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.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

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

I read your tweet today, “another eeh day of teaching.  This would be so much easier if I could observe what it is I’m supposed to be doing before I teach it.” 

My heart goes out to you.  Teaching is hard.  It’s hard to imagine the gold nugget of skills or knowledge one wants these fresh faces walking out of the classroom with.  It’s hard trying to imagine just the right kind of assessment that kids can do that will show you whether they got it or not.  Making that assessment NOT look like yet another test or quiz, is harder still.  It’s an art and a science to design just the right kids of experiences one thinks the kids need to do in order to gain the knowledge, learn the skills that are the goals of the day. 

A colleague of mine with the Center for Teaching Quality (and one of the authors of Teaching 2030), Kilian Betlach wrote in that book, “First we ask new teachers to do too much with too little preparation, and then we ask too little of them in what should be the second stage of a teaching career.”  While Kilian and I don’t agree on a lot, I cannot agree with that statement enough. 

You’re being asked to do too much with too little preparation.  I remember when you were visiting my classroom last year.  We had great conversations about what kids need to learn, and how they could best learn it.  I remember that those conversations were far too short, far too infrequent, and had far too much time in between each one. 

Wouldn’t it have been great if we could have worked together for an entire year?  I remember my own training.  I was apprenticed for an entire year to a master teacher who really knew her stuff.  Everyday in the fall, I was at her door.  I observed her classes all day, working one-on-one with some students during guided practice time.  During her preparation period, she invested tons of time into me: answering my many questions; discussing pedagogy; hearing about my frustrations with how bad I was at this new job!  In the Spring, I took over two of her classes full time.  Every day, we would plan together.  She would give me excellent advise about the lesson I had planned, really pushing my thinking.  Then after school, we would debrief.

I remember that this was one of the hardest years of my life!  I was working at UPS at the time to pay rent, so every morning at two the alarm would go off.  From three to eight in the morning, I would be off-loading trailer after trailer of boxes that would be delivered later that day.  At eight, I would punch out and go home for a quick shower, shave and change of clothing to arrive at my Master Teacher’s classroom by her second period preparation time.  After working in her classroom, and debriefing after school, I went to the University.  There, from four in the afternoon to seven or eight in the evening, I took classes from the professors.  When I got home, I had maybe an hour of time with my wife before I had to study and write papers and lessons for a couple of hours before I went to bed.

It would have been so much easier, and healthier, if I hadn’t had to work.  If I could have gotten four more hours of sleep each night, waking at six or seven in the morning to go to school then university…  but those are only memories now.

I’ve learned that I was pretty unusual that year.  Most of my student-teacher cohort didn’t work with their Master teachers daily.  We were only required to spend two or three days a week at our site school until our solo teaching began spring semester.  I remember being really tired and cranky that year, but now I appreciate the extra time I was able to put in observing a great teacher at work and the hours she invented in talking to and training me. 

Today, most new teachers are going through university-based programs similar to the one I did fifteen years ago.  A growing minority of new teachers, however, is going to alternative induction programs like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.  These alternative programs offer very little training, substituting five or six weeks in the summer for the full year of university courses I took.   During their training time, many TfA’ers or NTP’er are placed with summer school teachers. 

Now, I’m not saying that the good people at TfA and NTP aren’t doing their very best training their recruits.  I’m not saying that TfA and NTP recruits are worse teachers than I was when I was doing my student teaching and then first year as a full-time teacher.  I’ve work with many TfA’ers and Oakland Teaching Fellow (our cities NTP branch) and they have been universally wonderful and dedicated young women and men.  What I am saying is this: their five weeks is not enough training and support, even if I count the after-work support they get, it’s still not enough.  It is certainly not enough before they are expected to be on their own with a full day’s schedule of children.  Many of these young teachers then make up for their lack of training with a lot of chutzpa and long hours.

In contrast, the Urban Teacher Residency has a much more supportive model.  They recruit new teachers into an experience where they can co-teach with a mentor teacher for a year.  This is not unlike my traditional teacher preparation program experience.  The urban teacher residents are paid during their residency year, which is very different than my experiences.  I’m not sure if, in these times of ubiquitous budget problems, the residents earn enough to make ends meet without a second job.  

