Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween Special: Pumpkin Lesson Planning

Just for Halloween, I thought I would share two pumpkin activities that I have seen (but have not taught myself).

1. This is a lesson in observation and decomposition. And if you wanted, you could add some measurement and composition (as in, writing) related activities.

A. Buy (or grow) two medium pumpkins.
[If you want to, you can weigh them at various times throughout this activity. You could also turn this into a full blown lab report, or a full blown poetry initiative.]
B. Carve one. Leave the other whole.
C. Ask students to draw the pumpkins.
D. Place each pumpkin on its own aluminum pan, on a windowsill in the classroom.
E. Over the next 2-3 months, observe the pumpkins. Draw them, write poems about them, weigh them. . .

[Hint: If the uncut pumpkin does not start to rot, smell, etc. at some point you could discuss cutting the pumpkin.]

2. Dissection: Use the pumpkin to teach key science terms and lab steps. (Hypothesis, method, etc.)

1. Each group gets a pumpkin and a knife. (You may need to cut the pumpkins in half yourself, especially if either knives or strength are an issue.)
2. Predict what will be inside--the number of pumpkin seeds, the weight of the pumpkin...
2. Groups should separate, measure and weigh the components of the pumpkin. Yes, count the seeds! Measure the thickness of the outer wall.
3. Do a class graph.

Use your imagination to expand on the bare bones descriptions of these activities. 
Have fun!
Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 28, 2013

NWEA Testing Cancelled for January: A Positive Sign?

Ann Arbor school parents with students in the affected schools (all of the elementary schools, plus Ann Arbor Open and Scarlett) got this email the other day:

Dear AAPS Parents and Staff:

The NWEA MAP assessment was carefully selected for the purpose of evaluating student progress and has been utilized in the district for the past two school years. We believe in the power of quality assessment data to inform teacher practice to meet the individual instructional needs of our students. Unfortunately, we have encountered technical difficulties with NWEA assessments this fall and as a result, will be implementing mid-year changes in our 2013-2014 district testing protocol.
As we implemented the NWEA MAP web-based testing system this fall, many students experienced technical difficulties in accessing the tests, delays between questions, and system outages. Over recent weeks, District representatives have been working diligently with NWEA to address these technical concerns and to determine the validity of the fall assessment data. As a result, the Fall NWEA MAP student progress reports will not accompany report cards during this fall assessment cycle.
Despite our best efforts, NWEA has been unable to ensure that these technical issues can be resolved prior to the scheduled winter assessment. In light of the technical difficulties, we have decided to suspend winter 2014 testing. You can expect to hear more in the coming months as we monitor this situation and use this time to coordinate opportunities for teachers, parents and administrators to look more deeply into our current Ann Arbor Public Schools assessment practices. We will work together with a forward focus on the opportunities coming to us with the next generation of assessments and how we may leverage these opportunities to improve teaching and learning for all our students. We will remain in touch with you over the coming months to provide updates as we move toward the time for end-of-year assessments.
Jeanice K. Swift
Superintendent of Schools
Ann Arbor Public Schools

Just a few notes:

A quick observation about the technical difficulties. When we started using the NWEA MAP test, there were major technical difficulties, and the district was told it was because of our "old" computers. From my point of view the customer service was also terrible because the district was told that the students' test scores couldn't be suppressed at the end of the tests.
Then the technology bond passed, and now Ann Arbor's computers are no longer too old, but there are still "technical difficulties," poor customer service, etc. It's also a little bit confusing because several other districts in the county use the NWEA MAP test, and I think a lot of them haven't had the same kinds of problems. Why is that?
What does it say, also, for the future of computerized testing in general? The test that is supposed to replace the MEAP next year is a computerized test.

Cancelling the January testing is good news, in that it means more time for teachers to teach, and it also means the computer labs won't be tied up for weeks. It was a smart move by Jeanice Swift, since the district was already anticipating the testing being a failure because of the technical problems. It  doesn't mean anything (yet) for future rounds of the test.

"We believe in the power of quality assessment." Yes, so do I!  Let's find the right tools for quality assessment. (We may not need to look far.)

