Category Archives: Education Policy

School Choice

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

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

How do I feel about my new student?

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

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

And trust me, he will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Including my new student.

Inslee’s Budget: Making an Investment

I was at a meeting when news started to spread that Governor Jay Inslee had released his budget plan. Of course, the thing that grabbed most people’s attention was the significant bump in pay for teachers. I noted, however, the difficult reality of his budget that our state has not yet come to terms with: In order to achieve the services we expect from public schools, we need to secure new revenue either through additional taxes or closing of loopholes. Inslee’s proposal includes four billion new dollars to be invested in public schools. Simply put, Inslee realizes that fixing our system means we can’t just shuffle line items within the current revenue structure.

In the real world, fixing things pretty much always costs money. Sometimes it even costs money you don’t yet have.

A couple of years ago on a Sunday afternoon in March, I was sitting in my living room, grading student essays. Suddenly, a sound like a fighter jet landing in my front yard started to shake my house, and then BOOM. This:

A freak spring windstorm leveled a swath of trees and structures in our neighborhood, and took an otherwise healthy (according to the arborist) 50-ft blue spruce and crashed it diagonally across the whole structure of our home. We have homeowners insurance, but between the deductible and some of what insurance didn’t cover, we didn’t have the money to fix it completely. Significant structural damage, eventual water damage from a poor patch job from the lowest-cost emergency board-up contractor, plus our roofing options being limited to the two plastic tarps I already owned and the one that the fire department donated to us to attempt to minimize water damage all made it clear that this fix was going to require something else than just making do with what we had.

Thankfully, we were able to access additional revenue, so to speak. Friends and family chipped in. I took on (yet another) side job to bring in a little cash. We sold some stuff from the garage. In the end, our house was back to normal almost a year later thanks to these additional resources (and a kind hearted roofer and generous arborist who charged us far less than they should have for work insurance couldn’t cover). The reality is that we were doing fine financially before and certainly accept criticism that we “should have” had more cash socked away for this particular breed of rainy day. The reality was that in the face of a clearly broken structure, “doing the best with what we had” wasn’t going to cut it. We will forever appreciate the people who were willing to give services, muscle, or money to help us fix our home.

I for one greatly appreciate Inslee for aiming so high and being realistic about what it will take to make progress toward strengthening public schools. New tests won’t do it. New requirements won’t do it. Furthering our love affair with accountability won’t do it. Simply demanding teachers to “do better with what they have” is not going to do it either. Fixes, in the real world, often require an investment beyond what we think we can absorb, and sometimes that investment requires more resources being added to the system.

And as for that meeting where word of the Governor’s budget was making the rounds? The reaction of teachers was positive and it had far less to do with more pay than it did with what our Governor’s budget was communicating: He was saying, pure and simple, I am willing to invest in you. 

That’s a good feeling.

Advocating for Your Vocation: The Washington Teachers Advisory Council

 

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“I’m not vanilla.  I’m like the weird flavor that no one orders.”  Meet Liz Loftus.  She’s one of the eight 2017 Regional Teachers of the Year (ToY) from Washington.  Liz, Carol, Tim, Kendra, Alisa, Jose, John, and Camille are far from vanilla.  They are spunky, brilliant, and authentic.  And the best news–they elevate teaching and learning for our students in our state.  

These eight teachers are members of the Washington Teacher Advisory Council (WATAC). Along with a few Teacher of the Year Alumni (serving on the leadership team), these eight teachers are tasked with the responsibility of advocating for our students and our colleagues at a state wide level.  WATAC was the brainchild of Lyon Terry, the 2015 Washington State Teacher of the Year.  Lyon subscribes to an idea he heard at the National Teacher of the Year meeting: “Teachers should be at the table. Otherwise we’re just on the menu.”  With financial assistance from the Gates Foundation and administrative support from OSPI (Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) and CSTP, the goal of WATAC is to build advocacy and in doing so create additional partnerships with pro education organizations and extend opportunities for outreach.  

This work is important, meaningful, and necessary. In my conversations with pro education organizations I routinely hear that teacher voices are missing from education policy.  Lyon, as the  2016 State Teacher of the Year, asserts that this has been his experience, as well.  I don’t like to think of my work as taking place “in the trenches” but what I’ve learned is that those of us who work with kids are oftentimes left out of the policy decisions that impact those kids.  For two days the new Teachers of the Year and the alumni leadership team worked together to discuss messaging, initiatives, and advocacy.  We learned about how to craft a platform and how best to share it.  Jeff Wehr, a fellow WATAC leader, encouraged us to reach out to our legislators via email.  In a moment of inspiration, I emailed my local senator to invite her into my classroom and within minutes she responded.  I look forward to coordinating her visit soon.  Jeff’s presentation on how and when to reach out to legislators empowered me to make that contact.  My hope is that after my senator sees my students in action, she thinks of them and their needs when she’s drafting or passing the legislation that impacts them.