Of course, you and I know that teachers need support after they have found their first job.  I’m a dreamer.  I think that school districts should provide new teachers with a mentor who works at the new teachers site.  This allows them to check in often.  I also think this that this mentoring should last longer than one year.  I think it should last three year.  Nearly ½ of new teacher don’t stay in the classroom after one or two years.  We could talk a lot about the many reasons why, but I wont go deeply into that in this letter.  What I will say is this: most of the reasons teachers leave the profession within their first three years of school could have been prevented, dealt with, helped with, if that new teacher had a mentor s/he could turn to.  The New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz knows this.  This is their core mission.  Their work laid the foundation of California’s Beginning Teacher Support & Assessment (BSTA) program.  Of course, once the mentoring concept from the New Teacher Center became a product to be mass-delivered in BSTA, the quality of the experience began to vary widely.  I know new teachers who simple love their BTSA coaches, and others who report that BTSA was just another level of administrative crap they had to do and that it made their first two years harder, not easier.

I’m not sure what kind of support and mentoring you are getting in your teaching experience this year.  I can guess from your tweet that it is not enough.  I’m sorry about this.  As a state, we can do better by our new teachers.  We can choose to make training and supporting new teachers a priority.  Instead of worrying about how we are going to replace all of the new teachers who leave the classroom, we could be making sure that our new teachers have the training and support they need.  

Book Review: The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020

I’m guessing that not very many teachers are going to read The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020, which is too bad – teachers all over the country should be having the kinds of conversations the authors of this book do.

Three of the four co-authors work for McREL, a consulting and long-range strategic planning organization, and the book has an obvious corporate tone.  Additionally, the authors take great pains to not reveal where they stand in some of the hottest educational debates raging the country.  Neither pro-Rhee nor pro-union; neither pro-testing nor pro-authentic assessment; neither pro-charter nor anti-charter, there is plenty in this book to anger every side of our overly partisan educational reform circles.

The goal of The Future of Schooling is not a product; they are not peddling any one of the four scenarios they writing about as they imagine what school might look like in a decade.  Instead, they are promoting a process.  They think that state and local boards of education, school districts, even individual schools should engage in a process they are calling “scenaric thinking.”

In brief, the authors identify two different debates they think dominate educational reform discussions, two “critical issues” in the terms of the book.  They then take these two issues to create two axes of a Cartesian plane.  The four spaces created by the plane then become the conditions under which four different scenarios are imagined.  According to the authors, the “scenarios are meant to be plausible representations of what could happen if certain factors that are highly uncertain today resolve themselves in specific ways in the future.”

One of the two axes the authors use is the “Outcomes of Education.”

The authors do not engage in speculating what the “outcomes of education” should be.  They don’t argue for more high-stakes tests nor to they promote portfolio assessment.  Instead, one of their axes asks the question, “In 2020, will the outcomes of education be standardized or differentiated?”  One can see the debate raging currently.  On the one hand, we have a movement to national common core standards, asking all states to align and standardize their educational goals.  The SMARTER and PARCC consortiums are doing the work right now on sets of assessments linked to the common core standards.  It does not take a long leap of speculative logic to imagine the kind of pressure the last six holdout states will soon be under when new textbooks are rewritten to align to the new standards and it is not difficult to imagine the pressure for every state to then voluntarily adopt the new assessments.  One the other hand, there is a movement growing led by writer and educators like Sir Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink who argue that standardization is exactly the wrong direction to go and that American  education and business can only improve when creativity and diversity of educational outcomes are embraced and normalized,.

 The second axes used in The Future of School is the “Direction of Reform.”
The authors see two choices, “we can “optimize” the current system by tweaking, improving, and revamping it here and there as needed”  Alternately, they see some in the educational reform debate who argue to, “abandon our current system altogether, blowing it up and starting over, so to speak, by engaging in a wholesale reinvention that results in a  new system of schooling with few, it any, vestiges of the current one.” 

Using these two “critical issues,” the authors imagine four scenarios:
  • Ø  We standardize educational outcomes by tweaking our current system
  • Ø  We standardize educational outcomes by blowing up and replacing the system with something entirely new
  • Ø  We allow for differentiated educational outcome by tweaking our current system
  • Ø  We allow for differentiated educational outcome by blowing up and replacing the system with something entirely new

To see how these four scenarios play out…  your going to have to read the book.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Interview with Luis Torres

How does the principal of a persistently failing elementary school win a national award?  He does so by recognizing that their mission is to nurture the whole child, taking care of their physical, social, and emotional needs in addition to their intellectual development.  He does so by realizing that hungry children cannot learn.  He does so by putting children first and worrying about reading and math scores later.

ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter with 
teacher Brad Kuntz of at Gladstone High in Gladstone, Oregon, and 
Principal Luis Torres (in the tan suit)
of PS 55 elementary in the Bronx, New York.  
Photo credit - ASCD

“Kids don’t know how to behave in school,” Luis Torres, principal of PS 55 elementary in the Bronx and one of ASCD 2011 Outstanding Young Educator award winner begins.  “How can we focus on literacy and math if he doesn’t know how to behave in school?”

Torres is an advocate of doing schooling differently.  He notes that current-trend school reformers are interested in doing school the same way we have always done, and concentrating on the same skills and lessons we have always focused.  Unfortunately, children, and their struggles, have changed.  “My kids are mentally far more advanced than kids were when I was going to school.  I mean, they have to deal with stuff we never had to deal with.  I’m talking to seven-year-olds about gangs.  He’s seven years old and he already knows how he is going to get into a gang.”

Kids at PS 55 have few places to socialize and be kids.  “They don’t have safe places to play,” Torres notes.  His school is surrounded by four different public housing projects.  Each project has it’s own identity and it’s own gangs who vie for control of the neighborhood.  Some parents are very concerned about the dangers in the neighborhood and rarely allow their children to go outside to play, certainly never unsupervised.  Other parents “just let their kids roam everywhere and are exposed to adult and older children activities that might not be good for them,” his eyebrow arching, allowing me to infer that he was talking about sex, violence, and drug abuse.

Torres now finds himself in a position where he must risk his job to serve his kids.  “I could get fired for talking about these things,” he notes.  “No one want to talk about where these kids live.  One group of kids dumped a bag of garbage on the street saying, ‘Mr. Torres, let’s see if the city trucks sweep this up?’  That garbage is still there, along with a lot more.”  Torres has now found himself involved in local politics.  “Because we’re not close to the train or the freeway, nobody sees this and complains to the city.  I’ve got to do that.  Now, I’m the crazy principal who is going around talking about all of these things.”

In addition to his own job being at risk, PS 55 is perpetually at risk of being closed for failing to make their annual goals of raising math and reading scores on the state’s high-stakes exam.  “It’s like a slap in the face every year, to these kids, and to the teachers who love then and works their butts off to support them.”  Torres when on to speak about the inequity of schools in New York and how the poverty that his school is embedded in makes it difficult to hire teachers.  “Once they (teachers) are here, once they are adopted by the community, they fall in love with these kids and they never want to go.  But it’s hard to get a new teacher into the door.  They look at how hard this job is; they look at the poverty in the neighborhood; we’re not near public transportation, and there is nowhere to park their car.  Combine all of that with the higher salaries the other (suburban) schools can offer; combine all of that with the insult of being labeled “failures” every year, no wonder they don’t want to work here.”

School advocates who are more concerned with children than tests scores often call PS 55 an “oasis”.   “We shouldn’t be an ‘oasis’,” decries Torres.  “What’s an ‘oasis’?  It’s the one good spot in the middle of a desert.  Schools can’t be oasis’s.  We need to be rainforest.  We need to be one great spot in a great community.”

Curriculum 21: Heidi Hayes Jacobs

Heidi Hayes Jacobs neither pulls punches nor minces words in the opening of her 2010 book Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, or her talk at this year’s ASCD Conference in San Francisco.  She begins, “What year are you preparing your students for?  1973?  1995?”  I could feel a virtual finger alternately pointing at me and another wagging in disapproval.

I’ve been interested in the future of public education for ages.  Working with the Center for Teaching Quality and the Teacher Leaders Network this past year and a half has added fuel to my fire.  Punctuated through our group discussions about teacher retention, training, and retention has been the idea that public education is standing at the edge of a epoch, the end of over a century of analog teaching and the dawn of an age of digital learning.  I actively sought out Jacobs book, and I was taken aback by the tone I assumed lay behind that opening question.

I felt a sense of guilt and shame that presumed what an honest answer from me must be.  Even as I work to update and digitize my students’ learning experiences and environments, I know I am still moving at a snails pace.  I can only imagine what some of my less-forward-looking colleagues might offer Jacobs as an answer, “I preparing my students for 20go-f&%k-yourself!”

