August 31, 2011

Want to know what's wrong with Teach for America?

This video is a clear indication of what's wrong with Teach for America. Pretty much everything the teacher does is contrary to best practices; yet this is what Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and President Obama want.

Is it any wonder we can't reform education?

August 29, 2011

When will the homework madness stop?

My 7-year-old second-grader brought home her first batch of homework today. It came in two workbooks, one textbook and one worksheet. It took her 30-40 minutes to complete, and it consisted of mostly review-type math, grammar and spelling work.

As I read the teacher's school web page, which explains the homework, I was not too shocked to see that she strongly supports this workload, contending that it will help my daughter learn responsibility and build good study habits, to which my best response is, "Poppycock!"

When will this homework madness stop? How many books and exhaustive homework studies must be completed before teachers eliminate this archaic habit?

To suggest that homework teaches responsibility is nothing shy of ludicrous. How can a child demonstrate responsibility, when given no choice in the task and threatened with punishment if the homework is not done? If I put a gun to your head and tell you to copy the Bill of Rights and you comply, does this make you responsible?

Alfie Kohn, Sara Bennett, John Hattie and Etta Kralovek are all noted educators and researchers who have denounced the effectiveness of homework as a teaching tool. Even Duke researcher Harris Cooper, who tried desperately in two separate studies to find value in the practice, said there is no measurable correlation between homework and achievement in elementary school.

Yet a second-grader is carrying five pounds of books and spending more than 30 minutes drawing lines from words to matching phrases.

Is there no end in sight to the homework monster?

August 27, 2011

What if educators just said "No" to the test?

I've never known a teacher to say, "Boy, I love standardized tests." Quite the contrary. Most teachers and many administrators oppose everything related to high stakes testing.

Many outspoken educators are not shy about voicing their opinions on the  matter. They complain in faculty lounges, at staff meetings or on their blogs that the test undermines everything that is good about teaching and learning. It is unfair to students, who have a years-worth of learning judged in a single 150-minute testing session.

Worst of all, teachers declare, the test makes students hate learning. In spite of all of this, we keep administering this abomination every year.

As our standardized test approached  last year, I asked some colleagues why we keep giving it. "What do you mean?" one asked. "We just have to." Again, I asked why.

What if, I suggested, we just say "No?" We band together with voices stentorian and tell the bureaucrats to keep their test, because we don't want it.

Imagine every teacher in your state promising solidarity and saying, "Don't even send the tests, because we will not administer them." What would the government do? What could district leaders do? Fire every teacher in the state?

Maybe, rather than give the decision-makers time to contemplate this possibility, we should just "get sick" the day of the test.

Imagine the statement educators across the country could  make, if the tests arrived and there were no teachers to administer them.

August 26, 2011

New school year brings ROLE introduction

Now that I have shed my traditional teacher clothes, in favor of results-only learning gear, I really love the first day of school. In my old traditional days, I used to do what most teachers do on day one: talk about rules, consequences and procedures. It was pretty dull for me and, especially, for the students.

Now, I share this ROLE presentation with my students, and the day is really exciting.

It's fun to watch students' jaws drop, when they learn that there is no homework, no tests, no worksheets and no grades in a ROLE. They ask cool questions like, "What are we doing, if there are no grades?" and "Really, no homework?"

Results-only learning makes every teaching day fun.

August 25, 2011

How to create good diagnostic instruments

I would love to see the words "test" and "quiz" eliminated from the education vernacular. In their traditional form, tests and quizzes do little more than punish students. These antiquated assessment devices are typically composed of multiple choice questions, which mirror content provided by the teacher, much of which requires only rote memory. If students don't remember the material or if they test poorly, they get a poor grade.
Photo credit:

Students who test well and have good memories usually get high grades. Still, the teacher has learned very little about what a student has learned.

Tests that are prepared as tools for diagnosing learning are different from those used as carrots and sticks to punish or reward students. A well-written diagnostic includes a variety of questions about each learning outcome. These are straight-forward items, maybe multiple choice, that are never meant to trick students.

An effective diagnostic should avoid words and phrases like, "not," "except," "never" and "all of the above," or "none of the above." Good diagnostics do not focus on minute details that are not necessary to demonstrate mastery of a learning outcome. For example, distinguishing characters in a short story is not relevant to understanding how the setting affects the characters' actions. Similarly, asking students to name FDR's vice president has no bearing on the impact of his New Deal on the Great Depression.

Finally, an effective diagnostic instrument should never be graded. This is why students hate tests. If you avoid the word "test" entirely, you can explain to your students that, much  like a doctor, you are simply diagnosing the health of their learning.

If the diagnostic indicates problems, then revisit the lessons and models, in order to reinforce the objectives. Then, you can always re-administer the diagnostic, if you feel it's necessary.

