Counterfactual Reasoning, Black Swans, and Common Planning Conundrums

There are many nuts-and-bolts topics discussed (which is probably why you are here) in the name of counterfactual thinking and black swans.  All interesting, but you may by here for only one, so scroll down to what interest you.  In order, the topics are: Introduction, Configuration, Schedule, Placement, Last Thoughts.  Enjoy.

Counterfactual Reasoning and Black Swan Planning

A few weeks ago I wrote about counterfactual reasoning–that it is easier to prove something doesn’t work than it is that is does work.  For example, it is hard to prove that coming to school leads to learning, but we know truants fall behind.  This is important to remember as we plan–we can’t confirm much about the future, but we can plan with that blind spot in mind.

The idea becomes important when looking at the surprises we seem to encounter after we do a lot of planning for the next year (placement, schedule, resource allocation, etc.).  The theory of this is the “black swan“; that unexpected events have a major effect on plans.  Because of this, the theory goes, we should plan with the unexpected in mind.  The other half of the theory is that it is difficult to know what to plan for.  In short, just be ready for something.

Note: Much of this is inspired by  Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  Much of this essay looks at the unexpected events that cause those disruptions every educator can relate to–nothing Earth shattering, but annoying nevertheless.

As educators, we tend to lock everything down–protocols, lessons, spaces, schedules, class lists–because we like to think we can predict everything.  For example, our school locked students into the three homerooms last June, but we did not take into account several unexpected developments.

The largest was we had asked students their World Language preference (French or Spanish).  Our students move through the school by classroom–Art, PE, Music and World Language.  During the summer we realized we could not honor most preferences because placement was based on a different criteria.  We punted.  But we also did not expect several students from one classroom to move away or that so many new families would move into our district.  We placed with insufficient information.  Then student preferences for WL created more turmoil, as parents demanded their kid get this or that language (they, of course, waiting for three weeks into September before doing so).  It also took a few weeks to figure out the WL/Tier II needs of new and leaving students.  Who knew?

As the old Yiddish proverb goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”

One of the mistakes people make is in trying to anticipate the black swan.  If we only anticipate more contingencies we think we can control it all.  No.  We certainly can straighten out many issues.  And we still have to make plans–schedules, room assignments, placement, etc.  How, though, can we plan while respecting the unknown?

Here are some examples of common issues facing schools.

Configuration

A few weeks ago I shared a configuration idea for our middle school.  For forever they have been multi-age, but they are contemplating going straight-grade “just for next year” because class sizes are getting too large and students are falling through the cracks.  There are several challenges facing the team, but the main one will be the influx or exodus of students.  I argue maintaining multi-age classrooms is the best safeguard against student numbers changing.

They are adding a fifth teacher to a four person team.  The Core is responsible for Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Science.  Currently, two teachers are licensed to teach STEM and two Humanities.  To alleviate class sizes they plan to hire a Science teacher.  In theory, this lowers the class average from 28 students to 23.  Of course, because the new teacher can only teach Science it does nothing to help the Humanities classes .  In theory, one of the STEM teachers will shift some of her load towards Math, but Math being taught straight-grade and other elements conspire against such neat divisions.

Using the our middle school’s straight-grade plan as an example, three teachers for the 7th and two for the 8th creates an automatic imbalance.  Of course, these can be mitigated (supports, aides, schedule).  But, should five students leave the 7th, or five join the 8th (or both), there is suddenly a difficult situation with no easy fix.  We can’t know if that scenario will play out, or be worse.  The plan, though, is crafted with little wiggle room should any black swan appear.

Using counterfactual thinking, instead create a multi-age made up of two teams.  Each team has a Science and Humanities teacher.  A single Math teacher instructs all students–a big load, but she is relieved of other duties and the two teams can focus on social-emotional middle school programming.

Imagine, now, five students leave the seventh–the release would be divided between two teams, offering a slight relief of two or three on each team.  In the case of the five joining the 8th, a much more devastating event, that burden would be shared and only result in two or three each.  In fact, if both scenarios play out, much of the effect is a wash.  Multi-age benefits can mitigate the other effects of population bubbles.  For example, each year teachers move (with their classrooms) and they need to relearn new curriculum and start new team protocols, etc.  Multi-age allows multi-dimensional flex.

But the question to ask is why that plan will not work?  I have shown the problems of straight grade (there are more, unwritten here), but that does not mean multi-age is better.  The black swan, counterfactual advice is to take each option and poke at it–with some of the more outlandish variables–until it reveals its flaws.  Then, put down other ideas, too, and poke them.  One area to look at is which “losses” are most tolerable and which would be devastating.  The plan with the most resiliency is probably your best bet.

Schedule

The difficulties of crafting a schedule are long and well known (we even know that we don’t know enough).  This is especially true in schools with many grades and diverse needs (we are a pre-K through 8).

