Nation’s Teachers (Under) React to ESSA

By Tom510_1leopard

For thirteen long years the country endured a law that very few supported. A law that spawned malaise, demoralization and corruption. A law that everyone knew wasn’t working and had to be changed. And when it finally died, a nation rejoiced.

I’m referring, of course, of Prohibition. If I was referring to No Child Left Behind, the last word of that paragraph would have been “yawned.”

Why is it that last week’s re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) which is now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) barely caused a stir? Even in faculty rooms?! The law was passed on Wednesday, signed on Thursday, and not a word was spoken at my school until Friday, when our principal spent about two minutes explaining how our school was no long “failing.” And even then, no one in the room could correctly name the new law.

Why the indifference?

Is it because teachers are too busy to even know about this news? Could be. Teachers do work hard, and the work is such that we don’t really have a chance to tune in to the news during the day. And when we get home, our evenings are pretty much filled with taking care of our own families and planning for the next day.

Or is it because teachers are too cynical to really care? After thirteen years under NCLB, it’s hard to take federal education policy seriously. After all, we were basically given a legislative mandate to make every child hit grade level; an arbitrarily imagined level that roughly corresponds to “average.” Which essentially means that we had twelve years to make sure that every kid in the country is at or above average. It was hard to take that seriously.

I think it’s both of those and then some. Consider this: On Wednesday, while the law was being passed, I spent the morning getting fourth graders to apply close reading strategies to complex word problems; helping them translate text into situation equations, which could then be solved. With a labelled answer. I spent the afternoon getting those same fourth graders to summarize realistic fiction by mentioning the setting, main characters and major plot points. And in between I was finalizing the final roster for our first “Homework Club” where a handful of local high school honor students work with the lowest 5% of our student population in my classroom after school.

There is an ironic disconnect between federal education policy and what’s happening in schools. Ironic, because most of us are already doing – and have been doing – exactly what federal policy is trying to get us to do: teaching quality lessons and providing remediation for those students who need it.

ESSA is a big deal. And it’s a huge improvement over what it replaced. A huge improvement, in that it represents a transfer of control from the federal to the state level.


But because of the damage done to the relationship between the Department of Education and classroom teachers, it might be awhile before teachers bother to notice.

High-Cap SLPs Should NOT Align with Grade Level Standards

I teach a class full of fourth and fifth grade students who are all identified as Highly Capable. They are all above grade level in reading. A handful are on grade level in math. Half are accelerated one grade level in math. A third are accelerated two grade levels in math. One student is accelerated three grade levels in math!

At my fall conferences each year, I interview each child, asking about their strengths, their weaknesses, and their goals for this school year and for the future. I ask what the adults in their life can do to help them.

While the students talk, I type as fast as I can, taking notes on all their answers. I admit, I guide a few students toward choosing certain goals. Then I turn to parents, asking them what they would like to add. Often they say, “Nothing, really.” Their child has said everything they intended to say.

I use a template for those interviews that has the date and the name of the student and all the adults in attendance and all the questions ready before I start. As soon as each conference is over, I print two copies—one for the parents to take home and one for my files. Once the conference week is done, I send the whole file electronically to my Highly Capable coordinator.

Those interviews are my Student Learning Plans for the year.

I just read “Feds: IEPs Should Align With Grade-Level Standards” on with the US Department of Education statement that all IEPs should conform to “the state’s academic content standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled.” There is some leeway, though, for the students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. For those students, states are allowed to establish “alternative academic achievement standards.”

Why should I care about the federal guidelines for Special Education? After all, I don’t teach SPED! The truth is, though, in most states, gifted education is part of Special Education. (Both groups of students fall under the category of “exceptional children,” after all.)

So I look at the guidelines and make one change: There is some leeway for students with the most significant cognitive differences—students whose intellectual abilities are the farthest from the norm. For those students, states are allowed to establish “alternative academic achievement standards.”

Obviously, it doesn’t make sense for me to use grade level standards to write learning plans for students who are working above their grade level. I can write learning plans that target higher grade level standards. Or I can go sideways and write SLPs that address the issues my individual students most need to work on this year—organization, time-management, interpersonal skills, team work.

I am so happy I am allowed to do this.

