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August 1, 2014
Teacher leaders from Washoe Co. School District  (NV) discuss their work at TURN Conference in Chicago (7/28/14, photo by the author)

Teacher leaders from Washoe Co. School District (NV) discuss their work at TURN Conference in Chicago (7/28/14, photo by the author)

For the past couple of years, I’ve been connected with the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN), primarily through its affiliated regional network in California, CalTURN. On the occasion of my most recent TURN experience (in Chicago the past few days), and also due to some questions and criticisms surfacing in social media lately, I’ve decided to write a bit about why I participate in TURN, and how I think it contributes to strengthening unions, the teaching profession, and public education.

Before I go into the details, let me establish some basic points:

  • I strongly believe in collective bargaining, and have found TURN entirely committed to strong unions using collective bargaining to improve teaching and learning.
  • I also believe our unions must address labor issues, the professionalization of teaching, and social justice; I have always found TURN leadership and participants share those values.
  • I am an advocate of expanding teacher leadership as part of every phase of school and district governance, and have been engaged with TURN because it is helping this to happen within a strong union framework.
  • I want to pursue expanded career pathways for teachers, formalizing new roles in educational systems, allowing us to exert greater influence on curriculum, professional development, and school improvement; I have consistently found TURN supporting those ideas.

These were my beliefs before I found TURN. If I didn’t think TURN was supportive of these principles, I wouldn’t be involved. My allegiance to these principles supersedes my commitment to any organization, and I hope this blog post (along with others if anyone really wants to dig into it) will help clarify where I’m coming from, and what motivates me and others with whom I’ve shared this work.

My awareness of TURN goes back several years, but my own involvement began shortly after I worked with a group of educators in Accomplished California Teachers to help produce a policy report on teacher evaluation. I was invited to present that work at a CalTURN conference in Santa Monica, and found the group was engaging in some interesting work around labor-management collaboration and interest-based bargaining. There were district teams attending the meeting with both union and administrative leaders, working together, taking time to find common ground, wrestle with challenges, and learn from other unions and administrators at the conference. The conversations in the room were productive, and consistently focused on helping teachers do a better job of helping students learn more effectively.

In my own district, I had always seen a spirit of cooperation and good will among union leaders and administrators. Again, it’s not perfect – but it wasn’t divisive or vitriolic. In my twelve years there, we’ve gone through a few variations on teacher evaluation and professional development, conversations and work in which I had a little more insight and input, and I have seen how a district’s positive working relationship contributes to better teaching and learning. Though my district has not participated in CalTURN in the time that I have started to, I stayed involved on my own, and was eventually invited to participate on the steering committee (though, please note, I do not speak for CalTURN or anyone else on the steering committee). I’ve written about CalTURN in prior blog posts for those who want more insights into the conferences I’ve attended, and what they accomplished.

This week was my first time attending a TURN conference drawing attendees from around the country. Again, I saw labor-management teams attending together, and importantly, working together, having substantive conversations about how to to do better work for our students. There are TURN-affiliated districts around the country, representing tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of teachers.

Labor and management at the table together, planning future collaboration. (TURN, Chicago, 7/29/14, photo by the author)

Labor and management at the table, planning future collaboration. (TURN, Chicago, 7/29/14, photo by the author)

The recent tensions on social media, I think, are largely arising because the conference focused on Common Core implementation. Putting those three words together pretty much ends the debate before it starts for some people, and I started seeing critical posts on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The argument is that helping implement Common Core is helping corporatize and privatize public education. By implication, the critics seem to argue that any union member or local association that is implementing the common core is selling out. They do not seem to accept that many of our union brothers and sisters look at the same information and reach different conclusions about the implications of that information, or the best course of action. My approach is to accept that my fellow professionals, and our associations in various states and in various political circumstances, can be trusted to determine their own priorities and directions on a variety of complicated issues in challenging times.

TURN is addressing Common Core implementation because that’s what member associations and districts are doing, some enthusiastically, some still expressing varying degrees of concern. TURN is not in the position of telling anyone to implement CCSS, but rather, meeting the needs of members that are going through that transition. The overarching goal is to ensure that teachers, through their unions, have the ability to negotiate policies and collaborate in decision-making to improve teaching and learning.