Sunday, March 27, 2011

“Poverty is No Excuse” vs. Whole Child Education

It’s like were arguing right past each other. 

The “Poverty is No Excuse” crowd seems to argue that every child can achieve; every child can achieve at high levels; every child can be college and career ready when they graduate from high school.  When they hear, “What about poverty?  What about violent neighborhood?  What about children who are mal-nourished and come to school hungry every day?” they think that the ones raising these questions are looking for the okay to quit trying.  They seem to think that teachers who are concern with the emotional, social, and physical health of children are actually making excuses as to why our neediest schools are failing to graduate college-ready kids.

On the other hand, when I (as a member of the Whole Child camp) hear, “Poverty is No Excuse” I start thinking that the ones who are saying this are tragically uninformed with the realities of many of the children I teach in Oakland. 

I think that they are unconcerned that one of my students was shot and wounded this year, and missed a month of school while he healed. 

I think that they are unconcerned that one of my students ran away from home and was living on the street doing who-knows-what to survive on her own.

I think that they are deaf to the cries of “I’m hungry,” from my students who show up each and every day wearing the exact same pants, shirt, and hoodie.

What if these two camps could become allies?  Crazy thinking in our overly polarized world today, I know, but let’s dream for a minute…

What if the “Poverty is No Excuse” camp really meant, “We, as a community will not let poverty get in the way of our children’s healthy growth”?  What if they were concerned about getting job investment into the ghetto?  What if they were invested in getting local governments to provide extra services to communities that need extra support?  What if they were committed to healthy school lunches (and healthy school breakfasts and healthy school suppers as well)?

What if we looked at communities and school in our neediest cities that were defying the statistics and helping their children to succeed, identifying the support that were helping them, and finding ways to get those same supports in our communities?

Perhaps these two camps can beat their political swords into political plow shears and take some time to envision a community of success.  What kinds of job investment; adult education; violence prevention; conflict mediation; social support; AND GREAT SCHOOLS would be imagine to exist in every community? 

Then we can work together to find a way to get from where we our to a better future.  

The Future of Teacher Professional Development

“Professional development is going to look a lot more like what we envision for our students,” began Dr. Judy Zimny, the Chief Program Development Officer for ASCD. 

What if teacher professional development (PD) was formative in nature?  I’ve written about that topic before, arguing that the “gotcha” mentality has contributed to the adversarial relationship between teachers and administrators. 

If formative teacher evaluations were all about helping struggling teacher get good and good teacher get better, and if teacher professional development were tied to those evaluations, then what would professional development look like?

Teacher training couldn't continue along the same paths as they have.  They could no longer be whole-school, one-shot workshops in the library where the guru of the day poured out her/his canned presentation, typically the same presentation s/he delivered at the conference where the principal fell in love with this latest silver-bullet of school reform.

Instead, teacher PD in 2030 will have to be differentiated and on-demand where teachers alone or in small groups find and engage with the professional learning that they think is relevant for their practice.

I can’t stop thinking about all of the PD sessions I ran last year as my school worked through our Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation.  This was important work for us.  We had been receiving a string on one-year probationary WASC accreditations, living every year under the threat that WASC may withhold our accreditation, leaving our graduated limited to only community college options.

As important as that work was for the school, it was neither relevant nor useful for our cadre of first-year teachers who needed to know where the photocopier was, how to schedule a field trip, how to engage their classes, and even how to simply settle the kids down at the beginning of the day.

A 2030 school would have a road-map of beginner PD for these novices to follow under the tutelage of their school-based mentors. 

A 2030 school would have a cornucopia of PD options for its journeyman-level teachers.  These teachers would self-organized into professional learning communities for the semester or year and submit a PD plan to their administration, detailing in which areas they plan to grow, how they will do this, and what evidence and products their administrators will see to show that their time was well-spent.

Master teachers in a 2030 school would be the novice mentors and event the PD gurus for their site.  These hybrid teacherpreneurs would be compensated for their expertise and time by the school paying for one or two hours of their work day to engage in their independent research on curriculum, and instruction.  The pay-off for the school would happen when the teacherpreneur facilitates high-quality PD for the school’s novice and journeymen teachers. 

Organizations like ASCD could help.  ASCD is wildly popular for their conferences; over 10,000 educators are here in San Francisco this weekend.  They are less well known as a provider of in-line PD.  In the world of teacher learning, in 2030, ASCD will play a much larger role, providing web-casts and virtual classrooms and collaboration spaces for journeymen teachers to use to implement their PD plans, as well as supporting master teachers in their research and development. 

