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How Can Teachers and Machines Grade the Same?

Tingley-021 color-1A recent study comparing essay scoring by computers and by humans demonstrated that the machines were capable of producing pretty much the same scores as humans. 

Walt Gardener adroitly notes that as a former English teacher, he was excited at first that computers might be able to relieve the heavy burden of essay grading borne by English teachers.  Further study, however revealed that machines were incapable of judging content, focusing only on the mechanics of an essay.

So what does the study say about the way teachers grade essays if the results were the same for teachers and machines?

As a former English teacher myself, I have graded my share of essays.  It is arduous work, but so is writing.  Good writing demands careful and logical thought, supportive evidence for an argument, careful word choices, sound conclusions.  Mechanics are important only insofar as they enhance or obfuscate the argument.

So if the machine scored as well as the teachers, I can only assume that the teachers too were grading on mechanics, not on thought.  And that, my friends, is why many kids can learn to punctuate without learning how to write.  (I’m talking basic punctuation here, not the use of apostrophes.  Hardly anyone these days knows how to use apostrophes correctly.)

Think, for a moment, about how English teachers correct/grade essays in your own school.  For years I’ve been on a one-woman crusade against assigning number grades to essays.  Why?  Because it makes it easy to focus only on the mechanics of an essay --  misspellings, fragments, lack of subject-verb agreement, misuse of punctuation.  The essay can be docked a point for every error.  It’s cut and dried.  The problem, of course, is that any drivel that is correctly punctuated and spelled can get a perfect score.  On the other hand, the kid who can think but can’t punctuate gets a 78.  This scoring method makes it easy to explain the difference between a 76 and a 78 or between a 69 and a 70. Buried in paper

Some teachers give two grades, one for mechanics and one for content. To me, it’s like trying to grade the paint and brushes separately from the painting.  Spelling, punctuation, word choice – all are simply tools to be used to enhance the meaning of the work.  In addition, kids already have access to Microsoft editors when they write.  So what they hand in should, for the most part, be error-free.  Unless, of course, your students don’t have access to computers or you haven’t shown them how to use computers to enhance their writing. I suspect there are still teachers who make their students write out their essays on paper before they type them into the computer, still treating the computer like basically an upgraded typewriter. 

Teachers who score written work using rubrics have a better chance of developing their students’ writing skills, especially if the rubric is shared before the work is begun, letting kids know beforehand what’s expected and what it takes to get a top grade.  When rubrics are carefully written, they address content and mechanics, with the emphasis on content. 

Writing is thought; oftentimes you don’t know what you really think about a subject until you sit down to write.  Machines cannot evaluate a thoughtfully reasoned argument replete with supportive evidence like teachers can.  So if machines and teachers came up with the same grades, teachers must be scoring like machines.  


Zoning Boards: Protecting the Zip Codes

A few years ago NPR did a piece on people who kept their zip codes, like their telephone numbers, even after they had moved out of the area. As I recall, interviewees explained the myriad benefits of keeping their zip code.  For example, one interviewee said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “It was so much easier for my friends not to have to learn a new zip code for me after I moved.”

Said another, “Zip codes are hard to remember.  I like that mine ends in double digits.”

A third interviewee said,  “ I worked hard to be able to live in this zip code. It’s only fair that I can take it with me if my work transfers me to another city.”

ZoningOf course, it turned out that it was all a clever joke broadcast on April 1, April Fool’s Day. 

I thought of that piece when I read the results of a new study conducted by senior research analyst Jonathan Rothwell at the Brookings Institution.   Rothwell discovered that houses cost significantly more (2.4 times) near high performing schools than near low-performing schools.  Homes in high performing districts tend to be larger and fewer in terms of density than in low-performing districts.  Reviewing the study in EdWeek, Nirvi Shah writes, “Zoning regulations that intend to keep population density low segregate cities and towns by race and income.” 

It’s a eureka moment.

Thanks to Rothwell’s study, we now understand that a person who just bought a $850, 000 house in an upscale zip code can thank the zoning board that a double-wide won’t go in next door.  “I haven’t seen anything that tries nationally to document the financial barriers that low-income families face to get into high-performing schools,” says Rothwell.  In a post on the Brookings site he adds,  “Zoning laws are keeping poor children out of high-scoring schools, degrading education, and weakening economic opportunity.”

