A solution – or a new problem?


Yesterday, I received an email from “R” saying a parent was requesting that I join 55 other teachers at my school who are “already using Remind.”

This struck me as odd. Was the request really from a parent? (“R” came with no last name or email address.) Are parents demanding this, or is it clever marketing? Will it become an expectation at my school?

I know about Remind. It’s not a scam. It’s a relatively new app that makes it easy for teachers to text reminders to parents and students about upcoming assignments and tests – as well as text specific parents when their kids are struggling. It’s a smash hit in the ed tech world.

A few months ago, I heard an NPR report explaining how student attendance, assignment completion and even test scores improved in trial high-poverty schools when they used Remind. I don’t remember the details, but my overall impression was favorable.

Remind seemed to work – where websites, online access to grades and other forms of communication did not – because it did not require email or internet access, which many of the families did not have. That makes sense.

But what about in schools where students and parents do have email and internet access? Is there really an added benefit when kids and parents can already access this information with a few keystrokes? I’m already using gradebook-generated email, Gmail, a Moodle site, postcards, letters, phone calls and, of course, face-to-face conversations to communicate with families.

I can already hear the groundswell of support: Why shouldn’t we also use Remind? What could possibly be wrong with over-communicating? If there’s even a chance it will help, why not?

That sentiment is persuasive, and yet… I believe there is a real risk in over-supporting our kids.

Last weekend I had a long conversation with a friend who is a college professor; she was lamenting the number of college freshmen she sees crash and burn when the high school supports are removed. The more we do for them, she says, the less they learn to do for themselves. Eventually, that is a problem. An expensive one, when it means failing college classes.

I’m not denying that teenagers need help with organization, assignment tracking and so forth. Of course they do. What I am saying that we need to teach them these organizational skills, rather than just taking over and bypassing this learning opportunity.

When I was in high school, I learned how to record assignments and test dates in a planner. I also learned to write especially important stuff on my left hand. Today, kids can still do that. Or they can set up a Google calendar with reminders for themselves. Or they can check online class calendars. Or text a friend. Or check their class Facebook group. Or snap a picture of the assignment board.

Instead, we keep creating ever more passive mechanisms to allow them to get through high school without having to organize themselves. I think that’s a bad idea.

At some point in the next few weeks, I’ll have to make a decision about whether to use Remind. The easy choice will be to say yes – because, honestly, why fight it?

But I think we need to proceed with caution. We have to figure out how to ease our teenagers off of these supports as they move through high school, not just create more of them.

Maybe freshmen need this, but by the time they graduate, students don’t need Remind. What they do need is a system to “remind” themselves. And they will never create one if we keep doing it for them.

A cynical take on the value of school

canstockphoto40542858Last week, a Slate.com article on a new technology to track mental engagement (Pay Attention!) raised the issue of boredom in school, quoting this stat: “82 percent of U.S. high school students report being sometimes or often bored in class.”

Like me, the writer Mary Mann (also the author of Yawn: Adventures in Boredom) clearly finds this disturbing. So does the researcher, Dr. Hasan Ayaz, who is using spectroscopy to identify and prevent student boredom at the neurological level.

The commenters on the article… not so much. Here’s what they had to say:


“Learning to handle boredom is an invaluable skill.”

“I couldn’t agree more. In fact, it’s one reason I think public school is useful: kids learn to navigate boredom.”

Wow, that is depressing. Here’s another one:

“School is boring for the most part, that’s just the way it is.”

The conversation also touched on what’s important to learn in school, what’s not important, who’s responsible for boring curriculum and other issues, but the general consensus was: Who cares if school is boring? Work isn’t fun, and life isn’t fun. They might as well find out early.

When people bash on the very idea that learning could be engaging, it makes me sad for them. What kind of education did they have that left them so cynical? Why was it so removed from anything that mattered to them?

Work can be fun. Or at least it can be interesting and engaging and better than just reading social media and watching reality TV, which would leave me feeling brain-dead and exhausted. Meaningful work can give you a sense of purpose. Same with school.

We need to start there — and fight the idea that school is merely training for a monotonous life.


Like so much that’s worth learning, trade is complicated

tradeTeachers spend a lot of time trying to break down difficult concepts and make them easier for our students to digest, but what about when the truth is just complicated?

How can we combat the crisis of oversimplification in this country and get our kids to muddle around in complexity?

