SBAC Reflections, Part 1

Ccss-sbacBy Tom

Like most kids across the state, my students are in the middle of taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment, known in our school as the “S-Back.” It has been what I’ll politely call a “Learning Experience.” Most of us are used to giving paper-pencil standardized tests, and it’s stressful enough managing those; which entails keeping track of every single test, sharpening and distributing number 2 pencils, passing out the snacks, keeping the room silent, keeping the “fast finishers” busy with activities that are engaging enough to keep them quiet, yet not engaging enough to encourage the other kids to rush through their tests. With the SBAC, we have to deal with all that, plus the added stress of logging onto the SBAC Assessment Management Portal to generate an “Event Code,” getting a computer into the hands of every student, helping them log on using their 18-digit security code and the teacher-generated Event Code, and then helping them navigate into and through the test itself. As I told my wife, “Thank God for bourbon and thank God this year is only a field test.”

Three days removed from the stress and the hassle, I think I can safely draw three conclusions about these tests and the impact they’ll have on education in our state.

First of all, literacy will become even more integrated. Secondary teachers already teach reading and writing in the same period, but in the early grades, this is less the case, especially when teachers start getting serious about getting their kids ready for the state tests. The SBAC tests student’s writing skills by giving them a performance task which close reading of a series of texts and a response with an essay composed completely on the computer. Obviously we’ve always used student writing as a means to gauge their reading comprehension, but not when it comes to standardized assessments; in years past, the writing part of the test has been completely separate from the reading test and has had prompts that require very little reading skill. With the SBAC, there is no reading and writing assessment; it’s all one big ELA assessment, and the whole thing happens on a computer screen.

Which brings me to my second conclusion: students will be using technology a lot more for core curriculum activities. No more will teachers have their students draft, revise, edit and publish predominately on paper and use technology for stuff like social studies PowerPoint slideshows. To be successful on the SBAC, students need to know how to navigate between reading and writing panes on their computer screen. They’ll need to know how to compose from scratch electronically. And obviously they’ll need to know how to type. One of the things that amazed me last week was how many computers appeared out of the woodwork when it was time for those tests. That was great, but we’re going to need those machines all day, every day, in pretty much every classroom, if we want success. (And trust me; with the increased emphasis on results-based teacher and principal evaluations, we will want success.)

Of course, as everyone knows, simply placing computers into a classroom won’t cut it. Teachers are simply going to have to become proficient users of technology. We’ll need to know how to provide instruction with technology, present practice work using technology, help our students do that work on computers and then read, score and publish their work without ever having to print it out. Sure, there will still be paper, but increasingly there will be lots of web pages and word documents. For younger teachers that might not seem like a big deal, but for a guy like me, who started teaching when overhead projectors were cutting edge, that represents a significant evolution.

These changes and more are predicated on the idea that “what gets tested is what gets taught,” which is pretty much the way thing happen in education. Obviously the SBAC will get refined and improved after the results of this pilot year are analyzed, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re in for some major changes.

Next week, after my kids take the math portion, I’ll share my reflections and that side of the curriculum.

Reducing My Students to a Number

Data snapshotBy Mark

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

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

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TPEP Reflections

Tpep-logoBy Tom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Administration: So what if I do?

File5376129719381By Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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Stuck in the Middle

By Mark

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

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

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

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

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Common Core Q&A

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

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

Why did the states create the Common Core State Standards 

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

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

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

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Washington Loses NCLB Waiver

Deathmobile1By Tom

There’s a good reason why they don’t make movies about quiet, level-headed subordination: people would rather watch a group of oppressed college students stand up to authority and go down fighting in a blaze of rowdy mayhem than watch those same kids curb their excesses, buckle down and apply themselves to their studies.

Likewise, when the federal government applies pressure to a state in order to force compliance to an education agenda with which that state disagrees, the natural impulse is to stand up for our integrity and accept whatever consequences might follow.

And that’s exactly what happened in Washington. Arne Duncan followed through on his threat to withdraw our waiver from NCLB because our legislature didn’t mandate the use of standardized test scores in our teacher evaluation system. We stood up to our oppressor and lost. And now we face the consequences.

Here’s what that looks like in my fourth grade classroom. I have a student named Lamar who began the year reading seven words a minute. He struggled with basic addition facts. He had no idea how to write a sentence and his behavior was keeping himself and his classmates from learning.

Lamar now reads 70 words per minute. He can solve long division problems and add fractions. Last week he wrote a story with a credible main character, a clear setting and a cohesive plot. His behavior isn’t perfect, but it no longer compromises his learning.

