Author Archives: Mark Gardner

Part II On Change: Us vs. Them

Binaries are comfortable for people: good or bad, right or wrong, us or them.

To collect and classify what we know into an either or an or makes us feel to be on more stable ground: if we can classify it, it won’t surprise us. By ascribing the big label (us or them, for example) we can line up assumptions about who and what falls into that category, and assumptions in our world today are given as much power as facts, if not more.

It is the us versus them binary that I hear about the most in my past work as a union representative and now as our EA president. And, because of my role within our district (I mentor new teachers and I also design and lead professional learning for both teachers and administrators) I am in the strange situation of seeing the line between us and them become very blurry. On both “sides,” I work with caring, professional, student-centered educators who are struggling to do the right thing. Likewise, on both “sides” I can cite examples of weak integrity, manipulation, and poor conduct. Neither “side” can be classified by a convenient set of universals.

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The Tyranny of the TTWWADI and Why Change Is So Hard

I’m in a new role this year, having been elected last spring to serve as the president of our education association. We’re also heading into a full contract bargain this coming spring.

As I’ve been learning about contract negotiations (and the posturing, games, and politics involved), I keep asking myself a very simple question: Why does it have to be this way? Why the “us” vs. “them”? Why the feeling like it’s all about sliding back-and-forth a series of numbers face down on scraps of paper? Why the constant “poker game” metaphors about holding cards close, reading your opponent, bluffing and calling bluffs?

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Teaching “Banned Books”

This week is the annual Banned Books Week, where educators draw attention to the dangers of outright banning books in public schools and libraries. The list of “frequently banned and challenged books” tends to circulate, commonly eliciting a chorus of “Really, somebody has a problem with Judy Blume?”

While I believe than any book a public library can get its hands on ought to have space on a shelf somewhere in public access, I don’t think that elementary schools ought to be teaching Fifty Shades Darker even if it is written with the vocabulary and syntax of a fourth grader (so I hear…)

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Happiness in the Classroom

My first year or two as a teacher, I was a yeller.

My temper would get the best of me when my repertoire of classroom management skills proved too shallow. Unfortunately, it “worked.” The class of 14 year olds would go silent. They’d comply. When the bell rang they’d scramble to the door and away, gasping for the air my tirade had sucked from the room. It didn’t happen often, but that it happened at all was too much.

In hindsight, the yelling was the culmination of too many extremes: large classes, too few resources; kids with profound struggles, me with a dearth of strategies. That’s no excuse.

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Lesson Plans vs. Professional Development

Thanks to the internet, I have hopelessly messed up some of the most (supposedly) tasty recipes ever posted: Homemade breads….desserts including many species of cookie…a few things involving breading and frying various other foods…

It is foolish for me to believe that merely following a recipe will net the kinds of results I see on the Food Network.

That, along with my roles as a mentor and leader of teacher PD, is why the headline “Give Weak Teachers Good Lesson Plans, Not Professional Development” caught my eye when it posted in Education Week recently.

The article made a few valid points, including this: Often, the least-effective teachers are so because of ineffective planning, ergo starting with stronger lesson plans is a great remedy. By “least-effective,” I’m talking the lowest 5-10% of the struggling corps.

Unfortunately, that valid point gets buried by this statement toward the end: “Giving teachers lesson plans is also cheaper and easier to scale than other interventions aimed at improving student achievement.”

I can follow a simple recipe, sometimes. I will never be Wolfgang Puck by just following a recipe. What do people who want to truly excel at their cooking do? Take classes. Get a mentor or coach. Collaborate with a peer. If I’m stuck on using a recipe, maybe I need to learn to cook without one…or better yet, learn to write recipes I and others can follow.

I’m a big believer in planning. I have never, not once, used a lesson plan written by someone else. That’s just me, not a wholesale indictment of “planning via Pinterest.” I simply cannot wrap my head around someone else’s script and make it work. I’ve tried, but I end up completely rewriting the recipe on the fly… my students tend to be picky eaters.

The point in all this: Yes, good lesson plans are a must for some teachers just starting their careers, wading into a new grade level or content area, or who are struggling to be effective. The lesson plans should be the starting point, though. Only through deliberate practice, peer support, and (gasp!) well-designed professional development, can we move beyond the recipe. The false dichotomy of “lesson plans” or “professional development” suggested by the article (which also cites that studies reveal almost no impact of PD on test scores) ignores the very real truth that well-structured PD whose practices are implemented with the support of peers, teams, or instructional coaches does in fact have a research-supported positive impact on student learning.

Lest we scrap our PD budgets and start just printing recipes for everyone… let’s remember that we have some pretty talented cooks in our kitchen already. We can, and should, learn from them. “PD” doesn’t have to mean sitting in the cafeteria to watch a PowerPoint. What “PD” looks like has evolved to be much more job-embedded and meaningful…and much more powerful than a few lesson plans printed out from TeachersPayTeachers. When it comes to PD making a difference, the quality of and follow-up provided in concert with the professional learning we experience is what transforms the recipe into a meal to remember.

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.

McCleary, Dorn, and School Closures

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”

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.

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

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

How Teacher Evaluation Could (Should?) Evolve

When the new teacher evaluation model, aka “TPEP,” rolled on down from Olympia, I was as skeptical as anyone. When will we have time for this? Why should I spend my time having to prove that I’m doing my job…I don’t even have enough time to do my job!

I’m a convert, though. I like the model of teacher evaluation that has been put into law. I believe that if implemented with the right mindset and agreements from all sides, it can, and does, focus on fostering conversations about improving practice to impact student learning. I’ve seen it in my own practice and heard of it from teachers and principals throughout my district.

We’re now completing the first “live” year of legal implementation, and I have a few ideas about how I’d like to see our system continue to improve. No one has enough time to accomplish everything that is expected of us. Teachers don’t, principals don’t, even students don’t. We do have choices, though, and I think that accomplishing the aims of our evaluation system can be addressed at the policy level as well as the practice level.

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