<![CDATA[Brian Cohen - Making the Grade Blog]]>Sat, 21 Nov 2015 07:17:53 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Back in Philly: Superintendent Hite shares details of substitute crisis]]>Sat, 21 Nov 2015 15:04:34 GMThttp://www.bncohen.com/making-the-grade-blog/back-in-philly-superintendent-hite-shares-details-of-substitute-crisisPhiladelphia has been plagued by budgetary and political problems for years, as readers of this blog well know. One of the more recent concerns has been the provision of substitute teachers during the school year. The "fill rate" - to be understood as the percentage of full-time teacher slots with a provided substitute - hovered around 60% for years, meaning 40% of the vacant classrooms either had to combine with other classrooms or be covered by teachers with a full teaching load already.

As a former Philadelphia teacher, I can tell you it is not fun to be mandated to cover a class of students you do not know, for a curriculum you do not teach, when you expected to be able to prepare for your next class or get some grading done so you wouldn't be up late into the night.

The company hired to fill these vacancies - Source4Teachers - guaranteed that on the first day of school they would have a 75% fill right, increasing to 90% by January. Unfortunately, their rate has yet to break 35%. Because of that, news sources like The Public School Notebook have been calling for their contract to be canceled and the old system to be put back into place.

On November 19, Superintendent Hite explained in an email why the situation cannot be changed so haphazardly:
"Canceling the contract does not generate any savings: S4T is only paid for the substitute positions it fills."

"It would take months to recreate the previous system, which had considerable shortcomings."
It turns out that the leadership of Philadelphia schools has put itself into a very difficult position: canceling the contract doesn't recoup any money at this point (lucky for taxpayers) but because the old system has been shut down, it would take months to get those experienced teachers back into the classroom. Meanwhile, a bigger problem is lurking that Hite finally let out into the open:
"Despite having many dedicated substitutes, close to 70 percent of the pool was unavailable on any given day. Available substitutes frequently turned down jobs in certain schools and neighborhoods."

"For example, under the old system, substitutes could sign up for jobs on expected snow days and still be paid when school was canceled... one middle school, for instance, had a 100 percent fill rate for snow days this past March; its overall fill rate for the month was 8 percent."
It is evident from this information that the substitute system was in a sort-of crisis when they brought in Source4Teachers. The hardest schools to fill had poor reputations. Instead of attempting to fix those reputations, however, money was spent on a system that hasn't been shown to work. Privatization will do that pretty often.

I can only hope that the leadership of Philadelphia schools can learn from this and put back the old system while working with teachers and community members to figure out how to make substitute teachers' jobs easier in those situations so that schools can get what they need without having to pay and arm and a leg to get it.
<![CDATA[Why I love being #JustATeacher]]>Tue, 17 Nov 2015 00:33:50 GMThttp://www.bncohen.com/making-the-grade-blog/why-i-love-being-justateacherTwo weekends ago I attended Math for America's (MfA) annual Fall Function and wrote about it in detail. One piece I forgot to mention was a brief video displayed during the program where teachers from all over New York City (and maybe the country - it wasn't clear) talk about their impact on the world around them. It focuses on a central theme/quote:
​There is just one profession that makes all other professions possible
I particularly appreciate what the teachers say in this video as a showcase to what you can do with the magic of the classroom. You can work with other professionals on cutting-edge research, publish a book of your own, and influence the minds of thousands of the next generation. I am very happy to be a part of this team - both the teaching profession and MfA.
<![CDATA[Who are Educators 4 Excellence and what do they do?]]>Sat, 14 Nov 2015 19:23:27 GMThttp://www.bncohen.com/making-the-grade-blog/who-are-educators-4-excellence-and-what-do-they-doLast week there was a voluntary meeting in my school building after classes closed with two representatives of Educators 4 Excellence, an organization founded by former teachers that works to "ensure that the voices of classroom teachers are included in the decisions that affect our profession and our students." This is a lofty goal behind which I would stand whole-heartedly, if not for their continued requirement of signing their "Declaration of Principles" in order to join the organization. During the conversation it became clear to me that while things may be a bit different on the ground with which teachers join the organization, the principles have not changed and, therefore, anyone who signs up is technically agreeing to all of these bullet points. 

While I agree with some, I thought it would be useful to analyze the few that I disagree with more:

1) E4E supports "an evenhanded performance-based pay structure to reward excellent teachers." 