Although I would love to claim credit for this turnaround, I can’t. Lamar gets thirty minutes of extra help for reading fluency every morning; he meets with a small group for reading comprehension and writing skills; he has a ten-minute meeting every day with a para-educator to go over his behavior and study skills; he meets with a math specialist for 45 minutes every afternoon. In other words, Lamar gets as much support as our school can possibly throw his way.

The reason we’re able to do this is that our school qualifies for Title 1 funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. When our state was granted a waiver from NCLB, the previous restrictions for how that money was spent were removed. Consequently, our school was free to spend money on kids like Lamar as we saw fit.

And it’s working.

But now that waiver has been replaced and Title 1 money comes with a lot of strings. Instead of paying for learning support and para-educator time, we now have to spend part of that money for teacher training and private tutoring. With all due respect to teacher trainers and private tutors, I doubt Lamar will benefit from either one as much as he’s benefiting from his current program.

I like standing up to authority and sticking it to the man as much as the next guy. But I’d much rather see Lamar grow up to be the first person in his family to go to college. And when he gets there, I’d like him go a little crazy and make a few mistakes; and then learn from those mistakes, buckle down, finish school and become a quiet, level-headed family man.

But that just got a little harder.

Doing the right thing is hard.

File535a54b467ae1By Mark

Every year for the rest of my career, I am expected to be able to demonstrate, using assessment data, how my students' skills and knowledge have grown. This year I teach 9th grade. Next year it looks like I'll probably be teaching 12th grade. Based on my content standards, my work with my PLC, and my own professional judgment, I not only document that growth, that growth is truly what I care about fostering.

And yet I do that without state test data.

Washington state has lost its waiver from the flawed NCLB policy because the legislature did not change our evaluation law to require the use of state tests. As painful as now being subject to NCLB rules may be, the decision to keep state test data as "can be used" rather than "must be used" was the right choice.

Like many "right choices," it was a hard decision to arrive at for our leaders. Like many "right choices," there are plenty of people who don't fully understand. This choice will have consequences, like so many right choices will, but what makes it right is that the long term benefits–and the upholding of principle–are greater.

I know that the set-aside required by the loss of the waiver will cause many districts to struggle. I'm not aiming to minimize that. To me though, Washington state is doing the right thing, and sometimes doing the right thing is hard.

Receiving Feedback

B Dealing_with_negative_feedback3y Tom

I was listening to NPR this morning and there was an interview with the authors of Thanks for the Feedback, the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. I immediately thought of TPEP, since all of us are about to receive the most comprehensive dose of feedback on our teaching than we’ve had in a long, long time. For me it’s been decades since I’ve had a serious conversation with my principal about what I’m doing well and how I can improve as a teacher. The authors of the book, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, made the point that in the overall scheme of things, the act of receiving feedback is probably more important that the act of giving it. When it comes to TPEP, I completely agree. Much has been made of the role principals play in our new evaluation system. But there’s been little attention paid to our role, as consumers of the feedback.

Feedback, of course, comes in two forms: positive and negative. Most of us have no trouble receiving positive feedback; it’s the negative kind that causes problems. Negative feedback is another term for criticism, and even when it’s “constructive,” it’s still painful. Stone and Heen point out that there’s a paradox surrounding criticism: on the one hand, humans have the need for approval; we want others to think well of us. On the other hand, most of us have a desire to constantly improve at what we do. So while criticism can be used for improvement, which we like, it also makes it clear that someone doesn’t completely approve of what we’re doing, which we don’t like.

Since we’re about to get a hearty helping of constructive feedback, let me make the following suggestions:

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Leadership, Implementation, and Puppetry

Picture0017 copyBy Mark

Education Secretrary Arne Duncan recently shared his "Teach to Lead" initiative, which has sparked some interesting responses, including this one on Education Week which discusses a couple of perspectives on the issue. (Duncan has partnered with Ron Thorpe and NBPTS to focus on "raising the visibility" of teacher leadership.)

I believe, like many others do, that teachers and teacher leadership are essential to the success of our public education system. There is a difference, though, between leadership and implementation. Rick Hess in the Education Week post linked above takes the position that Duncan's call for leadership is "a call for teachers to help promote the Obama agenda–to shill for the Common Core, celebrate new teacher evaluation systems, and be excited that the feds are here to help." My gut makes me tend to agree with Hess's interpretation of Duncan's call–something tells me that the USDE would not be thrilled with teacher-leaders who design and advocate for alternatives to the Common Core. 

Should teachers be driving the implementation of Common Core, new teacher evaluations, and all the other changes? Absolutely. However, that's driving a vehicle that someone else designed, bought, and parked in our parking lot. 

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