Teaching Canned Curriculum

WANTED: Highly-qualified teacher to implement district purchased curriculum. Must attend trainings. Must follow pacing guide. Must give students consumables. Must move quickly. Must ignore reteaching. Must trust the model. Must regularly update online assessment collection tool.  Must share results with building data team. Must not question the process.

I had completely forgotten the existence of this wanted ad when I clicked on the email attachment with excitement, nervous about the courses I would teach in the fall. I’d requested Sophomores and AP Language. Four sections of Sophomores glowed on the screen. That meant I’d have roughly 120 fifteen year olds to guide through the themes of Sophomore year. I love 10th graders because they sort of know how to play high school. They think they are better than the freshmen. They consistently under or over-estimate how much time it actually takes to accomplish an academic task.

They think they know everything.

This is the year that many high school students transition from thinking about themselves to thinking about others. Throughout the nation, tenth graders are learning to “think globally”. Sophomore year a student could read texts like Siddhartha, Things Fall Apart, and Macbeth. They learn about the cellular makeup of the world in Biology, discover that Geometry is simply argumentative writing with numbers, and explore how civilizations rose and fell through World History.

Following the lead of others, my own district adopted Springboard, a College Board developed, Common Core aligned, “culturally responsive” curriculum that prepares students for rigorous, Advanced Placement courses. I was certainly excited about  these qualities when I attended the district workshop last year. Nonetheless, after five months of implementation what I’ve found is that this curriculum—much like most outsourced programming—is problematic. Instead of concentrating this post on an analysis of the issues, I want to emphasize what teaching Springboard curriculum has illuminated for me.

My classroom isn’t more rigorous, engaged, or common core aligned because of Springboard—those qualities already existed. What Springboard has done is remind me that teachers still need the flexibility and autonomy to modify any curriculum to meet the needs of the diverse students in their classrooms.

Furthermore, the following is more true now than ever:

  • Students need their classroom teachers to pre-assess their knowledge.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to develop engaging hooks.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to differentiate learning tasks.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to scaffold complex readings.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to create a safe place for all learners.
  • Students need their classroom  teachers to not be “good soldiers” rotely teaching curriculum developed by someone many states away from their school.

Above all,

  • Students need their classroom teachers to advocate for them when policies don’t.

TPEP Is Killing My Principal

I have a really great principal.

I’m not just saying that because I have a sense of loyalty to the school and the staff or because I like him and his Star Trek suit. (Which I do.)

I’ve lived in multiple states and taught at multiple schools. I’ve encountered many principals from mediocre to strange to bad to great. He really is one of the good guys.

Our elementary school is on tribal land. About half of our students are on free or reduced lunch. Our principal maintains a strong, positive relationship with the tribe and the community. He builds coalitions with a terrific PTSA, with volunteers and coordinators, with classified and certified staff. If we are all rowing our canoe in the same direction, he is the one calling out the rhythm.

In the past my principal has come by my classroom nearly every day, often twice a day. He comes in, sits down and soaks in a portion of a lesson, interacting with the students, asking questions, interjecting his own comments. When it comes time to write an evaluation of my teaching, he has a wealth of direct observation to draw on—he knows what my classroom looks like and how I interact with my students.

Well, in the past he had that.

This year nearly half the teachers in the school are on comprehensive evaluations—or, as I’ve dubbed them, the “Bataan Death March Version of TPEP.”

My principal has all the same job expectations he’s had in previous years, but this year the time he is spending on evaluations has quadrupled. (At least quadrupled.)

I have watched the energy drain out of him this year.

He still comes to my room, occasionally, once in a while, for a quick pop in and pop out. I know he wants to stay longer, but he doesn’t have the time. He’s off and running to the next room.

I know how driven he is to do a stellar job, but something has to give. If he must do evaluations and they take so much more of his time than they did in the past, how does that affect the rest of his job? What gets short shrift or what gets eliminated because there just aren’t enough hours in the day?

Principal burn-out is a national issue. Take a look at the article Churn: The High Cost of Principal Turnover. Two of the primary causes driving principals to leave their jobs are

  • excessive workload and managerial tasks that prevent more meaningful instructional leadership efforts and
  • personal costs—long hours and the physical and psychological toll.

I know my principal would enjoy more meaningful instructional leadership efforts than ensuring all the TPEP evidence is collected and all the TPEP paperwork is complete for all the teachers on the comprehensive evaluation form this year. Obviously, that’s another thing he would love to do. If he had time.

