Author Archives: Mark Gardner

Inslee’s Budget: Making an Investment

I was at a meeting when news started to spread that Governor Jay Inslee had released his budget plan. Of course, the thing that grabbed most people’s attention was the significant bump in pay for teachers. I noted, however, the difficult reality of his budget that our state has not yet come to terms with: In order to achieve the services we expect from public schools, we need to secure new revenue either through additional taxes or closing of loopholes. Inslee’s proposal includes four billion new dollars to be invested in public schools. Simply put, Inslee realizes that fixing our system means we can’t just shuffle line items within the current revenue structure.

In the real world, fixing things pretty much always costs money. Sometimes it even costs money you don’t yet have.

A couple of years ago on a Sunday afternoon in March, I was sitting in my living room, grading student essays. Suddenly, a sound like a fighter jet landing in my front yard started to shake my house, and then BOOM. This:

A freak spring windstorm leveled a swath of trees and structures in our neighborhood, and took an otherwise healthy (according to the arborist) 50-ft blue spruce and crashed it diagonally across the whole structure of our home. We have homeowners insurance, but between the deductible and some of what insurance didn’t cover, we didn’t have the money to fix it completely. Significant structural damage, eventual water damage from a poor patch job from the lowest-cost emergency board-up contractor, plus our roofing options being limited to the two plastic tarps I already owned and the one that the fire department donated to us to attempt to minimize water damage all made it clear that this fix was going to require something else than just making do with what we had.

Thankfully, we were able to access additional revenue, so to speak. Friends and family chipped in. I took on (yet another) side job to bring in a little cash. We sold some stuff from the garage. In the end, our house was back to normal almost a year later thanks to these additional resources (and a kind hearted roofer and generous arborist who charged us far less than they should have for work insurance couldn’t cover). The reality is that we were doing fine financially before and certainly accept criticism that we “should have” had more cash socked away for this particular breed of rainy day. The reality was that in the face of a clearly broken structure, “doing the best with what we had” wasn’t going to cut it. We will forever appreciate the people who were willing to give services, muscle, or money to help us fix our home.

I for one greatly appreciate Inslee for aiming so high and being realistic about what it will take to make progress toward strengthening public schools. New tests won’t do it. New requirements won’t do it. Furthering our love affair with accountability won’t do it. Simply demanding teachers to “do better with what they have” is not going to do it either. Fixes, in the real world, often require an investment beyond what we think we can absorb, and sometimes that investment requires more resources being added to the system.

And as for that meeting where word of the Governor’s budget was making the rounds? The reaction of teachers was positive and it had far less to do with more pay than it did with what our Governor’s budget was communicating: He was saying, pure and simple, I am willing to invest in you. 

That’s a good feeling.

Why Unions Matter

If you happen to be a member of your local education association, chances are you’ve received some emails this year asking you to rescind your membership.

Like too many issues (such as presidential elections), we humans have the tendency to make decisions based on emotion rather than fact. Many people are on edge, and you don’t have to look far online to find people with strong anti-union sentiments. However, I rarely am able to uncover facts or actual events that serve well to make unions, teachers’ unions in particular, worthy of such tremendous hatred.

Sure, there are the cases where a union enforced a poorly worded contract and a crappy teacher got to keep their job. It happens. There are plenty of actions that unions have taken that I personally don’t agree with, and thus I am working “from the inside” to change as an active union member.

If we want to know why unions matter to teachers and to public education, Wisconsin has engaged in a deeply unfortunate experiment we can all learn from. The gist: The state government of Wisconsin passed what it called the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill” that included as one of its “repairs” the destruction of labor unions’ rights to collectively bargain. Here’s the whole article, but details worthy of noting:

  • Total teacher compensation has dropped 8% since the Bill.
  • There is no way for teachers to negotiate for pay increases or for better benefits; meanwhile costs of benefits have increased.
  • Certificated teachers are leaving in droves; the article includes examples of positions left unfilled or filled by unqualified, non-certificated staff. (I’m not clear how this could be filed under “In the best interests of students.”)

