Owning the Wheel

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“Let’s not reinvent the wheel.”

I used to hear this a lot when I worked in the business world. Yes, absolutely we would all think… that’s been done already. Let’s not duplicate the work that someone has already done.

I often wondered why we didn’t say this more in education. Every state had their own standards and their own tests: there was an incredible amount of duplicated energy. Even district assessments varied from neighboring town to town.

Then we got the Common Core and I thought “Finally!” we’re going to do the work once, and it will be done well, and we will share it. I really didn’t think it would matter if the standards were more rigidly fixed than the previous state standards, because the energy we would all save seemed worth it.

Then we got (or will get) the tests. These have been created without district or state oversight. No parents, no teachers, no principals, or district superintendents will be able to easily modify these tests. No superintendent of public instruction for a given state will be able to easily modify much of anything about the tests – and that’s an optimistic appraisal.

So now I’m starting to wonder about that wheel.

Maybe we do need to recreate the wheel. In the end, at least then we have our own wheel. Ownership matters. All of the sudden we realize we’re riding in the backseat of the car. I wasn’t expecting this when Common Core arrived.

What if we all started with Common Core – what if we adopted Common Core – but then we raised it as our own baby? Each state could make changes, and though they would be weighty decisions they would be possible. Or maybe we could share custody with all of the other states. Perhaps state superintendents could meet every couple of years to propose and then decide on changes.

The assessment piece is even more problematic. Though we might all strive for the same goals, judgment of success is subjective and complex. Coming from the American roots of local control over local schools it just seems like a great distance to have traveled. I think we’re going to need a set of wheels to get that back.

Evaluations and RIFs: Moving Too Quickly…

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Substitute Senate Bill 5744 establishes a procedure for the layoff of teachers in the event of reductions in funding or decrease in enrollment. The gist: when faced with reductions in the certificated teacher force (RIF), a district must consider a weighted average of the two most recent annual evaluations of a teacher (weighted 60% on the current year, 40% on the previous year) and only use seniority to break a “tie.” The bill digest helps break it down and reviews the pro and con positions; the bill passed out of the Senate Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education with support from Senators Litzow, Dammeier, Fain, Hill and Rivers and a dissenting vote from McAulliffe.

When I read this, I thought I must have missed something…as I was sure there had already been some kind of legislative action tying teacher evaluations to reductions in force. I was right: It is here, way down in section 8a of the “TPEP Law” 28a.405.100 (parts of which I by now have committed to memory, for better or worse).

The current law does state that “beginning with the 2015-16 school year, evaluation results for certificated classroom teachers and principals must be used as one of multiple factors in making human resource and personnel decisions” and also states that nothing in the law as written “limits the ability to collectively bargain how the multiple factors shall be used in making human resource or personnel decisions, with the exception that evaluation results must be a factor” (RCW 28a.405.100 8a). This section also defines “human resource and personnel decisions” as including reduction in force.

All of which leaves me to wonder why we need SSB 5744.

I believe that when implemented as intended our new teacher evaluation system with eight criteria, four tiers, and a strong foundation in scale-referenced and evidence-supported assessment of teachers, will help teachers grow and refine their practice. Prematurely attaching state-level RIF language to a new system still in nascent stages of implementation adds a veiled threat to something that is in most places still in the “we’re kind of starting to get the hang of it…maybe” phase.

I’m not inherently opposed to what the bill suggests. I think it’s kind of clunky and bit micro-managey…I’d of course rather see local control of personnel decisions. However, the overall premise is one I’m okay with. What I’m not a fan of is the haste in adding a new twist to a system not yet fully formed. Instead, why don’t we leave the new evaluation system alone for five, eight, ten years (!!) so we can get it working as intended. Then, once the bugs are ironed out and the challenges are addressed, we can consider how to (or whether we even want to) clarify the already existing mandate that teacher evaluations be a factor in human resource decisions.

My worry is that this is just the kind of twist that might serve to derail (or at minimum, distract from) the good work that so many districts are already doing to make teacher evaluation a tool to improve student learning.

Three Things I Know about the Common Core

MonNatForestBy Tom

One of my fourth graders began school in a part of the country known for its spectacular natural beauty. Unfortunately, it’s also know for subpar housing, poor health care, and high illiteracy. Sadly, this student started the year well behind his peers and is still struggling to catch up. When I talked to his mom, she explained that he was an average student in his old school and she noticed a huge jump in terms of what he was expected to do in our school.

In other words, standards.

