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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.


Few Great Picks Among Teacher Movies

March 1, 2014

Over at Edutopia, there’s a discussion brewing about which film would deserve the Oscar for Best Teacher Movie. The conversation spilled over to Twitter a bit as well. Some of the movies are more broadly about education, not just teaching, of course. I have to say I’m not a huge fan of any of the leading contenders – at least, not if we think of them as teaching or education movies. Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips seem to lead the pack among purely fictional stories, while Stand and Deliver and Freedom Writers, and Dangerous Minds are the based-on-a-true-story leading contenders.

Some of these are fine films, dramatic and compelling, well-written and full of good performances. But looking at them as teacher movies, only Mr. Chips leaves me with an unambiguously positive feeling. (I haven’t seen Dangerous Minds). The other movies show passionate teachers, but their passion becomes the centerpiece of the story; that might make for good narrative, but it doesn’t capture what I love about teaching or would want other to understand about good teaching. There’s also a significant cost – teachers sacrificing health, family time, jobs and marriages.

When it’s fictional, or a dramatized version of real life, it’s easy for viewers to shake their heads about the downsides and celebrate the good. In reality, the burnout and familial discord have lasting effects not only the individual but also on the future students.

Coincidentally, I just received an email from someone seeking a recommendation for a good education documentary for use in a public event. This person had read my negative review of “TEACHED” - which is actually a series of short films. (See also, follow-up with Kelly Amis, director of those films). This person wondered what I thought would be a better option. So, here are a few notes about some education documentaries that might be worth a look.

American Teacher - a documentary film that grew out of the Teacher Salary Project, American Teacher follows four teachers and documents their lives in and out of the classroom. The broader argument of the film has to do with the working conditions and salaries of teachers, and how challenging it is to remain in the profession. I had the pleasure of viewing the film as part of an event I helped plan at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. I wrote a blog post that includes some pictures from that event, along with my approximation of improvised remarks I made at the end.

Mitchell 20 – this documentary focuses on National Board Certification as a school improvement strategy. That might sound a bit narrow or “wonky” but the film really does a fine job of capturing the promise and the challenges of certification as they played out in Mitchell Elementary School in Arizona. While the film is decidedly pro-certification, I think what distinguishes this type of advocacy from something like TEACHED is the commitment to documenting the challenges and dealing honestly with imperfections, rather than simply pushing an agenda through implications and distortions. (Although, unfortunately, their website includes a tagline that reads “Teacher quality is the answer” – and while the question is unstated, any kind of oversimplification like that bugs me a bit). Again – I have a blog post on this film if you want more information.

Teach – CBS made this film last year, directed by Davis Guggenheim, returning to education with a film less antagonistic than Waiting for Superman. I can’t give it a hearty endorsement, (especially with part of it serving as an embedded promotion of Khan Academy), but there might be enough good in it that you could get into some conversation about the current state of teaching. Yes… blogged.

I’d love to hear your reactions about these or other movies in comments below.

Relating to Students, and Staff

February 27, 2014

I dropped in to the English Companion Ning last night – something I used to do more often and realized I was missing. It’s a thriving online community of English teachers from all over the country, created almost five years ago by über-English-teacher Jim Burke. (I think I was one of the people who signed up in the first couple days of its existence). By random chance I read a post from a pre-service teacher trying to connect with a class of second-semester seniors. I decided to offer a little support, and before I knew it, had composed some thoughts about relating with students that I realized might make a good blog post. I realized I don’t write many blog posts that are strictly about classroom practice – but then I also realized that my advice to this pre-service teacher is similar to advice I’d offer to a school leader trying to work effectively with a teaching staff. Post a comment at the end and let me know if you agree.

Here’s what I wrote on the English Companion (with minor edits).


Hello! Sounds like a challenging situation! You hit on one key point on your own: it takes time for relationships to develop. You seem to understand where seniors are at in life, and why this teaching placement will be a challenge. I would suggest focusing even more on them, and on the curriculum, and less on the idea of students having an interest in getting to know you. Not to suggest they shouldn’t get to know you, but let it happen on its own rather than as an intended focus.

