The scale is not in balance

The 2015-2016 school year marks my sixteenth year as a professional educator.  I’ve worked in Washington for thirteen years.  One of the draws that brought me to this state was the state salary allocation model (SAM).  As strange as that sounds, it’s absolutely true.  I taught in Illinois for three years at the second largest school district in the state.  My husband, a music teacher, taught for a company that brought in outsourced band/orchestra teachers to schools that couldn’t afford to hire their own music teacher.  We both became acutely aware of the disparity between the districts where we worked.  Because salary models are all locally negotiated and district funds are based on property taxes, property rich communities could afford to pay their teachers two to three times more than property poor districts.  The district that I worked in encompassed property rich and property poor communities, but the neighboring district housed multiple corporations and could afford to pay their teachers twice as much as the district where I worked. Districts could compete for teachers using salary as incentive.  As a result, my district saw a great deal of turnover; teachers, including one of my closest friends, became experienced in the low paying district and then moved to the higher paying districts when they had a few years under their belt. Although there were some veterans in my department, teachers who served as excellent stewards of pedagogy and their content, I was often asked when I was going to leave to move on for more pay at a neighboring district.  This mindset frustrated me.  When my district was $52,000,000 (yes, you’re reading that correctly) in the red, the solution was to cut teachers and I, like the other 1700 first, second, and third year teachers were RIFed (reduction in force).  Although I was offered my position back, I turned it down, looking to find employment in a state that created more equity.  So in the end, I left, too.

So for thirteen years, I’ve been in Washington and I don’t regret the decision to move, whatsoever.  However, I have stopped looking at the world of educational funding through rose colored glasses.  Equity doesn’t really exist, but there are attempts at it and the SAM is one attempt.  Negotiated TRI (Time, Responsibility, Incentive) pay and dollars for professional development and technology resources differ from district to district.  My husband teaches in a large district which can afford to offer TRI pay and substantial extra curricular contracts.  Some districts levy at higher percentages and others receive levy equalization.  There are districts that foot the entire cost of National Board Certification (my district is one of those) and others provide a free cohort (my district also does this).  So, back to my point—equity doesn’t really exist.  But our SAM does provide a foundation for our teachers. That foundation is solid. But maybe our state needs to reconsider adjusting the foundation a bit.

This legislative session has been noteworthy for several reasons.  Teachers have asked for the reinstatement of our COLA (cost of living allowance) and for pay increases.  While the legislators voted themselves a substantial pay raise, teachers received a 1.8% increase in pay and a 3% COLA for two years.  Does that make up for the 1.9% loss from a few years ago?  Frankly, I’m not so sure that I’m coming out ahead all that much, if at all.  Recent discussion as to whether the legislature will see the contempt charge dropped, also has me concerned.  I worry that the lawmakers will find victory and we won’t see increased dollars in our SAM or in a future COLA.   I’m disappointed.

But the SAM isn’t perfect and it doesn’t recognize veteran teachers who are continuing to improve their education.  Reality hit me about two weeks ago.  I’m on year sixteen and I’m almost at an MA+90.  I’ve officially topped out on the salary model.  I know that I should be thankful that I’ve got that extra degree plus additional credits.  Believe me, I am thankful.  I worked hard for the MA (Master of Arts) in History with a 135 page thesis to prove it.  On the other hand, I’m still working to get more education.  I’m really digging educational technology and I’ve attended several technology courses and once I hit that 90 credits mark (which is going to be in the next month) I don’t have anywhere else to go in order to earn more money.  I suppose I could coach a sport or advise a club to make more money.  I could do additional work outside of school, too.  But frankly, I wonder, why does the legislature stop providing pay increases once you hit 16 years of teaching?  Shouldn’t we want to keep veteran teachers teaching?  I keep reading articles from EdWeek and the Washington Post talking about a teacher shortage and problems with retention rates.  Maybe the place to start is at the logical first step—salary.  Let’s start recognizing veteran teachers and rewarding them for being leaders in their field.  I look at that salary schedule and feel stagnated in my income.  I wonder where my potential for income growth is at this point. What are my viable options?  I won’t avoid the cliché—I don’t teach for the income, I teach for the outcome.  However, the income does have to provide for my continuing education, mortgage, and my children’s college education.   While we could argue the merit system when it comes to teacher’s salaries and raises, under our current model, I have no where to go if I’d like to increase my income.  I’m 37 years old and I’ve topped out on the SAM.  I believe that I have the skills, the heart, the grit, and the knowledge to stay in the classroom for the next 20 years, but can I afford it?

