Merit Pay and Cholesterol

I’m working on a paper about whether merit pay has any place in independent schools.   Before I write the paper, I need to figure out what I actually think, so I’ve been reading a lot about merit pay and education.  As I read everything from randomized, controlled studies to blogs, I keep getting hit with comparisons of merit pay in education to other careers.  I think I’ve hit on the one that really puts it in perspective for me: my cholesterol.

I have high cholesterol, which one might consider an overall indicator of my health.  What if my doctor got merit pay based on my cholesterol level?

What tools does my doctor have to improve my health as measured by my cholesterol level?

  • Expertise: My doctor can try to impress upon me the importance of lower my cholesterol, my risks, and what I should do.
  • Face Time and Teaching:  My doctor can meet with me to share her expertise and tell me exactly what I need to do, what to eat or not eat, how much exercise I should consider.
  • Medication: My doctor can prescribe any number of medications for reduction of cholesterol.
  • Assessment: My doctor can test my cholesterol periodically to see if I have made progress.
  • Reinforcement/Punishment: My doctor can praise me when I do what she asks and she can rebuke me when I don’t.  Depending on how health insurance works in the future, I may pay more if my cholesterol levels stay high.

What does my doctor have to overcome?

  • My genes: Pretty much everyone in my family has high cholesterol. I’ve had cousins who had high cholesterol in elementary school.  There’s a good chance that there are some genetic forces at work that neither my doctor nor I can control.
  • My beliefs: I believe that there’s little I can do for my cholesterol.  I have a lot of reasons.  People in my family don’t tend to have heart disease in spite of our lipid counts. We do tend to have weird and uncomfortable side effects when we take statin drugs.  We don’t tend to see lower cholesterol as a result of regular exercise.  We don’t generally eat high-cholesterol foods.  Based on these trends, I tend to believe that efforts to lower my cholesterol through prescriptions, diet, and exercise will fail.  Carol Dweck would probably say I have a fixed mindset about my cholesterol.
  • My non-compliance: When I’m actually at an appointment with my doctor, I generally refuse to accept Lipitor or similar medications.  I will however, usually agree to something else that is supposed to lower my cholesterol, like taking fish oil.  Right now I am supposed to be taking fish oil every day.  I haven’t taken fish oil at all since two days after I last promised to start doing it.

Is it fair to measure my doctor’s effectiveness based on my cholesterol level?  No!

With all the tools and expertise that she has, my doctor cannot ultimately control my cholesterol.  If you want to know how good she is, you’d probably need to sit in the exam room and watch her have these conversations and ask me if I thought she was effective.  Simply looking at my number doesn’t tell you anything about her efforts, only about my actions.  I like my doctor a lot; she’s attentive and funny.  She cares a lot about my health. She tries hard to get me to take the measures listed above.  She knows when to push a little harder, like at the beginning of the summer when I have more time to exercise and cook healthy meals.  She knows when to let it lie, like when I’m in the office because of a nasty case of food poisoning.   My total cholesterol count of 290 doesn’t tell you any of this.  If you judged her based on it, you’d do her a huge disservice.

So, hopefully this metaphor makes sense.  Teachers have expertise, face time, teaching tools, homework, parent conferences, stickers, praise, assessments, and grades in their toolbox for helping students learn.   But they have to overcome factors like learning differences, individual motivation, home life, student stress, cultural biases about the value of education, and the value students place on the rewards available to teachers in order to “achieve” which is then measured by a students’ scores on a single day.

I’m still not sure how I feel about some kind of merit pay for teachers, but I understand how I feel about using standardized test scores as the only component of determining teacher effectiveness.  What do you think?  Share your thoughts about this metaphor, your experience with merit pay, or how your school measures about teacher effectiveness. Leave comments about my cholesterol and lipitor out of it, please.


Confessions of a Philosophy Student

I only took one philosophy class as an undergrad.  I’m sorry to say it wasn’t a positive experience.  Terribly shy, I worked up my courage to tackle a question aloud in class one day.  My professor asked what the basis for my answer was and I responded, “the laws of physics.”  Apparently that wasn’t a valid basis for an argument.  I didn’t speak again in his class that semester.  I wrote letters to my grandmother weekly during the class. But I read, wrote my papers, and got an A. 

Fifteen or so years later, I received the syllabus for Ethics and Education, a course that’s part of the Klingenstein program at Columbia.  I saw Plato and Seneca.  My heart sank.  I was not excited about revisiting philosophy and potentially repeating my undergrad experience.  My attitude was bad and I was frustrated because I didn’t understand the purpose of these readings in relation to my educational and career goals. 

