The X Files and More

Honestly, I expected more out of this legislative session. I didn’t expect the legislators to come up with a complete plan to fully fund education in this state. I’m not that sanguine. But I had hoped they would tweak things to make life better for those of us in the trenches. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of improvement. Bills died, and even the bill that made it to the governor’s desk didn’t offer much.

At least one bill that would have helped is now “X” filed, which means it’s dead. House Bill 1867 proposed that National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT) do comprehensive evaluations every six years and Professional Certified teachers do them every four years—as long as teachers in both cases received a rating of 3 or above in their last comprehensive evaluation. I’d proposed a ten-year stretch between comprehensive evaluations for NBCTs, but I was happy to see people in the legislature acknowledge the need to:

  • honor the National Board—and Professional Certification—process
  • ease the amount of TPEP work principals have to do.

Our school has a crackerjack new principal this year. But she is running herself into the ground. I see her late at work, night after night. We constantly get email from her at ridiculously late hours. Last week as I left she bemoaned the fact that “I’m not getting to do the instructional leadership in this job I thought I was going to be able to do.”

Nope. She’s doing endless TPEP tasks—pre- and post-conferences, reviewing evidence, and writing evaluations.

House Bills 1737 and 2573 had to do with the teacher shortage, substitutes, and allowing retirees to work more days as substitutes. Those bills were both “X” filed too. However, Senate Bill 6455 said it was designed to expand the professional educator workforce, and it did include some employment opportunities for retirees. SB6455 made it to the governor’s desk. I read the senate bill with high hopes.

How does SB6455 go about recruiting teachers? First, it directs OSPI to have a better website for job openings and job applications with more information for people who might want to move to Washington to teach here. I had to laugh. Have we not been clear enough? The problem isn’t just that there aren’t enough teachers in the state, but there aren’t enough teachers currently in teacher training programs teachers. There aren’t enough teachers in the country. That issue hasn’t hit full force yet, but it will. In our school alone we had a support position that took over two months to fill; the position just sat empty for the first several weeks of school.

It seems like current teachers in Washington are watching the ocean water recede, so we holler to the legislature, “There is a tsunami on the way!” and the legislature goes out to have a picnic on the beach. They just aren’t getting how vast the problem is and how devastating it’s going to be.

Second, SB6455 directs the professional education standards board to recruit teachers, especially teachers from traditionally underrepresented groups, through every resource the legislators could think of to name, from OSPI to districts to major employers to “other parties.” Third, it makes it easier, I believe, to work on Professional Certification or National Board Certification while going to school and suggests provisions for out-of-state teachers. Fourth, it directs the standards board to offer an alternative route to teacher certification.

Ok, that’s the ticket. We are now going to have a flood of new candidates pouring into our state, demanding to be allowed to teach here. Our schools of education will be turning prospects away! I mean, wouldn’t those steps make you long to teach in Washington?

Somehow, I don’t think so. When I ask fifth graders what they want to be when they grow up, they say, “Computer programmer, video game designer, pro sport player, singer, veterinarian, architect, artist, novelist.” They go with their current passion. At eighteen, the first thing my daughter did was find out which jobs paid the most. Then she decided which jobs she liked out of those jobs. Because at 18, kids have a better sense of reality. They understand that they will have to pay bills.

If we want to recruit more students into teaching in general and to our state in particular, we need to concentrate on a few obvious things:

  • pay (notice that “education” doesn’t even show up on Forbes’ list of top-paying jobs in the country)

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  • benefits
  • working conditions
  • job satisfaction

These are the things that draw anyone to any job. I think our culture has traditionally relied on teachers rating “job satisfaction” high. Perhaps people decided the other three aren’t really important for teachers. I don’t think that attitude is going to work for recruiting new teachers, though.

(Did the senators even ask themselves what incentives would make them want to take a job?)

SB6455 does allow retired teachers to substitute for about 115 days each year. Again, I think we’ve been clear. We don’t have enough substitutes. In my building if we can’t get a substitute, we pull one of the specialists into the classroom—the PE teacher or music teacher or librarian. Of course, that means whatever class had PE or music or library that day loses that class. Because we don’t have enough substitutes.

Some of our favorite substitutes are our retired teachers. Many of them will work ONLY in their old school where they already know the routines, staff, and students. We don’t have to write detailed, comprehensive notes for them because they bring their encyclopedic background knowledge with them! I have to say, if they’re willing to work for the meager substitute pay they get, I’d let them work every single day they’re available to come in. And God bless them.