August 24, 2011

How to raise test scores

Regular readers of the ROLE Reversal blog may be shocked at the title of this post, knowing how ardently I oppose high stakes testing. Fear not, I have not been transformed into a traditional teacher or bureaucrat, who believes that standardized testing is the best way to evaluate learning.

Photo credit:
However, after hearing my superintendent browbeat his staff for poor returns on last year's test and subsequently listening to colleagues say we need a plan for better high stakes test scores this year, I began to ponder this issue. Even though I loathe the test, we're stuck with it, so I figured why not tell my colleagues how to raise their students' scores.

I shared how my students pass at a higher rate than their peers in traditional classes. So, what strategies do I use to prepare my students for the test, I was asked.

"Simple," I say," I do nothing. I never talk about the test. I don't teach test-taking strategies, and I don't review practice test results."

After a silent moment of astonishment, I explained that my Results Only Learning Environment is built on developing a thirst for learning. Students work on projects, they collaborate and, most importantly, they read all year. With minimal help from me, they develop the skills they need to pass any test.

So, if you want to improve scores on high stakes tests, the easiest way is to stop teaching to the test. Throw out your remedial programs and stop designating the failing students as "failures," or those "at-risk of failing." Treat all of your students the same. Get them to love learning, and they'll begin learning.

When the standardized test arrives, tell students you know they'll do well, because they have learned.

It really is this simple.

August 23, 2011

When administration sucks the life out of teachers

The new school year started yesterday with our usual district-wide convocation. This is when all teachers and staff meet in our high school's auditorium to hear the superintendent talk about the coming year.

Sadly, in recent years, this has become a time to discuss our failings on the state-mandated standardized test.
Courtesy: Penn Political Review
Year after year, it's the same thing: we're labeled as "average," "below average" "above average," or "excellent." The "good" schools are praised, and the "below average" ones are vilified in front of the entire districts and local politicians. Then, we're informed that this year will be different, because we have some tremendous new program that will magically get students to pass the test.

All this manages to do is suck the life out of teachers. Instead of looking forward to the energy and fresh ideas that most teachers return with, teachers head back to their respective buildings, with their heads held low and their vigor crushed.

When administration sucks the life out of teachers, it makes for a horrible way to start a new school year.

August 22, 2011

Rethinking tests and quizzes

"Today, we'll have a pop quiz." Back in my days as a traditional teacher, I loved this sentence. There was a sense of power and control, when I surprised my students with some sort of test of knowledge over something we'd recently studied or of a chapter in some boring book I had demanded that they read.

By its most basic definition, the pop quiz is nothing more than a stick, used to punish students. It's not much better than the paddle, teachers used back in the days of corporal punishment. Students are asked to complete some basic task, and then they are tested on the knowledge they retained in a short period of time. If they have not completed the task, they fail the quiz.

Tests are not much different. Students study information the teacher provides, and they are given a list of questions created by the teacher, based on the information that was delivered. The teacher has all of the control -- one reason that tests masquerade as objective assessments, when they are, in fact, very subjective.

If we are to reform our failing education system, it's time to rethink tests and quizzes. To simplify things, the first step should be to eliminate quizzes entirely, as they serve no educational purpose. As Jerome Bruner wrote, teachers should help students "experience success and failure not as a reward and punishment, but as information (The Act of Discovery, 1961)."

So, let's concentrate on tests. Although project-based assessment is the best way to evaluate learning, tests can provide the information, of which Bruner writes.

The key to making good use of a test is to use it strictly as a diagnostic tool. In fact, the word "test" should be replaced with diagnostic. Students should be taught that a diagnostic tool, especially one that contains multiple choice items, is only part of assessment.

Because tests are unreliable and subjective, the results should never be part of a grade, and they should be used to evaluate which learning outcomes need more attention from the teacher. Rather than looking at test results in terms of individual students, they should be considered holistically. So, if 40 percent of a class misses number 8 on a diagnostic, there is either a problem with the item, or the learning outcome needs to be revisited.

When tests are used in this fashion, strictly as diagnostic tools, they become one useful part of evaluation of learning.

Look for more on this subject at this post on raising test scores.

August 21, 2011

Rubrics fail students as much as grades

Rubrics are popular assessment tools for many teachers. Like grades and other traditional assessment methods, rubrics fail students.

The problem with rubrics, like letter and number grades, is that they are a one-size-fits-all form of assessment and they are subjective. Rubrics use words like, "seems," "little," "mostly," "adequate," "some" and "weak," to name a few.

Although narrative feedback, the method of assessment that should eliminate grades and rubrics, may use subjective words in some cases, the feedback is far more specific and individualized. If the feedback says, "Very well done overall," this will be followed up with a careful explanation of what was done well. Rubrics don't do this, so even students who meet the learning outcomes don't know how they did it, based on a rubric. Consequently, learning is lost.

