The New York Times has a front-page story on teacher evaluation, and the connundrum faced by reformers who came up with misguided attempts to use test scores and cut scores and all manner of quantification and formulation in their efforts to find the “bad teachers.” But now, it turns out their systems aren’t working as intended.
A couple of quick reactions here. First, as Randi Weingarten suggests in the story itself, perhaps there aren’t as many underperforming teachers as the reformers think. Still, based on anecdotal evidence from colleagues around the country, I think teachers should admit the percentage of teachers who need an exit plan is higher than 1-2%.
There’s also a quote from a principal who says she could identify a certain number of teachers on her staff who were ineffective, and yet the test score formulation had them coming out of the process labeled “effective.” A lesson for reformers there perhaps? The problems with test scores cut both ways. If you want to empower administrators, don’t tie their hands this way. I’m in favor of empowering administrators to do a better job of evaluation. Make sure they have the time, training, and resources to offer so that they can do a better evaluation of every teacher. We also need to empower teachers in this process. Evaluation should be a dialogue about practice and continual improvement, rather than a process understood as it still is in this Times article – as minimal quality control with no apparent value to anyone. Teachers should be full partners in the design and implementation of good teacher evaluation systems.
Bottom line, here’s another “we told you so” moment for teachers and education reform. We told you to avoid using tests. We told you that engaging with teachers would be better than dictating the terms of evaluation. Give it a try.
Here’s another post based on “The Corner Office” feature in Business section of the Sunday New York Times. This weekly interview with business leaders provides insights into the philosophies and practices of successful individuals in various industries. I always find it interesting to see what people in other fields are saying and doing regarding organizational management, and compare these ideas to the field of education. Over the years, I’ve found that most of time people espousing “business” solutions for education are thinking of us menial labor to be supervised and coaxed into simply working harder. Of course, our work place is more professional, creative, and in a sense, managerial – as we are responsible for managing our classrooms and our students’ learning.
Earlier this month, the interviewee was Kris Duggan, C.E.O. and a co-founder of Badgeville, who said something that surprised me a bit at first: “[We] look for… people who just get stuff done. We’re very focused on metrics — we have goals and controls, and everybody in the company has them. We even have a rating system we use to score employees, from 1 to 5, based on their ‘getting stuff done’ index every quarter.” This idea seems to risk violating some of the principles espoused by W. Edwards Deming, who advised against numerical targets and rankings, and it’s certainly not the kind of approach I would want to see applied to education and to teacher evaluation. But let’s look at the rest of Duggan’s quote here: “People take the scoring concept very seriously, and really like the accountability and the transparency around some of these things — and the fact that they’re empowered to get stuff done.” I happen to think teachers, contrary to popular view, would welcome more of the right types of accountability and transparency around our work, but we’re leery of all the bad ideas foisted upon our profession in recent years. And I think there’s an essential distinction to make here: “they’re empowered to get stuff done” just doesn’t sound like something we’d say about teaching, partly because we’re not empowered the way I expect Duggan’s employees are, and partly because “getting stuff done” just doesn’t sound like education. We’re never done!
So maybe Duggan’s company is a bit different from a school, but there are some overlapping values. Here’s what he said regarding the core values of his company:
“[T]here are five. Working as a team is No. 1. I noticed in other companies that people would sometimes say, ‘Oh, that’s a sales problem,’ or, ‘That’s a product problem.’ The whole reason you have a company is to basically acquire and serve customers, so customer acquisition and service and delivery is everybody’s problem. One thing about our culture is that people are thinking about the customer, even in departments where they’re not often in touch with customers.
“No. 2 is delivering customer success — focusing on the results we actually deliver. No. 3 is being ambitious. No. 4 is personal development, and No. 5 is having fun.”
To the extent that we might apply these values in education, I would urge policy makers and other stakeholders to consider how their ideas contribute to or detract from these values. Working as a team is harder when teachers are afforded so little time for collaboration – significantly less than teachers in other nations with leading education systems. Focusing on results is increasingly difficult when we don’t agree on which results to look at. In a company it might be easier to agree on the results that matter. And actually, it’s not that hard when we have these discussions among teachers, or with parents. The challenging conversation is the one with the public and the policy community, who choose standardized test scores as the result that matter. But the tests barely scratch the surface of what matters, and the results are not reliable indicators of school quality or teacher effectiveness.