I faithfully read Plato.  Alcibiades. Meno. Crito. the Apology.  At one point I said I felt like someone had replaced my actual brain with one made of yarn.  I think it was after reading Meno and Crito back to back prior to a my evening law class.  Even though I’m no longer really shy, I like my undergrad self.  I was waiting to say something stupid.  I was surrounded by people with history and classics backgrounds who really seemed to get what we were reading.  I didn’t.  I tried, but I didn’t.  I read. I highlighted.  I reread.  I rewrote Socrates’ arguments in my own words.  It got better.  Apology made sense.   I was able to use Sophocles’ Antigone as an allegory for school leadership in a paper.  

Six weeks into school, it finally clicked.  We’d read a long and (for me) challenging book entitled The Present Alone is Our Happiness.  Each class starts with a question and as I looked through my notes, struggling for a question to answer, I finally found it.  Does being a teacher make me a philosopher?  Yikes!

I wasn’t comfortable with being a philosopher, but all the evidence I could find made me realize that teacher’s must be.  I have specific philosophies about what is right in teaching, what teaching is good, and why teaching should be real-world and hands-on whenever possible.   I struggle each day with questions of whether I am doing my best for each child.  I have conversations about ideas with students. I want to live up to my teaching ideals.  Sometimes I show my students that I don’t know how to do everything, but I try to think through it and figure it out.  That’s really what being a philosopher is, I think.  

So, I’ve been able now to read Montaigne’s Essay on the Education of Children and Dewy’s Moral Principles in Education with a good attitude, realizing that I am connecting each thing I read to my learning goals and that it is up to me to do so.  I’m less worried about saying something stupid and even if I do, that’s okay.  I’m just learning.  

So, what do you think my question?  Does being a teacher make you a philosopher?  



Responding to Alan November

This week at Lenovo’s ThinkTank 2010, I had an opportunity to hear from Alan November.  I have long admired Alan’s forward-thinking examinations of learning in an environment where technology is increasingly available and essential.  I’ve spent a couple of days thinking about some of the things that Alan said in our session and want to share these thoughts.

One thing that Alan suggested is that one should listen to Eric Mazur and I’m doing that now. The reason that this came up is the idea that no amount of good teaching can overcome the preexisting misconceptions that students have before.  To overcome these preexisting misconceptions you must first be aware of them.  Then, you must address them directly so that the students can “unlearn” that wrong information.  Last, you can now teach new ideas.

I’m lucky in that, as I return to teaching only AP Computer Science, my students don’t have a lot of misconceptions about the material because very few of them have ever programmed before.  The only misconception that they are likely to come with is either that the class will be very hard or that it will be fun and easy.   (The truth of course is that the class is fun and hard).

So, I’m watching “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer: Eric Mazur.”  Eric discovered that his carefully prepared lectures were not actually resulting in his students learning the material he was teaching.  He came to the conclusion that he needed to shift from “teaching” to “helping” his students and to letting them help each other.

Back to Alan November’s talk.  In this talk, Alan said that homework was a stupid idea.  You give a student some problems to do.  The student does the problems.  Let’s say that the student gets 10 problems wrong.  He adopts this concept of how to do these problems and then turns in the problems.  A couple of days may pass before he knows that they are wrong and at this point, he has completely absorbed the incorrect idea of how to do the problem.  Alan proposed that the homework needs to be the classwork and the classwork becomes the homework.  What might this look like?  The students read or watch the lecture for homework.  They interact with each other online or respond in a way that allows the teacher to identify their misconceptions.  The teacher can then use class time to call attention to the misconceptions and by identifying them, begin to “unteach” them.  Class now becomes a time for the students to interact with each other, solve problems, and collaborate.  Using automatic response tools throughout the class, the teacher can identify how the class is doing progressing toward understanding the concept.  The teacher can direct students who solve a problem correctly to assist students who are having difficulty.  The time with the teacher becomes about action and interaction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how this might apply to my AP Computer Science class in the upcoming year.  The class has eight students, which seems small from an outside perspective, but in my particular school this is a huge AP Comp class.  How can I make the classwork into homework and the homework into classwork?

First, I learned awhile back that the more I have students read from the textbook, either before or after the lecture, the more confused the students become.  In the last two years, I have stopped assigning required reading; all reading is supplemental and optional.  So, I don’t want to assign readings from the text to make the classwork into homework.  I’m going to start out by looking at MIT’s Open Course Ware to see what video can be assigned as part of our required summer work.  I had success creating youtube videos for my Honors Chemistry class last year, so if I don’t find material I like, I can create my own.

Second, according to Alan’s experience, when students feel that their classmates are depending on them, they will do more than if they are doing the work only for themselves.  I have had classes work collaboratively to work on wikis to create study guides, but I want to take this further and I have to think about how to do this.

Lastly, my classes have always done a lot of group programming, but I’m always the scribe.  It’s time to put the kids in control of the screen and let them solve the problems collaboratively for themselves.

