Author Archives: Tom White

School Choice

I’m getting a new student tomorrow. I haven’t met him yet, but I’ve met his discipline record, and it’s staggering. He’s packed more misbehavior into his short life than most of us commit in a lifetime. Not only that, but academically he’s at least three years below the rest of my class.

Before school I’m going to meet with my new student, along with his mom, the principal, the assistant principal, the dean of students, the school counselor, the learning support team and the para-educator who will work with him one-on-one throughout the entire school day. We’ll review his IEP and work with the behavior plan established at his old school in a way that fits the resources and capacity of ours.

How do I feel about my new student?

It would be easy to resent his arrival and fret over the possibility that he’ll disrupt the carefully constructed learning community that I’ve established. I could easily wonder “Why me?” and look for every opportunity to kick him out of the classroom, perhaps for good.

But I’m optimistic. I sincerely want the best for this little guy, and I honestly believe that my classroom will be the best place for him.  I want to work with my team to make this situation successful. I want desperately for him to look back in ten years and see his fourth grade year as a turning point.

And trust me, he will.

Coincidentally, our next Secretary of Education will spend tomorrow explaining herself to the Senate Education Committee. She’ll tell them about the wonderful things she’s done as a billionaire philanthropist in her home state of Michigan.

Most of those things involve pushing the agenda of school choice. School choice advocates want to increase the number of charter schools and they want parents to use vouchers to enroll their children in private schools using tax money that would otherwise have been used for a public school education.

Charter schools and vouchers can be great for those families who take advantage of them. Although many don’t, some charter schools outperform non-charter public schools serving the same population. Some private schools do, as well.

But not everyone gets to go to those charter schools and private schools. And sometimes those schools decide that certain students “aren’t a good fit” for their school. And those students get to go back to the regular public school, a school that has no choice but to accept that student and goes out of its way to accommodate him or her. The kids who do stay at those schools stand to benefit when the “misfits” leave. Their classrooms are quieter and there’s nobody slowing them down.

And if that wasn’t unfair enough, the charter schools and private schools then get to brag about how their schools are outperforming the nearby public schools. Even when they aren’t.

I wish Betsy DeVos (and her boss) nothing but the best. She is, after all, about to be running the federal department that oversees my profession. And he’s going to be president. But I want both of them to remember that public schools are not just the default choice for those waiting to be rescued. Public schools are, and always have been, thriving communities that enthusiastically and effectively serve every kid who happens to live nearby.

Including my new student.

Keeping the Bonus

downloadLast month we had an incredible event. Nearly 100 NBCTs met to talk about how to preserve the National Board bonus in Washington State. My role was interesting; I got to monitor the conversations at seven different tables and glean the common, high-leverage ideas that emerged. What I learned was this:

National Board Certified Teachers feel that the certification process has made them into better teachers. Many, if not most of them, were motivated to complete the process because of the bonus. Most, if not all of them, are convinced that the bonus is an important part of our state’s overall education system because of the impact that National Board Certification has on student learning. And finally, there was a broad consensus that the state should integrate the bonus into the Salary Allocation Model.

Making that happen is going to be difficult. First of all, this is probably the year when the Legislature tackles the McCleary Funding Issue. Suffice to say it’s going to be expensive, which means everything the state spends on schools will be looked at closely, including the NB bonus.

Furthermore, no one in Olympia has made any indication that they’re looking at significantly increasing revenue. A lack of increased revenue matters because the number of NBCTs has remained level since 2014, when the National Board revised its assessment process. Next year, however, the number of NBCTs could nearly double, depending on the success of the candidates who’ve been working through the new process. Our state is already spending upward of $50 million on NBCT bonuses; increasing that amount by 50 to 100% will give our lawmakers pause.

And finally, the Legislature that meets next month is not the Legislature that approved the $5000 bonus and the additional $5000 for teachers in high-needs schools. On average, state legislatures have about a 20% turnover whenever there’s an election, and there have been four elections since 2009. Should they decide to dump the bonus, there aren’t many lawmakers who would be killing a program they helped initiate.

