Monday, September 12, 2011

Like a Giant Robot

Hi Readers...

This is the last post for Learning 2030.

My future posts will be here:

I am joining with a great team of teacher leaders on a group blog called, "TransformED." We're like the Voltron of Edcuation Reform.

So, please follow along with me; meet my new blogger partners (great teachers, all); and let us continue our discussions about how best to educate our children.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Wow...  just Wow!

edcamps are spreading across the edu-sphere.  Teachers, tired of conferences where the "power that be" predetermine who will speak, when they will speak, and where, leaving teachers wondering if they should promenade down the exhibiter's hall or take in the local sights around the cookie-cutter conference center.

I attended edcampSFBay, hosted at Skyline High School (where I work) this past weekend.

edcamps are completely democratic.  Attendees began posting ideas for sessions on the groups website weeks prior to the event.  Even as late as that morning, more attendees had more ideas for more sessions.  Then it was time to vote with our feet.  We found the sessions that sounded most interesting; bounced from sessions to session if our needs weren't being met or if we just couldn't bare the opportunity costs of attending only one session that hour.

With computers, iPads, and smartphones, people at Skyline (and many who couldn't make it) kept up with colleagues and ideas on the live twitter stream, #edcampsfbay.

Here is an animoto show I mashed together from my pictures of edcamp.... hope you enjoy!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

TEDxSFED: Rethinking Education

Mr. Diaz was the only speaker on the day whose ideas about education reform I disagree with...  that said, I still wish him luck.  'Cause, you know, I might be wrong...  ;-)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Total Participation Techniques

The sub-title of PĂ©rsida and William Himmele’s new book is, “Making Every Student and Active Learner.” It’s a good title. The Himmele’s offer thirty-seven quick and easy strategies that get more children in the classroom thinking more often.

We all have been the kinds of classrooms that the author call, “stand and deliver.” The teacher is at the front expounding on the information of the day. Some students are engaged. Sitting in the front rows, they take notes, raise their hands, and offer answers. Perhaps one or two students are actively disengaged. They sit bored in the corners, drawing, texting, or planning their next defiant outburst.

Most students in the “stand and deliver” classroom are passively disengaged. They do not cause trouble. Their eyes follow the teacher. They nod their heads and mutter “yes” when the teacher asks the group, “Do you understand.” But do they? Do they really understand? Are they really learning?

Teachers in the “stand and deliver” classroom never bother to see if every student is learning. They call most often on those students whose hands are raised. Occasionally, they call on one of the actively disengaged children, hoping to embarrass them into getting with the program. Rarely, if ever, do they call on the passively disengaged students who quietly fly under the radar only to land a “D” or “F” on the quiz or test.

The Himmele’s techniques promise to not only allow our participating students even more opportunities to think and share their thoughts; they also have greater potential to rope actively disengaged students into the lesson. We all know that when students are engaged and active in their lessons, they are less likely to be bored and mischievous. Best of all, these techniques will engage the passive students and give teachers instant feedback from all their students about how well they understand the lesson.

The authors break their Total Participation Techniques (TPTs) into four categories:

“On-the-spot” TPT’s are ones that a teacher doesn’t need to plan into her lesson. They can be used at the drop of a hat to check if everyone is thinking. For example, instead of the teacher asking a question and calling on one of the three hands raised, she can have her student do a think-pair-share that gets everyone talking about the question with their partner.

“Hold-ups” are another series of techniques to get every child answering every question. If the teacher is asking a multiple choice question, every student can hold up either their “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D” card to show their answer. For more complex questions, children can write on their individual white boards and hold then up for the teacher to scan. I’ve wanted white boards for my students, but baulked at the price. The books tip about laminating light-colored construction paper is perhaps my personal favorite.

I love getting my kids moving in the classroom and talking with their peers. The books “TPTs Involving Movement” offer lots of ways to quickly pair students with just a little forethought and planning on the teachers part.

Finally, the authors offer a series of TPTs that involve students’ notes. This section is full of examples of graphic organizers that we can ask our students to try.

Of course, not all teachers will find all thirty-seven techniques useful for their classroom. Speaking for myself, I saw that I knew of most of the TPT’s the Himmele’s describe. I already use several of them in my classroom. While at first blush, I thought that this book would only be half-useful; that I would only enjoy the 15 TPT’s that I couldn’t recognize from the chapter headings. Instead, I found myself pushed to think about even my most tried and true techniques in now ways.

All in all, I feel that I’ve already gotten hundreds of dollars in value from this inexpensive book.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

4th TEDxSFED Talk: Dragons

Young makers presenting their inventions with poise and grace. A table-top habitat for small pets and an animatronic fire-breathing dragon... cause, you know, who DOES'T want an animatronic fire-breathing dragon?!?!?

Friday, June 3, 2011

First Post from TEDxSFED: The Freeze!

Using Student Performance Data to Evaluate Teachers

Two hundred teachers sat in the hotel’s conference room in Oakland, California, drinking coffee and getting ready for a two-day discussion on Effective Teaching.  By the end of the summit, our hope was to have some agreements about what effective teaching looked like: an idea on how the schools and the district could measure it; and a plan on what to do to highlight teachers who were are most effective and help those of us who are struggling to be more effective.

As we greeted one another and talked about the coming days, the Jazz band from one of our middle schools set up their instruments and began to play.  I turned to my colleague seated next to me and said, “This is what, ‘using student performance data’ to evaluate teachers should look like.”

Imagine for a moment that Jazz band.  There they sat, performing.  None of the students was concerned about getting an “A.”  They were concerned about being perfect.  In math, English, social studies, or science, a student may be trying to get 90% of the questions on a test right, but not the band.  If a member of the band missed only one note in ten, that wouldn’t be an “A-“, it would be a catastrophe.  Imagine the hours of “homework” each child put into this class, preparing for this test.  I can imagine there were many hours of “homework”, far more than the number many of them put into their other classes.  One of the secrets to this level of dedication was that the “homework” was actually called “practice” and that the “test” was a performance, in front of a real audience.

I think of this story as I read the report published by the Denver group of the Center for Teaching Quality’s New Millennium Initiative (NMI).  In the interests of full disclosure, I am a member of the NMI group based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Over the last year, while the Denver group grappled with teacher evaluation models, our group discussed what a better teacher induction and career advancement model might look like. 

