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Teaching & Learning Conference Presentation

March 15, 2014

Greetings to anyone who attended or is interested in our presentation at the Teaching & Learning Conference 2014. We’re glad to share what we’ve done, what we’ve learned, and what we’re still figuring out about teacher leadership.

My partners in this presentation are Pat Graff (NM), Lanelle Gordin (CA), Cheryl Suliteanu (CA), Maren Johnson (WA). Below you can find the main point of the presentation and some useful links. Presentation slides are available at the bottom of the page, though the settings for background images didn’t transfer from Powerpoint and will make some slides hard to read. The slides with information you’re most likely to want to look up or follow up are pretty clear though.

The central idea of our presentation is that teacher leadership is essential to school improvement and advancing the profession. New roles for teacher leaders are already emerging, and we must ensure that as these roles evolve they are formalized (yet flexible!), sustainable (funded and integrated), and truly professional (requiring demonstrated accomplishment and skill). Not everything we talk about is entirely there yet, and our examples are all variations on the theme, but we think our stories are instructive regarding how teacher leaders are changing the field and where we should be headed.

Thank you to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards for putting on this excellent conference and inviting us to speak, and thank you to all who came to see our presentation (or cared enough to read this blog post anyways!).

Resources and connections (links open in a new window/tab):

Our slides (with apologies for formatting issues that come up in the transfer from Powerpoint to Google Docs):

On Cheating, Blame, and Accountability

March 12, 2014

I must confess that I do check my blog stats once or twice a day. I’m not driven by pursuit of big numbers, though of course I’m pleased when a post is widely shared and read. But I’m drawn to the stats page because of curiosity about search terms that lead to this blog, about old posts that suddenly find new life for unknown reasons. The stats also show that I’m often wrong about which posts I think will be more popular. The ones I like the most often fade quickly, while posts I’m less invested in sometimes take off.

Sunset, Whangarei Harbour, New Zealand (photo by the author)

Sunset, Whangarei Harbour, New Zealand (photo by the author)

Case in point: a Facebook friend from New Zealand shared the story about a school cheating case where teachers tampered with test results reported to the national authorities. I noticed similarities to incidents in the U.S., and made the connection to Pasi Sahlberg’s talks and writing about the Global Education Reform Movement – or GERM. I cranked out that blog post in a few minutes and figured it would be a blip on the stat sheet. Surprisingly, it has been the most read and shared post in the past month.

The post also drew a response from Benjamin Riley of the New Schools Venture Fund, who may have noticed this particular post because he’s currently on leave from NSVF and spending a year working in New Zealand.  (Nice work if you can get it! I loved my visit there a few years ago).

Here is the distillation of Riley’s response and suggestions (though if you go read the full version at his blog, you get the benefit of his use of White Stripes lyrics). He argues that the inevitability of cheating on tests shouldn’t be used to argue against testing any more than cheating by golfers leads to the end of golf; it simply means we must guard against cheating. Riley also quotes Kevin Carey suggesting that such cheating is short-sighted if inflated scores will end up inflating expectations for subsequent years. Carey adds that “cheating also means that public schools finally care enough about student performance that some ethically challenged educators have chosen to cheat. This is far better than the alternative, where learning is so incidental and non-transparent that people of low character can’t be bothered to lie about it.”

Overall, I can agree with Riley that individuals are responsible, and that cheating by itself is not an argument to eliminate testing. There are some appropriate uses of large-scale standardized assessment. I don’t agree with Carey that an uptick in cheating indicates people “care enough about student performance.” I think it means those people are mad or fearful about the public uses of what passes for “student performance” but really isn’t.

Riley and Carey seem to assume that standardized testing generally produces useful information about students, teachers, schools, and systems – from the individual level on up – and so they tackle this issue with a focus on what educators should do without engaging around one of the key underlying problems: weak tests, or good tests used for weak policies, are central to this story. So I’m asking what education leaders should do to address the problem. I wouldn’t be satisfied with an answer that puts the problem entirely on the teacher, any more than I would accept a teacher who says all the problems in the class are the students’ fault.