Of course.  But this is one of those studies that elicits a big yawn and a so what.  High performing schools don’t simply occur in nature like maybe a giant redwood.  Some would argue that zoning laws cause high-performing schools because allow they people with money and influence to create those kinds of schools for their kids.  If you’re living in a state that depends for its school budget on property tax, you know there’s a direct correlation between expensive real estate and high performing schools.  Just saying … it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll be able to provide access and opportunity for low-income kids by changing zoning laws so that their families can find inexpensivie housing in upscale communities. We’ve already seen how moves like that result in a plethora of gated communities.

Still, it’s another way of looking at the disparity between educational opportunities for low-income kids and for their more affluent peers.  As a former superintendent in a low to middle income rural community, however, I think we’d have a better chance of leveling the playing field by pushing for greater aid to more needy schools. And BTW, if you think being on a school board is tough, sit in on a local zoning board meeting.


The Pineapple: Poster Fruit for Standardized Tests

Tingley-021 colorIt turns out that a pineapple has become the poster … er, fruit for all that is wrong with reliance on standardized testing.

New York State eighth graders were confronted on their state reading tests last week with a story about a pineapple that challenges a hare to a race.  You can see the whole reading selection with questions here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/04/20/nyregion/21pineapple-do

You might want to read it and see how well you can answer the questions.  But for those of you who need to get on with your day, the story, briefly told, is this.  A pineapple challenges a hare to a 26-mile race.  Some of the forest animals, especially those familiar with Aesop’s fables, bet on the pineapple, assuming it has a “trick up its sleeve.”  The hare takes off; the pineapple, being a pineapple, just sits there.  At the end the animals eat the pineapple.  The moral of the story?  Pineapples don’t have sleeves.

Besides figuring out the moral, kids also had to determine why the animals ate the pineapple afterwards and what might have happened if the animals cheered for the hare.  Then they had to draw a pineapple, come up with a fruit salad recipe, and make a poster that might have hung over the finish line.  OK, just kidding about that last part.  Hard to tell though, right? Pineapple

The question left eighth graders puzzled and worried about not knowing the answers.  It left John B. King, the State Education Commissioner, defensive at first, but later acquiescing to removing the question from scoring.  It left Pearson, the test maker, silent.  It left Daniel Pinkwater, the author of the story on which the selection was based, distancing himself as quickly as a corpulent man can.  Pinkwater posted on his website  that while testing companies make “vast sums of money,” they pay “non-vast sums of money” to authors for the right to use their work.  His story was originally about an eggplant, and the moral was, “Never bet on an eggplant.”  Much better, I’d say.  The same selection has been used on tests in other states, but only in New York has there been an objection from the field.  Pinkwater claims that New Yorkers are smarter, but I don’t know if he’s still trying to be amusing.

In the meantime, Diane Ravitch and other anti-test people not known for their senses of humor blasted the question as just exactly what is wrong with standardized testing in the first place. And I have to say I agree.  Including the pineapple selection with its ridiculous questions reveals a real lack of understanding of eighth graders and how they think. Glad you adults at SED thought the selection was clever, but eighth graders don’t read a lot of parody and they didn’t get the joke.  An excellent reading teacher I know wrote on her Facebook page, “Dear NYS Ed Department, I was just wondering if you were testing reading or if you were purposely tricking kids just to be mean.  Just wondering ….”

Bottom line:  the pineapple dust-up showcases one of the more egregious examples of poor test questions.  There have been others and there will be more.  Do we really want to base serious decisions about teachers and kids on whether pineapples have sleeves?




How Doing Nothing Results in Tragedy

It’s every parent’s nightmare. 

Your kid works hard, gets into a good college, and joins a fraternity.  Then one day the police call, asking you to identify your child – the one you loved and nurtured and were so proud of – in the morgue where he ended up after a hazing incident that involved deadly amounts of alcohol.

Michael Winerip’s article “The Hazing” in Education Life recounts the life and death of George Desdunes, a young man who died after his S.A.E. fraternity brothers “kidnapped” him, blindfolded him, bound his wrists and ankles, and fed him shot after shot of vodka.  It was an S.A.E. traditional rite of hazing.  “It was meant to be fun,” one of the kidnappers told police.  Tell that to his mom, a Haitian immigrant and widow who worked three jobs so her only son could attend private schools.

Desdunes is not the only victim of hazing.  Last November a drum major in Florida A & M’s Marching 100 was beaten to death on the band bus.  In 2010 another S.A.E. pledge, this time at California Polytechnic State University, died after a night of hazing that involved huge quantities of alcohol.  Hank Nuwer, a professor at Indiana’s Franklin College, says that since 1970 over 104 deaths have occurred as a result of hazing.

