December 30, 2011

Big Brother is destroying American education

George Orwell's 1984 is a cautionary tale about a government that polices everything citizens do, including how they think. The term "Big Brother is watching" was popularized by this classic dystopian novel. Big Brother is the party leader, who does everything possible to eliminate individuality.

Recent comments here at ROLE Reversal, on Twitter, Google+ and other articles and blogs got me to thinking that Orwell's Big Brother and our current government may not be so different. One might argue that the notion that we're being controlled by thought police is absurd, but consider the government's role in education and its impact on educators.

The comment below, left on a blog post about the negative effects of homework, is a perfect example of the thought control that our government is creating with standardized testing:
"Sounds good, but my state says we Must finish x amount of concepts in the year, and be prepared for an end of course exam that determines if they graduate. I need every second of class time and the students need practice to get the ideas into long-term memory."
I hear similar complaints daily in my own school, from colleagues scared senseless that their students won't pass the test, subjecting the teachers to all sorts of state-mandated wrath. Don't standardized tests force teachers to behave like thoughtless automatons, handing out practice test worksheets and homework day after day, as they spout "You must pass, you must pass," mantras at their students? Or do they?

Most readers of Orwell thought his novel was, in fact, cautionary and that his plot was far too outlandish to ever come to fruition.

As we gaze into today's classrooms and see one mind-controlled teacher after another, we must wonder if Big Brother isn't alive and well today, controlling the thoughts and actions of teachers and destroying American education and the futures of our children along with it.

December 29, 2011

New Year's Challenge: stop teaching to the test

I've been reading plenty of education reform blog posts and articles recently. Not that they aren't well-written or insightful; it's just that most reiterate the same refrain: achievement tests place a stranglehold on teachers, inhibiting their effectiveness.

This may be surprising, coming from someone who is well-known for railing against standardized testing, but it's time for teachers to stop complaining that they can't be effective because they have to teach to the test!

If we stop preparing students for the test and simply teach them to be efficient learners, they will perform well on the test without additional test practice. Sounds easy enough, right? Trust me, it is.

I do no test preparation of any kind in my results-only classroom. In fact, we never take any quizzes or tests. My students read daily. They discuss real-world situations that take place in both fiction and nonfiction, and they complete remarkable projects that encompass all of our learning outcomes. They ask lots of questions and we discover the answers together.

One day prior to our state-mandated achievement test, I review what they can expect. We discuss the tricks that are on the test. Apart from this, I simply remind them that they are well prepared, because throughout the school year, they have learned everything they will need to answer the questions on the test.

If we all approach the test this way, I believe the scores will increase exponentially. Maybe if students nationwide start scoring well on these insipid tests, eventually the bureaucrats will see that there is no longer any need for them.

December 26, 2011

Punished for not participating

While browsing YouTube, I came across this video by a student, enlightening us on the problems with grading participation in class. Sounds about right to me. What do you think?

December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas, now do your homework

My son started his winter break by walking into the house and announcing that he had homework to complete. As much as I hate homework, I thought, How much homework would teachers really assign over our two-week holiday break? Some light reading and maybe a few math worksheets won't be too damaging.

Then, my son produced two packets, one for reading and one for math, and I realized just how wrong I was.

These collections of worksheets totaled over 40 pages. If my son does some homework every day during our two-week break, including weekends and Christmas eve, Christmas day, New Year's eve and New Year's day, he'd have to complete just under three pages of homework daily.

Of course, the likelihood of him working on homework on the holidays is, well, unlikely. If he does homework for, let's say, eight days, that's five pages daily -- five pages of this homework madness on our holiday break! That's homework in place of reading, games, time with friends and family fun.

My son is a wonderful student, who completes all activities and homework, even though he admittedly doesn't like it, so he'll probably get it done. As a father, teacher and researcher who knows the negative effects of homework, I won't encourage him to complete it.

This may upset his teachers, but they should have considered this, before they sent him packing with a gleeful, "Merry Christmas. Now do your homework!"

December 24, 2011

How would you spend 71 billion dollars?

Congress recently approved more than $71 billion for education for the fiscal year ending September of 2012. Of course, hundreds of millions are set aside for Race to the Top and other useless organizations like Teach for America.

