SB 5607: Weighted Per Pupil Funding Model

There’s an old saying “money won’t solve problems” but usually that’s said by someone who owns a house, has a car, and isn’t worried about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Washington State isn’t the worse at funding public education but it’s not part of the top ten in the country.
Needless to say, if the Washington State Legislature was fully funding education, we wouldn’t be in the midst of a lawsuit (see McCleary breakdown).

The recently released Senate Republican’s bill SB 5607 tries to address concerns about funding education by including a brief discussion of levies and an extensive description of weighted per pupil funding. I am not an expert in these matters but I think it’s important for all educators to try to engage with these issues.

A little bit of context:
First, in order to think about school funding it’s necessary to realize that levies are a significant factor. As Highline Public Schools explains it, “Levies are for learning. Bonds are for building.” Thus, levies include everything from staffing (teachers, instructional aids, nurses, librarians, etc.) to supplies like books, computer upgrades, athletics, and arts, depending on what a district has rolled into its levy. It is all this “stuff” that is usually used to calculate what a district pays out in their per pupil costs (have you seen this incredible map?!).

Hypothetically, a district’s funding looks something like this pie chart, but every district has a unique set of concerns exacerbated by its location (urban, rural, suburban), its economic stability (employment rates, etc.), and the needs of its students. Thus, some districts rely on roughly 20% of their budget coming from levies while others might rely on as much as 25%.

Second, when we say “per pupil expenditures” we basically mean how much money it “costs” to educate this child. This can include a gamut of things and–from what I understand–might include a portion of a teacher’s salary or costs for programs to mitigate special needs.

I took a dive into Part I: Weighted per Pupil Funding Model of SB 5607 and when I came up for air here are a few of the things that stood out to me. I figure a pros/cons list is one of the easiest ways to address this.

The Pros: A stated focus on equity.

  • In the setup of the case for equity is laid out explicitly. “The legislature further finds that the current system unfairly drives more money to wealthier districts, on a per pupil basis, for low-income, special education, and transitional bilingual students than to poor districts.” I appreciate this because while most classroom teachers understand inequity in education funding, it often seems like those who inform education policy do not.
  • The term “equity” and “inequities” are weaved throughout the document. This again stands out to me because often in education so much of this system is set around standards of fairness and equality when in fact we need equity. Some school districts or schools within a district need different allocations of funds so that students can be served.
  • As someone who teachers AP Language and Composition, word choice matters. I love that the stated objectives of this section of the budget is to provide ampleness, dependability, equity, and transparency.

The Cons: A heap of unanswered but important questions.

  • While the objectives are clearly stated, as I read through the budget I continue to ask myself is this budget really ample, dependable, equitable, and transparent? At times the numbers don’t seem to add up.
  • Where are the additional dollars for schools coming from? This isn’t clearly outlined.
  • How will districts and schools be held accountable for new money, including what are the accountability measures for ensuring money is spent where it is supposed to be?
  • Since it seems we are creating a new system, how will district personnel be trained in the new system?
  • Since the Senate budget calls for additional funding for special populations of students (ex. ELL, Special Education) can students be counted more than once? For example, will a student be counted as ELL + Poverty + Highly Capable? Is this in-line with the objectives of ample, dependable, equitable, and transparent?
  • Are there other special populations (no mention of foster kids anywhere) that are missing or will they be added later–if so, when and by whom?
  • What about equity within a school district? If the money goes to the district, but say most of the students with “additional funds” attend one or two schools, how will it be ensured that the money will follow them to that specific school?

There is much to consider in this budget proposal. I encourage you to do your own research, pose more questions for us to ponder, and read this clear, succinct analysis of SB 5607 released by the Equity in Education Coalition last week.

Right to Strike

The education funding bill from the Washington Senate, SB 5607, includes a section prohibiting teacher strikes.

When I heard about this provision, my first question was, “What does the right to strike have to do with an education budget?”

The answer, of course, is nothing. Look at the League of Education Voters’ comparison chart of four funding proposals side-by-side: the current state education funding levels, Governor Inslee’s Education Funding Proposal, the Majority Coalition Caucus Education Funding Proposal (SB 5607), and the House Democrat Education Funding Proposal (HB 1843). There is no mention of right to strike in any of the other proposals. That’s because having the right to strike has nothing to do with funding.