Now if I could just get individualized report cards that lined up with the levels my students are working on. Or if I could have my students take their SBA tests on their academic level, not their grade level …

ESSA and Teacher Evaluation

1276-essaBy Tom White

There’s a kid in my class who I’ll call Lee because that’s not his name. Lee comes to me from a household that can generously be described as “disorganized.” He consistently arrives hungry, tired and edgy. His study habits are non-existent and he lacks every social skill you can imagine. Nevertheless, I like Lee and I enjoy the challenge of working with him. He’s the first student I think about in the morning and the last one I worry about at night.

But there’s one thing about Lee that I can’t stand: he puts absolutely no effort into any assessment. He knows that tests are completely independent activities; I won’t help him or interfere with his lack of motivation. So he writes random answers without thinking and finishes as his classmates are just getting started.

It’s frustrating.

As you might imagine, Lee’s SBA results from last year were as low as possible. And unless something unexpected happens, I’m predicting more of the same this year.

Last week Mark wrote a brilliant post summarizing the reauthorization of ESEA. No Child Left Behind is no more; in its place we have the “Every Child Succeeds Act,” or ESSA.

Thank God. Because one of the changes concerns the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluation. To be clear, NCLB didn’t require their use per se, but the Obama Administration granted waivers from the impossible mandates of NCLB to those states that cooperated with their education agenda. And a big part of that agenda was evaluating teachers based partly on their students standardized test scores. Washington State alone refused to do so and paid dearly. We didn’t get the waiver. Consequently, most of our schools are labeled “failing,” including mine.

Under ESSA, individual states regain the authority to figure out how to evaluate teachers. Here in Washington, we use TPEP, which does include a “Student Growth” component, but teachers and administrators are directed to figure out the most appropriate assessments from which to gauge that growth. And since those administrators work in the same buildings as the teachers they evaluate, they’re aware of the children behind those test scores, which is important, especially with children like Lee.

That’s as it should be. I like working with students like Lee. And I have no problem having someone watch how I work with him and evaluate my performance based on that observation. Better yet, watch me and tell me how I can do it better. But using his standardized test scores to evaluate my work is utterly unfair.

So I welcome ESSA. As Mark pointed out, it’s a vast improvement over NCLB, as well as the waiver system that exempted most states from the ridiculousness of NCLB. Especially in the area of teacher evaluation.



Recently I read a New Yorker article about Brian Greene’s multimedia project, which paid tribute to some of Albert Einstein’s discoveries. It was launched on the centennial celebration of his general theory of relativity. Brian Greene is one of the more famous string theorists due to the popularity of his books which have included Fabric of the Cosmos and The Elegant Universe among others. He is a brilliant physicist and mathematician. In the article the author relates a story about Greene being set to the task of figuring out how many inches it is from here to the Andromeda galaxy by his father… when he was five. Not typical five-year-old work. Which then segues into a “consolation” for mathphobics that even Greene struggles to comprehend the homework assigned to his children in third and fifth grade.

“It’s all about strategies—‘Come up with a strategy’— and my kids are, like, ‘I don’t have a strategy, I just know it.’” Really? He has time for infinity, but can’t seem to piece together strategies for how students can learn to work with numbers? Continue reading

Understanding the “Every Student Succeeds Act”

from wikipedia

Congress appears to be poised to pass an overhaul of NCLB, and in a convenient move have maintained the four-letter acronym standard. While time shall tell if “Ess-Uh” will have more staying power than “Nickle-Bee,” there are probably more pertinent issues to consider. Before doing so, however, it is worth noting as a good lesson in civics that buried at around page 914 (of 1061) of the Every Student Succeeds Act is a posthumous pardon of a early 20th-century heavyweight boxer convicted on racially motivated and thus baseless charges. But I digress (as does the bill, clearly).

The things to consider paying attention to…with citations to the page number of this document, the published text of ESSA, as relevant to the topic:

Not gone. In fact, not changed all that much. The federal government will still require testing at the same grade levels it currently does (page 54), but what will be different (to an extent) appears to be how these results will be used. Rather than nationwide, uniform and unrealistic goals (100% proficiency by a year ago), states will have the power to establish appropriate goals, have these goals reviewed though some as-yet-to-be-determined process, after which they would be submitted to the federal level (starts on page 80). If the assessment and accountability plans designed at the state level are rejected at the federal level, states are guaranteed a hearing.

Significantly, standardized test scores are no longer the main means of judging a school’s effectiveness. Rather, a combination of factors must be considered, with test scores being part rather than all (page 85).

