Author Archives: Spencer Olmsted

Less in an Era of More

There is a lot of stress in schools today. Principals are stressed trying to do everything they used to do and then do TPEP on top of that. Teachers are stressed trying to cover an increasing volume of material and make sure that all of the assessments they are giving are pointing them towards all of their students meeting all of their standards. And the kids… they’re in a pressure cooker that we created for them. The stress can be palpable when you walk into a classroom.

I’m a 4th grade teacher, so this has me concerned. What do we hope that our students walk away from 4th grade thinking and knowing? How do we think about the experience of being nine and ten in an elementary classroom? When I see my students out in the world of grown-ups they seem so little. Even years later when I see them around town I am confronted with the fact that these are really young children. It’s strange, but in the little bubble of school they seem older. It’s all business, and they’re almost in 5th grade for goodness sake – and then it’s off to middle school! Better be prepared because it’s now or never: got to get a job or go to college after all.

Or not. Maybe it doesn’t have to be so intense. Maybe if we don’t hit the ground running on Monday at 60 miles per hour we can still make it where we want to go. Maybe there is still time to be a kid.

Last week I realized that I needed to slow down. I have relationships to take care of with my students that make my teaching more or less effective. Those relationships have been strained by the pressures in our system. At the end of last week we met as a school and I heard the principal and the teachers talking about stress around the building. It wasn’t just me. We looked at behavior referrals, which spiked on Mondays and Fridays and we started to think about ways we could make more successful transitions into our work week and then back out of it.

This week I began the day on Monday with special interest projects. We relaxed into the classroom. Kids had choice and they were excited about both the power to choose and the activity itself. We spent about 30 minutes at play. There was no standard being targeted. We were just warming up, just out for a Sunday drive.

Later in the morning, the principal came in during a math lesson. He was struck by the fact that every single student maintained a sustained engagement during the time he was in the classroom. It felt different to me too. I’m going to put the brakes on every once in a while. I’d like us all to enjoy the ride.

Summer Learning: PLCs

One of the most profound professional development activities I took part in this summer was attending the Professional Learning Communities at Work Institute in Seattle with a large number of colleagues from my new building and across my district. We’ve all heard about PLCs and we’ve all been part of PLCs, but there were definitely some missing pieces in my understanding and implementation. (Read a short history of PLCs.) Maybe my story resonates with your experience.

A few years ago, I’m not quite sure how many, there were a set of four questions posted in the largest conference room at the district office, which also served as school board’s default meeting location (among other uses). Maybe they’re familiar?

  1. What do we want students to learn?
  2. How will we know if they have learned?
  3. What will we do if they don’t learn?
  4. What will we do if they already know it?

Good questions, but I had no idea where they came from or how I could use them. In fact I was a little suspicious of them because of the mystery that surrounded them. These questions seemed to show up everywhere. They were part of a number of school improvement plans and inexplicably appeared on collaboration forms my team was asked to fill out after working together.

A few years ago I was swept up in the Finland frenzy and was particularly struck by how much time teachers were able to collaborate during the regular school day. I already knew from my own experience that teachers needed more time to work together and I suspected that this was probably one of the reasons why the schools in Finland did so well. I joined a couple of PLCs and worked with teachers at my grade level, teachers from other schools, and teachers from across the grades interested in co-learning in my school. Still, I wasn’t totally clear on what the difference was between a group working together and a PLC. When I heard there was a conference on PLCs, I put my name in even though it was far off in the middle of the summer about nine months away.


Spencer writes a blog entry after the conference

So I’m here to tell you that I now believe that those four questions above are the secret to transforming public education. I wont be able to recreate the three day workshop with multiple keynotes and breakout sessions presented by some of the leading experts on PLCs working in education today, but I will explain those questions.

First of all, those questions form the cornerstone of the work that teachers in PLCs do together. They were articulated by Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour. For further reading check out their books on PLCs.

Question 1: What do we want students to learn? This question is meant to be answered by teachers who collaborate together and work at the same grade level(s). These teachers must look at the standards and decide together what they guarantee that each of them will ensure that ALL students learn. What is non-negotiable? What, if not learned, would be disastrous for that student? Teachers need to commit to teaching those things as priorities. Not everything is of equal value. Teachers clarify and prioritize the standards together taking into account the intent of the standards and the needs of the students. This step can not be skipped, nor can it be mandated by above. This is where the team makes commitments to one another.

Question 2: How will we know if they have learned it? Now the teachers teach with the same objectives. They teach the best way each of them knows how. They decide on common formative assessments that will be given at approximately the same time. And when they have given those assessments and evaluated them, they come together to share their findings.

