Category Archives: Education Policy

Rethinking our Assessment System Statewide

On May 24th, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal outlined a series of phases that addressed his long term vision for K-12 education in the State of Washington.  Included in
that vision is a differentiated assessment model that allows students pathways to demonstrate proficiency and mastery.  The plan calls for an immediate suspension of all test based graduation requirements for the Classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019, a policy that some legislators can get behind.  (See the June 4, 2017
Seattle Times Op-Ed piece by Rep. Monica Stonier and Rep. Laurie Dolan)  This agenda item isn’t necessarily as visionary as others but is more triage in nature.  Asking for these assessments to be waived now is a pressing concern for our potential graduates waiting in the wings (including the 7 students at my high school who are hoping that the state legislature acts immediately since graduation is on Friday, June 9th).  However, other components of this assessment system provide more opportunity and greater steering towards a student’s plans for high school and beyond.

One of the key takeaways from this plan is the use of assessment data for high school planning.  Superintendent Reykdal proposes that the 8th grade assessment (assuming this will still be mandated by the U.S. Department of Education) be used to determine what courses and in what sequence students need to take.  A 10th grade assessment (the Standards Based Assessment, or SBA, also mandated by the U.S. Department of Education) would further clarify what students need in order to be career and college ready.  That exam, while not necessary as a graduation requirement, would be a baseline for which other decisions would be made. The assessment would help stakeholders update a student’s high school and beyond plan (commonly referred to as a HSBP), either demonstrating that is student is now proficient in the required basic knowledge and skills needed to earn a diploma or highlighting what specific skills students need to further develop in order to achieve proficiency.  The plan suggests that alternatives such as the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement exams, International Baccalaureate exams, Running Start, College in the High School, and other options be used to demonstrate proficiency.  All students after 10th grade must work towards a pathway that includes immediate entrance into the workforce, technical college, community college, apprenticeships, four year colleges/university, or the military.

This new assessment system may just help us combat the apathy that emerges junior and senior year from students wondering why they are enrolled in certain courses that don’t remotely relate to their post secondary education plans.  Such a plan opens the door to exciting new classes tailored to meet the needs of the 21st century learner on whatever pathway he/she may be on.  High schools will be able to utilize the flexibility and creativity that this system promotes and adjust current course offerings, tapping into the talents and expertise of their staff.  The idea that students can select pathways and prepare for those future careers allows students more buy in on their secondary education, potentially impacting overall attendance, number of failed classes, and eventually graduation rates.  Specific training and coursework geared towards a pathway will indeed result in a better worker or stronger college student thus largely impacting the state’s post secondary education system and the local workforce.  Superintendent Reykdal’s proposal directly impacts students allowing them to tap into their talents and interests at an earlier age so that they may develop as stronger, more effective and more efficient contributors to our communities and overall economy.

Addressing the Teacher Shortage Without Sacrificing Quality

 

There’s a place on the Washington coast called Taholah. I’ve been there a few times on my bicycle, riding up Highway 109 from Ocean Shores. The scenery is staggering. There’s huge trees everywhere, a river on the north end of town and an ocean to the west.

Also staggering is the obvious poverty. There’s run-down homes, stray dogs and abandoned cars. I didn’t see any stores or restaurants.

Taholah looks like a tough place to find work.

It also looks exactly like what you’d expect to see if you went there after reading the data. Per capita income is half that of the rest of the state. Housing values are about a third. About 5% of their 11th graders met standard in math; about a fourth met standard in ELA.

Twenty-three percent of their seniors graduate on time.

The other thing you should know about Taholah is that their population is 80% Native American. It’s the headquarters for the Quinault Reservation.

One more thing. According to the Seattle Times, 22.5% of their teachers are “Emergency Teachers,” teachers who are not certified and may or may not have a college degree. School districts are only allowed to hire emergency teachers when they’re unable to find anyone qualified to teach. According to my math, that means four of the seventeen teachers in Taholah are emergency status.