Interestingly for those of us at the secondary level, the bill also appears to open the door to use of tests such as the ACT and SAT as the high school standardized test (source).

Continue reading

Feeling Frustrated?

More than half the number of people in Washington who actually vote consistently vote in favor of initiatives designed to support education and teachers.

More than half the number of people in Washington who actually vote consistently vote in favor of initiatives for reducing or eliminating or restricting taxes.

Some of those voters have to be voting for both initiatives.

I am sure there are legislators who want to follow the will of the people but can’t figure out how to do it. How can you decrease class size and add support staff and pay teachers more—all with less tax revenue?

And I understand that the proponents of each set of initiatives are avid supporters of their causes. If legislators find a new and creative way to get a little money for the state, the anti-tax group complains vehemently that they are disregarding the will of the voters. If they don’t find a new and creative way to get the money to pay for all the education initiatives—from class size to COLAs—then the educational community insists they are disregarding the will of the voters.

And of course they are. But which “will” wins?

I have to admit, I understand how some legislators might get frustrated.

When I first moved to Washington in 1989, schools still got a lot of funding from Department of Natural Resources revenue. Then came the state lottery, which was supposed to bring in lots of extra money for education. Except that as soon as that extra money started coming in, the legislators appropriated that amount less out of the general budget for education.

I remember when the economy heated up. Every year the teachers asked for more money. Every year the legislators said they would get to education later.

Then the economy tanked. Everyone had to take cuts—including education, which hadn’t really gotten the benefits of the boom!

And now, with the economy improving, even with the McCleary decision, even with the $100,000 fines on the legislature, we still don’t see the legislature fully funding education.

I have to confess, I know why teachers are frustrated!

The truth is, education has the state constitution on its side. The constitution says, “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” I absolutely love how clear the Supreme Court decision was in the McCleary case:

  • Paramount” means the State must amply provide for the education of all Washington children as the State’s “first and highest prioritybefore any other State program or operation” not as one of many priorities that the legislature will get around to funding when they decide they can afford to (McCleary v. State, 173 Wn. 2d at 520).
  • Duty” means the State must amply provide for the education of all Washington children—it’s not an optional task the legislature can ignore (McCleary v. State, 173 Wn. 2d at 520).
  • Ample” means “considerably more than just adequate.” The legislature thought they were doing just fine with enough to get by. The Court said no, that enough to get by was not enough (McCleary v. State, 173 Wn. 2d at 484).
  • The Court said, “For our purposes, the terms ‘education’ under article IX, section 1 and ‘basic education’ are synonymous” (McCleary v. State, 173 Wn. 2d at 524n). By the way, the Court also added a warning that the legislature could not reduce the services currently offered under basic education without a sound educational rationale. Not having the money to provide the services wasn’t an adequate reason to drop services. Basically, the only valid reason to make changes to basic education was to improve it.
  • All” means “each and every child” in Washington. “No child is excluded” (McCleary v. State, 173 Wn. 2d at 484). Of course, this last bit makes my heart sing because Highly Capable is now protected under basic education. That makes providing ample educational services to Highly Capable students part of the paramount duty of the state, protected by the constitution.

I went to the Listening Tour to report to the legislators on the education committee about how districts are using levy funds to augment the state funds to pay for basic education. According to OSPI estimates, districts in Washington are paying 85% of the cost of Highly Capable education out of levy dollars right now! Many other people told stories of how local levy dollars are being used to pay for basic education needs. In case you haven’t heard the ruling, the Court says NO levy dollars should be used for basic education.

Clearly, the State Supreme Court is frustrated too.

Where did 1351 go?

I was incredibly excited to start the 2015 2016 school year.   After spending twelve years in a portable classroom, our high school moved into a brand new building, full of sunlight, windows, and classrooms.  We even have empty rooms.  But, my room is far from empty.  As soon as the construction company gave us “occupancy” I was in my room trying to figure out how to arrange my 30 desks.  I settled on a U shape because I like to be able to easily access all of my students when they need assistance and the arrangement is conducive for whole class discussion.  Prior to the beginning of the year, I watched my rosters and when the first day arrived, I had 36 students in one class period.  Soon the emails were flying among our staff, 38 students here, 40 students there.  

