When the Superintendent Sues the Schools

I am as frustrated with the legislature as anyone. The Supreme Court has ruled they are not fulfilling their constitutional paramount duty to fully fund public education, there has been plenty of politicking and posturing and planning to plan… but no action.

So I understand Randy Dorn’s lawsuit against seven of the biggest school districts in the state of Washington.

I understand that he’s making a point: Schools across the state are “illegally” passing local levies to fund schools in a way that makes them more functional spaces for educating kids and more appealing workplaces to attract and retain a teaching workforce, and that schools are compelled to do this because the state has failed miserably in allocating adequate funding for public schools.

I understand, but I don’t agree with the move Dorn’s making. It reminds me of the old saying about “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” It’s been woefully clear that threats, sanctions, being legally found in contempt, and even “fines” of $100,000 per day do not influence legislator action. How exactly will suing schools from Spokane to Bellevue to Vancouver (Evergreen) actually influence the legislature to act?

While the Seattle Times Editorial Board came out supporting Dorn’s move (see: “Kudos to Randy Dorn…”) claiming that it will “put pressure” on the legislature, I don’t buy it. Simply put, this puts pressure on those seven school districts to divert resources and energy to a lawsuit whose purpose is obviously aimed at different defendants. This lawsuit exists in a parallel universe to the one in which the legislature operates. I do not believe this will motivate one iota of action. Dorn’s logic, so far as I can tell, is this: As pointed out here by Rep. Chad Magendanz (R-Issaquah), if Dorn’s suit is successful it would mean an immediate loss of two or three billion dollars of levy-sourced school funding before the state legislature has mustered a better funding plan. In theory, this ought to make the legislature sit up and go “Hey, wait a minute! We don’t have a plan yet! Don’t strip away the local funding and decimate our schools!”

But this seems to expose the problem with how the Court and the SPI are attempting to compel action: The threat isn’t really against the legislature itself, the threat is against someone or something else. Those $100,000-a-day fines? Not coming from legislator pockets…and I never really have understood from where and to where that ghost money is to be shuffled. Suing schools? Again, this doesn’t affect the lawmaker him- or herself, it affects the districts subject to the ploy. Still too distant from lawmakers to influence them. Plus, Dorn’s handed them a future scapegoat: If this chess game were played out to the end (which I doubt it would be, thus even further hollowing the whole gesture) and Dorn were to somehow succeed to strip levy monies from schools…leading to RIFs, lower salaries, a mass teacher exodus, cuts in programs for kids…the legislature can all too easily point at Dorn’s suit and say “Look! This mess your children is now in didn’t come from us: It came directly from him.” Of course, it won’t go that far. This suit is a stunt, not an actual endgame to be pursued.

In these stunts and schemes, lawmakers really don’t have anything to be afraid of. So why change course?

Do I, a lowly educator in southwest Washington, have a viable solution that will compel lawmaker action? Where Dorn’s move feels too passive aggressive and face-spiting, maybe my ideas are just plainly too aggressive: Do we lock ’em in a room and not let em’ leave until a budget is built? Do we arrest them for contempt? Do we withhold their salaries until the $100,000 a day is recouped? Since I’m also a believer that fear is a flawed motivator and rarely results in sustainable long term solutions, I’m at a loss for what will convince these people to suck it up, make the tough choices, and do the right thing.

This is where I think Randy Dorn feels he is as well.

Which is why I understand his actions with this lawsuit, even if I disagree and wish there were a different way. The sad part: Maybe there isn’t.

Professional Learning Interloper

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One of the greatest myths about public school teachers is that we have the summer off. Certainly, it’s nice to have a few days where the alarm doesn’t ring at 5am or to forget what day of the week it is, but most teachers, in fact, spend the summer finding themselves again as adults by connecting with family (and working out or going to the dentist), by working a second job to help pay for expenses, and by stretching themselves as learners–which means, finding relevant professional learning opportunities.