So what did we get out of this session? A few more days of retired teachers being able to substitute. And some—to me, anyway—highly amusing suggestions for how to get more teachers to work in our state. Certainly not what I hoped for.

If McCleary Doesn’t Motivate the Legislature, What Will?

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It is now March of 2016, and all we have is a plan to make a plan.

Let’s look back at the timeline (Source).

It was January of 2007 when the state was first sued for not meeting its constitutional duty to adequately fund public schools.

In February of 2010, the King County Superior Court upheld the original ruling, in favor of McCleary et al.

January 2012, and the State Supreme Court upheld the King County Superior Court’s ruling.

In December of 2012, the state’s report to the court was deemed inadequate: the state was failing to fulfill the conditions of the ruling.

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Making Student Growth Matter

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I am no fan of standardized testing, so one of the greatest strengths of our teacher evaluation system in Washington state is that it empowers teachers to use classroom-based assessments (and data) to illustrate how they are fostering growth in students’ knowledge and skills. Closer to the kid always is the way to go, so using an assessment I designed or chose with my learners in mind will always (for me) trump using a corporate product, no matter how “standards aligned” it might claim to be.

One problem that I am seeing throughout my district and in other districts whose staff I support through WEA is that with all the many moving parts of teaching, student growth examination often ends of falling into the realm of “whatever is easiest to count.” Further, as I engage in deeper conversations with teachers who go this route, the whole student growth process becomes an exercise in compliance and thus a box to be checked.

When this occurs, we’re letting ourselves choose to waste our own time.

I have worked with teachers for several years now to design and implement student growth goals, and some patterns are starting to emerge:

What teachers are doing that works: Continue reading

Washington’s Retired Teachers as Substitutes Bill

Last IMG_0670week I had 42 students in my classroom.

The teacher next door called in sick; so did the teacher down the hall. Unfortunately, there were no available substitutes. We solved the dilemma by dividing the students from the two teacher-less classrooms among four other, nearby classrooms.

The result was six classes of students crammed into four classrooms.

The problem, besides the fact that our classrooms were extremely overcrowded and under-furnished, is that teachers within a grade-level team aren’t exactly at the same place in the curriculum. Thus, it wasn’t feasibly for any of us to simply push ahead with what we had planned for the day. I ended up doing an easy-to-prepare craft activity. (See figure A)

The kids loved it but I didn’t. I can’t stand wasted time and there was a lot of it. Basically we had close to 200 students doing busy-work for most of a day. That’s a lot of wasted time.

Like many states, Washington has a teacher shortage. And the leading edge of that shortage is the substitute pool. Those substitutes who have been looking for full-time employment now have it, and the remaining subs are usually booked days in advance.

The underlying problem is that there just aren’t as many people going into education as there used to be. The reasons behind this problem are legion. But it essentially boils down to the fact that teaching just isn’t the attractive career choice it once was.

I’m not exactly sure how we solve that problem in the long-term, but it’ll probably involve money.

But in the meantime, we’ve got a crisis on our hands. Like it or not, teachers can’t always be in their classrooms. They get sick, their spouses get sick, their kids get sick, their parents get sick, they have meetings, they have professional development and sometimes they just take the day off. Most teachers average about ten days out of the classroom each year, and right now the substitute pool just isn’t deep enough.

One way to solve the problem is to make it easier for retired teachers to work as substitutes. Many schools – like mine – have a recently retired teacher who’s not quite ready to hang it up entirely and becomes the “house sub.” We have Colleen. Colleen knows the faculty, knows the kids and knows the routine. She’s the perfect sub.

The problem is, Colleen can’t work as many days as we want her. That’s because there’s a policy restricting the amount of time retired teachers can work without compromising their pension benefits.

The good news is that there’s a bill in Olympia to address this. HB 1737 will let the Colleens in our state work as a substitute for up to 630 hours per school year without losing their pension.

Will it solve the problem? No. But it’ll help. It’ll let us use recently retired teachers as substitutes until we get through the current substitute crisis.

And it’ll keep me from having 42 students in my classroom.

Collaboration, Introversion, and Stifled Innovation

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There’s a stage of social development that most kids go through somewhere between ages one and three where they engage in “parallel play.” At this stage, kids will play near one another, enjoy one another’s company, but are more “coexisting in play space” than interacting with one another’s play. One child’s play might influence the other, but they can’t really be said to be playing together.

At the risk of casting myself as developmentally arrested, parallel play is how I prefer to collaborate in my job. (We each do our own thing, have the chance to see how the other plays, maybe get inspired by what we see, and we can ask for things if we need them.)