The Denver report identified four key areas of work that the group believes will lead to a better teacher evaluation system:

  •  Developing meaningful measures of student growth (including in non-tested areas) to comprise 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, as required by state law
  • Defining qualifications and training for evaluators
  • Determining how to account for school conditions and student factors in a teacher’s evaluation
  • Designing an evaluation system that informs both employment decisions and professional growth and learning

This post will focus on the first key area, that evidence of student growth should comprise 50% of a teacher’s evaluation.

Frankly, I worry about so much of a teacher’s evaluation being tied to student performance.  I worry, because I fear that “evidence of student growth” too often is code for the single score on a fill-in-the-bubble test.  Over the last ten years, I’ve seen deep and rich curriculum in California become shallow and bland as schools lost their focus on student learning as the obsessed over tests scores.  I’ve seen teachers push research projects, student portfolios, and service learning to late may and June, after the high-stakes tests were over and done.  I’ve heard principals in many schools change their tunes from, “We’ll never let the test dictate what we teacher” in the 1990’s to “We already know what materials are really important; the state has put that material on the tests.”

So how do we navigate these treacherous waters?  I, like many of my colleagues at the Center for Teaching Quality, want teaching to evolve into a results-orientated profession.  We’ve chosen a new version of the old adage, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.”  Instead, we say, “it’s not what you say; it’s what they hear,” meaning that it is less important what a teacher teaches and more important what a child learns.  More and more teachers are getting on board with this message.

In the June 2nd edition of the Public Agenda Alert, “Teachers and the Tests,” they mention, “The conventional wisdom among many education reformers has been that teachers resist all kinds of evaluation, but in fact they're open to a number of ideas, according to the research we conducted with Learning Point Associates. Nearly all teachers (92 percent) rated the level of student interest and engagement as an excellent or good indicator of teacher effectiveness. Teachers also gave excellent or good ratings to how much their own students learn compared with other students (72 percent) as well as feedback from principals and administrators (70 percent).”

State departments of education should take a cue from the Oakland middle school Jazz band.  We can evaluate teachers based on what children learn, but those assessments have to be composed of meaningful work.  Imagine an alternate scenario, where the jazz band read a textbook about the theory of music and instructions about how to play an instrument, then gathered in the hotel’s conference room to “wow” us by filling in the correct bubbles about music theory and instrument play.  How many hours do you imagine children would spend studying for that test?  How well would a test like that tell us about what the children are learning and how effective the music teacher is?  It’s a ridiculous scenario, for sure.  However, it is exactly the way we have been evaluating schools for the past decade and how New York and Los Angeles are currently ranking their teachers of English and math.

So how to we navigate these treacherous waters?  I think the Denver NMI group is taking the first steps; they are getting the voices of teachers into the debate.  My hope is that the education policy makers in Colorado are ready to hear.  Teachers are in favor of having our jobs evaluated, at least partly, on how well our children are doing.  I can imagine the Oakland music teacher being willing to allow his evaluators listen to a performance in October, then another in May, and then stand behind the progress his students have made.

Other teachers, in other subject areas, could take the same stand.  While I still say, “NO” to having myself, my school, or my children judged based on how many bubbles they filled in correctly, I stand behind their research essays.  “Read one of their essays in October,” I told my administrator last year.  “Read another one in May, then you’ll know how well I’m teaching my kids.”  If I were an English teacher, I would say the same thing about my kids’ essays or poetry.  If I were a science teacher, I would say the same thing about my kids’ experiments and lab write-ups.  If I were a math teacher, I would say the same thing about my kids’ projects.

We really can use student-learning data to see how well students are learning and how well teachers are teaching.  The trick is to be more concerned with the quality of that data than the ease with which we gather the data.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Growth Grading

 Imagine a typical student who is failing a class.  This student is earning low scores on his quizzes, exams, papers, and projects.  For the sake of this thought experiment, I’m going to stick to several imaginary assignments that each have 100 points possible as a perfect score.  In the real world, teachers know that all assignments are not equally weighted, but the concept works with any assignment, and I want to keep the math easy for this article.

In this scenario, the student earns 20, 22, 28, 35, 45, and 60 on each of the assignments.  In this imaginary class, the scores break down along the traditional 90-100=A, 80-89=B, 70-79=C, 60-69=D, and <60=F.  So this student has earned an F on each first five assignments and then a D on the sixth. 

In a traditional grading system, I can imagine this student giving up on this class.  As you can see, even though the student has improved on each and every assignment, he sees very little benefit from his increased efforts.  I can imagine many of my students ever even completing the forth, fifth, and sixth assignments at all, because they have given up hope.  I can hear the child say, “Why should I even bother!  No matter how hard I try, I’m still failing!  I give up!  I hate school!”  With this imaginary student, and hundreds like him at my school, I can see a dropout in the making.

With a growth model for grading, this child can find reward in his increased efforts and hard work, and his improved performance.

Under a growth model, after the first assignment earning a 20 the teacher would have a conversation like this.  “You earned only a 20/100 on this assignment.  Now, you and I both know that this is an F.  What I would like us to agree to is this: you come in for extra help, and make some commitments to work harder.  Our goal is a 10% increase on your next assignment.  So you’re shooting for at least a 22 on the next assignment.”  The child asks, with typical teen hope, “Will a 22 get me an A, then?”

The answer is, “no.”  Here is how growth grading works.  On the next assignment, the student earns the 22.  A 22/100 is still and F on content.  But the student hit is growth target perfectly.  On his growth goal, he has earned an “A.”  I the growth model, these grades have equal weight, so the total grade for assignment two is a C.  Then the teacher and student set the next growth target, another 10% or a 24. 

On the third assignment, the student exceeds his growth target, earning a 28 instead of the hoped-for 24.  His growth grade on assignment 3 is an A+, but his content is still an F.  This averages to a C+ on the third assignment.  Because the student’s growth was so impressive, he and the teacher set the growth bar a little higher, say 20% growth this time, or a 34. 