So I double checked. Was this Senate bill actually a funding bill? Of course it was. Up at the top of the bill, it says it was “referred to the Committee on Ways and Means.” It’s a bona fide budget bill.

Some senators decided that—on the way to rewriting how to fund education—they would also add this change in how teachers can protect themselves.

Take a minute to read the text of this section.

PART XI 2 PROHIBITING TEACHER STRIKES

NEW SECTION. Sec. 1101. The legislature finds that, like other state and local public employees, educational employees do not have a legally protected right to strike. No such right existed at common law, and none has been granted by statute. The legislature further finds, as have numerous trial court decisions and the Washington state attorney general in AGO 2006 No. 3, that any argument that a right to strike is implied by the absence of a provision in chapter 10 41.59 RCW is wrong. The legislature intends to provide greater clarity to parents and school districts by prohibiting strikes, work stoppages, or work slowdowns or other refusal to perform official duties.

NEW SECTION. Sec. 1102. A new section is added to chapter 41.59 RCW to read as follows:

Nothing contained in this chapter permits or grants any educational employee

  • the right to strike,
  • participate in work stoppages or work slowdowns,
  • or to otherwise refuse to perform his or her official duties.

(Highlighting and bullets are mine).

I don’t know about you, but when I read this section, my heart just stopped.

Right now I am in the middle of teaching about colonial America to my class of fifth graders. We talk about indentured servants who came to America. They paid for their passage by working for their masters for seven years. Essentially, for those seven years, they were the equivalent of slaves. They had no rights. If they were lucky, they had a good master. If they were unlucky, they didn’t. But they had no recourse. They were stuck for those seven years.

No right to strike? No work to contract? (That would definitely count as a work slowdown!) No saying no to evening work or early morning or after school meetings? (A principal could call those “official duties.”)

No effective way to make our voices heard?

I read that Senate bill passage and immediately felt like an indentured servant. Like I had traveled back in time to the 1600s.

No, thank you!

I find it interesting that the senators who wrote this bill said their intention in including this section was to “provide greater clarity to parents and school districts.” They act as if teachers’ strikes cause the greatest problems for parents and districts.

True, parents have it hard when teachers go on strike. Their children aren’t in school. They have to arrange childcare. I’ve been amazed, though, at the level of support many parents give striking teachers—perhaps because they know best what the teachers are doing in the classrooms with and for their children.

If the teachers are striking against their districts, I am sure their districts are deeply unhappy. But I guarantee the teachers are deeply unhappy too. Teachers don’t go on strike lightly. Whenever I read about districts out on strike, I think about how much time those teachers must have spent working through every other option to come to an agreement. I think about how they have struggled through other procedures, without success, to arrive at the difficult and taxing step of striking.

I don’t buy the legislature’s sly claim, though. My district has participated in two “strike” events in the 28 years I’ve lived in Washington. Neither time was our action aimed at our district.

Both times we protested against the legislature.

By the way, both times we walked out for a one-day strike, we had the support, not just of the parents in our district, but of our administration as well. After all, our district administrators were just as upset with the legislature as the teachers were!

I think the senators added this section to their budget to protect themselves! They are threatened by the media coverage when masses of teachers show up on the Capitol steps.

I say we need to keep showing up until we get the issues resolved. Because that’s our JOB. We are, after all, educators. We have an obligation to educate, not just the students in our classroom, but the adults who impact them. The school board. The public.

The legislature.

Because I went back to read the beginning of the Senate bill, I discovered this opening line: “GOAL. The goal of this act is to improve the educational outcomes for all students.”

That’s a great goal! We promise to stand right there next to you, senators, holding your feet to the fire, making sure you live up to that commitment.

SSB 5607: Budgets, Salary, and Bargaining

A notable change in SSB 5607, the Senate’s proposal around education funding, involves how money allocations to districts are determined.

As this summary describes, SSB 5607 swaps the prototypical school funding model (based on staff to student ratios, staff salary allocation levels, plus other allocation costs) for a straight per-pupil funding model. Under SSB 5607, per-student funding from all local, state, and federal sources must meet a minimum of $12,500, with augmentations for certain subgroups such as homeless students and special education students.