For example, on a major project, a part of a rubric may say, "Work displays adequate attention to detail." This statement has virtually no meaning. I'm not sure what "displays" means in this context, and "adequate" is a completely inadequate word in virtually every case. Finally, vague statements like this do not explain what detail the teacher wants.

If providing meaningful narrative feedback, I would mention the detail specifically. If it's a science project on hurricanes, I might say or write something like: 
"Your project only partially demonstrates that you understand hot towers, based on the lessons and models from class. You need to add two or more captions to your drawing, explaining how the towers power the hurricane. Please make the necessary changes and resubmit."
Not only does this feedback specify what is missing, it asks the student to return to the work, make changes and resubmit.

Because a rubric is a one-size-fits-all tool, it does not meet the needs of each individual and, consequently, fails students.

August 20, 2011

Summer reading tests kill interest in reading

Years ago, when I taught with traditional methods, I started the school  year with summer reading worksheets and a test. The test typically composed 20 percent of the first marking period's grade. As is the case with other archaic methods, such as homework and tests, this put students in a peril, as far as their grades were concerned.

Flickr Creative Commons license
The aforementioned is why most assessment of summer reading kills students' interest in reading in general, and summer reading, in particular.

When I converted to a Results Only Learning Environment, I did away with the worksheets and tests over summer reading. This was only one step to engaging students in reading during their lengthy sun-baked breaks, though.

We used to assign one or two novels, and demand that students prepare summaries on them and take a summative assessment within the first week or two of the school year. Since many students failed to read the books, they started the year with a failing grade.

Teaching in a ROLE showed me that student autonomy is the most important element of developing a thirst for learning. So, my colleagues and I created a long list of books at various reading levels and asked our students to choose from the list. If they couldn't find something they loved (this almost never happens), they could choose a book of their own. We just wanted them to read and, more importantly, develop a love of reading.

Now, when the school year begins, we ask students to complete a project, complete with a huge menu of choices for demonstrating learning. There is never a summary and never a test. Students enjoy sharing their reading experiences in creative ways, and reading becomes fun.

August 19, 2011

ROLE discussed on TED site

Flickr Creative Commons license
The amazing debate about eliminating grades that I moderated on last month sparked plenty of conversation about results-only learning.

With this scintillating debate in mind, I started a new TED discussion about creating Results Only Learning Environments world wide.

I hope you'll weigh in on this important conversation. Also, please share it with your PLN.

August 17, 2011

Why high stakes testing is all about money

Today, I received correspondence in my school e-mail inbox from a company, promising to increase student achievement on our state-mandated standardized test.

For the small price of $1,495, Coach Publishing declares, I can plop my students on computers and have them take practice test after practice test. Oh, but there's more: for my slightly-less-than-$1,500 investment, the company will also give me real-time test results and customized skills practice.

If one wonders why it's so difficult to get bureaucrats -- the same ones who blame teachers for the problems in education -- to understand what's wrong with high stakes testing, there is no better evidence than this. Politics is about lobbyists, and education has no bigger lobby than the opportunists who keep producing these useless test-taking programs at exorbitant prices.

Let's see, for $1,500, I could purchase 400-700 paperback novels. If I do nothing more than put the books in my students hands and tell them to read all year, they will still outperform their peers, who use software systems, like the one referenced above.

It doesn't matter, though, because high stakes testing is a big money business. So, while the testing lobby makes billions, our students suffer.

August 16, 2011

Harvard professor on 21st century skills

Harvard professor, Daniel Koretz, has interesting views of 21st century skills. Although Koretz has plenty of thoughtful ideas about how we need to help students learn, his most insightful one comes roughly 4:30 into the video below.

Although Koretz doesn't use the term ROLE, his notion of finding solutions to big problems without a clear path underscores how results-only learning works.

Overcoming tradition

After 15 years as a traditional classroom teacher, I took a long, hard look in the mirror and pointed a finger. "You are a bad teacher," I said. "You are failing your students."

My intentions were good. I was integrating technology into daily instruction and doing everything I could to help my students pass our state's annual high stakes test. Still most of my students were more interested in class disruption than they were in learning.

Not all of it is good
One grading period after another, many of my students were failing. I was beginning to wonder how much even the so-called "A students" were learning. Something had to change.

After much research, discussion and soul searching, I realized that traditional teaching methods no longer worked. (They were never very effective.) I would have to change everything in my classroom. Like someone breaking a bad habit by going "cold turkey," I was going all in.

All traditional practices were abandoned. I eliminated homework, worksheets, rules and consequences, rows of desks and, most importantly, grades. My new Results Only Learning Environment became a student-centered learning community, built on collaboration, projects and autonomy.