I actually learned a lot recently on why crafting a schedule is so hard through an article on chaos theory (an article for later).  In short, such endeavors are dynamic and resetting course causes exponential problems down the path.   What we do know is that schedule craft works up to 80% of the elements are placed, but then conflicts trouble the last 20% of needs (that’s the dynamic nature of the process).  To fix it we begin to make compromises (which creates more conflict, exponentially).  Each year, someone (or many) is (are) unhappy.

Then, each year, we have a black swan surprise.  Last year, it was WL and everything that followed it.  Other grades had other emergencies.  Each fix seemed to bring more problems.  We live with it–we have no choice–but that 20% consumed a lot of resources and continues to create ripples (e.g., it is unclear if student preference for WL will be honored in 7th grade now that they have a year of one language under their belt.).

My solution is blocking out time instead of scheduling in time.  For example, one grade level figures four uninterrupted hours of seven school hours are needed for Core–90 minutes of Literacy, 60 minutes for Math, 60 for Science/Social Science and 30 for TA.  We demonstrate what’s important to an organization by the resources we put towards it (time, money) and four hours uninterrupted seems a reasonable commitment.  That leaves three hours for lunch, recess, Unified Arts (UA), band, mentor, counseling and any other non-Core activity.

How is a block resilient?  Let’s look at how our current system is not.  Predicting a seven hour day is hard; there are many variables.  It is also easy to be fooled by small numbers–three kids pulled out here, four there.  Currently, music lessons, mentor, speech and physical therapy, and other student needs are pulled from Core.  There are many reasons for this–part time employees and mentors have locked-in schedules, no one wants to deny a child their one Art class a week, and a few kids here or there are seen as non-disruptive.  But in my class of 20, one absence and three music lessons are 20% of the class.  Plus, recovery now becomes a negotiation not with two other Core teachers, but with three times that–pull from Art? PE? (And, because of the dynamics of the interwoven schedule, also lose 20% of their students and need recovery for them).  Again, here is the problem I am poking a hole in with our current schedule and how it was created.

By dividing the day into two blocks (4 hour, 3 hour) that do not overlap, students and teachers only have to negotiate within those blocks, with only those adults.  It is more likely I can flex with my Core teammate’s schedule because a) we have an aligned schedule, b) fewer pulls (classes) means fewer and smaller disruptions, c) fewer agents means less communication needed.  On Core, we can debate the virtues of Math vs. Science and time required to do it right, but with blocks we do not have to debate the death by a thousand cuts we currently face.  Four hours uninterrupted shows we value Literacy, Math, Science and Hive.  Three hours should be enough for others to negotiate what is best for students, among actors who have more in common (UA).  Or, to demonstrate that we want more for our students than the resources we have (or are willing) to give.  Again, this may be flawed.  Poke it.

Student Placement

Has there not been an issue with placement?  Do kids every come as advertised, stay friends (or enemies) with the kids from the previous year, or continue to need the same services?  Too often, we’ve even had to change the teacher assigned to the class (illness, pregnancy, number shifts).  For all the benefits we argue placement provides, those are the holes I poke in our locking kids in as we do.

Three years ago, the middle school wisely created two teams with a blank slate for placement.  First, Special Ed (SE) placed students on the two teams with a variety of rationales–service providers, friend/tormentor locations and the like.  This was open to debate/poking by the group, but we deferred to the experts.  Second, a small number of kids who do not receive services were separated or paired because of behavior or emotional needs.  Some kids need friendly peers, while others are a bit too friendly during class time.  All told, about 20% of placement was locked in like this.  That is an example of necessary planning with what is  known (at that time).  What’s important to note is what they did not do–lock in the remaining 80%.

Then, the sending teachers made two “balanced” teams.  More poking.  But the most important part was that no one was locked in until mid-September.  Each week the middle school would observe interactions, listen to students and families, and shift kids around.  Then, they locked in all kids, creating permanent teams and focused on creating identities for those teams and bonds within.

They waited because kids change–they move, they mature and their allegiances shift.  Because services did not have much flexibility (the nature of Spec Ed and part-timers), and some kids need reassurances (i.e., not being placed with a bully or knowing an adult face before the first day of school), those 20% never shifted.  But, as things shook out, a flexibility was built in for the other 80% so that movement was possible.  By the third week, the two teams were as solid as one is going to get.  It was a successful year.

Compare that flexibility with what happened when we locked in the grade last year that suffered at the hands of WL.  For what was gained (a faint sense of knowing their homeroom) much was lost.  While we should be aware of the anxiety we create with some unknowns, it can be fleeting compared to the year-long stress of a bad fit created by the black swan.  Again, the above might not survive a good poke, but our current spring lock-in is troublesome in the long term.

A Note About Counterfactual Poking

It is easy to spot flaws.  The question is a) if that flaw is true in any viable model, b) if that flaw has a major effect.