That then leaves the determination of teacher salaries to local bargaining: Part V, Section 501 of the bill (page 46 here) grants local districts the authority to determine the certificated salary schedules, and explicitly eliminates the statewide salary allocation model starting in 2018-19. There is also a direct prohibition against local salary schedules providing “salary increases based on a master’s or other advanced degree that is not in the subject area in which the individual teaches.” (Which, quite frankly, is ludicrous, as it appears to justify de-recognition of Masters Degrees in education…unless I am reading it incorrectly, which I hope I am.) Also worthy of noticing is the clear designation in Section 503 that no more than 80% of total district expenditures may go to salary and benefits. The same section also sets the minimum salary for full-time teachers at $45,000, a bump from the current bottom tier ($35,700) but well short of Governor Inslee’s proposed budget, which places base pay at over $54,000 once implemented.

In an apparent effort to recognize differences in cost of living throughout the state, Section 504 also creates provisions for a “housing allowance” to be provided, based on a “regional cost factor,” to certificated employees in districts with the assessed value of real-estate property exceeds the state average.

All of this gets accomplished by rolling back local levy authority to a lid of 10% and creating a state-wide property tax levy of $1.80 per $1000 of assessed value.

On the surface, base teacher pay is increased and a regional cost-of-living is ostensibly addressed positively, and collective bargaining of salary at the local level is maintained. Knowing these policymakers’ past positions on teacher compensation and collective bargaining rights, I can’t help but get the sense that I’m missing something…something big and ugly and destructive.

I am concerned that by providing some small details that seem to be positives, we are being distracted from this proposal’s ultimate failure to address the larger picture. The reshuffling of allocation models (back to per-student, which I think Washington abandoned a few decades ago) doesn’t make clear whether there is a net increase in overall school funding. There’s also that $12,500 per-student number, which makes it seem like an increase from the current per-student funding (which hovers shy of 10K), but includes all revenue sources local, state, and federal. To me, that’s a sneaky way of keeping the state-provided funding low, all the while imposing limits on local authority to raise much needed additional revenue.

I also worry that the gesture of locally bargaining salary schedules obscures the fact that locals will be bargaining over what ends up being a much smaller pot of resources, particularly given that hard cap of 80% mentioned above. Sure, we might get to bargain from a higher base ($45,000), but the result is that keeping class sizes reasonable and maintaining key services to kids will mean that while the bottom has been raised, the top of the schedule will likely have to be lowered. My prediction: the real effect will be lower average teacher salaries, higher average class sizes, and overworked education staff assistants who already face caseloads that are unmanageable. Maintaining local bargaining power is a plus, but it feels like a pacifying gesture toward unions, since bargaining over fewer resources is a huge step backward.

This is all incomprehensibly messy and complicated…not to mention political and emotional. There are a few premises that I can get behind, but what keeps me from being in support of this is that the numbers are simply too low and that from what I can find so far there is zero evidence that this proposal actually improves the overall funding climate for students in the state of Washington. In fact, it potentially serves very well to distract us from that larger climate.

Sadly, I have grown to have little faith that our policymakers actually want to build and preserve a high quality education system in our state. Of course they’ll all say they do: But in action via bills and budgets, it seems pretty clear to me that public education…and the stronger economic and social future it helps to lay a foundation for…is not a true priority. SSB 5607 appears to continue the trend of expecting results the state is unwilling to pay for.


Horse’s Mouth Resources un-mediated by any news-outlet or teacher-blogger interpretation:

  • SSB 5607…in it’s full glory. If you’re like me, these can make for challenging reading, but I believe it is important to look directly at the proposed language if we’re going to also use summaries and opinion pieces to help form our positions… kind of like in my classroom: I tell my students I’m okay with them reading the Sparknotes and online reviews, provided they ALSO read the full original text as well.
  • A non-partisan summary of the bill, with definitions of terms, as well as PRO and CON statements.

Image source

National Board Bonus and SB 5607

National Board Certification serves multiple purposes for teachers in Washington.  Like teachers in every state, the National Board Certification process provides a structure that teachers can use to analyze and reflect about their practice.  Unlike every state, in Washington, teachers can enroll and certify through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards as a way to earn second tier certification, a requirement for thousands of teachers in our state.

