Saturday, July 15, 2017

Teacher Evaluations

Most of the last decade of my career has been working in management positions in the business world. It was a given that employees from the bottom to the top of the working ladder were all evaluated and rewarded to excellent performance. Team leaders evaluate team members, and are evaluated by floor leaders or managers. Even the CEO is evaluated by the board. Because most professionals expect to work up to higher paying positions, evaluations are a consistent element of the professional world.
I have also taught in three different schools in China and America, and I am a little bit surprised how little evaluation work has been done to assess my teaching skills. At my first full-time teacher job, I was evaluated only by my students. These evaluations occurred at VERY regular intervals and my pay was strongly tied to the results. Perhaps I was never evaluated in any other way because I was the highest rated teacher in my office of 300 teachers, but I don’t recall ever hearing about any teachers being evaluated by other teachers or administration.
When I taught Mandarin in two different high schools in America, I was only ever observed once. The principal of one of the schools walked into my class 10 minutes after it began (without alerting me ahead of time) attended my class, took some notes, and after 15 minutes walked out. I never heard from him again. The principal at the other school never attended my class.
This past year I’ve been teaching at a very large private school in Guangdong, China. I was observed once by the high school principal, who attended after I requested a letter of recommendation from him. All students in the school filled out surveys about their teachers, and local (Chinese) teachers were asked to rate their foreign partners. I did have a conversation with my principle about his observation, which was informative and uplifting for me.

To me it is obvious that much more can and should be done to effectively evaluate me and other teachers. I believe effective teacher evaluations begin with an organized administration. If the administration are clear about teacher expectations, then the entire school can be on the same page and work towards common goals. Teachers are expected to make their expectations clear to students, I think it is reasonable to expect school districts to do the same.
Once expectations are clearly defined, I believe there should be room for teacher autonomy. In other words, different teachers should be able to use their own unique personalities and teaching “gifts” to achieve those standards. There should be multiple measures in please to judge success, and these multiple measures should not be confining. Having said this, I do think it is critical that student learning be the foundation of an evaluation.
Feedback should be regular and consistent. If it is done once or twice per semester, it should be done consistently. After observations teachers should have an opportunity to sit down with the expert evaluator and discuss strengths and weaknesses in order to improve as a teacher.
Finally, the results of these evaluations should be significant. Just as in business, decisions about career advancement and bonuses should depend in large part on these evaluations. Teachers should be highly motivated to perform at a high level, knowing that when their students progress, the teacher will be rewarded.

For my part, my next school offers generous bonuses to top-performing teachers. I am hopeful that I can finally experience the growth that is possible when a good evaluation system is in place.

Monday, July 10, 2017

pre-assessment for differentiation

Next year I will be teaching a subject I've never taught before (business) in a new-to-me school. I'm excited for the many challenges, and I also anticipate much more autonomy in my classroom, which will allow me to integrate differentiation strategies. Although I am merely guessing at what next year will be like, it is still important begin preparing now so I can make the most of opportunities as they come.
Because the school has strict entrance requirements, I do not anticipate students with extreme disabilities in my classroom. For me, the assessment will be more about understanding clearly what elements of business the students already know so we don’t waste time, and also which areas they may have incorrect understanding, in which case we will need to spend extra time to “unteach” the mistakes before teaching the original content.
In reality I believe pre-assessments will take place regularly and in a variety of ways. After I receive information from my new principal (who taught the Business Studies class last year) I will be able to significantly revise the content on my pre-assessments to fit the teaching material, but from what I foresee now I anticipate using something like THIS PRE-ASSESSMENT before each new unit.
Based on the pre-assessment results, information will be used to group students appropriately for projects. I feel it is important for all students to have opportunities to lead their peer group at least once during the year. If a student is particularly competent in one area, then they should be assigned leadership roles for that project. Students who trail the rest of the class need to be distributed among the groups so as to not unfairly burden any one group as well. In this way groups will be created with appropriate student distribution, rather than organically form based on friendships in the class.

In addition to distributing students equally into groups for projects, I will also need to add individualized attention to high and low performing students. The higher performing students will need to meet increased performance expectations and the lower testers will need extra attention to ensure that the knowledge deficit is made up over the course of the unit.

This will all coincide with regular formative assessments from the teacher, from peers within the project group, and also personal reflections.

Monday, June 26, 2017

High Stakes Testing

High Stakes Testing

High stakes testing is now almost ubiquitous, and it is not hard to see why; it is the most efficient way to test large groups of students, in some ways it is “fair” because all students are asked the same questions and given the same amount of time to complete those questions, and it is easy to make comparisons across test takers. Indeed very important decisions are made based on these scores. Lives can be forever altered by a score that is better or worse than expected. Because of the tremendous consequences of high-stakes testing in the lives of children, their parents, and their teachers, it becomes important to look a little bit closer and discuss the implications.

