InterACT guest blog post by Christopher Chiang
InterACT features many blog posts on the topic of teacher leadership, but this guest post is the first that provides the perspective of a teacher whose leadership comes through elected office.
Christopher Chiang is a teacher at the Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, CA, and a school board trustee in the Mountain View Whisman School District. He holds a BA in Political Science from the UC Irvine, an MA in Teaching from Stanford, and an MA in Educational Leadership from Columbia University. He wrote this guest post for InterACT, and it will be followed by two others posts by teachers with current or recent positions on school boards.
I ran for school board because I worried that education conversations at the district level focused too much on test scores and paid too little attention to teachers. Standardized tests are a useful data point, but so are the professionals working daily with the children, but so little attention is given to their input.
I think being an actively teaching educator on the board, allowed me to see, and point out, when our energies or resources were not about to help change things in the classroom, or worse, make it harder for teachers to teach. I was shocked how often complex instructional issues are discussed without teachers in the room, or worse when teachers do give input, it is given little weight. During the open session, you have your district leaders, who collectively have a great deal of education experience. But behind closed doors when choosing or evaluating superintendents, the trustees can only rely on their own experiences, which can vary widely. It is there that a teacher’s voice is most valuable.
As education becomes more grounded in science and research, the need for a professionals voice in the guidance of a school is as sensible as doctors helping lead hospitals. A seasoned teacher also comes to a board already trained in active listening, always staying composed, even, or especially in front of angry parents. Those skills make for a very effective board trustee.
What I had not anticipated is how slowly board decisions are made. Whether it be the Brown Act or the amount of required oversight decisions a board must handle, the pace can be jarring for educators who are used to making quick decisions in their classroom. Teachers often just ask to be supported. I hope more teachers will step into public service to create that support in the communities they live.
Here’s a quick review of why I think Vergara et. al. v. California is a deeply flawed lawsuit and should be rejected at trial (beginning today). I’ve written about the case before, based on a presentation by the plaintiffs at the Stanford Law School. That prior post had a bit more in the way of citations and links, so if you want to go deeper into the case, give it a read.
1. Plaintiffs misunderstand the challenges facing California public schools. Our state’s spending on education is dismal – nearly the worst in the nation. Our students have disturbingly little access to nurses, libraries, librarians, and counselors, and our student-to-staff ratios are also rather high for both teaching and administrative staff. The measures used to argue school failure are also more apt to show the effects of poverty and language acquisition – and we are a state with high percentages of children living in poverty, and learning English as a new language. Even a key witness for the plaintiffs, Erik Hanushek, is among a group of researchers who have demonstrated that school and teacher effects are relatively small (15-20%) when analyzing test performance. If there are problems in California public schools that rise to the level requiring a constitutional challenge, those problems are not caused by ed. code provisions relating to teacher hiring, layoffs, and employment status.
2. Plaintiffs rely inappropriately on standardized tests to identify problem schools and supposedly inferior teachers. Wealth is the number one predictor of relative performance on standardized tests. Here and around the world. Period. See the graph in this recent article for the latest example, taken from the PISA test. The use of test scores and value-added measures in school personnel decisions is not supported by any research. The research that the plaintiffs cite – conducted by economists and not experts in education or psychometrics – does not suggest that patterns and relationships observed in huge data sets can be reliably or usefully applied to individuals in high stakes HR decisions. Though, I keep hoping to see a VAM proponent cross-examined someday. I’ve already written how I think that should go.
3. Plaintiffs emphasize variability among districts as the reason to litigate, but that variability shows that state level remedies are unnecessary. Because some districts are supposedly burdened with too many ineffective teachers, plaintiffs want ed. code changed statewide. However, it’s self-evident that, working under the same state law, some districts are better managed and therefore less burdened, if burdened at all, by ed. code. The plaintiffs may have the misfortune of attending districts that lack the administrative savvy or resources to manage as well as others do, which is hardly an argument suggesting that the law is the problem.
4. Plaintiffs actually seek to make California more like the lowest performing states in the nation. If the ed. code provisions in question are the source of our problems, why are states with similar provisions, and strong unions, clustered in the upper end of the performance spectrum, while states without those protections, and weaker unions, are clustered among the lowest performing states? The top performing international educational systems are also heavily unionized. (In Finland, administrators and teachers belong to the same union).