I hope this comes to pass: We will "use this time to coordinate opportunities for teachers, parents and administrators to look more deeply into our current Ann Arbor Public Schools assessment practices."

And here's the thing--if you appreciate the cancelling of this round of tests (or if you don't); if you think these tests are not useful (or if you think they are); if you have other ideas for assessments. . . send Jeanice Swift a note and let her know what you are thinking!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Listen & Learn Tour: Get Your Thoughts In!

Dr. Jeanice Swift's Listen & Learn Tour is continuing. She is only about 1/3 of the way through.

If you can make it to one of the meetings (even if it's not "your" school, and even if you are a taxpayer without kids in school), please go. All meetings are from 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m.

If you can't make it to a meeting, there is a survey that you can take. Here it is.

[Even better--at the bottom of this page there are links so you can take the survey in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Spanish!]

And by the way, Dr. Swift has a blog. I really liked this excerpt from her blog*, about the listening tour:
Top-performing organizations are characterized by their willingness to seek input and their effectiveness in leveraging feedback to improve processes and outcomes. Successful teams prioritize what they hear from their ‘customers’ to improve their work; they specialize in continuous improvement of service to stakeholders.
Exactly what I've been saying for years. (I love it when people agree with me!)

And if you've been to one of the meetings, please share your experiences with us in the comments. What was it like? Did you feel like Dr. Swift, and others, were listening?

Monday, Oct. 28: Eberwhite
Tuesday, Oct. 29: Huron
Wednesday, Oct. 30: Wines
Monday, Nov. 4: Haisley
Wednesday, Nov. 6: Logan
Thursday, Nov. 7: Pioneer
Monday, Nov. 11: Community
Tuesday, Nov. 12: Burns Park
Thursday, Nov. 14: Thurston
Monday, Nov. 18: Tappan
Tuesday, Nov. 19: Lakewood
Thursday, Nov. 21: Northside
Monday, Nov. 25: Lawton
Monday, Dec. 2: King
Tuesday, Dec. 3: Roberto Clemente
Wednesday, Dec. 4: Dicken
Thursday, Dec. 5: Skyline
Monday, Dec. 9: Clague
Tuesday, Dec. 10: Pittsfield
Thursday, Dec. 12: A2 Tech
*Really, it's less like a blog and more like a column in AAPS News, but that's o.k.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

WCC GED Celebration & Graduation

I walked into the Washtenaw Community College Morris Lawrence Building to see a sea of caps and gowns and the palpable feeling of joy. As I was there for another meeting, I was a bit confused. "What is this?" I asked the woman handing out booklets. She had flowers on her lapel.

It was the GED (General Education Diploma) celebration, a high school equivalent. There were young graduates and older graduates. One young man was holding a newborn. 

I didn't go to the ceremony, but I did take a picture of the booklet. If you know a GED graduate, congratulate him or her! 

And, on the back page, a memorial to a beloved teacher, 
Susan Campbell, along with a suggestion to make a donation
in her memory to the WCC Foundation Scholarship Fund.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ann Arbor & Saline: Learn About Upcoming School Millage/Sinking Fund Requests

Ann Arbor schools are hosting a brown bag lunch to discuss the proposed Sinking Fund vote:
  • Noon to 1:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25: Brown bag lunch in the fourth floor conference room of the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown branch

Saline Schools are hosting three community forums to share information and answer questions about the November 5th Non-Homestead Operational Millage Renewal.  The forum schedule:

Monday, October 28th – Saline District Library, Brecon Room at 7:00 pm
Tuesday, October 29th – Brewed Awakenings Cafe at 9:15 am
Wednesday, October 30th – My Favorite Cafe at 12 noon

Friday, October 18, 2013

Financing Michigan's Schools--Or Not

I am taking this directly from an email alert from Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, which is an advocacy group in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.


For the second time in a month, a report was released highlighting the major issues facing K-12 funding. This report, which was commissioned by the State Board of Education, is entitled, “Michigan Education Organization and Finance Research Brief” and was authored by Meg Jalilevand of Michigan State University (MSU). The report considered a range of issues facing our schools today and conducted an extensive review of several, well-known analyses concerning K-12 education.