The Washington State Senate just passed Senate Bill 5607 and this bill is now in the House. 5607 seeks to meet our state’s need to fully fund basic education.  Buried on page 51 and 52 of the bill is a provision that eliminates the state paid bonus and instead offers ,“ A school district board of directors may provide a bonus to a certificated instructional staff person who has attained certification from the national board for professional teaching standards.”   For the 6000 NBCTs in our state and the hundreds that are currently in process, this single sentence creates serious anxiety.  According to data provided by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, twenty four states do not offer any state level compensation for National Board Certification.  Of those twenty four states, fourteen have 1% or fewer NBCTs in their state.   For those states dedicating an annual bonus of $4000 or more, the percentage of NBCTs in the state rises dramatically.  In Washington, 15% of our teachers are NBCTs.  Two other states rival our percentage.  South Carolina offers a similar state wide bonus ($5000 per year) and 18% of their teachers are NBCTs.  North Carolina, 21% of their teachers are NBCTs, pairs National Board Certification with their state salary schedule. NBCTs receive 12% above base pay.   Simply put, states with higher stipends have a larger percentage of NBCTs.  

The removal of the state paid bonus will place pressure on local school districts to pay these stipends.  Yet, with lack of clarity around how schools will be funded, it becomes even more unclear how districts will be able to fund stipends.  Districts that allocate funds to replace the state stipend will inevitably find themselves with a larger proportion of NBCTs than districts that are unable.  This feature will create more inequality between districts, not less.  In areas with several school districts to choose from, NBCTs will likely consider whether they can afford to  remain in a district that cannot support a stipend.  Locally bargained stipends will create competition between districts for these accomplished teachers.  Simply put, the goal of lawmakers in our state should not be to create this level of competition between districts.

When I began my National Board journey in 2004, there was a small bonus associated with certification.  I was in my first five years of teaching and that bonus absolutely incentivized the large amount of work that the process presented.  When the bonus increased, more teachers sought certification.  These teachers have demonstrated that they:

  • Are committed to students and their learning
  • Know the subjects they teach and how to teach them to students
  • Are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning
  • Think systemically about their practice and learn from experience
  • Are members of learning communities*

These teachers ordered their financial lives around the promise that our lawmakers would honor their accomplishments.  If the goal is to retain quality teachers in the classroom, then perhaps the legislature should reconsider this provision in SB 5607.  

 

 

*The Five Core Propositions found at http://www.nbpts.org/five-core-propositions

HB 1319: National Board Certification and Washington State’s Comprehensive Evaluation System

What does accomplished teaching look like?  Does being accomplished mean that you are also distinguished? Are these terms synonymous with one another?

I will admit it- I don’t mind our new state teacher evaluation system TPEP.  In fact, I jumped on the TPEP bandwagon fairly early. Analyzing my teaching and reflecting upon my effectiveness has been a part of my practice for many years.  I certified as a National Board Certified Teacher in 2005 and renewed two years ago.  Having facilitated several cohorts of teachers through the process, I can attest to the planning, engagement, and reflection involved in seeking National Board Certification.  Those same skills and practices are echoed and assessed in the TPEP process.

With the amount of work and documentation involved in TPEP, it seems like a no brainier to support HB 1319, a bill, if enacted, would allow National Board Certified Teachers the ability to complete the comprehensive evaluation once every six years if the teacher received a rating of 3–Proficient on his/her last comprehensive evaluation, and once every eight years if the teacher received a rating of 4-Distinguished on his/her last comprehensive evaluation.  The time is right for this piece of legislation.  Now that the National Board Certification renewal process is every five years instead of ten, it strikes me that attainment of renewal will clearly demonstrate that the National Board Certified Teacher is, at the very least, proficient, if not distinguished.  Last year, a similar bill was introduced into the House and ended up in the “x” file.   I still can’t understand how this happened as the bill had no cost associated with it, but I am glad to see a similar version this year as it will balance the logistical challenges associated with the teacher evaluation system by supporting focused, more meaningful conversations on one area of teaching and learning versus eight.

When TPEP was rolled out to teachers and administrators, we all knew that the evaluation system was going to change.  What we didn’t know was just how much work it would be.  Again, I like TPEP.  I enjoy the conversations that I am having with my administrators about what teaching and learning looks like in my room.  I’ve been on the focused evaluation form for the past three years.  Admittedly, I enjoy the focused reflective and analytical conversations about what is going on in my room. I am thankful that the workload is reduced to evidencing one criterion and collecting evidence for one student growth goal (sub group or large group). When I was on the comprehensive form I needed 24 artifacts (eight criteria and a minimum of three artifacts per criteria) and had to write and collect evidence for two student growth goals. I work at a relatively small high school with a principal and an assistant principal.  We have around 40 teachers in our school, which means that each administrator is responsible for roughly 20 evaluations.  We embraced TPEP with a growth model mindset–teachers on Comprehensive meet every 2-3 weeks with our administrators to discuss artifacts and document evidence/progress towards the evaluations.  Teachers on Focused meet, at minimum, every 6-8 weeks to do the same.  These meetings take 30-50 minutes each time if both parties are well prepared.  While I know that not all schools and administrators use this model, I also see the value in this process.