These professional learning opportunities create a space in which teacher can deeply reflect on what did/didn’t work last year and make the creative changes needed. Although exhausted by the last day of school, I anticipate attending workshops such as building retreat days, AP institute, GLAD training, or tech conferences that push my thinking. While research shows that the best professional learning is job-embedded and on-going, one-time conferences have a place–they’re a little surge of energy that’s just enough to wake you up. They give us a drone’s-eye view by showing us that we are connected to teachers across this state and around the nation.

However, this summer calendar was oddly clear. So, I decided to interlope. I tagged along with my husband, the WA STOY (see Lessons from the Road) to DC, Colorado, and Illinois. I eavesdropped at the Education Commission of the States during Happy Hour debriefing sessions. At the Aspen Institute Program on Education & Society (special invite only event!), I secretly read articles from the syllabus and chitchatted over dinner about policy with incredible leaders in equity work from across the country. The final conference of the summer was the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) where Nate gave a lunch time keynote speech. To my delight, the NNSTOY conference was open to “any teacher”. Alas, once I arrived, I learned that it really wasn’t any teacher (only a few of us were without titles like STOY or finalist of ___), but I was already there, my registration paid, and Katherine Bassett, the conference organizer, far too gracious to kick me out.

I was eager to release my inner nerd, especially because this year’s theme was “Bridging Theory and Practice.” If you’ve ever hung out with me, you know I’m obsessed with merging these two elements in my life. This theme was further developed by a focus on four strands keynoted by outstanding leaders in our field and facilitated by excellent teachers from across the country.

  1. Constructing Student Centered Classrooms
  2. Leadership Spanning
  3. Building Professional Networks
  4. Expanding on Teacher Leadership
  5. This conference delivered.

I walked out with a better sense of how to engage my students through technology. I was inspired by creative models for teacher leadership such as what Denver Public Schools is doing with their Teacher Leadership & Collaboration model. I heard exactly what Charlotte Danielson intended for the Danielson evaluation (omg! Geeked out that I heard the real Danielson!). I felt empowered to build my teacher leadership through blogging. I was challenged to keep equity at the center of everything I do. Finally, I was reminded by Maddie Fennell, an NBCT from Nebraska who works for the Department of Education, to get involved in policy work because “if you aren’t at the table, you’ll be on the menu.”

Most importantly, I met, networked, and collaborated with absolutely fantastic educators from Washington (shout out to the WA Teacher Advisory Council!) to Jersey.

This last takeaway is why I want to encourage all of you to interlope at an upcoming conference or training that you think will make you a better teacher or give you an opportunity to network with agents of change.

Although, the conference is over, I highly recommend you read the writing of James Ford “What School Segregation Looks Like” or watch Nate Bowling’s invitation to join “The Family Business” Also, go to Twitter and do some post-conference lurking…I mean learning… by using the hashtags #teachersleading and #NNSTOY16

Lessons from the Road

airplane

Growing up my sisters and I would play “imagination”, pretending we were orphans lost at sea (this meant swinging from our hammock in the yard), fighting dragons across dangerous moats (jumping from rock to rock) or even playing market (hey, I blame my imagination on my voracious reading habits!). What I could never have imagined was growing up to marry an amazing man who’d later be recognized for his achievements in the classroom, specifically being named the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year (WA STOY for short) and one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.

Many people are confused about these titles or what they entail, but I’ll tell you this much–the selection process is rigorous and the responsibilities overwhelming. You must represent your students, your school, your state, AND your profession, while staying true to your values. You must figure out how to say “no”. You must say “yes” more than you really want to. You must write sub plans at 4:30 in the morning before you catch a flight across the country to speak truth to power.

As both a teaching colleague and wife, I have a unique view of the madness. It’s like watching your favorite indie musician finally get recognized and then accidentally volunteering to be half-time roadie/half-time backup singer for a year–or however long the tour lasts. Although we are seven months into the tour, there is still a long, unknown road ahead. I’ve been to DC three times, Aspen, and am now headed to Chicago (no, my trips aren’t paid for but I intentionally drive a KIA and have no children or pets).

