Assessing Students’ Character Traits—You Bet

Assessing Students’ Character Traits—You Bet on ParentChat with Regina: Getting Control of What Matters in Education | http://parentchatwithregina.org/The Walton Family Foundation is spending $6.5 million to help researchers figure out how to assess students’ character. The Foundation says that the grants are in “the emerging field of character research” (according to a well-reported article in the September 17 online edition of Education Week by Evie Blad).

Some of that grant money went to Professor Angela Duckworth, who has done exceptional work at the University of Pennsylvania on personal traits that make a difference in student success, including “grit.” Grit is exactly what you think it is—the willingness to dig down and do what it takes to accomplish something, even when things don’t work out the first time.

I first looked at Professor Duckworth’s research about four years ago when I was working with a high school that I co-founded in New York City. The principal, the teachers, and I were troubled by some of our students’ lack of concern about their work and their behavior. For example, they didn’t do their homework. It wasn’t that it was too hard or that there was too much of it. They just didn’t feel like doing it. Our students weren’t geniuses, even though ours was an Early College high school and the students were on a fast track to graduation (in just three years instead of four). They were average New York City kids—no better, no worse—and we all felt they could care a little more and work a little harder. Parents, perhaps you have students like this in your children’s schools or perhaps you have one at home.

Chris Aguirre, our remarkable principal, and I came up with the idea of a checklist to judge our students’ personal traits—at least, the ones that could be displayed in school and that were important for school success. After working with our teachers and testing out several versions of our checklist, we came up with what we referred to as our “Character Rubric.” It is undoubtedly not as scientifically correct as the work that will come out of the Foundation’s $6.5 million, but it worked. It was a way for teachers to judge students on six important traits—traits that we all felt would make a difference in their ability to succeed in school and later in life. As we said about our students in the introduction to our Character Rubric, “Without these character traits, all of their intellectual achievements cannot make them college ready and career ready.”

Teachers rated each student twice in each semester, using a rather simple scale from 0 to 3 to indicate how often the student exhibited each trait (not at all, rarely, sometimes, or usually). We also gave teachers examples of student behaviors that defined each trait so that we could agree on what teachers were looking for when making their judgments. For instance, “Is diligent” (our version of “grit”) came with behavior examples like “Does whatever it takes to complete an assignment,” “Finishes what he or she starts,” “Keeps trying in the face of difficulty,” “Tries hard to meet the teacher’s standards,” and more.

I had the privilege of presenting the Character Rubric to parents at a regular monthly PTA meeting and of talking to parents about it in many individual sessions. No parent ever found fault with it, argued with it, or expressed any reservation about it. It was a stunning success, from our parents’ point of view. They realized, immediately, that these were the traits their own children needed to work on.

Parents, I bet we all agree that kids need certain attitudes toward their schoolwork and that they need to develop certain traits that will serve them well at work and in life. Your work at home with your own children is a big part of developing those attitudes and traits, of course. But, at our school, we all believed that teachers needed to help nurture them in school and that teachers needed to correct students when they weren’t exhibiting them.

It is time to take a look at how teachers in your school or school district encourage your children to develop these important traits and how they let students know when they need to improve:

Ask your school board to talk about whether nurturing students’ character is an important part of the board’s vision. Is judging the results of that nurturing also part of the board’s vision? Does the board intend to look at how successful the district is in producing students with excellent character as well as excellent academic skills? This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent and other staff first to find out exactly what is being done in the schools to nurture important character traits.

You could ask your school board or your principal to come up with your own Character Rubric, if your school district or school does not already have one. You might expect to see a different one for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools (the important student traits should probably be the same, while some of the sample student behaviors might differ).

If you are having trouble coming up with a Character Rubric on your own, have your superintendent or principal let me know. We have a great one you might want to see.

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Shakespeare or Not: That Is Your Question

Shakespeare or Not: That Is Your Question  on ParentChat with Regina: Getting Control of What Matters in Education | parentchatwithregina.orgWhen California high school English teacher Dana Dusbiber decided not to teach Shakespeare’s plays and wrote about her decision in The Washington Post last June, she sparked quite a debate among teachers, professors, and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. What she didn’t spark was a debate among parents and other taxpayers, who should have been heard on the subject. More’s the pity.

Dusbiber reasoned that Shakespeare’s perspectives on life were those of a white Englishman from four centuries ago and that her classrooms filled with students of color needed to engage with the viewpoints of more modern, diverse, and relevant authors—both women and men from many cultural, racial, national, and ethnic backgrounds. She wrote:

I am not supposed to dislike Shakespeare. But I do. And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.