For the past two years, I’ve also worked as a part time instructional coach–largely working collaboratively with teachers to provide evidence of the criterion and develop high quality, measurable student growth goals.  Now there are three of us (my principal, assistant principal, and me) doing routine observations, meeting with teachers to reflect, and working on evidencing the criterion.  My work as a coach has cut down on their work but admittedly, the position was created from a need of helping both teachers and administrators manage TPEP.  However, with more teachers on Focused, my coaching has been less about evidencing a TPEP criterion and more about analyzing and reflecting upon quality teaching and learning.  This is where I’ve seen leaps and bounds in our professional development as a staff.  Teachers on Focused are now visiting one another’s  classrooms both through the use of the Observe Me signs and through the use of a Pineapple Calendar (Pineapple Calendar’s are a way to invite colleagues into your room to observe a specific lesson).  With the vast majority of our staff on Focused, teachers are participating in book studies of choice, engaging in criterion centered PLCs, and spending lunch periods talking about teaching and learning.   Our culture grows organically because teachers have more agency in their evaluation system and can therefore dig deeper into areas of interest and need.

The passage of HB 1319 demonstrates continued support and value for second tier certifications such as National Board Certification.  National Board Certified Teachers have already demonstrated that they are accomplished, now let them engage in thoughtful, purposeful analysis centered on one area of teaching, instead of eight.  This bill helps administrators with the log jam that the comprehensive evaluation creates.  Washington currently has over 6000 NBCTs. Passage of this bill directly impacts how and when administrators schedule comprehensive evaluations.  HB 1319 allows administrators to spread out the number of comprehensive evaluations over a longer time period. I hear from other admin in neighboring districts that they simply don’t have the time to manage TPEP, all of its artifacts, and regularly scheduled face to face meetings with all of their teacher.  HB 1319’s commonsense approach offers an opportunity for teachers to deeply engage in the evaluation criterion while clearing up the evaluation congestion for administrators.

Bully Culture

Next year I will be returning part time to the classroom after a two-year hiatus as a new-teacher induction mentor (plus other duties as assigned). I will be returning with new strategies and ideas I’ve amassed from being able to observe and coach so many colleagues. More than that, I’ll be returning with a new mission, so to speak.

Many people have claimed that the election of President Donald Trump has given validation and permission for aggressive, disrespectful, and bullying language and behavior. Schools all over the nation have cited an increase in behavior where individuals in positions of real or perceived power have exercised this power to oppress, humiliate, intimidate, or undermine those over whom they felt somehow superior or powerful.

These power dynamics have a history far deeper than the 2016 election cycle. While Trump’s election took many in my own little echo chamber people by surprise, if we deconstruct the segments of the electorate who supported Trump, level headed thinkers of all political persuasions can acknowledge that a fundamental sense of powerlessness drove at least some proportion of the population to see Trump’s bravado as a means for reclaiming power. Powerlessness of one group or another is unfortunately woven into the very fabric of our history, and it just so happens that the current cohort feeling powerless actually turned out to be powerful enough to buoy someone into office who spoke directly to that void.

Through my years as a teacher and coach, in nearly every instance that I’ve responded to bullying language or behavior, as I’ve engaged with the “bully,” I’ve learned about their deep sense of powerlessness in some place of their life. Generalizing from real examples here, but the 9th grade bully always picking on the scrawny kid eventually reveals to me that he is frustrated by his own inability to succeed in school; the 10th grade girl known for vicious online peer-evisceration ends up revealing that she feels she has no sense of personal power because of what her parents say about her and do to her.

This is no profound new idea. It is Interpersonal Dynamics 101 and in each child psychology textbook. Bullying behavior is often an attempt to fill some personal power void.

As I look at how schools have attempted to deal with bullying over the years, much has been focused on the “don’t bully, be kind” approach. That’s great, but it is only part of the answer. I think we need to also talk more openly about power and powerlessness.