Of course, incidents like this result in the disbanding of fraternities, new campus rules about alcohol, and multi-million dollar lawsuits, none of which will restore the hazing victim to his family and to his life filled with potential.  And none of which will, in all likelihood, ameliorate hazing. Bullying-bystander

Analysts blame deadly hazing incidents like this on alcohol, and certainly it is a huge factor.  But every time I read about incidents like these, I am struck by the numbers of students who went along with them, who raised no objections, who thought it was “fun.”  I’m sure there are students who refused to participate.  And I’m sure that there were some who beat down their own good judgment to be part of the group.  When hazing incidents are planned, the planners aren’t necessarily drunk, however, which forces us to face the fact that for some students (and maybe adults), hazing is really sort of OK.  It just didn’t turn out well this time.

Hazing is, after all, bullying’s bigger, older brother.  And like bullying, hazing requires, as Barbara Coloroso observes, “… bullies who terrorize, bullied kids who are afraid to tell, bystanders who watch, and adults who see the incidents as a normal part of childhood.”  Coloroso’s book, The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander is one of the few books to focus on the role of those who don’t actively participate, but simply watch.  Says Coloroso, observing and doing nothing is the key to allowing bullies to proceed with impunity.

The recent movement in schools to educate all kids about bullying is a step in the right direction, but I am hopeful that anti-bullying programs focus on the bystanders as well as the players.  I’m reminded of the quote usually attributed to Edmund Burke:  “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”





Baby, Baby

Tingley-021 color-1Every year the high school health teacher invited two different speakers to talk to his classes about contraception.  One speaker was from Planned Parenthood.  The other was a representative from the local Right to Life group.  The health teacher always said that he invited both in an attempt to be “fair.” I knew was also an attempt to mollify all parents in the community.

Frankly, I never understood the fairness part because one person explained how contraceptives worked while the other talked about pregnancy.  As I think about it now, however, maybe it wasn’t about fairness, but about subtly reinforcing the importance of contraception.

It turns out that maybe he was on to something, as USA Today reports that teen pregnancies are at their lowest level in nearly 70 years according to data provided by the federal government last November.  Every racial and ethnic group saw the lowest rates ever reported for girls 15-19.

Laura Lindberg, a senior research associate with the non-profit Guttmacher Institute in New York has examined the data and says her research shows that teen sexual activity has not decreased, but the use of contraceptives has increased.  Lindberg suggests that not only Teen-mom-1has the message about using contraceptives taken hold among teens, but also that attitudes have changed about wanting to have babies early.  She also notes that “the general pattern over time has been declining abortion rates paralleling declining pregnancy and birth rates.”  One would think this is good news for both Planned Parenthood and Right to Life. 

I once worked in a district that had a teen parenting center where teens could leave their babies while they attended classes, returning during the day to feed and play with them during study halls and lunch.  It was a brave initiative for this rural upstate district, and every year various groups protested its funding, arguing that the district was “making it easy” for kids to have babies out of wedlock.  The administration and the board stuck to their guns and funded it every year, insisting there was nothing tempting to other kids about the responsibility teen parents had to demonstrate every day.  In addition, keeping kids in school until they graduated meant it was more likely they could eventually support their child.  The parenting center eventually closed not because of lack of funding, but because the numbers of teens having babies dwindled.  More recently we heard similar objections to reality TV shows about teen moms – that girls would want to be like them.  Not so, it turns out.

We all know that the use of contraceptives especially as tied to insurance has been a hot topic with church leaders and political leaders, most of whom don’t have to worry about becoming a teen mom or having an unwanted pregnancy later on.  The new data should support the argument that having knowledge of and access to contraceptives benefits teens and society in general.


Who Is Responsible for College Learning?

When I enrolled as a freshman at my state’s huge land grant college, I did so along with 7000 other freshman.  “Look around you,” said one of the speakers at orientation.  “One- third of you will be gone by the end of the year.”  Well, I thought, it sure isn’t gonna be me.

I loved everything about the university – the classes and the social life.  Most of all, I loved being away from home and on my own, responsible only for myself.  I would do whatever it took to stay there.  College grads

I met a lot of friends that first year, and we all felt the same way:  there was no way were we going back home to our little Ohio towns for the rest of our lives.  It was up to each of us to sink or swim; the closest thing we got to a life raft was the TA assigned to the 400-student lectures.  Of course, classes were smaller the last two years, but we were also stronger and more self-reliant.