My district, on the other hand, attracts dozens of qualified applicants for every open position. Two summers ago I spent most of a sunny weekend wading through application packets, meeting with the rest of the hiring committee, and interviewing the five finalists before hiring the competent teacher who works next door.

That’s the thing about this teacher shortage. It’s like a large, complicated lake in the process of drying up. The shallow inlets are the first to empty out, while the deep water in the middle is safe for a long time. Taholah, with its poverty and lack of amenities will suffer the teacher shortage a lot sooner and a lot more severely than Edmonds, where I work.

So what do we do about it? One answer is to loosen the requirements to teach in Washington, a place well-known for having tough hurdles for prospective teachers, particularly those coming from out-of-state.

But is that really what we want? Do we really want to make it easier for people to teach in this state? Those requirements, after all, weren’t written out of spite; they were written to ensure that the kids in Taholah, as well as Edmonds, have a competent, qualified teacher in front of them.

We’ve got a problem. We’ve got a teacher shortage that hits small, rural – and frequently poor – communities much harder than it will ever hit more affluent communities. How do we make it attractive to teach in Taholah without sacrificing teacher quality?

I wish I knew.

Anyone Can Teach… Except Teachers

The popular narrative is that unionized teachers are destroying public education because of our supposed low standards for performance, laziness, and constant cries for more pay and less work.

States across the country, including Washington, buckled down on teacher performance by reforming the teacher evaluation system to be more rigorous and standards-based. New academic standards were adopted and new tests were designed to measure just how bad we teachers are at teaching, in many cases with the stated purpose of those tests to be to identify and remove bad teachers.

We’re so bad at teaching despite our degrees and training in this complex work, in fact, that the current fashion in education policy is that anyone…ANYONE has to be better at teaching than teachers are.

As you might have seen, states like Arizona are launching policy referred to as the “warm body” approach for teacher recruitment: The main qualification for earning a teaching credential being that you are a carbon-based life form capable of sustaining metabolism.

Even here in Washington, “alternative routes to certification” are gaining traction as more and more classrooms are being staffed by teachers with an emergency credential because of the dearth of capable applicants.

Let’s break this down: Because so few people are choosing to become teachers on purpose, we’re satisfied with taking whomever we can get…and we think this is a solution to our problem?

Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t the unionized teachers demanding better policy and pay who are the problem here. I wonder what will it take for our policymakers…or as importantly, us as a society…to recognize that effective teaching involves a set of complex skills and behaviors which, even in the best of conditions, involves countless variables that must all be managed and responded to on a moment-by-moment basis. It is not something random folks off the street can do well, particularly if those random folks can get paid better to do other, perhaps easier, work. Clearly, we’re not dealing with “the best of conditions” in our schools, so putting a warm body in front of kids is not going to be the solution to our problem, no matter what evaluation system we use or what rigorous standards we demand be taught.

The solutions are the same solutions they have always been: It isn’t about stricter evaluations, higher standards, or better tests. We have to invest money, and more than we think, in order to turn this ship around. We can’t spend a dime and expect a dollar’s return…and then complain because we actually got what we paid for and not more.

If we aren’t willing to make schools as workplaces into the kinds of places where the very best and brightest are not only drawn but want to stay, then we don’t actually care about improving educational outcomes for kids. The latter will never happen without the former.


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Summative Rating: UNSAT

After one year of unsatisfactory ratings on his or her job performance, a teacher may be placed on a directed plan of improvement. If that plan is not satisfied, that teacher may be terminated and replaced with someone else who can do the job.

This is what the legislature codified into law with our new teacher evaluation model, and I’m all for it.

And the premise ought to apply to the legislature as well.

The Supreme Court put them on a plan of improvement long ago. They have failed to meet the terms of that plan.

They were granted an extended special session, during which time non-policymakers spent more time in Olympia talking ed policy than the elected officials did. Still, no performance.

In the evaluation framework that judges my work as a teacher, action…nearly any kind of action…is enough to get me rated “Basic.” To be rated “Unsatisfactory,” my performance must demonstrate “no action when action is called for.”

There is no better phrase to describe our legislature right now than that.

