Feeling “Distinguished” …but Being “Basic”


Over the last few years, a confluence of ed psychology fads, being a parent, and trickle-down acronymage has had a profound effect on the way I see myself and my students.

When the “Growth Mindset” fad hit education, it like every fad before it risked being distilled down to soundbytes and sloughed off as trite. Though I was actually not a fan of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset (I tell folks that there are about seven really good pages in there) the idea is simple, brilliant, and exactly what I needed at this stage of my life and career.

In my teaching, growth mindset manifested in my drive to make learning progressions clearer for my students so they could understand “what growth looks like” rather than blindly throwing darts at an unclear target (“Will this one get an ‘A’? Let’s give it a shot…”). Showing a student who is operating at an “F” level what an “A” looks like isn’t helpful: Showing what a “D” looks like makes growth seem possible.

Around the same time I was reading and learning about growth mindset, I found myself sitting at the dining room table watching as my eldest son deflated when I pointed out the one (one!) error he had made on his weekend math homework. I realized that growth mindset needed to be considered in my parenting as well as my teaching.

And simultaneously: TPEP.

I’m National Board Certified (and working on my renewal). I’ve received awards and been teacher of the year (ain’t I special). Even RateMyTeacher has nice things to say. And when I’m honest with myself on my evaluation, there are some “Basics” in there.

As there should be.

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Make Fun A Top Priority

The morning of the state science fair, I asked all the students gathered in my room what they had learned from their projects. They told me lots of specific details about their individual projects, from the behavior of worms to how difficult it is to make cheese. I asked what they learned about the scientific process. They talked about problems they had controlling variables and how they learned to write better conclusions.

Then I asked how many thought science was fun? Hands shot up all over the room. I threw my fist in the air and announced, “I won!”

After we got back from the fair, we debriefed. I passed out the class’s ribbons and awards. We had lots of second place ribbons, some third place, six first place trophies for “Best in Category,” and two Special Awards. As a team, for our first time at the fair, we felt we’d done a pretty good job.

I reminded my students, “Look how well you did. Not bad when you consider my number one priority for your science fair project was that you have fun.”

One boy quickly added, “But you also set really high standards.”

I said, “Ok, that was my number two priority. But my number one priority was that you have fun.”

A week or two earlier a parent had come in and commented on how her child hadn’t chosen a very important topic. I said I didn’t really care. As long as the student found it interesting and was doing a good job of following the scientific process, it was fine with me.

As I told that mother, elementary school is about getting them engaged. It’s about building positive attitudes. It’s not just about making them learn—it’s about making them want to learn.

If I can make them enjoy science—and math and reading and social studies and writing and everything else I teach them—they will go on to middle school and high school and want learn those subjects more deeply.

If I don’t build the positive attitudes now, then when they continue in those subjects in middle and high school, their secondary teachers will be fighting such an uphill battle.

The truth is, I have a really good researcher backing up my claim that building positive attitudes in elementary school can—believe it or not—be even MORE important than being the most highly skilled teacher in the field.

Benjamin S. Bloom, the educational guru who developed Bloom’s Taxonomy, led a team of researchers who worked with immensely talented young people in six fields of endeavor. They published their findings in a hefty book called Developing Talent in Young People.

Here, briefly paraphrased, is how the researchers described the initial teachers of these extraordinarily successful individuals.

At this stage the best teachers are described as being good with children and someone the children are comfortable with. They are supportive, warm, loving, caring, nurturing. They give positive support and rewards like stars and stickers and smiling faces on papers. They are a “second mother.”

They are not necessarily leaders in the field. They don’t necessarily have the highest skills themselves. Their gift is they make the field of study enjoyable for the children. They can make beginning lessons seem like fun.

If you want to read the full summary/review of the book, go to my Teacher Resources page and look under the Education section.

Somehow, in the race toward rigor, the idea that we need to make learning enjoyable seems to be slipping off center stage. I object. At the elementary level, I believe the two goals are equally important.

So I know it’s testing season, but go ahead—this spring concentrate on making learning fun!

National Board Revises Its Scoring System

By Tom

In my last post I pointed out some recent changes the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has made in the renewal process, which is how NBCTs keep their hard-earned certificates alive and well. Today I’m turning my attention to something I briefly alluded to in that post, namely the actual scoring system: the amount of points the NB assigns to each part of the assessment process.