People across the country, both conservative and progressive, are balking at the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, either because they fear too much federal government involvement in what has traditionally been a state issue, or because they fear the Common Core is leading to over-testing of students and profiteering by the companies that produce those tests. While these concerns probably have some merit, there are three important facts concerning the common core that need to be considered:

First of all, we’ve always had, and always will have, standards. And it’s not just us. Doctors have standards. Plumbers have standards. So do engineers, pharmacists and the guys that build train tracks. We had standards before the Common Core and we’ll have other standards if we abandon the Common Core.

Second, standards imply assessment. Think of those guys and their train tracks. From time to time, one of them has to stop what he’s doing and check to see that their tracks are just the right distance apart. Otherwise they’ll have to start over. Likewise, from time to time we have to stop what we’re doing every once in a while to see if our students are learning the stuff we’re trying to teach. It’s inconvenient for everyone, but it’s also important.

And finally, it makes no sense for different places in the country to be teaching to different standards. Particularly math, ELA and science standards. People move around a lot, and kids all over the country will eventually compete for the same jobs and college seats. It’s ridiculous for their respective states to focus on different standards. Because by “different” we’re talking harder or easier; and in this case, harder is better.

The Common Core is not perfect and testing is no fun. I get that. But there’s a kid struggling in my classroom right now, mostly because the beautiful state where he was born and the beautiful state where he lives now each decided on a different set of standards.

That doesn’t make any sense.

Standards and Fallacies

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Two key standards I strive to teach my students:

  • Regarding informational text: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.
  • Regarding speaking and listening: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.

False statements, fallacious reasoning, exaggerated or distorted evidence: I can think of nothing more important for literate 21st-century students to be able to decipher, as these are rampant and pervasive in our culture and media today, from reality TV to TV news and from advertising to politics.

In our complex, fast-moving world of constant stimuli from vibrating little screens, one of the easiest categories of fallacy to fall victim to are the fallacies of distraction.

Simply put, this fallacy arises in an argument when the listener distracts the arguer from the issue by raising a point that is tangential or only tenuously related, and thus hijacks the argument so that in the end the original issue never gets resolved.

This is exactly what is happening in debates and discussions about public education today. Why is one of the greatest and most vehement arguments in modern public education about the Common Core State Standards, for example?

As I see it, this argument is a fallacy of distraction.

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Connecting to the Conversation

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Recently I got better connected to conversations on public education in the United States. I got my Twitter account up and started following people talking about our K-12 schools. You might know how that story goes. I knew a few people I wanted to follow, and then this person connected to that person and before I knew it I found it was hard to keep up.

My entire Twitter experience is all about professional engagement. My head is spinning with all of the information, but I have very little chance to be grounded in those conversations here in my school where we can craft solutions, visions, and help shape the course of a student’s day, month, year, life. Follow Diane Ravitch’s blog alone and your head will probably spin too.

One of the people I follow who makes a great deal of sense to me is Pasi Sahlberg. I had the opportunity to be a part of a one-day “Finnish Lessons” seminar with him at UW a couple of years ago, and I saw him again last year at the Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, DC. He makes a number of compelling arguments about how schools in the United States could revolutionize their approach to teaching and learning. There are many societal issues that are out of reach for schools to take on, so I’d like to focus on one that seems accessible and almost desperately necessary for teacher survival:

Meaningful
Time
for Collaboration.

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Washington State Democrats Oppose the Common Core

By Tom

Over the weekend, the Washington State Democratic Party passed a resolution opposing the Common Core State Standards. This is a pretty big deal, given that the primary opposition to the Common Core has been from Republicans. But while Republican opposition focuses mostly on federal intrusion into state matters, Democratic opposition is mostly a reaction to over-testing and big businesses who profit on that over-testing. Were Washington to drop the Common Core, it would be significant; it’s not only a solid blue state, it’s also the home state of the Gates Foundation, which has backed the new standards since the beginning.

This is a surprising development.

First of all, no matter what you think of the Common Core, you have to hand it to the people behind this resolution. They are an intrepid group. According to their Website, they’ve been working on this project for a year, lining up their ducks and putting the pieces into place. It’s a group of concerned parents, activist teachers and progressive Democrats and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere soon. We can probably expect anti-Common Core bills in both the House and the Senate in the very near future.

There’s still a long way to go, of course, before any change in policy. Anything can happen in the legislature. But there’s absolutely no way for anyone who supports the Common Core to see this as anything but bad news. It doesn’t bode well, especially since the Republicans have already come out in opposition to the Common Core and especially since Patty Murray, one of our US Senators, is trying to get the ball rolling on rewriting NCLB. She’s made it clear that she still supports yearly testing, and the only tests we have these days are the ones that are pegged to the Common Core.

As a teacher, I find this whole mess extremely frustrating. Like most districts, mine rolled out new curriculum in both math and ELA just before the Common Core was written. So, like everyone else, I’ve spent the last five years trying to figure out how to teach to the Common Core with materials that don’t quite fit. It’s been a struggle, but I’m getting there. I’ve also worked hard to get my students prepared for the SBAC, the Common Core-aligned test used in Washington State.