Do schools support ambitious teachers? Not really, and that’s why I helped produce the ACT report on teacher compensation and career pathways – to promote the idea of teacher leadership, expanding roles and responsibilities for effective teachers. Do schools promote personal development for teachers, or… “fun”? I think the answers vary considerably, but in the current economic climate, I’ll bet there are few systems that are investing enough time, money, or energy in their teachers’ overall learning and development, and the inclination to rank and shame schools is not conducive to building a “fun” workplace. But if “fun” matters in an all-adult business environment, surely it’s a subject worthy of serious consideration for a workplace centered around children.
Prior posts relating to business and education:
- Make Schools More Like Business? (Part One)
- Make Schools More Like Business? (Part Two)
- Make Schools More Like Business? (Part Three)
- A Silicon Valley Lesson for Secretary Duncan
- Real World Business Advice Applied to Education
- More Real World Business Advice
- Can Educators Learn from “The Corner Office”?
Home from Chicago for nearly a week now, no longer exhausted but still nursing a cold, I still want to serve up a final “quick view” from the ASCD Conference in Chicago. On the final day of the conference, I wandered through the exhibit hall a bit, and left one presentation half-way through in order to get to the airport; as a result, there was only one session I attended in its entirety, Sandra Alberti’s presentation, ”Making the Common Core Work For You.” In this post I focus on just one presentation, and in a subsequent post, take up broader questions of what I did and didn’t hear at the ASCD Conference regarding Common Core implementation.
At the organization Student Achievement Partners (SAP), Sandra Alberti holds the title Director of State and District Partnerships and Professional Development. She described SAP as a creation of Common Core authors David Coleman, Susan Pimentel, and Jason Zimba. The first thing Alberti wanted us to know is that SAP views the CCSS as a common good, and to promote it, they charge nothing for resources, hold no copyrights, pursue no government contracts, and accept no money from publishers. While it’s encouraging that such an organization exists in the landscape of the Common Core edu-marketplace, a cynic might point out that SAP is only a step or two removed from people and organizations that will reap a windfall from the overall success of a widespread CCSS adoption and implementation. Is this like setting up a non-profit organization to prepare the soil, while your friends are selling the seeds, fertilizers and cultivators, and hiring out the trucks to bring the harvest to markets they’ve also invested in? There’s no compulsion for those who use SAP information and resources to then buy anything in particular, and they don’t explicitly endorse any products, so rather than engage in debates about motives, I’d suggest a better option is for anyone with spending authority and decision-making responsibilities to be wise stewards of their own resources and protective of whatever prerogatives they have.
But on to the substance of Alberti’s presentation. She began by establishing the guiding principles of the standards, the intention to make them “fewer, clearer, and higher” than existing standards. Noting that many existing standards documents are so thick that they invite selectivity and inconsistent usage, Alberti suggested that going to fewer standards was intended to move away from the pick-and-choose approach. They believe teachers should address all of these standards. The idea of clearer standards is “admittedly subjective” according to Alberti, though she offered a few examples that certainly moved towards more precise language regarding what students do, rather than broader statements about what students know. The standards are higher according to Alberti because they are based on a solid body of research regarding the skills that make students college and career ready.
Alberti called for education leaders to be “honest about time,” noting that teachers in particular have had one training, method, or initiative after another piled on the plate. “There is incredible resistance to focus,” she noted, calling for people to give something up in order to add something this time around – “the power of the eraser.”
When it comes to the English language arts standards, Alberti clarified one of the key concerns found in the national debate about the standards, regarding the gradual increase of non-fiction reading as a percentage of students’ overall reading. By now, many educators are aware of the target for high school students to read 70% non-fiction text in high school, and Alberti reminded everyone that the figure is a percentage of overall text in school, not a call to dump fiction from English classes as some have suggested.