For example, one argument I have heard against postponing placement until a few weeks into the year is anxiety and parental concern.  Yet, when we locked in the placement of kids, one or two parents would inevitably call with concerns (or be more forceful about it).  Sometimes, that brought a dam break of other requests as parents micromanaged.  In short, parents and kids worry regardless.  The former is easily dealt with because the concerning elements are often soothed with more information, and solutions can be shared (including locking in needs).  The latter upends a carefully planned order, with results (according to chaos theory) that can prove exponential.

So, caution is necessary when weighing options.  People need to be objective that all plans have downsides–sometimes the same downsides–but some recover better.

Conclusion

The idea is that the we don’t know what we don’t know, but we still have to plan.  We want to poke holes in things early, and be honest about defects, before we choose the model that is best for students.

Power Law, Bell Curves and 100%

In 2014 all students could read and do math.  Fact.  That’s what the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law promised.  100%!

No, in reality, we fell short.  We did as well as law enforcement solved the crime problem–our focus got better (standards!  Common Core!), we used new tools (statistics!) and the numbers went down.  It brought a lot of needed focus on those groups normally ignored, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.  I don’t know if we’ll ever fix either problem 100% because, humans.

The Bell Curve

Prior to NCLB the “bell curve” was the norm.  Here’s a picture of it.

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That is, a few kids got the “A”, a few kids failed, and a whole bunch took up the middle.  I remember my sister, in her physics class, would purposely get a few problems wrong because she would otherwise mess up the curve.  I had the same teacher, and getting half correct was good for a “B”.

Those days are (mostly) gone.  With the introduction of the rubric educators, began to realize that the goal of education should be 100% of students meeting the standard.  Parsing out a few “A” grades does not show rigor, but control–a great teacher should get all students up to their high standard.  The focus became on finishing the marathon, not so much worrying about who finished first (or last).  The bell curve, as far as measuring achievement, has (mostly) been phased out.

In the early days of NCLB our school became really interested in the “stanine”.*  The stanine is where that bell curve is divided up into 9 sections, based on standard deviations.  The “norm” falls in sections 4-6  and accounts for about half the students.  You’ll note that a few kids are a 9 and a few kids are a 1.  We used it a lot and the stanine was in the data sheets we always got.

At some point, someone realized that while it told us where the student was in relation to his or her peers, it did not tell us much about where they were in relation to the content.  After all, “In the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is king!”

That was when the age of the rubric and standards arrived to save us all.

The 100% of the Rubric

You can’t have no children left behind AND use a bell curve.  The bell curve assumes some kids are at the bottom.

It is important to understand the philosophical shift from one to the other.  There are many.  With the bell curve you not only assume that there are kids who will fail but also that you can only have a few superstars.  A graph like this should report known information, but too many see it as destiny–only a few can be stars.

In fact, in the bell curve world, if there are too many stars it diminishes the value of that designation.  Our entire discussion on grade inflation is centered around this point of view–only a few should be getting “A” grades or grades have no value.

Use of the bell curve also slots kids.  I was a “B-” student.  Educators crammed kids into the curve instead of looking at the data they had.  The data should determine graph!

At some point someone asked “What is an ‘A’ anyway”?  Thus began the movement towards rubrics.**   What helps me explain it to parents is the metaphor I hinted at above–the marathon.  Only one person can win a marathon, but nearly anyone can run and finish one.  Our school system is built to get everyone running, so why are we still using a stopwatch?  The rubric is the race’s distance.

Philosophically, having a rubric means all students can meet the standard.  Or, to use the metaphor, finish the marathon.  Some, with IEPs, might need support or a lot more time, but all can do it.  A plethora of “A” grades means that everyone is meeting the standard (and that the bar needs to be raised a bit, but that’s another discussion).

Of course, having a rubric means you have to define the standard.  And what “success” looks like.  The days of “I’ll know it when I see it” grading have faded.  Students and parents now ask for the rubric.  Teachers offer “exemplars” of good work.  Schools began “calibrating” and double scoring to make sure a “3” essay was a “3” essay no matter who grades it.  Grading became fair, or at least more objective.

The philosophical shift continued as letter grades began to be replaced with the 1-4 score.  Letters are a leftover of the old bell curve, with a history that parents intuitively and reflexively know and react to.  In fact, our grade level kept letters for that reason–a parent saw a “C” and they’d act, lean on the kid and come in for a conference.  A “2” never has the same effect.

Those words changed, too.  A “2” is for “approaching” while a “1” indicates “starting”.  Compare that to the “F” for “fail”.  There is little growth mindset in an “F”.***  Thanks to Carol Dweck educators now see students as pliable.  We talk about growth and fixed mindsets, even if not everyone (students, parents, some teachers) got the memo.  Anyone can do it.  No child SHOULD be left behind.

