Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tips for Writing Test Questions


There are two major types of test items, subjective and objective. Under subjective test items, fall essay, short-answer and fill-in-the-blank tests. Objective test items include matching, true/false and multiple choice tests.

With subjective tests, the student provides the answer. These tests are subjective because they require evaluation and judgment from the grader.

With objective tests, the student selects specific answers provided by the test writer. These tests are objective because the scoring in impartial. The exception might be a fill-in-the-blank test which could be considered objective since you are looking for a single word, but you must still make judgments on spelling, or on whether a similar or alternate answer is acceptable which makes it more subjective.

Let’s evaluate each kind of test, both subjective and objective, looking for pros and cons of each type.

Essay Questions

Pros: The advantage of essay questions is that they are flexible, comprehensive, integrated, easier and faster to write and they discourage guessing.

Essay questions allow you to ask for information or skills that you can’t define well or completely. They allow respondents to be innovative and to create, to pursue original thinking. Students can also demonstrate the ability to organize knowledge, express opinions and show originality. These questions can also test complex learning objectives, allow for thoughtful discussion and insights and encourage interpretive thinking and logical projections.

Cons: The disadvantage of essay questions is that they are time consuming, limit the amount of material tested, require writing ability, take longer to score, and are difficult to score consistently and fairly.

Because essay questions take so long to answer, the fact that the tests contain fewer questions and that some pertinent content may get ignored, this kind of question can be unreliable in assessing the entire content of a course or topic area so that the test’s validity is decreased. Test takers may not have time to organize and proofread answers. And, because essays are so subjective, they are difficult to score impartially.

Short Answers

Pros: The advantage of short answer questions is that they are easy to construct, are good for factual content, minimize guessing and encourage more intensive study.

Cons: On the other hand, short answer questions may overemphasize memorization of facts, may have more than one correct answer and take longer to score.

Students have to know the correct answer with short answer questions rather than just recognizing the answer, which keeps them from guessing the answer compared to true/false and multiple choice questions.

Here are a few sample short answer questions on an actual test for a building engineer which would apply to a hotel maintenance employee and how one test taker answered them:

1. What is the procedure for finding and correcting an electrical problem?
Answer: Troubleshoot

2. How would you report the nature of a problem?
Answer: Call the supervisor

3. How do you document your work?
Answer: Fill out the form

As far as the respondent is concerned, these are short answers and he has answered the questions correctly. But do they get at the knowledge the tester was really trying to evaluate? Clearly they do not. The tester was probably looking for the engineer to demonstrate that he knew how to do the work.

How could the test have been constructed differently to get the responses the tester wanted? The tester could have used a verbal test where the respondent is asked to explain what they would do and show how they would do it. The tester could record their answers in a simple checklist. Or, the tester could have supplied better instructions such as a brief explanation of what is expected and a description of how the answer will be scored.

For example, the tester could have prefaced the short answer test with: “Use the space provided to write a brief outline of how to do each of these things. Your answers should indicate how you know there is a problem, what you do to find it, and briefly, what you do to solve it. “


Pros: Fill-in-the-blank questions are advantageous in that they: are more objective than essay or short answer questions, minimize guessing and are the best choice for direct recall of specific facts.

Cons: These questions are more difficult to score than multiple choice or true/false questions and can be ambiguous.

While fill-in-the-blank questions do minimize guessing compared to true/false and multiple choice, they are more difficult to score. You may have to consider more than one answer correct if the question was not properly worded. For example:

ABC Restaurants was founded in _____________.

Does that mean in what year, what city or what country? Often, a limited short answer is the better choice. So, this question could be reworded to say:

In what year was ABC Restaurants founded?

Note that the information the tester is looking for is at the beginning of the question, not at the end. It was not written as, “ABC Restaurants was founded in what year?” Why is this question format better? Because posing the question as a question rather than as fill-in-the-blank prompts the test taker’s brain to go into search and retrieve mode.


Pros: The good thing about matching questions is that they provide maximum coverage of knowledge in a minimum amount of space and preparation time, and are valuable in content areas that have a lot of facts.

Cons: On the other hand, these questions: are time consuming for students, are not good for higher levels of learning, don’t require students to remember the answer to respond, and are difficult to construct.

Students answering these questions have to rule out a lot of responses, making them take a lot of time to answer questions. You are only asking them to recognize answers, not recall (this is true for true/false and multiple choice as well). And, the test constructor has the problem of selecting a common set of stimuli and responses.


Pros: True/false questions require less time for test takers to answer, allow the test takers to ask more questions and are easily graded.

Cons: However, they are too easy, one needs a large number of questions for high reliability, they do not allow test takers to demonstrate a broad range of knowledge and it is difficult to test at a higher level of learning.

Multiple Choice (also see the CareerTech Testing Center's article, "The Secret of Writing Multiple Choice Test Items")

Pros: These questions work because they require less time for test takers to answer, allow the test maker to ask more questions, are easily graded, provide reliable test scores and give test takers more answer options than true/false questions.

Cons: On the negative side, these questions can be too tricky or too picky, encourage guessing, allow for correct responses to be easily faked, do not allow test takers to demonstrate knowledge beyond the options provided and are time consuming to create.