What the report found will not shock anyone connected to their local, community schools, but its conclusion is that schools are in the midst of a perfect storm of significant negative pressures equating to a substantial loss in school revenues. Those burdens squeezing the School Aid Fund, include:

·         Declining enrollment: The per-pupil allotment, as created by Proposal A of 1994, does not account for declining enrollment, which has only been further exacerbated by the implosion of “new” schools. According to Jalilevand, school populations have declined around 10% since 2003, and traditional schools have been the hardest hit with 70% of them suffering from declining enrollment.

·         Increased Choice: Jalilevand has been quoted as saying, “We have created hundreds of new schools without a strategy and without quality control.” Holding charter school operators accountable has been a priority of The Education Trust-Midwest, and a worthwhile reform that would help alleviate additional strain on the School Aid Fund. Without quality controls for “new” schools, we are cutting the School Aid Funding pie into smaller pieces on account of bad actors who are multiplying with very little oversight.

·         Legacy costs: Although last year, Lansing passed legislation providing for a new retirement option for new teachers and capping school district’s portion of retirement costs, they did very little to contain the long-term unfunded liability costs for our local schools. This means that fewer school aid dollars are actually making it to the classroom as more dollars are needed to pay for unfunded retirement liabilities.

·         Decreased funding: The report notes a 14 to 16% decline in state foundation allowances from 2004 to 2013, as measured in 2004 dollars. This is exactly what we saw in the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Report, which we shared with you a few weeks ago.

The Report concludes by stating, “Many believe the Michigan education system is reaching a crisis point.” We are sad to say that we could not agree more. The purpose of this email is to encourage you to use the findings of this Report and The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Report to engage your elected officials and ask them why we aren’t investing in our children’s future?

Tri-County Alliance for Public Education has a Facebook page, if you are interested.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Testing, Testing, Testing: Tale #3

3. Can I opt my child out of the MEAP?

Many people are finding their way to my blog by virtue of searching for "opt out of the MEAP" or some such phrase. And on our Ann Arbor STOP: Stop Overtesting Our Pupils! facebook group there has been a fair amount of discussion of this--with some people posting their opt out letters.

People have been asking, "Can I opt out?" and the answer is yes, but...

Michigan's Revised School Code says:

THE REVISED SCHOOL CODE (EXCERPT) Act 451 of 1976   380.10 Rights of parents and legal guardians; duties of public schools.   [M.S.A. 15.4010 ] Sec. 10. It is the natural, fundamental right of parents   and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching, and   education of their children. The public schools of this state serve the   needs of the pupils by cooperating with the pupil's parents and legal   guardians to develop the pupil's intellectual capabilities and vocational   skills in a safe and positive environment. HistoryAdd. 1995, Act 289,   Eff. July 1, 1996 .

Based on that, the answer would be yes.
But it's never been tested (to my knowledge) in court.

The state of Michigan more or less says that districts can decide if they want to let anybody opt out, but there are only a few circumstances in which if students don't take the MEAP the district won't be penalized. Those circumstances might include a child who is so severely disabled (s)he cannot take even a test that is modified; or a child who is so sick (think chemotherapy or another long-term illness) that they cannot take the test. Otherwise, if a school does not reach a 95% participation rate, the school will be penalized. Financially.

Some reasons that parents have told me they don't want their child to take the MEAP are:
*religious reasons
*their child has been sick and missed the original testing days, and they don't want them missing more instructional time (the MEAP is given during a certain time period, and many of the days are solely scheduled as makeup days)
*they believe that testing is wrong. . . unnecessary. . . evil. . . immoral

And guess what--several of those parents are also teachers.

But this 95% participation rate barrier has districts very worried, because a few chronic truants could bring a school close to missing that 95% participation rate. And financial penalties are, to put it seriously, serious.

One of my friends who decided to opt out her child from the MEAP was told that the only way that she could opt her child out was if her child was kept out of school for the entire three-week period of the test.

If you want to understand what high stakes testing means, this is a great example. Nowhere in the world would it be considered educationally sound to intentionally keep a child out of school for three weeks over what ends up being something like 5-10 hours of testing, right? And obviously, unless you are a person who doesn't work, it would be super difficult to keep your child out of school for three weeks. [Trust me, I know--one of my children was sick for four weeks once, and that was a very difficult time.]

