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Capturing the Spark

November 19, 2016

cts_frontIt’s been a long time since InterACT was an active education blog, though I remain quite proud of what we did here. Those of us who wrote blog posts here have all continued to advocate for public education and the strengthening of the teaching profession. For anyone still receiving updates when posts appear here, I wanted to let you know that I’ve written and published a book about teachers and public schools in California. Capturing the Spark: Inspired Teaching, Thriving Schools is on sale now. Many former members of Accomplished California Teachers are featured in the book, which is based on my visits to 63 public school campuses around California, and observations of 78 teachers at those schools. For more about the book, you can also visit

New Beginnings: Kickstarter and EdWeek Teacher

September 22, 2014

Greetings to InterACT readers one and all! If you’ve been following posts here recently you might recall that I’m moving my blogging activity to other locations for the most part. I’m also starting a new project that involves traveling around California to visit many of the teachers I’ve met over the years through my work at Accomplished California Teachers – which led to work with various other organizations and groups of teachers. Here are two links that went live today, which I hope you’ll follow.

First, for posts most similar to what appeared here at InterACT, I’ll be blogging at Road Trips In Education, at EdWeek Teacher. My goal is to continue the kind of focus I had here, trying to link policy and practice. Of course, as the title suggests, the new blog will benefit from observations and learning derived from my travels around the state this year.

The other link I’d like to share will take you to my Kickstarter campaign (which is not officially affiliated with EdWeek, or Accomplished California Teachers). I’m raising money to fund my travels and then to self-publish a book about the experience and the take-away lessons. Please take a look, and if you consider a contribution to the project, please remember the project will not be funded at all if I don’t meet the goal, and successful campaigns usually depend on strong starts! Thank you.


Relying on Half-Truths in Vergara P.R. Push

September 15, 2014

Writing in The San Diego Union-Tribune this weekend, San Diego County Superintendent Randy Ward offered lots of rhetoric and insufficient evidence to explain the educational benefits leading to his support for the Vergara ruling. At various times over the years, I’ve formed a positive impression of Ward, and even enjoyed a brief chat with him at a California Teachers of the Year event. He has decades of experience as a respected administrator in multiple districts and counties around California. My earliest impression of him came from a panel discussion he did with John Merrow several years ago; when asked the extent to which he would hold unions responsible for certain problems in education, and Ward answered that every contract is signed by two sides, so you can’t hold just one side responsible.

This time around, I have to take issue with his assessment of the state’s current education policy drama. Regarding the Vergara decision, Ward offers plenty of basic observations about the challenges of educating children in high-poverty, high-needs schools, and the maldistribution of highly-qualified teachers among schools. Like the Vergara attorneys, he suggests, without evidence, that the most challenged schools would improve student learning if not for ed. code provisions relating teacher job protections – especially concerning seniority and dismissal proceedings; they want to remove bad teachers more easily, and target less effective teachers for layoffs when necessary. It sounds like I’m arguing against an idea with benefits that are self-evident, but there are some potentially flawed underlying assumptions:

  • Loss of seniority protections won’t have a negative impact on school climate and staff collaboration.
  • Schools are able to evaluate teachers accurately and effectively.
  • The new teachers coming in will be better than those they replace.
  • The ineffective teaching is mainly a result of flaws in the individual rather than in the school system.

Certainly, there are individuals who need to be dismissed. I tend to think that the much larger problem in our field is that over-stressed school systems create a lot of sub-optimal teaching, and unsatisfactory teachers.

Ward concedes that charter schools have the flexibility he wants the Vergara decision to create statewide – and yet don’t, as a sector, have better outcomes. Perhaps he could also have noted that many states are similarly challenged to show better educational outcomes, even though they also lack California’s due process protections for teachers, commonly but erroneously called “tenure.”

But what bothers me most are the points on which Ward is most specific. First, regarding teacher dismissals:

Pre-Vergara, out of 275,000 teachers statewide, 220 teachers were dismissed for unsatisfactory performance per year on average. Do you believe that only 0.0008 percent [sic] of professionals in any given field are unsatisfactory? Then why would that be the case in the teaching profession?

First off, let the English teacher correct the math here: 220/275,000 = 0.0008 or 0.08 percent.

Now, to the point Ward is trying to make. The state might be forgiven for only having data compiled for certain years by a certain point in time; I’m less forgiving when it comes to some information that Ward either should have had, or chose to omit. When LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy made up his mind in the past few years to have the district engage in more rigorous efforts to evaluate teachers and dismiss underperforming teachers, the number of teacher dismissals in that district jumped dramatically. It sure looks like willpower and resources can overcome the supposedly insurmountable ed code.

