My Failing School

Lwe_entranceBy Tom White

Last week my school district sent out letters to every family in our school, informing them that our school is failing. This week we learned that fourteen of our students will be going to a different school. One that isn’t failing.

I can’t tell you how upsetting this is. I have worked at Lynnwood Elementary for the past 25 years and it’s become part of my soul. I have worked with an entire generation of that neighborhood and now I’m beginning to work with the children of former students. In fact, one of my former students is now a teacher at my school. We have nearly 600 wonderful, diverse students from all over the world, taught by a faculty of bright, caring professionals, dedicated to their work. Although we have plenty of room for improvement, ours is not a failing school by any stretch of the imagination.

To be told by someone in Washington DC who has never set foot in my school that we’re failing is about the most ridiculous characterization I can think of. We’re not alone, of course; over 90% of the schools in our state are “failing.”

Here’s why:

In 2002 George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into law. This was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which previously gave states and districts block grants with which they could fund special education and other programs designed for at-risk students. NCLB was supposed to make schools more accountable for student learning; they had to make steady progress over the course of the next twelve years, culminating in 2014 – last year – at which point every kid in every school in America was supposed to be performing at grade level or risk sanctions.

That goal, of course, was preposterous. When President Obama took office there was some talk about rewriting the law so that it made sense. That talk didn’t go anywhere. Consequently, the Obama administration decided to use the threat of NCLB and its sanctions as leverage for certain education reforms by granting “waivers” from the law to those states that complied. One of those reforms was the use of student test scores as part of teacher evaluations.

The Washington State Legislature decided not to go along with that particular “reform.” So the feds revoked our waiver, which means that we’re still bound by NCLB. And since it’s now 2014 and since some of our kids failed to meet standard on the last standardized test, our school is classified as “failing.”

What makes this particularly stupid in the case of our school is that the scores used are actually two years old; we piloted the new SBAC last year (tied to the Common Core) and therefore our scores weren’t even recorded.

So here we are. The letters went out, parents read them and some decided to pull their kids out of our school and have them bused – at the school district’s expense – to the nearest “not failing” school.

What happens next? I can think of five possibilities, presented in the order of least likelihood:

1. Congress rewrites NCLB/ESEA so that it makes sense and actually serves at-risk students by providing financial support to their schools. This is obviously the best solution. It’s also the least likely to happen.

2. Every student suddenly performs at grade level. This is, of course, also highly unlikely. The only reason I didn’t put it first is because our students, their parents and their teachers are at least trying to make it happen, whereas the people charged with rewriting NCLB/ESEA aren’t.

3. The Federal Department of Education decides they’ve made their point and reinstates Washington State’s waiver. There’s actually been movement in this direction, but I get the sense that they’ve chosen to make an example of our state, especially because of the role that our teacher’s union played in swaying the legislature. But it could happen.

4. Our legislature decides to change our teacher evaluation system to include student test scores. Although the WEA will put up a strong fight, this could also actually happen. Our evaluation system won’t be as accurate or as meaningful as it is now, but at least we’ll be waived of NCLB’s sanctions. 

5. Nothing. This is probably what will happen. Congress won’t act. Our students will improve, but they won’t all pass their state tests. The feds won’t back down. Our legislature won’t change the evaluation system.

And my school will still be “failing.” 

Back to School: One New Thing

UnknownBy Mark

My wife is going school shopping for my sons tomorrow, but before deciding to do this she went through the boys' backpacks and folders to determine what school supplies were salvageable and didn't need to be repurchased. Turns out there's not a whole lot left on the list to raid Target for, which is good.

The same process happens with the clothes: do they have enough decent clothes to make it through the warm months? Probably. And what about shoes? Definitely a need. If nothing else, that'll be the one "new thing" each boy definitely gets. Their backpacks and lunchboxes miraculously held up and have another school year left in them, at least.