The philosophical shift of rubrics and no child being left behind has bloomed into other ideas, most notable the Proficiency Based Learning (PBL) movement.  Some notable changes include moving from a 100 point scale to using 1, 2, 3, 4 with targets, removing averaging in the “0” for work not done, and the idea of practicing a skill with formative assessments before offering the summative.  These have spawned the “re-do” and no-homework movements.  Full disclosure, I agree.  I agree with whatever means kids leave my classroom with the knowledge.

Of course, upsetting the applecart of traditional “winners” and “losers” rankles a few (mostly, the traditional winners).  The bell curve is great for those on the right side of the curve.  In a fixed mindset world, even those throughout the bell curve accept their fate.  Besides grade inflation concerns, this whole movement has been lumped into the complaints that if “everybody gets a trophy” then they are worth little.  If you adhere to the original orthodoxy, that’s true.  At our 8th grade “graduation” we stopped giving specific academic awards.  Instead, we celebrated a high level of achievement with the “Presidential” award and then let each kid identify a way they excelled over the past year.  No one in the audience felt it cheap.

While the PBL movement has done a lot to push all kids to succeed using a growth mindset, how can schools look at data in a meaningful way?

Power Rule

Vilfredo Pareto was a 19th century Italian economist who first articulated the 80:20 rule.  He showed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of Italians.  Joseph M. Juran later theorized that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. and named it the Pareto Principle.

As I look at the data laid out before me, I wonder how often I see this.  80% of my time seems to be taken up by 20% of my students (this is true in both academics and behavior).  80% of my students seem to meet the standard while 20% struggle.  It certainly paints a nice picture.  My fear is that, like the bell curve, we begin to slot kids.  If 20% of the kids are destined to fail, I’m off the hook of expecting ALL kids to make it.  If we are speaking of equity, why do 20% of kids get my attention (if you have your own kid, you know you want your kid’s share of the teacher’s attention).  I try and remember: Fair does not always mean equal.  Still….

But the 80:20 rule is something to keep in mind.  For example, my wife covers the papers of her students in comments.  I make about 20% worth of comments that she does, and I suspect (anecdotal) that it gets 80% of the effect.  Perhaps, 80% of the learning is due to 20% of my teaching (probably the lesson on Tuesday).  But, just as there are 20% that might not be meeting the standard, it might also show 20% are above the standard and need more.

Ah, I’ve just make a defacto bell curve.  That is the danger here.  Once the 80:20 rule starts become a rule more than a way to state what you observe there is a danger of fixed destiny.  As Sara Connor says, “No fate.”

So how about “power law”?  Power law demonstrates a relationship between two quantities.  The change in one results in a change in the other, but as a power of the other.300px-long_tail-svg  Like most things, it is best explained by Wikipedia.  To use their example, increase the side of a square and the area increases squared.

Here is a nice graph of it, and the 80:20 rule, too (green:yellow).

If you think in terms of power law, you begin to think of two things.  First, what variable can you change to get exponential change on the other end.  Not assigning homework, for example, and having kids write in class made a huge difference in learning for my students.  Second, power law makes one look at the tail–that’s what the 20% is called (in the graph, you can see it to the right, and it’s not always 20% or even close to that).

That 20% will take 80% more effort to move.  But, you could find the 20% change that moves it 80% results-wise.  Of course, I’m having a bit of fun here–if only it were that easy!  But playing with those numbers breaks the rut we educators put ourselves in.

Let’s look at using this graph in a very different way, though.  What if the 80% was a student being successful and 20% falling short.  How to measure that?  Traditionally, that would be an average.  But averages are fickle.  We distinguish between the median and mean in case Bill Gates walks in and someone thinks I’m a billionaire because that would be our average salary.  In our PBL world we are moving away from the average.

Does that far right end of the tail show the story?  Of course, in the grade book, that extreme tail score would be in there.  It might be a lesson learned.  But the story of competence is the 80% as much as the 20%

Our current grading program, Jumprope, allows for power law to be used in grading.  In short, the weight of older grades shrinks.  The more recent grades weigh the most, because we care more for what students can do today.  I thought it was the best between a history of competence (average) and what they can do now.

Except, if the last attempt was a bomb.  Thus, a history of success gets marred by a stumble.  Fair?  No, but such snapshots rarely are.

Where Does That Put Us?

Changing.  Always.  That’s where it puts us.  Education is a forever war.  And why is that important?  Because anytime an administrator or consultant (or both!) comes at you with charts, be skeptical.  I love graphs and data and especially predicting (which is a lot of folly, but fun folly).

But I got human being in front of me.  That’s who I gotta teach.  And believing in a growth mindset, each is a forever battle in our long, wonderful forever war.

Suit up.

*Some called it the “Stat 9”.  The story I heard was that, during World War II, the Army was looking for pilots.  They wanted to rank them on a ten scale, but with the limited, new IBM computers using the tens column would require a lot of extra power–so they went 1-9.

**In our Proficiency Based Learning (PBL) paradigm our school is now using the term “target” instead of rubric.  The target is the next step towards proficiency, while the rubric is a static tool in a document that, with a little tweaking, becomes a target on professional development days.