Sadly,  I know other veteran teachers feel the same way.  Attrition in the field is on the rise.  There are myriad reasons for this and pay is a factor.  We’ve worked hard to advance our own education.  We’ve adapted, adjusted, and watched the pendulum swing in our field and we’re still in the classroom, demonstrating our grit because we love students and we want them to succeed.  But that success doesn’t always help to put dinner on the table or pay for our kids to take piano lessons.  In a field where the pressure to perform is already so high and the spotlight is always on, it might be good for state legislators to consider recognizing and rewarding the teachers who’ve decided to remain in the classroom to work with students.


TeachtoLead: Tacoma

rainy sundial

Something I like about teaching in my district is that I feel like there is a clear balance of expectations and autonomy for a classroom teacher. I know what my standards are, as well as what “curriculum” and anchor works of literature have been approved, but I also have the autonomy to design instruction that fits not only my students’ needs but also my own teaching style.

Stepping into teacher leadership often means stepping into a much grayer zone. There are usually some expected measurable outcomes, but there is much more (or at least more noticeable) reliance on my creativity, influence, and problem solving than I have experienced in my career in the classroom. In my classroom, when I’m stumped about how to best teach a standard for a particular novel or unit in my classroom, Google can help me find mountains of ideas from fellow teachers: throughout the country, it is a safe bet that dozens if not hundreds of teachers have taught the same content to similar kids, and I can sort through their work to design lessons that match my kids’ needs.

In my role as a teacher leader, there is not the same kind of easy-to-access banked expertise just yet. Finding philosophy around teacher leadership is a piece of cake; finding specific ideas in the “just tell me what I need to do!” moments is much tougher. Continue reading

How Will the NCLB Affect the Common Core?

ccss2By Tom White

The big news out of Washington DC is the long-delayed rewrite of the odious NCLB bill. The House and Senate have both passed their versions, which means it’s now time for them to reconcile and send something to the president. Either bill will dramatically change the Federal Government’s role in education policy in terms of accountability and testing. But what I’m most concerned with is the status of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), since both bills prohibit the Federal Government from imposing or even encouraging states to adopt the CCSS.

This represents a sea change. Continue reading

Washington 2015-17 Budget: The Good, the Bad, and the Disappointing

8180-Olympia-Beer-Posters_largeBy Tom White

It looks like the lawmakers in Olympia have finally passed a budget. This came after a third special session, and it’s still not completely clear that they’re finished, since they haven’t decided how to handle the fact that they aren’t fully funding Initiative 1351. But let’s look at it anyway.

First the good: the budget spends an additional $47 million on Early Learning. Actually, I don’t even consider that “spending.” I call it investing. Whenever I visit my kindergarten-teacher friend (she keeps chocolate in her closet) she points out exactly which kids went to a decent preschool. They’re the ones who read and do math. The others are still learning their letters and numbers. Not surprisingly, when I get them as fourth graders, the differences are still apparent. Spending on early learning is incredibly important, and it pays off. Continue reading

Focusing on “Can’t” at the expense of “Can.”

Secretly studying animal physiology after bedtime.

Secretly studying animal physiology after bedtime.

On the drive home from school a few weeks ago, my middle son, at the time a first grader, said that from then on he wanted to be homeschooled.

My mind raced: Is he being bullied? Is he struggling to learn? What is happening that might make this otherwise happy kid want to be homeschooled?

As it turned out, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to go to his public school any more. He wanted to learn things that weren’t being taught in school: specifically, he was deeply curious about science. We came to the agreement that he’d keep going to regular school, but that we’d do some science experiments and learn some science at home.

This is the same boy who when I think about his education, it keeps me up at night. Not because I don’t trust his teachers or his school, but because I am concerned about what the coming years in school will look like for him.