How could we make evaluations take less time? We have a handful of National Board Certified Teachers on staff at our school. Wouldn’t it make sense to exempt all the NBCTs at our school—all the NBCTs in the state—from the comprehensive level of evaluations for the term of their National Board Certification? After all, NBCTs have to undergo a rigorous certification process. It’s an objective review at a national level, far more extensive and impersonal than any local administrator could hope to manage. TPEP is, in many ways, redundant for the NBCTs.

If NBCTs were exempt from the comprehensive evaluations, my principal could do the focused form with all the NBCTs in the school for the ten years of their certification period. It would take those comprehensive evaluations off his schedule for a decade.

Principals in general might get more supportive of teachers who wanted to pursue National Board Certification since their certification would mean shorter evaluation forms in the future and reduced work load for the principal!

Having NBCTs on the focused form for the length of their certification would be an added incentive for teachers too, giving teachers another reason to do the difficult work of pursuing National Board Certification.

Meanwhile, there is no solution in sight.

The legislature created the more rigorous teacher evaluation system to make sure all the teachers in the state met high standards. Wouldn’t it be ironic if, in their effort to create more perfect teachers, they destroyed their principals?

New Year’s Resolutions for Teachers

By Christine Zenino from Chicago, US [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Last December, David B. Cohen, an accomplished teacher-leader and blogger posted his five resolutions for teachers (and he re-tweeted that post recently, which got me started here this morning). This past year, I’ve had the chance to hear from some great thinkers and leaders, so that has me thinking about what we teachers ought to consider for our 2015 Resolutions. These are very “teacher-centric” as opposed to directly considering our students… but if we are our best as professionals and as a system, who benefits is clear.

Things for educators to consider in 2015:

1. Let’s change the way we talk about teaching. At the Spring NBCT Teacher Leadership Conference in Sun Mountain, Washington, our kickoff speaker, 2013 National Teacher of the Year and Zillah High School science teacher Jeff Charbonneau, got me thinking about this one. Too often, he pointed out, we teachers minimize the work that we do when we talk to other professionals. Too often, the conversation focuses on the “getting to play with kids all day” and “those three months [weeks] off for summer break,” or devolves into a gripe session about testing (see the next resolutions).

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The Inslee Budget Part 1: Class Size

imagesBy Tom

Despite being three months pregnant, my wife agreed to hike with me to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. The last three miles were brutal, what with the pregnancy and all, and the only way I could keep her going was the promise of ice cream from the little stand near the trail head. When we finally finished the hike, she headed to our cabin; telling me not to bother following her without a scoop of strawberry.

So I waited in line. When it was finally my turn, the ice cream guy rolled down the security screen and told me they were closed. “It’s five o’clock,” he explained. Nothing I could say would change his mind, so I headed back for what became a tense evening.

That was almost 20 years ago, but the ice cream guy is starting to look a lot like our governor. I’m talking about the part in his budget where he proposes class size reductions (down to 17 students!) for kindergarten through third grade.

I teach fourth grade.

Apparently he thinks it’s fine to cram 29 students in a fourth grade classroom, as long as there’s only about half that number in the younger grades. And he’s not the only one. Most class size reduction programs around the country focus on K-3.

Why? Research, of course. Specifically, a twenty-five year old study out of Tennessee that found positive gains in student achievement when class size went down. What most people forget to notice, though, is that the study only looked at K-3 students. They didn’t involve anyone older. At least not in that study. Another study (which you don’t often hear about) was conducted in 2000 by the National Center for Education Statistics and looked at K-12 data from 20 different states. These guys found that lower class size had a positive effect of students across grade levels. To wit:

“The clearest result with respect to correlates of achievement is that average achievement scores are higher in schools with smaller class sizes. This result, obtained from structural equation modeling using both state assessment data and NAEP adjustments for between-state variance in achievement, is consistent across grade levels.”

Then there’s me. I’ve taught second, third and fourth grade for over thirty years, and I’m here to tell you that nothing structural happens to a kid on her ninth birthday which helps her better navigate a crowded classroom. What I can tell you is that when my class size creeps upwards of thirty, several things happen.

First of all, classroom management becomes an overwhelming priority. I have to come down hard on the smallest of infractions to keep things under control. I can do it – trust me – but sometimes it’s not pretty.

Secondly, with more kids I relate mostly to the class as a whole, not to the students as individuals. When I plan lessons, I think of the whole class or small subgroups and differentiate (or not) accordingly. With a class size closer to twenty, it’s much easier – and more natural – to think of individual students.

And finally, I simply don’t have the time to spend giving personal feedback to each student. My students just completed a major writing project before winter break. There was literally no way I could sit down with 29 students and spend even three minutes explaining to each child how I scored their writing. The best I could do was fill out a thorough rubric, attach it to the writing, and pass it back.