I’m with the Seattle Times Editorial Board. No more special sessions. No more probationary periods to turn it around. Let the Supreme Court make the decisions if the Legislature won’t.

My New Superheroes

 

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the first Washington Teacher’s Advisory Council (WATAC) Conference.  80 award winning teachers, principals, and classified staff attended the event.  Featured speakers included Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal and a panel comprised of Camille Jones, Teacher of the Year, Melanie Green, Classified Employee of the Year, Mia Williams, Principal of the Year, Noel Frame, Legislator from the 36th District, and Deb Merle, Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Governor.  It was an incredible opportunity to listen to a committed and passionate group of educational stakeholders who hold an encouraging vision for the future of our students.

But my biggest takeaway didn’t come from a specific message or a session.  Instead, my inspiration came from the 80 superheroes in the room. These outstanding educators gave up their weekend, set aside their papers, lesson planning, and data tracking to improve their advocacy skills.  Fellow CSTP blogger, Mark Gardner, and I led a session on how to increase your voice at the local level.  In our session we worked one on one with teachers to define, develop and practice their pitch to decision makers.  For example, one teacher felt a new intervention program targeting students with high rates of absenteeism was necessary at her school.  She worked on her pitch, mapped out her strategy, practiced her elevator speech, and worked on determining the concerns/needs of decision makers.  In another session, educators learned how to get involved in the work of the State Board of Education.  Still another session taught educators how to connect with their local legislators.  Watching these award winning teachers and classified staff working on these skills caused me such pride in my profession.  Knowing that colleagues from across our state wanted to elevate their voice in helping shape local, district, and statewide policy means that our children have champions in every corner of the Evergreen State.

All week, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve been shouting out on social media my student teachers, colleagues, and friends who work in education.  As I reflect on the week and the educators that have shaped my career, it’s equally important to recognize those whose work is often unseen and yet so often felt.  These superheroes advance our work in a way that creates more support and capacity for the profession.  Frankly, our schools need allies who will lift up our cause to legislators who make the decisions that directly impact our kids.  So, here’s my shout out to those teachers for taking the time to become active participants in local and state policymaking.  The rest of us are incredibly grateful.   #ThankATeacher

To Appreciate a Teacher…

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the cookies.

Those intricately decorated, apple-shaped cookies: I do appreciate those.

And the bacon. That pound of pepper-bacon a group of students gave me after I used a few too many example sentences including bacon in our practice with diagramming sentences.

Then there are notes: Brief or lengthy, the notes from parents, students, former students from over a decade ago whose teenaged face immediately appears the moment I see the name on the return address. Those keep me going and make me feel appreciated, for sure, and are among my most cherished items.

I’ve been lucky that those kinds of little surprises haven’t been relegated to just one week in the year when websites offer discounts or coupons and businesses encourage patrons to “thank a teacher.”

This year for Teacher Appreciation Week, what will really make teachers feel appreciated? Maybe a cookie or a pound of bacon, but most definitely a specific kind of little note will do. A phone call, maybe. A visit to an office. More specifically: notes, phone calls, emails, office visits to our legislative policymakers. That’s how teachers will feel appreciated. Call for a budget that fully funds Washington public schools, not to “throw money at the problem,” but to invest in a system that for the last forty years has been perpetually under-invested in. Call for policies that make sense for kids, parents, communities, and schools. The voices of teachers in this battle are too often discounted as shrill, complainy, or as base union thuggery. The voices of parents, students, and community members are what policymakers have a harder time ignoring.

Teachers know that we are appreciated at the immediate, local level, with our kids and parents. We are thankful for that, for sure. We love the cookies, the treats, and the notes: Those put the wind back in our sails without a doubt.

But this year, consider one phone call, one note, or one office visit to your elected officials who are struggling to get their work done. Little by little those small gestures of appreciation will add up and make a huge difference not just to “appreciate teachers,” but to transform the lives of kids.


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Things You Should Know About: The Washington Teacher Advisory Council

Back in 2008 I was honored to be a regional “Teacher of the Year” for ESD 112. I had the chance to sit in a room with “TOYs” from each ESD, and it was humbling, astonishing, and inspiring to hear all the great work we each were championing in our section of the state.

