kitchen table math, the sequel: Mike Schmoker on time & buckets

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mike Schmoker on time & buckets

About a year ago I finally figured a couple of things out:

a) the existence of 'real' school reformers (i.e. people who have actually done it)

and

b) their names & books.

Mike Schmoker is one of my favorites within this small group. (Richard DuFour is another.)

I haven't managed to get their work posted in a systematic way, but I intend to.

For now, here is Schmoker on the subject of lengthening the school year:

Suppose you find that your bucket leaks. Does that mean you need a bigger bucket? Not necessarily; you may just need one that doesn’t leak. With the best of intentions, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are renewing the call for a longer school day and year—for a larger bucket. I believe this is premature.

Like most “structural” (vs. substantive) reforms, this one will consume our time and political energy, even as it postpones our encounter with a more vital, less costly opportunity: making good use the huge number of hours that currently “hide” within the conventional school day and year. If we recovered this time and properly redirected it, the impact on student learning would be greater than any reform ever launched.

There are, in fact, two to three months of learning time waiting to be recaptured within the existing school year. And though our communities and school boards might be surprised to hear it, a majority of educators are aware of this.

In the last few years, I have asked several hundred audiences of teachers, administrators, and union representatives the following question: Would you agree that almost all “worksheets” are a lamentable and unnecessary use of instructional time?* More than 90 percent of them agree unreservedly, by show of hands. Then I ask them to pair up and discuss what proportion of the school day or year students spend filling in such worksheets. After some give and take, the average response I get is a minimum of 25 percent to 30 percent—the equivalent of an entire grading period. More than two months.

I then say, “Gee … and I haven’t even mentioned movies.” This invariably provokes honest, almost relieved laughter. In the right setting, educators are refreshingly frank—and concerned—about the actual curriculum, which is starkly different from what the public (and many policymakers) imagine. Teachers and administrators know that the actual taught curriculum is rife with time-killing routines, worksheets, and often full-length films that add little or no value to the school day. Most interesting perhaps is that once educators have a chance to add it all up, they see that changes would add about 30 percent more learning time annually for almost every school in America. And it would cost us nothing.

We’ve known for decades that large chunks of class time are spent on ill-conceived group activities, on settling in or packing up at the beginning and end of class. Moreover, there has been an alarming increase, at all grade levels and in all subjects, of what the reading expert Lucy McCormick Calkins** refers to as classroom “arts and crafts.”

[snip]

Many parents suspect that some of this goes on in schools, but they hope against hope that it is rare or occurs only in low-scoring or inner-city schools. Would that this were so. I recently found these activities to be as, or more, prevalent in schools with their state’s highest academic designation. The fact is, students in most schools spend days at a time in academic classes on questionable group “projects,” on drawing and painting, making banners, castles, book jackets, collages, and mobiles. All of this is in addition to worksheets and movies.

[snip]

With a new administration and secretary of education in Washington, this would be an excellent time to honestly, and at long last, come to terms with how time is spent in schools. Then we would be in a better position to decide how much time and energy we should expend in fighting for longer school days and shorter summers.

Do We Really Need a Longer School Year?
Education Week
Vol. 28, Issue 36
Published Online: July 7, 2009

A friend of mine here in Irvington learned this week that in 8th grade science students could fulfill one assignment by writing a song.


* I'm not necessarily one with Schmoker on this point.
** I do not include reading expert Lucy McCormick Calkins in the real school reformer group. In fact, I do not include Lucy McCormick Calkins in the reading expert group.

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh, how true! The time is wasted in school - with projects, movies, arts/crafts in academic subjects. I would not be so critical of worksheets - but they can go as HW if they are PRACTICE worksheets. Overall, somehow my schooling in Soviet Union took 10 years (not 13 or 14!) and the summer vacation was 3 months, plus 2 weeks breaks between the marking periods...How was it possible to do? And why is it so stretched out here?

I would not want my son to be in school longer. Not longer year, not even longer hours.
I should think of the way to get him graduated by 16...


Exo

K9Sasha said...

I disagree that all worksheets are a waste of time. Worksheets are a way of allowing students to practice new material, which allows them to consolidate the concept and make it theirs.

In Language Arts last year, I worked with small groups of students on reading at their level while the rest of the students worked on seatwork - mostly worksheets. In math, I taught a lesson then had the students do the problem set.

By-the-way, what's the difference between a worksheet and a problem set or questions in a book? For worksheets the problems are already on the paper, while for questions or problem sets in books the students have to waste(?) time copying the question/problem before they can answer it.