On the forth assignment, he does well again.  Exceeding his target slightly with the 35.  Again, this is an F for content, but another A for growth, averaging to another C for the assignment.  Together, they set the bar higher, hoping for 25% improvement on the next assignment. 

Again, the student hits his target with a 45.  Again the content and growth grades average to a C.  Again they set a growth target, 30% this time, aiming for a 60

On his sixth assignment, he does it again.  This time, while his growth grade is another A, his content grade has increased to a D.  The average of this assignment is a B, perhaps the first B this child has earned in this class all year.

Can you see the reward for perseverance?  Can you see the child realizing that hard work and study pays off over the long haul?

With this student, once his content grades have climbed to a C or a B, the growth grading ends.

I know this model flies in the face of some practitioners who are strong advocates for strict standards.  They may argue that the content grade is too important to dilute with a growth grade and that an F is an F. 

I know this model also flies in the face of fairness.  If this student can earn a C for only 45/10 correct, what does that say about the student who is earning a 75/100 and earning the same letter?

I also know that this model of grading will hurt my school’s score on the high-stakes tests in May.  This is because this child is not learning the material well enough to do a great job on that test, and the State of California is far less concern with a single child’s growth than they are about being able to rank my school based on a singe test score.  Additionally, growth grading will hurt my school because, rather than abandoning hope and dropping out in the fall, this student will still be with us in May, along with his lousy test score.

I know all of this, and I don’t care.  I don’t care because I also know that this child is learning more of my class content earning a 22, 28, or 45 than he would have had he dropped out.  I don’t care because I would rather have this student in my school dragging down our test scores than on the streets dragging down his future.  I don’t care because I care more about learning and hope than strict standards and fairness.

The trick is to see every child as an individual and find a way for each child to learn as much as she or he can every hour they spend with me.  Growth grading is not for every student, but for those students who may lose hope, who may drop out, it can be a great tool to keep them connected to school and teach them that hard work and effort really can pay off.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Zombie Horde of Bad Teachers

I disagree that there are hordes of "bad" teachers who, like zombies, are after our children's brains.

I work with a bad teacher.  Everyone at our school knows this teacher.  Most all of us agree that this teacher should not be in the classroom.  We talk about this teacher among ourselves, and to our non-teacher friends and families.  I know that kids are talking about this teacher too.

That's nearly 100 adults at my school talking about this 1 teacher.

That's over 1500 teenagers at my school talking about this 1 teacher.

In our stories, this teacher is no longer just one teacher, this person is now 1600+ lead characters in 1600+ stories.

This is how a small number of bad teachers can seem to grow to a horde.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What Coaching Should Look Like

It seems to me that teacher evaluations are personality driven. 

I’ve known administrators who were fully bought into the adversarial relationship between teachers and principals.  These administrators seemed to relish taking a “tough stand” on “bad teachers.”  The teacher evaluations were an elaborate game of cat-n-mouse.  I saw teachers, whom I had never seen with a lesson plan, busy copying materials and checking in with colleagues do see if they had differentiation, multiple learning styles, and other key buzz words, “covered” in their lesson.  Conversely, I’ve seen good teachers dinged over trivial issues, such as the daily learning target stated in the old-fashioned “Students will be able to…” rather than using the students voice by writing, “I will…” that is currently in vogue.

The arrival of these “gotcha” evaluation signals the opening of the second round of the fight.  Not a year goes by without one of my colleagues coming to my door to ask, “Can you believe this?   He gave me a ‘2’ on this!  I got a ‘1’ on that!  (We use a 1-4 point scale at my school, with 4 being excellent.)  He was only in my room for ten minutes!”  Trying to take advantage of a potential learning opportunity, I always ask, “Are any of the remarks things you think you should work on?”  Typically the answer is a colorful version of, “No.”

I myself was the victim of a different form of bad evaluation.  It was my first year at my new high school, even though I walked through the door with twelve years of experience teaching history, as far as my new placement was concerned, I was a new teacher.  It took three meetings for my evaluator and I to settle on my goals and objectives for the year.  Silly me; I thought they were my goals and objectives, but clearly I has misunderstood.  The vice-principal couldn’t just tell me which criteria that I would be measured by, because technically they still were my goals and objectives for the year.  Instead, like a good teacher with an unruly child, she would guide me to the correct goals that would be mine that year.  After three meetings, I had her signature on my pre-observation form, but it had cost me my enthusiasm for having a second set of eyes looking at my craft and offering me insights.

The scheduled observation never happened.  Month after month passed.  Three times I scheduled opportunities for her to visit my class.  Eventually, I stopped rescheduling, telling myself that the responsibility now rested with her.  I finished out that year never seeing receiving any feedback.
It doesn’t have to be this way

This year I’ve seen an administrator who is personally invested in coaching.  He sees his role as being an extra set of eyes for his teachers. 

Yet again, a teacher came to my door to talk about her observation, but this time the conversation looked different.  The teacher still received some 2’s on her evaluation, but they were in the areas that she was asking for help in.  She and the administrator had talked about those areas.  The amazing thing for her was this, instead of going over what went wrong or how to fix it, the administrator asked “What do you think you need this year in order to work on this?  How do you think I can help you?”  These were two questions she had never heard before.

As cool as that experience was; as invested in teacher coaching as this vice-principal is, it is still a symptom of the problem I’m laying out here.  Teacher evaluations are personality driven.  One principal sees himself as the new sheriff in town running the “bad” teachers out on a rail.  A vice-principal is too overwhelmed to find the time to even visit the classroom of the teacher she is supposed to be observing.  The third administrator does a great job, but only because he sees himself as a coach.

Formative Teacher Evaluations

Instead of paying “gotcha,” every teacher observation should be a partnership between the teacher and her/his observer.  There needs to be enough trust to have hard conversations if necessary.  Both the teacher and the observer have to be allies in the goal of helping the teacher be even better than s/he was the year before.

I can envision a future where the observer could be an administrator or a teacher-leader who spend a part of her job mentoring and coaching her colleagues.  I use the term “teacher leader” because in my mind’s eye, the people who are observing, evaluating, and coaching teachers are teachers themselves.  Gone will be the days when a teacher might push-back on a observation saying, “It’s been x years since the VP have taught kids, he doesn’t know what I am dealing with.”

