Category Archives: Education Policy

Your Salary and Why “Staff Mix” Matters

 

OSPI recently released its response to the EHB 2242 requirement that it provide salary grid recommendations for districts in the legislature’s new plan for funding educator salaries.

As a refresher: At it’s simplest, the legislature required that starting salaries at entry-level must be at least $40,000 per year, maximum salaries can start no higher than $90,000 per year, but regardless of those numbers, the average salary (allocation) per certificated staff member will sit at $64,000. In other words, no matter what a district chooses to pay its teachers, the state will only provide that district $64K per FTE cert staff.

By doling out a flat rate per teacher, the “staff mix” component of how schools were previously funded has been eliminated.

This is something all educators in Washington need to take notice of.

Staff mix is based on the reality that a district with more experienced staff (who receive higher pay on any salary schedule) will need a higher state allocation than a district with less experienced staff placed lower on that schedule. The Olympia School District did a great job of articulating the problem with eliminating staff mix: Districts staffed with experienced teachers will not receive adequate funding to pay teacher salaries. The illustrative scenarios below are drawn directly from the OSD’s communication about the fiscal impact of the loss of staff mix on their district alone:

  • DISTRICT A has 100 teachers, and all 100 are early career teachers. As a result, District A receives more than adequate state funding to staff its schools. In fact, it receives more than it needs.
  • DISTRICT B has 100 teachers, with roughly 50 more experienced than average and 50 less experienced than the state average (not the district average). District B received exactly the right amount of state funding to adequately fund salaries.
  • DISTRICT C has 100 teachers, with roughly 70 on the more-experienced side and 30 on the less-experienced side. Provided only a flat rate per teacher, the district cannot afford to pay salaries for experienced staff.

It’s a mess: When the state funds based on an average (rather than staff mix), those 90K salaries are a smokescreen for the unfortunate reality that such a model basically requires that large numbers of teachers cycle out of the profession well before they achieve that 90K salary in order for the state’s flat-rate model to be sustainable. A compensation model that banks on high rates of teacher turnover in order to even work doesn’t seem like it is addressing the actual problem of compensating teachers in a way that recruits and retains the best. The only other guaranteed option is to simply pay every teacher the exact same salary. That might seem the simple and logical solution, but let’s pause to consider the impact this would have on recruiting and retaining quality teachers who in other work sectors in the real world would expect their pay to increase with added experience, training, and expertise.

(While we’re on the topic, here are my thoughts on why it matters to pay teachers more.) 

The OLD salary allocation model, even with its flaws (including small numbers), at least based salary allocations on who that school actually employed. That allocation, based on actual staff numbers and experience levels, meant that even two districts with the exact same number of teachers, might receive different total allocations from the state because one staff might have a different “mix” of teachers with different levels of experience or advanced credits.

While responding to the legislature’s mandate to produce model salary grids for districts to consider, Superintendent Reykdal makes the point succinctly: “In the absence of a ‘staff mix’ factor that was eliminated by the Legislature beginning next school year, drafting a sample salary grid for districts has little meaning” (Source) If the state only funds $64K per teacher, per year, there is no “prototypical salary grid” that will make sense given that every single district in the state has a different staff mix.

I reiterate, it is a mess. In the coming legislative session, we as educators need to help our leaders understand what a mess they’ve created…and that restoring staff mix to the funding formula is a simple, do-able solution.

Making a safer classroom for students’ gender identities

On the first day of school this year, I asked my students – 6th graders – to write down their personal preferred pronouns on an index card, along with other info about themselves. I demonstrated writing mine (she/her) on the document camera, and gave other pronoun examples: he/him, they/theirs.

I got a few blank stares, and a few clarifying questions. Mostly I saw expressions that belied the feeling, “Uh, why are you asking me this?” (Or so I assume.)

I was posing this question to them because asking about others’ preferred pronouns has become common practice in more and more of the other spheres of my life. Why wouldn’t I introduce this practice in an art room, where I want to foster trust, and create a safe space for sharing essential aspects of ourselves?

As a cisgender woman (I identify as the same gender that I was assigned at birth), sometimes telling my pronouns feels tedious (“Nothing surprising here…”). But I agree with the idea that our society is a safer, better place for everyone when we all define and redefine our gender expression throughout our lives. 

My students are young – eleven years old, mostly. They are growing up in a world that has categories for gender expression that certainly weren’t available to me in my small town in the 90’s, when I was in 6th grade. Language is continually evolving and shifting as our collective understanding of gender shifts: labels like “gender-non-conforming,” “non-binary,” even “transgender,” are relatively new. The term “intersex” might not be new, but understanding of it as an identity is changing.