Picture1Take a look at Figure 1. (If you click on it, it’ll make it bigger.) As you can see, Component 1, which focuses on content and pedagogical knowledge, accounts for 40% of a candidate’s total score. The other 60% is shared by Components 2 through 4, with Component 3 getting the lion’s share. (That’s because Component 3 involves submitting two separate videos, along with corresponding written commentary; it’s actually twice as much work as Component 2, so it’s worth twice as much.)

Astute readers will note that this pretty much lines up with the NB’s past system, in which the Assessment Center Exercises were worth 40% of the total score, and the four entries were worth a combined 60%. The rationale, as I understood it, was that the NB values both knowledge and accomplished practice, but it values classroom practice a little more. Actually, 20% more. And I think most teachers would agree with that balance: knowledge is important, but not as important as what the teacher actually does in front of the students. Furthermore, if you look at the NB’s standards for any of the 25 certificate areas, you’ll notice that there’s a standard focused on content knowledge, along with about ten other standards that deal with applying that knowledge to classroom practice.

Picture2Which brings me to figure 2, showing the breakdown within Component 1. Notice that Component 1 has four separate parts: three Constructed Response Exercises (CREs) and one 45-question multiple-choice test, known as the Selected Response Items (SRIs). The CREs are not new; the NB simply selected three of the six Assessment Center Exercises and re-purposed them as CREs. The SRIs are new. The NB essentially took the content knowledge previously addressed by the three abandoned Assessment Center Exercises and used multiple-choice questions to address it instead. Easy-Peasy.

But here’s the interesting thing. The 45-question multiple-choice test is now worth 20% of a candidate’s total score. That’s kinda a lot. In fact, as you can tell from my pie chart, it’s worth more than either Component 2 or Component 4. The only part that’s worth more is Component 3. Frankly, I find that indefensible.

As I said earlier, content knowledge is important. Real important. Teachers need to know what they’re talking about. But I honestly don’t think a 45-question multiple-choice test should trump Component 2, which focuses on a teacher’s ability to analyze student work. In fact, I’m not even sure the 45-question test should count for more than either of the three CREs.

If I could offer a suggestion, it might be more appropriate to simply award 10% to each of the four parts of Component 1. In fact, that’s exactly what I told the National Board a few weeks ago when I had a chance.

What do you think? The National Board values our feedback, and like I said in the last post, this is OUR National Board. Let them know.


The Stories We Tell and the Stories They Hear


Teachers love telling stories.

These stories fit into three categories.

1) the “checkout-how-AHMAZING-my students-are-because-they-did/said/produced-this.”

See this incredible comic of the Great Depression? But did you READ this analysis of Hamlet by one of my IEP students?

2) the “listen-to-this-incredible-issue/idea- [insert name of awesome colleague]-and-I-had to-address-the-problem-with _____ [insert problem that keeps you awake at night].”

So I tried that strategy you suggested and increased my homework turn in rate from 75% to 95%!

3) the “OMG-you-won’t-believe-what-this-student/parent/admin said/did!”

I woke up to this email…

Assessment data loves to tell stories too. The stories are a meaningful way to bring numbers and facts to life. Generally, there are three stories the data communicates. First, it tells us how students are meeting established standards. Second, it tells us how students are growing. Third, it tells us where instruction needs to be changed or modified.

In our current educational climate, the primary storytellers are politicians, ed reform groups, or other “experts” who want fixate on the first kind of story. They want to focus on high stakes summative, standardized assessments like End of Course Assessments and the Smarter Balanced Assessment. They want the data to tell us how students are meeting established standards. This story is what many stakeholders are using to drive federal and state policy, particularly changes in teacher evaluations. This is the second consecutive legislative term where significant effort has been made to include standardized test scores in teacher evaluations through legislation (SB 5748). While that bill is dead, the idea of using testing data as a part of teacher evals was a recently added to a professional learning bill being reviewed (HB 1345). It seems WA legislators are determined to include summative assessment data in the teacher quality discussion.