In my fantasy world, every observer would behave like the “coach” vice principal at my school.  The observer would have conversations with the teacher being observed.  Together they would identify areas where the teacher thinks s/he is struggling, or additionally, areas where s/he is good and interested on getting better.  I envision post-observation sessions where both the teacher and the observed can evaluate the teacher’s performance together.  They can look at what’s good and what needs improving.  Them together, they can create a plan by which the teacher gets the support and time s/he needs to make the improvements s/he wants.

The problem with formative assessments is this: they are hard.  It is easy for a school administrator to identify shortcomings of a teacher, but it is hard to imagine the kind of professional development that the teacher may need to improve.  It is really hard to find the resources to provide extra professional development.  It is far too easy to point fingers and say, “Look at those test scores.  Shape up or ship out!”

Differentiated Professional Development Could Help

Professional development (PD) at my school has been a mess.  At the best of times, we gather all of the teachers into the library to hear a day-long speech from the guru that some one in the principal’s office or downtown had met at a conference and felt, “This will be the game changer at our school!”  In the library, some of the teachers agree.  They also think that the guru is the bee’s knees.  For them, the lessons and ideas of the workshop will live in their classrooms, for a while.  For most of the converts, the lack of on-going discussion, collaboration and support will result in a gradual fading of the new ideas and a return to business as usual.

Unfortunately, most teachers wont connect with the workshop.  They wont see the relevance, or it will look like the reform idea they saw tried-and-died years ago.  These teachers may try to make the most out of the professional development day by grading papers, but some may form affinity groups to chat among themselves or snark at the guru.

At their worst, PD at my school devolves into administrative meetings.  Last year, I was the one responsible for this disappointment.  Lat year, my school engaged in our Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) self-study.  This huge undertaking ate up nearly all of our so-called PD time.  Speaking for myself, I learned a lot from this process.  Being one of the people responsible for writing the report allowed me to take a glimpse at everyone else’s classrooms and pedagogy.  I saw some great things that I then wanted to implement in my classroom.  I saw some of my own mistakes mirrored by my colleague, making it easier for me to see them.

While I was leading our “PD” about our WASC self-study, I couldn’t help but think of all of the first-year teachers in the audience.  I was asking for their help in evaluating the school when many of them needed to know where the photocopier was.  They were helping us create a five-year plan for improvement when they didn’t yet have a handle on their own classroom management.  I kept thinking to myself, “They should be in these meetings.  They have entirely different needs!”

What if our school had several “Master Teachers”?  These would be the veterans who are widely viewed as having great lesson planning skills, great instruction, great classroom management, and so on.  What is the school designed a Beginners Teacher Institute where 1st – 3rd year teachers held their PD sessions with those Master Teachers.  For example, I’m widely seen as having good skills in conducting a parent-teacher conference, getting even angry parents to see the value of joining forces with their child’s teachers to form a success-team dedicated to getting improvements done. 

After their third year, new teachers could be designated as “Professional Teachers.”  Professional teachers could form their own Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) around themes that are relevant to them.  One PLC could self-organize a year-long professional development series about integrating more Web 2.0 technology into their classes to enable students to collaborate on their projects.  Another PLC could form to further their work on classroom management because they see themselves as struggling in this aspect of their teaching.  An administrator, using formative evaluations, could help a teacher identify this need and connect with other teachers in the school who share this concern.  A third PLC could spend a year doing action-research about their new project-based learning unit.  The ideas just go on and on. 

Master teachers would lead hybrid professional lives.  In my mind’s eye, I see these great teachers having a foot in two worlds.  They spend a part of their day in the classroom teaching a reduced load of children.  In an elementary school, this could be accomplished by having Master teachers share a class, one teaching Monday through Wednesday, the other taking over Thursday and Friday.  In a secondary school,  I see Master teachers in front of children for two or three periods a day, having the other two or three periods for research.

Some master teachers would be paid by their school districts to create professional development lessons and then facilitate beginning or professional teachers who want or need that PD.  Other master teachers could work one-on-one with new hires, mentoring and training them, ensuring that fewer new teachers leave the profession before they have taught for five years. 

The money to do this is already in the system.  Every year, I hear once again how our states are facing a teacher shortage.  Policy makers look for creative ways to fast-track new recruits into the classroom.  This is a false crisis.  The reality is, we have a teacher-retention problem.  Over ½ of all new teachers are out of the classroom before their fifth year.  Thinking about a teacher-recruitment crisis is like thinking about filling a bathtub that has a hole in the bottom.  Some folks are trying to get more water into that tub faster and faster.  All we really need to do is fix the leak.

Huge sums of money are spent recruiting, training and placing new teachers into our schools.  That money would be better spent supporting and mentoring the new teachers who are already there. 

The personnel are already in the system.  In California, over ½ of people who are paid with educational dollars are NOT in front of children.  They are site administrators, professional development coaches, trainers, curriculum writers, managers, and policy wonks.  Many of these positions could be converted into hybrid roles.  Classroom teachers could spend a part of their day being local and state educational leaders.  Conversely, educational leaders would see their standing with teachers skyrocket if they could tell stories about their own, recent, successes and struggles in their own classrooms.

Teacher leaders.  It’s a radical idea whose time has come.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What is the Value-Added of a Gunshot Wound?

Recently, I was asked, "Dave: As a more experienced teacher who has a track record of helping kids reach high academic standards, what are the pros and cons of using VAM to assess both student performance and teacher effectiveness."

Here is my answer:

As a classroom teacher, I dont see any pros to me specifically vis-a-vis the latest Value-added metrics.  The whole point of Value-added is to attempt to isolate the many non-academic issues that follow a child into the classroom so that one can feel that, when they look at comparative tests scores, they are looking only at what the teacher has control over, or the teachers "value added."

The reason why I don't see VAM as helpful is because I am already in relationships with my kids.  I already know that Kevin was shot twice in the leg this year when he was caught up in a scene of random violence that is all-too-common in his neighborhood.  I already know that Shanice ran away from home for two months this fall and was living on the streets of Oakland doing God-knows-what to survive.  I already know how these incidents and hundreds like them are effecting how much and how well my children are learning.  I am already making adjustments to help these children heal from the too-adult wounds they have been afflicted with; help them move on; help them move back to something more resembling a childhood; and help them reconnect with school and learning.