In the past few days, I heard presenters consistently describing ways in which labor-management collaboration and union advocacy have created new professional development and leadership opportunities for teachers. I heard about districts making policy changes that entrust teachers – and unions – with new roles and greater responsibility. These are concrete gains, solid improvements in the profession. As the assessment and accountability landscape evolves, I believe we are now in a better position to influence policy improvements. I do wish more of this progress had come without CCSS in the picture, but my hope now is that teachers and unions will protect these gains, ensuring the continued improvement of teaching in their districts. If we do that, we’ll have stronger unions, better teaching, and lasting improvements that will persist through the inevitable transition through CCSS to the Next Big Thing, whenever that might occur.

I do understand the concerns around Common Core. I’ve been critical of the Common Core in the past, especially the processes by which they were crafted and adopted, and this blog has featured posts (mine and others’) critical of CCSS. I’m deeply concerned that the assessments will be abused the same way that testing was abused under NCLB. I’ve also previously written about why I am not actively resisting Common Core in my context at this time, though I remain vigilant to see what will happen in the future, and remain engaged to try to prevent outcomes such as the misuse of test scores for teacher evaluation. If I were teaching in New York, I’m sure I’d be taking a different approach, and I may yet in California. The fact that at times I’ve been a member or leader connected to any organization – my local union, CTA, TURN, NBPTS, NCTE, ASCD, Learning Forward, etc. – does not mean I automatically subscribe to all of their positions and agree with all of their policies. That’s partly why I engage – not only to support what I think is good work by good organizations, but also to try to influence their work and make it better.

That approach won’t appeal to everyone. So be it. But the critics win no converts by implying that any thinking, informed person who shares their core values regarding schools must also share their opinions about the One True Path to help schools. It’s implied we are supposed to avoid or resist anything connected at all with the Common Core, or the Gates Foundation, or Pearson… you get the idea. I fully understand the criticisms of those entities; I agree on many points, have made many of those same points myself at times, and I’m glad that there is a vigorous debate around the issues. But if you reject everything and everyone connected even tangentially to the largest initiatives, largest vendors, and largest funders in education, you don’t have much to work with.

So, instead of engaging in an ideological battle that divides everyone into one camp or the other, I’m finding ways to do the most productive work I can, guided by the principles outlined above, to help students, teachers, and public schools.

National Board Certification to Build Professional Capital

July 8, 2014

The blog post below is copied from a comment I left on José Vilson’s blog. You should probably read his entire post (click here to open it in a new window/tab), but here’s a taste of what he was saying about teacher leadership, empowerment, and National Board Certification. The event described is the recent NEA Empowered Educators Day:

For one, I found the diversity (i.e. the number of educators of color) somewhat refreshing, and the strongest presentations in the main plenaries came from representatives of color. I found Monsterrat Garibay’s contributions to the first panel on leadership powerful because she added the contexts of equity and race to her work. None of our work is without context, which is why I found NBCT educator and Mitchell20 protagonist Daniela Robles’ contributions also sparked me. For many of us who work in turnaround schools, which are predominantly of color, it’s refreshing to hear someone say, “I used my expertise BECAUSE of the conditions I was put in, not in spite.”

Even with these powerful stories, I still left with more questions than answers.

What, for instance, is National Board, and why would folks want to try National Board in the age of VAM-validation? Is it enough to say that we want to de-emphasize alternative certification programs in favor of professionalizing / streamlining the teacher recruitment process and why? How do we address career changers and an economy that accosted teachers of color who often work in high need areas? How will getting NBCT-certified address the often subjective ways in which leadership is chosen, even with ostensible application processes?

As someone who’s a candidate for National Board, these are questions I might have as someone who had never heard of National Board. Also, is NBCT the end-all-be-all of teacher leadership, and what exactly am I entering?

Furthermore, is Daniela Robles any less of an educator if she doesn’t do National Board? Does she not deserve a movie for tolerating the nonsense of mid-level executives posing as educational experts telling her what she’s doing wrong? How do we harvest the power of all the educators in that auditorium to not just do better as teachers, but flip the image of what it means to be an expert educator? How does the NEA as both a collective bargaining organization and professional organization endorse and support the work of educators trying to elevate the profession in a substantial way, without the resentment and pettiness that sometimes comes with the territory?