So how do we go about convincing a bunch of lawmakers to spend an incredible and growing amount of money that doesn’t exist on a bonus they probably didn’t vote for in the first place?

Simple. You show them the standards that we, as NBCTs, met when we certified. You show them the standards and you tell them you met those standards. You tell them that going through National Board Certification helped you rise to that level. And then you give them examples of what you do every day in your classroom that illustrates how you embody those standards. The nice thing about the National Board Standards is that they’re written in the form of a description of an accomplished teacher. I don’t see how anyone who reads and understands those standards could look at a teacher who met those standard and deny them a $5000 bonus. I really don’t.

The only hard part is logistics. Somehow we need to get an NBCT and a set of standards in front of every lawmaker in Olympia for about an hour. It sounds complicated. But it also sounds important. It sounds like another incredible event.

Who’s in?

My Post-Election Lesson

220px-us_marshals_with_young_ruby_bridges_on_school_stepsI had plans for last Wednesday.

We’ve been studying historical fiction and I was planning to teach my fourth graders about Ruby Bridges. I was going to have them write an historical fiction piece about her first day at school. But as I was getting ready for school, my voice of reason reconsidered. Somehow the idea of telling my diverse group of students about a six-year-old girl who endured a storm of racial epithets didn’t seem appropriate after what happened Tuesday night.

But another part of my mind pushed back. I could have pointed out that Ruby had every right to be at that school even though she didn’t feel welcome. I could have explained that American citizenship doesn’t have degrees; the Muslim kid in my class who was born two months after his parents fled Libya is just as American as his 55-year-old teacher who’s a direct descendant from a Jamestown settler.

I could have pointed out that Ruby had her classroom to herself. None of the other families wanted their children to study with her. Many of them left the school altogether, not unlike what will happen when the Department of Education begins to push for “School Choice,” a thin veil for a voucher system, sold as way for poor families to enroll their children in private schools. In reality, of course, the only beneficiaries are those families who are not only able to transport their kids to private schools, but affluent enough to make up the difference between their vouchers and private school tuition.

I could have pointed out that only one teacher in Ruby’s new school would agree to teach her. I could have shared how teachers aren’t perfect. Like most humans, they can be petulant and small. Even now, we can sometimes dispense with restraint and politesse and gripe about the amount of resources we pour into our ELL programs or the lack of Christmas carols during the Winter Concert. And while it’s one thing to notice that our Hi-Cap programs, honors classes and high school orchestras are dominated by Asian Americans, it’s another thing altogether to complain about it. I could have warned my students that restraint and politesse will probably be in decline throughout the near future, even in their teachers.

I could have done all these things, but I didn’t. On Wednesday my kids were stunned. Some were terrified. Their families came from virtually everywhere: Mexico, El Salvador, Columbia, Ukraine, Libya, Eretria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and Korea. They may have come to America for economic opportunity, but they came to our community because they feel welcome. Now they aren’t so sure.

I didn’t teach them about Ruby Bridges. I couldn’t. Instead I taught them about the Pig War and let them write historical fiction pieces about that. The Pig War, I explained, was a stupid little event in which American and English settlers on San Juan Island weren’t getting along very well and nearly took up arms after an American farmer shot an English pig that wandered into his yard. (In an irony lost on my students, it was President James Buchanan that smoothed things over and prevented the actual war.)

They had fun with their stories and it was just the distraction we needed. And although I told them the Pig War happened in 1859, I didn’t tell them it happened one year before an election that was more divisive than one we just endured.

Nor did I tell them what happened after that election, which was way worse than anything Ruby Bridges endured.

National Board Policy Summit: A Salary Proposal

butterI’ve been on more committees, task forces and planning teams than I care to remember. Many of them were productive and well worth my time. One particular team produced this, which was awesome. If that experience represents the apex of my career as a committee member, then the low point – the nadir, if you will – came when I led a task force charged with choosing the interior color of our school. After 45 minutes listening to a debate on the relative merits of “Warm Butter” vs “Morning Lemon,” I fled. I can’t even remember which name for yellow we chose.