In terms of the larger educational reform debate that is playing-out across the country, I think VAM is a useful tool.  While I continue to rail against any idea that a single test score can be conflated with anything as complex as "learning," I do see VAM as an attempt to acknowledge that great teaching looks different in the suburbs than it does in the ghetto.  I'm concerned that the usefulness of VAM could "rub off" onto the tests themselves, which are appalling.  The tests we have been using to "grade" public schools have been measures of only the isolated facts and simple sub-skills that are easy to measure.  They have not been the skills and knowledge we say we want children to know and be able to do when we adults sit around a table and discuss the purpose and goals of public education.  I would like VAM to be used with a far better set of assessments. 

For example, my school district, Oakland Unified, wants to know that every sophomore and junior can write an essay answering a deep and complex historical question using primary source documents.  This is a test I strongly support.  It is assessing real-world skills of document analysis, bias/perspective understanding, argumentation using evidence, and writing.  I would be happy to see a part of my evaluation as a teacher based on how well my students essays progress from Fall to Spring.  VAM may help an outside evaluator understand why Kevin and Shanice didn't improve on their writing this year, as we were working on far more important issues.  Ultimately, this is who VAM is for, it is not for the classroom teacher, it is for those who wish to evaluate the classroom teacher.

Ultimately, as it is used currently, VAM is useful to the person who is located far away from my classroom.  VAM is useful to someone who does not want to see and hear and feel the messiness of these children's lives.  VAM is useful to someone who really, really wants the job of seeing if children are learning to be as easy and convent as looking at a spreadsheet.  VAM is useful for someone who want to honestly acknowledge that thousands of American children are living in violent and impoverished neighborhoods with having to really know what that really means.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: To Teach: The Journey, in comics

 Greatness in teaching engages students, interacts with them, draws energy and direction from them, and offer reasons to plunge into classroom life.  Greatness in teaching is always in pursuit of the next challenge, the next encounter… greatness demands an openness to the new and the unique.  For great teachers, it must always be, ‘Here I go again.’

Bill Ayer’s reworking of his book, To Teach: The Journey, in Comics is a wonderful, inspiring read, reworked into a comic medium (don't call it a genre) with illustrator Ryan Alexander-Tanner.  One can only imagine the twists and turns of Ayer’s journey from being on the FBI’s wanted list as a member of the Weather Underground during the height of anti-Vietnam protests to being a kindergarten teacher and now professor or education.

I first met Mr. Ayers when he keynoted the Humboldt State University inaugural Education Summit.  As part of the organizing committee under my then-mentor Eric Rofes, I was gifted with hours of conversations with Mr. Ayers over breakfasts and dinners.  He is an amazing storyteller and a wonderful teacher.

Most of the story is about Bill thinking about teaching and about how his children learn.  There are great stories about exploration, creativity, perseverance, and wonder. 

Sprinkled through out are vignette from other teachers that Bill clearly admires.  One such story talks about an elementary school teacher who has her class fill up a bookshelf every year as they learn about something that she, the teacher, knows nothing about.  Together the teacher and the students become co-learners, exploring where their collective curiosity leads them.

Another story is about a high school teacher who is trying to “teach a really good kindergarten class with 18-year-olds.”  In this story, we learn about how scary it is to allow students to control the learning environment, and how rewarding it can be.

Periodically the “specialists” form the central office show up in Bill’s classroom to explain to Bill how his children should be labeled as deficient or “at risk” and what standards he should be covering with his kindergartners.  When they leave, Bill jumps upon his soap box to talk about how the standards movement, and it’s enforcers, get in the way of the very human relationship that is teaching and learning.  After one such meeting, when his children are diagnose as ADHD, learning deficient, and “at risk” he states, “Focusing on what I can’t do diminishes hope and limits possibility.  It pays no attention to what I can do.” 

When the “specialist” leave, one of Bill’s children asks, “Are they coming back?”  When Bill answers in the affirmative, the child speaks with what many teachers may agree is their own voice…  “They’re weird.”

ASCD Whole Child Award-winning School

“We don’t do that here,” an older student told another who was engaging in bullying.  Both students were members of the same “family” at Quest Early College High School in Humble Texas, the 2011 winner of ASCD’s Whole Child Award.  At the ASCD Annual Conference, I got a chance to speak to three generations of women from the school, Principal Kim Kelpcyk, teacher Denise McLean, and Janet, a current senior.


Many school around the country are experimenting with Advisory programs – where groups of students meet regularly with an adult at the school.  My own school in Oakland CA has Advisory for our freshmen, where 25-30 students meet daily with their Advisor.  The advisor is the primary contact between the child’s family and the school.  The Advisor is the adult who is taking a sustained interest in making sure that this child is having a successful first year of high school.

At Quest, they’ve taken the Advisory concept to the next level.  Their “families” are multi-grade, where a student stays with their same Advisory for all four years of high school.  Old family members mentor and look out for their younger “brothers” and “sisters.”  It’s been a real culture changer in the words of Ms. McLean.  She sees the families as an opportunity to engage with her students on a more human level, without the traditional power dynamic of teacher-student.  Ms. Kelpcyk was Denise’s own family-mentor when she was a student at the school nearly ten years ago.

Janet was always the “quiet kid” and did not see herself become very involved with her high school four years ago.  “But being in a family, being with older kids helpe get me out of my shell.”

I asked if the family structure helped reduce the amount of bullying at the school.  In my mind’s eye, I could see one freshmen bullying another, then their older “siblings” becoming involved to mediate.  Reality is even better than my imagination, as Janet described the instant intervention described at the beginning of this piece.


Quest students are not at school on Fridays.  They are in the community doing service learning and internships.  Janet, who is thinking about becoming a teacher herself, is working at a local middle school this year.  Not just tutoring, she is actually designing and leading lessons with her cooperating teacher.  The experiences she’s getting are influencing her senior project.  Her team’s topic is human rights and Janet’s piece is specifically rights for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered people, but the planning for her presentation/senior expo is being influenced by the lesson planning she is learning as a part of her internship.