This sounds wonderful on paper: teachers put more effort in and change the way they do things, and so they will be compensated for it. The most important issues, however, are that this statement tacitly implies that teachers are somehow holding back, not putting all their effort in because they choose not to. Also, who will be the people deciding on the performance standards and gauging whether or not a teacher has met or exceeded them?

2) E4E supports "evaluating teachers through a holistic and equitable system that incorporates value-added student achievement data as one component of effectiveness."

While I am an outspoken skeptic of Value-Added Modeling (VAM) because of what I've read, I still find it interesting that more reports suggest it is a positive step in the evaluation movement. In fact, the reverse has been found true time and time again. The most recent example is from the American Educational Research Association, when they wrote in a recent statement on the use of VAM, "Existing VAM estimates have not been shown to isolate sufficiently the effectiveness of teachers, principals, or other nonteaching professional staff." 

3) E4E supports "giving students and parents more opportunity to choose great schools." 

Whenever I hear or read the something similar to the term "school choice" I think of the charter school movement and its deleterious effects it has had on traditional public schools. The recent example from Success Academy Charter Schools of the "Got to go list" is only one of the egregious uses of public funds. Why can a parent choose to support and change a public school that already exists? Why abandon that school completely and then leave the students that "cannot be helped" by the charter school to a fate with less funding, fewer supports, and more issues? 

The meeting we had was a very good insight into the positions that E4E has traditionally had. Interestingly, the two representatives pushed back a lot on our questions to these principles, saying they were more of an "outline" of what the membership believes. In my opinion, if an organization has a declaration of principles including these three aspects, I am not going to sign on the dotted line, even to get a newsletter. I'm guessing those that read this and signed it either agree with some (but not all) or did not read it closely enough to make an informed decision.

There is one positive thing that came from the meeting, however: I read the New York branch's most recent policy paper on school climate, entitled, Climate change: Creating safe, supportive schools for all studentsIt discussed the increased use of Restorative Justice and increasing funding for mentorship, training, and implementation. The only snag, however, is that of the 15 authors of the report, I found that only 3 of them have more than five years of experience (when checking on LinkedIn and other sources).

​If E4E is to truly be a diverse community of educators, it needs to have more folks involved at a variety of levels of experience - and they will likely only get that if they reform their Declaration of Principles.]]>
<![CDATA[A reception to celebrate what teaching should be]]>Sun, 08 Nov 2015 14:33:14 GMThttp://www.bncohen.com/making-the-grade-blog/a-reception-to-celebrate-what-teaching-should-bePicture
Last night my wife and I had the opportunity to celebrate what the teaching profession should be like at Math for America's annual Fall Function reception. I haven't done a whole lot with the organization just yet since the classes and workshops I've signed up for don't begin until the end of November, so this was a really overwhelming way to get introduced to the community within the organization.

There were at least 1,500 people in the room during the festivities that ranged from a cocktail hour with temporary tattoos, a photo booth, full bar, and amazing conversation with peers. I found a few of my co-workers from school there and connected with other MfA Fellows and their guests. The dinner was quite tasty and they even had enough substantial gluten-free options for my wife (this is always an issue at parties like this). Even though I wore one of my suits, arguably it was a fancier affair in which tuxedos were sometimes worn. I'll have to up my game for next year.

During the dinner there were a few speakers, including Jim Simons, the founder and Board Chair of MfA. This self-made billionaire was quite the comical man and also made important statements about how teachers should be more respected and lauded for their great works. He and the current President, Jon Ewing, made me (and I think the other teachers in the room) feel like we are really making a difference and that we are a part of the next wave of how teachers should be treated in the US. 

There were a few references to attempts made to influence national politics as it relates to the teaching profession as well as the pride they have at the New York State Master Teacher program that mimics MfA's style.

Overall it was an incredible night and I can't wait to take part in my classes this winter!
<![CDATA[Mini-Maker Faires are fun!]]>Sat, 07 Nov 2015 22:57:34 GMThttp://www.bncohen.com/making-the-grade-blog/mini-maker-faires-are-funThis morning my wife and I went to the local Barnes and Noble in order to attend the Mini-Maker Faire event organized by the bookstore and my co-worker and Robotics Instructor, Eddie. It was quite an amazing site to see some students from our school participating in the community to share what they have done - and to see the community demonstrate interest. There were regular bookstore-goers and folks like us who specifically wanted to visit for the event.

