My Growth around Student Growth

student growth

We have always cared about our students’ growth. If we didn’t care about that, then we probably weren’t doing our jobs.

We’re quickly nearing that time when all things TPEP “go live” and are real for all of us. Many districts have invested time, training, and honest effort into preparing teachers for this coming moment, and I’m hoping that it will pay off.

As I shared here, my growth toward understanding student growth took time. I needed the past two years of learning to really get to a point where I now feel like it all makes sense. Best of all, the way my district has implemented, I know that even if I stumble, need to change course, or decide to make revisions, this is actually a valued step in the process, not a sign of ineffective teaching.

What I’ve learned:

First and foremost: students achieving standard and student growth are not the same thing. Growth is about every kid making appropriate movement toward a goal–not every kid scoring X on an assessment.  This is why the old SMART goals of “85% of my period 5 will score 80% or better on the chapter test” doesn’t cut it here. Instead, it is about moving every kid toward higher proficiency at a skill, not just a higher score on a test. The challenge for me is actually with my high-fliers…those kids who come in not only ready to learn but with high skills. Growth (for me) has always been easier to cultivate with kids who have a long way to go. This system reminds me that I still need to foster growth for those kids who enter at or above standard already.

As important: growth and grades should be two different things. This is a hard one for many high school teachers. We work with proficiency scales to describe growth, and so often I get the question “How do I convert my scale to a grade? Is a 4 an A, 3 a B and so on?” This is a major shift: growth monitoring and grades communicate two different things. The grade is how many baskets you can sink in a game, the growth monitoring is when the coach keeps track of your shooting form and gives feedback on how to improve. My answer to the conversion question? You don’t convert a scale to a grade…they are two different things.

Continue reading

McCleary and Adequate Progress

File5414fdd030f69By Mark

The Seattle Times posted a couple of days ago that the Washington State Supreme Court has found the state legislature in contempt for failing to make adequate progress toward the mandate issued in the McCleary case. (Quick review from the Times link above "in 2012, the Supreme Court … ordered the state to increase education spending enough to fulfill the Washington state Legislature’s own definition of what it would take to meet the state constitution’s requirement of providing a basic education to all Washington children," emphasis mine).

Obviously, I'm in favor of the legislature funding schools to meet their own definition of basic education. However, when I typed the first sentence above, I almost inserted "yearly" between "failing to make adequate" and "progress."

Considering the letters that many schools had to send home to parents about not meeting "adequate yearly progress," this idea has been in my head a great deal lately.

My own school's failure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (we're in Step 2 despite test passing rates high enough that the state cannot even report them because of privacy laws) and the legislature's failure to make adequate progress toward funding solutions both seem to come with consequences. Paradoxically, my school's failure to meet AYP means funding set-asides, program restrictions, and letters home to parents…while I have not yet managed to sort out how a contempt finding actually will sting, since there is only a threat of sanctions should the 2015 legislative session be less than productive.

The big difference: the punishments related to AYP failure result from the fact that AYP expectations are plainly unrealistic. I believe that it is realistic for the legislature to meet its obligation and avoid whatever sanctions the court might determine. 

Here's the real question: how will your school or your classroom be different when public education in Washington is funded the way the legislature itself says it should be? These stories of what can be–not the stories of what we don't have, so easily dismissed as idle complaining–will have the potential to move policymakers forward.


Previous StoriesFromSchool posts about the McCleary decision:


I Love My Job

1024px-Heart_corazón.svgBy Tom White

Regular readers of this blog might get the impression that we’re a bunch of unhappy teachers. After all, much of what we write about deals with our concerns for the teaching professional and our complaints about some of the policies that shape the world in which we work. And it’s true! We do have concerns and we do have complaints. However, I think I speak for the whole writing team when I say that despite my concerns and complaints, I overwhelmingly love this job!

I love the people I work with. I’m not talking about the other teachers, although they’re great people; I’m talking about the kids with whom I spend most of my time. Fourth graders have such an infectious sense of joy and innocence that for seven hours every weekday you would never know that there were any problems in West Africa, Eastern Europe or North St. Louis. Fourth graders are open and honest; they laugh when they’re happy, cry when they’re hurt and skip when they’re supposed to walk. I wish we could all be like fourth graders, but we can’t, so I’ll take the next best thing.

I love the fact that society trusts me to do something so important. There are 27 families that send their kids to my classroom every day, confident that I’ll consistently keep them safe and get them ready for a successful future. Thirty years ago, when I was first starting, that overwhelming responsibility kept me up at night. Now it just keeps me busy during the day. Really busy. I get up every morning, eager to get to work and come home every night exhausted but happy with what I’ve done.