So what is the point of that grandstanding? It's to make it virtually impossible to keep a child from being tested, right? It's to force parents to let their kids be tested.

And it points out the farcical nature of all this testing. The MEAP has absolutely nothing to do with the child in question (for whom being in the classroom and skipping a few tests would presumably be the much better choice). No, all of this testing has to do with school finance. Who benefits? The schools, but not the kids. [OK, I cede your point--if the schools don't have money, the kids do suffer. Nonetheless, I maintain my own point--this is not about whether your child is "proficient" in math. You probably already know the answer to that question and don't need the test to tell you.]

As for the draconian threat of saying, "Well if you don't want your child to be tested you will have to keep him or her out of school for three weeks?" It reminds me of some absurd threats I would make to my preschool son. "Well if you don't do X I will keep you from watching tv for the next five years!"

This showdown is so foolishly theater of the absurd that it reminds me of some people who might force a government shutdown in order to try to derail Obamacare. Oh, wait...

Testing, Testing, Testing: Tale #2

2. What's Wrong With This Picture?

This morning, this tweet showed up in my twitter feed. [Side note and reminder: you can follow me as @schoolsmuse. I kind of tweet in fits and starts--and not only about schools, but also about Ann Arbor, politics, Jewish stuff, the Middle East, and whatever else catches my fancy...]

Can you read the text on the poster? It reads,
 "J.E.S. worked hard to improve Scores. We are no longer a Focus School!"

What is a focus school? A focus school is a school where, according to the Michigan Department of Education, "Focus Schools consist of the ten percent of schools on the Top-to-Bottom list with the largest achievement gaps between its top 30 percent of students and its bottom 30 percent, based on average scale score."  And guess what? Focus schools tend to be schools with heterogeneous groupings of students. A school that is homogeneous--whether all rich, or all poor, is not likely to be a focus school because the gap between students is not likely to be in the top 10% of gaps. A school could perform very well on standardized testing (overall have a high average) but if there is a wide range in the test scores, it will be a focus school while a school where everybody performs poorly will not be a focus school. And guess what? Twenty-seven of Ann Arbor's schools got designated as "focus schools, even though some of them also performed well above the average for the state.

But that's not why I'm writing about this tweet, which I found exceedingly irritating. No, I'm writing about some key words here.

Do you want to understand the insidious nature of high stakes testing? Look no further than the picture in this tweet. 

"J.E.S. worked hard to improve Scores." And yes, they capitalized Scores.

Did they work hard to improve their students' knowledge?
Did they work hard to educate their students?
Did they work hard to become better teachers?

No. They "worked hard to improve Scores." High stakes testing is not about students learning. It's about how the "Scores" make a district, or school, look. 

Testing, Testing, Testing: Tale #1

1. About cartooning

I admit, I love my little cartoon, The Parable of the Hammer. But I would hate to be as obscure as Bezonki (although I wouldn't mind drawing/painting as well as Alvey Jones). My husband thought the moral of the story of my cartoon, "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" was obvious. And he sort of understood the references to testing being overused. But, he said, it wasn't obvious why you couldn't use a test like the NWEA MAP test--that was built for assessing individual students--to also assess teachers. Why shouldn't teachers be assessed by their students' improvement?  And this is, in fact, such a common misunderstanding of testing that I thought maybe I should address it again. [For this explanation, assume that the MAP test does a good job of assessing students, ok? A hammer, after all, does a good job pounding in nails.]

And I started thinking about this (again) because in an article school board member Andy Thomas said that "NWEA testing that the district has engaged in will help show if there are advantages or disadvantages to a combined class." 

So in fact Andy Thomas got stuck in the same type of thinking that my husband was stuck in--that if a test can assess individual students, it can assess something else. In my husband's case, he was thinking it could assess the teacher; in Andy's case, he was thinking that it could assess types of classrooms. 

But it can't. Here's why. Students are not randomly assigned to classrooms. If a principal thinks a teacher is competent, (s)he might get--or volunteer to take--students who are perceived as more difficult.