One of the cooler parts was the demonstration of one of the Brooklyn Collaborative Roboshark's robots in all its glory: the frisbee-throwing robot. Three years ago students designed it for a challenge at the Javits Center and we still have it to show off. It's quite amazing (check out the video below). 

We spent about an hour there talking to students, to Eddie, and some other folks who had come for the event. I'm so glad our school has these kinds of community connections and I wish the same for other schools in NYC.
Eddie using the frisbee-throwing robot
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<![CDATA[The Obama administration "calls" for less testing]]>Sat, 31 Oct 2015 20:01:15 GMThttp://www.bncohen.com/making-the-grade-blog/the-obama-administration-calls-for-less-testingLast week the Obama administration developed a new "Testing Action Plan" that - according to them - is supposed to reduce the mandates on standardized testing and allow teachers to do what they do best: work with students (not proctor exams). 

As some may remember, it was President Bush in 2002 who introduced the No Child Left Behind Act that authorized the use of Title I federal funding to be distributed amongst states that pushed their students to become proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. The assessment of that proficiency came in the form of standardized tests mandated in grades 3-8 and once during high school. It has been highly controversial due to different states having different standards, overwhelming amounts of testing in schools, test preparation replacing standard curriculum, etc.

​For the first six years of his administration, President Obama has not done much to change this mandate, drawing much skepticism from teachers all over the country.

As the Philadelphia Public School Notebook notes, the Obama Administration has "spent the last year encouraging states and districts to make sure that assessments are of high quality and don't take up too much instructional time." The new Action Plan, in fact, requires that testing take no more than 2% of the yearly instructional time. I very much hope that this desire comes into some kind of fruition. 

I am, however, skeptical of some of the timing of this. They state as an example, New York:

New York has worked to limit the amount of time students spend on required state- and district-level standardized tests – no more than 1 percent of instructional time for state-required standardized tests, and 1 percent for locally required standardized tests. To support this work, New York also established a “Teaching is the Core” competitive grant which supported teams of administrators and teachers in reviewing all assessments given, eliminating unnecessary ones, and improving the quality of assessments by making them more performance-based.
Since we have standardized tests from the state for over six days in the year, I'm not sure how this qualifies (6 days / 180 days = around 3%). 

I look forward to hearing more but am watching with a careful eye.
<![CDATA[The importance of specific objectives in the classroom]]>Wed, 21 Oct 2015 20:23:22 GMThttp://www.bncohen.com/making-the-grade-blog/the-importance-of-specific-objectives-in-the-classroomSince I work at a very collaborative school I am sometimes asked to participate in professional development workshops that will help myself and my colleagues better understand certain aspects of our jobs. Today was one of those days: I attended a workshop run by EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning on October 27th) about crafting Learning Targets (different from objectives).

Through the day's activities we talked about some of the framework of learning targets and why they are important for us to use as educators but also important for our students to use as well. Every day I read through the learning target with my students so they understand what they should be able to do at the end of the lesson. If the target is, "I can differentiate between different types of functions" then I want my students to know that we will be analyzing different graphs, tables, and equations to figure out what the differences are. 

The most important aspects of today for me, though, were two documents: the Verbs to Use in Learning Targets and the Target-Method Match.

Using these documents one can figure out what phrases to use for a particular skill or piece of content you want to teach. Most likely if I want students to differentiate things my learning target will not include anything about calculation. That may be involved in the lesson itself but the focus - the learning - should be the differences between the functions. When I am ready to assess my students on these skills, I will want to make sure that the tool I use matches the skill in a strong way. Differentiating involves a lot of explanation so a multiple choice assessment would not be as good as a short or long answer question.

The information we discussed today is truly helping me hone my craft. I feel better suited to make lessons and decisions over the coming months since now I have written all the learning targets from important sections of our text. I look forward to using them!]]>
<![CDATA[Another article about how important sleep is for children]]>Wed, 21 Oct 2015 01:13:20 GMThttp://www.bncohen.com/making-the-grade-blog/another-article-about-how-important-sleep-is-for-childrenAlthough the important role of sleep in memory was recognized more than a century ago (5), more recent research has clarified the causal mechanisms through which sleep benefits memory, namely by active consolidation of memories through the reactivation of newly encoded memory representations that become incorporated into long-term knowledge (5,10).