With multiple choice questions, good test takers can analyze the way items are presented and respond according to the results of their analysis. They can pass such a test without being able to use the knowledge presented in any other context.

It is also difficult with these questions to create good distracters. It is probably the most difficult part of test writing, since you want distracters that aren’t too easy and sound plausible, but aren’t so hard that they confuse the test taker.


Deciding what kind of question to use depends on your learning objectives, which are important to develop.

Here is when to use each type of question:

Essay: Evaluating ability to apply concepts and information to a new situation.

Short Answer: “Who,” “what,” “when,” and “where” content.

Fill-in-the-Blank: Direct recall of specific facts

Evaluating related content, such as matching terms with their definitions

True/False: Evaluating understanding of popular misconceptions.

Multiple Choice: Covering a broad range of content.


Following are some do’s and don’t to remember when developing tests. Remember you must select a type of test appropriate for the skills to be tested. This means testing the right information at the right level using the right type of test items. A beautifully written multiple choice question, for example, is useless if it tests recall when you need application, or if it doesn’t really test the competency.

• DO keep question language simple.
• DO put the respondent into the question.
• DO be consistently aware of the learning level you intend to sample.
• DO use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
• DO have someone else review your test for readability and interpretation.
• DON’T use trick questions.
• DON’T ask trivial questions.

Test-Writing Do’s and Don’ts—Multiple Choice

• DO use a question in the stem whenever possible.
• DO reveal the central idea in the question stem, rather than in the options.
• DO use the term (not the definition) in the question stem when testing knowledge of terminology.
• DO make each alternative grammatically parallel with each other and grammatically consistent with the stem.
• DO make every alternative sound plausible.
• DO make each alternative approximately the same length.
• DO randomly distribute the correct responses.
• DO place alternatives in a logical order.
• DON’T use negatives unless you can’t avoid them.
• DON’T teach in the question stem.
• DON’T use fill-in-the-blank for multiple choice questions.
• DON’T use “All of the Above” as a response.
• DON’T use “None of the Above” as a response.
• DON’T use a complex multiple choice format.
• DON’T repeat the same phrase in every response.
• DON’T use overlapping distracters.
• DON’T make the correct response different from the other responses.
• DON’T give away the answer to a question in another question.

Test-Writing Do’s and Don’ts—True/False

• DO have more false than true answers.
• DO use statements that are absolutely true or false.
• DON’T express more than one idea in a test item.
• DON’T lift statements directly from the training material.
• DON’T use negatively stated items.
• DON’T use absolutes such as never, only, all, none, always.
• DON’T use uncertain words such as might, may, can, sometimes, generally, some, few.

Test-Writing Do’s and Don’ts—Matching

• DO include more responses than stimuli.
• DO keep the list of stimuli to under 10.
• DO indicate whether a response may be used more than once.
• DON’T give away the answers with grammatical clues.
• DON’T mix unrelated material or concepts in a single matching item.

Test-Writing Do’s and Don’ts—Fill-in-the-Blank

• DO omit only significant words from the statement.
• DO make the blanks of equal length.
• DO put omitted words at the end of the statement, rather than the beginning or middle.
• DO limit the required response to a single word or phrase.
• DON’T omit so many words from the statement that the intended meaning is lost.
• DON’T give away the answers with grammatical clues.
• DON’T lift statements directly from the training material.


What’s wrong with this question?

Charles, training manager for the Sandy Beach Hotel, has recommended that the laundry attendants be trained to use a new time-saving sorting system. Four full-time laundry attendants and one part-time attendant will need to be trained. Another part-time laundry position is not currently filled. There is no existing budget for this training initiative, however Charles believes that the new system may eliminate the need for the additional part-time position. Which of the following represents the best action Charles can take to possibly justify the cost of the training?

A. Consider eliminating another planned training initiative and request that the funds be used for this more worthwhile initiative.
B. Reduce the recommended number of hours for the training and try to accomplish the task in half of the time and half of the cost.
C. Recommend that both part-time positions be eliminated in favor of a fifth full-time position.
D. Determine the amount of money (labor hours) that can be saved by the new system, including the possibility of eliminating one part-time position. Compare the savings with the cost of training.

This actual question breaks a number of test-writing rules:
• It uses third person.
• It gives too much information in question stem.
• “Which of the following?” is an ineffective question.
• Sentences in both question and responses are too long.
• Distracters aren’t necessarily plausible.
• Alternatives are too dissimilar in length (correct answer is noticeably longer)

Original version:
Charles, training manager for the Sandy Beach Hotel, has recommended that the laundry attendants be trained to use a new time-saving sorting system. Four full-time laundry attendants and one part-time attendant will need to be trained. Another part-time laundry position is not currently filled. There is no existing budget for this training initiative, however Charles believes that the new system may eliminate the need for the additional part-time position. Which of the following represents the best action Charles can take to possibly justify the cost of the training?

Better version:
You are the training manager for the Sandy Beach Hotel. You have recommended that laundry attendants be trained to use a new time-saving sorting system. Four full-time laundry attendants and one part-time attendant will need to be trained. Another part-time laundry position is not currently filled. There is no existing budget for this training initiative. How can you justify the cost of the training?