This past year in my other job (teaching high school English to 12th graders) I had the opportunity to work with a young man who had spent his entire academic life with a label. Served by an IEP with all the best of intentions, this now-adult sat in his IEP meetings this year and articulated something that made my heart sink. He talked about how being part of the “IEP program” as he called it led him to assume that he was incapable of being successful. He described how he felt conditioned (his word, not mine) to wait for help because the message that he was not able to do it on his own and that he “needed help” was repeated loud and clear and often. Now possessing greater maturity, he was able to agree that everyone had the best intentions at heart, yet the collateral effect on him was that the “program” seemed to communicate to him that he was incapable. That became part of his identity. Rolled in with the other struggles he faced, a downward spiral ensued, and whether he would graduate from high school was in question almost to the very last minute. He did make it, though, and his reflections on his experience are shaping the way I think about my own son and what school can do for and to him.

Continue reading

For English Language Learners, Intentional Collaboration is Key

Tamar Krames

Guest blogger Tamar Krames is a NBCT in English as a New Language, a certified GLAD trainer, and an ELL instructional coach currently working with OSPI. Prior to her work at OSPI, Tamar worked as a district GLAD trainer and coach, taught ELL classes and co-taught sheltered ELL content classes. 

I recently sat at a table in a windowless conference room with a 3rd grade team of teachers. As you might expect, the table was covered with grade-level ELA curriculum materials, open laptops, and copies of Common Core Standards. Far less common were the open and highlighted English Language Proficiency Standards (ELP), Tier 2 vocabulary lists, and the laminated pictures piled on the table. Two teachers were pulling up engaging image files related to an upcoming unit on their personal tablets and one was searching her phone for affixes and Latin roots to support their vocabulary mini-lesson. While the driving force of the co-planning session was ELA content and standards, addressing the profound language needs of their dynamic students was inspired. This is it, I thought, this is what best practice for ELLs looks like. These teachers were clearly committed to their craft and to their multilingual students. But what made that collaborative moment so powerful was the shared focus of the whole building to best meet the needs of their particular student body. The teachers had common understanding of second language acquisition and ELP standards because a team of teachers had requested ELL training for the whole staff. The planning session had the full support of the building’s leadership. Collaboration was not happening on the fly. It was intentional and deliberately supported.

As a traveling ELL instructional coach, I visit diverse school communities across WA State. The geographic context and demographic mix varies greatly. One school community is comprised of Spanish-speaking migrant families living in a small town surrounded by orchards and mountains. Another school has no clear ethnic majority, the students speaking 15 different languages in one urban classroom. Regardless of setting, I walk into my first building visits with one central question; What might best practice for ELLs look like in this unique school community? I ask this question to school leadership right off the bat.

More often than not, the answer to this question disappoints me. Consistently the first answer points to a single focal point. “ We are so lucky to have a wonderful ELL teacher named A” or “ We just purchased this amazing online language program called B”, or “ our ELL Para has attended a training called C!”. Clearly this singular view of best practice begs the question – What happens when A, B, or C leaves the building?

As far as I can tell, there is no right answer to this question of best practice for ELLs. The learning needs of multilingual students are complex and always changing. A linguistics professor once said to my class, “ if you remember one thing about second language acquisition, remember this – language acquisition is without fail developmental”. For teachers this means that the ELLs support structures (scaffolding) must change and flex as their students’ English proficiency and content mastery develops. On top of that, the rate at which ELLs develop proficiency and mastery varies drastically in relation to a seemingly endless set of factors (literacy in first language, status of first language in the dominant culture, educational background, poverty, learning disabilities, access to quality instruction…)

If you need further proof of the complex and ever-changing learning needs of ELLs, try navigating though the English Language Proficiency (ELP) standards (An amazingly thorough matrix that outlines language development by grade level in relation to common core standards). Best practice for ELLs is truly a moving target as students trudge through the stages of second language development and academic literacy at their own unique pace.

