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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

School Again.

Starting school again... but this time: These fellah's are my top priority. I don't really care if I get A's or scholarships. I just want a happy home. Which means I will do my best in school with whatever time I have left over...after I have put my family first. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why Merit Pay is Neither Fair nor Effective for Teachers or Students

A Political Disclaimer

Let me begin by stating that most of my friends and family would classify me as a conservative, pro-business, traditional moral, God-fearing kind of gal. So, before you write off my opinion as enemy drivel, please allow me to share why our education system deserves better than simply falling in line with typical party alliances.  As Conservatives, we should be the leading defenders against such programs as Merit Pay and laws like No Child Left Behind, not champions of them, and I would like to share with you why. 

Merit Pay and Highly Standardized Curriculum Leave Little Time/Room for Teaching Problem Solving Skills, Fostering Creativity, or Encouraging Social Collaboration

In order to determine who does and does not receive merit pay bonuses, student improvement has to be highly quantifiable. To achieve this, curriculum and test questions are aimed only at academic subjects that can be standardized. Because such vital skills as problem solving, creativity, and social collaboration, cannot be easily tested for or standardized, they are of necessity excluded from every day classroom instruction. It may be tempting to assume that truly great teachers would be able to meet both the demands for standardized learning while continuing to meet students higher level thinking needs, and this could be possible, were it not for the sheer scope of material teachers are unreasonably yet legally required to cover. For any given standard a typical teacher has approximately enough time to spend one lesson teaching the concept before he/she needs to move on in order to get through a years worth of material, if they can even accomplish that! Even with the implementation of Common Core, which boasts standards that are an inch wide and a mile deep, there are still far too many standards to cover effectively. Instead, standards are now more like a mile wide and a mile deep, making it harder than ever to meet required goals, let alone have time to devote to the types of activities that promote deep thinking, creativity, and collaboration.

Unfortunately for the U.S.A., deeply creative, out-of-the-box thinkers are exactly what our different industries need, are calling for, and aren't finding today! According to the Deseret News, "81 percent [of employers] cited a lack of critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills among graduates..." and Miller and Almon, in their report, Crisis in the Kindergarten, share, "Now, while many politicians and policymakers are calling for even more tests, more accountability, and more hard-core academics... the leaders of major business corporations are saying that creativity and play are the future of the U.S. economy" (p.12).

If we want to maintain the United State of America's status as a competitive global business market we need more flexibility within the schools, not less! We don't need kids who can compute faster, we have computers for that. We need children who understand the reasoning behind computations and who can creatively apply them. We don't need students who can define every technical term in relation to sentences; we need children who know how to use sentences to communicate powerful ideas. If we allow for more flexibility within classrooms and cut back on standardized testing, these goals are achievable and science proves it!

Miller and Almon, for example, cite a study that compared, "50 play-based classes with 50 early-learning centers [i.e. standardized classrooms][which] found that by age ten the children who had played ex- celled over the others in a host of ways. They were more advanced in reading and mathematics and they were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression, and 'industry'" (P. 7).

According to Clements and Samara, in their article Play, “Studies also show that if children play with objects before they are asked to solve problems with them, they are more successful and more creative. For example, one study with three groups of 3- to 5-year-olds asked them to retrieve an object with short sticks and connectors. One group was allowed to play with the sticks and connecting devices, one group was taught how the sticks could be connected, and one group was asked to tackle the task without prior play or learning. The first two groups performed similarly and achieved better results than the third group. Often, the group that simply played with the sticks and connectors first solved the problem more quickly than the group that was taught how to use them."

The sort of child-centered play and learning described above, and the time necessary to achieve it, do not easily fit into merit pay-based systems, and unfortunately are often misunderstood and discouraged. But if we are hoping to compete on the global level, it is important we begin making room for a more holistic approach to learning!

Research Shows That Merit Pay and Other Standardized, One-Size-Fits-All Programs are Ineffective at Best and Detrimental at Worst

Merit pay is typically the rallying cry and the "grand solution" of conservative, pro-business minded Americans, for many of the ills of our current education system. Those who support the adoption of merit pay policies trumpet the idea that such actions will increase teacher accountably, improve test scores, and create a more equitable system for both students and educators. While these cries for the establishment of Merit Pay are surely well intentioned, unfortunately, the results are in, and studies show just how ineffective such policies are. Far from being on shaky ground, a euphemism used by one proponent of Merit Pay, these policies don't even have a leg to stand on when it comes to evidence. According to this same proponent, studies done across the nation (and even across the ocean) show, "...that students assigned to teachers who were eligible for bonuses did not outperform those whose teachers were in the control group and could not receive bonuses. "

Further, the mounting pressure for increased standardized testing, ever higher academic goals, and the adoption of scripted curriculums (unavoidable companions of merit pay programs) has not only proven ineffective but also highly detrimental for overall student well being and achievement! A study commissioned by the government on the effectiveness of the Reading First program--a carefully scripted curriculum designed to ensure that all children would meet grade level (or above) reading standards by the end of 3rd grade--shows that despite many years of learning and mastering the application of the program, no meaningful improvements were made in student reading scores/ability.  In the words of the study itself, "Reading First did not produce a statistically significant impact on student reading comprehension test scores in grades one, two or three..." (p.1). This result was corroborated by an earlier study also commissioned by the government. These same studies also share that the programs were effectively administered. In this case, the question must be asked is it the teachers that need to be held accountable? Or the curriculum designers and the politicians that supported them?