Despite the work I do daily, I am a remarkably introverted person. I think of all of the quasi-social moments (adult to adult) in my work and how painfully exhausting those moments are… and how deeply, deeply awkward I feel when I’m not in teaching, coaching, or facilitating mode. Try to strike up a social conversation with me and I want to either (1) change the subject to talk about education policy or (2) hide under the table. Oddly, when I am in front of a classroom full of teenagers or even when I lead teacher or principal PD, I shift confidently into what, by all outward appearances, is a distinctly extroverted disposition. Though I almost always end up physically exhausted, those kinds of interactions are intellectually invigorating.

Where my introversion does emerge in my work is very specific: I do not like collaboration as it seems to be happening in the profession right now, with the emphasis on “group production and alignment” and what often feels like the sacrificing of individual innovation in order to appease the common. The net product almost never feels as satisfying as if I could have just worked independently with occasional advice and consultation of peers, then reported back to the group.

A recent article grabbed my attention because it pinged twice on my radar: It referenced teacher mentorship and introversion. The article from The Atlantic about how teacher burnout is more likely among introverts (the link is worth reading from to top to bottom), highlighted how collaboration is prized so vehemently in modern school systems and how incompatible and unsustainable these are for those of us who tend toward introversion… to the point that it drives some out of the profession altogether.

What it boils down to for me personally is this: for introverts, collaboration isn’t actually about doing work. Collaboration is a social exercise. For an introvert like me, such a social exercise is stressful and exhausting and inefficient. Worse, it feels like it allows no room for any innovative or creative impulses that don’t feel instantly palatable to the group.

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Gifted Isn’t Good

There, I’ve said it. The startling. The scandalous. Or maybe just the incomprehensible. But gifted isn’t good. It isn’t bad either. “Gifted” isn’t a value statement.

Gifted education is not a privilege or a prize. It is not an elite club.

Believe it or not, “gifted” is not a label to aspire to.

Changing the mindset of the public on this issue is difficult. I worked in a district years ago where I not only tested students for the gifted program, but I contacted the parents with the results of the testing. At first I followed the district protocol of mailing letters home, but I got so many questioning phone calls and unhappy letters I finally decided it was more efficient just to call every parent to talk them through the results before mailing the official results.

“Mrs. Brown, your daughter’s scores were really great,” I’d say and read the scores to her. “But she didn’t make it into the gifted program.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.” I could feel her disappointment.

“Well, tell me about your daughter. Does she like school?”

“Yes.”

“Does she get along with her peers? Her teacher? Does she do well? Get good grades?”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Then, Mrs. Brown, thank God. You have a bright child. They are so much easier to raise than a gifted child! For a gifted child, very often the answers to those questions is no.”

I don’t notify parents any more, but I still encounter parents who crave the label. The trouble is, if parents’ aspirations exceed their children’s capabilities, it can harm the children academically, according to the American Psychological Association. Encouraging children to do well is helpful, but pushing too hard is counterproductive. It’s a fine balance, and it’s sometimes hard to strike that balance. In conferences, I sometimes need to counsel parents gently that their child is swimming as hard as they can, but they can’t keep their head above the water. A gifted program is not for everyone.

On the other hand, a general education program is not for everyone either.

Imagine observing a swimming program one summer. Some children test into guppies, some into minnows, some into fish. As soon as they master the skills at one level, the students move to the next. They can advance rapidly or take their time moving through classes over the course of the summer.

School is another matter entirely. In September we take five-year-olds and put them in the same classroom, no matter their skill level. And we keep them in the same room all year, no matter how quickly they advance through learning their skills. We have students in classes where most of their classmates are, so to speak, learning to hold their faces under water and blow bubbles while they should be perfecting their strokes as they swim laps—in the deep pool. Some of them should be diving and thinking of training for the Olympics!

I have an obligation to go diving regularly with my students. Last week’s fifth grade Time for Kids suggested debating whether or not sugary drinks should be taxed. Instead my students debated life-extensionism. Some thought the search for immortality a great idea, but one boy demurred. “Every day of your life now has value because it’s a fraction of your whole life. But if your whole life is forever, then each day is a fraction of that, and its value is nothing.” I’m not sure they’re considering that argument at MIT!

One thing I really appreciate about the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is that it talks about identifying “students with specific learning needs, particularly

  • children with disabilities,
  • English learners,
  • students who are gifted and talented, and
  • students with low literacy levels” (page 328, bullets mine).

