Thursday, November 18, 2010

Clinical vs. Theoretical? Yes, both.

The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education issued a report this week arguing that teacher preparation programs, who have been traditionally heavy on theory and lighter on in-class internships should turn this model on it's head.  The recommendation is for the majority of a pre-service teacher to spend many more hours with a mentor teacher in a public school and far less time in their university classes.

I don’t think needs to be turned on its head. I think it needs to be expanded. Part of being an educator is being a scholar. We should be scholars of our fields (history, science, language, mathematics, art, etc…) and we should be scholars of educational theory, philosophy, and pedagogy. Reducing the number of classroom hours in order to increase the number of at-school hours is misguided and will result in a further deskilling of teachers that will eventually turn us from professionals to administrators of curriculum.

At the same time, some of the most important lessons I’ve learned have been at my schools where no university experience could have prepared me. When I began teaching fifteen years ago, I frankly expected to eventually mourn the death of a student. My own high school graduating class mourned the loss of three of our fellows to drinking and driving. When I heard on the 3rd of January that Ryan was dead, I was shocked but ready to handle the grieving I expected my classes would be experiencing. When I learned that he had been gunned down in front of his girlfriend and baby daughter by another teenager who mistook him for someone else, I was too shocked to cope effectively with the day.

What I am most concerned with proposals like NCATE’s proposed reforms is that these reforms are being born at the close of the NCLB era but before the functional birth of the Common Core Standards’s era.

Perhaps NCLB’s most damaging legacy is the decade long process of redefining the concept of “good schools” into a number of a fill-in-the-blank test. As this era sunsets, we are experiencing strong efforts to redefine “good teaching” and the behaviors that teachers can do that result in high scores on fill-in-the-black tests. I sincerely hope that NCLB does not succeed in redefining “well-educated person” as a high score on a fill-in-the-blank test.

I understand how emotionally satisfying it is for most people to look at one simple number and infer from it a judgement on a very complex system. It’s easy and satisfying to see a test score going up and think “good school,” “good teachers,” “well-educated children.”

We get the same feelings from watching the Stock Market go up or the stock values of a company go up. Stock up equals successful company. Stocks down equals failing company.

I want to remind each of us that Toyota’s stocks were climbing while they were making cars that would have unintended acceleration problems that caused dozens of deaths and injuries. BP’s stocks were going up right before the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Lehman Brothers’s stock was going up right before the bubble burst.

Our very best education experts tell a similar tale for schools. Rising scores on standardized tests are actually in indication of deep problems at a school and not improvement. This is because high scores on tests like the CST and the High School Exit Exam reflect superficial memorization of facts rather than deep complex thinking.

I get worried thinking that California’s teacher preparation programs may begin training a new generation of teachers to very good at the failing practices and processes of the last century.

I may be wrong, NCATE’s recommendations may in fact be dove-tailed in with the new Common Core Standards and the new generation of authentic assessments being presently designed for use in 2014. I certainly hope it is.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Formative Teacher Evaluations

I wonder what it might look like if we had "Formative Teacher Evaluations."

It's not the evaluation itself that feels like a game of gotcha, it's the high-stakes that are attached.  When evaluations are used to make staffing decisions like retention and dismissal, then teachers become interested in "getting through" the evaluation process.  I've heard stories about how teachers would behave complete different on a day when they know that they are going to be visited than on a typical day.

Most teachers have never left the education system.  It's important to remember this.  What does this mean?  How is the education system different than the worlds of science or business?  How does this culture affect teacher evaluation and school reform?

The education system is a universe populated correct answers.  The correct answers live in the teacher's edition of the text, in the teacher's mind, or at the feedback end of an exam or product.  In the science and science and business universe, there are right answers too, but in these spaces, right answers are the tools that we use to find the answers that no one knows.

Teachers who have never left the educational universe continue to look at their work through these lenses.  First, there is an authority whose supposed to know the right answer (the administrator, the District, the State).  Currently, observations and evaluations are like tests and quizzes for the teacher.  Some teachers do habitually well on these assessments; these teachers are not worried about evaluations.  Some teachers do poorly.  

Just like in school, it's the ones who do poorly who have captured our attention.  We can see parallels between a teacher who has done poorly on an evaluation and a student who has done poorly on an exam.  

Perhaps they will see the failure as a function of their actions.  "I didn't study as well as I should have," says the student.  "I didn't plan enough material for the period, and I didn't have any systems in place to use the last 10 minutes of class effectively," says the teacher.

Perhaps they will see the failure as a function of their personalities.  "I'm just not smart.  I'm going to drop out," says the student.  "I'm not a good teacher; I need to find another profession," says the teacher.

Perhaps they will try to escape the shame of failure by shifting the blame away from them or their behavior.  "The teacher doesn't explain the subject well," says the student.  "The principal couldn't do any better; and these kids would behave if there were real consequences to their behavior," says the teacher.

What if teacher evaluations, and for that matter student assessments, formative in nature?  We have been actively looking at shifting classroom culture away from summative assessments.  We've been actively trying to deal with the student in my above examples; we try to use the assessments not as motivators or judgments of behaviors, but as feedback for the teacher and students together.  

When teachers use formative assessments in the classroom, the focus moves away from what a student did right or wrong.  Instead, the formative assessment tells the teacher and the student what each should do next.  The student failed the section on dividing fractions.  This means that the teacher needs to find some time to sit down with the students and explain this concept a different way.  It also means that the teacher may need to design a new learning experience that will help the student learn the concept.  This same formative assessment tells the student that s/he needs to find some additional time learning about dividing fractions.  It tells the student that s/he needs to be open and willing to try the new learning experience and try to learn the concept a second time.

A poor teacher observation could work the same way.  The principal walked into my class during the last 10 minutes and saw children chatting, off task, and wandering the room.  This tells the principal that I need some more training on planning lessons to take the entire class period, and/or that I need some fresh ideas for 10-minute soak activities for my subject matter that would look fun for kids while being instructional.  This same observation tells me the same information.

Teacher observations and student outcome data can and should be used to drive the professional development for departments, small learning communities, and schools.  PD time and activities can and should be focused on the current needs of teachers, with schools and districts allowing for multiple groups of teachers to be working on different types of PD in parallel; call this differentiated PD.

For pre-service and 1st - 3rd year teachers, the data of teacher formative assessment should also go back to the teacher-training program they came from to help guide the evolution of their practice.  The results of their teacher observations, student outcome data, and teacher reflections on the PD that they have gone to as a results of this data should all go back to the university, TfA, OTF, or where ever.

Turning teacher observations and student outcome data into formative assessments for teachers have positive outcomes:

1. Teachers will feel less threatened by the observations and data. 

2. It will build a culture of trust between administrators and teachers since both sides are actively trying to use these tools to help teachers get better.

3. It will inform our teacher credential programs how they can evolve and improve

Someday, down the road, we may find ourselves in a place where a teacher should be let go, because even after multiple attempts with PD and training, they are still not performing.  This is still going to be a difficult time for the teacher and the administrator.  Just like in the classroom, there might still be a time when after all of the formative assessments and interventions, the child still fails the class or still is suspended or expelled for his/her behavior.  Using formative assessments in the classroom wont make this go away.  Likewise, teacher formative assessments wont remove the problem of having to fire a teacher.