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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Teaching Assignments: A New Guidance Policy with Teeth?

By Maren Johnson

Off target“It’s not a ‘report card.’ It’s a guidance policy with some teeth.”
     ~One individual describing a potential new teacher assignment reporting policy soon to be considered by the Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB).

So what’s going on? Potential new policy would create a public data base on the Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB) website reporting the number of students in each school without properly endorsed teachers.  At the same time, endorsements in areas such as general science might be limited to specific courses—more limited than they were previously. It is important to note that teachers would not be prohibited from teaching outside of their endorsement area, but the numbers would be publicly reported.

Targets would be set, and schools failing to meet these targets would be reported to the state legislature. Finally, no grandfather clause—these new endorsement reporting guidelines for teaching assignments would apply to all current teachers, no matter when they originally received their endorsements, and what specific courses those endorsements were valid for at the time.

Here’s the potential WAC language—it’s from the March 2014 PESB meeting documents: 

Beginning September 1, 2014, the Professional Educator Standards Board shall annually make publicly available a report on the number of students in courses assigned to a teacher of record with or without a matching endorsement appropriate to that course.

No later than September 1, 2017, the Professional Educator Standards Board shall adopt performance targets related to teacher assignments match to state course codes and report annually to the House and Senate education committees of the Washington State Legislature those districts failing to meet these targets.

Without a doubt, it is important to have teachers who are well prepared to teach the courses to which they are assigned. One concern? The report of districts failing to meet these targets might not reflect a problem with the teacher workforce, or a problem with schools making poor staffing decisions. Rather, this report might reflect variables over which the school has no control–for example, the size of the school itself.

Small schools, with their small staffs, find it difficult to hire teachers with exactly the right endorsements for each course—many small schools only have one science teacher! If there are concurrent policy changes such as teachers with general science endorsements not being considered appropriately endorsed for certain advanced science courses, we are going to end up with a very large number of schools reported as “failing to meet the target.” 

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I (Sort Of) Support Initiative 1351

ClassroomInSanAntonio_jpg_800x1000_q100By Tom

By now you’ve probably heard that there’s a campaign afoot to gather signatures for Initiative 1351, which, if passed, would significantly lower class sizes in Washington State. The campaign to get the initiative on the ballot is sponsored by Class Size Counts, an organization whose name pretty much sums up their mission. But the campaign picked up most of its steam last month at the WEA Representative Assembly when the delegates voted to support it.

This initiative would mandate class sizes of 17 for primary grades and 24 for fourth grade on up. High-poverty schools would have class sizes of 15 and 23.

All of this sounds great, of course, except for the issue of money. 1351 would put half of the financial burden on the state and the other half on local districts. And that financial burden is definitely not nothing.

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A Pivotal Moment in My Career

Washington-quarterBy Mark

Soon after I earned my NBPTS certification in 2006, I started getting all these emails. Unfamiliar names soon became familiar (Jeanne Harmon, Terese Emry, Jim Meadows) and the common theme emerging was that earning my NBPTS certification was kind of a big deal. 

Just recently, I had shared a few conversations with colleagues about how I, a transplant from Oregon, had not even ventured into central or eastern Washington (other than years ago to visit family friends near the Tri-Cities). In my email popped an invite from CSTP to attend the spring NBCT Leadership Conference in one of those aforementioned unexplored regions of the state. Serendipity, and it forever altered my trajectory as a professional.

After a couple of years' hiatus, the spring NBCT Leadership Conference is returning, this time at Sun Mountain Lodge in Winthrop–another section of the map I've yet to explore, so I'm going.

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Washington Education: A bargain, for now…

By Mark

A recent guest piece by Bill Keim in The Seattle Times's Education Lab Blog points out some sobering numbers about education funding in Washington, particularly considering the Supreme Court ruling that the state of Washington is not adequately funding public education.

Keimgraphic-517x620Particularly interesting is the infographic from the Washington Association of School Administrators that compares Washington's per-pupil funding over time as compared to the national average, to Massachusetts (similar in demographic, economy, and education standards), and to Alabama (historically under-funded and under-performing by various measures).

Simply put, our state has been in neutral while Massachusetts, Alabama, and the nation as a whole has been in high gear. 

And here's the problem with that: As of right now, Washington's schools seem to be performing well

This is of course a problem for two reasons. First, it weakens the argument that Washington schools need to be better funded. Second, it runs the risk of leading people to believe that good performance can be sustained without resources.

The last three years in my classroom I have been living the good life. Due to local support, my program received funding that provided me access to desktop computers every day, every period for each my 9th grade English students. Every day, if I want, I can have my students use technology to consume and produce meaningful texts and engage with content in exciting ways. Instead of having to rely upon the (decades old) literature anthology on the shelf, the whole world can be our textbook thanks to the technology–which of course, came with a cost.