When I read students’ index cards later, I was touched by the fact that they simply did it – they wrote down their preferred pronouns, even if it felt like a “No duh,” and maybe that act, alone, got them thinking about gender in new ways. I regretted not having them share their pronouns with others in their table groups – that’s at least as important as telling me. I made a note to myself to do that part differently on the first day of school next year.

A few weeks later, we were watching a short video interview with the artist Louie Gong – he talks about his identities. This idea, that we all have many identities, was new to many of them. I used some examples, “Maybe you identify as a young person, as a Muslim, as a boy, as a skateboarder, as an East African.” The concept that identities are overlapping, and not necessarily fixed, connects to their understanding of their gender. You might be “he/him” today, and “they/them” next September.

I haven’t yet seen examples of students explicitly exploring their gender identities in their artwork, but then again: when was the last time I made artwork directly about my own identity as “female”? Maybe it’s creeping in, in their sketchbooks, or in questions I hear about whether the people in their drawings look “like a girl” or “like a boy”?

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction outlines the rights of WA state students around Gender Identity and Expression. “Students have the right to express their gender at school – within the constraints of the school’s dress code – without discrimination or harassment.” But how do we prevent discrimination and harassment?

Students also have a right to use restrooms and locker rooms “consistent with their gender identity.” A federal decision in 2016 requires all states to commit to these policies to protect transgender youth, or risk losing federal funding. 

My school has a single gender-neutral, single-occupancy bathroom available to students – it’s near the main office, and I used it one day last week. I noticed some discreet graffiti along the doorframe inside. “Hey queers.” “If you’re cis and straight, don’t use this bathroom.” I moved in to look closely and saw more. “I want to die” was followed by a suicide hotline number in different handwriting.

How do we develop students’ empathy and understanding for others’ gender expression, and for their own? A gender-neutral bathroom is a great start, institutionally, for protecting the needs of transgender students. I’m also heartened by the ways that queer students are showing up for each other – through sharpie messages on the walls, and otherwise. But we need classrooms, and hallways, and locker rooms that are safer and more welcoming of all of our unique gender expressions and bodies.

I’m looking for more ways to expand students’ understanding of their own gender identities, and I hope that creates more appreciation for others’ evolving selves.  

Two Chairs

Two chairs always sit outside my classroom door. Sometimes more; never one. It is my “office” where much of the real impact of being present with students happens. Here is where I meet, knee-to-knee, to talk with students about the worries and troubles of their lives; the things making them late for class, dull-eyed and even duller-spirited. Words between us are sometimes whispered, sometimes cried out in anguish and sometimes only said with the slow body language of a slight nod and downcast eyes.To write this blog, I flipped through my now two-decades-old book. In nice, quiet, rural America…

“Someone I love was raped last night at a party at our house. I want to beat up my father because he was too drunk to help her.”

“That guy my mom is dating? He keeps coming into my room at night.”

“I can’t breath when I am taking a test.”

“Those are cat scratches, I promise.”

As their teacher, I can help with the test anxiety issue. That I can do. Let’s talk about anxiety management.

The other “Big Three” sexual, physical and mental abuses. CPS calls made, perhaps an investigation. And then often nothing….Rarely do I see a child removed from their home. Far more often, the child’s world is disrupted for a moment and then it is back to life as normal.

It is obvious my students need a counselor for the trauma. But wait. We do not have one. Being a K-8 school, we are not required to even have one. Levy dollars would have to be spent to hire a counselor. Levy dollars in high poverty, rural schools are hard to come by. They are reserved for things like collapsing roofs and cracking foundations. These are things people understand and know how to fix. Mental health issues? Collapsing children with cracked foundations? Not so easy to understand. Or fix.

According to Washington State law, high schools are required to have at least one counselor. Apparently suicidal feelings, deep depressions, and good old garden-variety panic attacks are only for whose main concerns are dating and driver licenses. If only that were true. These issues, sadly, are in my book too.

There is not a lot of room for jealousy by the K-8 schools of high school counselors. According to the RCWs (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=28A.410.043), the role of a school counselor is defined by our state is “a professional educator who holds a valid school counselor certification as defined by the professional educator standards board. The purpose and role of the school counselor is to plan, organize, and deliver a comprehensive school guidance and counseling program that personalizes education and supports, promotes, and enhances the academic, personal, social, and career development of all students…” (emphasis added).

