This is a FRED Talk I’m giving at OETCx this week. OETCx is the unconference component of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference. The idea with this presentation is that it’s a five minute presentation with 20 slides, automatically advancing every 15 seconds.
My name is John Schinker. I’m the Director of Technology for Brecksville-Broadview Heights Schools in Cuyahoga County. The school district I work in is not the same as the one I live in. That’ll be important in a minute.
This is my daughter, Emily, on her first day of first grade. Like most first graders, Emily was excited about school, and would do anything to please her teacher. She brought home her language arts book the first week, read the whole thing in one night, and took it back and asked for the next one the next day.
Emily’s enthusiasm for school persisted throughout elementary school. She wasn’t a genius (she does have some of her mom’s genes, after all), but she truly enjoyed learning. But that changed when she got to fifth grade.
In fifth grade she went to Intermediate School. Her classroom was not unlike this one, and her teachers’ pedagogy was very similar as well. The teacher was the source of all information, and the students’ job was to absorb knowledge.
The school’s focus was on preparing students to take the Ohio Achievement Assessments. They systematically covered the curriculum, mostly by completing worksheets. The school wanted to make sure that every kid passed the test.
In sixth grade, the OAA became the “super bowl.” That metaphor was used all year, and they counted down the days until the test. Nothing was going to get in the way. The students were going to be ready to excel on the test.
Emily saw that this was a game, and she lost interest in playing. She was reading at a 10th grade level, and her math scores were off the chart. She could easily have passed the OAA on the first day of school, and yet spent the entire year preparing for the test.
The school identified her as gifted, but in her school, “gifted” kids participated in a pull out program that gave them MORE worksheets and projects to do in addition to the classroom work that had to be made up during the pullout period. We opted out of the program.
As she finished sixth grade, we realized that middle school was going to be more of the same. There was little differentiation for students above the mean, and all of the passion for learning was being systematically expunged from the students. We looked for alternatives, finally settling on an online charter.
The online charter wasn’t any better academically. It was still totally focused on getting kids to pass the tests. But at least she could do school at her own pace. In two years, she completed three years of English and three years of math. She also had time for six hours of art per week in addition to music classes and world language. In her spare time, she wrote a novel.
Before we go on, we need to do a really quick review of standard deviation. I know you’ve all seen this before. Just humor me for half a minute. Standard deviation tells us how closely data is clustered.
With a small standard deviation, all of the data is pretty close together. With a larger standard deviation, the data is more spread out. If these are students, the ones on the left all performed similarly on the test, while the ones on the right were all over the place.
I looked at the 2014 data for the OAA math test, and this is the standard deviation of the scaled scores. See what happens? As students move from 3rd to 6th grades, they get further apart from one another. Then, after sixth grade, they get closer together. That’s because schools focus intense intervention on the students who are doing poorly, while virtually ignoring those who have already passed the test.
I thought this might be an anomaly, so I looked at some other years. They all follow the same trend. The kids get further and further apart in math until they hit middle school. Then, we work really hard to get them all back together.
What about reading? In language arts, the same thing happens, but it happens earlier. This makes sense. Schools focus on reading FIRST. Then, when the kids are all passing the reading test (6th grade), they focus on math scores.
The problem with this is that teaching to the middle doesn’t work in middle school. Essentially, this data is showing that there is no middle. The kids are all over the place. So most of the kids are either bored out of their minds or totally lost most of the time.
We need a better model for differentiating in the middle school. Academic rigor is one way to do that. Don’t give MORE work to those who understand the basics. Give them better things to do with that knowledge. Similarly, struggling students may move DOWN Bloom’s taxonomy, not to focus on LESS content, but to engage in it in a different way.
There are lots of other models as well. Blended learning and adaptive learning offer different tools for extending and differentiating that allow the teacher to spend more individual and small-group time with the students who need it. Response to Intervention is a way to apply proven intervention strategies in a consistent way. But regardless of the strategy we use, we have to do something.
This is Emily on the first day of 10th grade. She’s in Junior honors English, advanced math, and honors Chemistry. She still takes every art class she can. High School can differentiate a lot better than middle school, and she’s back to loving school again. But it was a rough few years. Middle school sucked.