I've never understood the problem with sheets of paper with practice items on them being assigned to students, but long, long ago I knew someone who called them "purple passion sheets" with scorn. Why purple? Well, if you're old enough you know the answer. :-)

Allison said...

The longer school year idea might make sense in temperate places around the 38th parallel or so.

It's idiotic for someone who lives above the 45th or below the 30th. There are simply too many weather/climate/daylight related reasons to have summers off and shorter school days.

The idea that one-size-fits-all for american culture seems to stem from the fact that we watch the same tv shows. But there are real differences.

Paul B said...

This is one of those debates where accepting the premise of the question means you've already lost the argument.

Why waste energy on the proper time? What matters is what is the proper learning. Some kids might be able to master concepts in half the time as others. Should they be forced to go for a proscribed amount of time? Others might take longer than the norm. Should they be off the hook when they've served their time?

Would you hire someone to paint your house in 143.5 hours, or would you hire them to finish the job?

Amy P said...

I suspect that the bad kind of worksheets are things like wordsearches where no content learning is involved.

VickyS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
VickyS said...

One has to be careful with this idea of restructuring the school day to add "more learning." Instead of eliminating the fluff as suggested by Schmoker, most educators think in terms of shortening the lunch periods, eliminating recess and specials, and expanding reading and math into 75%+ of the school day.

I think that's a recipe for even less learning.

I've always argued that more learning would occur if there were more free time during the day and more specials; longer and more nutritious lunches, and PE. This keeps interest high and kids fresh. The time in academic classes might be nominally less but more would be learned. Would the teachers here agree?

Most of the high school kids I know from Asia and Europe say that they get 15 minutes between classes, enough time to chat with a friend, track down a homework assignment, use the bathroom, visit a teacher. Seems to me that would go a long way toward eliminating the settling in period that starts most American classes.

Paul B said...

Vicky, right on!

My (middle)school has essentially 4 100 minute blocks per day. It's insane to keep kids in a seat for that length of time. I and my peers have pushed mightily to address this, to no avail.

If I could see 5 kids (with the same ZPD) every 25 minutes instead of 20 every 100, I'm absolutely certain their scores would go exponential.

The 19th century structures (big classrooms, grade level placements) coupled with 21st century fads (big time blocks, decreased courses) is a masssive contributor to lack of quality time and focused content.

If we make the 'bucket' bigger, in this climate, I would fully expect new fads like; the math month, or maybe alternating math/ELA weeks, or maybe feeding tubes and stationary bikes so we could squeeze out more seat time.

Paul B said...

I forgot the ever useful catheter to eliminate those trips to the bathroom.

Redkudu said...

It's always interesting to see people advocate for longer school days/years before they will even touch the subject of truly effective curriculum and practices. I keep waiting for someone to find a school where effective practices and curriculum are in place, and they STILL need more time. That's the one thing I always wondered about KIPP schools, until I read the book - why so much time? Did they have a good curriculum? Hard to tell from the book ( a good read, btw), except that for their first school they had no reading curriculum in mind until a businessman paired them up with a savvy principal who recommended SRA.

Last year at my current school our students had mandatory math tutoring before lunch and after school. They would write them tickets for truancy if they didn't show up. We still barely passed AYP. And yet, when I would speak to the math teachers about curriculum, I would get blank stares. There wasn't one. Everyone just taught what they wanted. And there were a LOT of worksheets, because they didn't have an agreed-upon textbook. Again, the thinking was "teacher knows best, so what teacher does goes." I felt terrible for our failing math students.

lgm said...

Paul B you are too funny! ROFL here.

From our family's experience in the fully included elementary and middle school classrooms, the arts&crafts projects are the busywork given to the portion of the class that is not involved in RtI or another pullout. The time chunk is so huge that they can polish off several chapters in their personal book and improve their reading skills or get all the homework done at school...a direct violation of NCGA... so they must now do busywork while their classified peers are getting small group or 1:1 tutoring.

I also notice that some high schools in this area are not offering full schedules to seniors. I could understand that if overcrowding was an issue, but it's not. These students would be better served by having actual classes rather than several study halls...especially the ones that aren't ready for community college, can't speak English fluently, and/or have no knowledge of personal finance. The ducking of the administrators' responsibility for wise use of time is phenomenal.

Catherine Johnson said...

I disagree that all worksheets are a waste of time. Worksheets are a way of allowing students to practice new material, which allows them to consolidate the concept and make it theirs.

Me, too.

