Friday, February 26, 2021

The Shift to Concurrent

Teachers are returning to school buildings.  

I know the decisions have been made, and concurrent instruction is happening, but I want to clarify my concerns on the education side of things (I think I've gone on before about the public health side of this).

At our local high school, about 85-90% of the teachers are returning to classrooms, but, fewer than half of the students are returning to the building. 

So 90% of our teachers are returning to school buildings to improve the education of fewer than 50% of the students. I worry that teaching concurrently will generally degrade instruction, especially for remote students. I'm sure this isn't true for all teachers or contexts (e.g., special needs, vocational ed, and others), but based on my work with teachers around the country, the shift to concurrent is not an easy one.

I would argue that even if your goal is to keep students from "falling behind," the right strategy in November should have been to say that schools will stay remote for the remainder of the school year. Everyone could have focused on really great virtual instruction instead of spending so much time, money, and emotional energy preparing to return to school buildings.

And, there is a racial layer to this as well. Which students are returning? Data from around the country indicate that white students are returning to buildings in numbers FAR greater than students of color (e.g., New York, Nashville). This is not surprising in light of a recent Axios poll that indicates that Black and Latino parents are twice as likely as white parents to be extremely or very concerned about schools in their community reopening too quickly. 

Put this all together, and I think it's reasonable to predict that returning to buildings for concurrent instruction will widen opportunity gaps.

Teachers: Good luck. You have been put in a tough position, but I know you will do your best. I appreciate all you have done and all you will do.

Parents: This is a huge shift. Check in on your students often. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

Why Fix the Best School? Because It's Broken

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology is consistently ranked as one of the best public high schools in the country. We can debate the metrics that are used for such lists, but it's hard to argue with the results the school produces: Tons of exemplary students who gain admission to impressive colleges and universities and go on to amazing careers. TJ is a success.

So why would anyone suggest changing anything about the school? The table below shines some light on the problems.

Three things jump out at me from this table. First, Hispanic and Black students aren't even applying to TJ nearly as often as we would hope. Second, once they apply, the admissions test knocks many of them out of contention immediately. Third, it's an even worse picture for economically disadvantaged students. 

If you look at these numbers and think "Well, the Asian kids are just smarter," then we have different assumptions about the nature of race, so you can just move on. I have no reasoned response.

If you look at these numbers and think "Well, the Black and Hispanic kids are not as qualified (through no fault of their own), and letting more of them in will significantly dilute the academic strength of the TJ student body," then we can have a reasonable discussion (though I disagree with you). 

In a recent School Board working session, the Superintendent presented his TJ Admissions Merit Lottery Proposal, and I like it. For the first time, the admissions process can reflect the reality that many students could benefit from the rich experiences at TJ -- not just excellent test-takers. Most students who meet the new requirements (e.g., moving the minimum GPA up from 3.0 to 3.5) will be able to thrive at TJ. A few points: 

  1. The current system does a great job of identifying great test takers, but there is more to academics than test taking. I actually don't care about creating a strict ordering of everyone who can take a test well. It's important that admitted students be qualified, but more than 500 students in Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington, and the other participating districts are qualified to attend TJ. 
  2. TJ teachers can figure out how to bring out excellence from students who took Algebra I in 7th or 8th grade and have a 3.5 GPA in their core middle school classes. Their classes will be SLIGHTLY less homogeneous, but not much. 
  3. More Black and Hispanic students will apply than in recent years. I would guess that many students of color haven't particularly wanted to go to a school where they are culturally alone.
  4. The TJ community will benefit from having more diverse perspectives and skill sets, while communities around Fairfax County will benefit from having connections to TJ. 
  5. For the class of 2022, 2 middle schools combined to send 140 students to TJ (about 40% of the county's total), while 15 middle schools sent too few to report (small single digits).

The lack of diversity in TJ's student population has inspired hand wringing before. One question that struck me from this article was from an alumna who asked "Why are her white peers just noticing the problems now?" Honestly, I suspect that the declining representation for white students is a significant trigger. Nothing gets the attention of someone with privilege like being underrepresented. There are probably other reasons including the increased emphasis on equity in our society, but I'm a bit of a cynic.