I love the extra stuff. Starting about fifteen years ago, I realized that there were opportunities for teachers to extend their skills and knowledge beyond the classroom. So I began doing extra stuff. The hardest part – for me, anyway – was letting go of my classroom every once in a while. But I finally realized that with clear lesson plans in the hands of a decent substitute, things will be just fine without me. And any problems that occur are more than offset by insuring that teachers have a voice in the profession. Extra stuff can be fun. Although I’ve never done anything outside the classroom that was as fun or as important as teaching, I’ve met some wonderful people and traveled all over the country working on interesting and important projects.

So don’t get the wrong idea from our blog. Yes, we have concerns and yes, we’ll have complaints. But we still love what we do.

My Failing School

Lwe_entranceBy Tom White

Last week my school district sent out letters to every family in our school, informing them that our school is failing. This week we learned that fourteen of our students will be going to a different school. One that isn’t failing.

I can’t tell you how upsetting this is. I have worked at Lynnwood Elementary for the past 25 years and it’s become part of my soul. I have worked with an entire generation of that neighborhood and now I’m beginning to work with the children of former students. In fact, one of my former students is now a teacher at my school. We have nearly 600 wonderful, diverse students from all over the world, taught by a faculty of bright, caring professionals, dedicated to their work. Although we have plenty of room for improvement, ours is not a failing school by any stretch of the imagination.

To be told by someone in Washington DC who has never set foot in my school that we’re failing is about the most ridiculous characterization I can think of. We’re not alone, of course; over 90% of the schools in our state are “failing.”

Here’s why:

In 2002 George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into law. This was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which previously gave states and districts block grants with which they could fund special education and other programs designed for at-risk students. NCLB was supposed to make schools more accountable for student learning; they had to make steady progress over the course of the next twelve years, culminating in 2014 – last year – at which point every kid in every school in America was supposed to be performing at grade level or risk sanctions.

That goal, of course, was preposterous. When President Obama took office there was some talk about rewriting the law so that it made sense. That talk didn’t go anywhere. Consequently, the Obama administration decided to use the threat of NCLB and its sanctions as leverage for certain education reforms by granting “waivers” from the law to those states that complied. One of those reforms was the use of student test scores as part of teacher evaluations.

The Washington State Legislature decided not to go along with that particular “reform.” So the feds revoked our waiver, which means that we’re still bound by NCLB. And since it’s now 2014 and since some of our kids failed to meet standard on the last standardized test, our school is classified as “failing.”

What makes this particularly stupid in the case of our school is that the scores used are actually two years old; we piloted the new SBAC last year (tied to the Common Core) and therefore our scores weren’t even recorded.

So here we are. The letters went out, parents read them and some decided to pull their kids out of our school and have them bused – at the school district’s expense – to the nearest “not failing” school.

What happens next? I can think of five possibilities, presented in the order of least likelihood:

1. Congress rewrites NCLB/ESEA so that it makes sense and actually serves at-risk students by providing financial support to their schools. This is obviously the best solution. It’s also the least likely to happen.

2. Every student suddenly performs at grade level. This is, of course, also highly unlikely. The only reason I didn’t put it first is because our students, their parents and their teachers are at least trying to make it happen, whereas the people charged with rewriting NCLB/ESEA aren’t.

3. The Federal Department of Education decides they’ve made their point and reinstates Washington State’s waiver. There’s actually been movement in this direction, but I get the sense that they’ve chosen to make an example of our state, especially because of the role that our teacher’s union played in swaying the legislature. But it could happen.

4. Our legislature decides to change our teacher evaluation system to include student test scores. Although the WEA will put up a strong fight, this could also actually happen. Our evaluation system won’t be as accurate or as meaningful as it is now, but at least we’ll be waived of NCLB’s sanctions. 

5. Nothing. This is probably what will happen. Congress won’t act. Our students will improve, but they won’t all pass their state tests. The feds won’t back down. Our legislature won’t change the evaluation system.

And my school will still be “failing.” 

Back to School: One New Thing

UnknownBy Mark

My wife is going school shopping for my sons tomorrow, but before deciding to do this she went through the boys' backpacks and folders to determine what school supplies were salvageable and didn't need to be repurchased. Turns out there's not a whole lot left on the list to raid Target for, which is good.

The same process happens with the clothes: do they have enough decent clothes to make it through the warm months? Probably. And what about shoes? Definitely a need. If nothing else, that'll be the one "new thing" each boy definitely gets. Their backpacks and lunchboxes miraculously held up and have another school year left in them, at least.

Similarly, August is a time when teachers take the same stock of their own practice and decide what to keep and what to retire. Often the impulse, being economical as teachers are often forced to be, is to hang on to what we have…to maintain what is comfortable. If something comfortable is worn out, like a pair of shoes, we'll likely just replace it with an updated version of the same thing.

