To Appreciate a Teacher…

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the cookies.

Those intricately decorated, apple-shaped cookies: I do appreciate those.

And the bacon. That pound of pepper-bacon a group of students gave me after I used a few too many example sentences including bacon in our practice with diagramming sentences.

Then there are notes: Brief or lengthy, the notes from parents, students, former students from over a decade ago whose teenaged face immediately appears the moment I see the name on the return address. Those keep me going and make me feel appreciated, for sure, and are among my most cherished items.

I’ve been lucky that those kinds of little surprises haven’t been relegated to just one week in the year when websites offer discounts or coupons and businesses encourage patrons to “thank a teacher.”

This year for Teacher Appreciation Week, what will really make teachers feel appreciated? Maybe a cookie or a pound of bacon, but most definitely a specific kind of little note will do. A phone call, maybe. A visit to an office. More specifically: notes, phone calls, emails, office visits to our legislative policymakers. That’s how teachers will feel appreciated. Call for a budget that fully funds Washington public schools, not to “throw money at the problem,” but to invest in a system that for the last forty years has been perpetually under-invested in. Call for policies that make sense for kids, parents, communities, and schools. The voices of teachers in this battle are too often discounted as shrill, complainy, or as base union thuggery. The voices of parents, students, and community members are what policymakers have a harder time ignoring.

Teachers know that we are appreciated at the immediate, local level, with our kids and parents. We are thankful for that, for sure. We love the cookies, the treats, and the notes: Those put the wind back in our sails without a doubt.

But this year, consider one phone call, one note, or one office visit to your elected officials who are struggling to get their work done. Little by little those small gestures of appreciation will add up and make a huge difference not just to “appreciate teachers,” but to transform the lives of kids.


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Things You Should Know About: The Washington Teacher Advisory Council

Back in 2008 I was honored to be a regional “Teacher of the Year” for ESD 112. I had the chance to sit in a room with “TOYs” from each ESD, and it was humbling, astonishing, and inspiring to hear all the great work we each were championing in our section of the state.

Then, after the interviews and celebrations and receptions, we sped back to our respective classrooms and put our respective noses back to our respective grindstones.

Lyon Terry, 2015 Washington State Teacher of the Year, likely had a similar experience. The difference was what he chose to do next. He saw highly accomplished educators be selected and celebrated each year, and in that he saw an opportunity: While you might teach down the hall from a TOY and never know it (we teachers are often reticent to share our accolades), titles such as “Teacher of the Year” carry potentially powerful ethos when we enter into policy conversations with non-educators.

Lyon formed WATAC, the Washington Teacher Advisory Council, aimed at pulling together the expertise and ethos of alumni regional teachers of the year. Each year, the number of regional TOYs grows by nine (one for each ESD), so though the group may be small, it is certainly mighty.

This last weekend at Cedarbrook was the 2017 WATAC Spring Conference, where alumni of the TOY program gathered to learn about policy, advocacy, and the importance of teachers telling their stories. It was a powerful and inspiring experience, and I now feel like I am part of an even deeper network of teachers likewise committed to improving public education in Washington.

A big take-away and a good reminder: Everything we do as teachers is somehow impacted by a policy that someone, somewhere has written. Whether it is law from the legislature or rules put forth by a state-level group like the Board of Ed, Standards Board, or innumerable others, people are making decisions that directly impact every move we make as a teacher. Simply put: the people making those decisions ought to be teachers themselves. That’s one mission of WATAC (and CSTP, for that matter), that teachers are not just present at the policy table, but that they are the ones whose hands, hearts, and minds are creating the policy.

For more information about WATAC, here is the website and here is the overview of the program on OSPI’s homepage.

Stepping Off the Career Ladder

Back in 2009 or so when I started writing for this site, I was what I referred to as an “untitled” teacher leader. I taught all day, didn’t hold any specific positions, yet I still saw myself as a teacher leader charged with advocating for kids, systems, and our profession. I was less than a decade into my career.