Question 3 & 4: What will we do if they don’t learn? What will we do if they already know it? These are the intervention and enrichment pieces, but there are a couple of important points to clarify if the PLC is to function properly. Firstly, we need to get vulnerable. Someone on your team will teach that particular concept most successfully and someone will teach it least successfully. Though there might be a nicer way to say that, this is where we feel threatened so we have to confront it. It must be visible so that the student learning can be addressed and this takes trust. Fundamentally, the teachers involved must see themselves as members of a team. Teachers in a PLC are not running side-by-side in a marathon, but rather rowing in the same boat (This was literally Rick DuFour’s analogy at the institute and it is a powerful shift in thinking). Secondly, the teachers need to take action with the information they obtain from looking at the results. That may include learning from the teacher who demonstrated the highest levels of student proficiency. It may also include having that teacher lead the intervention group for all of the students who have not learned. Nobody can meet the needs of all of their students by themselves. If we aren’t working as a team we don’t have a chance.

This process runs repeatedly and cycles through the key learning objectives for the students.

Time will be required and because we know it is a scarce commodity creativity will be necessary. One of the best ideas I have heard on creating time is to (occasionally) move the 30 minutes teachers are required to be available after school and combining it with the 30 minutes they are required to be there before school. In some cases you may be able to add an all-school activity to kick in another 15. All of this can be done without impacting buses, students, or families and could take place on a regular basis (with some contact negotiation).

This is the technical/structural shift, but the cultural shift may be the toughest to make (and hardest to recognize). This was brought to a very sharp point by Dr. Anthony Muhammad when he asked us to examine the achievement gap and equity from our own mindsets as well as within the de facto mindset of the system in general. More on this in another post…


Recently I read a New Yorker article about Brian Greene’s multimedia project, which paid tribute to some of Albert Einstein’s discoveries. It was launched on the centennial celebration of his general theory of relativity. Brian Greene is one of the more famous string theorists due to the popularity of his books which have included Fabric of the Cosmos and The Elegant Universe among others. He is a brilliant physicist and mathematician. In the article the author relates a story about Greene being set to the task of figuring out how many inches it is from here to the Andromeda galaxy by his father… when he was five. Not typical five-year-old work. Which then segues into a “consolation” for mathphobics that even Greene struggles to comprehend the homework assigned to his children in third and fifth grade.

“It’s all about strategies—‘Come up with a strategy’— and my kids are, like, ‘I don’t have a strategy, I just know it.’” Really? He has time for infinity, but can’t seem to piece together strategies for how students can learn to work with numbers? Continue reading

Common Ground

Because the topic of testing is one of the most timely and relevant intersections of policy and practice I’m going to take the risk that I am repeating some of the ideas that have appeared here and elsewhere. I’m trying to bring some of these ideas together, and hopefully I’m also adding something new. My frustration lies with our inability to find compromise, or even listen to each other for that matter. But we have to keep trying to talk, and we have to keep trying to listen. There will be some common ground.

I still have clear memories of taking standardized tests when I was in elementary school – for me it was the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or ITBS. It’s still etched in my mind: the new number two pencils, the sharpening, the interminable bubbles to be filled in, and little boxes for each letter in my name. From my first year teaching I have administered newer (and perhaps better) standardized tests to my students. There have been a few different iterations of year-end tests for my fifth grade students over the last ten years. Some years we have fewer test days, some years we have more. Some years we test on paper, some years we use computers. We all know standardized tests well – they have been with us forever it would seem, so what’s the problem? Continue reading

How to Take an Arrow to the Head

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Phineas Gage? In 1848, while packing explosives with a 43 inch long, 1.25 inch diameter iron tamping rod, an explosion sent the rod completely though his skull. He was never quite the same, but he miraculously survived.

Though this analogy might stretch the bounds of good taste, I wonder how I would ideally position my body to absorb the impact of using students’ test scores to evaluate me as a professional educator. It seems completely absurd to have this measure included in the Senate education bill.

The Seattle Times reported that the organization Stand for Children collected over 20,000 signatures to get this provision into the bill. The claim is that the teachers union and other lawmakers who oppose the bill are putting the needs of teachers before the needs of students.

What exactly are the needs of teachers being put before the needs of students? Is one the need to be treated fairly and professionally? That seems important. What is the need of students that is taking the back burner? Is it the need to have an engaged, highly educated, well-respected professional teacher working with them day in and day out, making a difference in their lives? That seems important too. Can’t we have both?