That’s the great thing about being a literature teacher: Literature lets us study humanity as a third point, and in doing so we can better understand ourselves and our society. Every work of fiction I’ve ever taught (and in fact even much of the poetry and nonfiction) has clearly visible in it dynamics rooted in a differential of real or perceived power.

I will say that the events of our presidential election have rekindled my sense of urgency in helping students consider deeply the inequality of power that is so entrenched in our society that. My mission is to help adolescents peel away a fundamentally flawed assumption that we often make about ourselves, bias and our society: As Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald describe in the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, we assume that inequality and power differentials are simply an inevitable and unalterable law of nature, and that these differentials exist because of some deep truth about those who occupy different stations of power.

Through my teaching of literature, now more than ever I believe it will be important to examine how power and powerlessness contribute to a story’s central conflict so that perhaps we can better understand how it also exists as the core of nearly all of our society’s central conflicts. I believe it will be more important than ever to help my adolescent students explore where in their own lives and in our broader culture they are bestowed or refused power, even if they don’t necessarily recognize or want to acknowledge it (the very blind spot at the core of the book linked above).

I hope to help my students consider those stations where they have power how they use it, as well as how their sense of powerlessness ripples inward or outward toward other moments of their lives. I do think we’ve always lived in a bully culture. Like any pattern of human interaction, it has ebbed and flowed. We in public education have the opportunity to arm young people with the knowledge and skills to turn the tide.


Image Source: Wikimedia commons

School Choice

I’m getting a new student tomorrow. I haven’t met him yet, but I’ve met his discipline record, and it’s staggering. He’s packed more misbehavior into his short life than most of us commit in a lifetime. Not only that, but academically he’s at least three years below the rest of my class.

Before school I’m going to meet with my new student, along with his mom, the principal, the assistant principal, the dean of students, the school counselor, the learning support team and the para-educator who will work with him one-on-one throughout the entire school day. We’ll review his IEP and work with the behavior plan established at his old school in a way that fits the resources and capacity of ours.

How do I feel about my new student?

It would be easy to resent his arrival and fret over the possibility that he’ll disrupt the carefully constructed learning community that I’ve established. I could easily wonder “Why me?” and look for every opportunity to kick him out of the classroom, perhaps for good.

But I’m optimistic. I sincerely want the best for this little guy, and I honestly believe that my classroom will be the best place for him.  I want to work with my team to make this situation successful. I want desperately for him to look back in ten years and see his fourth grade year as a turning point.

And trust me, he will.

Coincidentally, our next Secretary of Education will spend tomorrow explaining herself to the Senate Education Committee. She’ll tell them about the wonderful things she’s done as a billionaire philanthropist in her home state of Michigan.

Most of those things involve pushing the agenda of school choice. School choice advocates want to increase the number of charter schools and they want parents to use vouchers to enroll their children in private schools using tax money that would otherwise have been used for a public school education.

Charter schools and vouchers can be great for those families who take advantage of them. Although many don’t, some charter schools outperform non-charter public schools serving the same population. Some private schools do, as well.

But not everyone gets to go to those charter schools and private schools. And sometimes those schools decide that certain students “aren’t a good fit” for their school. And those students get to go back to the regular public school, a school that has no choice but to accept that student and goes out of its way to accommodate him or her. The kids who do stay at those schools stand to benefit when the “misfits” leave. Their classrooms are quieter and there’s nobody slowing them down.

And if that wasn’t unfair enough, the charter schools and private schools then get to brag about how their schools are outperforming the nearby public schools. Even when they aren’t.

I wish Betsy DeVos (and her boss) nothing but the best. She is, after all, about to be running the federal department that oversees my profession. And he’s going to be president. But I want both of them to remember that public schools are not just the default choice for those waiting to be rescued. Public schools are, and always have been, thriving communities that enthusiastically and effectively serve every kid who happens to live nearby.

Including my new student.

#ObserveMe II: We Need Perspective

Last August I discovered the #ObserveMe movement. Within a few days, several brave staff members took on the challenge at Lincoln High School. I wrote about this process in my post “Goals for a New School Year.” What I’ve learned the most from this experience (so far), is that others see my classroom very differently than I do and I need their perspective in order to grow professionally.