Then, in the standard “nose goes” way, I found myself with the title of Department Chair for the English Department. While not “leadership” as I envisioned it (since managing P.O.s and counting books in the book room wasn’t my vision of leadership) it served an important systemic role.

Over time, the titles started to pile on and I began to drift further and further away from the classroom. This year and last, my desk isn’t even in a school, but at central office two doors down from HR. The only time I get to teach real, live, children is when I do model lessons for my first-year-mentees or snag an unfilled sub job here or there to keep myself sane.

This spring has been one of relative upheaval at the high school level in my district. Two administrators at our large compressive high school (my former building) are moving to different roles, leaving unprecedented administrative vacancies. Both of the English teaching positions at our smaller alternative high school opened up, leaving a whole discipline unstaffed.

There is a tremendous amount of pressure on many people who find themselves with teacher leadership titles. I started feeling it a few years ago as TOSA when the social studies department started (half-) jokingly referring to me as “Junior Admin.” When I think about what has made some of the administrators in my district so successful, I often find myself saying “they still think like a teacher.” We should want good educators to be the administrative leaders of our buildings.

And we should also want good educators to be standing in front of kids.

I don’t know if it is the same for women in education, but as a man in education I started feeling the assumptions about “ascending the career ladder” to an administrative position as soon as I took a hybrid role teaching half-time and being on special assignment half-time. After each of the administrator roles at my former building were posted, I was inundated with texts and emails: “Are you going for that job?” Never mind that I have no administrative coursework let alone credential. For reasons woven into the fabric of our idea of what it means to be “professional” in our culture, climbing the career ladder is the assumed goal. To not keep climbing is to lower oneself down, to go “backward.”

Next year, I will be in a hybrid role: I applied for, interviewed for, and was offered one of the English teaching positions at our smaller high school. I’ll still be serving part of my time on release as our local EA President. The year after that, I’ll be full time teaching, untitled.

I’ve worked hard to avoid two phrases as I talk about this move. I’m not “going back.” I’m not “returning.”

Rather, I’m trying to redefine what the career ladder might look like for teachers who want to lead and teach.


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Are We Doing Testing Wrong?

If your school is anything like mine, you’re about to enter Testing Season. We come back from Spring Break, get reorganized and start gearing up for the SBAs. We review important material and have our students take practice tests on their computers. We teach test-taking strategies and emphasize the importance of sleep, diet and attendance.

Then it’s on to May, when the actual testing takes place. We rearrange the schedules, organize the technology and the tech support team and review proctoring guidelines. And we generally freak out as if our reputation is on the line. Because it sort of is.

When June arrives we relax. Maybe too much. The kids get the sense that the main event is over and they act like it. The teachers loosen up a little and roll out the “Fun Projects.” Or they start teaching stuff like science, social studies and art. I’ve actually seen School Improvement Plans that specify holding off on the science units until after the tests. Seriously.

But what if we didn’t have to go through all this? What if we could teach all the way through June and not have to go through all this nonsense?

Here’s what we do: We test in the fall. Early; like the second week of school.

First of all, we could actually use the data throughout the year. As it is now, we give our students a bunch of pretests in the fall so we know who we’re dealing with. Why not use the SBA instead? After all, with the CCSS, our assessments and curriculum are aligned (or should be) and the results come quickly enough that we could access the most useful data possible at the time when it’s most useful.

Furthermore, the testing would be more accurate. Teachers are human. We want our kids to do well, for their sake as well as ours, and sometimes we help more than we should. Or we prepare them for what we think they’re going to need right when they need it, without a thought for the long-term. But with fall testing, we’re testing only the students, not ourselves. Plus, it comes at a time when we haven’t bonded with our students, which would make it easier for us to be more objective, and ultimately, more fair.

And finally, our school year would be effectively longer. We would teach the standards all the way through the last day. There would be no “Garbage Time.” Not only that, we would focus on long-term retention; teaching our students as if we wanted them to remember it forever. Which is actually what we do want.