I just got the first of my own five children through high school and launched into college. I know what goes into that process. The job description of a school counselor? That is a tall order for ONE person to accomplish for sometimes over a thousand students. How could each student’s personal development be supported, promoted or even enhanced? How can they help those that are struggling the most when counselors are being asked to do all of the other tasks on their plate? What will be the result if they can’t?

Beginning in 1995, a long-term study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html) or ACE, explores just that question. It is composed of a simple questionnaire about negative incidents that may have occurred in childhood. The results showed that the higher the participant’s score on the ACE, the greater the risk of experiencing poor physical and mental health, and negative social consequences later in life, higher blood pressure, depression, and more prison time, just to name a few. Children who live in poverty are drowning in ACE. They do not even begin to have the resources they need to get to the surface of the water.

Back to my chairs. I am not a counselor. I cannot speak as a counselor. I can refer my students and their families to one. The nearest full time counselor is 31 miles away – about $36.00 a month just in gas to get there and back once a week. Life choices are often calculated in the cost of gas money, when every dollar is precious. The nearest counselor specializing in childhood trauma is 102 miles away.

It is often the same students sitting knee-to-knee with me. I speak with them. I tell them how their brains work, that the neuronal tracks they lay down now through the thoughts they CHOSE to think are what they will have to rely on throughout their lives. They must chose wisely, even when those around them may seemingly not be. I speak to them of their inherent worth simply because they exist, their strengths and the power that is theirs if they decide to claim it. I tell them they are NEVER at fault for what has happened to them. They are not the trauma they have experienced, but the survivor sitting in front of me. I speak with them, but not as a counselor.

Our rural children of poverty are facing issues that would pull many a well-adjusted adult under water. These are big things, painful things, things that are forming their lives and the world as they will forever see it. These are things over which they have no control and are drowning in. There must be better help for them beyond the life preserver of two little chairs outside a classroom.

Right Book. Right Group. Right Time

I’d had my heart set on reading To Kill a Mockingbird to my current eighth graders since last spring. Thanks largely to Nancie Atwell’s influence (see The Reading Zone, 2007), I no longer assign whole class novels. Instead, read-alouds allow for an accessible whole class experience that supplements students’ independent reading. I know I am lucky to teach at a school where I am trusted to make such pedagogical and curricular decisions.

Although it had been a long time since I’d read it, I was confident that To Kill a Mockingbird would be a valuable literary experience. It would also offer opportunities to connect to and discuss current issues of racism and the justice system. When I revisited it, however, I noticed several challenges. There’s the matter of the narrator’s southern accent, which I knew I could not pull off. There is also dialect and the N-word. I prepped the kids for it, gave them a lot of contextual information, and decided to use an audio recording. Despite those efforts, the kids were disengaged. Whenever I paused for discussion, my usually opinionated and insightful students remained silent. After a couple of days, they asked me to abandon the audio recording and read it aloud myself. I tried, but they were still disengaged. At that point, Anisa said, “Jessie, we know this is a book you really like, but do you think you could choose a book that we would like?”

I grappled with that question for the rest of the day. Did we just need to give the book more time, or was it truly not the right book?

I remember the year I used David James Duncan’s The River Why with ninth graders. I had loved that book, and I was certain that everyone in a pre-Advanced Placement English class would love it too.  After all, what adolescents wouldn’t love a coming-of-age story full of humor, self-discovery, and romance? I could not have been more wrong. The kids hated it. They did not connect with the main character; the humor was too sophisticated. There was a near revolt.

My selection of Angela’s Ashes, on the other hand, was transformative for my juniors and seniors, who could both appreciate the humor and empathize with the depictions of extreme poverty. What had been a disconnected, disengaged group of students developed community and confidence. That was when I learned the power of the right book for the right group at the right time.

Are there some books that are universally the right book? Maybe. It seems that every group of seventh graders loves The Outsiders. But most of the time, I have to start with my group of students in mind, and search for the book that will be the right match. I had forgotten to do that when I selected To Kill a Mockingbird, and then, against my better judgment, I continued to put the curriculum ahead of the students. Anisa’s question gave me the jolt I needed to change course. The next morning, I told the kids that I valued To Kill a Mockingbird and hoped they would each choose to read it at some point, but I could see that it was not the right book for the class at this time.

Wanting to get us back into our read-aloud groove, I pivoted to Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It is engaging, but lacks the literary heft I know my students are ready for and need. During a discussion about what makes a book interesting, Yasmin mentioned Of Mice and Men as an example of a book that had a powerful emotional impact. Isaac and Steven agreed. Yasmin then bounced out of her seat, saying Of Mice and Men should be our next read aloud book. I looked at Isaac and Steven who nodded vigorously. I’d been considering Of Mice and Men. The students’ enthusiastic endorsement settled the matter.