I did some quick math and learned that if the government simply divided the money equally by the number of public school students, it would mean schools would have roughly $1,400 per student. Granted, this isn't a huge amount, but if we knew there would be at least this much yearly, imagine what schools could do to improve education.

Just spitballing, my first thought was to put an iPad, loaded with powerful applications, in the hands of every student. These would last a long time, so in subsequent years, the $1,400 per student could go for other useful education materials.

Keep in mind, this is in addition to the millions districts get each year from tax dollars and existing government funds.

The way this gigantic pile of cash is currently dispersed, though, most of the nearly 50 million K-12 public school students are left penniless.

So, how would you spend 71 billions dollars?

December 21, 2011

It's time to put a square peg into a round hole

Photo via
In a brilliant article, posted on Valerie Strauss's The Answer Sheet, San Francisco State professor emeritus Mark Phillips shares the following anecdote:
"Edwin Abbott’s classic book, Flatland, tells the story of a square that falls into a world of three dimensions. Returning to his two-dimensional world, he tries to explain his incredible experience. But how do you explain a cube to someone who can only conceptualize two dimensions? Ultimately he’s branded a heretic and jailed."
This got me thinking about my own attempts at education reform. As I share with colleagues the results-only strategies I use, I'm often greeted with skepticism. Fortunately, I've yet to be branded a heretic, but some of the dissenters have recently become vocal. Still, it seems that many of today's teachers struggle with change.

As Phillips writes, "Most teachers and administrators, dealing with the daily challenges of teaching, don’t have the luxury of thinking beyond the present paradigm."

Some, however, simply don't know when it's time to put a square peg into a round hole.

December 19, 2011

Project based learning prepares students for life

While preparing a presentation for the ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show, I came across this remarkable video, produced by on project-based learning.

What a marvelous example of how project-based learning and assessment can prepare students for life, while helping them perform well on standardized tests -- a bonus that will keep administrators happy. The powerful quotes from great minds, like Howard Gardner, enhance a very insightful production.

December 18, 2011

Exposing bad homework research

A heartfelt email from a new teacher prompted yet another post on the deleterious effects of homework.

Robert Marzano
Tony says that his school district is big into the teachings of Robert Marzano, specifically his book, Classroom Instruction that Works

"In the book," Tony writes, "they end up saying the research shows deliberate moderate amounts of practice homework are recommended (with caveats of grading and informative feedback), so is this research wrong?  Or are there exceptions to the homework idea?"

Unravelling Marzano
With all due respect, Marzano's evaluation of the research is inaccurate. In an article in Educational Leadership, Special Topic / The Case For and Against Homework (2007), Marzano and Debra Pickering cling mainly to the work of Harris Cooper, whose homework research spans decades. Marzano and Pickering carefully extract quotes from the mountains of research Cooper produced from the 1980s to the mid 2000s. Of course, they take what supports their argument and ignore some of Cooper's own admissions about the ineffectiveness of homework.

Marzano and Pickering rail against Alfie Kohn, who offers a much clearer interpretation of Cooper and dozens of others in his 2006 book, The Homework Myth. What Marzano and Pickering fail to mention, that Kohn so eloquently reveals, is that Cooper's research incessantly relates the effectiveness of homework to grades -- which are subjective measures of a student's achievement. (If I assign homework, my student doesn't do it, and I give her an F, this will easily bear out the supposition that not doing homework hurts achievement. The same scenario will obviously work in reverse.)

In a very telling study in 1998, which Marzano and Pickering conveniently omit, Cooper states that he found no significant relationship between homework and grades or between homework and scores on standardized test results for younger students. The study found only a moderate increase in grades for older students doing homework (Kohn, p. 33) and, as previously stated, connecting homework to grades is a pointless endeavor.

Marzano and Pickering also dwell on the statistics of several meta-analyses on homework by Cooper, John Hattie and others. Again, the problem with all of these, which Kohn dutifully explains, is that the proponents of homework measure it against grades and test scores. This, alone, is enough to discredit all of these researchers, because grades and tests are poor ways to evaluate learning. Continuing to evaluate the merits of homework against these useless measures only acknowledges that grades and tests are okay, in the first place.

What Marzano and Pickering offer that is useful for teachers working at schools which mandate homework is the section of the EL article that supplies guidelines for homework. For example, they suggest that it should be purposeful and involve parents in appropriate ways. If you are assigning homework, which you shouldn't, this is certainly good advice.