Excerpt from Preventing Chronic Disease, Volume 11, E216.
A good friend recently received his PhD in sleep research for University of Colorado at Boulder and so I have been in constant discussions with him about the importance of sleep in relation to processes in the body. Both adults and adolescents (really, everyone) need enough sleep so that the brain can function well and ensure bodily concerns are not an issue. 

Unfortunately, according to the recent article mentioned above, few students get the recommended daily allowance of sleep in order to be at full-functioning capacity during school hours. Not only do we find differences between ethnicities, we also find differences within an ethnicity with respect to age.
As one can see above, the amount of students receiving between 7-8 hours of sleep per night hovers around 52-55% of the total. When race is taken into consideration, fewer Black and Hispanic students get that kind of sleep in comparison to their White compatriots. Additionally, one can see that as age increases, the amount of hours slept per night decreases. This is truly unfortunate as the need for high grades and full potential is at its utmost in 11th and 12th grades.

I am lucky to work at a school that begins at 8:45am so that students can get a bit more sleep each night. It doesn't always work, however, as in New York City students can travel an hour to get to school (as happens with some of our students) and so they have to get up early anyway. 

I hope this data is continued to be taken into consideration in future policy decisions.
<![CDATA[A busy start of the year]]>Fri, 16 Oct 2015 01:30:01 GMThttp://www.bncohen.com/making-the-grade-blog/a-busy-start-of-the-yearThis year has been very busy and so I haven't posted here as much I would like. But, to recap, here are few details of things that have gone on thus far:

Expeditionary Learning Thursday

Since my school is a part of the Expeditionary Learning network, we piloted a program last year wherein every core class organized a day filled with visits out "in the field" as it were. We planned two trips last year and will be doing the same for this one. Our first trip was to analyze patterns in the real world on October 1. Our Algebra 1 students were sent to museums and a data lab to document their findings on patterns in the world and came back to compare them with each other. It was not as good a trip as what I had planned last year but was still meaningful.

Focusing on Algebra 1 only

Since I am only teaching one academic subject this year - Algebra 1 - I have been able to really focus on its content, difficulties, and make sure certain students understand the material even better than before. I find myself spending more time reflecting on lesson plans and spending more time working with individual kids to make sure they feel supported in our classroom. While we have had some issues with recurring students or just the run-of-the-mill disruptive kid, it has not been unsurmountable.

Math for America Flex Funds

I spent a first but of the Flex Funds I receive as part of Math for America on some small supplies like golf pencils to give to students without a writing implement, some staplers to recoup the loss of whatever ones used to be in my room, and a new power supply for my printer. I had a fun experience taking the printer apart and replacing the power supply and hope that it breathes new life into a printer that cost $500 when I bought it. I'd rather not spend more of the Flex Funds on that.

Otherwise, things are generally good. I look forward to a full week of classes next week and a weekend at home for once in a while.]]>
<![CDATA[Math for America changes the view of professionalism]]>Fri, 18 Sep 2015 01:21:09 GMThttp://www.bncohen.com/making-the-grade-blog/math-for-america-changes-the-view-of-professionalismPicture
I am so excited to share that I was recently picked to be in the 2015 cohort of Master Teacher Fellows in Math for America, an organization that prides itself on a sustainable future for math and science teachers in the USA. 

Their vision is simple: An inspiring, expert teacher in front of every student in America. 

Their mission is even better: MfA makes teaching a viable, rewarding, and respected career choice for the best minds in science and mathematics.

Yesterday I spent an evening with other Master Teachers from around New York City for the orientation into the 2015 cohort. I arrived to wonderful welcomes and discussions with some of the staff and other fellows, eating some free empanadas and plantain chips!

We all came together in a large auditorium where the staff really made us feel more like a community and less like a group of teachers who all happened to get the same fellowship. From my experience last night, they really want us to communicate with each other regularly, meet up and discuss pedagogy, life, and anything else that makes us tick.

The best part of the evening (and the bulkiest in terms of time) was when a veteran fellow came up to explain the idea of an "Open Meeting." This is something I am familiar with from the EdCamp model of the unconference: a bunch of open slots for conversation filled by the participants and anyone can go anywhere at any time to learn more. I quickly decided to set up myself to discuss advocacy in the education policy field and took slot #2 for that topic. I ended up having a great conversation with teachers from all over New York City and even took some notes on new things I should look into.
The night was a great success from my standpoint and I can't wait to get more deeply invested and involved in this community. I am grateful for the opportunity to get this far and hope I can give back as much as they give to me.