I decided I should share a few of the lessons I’ve learned from this vantage point.

1. Don’t be afraid to speak truth.

  • My STOY doesn’t say what he doesn’t mean–it’s annoying at times, however, it’s one of the qualities I admire most. This has led to both adoration and criticism by those around him, but he continues to hold firm to the values ingrained in him by his faith, family, and community.
  • When I met the STOYs from other states, I was struck by the honesty and passion each person spoke with. They openly acknowledged the issues and challenges in their communities. They proudly shared the successes of their schools or state leaders. They spoke truth.

2. Learn to vet all opportunities against your values.

  • How you spend your time and what you spend your time talking about communicates your values.
  • Since the STOYs are now recognized voices in the profession, it’s easy for education groups to try to solicit them for speaking opportunities. My STOY carefully reads up on each organization or person that sends him an invite, and evaluates whether or not this will move the needle forward for our profession and  our students.
  • Some opportunities are just straight up AH-MAZING. Kick it at VP Biden’s house? Take a photo with Barack? Every STOY I talked to used their thirty seconds of one-on-one time with the President to bring up their students. Values.

3. Find your tribe.

  • Teaching can sometimes feel like an isolating profession. You work hard in your classroom and in your school but it’s easy to put your head down and just grind. But isolation leads to burn out and we must find our tribes–it could be colleagues you are close to, like-minded people in an adjacent school district, or a Twitter friendship.
  • If you have the opportunity to network, do it. Your tribe is bigger than you think–connect with the number of outstanding teachers across this country and you’ll feel rejuvenated.
    Not only have the STOYs been incredibly inspiring but many of their partners are teachers or work in education as well. They carry with them a fire, the spirit of determination and a special love for their communities. I was delighted to swap stories about our communities over dinner. I think about the new “friends” I’ve made as the WA STOY backup singer (it’s even Facebook official!) and I feel lucky to share these experiences and be a part of the work that is happening across this country.

4. Remember why you are doing what you’re doing.

  • It’s not all filet mignon and open-bars. There are hours and hours of emails, speech writing, phone calls, interviews, layovers, and plane rides. As I watch my own STOY and read through Facebook feeds, I will testify that these teacher-leaders are working their butts off. Somehow, despite the chaotic whirlwind of fame, they maintain their focus on their true love–students and teaching.

As my plane gets ready to descend into O’Hare airport, I’ll wrap up by saying I am proud of my WA State Teacher and the other STOYs across this country who are doing the work. And a special SHOUT-OUT to all the backup singers and roadies offering their support!

Thirty-Two Down…

factor_tree_32Wednesday was the last day of my thirty-second year teaching. Besides a flurry of part-time teenage jobs, I’ve never really done anything else and I honestly can’t imagine a different career.

Despite my apparent longevity (or stagnation) I am not the same teacher I was back in 1984. I’ve learned a few things, sometimes the easy way, but mostly the hard way. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  1. Get good at classroom management. It’s not the most important thing we do, but none of the important things can happen without it.
  2. Relationships matter. Especially your relationships with the principal, the office manager and the custodian.
  3. Don’t pull maps down past the line that says “Don’t pull past this line.”
  4. Don’t lose your school key. It’s a huge mess.
  5. Take your job seriously. It’s about the most important job you can imagine.
  6. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You aren’t as special as your mother said you were.
  7. Stay in shape. That’s good advice in general, but this job definitely has a physical component. I’ve seen teachers let themselves go only to have their careers cut short.
  8. You can’t change people. I’m not talking about students; changing students is actually our job. I’m talking about other people, like colleagues and parents. It might be nice to change some of these people, but you can’t.
  9. This is not a competitive job. Trying to be the best teacher is a waste of time and energy.
  10. The reason we have assessments is to improve instruction. It’s not the other way around.
  11. Don’t go to work when you’re sick. Don’t call in sick when you’re not.
  12. The kids who need the most love are the hardest kids to love. And you should sit them towards the front.
  13. Go to most of the staff parties, but don’t bring your spouse; they won’t enjoy it. And don’t get drunk.
  14. Don’t expect anything productive to happen when you have a sub.
  15. Work hard, but sustainably hard. You’re not being paid to work 70-hour weeks, and doing so will have a negative effect on the 35 hours for which you are being paid. Know when to quit.
  16. Grade papers immediately. Student work does not become more interesting over time.

