Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dangerous myths and distortions: D's get degrees

When my oldest son went off to college a Senior in his fraternity, who was majoring in engineering, relayed this bit of wisdom: D's get degrees.

While technically true, I was not comforted by the thought of driving over a bridge or riding in an elevator or flying in a plane that had been designed, constructed, and built by an engineer who earned D's throughout her/his college career. I would rather trust my life to the engineer who really knew and understood the concepts.

A wise man (Doug Reeves) once said: A "D" is a coward's "F." The student failed but you didn't have enough guts to tell him/her.

Grades, while they seem so clear, really don't tell us very much. I could earn an "A" in biology and still have failed a section or a unit over the course of a semester. Was that section or unit important? The grade of "A" would suggest that it was not.

But what if it was?

Students need to know what they know and what they don't know. Traditional grades are averages. And averages distort. 

As educators we have an obligation to accurately report what our students know and don't know.

Traditional grades don't do that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On the importance of grades

Do grades reflect your actual ability or knowledge?

I earned a 2.4 grade in my Organic Chemistry class at the University of Washington. (The UW did not give letter grades while I was there - only numerical equivalents. Don't ask me why.) That, in truth, probably overstated my actual knowledge in the course.

Grades, of course, signify your ability and knowledge. In a manner of speaking, they represent how smart you are.

But do they?

I would humbly suggest that the grade I earned in Organic Chemistry in 1977 probably was a poor reflection of my actual knowledge.

A recent article in The Atlantic suggests grades reveal little about achievement. The article focuses on grade inflation and notes that while grades and GPAs have increased over time measures of actual achievement and knowledge have remained relatively static.

Which leads to the question of why we pursue grades with such vigor.

Next week students at Novi High School will have their midterm exams. Study sessions are and will be organized to prep students for these exams. Teachers will engage in class reviews. Students will gather at coffee shops and in the library to help each other prepare.

I am not here to suggest that these efforts are not important.

I am here to ask another question: Of what importance are grades?

We must be able to help students, and by extension parents, community members, colleges, employers, and others with an interest in knowing exactly how smart our students are, know where they stand. Do they know the material is a relatively important question.

But my question is: Do grades actually help us answer that question?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A letter to the students of Novi High School

You, my friends, are an awesome group of people.

You are funny, talented, thoughtful, and intelligent. You are, most of the time, friendly, polite, caring, and honest.

But you were not happy with me this morning.

A parent in the district received this message from her Novi High School daughter this morning:

(I assume the frozen fingers accounted for the spelling error - years instead of tears. But there certainly was no mistaking her earlier sentiment of how she felt about me this morning.)

Many of you, as evidenced by this text, were not happy with me this morning.

If you think this was an isolated occurrence you would be wrong.

Favorited by 46 people!

I chuckled at your comments, enjoyed the banter between us, and appreciated that you were paying attention.

But there are at least two lessons that are important to remember here.

First, each of us will be called to make difficult decisions in our life. Difficult decisions should be made with care. You should collect information, weigh potential outcomes, examine alternatives, and then make the best choice you can.

I did that today.

Did I make the right call on having school when there was a wind chill approaching -20 degrees?

I think I did.

Obviously some of you had a different opinion.

When others disagree with a decision that you make it is important to listen, reflect, and see what can be learned.

Which brings me to the second lesson that I remembered today.

In your life there will be people who make decisions that impact you with which you completely disagree. In the social media world that we live in it is easy and somewhat comfortable to take to Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat or whatever other application there is that I don't know about and vent.

It feels good. It makes people laugh.

But it could get you in trouble. Some bosses, colleagues, employees, or employers may not be as understanding as I am about comments that are vulgar, disparaging, or mean.

I would urge you to use caution and to think while you Tweet, post, and communicate via social media.

I was in your school today during "A" lunch. I visited tables saying hello, smiling and laughing with your classmates. It appeared that you were enjoying being in school. I hope that was true.

Novi High School is a good place to be - even on cold days like today.


Dr. Matthews

Monday, January 5, 2015

Baby it's cold outside!

When I arrived at work this morning the air temperature, as measured by my car, was 5 degrees.

As I walked from the parking lot to my office I said to myself, "It is very cold!"

As I fired up my computer I looked at a weather site on the Internet and saw that we had winds of 19 MPH. That produced a wind chill of -15 degrees.

Finally I pulled up the National Weather Service wind chill chart.

windchill chart

This chart serves as a guide. Wind chills can be dangerous. But we can moderate the effects of the wind in the winter by dressing appropriately.

The school district's unwritten policy is that we will not cancel school unless the wind chill is consistently below -25 degrees.