Though this is a scathing indictment, test scores can be predicted by poverty. This is not the fault of teachers, however. This is a problem that exists within the larger context of our society and must be solved within that context. It will never be solved at school, though education is absolutely a powerful force for change. sat

How does evaluating teachers on test scores make sense when this correlation has such a profound effect. Shouldn’t we motivate the best teachers to teach the students with the greatest needs? Tying evaluations to test scores de-incentivizes what we know needs to happen.

Add to this that there are only certain subjects that are tested in each grade level. It is simply not equitable to teachers to have evaluations based on subject matter tests when students do not have to take tests in all subject areas. How will a music teacher or an art teacher be evaluated? All teachers fall under the same contract, but they don’t all do the same exact jobs.

Finally there is the issue of the student scores themselves. The “Economic Policy Institute, Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers: [reports that Value-Added Measures] estimates have proven to be unstable across statistical models, years, and classes that teachers teach. One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%. (Scott McLeod) ”

So there’s that… they don’t work to evaluate teachers.

So what we are left with is a testing system that costs millions of tax-payer dollars, to administer hundreds of tests (of varying degrees of high stakes) to each student over the course of their K-12 years, taking away thousands of hours of real instruction to collect a massive amount of data that says very little.

If you want a system that works to build teacher responsibility and capacity this is the wrong way forward. This is a case of using the stick when it is a carrot we need. If it’s going to be the stick, or an arrow, or a 43 inch iron tamping rod headed towards me at a high velocity, I’d like to get out of its way. If it’s carrots, then I’d like to have a seat at the table.

Owning the Wheel

“Let’s not reinvent the wheel.”

I used to hear this a lot when I worked in the business world. Yes, absolutely we would all think… that’s been done already. Let’s not duplicate the work that someone has already done.

I often wondered why we didn’t say this more in education. Every state had their own standards and their own tests: there was an incredible amount of duplicated energy. Even district assessments varied from neighboring town to town.

Then we got the Common Core and I thought “Finally!” we’re going to do the work once, and it will be done well, and we will share it. I really didn’t think it would matter if the standards were more rigidly fixed than the previous state standards, because the energy we would all save seemed worth it.

Then we got (or will get) the tests. These have been created without district or state oversight. No parents, no teachers, no principals, or district superintendents will be able to easily modify these tests. No superintendent of public instruction for a given state will be able to easily modify much of anything about the tests – and that’s an optimistic appraisal.

So now I’m starting to wonder about that wheel.

Maybe we do need to recreate the wheel. In the end, at least then we have our own wheel. Ownership matters. All of the sudden we realize we’re riding in the backseat of the car. I wasn’t expecting this when Common Core arrived.

What if we all started with Common Core – what if we adopted Common Core – but then we raised it as our own baby? Each state could make changes, and though they would be weighty decisions they would be possible. Or maybe we could share custody with all of the other states. Perhaps state superintendents could meet every couple of years to propose and then decide on changes.

The assessment piece is even more problematic. Though we might all strive for the same goals, judgment of success is subjective and complex. Coming from the American roots of local control over local schools it just seems like a great distance to have traveled. I think we’re going to need a set of wheels to get that back.

Connecting to the Conversation


Recently I got better connected to conversations on public education in the United States. I got my Twitter account up and started following people talking about our K-12 schools. You might know how that story goes. I knew a few people I wanted to follow, and then this person connected to that person and before I knew it I found it was hard to keep up.

My entire Twitter experience is all about professional engagement. My head is spinning with all of the information, but I have very little chance to be grounded in those conversations here in my school where we can craft solutions, visions, and help shape the course of a student’s day, month, year, life. Follow Diane Ravitch’s blog alone and your head will probably spin too.

One of the people I follow who makes a great deal of sense to me is Pasi Sahlberg. I had the opportunity to be a part of a one-day “Finnish Lessons” seminar with him at UW a couple of years ago, and I saw him again last year at the Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, DC. He makes a number of compelling arguments about how schools in the United States could revolutionize their approach to teaching and learning. There are many societal issues that are out of reach for schools to take on, so I’d like to focus on one that seems accessible and almost desperately necessary for teacher survival:

for Collaboration.

Continue reading

My Test Anxiety

A variety of assessments given to students throughout the year serve to inform teachers on how their students are progressing. The typical pre-test post-test cycle is an important measure of learning. Formative assessments, informally gathered during the course of a lesson or unit help direct instruction. Teachers and students would be a little lost without this feedback loop.

Administrators also gain insight into the success of their program(s) through the careful examination of student data. Results may be used to allocate resources or identify areas that fall outside the norms – pointing towards highly effective instruction or areas that need improvement.