The discussion of math standards was actually a little more informative for me, as I’ve mainly focused on the high school level language arts and literacy standards I need for my work. However, as a parent with children in grades four and six, I do have some second-hand exposure to math instruction. The main shift that Alberti mentioned in the math standards was a sharper focus; rather than doing a little bit of everything almost every year in math, students in Common Core aligned math programs should be seeing fewer topics per year, taught with greater depth, conceptual and analytical thinking, and emphasis on precision. The goal of year-to-year coherence was underscored by a a figure comparing approaches to mathematical instruction in top-performing nations and a variety of American states; you can see a similar figure in this article by William H. Schmidt, one of the authors cited in Alberti’s slide.
Some final thoughts from Sandra Alberti included the idea of not bureaucratizing or compartmentalizing the CCSS adoption; she suggests it should infuse the work of everyone in a school system. That kind of single-mindedness may indeed be a virtue in a thriving organization, and these standards may be worthy of our focus, but when an organization has no say in selecting the program or goals, I have doubts about how much fidelity one might expect across districts and states.
Commenting on a weakness in American education systems, Alberti characterized our approach implementation of new programs as “Ready. Fire. Aim.” To those hoping to avoid the same pitfall this time around, Alberti advises taking more time to internalize the Common Core standards, to know the what and the why. Then, she would have these standards informing systematic decisions about time, energy, allocation of resources, assessments, and communications within and outside an organization.
As I was listening, I thought it would be worthwhile for people to also understand the who of Common Core – the lack of teacher involvement, the role of Bill Gates, the role of the Obama administration and Arne Duncan in these “state” standards, the benefits to Rupert Murdoch and Pearson and myriad others poised to profit on the CCSS. And then, there’s the how of the Common Core – how they were conceived, how they were crafted, how they became central to federal education policy even though they’re supposedly a states initiative.
Alberti also encouraged everyone to take advantage of the free resources at the SAP website. In theory, any teacher, school, or district is free to come up with unique and creative ways to use the standards as a scaffolding to create curriculum. Apparently without intending any irony, Alberti suggested the use of SAP resources to come up with a variety of lessons and methods, because, “there should never be just one way.”
However, I haven’t encountered anyone yet who’s really optimistic that the Common Core is going to spur individualization. “The devil is in the details,” I’ve heard over and over again the past few years. Details like what it will cost in time, dollars, and lost instructional time to carry out the ambitious assessment programs I’ve been hearing about. Alberti didn’t touch on those issues. When the assessments come out, when policy makers fall into the same old traps of one-way accountability based on shame and punishment, when the costs become real instead of projected, I expect the Common Core will be reassessed, less favorably, by those who currently support it. I actually hope against hope that it doesn’t turn out that way. I’d like to believe in the best-case scenario – that new assessments will be an improvement, that states and districts will recognize the potential waste of resources and back away from the volume of standardized testing I’ve been hearing about, and that the best elements of the standards will lead to productive discussions and new approaches to better teaching. I’d like to. But we’ll see.
At the end of the presentation I spoke briefly to Alberti, raising my concerns that if the Common Core standards and assessments become a tool for bullying districts, schools, and teachers, they will hurt rather than help education, and ultimately doom themselves to ineffectiveness at the same time. She is optimistic that the assessments are much stronger than typical standardized tests, and that they will therefore be more effective and more accepted for a variety of uses. Right now, “teaching to the test” is so terrible because of the tests, and her position is that a worthy test is worth teaching to. Current tests, she pointed out, might try to assess a 3rd grader’s multiplication skills in a multiple choice format, and only using a handful of test items; CCSS tests will use many more items and not strictly multiple choice formats to do a better job of testing student skills. I didn’t ask at the time, but should have asked why there’s any question about trusting teachers to tell us if third-graders can multiply. And if there are legitimate reasons not to trust teachers, wouldn’t we all be much, much better off addressing the causes for that sad state of affairs?
My second day at the ASCD Conference in Chicago brought another good variety of interactions and learning opportunities. (Read about Day 1 highlights here). I started the day at the ASCD Forum, which gave ASCD leadership a chance to engage with conference attendees both live and virtual around discussions of teacher and principal effectiveness and how to assess it. The forum was organized around a series of questions, each answered in brief from a selected teacher and principal before opening the floor to participant responses. Among those responding were individuals coming from administration, research, and teacher training. I wish we could have had some testing and value-added advocates participating or at least listening, because it’s time for them to recognize how far off course they are, how out of step with educational research and leadership. An assistant superintendent from Utah put it bluntly when she commented that test-based evaluation is not just a bit flawed, but actually counterproductive in teacher evaluation and improvement. “The system is going to implode,” she remarked, and no one seemed to disagree at all.