And finally,

17. Support your union. Those are good people.

It’s been a great thirty-years. That doesn’t mean every minute of every day was bliss, but it does mean that I can look back knowing I’ve done something important with myself. And that’s saying something.

And I’m not even close to being done. In fact, I’m shooting for fifty. So that’s thirty-two down and eighteen to go!

The Ponytailed Principal

I ran into my principal in the hall recently. She made a comment about her hair being pulled back into a ponytail again. “It’s my go-to hairstyle when I’ve had two hours of sleep,” she quipped.

I replied that I hadn’t seen her with a different hairstyle for weeks.

“That’s because I’m writing up my T-PEP evaluations. I don’t have any time to sleep.”

After we lost our great principal last year, we looked for an awesome replacement. And we got one. Our new principal is a first-year principal, but she is far from inexperienced. She was the math instructional coach for our district for years. She knows how to use data to drive instruction, how to coach teachers in using effective strategies, how to help teams implement new curriculum materials.

As she made the transition to administration, she became the TPEP coach for the district. She is the TPEP queen. She can observe me teaching for ten minutes, walk out of my room, and rattle off a dozen Marzano strategies—by name and number—that I’ve nailed in that brief period. I couldn’t possibly identify all the things I did in that snippet! And I certainly wouldn’t know the numbers without looking. She’s a phenomena.

Our school, though, gives her little time for coaching. For instructional leadership. For any of the cool things that T-PEP is supposed to bring.

Our school is a high-poverty school. We have many students with high social and emotional needs. We have many Tier III behavior issues. The last couple of years have been especially difficult. Far worse than in the past, even with the same population. We haven’t been able to figure out why.

In my continuing study of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), I read a recent comment. Children who were born the year the economy tanked in 2008 are now in second grade. So last year they were in first grade, and the year before in kindergarten. The year before last is when our school’s disciple problems started to skyrocket—specifically in kindergarten. And the issues began in preschool.

Consider the trauma so many parents were going through in 2008. How many of those children had to deal with common ACEs: divorce, abuse or neglect, parents who were addicted or imprisoned?

When I talked about this correlation with my husband, he was fascinated and wondered if there were similar results during the Great Depression. I said, “During the Great Depression, a lot of those children were feral. They were running wild in the streets. The difference now is that we are requiring those children to go to school.”

So here is a typical week for my principal. She deals with discipline issues all day, trying to build positive relationships and positive systems as much as she can but also, of course, being the court of last resort for the Tier III kids all day every day.

She answers emails and calls parents—positive and not so fun calls—until 7:30 every night. Then she goes home to her family. Yes, as a matter of fact, she actually has a family!

Into the wee hours of the morning and on weekends she works on T-PEP. We all know this because we get the emails from her with the time stamp of 1:42 am or 3:56 am or Sunday morning at 7:14.

I was on focused T-PEP this year. My principal was in my room for several observations and walk-throughs—not as many as she wanted. We met formally at fall, winter, and spring conferences—not as often as she would have liked—and informally throughout the year to see how I was meeting my goals. Once in a while I got to talk more in depth with her after school when we both stayed late, at 7:30 or so. She did a fantastic job on my written evaluation. But the truth is I could have learned more from her—of course!—if she could have devoted more time to instructional leadership, which is her passion.