***Our school’s solution to the “F = fail” issues was to use an “N” for “no evidence”.  Parents always asked, “What the heck is an ‘N’?”  

Not knowing an “F” was for “fail” students often asked why it went from “D” to “F”–what about the “E”?  At one school I worked, they had an “E” which was “failing with effort.”  Instead of blowing work off, their work was marginal.  Because of how the final yearly grade was calculated, an “E” for the semester averaged in better than an “F” and allowed hapless kids to get credit if they rebounded with a “D” or better in the other semester and final exam.

The Follow Up: Interventions Often Need Interventions

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There is no silver bullet.  Change requires tweaking and digging until you get to the bone.  Be ready; it’s hard work.

Last week I wrote some idea of looking at data, in part use counterfactual questions.  In a counterfactual assessment you prove what is wrong, because it is easier than proving what is right.  For example, I can’t prove that coming to school daily works, but I can easily show that students who are tardy and miss a lot do poorly.

So, what do we know does not work?  What stops learning?  These questions came while reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  Check out that post (Counterfactual Questioning of Data and Needs) here.

The working method behind counterfactual questioning is to continue to shed what does not work.  As a teacher or leader, I am sure you already know the kids the system is not working for.  And I am sure you know what areas are not working for them.

Why, then, do you continue with your system?

I will bet that the finger points to the kid, the family, or some other factor (poverty, tragedy, punkishness….)–but NOT the system in general.

When we adopt a pedagogy, we do so because we believe it will work.  It’s proven.  There’s data behind it–perhaps, even, from your school!  But, looking at your data now, you know it is not working for all students.

And you adapt.  And that does not work.  Or it doesn’t work for another group.    Or, the system is blamed and abandoned TOO SOON.  What you are doing, or some version of it, probably has many components that do work, but you have to adapt it to the students sitting in front of you.

I used the example of reading in that post, so let me focus on it again.  By putting SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) in the school we can focus more specifically on what does not work until it does (we control the environment, thus making it a nice little laboratory). Is it seating (move them), book selection (look at level and keep trying new titles), fluency ro eye tracking (Google Text to Speech)…. And as we take away what does not work we are left with nothing but reading.

Sherlock Holmes said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”  This is kind of like that–the second half of the process.  Once you stop trying to make your square peg fit the round hole, you’ll find a whole bunch of things that don’t work.  Great.  And as you try more, seemingly improbable solutions, you will find more that don’t work.  Until you hit on one that does work.  Pay dirt.

Start with your solid pedagogy.  You have to.  But, then, measure.  If it isn’t working, figure out why.  Then try something.  You might start with the old toolbox–why reinvent the wheel–but quickly throw the net wider.  As you do, you’ll get a sense of the student and why they aren’t succeeding.  Be Sherlock Holmes and find that improbable solution.

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All of that said, let me recommend Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning About Writing, Reading and Adolescents.  In short, she promotes reading and writing workshops: Students work, and she offers mini-lesson and conferences.  Unlike current workshop queen Lucy Caulkins, Atwell’s program adapts, constantly.  The program fits the student.

Don’t worry if reading or writing or middle school is not your focus–the methods she employs works for any subject.  And she is honest about her journey finding these methods–she’s being doing for thirty years and is still refining.  Try to introduce a bit of it into your instruction.

 

 

Counterfactual Questioning of Data and Needs

9780812973815I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable after reading a Wikipedia article about Stephen Bannon and his influences.  This was one, and it made the news clearer in many ways.

It also showed me a different way of using the data we are now getting almost too much of.  Here are a few interesting take-aways as how I might look at data new–and use it moving forward.

1. Look at the outliers.  When we focus on what works, or decide that it does not work, we often don’t really look at who falls short.  We look at the bulk–the middle kids–and evaluate the program based on them.  Then, we look at how we can “fix” the others to fit into the system which (we think) works.  Or blame them for their shortcomings.

It becomes about fitting a square peg into a round hole.

For some, we intervene with Tier II or even go EST (Educational Support Team), if they don’t already have IEPs or a 504.  For others, we explain it away (often with history–they’ve always done that–or other–family issues, anxiety, a bad day….) which is another version of blame-the-kid.  But if 20% of the group is not succeeding, how can we call a program a success?  (FYI, I’ve seen programs at 40% success declared working, because you have to understand…)  And if the response is that those 20% get something different, a) does that work, b) is that the best use of resources, and c) is that best for all kids?

One concern about any program outside of the normal program is measuring effectiveness of that intervention.  Often, if the intervention works–great work–but if it fails the child we find excuses with the child.  Honestly, once a kid falls to Tier II or Tier III they stay there.  (There is little incentive to change that, but that’s addressed later).  So the first step needs to be coupled with….