This improved version:
• Puts the respondent into the action. The question is about “you,” not “Charles.”
• Eliminates extraneous information. No longer says that Charlies believes that the new system eliminates the need for the additional part-time position. You shouldn’t tell the trainee this, since it gives away the answer – you want to test their ability to infer this from the other facts presented.
• Edits sentences so they are shorter and more succinct, easier to read.
• First sentence divided into two sentences.
• Last sentences shortened so that the question is less wordy, more direct.

Original version:
A. Consider eliminating another planned training initiative and request that the funds be used for this more worthwhile initiative.
B. Reduce the recommended number of hours for the training and try to accomplish the task in half of the time and half of the cost.
C. Recommend that both part-time positions be eliminated in favor of a fifth full-time position.
D. Determine the amount of money (labor hours) that can be saved by the new system, including the possibility of eliminating one part-time position. Compare the savings with the cost of training.

Better version:
A. Consider eliminating another planned training initiative. Request that the funds be used for this more worthwhile initiative.
B. Reduce the recommended number of hours for the training. Propose the revised, loser-cost training plan to upper management.
C. Calculate the cost of training one part-time laundry position. Deduct that dollar amount from what it would have cost to train all the positions if they were filled.
D. Determine the number of labor hours that can be saved by the new system, including the possibility of eliminating one part-time position. Compare the savings with the cost of training.

The better version of the answers to the question:
A: Splits the answer into two shorter sentences; easier to read.
B: Splits the answer into two sentences; revised second part so that it sounds more plausible.
C: Replaces the answer with a more plausible distracter; longer so that it is more similar in length to others.
D: Slightly reduced length.

I have to give credit where it's due and I originally saw a post by Julie Chazyn on Question mark's blog entitled, "Which Question Type To Use?" The post is a preview and then links to "Test Writing 101: Making The Grade."

Posted by CareerTech Testing Center at Tuesday, October 20, 2009 0 comments Links to this post
Labels: Test Development, Training and Resources

Books for New Teachers

Here are some books that I have found reader friendly with useful tips I can use in different age groups and situations. Whether you've been teaching for a while or are brand new for teaching. Feel free to recommend any books you find helpful.

1. Dr. Wong's "First Day Of School." Every teacher should read this one once.

2. Scott Purdy's "Tomorrow Begins at 3:00" (and he has several others). Great tips on saving time so you're not spending hours grading and working beyond your paid contract time.

3. Elaine K. McEwan's "How to Deal With Parents Who Are Angry, Troubled, Afraid, or Just Plain Crazy." Who can resist this title? Written more for administration, it still provides great ways to deal with different types of parents and even has workshop ideas in the back for staff development.

4. Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish's "How to Talk So Kids Can Learn," (and they have other books too). Very reader friendly with cartoons. Is more elementary than middle and high school, but there is still useful tips in there for those students who need a different approach.

5.Dr. Kevin Leman's "Adolescences Isn't Terminal." Fantastic tips on how to deal with teenagers as a parent (and teacher). I have passed this book title on to parents who do know what to do with their kid, who is spiraling out of control in middle school. Deals with responsibility, runaways, and other situations.

6. Dr. Kevin Leman's "The Birth Order Book." This book is great for personal use as well as understanding the family dynamics of your students. I've gotten really good at spotting first born and second born traits in students.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What They Don't Tell You About Babies As a New Mom

This is an ongoing list of things new mom's I have met, including me, have learned post delivery.

Like all new babies, our baby cried a lot, but not enough for colic. We learned that the crying was usually related to a trapped gas bubble. So we learned to burp the baby during feeding to help decrease the pain associated with gas. Another trick for getting rid of the gas to was bring the babies knees into its chest. (My husband likes to sing "Pump it Up". He claims that the less you can get the knees to your baby's chest, the more bubbles that are trapped). This would help push the gas out the other way. These little tricks really helped ease our baby's pain and decrease the crying. With baby #2, I'm so much more relaxed as a mom knowing he is either crying because of hunger, diaper change, or trapped bubbles.

One of the things we (3 other moms I met early on) were all surprised about was getting stretch marks AFTER delivery on our bottoms. Baby #2 stretched me differently, so be prepared that that's part of the deal.

When starting your baby on solids (which can start as early as 4 months as directed by your doctor), you can start babies on cereal. We went with rice cereal as directed, only to run into trouble with constipation. An alternative to rice cereal is oatmeal, which does not cause constipation. AS the baby gets used to solids, you can introduce veggies and fruit. We also included veggies and fruit in the cereal. We found this was a great way to introduce new veggies and fruit to our baby.

Getting the Nursery Ready
Being a first time mom, I didn't know what was necessary for a newborn versus what was for looks. Instead of spending a ton of money on a nursery remodel, we bought wall clingies from Target that would come off the wall easily when the baby got older and we wanted to change the theme. Second, I enlisted the help of a friend who had children to help me organize the nursery. She told me what she kept within reaching distance and what could be put away for later. This made life so much easier when the baby was here.