I imagine that there are individuals who would see this course of events as a reason not to trust teachers’ professional judgment, and instead to centralize all decisions about instructional materials at the district or school board level. For me it has the opposite effect. It makes me think about the absurdity of individuals far removed from classrooms making decisions about text selections. If I, who know my students deeply, can occasionally make the wrong choice, how could it be alright to leave the decision making to individuals who don’t know my students at all?

In this age of teacher-proofing and mandated curricula, I am curious about other teachers’ experiences. Are you able to make decisions about what will be the right book for the group in front of you? How do top-down decisions about curricula affect your and your students’ experiences?

Oh, and if you have any middle school read-aloud recommendations, please pass those along too.

Creating Coherence

There’s a special kind of efficiency that happens when we’re able to see overlaps and connections. It is very easy to look at all of the demands upon us and see them as discrete and separate elements on a never-ending to-do list, but there is tremendous power in the pursuit of coherence.

One example: Student Growth Goals, Professional Growth Goals and Data.

We know that by law we all have to write and monitor student growth goals. I’m lucky to be in a district and building that gives us as teachers ownership of our goals, so we are empowered to design and implement growth goals that are meaningful to our students…not just for checking a TPEP box or demonstrating our compliance. In addition to student growth goals, we also have our professional growth goals we are expected to develop. If you’re on the comprehensive “all eight” evaluation (like I am), that means a small group student growth goal, a whole class student growth goal, a collaboration goal, and a professional growth goal.

Imagine if all of these things could be focused in a way that any data I gather serves to monitor all of these goals.

Here’s how I’m attempting to achieve this coherence:

I start by observing for a need. Those first weeks are critical for getting to know students as humans and as learners. Through observation and assessment, narrow my focus on a specific, high-leverage skill that I see as a gap in my kids’ academic performance.

Before I write their student growth goal, I consider the skills I want to develop. If I want to improve my students’ skills, I need to be deliberate about the practices I employ. Sure, I have some lessons from years past, but I want to consider what learning I need to do to enhance my practice around teaching this particular skill in a way that helps all students grow and improve. I explore some strategies, extend my own learning, and select a few specific teaching moves to try out. This becomes the seed of my professional growth goal.

Here’s where the unity starts to form: If I am going to change my practice, it should result in a change in student performance. Thus, I craft my professional growth goal and my student growth goal in the same block of text.

The core of my goal set, I nest “inward” for my small group goal. Within this skill, I have a subgroup who needs a bit more intervention. I expand my goal to address them and identify likely interventions.

Finally, I nest “outward” for my collaboration goal. Here’s the dirty little secret about collaboration goals: lots of teachers and administrators misinterpret what it takes to have proficient goals. The assumption is that my team and I have to have the same goals, use the same data, and demonstrate how we walk in lock step toward a common destination. Not so. If you read the actual rubric for 8.1sg, it is more about “playing nicely with others” than it is about everybody having to do the same thing the same way. So, I tag onto my goal how I plan to “play nicely.”

Here’s what my goal might end up looking like…it is long, but it is accomplishing multiple jobs, all the while letting me focus on just one:

By learning about building coherence in writing, I will improve my professional practice by trying at least two different scaffolds that help students achieve more coherent analytical writing. As a result, my students will be able to select and effectively use a pattern evidence to support a claim, as demonstrated in regular journal entries, formal literary analysis papers, and evaluation of informational text. By the end of the quarter, each student will increase by at least one level on the “Argument from Evidence” assessment scale. My subgroup will consist of the students who scored a Level One or lower on the first assessment. I will offer additional interventions (via targeted feedback and small group writing workshops) to assist these students to each increase by two levels on the scale. I will collaborate with my PLC to examine my goals during our every-other-week PLC meetings. I will share my assessments for feedback and we will examine student performance to strategize interventions as needed.

When the assessment data starts to roll in, I can now use the student’s performance not only to examine their growth, but also the impact that changes in my practice had on their growth. To me, that kinda seems like what the point was from the beginning. In the end, I write one comprehensive goal that represents a laser-like focus on improving my practice in order to improve student performance.


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Losing Touch with the Classroom

I made it through September.

I may have nearly crested the salary schedule, but I feel a little like a first-year teacher again… In many ways I am: Same district, but a new building, new curriculum, new pace, new students.

After being a classroom teacher for 13 years, I spent the last two years on full-time release building and launching our district’s new-teacher mentoring and induction program (plus a plethora of other teacher professional learning design and facilitation, from training principals on TPEP to supporting PLC collaboration, and other duties as assigned). Those two years were fulfilling, educational, and an important step in my personal professional trajectory. My heart, though, was always in the classroom.