I’m sure everyone has a “committee story.” In fact, turn to the person next to you and share an experience you’ve had, positive or negative, which entailed working on a committee.

OK, eyes back up here.

If there is one committee whose work I respect more than any other, and whose final product received far less fanfare than it deserved, it would have to be the Washington State Compensation Technical Working Group of 2012. Yes, that is a mouthful, but those people, all sixteen of them, came up with this report. Read it if you want, but the part I want to focus on is this:

cwg-model

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is their proposal for a teacher salary schedule. For our purposes, we’re going to ignore the actual dollar amounts; that’s a topic for another time. What’s more important are the numbers below the dollar amounts. Those are the factors by which the base salary is multiplied to arrive at each of the ten salary figures.

I also want you to notice the columns. This model provides a salary increase for teachers who complete their ProCert, a feature that’s sorely lacking in our current schedule. The whole point of ProCert, as I understand it, is for teachers to prove that they’ve reached the second tier of their professional growth. In other words, they’ve shown that they are more valuable than they were when they started. Compelling teachers to fork over upward of $600 to complete an assessment proving their increased value, and not paying them more after they’ve done that just doesn’t seem fair. This model corrects that.

It also adds a column for National Board Certification, instead of our current practice of adding a bonus on top of a regular salary. I like that for two reasons. First of all, it bakes the bonus into the salary schedule, making it more permanent and less subject to the ebb and flow of the economy. It also implies that every teacher should aspire to NB certification as a career goal; there it is: on the bottom right corner of the table, waiting for and calling out to everyone.

As I’ve shared recently, about 100 teachers will gather later this month to focus on two issues: the future of second-tier teacher certification in our state, and a sustainable model for rewarding National Board Certification.

In my view, the salary model above – the one pounded out by the Technical Working Group of 2012 – serves as a good starting point for the discussion. I have a few qualms with it; like the fact that there’s no yearly raise, only big jumps ever four or five years, or the fact that there’s no raise at all after year 10; but like I said, it could certainly serve as a starting point in the discussion.

And what a discussion it’ll be. The policy summit is on November 19th. Stay tuned to this blog for more information before, during and after the event. And if you made plans to attend, I’ll see you there!

And I promise we won’t talk about yellow paint.

Tell Your NBCT Story

imageEvery National Board Certified Teacher has a story. This is mine.

As an elementary teacher I’m responsible for teaching every subject, which includes social studies. And in fourth grade social studies focuses on Washington State. One of the concepts that my students have always struggled with is the Rainshadow Effect. Over the years I’ve tried everything: different videos, different texts, relief maps, you name it. The results have been discouraging. When I assess my students, they generally don’t understand the Rainshadow Effect.

There was a time in my career when I would have simply let it go. After all, the Rainshadow Effect will never show up on anyone’s standardized test. It’s only social studies, for crying out loud; give it a shot and move on. If they get it, great; if they don’t, they don’t.

But I couldn’t let it go. The Rainshadow Effect isn’t just a random meteorological phenomenon covered in chapter three of our textbook. It explains the major differences in the regions of our state, which is what chapter four is all about. It also explains the main differences between the Plateau Indian tribes and the Coastal tribes, which is the essence of chapter five. Not only that, but the Rainshadow Effect is one of the main reasons for all the dams along the Columbia River, not to mention the fact that Central Washington is a major producer of fruit, which largely explains its large Hispanic population. Chapters eight, nine and twelve.

The Rainshadow Effect is a big deal and I’ve been determined to get it right.

