Category Archives: Current Affairs

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.

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.

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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Goals for a New School Year: #ObserveMe

I first spotted the #ObserveMe hashtag on a leisurely scroll through my Twitter feed. This piqued my curiosity. Who’s observing me? What are they observing? As I spiraled down the internet, I found that Math teacher, Robert Kaplinsky, is challenging educators to rethink the way we pursue feedback by making it easy and immediately obtainable. It’s simple. Make a form that says something like “Hi I’m ____. I would like feedback on the following goals:_____”. There is no right way to set up your #ObserveMe sign. Then, adjacent to this invite place a reflection tool. From reflection half-sheets to QR codes connected to google spreadsheets, a teacher can embrace any way that is easy (and I’d argue most meaningful) for them to receive this feedback.

I discovered that while #ObserveMe isn’t quite trending yet, it’s catching fire even at the university level. In teacher prep, some professors are using it as a way to model to preservice teachers the need for a clean feedback loop. Today’s teachers are constantly working to fight the isolation that can happen in this profession. We are also always looking for ways to improve and receiving meaningful feedback on our instructional moves is hard to find. Here’s what I like about Kaplinsky’s challenge to teachers.

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It increases the frequency of feedback. With #ObserveMe, I don’t need to wait for my administrator’s scheduled visit. I don’t need to wait for end of unit or end of course student reflections. I don’t need to wait for my instructional coach to find time to come into my classroom. I don’t need to wait for a colleague to get a sub so they can meet with me about student learning. In fact, this has the potential to give me more, real, immediate feedback from a variety of perspectives than anything I’ve seen this far in my eleven years of teaching.

ObserveMe-5-300x232It forces me to have a growth mindset. If this sign is on my door, I am telling the world that I want to grow. I am inviting anyone to come in and comment on my instruct. Yeah, that’s a little scary. But it’s a healthy risk that models vulnerability and openness to others. Who could pop in? A visitor. A parent. The librarian. Another teacher on planning period. I’m both thrilled and terrified at the possibilities. The #ObserveMe challenge reminds us that teaching is relational and we need all types of perspectives to help us grow. This model is based on trust. By opening myself up to the community, I am making them a part of my learning process and saying that I value their voice in my growth.Alissa

It will definitely impact students. If we begin the year with this signage, we are modeling the culture of learning we are trying to cultivate in students. We should be getting feedback that we can implement the next day. I will have concrete date for how I implemented my feedback and can brag about that to my administrator at my evaluation (wink, wink). This has the possibility of transforming my instruction and hopefully inspiring the observer to work on something in their classroom.

 

So far, a handful of teachers in my school are ready with their signs (they gave me permission to include below). I’m hoping our vulnerability will encourage others in the school to jump on board, foster deeper conversations about goal setting, and improve our practice.

Nate

 

Anyone else up for the challenge?

If you’re on Twitter, post a picture and use the hashtag

#ObserveMe

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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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.

Lessons from the Road

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

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

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

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

1. Don’t be afraid to speak truth.

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

2. Learn to vet all opportunities against your values.

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

3. Find your tribe.

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

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

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

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

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.