And quite frankly, I like these standards. They make sense. They might not be perfect, but they’re better than the ones we used to have and they’re sure better than what hasn’t been proposed by the people who want to get rid of the Common Core.

We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Teachers – and students – have enough to work on without having to abandon everything we’ve done over the last five years and refocus on another set of standards. And while I admire the idealism and determination of the folks who got this resolution passed, I resent their ultimate goal.

We’ve adopted the Common Core. Let’s focus on implementing it.

TeachToLead Summit, Part Two: Us versus Them.

Grand Canyon

One theme that kept coming up again and again during my weekend at the Denver TeachToLead Summit earlier this month: Us versus Them.

The “us” was universally the same: teachers and teacher leaders.

The “them” varied depending on the project. In some cases they were unwilling principals, myopic departments of ed, or whoever “they” are that design and mandate clunky policy.

In our movie-plotline fantasies about leadership, we might envision the lone, passionate advocate standing up to “them,” converting “them,” and having waved the wand of leadership to magically change their minds, rather easily change the world.

The reality of Us versus Them is more complicated. And I believe that the first step in successful teacher leadership is the honest admission that this dichotomy does not actually exist.

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The Girl Who Wasn’t Here

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Note: I wrote this post six or seven years ago (can’t remember now) and it was the first post for which I was called to the principal’s office. It was one of those ominous Friday evening Outlook “meeting requests” to meet with admin on Monday morning before school. The only note in the request: “blog post.” I called the principal at home to see if I needed to bring a union rep.

When you read it, you’ll likely see that it isn’t particularly controversial, which was what at first confused me about my reprimand. Still relatively early in my career, and very new to blogging, I made the rounds apologizing to administrators and ultimately pulled the post down from Stories from School even though it had already garnered several comments and reposts…and even though I had modified enough details of the kids’ stories to protect the innocent while still emphasizing the impact of the policy. Their concern was that a parent could read the post, read through the modifications, and still see themselves and their student, then be upset.

A recent conversation with a teacher at Denver’s TTLSummit reminded me of this post, as this teacher was struggling with building-level policies that she wanted to see changed for the benefit of students.


A few weeks ago, she and her family moved into my district. It was perfect timing to join my class, as we were just starting to read the next novel and she could step right in with us.

Two days after she arrived, she was absent.

No big deal, I thought.  Then, she proceeded to miss two more days.

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TeachToLead Summit – Denver: Part One… Washington is Different

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This past weekend I was surrounded by people ready to change their worlds. Teacher leaders from all over the nation converged in Denver for the regional Teach to Lead Summit hosted by the U.S. Dept. of Ed. and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

It was inspiring, enlightening, and exhausting (in a good way).

Much of it was also about forging connections, perhaps future partnerships. I had the opportunity to deliver a breakout session with CSTP’s Katie Taylor, and serve as a critical friend and consultant to teams of teachers from Colorado, Minnesota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and other states who were seeking feedback on the teacher-leadership projects they were building back at home.

One thing I figured out quickly, though, was that Washington is unique.

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The Inslee Budget, Part 2: Compensation

By Tom

The other night I was sitting in my living room, on my recliner, preparing lesson plans for the next day. (That’s how I roll, by the way; one day at a time.) As I was working on my math lesson, I looked in my Math Expressions Teachers’ Guide and noticed that the next day was all about finding the area of a triangle. A bell went off in my mind; I remembered something from some Common Core workshop sometime in the last couple of years. So I check the CCSS website and sure enough, area of a triangle is no longer a fourth grade thing. Sixth graders get to do it.

Now, a smarter man would have simply shrugged it off, turned the page to the next lesson and planned accordingly. But I’m not smart. I thought to myself, “I wonder if there’s something in the fourth grade standards that isn’t covered by our textbook. And if there is, maybe I should teach a lesson on that.”

There was. Fourth graders are supposed to “Recognize angle measure as additive; when an angle is decomposed into non-overlapping parts, the angle measure of the whole is the sum of the angle measures of the parts. They’re supposed to know how to solve addition and subtraction problems to find unknown angles on a diagram in real world and mathematical problems.”

In other words, my students are supposed to know that you can take a ninety degree angle and divide it into a sixty and a thirty degree angle. Or you can take a ninety degree angle and combine it with two 45-degree angles to make a 180-degree angle. Stuff like that.

So I went online to see if there were any resources available. There are. Actually there’s some great stuff from New York State’s “Engage NY” site. So I found myself some resources, came up with a plan for my students, and wrote it up.

Then I checked the time. Continue reading