So, back to Tony. "Is the research wrong?" I'd say, as far as Marzano evaluates it, definitely. "Are there exceptions to the homework idea?" This depends on how you look at the word.

I'm fine with students working outside of class, as long as they choose when and how to do so. Reading, as evidenced here, is really the best thing students can do outside of school. This too, though, should be their choice, and it should never be connected to any grade or test. I wouldn't call these activities homework.


Kohn, A. (2006). The homework myth: Why our kids get too much of a bad thing.
     Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press
Marzano, R. Pickering, D. (2007). Special topic/The case for and against homework. Educational Leadership. 64, 6. pp. 74-79.

December 17, 2011

Wait a minute; grades being used for good!

I have been inspired by the work of Nancie Atwell, Stephen Krashen and Donalyn Miller -- all educators and researchers who believe that the best way to improve literacy is through voluminous reading, both in and out of classroom.

A couple of years ago, after reading Miller's The Book Whisperer then Atwell's The Reading Zone, I created the Reading All Year (RAY) project, around which my entire school year is built. My 8th grade students are challenged to read 25 books by the end of the year (most will read 30-60), and mini lessons on book structure, figurative language and writing are built into the reading.

Overcoming the naysayers
While most of my 112 students have completely bought into this program, a few students still fight it because, in  most cases, they have been conditioned by bad reading systems in earlier grades to hate reading. They don't see value in it.

To fight this negativity, I meet with these kids individually throughout the school year. We discuss their interests, and I guide them to books I think they'll like and that are on their reading levels.

One more approach I use is to share data that demonstrates a connection between reading and success in school.

This is a double-edged sword, because I use report card grades as part of the data, and my students know how against grades I am. However, since they are still conditioned to think of grades as the true measure of their success in other classes, some brief research becomes very useful. I consider this a way to put the devil to good use.

The data
After our first marking period, I counted students who have read two or fewer books over the course of a 9-week quarter. I then reviewed their report card grades, and I totaled the D's and F's for all of these reluctant readers.

Then, I repeated this process for the most avid readers. For this research, I located students who had read nine or more books in the first quarter (I chose 9 books, because the total number of students who read 9 was 14, which was very similar to the number of students who read 2 or less). Then, I totaled the number of A's these students received.

When I shared the results on my Smart Board, the room fell silent.

Thirteen students who read 2 or fewer books combined to receive 39 grades of D or F -- an average of three low marks per student.

Conversely, the 14 voluminous readers combined to receive 59 A's -- an average of 4.2 per student.

Once the impact of the numbers settled on all of my students, I carefully make the connection between reading and success in school. "As long as schools use grades to measure achievement," I told them, "it's clear that A's demonstrate more success than D's and F's. I will never measure your learning with a letter, but if you want to be successful in the system our school has, it seems clear that reading is the way to do it."

Readers develop good habits. Readers learn more words. Readers write well. Readers perform well on most forms of assessment. Readers enjoy life.

This data exemplifies the only time there is any good use for grades; in this case, they may convince my reluctant readers to embrace our program. If this is what transforms them into voluminous readers, then this is one time I'm willing to say anything positive about grades.

December 16, 2011

What vision do grades provide?

I found this cartoon interesting. It got me wondering how any student might answer a question about vision, based on grades.

December 15, 2011

Good use of a bad tool

As a ROLE teacher, I am not in favor of worksheets, workbooks and the like. Very few of these tools offer any freedom to the learner. However, our students are provided with a vocabulary book, which is part of student fees, so I am obligated to make use of it. 

There are many ways I could justify use of the workbook and remain true to my results-only philosophy, but I want to be sure that using the book is neither a waste of time for students nor a waste of money for parents. So, I have learned to take the best parts of the workbook and create the autonomy that my students enjoy so much. 

We simply ignore the mundane multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank items and apply the lessons to real learning. One such activity involves reviewing strategies for using context clues – a valuable skill for all readers. Instead of completing the worksheets that follow the strategies, I ask my students to return to the novels they’ve selected as part of our independent reading program and apply the strategies there. 

After 15 minutes of reading, they identified previously unknown words in small groups, sharing the strategies they used to learn them. Later, they look up the words on their Smart phones to verify their meanings. This activity provides good use of a bad tool.