In addition, students are not randomly assigned to schools. [Andy was talking about comparing Ann Arbor Open to other schools, and that is obviously not random since Ann Arbor Open is a magnet school.] But even if we look only at neighborhood schools, it is pretty clear that neighborhoods like Burns Park and the area near King School are in general wealthier than the area near Pittsfield or Mitchell schools.

And last, but not least, sample size is important and in general the sample sizes are too small and not at all random. Read the Northwest Evaluation Association's own memo on the subject.

So we can debate whether we should be using the NWEA MAP test to evaluate individual student progress [and you know that I'm a NO voice for that] but let's try to use the right tools for the right jobs. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

At Haisley School: A Playground for All

Over on the west side of Ann Arbor, Haisley School has some new additions to the playground. Haisley has several children who use wheelchairs at the school, as well as some kids with autism. In fact, the district has placed three self-contained classes at Haisley, and in addition there are several kids with disabilities who are in the general education classrooms.

I used to love to climb on these. Here's one at Haisley.
And for the kids with disabilities--especially the kids who use wheelchairs--it was difficult, if not impossible, to play on the playground. 

These are not accessible
These provide a similar ride,
but they are accessible

Compare these two play structures. Notice the ramp on the blue structure?
The red structure offers lots of opportunities for kids who can climb--
but not everyone can. It's nice to have both!

In the accessible play structure, there is room for a wheelchair to turn around.
Kids can climb in and out, but a kid in
a wheelchair will not fall out.
A view of the ramp.
An accessible swing--but I saw a lot of able-bodied kids enjoying it too.

The sinking fund paid for the costs of adding the accessible equipment ($60,000). Over the years, the teachers of Haisley's self-contained classrooms were concerned that their students have good playground choices. The playground was designed with both physical accessibility and the interests of children on the autism spectrum. A big thank you to teachers Lisa Piegdon, Erika Cech, Kim Krug and teachers assistant, Sue Monkiewicz, who advocated for--and helped plan--the playground.

I think recess is super important.

*All photos by Ruth Kraut, at the Haisley playground.

UPDATE 11/23/2013: Also, Sarah Kerson did a Michigan Radio Environment Report on this playground (read or listen to it here) and in that report, they mention that NPR has a map of accessible playgrounds around the country posted on its web site! [Here is the link.] If you find yourself traveling and looking for one, there is even a smartphone link at I added information about the Haisley Playground to the accessible playground web site. The other playground on there in the area is the High Point playground at the WISD. Slightly further away, there is also the Imagination Station in Brighton.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

State 1, Local 0: The MEAP and Three Star Holidays

A few days ago I was contacted by someone from the Arab American Parent Support Group, who was concerned that the MEAP was scheduled to be given on one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar, Eid. Eid is a three-star holiday in the Ann Arbor Public Schools religious calendar, and I was contacted because I recently wrote this blog post about three-star holidays.

You may recall that the guidelines state that:
RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS GUIDELINES  I. Holiday observances of major significance to a religious group are indicated on the calendar by three stars (***). The following apply:School district employees may not schedule any of the following during these (three star) holidays.   1. Major exams   2. Reviews for major exams   3. Standardized tests...
And clearly the MEAP is a standardized test. So why was it being given on Eid?

A member of the AAPSG did some poking around, asking the state if the test had to be given on Eid or if a change could be made. She got an email back from the state saying that a deviation could be possible for Eid. But when the Ann Arbor schools administrative staff asked, they got a different answer from the state: No. So they told AAPSG that the answer was no. AAPSG did not like that answer, especially since they thought the answer from the state had already been yes.

At the behest of the person who contacted me, I contacted the school board and administration, and they did a little bit more poking around, and went back to the state Department of Education, and confirmed that the answer was, in fact: No.

However, the district did not formally request a "deviation" and I was a bit confused about that. The MEAP administrator at the state level offered to talk to me about it, and I took her up on it, learning a bit about the MEAP in the process.

1. MEAP testing is given in a time window, with certain dates for certain tests. Then there are make-up days.

2. A "deviation" would only be given by the state if a school is actually closed. (For instance, for Eid I think the Dearborn schools are closed.) But then again, if a school is closed, there are no staff to give a test or kids to take it, so that's rather circular logic there. (In fact, it's not even clear to me why, if a school is closed, you need to request a deviation.)