I do not believe that I am “cheating” my students because we do not read Shakespeare. I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition…. Mostly, I do not believe I should do something in the classroom just because it has “always been done that way.” (quoted from Dusbiber’s piece in The Washington Post)

Of course, there are plenty of arguments on the other side, too. For example, I would argue that including Shakespeare does not mean excluding a wide range of male and female authors from diverse cultural, racial, national, and ethnic backgrounds from the past and present. Studying even four or five Shakespearean plays across the middle school and high school grades really does leave plenty of time for other authors.

I would also argue that teachers do not need to make students read and discuss every word in every line of a play; that would be a time-consuming struggle for anyone—middle and high school kids, college students, and adults alike. Perhaps all of us should remember that Shakespeare did not write plays to be read, but rather to be seen. (Even after a course on Shakespeare for my English major at Cornell University, I didn’t enjoy Shakespeare until I stood through a very long and impressive Royal Shakespeare Company production of one of his histories in Stratford-upon-Avon on my honeymoon—my first experience with seeing Shakespeare rather than reading Shakespeare.) If I ever taught Shakespeare, I would simply show the plays—whether filmed stage productions or feature films. There are lots of good ones to choose from, and they make Shakespeare’s language much more accessible to everyone.

And, by the way, Shakespeare is required, by name, in the Common Core Learning Standards. So, if your state has adopted them, that requirement is a weighty argument by itself.

Finally, let me come to a topic that I write about a lot: Should an English teacher be permitted to teach only what he or she finds important, interesting, relevant, and worthy—indeed, only what he or she likes? What if a teacher down the hall from Ms. Dusbiber disliked African authors? What if another teacher down the hall disliked Latin American authors? What if another teacher down the hall disliked female authors? Should we feel fine about each of those teachers making up the required reading list for his or her students? Because, as a matter of fact, English teachers I have known do not dislike only white English authors from four centuries ago.

Parents, should you pull up a chair and listen to or take part in this debate? Should you talk about whether you think it is important for your child to experience one or more Shakespearean plays during middle and/or high school? Should you discuss whether you think a carefully devised multicultural literature curriculum is important for your child and for his or her classmates?

With a new school year barely begun, it is time to take a look at your school’s or school district’s literature curriculum, with Shakespeare as just one example of what to look for:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to talk about the content of the literature curriculum and how specific authors or works (e.g., novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays, speeches) were chosen. Did the school board approve the choice of specific authors and works or were those decisions left up to a central office administrator, a department chair in a school, or an individual teacher in his or her own classroom? This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent, assistant superintendent for instruction, central office specialists, principals, department chairs, and/or teachers to find out exactly how literature curriculum decisions are made.
  • Elementary school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss the way that literature selections are made in the school. Are specific authors and/or works (e.g., picture books, chapter books, plays, poems, speeches) chosen for study in specific grades? How were those authors and/or works chosen? Were steps taken to ensure that authors represented diverse cultural, racial, national, and ethnic backgrounds? Were parents involved in any of the discussions? Could they be next time?
  • Middle school and high school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss the way that literature selections (e.g., novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays, speeches) are made in the school. Are specific authors and/or works chosen for study in specific grades? How were those authors and/or works chosen? Were steps taken to ensure that authors represented diverse cultural, racial, national, and ethnic backgrounds? What discussion was there about choosing older vs. modern authors? Was there a discussion about Shakespeare himself? Were parents involved in any of the discussions? Could they be next time?

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Only One-Third of Students Are Proficient: Yikes

Only One-Third of Students Are Proficient: Yikes on ParentChat with Regina: Getting Control of What Matters in Education | parentchatwithregina.orgCould the recently released New York State test results for students in grades 3 through 8 in English language arts (ELA) and math be any worse? Well, I guess they could, but the results are plenty poor enough. Where is the exasperation, New York taxpayers? Where is the alarm that your kids aren’t learning fundamental skills, New York parents? Maybe everyone was on vacation.

You might remember that it was just last spring when record numbers of New York students “opted out” of taking the tests as families protested the new Common Core Learning Standards and/or the tests created to match them and/or the promise of using student test results to evaluate teachers. We will get to the 20 percent who opted out in a minute. They have already gotten more press than the test results.

Here is some background you will need (especially you readers who are outside of New York State). Results on the new New York State tests—first given in 2013 and designed to measure the new Common Core Learning Standards, adopted in 2011—are reported according to these achievement levels with regard to the Standards:

  • Level 4—The student excels.
  • Level 3—The student is proficient.
  • Level 2—The student is partially proficient.
  • Level 1—The student is well below proficient.