But Ward’s number is even more distorted, because as Ward certainly knows, teacher turnover is a staggering problem. With so many teachers leaving the profession voluntarily, Ward’s numerical argument only works if all of the teachers leaving are satisfactory, and the only unsatisfactory teachers are the ones who choose to stay in the system and fight their potential dismissal all the way to the point that it is accounted for in government statistics. Furthermore, we first and second-year teachers who turn out to be unsatisfactory are simply not offered contracts. Administrators need not take any steps to “fire” them, so their unsatisfactory work would similarly fail to enter into Ward’s calculations.

According to California government statistics in this blog post, 20% of new teachers are gone in two years, and 31% are gone in five years. Let’s focus on the 11% leaving in years 3-5 (since teachers can be dismissed without cause in the first two years). That’s 30,250 teachers (using the state’s percentage and Ward’s estimate of teacher workforce). Now, if you ask among teachers and principals, I think you’ll find some agreement that some of those departing teachers are ineffective, but leaving public education without going through the complete process that would land them in Ward’s statistics.

If a mere 11% of those 30,250 teachers departing in years 3-5 are doing unsatisfactory work – 1 out of 9 – then Ward’s numbers (via Students Matter?) are off by more than 500%.*

Yes, I’m engaging in speculation, but I think if Ward were pushed on this point, he’d back off from using those numbers; they only hold up if every teacher leaving the profession voluntarily is “satisfactory” and the only “unsatisfactory” teachers are the ones whose dismissal procedures go the distance through official channels. The bottom line is that he’s choosing a tiny number that we know something about in order to make a dramatic point, and ignoring a vastly larger number of teachers who leave for reasons unknown to state statisticians, but certain to significantly undermine his argument.

The one other point on which Ward is most specific is citing the costs of teacher dismissals, using the Vergara trial testimony of superintendents from Oakland Unified and Los Angeles Unified. It’s not surprising that the Vergara lawyers solicited testimony from among the poorest, largest, and most difficult to manage districts in the state. The struggles that they confront, however, hardly indicate to me that teachers in 1,000 other California districts have due process rights so cumbersome that they are unconstitutional. I’m sure there are plenty of additional superintendents who would have gladly testified for the plaintiffs – but Ward is silent regarding the superintendents who testified for the defense. Judge Treu’s ruling was similarly opaque on the same matter.

If Randy Ward was hoping his op-ed would encourage more people to embrace the changes Vergara might bring, I’d prefer if he offered a more complete picture of the issues, and without the misleading numbers.


* 30,250 teachers leave in a three-year period = 10,083/yr.; 11% of 10,083 = 1,109, which is 5.04 times 220.


I’m about to switch over to blogging at my new web site, and I’ll also be blogging at EdWeek starting any day now. And on top of all that, I’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund a book writing project about great teachers and public schools all over California.
Please sign up for my email updates to follow all these developments! Thank you.

Transition Approaching

September 11, 2014

Next week I expect to launch two new blogs – one of my own, and one at EdWeek – and a Kickstarter campaign to fund a travel project leading to a book about some of the great teachers and public schools all around California. Over the years, I’ve worked with or talked to so many outstanding educators in our state. We’ve met through Accomplished California Teachers, the National Board Resource Center at Stanford, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the California Teachers Association (and its Institute for Teaching), the California Teacher Union Reform Network (CalTURN), the California Teachers of the Year, the Carlston Family Foundation, Facing History and Ourselves, and then through some personal connections, events, or even through blogging, Twitter chats, and EdCamps.
I’ve already committed to a year out of the classroom in order to hit the road, see all of these people in their classrooms, visit schools I’ve already heard so much about. I’m hoping readers of InterACT will come along for the journey, and ask you to sign-up for my updates along the way, using the form at this link. Thanks!

School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct

September 2, 2014

Larry Cuban has another great post here! I missed this when it first went online, but love the idea of a reformer’s pledge. This should go far and wide – not only to the think-tank crowd, researchers and punditry, but also legislators, school board members, journalists and editors, and even parents, voters, and the broader community.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

School reformers now (and in the past) are (and have been) divided among themselves. So often, they seek similar goals–students who are literate, can think clearly, have requisite skills and knowledge to enter and finish college or start a career,  and  contribute to the larger community– but split over which of the goals should have precedence and how to achieve the ones they prize.



Reformers fighting among themselves, of course, is hardly new.  For generations, traditionalists have fought progressives over the purposes of schooling, what content and skills had to be taught, how teachers should teach, and how students should learn. Whether it was the 1890s, 1960s, or the 1980s, ruptures between school reformers occurred again and again (see here, here, and here). And so it is today over how best to educate poor white and minority children, whether Common Core state standards are a boon…

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Beyond Labor

August 31, 2014
Photo by Anthony Cody.