The resources are already here.  ASCD could crowd-source their various on-line PD series.  Master teacerpreneurs from all over the world could up-load webcasts or host virtual sessions.  These teacherpreneurs would be compensated based on the number of discreet views of their products or attendance in their sessions.  Teachers would pay a modest fee for an annual subscription to the ASCD Virtual University.  Schools in 2030 might purchase site-level subscriptions to support all of their teachers.

Just like the differentiated instruction our best teachers provide for their children, meeting each where s/he is in her/his learning career, our best schools will meet their teachers right where they are in their professional careers, helping each one become even better!

Common Core Assessments: Will they Ruin our New Standards?

David Cohen just wrote a great piece about a session he was in yesterday at the ASCD conference here in San Francisco.  He writes about his fears that the new Common Core standards will be left a reeking hulk after the textbook companies politicians and consultants are through with them.  While I am not as leery as he is, I have to agree that he is exactly right that the devil is in the details and poor implementation of these new standards can be a disaster! 
Three years ago, our social studies department at Skyline High School, in Oakland California, realized that our sophomore history class had an enormous fail-rate. After collecting and analyzing data, we concluded that the primary reason for this was the lack of a relevant and rigorous class at the 9th grade level. In response to our conclusions, I wrote a new curriculum for 9th grade social studies, focusing on the goals of primary-document research, thesis development, and historical essay writing. Two years ago, I piloted the class for 120 9th graders. Last year, all of our 9th grade history teachers had adopted the curriculum. Today, not only vastly more sophomores maintaing at least a “C” in their world history class, but the AP World History class has expanded by 50% and is “the most diverse group of AP students I have ever seen,” according to our AP teacher.
Our department knew that doing the authentic work of a historian would be not only more rigorous, not only a better support for our children’s writing skills, not only more closely tied with the skills our children would need in college and career, but also more fun. When our six 9th grade social studies teachers read the drafts of the new Common Core Standards last year, especial the set about “Teaching Writing in History/Social Studies,” one of us said, “It looks like the policy wonks have caught up to us.”
As excited as I am about the ELA and Math standards, I must admit, I am a little fearful about the soon-to-be-written History/Social Studies standards. Traditionally, history standards are far more politicized as stakeholders ask the question, “Whose history will we teacher the children?” As a part of my work with the Center for Teaching Quality and the California Teacher Association, I plan to be right in the middle of that debate. My concern is that the new History/Social Studies standards are not a laundry list of names, dates and battles like many of the state standards it will be replacing.
I am also leery about the next generation of student assessments. A teacher might argue that the current version of her/his state standards is far more relevant and rigorous that the set of sub-skills and facts that are on the high-stakes test. S/he may go on to say that the high stakes attached to the assessment have overblown the import attached to those sub-skills and facts to the detriment of higher-order (and more difficult to assess) thinking and reasoning. Finally, that teacher may critique our current system by saying the primary merit for using the particular questions that we currently do on our student assessment is not because these are the skills and facts we most value, but rather because they lend themselves to easily scored tests. I would agree with that teacher and advocate that the next generation of student assessments must serve our goals and objectives in regards to what we want to see a well-educated young person able to do and know. Our vision of a well-educated child, or an effective teacher can no longer be the servant of inexpensively administered exams.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Five Perspectives on the ASCD Conference

 The Moscone Center in San Francisco is packed to the gills with educators.  For the next three days, I’m attending the ASCD annual conference.  Some of the sessions are going to be webcasted, so you can check them out here.

On Friday night, attendees were treated to smooth Jazz and Chinese food at the Welcome Reception.  I met five attendees there, just at random, and was treated to five very different takes on the conference.

Ms. Thomas might be the kind of person one would expect to see at an education conference.  She is an elementary teacher from Florida.  She is here to explore more about the Whole Child movement.  Ms. Thomas sees the community of education being a triangle of connections between the child, parent, and teachers.  “We are all together in this goal of helping the child lean and perform,” she said.

She is fascinated by the surge of technology that has occurred in her thirty-year career.  “We’re a new school, so there was lots of money there to get us set up right,” she explains.  “You name it, we’ve got it.”  Ms. Thomas has embraced her role as a digital immigrant, to use the terms coined by Marc Prensky.  Many of the tools she is using to facilitate her children’s’ learning are tools that she is less familiar with than they are.  “’Sit down with me, Ms. Thomas’ the children will say to me.  ‘I’ll show you how.’”  She loves being a learner together with her children.