So, I’m hoping to use the summer assignment for my AP Comp class to test this idea of switching the homework and the classwork.  Then, when I have my students in the classroom, I’m going to try to sit down and shut up a little more often.

Virtual education – the time and place for simulations and animations

At NCAIS Innovate this year NCAIS unveiled their Virtual School.  The backchannel chat on twitter raised a lot of questions and one that I found most interesting was what is the role of the virtual, mainly simulations and animations, in education.

For those who might be new to this blog, my first love was science.  I majored in biology and minored in chemistry at WFU.  While in high school at NCSSM, I completed two independent research projects during my senior year.  The lab was a big part of my life for many years.  I love the smell. I love the tools (cryostat, centrifuge, pipets, electrophoresis just to name a few favorites).  I love the way that the lab makes science real.  You can see things and prove things to yourself.  You can connect to the universe and its secrets.

In becoming a chemistry teacher, I’ve found labs can be a simultaneous blessing and curse.  Labs are essential to teach science.  Students need to get their hands dirty and see the science work.  They need to learn how to collect and analyze data.  Unfortunately, labs are time consuming.  Sometimes they fail and confuse students rather than clarify concepts.  It is difficult to get students to understand that results are results, not right or wrong.  They might be expected or unexpected and their might be a source of error that has skewed them, but they are what they are.

In a world of virtual education one can’t necessarily do labs.  Students working at home don’t necessarily have the resources to dissect a frog, perform an acid-base titration, or measure the frequencies of sounds.  So, where is the happy medium for the virtual in science?

I think that it is in supplements and in visualizations.   Below are a two examples that I feel represent the best of the use of the virtual in science education.

Titration Simulation

I used this simulation as a follow up to the hands-on titration lab my students did.  Titration is tricky, because it is so easy to overshoot the equivalence point and miss your chance to record the correct data.  Several groups struggled with this aspect of the experiment.  On the next day, we needed to demonstrate how to complete the calculations that go along with titration.  Using this simulation let us review how the experiment works and then complete the calculations.  For homework students used it again to try an experiment on their own and turned in their assignment by sending me a screenshot of their completed “experiment” and correct answer.   One of the best things about this simulation is that it provides a lot of choices to the students with regard to which acids, bases, and indicators they use.  It also lets them complete the calculations and check their answer.  The only thing that this simulation lacks is a review of how to do the calculations themselves if your initial answer is wrong.

Buffer Animation

One of the challenges of teaching chemistry is that students need to visualize things that are happening on the atomic level.  This particular animation was very helpful in helping my students understand how buffers function.  You can explain and draw the chemicals and their atoms on the board all day, but seeing the motion of this animation made a huge difference for my students.

As the NCAIS Virtual School and others like it develop, I’m sure much more will be learned about how students can use the virtual to understand scientific concepts.  In the meantime, I’ll be looking for more examples like these that can be used for preview, reinforcement and practice.

Fall Back, Spring Forward

Tomorrow night marks this year’s entry into Daylight Saving’s Time.   This post is about falling back and springing forward, but the relationship to daylight savings ends there.

This fall, I gave new meaning to “Fall Back.”  I set the clock back an hour, but you might also notice that my last post was at the beginning of my school’s Fall Break.  In realizing that I “fell back,” I’m thinking about my five month hiatus from this blog, twitter, nings,
and most other sources of professional interaction and growth.  I fell of the balance train and right back in to my long established bad habits surrounding work/life balance.

Now, it’s time to spring forward.  As I write this, I am five hours into my school’s Spring Break, but that’s not the cause of this return to the blogosphere.

This week, I spent two days at the NCAIS Innovate conference.  I feel refreshed.  I feel thoughtful.  I feel pretty, oh so… oh wait, that’s West Side Story.

For two days, I attended workshops, shared ideas, tweeted constantly, met people I’d only known online, and generally had time to think outside the to do list.   It was amazing and it reminded me that by allowing myself to disengage in the name of “being soooo busy,” I hadn’t really gained anything.  I had lost out on growth.

My to do list is longer today than it was yesterday, both because things happened while I was away that must be handled and because I have so many new ideas, new blogs to read, and new connections to nurture.  But a few more to do’s are okay.  I’m committing to springing forward into engagement.  I will stay connected.  I will remember the importance of being present in the community of educators.  I will remember that if the small things fill the days, weeks and months, that the big things will never fit.

In the last five months, I have discovered new tools and techniques for my classes.  I’ve made my first youtube videos and given an lab assessment for a semester exam rather than a traditional pencil and paper test, just to name two.  I’ll be back soon to share these with you.  I’ll also share some further thoughts on some of the great ideas and presentations that I saw at NCAIS innovate.  But for now, it’s time to sign off, unplug, and get spring break started with a movie.