Similarly, August is a time when teachers take the same stock of their own practice and decide what to keep and what to retire. Often the impulse, being economical as teachers are often forced to be, is to hang on to what we have…to maintain what is comfortable. If something comfortable is worn out, like a pair of shoes, we'll likely just replace it with an updated version of the same thing.

Updated same is not the same as new

I see teachers, including myself, integrating updated same in our teaching practice and deceiving ourselves into believe that this represents change. Many of us are jaded against new, often because new is usually presented as an acronym or mandate that we don't really get to choose but still have to accept–even though ITSP (it, too, shall pass) as the edupendulum swings away.

My challenge to myself is to figure out what new I want to integrate this year. "If it ain't broke don't fix it" is a great motto for things with gears and belts and things we're content having stay the same. 

I'll know I've found that new that I want to bring into my teaching when I start to feel nervous–even worried about failure. That uncertainty, that risk, is a sign that I'm on the verge of learning something. 

What's the new, not the updated same, that you're considering in your teaching? What do you hope to see happen when it works?

Positive Presupposition


By Mark

I had the chance to hear from two great teacher-leaders, Marcy Yoshida and Gail Jessett, as part of OSPI's Mentor Academy this past June. Hands-down, this was one of the best professional development experiences I've had. Many, many things resonated, but one was this concept of the "positive presupposition." It is best illustrated for me by an anecdote they shared about a high school student who kept falling asleep in class:

This kid's teacher was frustrated that he cared so little about her class that he'd doze off. Then Marcy said something that will change the way I think about everything: Where one teacher sees an indifferent student falling asleep in class and willfully disregarding learning, she sees a student struggling to stay awake in order to to learn as much as he can. 

That shift in perspective doesn't condone the behavior, but it can sure change the way the teacher handles it.

Instead of a knee-jerk reprimand, there might be a conversation to seek understanding. Maybe it will be discovered that the kid wasn't up playing video games all night, as it would be easy to assume, but that there truly was more to the story. Maybe together the teacher and the student can devise some strategies to help battle the body clock: standing to take notes, taking a water break, even sitting on a yoga ball. What could have been a wedge in the teacher-student relationship and one more reason for that kid to maybe grow indifferent and willfully disregard learning instead becomes an opportunity for him to figure out a very grown-up kind of coping–and discover that his teacher would rather he learn and grow than be punished. There's a NCLB comment I won't make here…positive presupposition gets more difficult when we start talking policy, though it is probably just as important.

Nonetheless, that shift in perspective will make a huge difference in how I work with my colleagues and my students this coming year. This is what happens when professional development works.

(And then of course, there is this, my other simple learning from this summer that will make a huge difference.)

Teachers and Their Unions

PropanetankBy Tom

Most gas stations sell propane. But they usually keep the propane tank as far as possible from the main building. To me, that says something. It says, “Even though our entire operation consists of simultaneously selling gasoline, cigarettes and Bic lighters to anyone with a car; that propane tank scares the hell out of us, and we don’t want to be anywhere near it.”

That weird mix of trust and suspicion also seems to apply to teachers and their unions. According to a recent survey, three out of four Americans trust their children’s teachers, while only half believe that teachers unions have a positive effect on schools. That seems weird to me, since teachers union are – by definition – simply a group of teachers; the same teachers that people trust when they aren’t in a group. I understand what’s going on, of course; when teachers are working in their classrooms, they’re doing things for children: teaching them, keeping them safe, etc. But when teachers get together in a group – a union – they sometimes ask for things like fair compensation and job security, and that’s when the trust disappears. People don’t like it when teacher unions act like other unions. That’s when they accuse teachers of not acting in the best interests of the students.

There are two problems with that. First of all, unions are supposed to act on behalf of their members. That’s their essential purpose. They were invented in order to secure collective bargaining agreements with employers. They sit down across the table from administrators and bargain. And at some point in the conversation, the administration will insist on less money for more work and less job security. The union, on the other hand, will ask for higher wages in exchange for less work and more job security. That’s what every worker – with or without a union – is supposed to do in regards to their employment conditions. Teacher unions, as it turns out, have become pretty good at it, and people don’t like that.