The same event included observations that should be troubling to anyone concerned about the training and development of new teachers: with the use of test scores in evaluations, teachers are increasingly reluctant to take on student teachers, as the students’ test scores will be attributed to the mentor teacher regardless of the student teacher’s effectiveness. I actually heard this observation multiple times yesterday in unrelated conversations, discussing different locations.
The highlight of the forum, for me, was principal Torian White, who began with the observation that when it comes to policies around the measurement of teacher and principal effectiveness, “The most informed are often the least consulted.” White also made a plea for the inclusion of more qualitative measures. “Data is king,” he remarked, but qualitative information is what gives the data any meaning. I hope that ASCD continues the idea of this forum at future conferences, and even promotes and expands it.
Next up was the keynote address by Maya Angelou, which I wrote about yesterday. From there, I went to a lunch where I was able to speak to some ASCD authors about their books. I wonder if, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, there were as many books and conference sessions about teacher burnout and the toxicity developing in education. I didn’t attend any of those sessions, but I did talk to two authors about that topic. Allen Mendler and I chatted briefly about his book When Teaching Gets Tough. The book came out almost a year ago, and he remarked that he’s heard from many readers that the book is resonating in the field right now. I also spoke with Robyn Jackson, author of Never Work Harder Than Your Students, and Other Principles of Great Teaching. Jackson was an engaging conversationalist, who shared some insights from her travels and observations in various schools. The trend she seems to find most worrisome is that everyone is pursuing “teaching quality” by trying to find the right system, the right strategies, and then implementing those without regard for the variabilities in people and schools. Good teaching actually looks and feels different depending on the teacher and the classroom, and Jackson believes that its more important to identify essential principles of healthy schools and good teaching, and then use those principles to select from a variety of strategies that build on strengths. Students pick up on what’s happening when teachers are trying to fit themselves into an uncomfortable mould. “You can ‘PD’ a teacher out of effectiveness,” Jackson remarked. A teacher who can be passionate and authentic has greater chances of building the relationships that are essential in a thriving classroom. Such comments should not be construed as license to do whatever we want, however we want to do it; but a focus on principles rather than strategies increases the odds that we’ll be having the right conversations and make the right choices for teachers and students.
In the afternoon, I attended a session about Common Core implementation strategies in various districts. It’s a topic that has generated a fair amount of debate in this blog. It has put me in a bit of a bind, having misgivings, concerns and confusion about the Common Core standards, while at the same time advocating for expanded teacher leadership in schools. The presentation I attended did not include any teachers, and there were few teachers in the audience, but I was pleased at least to hear an explicit rejoinder from one of the presenters: “Involve your teachers wherever possible. This needs to be teacher driven, from ground up.”
I ended the day hearing about curriculum mapping and the Common Core, from presenters Heidi Hays Jacobs, Ann Johnson, Marie Alcock. Once again, the question of approach was key, as Jacobs noted, “If you go at this [CCSS transition] as compliance – game over. This is a chance to improve your schools.” Can Common Core standards be a vehicle for school improvement? I believe it’s possible, but the recent history of how we’ve used standards and assessment at the policy level suggests that there is reason to be deeply concerned.
“I’ll be 85 next month – and I’m already feeling it,” Maya Angelou told a packed ballroom at the ASCD Conference today. Delivering her keynote from a wheelchair, Angelou was nonetheless energetic and inspiring. Her address tied together a number of experiences from her childhood and adulthood, with the common thread of the power of education and caring adults. It wasn’t education in the school and classroom sense that she cited as most influential in her own life, but she nonetheless invited educators to see ourselves as “rainbows in the clouds” – with the potential to be a source of strength and hope to others.
In one sequence of anecdotes, she related how her Uncle Willie served as her teacher when she was a child working in the family store. His legacy is not only that Angelou now has 70 (mostly honorary) doctorate degrees and has spoken and performed around the world, in addition to her volumes of writing. It turns out that his legacy also included other young people who inspired and supported other young people, with a ripple effect that reached the Mayor’s office of Little Rock, the Arkansas state legislature, and the United States Congress.