5. Plaintiffs misunderstand the workplace. They hope that eliminating seniority as a consideration in layoffs will improve schools, ignoring how it will destabilize schools and set off internal competition among teachers in areas that anticipate declining enrollment or significant budget cuts leading to layoffs. Such competition would be bad for teaching and for students. Schools and other complex professional organizations thrive on collaboration, cooperation, and stability.
6. Plaintiffs misunderstand the work force. To the extent that stronger schools have stronger teachers, it’s a function of pay and work environment. I work at a high-paying school, well-resourced, and quite stable. Most of the teachers we hire are experienced teachers moving from lower performing districts that paid less (sometimes, far less), and that couldn’t provide the overall quality workplace. Changing the procedures for firing or laying off teachers is not going to address the reasons that good teachers generally leave those schools, nor will teachers who are more competitive in the job market be drawn to struggling schools in any case.
7. Plaintiffs cherry pick the facts about “getting rid of bad teachers.” First of all, schools and districts can and do fire teachers “without cause” who have not yet attained “permanent status” (commonly but erroneously labeled “tenure) – which accords the due process that plaintiffs claim is so onerous. Secondly, plaintiffs focus on how difficult it is to fire teachers who contest their dismissal, without acknowledging that those procedures sometimes prevent wrongful dismissals that administrators should not have pursued. However, they do not talk about the number of “bad” teachers who decide to leave of their own accord, either due to dissatisfaction with the job or unwillingness to go through a protracted process of remediation and re-evaluation. And, as previously noted, there are districts that are more effective in dealing with struggling teachers and then firing them if necessary – though the plaintiffs want little to do with that inconvenient fact since it reveals the local factors determine the severity of the problems, rather than ed. code.
8. Plaintiffs are indifferent to the likely negative effects on schools should their lawsuit succeed. My characterization of their indifference is based on the presentation I saw last summer (see my other post on the case). Despite the total lack of teaching and administrative experience on their team, they’re utterly confident in their approach and seem to feel that if they are right on the limited scope of their legal claims, nothing else matters. In fact, the loss of job protections for teachers will likely take us backwards in public education. Discriminatory practices of all sorts will be easier to conceal when dismissal procedures require less effort and evidence. Teachers will have to think twice about political or union activism, the exercise of academic freedom, and challenging school policies that are bad for teaching or learning. Pressure will mount to inflate the grades and minimize disciplinary interventions for children of powerful or influential adults.
Am I speculating on this last point? Sure – but not about the existence of those problems. It’s just a matter of history potentially repeating itself. Or, a matter of problems currently more prevalent in other states becoming increasingly common here. I’m only speculating in the sense that I expect – but can’t prove – that making California laws closer to those of weak union states will make our work conditions more like those states. But I much prefer my kind of speculation over that of Students Matter. Their lawsuit speculates about the nature of the problems in schools, the causes, the solutions, and the theoretical benefits of those supposed solutions.
I do believe some of the HR policies in question could be streamlined or modernized – and expect to see that kind of debate held in public among our representatives, and negotiated among stakeholders. We’ve even had an InterACT blog post that favored the reform seniority regulations in LAUSD). But instead of open debate, we have a court case few Californians will follow closely, with a set of typical “edreform” aims chosen by wealthy business people and attorneys, who have appointed themselves to litigate on matters they misunderstand or obfuscate. It’s sad that so much time and energy will go into this case, and its likely appeals regardless of the outcome. While the result of the trial is in question, I’m quite sure that this whole process won’t help a single student. If the plaintiffs fail in court, then nothing has changed, and if they prevail, there’s no evidence to suggest that weakening teachers’ positions will help their students.
Photos by the author.
In late 2012, Accomplished California Teachers produced a policy report that recommended expanded roles for teachers in schools and districts, with a third-tier advanced certification for teacher leaders. You can read more about our proposals here. Since then, I’ve offered occasional blog posts highlighting some promising practices that advance our profession in the right direction.
One of the main areas of promise for teacher leadership is in professional development. Most teachers I’ve talked to and engaged with are craving both more and better professional development, an impression supported by survey data from American teachers. Even if we had the resources available, many of us lack the time to put resources to good use: compared to our international peers, we spend much more time in the classroom, leaving less time for professional learning and collaboration. It would be a step in the right direction if we could even set aside a protected, guaranteed one-hour per week, but in many schools and districts even that hour is hard to come by.