This year I tried something different. I put a fan on one end of a table in the front of the room. I asked five volunteers to place their backpacks in a large pile on the middle of the table. Then I took a wet sponge. “The prevailing wind, represented by this fan, blows wet air toward the Cascade Mountains, represented by these backpacks. When the air hits the mountains, it has to go up. When air rises, it gets cold, and cold air can’t hold water very well. That’s why I’m squeezing this sponge and that’s why these backpacks are getting wet. As the air passes over the mountains, it goes back down and warms up. Warm air hold water better. That’s why I’m not squeezing the sponge anymore, and that’s why there’s less rain in Eastern Washington. That’s the Rainshadow Effect.”

I discovered the same thing Annie Sullivan discovered 119 years ago: pouring cold water on something increasing student achievement. For some reason, my students loved watching the backpacks get wet. And they now understand the Rainshadow Effect. All of them.

Washington State spends $50 million on stipends for NBCTs. That number could nearly double in a few years, and with education funding moving to the front burner this Legislative Season, some people in Olympia (where it rains a lot) are going to be asking whether we’re getting our money’s worth.

There are different ways to answer that question. Some people prefer data, and the data certainly looks good. My problem with the data is that it’s too limiting: it focuses too much on test scores. Teaching kids the Rainshadow Effect will never show up in that data.

I prefer to justify our National Board stipend by telling stories. Because every National Board Certified Teacher has a story illustrating how the process made them a better teacher. When I went through the process I became a better teacher, a teacher committed to student learning. A teacher who knows the subject matter and how to teach it to kids. A teacher who is responsible for managing and monitoring student learning. A teacher who learns from experience and a teacher who is a member of a learning community.

What’s your story?

NBCT Policy Summit

imageIn 1999 I was a relatively young National Board candidate. There were about 30 of us going through the process in our state, aspiring to join the seven or so Washington State NBCTs. Someone sponsored a reception in Seattle and then-governor Gary Locke was the featured speaker. While explaining his proposed 15% NBCT bonus, he remarked that someone in the Legislature asked him, “What if all of these candidates pass? How will we afford those bonuses?”

To which he replied, “What a wonderful problem to have.”

Well, here we are, seventeen years later, and it’s still a wonderful problem to have. The 15% bonus never really caught fire, but we do get an annual $5150, double for those who teach in high-needs schools. The wonderful problem, of course, is that there’s so many of us. Those seven NBCTs have swelled to over eight thousand, which is wonderful, but the price tag for those bonuses has swelled to over $50 million, which is kind of a problem.

To solve this wonderful problem we’ve decided to have our third NBCT Policy Summit, an event which brings NBCTs together, along with stakeholders from the Legislature and various state boards. It’s scheduled for November 19th in SeaTac.

Why a Policy Summit and why now? Three reasons:

First of all, you’re probably aware that Washington’s education funding situation is a work in progress. If our students are lucky, this could be the year when our legislature finally figures out how to provide an equitable way to fund all schools. But that’s going to involve a close look by those people at everything we spend on education in this state. Including the National Board bonus, which has become a serious amount of money.

Furthermore, that amount has hit something of a false plateau. That’s because the NatIonal Board revised its assessment process two years ago, so there’s been virtually no new NBCTs for the past two years and won’t be for another year, when candidates are finally able complete the whole process. However, we’ve got over 2,000 candidates in the pipeline and if most of them certify and a lot of them teach in high-needs schools, that $50 million could nearly double, resulting in some serious sticker-shock.

Finally, ProTeach, the default second-tier certification in our state, has been taking some heat of late. Teachers who have gone through it seem to have a dim view of the whole process, to the point where representatives at the most recent WEA RA voted to have the union look into getting rid of ProTeach. That would leave National Board Certification as our only second tier certification, something it was never designed to be.

So there’s some serious problems to solve. And we need your help. By now, if you’re an NBCT in Washington you’ve receive multiple emails inviting you to the summit.

Answer one of them.

We need your help figuring out what the future of National Board certification in Washington – including the bonus – will look like.

We’ve got a wonderful problem to solve.

Teacher Dreams

imageIt always starts with a dream. A real dream; not an aspiration or goal, but the kind you have when you sleep. One year it was a poorly-executed field trip to Manhattan (with fourth graders) and another year I had a class of forty but no classroom. I was expected to teach them out on the lawn.