2. Tailor the group to the outliers.  While a program should not revolve around a single student, are there changes that would help other students as well?  For example, in the talks about anxiety our school did the presenters sold the idea that such interventions help other students.  True.  Compared to our childhood, we no longer time tests while we do allow movement breaks, reteach, and incorporate a dozen other techniques that began with outlier kids and are now mainstream.  But what is required is….

3. Thinking of needs outside the standard toolbox.  My students, for example, started the year talking about needing “hands on” learning (whatever that means).  Then, it was movement breaks.  Then, social time.  All of these were valid, but they did not really have an idea of what they needed.  Instead, our team read between the lines and gave them what they actually needed.  But even then, our responses were pretty standard (more projects, less seat work).  And, we are having a difficult time with a different outlier group (we are working on working independently, working with peers, time management and other, new issues).

Recently, we have looked at other needs.  We have a few kids questioning their identity (sexual orientation, interests, even their given name).  We have several kids with family issues–really worried about their family, illnesses, moving, relationships and the like.  We can see with after school groups that a desire for identity and connection exists.  A social survey with gave students showed a desire for help with peers and impulse control.  What to do with that?  We are currently looking beyond the wisely constructed groupings to regroup with needs, and soft-sell the focus bringing them together now.

But we aren’t counselors and this is not a therapy session.  Our goal is academics.  Plus, there are other needs and other solutions.  For example, in 2014 I found that what moved scores was participation in a competitive activity (AAU, Mini Metro, Far Post, ballet…).  There are a number of needs, many you don’t see because our students are faces in a specific location and a data point (go out to recess or the common spaces and see them differently).  So, we find that need by….

4. Ask counterfactual questions.  In a counterfactual assessment you prove what is wrong, because it is easier than proving what is right.  For example, I can’t prove that coming to school daily works, but I can easily show that students who are tardy and miss a lot do poorly.

So, what do we know does not work?  What stops learning.  Time is a general issue.  Interruptions are more pressing.  Homework does not really help those we want it to help.  But what the homework issue shows us is that time is needed–to read, for example.  When we do get kids to read at home, they get better at reading.  Now, we don’t know if that is due to attitude or practice or what.  But by putting SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) in the school we can focus on that.  For those who is does not work, why?  Seating (move them), book selection (look at level and keep trying new titles), fluency (Google Text to Speech)….  And as we take away what does not work we are left with reading.  But you need to ask….

5. Instead of asking what they need, ask what they don’t need and shed it.  Does a student who reads all of the time need SSR?  They might like it, or it may serve a calming function, but it does not add much to the academic purpose of SSR for them.  Found time.  They might, though, need that calming function–can it be given more effectively (offer meditation or counseling)?  Or, when their non-needs are whittled away, what’s left?  You can ask this of the student who gets instrument lessons outside of school (why do they still get school lessons?), the kid who plays Mini-Metro during the basketball unit (is relearning how to dribble worth their time?), and so on.  And we know who is lacking–we can tick it off the top of our head.  We have a list ready of what is not working.

A simple example is leadership.  We say we need it.  In our school, we have a group of intelligent athletes who think leadership is getting their way, instead of making their peers look better and rise up together.  They pick the team, have the ball, take the shot, and are ready with the excuse of why X didn’t get the ball (“They aren’t very good.”)  They are teachers waiting to be shown how.  If they teach X, that kid X will get the ball.  A simple pivot around the data sets that up–Kid A is measured on basketball skills and Kid B is measured on his teaching others.

6. And before you talk about time, think about how much time we spend accommodating, chasing down a few kids, and adapting work.  Differentiation is hard and time consuming and still we have failure–because we differentiate the wrong thing.  Use data to find the right thing, but cutting back everything that does not work.

Of course, this is still turning around in my head.  But it might cause you to think about things differently as you approach configuration, schedule and PBL in the next month in anticipate of the next school year.

Why Data Matters

My primary blog is Middle School Poetry 180, which you can find here.  I live in the world of the Humanities even while I love all things data.  But, that’s why the bent is towards English majors.

Unfortunately, too many English and liberal arts majors throw their hands up and say, “I can’t do math.”  Idiots.  First, you can do math.  Second, that just gives license to all of the STEM kids to dismiss your teaching of poetry in a “why do we need to know this” way.  Don’t go there.

Let me be brief.

First, data should drive instruction.  If we believe in a growth mindset, data should be used to measure a baseline and then measure progress (if you don’t believe in a growth mindset, please get out of education).  What you do in the classroom should have an impact on student learning.  That’s what we are paid for.

When our school board planned to change how literacy intervention was delivered, I was asked to help craft a slide presentation defending how it had been done.  When I asked for data–some measure that the program worked–I was told there was none.  Instead, I was asked “How can you measure a child’s love of reading?” by one of the instructors.  Well, you can measure how many books they read independently, how much time they spend reading each week, or even how they rate the books they read.  None of those are perfect, but they begin to ask the question.