Now I’m teaching again, and it didn’t take me long to realize just how much I had lost touch with the realities of the day to day work of teaching. For me personally two years of shifting into the policy world, system design, and facilitation of staff PD…all without responsibilities to a roster of kids…was enough for my mind to disconnect.

Oh yeah, this is why it sometimes takes teachers a few days to reply to emails: they’re not at their computers all day or “multitasking” around a meeting table. Oh yeah, this is why those teachers who came to my after-school PD sessions dropped into their chairs, sighed, and slowly slid into an exhausted heap. Oh yeah, that theory about pedagogy and practice is fantastic up until you walk around the room and realize that what you’re tasked to teach isn’t actually at all what the students need.

Cognitively, I assured myself I remembered this and everything else. Back in it, though, I realize that there were some realities of teacherlife that my memory had somehow put into soft focus over the course of my two years outside the classroom.

I’ve had a few people ask which job is “harder,” the central-office systems work or the in-the-building work of teaching. For me, it was probably the systems work in no small part because I so rarely had the chance to see the direct results my efforts had on students. That left me in a perpetual state of uncertainty: were my actions working? How did I know?

Now I get to see the impact of my decisions daily as I listen to kids talk or read, or watch them write or create. I can respond in the moment to shift course, try something different, or push just the right way. Nonetheless, I have enduring respect for the complexity and challenge of central-office systems work having seen behind the curtain now for a couple of years. (Example: I hate dealing with budgets and the associated rules, restrictions and reporting… intense, profound hate.) For my skill-set and for what makes me happy? The classroom is the place.

One more thing I can say after two years straddling the line between teacher and administrator: The administrators I was able to work so closely with are not a secret quasi-illuminati set on building one more meeting-that-could-have-been-an-email agenda to ruin a teacher’s life. They genuinely want what is best for both teachers and students. And don’t get me wrong: I’m just sharing my own story… I’m not implying that they have lost touch as I did. I see many administrators working overtime to walk alongside teachers, and in many cases, teach lessons or units to groups of kids, in order to stay connected with the realities of planning, assessment, feedback, and classroom management.

What my experience transitioning into teaching again has reminded me is that it is so important that we teachers find the right way to share the impact of policy decisions…whether they be a change to the hall pass routine or a change to the state testing regime…so that rather than being shrill complainers we are vivid storytellers.

Stories are the most fundamental way that we can communicate our reality to others, especially if those others are like me: whole-hearted for public education, but perhaps just far enough removed to have forgotten what day-to-day teaching is really like.

Equity in Identifying Highly Capable Students

I spent several days this summer at the annual board retreat for WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of Talents and Gifted). Jody Hess, OSPI’s Program Supervisor for Highly Capable Student Programs, came to talk with us about a change to the law: districts must “prioritize equitable identification of low income students.”

Universal Screening

One of the barriers to equity in HC programs is the process districts use to invite students into the identification procedure. I was stunned to learn this year how many districts still use nominations as an initial screening device.

What’s the problem with that?

There is still a great deal of confusion about the nature of the Highly Capable or gifted student. Many people—teachers and parents—nominate only those students who are responsible, high-achieving, engaged, motivated, and well-behaved. They fail to nominate students who never turn in their assignments, resist doing any class work, are distracted, and chronically misbehave, even if those less than stellar scholars meet the state criteria for identification.

Then there’s a thornier issue. It seems that people do a better job at nominating students who are similar to them—the same ethnic background, the same socio-economic background. If a majority of teachers in a district are white and middle class, it’s possible HC minority and lower socio-economic students in that district may be overlooked.

If teachers don’t nominate a student, the parents can always fill out a nomination form, right? Trouble is, relying on parents to nominate their children is always tricky. Some parents are savvier than others. Is it fair to make a child’s chance at identification rest on their parents’ ability to access and maneuver around the system?

The solution is called universal screening. ALL the students in the district are tested for the Highly Capable program. Or at least use a quick screener (it might be test or checklist such as WaKIDS) with all students initially. Then include those students who score well in a pool for more formal identification.

By the way, universal screening also means there is no impediment to the testing. For example, the testing isn’t offered only on Saturday when some families might not be able to bring their child.

At my district we test every student at the end of second grade. The tests are conducted during the school day, and they are administered in the second grade classrooms by the students’ own teachers. There is very little test anxiety in that situation. We’ve been doing our testing this way for about 15 years now. I honestly thought by now it was standard operating procedure around the state.