So yeah; I think we’re doing testing wrong. We should be doing it in the fall when we could use the data, produce more accurate data, and use the rest of the year – all of it – to focus on deep learning.

Title II and “Failed” PD

Title II, which funds (among other things) opportunities for teacher leadership, learning, and professional development, is on the federal chopping block. One argument, supported by research, is that teacher professional development has little to no impact in student performance.

Despite half of my job being teacher professional development, it is hard for me to disagree. In fact, I concede that you cannot always draw a solid line between teacher PD and dramatic changes in student performance on the standardized tests that serve as the go-to barometer of “impact on student learning.”

There are many other lines I can draw, though. I can cite examples where PD around inquiry processes in science resulted in more student-centered lessons. I can cite examples where PD around trauma-informed practices resulted in students spending more time in the classroom and less time in the principal’s office. I can cite examples where PD around helping students track their own performance resulted in faster gains on classroom assessments. The keys to all of these solid lines: (1) The teacher was provided time and space to try new practices, even if success required a few attempts, (2) the teacher was provided access to peer-collaboration or peer-coaching to help support implementation, and (3) there wasn’t some sort of oppressive accountability system demanding immediate and unequivocal success.

I can see why Title II is an easy candidate for a cut. The impact is difficult to ascertain using the measures we have in place. I’m sure that people can also cite instances where Title II funds have been misused or misdirected. But if people are looking for solid lines of causality between X and increased student test scores, there is nothing yet that can produce a solid line, like the proverbial silver bullet’s path through the air.

Teaching and learning is a complex dynamic influenced by seemingly infinite factors. That is not an attempt to seek absolution from responsibility…rather it is a call to acknowledge the complexity of the system and the many ways we ought to monitor system reactions. If my learning about adolescent trauma means my student spends more time in my classroom learning, rather than in the office receiving discipline, is that not a positive change? If my students take greater ownership of their own progress and are more metacognitive about their learning processes, those immeasurable dispositions will serve them as well (if not better) than their ability to guess the right bubble on a test…is that not a positive change?

Every one of us has had to endure crappy PD that wasted our time, so let’s set that aside for a moment and imagine a world of better-designed, well-implemented, and relevant PD that meets a need in our practice (such PD would also need to be adequately funded in order to achieve those standards). Professional learning, in whatever form it might take, is the only way to spur professional practice toward improvement. If we don’t improve our professional practice, how can we expect improved results?

The Supreme Court Speaks

Not the Washington State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States of America.

On March 22, 2017—in a unanimous decision—the Supreme Court supported high standards for special education. According to Chief Justice Roberts, the law requires a student’s educational program to be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances,” depending on the “unique circumstances” of each child.

The case involved an autistic student. The parents sued for his rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires “free and appropriate public education” for disabled students. I teach Highly Capable (HC) students. Why am I so excited about this Supreme Court decision?

Remember, the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) draws a clear parallel between several groups of students “with specific learning needs, particularly children with disabilities, English learners, students who are gifted and talented, and students with low literacy levels.” By the way, similar to this court case, ESSA says schools “have to provide instruction based on the needs of such students” (page 328, lines 12-17).

In addition, as I’ve mentioned before, in many states, Gifted Education falls under Special Education. In those states, any staff who work with gifted students would automatically apply the wording from this new ruling to their students.

Try this on for size:

The law requires that the Highly Capable students in the state of Washington receive an educational program reasonably calculated to enable each of them to make progress appropriate in light of their circumstances—in this case, their abilities.

Of course, that requirement would apply to all 6-10% of the students identified as HC, not just the 2.314 that are currently funded under the antiquated formula now in use in our state.

The Chief Justice went on to say, “When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than de minimis (minimal) progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.” He said, “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

Oh my gosh. I can say the same thing. Let me put it this way:

A Highly Capable student offered an educational program providing opportunities for merely minimal progress—or no real progress—from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with high abilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.