To which, I responded:

Hi José –

Yes, that was a thought provoking, and question provoking post. If I may be so bold, I’m wondering if we might have a more helpful look at these issues by expanding the frame a bit. “Mitchell 20” is a compelling bit of storytelling, and yes, Daniela is the spark or the center for that story, and yes, she’s a wonderful spokesperson. I don’t think either of us begrudge her any of what has come her way. But that’s the storytelling part, not the hard work. Let’s focus on the “20” – because what happened there was a shift in the culture of a school, and I think those can be hard to come by. Yes, we all know those “above and beyond” teachers who deserve recognition. We need them, admire them, we’ve been them – or maybe have moved in and out of those roles as our energies and life circumstances permit. But in the long run, I hope National Board Certification is not only an expectation for the individual teacher (as Renee Moore advocated in her comment), but also a centerpiece for shifting the cultures of schools and the culture(s) of the profession.

I’m reading Professional Capital right now, and that’s the one of the key take aways so far: we need to discuss teaching quality as a systemic issue, and we need systems that are supportive of the individuals who make them work – but we need less focus on the heroes-and-villains narratives of great teachers and awful teachers. What is it about our systems that make teachers thrive or flounder?

Of course, for that to happen, there will be some heavy lifting necessary, important matters of equity and access to address. From what I understand, the new format and requirements for certification have been designed in part to provide flexibility that was introduced with teachers’ needs in mind (more family friendly to spread it out, and maybe more possible to embed it in our work at school). There are also issues of race and class involved (ha – I’m telling you?) – in terms of incentives and supports for certain teachers, schools, communities. How do we expand these circles of inclusion, strategically and intentionally? We need NBPTS, NBCTs, and policy makers to share the responsibility of advocating, and call attention to the differences between certification and what currently passes for “highly qualified” in education policy. The individual narratives can provide a hook for those conversations, but in the long run, we need to help create, and then tout, systemic benefits that generate more professional capital – and better schools for our students.

Watch José perform his poem, This Is Not A Test, at the Save Our Schools March (2011), and check out his book, too!

Shaky Methods, Shaky Motives: A Recap of My Critique of the NCTQ’s Review of Teacher Preparation Programs

June 17, 2014

The reblogged post below discusses the shoddy methods and questionable conclusions in teacher preparation reports by the National Center for Teaching Quality. The blog post’s author is Dr. Ed Fuller, who “currently serves as an education consultant to a number of research organizations in Texas and across the nation. He is also employed as an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis in the Education Policy Studies department in the College of Education of Penn State University and as Associate Director for Policy for the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA). The views communicated on this blog do not necessarily represent the views of the department, college, Penn State University, or UCEA.” [Bio quoted from Dr. Fuller’s blog].

A "Fuller" Look at Education Issues


The following is based on my complete study published in the Journal of Teacher Education. This version leaves out some examples, technical points, and suggestions for an approach to evaluating preparation programs. Sage Journals has been kind enough to make the complete study available for free to the public for a one month period. The study can be found at:


After last year’s release of the NCTQ’s ratings of teacher preparation programs, headlines and leading remarks about US teacher preparation programs proclaimed: “Teacher prep programs get failing marks” (Sanchez, 2013); “University programs that train U.S. teachers get mediocre marks in first-ever ratings” (Layton, 2013); and, “The nation’s teacher-training programs do not adequately prepare would-be educators for the classroom, even as they produce almost triple the number of graduates needed” (Elliot, 2013).