This weekend, I taught my last session of “Preparing to Teaching High School Economics” with a group of 10 Minnesota teachers who are new to econ this year. I decided to start the day by talking about trade, which basically feels like a four-letter word these days. (I wouldn’t blame them for skipping it altogether, though it would be a shame.)

I drew a simple supply and demand graph for them, showing the U.S. sugar market without any trade, then we opened the market and saw how lower world prices would affect both U.S. consumers (happy!!) and U.S. producers (very angry).

One by one, we worked through all of the implications. Who does trade help? Who is hurt? Why do the producers lobby their legislators, while consumers do not? How would a 20% tariff on Mexican imports affect American households?

Or what if you’re a low-cost country, like China, and trade means more exports rather than imports? How does that impact Chinese workers, who produce a lot of stuff (like toys, T-shirts and electronics parts) that they can’t afford to buy?

At the end of our discussion, one of the teachers asked: “So can we just leave it like that? Point out the good and the bad and not answer it for them?”

Continue reading “Like so much that’s worth learning, trade is complicated”

‘Flush with funds’ sounds nice

My school district spends about $13,000/student each year. President Trump’s children went to private schools that cost $30,000-$50,000. Baron’s elementary school in New York charges $47,000 per student this year.

So I wonder what our president means when he says our public schools are “flush with funds”?

I wonder what it would be like to work someplace that was, actually, flush with funds.

Compared to schools in Arizona, which get about $7,000 per student, we are relatively flush here in Minnesota. My classes might be jammed with 35 kids each, but at least I have updated textbooks and pretty reliable technology (Smartboard, Wi-fi network, Chromebooks) — and although I have to buy some of my own supplies, I don’t have to pay for my own ink or copies.

Also, teachers are paid a liveable wage, if not enough to entice the top college grads. On average, Minnesota public school teachers get about $60,000 a year, which is close to median for a college-educated American. (Yeah, I know we get summers off, but most of us work about 60 hours a week in the school year, so it still comes out to about $25/hour pre-tax.)

Still, if our school district had three times as much money per student? (Maybe we could have federal vouchers that size?)

For one thing, we could cut those class sizes down to 15 kids. It’s not that I can’t teach 35 kids at a time — my students excel each year on the AP Micro, AP Macro and AP Psych tests — but it definitely limits how much writing and public speaking practice our kids get. 

We could also offer our kids a lot more support. Our high school does what it can to help struggling students, like scheduling a free hour once a week where they can meet with teachers, but mostly we rely on them to “get it.” Imagine having the time to individually tutor struggling students on a regular basis?

We could hire people to deal with more of the non-teaching duties, too, like making calls and fixing technology when it (inevitably) breaks down. I dream of having an assistant who could handle paperwork!

I’d also love to have funds to be able to buy new programs when I learn about them — like MobLab interactive simulation games for economics. Not an option on our budget.

Compared to a lot of public schools out there, we’re doing pretty well on $13,000/student. Both of my kids went to my public school, and they were quite well prepared for college.

But $47,000 per student — a sum our legislators would never agree to — sounds pretty amazing. Now that would be a school system flush with funds.

Learning history in the present


Women marched peacefully on Saturday to demonstrate pride and autonomy — and to let President Trump know they won’t stand for any rollback of women’s rights.

Or, women marched and destroyed property Saturday to whine about losing the election.

Or, women marched Saturday as dupes of outside forces, including radical Islam.

Which version do you believe?

I believe #1. Most of my friends were at marches Saturday — in St. Paul, in Washington, D.C., in Seattle, in Philadelphia, in Wichita, in New York — and I trust their perspective. I would have joined them if I hadn’t been sick all week, because I’m concerned about women’s rights (and human rights) under the new regime.

Like many women, I was appalled by the video last fall, revealing how Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women, and I don’t like that he wishes Time’s “Person of the Year” was still “Man of the Year.” Like many women, I’m also worried about serious policy issues like women’s health care and access to contraceptives.

But I know people who genuinely believe versions 2 and 3, based on their personal views, their news sources, and their interpretation of current events. I was, frankly, startled to read their perspectives on Facebook.

I have a completely different viewpoint, which is why this event strikes me as a perfect opportunity for a history lesson.

Last fall, at the NCSS conference, I attended a great session on how eyewitness experiences become history. Whose story gets told? Why is that story told? And what is lost?