I asked her last week how much time T-PEP takes. Remember, she can pull Marzano chapter and verse out of her head like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. So she’s no slowpoke. She figured that,

  • the time for each comprehensive T-PEP averaged 10 hours per person
  • the time for each focused T-PEP averaged 5 hours per person

Say eight full eight-hour days this year at home or on the weekends doing comprehensive T-PEP work that isn’t done at school—not the observations or meetings. Another seven days full eight-hour days doing focused.

In addition she has to do classified evaluations. I do wonder if we have more classified staff because we are a high poverty school and if that adds to her T-PEP work load even more. Figure another couple of eight-hour days devoted to those.

I figure 17 days beyond her more than full-time work as a principal in a high-needs school. Granted, she gets the big bucks for this work, right? Actually, for her extra work doing those 17 days off the clock, she gets a whopping stipend of $750.

This spring she got headhunted. She was offered a job in a different district. And she’ll be gone in a couple of weeks.

This is the second year in a row that we have lost a fabulous principal. We don’t blame our principals. We have seen their health fail. We have seen them beaten down. We know the hours and the stress of the job are more than one person can handle.

Both of them loved working at our school. However, the additional hours required by T-PEP—beyond an already very extended school day—made the principal job wholly unreasonable.

I know there are people who are enthusiastic supporters of T-PEP. Maybe conditions are different at their school. Maybe discipline isn’t such an overwhelming part of their principal’s day. Or maybe they have an assistant principal.

But I’ve had two principals I admire greatly and care about deeply who were crushed by T-PEP. It ate them alive. I can’t be so enthusiastic.

McCleary, Dorn, and School Closures

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The headlines are a bit disingenuous. And, I do have to admit I haven’t always been one to jump to Randy Dorn’s defense, but when every news source screams that the Superintendent of Washington schools says it is time to “shut down public education,” there’s a bit of cherry-picking from the message. In fact, Dorn’s actual statement to the Court contained five suggested actions the Court might take, with the closure of public schools being but one. His ideas, not necessarily suggested as concurrent moves, include that the Court might:

  • Fine individual legislators for being in contempt.
  • Order local government to withhold the distribution of local levy monies (since, ostensibly, the patching of financial holes that local levies provide masks the inadequacy of state-provided funding).
  • Direct the rolling back of 39 tax exemptions, credits, and preferential rates enacted by the Legislature from 2012 forward, in order to redirect revenue to schools.
  • Essentially, shut down non-critical state operations, akin to the “Government Shutdown” move we’ve marched near the brink of in times when budgets haven’t been adopted in legislative session.
  • Close public schools (which is the option making all the headlines).

As the shrill cries in the comments sections of articles all over the web point out, closing schools (as well as all the rest) turn taxpayers and children into pawns in a political game. Is it in the best interest of kids that their schools don’t start up this fall? Of course not. Is it in the best interest of kids to simply make plans to make plans, kicking hard decisions further into the future while school walls crumble, the burnout-motivated teacher exodus continues, and inequities in access widen achievement gaps for kids? Of course not. Thus, taxpayers, children, and businesses are forged into pawns in a game that ultimately doesn’t impact the day to day lives of the typical policymaker.

I’m not optimistic that any of Dorn’s suggestions will happen, and I’m not optimistic that the current legislative body in office is really all that serious about finding actual solutions. The main reason is simple: The money has to come from somewhere, either by reclaiming revenue by rescinding current tax breaks or by drawing new revenue in the form of new taxes. Neither is a comfortable proposition. Both require making important, powerful stakeholders unhappy: On one hand it’s the broad voting constituency, on the other is the business community that is essential to our state economy. In either case, a loser must be cast. By converse logic, then, right now both those groups are the relative winners. If the taxpayers and business are the winners in the present model…who is left as the loser?

I think we know the answer to that one.


 

Image source: Cropped from page 5 of the .pdf file of the “Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Amicus Brief Addressing 2016 Legislature’s Compliance with McCleary,” located here.