More than a “right” answer to this question of best practice for ELLs, what I hope to hear is a plural answer that points to shared ownership instead of pointing towards one program or person. Whatever the site-based vision for ELL support entails, it must involve intentional and ongoing collaborative structures. Collaborative structure is different from collaboration as it is proactive and systematic – it implies a deeper commitment than amazing content teacher, X, that collaborates with one-of-a-kind ELL specialist, Y. Intentional collaborative structures answer questions such as, How and when do counselors, administrators, content teachers and ELL specialists work together to best schedule ELLs according to their developing proficiency level? How and when do content teachers investigate and integrate ELP standards into their grade-level planning? If the ELL specialist is ‘pushing in’ to core instruction – how and when do teachers learn about, experiment with, and reflect on co-teaching models?

Ultimately, the goal of any ELL program model is to expedite the academic English language/ literacy development of multilingual students so that they can meet grade-level standards and breeze through any gatekeepers they encounter on their path towards earning a diploma. Supporting ELLs through the K-12 system is not about finding the right teacher, program, or PD session. It is about shared ownership and commitment to refining best-practice, uniquely designed for each community, together.


The above drawing is an original piece done by Tamar Krames.

Mark Gardner, Kellie Ross El Sherif liked this post

School Improvement?

We’re in that “waiting season” where we know the tests have been taken, but we don’t yet know what the outcomes will be. For my high school, because of a high SBAC refusal/non-participation rate, and if my reading of this somewhat convoluted document is correct, it looks like we are going to end up in Step Three of Improvement next year, despite passing rates that in the past have not only exceeded the state average but which in many cases are high enough as to be legally suppressed by privacy laws (it’d be too easy to identify the small proportion of students who didn’t pass).

Step Three of Improvement means additional professional development for teachers, offering our patrons public school choice, offering supplemental education services, and also a plan for corrective action which includes moves to “replace specific school staff, change curricula and provide professional development, decrease management authority, consult with an outside expert on your school improvement plan, and extend the school day or year” (source). Like so much around the alphabet soup of state- and national-level assessments, I’m confused by it all, and I sincerely hope that some reader who understands it better than I do will raise a red flag and point out where I’ve misunderstood this all.

Does my school have room to improve? Absolutely. Every school does.

Is the state test and SBAC participation data the data that will best inform what we need to improve upon?


Congratulations Are In Order

IMG_2408My son graduated from high school yesterday. I’m very proud of him, of course; he’s a smart, talented kid with enormous potential and a music scholarship to the University of North Texas. He will go far.

But as I sat there in the bleachers, through two distinct weather patterns and 45-minute speeches by everyone associated with the school and its governance, a line spoken by one of the science teachers resonated with me. He said something to the effect that “many of your parents moved here so that you could go to this school.”

That was true. My son’s parents did move so that he could go to that school.

Seventeen years ago, when he was a baby, we were living elsewhere. It was a place with a lot of low-rent apartments, a lot of dead cars in front yards and a lot of loud, late-night domestic arguments. It was, however, very affordable, which is why we were there. There was an elementary school one block away, a middle school two blocks away and a high school right across the street. Most of the student population got free or reduced lunch, and almost half didn’t speak English.

With a young family, we were faced with a choice. Stay in a house we could easily afford and send our kids to those schools, or move to a house we could barely afford and send our kids to other schools.

We moved.

We moved because we were playing the odds.  The area to which we moved is more affluent, which we figured meant a better chance of more two-parent families and more highly educated adults. Generally speaking, that translates to schools with more kids who come from homes where life is organized and stable and where education is emphasized.

We moved to a place where we hoped our kids would be surrounded by – and influenced by – more people with the capacity, resources and willingness to make education a priority. By moving to a “better neighborhood” we were hoping to bring our kids to a “better school.” It was as selfish and as simple as that.

But sometimes when you play the odds you lose. And in fact, when I compared the performance data from the schools my kids would have attended with that of the schools they did attend, the schools with 75% free and reduced lunch came out significantly better than the schools in my far more affluent neighborhood. How’s that for irony?

But instead of disappointment, I feel hope. Perhaps this small data point is a sign that we’re starting to figure out and defeat the Achievement Gap. Perhaps we’re starting to learn how to serve a high-needs population and give them the tools they need to chase – and catch – the American Dream.

So congratulations, Jack, and all the other kids who finished high school this month. You worked very hard over the last thirteen years.

But congratulations are also in order for the staff, parents and students at Discovery Elementary, Voyager Middle School and Mariner High School.

They probably worked even harder.