Here are a few bold predictions:

  • First of all, defenders of the status quo are going to lose their ever-loving minds. They will make impassioned pleas and defend the current system as the epitome of meritocracy.
  • If this merit lottery ends up being enacted and the number of National Merit Finalists goes down, those defenders of the current status quo will freak out again and say "I told you so!" My response: I'm ok with that. When you rely on a test for admission, then it is no surprise that those students remain good test takers. I will not judge TJ based on how many exceptional test takers attend. That merit is judged primarily by a single test is ludicrous and narrow-minded. What is being rewarded with the current system is test preparation.
  • Some families are going to move (or at least appear to move on paper) so their kids can have more favorable chances of selection. Any system can and will be gamed.
  • Academic achievement will rise a bit at many middle and high schools. All of a sudden, kids from underrepresented areas of the county will realize that they have a chance of getting into TJ, and will work to become qualified for the lottery. 
I applaud Dr. Brabrand and the folks at FCPS who put together this innovative proposal. It will improve educational opportunities and outcomes across the county, and will make TJ a better place to learn.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Tips for Working in Zoom/Webex/BBCU

Here are a few tips for people transitioning to Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate or Webex or Google Meets for the next few months (most notably teachers). 

Ergonomics: (You probably ignore this usually, but being on your computer 8 hours a day can expose all sorts of issues)

1) Consider an external keyboard. The angles your laptop force your wrists into aren't comfortable for everyone. Since I've been using a wireless curved keyboard with ergonomic mouse, the tendinitis in my wrists has been fine. 

2) Top of monitor should be right around your casual eye level. 

3) Your elbows should rest at a right angle when using your keyboard.

4) Consider a setup that can allow you to stand. I use an Ikea desk with a motor that allows me to switch between standing and sitting. There are other solutions, but being able to stand every once in a while is a good thing.

Prepare your A/V presence:

5) Get an external monitor, and keep your open laptop to one side. With two screens, you can use your laptop to keep an eye on chat or to preview what you want to show next.

6) Make sure your camera is close to the top and center of the monitor you plan to be looking at. That might mean buying a $39 USB webcam that you can position on top of your monitor. My laptop's camera is by the hinge, and the view up my nostrils is not pleasant.

7) Position your light source(s) near the camera. Avoid having lighting (especially windows) behind you.

8) Keep a headset with boom mic or earbuds with a mic on hand. The sound quality of your laptop's mic might not be great. I know the headset will mess up your lovely hair. Cry me a river 😉

9) If you can, use one browser for personal stuff and a different browser for work. For instance, keep Chrome for work and Firefox for personal stuff on your work machine. This makes it easier to keep your worlds separate.

10) Before you start sharing, always check your tabs. You don't want to over-share. On Chrome, F11 hides all the menus and toolbars.

11) I didn't think I needed it, but I like having my phone on a stand on my desk. It brings it into my visual space so I can leave it on mute and not miss anything critical. Google Messages and WhatsApp both have web apps that allow me to see text messages in a browser tab, which is even better.

12) Make sure the space behind you is not distracting and doesn't include any windows or other bright light sources. Just like with browser tabs, you don't want to provide more distractions.

Special note for teachers: I know this is new for many of you, but you can and will make it work. You don't need to be perfect. You just need to be present and  connect with your students. If all you do is show up, riff a bit, and get students to engage in a conversation, that will be amazing. If you are lucky and/or good enough to also have some coherent curriculum, then that's awesome. Keep it simple and show up. You got this!

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Helping Your K-8 Kid Learn Math

As many school districts plan atypical scenarios for the Fall, many parents are asking a couple important questions:
  1. If I want to homeschool, what curriculum should I use?
  2. If my kid is still "in" school, but doing a ton of work independently, how can I help them?

Choosing a Math Curriculum

Actually, I wish more people would ask what curriculum they should use. Many intelligent people imagine that they can just do it themselves or buy a book off amazon and get it done. It's not that simple. Curriculum matters, but where should you turn?

In 2012, New York state commissioned the creation of a really great set of curricula for K-8 Math and English Language Arts (ELA). The result of that effort is EngageNY, which is generally considered some of the best open education resources (OER) out there. When that contract wound down, part of the team that created EngageNY decided that they were not done, so they created UnboundEd.

UnboundEd has updated and extended the EngageNY product to create solid content with good focus, rigor, and coherence. Oh, and it's free. They are also really great people who care deeply about equity and confronting our implicit biases. For proof, check out their Bias Toolkit

For another perspective for grades 6-8, check out Open Up Resources. Open Up is newer, and perhaps less robust, but they have some good stuff.