I like to think I have teacher hearing and eyes in the back of my head. But I know I miss things. Teachers are 1,500 or more tiny decisions each class period, trying to capitalize on each teachable moment and fix everything that is “wrong” in order to maximize the learning experience. I can simultaneously be thinking about how to redirect Mike, tell Josie to “sit like a scholar” and ask Gabe a question that prompts his reasoning. An outside perspective, shared through an #ObserveMe reflection form gives me a new point of view.

One of my goals this year states, “Consistently incorporates and values diverse multiple perspectives in the lesson and classroom discussions.” As I track who has/hasn’t spoken during a class period, I’m critically aware that Jonah has spoken 3x times already while Miriam hasn’t said a word. I sometimes finish a class period feeling guilty because although I told myself to bring in Marcus, I forgot to use cold calling—or any other tool in my tool bag—to bring him into the discussion. The feedback offered by outside observers provides snapshots of whether or not I’m actually meeting my professional goals. Here are the comments I received from four different observations of this particular goal.

  • Different ideas related to similar pieces of evidence.
  • Absolutely. Students were highly engaged in a discussion guided by the teacher regarding rhetoric. Students were able to provide varying perspectives that were acknowledged and validated.
  • Political cartoons relating to racial justice in the US. And political climate.
  • invites multiple students to contribute. Amplifies a comment from a para that provides insight into cultural traditions/insight.

The first comment tells me that I’m encouraging students to rationalize and explain their reasoning based on evidence. It also tells me that I’m trying to encourage students to see how the same piece of evidence can be used to support varying points of view. The second comment shows me that all the effort I’m making to help students feel safe to share opposing views is actually working. The third comment adds a new layer. It tells me that the observer noticed that I was including multiple perspectives in the texts we analyzed. Although I chose the cartoons intentionally, I hadn’t really thought about how choosing a text was helping me meet my #ObserveMe goal! The fourth piece of feedback reminded me that I am working to intentionally include my para educators (I have two) in the classroom as sources of knowledge and experience. Again, something I just do because it’s just what I do, right and natural to me but I’m learning–from conversations with my paraeducators– it is actually not that common. I know that I can be more intentional about using these women as resources to improves student learning. Are these reflections life changing? No. Do they help me see my practice in a new light and challenge me to be more intentional? Heck yes.

Early on I received feedback that I should use an online form in addition to my paper system. So I converted my observation chart into a MS form and added a QR code. Now half my data is in an easy-to-digest format online. If you are adept at using technology or want to grow in this way, I highly recommend providing an online survey option.

I personally feel that one of the greatest strength of this process is the openness and low-stakes nature of it. Since it’s non-evaluative I don’t care about how much feedback I get, how often I get it, or how it’s phrased. I’m not stressing about a pre/post observation conversations. I am not up late trying to craft a perfect lesson on my Graduate school lesson plan template that highlights my teaching strengths in 30 minutes. I can take or leave the advice I receive. Nobody cares–including me! For someone like me who struggles with a type-A personality and anxiety about living up to my students expectations, using #ObserveMe to improve my practice is perfect. And so far it’s a reminder that all the effort I’m putting into lesson design and instruction is working.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this kind of feedback loop works for everyone. When I asked my peers about their own results here are some of the replies:

  • Few people have given me feedback, but I’m still going to keep my sign up and see what happens the rest of the year.
  • I realize I need more consistent, on-going feedback from our instructional coach rather than drop-in feedback.
  • I love it. I hand a reflection sheet to anyone who walks in.

As you consider what to change or modify for second semester, I urge you to set up an #ObserveMe sign and recruit a couple other friends to try it with you. Not convinced yet?  Read Sherry Nesbitt’s impression or Nate Bowling’s experience and share your goals online with the #ObserveMe hashtag.

Inslee’s Budget: Making an Investment

I was at a meeting when news started to spread that Governor Jay Inslee had released his budget plan. Of course, the thing that grabbed most people’s attention was the significant bump in pay for teachers. I noted, however, the difficult reality of his budget that our state has not yet come to terms with: In order to achieve the services we expect from public schools, we need to secure new revenue either through additional taxes or closing of loopholes. Inslee’s proposal includes four billion new dollars to be invested in public schools. Simply put, Inslee realizes that fixing our system means we can’t just shuffle line items within the current revenue structure.

In the real world, fixing things pretty much always costs money. Sometimes it even costs money you don’t yet have.