Having a phone that could access the Internet was a life saver the first few months of bringing home the baby. I highly recommend it! The phone allowed me to access my email, Facebook, and other mindless activities so I didn't feel I was out touch and helped to keep my mind stimulated.

Internet Websites - BabyCenter
Baby Center and other websites are great to join because you register your baby's age and are sent weekly emails on your child's development and common issues at that age. There are also forums for asking questions, you can share articles on Facebook with your friends, and find ideas for playing with your baby as they get older.

Sleep When the Baby Sleeps
As hard as you try, sometimes you just cannot sleep when the baby sleeps, especially when they are waking you every hour to two hours. Even if I got one nap in, it threw off my night schedule where I couldn't fall asleep until later in the evening. And I was exhausted all the time. For us, the sound of advice of "sleeping when baby sleeps" is more practical as the baby gets older and is on a nap schedule. Right now, my husband and I know our son will take a long nap three hours after waking up in the morning with an optional afternoon nap. So we sleep during the morning nap otherwise we know there is no other opportunity unless one of us watches the baby while the other one sleeps.

My first son was not one to fall easily asleep in the car. MY second son reminded me how red lights are not the friend of a parent with a newborn. Some tricks I learned with my first son was to have songs to sing because I sang "10 Little Monkeys" over and over, but it calmed him down. We also left the little light on in the back of the car so he wasn't so scared. Now that he's older it's not a problem, but that first year was tough. We didn't know what kind of drive we would have.

Managing Your Time (Some Tips From Kaiser)
Set Your Priorities: Every evening make a list of the most important things to do tomorrow. Don't forget to try to set aside relaxation time for yourself.
Divide and Conquer: List the main components and the time they'll require for an overwhelming job. Then plan specific blocks of time in your schedule for each.
Double Up: Do two things at once. You might have a business discussion while going for a walk.
Delegate: Everything doesn't have to be done your way. Good time management includes lightening your load by handing over responsibility to someone else.
Laundry: To save sorting time and avoid mismatches, buy your child socks in only one style and one color.
Errands: Make it a habit to consolidate errands and appt instead of making small trips.
Cooking: Keep food simple, easy, and nutritious. When cooking a main meal, make extra so you can freeze in meal-size portion for dinners another time.
Family Matters: To help organize family matters , keep a big calendar on display. You can use different color pens to mark member's activities and appt.

Has the Dismal Science Cast a Pall Over Education?

By Claus von Zastrow on October 16, 2009

Have economists brought nothing but woe upon public schools? Has all the talk of efficiency, productivity, merit pay and market incentives poisoned the field? Well, it depends. Do those economists have a clear vision for how their favored policies will affect teaching and learning?

According to two articles published yesterday, the answer so far has been yes and no.

The Harvard Education Letter paints a rosier picture of "the invisible hand" than you might expect. The HEL reminds us, for example, that economist James Heckman has done about as much as anyone to push early childhood education. In the process, he has set the stage for richer conversations about program quality. Overall, economists can spur us to pay closer attention the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs.

Then there's Russ Whitehurst's recent article: Don't Forget Curriculum! He says economists just don't get the importance of curriculum. Here's the money quote from his piece: "[P]olicy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice...may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don’t think much about water skiing.”

Whitehurst elaborates:

The disciplinary training, job experience, professional networks, and intuitions about what is important hardly overlap between governance and curriculum reformers. For the governance types, teaching resolves to the question of how to get more qualified teachers into the classroom.... For the curriculum reformer, teaching is about specific interactions between students and their curriculum materials as shaped by teachers. For a curriculum reformer, teachers with higher IQs and better liberal arts educations are desirable, to be sure. But just as people with musical talent have to work hard to develop musical skills and have available to them exceptional compositions if they are to be successful musical performers, so too bright aspiring teachers have to learn a lot about how to teach and have good curriculum materials if they are to be effective with students. Thus being smart is the starting point of becoming a good teacher for a curriculum reformer whereas it is often the end point of governance reforms.

Oddly enough, it's the folks who spend all their time on incentives and governance who can lose sight of effectiveness. Whitehurst argues that the economists have missed the boat on curriculum, "the content and sequence of the experiences that are intended to be delivered to students in formal course work." The curriculum includes teaching materials and support for using those materials in the classroom.

If you ask Whitehurst, that's where reformers should spend their money. Curriculum doesn't have all the flash of charter schools or merit pay, and it gets barely a whisper from the think tank crowd. But strong curriculum can do more than charters or merit pay combined, he claims.

Merit Just Ain't Worth What It Used to Be

By Claus von Zastrow on October 19, 2009

A funny thing about merit pay programs. The more successful they are, the more they cost. In tough economic times, they can easily fall victim to their own success.

That's apparently what happened to Chicago's program to give students cash for good grades. The program began amidst much hoopla two years ago, only to die a quiet death this year as money grew tight. The school district couldn't count on outside donors to keep the program going during these dark days.

Actually, I should be careful not to tout the program's success prematurely. The verdict is still out on the its results. What is clear is that, as more students earn good grades, the program gets more expensive and therefore more likely to end up on the chopping block.