Critics of traditional teacher preparation have used the report as evidence that US teacher preparation is…

View original post 4,339 more words

“Strict scrutiny” of Vergara ruling a setback for California teachers

June 11, 2014


Yesterday, California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu handed down a ruling in the education policy lawsuit commonly referred to as the Vergara case. People I know who were closer to the case were not surprised that the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding unconstitutional certain parts of the California Education Code pertaining to teacher rights. The case was brought by an advocacy organization called Students Matter, formed just for this purpose – litigating education policy changes they felt they couldn’t achieve via legislation. I’m going to attempt a moderate and reasoned interpretation of the ruling, but my feelings are less moderate when it comes to organizations that invoke children and students in their name, but fight for policies that do so little to help children. Because students do matter, but the money and power organized here are not really helping students. They have decided on a political battle transferred to the courtroom. I’m suspicious of wealthy and powerful individuals and groups whose advocacy for children leads to “reforms” that won’t cost a cent, but will weaken labor.

Students matter – but apparently, California’s shamefully inadequate funding levels don’t. That’s the status quo they accept; teacher protections are apparently the status quo to fight. In many funding categories, California is at or near the bottom of the state rankings. Students Matter has done nothing that will put a needed book or computer in a school. Not one wifi hotspot. Not one more librarian, nurse, or counselor. Not one more paintbrush or musical instrument. Not one hour of instructional aide support for students or professional development for teachers. They don’t have any apparent interest in the more glaring inadequacies that their considerable wealth and PR savvy could help. But forming a non-profit organization for litigation purposes and calling it “Lawsuits Matter” wouldn’t be as catchy. Their arguments regarding education problems and policy were flawed and unconvincing. Their standing in the case may be legal, but has the look of opportunism, with some incredible wealth and some powerful connections to education “reform” and charter school interests permeating the organization.

Venting done. On to the decision.

It seems to me crucial parts of the trial came before it started. (And if I get any part of the legal analysis or terminology incorrect, I welcome feedback). Questions about the plaintiffs’ standing and their ability to prove any harm were dismissed. In fact, the burden of proof practically switched from plaintiffs to defendants when Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the case would proceed under the judicial review principle of strict scrutiny.” By this standard, where the constitutional rights of a protected class may be abridged, it is essentially up to the defense to prove that a law serves a compelling state interest in the narrowest possible way. Judge Treu describes his role as follows:

This Court is asked to directly assess how the Challenged Statutes affect the educational experience. It must decide whether the Challenged Statutes cause the potential and/or unreasonable exposure of grossly ineffective teachers to all California students in general and to minority and/or low income students in particular, in violation of the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.

So, we can all agree in that California students need consistently high quality teachers, and that harm is done when incompetent teachers retain their jobs. We can agree that teachers with less experience and lower qualifications are disproportionately concentrated in schools serving poorer communities and students. But since the plaintiffs don’t have to show any actual, direct harm caused to individuals by these laws, it seems to become a battle of anecdote vs. anecdote, and researcher vs. researcher. And the strict scrutiny burden falls on the defense.

Sure enough, when Judge Treu’s ruling addresses evidence of “the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students” he does not then mention any of the plaintiffs, or any of the relevant schools or districts. He cites research done by economists (outside of California). Treu says “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” First he cites the testimony of Dr. Raj Chetty, whose major study of testing data and various personal data for former students found correlations which, extrapolated by several decades, suggest (in Treu’s words) “a grossly ineffective teacher costs students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings per classroom.” Of course, divided by 30 students over 45 years of earnings, that would mean a little over $1,000 per year, or a little over $20 per week (48 weeks) per person. Hmmm. When you look at it that way, the conscience isn’t quite as shocked. (And that’s assuming the study proves what it claims to prove. For more details and critical views of that study, see this compilation of sources by Larry Ferlazzo). Treu also cites testimony by Dr. Tom Kane that students “taught by a teacher in the bottom 5% of competence lose 9.54 months of learning in a single year compared to students with average teachers.” The proxy for competence is presumably test scores, and the proxy for learning is also presumably test scores, so the cause/effect issues here would seem to be at issue; indeed, Jesse Rothstein’s research found testing data can produce “evidence” that 5th grade teachers appeared to influence their students’ test scores from 3rd grade. In other words, if you don’t have randomized samples, you can’t assume that teachers have equivalent groups of students. But you have to admire the confidence exhibited in those significant digits: yes, the effect has been measured down to a hundredth of a month, down to the hour.