Their perspective also seems a bit removed from an understanding of classrooms and schools. I’d suggest that Carey’s view suggests people think more about cheating rationally rather than emotionally. I don’t think it works that way. People who cheat are likely angry or insecure. It’s also important to acknowledge that in some of the high-profile cases in the U.S., there’s evidence of cheating at the school and administrative levels, which calls for a different set of models in trying to understand the psychology of the act, throwing in group dynamics and the possible role of intimidation.

Riley’s main point, the one linked to the lyrics, is that you can’t blame the test for the cheating, any more than you can blame the bank for the robber. And if you’re addressing the cheater, or the robber, I agree: pushing off one’s own misdeeds on others doesn’t negate or excuse the misdeed.

But as someone who has administered thousands of tests and been responsible for learning outcomes, I accept an accountability that Riley and Carey seem less interested in ascribing to “the system” that gives the larger tests, and should be responsible for broader outcomes. This is my fundamental disagreement with much of the education reform notion of accountability. The people with the most power are supposed to bear the most responsibility. When I give a test, I try to design an assessment that is fair, useful, valid, productive, and worth the effort. To attach high-stakes to an exercise that doesn’t meet those criteria is to invite cheating. I’m not excusing the cheaters, but it would be sloppy, unprofessional work on my part to create conditions that I should have known would ultimately undermine my work. If a bank has inadequate safeguards against robbery, it’s not exactly their fault if they’re robbed. But isn’t someone supposed to be accountable for having the foresight to reduce the chances? If a CEO creates the conditions that push more of his managers and accountants to cook the books, and at the same time says be honest, then does the CEO bear any responsibility for corrupt practices that should have been anticipated?

Where’s that accountability in education policy? Okay, punish the cheaters. You can even try to tighten test security, but ultimately, that system must rely on local practitioners without creating an undue administrative burden. So, policy makers, we can easily predict that the more you rely on standardized tests for purposes they can’t adequately measure, and the more you raise the stakes, you are creating conditions that lead to more cheating. It will happen. It shouldn’t. People should resist. They should do the right thing. They should raise objections in appropriate venues. They should be honest and transparent. Those are wonderful sentiments that serve to distance you from knowingly following a series of steps that will have a negative effect on schools and on your own accountability measures.

Our Secretary of Education, and many state superintendents and legislatures have pushed more and more use of mediocre tests for inappropriate, high-stakes uses. People shouldn’t cheat, but neither should our leaders avoid criticism for their failure to produce an accountability system that works. They’ve ignored too much of what we know about students, teachers, schools, learning, and human nature. They’ve failed as policy architects and leaders who should have foreseen the mess they’ve helped create.

GERM Spreading, New Zealand Infected

March 9, 2014

Pasi Sahlberg at Stanford University, 2012. (photo by the author)

Pasi Sahlberg, the well-known Finnish education expert and author of Finnish Lessons, has described the negative trends in education reform as GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement. You can see his TEDx talk “GERM that kills schools” embedded below.

The basics of GERM are well known to most people by now: one-way accountability, where leaders demand results from practitioners while no one seems to hold leaders accountable for creating the conditions necessary for success; high-stakes testing; misguided focus on rankings, competition, and punishment; a near-obsession with data; deprofessionalizing teaching through reduced autonomy and increased focus on compliance.

And the metaphor of GERM makes sense the way unhealthy ideas about educational systems continue to spread. The latest example comes from New Zealand, where teachers at a school have apparently responded to high-stakes testing and narrowed curriculum by cheating. I’m not excusing cheating, but anyone putting these kinds of systems in place – in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Houston, California or New Zealand – must acknowledge their responsibility as well; cheating is a predictable result when you use improper or limited measures excessively, and in ways that feel threatening.