So teachers have every right to be concerned about merit pay schemes that depend on unstable budgets or even less stable grants and donations. In Chicago, they have to explain to their students that an "A" just ain't worth what it used to be. Can they trust those who would tie teacher pay to student test scores to fund merit pay programs for success?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Dark Side of Student Engagement

By Claus von Zastrow on September 2, 2009

If we're not careful, "engagement" will become just another cure-all, like charters or vouchers. The idea is far too important to leave to this fate.

Engagement can seem like the holy grail, and I understand why. Teachers in struggling schools are looking for ways to reach disaffected students before they drop out. Many see engagement as an answer to mindless test prep or uninspired teaching. New technologies are sparking students' interest in challenging academic work.

But there's a dark side to much current talk about engagement. For one, it can become yet another stick to beat teachers with. When students violate all standards of behavior, their teachers often catch flak for not engaging them. (Maybe that kid wouldn't have pulled that knife on you if you hadn't been so boring.) Yes, students are much less likely to act out if they are interested in their studies. But calls for more engagement should never drown out serious discussions about school discipline policies. Nor should they distract us from other causes for misbehavior that teachers cannot easily control.

We should also be careful not to confuse engagement with mere entertainment. Like all work, school work does not always offer instant rewards. The ability to delay gratification is an important life skill. There is way more to motivation than engagement.

Rafe Esquith is by all accounts one of the country's most engaging teachers, and his message about motivation and hard work is unequivocal:

I think the absolute key is that learning, the education of a child, is a long process, and we are now in the middle of a fast food society. We want instant everything. We even have books now like Algebra Made Easy and Shakespeare Made Easy. But I want teachers and parents to remember that it’s not easy! To be good at anything—anything!—takes thousands and thousands of hours of patient study....

The Happiest Baby on the Block

The Happiest Baby on the Block: My Change Nation Interview with Dr. Harvey Karp

You can calm even a colicky baby in minutes or even seconds, provided you use the right technique. That's according to renowned pediatrician and infant expert, Dr. Harvey Karp, creator of the best-selling books and DVDs, The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block. "Babies are born with a calming reflex—with an off switch for crying and an on switch for sleep," suggests Karp. "You [just have to] learn how to trigger this reflex."

Karp, also known as "The Baby Whisperer," offers five S’s for triggering a baby"s calming reflex—swaddling, shushing, side or stomach position, swinging or sucking. Every child is a bit different in terms of what he or she likes, but when you get it right, it works again and again.

"It's no different than a knee reflex," says Karp. "If you hit the knee in the right place, the foot goes out a hundred times in a row."

You may click here to listen to the rest of my Change Nation interview with Dr. Harvey Karp.
© 2009 The First Thirty Days, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

You Can't Win

By Claus von Zastrow on October 9, 2009

What's wrong with public schools? Take your pick:

* Schools are still the drab indoctrination factories they were 100 years ago.
* Schools have become squishy progressive learning communes where students spend their days building yurts out of tongue depressors.
* Schools are test-prep sweatshops where children never see the light of day or catch a breath of fresh air.
* Schools are discipline-free zones where students dither their time away rather than focusing on the task of learning.

I could go on. These days, stories of school failure come in all the colors of the rainbow. Got your kids sitting in rows? Someone will call you a failure. Have them working on a project in groups? Failure. Are you de-tracking? You're neglecting the superstars. Tracking? You're stifling the most vulnerable students.*

Everyone has strong opinions on education, and woe unto them that stray from those paths of righteousness. It makes you wonder why anyone would want to become an educator. Before long you'll commit some act that will confirm someone's dim view of you in particular and the education system in general.

Case in point: The economist Thomas Sowell lashed out at a fifth grade teacher who had students write to public figures with questions about current events. What did he do after receiving receiving a child's note with questions about the economy?

I replied to his parents: With American students consistently scoring near or at the bottom in international tests, I am repeatedly appalled by teachers who waste their students’ time by assigning them to write to strangers, chosen only because those strangers’ names have appeared in the media. It is of course much easier — and more “exciting,” to use a word too many educators use — to do cute little stuff like this than to take on the sober responsibility to develop in students both the knowledge and the ability to think that will enable them to form their own views on matters in both public and private life.

For the moment, let's put aside questions about Sowell's character. (What kind of person essentially ridicules a fifth-grader in a national journal? He named the school so the child, parents and teachers could all feel the rebuke. Hardly a gracious performance.)

Sowell uses this innocuous event as an occasion to bash all schools for "frittering away time on trivia" or "spending precious time in classrooms chit-chatting about how everyone 'feels' about things on television or in their personal lives." He even strongly implies that the child's parents are too ignorant to see anything wrong with this.

Leaping to conclusions are we? Like so many others, Sowell rushes to judgment after grasping the barest sliver of evidence. How can he possibly know the fuller context of the child’s assignment? How can he know what happens in that child’s classroom, or how the child's parents support his/her education? It's enough for him to get a whiff of something he doesn't like and then go for the jugular.

That reaction is unfortunately typical. Education ideologues of every stripe are quick to punish the slightest breach of their sacred code. Teachers and principals: Beware!