But here’s the other thing: despite the fact that teacher unions act like unions because they’re supposed to, our unions actually do a lot more. I spent a couple days earlier this week in Denver, where this year’s NEA Representative Assembly is being held. Before the convention started, I attended an event called “Empowered Educators Day.” It was awesome. The entire day was focused on ways in which the NEA is working to improve teaching and learning. National Board Certification, of course, was a big part of the conversation. The National Board has had the support of the NEA and the AFT from the get-go, and it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the support of the teachers unions.

On this Fourth of July I’m holding my head high. I’m a proud member of a great union. A union that works hard for its members and works just as hard for our students.


Time (again)

File53b48f9420c67By Mark

Central Washington University completed a "teacher time study" (which I found via CSTP's Facebook page) to explore how teachers spend their work days.

As I sit here on my "summer vacation," I realize that taking up the topic of teachers and work time is a dangerous one, though I did spend a couple of hours today working on next year's curriculum and sequence planning (in the sun while my sons splashed in the inflatable pool). Lest you think I am complaining about the time that I put in as a teacher, (1) my father was [is] a teacher, so I saw firsthand growing up that the work was not limited to the contracted day and (2) even knowing that expectation, I still chose this profession.

Ultimately, the conclusion of the time study was that a typical teacher spends an average of 1.4 hours at work (on site) beyond their contracted work day. Looking back on my own schedule this past year, at typical day included a 6:30am arrival and a 3:30pm departure, so I'm in line with the average in terms of time spend on the job at school. Unless I am misreading it, what this study did not seem to take into consideration was the work that gets taken home each evening and on the weekends during the school year. The study (linked above) parsed out how that at-work time was used but didn't go beyond time on site.

I would be very curious to see a time study of how much time Washington teachers invest beyond the hours worked on site. For me personally, it does ebb and flow. I deliberately plan the scope of homework (read: major student writing I give feedback on) based on my family's evening and weekend schedules. Big essay weekends mean dad's working at the computer for 14 to 16 hours a day, plus several hours on the weekdays either side. That's the flow at highest tide–one weekend per month. The ebb is at least half an hour to an hour each evening–usually planning, replying to parent emails and phone calls, reviewing shorter assessments or organizing for the next day. It is rare to spend fewer than two hours per weekend day on something school related.

And to be clear: I am not complaining about the time–I know that putting in long hours is part of being in a profession as opposed to the alternativeMy wife and kids might have a different opinion, but I try to keep some semblance of balance…My "three months' vacation" which is actually really only "most of July" makes up for some of it. 

The other time study I'd like to see: what would happen to student learning if teachers worked the same number of hours but served only half the number of students? 

No More Cupcakes!

NocupcakesBy Tom

My school district recently made a bold move. They banned birthday cupcakes and other treats in schools as part of a district-wide wellness initiative. Despite the fact that they’re going to catch some flak (they already have) and despite the fact that I’ll personally miss those 200 calorie bundles of sticky awesomeness, I support the decision. Birthday cupcakes are disruptive, unhealthy and sometimes even dangerous. Let me explain.

Here’s what happens on a typical birthday. The special child’s parent swings by the office sometime in the morning to drop off a large plastic box containing 30 store-bought cupcakes. The office staff – with plenty of other things to do – sends an email or leaves a voice message for the child’s teacher, who then sends the child down to office to pick up the cupcakes. Unless the message doesn’t get through; in which case the office has to resort to the intercom. The cupcakes then live in the classroom until the teacher finds time to have the “party.” In my room I hold off as long as possible. I typically have the birthday kid stay inside when the rest of the class goes out to recess at 2:50 so they can put a cupcake and a napkin on everyone’s desk. When recess is over and everyone comes back inside, I take my guitar off the wall and we sing the standard. Then we eat cupcakes. After five minutes we throw away the wrappers, wear the rings that are usually embedded in the frosting (Seahawk helmets or Disney princesses) and get on with what’s left of our day.