This is why advocacy matters.  Those in the classroom inherently know the direct impact of policies made by those at the state and federal level.  Yet, because the work is humbling, oftentimes all encompassing and consuming we are likely to rightfully prioritize our time with our kids instead of our legislators.  We must find time to learn the necessary skills and mechanisms so that we can advocate for our kids.  

These teachers are far from vanilla.  They will be advocating for causes that are near and dear to their heart and their work.  They will be lifting up the voices of students in their care and without a doubt their stewardship as a Teacher of the Year will long echo in the halls of the Capitol Building in Olympia. 

Having a Voice

I didn’t want to get up at 6 am on Saturday.

I didn’t want to catch a 7:05 ferry.

I didn’t want to get turned around in the dark and rain and end up going north on I-5. Then spend 20 minutes wandering around downtown Seattle trying to find my way to south I-5.

Sputter, sputter, sputter.

But, oh, NBCT teachers, if you ever receive an email invitation to an NBCT Policy Summit and wonder if you should consider going, I am here to tell you—it was definitely worth it.

After we all went through check-in and ate breakfast and had a chance to mingle, the morning panel greeted us. There were five people on the panel but three in particular stuck out to me, probably because they represented the three organizations that sponsored the summit:

The general message? Speak up. Stand up. Be heard. Make an impact.

But the specific message that reverberated back and forth from one panel member to the next was that teachers need to find their passion and focus on that passion.

Policy Summit Mural by Taryl Hansen

Policy Summit Mural by Taryl Hansen

I immediately took that message to heart. As soon as we were dismissed to mid morning snack time, I introduced myself to Gil Mendoza. I gave told him I’m on the Executive Board for WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted). He replied enthusiastically about what a great organization it is and how lucky we are to have it in our state. I gave him my card and said, “If you ever need someone with a background in gifted to serve on a committee please keep me in mind.” He grinned—he’d just talked about how OSPI looks for teachers willing to serve on committees. Now he had a volunteer! He handed me his card and asked me to contact him again by email.

I’ve been teaching gifted in this state since 1989, and I’ve been on the board of WAETAG since 2008. But being in the room at the Policy Summit gave me a different level of access than I’d ever experienced before.

Breakout sessions met before and after lunch. Participants met in groups of about eight to discuss one of two issues:

  • A—Second Tier Licensure (Professional Certificate) or
  • B—National Board Incentive Structure

At our table in one of the B groups we started with the fact that we love having a bonus and, for those who get it, love having the extra bonus for challenging schools. What we don’t like is that fact that any bonus is a line item. It’s too easy to delete from the budget. For a long time those were our biggest discussion points.

Then I spoke up. I’d come to the Policy Summit with a slightly different point to make. As I told my table, I’ve been teaching for 38 years, and I’m not ready to stop. I hit 16 years’ experience a long, long time ago. I earned my MA in 1982 and I hit my 90 units beyond an MA when I was in my 50s and a long way from retirement.

The ONLY way for me to get any additional money was to become National Board Certified. So I got my NBCT in 2012. I plan to keep teaching until my certificate expires in 2022.

Having a salary schedule plateau early means veteran teachers can’t keep up with the rising cost of living, especially health costs.

So I suggested it would be beneficial to have some kind of step system that allows for longevity. For example, what if we got a bonus for the initial NBCT and an additional bonus at each renewal?

That led to a long examination of my idea. People brought up snags I hadn’t foreseen. They improved the original suggestion by adding a requirement that teachers who get the extra bonus demonstrate leadership—which spawned another tangle of questions. Who defines leadership? How many hours a year? How would the extra work be documented? How would OSPI track the paperwork? We even tossed around ideas for how much of a bonus although finally most of the questions were labelled TBD.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we not only kept my idea on our list of five “high leverage” ideas to submit to the group at large.  In a surprise move, the members of my group voted my suggestion as the number one on the list because it

  • encouraged teachers to pursue NBCT sooner rather than later
  • encouraged teachers to take on leadership roles after completing their NBCT
  • encouraged professional growth, not just professional development

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Then came the mid afternoon snack. (Nasue warned me that her goal was to have each of us gain five pounds before the day was over!)

Our last keynote address came from Peggy Brookins, president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She spoke eloquently about those who surreptitiously do things for teachers but without teachers—for example, people who write education laws without bringing teachers to the table. Once again, she encouraged us to make our voices heard.

