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…