I believe that this fixation on just one type of data story (particularly spinning it to say “gotcha”) is why many teachers are up in arms. This is the concern that my fellow blogger, Spencer, addressed in his piece “How to Take An Arrow to Your Head”. Spencer captured this well by voicing how many teachers, myself included, recoil at the thought of using student test scores in their evals because it appears we are getting punished for factors beyond our control, such as systemic poverty, chronic absenteeism, and a host of other societal ills that negatively impact student achievement. Many teachers are fearful because the voices that dominate the discussion on assessments and “accountability” seem to have a myopic view that testing will remove bad teachers from classroom and focus the discussion on student achievement rather than student growth. In fact, last year I compared The Department of Education to the pigs in Animal Farm when I wrote about why teachers in this state could not accept the inclusion of test scores in their evals in order to save our NCLB waiver.

Another year of learning, reading, and thinking changed the way the legislature and some of my colleagues think and talk about assessment data. Examining the language of HB 1345’s amendment reveals this change. First, the idea of statewide assessments as being one of multiple measures. This means that there is more than one story being told and heard. From multiple viewpoints, we can truly get an accurate picture of how our students are growing in the classroom under the guidance of an effective teacher. The next important detail in the amendment is that “assessments must meet standards for being a valid and reliable tool for measuring student growth”. Standardized assessment have long been critiqued as invalid and unreliable. However, with the new CCSS assessment there is promise of rigorous testing that asks students to perform at a level necessary to be career and college ready. My friend Joe refers to it as the first “high-quality standardized tests” he has witnessed as far back as when he was in high school piloting the WASL. His hope, like mine, is that the current SBA assessment suite, although not by any means perfect, can provide one source (out of many) of data that can be used in meaningful conversations about teacher effectiveness, classroom instruction, and student growth.

Common Core: When Opinions Become Facts


For all thirteen years of my career teaching high school English, one consistent skill that I’ve sought to impart upon my students is the habit of using concrete evidence in support of opinions formed or conclusions drawn.

The “why” is simple. Responsible citizens must form opinions about complex issues in order to participate fully and productively in not only their work lives but also their personal lives. Those opinions, no matter what they be, ought to be based on a thorough analysis of whatever facts are at hand on an issue.

Seems simple enough, unless there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what a “fact” even is.

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You Can Lead a Child to Testing, But You Can’t MAKE Him Try

There’s a lot of chatter in the lunchroom lately about test scores and pay, and how teachers will want to change positions if their pay is tied to test scores. “No one will want to teach third, fourth, or fifth.” “I’ll want to switch to second grade.”

Then I hear, “At least you won’t have to worry, Jan. You teach gifted kids. All your kids pass all the tests every year.”

It’s true, most of my highly capable students have the ability to pass most of the tests that are thrown at them. Having the ability to do well doesn’t necessarily mean that they will perform at that level.

Last week I asked my students, “How many of you want to go into computer programming when you grow up?” Hands shot up around the room. I said, “You need to be good at writing.” One boy jerked his hand back down as fast as he had originally thrust it up.

Honestly, what conceivable motivation can I offer that boy? He’s dreamed of working in the computer industry; I’m sure he’s pictured himself spending his adult life designing video games and having a job that’s more play than work. But he is willing to give up his dream—in a heartbeat—in order to avoid the dread task of writing.

Over the years I’ve had several students who are stubbornly resistant to writing. They may start out strong on a writing piece with a great initial idea but then peter out fast and dribble down to nothing.

Here are the kinds of help I can give my reluctant writers in class:

I can give them the structure and encouragement they need throughout the writing process. “You need to develop those ideas.” “Don’t stop there, I want to hear more.” “Wow, that’s great. What happens next?”

But, oh, how they balk at doing more than a single draft. Writing anything once is painful enough. Making changes and writing it again? Pure torture! “You need to read it aloud now. Does it make sense?” “Can you use stronger verbs, more precise words, or some great figurative language?”

Finally, finally, they are supposed to edit for conventions. They are long past tired of the piece by now. They just want to be done, so every single time we get to the editing stage in class projects, I give a pep talk to the class about how important editing is. “I know it’s hard. Conventions weren’t invented to make it easier for the writer—they were all invented to make life easier for the reader.”