Most people who have witnessed the death of traditional teaching in my classroom are shocked. Some ask, "What made you do it?"

"It was easy," I say. "I realized I had to overcome tradition."

"Oh, I don't think I could do that," most reply.

Maybe it's time that they and anyone still using traditional teaching methods take a long look in the mirror.

August 14, 2011

Teaching without worksheets is easy

In a recent post about the misconception of greatness in teaching, I shared an anecdote about a new teacher explaining how a so-called great teacher shared all of his worksheets with her. I immediately cringed at this, because of my strong belief that worksheets and the like erase any interest students might have in the subject matter.

Want a quiet classroom? Worksheets will help.
I have written widely about how a results-only classroom uses year-long projects in place of worksheets. Some educators are skeptical, most likely because they don't want to let go of their precious files filled with the worksheets that make teaching so easy, while putting students to sleep faster than a 30-minute lecture.  

Education researcher, Louis Volante, has found that among other things, worksheets have been proven to waste valuable class time and focus on teaching only rote skills (2004). Founder of MAX Teaching, Mark Forget, has suggested that worksheets eliminate the collaborative approach that is conducive to learning (2004).

My own experience tells me that worksheets are a crutch, used by traditional teachers, who have either no interest or no experience engaging students in real learning. The year-long project provides students with a menu of choices for demonstrating numerous learning outcomes over the course of an entire school year.

The teachers provides mini lessons (typically brief videos, discovery activities and models) and plenty of class time for project work. Students are engaged by the freedom that a workshop environment creates. Plus, since students help create the projects, they are intrinsically motivated to move forward with them, to watch them grow. 

So, if you build a powerful year-long project that integrates learning outcomes and provides students with plenty of choice, collaboration and time to work, you'll see that teaching without worksheets is very easy.


Forget, M.A. (2004). Max teaching with reading and writing: classroom activities for helping
students learn new subject matter while acquiring literacy skills. Portsmouth, VA: Trafford.

Volante, Louis. Teaching to the Test: What Every Educator and Policy-maker Should Know.
Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy.

August 13, 2011

Misconceptions of greatness

Newbie teachers are so quick to give veterans the "great teacher" label. They often hand it out as thoughtlessly as doctors, passing out stickers to toddlers after their yearly well visits.

A new teacher, whom I'm very close to, is preparing for her second year in the profession. In a recent conversation, she told me how she was getting ready for the school year.

Will a worksheet engage this student?

She received help from someone who just retired from her school. "He's a great teacher," she announced enthusiastically. "He gave me all his old worksheets and tests." Now, she explained, things would be easy, as she would have less activity preparation and lesson planning.

Because she means so much to me, I was devastated to learn that she believes that someone who uses worksheets and tests is a "great teacher." I must assume that she will bury her students with these decades-old worksheets and bombard them with boring, useless multiple-choice tests. After all, most young teachers want to emulate greatness. This is what they learn. Education professors and new teacher mentors teach the strategy: find a great teacher and do what she does.

The problem with this is twofold. One, there are very few truly great teachers. Two, this monkey-see-monkey-do approach does not lend itself to self-evaluation, research and discovery. These are the tools of great teachers -- not worksheets and tests.

I wanted so badly to look at this young teacher and say,"Please don't be that teacher. He is not great."

I wanted to tell her that I know that she can be so much better, but a  so-called great teacher had already influenced her far more with his worksheets and tests, than I could with mere words.

With great regret, I realized that her misconception of greatness may keep her from ever reaching it.

August 10, 2011

People are passionate, anxious about eliminating grades in school

I have spent a good portion of the past two weeks responding to comments on a debate I started on the Conversations page called, "Isn't it time to eliminate grades in education?" Since narrative feedback over grades is such a huge part of the Results Only Learning Environment, I wanted to see what others thought about the subject. The response has been overwhelming.

The debate is closing in on 600 comments. The range of feedback is remarkable, and many countries are represented (this, of course, is emblematic of TED). Some people are completely supportive of the elimination of grades and of results-only learning, while others are completely convinced that education can't survive without numbers and letters.

Along the way, I've learned is that people all over the world are passionate about education. Some people have left 10 or more comments, even creating debates of their own within my TED conversation. It's also obvious that although many are in favor of some kind of reform movement, they are still nervous about it.

What surprises me is that an idea so simple is being so intensely debated. I sort of expected people to just sign in and say, "Yes, you're right. Let's eliminate grades."

Hopefully, this is the beginning of a legitimate movement.

More from this debate later.

August 2, 2011

One problem with tests in school

When it comes to testing, there are far too many problems to list in one blog post.

I think this brief video certainly covers one of them