While the students are in the community, Quest staff engages in weekly professional development, and collaboration.  The staff can meet to discuss their kids, the one’s they share, talking about their progress, struggles and needs.  Additionally, they can share lessons with one another, look at student work, and help one another grow as professionals.

The Long View

Having three “generations” of academics around the table allowed us to discuss the changes Quest has undergone over the years.  When Principal Kelpcyk was a student, schools didn’t have “families” or advisory programs.  When Ms. McLean was “Denise” and in Ms. Kelpcy’s family at Quest, when Kelpcyk was a teacher and Denise the student, internships and the ability to earn college credit were still only concepts for the future.  “In fact, “recalls Kelpcyk, “it was another student’s senior expo the year Denise was a senior, that got the school thinking about internships.”  When asked what the school might look like in ten years, When Janet might be a teacher there, or in twenty years, when Janet is the principal, she is hard pressed to imagine the changes that Quest might undergo.  “I can’t think of a way the school could be better.”

At least for the near future, I may have to agree.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

My Tedx Talk...

“What if a Jewish person turned into a vampire?” Kirin asked me one day.  “Would that vampire be afraid of a Star of David like regular vampires are afraid of a cross?”  “That’s the great thing about vampires,” I replied.  “Because they are a literary devise, they can do pretty much whatever the author wants them to.  So I guess the real question is what to you think would happen, Kirin?”

We talked for about fifteen minutes about Kirin’s Jewish vampire, specifically, weather or not he will cringe at a Star of David, and what that decision might mean.  Would it mean that Kirin has replaced the exclusive rightness of Christianity with an exclusive rightness for Judaism?   Or will it be more multi-cultural, where the vampire is really cringing at our symbols of goodness and righteousness where all vampires cringe at all holy symbols marking out the many paths up the mountain of faith?

In a deferent year, a puzzled-faced fourteen-year-old girl stuck up a conversation with me one afternoon. 

“I was reading here in Hammurabi’s code.” She began.  “I get how it says that if the farmer doesn’t keep the levees on his land in good repair, and when the river floods, the levee breaks and ruins his neighbor’s land that he’s responsible to repair the damage and pay the neighbor for the neighbor’s ruined crops. I get that,”

“But what if the farmer was renting the land?”

An old friend of my from our undergraduate days is now in a teacher credential program, becoming a teacher herself.  She wrote me the other day,  “I am currently placed in a 7th grade CORE classroom at a nice, though technically failing, middle school. My CT has 22 years of experience teaching English and World History and is a master at it. He's amazing. However, I only observe him teach English. I then teach the history portion, one period a day. Because I can't observe him teach history first, I am never quite sure of what I should be doing.”  She wanted to come back to my school and spend time with me, watch me teach and then talk about instruction.

I wish I could.  I wish I could invite my friend back to my classroom.  I wish I could explore this semester’s deep questions with students.  I wish I could keep better track of the Vampire Goldberg.  I wish I could, but I can’t.  I’m no longer in the classroom.

It’s a bittersweet problem.  You see, my school is redesigning our structures.  We’ve received a multi-year, multi-million dollar grant to organizing our students and teachers into smaller learning communities.  Now, I’m the site coordinator for that process.  I love my new role, but I miss teaching.

This brings me to the big idea of this talk.  TED is all about big ideas, and this one comes from a group of incredible educators I’m working with through an organization based in North Carolina, the Teacher Leaders Network.  The idea is the “teacherpreneur.”

What the heck is a “teacherpreneur”?  Well, imagine the system we typically work with now.  People who work in education are, for the most part, isolated in their roles.  Teachers are isolated in their classrooms, teaching students.  In another part of the campus, the principal (typically a former teacher) is spending her day running the school.  Downtown, offices are filled with administrators running the day-to-day business for the school district.  There are also coaches, professional development experts, curriculum designers, and a myriad of other roles being filled by former teachers and teachers on “special assignment” like myself.

Meanwhile, in the universities, professors, some former teachers other not, are training the next generation of teachers.  For the most part, they are also writing the textbooks and instructional guides.

Meanwhile, over in our state capitols and in Washington DC, policy makers, many of whom haven’t been in classroom since they themselves were students, are writing policy that will guide (some say dictate) instruction.

In fact, just over 50% of the people who are paid with educational dollars are NOT in classrooms working with children. 

Right now, for the most part, teachers who want to write, or be involved in educational policy have to do this in the evening and on weekends.  Relying on the loving understanding of their spouses and loved ones, Right Wendy?

“Teacherpreneurism” is an idea by which educational leaders can maintain a foot in the classroom where the rubber of their ideas and policies hits the road of instruction and learning.  “Teacherpreneurism” is an idea by which more classroom teachers can have more of a voice in national, state and local educational leadership.

Teacherpreneur is a hard concept for educators to fall in love with.  It sounds too much like “entrepreneur” which we commonly think of as someone who has a new idea and wants to use that idea to make a lot of money.  Many teachers, like myself, think that far too many people have for far too long seen opportunities to make far too much money “fixing” what is “wrong” with education with their latest silver bullets.

Teacherpreneurs isn’t like that.  It’s more closely aligned with the idea of the social entrepreneur that my collegeaue John Norton recently wrote about.

“A social entrepreneur is motivated by a desire to help, improve and transform social, environmental, educational and economic conditions,” he writes.  A social entrepreneur is not satisfied with the way things are – we are not satisfied with the status quo.

How often are we hearing these days that teachers and teachers’ unions in particular are defending the status quo, defending bad teacher at the expense of students – as if there are horde of bad teacher who, like zombies, are after the children’s’ brains!  Because teachers and teachers unions don’t support the triumvirate of education reform current en vogue, high-stakes tests, accountability, and market-based school choice, we are casts as somehow in favor of drop-out factories and failing schools

Social entrepreneurs, and I offer “teacherpreneurs” say, no, neither.  “No” to the status quo, and “no” to the triumvirate.  But while teachers and teachers’ unions are saying  “no” we aren’t spending enough time imagining and communicating what educational reform we ARE in favor of.  It is my vision that teachers being in these hybrid roles will have the time and resources to envision a better way.

“Teacherprenuers” are not a way to make money fixing schools.  Rather it is a way to honor the social entrepreneur work that many classroom teachers are already doing, by giving them time during their workday to do this important work.