I have taught in China for nearly 10 years. This is a country full of great test-takers. And they know it. Chinese (along with Korean and a few other Asian nationalities) are so good at taking tests that colleges do not admit them based on the same standards they would for other students from other parts of the world. A deeper investigation here reveals that Chinese students do indeed perform exceptionally well on tests. It is important to know why they test so well, however, because the devil is in the details.
Why do Chinese students seem to outperform Americans on standardized tests?
 Much of the superior test scores come simply from the numbers of people competing for the spots in the schools that are taking the international tests.  Consider this; there are more honor students in China than there are students in America. Combine the massive numbers with the system students follow, and the reason for the high test scores becomes more obvious. The system I’m referring to is an established process for placing students in schools. Public schools are the most competitive and cheapest. Only the best students can test into public schools. Students who do not test high enough will need to pay 20 or more times more money in order to attend a private school. Public schools are also ranked, with the highest testing students entering the best public schools. This testing, shockingly, begins in grade school. So the best test takers in 4th grade move into more competitive classrooms and more competitive schools for 5th grade. They also test into middle school and high school. Finally, they test into university with the infamous “gao kao.” Obviously this process is far from the “no child left behind” mentality in America which seeks to give immigrants and mentally challenged students a fair shake at a good education, China’s system is ruthless. And there are plenty of students competing for those top spots.
Second, students are hyper focused on their studies, at the expense of a balanced life. My middle school students begin class at 7:50 each morning (earlier on Mondays) and are in the classroom until 9:00 PM each night. They have breaks for lunch and dinner. There is some space in the schedule for some students to take music or art lessons, but far more time is committed to studying here compared to middle schools in America where students are generally released from school before 3:00 PM. Many of those American students only play games or lounge around after school, but many more students participate in sports, clubs, music, and even part-time work. This is the kind of well-rounded approach I hope my children can have in middle school.
Third, students spend a disproportionate amount of time preparing for tests, instead of learning content and training to apply that learned content in their lives. This type of test cramming can happen in America, but not at nearly the same pace or to the same degree as it happens daily in China or Korea. In fact the after school test prep industry is a major industry here. Students have Saturdays off, as well as a half day each Sunday, why not spend that time in cram-school off campus? In fact, most students do just that.
Finally, because the stakes are so high, there is a lot of cheating. This is not unique to China. Cheating has increased in America when the stakes were raised with No Child Left Behind. Teachers in Atlanta cheated to improve their student’s scores. Students around the world cheat as well. But the stakes in China are much higher than what I have seen in America. My co-teachers in China depend on student test scores for their paychecks. Students feel tremendous pressure to perform well in China in order to save their parents tuition money and to give “face” or pride to the family name. This stress is palpable.

But there is a reason why parents of these students are fleeing China’s education system by the hundreds of thousands. Parents do not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their children into American schools because China’s education is so great. They are paying the big bucks precisely because the Chinese system is failing its children. Only the best of the best of the best are able to study at the elite high schools which participate in the international tests. Meanwhile they are competing against the AVERAGE American student, including non-native English speakers and children with disabilities.

I understand that there are few testing methods capable of providing large amounts of information as efficiently as standardized tests. I also realize that teachers and students need to be held accountable. I’m not convinced, however, that high stakes testing is the best solution. I think educators will continue to refine alternatives to high-stakes testing, like inspections, stealth assessments, sampling, portfolios, or live performances.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

plant function ipad lesson

Teaching this plant function lesson would be a lot of work, but a lot of fun, both for me and the students. I will be teaching this 4th grade class about the function of the stem and reviewing the function of leaves. Because we are adding to previous knowledge, I think the students will be ready to jump right in. We will have both an experiment with celery, and an ipad activity to help the students stay fully engaged throughout the class.

Advantages: Students get bored quickly with worksheets, and diagrams or videos on the board are not individualized enough, so having an app on the ipad where all of the students can individually identify elements of the plant both keeps them more engaged and more interested, and also helps me know how well they understand the material.
I think the lesson really comes to life when we add the experiment with the ipad (and other teaching elements.) Each student will be responsible to conduct their own experiment, and this is always fun for students. After the experiments are completed, the ipad app will reinforce what they just learned, and also tell me that the students not only had fun with the experiment, but also learned what they needed to learn.

Drawbacks: This is about a 6:1 preparation to teaching time ratio, and the preparation can be exhausting. Also it  can be so easy to forget to charge the ipads, or to arrive and find that one of the ipads is buggy. At my school, using ipads is particularly challenging because student use their own devices, and they are of all shapes and sizes. So before the lesson we need to make sure that everyone has the correct app installed and that it works with the operating system in place.
It is always a risk to bring ipads into a classroom where there is room to hide. With so many students doing experiments and worksheets, and ipad work, it will be important for me to monitor the ipad use to make sure that no one is playing with the devices instead of doing their work.

All in all I am very excited to try this lesson out!

Incorporating culture in business class

In some ways, business is business. It doesn’t matter where or who you are, the same economic principles apply. But in many many more ways, culture, language, geography, and many other factors make doing business around the world quite challenging. Next year when I teach business, I feel like one of the most important takeaways for my students will be helping them understand some of the ways business is done in many parts of the world, and asking the students to make connections so they can navigate through their own journeys when the time comes.
I still own 10% of a 20 million dollar per year company in America. When I was CEO of a billion dollar project last year, most of the funding for the project (being built in America) was from China. I will be teaching non-Chinese students in my classroom, which will be located in China. I help fund a non-profit that does incredible humanitarian work in East Africa, and I have advised or mentored a few people in Northern Europe. All of this experience gives me some ability to share useful ideas with the students, but it barely scratches the surface on ways that culture influence business practice. My first responsibility will be to help the students understand how important these differences are, so they will be motivated to learn them and respect them.
It is very important for students to learn and respect cultural differences in business in order for these students to succeed later on. All of my students will be children of expatriates and will understand right away much of the significance of appreciating other cultures. I hope that we will have enough of a diversity of students that we can actually build on what each of the students bring to the classroom. These will be well-travelled students who appreciate culture and diversity.

How will I know they are developing cultural competence? I think the best ways to assess this will be to integrate Chinese and other cultures into the business projects we complete. As I have touched on earlier, I plan to have the students compete in small groups to form effective businesses. While it is entirely possible some of these students will be creating online businesses, most will likely be doing something in the community. I will also ask students to reflect on the impact of culture on their multiple projects, and I think making culture an area of emphasis will help me to determine how well the students are integrating culturally.