As a teacher, I would certainly punish a student for cheating in my class. But if I assign much of a student’s grade based on a procedure or task that’s easy to falsify, and it’s also something that my students find intrusive, flawed, coercive or irrelevant, then certainly I’m also at fault for creating the conditions that almost inevitably lead to cheating.

The reactions in New Zealand sound quite familiar:

Labour Education spokesman Chris Hipkins: “The high stakes nature of the system is nonsense. It is very easily manipulated, it is heavily subjective and is no way a reliable measurement of school performance. The higher stakes you make it, the more pressure there is going to be on schools to make their subjective judgments to increase their achievement results.”

Martin Thrupp of Waikato University, who led a three-year study into national standards: “The tail starts to wag the dog and the assessment system kind of takes over and pushes out a broader approach and people tend to go more directly for activities that are going to more directly push kids along in terms of the national standards.”

A parent at the affected school: “I’ve heard from teachers that national standards are putting a lot of pressure on them to document these standard tests rather than allowing children to have their individual strengths recognised.”

It seems quite likely that these GERM approaches will fail in the long run. How many years we’ll spend learning that lesson remains to be seen.

California Swims Against National Tide

March 7, 2014
Kerchner CalTURN

Charles Kerchner, CalTURN 3/6/14 (photo by the author)

Charles Kerchner’s recent EdWeek essay examines some of the reasons that California has been “A K-12 Education Outlier.” He suggests that it’s a bit of a surprise that California is markedly resistant to federal education policies, considering the state has a Democratic majority in the legislature and a Democrat in the governor’s office. Kerchner writes: “California’s divergence is no red-state aversion to the federal government; nor is it sticker shock at the price of new K-12 assessments. It’s an aversion to the Race to the Top mentality, and the embrace of a deeply held alternative view of what drives improvement in public education.”

That aversion has been proudly on display at the semi-annual meeting of the California Teacher Union Reform Network (CalTURN. Disclosure: I’m on the CalTURN steering committee). The first day of the meeting featured appearances by Kerchner, along with our state superintendent and the president of our largest teachers association. Teachers and administrators in the room applauded their comments about holding out against bad ideas pushed by the federal government. Perhaps the most obvious example is the misuse of student test scores in teacher evaluations. We do have colleagues here joining us from other states – educators who are living with the consequences of that suspect practice. Value-added measures for evaluation are problematic enough when applied in the way most people assume – students tested on the subjects they study in class – but we’re hearing about practices that should strike reasonable people as an outright fraud: teachers are being evaluated based on test scores for students or subjects they don’t teach. These mistakes may be the most visible, memorable legacy of the Obama-Duncan education reform effort, certain to be an embarrassment when history shows – and it will – how poorly supported and how ineffective that approach was.

Tom Torlakson addressing teachers and administrators at CalTURN, 3/6/14 (photo by the author)

Tom Torlakson addressing teachers and administrators at CalTURN, 3/6/14 (photo by the author)

And yet, California has not entirely resisted national education reform; at the state level, California is fully committed to Common Core implementation, having invested over $1-billion so far, with proposals to more than double that in the future. Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent for Public Instruction, noted that, thanks to AB-484 (a bill enacted over Arne Duncan’s intrusive objections) California has an opportunity to focus on the standards and on professional development without the immediate pressure of high-stakes accountability measures linked to those tests. Accountability hawks in our own state, around the country sounded alarms, while teachers and administrators breathed sigh of relief.

The teachers and administrators here at CalTURN are not kicking back thinking they don’t have to worry about student learning for a couple years, nor are they rehashing the debate about whether or not to adopt the Common Core. Instead, they are moving forward productively, collaborating within and across districts. They are sharing their stories about how to make labor-management relationships work for schools and kids, and envisioning improved methods and measures of accountability. These are not mere philosophical exercises. The new local control funding formula requires districts to develop local accountability plans for the use of new funds. The impact of AB-484 is that the educational leaders in this room are entirely able to focus on collaborative visions for improving schools and school communities without continually talking about test scores. Looking around the country (New York comes to mind) we see compelling evidence that California’s approach is the sane, reasonable, and productive option that Duncan should be applauding rather than threatening. The NEA has supported Common Core, but NEA President Dennis Van Roekel has also raised objections to the implementation in various states.