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Teaching and Learning – Reflections from a new NBCT

Olmsted
NBCT Spencer Olmsted is a new NBCT in Early Adolescent Mathematics and has been teaching 5th grade in Olympia, WA since 2006. He recently attended NBPTS Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, DC.

I’m a fifth grade math and science teacher. I spend most of my work day in the company of 10 and 11 year-olds, helping them develop critical thinking skills so they can learn how to read the world. We work on getting better at collaborating, accessing and analyzing information, and communicating our findings and questions to others. It’s good work, but all too often I work in isolation of other adults.

When I became a new NBCT this past year the thing that surprised me most was my sudden connection to new network of teachers and education advocates. I began to receive regular communication from people looking to engage and empower teacher-leaders. One of the emails that caught my attention was an invitation to attend the Teaching & Learning Conference in Washington D.C. I was instantly excited by the expanding line-up of impressive speakers, but as I live in the other Washington, on the other side of the country, and would need to pay for airfare, hotel, and arrange for a substitute to teach my classes (I had never considered the possibility of doing this during a school day!) I struggled with the decision. Around this time the Seahawks were imagining a Super Bowl win, and Russell Wilson was famously asking “Why not us?” I asked myself the same question, why not me, and decided to go.

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New Study: Teachers Who Pass ProTeach are better than Those Who Don’t

Cedar leavesBy Tom

A new study commissioned by Washington’s Professional Educator Standards Board shows that ProTeach – our teacher licensing assessment – seems to contribute to an increase in student learning. The study was conducted by UW Bothell’s Center for Education Data and Research (CEDR). It was a complicated study, but essentially they compared teachers who passed ProTeach with those who didn’t by looking at their students’ test scores using Value Added Models (VAM).

The main conclusion reached by CEDR is that teachers who passed ProTeach correlate to higher student test scores, especially in reading. Not so much in math. It's worth noting that this is essentially the same conclusion they drew conducting a similar study on teachers who earned National Board Certification. The study also found the effect was greatest for those teachers who scored high on Entry 2; the one that concerns classroom management and family communication. I found that interesting; it seems more likely that Entry 3 – which is all about teaching and assessment – would be the one more closes associated with higher test scores. I guess that goes to show how important classroom management is. Overall, the results seem to indicate that ProTeach is an effective measurement of teacher quality, which must make the PESB feel relieved.

Of course, we can also look at these results from another direction. Maybe they indicate that VAM is a valid measurement, at least for reading instruction. Personally I found the entire report a little presumptuous; strongly implying that VAM is the gold standard and that teacher performance assessments like ProTeach are valid to the extent they correlate with student performance assessments like VAM. I may be biased (I’ve never been a big fan of VAM), but I place a lot more credence on an evaluation that focuses on what teachers are actually doing when they teach than an evaluation that looks at student performance, which is effected by a myriad of factors that include teacher quality. So perhaps the fact that VAM results and ProTeach results are correlated might show that VAM is legitimate. At least in reading instruction.

In a larger context, it seems to me that if there’s a place for VAM, then this is surely it; used on aggregated data like in this study. Where VAM is not appropriate is when it’s used on individual classrooms and individual teachers. That’s a complete travesty. It’s also a shame, because advanced statistical analyses – like VAM – can be invaluable when it comes to showing which instructional practices are effective and which aren’t. And I’m here to tell you: teachers across the country who are evaluated using VAM hate it with a passion you don’t often see in education. If we manage to steer clear from that mistake in Washington, I can see the day when TPEP reaches maturity and we have a large database of teacher evaluations and researchers like the folks over at CEDR can use metrics like VAM to help us understand which teacher practices are most effective.

But for now, we’ll have to settle for what we have: a somewhat obvious conclusion that tells us that good teachers produce good students. 

Reflections on Teacher Leadership

123280454227616203596_washmonBy Tom

I spent last week in Washington DC. For three days I worked with an amazing group of teachers redesigning Jump Start, the WEA’s National Board Certification candidate training program. We were holed up in a conference room at NEA headquarters working with their staff along with staff from the National Board. And we ended up with a product that will definitely help National Board candidates understand the new assessment process and make their way through certification.

I also spent two days at the National Board conference. Between breakout sessions and keynote addresses, I heard a lot about teacher leadership. Two speakers in particular seemed to epitomize the opposite poles of what that concept actually means. Arne Duncan spoke about teacher leadership and the subtext seemed to be that teacher leaders are those who help administrators execute their decisions. They’re the ones who lead the workshops on the Common Core and the new evaluation systems. Tony Wagner also spoke about teacher leadership. But his definition seemed to give teachers authority over actual education policy. Teachers should be involved in continual reexamination of what we teach, how we teach it and how we should be assessed.

Personally I think they’re both right. Teacher leaders should have a voice in policy decision and have a hand in executing those decisions. Unfortunately, however, I think our voices have been stifled and our hands held back. Why?