Very often HC children come into school already knowing much of the curriculum the district says they should learn that year. Every year I give the sixth grade math placement test to fifth grade students. I’ve found that students who score a 45% or above don’t belong in fifth grade math. They go into sixth. (Those who score over 65%? I give them the seventh grade placement test.)

Even high school or college students can know a majority of the class’s material before the first day of school begins. In an enlightened school, students are given the opportunity to test out of classes. They take the final exam, pass, and they have officially met the requirement for the class. They can take something else instead. Done!

So what happens if they don’t have the option to test out of boring, unnecessary coursework? Gifted students will drop out. Now imagine. If those students were pretested, put into the proper course level, and presented with exciting, challenging, jaw-dropping, brandnew stuff at school every day, how many would be compelled to stay and graduate?

Just like the rest of our students, we want our HC students to excel. We want them to become leaders and contributing members of our communities. They can’t excel without being stretched and pushed.

My students just finished their Classroom Based Assessments for social studies. With my fifth graders I use the “Causes of Conflict CBA” recommended for seventh grade, and I design the project after National History Day (HD).  One of my guys had beat his head on his desk, “I hate writing, I hate writing, I hate writing.” His CBA website is now the sample “Junior” HD Project on my website. (Go to Kragen.net. Look at the links on the right side of the home page. Scroll almost to the bottom.)

Stretch. Push.

He is SO PROUD.

There is tremendous pressure on teachers to move students up to passing scores on tests, to having students demonstrate basic competency. What pressure is there to take students who are already performing at well above grade level and move them even further?

I was in a meeting this last week. There were at least eight adults in the room. We were discussing no more than a dozen kids and brainstorming how to move each of them from “a one to a two” or “a two to a three” in reading or math. We talked for half an hour or more.

Since 1989 I have NEVER been in a similar meeting to talk with a team of adults about how to meet the needs of students who need to go from “a four to a (mythical) five.” Not. Even. Once.

I have had individual teachers ask for advice. Or parents. At middle school even the occasional student.

But we don’t have big group meetings like that, to brainstorm ways to enable our HC children make progress that is appropriate in light of their circumstances—their abilities.

In the next few days I’ll be meeting with parents for conferences. We’ll review fall goals and talk about the move toward middle school and beyond. We’ll celebrate successes and pinpoint an area or two that could still use some growth.

It’s my job, to figure out where my students are and then move them as far forward as I can.

It’s nothing new. It’s what I’ve always believed.

But it’s nice to have the Supremes at my back.

Fakes, Facts, and the Hardest Lessons to Teach

I was numbly scrolling through Facebook a recent morning when one of those infographic-ish memes appeared. Of course, since it was in my feed, it aligned with the political leanings that my clicks and likes had already communicated to the Facebook algorithms, and in my pre-coffee state I found myself hovering over the “share” button.

I had to pause, though. Even though I wanted (desperately) to believe that the political statement being made in the meme was true (hint: it had to do with golf trips and certain federal budget items), I wasn’t sure. I didn’t see any sources linked, I didn’t know who the creator of the meme was, and I didn’t want to spend a ton of time researching its veracity. I did anyway, and after about three minutes of research it turned out that this particular meme had its number off by about 100 times and misrepresented the nature of the budget in question. Darn those pesky alternative facts.

While I didn’t click “share,” that nugget of information, despite being proven false, is now lodged in the schema that I bring to political conversations in the near future. I will have to very intentionally not use it as I form my arguments to support my political positions. That will be hard, because meme-depth facts are what it seems most political conversations resort to anymore.

We hear plenty about Fake News nowadays. Fake News is to critical thinking what super-sized fast food is to our diet: It is convenient, appears to look more or less like it’s authentic counterpart, and satisfies a need. Yes, a flawed analogy if extended completely, but there are valid parallels about the long term health of both individuals and the community. In particular, a good parallel is that the amount of comparable effort it takes to systematically deconstruct and discount Fake News is as seemingly insurmountable as making seismic shifts to unhealthy diet habits. If the latter were easy, we’d all be fit and healthy; if the former were easy, Fake News would be a nonissue.