Here’s the good news-parents want their kids to come to our school.  I love that!  Enrollment is up and admittedly, creating a balanced schedule is challenging for small schools that try to offer competitive courses.  Our union has bargained language (I helped bargain that language) that creates limits to the number of preps a core teacher teaches so this also places a hardship on the schedule and can tie the hands of the registrar and administrators.  I know that all stakeholders in my school see this as a problem.  I don’t place the blame with them.  I had faith that we could all put our heads together and come to a solution.  Afterall, we are smart people-we can figure this out.  I also believed that no one was going to argue that having 38 students in a math class was a good idea.  Now nine weeks into the semester, my excitement is far more contained, the dust has settled and adjustments have been made.  In order to bring class sizes down, a few staff members agreed to give up their prep period so that a few extra class periods can be placed in the schedule, creating more scheduling flexibility.  I don’t have 36 students anymore–I’m now down to 32.  The classroom still feels packed and it is a challenge to manage all class discussions let alone mobilizing to assist students on assignments.

I suppose I could blame all sorts of factors.  But I can’t help but feel that my school and students could have seen some relief with 1351.  Voter approved Initiative 1351 would have reduced K-12 class sizes.  While the initiative may have not directed the legislature to increase taxes or reallocate funds directly, approval of the initiative should have been viewed by the legislature as a mandate from the people.  When the 2014-2015 legislature delayed the implementation (see the Associated Press article from July 9, 2015) of the initiative by four years, they sent a message to voters and to my students.  My current students will see no immediate relief from the legislature.  How frustrating it is to to tell my students that the popularly elected legislature cannot figure out a way to enact a voter approved initiative that would directly impact their learning.   How is it that a legislator can see class size as a ‘luxury’ and not a necessity?

As our state legislature and court system evaluate what a basic education is in Washington, I can’t help but think that basic education must encompass quality instructional time between a teacher and each student.  While it’s challenging to quantify what quality instructional time looks like, it’s not a reach to assume that students in smaller classes have more access to a teacher during class time than students in larger classes.  It’s difficult to run around and work one on one with students on the writing process when you have 32 in a class.  Is that what a basic education looks like? 

What is the purpose of democracy if an act passed by the electorate in a democratic manner is set aside by the legislature?  I teach government and politics to high school seniors and our legislature has failed to recognize what democracy looks like.  How do I explain to my 17 and 18 year old students that voting matters when the outcome of an election can be suspended by the legislature?  Do I chalk that up to the Madisonian Model of checks and balances?  I have to admit-that’s not an example I intend to use with my students.  With the legislature under pressure again, I hope that 1351 isn’t dead.  I hope that democracy will eventually rule.  I have to believe that because it’s the foundation of the course that I teach.  What message would I be sending to my kids about the power of democracy?  I refuse for it to be the same message being sent to them by our legislature.  


High School Redesign?


Last week, the Obama Administration announced the offer of $375 million to support what it calls “Next Generation” high schools in an effort to improve graduation rates and career and college readiness (with a distinct emphasis on STEM as the be-all, end-all solution).

I am not anti-STEM, but I do not believe that preparing students for STEM careers ought to be the sole valued purpose for school redesign. As I read the press releases and fact sheets, I also see repeated references to innovation. Paired in the right sentence, “high school redesign” and “innovation” are truly exciting. However, if the word “innovation” is intended to mean “more STEM,” then I don’t think we’re heading down the right path. Adding more science and math is not a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t amount to innovative redesign. If we are going to truly redesign what high school looks like, we need to do more than revise the course catalog or offer more internships in the community (also a major theme in the redesign literature released last week, also not a bad thing, but also not really a realistic “innovation” for all communities and all students).

Ultimately, adopting new standards, offering new classes or internships, layering on teacher accountability measures, or mandating exit assessments will not broadly result in school reform until we address the one resource that no school reform movement has meaningfully addressed: time.

By this I do not mean adding more time to the day or even the school year. I mean that we need to utterly rehaul how we structure the time both teachers and students spend at school. And by how we structure time I also mean whether we structure time.

Continue reading

When Tragedy Strikes Over & Over & Over Again

BOTY Photos by Bill Healy 016


Teaching in an urban, high poverty school isn’t like teaching elsewhere. The lack of resources, sporadic community support, systemic inequalities, and high mobility cultivates an environment filled with trauma. In this environment, it necessary to be in a constant state of alert. My kids are on guard. I’m on guard.

Tragedy is around every corner.

Literally. Every few months–it seems–there is an altercation that results in the death of a young man or a young woman. Usually a young man. A young man of color. It was Elijah yesterday.