All the help works in the classroom where I can ride herd on all my little mavericks. Even my reluctant writers can produce excellent, quality work when they get the support they need.

Here are the kinds of help I can give those writers during testing:

On the day of the ELA performance task, all my students will go in knowing what they need to do and how to do it. They will walk in knowing they need to be meticulous and thorough. It’s nothing new. We’ve practiced those skills all year.

I can guarantee my reluctant writers will be the first ones done with the test. I can picture the student a couple of years ago who popped up an hour or more before anybody else. “I’m finished!”

I asked him (through gritted teeth), “Are you sure you’re done?”

Big grin. “Yes!”

“Did you answer every question?”


Short of cheating, I can’t do anything more. I can’t say, “It’s not a race. You need to go back and read your piece and see if you can develop your ideas more thoroughly. Are your ideas organized well? Can you express your ideas better? Now go back, sit down, and do a proper job.”

For most of my students, that speech would be enough to get a significant improvement out of them. And if I could give them a couple of pep talks along the way—without looking at their writing at all—they would produce the kind of writing they are fully capable of creating.

I’m not allowed to do that.

Yet some people want my pay to be based on how well my students test.

My point? A test is a measure not just of academics but of motivation. If it turns out my pay is going to be based on how well my students do on the SBA, then I want to be able to properly motivate my students during the test.

How to Take an Arrow to the Head


Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Phineas Gage? In 1848, while packing explosives with a 43 inch long, 1.25 inch diameter iron tamping rod, an explosion sent the rod completely though his skull. He was never quite the same, but he miraculously survived.

Though this analogy might stretch the bounds of good taste, I wonder how I would ideally position my body to absorb the impact of using students’ test scores to evaluate me as a professional educator. It seems completely absurd to have this measure included in the Senate education bill.

The Seattle Times reported that the organization Stand for Children collected over 20,000 signatures to get this provision into the bill. The claim is that the teachers union and other lawmakers who oppose the bill are putting the needs of teachers before the needs of students.

What exactly are the needs of teachers being put before the needs of students? Is one the need to be treated fairly and professionally? That seems important. What is the need of students that is taking the back burner? Is it the need to have an engaged, highly educated, well-respected professional teacher working with them day in and day out, making a difference in their lives? That seems important too. Can’t we have both?

Though this is a scathing indictment, test scores can be predicted by poverty. This is not the fault of teachers, however. This is a problem that exists within the larger context of our society and must be solved within that context. It will never be solved at school, though education is absolutely a powerful force for change. sat

How does evaluating teachers on test scores make sense when this correlation has such a profound effect. Shouldn’t we motivate the best teachers to teach the students with the greatest needs? Tying evaluations to test scores de-incentivizes what we know needs to happen.

Add to this that there are only certain subjects that are tested in each grade level. It is simply not equitable to teachers to have evaluations based on subject matter tests when students do not have to take tests in all subject areas. How will a music teacher or an art teacher be evaluated? All teachers fall under the same contract, but they don’t all do the same exact jobs.

Finally there is the issue of the student scores themselves. The “Economic Policy Institute, Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers: [reports that Value-Added Measures] estimates have proven to be unstable across statistical models, years, and classes that teachers teach. One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%. (Scott McLeod) ”

So there’s that… they don’t work to evaluate teachers.

So what we are left with is a testing system that costs millions of tax-payer dollars, to administer hundreds of tests (of varying degrees of high stakes) to each student over the course of their K-12 years, taking away thousands of hours of real instruction to collect a massive amount of data that says very little.

If you want a system that works to build teacher responsibility and capacity this is the wrong way forward. This is a case of using the stick when it is a carrot we need. If it’s going to be the stick, or an arrow, or a 43 inch iron tamping rod headed towards me at a high velocity, I’d like to get out of its way. If it’s carrots, then I’d like to have a seat at the table.

National Board Revises its Renewal Process


pinBy Tom

Earlier this month the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards announced a new process for NBCTs to renew their certification. For the last decade or so, renewal consisted of submitting a Profile of Professional Growth (PPG), a four-part portfolio in which NBCTs provide evidence that they’ve continued to grow as a teacher in accordance with the National Board standards.