Updated same is not the same as new

I see teachers, including myself, integrating updated same in our teaching practice and deceiving ourselves into believe that this represents change. Many of us are jaded against new, often because new is usually presented as an acronym or mandate that we don't really get to choose but still have to accept–even though ITSP (it, too, shall pass) as the edupendulum swings away.

My challenge to myself is to figure out what new I want to integrate this year. "If it ain't broke don't fix it" is a great motto for things with gears and belts and things we're content having stay the same. 

I'll know I've found that new that I want to bring into my teaching when I start to feel nervous–even worried about failure. That uncertainty, that risk, is a sign that I'm on the verge of learning something. 

What's the new, not the updated same, that you're considering in your teaching? What do you hope to see happen when it works?

Positive Presupposition


By Mark

I had the chance to hear from two great teacher-leaders, Marcy Yoshida and Gail Jessett, as part of OSPI's Mentor Academy this past June. Hands-down, this was one of the best professional development experiences I've had. Many, many things resonated, but one was this concept of the "positive presupposition." It is best illustrated for me by an anecdote they shared about a high school student who kept falling asleep in class:

This kid's teacher was frustrated that he cared so little about her class that he'd doze off. Then Marcy said something that will change the way I think about everything: Where one teacher sees an indifferent student falling asleep in class and willfully disregarding learning, she sees a student struggling to stay awake in order to to learn as much as he can. 

That shift in perspective doesn't condone the behavior, but it can sure change the way the teacher handles it.

Instead of a knee-jerk reprimand, there might be a conversation to seek understanding. Maybe it will be discovered that the kid wasn't up playing video games all night, as it would be easy to assume, but that there truly was more to the story. Maybe together the teacher and the student can devise some strategies to help battle the body clock: standing to take notes, taking a water break, even sitting on a yoga ball. What could have been a wedge in the teacher-student relationship and one more reason for that kid to maybe grow indifferent and willfully disregard learning instead becomes an opportunity for him to figure out a very grown-up kind of coping–and discover that his teacher would rather he learn and grow than be punished. There's a NCLB comment I won't make here…positive presupposition gets more difficult when we start talking policy, though it is probably just as important.

Nonetheless, that shift in perspective will make a huge difference in how I work with my colleagues and my students this coming year. This is what happens when professional development works.

(And then of course, there is this, my other simple learning from this summer that will make a huge difference.)

Teachers and Their Unions

PropanetankBy Tom

Most gas stations sell propane. But they usually keep the propane tank as far as possible from the main building. To me, that says something. It says, “Even though our entire operation consists of simultaneously selling gasoline, cigarettes and Bic lighters to anyone with a car; that propane tank scares the hell out of us, and we don’t want to be anywhere near it.”

That weird mix of trust and suspicion also seems to apply to teachers and their unions. According to a recent survey, three out of four Americans trust their children’s teachers, while only half believe that teachers unions have a positive effect on schools. That seems weird to me, since teachers union are – by definition – simply a group of teachers; the same teachers that people trust when they aren’t in a group. I understand what’s going on, of course; when teachers are working in their classrooms, they’re doing things for children: teaching them, keeping them safe, etc. But when teachers get together in a group – a union – they sometimes ask for things like fair compensation and job security, and that’s when the trust disappears. People don’t like it when teacher unions act like other unions. That’s when they accuse teachers of not acting in the best interests of the students.

There are two problems with that. First of all, unions are supposed to act on behalf of their members. That’s their essential purpose. They were invented in order to secure collective bargaining agreements with employers. They sit down across the table from administrators and bargain. And at some point in the conversation, the administration will insist on less money for more work and less job security. The union, on the other hand, will ask for higher wages in exchange for less work and more job security. That’s what every worker – with or without a union – is supposed to do in regards to their employment conditions. Teacher unions, as it turns out, have become pretty good at it, and people don’t like that.

But here’s the other thing: despite the fact that teacher unions act like unions because they’re supposed to, our unions actually do a lot more. I spent a couple days earlier this week in Denver, where this year’s NEA Representative Assembly is being held. Before the convention started, I attended an event called “Empowered Educators Day.” It was awesome. The entire day was focused on ways in which the NEA is working to improve teaching and learning. National Board Certification, of course, was a big part of the conversation. The National Board has had the support of the NEA and the AFT from the get-go, and it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the support of the teachers unions.

On this Fourth of July I’m holding my head high. I’m a proud member of a great union. A union that works hard for its members and works just as hard for our students.


Time (again)

File53b48f9420c67By Mark

Central Washington University completed a "teacher time study" (which I found via CSTP's Facebook page) to explore how teachers spend their work days.

