort-based).  This is so hard to overcome. For example, a district that could potentially graduate 70 students, each student who falls short changes the graduation rate by 1.5%.  In this example if only eight of the 70 students find alternative paths to graduation- a fifth year, a GED, an IEP cert- the school's graduation rate falls below 90%.

So what are some ways to turn around and prevent this much dropout?  At least one school is using a Practice Guide from the What Works Clearing House at ED.   How does my schools stack up to what works? They recommend six things: utilizing data, assigning adult advocates, academic support and enrichment, improve student behavior and social skills, personalize the learning environment and engage the students with rigor and relevance. If we talk about explicit efforts, I give us a B. We use data, especially at the lower levels where intervention is critical. We "hot list" out at-risk students with mentor teachers. We definitely provide academic support even if we're lacking on enrichment.

Our learning environment is very personalized currently- class size at the HS is well under 20 and for a small school we have many offerings. But that is all changing.  And we are getting better at raising the levels of rigor and relevance (I know, I ran the HS session on this topic). Our faculty is getting better and differentiating instruction, using PBL and thinking differently about assessments.

Overall, we don't qualify as a dropout factory per se, although we do share a lot of traits.  The trend in the past few years here has been more pro-education, but let's see what the affect the much smaller budget will have.