Her own story served as a cautionary tale not to discount the potential of any individual. When she was about nine years old she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and became selectively mute after the rapist’s subsequent murder, believing she was responsible for his death because she named him. Living in poverty in rural Arkansas, and selectively mute, she had the odds stacked against her. By the time she was sixteen, she was a single mother in San Francisco. In these situations, there were “rainbows” – people who believed in her, supported and encouraged her.
Angelou closed by calling for educators to recognize their power: ”We are the possible. We are the true. We are the miracle.”
Disclosure: I’m attending the conference as media.
For more on the conference, see my summary of yesterday’s highlights.
What a busy day! There are 10,400 participants in this conference, hundreds of sessions, in a facility that seems like a whole campus. Lots here to write about in greater depth, but here are my highlights from Day 1.
Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III was the keynote speaker this morning. His speech offered some inspirational examples of what’s possible when children have the support, expectations, structures, and nurturing that they need. Sometimes the tone of such speakers can seem like a challenge: if you cared more and worked harder, you’d be able to save more kids from bad outcomes. Hrabowski wasn’t suggesting that, but rather, trying to inspire the audience to believe that relationships make a difference. The most interesting take-away for me was the idea of having students involved in conversations about school improvement. I think that happens sometimes, but I expect there are opportunities to turn even more to our children for their perspectives and insights.
The morning’s general session also included the presentation of ASCD’s Outstanding Young Educator Awards. I had a chance later in the day to chat with Josh Garcia, Deputy Superintendent of Tacoma Schools. There’s more that I would like to write about Garcia in the future, but for now, I would just say that I found his candor refreshing. Too often we hear district level administrators who communicate in “eduspeak” and give the party line to avoid controversy. Garcia spoke with passion about the necessity of addressing racism and elitism built into our school systems; he also noted that while Common Core standards might have their place, the assessments are fraught with risk of misuse for sorting and punishing students and schools.
I attended Mike Fisher and Janet Hale‘s session on redesigning our curricular units – one at a time. Their practical understanding of the challenges of the classroom informed their advice about how to make incremental changes at a reasonable pace. I took particular note of the idea that schoolwide change would be evident to students, in secondary schools especially, if we could get most teachers to make small changes. It’s kind of like a matching pledge, the feeling that your contribution will go farther and have a greater impact when you aren’t the only one.
One of the conference’s invited speakers was Kevin Kumashiro of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and also the director of the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education (CAOE). He delivered a relatively quick and clear indictment of the Bad Teacher! narrative in American public policy discussions and debates. I tweeted quite a bit from his talk, but in a nutshell, he questioned why the education reform prescriptions for “bad” schools make them less and less like “good” schools. Why do bad schools get saddled with more test prep, more testing, narrower curriculum, less autonomy? Wouldn’t it be logical to try to improve “bad” schools by giving them the resources and flexibility and other conditions found in “good” schools? As long as education reformers propose changes for other people’s children that they wouldn’t endorse for their own children, we risk perpetuating an inequitable system.
Wil Parker and Lynda Wood presented the development of a teacher leadership model implemented in Southfield Schools in Michigan. I was encouraged to see yet another example of how a district is improving teaching and learning by cultivating teacher leaders. In this case, the model makes use of standards and processes of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which I think has great potential to give educators a common language and frame to make teacher leadership an effective strategy for more schools and districts.
And finally, hats off to the intrepid crew who organized #edcamprogue this afternoon. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of EdCamp I would recommend you check it out. The basic idea is to get motivated teachers together for a relatively informal “unconference” where people show up ready to learn, teach, share, collaborate. The sessions are determined by the people who show up. Participants go where they want, wander or stay according to their interests and needs. Now, the ASCD Conference is in some ways that antithesis of edcamp. The organizers of this “rogue” edcamp were reacting to a comment in the morning keynote, when Dr. Hrabowski said that the lecture format for teaching needed to be replaced – as he was delivering a talk (and a very good one, I thought), and right before sending us all out to sessions that would involve predominantly lecture. So, in the spirit of EdCamp, in the age of social media and a flattened learning hierarchy, these people organized a miniature “rogue” EdCamp right in the lobby of the ASCD Conference – with the blessing of ASCD. Just that it happened – that’s my highlight. But again, hope to take up the topic again soon.