On Equity, Privilege, and Testing

equality_vs_equityI believe that annual testing can be a tool of equity, revealing critical data that teachers, administrators, and districts can use to improve their instruction for all students, but especially marginalized populations. Moreover, I assert that we cannot separate issues of race and class from our discussion about education policy around standardized tests.

After fifeteen days of SBAC, my post-testing student reflections revealed a delightful surprise. The biggest complaint was not the lack of breakfast, the poor sleep from a loud, crowded apartment, the fact that many read below grade-level, or even the 81° classroom. It was the lack of time to finish the multiple choice section. One student even wrote a hilarious note to the test scorers saying, “if you want me to pass this, give me more time”. So, despite my irritation with lost instructional time, I look forward to the data because I know my students tried their best.

Since Brown v. Board, our country has struggled to provide fair, equitable access to education for all students. In attempts to “even the playing field”, local government created committees like the Equity and Civil Rights Office to ensure that all students have “equal access to public education without discrimination” (OSPI). Their definition of discrimination includes the usual “race, sex, etc.” but nothing is mentioned about inequitable opportunities resulting from teacher biases that only favor students of privilege. Nothing is noted about the dehumanizing effect of low expectations on students of color.

My current concern is regarding the equity of testing data and the privilege it is to “opt-out”. Shortly after my post, a handful of civil rights groups declared opting out was hurting kids The following day a rebuttal appeared arguing these groups are wrong. Reading both articles, one gets a sense that–no surprise–we need more nuance in our discussions about standardized testing. For every “pro” news article, a similar “cons” source will pop up. All stakeholders provide evidence to support their point of view–most of which are insulated by their own beliefs on race and class in America. Few, it seems, acknowledge these limitations. I am certainly no expert on the topic. However, through my research, I am learning the following:

1) Annual testing is a critical component to holding politicians and education accountable to students and their families (see my new fav blogger– Citizen Stewart). Enough said?

2) Despite some effort to enlist people of color in the movement through advocacy and multi-lingual documents, privilege remains a significant and unexplored component of the opt out movement.

I’m certainly not saying that taking a standardized test is a privilege. But the people who opt out have a certain societal privilege. Privilege is what makes opting out a low-stakes exercise in civil disobedience rather than the “academic death” it can be for families and students of color (Stewart).

3) Concealing data gleaned from standardized testing is a civil rights issue.

While all don’t exactly agree, communities of color are writing about the opt out movement as a civil rights issue because standardized tests provide data to measure inequalities (check out recent article and this piece “The Civil Wrongs Movement” ). On the one hand, critics argue that the ranking and sorting of students is detrimental to the learning. On the other, data gives teachers and schools an opportunity–and this is what we’ve termed the “opportunity gap”.
If we remove data we are erasing information (again see Stewart, episode 9).

4) Just because it makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t mean we have the right to erase the data.

I was heartbroken (and angry) when 2/3rds of my 4th period were failing English at semester. I had to accept it and find ways to change the numbers–not by ignoring them but by changing what I did in the classroom. I asked a trusted colleague to map classroom discourse, switched up my routines, and intentionally problem solved. Although it’s not perfect, more kids are passing and excelling this semester. To me, that’s a win.

While I doubt very few opt-out advocates actually want to erase data, their movement has perhaps unintended consequences. Who is the population that is least harmed by this “erasing” of data? Families with economic power and white. We need data to hold ourselves accountable. We can’t have an honest conversation about who we are leaving behind without the data. Using common assessments is a way to reveal gaps for all students, especially traditionally marginalized or underserved. We could spend hours analyzing the ways students are discriminated against on a system wide level, yet once again I will say that discrimination via low expectations for students in poverty or students of color by teachers and other adults remains a primary barrier. Hence, my next point.

5) The way we talk about data reveals our personal biases, privileges and internalized racism.