Now obviously that’s not a huge distraction. But that’s a typical birthday. I’ve had misguided parents drop off a standard round cake with candles (seriously?) and no plates. I’ve had parents bring in jugs of juice and no cups. I had one dad drop off 24 cupcakes for a class of 29, five of whom received a ballpoint pen stolen from the supply room. And then there are the parents whose child is too special for mere cupcakes. They bring cupcakes and balloons. Or cupcakes, juice and balloons. Or sometimes an entire pizza lunch for the whole class, complete with cookies, drinks and favor bags. And if you think these parties are distracting for a classroom, imagine what it’s like in the office; five hundred students means there’s an average of 1.5 birthdays each day – more on Mondays and Fridays to account for the kids who were thoughtless enough to have a weekend birthday this year – and you can see how much time is consumed by birthday logistics.

Besides the distraction, birthday treats are usually horribly unhealthy. I challenge you to find something worse for a child’s body than the average store-bought cupcake. And frankly, there are a lot of kids in school right now who need to take nutrition a lot more seriously. When I first started teaching, 30 years ago, I would typically have one or two chunky students per class. This year nearly half my class appeared to be overweight. No, we’re not going to turn the corner on childhood obesity by banning birthday cupcakes, but trust me, we need to start somewhere.

And that’s not even taking into account the kids with allergies or diabetes. I usually have a handful of students each year who are allergic to anything from wheat to milk, chocolate, dairy products, or nuts. The data is readily available, but it’s time-consuming for me to figure out who can’t eat these particular cupcakes, and it’s heart-breaking for the allergic kid to be told that he’s going to have to miss out on the treats.

That said, part of me will always miss those birthday cupcakes. But that part of me is – quite frankly – a little too large as it is. It’s time to ban the cupcakes and move on.

So Maybe We Should Get Our Waiver Back

U turn permittedBy Mark

I support that Washington state resisted political pressure from the USDE to require the use of state tests in teacher evaluation. My reasoning, among other points, included that the coming Smarter-Balanced tests based on Common Core State Standards were yet to be explored and fully understood by teachers, students, and school systems.

The Gates Foundation is now communicating a similar idea–to wait at least two years before using state test scores in teacher evaluations.

What I think is funny: When discussing the USDE's opposition to the call for a moratorium in using test scores in teacher evaluation, Dorie Nolt, spokeswoman for the USDE stated “We believe the most thoughtful approach is to work state-by-state to see what support each state will need, and not to stop the progress states have already made, or slow down states and educators that have been working hard and want to move forward” (from the article linked above).

What we in Washington state need, the progress we have already made, and the hard work we have done to move forward does not seem to have been considered when our NCLB waiver was revoked. 

And still, more and more research is coming forward questioning the actual impact a teacher has on standardized test scores. (My one worry: that this can get misinterpreted as "teachers do not impact student learning," thus further demeaning the impact that teachers have beyond what broad standardized tests are able to assess. These tests, by virtue of their intention toward universality, can only with validity assess the lowest end of cognition such as identification and recall, but cannot reliably explore analysis and synthesis.)

If nothing else, the call for a two year moratorium is a small-scale version of the Number One thing schools are rarely given but most critically need to enact meaningful change and reform: TIME.

California and Tenure

BlankMap-USA-CaliforniaBy Mark

In my near-decade as a building union representative, I have worked with several staff members in need of support. They were struggling in one way or another, and their supervisor was recognizing that this was impacting student learning. Some of these teachers were "tenured" (though that's the wrong term, the real term is "on a continuing contract") and some were not. None were fired. All chose to leave on their own accord.

Should my school have been faulted for not firing them outright at the first inkling of trouble? Was it wrong that we gave them between a few months to a whole school year to try to improve their performance?

As I read what is going on California (where a judge has declared their "teacher tenure" policies unconstitutional and a dire threat to the well-being of students) I am truly torn. On one hand, I could name a couple of teachers I've met in my career who would have been dropped like a hot potato had their administrator not wanted to engage in the contractually agreed upon due process for termination. On the other hand, I've also known a few less-competent supervisors who would use the power to fire at will to advance an agenda that may not be best for kids. Like every other issue in education, it is more complex than the sound-bytes from each side. It is not as simple as the union protecting bad teachers or lawyers advocating for students. 