I’m glad to see that Kindergarteners through third graders might get lower class sizes. But I’m not convinced that it should stop there.

We should all get ice cream.



The Christmas Tree Light Analogy

The following holiday offering is a guest-post from Brian Sites, an NBCT since 2009 who teaches and mentors at-risk students in a blended-learning program in Richland. He also currently serves as a Regional NBCT Ambassador Coordinator for the WEA.


It was time. Storage bins were cleared, the ladder was brought down, and the Christmas lights were dug up from beneath the layers of decorations that had been piled on top of them for the past eleven months. It was a frigid day; but the first snow had yet to fall, and I knew if I waited any longer, it would be a decision I would regret putting off. It was time to hang those darned Christmas lights (bah-humbug)!

As I began to unwind the wound-up balls of icicle lights, it dawned on me. The tangled lights represented a student. We all have those students, the tough ones who challenge our abilities as a teacher on a consistent basis. Within each of these students, there is so much they are dealing with, that it takes time to unravel what is going on beneath the surface.

Just like the unwinding of the Christmas lights, we must be patient with our students. The work can be frustrating at times, and although one approach seems to be working, all of a sudden, things seem to get even more tangled than when you first began. With patience, however, the tangles become less. The lights begin to unravel before our very eyes, and we see the fruits of our labor. Pretty soon, that ball of knots becomes something much greater than it once was.

It was cold, and there were times when I felt like giving up, and just going and getting a new set of lights. But, I persisted, and in the end, received what I set out to accomplish in the first place…creating something beautiful, that brings a smile to my face due to the joy I get knowing I had a part in the end result.

Our students are the same…we work to create something of beauty. We know the potential they have, of becoming that shining light that deserves the attention it has drawn. We are driven to work harder, knowing that we could give up and move on, but we choose not to because there is still work to do. We choose to hang in there, undoing the tricky knots, maneuvering every which way until we find what works.

In the end, we see the amazing beauty that was once hidden becomes visible for all to see, and our work was well worth the time spent.

It’s Not on the SBAC

Our student-teacher conferences are in October. Of course, I had several student-teacher conferences in September, and I’ve had more in November. I do conferences any time a concern comes up. It may take time to meet with parents and their children more than once in the fall, but it saves time and trouble in the long run.

It may be surprising, but most of my conferences are not focused on academic issues.

I teach students in a self-contained Highly Capable class. For the most part, my students test above grade level in both math and reading. They have above average cognitive abilities. Yet they don’t always achieve academic success, at least not automatically. A lot of them need extra help. Why?

A major pitfall for many of my students is two-pronged: organization and time-management. My most recent conference was with a girl who spends hours preparing for major presentations—her oral book report, for example, or a research report for social studies. When bedtime rolls around she looks up wild-eyed and says, “But I didn’t do my math!” Or “I forgot to study my spelling!” Or both. Her math and spelling scores were suffering as a result.

Her mom and I talked to her about life skills and the need to manage assignments. We told her she needs to do the math homework first (since she likes this least). She needs to spend a few minutes each day on the spelling (instead of trying to learn all the words for the week in one night, and maybe missing the night).

And she needs to break the major assignments into more manageable pieces. We looked at the template for the Power Point for the oral book report, counted the required number of slides with her, and showed her that if she did one slide each night she could do it easily. It was waiting and worrying that turned the assignment into a monster.

Our conference happened to be at the end of the trimester grading period, so I told her I had to apply those lessons of organization and time-management to myself to get all my grading and report cards done!

She left the conference feeling like she could tackle the tasks of school more easily. Her mom left the conference feeling relaxed and comfortable, knowing that she and I were working together to meet the most pressing needs of her child.

I left the conference realizing, once again, that some of the most important things I teach are not on the SBAC. Or any other high-stakes test.

The two best predictors of success are not inherent talent and academic success. They are

  • having a good solid work ethic and
  • having the ability to get along with other people.

I spend a lot of time teaching my students how to work hard and work efficiently—to challenge themselves, to dig deep, to excel—and at the same time to work smart and do no more labor than they need to do. How to manage their time. How to get themselves and their work organized so they don’t waste time and effort. I explain to them it’s all designed so they have more time for fun.

I also spend a lot of time teaching my students how to work together in teams. How to treat each other with respect. How to collaborate. How to be a leader. How to be a follower. How to “share the air.” How to resolve conflicts. Again, I explain that the better they work together, the more fun they will have.

Of course, the better work ethic they have and the better interpersonal skills they have, the better they will do in college and careers. Who knows, these skills may help them in their future family relationships! I talk to them about the long-term impact of the skills too.