I came to the Policy Summit wanting to be heard. I hoped my peers would listen and understand and maybe empathize with the salary concerns of older teachers.

I left feeling empowered.

So think about coming yourself next time. And meanwhile, think about your passion and the difference you can make.

 

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.

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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Teacher Induction Programs

Over the next two weeks, thousands of teachers, new to teaching or new to a school district will gather in excitement to learn details about their new jobs.  Many of those teachers will find themselves deflated in hours.  All too often, new teacher training days end up as Intro to Human Resources 101, far from focused on the realities of teaching and learning.  I’ve been witness to such programs and I’ve wondered, what did these teachers get out of this day?  Did we just curb their enthusiasm for this job?  Did teachers feel supported and mentored and were we (those who put on the training) good stewards of our practice?  After all, we know that supporting new teachers can lead to a reduction in attrition and can go a long way for a new teacher and a district.

So how do we balance the paperwork and the practice?  What should a new teacher induction program look like?  What goals do these programs aspire to meet and how will they evaluate when those goals have been met?  

Admittedly, until about six months ago, I hadn’t put much thought into this.  I’ve attended our new teacher meeting each year.  I’ve seen the revolving door of district staff and administrators introducing our newest staff to the paperwork, policies, and website.  I’ve been part of that revolving door, advocating for National Board Certification and working as a mentor teacher over the years.  For the most part, I thought that we had done a nice job introducing the new teachers to the must know information for the job.  And then I learned about the Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) program.  

BEST is a program designed to help administrators and mentors support novice teachers as they make the transition into the classroom.  This program was designed by OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) and funded by the state legislature.  The program has three goals:

  1. Reduce educator turnover.
  2. Improve educator quality for student learning.
  3. Ensure equity of learning opportunity for all students.  

You will notice that nowhere do you see — “4.  Learn how to put in for a substitute teacher when you are sick.”  

When our district hired several novice teachers, our assistant superintendent applied for and received a BEST grant.  The BEST grant partnered our district with our local ESD to support  a year-long mentoring project with our novice teachers.  One of my colleagues, Malinda, dove into the work of BEST and attended several academies and conferences, so that she could better understand what supports were needed.  Malinda brought back to a team of administrators, instructional coaches, and district support staff a set of standards, created by OSPI and CSTP for Teacher Induction Programs.  I should preface this by indicating that I’m not a BEST mentor and I have not been thoroughly trained by our state’s BEST program.  However, I’ve seen the impact of that training and having witnessed our first teacher induction program as a result of BEST training,

Our team of instructional coaches, human resource coordinators, building and district administrators came together and studied the standards.  We worked independently to see where we were in approaching those standards and we learned quickly that we were deficient in several areas.  To respond, our team came together every two weeks for several months to create a game plan for how to meet those standards.  Although BEST helps support novice educators, we wanted to ensure that we were supporting veteran teachers who were new to our district, too.  Malinda worked diligently to keep us focused on the standards and after months of work, the team established a game plan that included strengthening our hiring process, partnering with local universities, and developing a standards based teacher induction program.

Our new teacher induction program kicked off this week.  It is no longer a one day, rotating door meeting.  Instead our new teachers began their career in our district with a focused, five day training.  Our new teachers (novice and veteran) worked with district administrators, building administrators, instructional coaches, and peer to peer mentors.  They met together as a team of new teachers and were also broken into smaller teams, based on buildings/grade levels.  They worked to establish procedural plans and assessment goals, and also learned about curriculum and instructional materials.   And when the week concluded, the music was cued and the lyrics “Money, money, money, money” by the O’Jays blared while our Payroll Staff handed out paychecks to our new teachers for the week’s worth of time/work.  I heard shrieks of excitement and even an “oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh!”

So was the work worth it? I sure hope so.  It’s too soon to measure whether this induction program is going to meet the three BEST goals. That will be better assessed later in the school year.   But anecdotally I feel that we are on our way.  I witnessed those smiles and heard those conversations.  I spoke with a new-to-us teacher who indicated that he could see our district’s vision being emulated in the staff’s passion for teaching and learning and the work that had been put into planning for the week.  Our new teachers felt valued.  

A growing attrition rate coupled with a teacher shortage requires that schools and districts critically examine the supports that are in place for new teachers. Supports must include thoughtfully planned, goal oriented, standards based teacher induction programs.  If we want to keep good teachers teaching we must demonstrate that we value their professional growth at the onset.  Let’s keep these teachers enthusiastic about the work that lies ahead and give them the tools early on so that they may be successful in accomplishing those goals.  

Second Tier Certification in Washington: A Year of Reckoning

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

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

“That sounds reasonable,” he said.

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

“Is that it?” Continue reading