Unfortunately, the public face of the union has done us any favors: To people not familiar, picturing a union means picturing a bunch of people not working, but rather pacing, chanting, holding signs…acts that I understand in terms of labor relations but which I also believe are the worst possible public relations moments our organizations can ask for. This unfortunately masks the real work that unions do: advocating for the working and learning conditions of staff and students in all of our schools.

This year, my district recruited a handful of teachers from “right to work” states where the powers of unions are restricted. They tell me again and again how different everything is here in Washington: they as teachers feel valued, their students are safe, there is consistency and stability in policy. These create the conditions that enable students to succeed. It is easy to focus only on compensation as the primary focus of an education association, but the reality is far more complex: Yes, unions negotiate pay and benefits, which are about recruiting and retaining top quality educators. Unions also negotiate class sizes, special education caseloads, access to curriculum and resources, and programs from STEM to the arts to counseling to intervention. Unions are a powerful voice for teachers and the strongest voice for students.

When our legislature comes together in the new year, we need to be careful to watch for threats to public education from all angles (like this one), not the least of which being threats to educators’ powers to organize and advocate. We need to learn from Wisconsin.

NBCT Policy Summit: Building a Professional Continuum

If you walk into a doctor’s office and learn that your physician is board certified, this designation communicates something to you…even if at first blush you aren’t sure what it means. In the field of medicine, board certification is voluntary, is assessed against established industry standards (based on specialty as well), and is an widely accepted indicator of professional capacity. From the American Board of Medical Specialties website:

When you choose a doctor who is Board Certified by one of the ABMS Member Boards, you can be confident he or she meets nationally recognized standards for education, knowledge, experience and skills to provide high quality care in a specific medical specialty. Board Certification goes above and beyond basic medical licensure.

Sounds much like National Board Certification for educators.

There is ample research indicating that teachers who have achieved National Board Certification produce enhanced student learning equivalent to between one and two additional months of instruction, particularly with students who are typically underserved.

Education funding in Washington is certainly in dire need of improvement, and one aspect of this involves compensating teachers in a way which (1) draws high quality candidates into the profession and (2) recognizes and values the research-supported professional growth that NBPTS certification represents.

As a result, dozens of National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) convened in SeaTac this last Saturday at the 2016 NBCT Policy Summit. These educators were called together by WEA, CSTP and OSPI in order to do what Washington Ed legend Jeannie Harmon says is the best way to change education for the better: Get our best and brightest educators together, tell them the problem to be solved, then get out of their way.

Currently, teacher salaries are funded separately from the incentive program aimed at fostering NBPTS certified teachers: Our base salary allocation model (SAM) includes increases in compensation aligned with advanced degrees and acquisition of clock hours for learning, and but does not include NBPTS certification…which of the three (degrees, seat time, or NBPTS certification) is the one with the greatest body of research supporting an increased impact on student learning. The current incentives include a yearly bonus for being an NBCT, plus an additional bonus if you are an NBCT working in a “challenging school,” both of which are funded outside our SAM. The result? The funding is tenuous, and the incentive toward and recognition of NBPTS certification is likewise ever on the chopping block.

The recommendations will be presented in full soon (as of this writing it’s been barely 24 hours since the end of the summit), but on the policy issue related to NBPTS certification, the recommendation was loud, clear, and simple: Just as a Masters degree and a Doctorate represent lanes of professional growth on our salary schedule, so should National Board Certification. Parallel to this recommendation were a variety of policy recommendations around revenue generation for the state (in order to fully fund education and meet the legal requirements of the McCleary ruling). There was also significant talk about developing and compensating new and varied career paths for teachers who don’t aspire toward being a program director or principal, particularly since there is recent evidence of the positive impact of teacher leadership.