If you look, you will find numerous programs around your school that have little to no data showing their efficacy.  On a committee to create an alternative program (I began my teaching career in behavioral programs, so I get tapped for such initiatives), I was shown a model program at a local 5-8 school.  When I asked how many students “graduated” back to the mainstream, they had no answer.  In fact, none had.  The program was a warehouse for problem kids.  When I researched data or papers on such programs, I found (at the time) little existed.  I did find one interesting study that explained the phenomena of no data: When a kid succeeds in an alternative program the program is praised, and when they don’t the kids are blamed (“What can you do with those kids?  You tried.”).  Data tends to reveal just how wasteful such programs are–in dollars, time and in wasted youth.

In your own classroom, you might be teaching skills that kids already know.  You might also think they “got it” when they don’t.  Our school (and state) have embraced Proficiency Based Learning (PBL).  If you are not using data, look it up.  Formative and summatives.  No zero.  Redo work until it’s right.  It is transformative.

Second, data drives everything you do regardless of your awareness.  Take the schedule.  One of the issues in our middle school is that students pick up new subjects (Band, World Language) and don’t lose old ones.  Where does the time come from?  When they diced that out, the kids had a lot of transitions–fourteen over a seven hour day.  Adding it up, kids spent more time in the hallways over the course of a single day than they did learning Art in the week.  Data–time–revealed the issue.

Look at your own class.  With the push towards Project Based Learning (PBL, not to be confused with the other PBL) teachers really need to question the value of time spent.  For example, we had students create maps of Europe.  Some spent a full hour coloring them with colored pencils.  Did that add to their understanding of geography?  No, but it took an hour away from their working on their reading.  A basic question to ask is if the time put into something will get the value.

Time is a resource.  It is valuable.  Forget dollars and computers and supplies, time is the resource that helps students most.  Just having time to read can do wonders.  And we measure that in minutes.  In days.  Twenty minutes of Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) over one hundred and eighty days equals sixty hours of reading.  For a kid who refused to read, that’s gold.

Don’t put on a sad math face.  Just look out at your class; can you tell who “gets it” or who is progressing?  Is the project you are doing worth the time, or having effect at all?

9 Steps to Creating a Schedule for a Complex Organization: Part Two

Schools are not the only organizations with a host of constituents demanding varied needs be met, but they offer a great case study.  I have broken these steps into two distinct parts: Theoretical  and Building.  Both are essential to success over 180 days.
Warning: It is easy to skip steps, especially the theoretical.  This groundwork is essential for the building portion to work.  Otherwise, you’ve got a “Blind Men and the Elephant” scenario.  Check out Part One here.
Part Two: Building: The mistake here is to see this as blocks needing to be stacked.  It’s true, in a sense, but when that mental shift happens the schedule produced becomes a series of pounding square pegs into round holes; lots of edges feel the rub.  At the same time, the water metaphor no longer works because a rigid line is needed in order to truly understand what works and what only seems to work (but, in the details, things are lost).
5. Schedule Everything: The big things become clear, and often have minor compromises; nothing is harder to roll with than additional surprises.  Often, these surprises are more disruptive than the larger issues.  For example, the one grade level at our school had 4.5 hours a day with students, or 22.5 hours in a week.  Band and Chorus was scheduled for three 40 minute blocks, or 2 hours, for 2/3 of our students (the remaining 1/3 were left for the teachers to plan for).  That left 20.5 hours of instruction for all kids.  Seems reasonable, except instrument lessons pull an additional 4 hours, and those are small clumps of kids that come-and-go at odd, rotating times–very disruptive.  When you craft the schedule, and put in 6 plus hours of music, it paints a very different picture.
But the time culprits are many: Guidance, mentors, Tier II, Special Ed…..  Each needs to pencil in a projected time.  The guidance counselor, for example, knows a bunch of his caseload.  If a special 3-4th grade block was identified based on expected need and time outside of non-negotiable times, that service would have a solid place to start and flexibility moving into September.
6. Populate the Schedule: Without a dry run, the schedule is an estimate.  That leads to grey areas, but grey areas add up to black over the course of the process.  While you might not have placement, you do know how many kids get pulled for X, Y and Z and can make reasonable assumptions about where they go.  For several years, one grade level had two sections of World Language–one French and one Spanish.  Then, the population bumped up.  It was a surprise that there needed to be three WL classes, not two as there had been.  That meant one Spanish and two French, which drove the UA groups, that had been driven by the homerooms–see, dominoes.  With each grade picturing their day–if not walking through it–many of the unexpected bits come into play.  Account for every kid and location.
7. Dry Run the Schedule: Even if each grade level imagines the day instead of physically walking through it, that’s something.  Did you take into account transition time?  The time it takes to put on snowsuits and take them off is substantial, especially if UA proceeds and follows recess.  For example, one grade’s schedule has kids go from UA to recess, which works well, but when they need their Chromebooks for UA after recess they go to the room, undress, get Chromebooks and walk to UA–five to ten minutes lost in a 40 minutes class.  Run the schedule in winter and warmer months, or whatever demands change in your locale.
8. All Teachers Sign Off: Every year, groups are asked to look and report back on if it works.  Every year, most people do.  But some don’t.  A few yeas ago, no lunch was scheduled for UA in the frenzy of crafting something that works; adjusting for it made the schedule a kludge, but since it was June everyone just went with it.  These things were not caught until after the schedule was set.  Everyone was mad at the group all year for the compromises.  Pet Peeve: There is often a member of the staff that claims to be helpless, and the nurturing environment of a school bends over backwards to accommodate, even as that person is rigid in their not being proactive or bending in retrospect.  Ugh.  At least with a signature, there is no buck-passing and everyone is forced to take some ownership of their part in the process.
9. First Schedule Wins (Bad): We like to believe the process is open and cooperative, but in reality the first schedule that works for 3/4 of the school rules.  Even with compelling arguments against it, little more than tweaks occur.  For that reason, the first few rules above are essential.  They need to be concrete as possible, and drive planning.
One way to counter this is to present multiple, diverse schedules.  Presented with three very different ways of doing something, people will see the possibilities, even when the schedule just doesn’t work.  By then going and adapting the best of several, you not only get more good ideas, but everyone sees how what was chosen is not the first presented, but the best of otherwise flawed plans.  It is otherwise easy to find fault without being tasked with a solution.
Every group needs to feel empowered.  There are a few ways to do this.  For example, allow each group to have the power to veto at each step, but once a step is adopted they lose that power.  So, if 90 minutes of literacy is a non-negotiable and adopted, the schedule bends to that even if means other desires are compromised when the final schedule comes out.  Each group should also have the power to create an alternative schedule.  Whatever, but something needs to happen to counter the “First Schedule Wins” problem.

