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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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

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.