One problem I've seen with the small group of 'real reformers' is that they are all ed-schooly, too. Lee Jenkins, who I think is fantastic, actually has a chapter in one of his books saying that throughout history there have been 3 ways of learning to read: letter (phonics), word, sentence.

Then he says that everyone knows that all 3 work.

It's just astounding.

Schmoker's the same. He's the guy who invented the phrase "crayola curriculum," but he's a Richard Allington associate.

Catherine Johnson said...

Why purple? Well, if you're old enough you know the answer.

Wait!

I don't know the answer!

Catherine Johnson said...

This is one of those debates where accepting the premise of the question means you've already lost the argument.

Exactly.

Catherine Johnson said...

fantastic comments - these need to go up front

I absolutely agree re: shorter classes & more breaks.

Do any of you remember the self-experiment B.F. Skinner did with that??

I'll get it posted, too.

Catherine Johnson said...

That's the one thing I always wondered about KIPP schools

Yes, I agree: that's my one question about KIPP.

KIPP adopted Rafe Asquith's motto: There are no shortcuts.

But that's not true; there are shortcuts in life; productivity growth is based on finding shortcuts (is that an OK way to put it?)

KIPP may need all the time they're using - my hat is off to them & I don't know the answer.

BUT, I do wonder whether, if they were using Engelmann's curricula, they would actually need that much extra time.

OTOH, in another article I read about them - and posted here - it was obvious that they were using quite a bit of the extra time for 'specials': orchestra, etc.

So I don't know. The KIPP kids are two years behind when they come to school. They make that time up and they pull ahead in just 3 years total.

They may be using time as efficiently as its humanly possible to do given the challenge.

Catherine Johnson said...

The time chunk is so huge that they can polish off several chapters in their personal book and improve their reading skills or get all the homework done at school...a direct violation of NCGA... so they must now do busywork while their classified peers are getting small group or 1:1 tutoring.

I don't follow.

What is NCGA?

Catherine Johnson said...

Bring back whole-group instruction.

Catherine Johnson said...

When the Big News about the desperate need for a longer school news broke I did some Googling -- the results were pretty hilarious.

I found one blog with a post titled, "Why not just put them all in jail?"

Which was pretty much the way I felt about it.

Crimson Wife said...

Purple as in mimeo sheets? I'm 32 and can (vaguely) remember those being used in my elementary school.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hogwarts has so many holidays the teachers call it "Holiday Prep."

They grumble about it.

The school year is one month shorter than a public school year - C. is getting a real summer vacation.

The principal told them, "We get more done in 9 months than public schools do in 10."

Catherine Johnson said...

He also tells parents, when they ask whether the school gives Regents exams, "We don't. I need to practice my golf game in June."

I love the guy.

I sure hope he's got someone lined up to carry on when he retires.

(I like Regents exams, btw; I'm extremely happy NY has them. I'd be happy for Hogwarts to have them, too - but my reasonably well-informed opinion is that Hogwarts doesn't need them. A lot of the other Catholic high schools do teach Regents courses & give Regents exams.)

K9Sasha said...

K9:Why purple? Well, if you're old enough you know the answer.

CJ:Wait! I don't know the answer!



The old mimeograph machines used to run off purple dittos.

Redkudu said...

"BUT, I do wonder whether, if they were using Engelmann's curricula, they would actually need that much extra time."

My thoughts went to Engelmann as well. My take on the KIPP "specials" are that they are an opportunity for the kids to accumulate a sense of cultural literacy - I think they were very impressed with Esquith's devotion to that for his kids. And, like Willingham has recently pointed out, broad content knowledge is extremely important.

I never realized how much I took my childhood for granted until I began teaching at-risk students. My parents exposed me to *everything* they could. I began realizing so many of my students are missing out just on the cleverest jokes in some of the shows they *love* because they don't know what the allusion or metaphor refers to. (There is a band called Atticus Finch, and quite a few of my kids wear their t-shirts. Every kid I've asked has no idea where the name came from.)

I bet the exposure to "specials" helps with half the battle toward increased literacy at KIPP schools. Once kids start making those connections and getting those allusions...

There are quite a few KIPP schools in my area. I really need to go visit one.

Catherine Johnson said...

Purple as in mimeo sheets? I'm 32 and can (vaguely) remember those being used in my elementary school.

That explains why I didn't get the reference.

I'm not only old enough to remember mimeographed sheets, I'm old enough to have sniffed a whole lot of them.

Seriously.

Catherine Johnson said...

redkudu - you MUST!!