Then, after the interviews and celebrations and receptions, we sped back to our respective classrooms and put our respective noses back to our respective grindstones.

Lyon Terry, 2015 Washington State Teacher of the Year, likely had a similar experience. The difference was what he chose to do next. He saw highly accomplished educators be selected and celebrated each year, and in that he saw an opportunity: While you might teach down the hall from a TOY and never know it (we teachers are often reticent to share our accolades), titles such as “Teacher of the Year” carry potentially powerful ethos when we enter into policy conversations with non-educators.

Lyon formed WATAC, the Washington Teacher Advisory Council, aimed at pulling together the expertise and ethos of alumni regional teachers of the year. Each year, the number of regional TOYs grows by nine (one for each ESD), so though the group may be small, it is certainly mighty.

This last weekend at Cedarbrook was the 2017 WATAC Spring Conference, where alumni of the TOY program gathered to learn about policy, advocacy, and the importance of teachers telling their stories. It was a powerful and inspiring experience, and I now feel like I am part of an even deeper network of teachers likewise committed to improving public education in Washington.

A big take-away and a good reminder: Everything we do as teachers is somehow impacted by a policy that someone, somewhere has written. Whether it is law from the legislature or rules put forth by a state-level group like the Board of Ed, Standards Board, or innumerable others, people are making decisions that directly impact every move we make as a teacher. Simply put: the people making those decisions ought to be teachers themselves. That’s one mission of WATAC (and CSTP, for that matter), that teachers are not just present at the policy table, but that they are the ones whose hands, hearts, and minds are creating the policy.

For more information about WATAC, here is the website and here is the overview of the program on OSPI’s homepage.

Small Policies: Implementation Matters

Lately our attention has been on state and national education policy and how these connect to our practice. Those policies, however, are not the only ones that have an impact on our practice, and no matter the source of the policy it is the implementation that really impacts us.

A simple policy implementation example I have been witness to over and over again in my career: A school’s “no hats in the building” policy. I contend that how a school handles its hat policy is as important, if not more important, than how we implement most policies DeVos or our Legislature foist upon us.

Scenario: You see a middle school kid walking down a crowded hallway toward you, and of all horrors he is wearing a hat.

Policy Implementation Option #1: “Hey buddy, remember you can’t have hats on here in school, go ahead and put that in your backpack,” accompanied by a “I’m taking my hat off my head” hand gesture.

Policy Implementation Option #2: “Take that hat off. Give me that hat. If you want it back you need to come get it from the principal’s office,” accompanied by a stern voice and an extended, stiffly open hand with an aggressive “give me” hand gesture.

By the way, I am making no attempt to hide my bias on this issue.

The things “banned” in the schools I’ve worked in have included discmans, headphone/earbuds, hats, hoods, iPods, iPhones, water bottles, flip-flops, laptops, snacks… all of which had valid policy reasons. To me,  these “student management” policies, or other truly minor behavioral controls, are the kinds of policies whose implementation makes or breaks the culture and climate of a school. I’m not necessarily opposed to rules around these things. I concede very valid reasons to control these student behaviors. It all boils down to how we choose to implement these policies.

Critics of Option #1 above will point out that the student might just put his hat back on later, and therefore the problem has not been solved: The better solution is to take the hat (as if that permanently solves the problem). The rationale: The kid has to learn that if he breaks a rule in life, there will be consequences, in this case the loss of his property and potential disciplinary action. In fact, in this exact scenario (which I’ve been part of innumerable unnecessary permutations of in my career) I often hear about teaching the student lessons like “understanding the impacts of your own behavior” or “natural consequences.”

Whenever I teach simile and metaphor to my 9th graders, one of our practice similes is “School is like ___.” In 16 years of this exercise, the first answer called out is always “a prison.” Every. Single. Time. Some of that is our cultural narrative about school, but that has to come from somewhere. I don’t think that comes from federal policy: it comes from how we implement little, ultimately insignificant rules like the “no-hats” policy.