You didn’t mention what type of class it is, or if you have any input regarding the curriculum. I’m guessing there’s only so much you can do coming into a class in late February. However, I’d suggest focusing as much as possible on essential questions and themes that might speak to where your students are in life right now – transitions, independence. You might also look for some opportunity to engage around social issues they’re confronting or will soon.

Dan Pink

Dan Pink, addressing the NBPTS Conference in July, 2011 (photo by the author)

One last thought regarding motivation – try to find a copy of Dan Pink’s book Drive, or read some detailed reviews of it. I’ve never met an educator who didn’t find it useful. In a nutshell, the book demonstrates that people are generally most motivated and successful when they are in situations that offer three key conditions:

  1. autonomy
  2. mastery
  3. purpose

What does that mean? Give students as much autonomy as possible. If you are required to use certain texts, see if you can give them autonomy over assessments, projects, extending texts, etc. If you are required to use certain assessments, see if you can allow more autonomy over content. Or autonomy over groups (if appropriate), or autonomy regarding timelines. People are motivated when they’ve had a say in what they’re doing.

Mastery is motivating because for the most part, people want to be successful at meeting challenges. For seniors, fewer assignments/assessments with elevated expectations for mastery would be appropriate anyways. Raise the bar a bit, and offer everything you can to help them reach it. (And remember, if you can put some autonomy in the mix regarding what to master, how, when… so much the better).

Purpose is tricky, but important – especially at the end of senior year! What’s the point? Why do this work? You have to draw that out of the students. Is college preparation a satisfactory purpose? You might think so, but probably not, for many of them; they’ve been in that mode for a long time, and there’s not much you’re likely to impart that hasn’t been covered already in some form. Is there a purpose that’s personal, relevant, and still fresh or new? Perhaps more community-oriented? A social issue or cause, a chance to bring attention to something important? For students who don’t find the coursework inherently purposeful, attaching it to something that matters might help. But be careful – don’t confuse interesting and important work with effective work. The purpose that engages the students might be different from your purpose, so don’t forget that whatever you come up with must still meet the appropriate educational goals for your students.

Okay – one more last thought on motivation: it’s not something you can give students, or do for them. Our job is, in the words of another über-teacher, Larry Ferlazzo, helping students motivate themselves.

I wouldn’t suggest trying to do this all on your own. Have some discussions with colleagues, supervisors, and peers. And draw as much as you can from the students themselves. Establish the parameters that are least negotiable, and then work with them to fill in everything else. Hopefully you have good support at the site. Once there’s a clear picture of what’s necessary, try as much as possible to say yes to their suggestions in other areas.

Come to think of it, this advice might apply to school leaders as well – so feel free to “manage up” and share this!

Blogging and Tweeting and Edcamp – Oh My!

February 25, 2014

My most recent post was looking ahead to Edcamp Silicon Valley, which we pulled off a few days ago now. I’m still kind of processing and decompressing, and hoping to gather my thoughts for a blog post about the experience of organizing and edcamp and bringing it to fruition. I also want to share more information about the level of support we garnered from our local teachers associations, and how we attracted a little bit of media coverage as well (14 minutes into this radio newscast).

But for today, I’m going to highlight a couple #edcampsv summaries and reactions that made it online ahead of mine. For starters, please read this post by my colleague Christina Nosek, a fifth grade teacher in my district and fellow edcamp organizer.


In a succinct blog post, Chris manages to recap what has happened in the past couple years since “I decided to finally take professional development into my own hands.” Her examples and reflections capture where I think many teachers are right now in a shifting professional landscape. And more teachers need to move in this direction. Our schools, districts, teachers associations and policy makers need to recognize new realities about how we pursue professional learning and what it does to improve teaching.

Enough from me – please read the post on Chris’s blog!

Another good blog post on Edcamp Silicon Valley comes from Edcamp veteran Craig Yen – read his post to see how many edcamps it takes to be a veteran, and his thoughts on face-to-face interaction with people we mostly “see” online.



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