The State is hoping for 3’s and 4’s, which indicate that the student is on track to score at a college-ready and career-ready achievement level when it comes time for the high school Common Core Regents Exams. Parents and other taxpayers, you should be hoping for 3’s and 4’s, too.

So, How Bad Was It in ELA?

About 31 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 scored a 3 or 4 (with a range across the grades from about 29 percent to almost 35 percent). That 31 percent figure has been virtually the same for all three years of testing with the new tests. Just 31 percent of elementary and middle school students are proficient in reading and writing skills statewide. In case you think it is New York City’s fault, it’s not. About 30 percent of New York City students scored a 3 or 4 across grades 3 through 8. Wow.

It is time for the other shoe to drop: What percent of New York State students scored a 1—meaning that they are well below proficient? The answer is almost 34 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 (with a range across the grades from about 30 percent to almost 38 percent). Again, New York City scores are just about the same.

So, here’s the summary: About a third of New York State students are proficient or better (the 3’ and 4’s), about a third are partially proficient (the 2’s), and about a third are well below proficient (the 1’s). That’s also true for New York City students. Who thinks that is okay?

Maybe Math Was Great?

About 38 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 scored a 3 or 4 (with a range across grades 3 through 7 from about 35 percent to about 43 percent—and with an oddly low 22 percent in grade 8, likely caused by the fact that the many of the best math students in eighth grade were accelerated into Algebra and took the high school Regents Examination rather than this grade 8 test). That 38 percent figure has indeed improved from the 31 percent figure we started with in 2013. Again, New York City students in grades 3 through 8 are not far behind, with 35 percent scoring a 3 or 4.

So, what percent of New York State students scored a 1—well below proficient? The answer is about 31 percent across grades 3 through 8 (with a range from about 27 percent to almost 34 percent, with an oddly high approximately 40 percent in grade 8, again likely due to the removal of the best math students who did not take this test). Almost 34 percent of New York City students in grades 3 though 8 scored a 1.

This is it in a nutshell, and it is a familiar story: Just over a third of New York State students are proficient or better (the 3’ and 4’s), just under a third are partially proficient (the 2’s), and just under a third are well below proficient (the 1’s). New York City students’ results are quite similar. Compared to the ELA results, you ask? The results are ever so slightly better in math and would likely have been a bit better if the best eighth grade math students (who were accelerated into Algebra and took the Algebra Regents Examination) had been tested with this test instead.

What About Black and Hispanic Students?

It’s not good news. This year, about 40 percent of white students scored a 3 or 4 on the ELA tests, and about 50 percent of white students scored a 3 or 4 on the math tests. The figures for black and Hispanic students were about 20 percentage points lower than white students. On the math tests, the differences were about 25 percentage points. That’s what anyone would call a huge achievement gap.

Years ago, my nonprofit organization was working in Cleveland, then under Court-ordered desegregation. The Federal District Court had told the Cleveland Public Schools that the school district would be under Court order until the reading scores of black and white students in grades 1 though 9 were equal. It seemed like a tall order then—though an essential one. Unfortunately, it seems like a tall order today in New York State some 30 years later.

Let’s Blame the New Harder Tests—Not

Various officials have remarked that the new tests designed to match the new Common Core Learning Standards are harder than the old New York State tests designed to match the old New York State Standards. There might be some truth to that.

However, the third grade test still looks about like a third grade test. It’s doesn’t look like a sixth grade test given to third graders. Read the questions that New York State released to the public for yourself. Yes, you might find some that seem too hard or confusing or unfair in some way. (I can tell you from lots of personal experience that it is really hard to write thousands of perfect test questions.) But, at the end of the day, the tests are going to seem reasonable to you. After all, no one who was writing them wanted to see thousands of children fail.

So, I don’t think we can blame the new harder tests. Try this: Forget how students did on the older and perhaps easier New York State tests and consider only how they are doing now. How do you feel about a third of students being proficient or excelling, a third being partially proficient, and a third being well below proficient? That’s the question you have to answer.

By the way, the students who opted out and did not take the tests last spring were more likely to have scored a 1 or 2 back in 2014, according to New York State Education Department data. Oh, no. If lots of those students had taken the tests, the results might have been even worse.