“B” is the new “F”

old school

I’m not a fan of letter grades for many reasons. For one, in my entire career I’ve never met a single student who I believe actually became more motivated as the result of an “F.” More often than not, the “F” is demoralizing, and gets logged with all the other evidence a child might use to prove to himself he is worthless and can’t learn…despite how hard we might try to convince him otherwise.

I’m not a fan of the terminology applied to our evaluation. In many meetings and trainings, I joke about the fact that the terms (U, B, P, and D) are in fact adjectival labels…that at the end of the year I plan to have my summative label embroidered on my school polo, right below the school logo and “STAFF.” I’m a believer in the potential of our evaluation model, but I see it being undone by four little words. One word, actually: “Basic.”

Because I understand our framework, the law, and our model very deeply, I’m not personally too concerned when I have a “Basic” here or there. I also have a few “Distinguished” here or there, and I’ve said flat out to my evaluator that I never choose to aspire to anything more than “Basic” in 8.4. That one, with all respect due to Dr. Marzano, represents someplace I don’t intend to devote my personal and professional energy. (It’s true: I’m arrogant. I am good at my work; for me it’s not about being bulletproof, it’s about knowing my own professional weaknesses before my evaluator even has the chance to point them out.)

As summative conversations are happening in my district, my role with our teachers’ union and as a Marzano framework trainer means I have received many emails per day from both teachers and principals about the “Basic.” It is quite clear, that despite my hopes, “B” is the new “F.”

Despite all the talk of this being a growth model (and while it is now too cliche to use the term “growth mindset,” I am still a big believer in the essential premise of mindset as a deciding factor in success, happiness, and professional improvement), I realize that the labels themselves don’t walk the growth mindset talk. The labels are static. They “define” a teacher. As adjectives, they imply a fixed state. Thou art “Basic.”

But here’s the kicker: Almost none of the conversations I’ve had with principals and teachers have been about a summative overall “Basic” score. In almost every case, the teacher is set to receive an overall label of “Proficient.” In some cases, every one of the major criteria is set to receive a “Proficient” rating, while one or two components here or there is labeled “Basic.” The “Basic” is intolerable. It is a professional affront. And it is, very possibly, an accurate assessment of the practices taking place. The reality is that some students do perform at an “F” level, and some teachers do perform at a “B” level.

A teacher who “gives” a student an F will no doubt argue that the student “earned” the score. There will be evidence (or an absence of evidence) to support the rating. Nevertheless, I still contend that the “F” label serves to demoralize rather than motivate. The “Basic” has a similar impact…but the action I too often see motivated from the “Basic” isn’t a motivation to take action and change practice, it is a motivation to challenge the label. Just as when a student (or parent) challenges a grade with little regard to the learning it is supposed to represent, I see many of us challenging the label without much regard for the practice it is supposed to represent. In my interpretation, it isn’t necessarily the teacher’s fault for this reaction. The fault stems from  terminology the connotes a state of being rather than a description of actions.

The problem is the meaning that our system, our whole culture, applies to those labels. I know a syntactical shift won’t change everything but moving from an adjective to verb, from label to action, from fixed to fluid, could be one way to shift perspectives. An adjective defines what we are, and definitions (in our world) are fixed. A verb describes what we do, and once we’ve done what we do it is in the past; we always have the choice do something new or different in the present and future.

Word changes, you say, won’t change the fact that we are as a culture intolerant of second-places, B-minuses, and not being treated as exceptional. That’s a bigger issue. But the words we choose shape how we see ourselves and the world around us.

And I’m just pollyanna enough to believe that a student getting a rating of “Emerging” rather than a label of “F” will sense that there is perhaps hope. I believe it because I’ve seen it in my own classroom with my own students. I believe that a teacher being told his skills are “Developing” will respond differently than if he is given the label “Basic.” As it is, the “Basic” shifts our focus to the label, and away from cultivating better practice.