At a San Francisco rally, Feb. 2011

As we enjoy the Labor Day holiday this year, it’s important to keep in mind the role of the labor movement in securing workers rights and better working conditions for nearly all Americans. The struggles of labor unions in recent decades have accompanied a continually widening gap between rich and poor, with frightening implications for our shrinking middle class and the working poor.

My social media streams are full of reminders about the importance of unions, in the past, present and future. And I agree completely. But it’s not enough to just say we support workers. Those of us in teachers unions need to step up our actions to match our words.

On this Labor Day, I encourage teachers to do what we can to help our unions advance in a three-pronged approach to unionism:

  • labor issues – negotiating for compensation, benefits, working conditions, etc.
  • professional issues – advocating for better student learning by supporting teacher leadership in areas of curriculum, pedagogy, and professional development.
  • social justice – taking an active interest in the well being of everyone in our community, especially those who are currently underserved, struggling, and less empowered.
This approach is not something I came up with, nor do I know how far back it goes; the influences I’m aware of come from union leaders like Pat Dolan, Adam Urbanski, and Bob Peterson. The first of those areas of focus is sometimes referred to as the “bread and butter” of union work, and it probably isn’t necessary to take that up in detail here. As for the second area, this blog has frequently touched upon ways that teachers unions and their members are working to support stronger schools, better teaching, and improved learning. Simply do a search for any of the following terms: CTA, CalTURN, IFT, QEIA
But I think we can do more in every area, and invite teachers to make a new school year resolution relating to labor and unions.  I’m not claiming to be the role model for everyone to follow; I’ve done some of the following, and will try to do more of the suggestions below.
  • Support labor and unions in general by making informed choices about your own consumption. Pay attention to labor issues in the news, and to buying guides from our own unions. If you’re planning any kind of event at a hotel or restaurant, try to find out if it’s a unionized business. If you need work done by someone in a trade, try to find union workers. Yes, it’s possible you will pay a little bit more. Remember that the difference is going to a worker or family in your community, and it may be the difference between a living wage and a poverty wage.
  • Encourage your local association to be more involved in teaching and professional development issues. Talk to teachers in other districts to get ideas of what unions are doing in this area. Ask your local association to pay for teacher professional development activities that districts can’t or won’t cover. If we argue that the district alone bears the responsibility for quality teaching, then we have less reason to expect administrators to engage with unions on this issues. The California Teachers Association has an Institute for Professional Development, and they put on conferences that you should look into, and then ask your local to send a team of teachers.
  • Look beyond teaching and learning and contracts, and see about getting your local engaged with the community. Sponsor or otherwise support events, activities, and other organizations that strengthen our communities. Organize drives, give-aways, fundraising, etc.
Labor Day has to be more than a one-day nod to our past. The day off is a treat, beaches and barbecues are pleasant enough, and there is good reason to recall past success. But without present and future action to strengthen labor and unions – and the values they stand for – we risk letting Labor Day turn into a sad, ironic, vestigial observance of an outdated concept. Instead, let’s take stock of the situation for workers in our community and country, make individual choices that are part of the solution, and organize for change.

Controversial Topics in the Classroom, and on WBEZ

August 30, 2014

A bit over a week ago, caught in the grip of  the national tensions surrounding Ferguson, MO, I wrote a blog post arguing that teachers need to bring this event and others like it into the classroom. The post was picked up and re-blogged at “The Answer Sheet” at the Washington Post, and also at the National Education Policy Center (link). Then, a school district superintendent in Illinois announced that if the events and tensions in Ferguson, MO, were mentioned by students in the classroom, their teachers should change the subject.

At WBEZ-FM in Chicago, Tony Sarabia’s show The Morning Shift decided to take up the topic of teaching about controversial issues, and they asked me to participate in a 15-minute segment after seeing my blog post. I was glad to be asked and to be part of the program, and I’m also glad they were able include Steven Becton, who does some important work around these issues with Facing History and Ourselves, in Memphis. (You can see Steven in this video from FHAO). I hope anyone reading or listening to any of my thoughts on this topic will notice my insistence that I’m not putting myself out there to prescribe any specific content, focus, methods, etc., but rather trying to articulate a broader principle; in order for schools to maximize their effectiveness in supporting student learning – in the most lasting and transformative sense – schools have to stay relevant to students’ external lives and concerns. It’s also in our best interests as a country to promote deeper understanding of these issues among our students.

Here’s the segment from WBEZ.


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