I think I'm going to get to visit; Robyne C's campaign manager has a connection to the Bronx KIPP & she's going to arrange a trip, I hope.

Also, there's a dad in town who is involved with a fantastically successful charter in ... hmmm. I'm forgetting where. He says it's doing even better than KIPP, and I think he'll arrange a visit for us.

The school is using a "Japanese" approach to teaching, he said: the kids have to master the material they're working on before they move on.

He says they're blowing everyone else out of the water on reading scores.

I'm very keen to see what they're doing.

Paul B said...

For really disadvantaged kids, longer days have several benefits; better nutrition, safer, more grown ups, more exposure to more language than they'd get at home.

At my last school we had to beg some kids to go home at 5:30. Of course there were also kids who we would beg to come to school at 9:30 but heh, one size doesn't fit all.

The benefits don't all accrue from it being a longer school day, just more time in a better environment with better role models.

lgm said...

>>What is NCGA?

No Child Gets Ahead

The philosophy that it is unfair to differentiate or group so that some students would learn more the minimum grade level objectives.

VickyS said...

But that's not true; there are shortcuts in life; productivity growth is based on finding shortcuts (is that an OK way to put it?)

That is a great way to put it. And that brings up a pet peeve of mine--teachers who grade on effort rather than results. We had one middle school teacher (for several subjects) whose idea of fair was that everyone put the same amount of time into a project. The kids had to log their time on projects and the parents had to sign it.

I told my kids that was BS and that their goal should be to do a better job in less time. Efficiency, productivity, are those not attributes to be commended?

Paul B said...

VickyS: You're right on the BS call. Here's more to chew on....

You described overt effort grading. I would suggest that effort grading is far more pervasive in its covert incarnation. Traditional grading is very subjective and much of that subjectivity is based on effort. This is especially true for kids on ed plans.

For them, a C is a 'modified' C, meaning that it was obtained as a result of performing 'modified' work. It's not stamped with a big ol' M on the report card. No truth in advertising there, eh?

Grades are like gauze thrown over school performance. True transparency would be achieved if kids were, instead, attached to a Knowledge Transcript that cataloged what they've mastered.

Then, if you were so inclined, you could measure effort by recording how long it took to get each tick mark. I don't know why you'd want to, but you could if you wanted to and it would mean something.

Paul B said...

I should add that the concept of a Knowledge Transcript would also transform standards from highly subjective 'domains' to a list of objective requirements.

You would go from; "Know multiplication facts through 10x10." to "Demonstrate ability to multiply all combinations in a 10x10 grid in less than 4 minutes from memory alone (no digital aids or paper)."

Catherine Johnson said...

At my last school we had to beg some kids to go home at 5:30.

This seems to be true at Hogwarts as well, which, as I've mentioned, is located in a 'gritty' part of town.

C. says there are quite a few kids who get there at 7 in the morning & leave at 7:30 at night. Mostly, those kids live in the part of town the school is in, and their parents are working very long hours.

So that's 12 hours a day these kids are at the school, and this happens with zero public funding.

Catherine Johnson said...

Grades are like gauze thrown over school performance. True transparency would be achieved if kids were, instead, attached to a Knowledge Transcript that cataloged what they've mastered.

yeah, well, good luck with that

Westchester now has "standards-based" report cards with lists and lists of 'skills' and, I guess, 'knowledge,' each one ASSESSED on a scale of 1-4.

The new report cards are even more opaque than the old ones, especially seeing as how school are decreeing that grades of '4' are 'off-limits' until the spring quarter.

Big front-page story in the TIMES about this. I'll get it posted at some point.

Standards-based grading here is all about enforced grade deflation. Parents have been told so directly by administrators, including the superintendent.

Superintendent: "A 4 is like an Olympic performance. It's something we visit, not something we achieve every day."

Or words to that effect.

A 4 is a place we visit.

la dee dah

Paul B said...

I'm not talking about standards based report cards. I'd agree that they're just more gauze, especially if they use a 1-4 grading system. That's just more subjectivity spread over more items.

I'm talking seriously about NO GRADES. Grades are meaningless. I'm talking about an objective list of achievement. Underline, underline, underline, objective.

A 'report' card would look like a list of objectives with yes/no beside each, indicating whether or not the objective has been met.

The root problem is the standards themselves. They are subjective; filled with passive verbs like know, explore, identify. You can meet the standards by adding with your fingers and dividing with tick marks.

Standards based report cards are peaches on steroids.

Catherine Johnson said...

That's just more subjectivity spread over more items.

yup