Phew! Just one day at ASCD, two more to go.
Disclosure: I’m attending the ASCD Conference as media.
All photos by the author.
I’ve just arrived in rainy and cloudy downtown Chicago for the annual ASCD Conference, and I’ll be blogging about the conference for the next few days. In addition to writing blog posts, I’ll be tweeting from both @CohenD and @AcmpCA_Teachers - and the twitter hashtag for the conference is #ASCD13.
I’m excited to be here for a few reasons. First, I love Chicago, and I’m expecting to get out and about a little while I’m here. My first full-time teaching job (1995-98) was in Chicago, at a Jewish day school on the north side of the city. Fresh from grad school with a brand new California teaching credential, I promptly moved to Evanston, IL, as my wife (then fiancé) began grad school at Northwestern. My teaching experience in Chicago was quite varied, as I discovered how a small private school can always find ways to put your talents to use: in my three years there, I taught various combinations of 7th and 8th grade literature and language arts, plus music and drama classes for grades 6-8. (I also tried my hand at coaching volleyball and baseball, but the less said about that, the better).
I’m also excited because I’m just – dare I say it? – an edu-geek. Maybe a better way to put it is that I’m a student of the game. Throughout my career, especially the fourteen years in public high schools, I’ve been interested in both the teaching of English and the broader trends in educational practice and public policy. I began my efforts to affect education policy through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. After my first experiences talking to legislators and their aides in Washington, D.C., I quickly realized that I enjoyed advocacy for better educational policies and opportunities, and began some of that work at the local and state level. I helped launch Accomplished California Teachers (ACT) about five years ago, and for the past two years I’ve dropped down to part-time teaching in order to devote more time to ACT and its mission – to amplify teacher voice in education policy discussions and public forums, while providing a peer-support network for teacher leaders around the state.
So while I enjoy an English teaching conference as much as anyone, I find this type of conference engages that other part of my teaching brain. I’m among people who work in education, but not surrounded by teachers: after all, ASCD is the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. It’s an opportunity to meet people from around the country and from all sorts of schools and districts. In my two prior ASCD conferences, (the summer conference in Nashville in 2008, and San Francisco in 2011), I enjoyed talking not only to my fellow teachers, but also instructional coaches, site and district administrators, authors, publishers, trainers, and consultants. I have mixed feelings about the layers of coaching, training, consulting and administrating that are piled upon each other in education. Ultimately, I’d like to see teachers taking on a wider variety of roles and responsibilities in education, and if that happens, many of these non-teaching people would find themselves with less work and fewer opportunities. Still, the best of them do some important work, and I’m here to learn from anyone I can.
Those past ASCD conferences also made a significant impact on how I teach, and how I think about education. The most specific examples I could point to would be Robert Marzano’s presentation on grading practices (2008), and Chip Heath’s 2011 keynote on the necessary conditions to bring about significant change. The Marzano presentation, along with his book on grading and assessment, influenced me to abandon the traditional but deeply flawed practices of grading on 100-point scales, using average scores to determine student grades. I’m not saying that standards-based grading has solved everything for me and my students, but it’s a more logical, defensible, accurate way to describe and support student learning. Now if we could ditch letter grades, too… The main take-away for me in Heath’s presentation was the concept of fundamental attribution error - the idea that we too often explain people’s actions, decisions, and attitudes in terms of their character or personality, their individual excellence or shortcomings, rather than sufficiently examining the contexts and experiences that shape the individual. That’s a concept that I think needs much more attention, as I hope that it can be paired with some powerful stories and examples to demonstrate why education reform in the area of teacher quality is missing the mark; instead of picking out the “best” and “worst” teachers and trying to simply treat them differently according to their presumed quality, we should look at the conditions that are producing the best teaching and learning, and focus on fostering similar conditions in more schools and districts. It’s a much different challenge from an equity standpoint, to build a better system for everyone. The next three days will hopefully give me some inspiration, examples, and ideas I can use to push that approach more effectively. With these presenters among the hundreds to choose from, I’m optimistic.
Disclosure: I am attending the ASCD conference as registered media.