In the session, the instructor asked us to write down on paper what we had done that morning, word for word. What we ate, where we went, who we talked to, what we had learned in other sessions.

Then he proceeded to destroy most of our stories, telling us ¼ were destroyed in a flood, ¼ were destroyed by an invasion, another ¼ were suppressed by a new government. On and on, until one or two perspectives on the day remained for posterity.

It was a fascinating way to think about history. How do we know what living through the Plague was really like? Or slavery? Or the Civil War? Or the Vietnam War? Only by the accounts of those who were there (and lived to tell). For most events in human history, very few accounts survive.

Continue reading “Learning history in the present”

The elusive promise of ‘choice’

School-choice advocates are cheering the nomination of Betsy DeVos to head Trump’s Department of Education, while public school proponents are worried about what her leadership would mean for the future of public education.

What is it about charter schools and voucher systems, which DeVos unabashedly supports, that makes them so divisive?

Why do many conservatives believe so strongly in them, while many liberals fear and oppose them? I find this issue fascinating, since so many teachers I know have worked in public, private and charter schools. Every year, someone I know is moving from charter to public, public to private, private back to public and so on.

If many of the same teachers are cycling through this revolving door of schools, what makes any kind of school any different? Why prefer one system over the other?

For conservatives, it comes down to incentives. They want vouchers and charter schools because they believe more choices will lead to better schools, like more competition leads to better cars. Administrators and teachers will have to up their game to attract students.

For liberals, there are multiple issues: Who will look out for the underserved students, the ones whose parents won’t apply for vouchers or enroll them in the best charters? And what would deregulation do to the hard-won gains in teachers’ contracts, like livable wages (in some states)?

There is evidence that school competition leads to better outcomes for students, especially in places like New Orleans, where a citywide system of charters is clearly outperforming the pre-Katrina public school district.

But there is also evidence of charter schools that operate without oversight, take tax dollars without producing results, and shut down mid-year leaving students and teachers stranded.

Is there a way to harness the beneficial forces of competition, while learning lessons from the experiments that have failed? Can we have the best of both worlds?

In the best-case scenario, competition can promote innovation, which can be shared with all schools. The structure of charter schools encourages experimentation — they are not tradition-bound, so they can immerse kids in music or the environment or civic activism or humanities. (Their biggest failing, in fact, is that they mostly mimic traditional public schools, but with longer days and stricter discipline.)

But in order to make the competition fair, we need to ensure that traditional public schools have a level playing field with these new contenders.

First, let’s make sure that all schools receiving tax dollars accept any and all students — regardless of race, gender, income or disability. If vouchers do not cover the whole tuition, the school needs to waive the rest for low-income or special ed students who apply.

Second, let’s make sure that all schools receiving tax dollars administer the same assessments to their students, so we can judge their performance apples to apples.

Third, let’s free public schools from some of their bureaucracy, while adding enough accountability to charters to make sure they’re not fly-by-night schemes.

School choice and traditional public schools have co-existed for decades already. Let’s try to pull the best from both systems, rather than trying to promote one at the expense of the other. Then both sides can have something to cheer about.

83% get a diploma, but what is it worth?

What should a high school diploma mean? What should 12 years of public education add up to?

In my view, it should mean you are ready for a job or for general postsecondary training. It should mean we have given you the appropriate skills for your next academic step.

Not every graduate needs to be prepared for coursework at an elite college or even a public four-year university, but a high school diploma should mean you are ready to perform at community college level.

So it’s discouraging when last week’s news that we are graduating 83% of American high school students is followed up by this week’s news — that so many of them require remediation that we need to design new 12th grade classes to help.

“Fed up with long rosters of college freshmen who can’t handle college-level courses, states are increasingly turning to 12th grade transition classes,” Education Week reported Oct. 26.

The article reveals that two-thirds of high school graduates who enroll in community college require remediation; so do 40 percent of those who attend public four-year institutions.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of 12th grade transition classes — except that this is what already should be happening in 12th grade. Why are we graduating so many high school seniors who can’t do this level of work?

Continue reading “83% get a diploma, but what is it worth?”

‘Common sense’ is failing us

mctestWhich is a better way to prepare for this week’s Psych test?

