A Plea to AP teachers- don't measure yourself by your scores

AP scores just came out. As usual, I see the posts and take part in conversations where teachers talk about their results. Some are happy about their results, some aren't, some don't really care.

I just want to make a plea to all AP teachers out there:

Don't let your value be dictated by the college board or any other exam.

I never really cared much about my students' actual AP scores. There were a number of years when I never even saw the results. Of course, I had a population that would do reasonably well regardless of teacher so I was never placed under any pressure to "do better." One year - while the APCS-AB exam was still offered, my principal called me down to discuss the results to see if we could get more kids scoring 4s and 5s (which most of the kids already did). I told him that I thought we were doing fine, explained why I couldn't advocate more teaching to the test (such as more than paying lip service to the case study or more rote practice on the multiple choice), and told him how I measured our success as a program. He was happy with my answer and that was that.

The AP exam is one test on one day and in my opinion the least valuable measure of my students' achievement. This is one of the reasons I was so dismayed by the CSEd community's efforts in pushing the AP exams - not the class or the subject but the actual exam.

So, how should you judge your success? That's up to you. I can only tell you how I judge myself.

First and foremost - and I know this sounds cheesy - are you a "force for good" in your student's lives. Do you leave them in a better place? Have you opened the door to a possible future for them? Have you helped them grow? Beyond that, have they progressed in your subject and as students in general.

I've had kids "fail" the AP exam and go on to wonderful careers in tech and come back to thank me for giving them their start. I've also had kids that have gone into other fields but appreciate what we've done for them. I've also had my failures and I do mean my failures. Students I couldn't reach or couldn't figure out how to help.

As teachers, we work day to day trying to improve but we can get a great overview of how we're doing by using a much longer feedback loop - looking at what our graduates are up to. When young teachers would comment on former students coming back or running into them at tech events that they would have graduates of their own in a few years and invariably they do.

To really evaluate how you're doing you have to go with the long game. Very few people get that. I remember talking to a Google Executive while I was designing CAPE 2010. He said something to the effect of "I know we won't know if this program works for about ten years but we'll have to come up with something short term to satisfy the powers that be." That so few "get it" and need instant feedback is one of the reasons that our society is so test driven. We shouldn't be. Our focus should be on helping the students learn and progress.

So don't get distressed over AP results and don't get to high on them either. Certainly don't use them to drive what and how you teach. Let your students and your conscience be your guide.

CS Teachers - teacher first or content first

Is it easier to take CS people and teach them to teach or is it easier to take teachers and teach them CS?

The question gets batted around from time to time.

This time via twitter:

The conversation was referring to blog posts by Alfred Thompson and Garth flint. Alfred's key point - one that I've spoken about before is that short term professional development does not a CS teacher make.

As to the lead in question? I've seen both routes succeed and both routes fail. Both can be heavy lifts but there's a missing part of the equation that's never addressed.

The claim is that it's easier to teach CS to a non-CS teacher because they already know how to teach. The problem is, particularly in the later grades that teachers of different subject areas have very different tool sets. Sure, there are common factors – get the kids involved, layer, spiral, etc. but you don't teach a CS lesson the same way you teach a math lesson let alone a literature, history, language lesson.

In a math class, it's common to have students write solutions to problems up on the board. If you try that in a CS class, you'll be waiting 20 minutes while the kids transcribe the problems. Likewise, math homework will likely consist of a certain amount of repetitive practice problems whereas a CS class won't have something directly analogous. This is not to say that you don't have opportunities for students to present at the board in CS class or that there isn't worthwhile homework but rather that even at this simple level, there are differences.

So, if we're going to teach a non-CS teacher the CS content, beyond the challenge of giving them the necessary depth and breadth of content knowledge we have to teach them how to teach CS.

I've inventoried some of the techniques my colleagues and I have used in our classes and the collected methods could easily fill a couple of graduate education courses.

So, what's the answer to the question? It doesn't matter where you start but if we want to do right by our kids we need to prepare them in not two but three areas:

  • CS Content
  • CS Pedagogy
  • General education and pedagogy

Short term PD (professional development) won't do it and neither will scripts for "teachers" to follow. It's going to take time, will, and effort.