Does that mean I want the critically important life skills I teach to be on some state test in the future? Good heavens no! We have more than enough testing going on as it is.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with Common Core, SBAC, TPEP, and whatever else is requiring immediate attention. It can feel like an unending avalanche of demands. It’s important to take a breath and get some perspective. Teaching isn’t just about academics and grades and meeting standards and bringing up test scores.

Think of all the things you do as a teacher that aren’t quantifiable.

But some days those things are the most important part of your job.

My Test Anxiety


A variety of assessments given to students throughout the year serve to inform teachers on how their students are progressing. The typical pre-test post-test cycle is an important measure of learning. Formative assessments, informally gathered during the course of a lesson or unit help direct instruction. Teachers and students would be a little lost without this feedback loop.

Administrators also gain insight into the success of their program(s) through the careful examination of student data. Results may be used to allocate resources or identify areas that fall outside the norms – pointing towards highly effective instruction or areas that need improvement.

I don’t think that anyone can argue against the value of assessment generally. That being said, there are many people who wonder about the effective utilization of standardized, system-level assessment in schools today. Are we getting an appropriate return on the investment of time and energy (on the part of students, teachers, and administrators)? How much should districts and states spend to gather data on student achievement? How can we minimize any negative impacts that come with high-stress, high-stakes tests?

The NEA recently published a list of awards called apples and onions. Apples are for great players in public education and onions are for not so great players. They gave an onion to “High-Stakes Testing Zealots.” While Arne Duncan says that these tests are “sucking the oxygen out of the room” and NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia says “all the evidence that can be gathered shows that it is corrupting what it means to teach and what it means to learn,” still the battle rages on (NEA Today).

I’ve been wondering about the impact the Smarter Balanced tests will have on my students since I took a pilot test last spring. My sense was that it would be extremely rigorous and time consuming for my students. The Oregonian recently published an article projecting that about 60% of Oregon students will not pass these tests this spring. What will this data tell us? How will we use it to improve instruction?

It is a worthy goal to give students rigorous tests that evaluate their ability to demonstrate conceptual understanding and strategic thinking, analyze information, and make compelling arguments. But do we want to give this type of test to every student every year?

The costs are high in all regards to this type of census-based testing. When I read that Finland uses a sample-based no-stakes national test as a means of informing policy makers I was struck by its simplicity (This article summarizes the point, but the book Finnish Lessons is a fantastic read.). Why test everyone everywhere when a sample population will provide rich feedback to policy makers and administrators? Why make the tests high stakes – for students, teachers, administrators, schools, districts, and states? Yes – we’re actually doing this. Do we really need to gather such a massive amount of data to make informed decisions? How do I justify that need to my students?

The fear that drives this kind of accountability contrasts the notion that schools, districts, and states already take responsibility for the quality of education in our schools. In any event, the use of these kinds of tests to prove otherwise is an abuse of their purpose. These tests are designed to assess student performance – not the performance of the system at large.

The Hybrid Role: Teaching + ____


I am nearing the halfway point in my third year as a hybrid. Sounds like I ought to be part one of the X-Men superheroes (or wait, were they mutants or hybrids?).

This idea of the “hybrid role” is gaining traction with the concept of “Teacherpreneurs,” which the Center for Teaching Quality defines as “expert teachers whose workweeks are divided between teaching students and designing systems-level solutions for public education.”

In my context, that means this year I am teaching two periods of Senior English to just shy of 60 proto-adults, while working with a team of other teacher-leaders to support the professional learning and growth of about 400 bonafide-adults. Theoretically, the main purpose of my job is to serve as mentor and coach for twelve first-year teachers in our district. How to do that, and everything else, is the crux of the issue.

The hybrid role has tremendous power and potential. When I lead professional development about new practices or standards, my colleagues know I’m held accountable to that same learning in my own classroom. When systems-level decisions are being made, I can advocate for practicing teachers in ways that even the most well-meaning administrator might not be able to voice.

One of the great things about my boss is that he believes in the importance of teacher leadership, and each year he has basically said to me “what do you want your job to be?” These roles are new in my district, and that blank slate is exciting but brings a challenge. As I look ahead to next year (already), I’m realizing that there are a few things that a “hybrid teacher” like myself needs in order to be successful:

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The Important Practice of Vulnerability

Lindsey Stevens, NBCT, is a regular blogger for Puget Sound ESD’s CORElaborate blog , where this piece first appeared, and is republished here with the permission of both the Lindsey and Puget Sound ESD.