Beginning in 2017, new NBCTs will have to renew their certification through a process called Maintenance of Certification (MOC). Those of us who have already certified will continue to renew using the PPG process, at least through the next cycle. The complete rollout chart is available on the National Board’s website. Beware, though; it’s complicated.

The MOC is a very different process than the one with which we’ve become familiar. Continue reading

Inspiring the Next Generation of Teachers

Tuesday night I was at an award ceremony for teachers. One of the teachers being honored was described as patient and kind. She described the teacher who inspired her to go into teaching also as being patient and kind.

That made me sit up and take notice.

Now I already know the two words students most often use to describe me—strict and fun. My fourth grade teacher Mrs. Hester was the first teacher who inspired me to become a teacher. She was a-MAY-zing. And the first two words I would use to describe her would be strict and fun.

Do we as teachers get imprinted by our first great teachers?

I started thinking about the next teachers who would come into the classrooms.

Right now I see two movements heading toward us on a collision course.

My principal was talking at lunch about the lack of substitute teachers and about how thin the pool of quality applicants there was for teaching positions right now. There is a shortage of teachers across the state of Washington. The problem goes beyond our state, which means we can’t look beyond our borders to find quick solutions. Nationally, enrollment in teacher training programs is down as much as 50%.

Governor Inslee’s new budget proposes lowering class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, which is a step in the right direction. Once those class sizes are lowered, there will be positions open across the state for K-3 teachers. If we actually lowered class sizes K-12, which is what the initiative mandates, that would require even more teachers.

It sounds like there will be a lot more jobs and not enough teachers.

That worries me.

It worries me because I don’t want districts scrambling to find teachers. I don’t just want warm bodies filling positions. Nobody wants that! We all want amazing teachers.

It frustrates me that salary is a negative issue, a reason people flock away from education as a career. I’ve watched college students check out which degrees pay well and choose their college programs accordingly.

You can look at the data yourself. Go to the graph of The College Degrees with the Highest Starting Salaries put out by Forbes. You won’t find an education degree anywhere on the list! Starting teacher salaries typically range from just under $31,000 to just over $34,000.

According to the Bellingham Herald, “Washington allocates about $34,000 for a first-year teacher, even though the state determined that it should pay about $52,000, to be competitive” (emphasis mine).

It concerns me that lack of respect is another negative issue driving people away from careers in education. How many of you have met people who hold teachers, especially public school teachers, in low regard?

The truth is everyone has gone through school, some sort of education. They carry that experience with them. It colors the way they look at education—and educators—the rest of their lives. If you can get them to realize that you are not the teacher they had, that your school is not the school they went to, that the curriculum you are teaching is not the same that they had to learn, that the whole experience is different now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, sometimes that’s where you can actually start a conversation.

So how can we draw students into the world of education in spite of the problems? How can we inspire the next generation of teachers?

I’m actively recruiting.

A boy in my class did his social studies CBA on the Berlin Wall. Well into his presentation, he suddenly asked, “How would you like it if your city was divided in half—like this?” And he took a roll of crepe paper, taped one end to the counter at the front of the room, and unrolling the paper, walked to the back of the room to tape the paper to a bookcase in the back. All eyes snapped to attention and followed his every move. “You,” he pointed, “are East Berlin and you,” he pointed, “are West Berlin.”

He went back to the front of the room and continued his presentation. As he described various escapes and escape attempts, student volunteers that he had prepared ahead of time acted out what he read. Students were enthralled.

At the end I called for our standard “Three Stars and A Wish.” There were more than three stars as the compliments poured in. There was no wish. No one had any suggestion for improvement. Then I said, “I have a wish.”

The class waited. What more could I possibly expect?

I said, “I wish you become a teacher.”

He smiled and nodded, and the class agreed. He would be an a-MAY-zing teacher.

What I Learned From Finland


Whenever I go to a conference I act selfish. I’m there only to improve myself as a teacher and bring new ideas back to my own classroom. It was with that attitude that I attended a session at last weekend’s Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington DC. It was about education in Finland. The presenter was a man named Pasi Sahlberg: a real, live Finn, apparently with a Finnish name.

“Finland,” I thought, “Those guys are supposed to know what they’re doing. If I can’t get some teaching ideas from a Finn, then who?”

I was completely wrong. Continue reading