Top Tips for New Moms

Life with a new baby can be a rollercoaster of intense emotions and unexpected challenges. To help yourself feel less overwhelmed, try these tested tips:

- Line up some help. Have a loved one or friend coordinate a month-long schedule of people to clean, prepare healthy meals, run errands and help with the baby, so you can rest and recover. This is not selfish; it's self-care.

- Make feeding fun. To keep those 8-12 feedings per day from wearing you down, create a special spot stashed with snacks, books, soft music and comfy pillows. Watch a favorite TV show, catch up with a good friend on the phone or dive into a parenting magazine.

- Be with other moms. Find or start a regular playgroup with other new moms in your area. Nothing is more reassuring than hearing and seeing that you're completely normal—everybody else is experiencing the same thing!

Read the rest of our top tips for new moms. And check out all of our expert advice on the first 30 days of having a new baby here.
© 2009 The First Thirty Days, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Children in Poverty Deserve Great Teachers

Children in Poverty Deserve Great Teachers
By Claus von Zastrow on September 3, 2009

"School reformers [should] begin working with teachers--rather than around them." This is the overarching theme of a new report by Barnett Berry. The product of collaboration between NEA and Berry's Center for Teaching Quality, the report examines how to get top teachers into the classrooms that need them most. Its title says it all: Children of Poverty Deserve Great Teachers.

The report offers welcome relief from the either/or thinking that mars so many education policy discussions. We spend so much time following the horse race between traditional and alternative routes into teaching, for example, that we miss the bigger question: How do we better prepare teachers to succeed in struggling schools, regardless of where they come from?

I can't possibly summarize the whole report here, but I can offer a few glimpses of what it has to offer.

The report "begins by rejecting several myths with compelling evidence." Myth number one: If you topple the "barriers" posed by traditional certification, effective teachers will simply flood into struggling schools. Myth number two: If you dismiss incompetent teachers--a laudable goal in itself--struggling schools will have all the great teachers they need. Myth number three: Teacher tenure is the biggest barrier to firing bad teachers. Myth number four: Financial incentives are enough to lure great teachers into the schools that need them most.

Fat chance.

After taking on these myths, the report turns to research on staffing struggling schools. One critical idea stands out: "Researchers have found that the same teacher may look more or less effective in different kinds of schools or with different supports." It's not enough to look for great teachers. We need teachers who have the training, support and conditions to succeed in challenging schools. Policymakers seldom understand this nuance.

The report also "argues that universities and school districts must do more to prepare teachers for success in our most challenging schools." Berry urges districts to grow their own effective teachers rather than rely solely on talented outsiders. He also sings the praises of teacher residency programs that increase the supply of teachers who can succeed in struggling schools. (Berry has tackled this issue before.)

The report concludes with four strategies that can cut through the either/or thinking about the future of teaching. Here, I quote directly from the report:

1. Recruit and prepare teachers for work in high-needs schools. One cannot be done well without the other.
2. Take a comprehensive approach to teacher incentives. Lessons from the private sector and voices of teachers indicate that performance pay makes the most diff erence when it focuses on “building a collaborative workplace culture” to improve practices and outcomes.
3. Improve the right working conditions. We need to fully identify the school conditions most likely to serve students by attracting, developing, retaining and inspiring effective and accomplished teachers.
4. Define teacher effectiveness broadly, in terms of student learning. We need new evaluation tools and processes to measure how teachers think about their practice as well as help students learn.

NEA has publicly committed $1 million per year over six years to advance these strategies.

Don't expect to find quick fixes in Berry's report. He repeats H.L Mencken's famous words: "There is always an easy solution to every human problem--neat, plausible and wrong."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dog Owners – Watch Cesar Millan

When John and I went for walks at night, pre-baby, we would always pass by this mid size dog called Lou. She was black and beautiful and loved Copper, our dog. We could tell this young active dog did not get out much so we took the number from the tag and contacted the owner to offer to walk our dogs together. Needless to say, a stranger calling another person to walk their dog probably didn’t make the owner feel comfortable. But his response to our request was what I hear from many people with large pets. “We have a big yard for her to run and play in.” If I had taken the call I might have responded, “Does you see your dog taking itself for walks in your yard?” A large yard does not equal exercise. I know people who have large homes and I don’t see them running around in it every night for exercise. Exercise is time away from the home for a dog. And many behavioral problems will go away with regular exercise. Sadly, Lou disappeared. When my husband inquired about the dog to the owner, the owner said she was stolen. Um, I don’t think so. She probably got out and had a great run since she was on her first walk in a long time. Sadly, we never saw any postings for a "lost dog" from the owner.

After watching dogs pull their owners on walks and seeing “hyper” dogs in pounds or for sale, I’m getting a little frustrated with the lack of responsibility dog owners are taking with their pets. Please walk your dog and have some discipline with your dog. Dogs should not be pulling you and your dog should be getting out for walks several times a week. That is the responsibility of a dog owner.