It seems clear to me that the key to both incremental change and the eventual transformation of our profession is not only to expand the capacity of teachers to achieve professional growth, but also to design and lead professional growth experiences. To that end, we need teachers who are increasingly aware of developments in the field, increasingly networked and engaged, and increasingly willing and able to lead.
We’re moving in the right direction, with more teachers taking on coaching and support roles in schools and districts. We have ever-expanding opportunities for learning and networking online, formally and informally, and those efforts are leading to more face-to-face networking as well.
But in the long run, small changes won’t be enough. My hope is that we are gradually building a critical mass of teachers who expect to have more say in their professional development, and who are developing the knowledge, skills, and disposition to take ownership of that work and lead it. That approach would be a significant improvement over the predominant model – trainings and presentations too often conducted by outside providers who won’t be around to engage more deeply or regularly. These sessions are unaffectionately known as sit ‘n’ git or spray and pray professional development.
For a recent example of a better way, I offer you the retooled professional development day as conducted by Palo Alto Unified (PAUSD) elementary teachers earlier this school year. Early in the school year, teachers were invited to submit proposals for professional learning experiences that they could lead for their peers. Those proposals were organized to create a one-day, intra-district education conference. Teachers from a dozen elementary schools met on the campus of one of the high schools and took over one of the buildings, choosing for themselves the sessions that best met their needs. It was a first for the district, and hopefully the start of something that will continue, and even improve.
The opportunity to share learning and ideas with colleagues beyond the school site but still within the district increases the likelihood of ongoing collaboration. The practice of organizing professional learning for one’s peers increases the the knowledge, skills, and leadership capacity of the presenting teachers. And hopefully, witnessing this productive and successful approach inclines the district administration and the community to support the idea of growing our own expertise and leadership, investing in our own people more often, depending less on outside personnel, organizations and companies to do for us what we can do for ourselves.
But not to get carried away, I would add the following ongoing concerns. First of all, if this approach is limited to professional development days, we’ll see only marginal improvements. I would love to see events like this continue, but they should become secondary in focus behind more consistent and ongoing professional learning. And secondly, it’s important for teachers and our associations to take the lead in guaranteeing the quality and efficacy of professional learning approaches that we design or direct . That kind of accountability is something we must embrace if we hope to be full partners in the leadership of our schools and districts.
If we accept that responsibility, we must also have the full support of our districts and schools; we must be afforded the time and trust to navigate this learning, to analyze and reflect on our work, to make some mistakes along the way. Every bit of reading I’ve done on organizational management (much of which I’ve written about) suggests that a thriving team doing complex work depends an having an atmosphere of safety and trust. Teachers will not commit to take chances on new roles and responsibilities if administrators or school boards are perceived as enforcers waiting to pounce on a mistake.
We can do this, together. In teaching, it’s called gradual release of responsbility, where we model what students need to do, practice with them, and provide feedback as needed to help them soar independently. In the field of education, we need teachers, unions, administrators, school boards and policy makers to be forward-thinking enough to foster conditions in which teachers can gradually assume both greater control and greater responsibility for the continual improvement of schools.
Teacher/blogger Ellie Herman turns her attention to our own Lisa Alva Wood, following up from Lisa’s most recent blog post here at InterACT.
Originally posted on Gatsby In L.A.:
Lisa Alva is a dangerous woman. At least some people think so: last month, she published a blistering piece on the InterACT education website recounting her “broken romance” with some of the leading organizations in education reform. Lisa had already butted heads with some union leaders by speaking out publicly against their seniority policies and resistance to accountability. But her association with the reform movement ended abruptly this past December:
I phoned into a conference call that wasn’t what I expected, and it ended my relationships with the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Teachers for a New Unionism and Educators4Excellence, and put some others in the doghouse…
Listening in to a conference call with the United Way that was supposed to be a talk with education groups but turned into a recruiting session to rally support for LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, Lisa “felt the hair stand up on the back…
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I’ve been engaging in an exchange of views on the upcoming Vergara education lawsuit, mainly in dialogue with whoever posts for the plaintiffs, Students Matter, via Twitter. I created a Storify version of the exchange, but found it impossible to embed here on a WordPress-hosted blog site.