What prompted this trip down memory lane was an article in the Sunday New York Times about the current move to assess how well colleges are educating students and to release that information to the public.  Says David Paris, executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, “We used to hear … ‘the value of a college education can’t be measured.’…Now we hear …’Let’s talk about how we can measure.’”  Some would like to see standardized tests given in specific disciplines; others look for demographic indicators like student retention, graduation rates, and class size.  Still others would like to measure improvement in students’ ability to think.  Really.  I’m wondering how that would be measured, and even if it could be, how much responsibility would the university have as opposed to simple student maturation and experience?  And, as Neal E. Armstrong, a vice provost of the University of Texas at Austin notes, “Our freshmen come in with very high aptitude and thinking skills.” 

Of course, the movement to test college students springs from the fecund minds of policy makers to show how well taxpayer money is being spent.  A precursor to that concept was a 2006 commission appointed by Margaret Spellings, the Bush-appointed education secretary.  The commission actually thought that universities should be measured on the “value added basis”; taking into account where the student began academically.  Of course, we all know how easy that is in the K-12 environs.

The movement to make colleges more “accountable” is also in part a response to Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses, published last year.  The book cites data indicating that 45% of college students surveyed did not demonstrate any progress in learning after two years of college, and 36% showed no improvement after four years. It’s difficult for me to comprehend how a student could learn nothing in two years even if he never went to class.  Something else to think about, however, is Jean Twenge’s Generation Me.  The San Diego State professor found in 2004 that 70% of college freshmen studied reported their academic ability to be “above average.”  Twenge suggests that they had been led to believe that the minimal work they had been required to do in high school was satisfactory and that consequently, many were unprepared for the demands of college.

We all know that attitudes towards learning and education are continually evolving, but folks, at some point we need to look at the effort that students put forth.  In K-12 schools, students are evolving; they still need support and plenty of it.  But college?  I have to believe that some of those students who learned nothing in their first two years of college would have been part of the one-third who would have gone home in earlier times.  Standardized testing of college students is the usual lawmaker’s simplistic approach to a complex situation.








Why Assign Homework?

Tingley-021 color-1Kenneth Goldberg, a clinical psychologist, has some good advice for parents of “homework-trapped children” in Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet in The Washington Post.  He notes that some kids may procrastinate when it comes to doing homework or they may try to avoid it completely.  Goldberg says that kids aren’t lazy or unmotivated; instead, they may have “under the radar” learning problems.

Goldberg suggests three ways that may improve the recalcitrant student’s homework habits.  First, he says, limit homework to a certain amount of time rather than making the student work until it’s done, no matter how long it takes.  Second, reduce the penalties for not doing homework.  And third, both teachers and parents should respect the authority of each.  In other words, teachers shouldn’t tell parents how to get their child to do homework and parents shouldn’t tell teachers how much homework to give.

I’m not so sure that every kid who avoids homework has learning problems.  Some just have better things to do and others may not see the point of it.  The idea of setting a time limit on homework, though, is one I tried myself with my own children.  It wasn’t a question of their having learning problems; it was that they felt the Homeworkwork had to be perfect.  Setting a time limit taught them to cut corners and do only what was necessary.  Yeah, I know what you’re thinking – but I maintain that those skills are pretty useful in life when you’re forced to do something that has no real value.

Goldberg’s suggestions are useful if you’ve already accepted the premise that homework is useful.  But sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.  Assigning 10 problems for practice may be helpful for students who need it.  Assigning reading or writing outside of class is often necessary; there is simply not enough time to read everything in class and some students like to work and think on their own.  The problem is that some teachers assign homework without much thought; it’s simply a habit.  And everyone gets the same assignment:  The odd problems on page 67 whether you need it or not.

The other problem with homework is that teachers often think they need to count it as part of a student’s grade, ignoring the fact that grades are supposed to indicate the student’s progress towards mastery of the subject, not the student’s behavior.  Including homework in a student’s academic grade is the hammer.  Essentially, the teacher is saying,  “Even if you pass every test with a B, you may end up with a C if you don’t hand in your homework.”  This, of course, is patently ridiculous, yet it’s an attitude that continues to flourish in many schools.

So, as I said, Goldberg’s ideas are helpful if parents and administrators already accept the idea that homework is a good thing and that work habits should be part of a student’s grade.  Me, I’m not so sure.


How Did Standardized Tests Become Evil?