Notice how the ESSA considers gifted students to be “students with specific learning needs” and it groups gifted students with children with disabilities, children who are learning English, and children who are having difficulty learning to read. In another section it again lists gifted students with children with disabilities and English learners (page 336, lines 6-12).

I am so pleased with this level of understanding on the part of the legislators who wrote this law. Gifted students are one group among many with “specific learning needs”—different educational needs.

I would love it if I could help people shift their mental construct. No more imagining a vertical framework with gifted education being at the top or the best or only for the elite. Instead picture a horizontal framework. Ask yourself, how far are students from the center, from the middle, from the norm? The students at both extremes are exceptional students who need a qualitatively different education.

So gifted students aren’t good/better/best. They’re needy/needier/neediest. And for those who do need it, gifted education is a necessity—a necessity designed to meet the unique educational needs of an outlier group.

Washington State’s Cursive Bill

roachSenator Pam Roach introduced a bill last week in Olympia that would require schools to teach cursive writing. According to her, reading and writing in cursive is “part of being an American.” I don’t know about that, but as a third and fourth grade teacher with over thirty years’ experience, I do know a lot about cursive writing.

And what I know tells me that this bill is doomed. At least I hope it is. Continue reading

ESSA and Gifted Education

For my entire career in education—and I started teaching in 1977—the federal government limited its involvement in gifted education to Javits grants, investing millions of dollars over the decades in scientifically-based research into gifted education.

Javits grants have not gone away. But the federal government has finally moved beyond Javits grants in addressing the needs of gifted students in America. I am thrilled that directives regarding gifted and talented students are peppered throughout the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The overarching goal of the ESSA is “to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education.” The law requires that “each local educational agency will monitor students’ progress in meeting the challenging State academic standards by … developing and implementing a well-rounded program of instruction to meet the academic needs of all students” (page 134, lines 10-22, emphasis mine).

In the past, states and districts reported data for students performing at the proficient level and below. Now they must also provide data for students performing at advanced levels. That PLC question 4 might look a lot more important to school and district administrators when the high scores are disaggregated out!

The feds know their requirements are going to cost money, so for the first time they say districts (“local educational agencies”) may use Title I funds to “assist schools in identifying and serving gifted and talented students” (page 138, lines 17-18, emphasis mine). One huge impact that funding could have is allowing districts to employ universal screening for gifted and talented programs, which we do at my district in second grade and which can help overcome the “gifted gap” among racial groups (see article).

Districts applying for Title II professional development funds must supply “a description of how the State educational agency will improve the skills of teachers, principals, or other school leaders in order to enable them

  • to identify students with specific learning needs, particularly children with disabilities, English learners, students who are gifted and talented, and students with low literacy levels, and
  • provide instruction based on the needs of such students” (page 328, lines 9-17, bullets mine).

In that professional development, districts are to provide “training to support the identification of students who are gifted and talented, including high-ability students who have not been formally identified for gifted education services, and implementing instructional practices that support the education of such students, such as:

  • early entrance to kindergarten;
  • enrichment, acceleration, and curriculum compacting activities; and
  • dual or concurrent enrollment programs in secondary school and postsecondary education” (page 343, lines 1-13).

Let’s look at the kinds of practices the feds recommend, starting with early entrance. At a Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted (WAETAG) conference years ago, I met a parent who came to get advice about her four-year-old son. He was auditing courses at the university where her husband was a professor. She said she didn’t want to enroll him and make him a media sensation, but those classes were the only places where he got his intellectual needs met.

I asked where they lived and told her they might want to consider moving since there were about five schools in the country with elementary programs for the severely and profoundly gifted. She said if those schools existed, then moving made sense. “After all, his little brother? He’s even smarter.”

Some students need to start school before five years old.

When you think of enrichment activities, don’t be limited by suggestions in trade books. Gifted students crave novelty—they find learning brand new information and skills exciting. My lesson comparing causes of World Wars 1 and 2 went well over an hour, and when I finally put a stop to it, my students objected vehemently. “No!” they howled. “Don’t stop! Keep going!” Why? Depth and richness of information. The students were building connections. I was helping them make sense of the world.

There is more research in the literature supporting acceleration than any other intervention for gifted. My student who is currently triple-accelerated in math (my fourth grader in seventh grade math) is one of the best students in his math group. He could probably move up another grade level, but then he’d be working on his own, and his mom and I decided we’d keep him in this group this year. He’s happy there.