9 Steps to Creating a Schedule for a Complex Organization: Part One

Schools are not the only organizations with a host of constituents demanding varied needs be met, but they offer a great case study.  I have broken these steps into two distinct parts: Theoretical  and Building.  Both are essential to success over 180 days.
Warning: It is easy to skip steps, especially the theoretical.  This groundwork is essential for the building portion to work.  Otherwise, you’ve got a “Blind Men and the Elephant” scenario.  Still, you can check out Part 2 here.
Part One: Theoreticals: At this point of development, the schedule is like a river: Water is fluid, bends around anything and fills every crevice.  Much like time.  Here, you will begin to construct the vessel that contains it (beginning with Start and End times of the day) and identifying those impediments it needs to flow around.
1. Vision: The schedule is a physical manifestation of the vision.  For example, if you want certain people to collaborate they need the same preps.  Or, if starting the day with a Restorative Justice circle in homeroom is important, than the day cannot begin before 8:20, so teacher have at least 15 minutes to start the day right.  Make a list of the vision(s) in all respects and then figure what elements of the schedule facilitate that.
2. Recognize What’s Just Tradition: Much of the schedule is the remnants of old visions, initiatives and needs.  In keeping what worked this year, we often perpetuate other patterns that no longer drive the schedule.  For example, we had Art scheduled on a day that worked for the part-time Art teacher, who worked at other schools on other days–when her situation changed, no one thought of changing the day.  Spending time just messing with assumptions both helps question how things are done and opens up new possibilities.  Often, these are impediments to work around that people do not even realize they are accommodating for; removing them frees up possibilities.  Even those that are preferential may not be as non-negotiable as an issue that comes up later than is mission critical to members.
3. Plan for Two Years (at Least): The class sizes are clear–if the 3rd grade needs three teachers, the 4th grade will need it next year.  You should also account for what the 4th grade looks like the year after, too.  Which class sizes are close to a bust (so that three kids moving in in August requires an additional teacher, classroom and the like), or might not be sustainable (i.e., that teach could be moved to a grade that needs her more)?  Plan teams, room assignments and the like towards that.  Also, think how part time staff will be used over that time.  It may not seem directly related to the schedule, but a) planning two years makes you be realistic about next year, and b) most schedules go south because small, unexpected changes that happen before September 15.  Best be ready.
4. Define Non-negotiables: What are bedrock points, that no one can touch.  For example, at one point 60 minutes of Math and 90 minutes of Literacy a day were non-negotiable in the schedule.  For any grade level, I would advocate for 3 hours a day uninterrupted–no lessons, pull-outs or other distractions; we are guaranteed all of our kids for that period of time.  Class size might be another (Art can only hold 25 students physically in the room).
Part Two: Building: The mistake here is to see this as blocks needing to be stacked.  It’s true, in a sense, but when that mental shift happens the schedule produced becomes a series of pounding square pegs into round holes; lots of edges feel the rub.  At the same time, the water metaphor no longer works because a rigid line is needed in order to truly understand what works and what only seems to work (but, in the details, things are lost).