As I sit here on my "summer vacation," I realize that taking up the topic of teachers and work time is a dangerous one, though I did spend a couple of hours today working on next year's curriculum and sequence planning (in the sun while my sons splashed in the inflatable pool). Lest you think I am complaining about the time that I put in as a teacher, (1) my father was [is] a teacher, so I saw firsthand growing up that the work was not limited to the contracted day and (2) even knowing that expectation, I still chose this profession.

Ultimately, the conclusion of the time study was that a typical teacher spends an average of 1.4 hours at work (on site) beyond their contracted work day. Looking back on my own schedule this past year, at typical day included a 6:30am arrival and a 3:30pm departure, so I'm in line with the average in terms of time spend on the job at school. Unless I am misreading it, what this study did not seem to take into consideration was the work that gets taken home each evening and on the weekends during the school year. The study (linked above) parsed out how that at-work time was used but didn't go beyond time on site.

I would be very curious to see a time study of how much time Washington teachers invest beyond the hours worked on site. For me personally, it does ebb and flow. I deliberately plan the scope of homework (read: major student writing I give feedback on) based on my family's evening and weekend schedules. Big essay weekends mean dad's working at the computer for 14 to 16 hours a day, plus several hours on the weekdays either side. That's the flow at highest tide–one weekend per month. The ebb is at least half an hour to an hour each evening–usually planning, replying to parent emails and phone calls, reviewing shorter assessments or organizing for the next day. It is rare to spend fewer than two hours per weekend day on something school related.

And to be clear: I am not complaining about the time–I know that putting in long hours is part of being in a profession as opposed to the alternativeMy wife and kids might have a different opinion, but I try to keep some semblance of balance…My "three months' vacation" which is actually really only "most of July" makes up for some of it. 

The other time study I'd like to see: what would happen to student learning if teachers worked the same number of hours but served only half the number of students? 

No More Cupcakes!

NocupcakesBy Tom

My school district recently made a bold move. They banned birthday cupcakes and other treats in schools as part of a district-wide wellness initiative. Despite the fact that they’re going to catch some flak (they already have) and despite the fact that I’ll personally miss those 200 calorie bundles of sticky awesomeness, I support the decision. Birthday cupcakes are disruptive, unhealthy and sometimes even dangerous. Let me explain.

Here’s what happens on a typical birthday. The special child’s parent swings by the office sometime in the morning to drop off a large plastic box containing 30 store-bought cupcakes. The office staff – with plenty of other things to do – sends an email or leaves a voice message for the child’s teacher, who then sends the child down to office to pick up the cupcakes. Unless the message doesn’t get through; in which case the office has to resort to the intercom. The cupcakes then live in the classroom until the teacher finds time to have the “party.” In my room I hold off as long as possible. I typically have the birthday kid stay inside when the rest of the class goes out to recess at 2:50 so they can put a cupcake and a napkin on everyone’s desk. When recess is over and everyone comes back inside, I take my guitar off the wall and we sing the standard. Then we eat cupcakes. After five minutes we throw away the wrappers, wear the rings that are usually embedded in the frosting (Seahawk helmets or Disney princesses) and get on with what’s left of our day.

Now obviously that’s not a huge distraction. But that’s a typical birthday. I’ve had misguided parents drop off a standard round cake with candles (seriously?) and no plates. I’ve had parents bring in jugs of juice and no cups. I had one dad drop off 24 cupcakes for a class of 29, five of whom received a ballpoint pen stolen from the supply room. And then there are the parents whose child is too special for mere cupcakes. They bring cupcakes and balloons. Or cupcakes, juice and balloons. Or sometimes an entire pizza lunch for the whole class, complete with cookies, drinks and favor bags. And if you think these parties are distracting for a classroom, imagine what it’s like in the office; five hundred students means there’s an average of 1.5 birthdays each day – more on Mondays and Fridays to account for the kids who were thoughtless enough to have a weekend birthday this year – and you can see how much time is consumed by birthday logistics.

Besides the distraction, birthday treats are usually horribly unhealthy. I challenge you to find something worse for a child’s body than the average store-bought cupcake. And frankly, there are a lot of kids in school right now who need to take nutrition a lot more seriously. When I first started teaching, 30 years ago, I would typically have one or two chunky students per class. This year nearly half my class appeared to be overweight. No, we’re not going to turn the corner on childhood obesity by banning birthday cupcakes, but trust me, we need to start somewhere.

And that’s not even taking into account the kids with allergies or diabetes. I usually have a handful of students each year who are allergic to anything from wheat to milk, chocolate, dairy products, or nuts. The data is readily available, but it’s time-consuming for me to figure out who can’t eat these particular cupcakes, and it’s heart-breaking for the allergic kid to be told that he’s going to have to miss out on the treats.

That said, part of me will always miss those birthday cupcakes. But that part of me is – quite frankly – a little too large as it is. It’s time to ban the cupcakes and move on.