Three reasons:

One of the ironies of teacher leadership is the fact that teaching itself gets in the way. First of all, most of us are too exhausted at the end of the day to do much more than eat dinner and plan the next day’s lessons. Being a leader takes energy. Energy and time. Teaching uses up both of those things. Besides that, teaching is generally more fun than leadership. Given the choice, I would much rather spend a day working with my fourth graders than working with colleagues. It’s not that I don’t like working with adults; I just like working with kids better. They’re more fun. When I get opportunities to take on leadership roles, I frequently turn them down if they conflict with my teaching schedule simply because I would rather be teaching.

Another barrier to teacher leadership is that many teachers have a lack of confidence in their ability to lead. Of course, sometimes a lack of confidence is justified. I have no confidence, for example, in my ability to pole vault because I’ve never done it before and it looks complicated. Teaching and leading require two fairly distinct skill sets. That’s not to say that a person couldn’t do both; but being a good teacher doesn’t necessarily make you a good leader. But a person who has learned to be a good teacher can certainly learn to be a good leader.

And finally, there’s failure. Sooner or later, a teacher leader will encounter it. It’s certainly happened to me. I’ve fought hard to get my district to adopt a particular policy only to have them turn it down. The natural impulse is always to throw in the towel, go back to my classroom where I know I can find success and forget about trying to change anything. Forget about trying to lead.

That attitude, of course, is exactly what we need to reject. We also need to get over our lack of confidence in our capacity to lead, either by learning the necessary skills or by finding a leadership niche that fits with the skills we already have. The hardest barrier, at least for me, is finding the time and energy to lead. But it can be done. It has to be done. Because if thirty years in the classroom has taught me anything, it’s that teachers need to be both in and out of the classroom in order for anyone to be successful in the classroom.

Want innovation in the classroom? Get teachers involved in Policy

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by Maren Johnson

I spent the weekend in Washington DC at the Teaching and Learning 2014 Conference. It was dazzling. Famous and thought provoking speakers, incorporation of art and music, huge diversity in education viewpoints and experience.

With all the hubbub over the big names at the conference, what I'm heading home thinking about is a session led by a middle school science teacher from Washington state. From the small town of Cheney, no less.

Teacher Tammie Schrader's session was titled, "Coding in the Classroom." I went into the session expecting to learn a bit about coding itself, and perhaps a bit about how to use coding to teach concepts in life science. I came out of the session thinking about innovation and education policy.

Tammie started out the session by introducing herself and her classroom programs. She has been facilitating student coding in her science classes for several years now. That, itself, is innovative, but not extraordinarily unusual.

Then Tammie started talking about education policy. My ears perked up. What was going to be the tie-in here? I've been to sessions on innnovative instructional methods. I've been to sessions on education policy. I have rarely been to a session incorporating both.

Tammie's point? She wanted to do cutting edge things in her classroom. In order to be free to do these things, she needed to be released from some of the usual considerations of what might be expected in a classroom. There were a few non-negotiables, however. She would still need to assess; she would still need to show student growth. She wanted to assess and show student growth in a way that would fit her classroom. The solution? Get involved in policy. Tammie has done this, in a big way, at state and national levels.

I thought to myself, "This woman's message needs to get out there." So there I was, like the paparazzi, taking photos and tweeting. Not that Tammie isn't already well known in many education circles, but I wanted to do my part!

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The policy involvment has allowed Tammie's innovative classroom work to become systemic. Tammie has worked on state assessment committees and on designing frameworks for Career and Technical Education. She helped write the state science test. Because she knows what students are expected to do, she's not ignoring the state science standards or the Next Generation Science Standards. She's not letting all of that go. She's just helping to shape policy and then use it in a way that helps herself and other teachers be innovative in their classrooms.

Tammie has spent time talking to policy makers at all levels. Having a teacher involved in these areas allows education policy to encourage innovation as opposed to stifling it. Want innovation in the classroom? Get teachers involved in policy.

What do Teacher Leaders Need?

Tl cstpBy Mark

From the BadassTeacher Association to WEA to CSTP and everywhere between, regardless of positions on the "big issues," many organizations recognize that teachers are the change-makers in our system and thus should have their voices amplified and listened to.

The tougher question is how teachers do this. Many approaches are in the toolbox, from painting signs and marching to harnessing social media. 

A while back, CSTP convened teachers to develop a Teacher Leadership Skills Framework that outlined the need for teacher leaders to have knowledge and skills, opportunities and roles, and mindful dispositions that triangulate to foster authentic leadership.

I'm brainstorming a project–hopefully in conjunction with CSTP and modeled to an extent from the original Auburn Teacher Leadership Academy–for my own district.

Therefore, I'm shopping for ideas: What do teacher leaders need? (Not just in terms of tangibles or trainings, but I'll take suggestions for those as well.) What books or articles are good resources to get us off to a good start? What has helped you along your path in teacher leadership?