I don’t think that anyone can argue against the value of assessment generally. That being said, there are many people who wonder about the effective utilization of standardized, system-level assessment in schools today. Are we getting an appropriate return on the investment of time and energy (on the part of students, teachers, and administrators)? How much should districts and states spend to gather data on student achievement? How can we minimize any negative impacts that come with high-stress, high-stakes tests?

The NEA recently published a list of awards called apples and onions. Apples are for great players in public education and onions are for not so great players. They gave an onion to “High-Stakes Testing Zealots.” While Arne Duncan says that these tests are “sucking the oxygen out of the room” and NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia says “all the evidence that can be gathered shows that it is corrupting what it means to teach and what it means to learn,” still the battle rages on (NEA Today).

I’ve been wondering about the impact the Smarter Balanced tests will have on my students since I took a pilot test last spring. My sense was that it would be extremely rigorous and time consuming for my students. The Oregonian recently published an article projecting that about 60% of Oregon students will not pass these tests this spring. What will this data tell us? How will we use it to improve instruction?

It is a worthy goal to give students rigorous tests that evaluate their ability to demonstrate conceptual understanding and strategic thinking, analyze information, and make compelling arguments. But do we want to give this type of test to every student every year?

The costs are high in all regards to this type of census-based testing. When I read that Finland uses a sample-based no-stakes national test as a means of informing policy makers I was struck by its simplicity (This article summarizes the point, but the book Finnish Lessons is a fantastic read.). Why test everyone everywhere when a sample population will provide rich feedback to policy makers and administrators? Why make the tests high stakes – for students, teachers, administrators, schools, districts, and states? Yes – we’re actually doing this. Do we really need to gather such a massive amount of data to make informed decisions? How do I justify that need to my students?

The fear that drives this kind of accountability contrasts the notion that schools, districts, and states already take responsibility for the quality of education in our schools. In any event, the use of these kinds of tests to prove otherwise is an abuse of their purpose. These tests are designed to assess student performance – not the performance of the system at large.

NBCT Reflections

A year into being an NBCT, I realize that I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Going into it, I thought it would be a great way to improve my practice, gain the required professional certification in my state, and not least significantly, get a bonus for all of the hard work. There was also the somewhat less tangible prize that seemed to revolve around status and professionalism.

I first heard the call to “lift up the profession” in a presentation NBCT Jeff Charbonneau gave last spring. He spoke about teachers building up teachers and schools through positive talk. This past weekend I attended the Leadership Conference held by CSTP in Stevenson, Washington where I began to learn how to turn that talk into action.

Reflecting after the conference, I realize that National Board Certification is mainly about lifting up the profession. It is absolutely about making teachers more effective in the classroom, but it is also about empowering teachers to lead outside of the classroom. That less tangible piece I mentioned above is taking shape as I begin to participate in the NBCT network. I have a very different idea of what my role can be than I once did.

The journey that started with attending JumpStart and then working through and completing National Boards seems to have been but a prelude. As I come to the top of one small mountain I realize just how much farther the road goes. Traveling this road is a little daunting, but now I know I’m surrounded by a community of varied and vibrant NBCTs and organizations that support teachers.

Thanks to collaboration between WEA, OSPI, and CSTP, more and more teachers from Washington are achieving National Board Certification. If you haven’t already, consider following their lead – talk to an NBCT, you might be surprised what you find out. If you’ve taken that first step, take another – read the Teacher Leadership Skills Framework developed by CSTP. If you are farther down the road, tell your story. What doors has it opened up for you?

Class Size – A Math Problem

Relationships are central to teaching, as we all know, and as class sizes creep up the ability of a teacher to have meaningful relationships with students diminishes greatly. Meaningful feedback, one of the most critical aspects of a teacher’s work, is a function of the time available divided by the number of students. Hope made a great point in her post last week that student-teacher ratios are one of the key measures of great colleges and private schools. In thinking about the student-teacher ratio, I am reminded of an interesting math problem known as the “handshake problem.” It’s about relationships – not just student-teacher relationships, but student-student relationships. All of these interactions impact the dynamic of the class.

The handshake problem is a great problem for early algebra students because it is easily understandable, slightly mind-boggling, and it is readily solved with algebra. It goes like this: Given a room with a particular number of people, how many handshakes will take place if each person shakes hands with everyone once?

We know that Person A needs to shake hands with Person B and that this will mean that B has already shaken hands with A and thus does not need to repeat this particular handshake… uh oh. Continue reading