  1. Dedicate three solid hours to reviewing the textbook, notes, and practice questions, as well as quizzing yourself with flashcards.
  2. Spend 30 minutes writing a test for yourself over the content. Take a nap, eat a snack, do your math homework. A few hours later, take the test and grade it. Repeat the next day — spending less than three hours in all.

Most students choose A — the intensive, focused, cramming method. Intuitively it makes sense. Repetition makes us feel like we know the material, and the intensity of the studying makes the subject feel coherent.

B is a much better choice. According to Make it Stick, the best book I’ve seen on how to learn, interleaving different subjects (and giving your brain time to process information during a nap) is far superior to cramming.

But it doesn’t feel better, which brings me to one of the critical issues in education.

Effective learning strategies and effective teaching strategies are not intuitive — they do not fit our idea of common sense — so we waste a lot of time and money pursuing the wrong “common sense” solutions.

Continue reading “‘Common sense’ is failing us”

Make time in class for what’s happening outside


ABC News

How do you react when events outside the classroom are clearly affecting students inside? Do you take time to let students talk about their opinions, experiences, and questions? Or do you do what most of us do — stick to the lesson plan?

Years ago, Mary Dilworth and Carlton Brown interviewed urban teenagers whose lives were impacted by daily gun violence and found their social studies curriculum never addressed these issues. Instead, the students were memorizing people and events with no connection to their reality.

The students not only lost engagement in class; they lost an opportunity to discuss something important to them in a safe, educational space.

Torian Adel White, a Georgia principal who interviewed African-American graduates about key characteristics that helped them succeed as part of his Ph.D. work in 2014, cited their study when he observed: “School leadership teams (including teachers) must evaluate their curricula to emphasize aspects that would align more with students’ lives and context.”

Last week, I got the opportunity to see a teacher doing just that. Robin Moten, an English teacher in suburban Detroit, decided to spend her 5th hour senior English class letting the students discuss their reactions to recent violence, police shootings, and Black Lives Matter protests.

She started by showing them news coverage of the incidents in North Carolina and Tulsa, then said: “The question is: What do you do about it in school? As a black teacher in a predominantly white school, what do I do? What’s my responsibility to my black students? What’s my responsibility to my white students? … I think it’s worth our time to look at this and have a conversation.”

Continue reading “Make time in class for what’s happening outside”

Please say class isn’t about tests

Parent: “What’s the main thing you want students to get from this class?”

Teacher: “Test-taking strategies and study skills.”

My reaction: That sounds boring — and not relevant to anything outside of school.

Can you guess what class this is? No, not a Kaplan ACT Prep class. It is AP World History.

This exchange was described in a Washington Post parenting blog titled “Why I regret letting my teen sign up for an AP course,” published yesterday. It’s a sad reflection on what too many high school courses – and not just AP ones – look like.

Listen to a list of facts presented on PowerPoint. Read a textbook. Memorize, take a quiz, take a test and repeat.

The writer, Kate Haas, quotes her son saying, “I would enjoy learning about this if the whole point wasn’t to go through it as fast as possible and then take a kajillion quizzes.”

AP teachers are under pressure to get through a lot of material in a short time. I teach AP Micro, AP Macro and AP Psych, so I sympathize with this teacher. I know she didn’t become a teacher so that she could drill students on hundreds of isolated facts. No one does.

But no course should ever be reduced to this mind-numbing cycle; we have to stop it from happening, even when the list of “learning targets” is a mile long.

David Perkins, in his book Making Learning Whole, has a great metaphor for education: Little League Baseball. When you play Little League, he explains, you spend a lot of time learning routine skills like throwing, catching and running bases — but you also get to play the whole game, so you learn why these skills are important.

Students studying world history do need to learn a lot of facts, like who built pyramids and how Galileo’s findings impacted religion and what happened during the Black Death.

But a history class needs to be so much more. Students studying history, especially at a college level, should be building a deeper understanding of how humans have treated each other, why we so often resort to war, how we impact the environment, and how technology has changed us. That’s the main thing we want students to get from this course.

If students aren’t building an over-arching framework and if they aren’t learning to question and evaluate historical sources, they are missing the point – literally missing the forest for the trees.

I hope this teacher and others like her realize that they have a choice. They have resources, and they have colleagues around the country who can help them balance the AP course outline with the need to create an engaging, meaningful class.

School should never be about learning to take tests. If it is, we’ve lost sight of what matters.