There are other options. has reviews of many curricula, so you can certainly poke around there. That said, you could do a whole lot worse than leaning heavily on UnboundEd and sprinkling in a few things from Open Up (grades 6-8) and/or the supplemental resources listed below.

Getting Math Help

What if you or your student gets stuck on some math topic? Note that this is a really different need (and set of solutions) from the curriculum focus above.
  1. If you haven't checked Khan Academy, you haven't done a serious search. I would not use this as a curriculum, but the videos can help a learner get over a bump in the road, or can help a parent brush up on something they learned and forgot years ago.
  2. BrainPop is another good source of videos. There are a ton of others, and you can find many at OER Commons.
  3. Friends and family could help. Who do you know that is good at math? They are likely sitting at home, and would be happy to help and interact with someone new. Lean on your network!

Having the Right Mindset

Stop telling kids that they are bad or good at math. Carol Dweck and others have done and published a ton of research on this, but the core idea is that with VERY few exceptions, most people can become good/better at math if they put in the right effort. Instilling a static mindset by telling a kid s/he is good at math or bad at math takes away their agency. They need to know that effort is valuable and it can lead to getting better.

This isn't about participation trophies and orange slices. This is about rejecting the dysfunctional and wrong idea that our genetics have predetermined what we can be. This is about helping every student know that progress is important and within their control. Lifting weights doesn't inherently make you strong, but with the right program, effort, and persistence, a lifting program can help you build muscle. It's the same way with mental effort helping our math ability grow.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

An Alternative Plan for Fall 2020

Dear FCPS School Board and Leadership,

The current conflagration surrounding your proposed plans for this Fall suggest that some different ideas could be helpful. Here is one for secondary schools:

Monday: Virtual synchronous: periods 1-8
Tuesday: In school: Cohort A periods 1-8 
Wednesday: In school: Cohort B periods 1-8 
Thursday: Virtual synchronous: block periods 1-4
Friday: Virtual synchronous: block periods 5-8

Note: The above reflects input from a teacher who pointed out that having a cohort in school on a Monday causes several issues.

  1. 4 days of synchronous instruction for every student
  2. Teachers only in building two days/week
  3. Easy to pivot to either all virtual or all in-school
  4. More time to clean schools
  5. Frees up secondary schools so elementary schools could theoretically take more space. I am not an elementary education person, so I will leave the "how" of that to others.
Part of the challenge your current plan presents for secondary school is that it is SO awful for students. Two days of synchronous instruction is simply insufficient. 

Another challenge of the current plan is that it exposes teachers to risk 4 days/week. My plan reduces that to 2 days. Another idea is to have teachers with medical issues be fully virtual, with an Instructional Assistant in the room to facilitate the in-class technology while the teacher is virtually present via video. Note that with the proposed plan above, this would only have to be done for Monday and Tuesday. 

I know that you are being inundated with complaints and suggestions and pleas from various fronts. I am not trying to solve a problem for my kid. I'm much more worried about a) the many students who really need more synchronous, guided instruction, b) the teachers who are worried about their health, and c) the families who are torn by two options they know will serve their students poorly.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

FCPS: Some Thoughts on the Plan for Fall 2020

A friend asked me what I thought of the FCPS Return to School plan for opening this Fall, so here goes ...
  1. There are no really good choices. The School Board and FCPS Leadership are all doing their best in a crappy situation. Further, school-based administrators, teachers, and other staff are heroes. They have been dealing with changing plans and guidelines for months.
  2. I totally understand the need to nail down staffing, transportation, and other resources, but it's pretty tough to ask parents to decide now whether they will be in school or fully virtual for the full year.
  3. On the other side, I imagine that more teachers will want to teach virtually than will be needed. Many teachers have health issues (either their own or their family) that will make dealing with the in-school Petri dish a worrisome idea. I totally understand that many people have been going to work, but a school environment is probably significantly worse than an office when it comes to germs.
  4. For several reasons, I still wish they had considered a blended approach.
  5. Having teachers and other staff in the buildings so much, and with the cluster that was the experience this Spring, I fully expect many teachers and admins to retire in the coming weeks. There are many who are already eligible to retire, but have continued to work for myriad reasons. The threats this coming year will likely pose to their health, happiness, and sanity will tip the scales for many. 
  6. Staffing challenges will be legion. From a bigger than usual wave of retirements (see above), to finding subs, to figuring out who will teach virtually vs. in school, every school will have major staffing headaches.
  7. Child care is a huge issue on several fronts. Anyone with elementary-age children will have a problem. In particular, I worry about teachers who will have to be in school 4 days a week, and have elementary-age children who will only be in school 2 days a week. 
  8. Going back to #2... I dislike the idea of only 90 minutes of synchronous instruction for each secondary school class every week. 
  9. The Online Campus has a big catalog. I'd seriously consider looking through it to see if it makes sense for my kid to take a few classes that way. The experience might not be as good as the in-school experience, but a) the Online Campus curricula are designed for virtual use and b) the experience won't degrade if there is a spike in the pandemic that necessitates schools going back to a virtual setting.
  10. I think FCPS is already way behind where they need to be with staff training and curriculum planning. Having 60% of instruction/learning happen asynchronously is a huge shift that really requires training and collaboration. Not every teacher should solve this. Solutions need to be developed as teams and shared widely.
  11. I've got questions: What will happen with extracurriculars? What if we are out of Phase 3 and everything is basically open? How will the system navigate the likely changes in the Phases we're in?
That's all I can think of for now.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Opening Fairfax County Secondary Schools this Fall