David B. Cohen at InterACT, a group blog for accomplished California teachers offers an initial reaction that I think is worth the read. One point I can agree with him on above all: we're focusing on the wrong thing. If that judge wants to remedy something that is a dire threat to the well-being of students, start with adequate funding and infrastructure, not scapegoating teachers.

The parallels to Washington, to me, are obvious: TPEP, McCleary… And our constant need to remind the public that teachers are not un-firable once they leave provisional status after three years–while under provisional status, no due process is required and no reason must be given unless part of local CBAs. Once in continuing status, all teachers are guaranteed is due process. Tenure, the guarantee of permanent employment, does not exist in the way people think it does.

SBAC Reflections, Part 1

Ccss-sbacBy Tom

Like most kids across the state, my students are in the middle of taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment, known in our school as the “S-Back.” It has been what I’ll politely call a “Learning Experience.” Most of us are used to giving paper-pencil standardized tests, and it’s stressful enough managing those; which entails keeping track of every single test, sharpening and distributing number 2 pencils, passing out the snacks, keeping the room silent, keeping the “fast finishers” busy with activities that are engaging enough to keep them quiet, yet not engaging enough to encourage the other kids to rush through their tests. With the SBAC, we have to deal with all that, plus the added stress of logging onto the SBAC Assessment Management Portal to generate an “Event Code,” getting a computer into the hands of every student, helping them log on using their 18-digit security code and the teacher-generated Event Code, and then helping them navigate into and through the test itself. As I told my wife, “Thank God for bourbon and thank God this year is only a field test.”

Three days removed from the stress and the hassle, I think I can safely draw three conclusions about these tests and the impact they’ll have on education in our state.

First of all, literacy will become even more integrated. Secondary teachers already teach reading and writing in the same period, but in the early grades, this is less the case, especially when teachers start getting serious about getting their kids ready for the state tests. The SBAC tests student’s writing skills by giving them a performance task which close reading of a series of texts and a response with an essay composed completely on the computer. Obviously we’ve always used student writing as a means to gauge their reading comprehension, but not when it comes to standardized assessments; in years past, the writing part of the test has been completely separate from the reading test and has had prompts that require very little reading skill. With the SBAC, there is no reading and writing assessment; it’s all one big ELA assessment, and the whole thing happens on a computer screen.

Which brings me to my second conclusion: students will be using technology a lot more for core curriculum activities. No more will teachers have their students draft, revise, edit and publish predominately on paper and use technology for stuff like social studies PowerPoint slideshows. To be successful on the SBAC, students need to know how to navigate between reading and writing panes on their computer screen. They’ll need to know how to compose from scratch electronically. And obviously they’ll need to know how to type. One of the things that amazed me last week was how many computers appeared out of the woodwork when it was time for those tests. That was great, but we’re going to need those machines all day, every day, in pretty much every classroom, if we want success. (And trust me; with the increased emphasis on results-based teacher and principal evaluations, we will want success.)

Of course, as everyone knows, simply placing computers into a classroom won’t cut it. Teachers are simply going to have to become proficient users of technology. We’ll need to know how to provide instruction with technology, present practice work using technology, help our students do that work on computers and then read, score and publish their work without ever having to print it out. Sure, there will still be paper, but increasingly there will be lots of web pages and word documents. For younger teachers that might not seem like a big deal, but for a guy like me, who started teaching when overhead projectors were cutting edge, that represents a significant evolution.

These changes and more are predicated on the idea that “what gets tested is what gets taught,” which is pretty much the way thing happen in education. Obviously the SBAC will get refined and improved after the results of this pilot year are analyzed, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re in for some major changes.

Next week, after my kids take the math portion, I’ll share my reflections and that side of the curriculum.