Curriculum compacting has been around for decades. My high school teachers did it in the 1960s. My sophomore year advanced placement English teacher gave our class the end-of-the-year exam at the beginning of the year. After he graded it, he told us, “You know most of the stuff on the test except you are shaky on punctuation, and you really don’t understand commas.” So we spent a month learning punctuation. Three weeks of that was commas. At the end of September we took the test again and did fine. Then we had the rest of the year to do the actual work of the class—learning public speaking. It’s a time-tested idea, which is probably why it’s on the list of recommended practices.

As for dual or concurrent enrollment programs, we do well. In Washington we have both AP and Running Start. But, in my humble opinion, we ought to be open, in a similar way, to students taking a three-year middle school program in two years. Or taking middle school and high school classes at the same time. Those options would certainly be allowed, and I think encouraged, under the ESSA.

The Javits grants studied gifted students for generations and decided that gifted students can be identified, they have educational needs, and that those needs can be met through several well-documented strategies. Now the ESSA is saying, “Go meet those needs. Here are some excellent ways to do it. And you can use federal money to help!” If your district needs help finding Highly Capable professional development specialists, go to the WAETAG site.

Classroom Management and the Teacher Shortage

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Of the lessons I learned about classroom behavior management over the years, the one that has had the greatest payoff is my realization that the behavior a student presents is less important to address than the conditions which precipitate that behavior.

In other words, if Johnny is acting out in class all the time, I could perpetually redirect him, eventually punish him, and finally succeed in getting him to be quiet. A better approach, however, would be to deeply consider what conditions are causing Johnny to act out all the time, and then address those conditions, or help Johnny be better at coping with those conditions.

Treating the action has the potential to shut Johnny down (which in the moment, may appear to be the goal). Treating the conditions helps create the new conditions wherein Johnny might succeed.

When I read recently that during a work session our legislature had been briefed on the growing teacher shortage state- and nation-wide, which included discussion about promising practices in recruiting and training new teachers, I immediately thought of classroom management.

Disturbingly, this discussion referenced ways to “make it easier” for people to get on the pathway toward becoming a teacher. (Seriously, it is not that hard to become a teacher when we think of “become” as “get a job as.” It’s just that no one in their right mind wants to do it anymore. Let’s pause and think about the consequences of easier paths to teaching for a second: If we draw a pool of applicants who make their decision to become teachers because it was easy to become a teacher, what will happen when they face the incredibly hard work of actual teaching?)

Making it easier for people to become teachers doesn’t solve the problem.

Providing alternative pathways to certification doesn’t solve the problem.

Districts actively recruiting undergrads or setting up university partnerships doesn’t solve the problem.

We need to directly and boldly address the conditions that have created turnover and the teacher shortage. If we do not, the problem will not go away: Instead, we will perpetually rotate through failed solutions, always blaming the solution for being the wrong answer when in reality we’re answering the wrong question.

Here is what I believe has created the teacher turnover and teacher shortage problem. Unless these get fixed, it won’t matter how we recruit, how easy we make it to get a teaching license, or what partnerships schools and universities try to cultivate.

Our real problems: Continue reading

Questioning “CCR”

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About the time my middle son (now 8) graduates from high school, my wife and I will still be a few years shy of paying off our student loan debt. We both have Masters Degrees in our respective fields, and finished our undergraduate studies in 2001.

Absolutely, we did this to ourselves. MATs, MSWs, and undergraduate degrees in English Literature and Sociology aren’t fast-track degrees toward high pay and easy loan payoff. We also added other debt and expenses to ourselves by buying a house and having three kids. Choices, and of course we could have made different ones. We live modestly, are natural homebodies, and weigh every expenditure carefully with a more secure future in mind. In reality, we’re doing better than fine.

I have a lot to be grateful for, but nonetheless have spent a great deal of the last twenty years pretty frustrated with the way things all turned out. Growing up, I heard again and again how hard work and doing well in school would offer some sort of guarantee (the “American Dream,” of course). I went to a small, poor, rural high school that had exactly zero honors or AP offerings; I grew up on a farm and took four years of Ag instead, not a bad thing at all (I was heavily involved in FFA, and probably learned more about teaching from my FFA experience than I did anywhere else). However, instead of applying any of the practical skills I learned in Ag, I went to University, since that was heralded as The Right Thing To Do. Meanwhile, a few of my friends chose not to go that route, instead getting jobs or learning skilled trades. Now in their late thirties many own their own businesses, employ others, and earn a solid living for their families in fields such as construction, cosmetology, and plumbing just to name a few. Along the way they found avenues for continued learning, whether it was taking some classes on business management or learning on the job from mentors and peers.

They worked hard to make their lives a success, of course, but hopefully you see my point: they chose the exact route that is so quickly dismissed by our system today.

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