Oh well. Here’s the link to the storify version on their website – if you want to see how it all played out. While I disagree with Students Matter on their selection and interpretation of “facts” related to this case, and disagree further regarding their tactics and proposed solutions, I also commend them for engaging in a civil debate via Twitter, without resorting to ad hominem attacks on “bad teachers” or silly clichés about “supporting the status quo.”
I’d be curious to hear other opinions and reactions.
Looking ahead to the new year often involves taking stock of where we’re at and how we might improve – as people, and as teachers. Drawing my inspiration from the National Board’s Five Core Propositions, I offer the following suggestions for resolutions that I think would apply broadly to my teaching peers. Rest assured, these are all areas I’m working on myself, too!
Resolution 1: Make a renewed effort to connect with students personally. Think of the students you know the least well, and make a point of engaging with them early in the new year. See what you can learn about your students that will help them engage with you and your curriculum.
Resolution 2: Challenge yourself to learn something new about your subject or teaching every week. That might mean reading an extra article now and then from the professional literature available online, or making more time to read journals and books that are languishing in the “get-around-to-this-eventually” corner of your desk, classroom or office. Engage with your peers in school or online to find out what learning they’re engaged in.
Resolution 3: Note that this core proposition doesn’t mention grading. Try to separate feedback from grading a bit more this year. Explore ways to grade less and respond more. Consider a move away from points and averages and towards other grading methods, anything that gets you and your students more focused on learning and less on grading.
Resolution 4: Think about your daily, weekly, or monthly routines: where are the regular opportunities for analysis and reflection that should accompany your work? If you have these opportunities regularly in your work, see what you can do to enrich the experience, to make it more effective. If you don’t have these opportunities regularly at work, consider the potential of an online personal learning network. You should also speak up within your department, grade level, school, district, and teachers association, to advocate for improved collaboration and shared learning.
Resolution 5: Add one new way that you work with your learning community this year. Hopefully your peers are already part of that learning community (and if not, start there, borrowing a bit from Resolution 4). This year, find one new way to connect: take on a new role in your teachers association; engage with parents in a sustained type of outreach or collaboration; invite community members to participate more in the classroom and in the life of the school; reach out to school board members and other policy makers to advocate for your school community and on your students’ behalf; engage more deeply with your professional organizations by joining committees, writing or presenting.
Make 2014 the best year of your teaching career – and I’ll try to do the same!
[EDIT 1/2/14] – Many thanks to all who have read and shared this post. It has been more widely shared than anything I’ve ever written. If this is your first time reading a post at InterACT, I invite you to explore the categories in the drop down menu on the right side of this page. Happy New Year!
Schools in the city of Sanger, California, struggle with many of the educational challenges you’d anticipate in a rural, farming community, populated largely by migrant workers with low incomes and little English. Yet in the past decade, Sanger schools have beaten the odds, improving educational outcomes for their students in many significant ways.
You can find the details in this AP story by Gosia Wozniacka, at the San Diego Union-Tribune web site: Farm town develops education success formula. The story echoes much of what David Kirp said about improving schools in his book Improbable Scholars, (reviewed here). While his book focuses on Union City, New Jersey, he does refer to Sanger as an example of similar conditions producing similar improvements.
The most important take-away from these stories is that school improvement does not require dramatic overhauls in curriculum or governance. Rather, it’s mainly a matter of stability and trust, the key conditions that allow people to build a shared understanding of the challenges they face and how to best serve their students, developing home-grown solutions that everyone commits to supporting.
Here’s a sample of the article, which I hope you’ll read in its entirety:
Faced with failure, most districts respond with quick fixes geared for immediate results but few long-term gains, said Jane David of the Bay Area Research Group, co-author of a study about the district. Instead of spending on costly programs or teaching aids, Sanger set out to change its culture.
The district made “an investment in time versus money,” said Matt Navo, Sanger’s superintendent. “It allowed us to use personnel who already existed,” train teachers and provide additional help to students by changing schedules and trying new approaches.
Key to change was a model requiring collaboration among teachers, data to track students and holding teachers accountable to each other.
To better understand why students like Sanchez struggled, the district created its own standardized tests. Teacher teams regularly analyzed scores to determine what succeeded and what failed. They set goals, exchanged strategies and tried out new teaching methods. They even retaught each other’s students.
Some teachers initially resisted, but administrators emphasized the approach was not punitive.
“There wasn’t that fear of failure, so we could be creative and innovative,” said Cathy Padilla, principal at Jefferson Elementary School.