So basically, Ann Arbor was told that since they weren't closing any schools, they couldn't get a deviation, even though it contradicts their local policy about giving standardized tests on three-star holidays. Thus I say, State 1, Local 0.

(Side note: the schools I grew up in were, and are, closed for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even though only about 5% of the kids were, and are, Jewish.)

3. I asked the state administrator why the tests have to be given on certain days, especially given that there are makeup days. Why couldn't the district just substitute a makeup day for a specific test day? The answer: Security.  I said, "but you have makeup days," and was basically told that they have to make accommodations for kids who miss school (because they are high stakes tests), but it would be a "nightmare" in terms of security if, for example, different schools gave the math test on different days. (Think: cheating.)

This is where we see what is meant by "high stakes" testing. If the MEAP wasn't "high stakes," nobody would worry about the implications of swapping days. And unfortunately, the district doesn't have any control over this. And the stakes are high for the district because if fewer than 95% of the kids in any school take the test, then the school won't make adequate yearly progress. And penalties ensue. To the district.

As far as the district goes, this is what I learned:

1. The district did respond to the initial request of the AAPSG, which is good. I think the communication channels still need a little bit of working out, because it appears that the district staff didn't adequately explain the situation (which is how I got pulled into this). Over the past few years I have found several times that even when the district staff are doing the right thing, the communication back to families from central administration is very weak and leaves people confused and upset.  But, I'm hopeful that this is about to change, because...

2. I was very pleasantly surprised by the communication from the top AAPS staff. It was a HUGE improvement over the past administration's practices. I actually got an email from the superintendent (and a couple of board members too--thank you board)! Fingers crossed for more great communication back to parents.

And to the district staff I say: Thank you very much for trying to follow the religious calendar guidelines. Even though you weren't able to do so this time, I truly appreciate the effort.

Read more about the state MEAP policies, if you want...and remember, next year there will probably be a different assessment...and probably even more assessments (go to the same place as the MEAP link in this paragraph, and look at the Smarter Balanced information). Ugh. High stakes testing. There is lots to organize around in the coming year.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Local, State, Federal Budget Thoughts (Slightly Random)

1. Tomorrow is Count Day. A day that makes a huge difference in the budgets of school districts around the state. Please make sure your kids go to school, or if they're sick, call them in for excused absences. Why does it make a difference? Read about Proposal A here.

2. Want to learn more about the Sinking Fund schools proposal on the Ann Arbor ballot? Here's your opportunity: There is a Community Forum on Wednesday, Oct. 2 from 6:30-8 p.m. at the Pioneer Annex.

3. There was an interesting piece last night on Michigan Radio on the effects of the sequester on education, especially special education and Head Start preschool. Listen to the story, or read it, here

4. At the state level, you might remember that the Legislature was fighting about the implementation of the Common Core curriculum last year. I think we were left, at the end of the last legislative session, with the legislative decision that no funding could go for the Common Core. (That, by the way, was heavily influenced by "tea party" Republicans.) So today, Gongwer News Service reports this ridiculousness (taken from the Michigan Parents for Schools facebook page): 
Tuesday, October 1, 2013, 10:24 AMMDE Website To Be Shuttered Under Common Core Spending Ban
The Department of Education website was still up this morning, but is expected to go offline sometime during the day because the site contains resources to help teachers implement the Common Core State Standards, officials said in an email to teachers and local school officials.
The new budget effective today prohibits the department from spending money to implement the Common Core or Smarter Balanced Assessment without legislative approval. Since that approval is still pending in the Senate, Martin Ackley, communications director for the Department of Education, said his department was asking the Department of Technology, Management and Budget to take the MDE site down because of the integration of Common Core into the site.
Pages of the site are to be restored as Education officials have time to review them for Common Core elements, Mr. Ackley said in his email.
The current budget also could affect some federal grants to districts, the email said, because implementing the Common Core is an element of the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver. That waiver expires essentially at the end of the current school year.
5. Oh yeah, and then there's the US government shutdown. Here is information from the U.S. Department of Education about the shutdown. And here is the scoop from Education Week.