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

T&L 2015: Teaching & Learning, Teaching & Leading

Despite my best intentions of “live blogging” (which I really don’t know how to do) at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, D.C, the confluence of too much to learn, a really old laptop and spotty wi-fi gave me permission to just sit back and learn. Warning: lots of links ahead…each worthy of exploring!

My singular focus at this conference was on teacher leadership and creating systems that will develop and sustain teacher leadership. I started on Friday with a session about Teacher-Led PD, then was a panelist in sessions to promote teacher voice through blogging (with David Cohen, Ray Salazar, Renee Moore and Daniela Robles…whose collective resumes are astounding) before being on another panel about how NBCTs can use their own leadership stories to help other teachers find their own pathways, where I also shared about CSTP’s Teacher Leadership Skills Framework, and mentioned the work of the Auburn SD and Camas SD Teacher Leadership Academies.

Saturday was a day for learning, first about a unique partnership between the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), NEA and NBPTS. This “trifecta” of sorts parallels our big three here in Washington state (CSTP, WEA and OSPI) and the power of bringing those three partners together at the national level was evident. This partnership helped to produce the Teacher Leadership Competencies. Like CSTP’s Teacher Leadership Skills Framework, the Teacher Leadership Competencies point out that there are unique skills necessary for effective leadership, and takes the added step of differentiating these skills for instructional leadership, policy leadership, and association leadership. These competencies are also deconstructed into leveled scales that describe what teacher leadership performance in these various skills might look like.

I also had the opportunity to spend a little time in a workshop facilitated by Leading Educators, which focuses on supporting teacher leadership skills for promoting change. In particular, the publication “Leading from the Front of the Classroom” (among others) offers much food for thought about creating systems of teacher leadership that are sustainable.

Lots to read, lots to think about. Good thing I had a cross-country flight to digest it all.

There was much more at the conference, including plenary sessions that were webcast live and were recorded (currently available if you click on the scrolling banner at the top of Visit there and take a look!

Last but certainly not least, at my group panel session about amplifying teacher voice through blogging, I met a handful of teacher-bloggers when the five of us panelists broke into small groups for discussion. Take a look at what teachers across the nation are writing about:

T&L 2015: Teacher-Led Professional-Based Learning

Some initial reflections from my time so far at the Teaching and Learning 2015 Conference in D.C.: 

The first big takeaway: teacher leadership positions need position in the system.

Ad-hoc or “anoint and appoint” teacher leadership simply does not last.

In other words, for teacher leadership to matter, it has to have a place…a permanent place…in a district’s system, hierarchy, contract and culture. It cannot be something someone does for a while because they’re good at it: rather, it must be an expected part of the system.

The first session I attended was “Teacher-Led Professional-Based Learning,” hosted by Lucy Steiner, Mark Sass and Chris Poulos. The info they shared built upon a foundation based on the Pahara-Aspen work ( which explored teacher leadership and building systems that work. Their goal: to help teacher, their schools, unions, and districts implement collaborative, job-embedded professional learning that leads to better student learning.

The panelists shared a shocking statistic: across the nation a school district will often spend six to nine thousand dollars per teacher, per year on professional development. Their point was simple: that investment, often on “outside” experts, wasn’t paying off. Instead, districts and systems would be better off investing that money back into their own system through teacher-led, job-embedded professional learning. Mark Sass put it succinctly: “workshops just don’t work.”

From this particular session, I’m bringing home this key learning, among other great ideas. In their research, this team uncovered the key needs around teacher professional development that works:

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I Oppose SB 5748

By Tom

There are two students in my class with attendance issues. They sit three feet away from each other. One student is the son of a banker and his mother is able to stay home with him when he’s sick, like recently when he missed about a week of school with bronchitis. His mom emailed me once or twice a day with updates on his health and requests for assignments so he wouldn’t fall too far behind. 

The other student also has health issues that affect his attendance. His mother has a low-wage job and doesn’t have the time – or the computer – to contact me twice a day when her kid is out sick. Not only that, when I called her in this week for a conference to talk about how her son was falling behind and how important it was to get her son to school “each day no matter what,” I quickly discovered that the root cause of everything was the fact that they were about to become homeless and she was at her wit’s end trying to figure out where to go and where to put their stuff while they couched-surfed for the foreseeable future.

As I was winding up my conversation with this desperate mom, racking my brain; trying to come up with resources that she hadn’t already contacted, the Washington State Senate was busy passing SB 5748, a bill that would tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

When I heard about the bill, I immediately thought about those two kids, sitting three feet away from each other, both missing too much school, but with very different family situations. And I thought about how their physical proximity in the classroom belies the enormous difference in the level of support they receive from home and ultimately, their academic achievement level.

I doubt there’s an amendment to that bill that would take into account the living standards of the students taking those tests.

As we enter the Testing Season, it’s important for stakeholders to understand the enormous impact family life has on the performance of our students. It’s all fine and good to expect the best from both of these boys – and I do – but to expect their best to be comparable is simply unrealistic.

Accountability is important; for students, teachers and administrators. But please, hold me accountable for what I can control: how I plan my lessons, how I deliver those lessons, how I assess my students and how I communicate with their families.

I’m hoping the House will defeat their version of this bill. But I’m also doing everything I can to get all of my students to come to school each day so I can teach each of them the best lesson I know how to teach. 

And I’m also trying to find that mom a place for her family to live.

Teaching and Learning 2015…

public domain image

This morning I begin the cross-country trek to the other Washington for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference. I’m lucky to be attending both as a panelist for two sessions (one on blogging, one on cultivating teacher leaders through NBCT initiatives and district support systems) as well as a participant.

It was at last year’s T&L that Secretary Duncan shared the vision for Teach to Lead. While my natural skepticism initially pinged (was this just hollow teacher patronization in a climate of rampant teacher vilification?), after seeing the work of teacher leaders who are moving this initiative forward…and after attending the Teach to Lead Summit in Denver…I believe that this work is genuine. It helps, also, that this year’s T&L schedule is filled with sessions centering on cultivating and sustaining teacher leadership at various levels.

I know that whenever NBCTs get together in our Washington, I always learn and return home with new ideas and energy, and I’m confident that T&L will do the same. Many other Washington teachers will be attending T&L as well, including my fellow writer Tom… who through great fortune is stuck with me as a roomie yet again. Tom and I will no doubt be writing here to share our reflections about T&L in the coming days!