Having my hat taken away is not a “natural consequence.” Breaking my arm because I jump off the barn roof is a “natural consequence.” Losing my hat to an aggressive authority is very much a contrived consequence. Other than being subject to strong winds or ending up with wonky hair, there is no “natural consequence” associated with wearing a hat.

If I forcibly wrestle a hat away from a kid because the policy makes me think I should, there is a different natural consequence: The disempowerment of the student to control his own behavior. People want to say that taking the hat “teaches a lesson.” What lesson? This one: “I wear my hat, that [creative new expletive] takes it away.”

I say that if I actually teach the desired behavior (put your hat in your backpack), yes I may have to teach that same lesson several times, but here’s the lesson that gets learned: “If I forget to take my hat off, I need to put it in my backpack.”

In a place where learning is supposed to be the goal, it is obvious to me which “lesson” I ought to try to teach my students.

Teaching Cursive

With the Senate proposing that all students be required to learn cursive (SB 5238), it makes sense, in the first place, to look at how writing is actually taught.

The students in my class can concoct the most amazing stories—inventive, creative, imaginative. Give them a writing prompt, though, and some of those same students can barely write a page. I don’t think it’s because a writing prompt makes their brains leak out their ears. I think they have problems writing because writing is difficult. And I’m not talking about the difficulties in generating and sustaining a story or idea. I’m talking about the physical task of writing, the moving of the pen or pencil across the page. For too many students it’s laborious, tedious, exhausting work. It defeats them. They are left unable to demonstrate their true capabilities.

Many children don’t have trouble with their handwriting because they are lazy or because they don’t care. They have trouble because they are writing with their fingers.

Gross motor skills are pretty well established in girls and boys by about age five, which is one of the reasons we start school at about age five.

Fine motor skills come later. Children who enjoy cutting with scissors, stretching and pinching modeling clay, stacking small blocks, or stringing beads may develop these skills by age five or six. Others (often boys) may have underdeveloped fine motor skills until age 12!

Obviously, you wouldn’t go to a class full of two-year-olds and try to teach them to skip. Physically, they just aren’t ready. Their muscles are not yet capable of doing the task. In the same way, you can’t go into a first grade classroom and try to teach all the students to write for any length of time (never mind neatly) by using the muscles in their hands and fingers. For many of them, their muscles are not yet ready to do the task.

Whether we use cursive, print, or all caps (the way engineers are trained to write), I’m going to suggest we ought to teach students to write by using their large muscles.

Years ago most American children were taught to write using their arm muscles instead of their fingers, using the Palmer method. My mother, born in 1930, remembers her first lessons: drawing endless circles in the air before eventually writing letters in the air and finally writing letters on paper. The teacher, facing the class and modeling the correct movements in reverse, monitored and corrected each student’s letter formation. Children across the country all learned the same method of writing, they all had handwriting that was similar—and their handwriting was legible.

A decade or more ago I used the same technique with my fifth and sixth graders. I made them use brushes and watercolors at the beginning so they wouldn’t bring their bad habits with them to this new practice. At the end of a month or so their handwriting was remarkably improved.

The Palmer method disappeared, though. By the time my generation started first grade, many schools used workbooks with photos and diagrams showing how to form letters correctly. We went right to copying the letters in our books. Inevitably we wrote by moving our fingers and our wrists.

Learning to write legibly is fine, to be sure, but content is a far more important issue. Physiology affects content, too. If children write with their small muscles, muscles which for many of them are not yet developed, those muscles will tire long before the children can write down all they want to say. Children may start strong on a piece and then simply stop, almost in mid-thought. In a test situation that calls for a mandatory rough draft and final draft, they may turn in a stronger rough draft and a truncated final draft.

I certainly saw evidence of writing fatigue on the WASL and MSP paper and pencil writing tests.

Feeling frustrated, several years ago I worked with some primary teachers at my school and the author of the Draw.Write.Now series to do an experiment. We took one third of the students from each first grade class and taught them how to write in ways that were physically less taxing, including teaching them the Palmer method. Then as their teachers gave them writing prompts and they turned in their work, we counted the number of words each child wrote. The students in the experimental group wrote more, on average, for each prompt.