Surprised by your summative TPEP score? You shouldn’t be…

It’s that time of year again when school comes to a close and seniors are waiting for graduation. As I think about that final report card, I know that the grades that my students will see will be of little surprise to them. We’ve been communicating all semester long about their progress towards the learning goals and standards. They’ve been assessed throughout the semester and I’ve offered significant feedback to them about their work and skill development. I’ve met with students routinely throughout the year to discuss learning strategies and how to overcome their perceived weaknesses. Now, as the year culminates, students should be pretty clear as to where they stand academically in my class.

So as teachers come to the end of this year’s TPEP (Teacher/Principal Evaluation Project) cycle, do all teachers know how they’ve been assessed? Have they had the opportunity to receive feedback about their teaching throughout the year? Will they be surprised when they see that summative TPEP score on their final evaluation?

For the past three months I’ve been engaged in pre-bargaining contract language to formally transition TPEP from a LOA (Letter of Agreement) into a more permanent place in our CBA (collective bargaining agreement). Part of the pre-bargaining process includes research. I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to teachers from other districts and looking over contracts from districts across the state. What I’ve learned is that TPEP implementation and annual process operates different depending on where a teacher works. My biggest take away: teachers and evaluators might be meeting routinely, but districts have distinct operating definitions of what “routine” looks like.

TPEP has been part of our state for the past six years. My district began implementation of the project during the 2013-2014 school year. Our implementation was fairly democratic. A committee of teachers and administrators selected the Danielson Framework. Core principles and beliefs were drafted and a game plan was put into place. At the core of our work was a belief that TPEP was to be a growth model for our teachers; a process by which teachers and administrators are constantly working to refine teaching and learning in and out of the classroom.

As implementation began, we (both teachers and evaluators) quickly found that the Comprehensive model was cumbersome if we wanted to be good stewards of our core beliefs and principles. Because our local union and administration agreed to meet once a month to discuss TPEP related issues/concerns, teachers asked to make a change to the district TPEP procedure. Beginning in November 2013, teachers on TPEP began meeting once every two weeks with their evaluators. The meetings became a time where teachers could present artifacts and materials to evidence evaluative criteria. Because I chose to be an early adopter, I met with my evaluators once every two weeks from November until April. During that time I was truly challenged. I don’t mean this negatively, whatsoever. I was the one who decided what evidence would be examined and I was the one who began the conversation about how I wanted the evidence scored. This did not mean that I always got my way or that my administrators were push overs. Instead, I was asked questions and given feedback about my practice in a way that I had not received in the past. If I disagreed with the score, I had an opportunity two weeks later to offer additional evidence. I was able to refine my student growth goals, carefully analyze student success towards those goals, and discuss that success or lack thereof, with my evaluators. That format, adopted nearly three years, with some minimal adjustments, remains in place today. It provides teachers with constant feedback. As a result, teachers are encouraged to think differently about their practice. Teachers are now taking risks in engaging learners with new techniques and strategies and seeking assistance from their coach (that’s me!).

Now we are wrapping up our third year on the cycle and transitioning TPEP into our contract. All of our veteran teachers (as well as new teachers) have completed Comprehensive. Although it is no longer feasible for our evaluators to meet once every two weeks with every teacher on Comprehensive, both evaluators in my building set a goal to meet once every three weeks. It doesn’t always happen– after all parent meetings come up, teachers or administrators are sick, but I hold firm in my belief that meeting routinely, throughout the school year, is the best way for an evaluator and a teacher to manage this process. Routine meetings offer the opportunity for teachers to talk about their work, show off when things are going well, and ask for help when they aren’t. When the meetings are routine, they become low risk and less stressful, thus leading to genuine conversations about teaching and learning. When the meetings are routine, the final summative assessment at the end of the year isn’t a surprise, instead it’s confirmation.