In this year’s late-summer teacher dream I was giving a practice spelling test to my kiddos and the third word on the list was “sh*t.” It was a difficult situation, especially trying to come up with an appropriate context sentence. I remember silently cursing the publishers from whom we adopted the curriculum.

My annual awkward teacher dream is how I know my summer is winding down. The next phase involves completely going over my plans for the year. Then there’s the “Leadership Team Retreat” where we revisit our School Improvement Plan and chart out corresponding Professional Development. After that there’s a few days of moving furniture and putting up bulletin boards, some whole-staff meetings, a slew of online, state-mandated health trainings and before I know it, kids.

But let me back up a bit, to the part where I go over my plans for the year. One thing I’ve noticed is that as the years go by, I find myself changing things less and less. Back in the day, I would practically reinvent myself every summer. Different homework plans, new classroom management programs, alternative seating plans, you name it. But now, thirty-three years in, I find myself merely tweaking.

When I first noticed this trend I felt lazy. Is this what it feels like to be burned-out old-timer? Perhaps. But maybe it’s what it feels like to be a competent veteran. I think about the major changes I used to make – classroom management, for example – and I honestly don’t feel compelled to make any major changes. Not because I’m afraid of the effort, but because it worked last year. And the year before that.

Change is good. But so is repeating something that still works. I guess the challenge is trying to figure out what to keep and what to tweak.

And believe it or not, the only thing I’m going to totally overhaul this year is my spelling curriculum.

I wonder why.

Second Tier Certification in Washington: A Year of Reckoning

Conroy DuringMy youngest son recently announced he was thinking about becoming a teacher. “What are all the steps you have to go through?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “First you need to get into college. Then you’ll spend your first two years taking general courses designed to give you a rounded education. After that you’ll apply to the college of education at your university. They’ll want you to have pretty good grades and they’ll make you take a basic skills test to make sure you have a decent foundation of knowledge and skills.”

“That sounds reasonable,” he said.

“And once you get into the program you’ll focus on classes that train you how to teach. You’ll learn about child development, lesson planning, classroom management and how to sequence instruction. You’ll also spend a lot of time out in classrooms observing and teaching small groups and short lessons. You’ll write a lot of reports on your observations and reflections. During your last semester you’ll take over someone’s classroom and teach full time. During all of this you’ll get lots of feedback and help from the teachers you work with as well as the faculty from your college.”

“Is that it?” Continue reading

Read Those Standards!

CaptureI recently celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary, and as it happened, my wife and I attended a wedding three days later. While watching the wedding my thoughts naturally turned to the differences between a wedding and a marriage. It’s one thing to promise everything to your spouse; it’s another thing altogether to renew that promise year in and year out.

Those same feelings returned the following week while working with a massive group of National Board candidates. I was a trainer at Jump Start, WEA’s pre-candidacy program for teachers pursuing National Board certification.

One of the many activities through which we lead our candidates is deceptively simple. We have them read their standards. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is, after all, (as the name implies) grounded in standards. In fact, the NB spent the first five years of its life focused on writing those standards – 25 sets in all – so that teachers would have something rigorous to which to aspire.

The process of certification is essentially providing evidence that one’s practice aligns with those standards. Therefore it’s incumbent upon each candidate to thoroughly understand those standards.

And because those standards aren’t going to read themselves, we make them read their standards, closely and thoroughly.

But here’s the thing: It’s impossible to read a set of standards and completely retain them. After all, a set of National Board standards is roughly the size of a thick magazine. With no ads or pictures.

So what I try to do each summer is re-read my standards. Front to back. And I usually do. It’s not what I’d call great literature, in the order of Faulkner, Twain or even Richard Brautigan, but it’s not bad. In fact, you might even call it inspirational.

So I’m challenging you to read your standards. Set aside a few hours before school gets crazy, go online, download them and go for it. You’ll be glad you did.

Think of it as a renewal of vows. To your profession and to your students.

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!