To me cursive is not nearly as important as teaching physiologically sound writing techniques.

In the second place, some student process their thinking better on a computer than they do on paper. For those students, the sooner they learn to touch type, the better.

In fact, since the SBA and so many other tests are all computer-based, schools are teaching typing skills as early as second grade. Where are schools finding the time to add lessons in typing? Hmm, by deleting lessons in cursive, which used to start in second grade.

Right now I have students writing historical fiction narrative pieces. I’ve told the class the stories will be graded on content only—they don’t need to worry about conventions. (Huge sigh of relief!) The students will read their pieces aloud to the class or, if they prefer, I will read them aloud, and we will comment. We will enjoy each other’s writing.

Some students are writing on paper because that’s the way they work best. Some are on computers because that’s the way they work best. Since they are reading the stories aloud, it doesn’t matter if they do their writing on paper or on computers.

And isn’t that part of what we are supposed to do? To differentiate instruction to meet the needs of the individual students in our classes? One way to differentiate is through process. My students are all happy they can choose the process that suits them best.

To me cursive is not nearly as important as allowing students to find their best means of written communication.

I know there are people who think teaching cursive is important. Frankly, my dear, I’m not one of them.

Brave New World: Choice Among Alphas

In Aldous Huxley’s early-mid 20th century novel Brave New World, society is medically engineered into five rigid castes. At the top are the Alphas, the genetically and socially gifted; at the other end are the Epsilons, those beings human in form but relegated to work in service to the higher castes.

I used this novel in my Senior Lit and Comp class as one of the works we’d explore while understanding the basics of literary criticism. Brave New World was an excellent study in how to apply a Marxist literary perspective when examining a work of literature. This literary perspective involves looking both within and beyond the world of literature: through the “external” perspective, considering the novel (the physical book itself) as a product within a socio-economic system; through the “internal” perspective, considering the social and economic hierarchies within the story, highlighting the conflict between those who have economic or social power and those who lack it.

We currently seem to live in a world of hyperbole-turned-reality, so I’ll dip my toe in that water: The proposed repeal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (HR 610) is a systematic move to cement social castes maintained not by physical engineering as in Brave New World, but rather, by culling and sorting who is bestowed access to education. Where in the novel it benefits the higher castes to keep the lower castes physically controlled, in our world that control becomes control over access to information and education.

The purpose isn’t even hidden. HR 610 isn’t about serving all students: It states from the outset that it is only serving “eligible students,” which is openly defined in the bill as students whose parents elect to homeschool or send their child to a private school.

Further, under the guise of providing this “choice,” this bill undoes protections for disabled students as established in ESEA. It takes steps toward eliminating school lunch programs for low income students. It pretends that it is creating “choices in education.” When we look at who ends up with the power to choose, it is quite clear that this bill has zero interest in providing a free, quality education to all. If it did, the solution would be invest heavily in improving outcomes for all participants in the system, not just for those who want to get away from “those failing schools” through the power to choose one supposed option over another (even though there is growing evidence that non-public schools in the the choice model being proposed don’t actually serve kids better than traditional public schools).

Public education should be focused less on choices privileged adults are offered and more on equipping every young person with full access to ample choices upon becoming an adult. I want every graduate from my school to have the foundation from which he or she can choose virtually any path: university, work, trade school, family…and not feel locked out of any choice because of some action their guardian did or didn’t take when it came time to seek a supposed golden ticket (hollow promise).

Public education should be about empowering those who are born into situations which, for reasons beyond that little child’s control, place that child at a disadvantage in the face of societal systems constructed for the majority race, majority gender, and majority culture. The vision of the American Dream (a Dream never yet realized), with America as a place of opportunity, once included that those in the majority would use their collective power to ensure that those in the minority progress toward freedom from personal and institutional oppression…so that all those American promises remain possibilities.

Whether this bill dies a quick death or not, it is beyond clear that the potential for public education as a societal equalizer is a threat to those in power. HR 610 is not about helping all kids. Period.