Notoriously, low test scores get attributed to innate cultural differences and inadequacies, “absent fathers”, and apathetic communities. This is dangerous logic. If I say things like “these kids can’t do that kind of work” or “this just shows they aren’t really Honors kids”, I reveal hidden prejudices in my practice few are willing to call me out on. My experiences with certain educators–many but not all who are white–exposes a need. I heard one opt-outer say in regards to the SBAC that, “We know they [the students of color] will be viewed as failing”. First, “we know” indicates her confidence. Second, “will be viewed as failing” implies this is the only way one can view student scores. I can’t help but think this person has low expectations of students of color. We haven’t seen the data from the SBAC. We don’t know which students will pass or fail. We don’t yet know to what extent the data will be useful. We need to examine how we talk about or represent students of color in our conversations about data. Are we assuming results before they happen? Are we blaming outside factors rather than trying to find the solutions to equipping these students better? Are we masking our own biases, hiding behind a movement?

6) We need more data. More data does not mean more testing. See Nathan Bowling’s post “On Having One’s Cake and Eating it Too”.

To conclude, I don’t have all the answers. I am growing in my process and thinking but I ask you do as well. I want to end on a final thought by Citizen Stewart, “Civil rights groups are right to push for annual testing and to keep the racially unequal results of those tests front and center. They should continue to fight even when friends oppose them. Let’s not be confused: disabling and sabotaging data mechanisms is usually a strategy of people opposed to civil rights, not those who claim to support social progress.”

Why I’m Leaving the Classroom


One of my seniors asked last week if the rumors were true and that I am retiring.

Clearly, this youngster either doesn’t understand what retirement is OR has grossly mis-estimated my age (I’m knocking on 37).

While I’d love it if teaching were such a lucrative career that I could retire before age 40, it is nonetheless true that I have made the choice to leave the classroom after this year.

For the last three years, I’ve tried to live up to the ideal that a teacher can lead without having to leave. In this hybrid role “half in, half out,” I’ve learned so much. I still believe that this model is the ideal: systems should afford teachers the opportunity to still lead their own classrooms while also being agents of change in their school or district. For the last three years, I’ve been in such a hybrid role, teaching in the afternoons two or three periods, but spending my mornings attempting to (and I think, successfully) influencing local policy related to teacher evaluations and professional development, as well as supporting teachers in their practice.

And these three “hybrid role” years have been the toughest three years of my career. My attention has been divided and never once have I had one full week where I felt like I was doing adequate service to both roles at the same time (I wrote recently about this, even doling out what I felt were the three key needs for a successful hybrid role). Trudging forward and never feeling successful at anything is not a great way to live from day to day, so I made the decision shortly after that post: in 2015-16, I needed to choose…one or the other, not both. The Both, for me personally, was too much, even if in principle it is exactly what I believe should eventually become systematized for teacher leadership and empowerment.

There are many teacher stories of “why I’m leaving” that circulate on social media, featuring overworked, unsupported, and under-appreciated teachers who make the painful decision to leave the profession altogether. That’s not where I am professionally. Even with standards and testing and new evaluations and unsupportive public policy, I still love teaching. However, whatever work I choose to do, I want to do it well. That’s the feeling I haven’t had these last few years in the split role. Others can and do find success inhabiting both roles simultaneously, and those others are capable of amazing things. For me, the split is not sustainable mentally or physically. One or the other; in or out. Two equally appealing options.

It was not an easy choice. Because of various things, my district ended up posting a full-time TOSA job for 2015-16, I applied for and was offered the position. Next year, I’ll be a full-time TOSA, focusing on building a K-12 new teacher induction program (where no formal new-teacher support has existed in the past) and developing teacher leadership systems in our district’s new pathways model, wherein among other things teachers in hybrid roles will be supported toward success. Simply put, my role is all about cultivating and empowering teachers. Little by little, despite the fear of the unknown, I’m getting more and more excited about the potential of what this job might be able to do.

And then I have days in the classroom like I had this last week, listening to my seniors (who for all intents and purposes are long since done with this school business) give each other feedback on their practice speeches for their culminating Senior Project presentations that they will do before a panel of community members. I heard in their statements things I had taught them; little things, probably not all that meaningful, but still, they were doing what I had taught them to do. It’s hard to explain that feeling.

Then after most of the period of sustained focus, the class gradually got a little rambunctious and I (only half-jokingly) threatened to slam their 18-year-old selves into a seating chart if they didn’t get their over-sized-kindergartener-behavior under control.

We laughed, the bell rang, they left.

I am definitely going to miss it.