Here's hoping that municipalities look at the long game. It's fine to do PD now to get something started but it's not enough. I wanted my kids math teachers to know math and how to teach it. We should demand no less from our CS teachers.

Using Emacs 35 - Blogging

Very little new Emacs in today's episode of Using Emacs. The video shows my old blogging workflow and what I'm playing with now.

The only new Emacs covered is the prodigy package which lets you run services under Emacs. I use it to run Nikola's development server but I think prodigy will also be useful when I start writing that knitting application I promised my wife.

When I started this blog, I used Jekyll. It was simple and worked with GitHub pages. I wrote about why I transitioned to Nikola here and here.

There's not much more to say here so enjoy the video:

On Retaining Teachers

Back in February, I shared my thoughts on losing CS teachers to the tech industy. TL;DR - I don't think it will be a CS Ed problem.

That said, I do think that it will be hard to find good CS teachers but the reason is because it will get harder and harder to find good teachers in general.

There are plenty of reasons why it's harder to become a career teacher but I don't want to talk about those today. There are also plenty of powerful forces working to destroy public schools and teaching as a career but this post isn't about that either.

This post is my attempt to tell people what teachers are actually looking for. Some people assert that merit pay or similar "real world" incentives will keep good teachers teaching but teachers are a different breed.

Of course, I can't speak for all teachers but I can talk about myself and teachers I've known and worked with over the years.

I never thought I'd be a teacher, it was just something I tried when I was dissatisfied with Wall Street. I tried it, it stuck. I didn't feel at the time that teaching was my calling but somehow or other, I made a career of it.

To start, schools are not factories, companies, stores, or any other type of business. Teachers spend most of their days with students and little time with each other. Most of their time is allocated for them. A high school teacher in NY will likely teach 5 class of 34 kids each, have 1 period for lunch, 1 for preparation and 1 assigned to some school task. You probably won't see your supervisor much. Mostly at monthly meetings and when they observe you. Observations are ostensibly for teacher evaluation and improvement but the system is does neither well.

Teachers also don't have the same types of career paths as a other professionals do. If you want to remain a classroom teacher, there is no career path. You could become an assistant principal or principal but those opportunities take you away from the kids and from your subject area. They say teaching is a calling and for career classroom teachers it probably is. For those who spent a few years in a classroom and left for what they see as greener pastures, maybe not.

So instead teachers make a career by honing their craft, creating electives, working with clubs and teams, or doing something similar that doesn't remove them from the classroom.

In my case, I developed some electives and one thing led to another and I ended up where I am today.

The career situation of the teacher is why things like merit pay never work. As a teacher, I want, in fact need my colleagues to do well. I might have your kids next year and if you do a poor job I'll end up suffering with the results. Sure, I'd like to be recognized as one of the better teachers but it's not healthy for my students, my school, or my career if I'm pitted against my fellow teacher. We're all in this together.

Teachers do accept merit pay when it's forced on them though. As a friend of mine once said - it's like the teacher lottery - the way they assign the merit bonuses are based on those bogus state exams so the distribution is pretty random, one year I'll get it, another year someone else.

This is not to say that teachers couldn't use a higher salary but even then, teachers are not driven by the same motivations as business people. I don't know of any teacher who feels that they'd work harder for more pay or that they work any less hard if they're paid less.

Teachers work and fight for their kids because that's what we do. Right before I left Stuy for Hunter, the teachers and city agreed to a new contract. All of a sudden I got a pay raise. I can tell you that I was neither a better or worse of a teacher the day after the contract went into affect than the day before.

My mentor and friend Richard Rothenberg talked to me about the deal we make with society as teachers early in my career. He said, once you get a few years in and have some seniority you're pretty secure and you're only worry has to be teaching. We don't do great in the good times but we do OK. On the other hand, we still have jobs in the bad times although, again, we don't do great. We put in a lifetime of service knowing that we won't get any significant financial reward but at the end of the day between our contributions and the city/state's investments we'll get a pension and won't be out in the cold in our retirement.

The point is that those of us meant to be teachers were never looking for the fast track to the upper class. We work to make a difference and want society to enable us to make that difference. Teachers don't have to be paid like they are in "the real world" but they do need to put a roof over their heads, send their kids to college and have a vacation now and again.

It's not too much to ask but in this day and age it's apparently too much to give.

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