I just spent another amazing weekend at the National Board Certified Teacher Leadership Conference. This time it was at Skamania Lodge in Stevenson Washington and it was amazing and beautiful. The surroundings were wonderful but even more that the atmosphere, I always leave appreciating what I have gained from this inspiring gathering of professionals. The biggest takeaway I have form this weekend is that I need to continue to be vulnerable in my practice to really be a leader and to impact student learning.

At the conference we were greeted first by the fabulous Katie Taylor. Katie is the Director of Teacher Leadership and Learning at the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP). If you have not checked out or been in contact with this wonderful organization you should find out what they are all about. At any rate Katie was helping us to think about the traits and qualities of teacher leaders in her opening session. During her presentation we were asked to complete the sentence, “Teachers lead when we…” I sat and thought about that for quite a bit before I could fill it in. What do I really do that is true inspiring leadership? It’s not necessarily when I run a training, or when I plan a meeting. I realized that I truly do my best leading when I am vulnerable, when I make my practice, my trials and my tribulations transparent. This is really the only way to ask others to show me what they are doing and to be honest. I really think that vulnerability might just be the most important disposition for any teacher, especially teacher leaders to embrace.

Katie had us examine our leadership in relation to an article from Educational Leadership “Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders” by Cindy Harrison and Joellen Killion. In this article the authors point out the following ten roles for teacher leaders: resource provider, instructional specialist, curriculum specialist, classroom supporter, learning facilitator, mentor, school leader, data coach, catalyst for change and learner. In the activity we were identified how we were and could be any of these roles. Later I began to think about how these roles as teacher leader and my personal insight into vulnerability when hand-in-hand. Each of these roles take a certain level and different kind of vulnerability.

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By Tom

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to take a few minutes to express my gratitude to the people who make it possible for me to do the best job in the world:

Parents: I can’t thank parents enough for supporting what I do in the classroom by doing what they do at home. All I have to do is run off homework and send it home. The parents have to structure a time and place for my students to do it. And then check it so my students can redo it. Neatly. And then make sure it gets back into a backpack. All this while trying to cook dinner after an exhausting day at work.

Custodians: I just finished a science unit with my fourth graders called “Land and Water.” Do the math. There was sand, soil, clay and mud on my classroom floor for six weeks. Yet every morning it was clean again.

Para-educators: The lady who works in my class, Miss Natalya, was once a math professor in Russia. Now she works on our para team, doing all the other stuff that makes it possible for us to focus on teaching; working one-on-one with the neediest students, supervising recess and lunch, and doing crossing duty.

Office Staff: I was on the hiring team for our current office manager. When she came in for her interview, she asked what the job entailed. “You get interrupted for a living,” I replied, and it’s true. These people take care of all the logistics and paperwork for an entire school, when they’re not dispensing Adderall, Band-Aids and ice packs or supervising the kids who stop by to “visit with the principal.”

School Administrators: My principal spends his long days conducting focused and comprehensive evaluations, talking to upset parents, conducting focused and comprehensive evaluations, setting up the lunch tables, conducting focused and comprehensive evaluations, supervising the lunchroom, conducting focused and comprehensive evaluations, facilitating meetings, conducting focused and comprehensive evaluations, and supervising the bus lines. Yet he’s always smiling.

District Administrators: There’s a lot going on over at the administration building. There’s curriculum to order, trainings to run, human resources to manage and budgets to balance. My district is blessed with some incredible talent at the district level; they push us to rethink how we go about our jobs and support us while we learn.

Our Association: There’s a reason why we have planning time, dental care, health insurance, collaboration time, teacher-led professional development, National Board bonuses and representation when have a conflict with our administrators. It’s because we have a union.

Educational Service Districts: I never really understood the weird little “ESDs” wedged into the bureaucratic niche between the state and district. But I’ve recently done some work with the Puget Sound ESD and I’ve come to appreciate their work in supporting professional development and advocating for the most marginalized families in our school communities.

The Elected People: School Boards, state legislators and US lawmakers all have a say in what and how I teach. We all have the right – and responsibility – to question what they do, but not one of us can doubt their intentions. Ultimately, the only thing they really want is the only thing we really want: student learning.

Higher Ed: Teachers don’t train themselves; colleges and universities do, and I’ve had the privilege over the years to work with a lot of the people who work in those colleges. I’ve always been impressed with their dedication and focus on training the next generation of teachers.

And finally, CSTP: There’s a whole lot of non-profit organizations focused on education, but my favorite by far is The Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession. Their name says it all; they focus on promoting teacher leadership and amplifying the teacher voice on educational policy. And they sponsor this blog!

Your turn! Who did I miss? Who else needs to be thanked?