Michael isn’t an educator at all.  After a career with HP, he now works for Nelson Education, a textbook and digital content publisher.  I asked Michael when he thought print would die, forever replaced by digital readers.  “I don’t know if printed book will every be fully replaced,” he replied.  He went on to say that television didn’t kill radio (despite the claim by the Buggles)...

Computers haven’t killed television.  He sees a future that has room for digital and analog books. 

Emily is a principal who is here on her school’s Spring Break.  She is focused on Response to Intervention (RtI).    She sees her teachers using the techniques and strategies to help their children every day in the classroom, but the school has not been engaging in formal discussions about the RtI concept, and as such, they do not yet have a comprehensive plan.  “I was at Dominican University watching some of our student teachers engaged in mock interviews.  When they were asked about RtI, they couldn’t answer the question,” she explained.  One of her goals is to be able to facilitate professional development at her school so that their work on RtI becomes more formal and systematic. 

Emily has a lot of hope that her work with her teachers will bear fruit.  They are already doing some great work as they collaborate together about how their students are learning.  “All the forth grade teachers in the district got together to talk about their students learning data.  After the meeting, I got to visit some of my teachers and I could really see them using the ideas and techniques that they learned from their peers to make their instruction even better. 

Michelle doesn’t work in education, but her clients do.  Her company, GMMB does strategic communications.  They work with educational policy makers, non-profits and other organizations.  She is here to keep her finger on the pulse of educational trends and school reform.  She’s concerned and excited about the Common Core Standards.  Now that forty-four states have adopted these learning goals for English and math, she knows the next step, implementation, is crucial.  “It’s a tough time for school professionals right now,” she told me.  “Everyone’s eyes are looking forward to the Common Core, but they are still be evaluated on the old NCLB criteria.”  Michelle has a lot of hope, though.  “Seeing how the states are working together to do things right this time is making me feel really optimistic.”

Eric Sheninger is the principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey.  Eric’s eyes are firmly on the future of public schools.  He is here as a presenter, talking about what he sees as best practices in Social Networking.  Saving some of his thunder for his presentation Saturday at 2PM, he was willing to share three tips for teachers wanting to use Web 2.0 technologies in their classrooms, “Keep it Professional; Update Regularly; and Celebrate Student Successes.”

Most schools are still afraid of social networks.  They see them as distractions to be filtered out of the learning environment.  At new Milford, Eric is encouraging his teachers to use social networking to hook their kids into learning.  His math teachers are using document camera to film themselves working on a problem and talking out the steps, ala the Kahn Academy.  “But we’re doing it in house,” he notes, “so it is the voice of the students instructor.”  They are also using Poll Everywhere to enable every child’s cell phone to become a student response system.  “The students use Google documents, we’re working with some corporate sponsors to get our textbook replaced with digital readers,” he went on.  “I’m already nearly paper free in my work as the school leader.  I’m trying to help my teachers get there too.” 

Just a couple of hours over chow mien and a beer… five very different attendees.  I think this is going to be an interesting three days.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Not All Merit-Pay Plans are Bribes

Too often so-called merit-pay programs are nothing more than bribes to teachers so that they will work harder and produce higher student tests scores.  Most teachers are offended by these programs because:
A. We already work 50-60 hours a week
B. We got into teaching because we want to help students succeed.
C. We should have been given a professional-grade salary to start with.

Not all performance-based pay systems are teacher bribes.  One of the best alternative pay models is TAP.

First of all, TAP is based on the National Board for Professional Teacher Standards.  National Board certification is not only the gold-medal standard for teaching in all states, it is also considered by its participants as the best professional development they had ever experienced.

Second of all, TAP is not simply more pay for higher scores, or Mr. Gates newest version, more pay for teachers who get higher scores to take more students.  TAP is about teacher leaders, not unlike the hybrid teacherpreneurs Barnett Berry and the TeacherSolution 2030 team talk about in their new book.

TAP believes that school should be led by principals who see themselves less as administrators and more as instructional leaders.   Principals should work in partnership with highly paid Master Teachers to lead their school.  Highly paid Mentor Teachers work to train the next generation of great instructors.