If you don’t see every student in your district having some screening for your HC program, you should start asking why.

Multiple Points of Data

Another question you want to ask is if your district is relying on a single criterion for identification: a CogAT score, for example.

While a CogAT is a great way to say, “Yes, this child definitely needs services through the Highly Capable Program,” too often a slightly lower score is used as an excuse to say, “No, this child definitely does not need services.”

No district should be using cut off scores—those in the 95%ile and above are eligible and get served, those below aren’t and don’t, and we’re done.

Instead districts should be looking at multiple data points. It’s fine to say that children who score at 130 and above obviously need services. Now it’s time to look more closely at the children who don’t quite make that. How do they score on achievement tests? On their SBA? On report cards?

When the Multi-disciplinary Team at my district meets to work on Highly Capable identifications, we have access to many types of data, including:

  • CogAT scores (broken down so we can see verbal, quantitative, and nonverbal scores),
  • STAR math and reading (we can access STAR scores for the year so we can track the progression of scores),
  • SBA (for grade levels that took the test),
  • parent and teacher nominations (which still get turned in even though they are not required), and
  • HOPE scale scores (from teachers).

Other information we have is ELL status of students. Our district ELL coordinator is a member of the team and keeps us up-to-date about how ELL students on our lists are progressing. We take that information into account when making decisions. We attempt to keep the identification for HC proportional with the demographics of the district.

For students going into grades 3-5, we first look for students whose scores are so high in both verbal and quantitative areas that they belong in the self-contained HC classes. We don’t limit ourselves to just the CogAT scores to determine which students require those advanced services. Then we go through the lists again. If there are students who are strong in math or verbal, we identify them in those particular areas for extra attention in their general education classrooms.

We are looking for reasons TO identify students, not reasons to deny services.

In middle school every fifth grade student’s math scores in the district are analyzed and every student is placed in math according to their abilities. There are sixth graders in middle school this year taking sixth grade math, seventh grade math, algebra, and geometry.

(When I first arrived in my district the math department at the middle schools would not allow a student to take algebra before eighth grade. “They aren’t developmentally ready.” Now we have sixth graders taking geometry!)

Students who were in the self-contained fifth grade class, students who were identified for verbal skills in elementary school, and additional students whose parents or teachers request that they get retested at the end of fifth grade can all move into the HC English/social studies classes at the middle school. We have one full class at one middle school and

two full classes at the other. Then at the high school all students have access to pre-AP and AP starting at ninth grade.

Low Income

The trouble with saying we have to “prioritize equitable identification of low-income students” is that we can’t know which of our students are low-income. Not when

we go into the Multi-disciplinary Team meetings and look at data. After all, we aren’t allowed to have individual students identified as free/reduced lunch.

(Jody Hess from OSPI is working on what indicators of low-income may be useful, without “profiling” students.)

The point it, we have to do the best we can at identifying every student who needs services. And then provide those services.

Smarter Balanced: Celebrating the Scores?

Like many parents across the nation, we received our children’s Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) results a few weeks ago.  The results, printed in color ink, did not largely surprise us. What did, however, was our children’s reaction.

My daughter is now a 6th grader.  She’s been taking this test for a few years, although science was a new component for her last year in 5th grade.  In the past, she’s been worried about the adaptive portion of the exam, nervous about whether she’s moving too slow or too fast and wondering if her screen should look alike or different from her peers.  One year, right before school let out for summer, we received notification that she was invited to attend a summer math program. This invitation was an opportunity for extended math instruction, which I was gladly willing to take her to.  I did, however, have no sense that she was struggling in math.  Her standards based report card always revealed that she was on target.  So when I dug around a bit more and contacted the building assessment coordinator, we discovered that she met standard and that the invitation was an accident.  However, the damage was done.  She was downtrodden about her math skills and entered into the 5th grade believing that her skills weren’t where they needed to be (whatever that means).  After receiving the official score report and looking at the data with her, I saw a noticeable difference in my child and how she thought of herself as a math student.  Even then, it took her months and at least a quarter in 5th grade math before she felt confident about her skills and abilities.  You’d think that I would have learned my lesson.

So this year when the assessment results arrived in the mail, I immediately opened them up. After reviewing the data, I decided to sit down with my children to discuss the results.  My daughter the now 6th grader, looked at her scores and said, “I guess this means I’m pretty smart.”  I was stunned.  I’m thankful that I had enough clarity of thought to respond with, “Uh, this test doesn’t measure whether you’re smart.  It tells you that you can answer specific questions related to certain skills and standards that the testing organization wants to measure. It certainly doesn’t address your ability to learn music.”  My husband, her father, is a middle school band teacher.  My daughter has been playing piano for five years (read:  I’ve been paying for piano lessons for five years.)  She nodded and walked away.  I then sat down with my son to review his first SBA results.  