Here is a statement from Cesar Millan:
So what goes through my mind is, "what do I need to do to help this dog achieve a calm-submissive state?" For the most part, the dog is not lacking affection. These owners love their dogs very much - that's why they went through the trouble to send in an audition tape. Usually, it's exercise or discipline that is missing. In what order? It depends. If I'm dealing with an aggressive or territorial case, the dog needs discipline. If I'm dealing with a hyper or nervous dog, it's exercise. Exercise builds self-esteem and creates trust. Psychological challenges create respect.

Who Should Help Struggling Churches?

After the last political campaign in CA regarding the issue of gay marriage, I would have to say I don’t think churches should get bailouts. The Mormon Church put a lot of money into CA to push voters to say “no” to prop 8. I don’t think it’s right when a church starts to use their money to push their personal agendas in the political arena. I believe churches are free to encourage voters to vote a certain way from their pulpit, but getting involved in politics with funding is sending the wrong message about the purposes of a church.

Who Should Help Struggling Churches?
About 20% of households cut back on giving to their churches when the economy started to sink last year, according to the Barna Group, which tracks religious statistics. The California-based organization found that overall donations decreased by 4% to 6%—about $3 billion to $5 billion. At the same time, churches are facing increasing demands from people in their communities for food and shelter. To make ends meet, church leaders are cutting staff and putting programs on hold.

The federal government has stepped in to help. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security announced that $100 million from the economic-recovery package will go to emergency food and shelter programs, including those run by religious organizations. Billions of dollars more have been set aside for education, neighborhood-stabilization programs, and affordable
child care—all services offered by many churches and other places of worship.

“The need for assistance is staggering,” says Candy Hill of Catholic Charities USA. “This will provide some relief.”

But some believe that such government aid violates the constitutional requirement to maintain separation of church and state. The Rev. Barry Lynn of the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State says there are no effective regulations in place to prevent churches from engaging in religious discrimination when hiring or to stop them from using government money to promote their religion through soup kitchens or shelters. During his campaign, Barack Obama pledged to end both practices. But his administration has yet to follow through. “If basic civil-rights protections are not in place, then religious charities should not be getting money,” Lynn says.

— Brooke Lea Foster

The High Price of Protecting Kids

As a young parent I am part of the growing concern of toys with toxic lead and other chemicals in them. However, I have several small business friends who would immediately go out of business if they had to personally test the material they sold. Have they looked into having the large companies, that sell the material in the first place, test their own products? I think they need to start at the top where the material is being made instead of passing on the testing to the millions of individual business owner.

The High Price of Protecting Kids
After millions of toys were pulled from shelves because of lead contamination in 2007, Congress enacted a law requiring that many toys be tested for toxins. Now, some small-business owners fear those rules will ruin them. One woman told Congress recently that testing batches of her stuffed giraffes would raise the cost of each from about $15 to more than $200, while individual testing could increase the price to as much as $2000.

Rep. Jason Altmire (D., Pa.), chairman of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, says the law empowers the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to enact common-sense rules that make it easier for small businesses to show that their products are safe. But the CPSC claims the law offers little flexibility, and the agency estimates the cost of compliance in the billions. “Protecting kids from contaminated products is our top priority,” says Altmire, “and there is going to be a cost to that. But to say every home business in the country has to ship its products for testing at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars was not the intent of the law.”
—J. Scott Orr

Is It Your Job To Stay Healthy?

Using my background in sports medicine and seeing the rise of obesity in children and adults, I believe it is OUR job to stay healthy. I highlighted a section from the article because I think Flagg is missing the point. It’s our body! Flagg says we are “putting the costs on patients…it’s the system itself that’s unhealthy.” I believe the system is flawed, but we are the patients who make the choice of what we eat and if we’ll exercise and are contributing to the flawed system when we are unhealthy.

I work two jobs; have a family, house and a baby. Yet, I take time to provide healthy meals, take walks, and go to the gym. Yes I am tired and worn out and yet I find the perseverance to do what is right for my health. Sometimes this means I go to the gym after the baby is asleep, but again, it’s my body and I need to take care of it.

Is It Your Job To Stay Healthy?
Alabama state employees have until Nov. 30 to get screened for chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension if they want to keep their free health insurance. After 2010, those at risk for disease must show that they are taking steps to improve their health or pay $25 each month.

Alabama’s move is just one example of a growing trend nationwide: Businesses are hoping to cut health-care costs by instituting “employee-wellness programs” in which workers are financially rewarded for quitting smoking, getting regular checkups, or losing weight. Some companies are going a step further, penalizing unhealthy employees by deducting more from their paychecks to cover insurance or offering less-generous coverage.

President Obama and other supporters of employee-wellness programs point to the benefits of preventive care, both in terms of quality of life and cost savings: One study found that every $1 spent on such programs saves $1.65 in health-care expenses. But privacy advocates say employees should be evaluated based on their job performance, not fitness level. Besides, says Donna Flagg, a human resources expert, “ Not all obese people are taxing the insurance system. What about a hypochondriac who may be thin but is always at the doctor?” Flagg adds that wellness programs blame the employee instead of addressing the real problem—the high cost of health care. “Why are we constantly looking to pass costs on to the patients?” she asks. “It’s the system itself that is unhealthy.”