If only Californians’ consciences were shocked by the fact that we have an economy greater than that of most countries, and concentrations of wealth that boggle the mind – with extreme poverty and grossly inadequate school funding. But, moving on, here are the specific elements of yesterday’s ruling.

The first challenged statute was California’s requirement that new teachers should be selected for permanent status (commonly but imprecisely called “tenure”) after two years. Treu cited testimony from both sides to suggest that the two-year period (actually, less, since notification must occur on or before March 15 of the second year) serves both students and teachers poorly – students because an undeserving teacher may be “reelected” and teachers because they may be released if there’s any doubt, even in situations where one more year might serve the teachers well. Applying strict scrutiny, Treu found that the logical possibility of harm to students is enough to compel the defense to show the need for a two-year period. The judge pointed out that most states with similar laws use longer periods of time, typically three years, some 4-5 years. He also noted from the testimony that it seems illogical to make a permanent status decision in a time-period shorter than the new teacher induction program.

Without agreeing with the reasoning used by the plaintiffs, or the remedy of simply throwing out the law, I would say this is the weak link for the defense case. I helped write a teacher evaluation policy report – with a dozen other teachers – in which we also advocated for a three years rather than two for this decision. However, we were talking about a set of interrelated changes that should be taken together, modifying teacher induction and evaluation. We certainly didn’t advocate making this change in isolation, or without a deliberative process. One local union recently requested (but didn’t receive) a waiver from the state to work with district administrators to craft a new induction and evaluation system that included a three-year probationary stage.

Regarding the steps and procedures involved in teacher dismissal, Judge Treu says the defense must meet strict scrutiny to prove why teacher dismissal must involve “über due process” and he points out that if education code in this area is stricken, teachers will be treated like other public sector employees, who do have due process rights. I’m not sure teachers are well-served by alarmist social media messages suggesting Treu’s ruling would leave us without due process. At the same time, I think there are compelling reasons that teaching is different from other public sector employment, necessitating some special consideration in dismissal procedures. However, Treu’s discussion of the evidence in this area seems particularly selective; he says that the current system is so complex and expensive that “dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher [is] illusory.” The word “illusory” suggests that it just doesn’t happen – when in fact, it does happen.  LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, a witness for the plaintiffs, even testified about the fact that greater attention to ineffective teaching in LAUSD has led to more teachers being dismissed. (A former superintendent, called by the defense, also testified regarding the fact that ineffective teachers often choose to leave rather than engage in the full dismissal process). I’m entirely open to the idea that the process could be improved, and in fact, CTA has worked with legislators, key stakeholders, and education advocacy groups around certain dismissal procedures quite recently. But I do to take issue with “illusory” and question Treu’s vision in that regard. And keep in mind, no evidence was cited (nor is there any I’ve read about) to suggest that any of the plaintiffs endured a teacher who would have been fired if not for these burdensome laws; under strict scrutiny, it seems that’s not necessary – but it would be more compelling.

I think the greatest weakness in Treu’s ruling concerns seniority as the deciding factor in layoffs. He writes that “last-in-first-out” policies (LIFO) are “unfathomable”– because the state would have to show a compelling interest for keeping students away from better, junior teachers, and instead, place them in the classrooms of a hypothetical “senior/incompetent” teacher. Treu’s argument is framed on the assumption that a school is employing a teacher identified as “incompetent,” and not merely less effective, or in need of support. That seems to me a flimsy premise upon which to engage in such hypotheticals about layoffs. If a teacher has been officially deemed incompetent, that should be the end of it – why would that person still be employed? But I have a feeling this hypothetical is about the senior teacher who might be incompetent, or has a reputation as such – and I don’t think education code should work that way. It might even be a teacher who’s in the middle of the dismissal process – but the difference between the middle and the end is the difference between maybe and definitely. While Treu offers supporting studies and testimony elsewhere in his ruling, this section refers to neither research nor trial evidence. He merely engages in a thought exercise, and then compares California’s statute to laws in other states, where for the most part, seniority is less binding than it is in California. The outside observer cannot infer how he concludes that the elimination of LIFO would help California students in general, nor is there evidence that it would help anyone specific, such as any plaintiff in this case.