But I wish I hadn’t.  In fact, I’m done sitting down with my children to talk about these scores. Sadly, I think they, like so many other children, adults, school districts, and states, are defining themselves in relation to a score.  My daughter’s self esteem as a math student was tied to that exam.  This year, she used the exam to confirm a sense of self.  

And that’s scary.

And unhealthy.

And it must stop.  

I want to be clear.  I’m not anti-test.  I’m not anti Common Core.  In fact, I embrace the Common Core, and I’d be happy to address that in another post.  However, I fear that we’re sending a dangerous message to our youth if we oversell the data learned from the test.  My school, like so many others, examined our scores in our back to school meeting.  Thankfully,  I didn’t get a sense that our students and our teachers were being overly celebrated or beat up due to assessment data. Our building elevates a variety of achievements, accomplishments, and talents. However, communities across the country put up gigantic signs on  schools when some percentage of students are meeting a standard.  This isn’t helping.  We award schools for these scores and for the most growth over a year.  I’m not saying it’s negative to give a hard working staff recognition for their efforts, but essentially aren’t we also celebrating the test score?  What false sense does that give us of who our students are and what our students know and can do?  

Do teachers walk around defining themselves by their evaluation score?  I sure hope not. This would be an unhealthy approach to the profession, one that isn’t sustainable, and does not encourage self reflection or growth.  So why do we do this with kids?

Let’s find other things to celebrate.  Shouldn’t we consider exalting our students and our schools as more?

Certification Changes: Pro and Con

When the last minute education legislation passed this summer, it included a provision eliminating the requirement that teachers earn a second tier of certification after our Residency Certificate.

This move was celebrated across the state with teachers unenrolling themselves from ProTeach programs and National Board Cohorts. Now, instead of pursuing one of those two second-tier certification options, a teacher needs only to earn 100 clock hours before the expiration of their certificate in order to remain legal.

From one perspective, it is a win. Earning the second tier certificate required time, money, and no small amount of stress…on top of the work a teacher already had to do. Teachers now might have more time for their families or those second (or third) jobs so many of us hold down. Not having to do ProTeach or National Boards definitely lightens the load for many.

On the other hand, though, it is one more move to de-professionalize our profession. Already, I’ve ranted a little about lowering the bar for teachers. Now that incentives such as the state’s salary schedule rewarding the attainment of higher degrees will be phased out*, there is less and less to extrinsically motivate continued focus on continually improving our practice. Of course, extrinsic motivators are not the “right” motivators (remember, we teachers are supposed to give hours for less pay than similarly-educated professionals in other fields out of the goodness of our hearts, we knew what we signed up for, the internet trolls quickly point out). But, unless compelled to by rule or motivated to by a tangible benefit, most of us choose to focus on the work already heaped on our plates rather than consider ways to examine our practice in the way ProTeach is intended to and National Boards does.

I believe, though, that in giving up a mandatory second-tier certification, we’ve allowed one more blow to the professionalism of our field. Given the dire (and increasing) need for teachers to staff schools properly, further de-professionalizing teaching might net a benefit in the short term, but I believe in looking at the long game: In the long run, it weakens the profession as a whole.

If a key issue with second tier certification is around cost and time, that is a symptom of an issue to be addressed: Why is the cost prohibitive? Perhaps because it is disproportionate to overall compensation. Why is the time prohibitive? Perhaps because the demands on teachers’ time are already too great.

I would have rather seen the state address those two issues in courageous, real ways: properly fund salaries (rather than play the shell game that was played) and fund systems in a way that permits schools to think creatively about how teacher time looks during the work day. For the latter, I’m talking about greater time during a teacher’s day for planning, assessment, collaboration, and the work that has to be done in order to make the time with students more effective.

Like the salary shell game (Top teacher salaries of $90K! Early career teachers get a raise!),  I think we’ve been duped around certification as well (No more hoops to jump through!). Eliminating the second tier certification doesn’t do a single thing to solve the problems we are facing in our system. It is a token move to pacify a subset of the angry masses. We’ve been shown a something shiny and appealing, but consideration for the long term ripple effect is waved off or ignored outright.

Yes, we might not have to put in the same time or money for a second tier certificate, but at what cost to the profession?