A high school math teacher, who at lunch meets with her co-principal to discuss the morning’s events and prepare for her afternoon of school leadership while the morning principal is off to teach his classes.


A middle school history teacher who works at the local university in the mornings with classes of prospective teachers before heading back to the middle school for his afternoon students.


Teachers who have one or two hours everyday to do research and write about instruction.

Teachers who have one or two hours everyday to plan and organize the professional development they are going to lead their schools in later that week.

Master teachers who co-teach with first and second-year teachers and have the time to do daily mentoring for their apprentices.


An elementary school teacher who works Monday through Wednesday before turning her class over to her co-teacher so that she can spend Thursday and Friday at the state capitol advising the Department of Education.

What would educational policy look like if Arne Duncan took five weeks off from being Secretary of Education in July to teach sumer school?

If you can imagine these things, then you can visualize a “teacherpreneur.”

But were not there yet.  I was in a workshop just two weekends ago listening to an amazing program this one school has for their teachers’ professional development.  They’ve got teachers organizing themselves in to professional learning communities.  The teachers are deciding for themselves what aspects of their craft they would like to get better at, finding the resources and time to work together and help one another become even better teachers.  Unfortunately, one of the goals of this program is to identify the really great teacher leaders and get them into administrative or coaching positions for their city.  I had to ask, “Do you mean that one of the goals is to identify your best teachers and get them out of the classroom?”  Sadly, the answer was “yes.”

We’re still a big mind shift away from understanding the power of these new hybrid-roles of “teacherpreneurs.”

So imagine what the educational landscape might look like if we had hundreds of thousands of teacherpreneurs.  I can imagine that the first thing they would do away with are the high-stakes bubble-in tests that are driving creativity and critical thinking into the ground.  I imagine that when the leaders of the schools districts and the leaders of the teachers’s unions are the same folks, we would lose the adversarial teacher evaluation systems we have now and design something that makes sense for students and teachers. 

I want to be a “teacherpreneur.”  I want every teacher who want to do this kind of work have the opportunity to do so, and still spend a part of their workday or work week in the classroom with kids.

I imagine that my friend could come visit my classroom, watch me working with my students, and then we could talk about how my school is changing and growing.

I imagine that there would be less room in schools for drill and kill curriculum designed to improve test scores.  There would be more room for critical thinking.  There would be more room for collaboration among teachers and students, more project-based lessons and assessments.  I imagine that there would be more room for creativity.  There would even be room for Jewish vampires.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion Alert

On Saturday, April 9th, I'm speaking at the TEDx event in San Francisco on the future of education.

You can watch the live stream here.

I'll be speaking about "teacherpreneurism"

Friday, April 1, 2011

What do Teachers mean by "Working Conditions"?

What do teachers and teachers' associations and unions mean when we talk about "working conditions?"

Many non-teachers seem to think that we're talking about more pay, and fewer hours of work.  This is not true.

When the Education Policy Analysis Archives published a "six-state survey of National Board-certified teachers (they) found that factors such as strong principal leadership, a collegial staff  with a shared teaching philosophy, access to adequate resources, and strategies to work with parents were the most powerful incentives for them to consider moving to a high-needs school." ~ from Teaching 2030 by Barnett Berry and the TeacherSoultions team.

Bottom line, when teachers say "working conditions" we mean the supports we need to provide the very best learning environment for our children.
Hat's off to Wordle for making this "Tree of Learning 2030".
What a FUN site!

Letter to a friend who is a new teacher... part 2

My friend, who is a new teacher, responded to my first post.  You can read that first letter and my friends response here.

I wrote back and would like to share.  Bottom line of this letter is this: I wish I could be a "teacherpreneur."

I would love, I wish I could, have you revisit my classroom to see my kids and I working and learning together.  That would be wonderful.  Too bad, I’m not in the classroom anymore. 

Problem is, my school likes what I do.  They like the curriculum I developed for our freshmen history class three years ago.  They like it so much, that they have adopted it for all freshmen history classes this year and they are asking me and my team of fellow history teachers to re-write it to address some additional goals we have for our young scholars.  They like the way my team and I have reorganized our 9th grade year.  We’ve transformed it from high-school-as-usual to several smaller learning communities where our freshmen are grouped into cohorts who share an English, biology, social studies, and math teacher.

They liked it so much, that Oakland Unified has used our progress as a part of the foundation for a federal grant to further our work and do similar work at two of the other big, comprehensive high schools in town.  We won the grant, and a part of that grant funds a site-coordinator position who job it is to complete the transition of the rest of the school from business-as-usual into smaller learning communities.  I’m now in this job at Skyline High School and out of the classroom for the rest of this year and all of next year.

As much as I miss being in the classroom, I wanted this position.  I lobbied my district and site administration to give it to me.  I knew that if we hired an outside consultant, we would spend far too many precious months getting her or him up to speed about what we have done over the past year and a half before s/he could really begin working on moving the project forward.

I wish school officials could get next to the idea of hybrid-teacher roles.  We’re stuck in an all-or-nothing mentality that keeps teaching and educational leadership separate.  There are just too many ways for great teachers to stop teaching children.  We all say the same thing as we choose to leave our classrooms, “This is a sacrifice.  I love my kids.  But, I think I can help more kids over the long haul doing policy work / curriculum development / teacher training / administration / etc…”  I said the same thing, several times in the past week alone. 

Why couldn’t my friend Carlisa and I both be site coordinators?  She could teach math in the mornings, and do this organizing work in the afternoons.  I could teach history in the afternoons and organize in the mornings.  It would cost the same amount of money to pay two people part-time as to pay me full-time.  She and I would be willing to spend some morning and lunch time every day talking together to make sure we were one the same day.  Eventually folks would get used to the idea that it didn’t matter if they were talking to an African-American woman or the white guy; we were one site coordinator… together.

But, alas, this is not yet the world in which I live and teach.  We’re still too hung up on have one person to go to; one person where the proverbial buck stops.  

Changing this mentality is some of the work I’m doing with an organization called the Center for Teaching Quality.  It’s also the topic of my TEDx talk April 9th.  The CTQ team and I are talking about a concept called a “teacherpreneur.”  Yeah, I know, it’s a mouth full.  