How do we teach “quick” critical thinking? How do we teach students to resist the temptation of our confirmation biases? How do we teach that facts aren’t established by clicks, shares, or re-tweets…and that our own opinions don’t trump facts just because our opinions are our own?

Forget Common Core. This is the great pedagogical challenge of the next phase of my career.


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What Actually Works

According to a report on The Huffington Post, the money spent on the federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) didn’t accomplish anything. That’s $7 billion dollars spent on failed efforts. The final report from the Mathematica Policy Associates said the “SIG grants made essentially no difference in the achievement of the students in schools that received them.”

SIG grants offered low-achieving schools just four choices:

  • close the school
  • convert the school to a charter school
  • replace the principal and half the staff
  • or replace the principal, use achievement growth to evaluate teachers, use data to inform instruction, and lengthen the school day or year.

Wow, those sound like popular choices being floated right about now, don’t they? How many legislators at the state and federal level like the idea of converting public schools to charter schools? Or maybe they think replacing staff or using achievement growth to evaluate teachers or using data to inform instruction or lengthening the school day or year—or some combination of the above—is the magic bullet to cure the ills of schools in America.

But none of those solutions worked.

None of them improved student achievement.

Of course, not one of the four choices has a strong research base to support using it. There is no compelling reason, based on actual science or statistical study, to choose any one of them.

So all that money went down the drain.

(It makes my stomach hurt just to think about all that wasted money. What we could have done with $7 billion dollars!)

Now for the good news.

There are, in fact, four whole-school reform models that the Department of Education has approved as being evidenced-based:

The fourth model, by the way, is the only one that is not proprietary. Small Schools of Choice are organized around smaller units of adults and children. Three core principles provide the framework: “academic rigor, personalized relationships, and relevance to the world of work.” As I looked over the SSC plan I noticed items like thematic units, longer instructional blocks, common planning time, adults acting as advisers to 10-15 students, partnerships with the community and parents. Those are all good things that we KNOW work.

Now for the really good news!

The Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University has a brand new website called Evidence for ESSA. Their staff has reviewed every math and reading program for grades K to 12 to determine which meet the strong, moderate, or promising levels of evidence defined in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As they say, “It’s long been said that education needs its own version of Consumer Reports—authoritative, well researched, and incredibly easy to use and interpret. We hope Evidence for ESSA will be just that.”

  • A program is ranked strong if it has a significant positive effect with at least one randomized study.
  • A program is ranked moderate if it has a significant positive effect with at least one study that is classified as “quasi-experimental”—a matched study, say.
  • A program is ranked promising if it has a significant positive effect but the study was classified as “correlational.”

Notice that even for moderate and promising programs, the effects are still good—the program shows a significant positive effect. The reason those programs get a lower rating isn’t that they have poorer results. It’s because the controls of the studies were not as rigorous.

Ah, reading these standards take me back to my MA class on statistics. (Which I passed by the skin of my teeth.)

As soon as I found out about the CRRE site, I sent the information to my district administrator in charge of curriculum. He says this site will be very useful.

No kidding.

There’s not an endless amount of money to spend on education. We all know that. Let’s spend it where we know it will work.

 

 

 

 

 

Small Policies: Implementation Matters

Lately our attention has been on state and national education policy and how these connect to our practice. Those policies, however, are not the only ones that have an impact on our practice, and no matter the source of the policy it is the implementation that really impacts us.

A simple policy implementation example I have been witness to over and over again in my career: A school’s “no hats in the building” policy. I contend that how a school handles its hat policy is as important, if not more important, than how we implement most policies DeVos or our Legislature foist upon us.

Scenario: You see a middle school kid walking down a crowded hallway toward you, and of all horrors he is wearing a hat.

Policy Implementation Option #1: “Hey buddy, remember you can’t have hats on here in school, go ahead and put that in your backpack,” accompanied by a “I’m taking my hat off my head” hand gesture.