*CORRECTION: Previous versions of this post referred to a “sunset” for the National Board bonus/incentive. I had understood that the long-term vision for the National Board incentive was that it was to be phased out as salary schedules shift from state-driven to locally-driven, but I was mistaken. The National Board incentive will continue to be funded in the FY2018 budget, but as always, the long term continuation of this funding will be a key budget point for teachers to pay attention to.

Building Relationships With Legislators – Sharing My Stories and Changing the Message

The year I graduated from high school, 1994, marked the introduction of the phrase “failing public schools.” This phrase grabbed hold of society and took off, leading to twenty-plus years of rhetoric on “bad” teachers, union thugs who protect “bad” teachers, and schools which are not meeting the needs of our children. This led to the standardization of classrooms, curriculum, and teaching via governmental regulations. Today, in 2017, we still hear this phrase, and continue to feel the destructive consequences left in its wake, most importantly the increasing lack of respect for educators.

Most recently, over the past several years and particularly with this new federal administration, we’ve seen a huge push for privatization and independent charter schools. The message is that public schools are failing our children and that private and charter schools can provide students with more attention and individual instruction. As an educator and a parent with children in both public and charter schools, I can honestly say that public schools have the ability to offer much more than charter schools, provide more diverse learning opportunities, and are far better at differentiating instruction. Imagine for a moment if all schools had to fight for local funding, via fundraisers and other money-making endeavors. Which schools would have the most money? Which schools would be able to offer the most opportunities? Which schools would your child be able to attend? Which children and which zip codes would be left behind?

The key to changing the rhetoric on public schools is to take charge of the messaging. For far too long, private corporations, government officials, and the media, who by and large have no experience in education, have controlled what the public sees and hears about public schools, and therefore, control the mindset of the masses. It is time for us educators to take that influence back and teach our communities how great our public schools really are, and that with their support, they could be even better.

Over the past two years I have worked to communicate with the state legislators in both the district in which I work, and also the district in which I live. I would periodically contact them via email and phone, and would invite them to my classroom. Repeatedly, I did not hear back. During that time, I puzzled over this problem. How could I be a better messenger and get these decision-makers into my school and into my classroom to actually see and experience what we do? It was at a National Board Hill Day in February 2017, that my ideas finally came together. As I visited many senators and representatives throughout the day, I realized that much of what they hear focuses on what public schools lack, not on what makes us succeed. That’s when I decided to start a letter writing campaign.

After some planning, I sent my first newsletter – “April Update – The Great Things Happening in Our Public Schools.” In it I outlined some incredible activities and experiences educators in my school and in my district were providing their students. I was specific. I told stories. I painted a picture of the everyday in our schools and I immediately got a response. Mostly, our state leaders thanked me for the update and encouraged me to continue to reach out. It was much more than I’d received in two whole years. I had begun to build real relationships with the individuals directly responsible for creating laws for funding our schools.

It was after my second update in May that there was real movement. Two legislators, Republican Senator Baumgartner, and Republican Representative Volz, agreed to come to my classroom. We immediately set up dates and times for June, as they were between special sessions. With it being such a contentious time, as legislators were working to meet the demands of the McLeary decision, I was shocked and so excited. My focus on success was working.

Both visits happened within a week of one another and at a time when the testing season was coming to a close and the school year was wrapping up, but things had not slowed down in my classroom. Both legislators had the opportunity to meet my diverse student group (I teach Newcomer English Language Learners), to learn about what we do in our classroom, and to help my students, new to our nation and our school system, practice their math skills. Watching the interactions and answering the questions that followed was exhilarating. Both Senator Baumgartner and Representative Volz asked insightful questions and showed genuine interest in my class and in my students. Both agreed to visit again in the fall when they would have more time. Since then, I have had commitments from both Senator Billig and Representative Riccelli to also visit in the fall and Representative Volz and I are collaborating on bringing my class over to Olympia for a tour and to meet with the House Education Committee.

It’s a simple thing. Each month I gather stories about what’s awesome about our schools and send an email to my elected officials. It’s not hard. Our schools are great and I have a lot to share about the good work we’re doing! By focusing on our success, it is easy to convince decision-makers to continue and expand their support for our public schools. We live education every day. We must control the messages our communities receive about what we do and how much we care about their children.

Join me in this effort. Write up a story about your classroom or work with your colleagues. Find out who your legislators are that represent where you live and where you work. Push send and see what happens.

This will make all the difference.

Mandy Manning experiences learning with English language learners in the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington. Nearing 20 years in education and as a teacher-leader, she endeavors to spread Cultural Competency to students, educators, administrators, and the community at large. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in English as a new language and the 2018 ESD 101 Regional Teacher of the Year.