A couple of years ago on a Sunday afternoon in March, I was sitting in my living room, grading student essays. Suddenly, a sound like a fighter jet landing in my front yard started to shake my house, and then BOOM. This:

A freak spring windstorm leveled a swath of trees and structures in our neighborhood, and took an otherwise healthy (according to the arborist) 50-ft blue spruce and crashed it diagonally across the whole structure of our home. We have homeowners insurance, but between the deductible and some of what insurance didn’t cover, we didn’t have the money to fix it completely. Significant structural damage, eventual water damage from a poor patch job from the lowest-cost emergency board-up contractor, plus our roofing options being limited to the two plastic tarps I already owned and the one that the fire department donated to us to attempt to minimize water damage all made it clear that this fix was going to require something else than just making do with what we had.

Thankfully, we were able to access additional revenue, so to speak. Friends and family chipped in. I took on (yet another) side job to bring in a little cash. We sold some stuff from the garage. In the end, our house was back to normal almost a year later thanks to these additional resources (and a kind hearted roofer and generous arborist who charged us far less than they should have for work insurance couldn’t cover). The reality is that we were doing fine financially before and certainly accept criticism that we “should have” had more cash socked away for this particular breed of rainy day. The reality was that in the face of a clearly broken structure, “doing the best with what we had” wasn’t going to cut it. We will forever appreciate the people who were willing to give services, muscle, or money to help us fix our home.

I for one greatly appreciate Inslee for aiming so high and being realistic about what it will take to make progress toward strengthening public schools. New tests won’t do it. New requirements won’t do it. Furthering our love affair with accountability won’t do it. Simply demanding teachers to “do better with what they have” is not going to do it either. Fixes, in the real world, often require an investment beyond what we think we can absorb, and sometimes that investment requires more resources being added to the system.

And as for that meeting where word of the Governor’s budget was making the rounds? The reaction of teachers was positive and it had far less to do with more pay than it did with what our Governor’s budget was communicating: He was saying, pure and simple, I am willing to invest in you. 

That’s a good feeling.

Why Unions Matter

If you happen to be a member of your local education association, chances are you’ve received some emails this year asking you to rescind your membership.

Like too many issues (such as presidential elections), we humans have the tendency to make decisions based on emotion rather than fact. Many people are on edge, and you don’t have to look far online to find people with strong anti-union sentiments. However, I rarely am able to uncover facts or actual events that serve well to make unions, teachers’ unions in particular, worthy of such tremendous hatred.

Sure, there are the cases where a union enforced a poorly worded contract and a crappy teacher got to keep their job. It happens. There are plenty of actions that unions have taken that I personally don’t agree with, and thus I am working “from the inside” to change as an active union member.

If we want to know why unions matter to teachers and to public education, Wisconsin has engaged in a deeply unfortunate experiment we can all learn from. The gist: The state government of Wisconsin passed what it called the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill” that included as one of its “repairs” the destruction of labor unions’ rights to collectively bargain. Here’s the whole article, but details worthy of noting:

  • Total teacher compensation has dropped 8% since the Bill.
  • There is no way for teachers to negotiate for pay increases or for better benefits; meanwhile costs of benefits have increased.
  • Certificated teachers are leaving in droves; the article includes examples of positions left unfilled or filled by unqualified, non-certificated staff. (I’m not clear how this could be filed under “In the best interests of students.”)

Unfortunately, the public face of the union has done us any favors: To people not familiar, picturing a union means picturing a bunch of people not working, but rather pacing, chanting, holding signs…acts that I understand in terms of labor relations but which I also believe are the worst possible public relations moments our organizations can ask for. This unfortunately masks the real work that unions do: advocating for the working and learning conditions of staff and students in all of our schools.

This year, my district recruited a handful of teachers from “right to work” states where the powers of unions are restricted. They tell me again and again how different everything is here in Washington: they as teachers feel valued, their students are safe, there is consistency and stability in policy. These create the conditions that enable students to succeed. It is easy to focus only on compensation as the primary focus of an education association, but the reality is far more complex: Yes, unions negotiate pay and benefits, which are about recruiting and retaining top quality educators. Unions also negotiate class sizes, special education caseloads, access to curriculum and resources, and programs from STEM to the arts to counseling to intervention. Unions are a powerful voice for teachers and the strongest voice for students.

When our legislature comes together in the new year, we need to be careful to watch for threats to public education from all angles (like this one), not the least of which being threats to educators’ powers to organize and advocate. We need to learn from Wisconsin.