Policy Implementation Option #2: “Take that hat off. Give me that hat. If you want it back you need to come get it from the principal’s office,” accompanied by a stern voice and an extended, stiffly open hand with an aggressive “give me” hand gesture.

By the way, I am making no attempt to hide my bias on this issue.

The things “banned” in the schools I’ve worked in have included discmans, headphone/earbuds, hats, hoods, iPods, iPhones, water bottles, flip-flops, laptops, snacks… all of which had valid policy reasons. To me,  these “student management” policies, or other truly minor behavioral controls, are the kinds of policies whose implementation makes or breaks the culture and climate of a school. I’m not necessarily opposed to rules around these things. I concede very valid reasons to control these student behaviors. It all boils down to how we choose to implement these policies.

Critics of Option #1 above will point out that the student might just put his hat back on later, and therefore the problem has not been solved: The better solution is to take the hat (as if that permanently solves the problem). The rationale: The kid has to learn that if he breaks a rule in life, there will be consequences, in this case the loss of his property and potential disciplinary action. In fact, in this exact scenario (which I’ve been part of innumerable unnecessary permutations of in my career) I often hear about teaching the student lessons like “understanding the impacts of your own behavior” or “natural consequences.”

Whenever I teach simile and metaphor to my 9th graders, one of our practice similes is “School is like ___.” In 16 years of this exercise, the first answer called out is always “a prison.” Every. Single. Time. Some of that is our cultural narrative about school, but that has to come from somewhere. I don’t think that comes from federal policy: it comes from how we implement little, ultimately insignificant rules like the “no-hats” policy.

Having my hat taken away is not a “natural consequence.” Breaking my arm because I jump off the barn roof is a “natural consequence.” Losing my hat to an aggressive authority is very much a contrived consequence. Other than being subject to strong winds or ending up with wonky hair, there is no “natural consequence” associated with wearing a hat.

If I forcibly wrestle a hat away from a kid because the policy makes me think I should, there is a different natural consequence: The disempowerment of the student to control his own behavior. People want to say that taking the hat “teaches a lesson.” What lesson? This one: “I wear my hat, that [creative new expletive] takes it away.”

I say that if I actually teach the desired behavior (put your hat in your backpack), yes I may have to teach that same lesson several times, but here’s the lesson that gets learned: “If I forget to take my hat off, I need to put it in my backpack.”

In a place where learning is supposed to be the goal, it is obvious to me which “lesson” I ought to try to teach my students.

All Politics Are Local

Last week I had coffee with my local senator.  Okay, to be fair, I had water but nonetheless, we sat down and met for an extended time.  I walked away better understanding her position on issues of interest to me and I hope she felt the same.  

It all began with a fifteen minute meeting.  I scheduled a meeting with my senator in her office on Presidents Day. It was a busy day, lobbyists filled the hill, and sev
eral bills were being heard.  She squeezed me in at 8:45.  Our meeting was short but she offered to meet a few days later when she was in her home district.  I was grateful she was willing to extend her personal time and I took her up on that offer.

Five days later I was at her house talking one on one about everything from meeting the teaching shortage to TRI (time, responsibility, incentive) pay.  We even discussed the elephant in the room- education funding.  Here’s the thing- I felt heard.  I felt engaged.  I felt powerful.  I felt like I was able to share my experience as a teacher leader with my senator and I believe that she understood my work and passion.   Most importantly, I told her about my kids: 100 students and 2 biological.  We discussed assessment, CTE and Running Start, and the real trauma faced by students every day.  And when the meeting was over, I didn’t feel dismissed. Instead I felt like I’d built a bridge.

Being a teacher and a coach, I build infrastructure all day long.  I scaffold learning for my students.  I help teachers seek out new ideas and create new platforms so they can dive into deeper learning.  Yet, it didn’t occur to me until recently to build a bridge.  Perhaps that’s what my work is now.  I’m an engineer–creating bridges between my classroom and my state policymakers.