Hidden within all this is a quiet evolution of what the professional continuum for teachers might look like. In medicine the pursuit of board certification, while still voluntary, is much more integrated into the vision of how a professional physician learns, performs, and refines their craft over their career. National Board Certification is heavily studied and has proven to be a form of professional advancement that has a positive impact on students. It only makes sense that this step be codified into our compensation schedule alongside the other (still voluntary) professional steps such as advanced degrees.

Data without Numbers

During the last teacher evaluation workshop I led for principals and teacher leaders, I closed with this quasi thought-experiment for them to ruminate on for the couple of weeks until our next meeting:

What if a law were passed that kept the TPEP student growth requirement but prohibited the use of any form of number or percentage as a means of showing of student growth: How might a teacher be able to demonstrate the impact of practice under such a law?

My intentions are simple: How else besides charts and percentages might we talk about student growth? As an English teacher, finding and using meaningful quantitative data was something I always wrestled with. I did eventually find a way to reduce my students to a number in a way that I felt was valid and productive. (Further elaboration here as well.)

However, as I coach both teachers and administrators in our continued intentional implementation of our evaluation system, it is clear for both groups that the pressure to generate numbers has remained great…and in many cases, has felt hollow if not contrived.

In our operationalized definition of data, we’ve come to rely upon information that is easy to communicate sometimes at the expense of information that means a dang thing at all. A graph, a chart of figures, or a line of numbers is pretty easy to pull together if we’re held more accountable for producing numbers than we are for thinking about what the numbers might communicate.

Particularly when we consider the statewide requirement that teacher evaluations include an examination of student growth data, the stakes feel oppressively high and the worry about producing inadequate or “bad” data is palpable in many conversations I have with teachers. I do want to point this out, though: The wording of the student growth rubrics (SG3.2 and SG6.2) which apply to every single classroom teacher in the state of Washington. Both those rubrics state this:

PROFICIENT: Multiple sources of growth or achievement data from at least two points in time show clear evidence of growth for most students. (Source)

Sure, there are some vague words in there: “multiple,” “clear,” and “most.” What isn’t there is pretty obvious to me: A requirement that growth be represented through a number.

When I think about my career, the most clear and convincing artifacts of my impact on student growth came during my candidacy for and renewal of my National Board Certificate. In both of these cases, the way I demonstrated growth was by contextualizing patterns of student work within my own deliberate practice, and then reflecting on the exact changes in student performance (not necessarily changes in score) that proved I had indeed contributed to student growth. This evidence included student work samples but was convincing because of the analytical narrative and reflection on practice that accompanied it all.

While I am a strong proponent for National Boards as a voluntary professional growth experience, I am not advocating for a National Board-like model for yearly teacher evaluations. I do believe however that the kind of longitudinal narrative analysis of student work I did during my candidacy and renewal was at least as convincing as any table of numbers I might have been able to produce for the same sets of kids.

Numbers have an important place, and as I said, the right numbers can paint a meaningful picture of growth. However, numbers should not be the only conceivable (or permissible) vehicle for communicating student growth in our evaluation. We need to be sure to make room for the premise that sometimes the best way to illustrate student growth might actually be to tell our story.

Part III on Change: Levels of Abstraction

During an teacher leadership workshop I was leading a few years ago, a veteran teacher said this to me:

“It feels like every time I go to present a new idea to my principal, she shoots it down just because it’s coming from me. It’s like she says ‘no’ just because I’m the one with the idea. I keep thinking that if she heard it from anyone other than me, she’d give a different answer.”

My response: “You’re probably right.”

That doesn’t make it fair or valid, but the reality of human interactions is that there are times where who is doing the talking matters. As I got to know this particular teacher and his situation, it was pretty clear that he and his principal had a history of conflicts…most of them petty…which colored their relationship. Wrong as it might be, the principal was saying “no” because of the messenger and his track record, not the message itself.

Being skeptical or “resistant” to new ideas or to changes in practice is not a bad thing. We should allow ourselves time and space to think, process, and make decisions about the new. However, we also ought to be mindful of what exactly it is we are resisting.

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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”

http://www.bannedbooksweek.org

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.