A teacherpreneur isn’t the same thing as an educational entrepreneur.  Teacherpreneurs are positions where educational leaders can do the great work they want to do, sharing their expertise, and still spend a part of their day or week in the classroom with kids.

Teacherpreneurs can write curriculum for their district part time.  They can be teacher coaches in the mornings or afternoons.  They can spend every other week at their state capitols helping draft educational policy.  They can even be co-principals.

They can do research alongside university PhDs or work at those university-based teacher preparation programs, providing a much needed, current prospective.  Can you imagine a pre-service teachers listening to their professor and instead of hearing, “Fifteen years ago, when I was in the classroom…” they heard, “Good question!  Something similar to what you’re asking happened at my school last week…”?  What a powerful experience that would be!

It’s going to be a while.  It’s going to take some work.  Eventually we’ll get these kids of positions, and eventually they will even be the norm.  Until then, we’re going to remain in a system of all-or-nothing.

I was at the ASCD conference this past weekend.  One of the workshops was talking about a professional development strategy where teachers organized themselves into groups, identified their needs, and sought out tools and solutions.  The presenter, while lauding the program, explained one of their goals.  “We can see who the teacher leaders are.  They are the ones who are doing the organizing.  They are the ones who are doing the research.  They are the ones who end up presenting to the group.  When we find these folks, we recruit them for our administration tracks or our district coaching positions.”  My hand shot up, “Are you telling us that one of your goals is to identify your best teachers and teacher leaders and get them out of the classroom?”  Yes, yes they are…


Thursday, March 31, 2011

Just add a "0" in front and you'll get that 6-figure salary Conservatives say teachers earn

Organizing PLC’s for Student Success

 I like the way my fellow teacher-leaders friends and I planned and implemented sweeping changes to our 9th grade program, transforming that experience from high-school-as-usual into several smaller learning communities. 

Now freshmen at Skyline High School are grouped into cohorts who share the same English, math, social studies, and biology teachers.  We’ve reorganized our master schedule and our budget in such a way to provide each of these sixteen teachers an extra hour each day to collaborate with one another. 

This was really hard to pull off.  First we had to find the money.  Last year, we organized our freshmen teacher teams to have their one preparation period at the same time.  Each teacher taught four sections for their freshmen, and one additional section of sophomores.  Their common prep was intended to allow each team to meet once a week.  The teachers agreed to push an hour of their own classroom planning and grading to after hours so that they could spend an hour each week talking about the kids they taught together.  One hour a week quickly grew to two to three as teachers began to see the power of collaboration. Additionally parents, who in years past rarely thought it was worth taking a whole day off of work to meet with one teacher, saw that they could meet with four of their child’s teachers and scheduled conferences in unprecedented numbers. 

Our district saw the value of teacher collaboration and found nearly $300,000 to take the fifth class away from freshmen teachers, giving then two hours each day to work without kids.  One of those hours is the teacher traditional preparation time, to grade, photocopy, prepare lessons, and the million of other tasks we have to accomplish to run our classrooms.  The other hour is used for collaboration. 

Now, in addition to teacher teams who share students having common time to meet, we even have organized the schedules of our teachers who share curriculum, too.  This was a piece of scheduling magic!  Using one history teacher as an example: she teaches four sections of freshmen, 1st, 4th, 5th, and 6th periods.  She has 2nd and 3rd periods without kids.  On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, she meets 2nd period with the English, Math, and Biology teachers with whom she shares students.  Those days, her individual preparation time is 3rd period.  One Tuesdays and Thursdays, she meets with her fellow history teachers 3rd period.  During that hour, they talk about standards, assessments, instruction, and curriculum.  They look at student data and help one another make changes to their instruction to insure that every student succeeds.  On these days, her individual preparation time is 2nd period.

It’s working great, but there are some struggles.  Some of our fellow teachers have expressed their anger at the extra support that freshmen teachers have received.  “We work hard too,” I hear.  “It’s not fair for some teachers to get a second preparation period when every teacher can’t.”  Some of my colleagues are even insulting about it, assuming that we’re wasting the extra time we’ve received, like we’re shopping on line or checking on our fantasy baseball teams.  I wish these teachers would take one hour to visit one of our teams and see them in action, but so far the “haters” prefer to stand outside our “house” and throw rocks at us. 

These teachers are like the peasant from an old Russian folk tale.  The peasant saw that his neighbor was doing a little bit better than he was.  The neighbor was doing so well that he was able to buy a cow.  The peasant was so upset that he fell to his knees and he prayed.  God answered him, asking, “What do you wish me to do?”  “Kill the cow,” he replied.  You see, for some folks, taking the neighbor down a notch can almost feel as good as raising oneself up.

Luckily for us, we haven’t bought into that negative kind of thinking.  Instead, we’ve been exploring ways to find a collaboration period for all teachers.  We know that all of our teachers will be able to do better business for their kids if we support them with extra time to work together and find innovative ways to make their instruction even better than it already is.

The Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that I’ve been calling teacher teams up until now, are a great way to organize teachers.  PLCs that are organized around sharing students can coordinate parent meetings.  They can quickly identify students who are struggling, analyze why, deliver targeted interventions, and monitor the results.  They can coordinate cross-curriculum projects like the collaboration we’re doing right now between English and history.  While our kids are reading Romeo and Juliet, they are studying Medieval Italy and Shakespeare’s England. 

PLCs that are organized around curriculum can analyze the standards.  By “standards” I’m talking about all three: the standards that the high-stakes tests have forced us to deal with, even though we don’t think they reflect good learning; the published state and common core standards they we hold in higher esteem; and our own professional standards they our team has decided are that our kids “Must Know & Be Able to Do” when they leave us in June.  These PLCs can talk about assessments: both the standardized fill-in-the-bubble ones we hate and have to deal with and the formative assessment that we’ve designed and use to guide our instruction.  These PLC’s can plan projects for our kids, share instructional resources, and support one another when one of our lessons seems to have flopped.

We love our PLC’s.  It’s a lot of meetings and a lot of work, but we see the positive benefit for our professional growth and, more importantly, our kids’ learning.  “These are the only meetings I look forward to,” summed up one of my team mates.