TAP provides professional development to help all teachers grow in their expertise.

TAP believes that teacher evaluation is a difficult and complex activity and should never be based on the scores of a single high-stakes tests, but rather on a rubric that accommodates for subjective observations as well as evidence of student learning.

For these reason, even though I hate merit-pay-bribe systems...  TAP is an alternate to traditional salary schedules that has merit.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Merit Pay is going to motivate me to work harder, but only a smidge'

When I got into teaching 15 years ago, it was for the money.  The fame was nice too, but mostly it was for the money.
Back then, when I was making a six-figure salary ($ 038,000) I knew that I needed to hold a little something back.  Sure, I was making great benefits.  I could go to the dentists, I had a gym and a cafeteria on my work site (nods to John Stewart)....   But working 180 days a year is a lot to ask a person...  I mean it's nearly 1/2 the year!  It's like having to work 3 days a week, every week, with no weekends!  So I held a little back...
You see, I knew, way back then I knew, that someday my political and punditry overlords were going to wake up to the fact that I've got to be bribed to do my best.   They must have asked my Mom how to motivate me to do something I don't want to do.  "We used to pay him a dollar to eat all of his vegetables," she replied.  Aww, Mom...  you know me so well!
So like I've said,  I've been holding back.  I've been working about 75% of my awesome-capacity.  I mean seriously, 75% of awesome is still a "C" Right?
You might think that I'm ready to go all-in, now that Bill, Michelle and Arnie have put some more benjamins on the table.  Man, are they wrong.  I'm telling you, if they are going to put some more money in my pocket, then I'll give them a little taste.  Say bump it up to 78%, you know, like a C+.  They are going to be fist-bumping and high-fiving each other silly over their "success."
But I'm telling you, in a few months, that high is going to wear off, and who do you think they are going to come see?  How many benjamins do you think they are going be slapping down?  They're going to be all over me going, like, "Please, Mr. Teacher, sir.  Give us a little more!  We're jonezing for just a little more.  Please!  Take all our money, just give us a little more."
That me, brother.  Straight up gangster teaching.  Suckers better have my money!

Friday, March 4, 2011

High-stakes Testing is taking American School's in the Exact WRONG Direction

So-called reformers ask us to look at Finland and Singapore because they are "beating" us on international learning assessments.

Let's really look at Finland: No charter schools; No high-stakes testing; More authentic assessments; 100% unionized teachers....

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Battle at Dawn

 At first light, they waited.  Fear gripped at their guts.  Soldiers of Germany and England., who were separated by worlds of ideology and politics but only a few dozen yards of “no-man’s land.”

Green grocers, solicitors, university students, and lawyers; they were all soldiers now, privates and officers.  Their now-fantasy-like lives of childhood games, studies, wives or lovers fading to distant painful memories called up from letters from home and shared in stories.

The dew steamed on the moon-like landscape, foreshadowing the clouds of smoke and mustard gas that would soon fill the air.  A whistle blew, soldiers surged “over-the-top.”  Suddenly, one is hit…

Water drips from a fourteen-year-old girl’s hair, her sweatshirt soaked.  Laughter splits the stillness of the morning as the Hillsdale High School “Battle at Dawn” had recorded its first casualty.

For weeks at this San Francisco Bay Area school, 9th grade history and ELA teachers had coordinated their units around WWI.  English classes read All Quiet on the Western Front.  They learned about setting, character development, perspective, and anecdote.  They created an “auto-biography” of a solider-persona that they would enact at the Battle at Dawn.  In character, they wrote stories about their lives: their hobbies, former jobs, loves, and reasons for joining the military.  The facts and dates that usually dominate traditional history classes were absorbed in a day, the bulk of their time spent researching the “story” of the Battle of the Marne (from which the Battle at Dawn is inspired).    They did the research on their personas, using physical and virtual resources to find images and stories to inform their writing.  They created propaganda posters to recruit their fellow students, colleagues of their persona’s life. 

The unit culminated with “armies” of British and German “soldiers” gathering at the school before sun-up to reenact the battle fun and safely.

When the Skyline High School team visited Hillsdale, at lunch we talked to a group of students.  We asked them to talk about memorable projects they had engaged in over their high school careers.  A senior, and two sophomores immediately mentioned, “Battle at Dawn,” their eyes lighting u at the memory.  The freshmen mentioned how much she was looking forward to this project.