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.

Reducing My Students to a Number

Data snapshotBy Mark

I have a confession to make. For most of my teaching career, I've drawn lines in the sand, jumped on soapboxes, and in some cases thrown time-out-worthy temper tantrums about data. My students cannot be reduced to numbers. What do you want me to do, count the number of adjectives they use in an essay to show their performance? Reading and writing are both so very complex that they cannot be reduced to a string of numbers.

That's not the confession. The confession is this: I have reduced my students to a series of numbers. Not just numbers, color coded ones in an Excel spreadsheet. And (deep breath), I like it. It has actually made me a better teacher for them.

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TPEP Reflections

Tpep-logoBy Tom

Last week I had my final evaluation conference with my principal. I volunteered to do a comprehensive evaluation this year, so it was a long one. And it went well. Now that I’ve had a week to reflect on the whole affair I’ve come up with three conclusions.

First of all, TPEP is a lot better than what we had before. I’m not sure how your district used to do teacher evaluations, but in my district it was a joke. We basically chose our own goals, as well as the evidence by which we would be assessed on those goals. We then collected that evidence and presented it to our principals. It was essentially impossible to fail, as long as you chose a goal that you knew you could achieve, which everyone did.

With TPEP, we’re measured by standards. We have to show that our teaching lines up to best practices. My district uses the Danielson Framework, which is fairly easy to comprehend and seems to spell out pretty much everything a competent teacher should do. Principals now have standards against which to measure teacher performance. Like I said, TPEP is a lot better than what it replaced.

Secondly, TPEP is a lot of work – for principals. My principal spends an average of fifteen hours per week on TPEP-related activities. That’s a lot of time, which begs the obvious question: What is he not doing? What he’s not doing is working with students, talking with parents, eating, sleeping and spending time with his family. We have a part-time dean of students, which helps us here at school, but I worry about the man’s private life. I’m sure the legislature didn’t intend to completely overburden people who were already completely overburdened, but they did.

And that brings me to my third conclusion. Let’s remember that the main purpose for the creation of TPEP was to make it easier to fire ineffective teachers. But at this point I’m not sure TPEP will actually achieve that goal. Consider a situation that I’m aware of: A teacher is ineffective in nearly every aspect of his job. The classroom is disorganized and unsafe. Learning is barely happening. Yet this guy somehow manages to pull it together for both of the required principal observations and is able to document some student growth over the course of the year. What happens?

Not much. According to TPEP, this teacher will probably keep on teaching, for two reasons. First of all, his overall scores won’t look that bad; at least not bad enough for dismissal. Secondly, in order to document just how incompetent this teacher is, the principal would need to spend a ton of time observing and meeting with him. Time that he doesn’t have. The irony of TPEP is that it demands so much of a principal’s time that he doesn’t have any time to fire bad teachers, which was the whole purpose of TPEP in the first place.

TPEP is new. Everything that’s new has glitches. I’m confident that in a few years we’ll work them out.

Administration: So what if I do?

File5376129719381By Mark

"So, when do you plan to start your admin program?"

I get that question nearly every time I cross paths with my district superintendent. He means well by it, and I take it as a compliment: It is a gesture that he sees leadership potential in me.

More often now when I get the question it is from colleagues, and usually the tone is much different. My colleagues with whom I am close friends say it because they know it needles me a little bit (frankly, it's on old joke I'm past ready to retire) but from others further outside my social circle, there are definite barbs to that question. It's intended not to pose a question, but to send a message: don't you betray us.

Already, as half-classroom teacher, half-"other" in my district, what I do is often confusing to others. My fellow teachers know what the classroom half is all about; that's what we live, breathe, know and share. The other part…the leadership-y part? That's more ambiguous, so like all human beings we attempt to sort the ambiguous into the previously constructed schema we've developed over time. It becomes simply: Not being a teacher? There's only one other option: Must be an administrator.

Or, as Travis pointed out in a post from long ago, adminisTRAITOR.

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Stuck in the Middle

By Mark

I am a tremendous believer in the importance of teacher leadership. Teachers do not need special job titles or labels to exert meaningful influence in their school, district, or beyond–they need the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to give them confidence to advocate.

For the first two-thirds of my career, I tried to exert influence through untitled leadership. I was Mark, the classroom teacher, willing to speak up, go to meetings, engage with those in the higher pay grades, and advocate for what I believed to be best for kids, teachers, and our school. 

This untitled leadership, in my personal career track, has since evolved so that for the last two years I have had a leadership "position" as Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) for two periods of my day, while I teach the other periods. This has opened countless new doors for me and given me a much different perspective than I had before. Now I get to sit in administrative team meetings–often the only practicing teacher in the room–and listen to how decisions are made. I have become collegial and collaborative with principals and district administrators in ways that simply would not be possible for teachers not in such a hybrid role.

Before I go any further, let me make clear: hyrbid TOSA/teaching or coaching/teaching roles are exactly the kind of roles a teacher-leader like me needs. To be able to exert influence in policy decisions, to aid in the learning of both my colleagues and my superiors, yet to still get to return to the joyful chaos of a ninth grade English classroom for three hours a day–this is the perfect mix where policy can meet practice. When decisions are made in the boardroom, I can test their impact the right away in my classroom.

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Common Core Q&A

This piece from NBCT Kareen Borders was originally posted on the Ready Washington Coalition’s blog, and available here. It is reposted with the Coalition and the author’s permission.

Dr. Kareen Borders, NBCT  is a 7th-8th grade science teacher and NASA Explorer School Team Lead at Key Peninsula Middle School in Lakbay, Wash., near Gig Harbor. She recently finished a one-year term as a Regional Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education. 

Why did the states create the Common Core State Standards 

We are preparing our students to compete in a world that is different than ours, and education needs to be responsive to this.  The bottom line is that my middle school science students need to be ready for college, career and life.  Right now, 80% of entering college freshmen are not prepared academically for first-year courses, according to ACT, and the United States spends an estimated $3 billion a year on college remediation, according to Complete College America. 

Does this mean that as a teacher, I wasn’t doing a good job or didn’t have high goals before? 

Unequivocally, the answer is no.  Teachers have been doing and continue to do a great job.  I see Common Core as an exciting shift that will finally put standards into place that aren’t full of education-ese; standards that will allow me to be innovative in helping my students to reach these goals. Clear goals, rather than long and vague goals about what students need to know and be able to do are long overdue.  And what I especially like: CCSS get teachers out of the test-prep business in their classrooms and frees up teachers to provide opportunities for richer learning and mastery of increasingly difficult problems and texts. So, I can concentrate on the work of preparing my students for college, career, and life.  Will it be hard work?  Yes. Teachers are ready to take on this hard work.  Major shifts in instruction are already happening in thousands of classrooms.

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