Living in Michigan we can expect there to be cold weather. We must take the appropriate precautions.

The safety of the students in our district is always on my mind. In the winter I take great care to monitor weather conditions. I will not put our students at risk.

However, we can expect there to be cold weather in Michigan. Being in school is important. Cancelling school disrupts the learning process.

Cancelling school because of the weather is not a decision that I take lightly. I gather as much information as I can. I look to weather experts to give us guidance.

And I always keep the safety of our students in mind.

Monday, December 22, 2014

There's a wolf in my school!

Earlier this year, Jimmy Kimmel showed a video of a wolf walking down the hall of the Olympic Village in Sochi. Not surprisingly, it became a news story. News shows around the country picked up the story and showed this wolf walking the hallway of the Olympic Village.

As you can see, it wasn't true! It was a prank, a hoax, a jolly good laugh! Along with Kate Hansen, an Olympic luger, Mr. Kimmel and his staff had set the whole thing up. Using social media and the public's appetite to believe, this prank became a believable story.

The funny, or sad, thing, depending on your point of view, is that people assumed it was true.

Public schools do wonderful things in our communities. Public schools are not perfect. There are times when those who work in public schools make the wrong decision.

But the overwhelming evidence is that public schools do things that make a positive difference in our communities each and every day.

Yet there are people who tell us there is "a wolf in the school!" There are people who tell us that schools are doing the wrong thing. That schools fail. That schools can't get it right.

And people believe them!

As this year winds down to a close I want to stand up and say that public schools have and will continue to do wonderful things for students and communities.

We can't let those who claim they see "a wolf in the school" win. We have to push back and tell them the wonderful things that we see in schools every day.

I see math teachers who dress up in full Holiday regalia to engage students.

I see coaches give of their time so students can participate in competitive athletics.

I see teachers in every subject giving time and attention to help students get better, to learn, to grow.

There is a lot going on in the the classrooms on public schools. But there is not "a wolf in the hallway."

Instead of seeing wolves, people need to see the good that is going on in the classrooms and the hallways of our public schools.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What brings you joy?

A young man - still in elementary school - looked up in the teacher's eyes and asked, "What brings you joy?"

A teacher recounted that story to me this week as she asked me, "What brings you joy?"

It is not a question that I ask myself very often. But as I thought about it, I understood that joy surrounds me.

I see joy - almost everyday.

In a variety of places.

With students who are doing a lot of different things.

I see joy in the faces of the students in my district. In the faces of the teachers in my district.
But the question is what brings me joy?
My wife, my boys, my walks with Kaya - my dog.
My family, my friends. 
Sunrises, sunsets, clear nights when I can sit by a fire.
I find joy in many places and with many people.  
When I enter a classroom and see students and their teacher deeply engaged in meaningful work - that brings me joy.
When a teacher bends down to listen deeply and intently to a child - that brings me joy.
When I hear students laugh, when I see students care, when I see students work hard to learn their lesson - that brings me joy.
Joy is something that surrounds me - and yet most days I don't think much about it. I will think about it more often.
A teacher asked me a question, "What brings you joy?"
So I ask you as well - what brings you joy?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Kids are not crops

The New York Times had an interesting article about the rising use of technology in farming. Two sentences in the article struck me:

There is an incentive to grow single crops to maximize the effectiveness of technology by growing them at the largest possible scale.

Technology encourages farmers to move too aggressively toward easy-to-grow and easy-to-sell crops that are more easily measured by instruments, rather than keeping some diversity in the fields.

In education we love our technology.

We also love our ability to standardized our testing routines so that we can measure student growth and achievement.

I am an accountability advocate. I want to be able to demonstrate that a student is learning. When a parent sends their child to one of the schools in my district, I want to be able to show that our schools make a difference.

But, if I am not careful, the focus on being able to demonstrate that our schools make a difference, that students are growing, will lead me, like farmers, to simplify the solutions.

Instead of creating a robust and diverse curriculum, it will be tempting to narrow the curriculum - to focus instead on easy to measure, easy to assess curriculum topics.

But kids are not crops.

Students need to struggle, to be curious, to be allowed to fail, to explore, to chase a passion.

But that is hard to measure.

Students need to be able to talk and write and explain their reasoning.

But that is hard to measure.

It is tempting to maximize the effectiveness of our schools by "growing single crops," teaching only what can be measured.

It is tempting to eliminate diversity and focus on conformity because that can be measured by the instruments that we have.

But kids are not crops.

My challenge is to create a school that has a diverse and rich curriculum, that allows for exploration and failure and the pursuit of passions AND one that can demonstrate to students, parents, community members, and legislators that something good and rich and productive is happening.