This is the issue I’m most concerned about. Seniority is a rational basis for handling layoffs – the recent prevalence of which should be entered as evidence in a more appropriate lawsuit, regarding California’s failure to meet constitutional obligations concerning public education. Seniority serves a compelling state interest by providing a bulwark against politically or fiscally motivated layoffs, and by fostering the necessary collaboration to help schools thrive. (Note: there are already some legal exceptions to seniority as the sole criterion in layoffs. I think there’s reason to discuss ways of shielding certain schools in a district while adhering to seniority in other schools; however, see these InterACT blog posts by Martha Infante for some idea how complicated that can become). Eliminating LIFO opens the door to evaluations that favor less expensive teachers, and provides a potential end-around for administrators to avoid due process. Furthermore, it creates competition in place of collaboration; if layoffs are looming, there’s a perverse incentive to protect oneself at the expense of others. Admittedly, I’m engaging in my own thought experiment here, but with careers, pensions, and health care coverage at stake, teachers would have reasons to look out for themselves first, rather than put much effort into supporting others.

Judge Treu’s ruling closes by invoking Alexander Hamilton on the topic of separation of powers; he reminds us that judging and legislating are separate functions, and that the legislature must remedy what the court finds unconstitutional. Therefore, with years of appeals ahead, and then a legislative process to follow, I think it’s too soon for teachers or unions to begin talk of disaster. Mine is an admittedly amateur reading, but it would seem possible to under this ruling to pass constitutional muster with laws that make the following changes:

  • Permanent status awarded in third year rather than second year
  • Streamlined (not eliminated) due process laws
  • Seniority used as one factor rather than the sole factor in layoffs

Don’t get me wrong: just on principle, I’d rather see the whole case rejected on appeal. But if the ruling, or parts of it, should stand several years from now, then teachers still have room to advocate for a strong profession. Let’s stay informed and engaged. Stay vigilant, even adversarial as necessary – but calm.


Some other links you might want to check out:

KQED-FM “Forum” will discusses the Vergara ruling (Wednesday, June 11, 9-10 a.m.)

EdSource Today

California Teachers Association response

Diane Ravitch blog post (contains NEA and AFT reactions)

Charles Kerchner and David Menefee-Libey – in EdWeek blog “On California”

Two posts by Benjamin Riley (Quick reaction…, and Additional Thoughts…)

CTA Supporting Professional Capital: Part 2

June 10, 2014
Chandra Goodnough

Chandra Goodnough

Last week, InterACT ran a guest blog post by Chris Miraglia, introducing the CTA Teacher Leader Cohort and describing his work in that project. Today, ACT member Chandra Goodnough shares her perspective on the same project. Chandra has just completed her 15th year of teaching, and was one of five district Teachers of the Year for 2012-2013. She currently teaches Psychology and Sociology to juniors and seniors at Eastlake High School in the Sweetwater Union High School District.


Chris and I were a part of an amazing group of teachers in Region 4 working with CTA staffer Jane Robb on projects of our choice, t0 support teaching and learning.  We would meet monthly, sometimes in person and sometimes through Zoom computer conferencing, to collaborate and encourage each person’s work.  I loved the support and the validation that we, the teachers, know what our needs are in the classroom and the district based on our experience.  The purpose of the cohort is for us to use that experience to help improve teaching and learning.

The book we studied, Professional Capital (Hargreaves and Fullan) validates the need for teachers to empower themselves and lead the change in the direction that is needed. (I loved the book and read it twice.  It was also featured at the 2014 Teaching and Learning Conference). An additional benefit for me in working with Region 4 was seeing the diversity in how different districts operate and seeing their approach.  I am not sure why that had such an impact on me but it left a huge impression on me how districts vary in their approaches to teaching and learning.  So, from July to April we worked on our projects and any obstacles that might impede our success.  We learned a lot from each other, but mostly, the meetings added energy to our journey.  It hasn’t even been a month since we completed the first phase of our projects and I already miss our meetings.  My project worked on increasing communication between all stakeholders within a school system’s community.  It started with a website to increase awareness on district issues, and has led to a community conversation of 168 people discussing what a healthy school district looks like, including the four mayors from the communities our district services.