But here’s the problem. This isn’t happening everywhere. Teachers in districts across the state tell me that they rarely meet with their evaluator to discuss their practice. Teachers aren’t given the opportunity to routinely reflect and gather feedback about their practice. Danielson (whose model is one of the three approved in the state) points to the fact that routine meetings need to take place in order to see real growth in teaching (Educational Leadership, Vol. 68, No. 4). Many teachers have no idea what final score they will receive until they attend the year end summative meeting. Qutie frankly, this is unacceptable. It is time for teachers to question what “routine” meetings are and to ask that language and practice match intent and goals. A teacher’s summative score should not be a surprise. When teachers feel disconnected to the process and administrators don’t meet with teachers regularly to discuss progress, the entire evaluation process invalidates and undermines the growth model mindset. What could teaching and learning look like if all teachers benefited from this regular, intentional feedback?

If we ask our students to engage in learning with a growth mindset and we use regular feedback to build reflection for our students, shouldn’t our teacher evaluation system mirror that same practice? I completely understand that TPEP is a lot of work for teachers and evaluators. It’s supposed to be. Accomplished teaching requires constant reflection based on feedback and assessment in order to refine goals and practice. If we expect our teachers to provide feedback to students, shouldn’t we ask the same of our teacher evaluators?

Teacher Preparation – A Shared Responsibility

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This guest blog post is courtesy of Amanda Ward, who is a National Board Certified teacher from Bainbridge High School (BHS) where she has taught Social Studies for 15 years. This year Amanda is serving as a part-time teacher and part-time instructional coach at BHS.  She also is a National Teacher Fellow for Hope Street Group, focusing on teacher preparation issues in the U.S. 

Last year, if someone had asked me about my thoughts on Teacher Prep, I likely would not have had much to say. I completed my teacher preparation program nearly twenty years ago and it really is a distant memory. The job of a teacher has changed in those twenty years and I have evolved as an educator to meet those new demands. Frankly I really hadn’t thought much about my training and early development, until recently. Now, after a number of new experiences this year, I have a lot to say about this topic and the need for all teachers, particularly experienced teachers, to take active roles in teacher preparation.

For the past year I have served as a National Teacher Fellow for the nonpartisan nonprofit Hope Street Group. One of the primary responsibilities of that position was participating in a national research project on teacher prep. Over six weeks, the 17 other fellows and I conducted in-person focus groups and distributed surveys in order to gather the opinions of nearly 2,000 teachers in 49 states about how they were prepared and their wishes for aspiring educators. We produced a report called On Deck: Preparing the Next Generation of Teachers that features the findings and recommendations from our research. What is not surprising was that teachers emphasized the importance of deep clinical experience as well as training in how to effectively work with high-needs populations. But this research also reminded me that practicing teachers need to take an active role in both assisting in the training of teachers as well as demanding that universities and school districts provide the preparation and support needed for individuals to be successful entering this incredibly challenging job.

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Dear Class of 2016: It is okay if you’re not going to college.

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What’s not okay: (1) Mooching off your your family or society while remaining unemployed and unwilling to put in the leg work to pursue employment, (2) Going on and on about how all the facts and figures you learned in high school (example: Algebra) aren’t things you use in the “real world,” and (3) Assuming that “going to college” is inherently the best choice or a guarantee of future happiness, financial security, or prosperity. And, so I’m clear: I am not opposed to encouraging students to set their sights on college. If you’re headed off to a university next year, best of luck and congratulations.

What I am opposed to is the narrative that we’ve spun for students in our public schools about “college” being the only correct preferred path all should choose.

Notice that once we adopted this mantra, the policy and practice priorities shifted toward the accumulation of scores rather than the acquisition of skills. And notice that once we started focusing rabidly on scores, more and more students (and teachers) felt desperate enough to cheat, more and more students (and teachers) spiraled down into the mires of stress and anxiety, and more and more colleges were getting nabbed for preying on the “college only” mindset by gladly taking tuition money and churning out valueless degrees. Notice that as we focused on college admission as the be-all, end-all, vocational programs were squeezed out of secondary schools and the nation began to cry more and more that high schools were churning out students who didn’t know anything (they’d only memorized it for the test) and couldn’t do anything (they hadn’t been encouraged to gain marketable, real skills).

That’s all very negative, but here’s the upside: Continue reading