Dr. Darwin Deen of Montefiore Medical Center in New York disagrees. “Right now,” he says, “ healthy people subsidize care for everyone else. Some people are asking: If you choose to sit and watch TV while I am out exercising, should I still be expected to pay for part of your health-care costs?”

—Lyric Wallwork Winik

Learning a Language

Since I work with ELL students, I found this snippet of information interesting in an advice column in Parade magazine.

“When a non-English speaking adult moves to the US about how many words must he or she learn in order to be able to communicate adequately?”

“According to educators, a vocabulary of 500 words is enough for limited communication of wishes & needs. Basic conversation requires about 1000 words plus some knowledge of verb tenses.”

Friday, October 2, 2009

Pursuing our Interest

Some people like the purpose of unions, and other people feel unions are self serving. I thought this article shed some light on several self interest groups, besides teacher unions, that affect public education.
Watch out for those teacher interest groups! They'll smother a good reform every time. Or so the argument usually goes....
I object to this argument not only because it is reductive. I object to it because it implies that all the other groups clamoring for for and against changes to schools aren't interest groups. The fact is that the education landscape is simply crawling with interest groups. And that's both good and bad.
The formidable Geoffrey Canada is only the latest person to depict teacher groups as the major barriers to a promising reform. He asserts that they oppose giving students more time in school:
Some educators and unions won’t even consider working longer hours or a longer school year. (New York Times Magazine)
"Some" is the operative term here. In fact, both national teachers unions have supported extended school days and years, provided teachers get paid accordingly.
More to the point, there are legions of others who oppose longer days and years. Take, for example, the 68 percent of adults who voiced their opposition in a very recent national poll. Then there's the vacation and travel industry. And don't forget the virulent opposition of employers who can't shake their addiction to teen labor. Nancy Flanagan recalls what happened to teachers and their unions when they called for a longer school year in Michigan. Opponents branded them as "anti-business."
The point here is that all kinds of "interest groups" have a stake in public school reform. Commercial interests. Religious interests. Economic interests. Ideological interests. Social interests. Even gastronomic interests. Some do great work. Some, not so good. Despite what journalists may tell you, this is not just a battle between "reformers" and the "education establishment."
A recent forum in the New York Times Magazine bears this out. Five education luminaries answer the question, "How should we fix education?" Four offer specific reform ideas. Geoff Canada says "More Time for Learning." Charles Murray (shudder) says "chuck the BA." Susie Buffet says "improve early education." And Tom Vander Ark says "boost online learning."
All of these ideas may have real merit. (I particularly like the first and third.) But the very question invites silver-bullet responses. (Leave it to the Times to present education reformers as blind men grasping different parts of the elephant.) Surely our challenge is to engage people with diverse interests and beliefs in a broader common conversation about the future of our public schools.
For more information, please follow the link

The Current State of Parent Engagement in Public Schools

I found this article interesting due to the breakdown of how many students teachers deal with every year and the need for better parent engagement. I feel that as we keep “reforming” public education, politicians keep focusing on teachers as being the problems, instead of the effort of the parents and students as part of the educational process. Education involves the parents, students, teachers, and district, not just what teachers can do better in the classroom.
Ricardo LeBlanc-Esparza rose to national fame for turning around a classic hard-luck school. A key ingredient of his success? Parent engagement. Yesterday, he told us about his work to bring the parent engagement gospel to schools around the country.
Public School Insights: As people who've read our website before know, you've gained national prominence by helping turn around Granger High School in Washington State. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you really carry around with you now?
Esparza: There are so many lessons. It's hard to say. Public education is so big when you talk about instruction, curriculum, discipline and motivation. The piece that I really want to talk about is the whole family involvement/engagement piece.
I have traveled across the country, from Pennsylvania to Florida to Iowa to Arizona to Texas. Our public schools truly are lacking true public or parent involvement, engagement—whatever you want to call it when parents are active participants in the whole educational process.
Public School Insights: Exactly problems are you seeing in the schools that lack this engagement?
Esparza: I guess I need to frame that question…Because when I look at public schools, I see they typically meet the needs of the middle class and above population.
My wife is a principal of a K-8 magnet school for gifted and talented students. She told me a story that stuck with me. A mom came in and told my wife that she was not happy with her son's fifth-grade math scores. Okay. Why?
Because this mother had basically mapped out math skill sets from fifth grade all the way to twelfth grade, because she wanted her son to be in Calculus AB. I'm like, “Wow. That is a parent involvement and engagement.” But I'm also thinking, how does our system really work?
[That mom] knows the power of education. She's actively involved, and she knows [these skills will] open the doors for her son to do well on the SAT and the ACT. [They will help him with] scholarships, college, post-secondary choices.
But how does our system really work? Every time I've gone to a different state I analyze the schools and ask, are they any different? And really, they aren’t. Here's how [secondary education] works: One teacher is in charge of 100 to 180 students. A counselor, depending on the state, has anywhere from 400 to 600 kids they're supposed to keep track of. I think California has 600-plus. The same with an administrator -- anywhere from 400 to 600 kids. Then you look at coaches. They're in charge of 20 to 30 athletes who want to be there. That's how our public system works.
For more on the article.