Not only do programs like Reading First fail to achieve their overall goals, they are also having negative effects on students. According to Miller & Almon, in Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play In School, "Kindergartners are now under great pressure to
 meet inappropriate expectations, including academic standards that until recently were reserved for first grade. At the same time, they are being denied the benefits of play—a major stress reliever. This double burden, many experts believe, is contributing to a rise in anger and aggression in young children, reflected in increasing reports of severe behavior problems. Given the high
rates of psychiatric disturbances among children today,
 it is critically important that early education practices promote physical and emotional health and not exacerbate illness" (p.11).

They also share, "The High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study, which followed the students' progress through age 23, showed that at-risk preschooler's required more treatment for emotional problems and ultimately committed more felonies if they were taught in a scripted curriculum classroom rather than a play-based program" (p.20).

While many of these studies cited refer to early childhood education, the benefits of a more flexible child centered curriculum can be seen across grade levels, so long as methodology is matched to age appropriate cognitive and developmental standards. To ask for more flexibility within the classroom is not to throw all learning and accountability out the window, rather it is to allow educators to tailor curriculum and strategies in order to meet a wide array of student needs, including social and emotional well being. 

In light of this research, one begins to see that Merit Pay and its companion standardized programs, while well-meaning as they may be, not only do not solve any problems but in many cases, cause them. Further, there are obvious alternatives to improving our education system, that while not as efficiently measured as standardized testing and curriculum, never the less, show greater long term gains for overall student well being.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Children's Books I Love...

For my Children's Lit class I was asked to publish reviews on 3 children's books that I would highly recommend to others. But, really, who could choose just three? So here are a few of my current favorites, in all their glory! My very favorite children's books:

What can I say about this book? It is a masterful blend of imagination, heartache, nostalgia, and hope for the future. The illustrations cast familiar yet somber scenes which only helps to give this story its depth and emotion. I am a huge sucker for good art and I consider the art in this book simply breathtaking. The muted colors and realistic portraitures make this story relatable, despite its fantastical elements. More breathtaking still, I might add, is the quiet story of overcoming loss and heartache. Following the story of two girls who recently lost their mother, this children's book shows how they celebrate their loved one's legacy as they use their memories of who she was and their dreams and imagination to solve a problem they face on a walk home from school. Layers of this story you can use to discuss with children include death, loss, survival, hope, honoring memories, weather, dreams/imagination, and dedication. I would highly recommend this book to be read to any child who may be struggling with a loss of a close loved one.

The Dark. Oh, Lemony Snicket already had my heart prior to this storybook!  But an illustrated children's book by Lemony Snicket? I thought for sure it was too good to be true. But this book proved every bit as clever, eery, and charming as A Series of Unfortunate Events. This book tells the story of a little boy named Lazlo and how he overcomes his fear of the dark. The words are simple and the illustrations equally so, but a lot of the book is what is felt while reading it, rather than what is said. As you read this book there is a quiet and heavy feeling, not in a sad way, but in an anticipatory way. I just love how "the dark" is explained and characterized. The nice thing about this book is despite its topic, it is not a scary book. It neither dumbs down the fearful "unknown" aspect of the dark, but it also refrains from embellishing that fear as well. The dark is simply present and is not menacing, even if it is creepy. I really don't know how else to describe it in any other way, but this makes the scary seem more friendly. I would highly recommend this book for children between ages of 5-7, as I feel they could handle this not quite euphemistic yet not quite frightening portrayal of a common fear.

Well, I definitely did not do these book reviews in order, because if I had to put any book "on top" of my list of favorites? It would most definitely be this one. Patricia Polacco is one of my very favorite illustrator/authors. This story is a sequel to Thank You, Mr Falker (an autobiographical picture book about her personal struggles in learning how to read.) I don't even know how to explain all that is in this book that gives it such depth, but it covers many many different themes that just speak to my heart. Some of these themes include going to a new school, making friends, learning disabilities, bullying, death, creativity, risk taking, and personal confidence. This story takes place in a special education classroom and features the inspiring story of a teacher who helped her students soar, mainly by showing her confidence and love for them. I think the most important theme which is covered in this book is the journey of learning how to believe in yourself, that you matter, that you can take risks, that you can do amazingly and seemingly impossible things, regardless of your circumstances. I plan on using this book in my future teaching career to help build a classroom community among my students.

Over 4 years ago I did a report on Helen Oxenbury for an "Art for Elementary Education"  class and she has been my very favorite illustrator, ever since. Her use of water color pencil and pen is just so simple and charming and I wish, with all my heart, that I someday will be able to draw just as beautiful of art as she does. This simple story, about a bear hunt, follows the classic action rhyme, "I'm going on a bear hunt, I'm going to catch a big one..." and takes the reader on a journey through rivers, plains, mud, and forests to get to the bear's cave. The text of this story is simple and predictive and repetitive in a way that allows the children to become engaged in the reading process by guessing what words come next. It is not so repetitive, however, that I have ever felt annoyed in reading it. It is one of my children's very very very favorite books.

The art alone, makes this one of my favorites, but the story is sweet and heartwarming as well. When Amos McGee gets sick he has to stay home, and his friends (who he never misses visiting at the zoo), decide to leave the Zoo and come visit and take care of him for a day. The layers in this book include service, friendship, thoughtfulness, catching colds, zoo animals, and animal characteristics. The simplicity of the illustrations and the words also helps teach the lesson that the most important things in life aren't really that complicated. This story shows that the simplest thing, such as spending time with another person, is usually what does the most good.

So there are a few of my favorites! If it wasn't finals week I could go on and on about more amazing children's books, but this will do for now!

What are your favorite children's books? Do you look more for the art, the story, or the lessons being taught? One book I didn't add above is "Enemy Pie," and it teaches the awesome lesson of how to get rid of your enemies (in a very sneaky sneaky way) making them your friends. What stories have you read that teach amazing lessons?

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