CTA President Dean Vogel addressing CalTURN meeting, 3/6/14 (photo by the author)

CTA President Dean Vogel addressing CalTURN meeting, 3/6/14 (photo by the author)

CTA President Dean Vogel was also at CalTURN, emphasizing the commitment of California teachers to work with students, families and communities. He noted that surveys and polls consistently show teachers are trusted in their communities, and therefore its imperative for us to maintain that trust and strengthen relationships to hold on to what works and advocate for improvements. He noted that the Vergara trial, currently going on in Los Angeles, represents what we are up against: school and community outsiders funding a well-coordinated effort to frame unions, seeking solutions that will undermine our profession without addressing the more glaring inequities that undermine our state’s education system.

The California teachers I’ve been listening today for the past two days are confident in the process of labor-management collaboration. We have willing partners in the district leadership in the room, and in the districts represented here. One teacher described the experience of the past couple days as “affirming we have a shared vision for students.” Another teacher shared a concern that, moving forwards, “The state is going to want us to test, test, test,” and then she asked if, in the face of over-testing, “Are we going to live with courage and do what we know is right?”

For California, what is right is what’s happening here at CalTURN and elsewhere around the state: teachers and administrators insisting that we share a commitment to working together for students and communities, embracing authentic, local, mutual accountability – and resisting non-educators who call on us to do what we know is educationally unsound.

CalTURN Highlights Labor-Management Success, Challenges

March 6, 2014

Today and tomorrow I’ll be in Sacramento attending the semi-annual meeting of the California Teacher Union Reform Network – CalTURN. My involvement with CalTURN the past few years has much to do with my optimism about the direction of public education in California. (Disclosure: I’m also on the CalTURN steering committee). This convening brings together union and district leaders from around the state, teams that are committed to labor-management collaboration. In this room, you won’t hear union leaders and administrators complaining about “them” and you won’t hear one side “we” are supporting students and “they” are supporting adult interests.

District and union leadership share the podium at CalTURN, 3/6/14. (photo by the author)

District and union leaders share the podium at CalTURN, 3/6/14. (photo by the author)

You also won’t hear anyone say “we” have it all figured out. As a consumer of information about schools and educational governance, I am quick to tune out, or at least discount, stories that sound a bit miraculous, schools and systems that have the solutions. Those stories often don’t stand up to scrutiny, or the success is short-lived, stratospheric success returning to earth when the people involved change or the conditions evolve.

I find it exciting to hear about the real hard work that people are doing to build and sustain incremental change, to create institutional culture based on shared values and open communication. It’s incremental change, and it doesn’t proceed in a linear way. There are districts that have been making good progress for years in labor-management collaboration, and just this morning, we heard from three of them here in California: Poway Unified, San Juan Unified, and ABC Unified. What’s impressive to me is not that they have perfect school districts where everyone gets along, but rather, that they’ve slowly built up an expectation that labor and management work together at every step. They understand that we need each other, and that our overall interests are the same: improve schools, help students. They understand that in the long run, neither labor nor management “wins” if the other loses. Our institutions, students, and communities, do not benefit from weakened or dysfunctional elements within the system.

Here’s a great example: in one district we heard from in this morning’s panel, the union and district leadership put out joint communiqués to staff. Rather than one side or the other communicating with teachers and administrators about professional development or Common Core implementation, a unified message comes through. And even more impressive to me, they put into those messages where they are currently in disagreement and still working through issues. The benefit of that collaboration at the district level is that the teachers and administrators at a school site both know what “their” leadership is doing, and they know what issues are being addressed; this candid communication allows schools to focus on student learning and set aside the issues that they know are being dealt with on their behalf.