December 13, 2011

Angering the traditionalists

It seems that I inadvertently upset a colleague. In fact, angered is a more appropriate word.

While the teacher was making students copy nightly homework into an agenda book (yawn), a frustrated student who also has me for a teacher, announced that "Mr. Barnes says homework has no value." Uh-oh.

Now, just to be clear, I do tell students when they ask why I don't assign homework that I don't see the value in it and that they'd be better off reading for pleasure. I always add that other teachers do what they believe is best, and the students should honor that.

My colleague responded with a rather pointed e-mail, suggesting that my philosophy was hurting the entire building.

My initial reaction was to reply with a cyber dart of my own, but I refrained. After further consideration, I decided that the word is finally getting out. Before today, I thought my colleagues weren't listening to my pleas for reason on homework and grades. This was the first signal that they are taking notice.

Hmm, I wonder what I can do next to anger the traditionalists.

December 12, 2011

The debate over methods continues

Joanne Jacobs' blog post on Direct Instruction (DI) ignited a spirited debate. The conversation there encouraged me to post a response here.

Jacobs posted a new blog, Progressives vs. traditionalists, and that conversation, too, has snowballed.

So, is there a winner?

December 11, 2011

Are we losing the fight?

An education blogger I read often, Joanne Jacobs, recently posted a link to a traditional teaching program, called DI (Direct Instruction), created by someone from the private sector.

Although I had heard of this, I only knew that it embraces everything I'm against in education: scripted lessons, rules, worksheets and tests, so I had previously dismissed it without further research. The eBook Jacobs linked to on her blog about DI confirmed my suspicions -- that DI is one more in a long line of traditional systems that provide crutches for bad teachers and turn students into mindless automatons.

I decided to share my opinion about DI in the comment section on the post; I was the first. A few days later, I returned to Jacobs' blog to find dozens of comments. I was not surprised by the opinions, most of which were directly opposite of mine. Some outraged fans of Direct Instruction thought I was crazy and defended DI and other oft-used weak practices, like lions fighting for their young.

I was not angered by the comments; after all, these people were only defending what they believe in.

Rather, I began considering how difficult it is going to be to overcome these outdated teaching methods, so we can reform American education. If programs like DI and other scripted, basal-type systems can so easily influence parents and educators, how will modern, more progressive teaching methods, like results-only learning, compete?

I wonder, are we losing the fight with traditional teaching?

December 6, 2011

Unlocking the little things

I had an interesting experience today, when I taught a student how to open her combination lock. It sounds strange that four months into a school year, a 13-year-old is still struggling with a basic motor skill, but if you've ever taught middle school, you know it happens.

She had asked me to help her before, and I have always just opened the lock and returned to my classroom (you see, she's not my student, so it wasn't worth my time to do much more than open the lock).

Today, I decided to pause for a moment to see what was wrong. I asked her to attempt to open the lock, and I watched. "Your technique is flawed," I said. She looked puzzled. She was attempting to open the lock, while holding it in one hand and using the thumb on that same hand; she wasn't using her other hand at all. I asked her to hold the lock in her strong hand (the right). "Now, with your left hand, turn the knob on the lock, rather than trying to use just your thumb on the flat part of the lock."

I modeled the practice and opened the lock. Then I relocked it. She sighed. "You try," I said. "You have to do it, if you are going to learn it."

Three turns later, the lock sprang open. "You'll never need my help again," I called, as I  headed back to my empty classroom. She smiled and scurried away.

In a day filled with research, web-based tools, cooperative groups, reading and many more one-on-one conversations with students, it hit me that this might have been one of the best moments of the day.

December 3, 2011

How results-only learning transforms schools

This video, posted to, is a remarkable example of how ROLE strategies can transform any school into a remarkable learning community.

Although the people at Cochrane Collegiate Academy, featured in the video, don't call their school a ROLE, watch and listen for the results-only concepts shared by staff and students: collaboration, rapport-building, caring, hands-on, engaged and empowered students.

What you don't hear is anything about homework and grades.

All I wonder is with a model like Cochrane, why aren't more school administrators taking notice?

December 1, 2011

Does this remind you of anything?

New York state education department representatives, training principals on a new teacher evaluation system, explained that they don't understand the new evaluation method themselves.

To make the point, they showed the video below. Not surprisingly, according to the New York Times, not many people in attendance thought it was funny.

What do you think?