Dear FCPS School Board and Leadership,

This Spring had its challenges. I'm not going to re-hash them, but want to praise the many teachers and administrators who still made effective learning happen for their students. I was impressed by and grateful for my daughter's devoted, talented, creative teachers.

Here are some thoughts about secondary schools as you plan to open FCPS this Fall:

1: Your Proven Online Solution: Use Fairfax's Online Campus to push many courses online that already have virtual versions. Perhaps the base experience for many classes could be shifted to the Online Campus course, with in-person instruction once/week (as long as health conditions allow) as well as weekly synchronous virtual class sessions (see below). FCPS has the content and infrastructure to make this work. Also note that leaning heavily on Online Campus will make it easier to pivot to all virtual learning if the health circumstances require it. 

2: Teacher Support: Teachers who will be blending virtual and in-person instruction need ...
  • Content that is designed for virtual/blended delivery. Few teachers have the time or expertise to create the depth and breadth of digital content that they will need to pull this off well. 
  • Tools for collaboration and for creating simple content (e.g., simple instructional videos).
  • Training in blended and virtual technology and pedagogy. Facilitating a course that depends on technology requires comfort with technology, but also with new pedagogical strategies. 
  • Time to plan and collaborate with their colleagues. For instance, there is no reason that each English 10 teacher in a given school should create their own videos. They should be able to share the burden and stay in sync. 
A few quotes from teachers:
"Asking teachers to reinvent the curriculum for online delivery is impossible and a fools errand...will...not...happen."
"... Teachers want to be prepared to help their students should virtual learning continue but we need help."
"Registration for the FCPS Academy course on online teaching opened at midnight on June 15th. The two sections filled in less than 4 minutes!! It’s summer break and hundreds of teachers are up at midnight to register for a course so they can learn how to teach online. By mid-morning over 100 were waitlisted,"
Without all of these supports, the system will struggle again, student learning will suffer, and FCPS will lose many talented, devoted, but frustrated teachers. 

3: A Blended Model: The scenarios presented so far seem to be either fully virtual or fully (in terms of synchronous teacher support) face-to-face. What about a blended solution? For instance what about using a variation of Scenario 2:
  • Monday and Tuesday: Half of students in school each day with 8-period day. 
  • Wednesday: Virtual periods 1-4 synchronous online
  • Thursday: Virtual periods 5-8 synchronous online
  • Friday: Intervention block
Some advantages of this blended approach are: 
  • More structured time for students. None of the proposed scenarios have students learning synchronously more than two days/week. My suggestion pushes it to three.
  • Less in-person contact time so that health risks are reduced.
  • Easy to pivot to fully online if health conditions change for the district or for a particular school, teacher, or student. 
4: Reaching Out for Guidance: K12, Inc.'s headquarters is right here in Fairfax County, and they have been doing virtual learning for close to two decades. K12's 100,000+ students include lots of ELLs and IEPs and special education and F&RL. It could make sense to get their input as you frame up virtual and blended solutions, including how to provide counseling, engage with families, and deal effectively with populations that have specific needs. K12 is far from perfect, but they have been doing virtual and blended learning for a long time, so they can probably help FCPS avoid some pitfalls.

The Shift to Concurrent

Teachers are returning to school buildings.   I know the decisions have been made, and concurrent instruction is happening, but I want to cl...