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February, 2010:

Firing Teachers is not the Answer

The firing of all of the teachers Central Falls High School in Rhode Island has really upset me. It bothers me a great deal because I think it is a sham. The stated reason for the firing was that the teachers wouldn’t spend more time with students without being compensated for the time.

Would more time doing the same thing the teachers are currently doing make a difference in student achievement? I don’t think it would. I agree some teachers should be fired. Perhaps the personnel director who hired the teachers and oversaw their evaluations should be fired. If the superintendent has been employed more than three or four years, perhaps he or she should be fired.

Firing the entire teaching staff is not an acceptable action. This problem has gone on for some time and no one has provided the leadership for the school staff to improve the school. The superintendent should be ashamed of himself for his lack of leadership. The community has to take a hard look at the system to see what has been done to provide training and support for the teachers to improve. What changes in scheduling, class size, discipline, curriculum and instructional strategies have been implemented? What leadership has the superintendent provided to help the students?

In my mind the firing is a ploy to force the teachers to comply with the administration’s wishes for a longer school day. However, as I said earlier, more time using the same instructional strategies will produce little or no improvement. It looks bold, makes the news, and accomplishes nothing.

I recently had the pleasure to visit a middle school with an 80% free and reduced lunch rate. 80% means that the student population is economically poor. Typically, students in a school with an 80% free and reduced lunch count would be underachievers.

When the new principal took over the school she realized that significant changes needed to be made to improve student achievement. The students were spending as much time in PE, art, and music and they were spending in mathematics, reading and English. She increased the class time for the academic areas by 50%. At the same time she knew that more instructional time alone would not solve the problem.

The principal decided that one third (30 minutes of a 90 minute period) would need to be spent in small group learning activities. The activities would be based on the needs of individual students and allow the teacher to work with small groups of students to improve learning. I had the opportunity to visit a math class to see the changes in action. This is what I observed:

  • A group of four or five students working independently on a set of problems. This might have been homework, but when they got stuck they could seek help from other students and/or the teacher.
  • The teacher working with a small group on a math concept.
  • A group of students working a computer based math instruction.
  • A student leading a group of students in a math challenge problem. The problem was one from a chapter they were going to study in a month. The group was working together to see if they could figure out how to do the problem.

The principal also knew that smaller class sizes were important. So she used her Title funds to hire additional teachers and reduce class size in the academic classes. Her students were achieving as well as the other students in the school and state. The principal encouraged teachers who didn’t want to work in this environment to transfer out of her building.

That principal demonstrated leadership and vision. What bothers me about Rhode Island is their lack of vision and leadership. The leaders in Central Falls made headlines. They did not improve education.  It is a sad day for education.

Choice – Drive: Time, Technique and Team

I am fascinated by Daniel Pink’s new book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates  Us. The book is about what motivates people to improve the quality and quantity of their work. I won’t do justice to the concepts and the big picture that Pink paints in his book, but  I would encourage you to read the book.

When we give students choices we will obtain better results. Daniel Pink gives several business examples where choice of time, technique and team has motivated employees to be more creative and to do better work. However, I would like to focus on how choice empowers and motivates students.  Choice in technique is the easiest of the three to implement in the classroom.

In very basic terms, technique is how students do their work or assignments. Technique is the action the student performs to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of the objective or standard. The goal/standard remains the same but how you reach the goal may be very different. In a typical classroom the teacher defines the goal (objective), the time in which it will be done and assigns the task to be accomplished. For example, after reading a novel an English teacher might give their students the assignment of writing an essay (task) analyzing the two major characters in the book (goal/objective). The assignment might be due in a week from the day it was given (time).

The goal/objective is based on state or national standards. The time may fit within the grading cycle and the amount of time the teacher has to work on that objective or standard. The ultimate goal is for the student to show he/she can analyze how and why the characters act in a certain way and how that relates to the real world and real people.

One way of motivating students to be more creative and to meet the objective is to allow students a choice in how they demonstrate they know how to analyze characters. One choice might still be to write an essay. Some students love to write and are excellent at writing essays. However, other students may not be as proficient in writing or enjoy writing as much as the other student. This is where choice of technique comes into play. Remember the goal was character analysis, not writing proficiency.

Students might be able to analyze the characters in one of several ways:

  • Creating a skit that exaggerates the traits of the characters. (Satire)
  • Build a web site that the characters might create about themselves.
  • Write a resume the characters might submit to an employer.
  • Create a movie about the characters’ lives.
  • Using the Twitter format of a 140 character message, create Tweets covering the major events in the story.
  • Create a simulated Facebook page for the characters. What would be posted on their wall? Who would be their friends? What images would they post etc.
  • Use Prezi to develop a time line showing the major actions and decisions made by the characters.
  • Create a podcast with a classmate. One person would be the host and the other the characters. The host would interview the characters and bring out the traits and values of the characters.

These are a few random ideas of ways I think students might accomplish the goal. The motivation is that they can now choose how they wish to express themselves. The teacher’s task would be to evaluate how well they met that goal. Evaluation might be based on a rubric that would be applied to all of these assignments. Involving students in the development of the rubric may also help motivate their desire to do the assignment.

Readers may think this sounds good, but would it work in a real classroom? My answer is yes it will. First, I have given assignments like those described above to my students when I was teaching. Second, I just finished a visit to one of the most highly rated private schools in Canada. The students had just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird. The teacher had given them some typical writing assignments, and then concluded the section on character analysis by allowing her students to make choices as to how they could show their understanding and analysis of the characters. I wasn’t able to stay for all of the presentations, but I was able to see three groups present..

Group One: created a “Coke” commercial with the characters being analyzed as the featured characters in the commercial.

Group Two: created a “Jeopardy” game that engaged the entire class in determining which character was the answer to each question. They learned as did the entire class!

Group Three: made a movie of the “Ellen Degenerus” show with Ellen interviewing the characters in the story. I had to leave before I saw if she had them get up and dance.

The amazing thing about this example is that the teacher didn’t know how to use any of the technologies that the students used to create their projects. Her role was to set the goal and objectives and to evaluate the results. I’d like to also note that this was a teacher with numerous years of experience in teaching. She was still willing to both challenge, trust, and allow her students to use technology to demonstrate their learning. Bravo!

To me, this is an excellent illustration of what Daniel Pink means when he writes about motivation based on choice of technique.