Having taught in a suburban high school, I know this is not the same experience. Yes, there were deaths and sadness but there wasn’t an air of expectation. An air of resignation to the facts of life–that hardship, struggle, and sorrow are moments away. It’s an air of “we hope this never happens again” combined with a whiff of “we aren’t surprised anymore.”

Our students are constantly faced with loss and death, but are expected to be resilient and move on. They mourn in whatever way they can—through stories of precious moments, through over-sized T-shirts tagged “in loving memory” and through altars of remembrance. The district sends in extra grief counselors and we all pray the day hurries to a close so we can stop pretending to care about Shakespeare, transitive properties, and Government. Tomorrow will be better we tell ourselves. And it will.

But what about the days after the initial event? Who is there to help our students process this grief? How about the next tragic event? And the one after that?  Five counselors, two psychologists, and a few administrators can not carry the psychological and emotional weight of 1400 students and 90 + staff members.

Education administration professor, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, argues that urban youth are undergoing “toxic stress”. He further postulates that,

When we look at national data sets for trauma, the numbers suggest that one in three urban youth display mild to severe symptoms of PTSD. They’re twice as likely as a soldier coming out of live combat to have PTSD. In the veterans’ administration, this is topic number one. But in conversations about urban youth, it almost never registers. All data shows symptoms of PTSD are interruptive to someone trying to perform well in school and more likely to create risk behavior, [yet] the investment is being made on incarceration.

In a classroom of 30, that is one third of my students. Where are the discussions on mental health, toxic stress, or urban PTSD on the local and national level? Are we waiting to see how the Compton Unified class action lawsuit against the district for failure to respond appropriately to student trauma pans out?

I have my suspicions why few want to address these issues.  

Regardless, if our students are coming to school with more PTSD than a soldier, how are the staff in any building prepared to mitigate this? In 2012, the AFT published findings that 93% of teachers never received any bereavement training. The report elaborates that teachers are asking for it. Clearly, teachers want to be better prepared to serve all student needs not just ones related to Common Core. I think it’s just as important for Larry to know how to respond to his triggers as it is for him to read grade level texts.

Alas, when I browse through the catalogues of professional learning opportunities of surrounding districts, I notice I can sign up to learn how to set up a flipped classroom. I can get tips on how to use love and logic for my discipline plan. I can learn the ins and outs of the TPEP evaluation system. What I can’t find is anything on how to manage the grief my students bring with them to the classroom. I don’t see courses on mediating toxic stress for students or colleagues. I can’t seem to find a training on conflict resolution or tips for designing lessons that maintain academic rigour and give alternative activities to lower the affective filter. I can’t find a class to help me understand and respond to the differences between trauma and grief.

It is critical that schools with high percentages of students living with toxic stress receive more short and long term support addressing these conditions. Staff need more than momentary pep talks or a handout on the stages of grief. We need to acknowledge that it’s not enough to cry in the bathroom and then pretend things are fine and go back to teaching Things Fall Apart. We need to stop ignoring that our urban youth and their teachers have unique needs that aren’t being addressed system wide. We need professional learning opportunities that equip our teachers to handle grief—their own and a classroom full of it! If we develop sustainable programs truly addressing the whole child, then both our teachers and our students will be empowered to handle whatever is around the next corner.

Would we teach kids the way we teach teachers?


I have now completed two full months “out of the classroom.” I do miss it terribly, and to be honest, one of the things I miss is the ability to go to my classroom, close the door, and ignore the “big picture” that I’m now so tuned in to in my teacher-leadership role in my district. Sometimes I just want to go talk to some 14 year-olds about symbolism and metaphor. That’s a much more comfortable place than talking budgets and systems and human resources and how to create meaningful learning experiences for teachers.

The team of teacher-leaders in my district who are spearheading our professional learning system are working hard to make changes to how we design the learning experiences our teachers engage with. When I think about the many, many hours of “PD” I’ve sat through, the experiences that impacted me positively shared a common theme: they treated me as a learner, not as some container into which to stuff information I was obligated to accept. Too many experiences, though, left me feeling like that over-stuffed container, which was then promptly shuffled out the door to get to work.

I don’t think professional-learning design has had inadequate motives in the past. I just think that there was not the kind of expectation, systemically, that the design of teacher-learning deserved the same attention we’d expect to be given to the design of student-learning.

Here are the things that I think too much teacher professional development gets wrong… despite the best of intentions. Continue reading