As I compose this blog post, I’m looking around the room, seeing and hearing district teams having relaxed and productive conversations about how to work together to improve working together. Such opportunities are not common enough. Sometimes district teams attend conference together to focus on curriculum or professional development, but I think it’s less frequent that they have the opportunity to focus on themselves. If more labor-management teams could engage in this kind of collaboration, the work of professional development, evaluation, and instructional change would all benefit.

If you are reading this post today or tomorrow (Mar. 6-7), or shortly thereafter, check out #CalTURN for some updates and insights via Twitter.

GO PUBLIC Film Offers Inside View of Schools

March 4, 2014

GO PUBLIC offers an authentic fly-on-the-wall perspective of a public school district that every voter needs to see. This fresh and recent documentary film gives the viewer a frank, and sometimes painful, look inside the lives of the people in Pasadena Unified Schools – and it’s a long shot from the tree-lined lawns of the famous Craftsman neighborhoods we know from Rose Parade week. This is the nitty-gritty of public school life. The focus on quality, real quality, from everyone at school, is a heartening lesson for any viewers, voters, district decision-makers and educators. Could every school district, every classroom, every office, withstand this kind of exposure? Could our own ethics pass the documentary film test?

Watching GO PUBLIC takes you through the sisyphean day (May 8, 2012) of a public school professional. It begins sweetly enough, with glimpses of parents gently waking their kids, teens shuffling to the bathroom, a principal girding himself with black coffee while he talks about all the testing in the day ahead, and the challenges of managing “one more thing.” It’s gratifying to get to spend time with the “others” at a school: the tattooed mom in the parent center, the librarian, the janitor, and best of all, the campus security guy who chases down truants and “those kids” who seem to have out-of-the-classroom priorities. There is no narrator; you hear the stories from the people whose lives are shown. The film is a 90-minute documentary built from 50 short films that you can see on the GO PUBLIC website. The directors are brilliant at showing the essence of both educators’ and students’ lives.

There’s the expected stuff, but then we begin to notice all the hands-on learning going on, all the extra things that make school better than surfing the net, such as ceramics and yoga and music, brought to you through the dedication and grit of the adults and educators in PUSD. Just when we’re winding down for the happy ending, school kicks into its second shift. The hard-case security guy morphs into the choir and band sponsor, the principal swigs the same black coffee (cold now) while heading to the varsity baseball game and the literature teacher becomes acting coach, producer and director of the next school play. And then just as you’re really ready to call it a day, everyone goes to the school board meeting where union speaks to management and tries to preserve as much as possible in the face of budget cuts. (My favorite person in this segment is the only Latino school board member, whose short documentary on the GO PUBLIC website reveals an activist side. My hero.) Even after that, the baseball coach is still reviewing stats while his wife tries to get him to stop, just stop! being at school. At the end of the film, we discover that many of our favorite individuals will be gone due to budget cuts, and that should generate a feeling of loss if our moral compass is properly set. We are emotionally and physically exhausted. And that’s just one day. Probably not even a Friday.

Two things need to be said about GO PUBLIC, two lessons in it for the rest of us. First, could every facet of our work withstand this kind of exposure? If not, why not? What needs to change, and who would be the change agents? Second, we are looking at a public school district in the middle of affluence. Why are they struggling to keep the library open? Shouldn’t people with enough pocket money to fund the librarian’s position be doing it? The PUSD superintendent spoke to the audience after the January 2014 screening in Pasadena, along with the filmmakers, the foundation president, and two of the 50 featured people, teachers at local schools. This is a microcosm of the situation of public schools like mine, fighting to ensure equitable distribution of Prop 30 funds to high-needs schools. Jon Gundry, the PUSD Superintendent, was very frank about answering questions about the divisions in places like LAUSD – I won’t share his heartfelt comments except to say that Gundry totally gets it. He gets the need for his district to cooperate with the Pasadena teachers’ union in order to wring out the best possible education and support for his school community.