As we begin another school year, it is time to address any concerns you have about New York State testing, and an honest conversation about the results is a great way to start:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to talk about the New York State results in ELA and in math in grades 3 through 8 and to discuss how your school district’s results compared to the State results. This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study the results before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators and teachers before and/or during the meeting. Listen for the administrators to explain the results in a way that makes sense to you—not explain away the results as if they weren’t legitimate.
  • Elementary and middle school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss your school’s results with parents. Are they satisfied with the results? If not, what changes are taking place to improve the results? Tell them whether you are satisfied with the results.
  • High school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss the eighth grade test scores of the new ninth grade class and to discuss what they are doing to help incoming students who do not have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in high school courses.

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Curriculum Decisions—With or Without You

Curriculum Decisions--With or Without You on ParentChat with Regina: Getting Control of What Matters in Education | parentchatwithregina.orgCurriculum decisions are being made in your children’s schools every day—with or without you, as U2 might say. I wish it were with you, but it is usually without you. Let me begin with a story.

A young colleague of mine is an amazing music teacher. When we hired him to teach at a new high school we were designing and opening, we asked him to create two music courses—one about the basics of music theory (with some hands-on instrumental experiences) and the other about the history of American popular music (a 200-year look at the brilliance of American music and what its many forms and styles have meant to our culture and to world cultures—a curriculum idea first proposed by music genius Quincy Jones).

We needed two courses, which we required of all of our students, because our state required two fine arts courses for high school graduation. (We actually required an art and architecture history course as well, because we thought that giving our kids three chances to pass two courses was an important safety net—a way to save worrying about missing state requirements as graduation approached.)

Things went well at the school, and the founding principal and I moved on after a few years to start new projects. I learned early this summer that our music teacher was moving on to a new position at another school. What a loss, I thought; it will be hard to replace him.

Recently, I learned that he would not be replaced and that the fine arts requirement met by the music courses would now be met with a drama course, which a teacher already on staff was qualified to teach. That is how curriculum decisions get made every day in U.S. schools. Where were you, parents? There was no mechanism in place to let you know that a significant change was taking place—much less to ask your advice about it.

Now, I am not opposed to drama or to the teacher who will be teaching it. Both are fine, in many ways. However, I do know that kids already study drama as part of their required English courses. And I do know that, for some kids, music is the only reason to come to school. Of course, any parent knows that, too.

A colleague and I used to run workshops for school board members across the U.S. on the topic of curriculum and on the importance of school board and parent involvement in curriculum decisions. We used to say that, in many schools and school districts, the curriculum was like ice floes. Teachers would come into a school and bring some courses with them; then they would leave and take those courses away with them when they went. Just like ice floes, coming and going.

Audience members always laughed at that description. They thought we were making it up, because it sounded so stupid. Were the courses worth teaching or not? If they were, why didn’t they stay in the curriculum when the teacher left? Couldn’t another qualified teacher be found to teach them? But that was just common sense, we used to say—the best kind of common sense.

What was the rationale for switching music to drama at our school? Did the principal have to convince anybody that this change was a good idea? The likely answer is no. I understand the temptation to solve a problem with a solution that is already at hand. I am sure I have done it myself. But that is not as important as getting the best solution for the students.

Would parents, if consulted, have preferred to keep the music courses? My guess is that they would have thought hard about what was best for their kids—rather than what was best for the principal. They might even have asked their kids. We are never going to know what the parents—or their kids—would have said.

Who should be in charge of curriculum decisions like this one? At the district level, school boards should, with the ever-present advice of parents and other taxpayers. When curriculum decisions are made at the school level, parents should be included in the discussion, even if the principal makes the final decision. A principal should make his or her case to the parents, should explain the reasoning, should lay out the pros and cons of various options, and should give parents a realistic picture of any constraints the school is operating under (e.g., budget, personnel policies, union issues). Then the principal is making a decision informed by the stakeholders.

As schools open for the new year, it is unfortunately too late to undo or reconsider changes in courses that occurred over the summer. But it is not too late to have discussions about what matters moving forward—because changes in what courses are being taught always matter:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to talk about the process for making changes in courses in your school district and in your individual schools and to discuss what role, if any, parents and the board itself have in that process. Is the process a matter of board policy or just of the superintendent’s regulations? (This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to review the district’s process before that meeting and to get the input of the superintendent before the meeting.)
  • High school parents: Ask your principal how a representative group of parents could be part of the process when discussions are occurring and before decisions are made at the school level about dropping or adding courses—whether required or elective. Ask your principal to set up a process for notifying all parents after such decisions have been made.

Remember, parents, that important curriculum decisions are being made—with or without you.

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