Standardized test used to be a good thing.  They showed parents where their kid was in relation to other kids.  They gave teachers a picture of what they taught well and what they needed to improve.  They gave principals a sense of how the school was performing in general.  They were simply a measure, one of many measures.  Some schools and teachers used them wisely; others went through the motions or simply ignored them.  Monster-1.72dpi

Then came Accountability, as if teachers and administrators hadn’t been accountable at all up to this point.  Standardized tests became known as “high stakes” because decisions about kids’ lives suddenly depended upon them.  Third graders could be retained for a whole year of their lives if they didn’t pass an arbitrary cut-off point, which in my experience, was a moving target.  Some students were kept from graduating if they didn’t hit an arbitrary mark on a state test.  Suddenly standardized tests went from being a yearly tradition to a high hurdle that kids had to clear in order to move on with their lives.

As a result of high stakes testing, standardized tests became serious and expensive business.  Teachers began to teach to the test and test taking became a subject in itself that superseded all others during the run-up to the tests.  Test results for schools were now big news, published in your local paper and online.

At that point people began to believe that perhaps they were punishing the kids for the adults’ shortcomings, so the decision was made to use standardized tests in yet another way:  to decide whether a given teacher was good enough to keep her job.  So now we have kids who fail and adults who fail as well.  All because good old standardized tests had morphed into an all-powerful monster.

Now we’ve come full circle.  The Miami Herald reports that a coalition of teachers is urging parents to allow their kids to opt out of standardized tests like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test required for graduation.  The group says they have supporters in all 50 states, and members believe that parents have the right to decide whether their children should be subjected to tests.  State education officials, predictably maintain that state law requires all kids to participate in state tests.

Well, here’s the deal:  The original use of standardized tests has been perverted.  On the basis of a few hours of testing, huge decisions are made that affect people’s lives.  No third grader should have to repeat an entire year of third grade because he can’t read at the third grade level.  Instead, he should receive intensive work to bring him up to speed in reading or whatever the particular weakness is.

And no teacher should lose her job on the basis of a couple years’ test scores without the same kind of remediation.

Does the state have the right to make your child sit for tests?  Remains to be seen.  Meanwhile some of us are applauding efforts to force the monster back to his cave.  Tests, after all, are just tools, not the grand arbiter of all things academic.


The F-Word Isn’t What It Used to Be

Tingley-021 color-1A message to the folks who rate movies:  The F-word isn’t what it used to be.

High school kids and middle school kids (and their parents) use it with a frequency today that would have been alarming even 10 years ago.  Today, it’s rare to walk down the halls of most secondary schools and not hear it a couple of times. 

Kids by and large know the word is still forbidden in the classroom and in polite conversation; consequently it still carries the thrill of the verboten in those instances.  Adults, even educated adults or maybe especially educated adults, use it the same way.  Presidential candidates use it (McCain in Game Change?); vice-presidents use it (Biden and Cheney courtesy of hot mics). As the primo profanity under the right circumstances, it can be powerful. Used as a frequent adjective in normal every day speech, it loses its punch.

So here’s a newsflash, Motion Picture Association of America:  Kids have heard the F-word, and their heads didn’t fall off.  Some kids even use the F-word and live to tell about it.  So MPAA folks, you blew it when you assigned Bully an R rating because of the language.  You don’t know kids, do you?

Directed by Lee Hirsch, the film depicts a year in the lives of five kids bullied by their classmates. It’s a documentary, and as David Dobkin, director of The Wedding Crashers, points out in the LA Times, “a documentary is a form of reporting, artfully told, and it should be protected and rated in a completely different way than a Hollywood movie.”  As one kid noted, if the documentary is R-rated, does that mean that kids’ lives in high school are R-rated?

The Weinstein Company, producers, finally decided to release the film as unrated, a move that many think will keep kids from seeing it or theaters from showing it. After all, hearing the F-word on a big screen instead of in the hall at school is WAY worse for kids than the kinds of brutality that some of them have to live with daily on school buses, in the halls, and in the cafeteria – not to mention in cyberspace.

So I’m hoping that smart teachers and administrators will ask for parent permission to take kids to see the movie.  Not all parents will allow it, of course, but maybe enough will to make a difference, especially if they can go along with the students.  It’s an action I took many times as a teacher and administrator with books, videos, and movies with very good results.

As a parent, teacher, and school administrator, I’ve dealt with bullying more than I want to think about.  I’m not alone in this, I know.  We need to do something to stop the epidemic of bullying in schools, and the film could help.  But as Entertainment Weekly  points out, “The very audience that Bully was made for still might have a hard time getting near it.”










Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.