The educators also get it, which addresses the first lesson of GO PUBLIC – every classroom, every office in the district, should offer effective, if not exemplary, models of professionalism. But it takes money, which is the second lesson. As long as we’re funding things other than site support, we’re selling our kids short. This goes for iPads, random reforms and cursory reorganizations or closures of public schools.

Go see GO PUBLIC, and take a voting citizen with you. The GO PUBLIC March screenings calendar is full of Southern California opportunities. The film eloquently makes the point that public education is critical, its quality, and it’s worth the little bit of interest, protection and action from everyone who wants to live in a democratic society.

Teachers as Trustees, Part 2

March 3, 2014


InterACT Guest Blog Post by Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

InterACT features many blog posts on the topic of teacher leadership, but very few teachers are able to view the field from the perspective of elected office – especially one held concurrently with their teaching position. This guest blog post is number two in a series of three. The prior installment in this InterACT series was written by Christopher Chiang, and Part 3 is coming soon!

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

This post comes to us from Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, an elementary teacher in the Folsom-Cordova School District and a school board trustee in her home district, Washington Unified School District, in West Sacramento. She wrote this guest post for InterACT, and was also featured recently in California Educator. (By the way, that link features information about several other teachers on school boards). 

Like many educators, I have been baffled by some education policy put in place by people who clearly don’t have an understanding of how things will play out in the day-to-day workings of a classroom. In frustration, I explored ways to be a teacher leader and set long-term goals.

Last year I found a special election for school board would be happening in my town, and the mayor was holding an information session. I didn’t think it was my time, but went to the meeting for more information and to show my interest. According to Emerge California’s website, “women are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office and are less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.” It took me sitting in that room and looking at the other potential candidates to realize I was absolutely qualified to run for school board, now. When I heard that someone who worked at Michelle Rhee’s organization, Students First, was running and would probably be the mayor’s candidate it only motivated me further. There was absolutely no way I wanted my daughter, or any child, in a district where questionable philosophies of folks in “edreform” were making their way into local policy decisions. Running for school board was a lot of work; in the end I was outspent 2:1. However, the hard work paid off and we won every precinct, despite the odds. I found voters were eager to support a teacher, and intuitively understood the importance of a teacher’s voice in this role.

Teachers have a unique perspective on the school board. We know what high-quality professional development looks like, and what it’s like to have our time wasted sitting in subpar training. Working with educators in other districts as well as throughout the state gives us a sense of the big picture and keeps us connected to what others are doing. We also know that the impact on student learning is our highest priority, and that good teaching and learning can look messy. I draw on these experiences and knowledge when making decisions, and there have been a number of times I’ve felt my perspective as an educator has made a difference on the outcome of board votes.

A single board member cannot make change – there needs to be a majority of votes to get anything accomplished. Since it’s a violation of the Brown Act to talk with more than one member outside of the board room about a particular issue, you have to make your case in the board room and persuade people who may not see the world the way you do. This job is much easier when you have colleagues who come to the table with an open mind, and this is why it’s so critical that teachers play a part in the process and help get board members elected.

Being on school board has carried over into my life as a teacher. I know there have been times I complained of policy, but never reached out to those making it. When we fail to communicate our concerns with board members, we can’t blame them for not understanding the issues before they vote.  Educators also need to look at the big picture, and fight for lasting change, not simply the school-year calendar or other topics that don’t have much bearing in the scheme of things. Not only do we need to reach out to board members when we have concerns and issues, but also when things are going well. If they recently approved a new position or program and great things are happening as a result, let them know! They need to hear from us.

I’ll end with a plea to those of you who teach in different cities from where you live. Conflict-of-interest laws prohibit teachers from serving in the districts where they work. If you live elsewhere, consider running for school board. You can make a difference, and your voice is needed.



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