The next cohort of CTA Teacher Leaders was just selected, but I definitely recommend that teachers keep their eyes open for the next opportunity to apply.


CTA Supporting Professional Capital: Part 1

June 6, 2014
Chris Miraglia

Chris Miraglia

Today’s guest blog post comes from Chris Miraglia. Chris is an intermediate school US history teacher from Santa Ana USD.  A prior contributor and frequent commenter at this blog, Chris also writes at his own blog and is active on Twitter. Part Two of this post, by guest contributor Chandra Goodnough, is now online as well.

Last summer, a select group of teachers met at the California Teacher Association headquarters in Burlingame as part of the newly formed Teacher Leadership Cohort.  The group was composed of teachers of varied levels of experience, as well as coming from  diverse school districts.  The goal was simple and twofold: tackle an area in education where change is needed, and take on a teacher-leader role (possibly not yet defined) to address that need. The philosophy behind the effort is based on Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan’s book, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School.

In the two-day session last summer, twenty-plus educators discussed the basic tenets of the book, focusing on implementing change. Teacher empowered change was the buzzword. With assistance from CTA staff and with hours of discussion and team building, each teacher began to formulate a project addressing identified needs in their respective districts.  Leaving the two-day session, empowered by the energy generated by these teacher leaders, each individual began the process of identifying the stakeholders in their projects, areas of resistance they might encounter, where they could find support, and what was the timeline for implementation of their goal.

Linda Darling-Hammond (L), and Shanan Brown, with a copy of Darling-Hammond's book on teacher evaluation.

Linda Darling-Hammond (L), and Shanan Brown, with a copy of Darling-Hammond’s book on teacher evaluation.

For me, teacher evaluations have always had an appeal, so I set out to make a change in our process at the district level.  For teacher evaluations and observations, my district has utilized an archaic form that does not serve its intended purpose. The first step in the process was meeting with my local president and CTA representative who were informed of my undertaking. With their support for the venture, we collaboratively worked out a strategy in which I visited school sites in order to survey their needs in area of evaluation, then presented  findings to the union’s local representative council, and compiled a survey which will hopefully be used as jumping off point with our district in negotiations.

While this process moved forward in my district, our CTA Region 4 teacher leader cohort met monthly, online or in person, to discuss the status of the projects. Each member of the cohort facilitated a session and provided valuable input for each of our projects. Although our CTA cohort process technically ended in March, my project, as well as those of many of my colleagues, will continue past that point, as we are fully committed to change. Since teacher evaluations are a negotiable item, the outcome of my work may not be readily evident until next year or later. However, the knowledge gained from the experience was invaluable.

Teacher leadership roles have typically consisted of department and committee chairs, union positions, and only a few other identifiable positions. However, by empowering teachers to take additional roles in shaping the profession, in professional development, parent engagement, or changing evaluation policies and practices, a new activism is born.

For teacher-generated ideas about improving teacher evaluation, see the evaluation policy report produced by Accomplished California Teachers – on our Publications page.

Libraries and Librarians are not Luxuries

May 28, 2014
The library is the hub of academic life on campus.

The library is the hub of academic life on campus (photo by the author).

At EdSource Today, a recent headline caught my eye (actually, thanks to Educate Our State for pointing it out):

School librarians a rare find in California public schools

Unfortunately, this problem is one of several indications that California’s policy makers don’t understand or don’t value the connection between “the whole child” and the classroom: we’re similarly underfunded when it comes to school counselors and nurses.

Many people hold an outdated image in mind concerning librarians, and they don’t know how much a professional librarian adds to the quality of a school. In response to comments at EdSource Today suggesting we could hire some “librarians” on the cheap to take the place of professionals, I composed the comment below – and encourage you to add your own comments here, and at EdSource.

Glad this is getting attention. It should be noted that librarians are teachers. In fact, a good librarian has to be the best teacher on a campus, because this is typically the only teacher whose responsibility extends to every student. We’re not talking about glorified book clerks and “Shhhh”-ing duty here. At Palo Alto High School, our librarian is incredibly pro-active. She anticipates student needs by familiarizing herself with the school-wide curriculum, to a degree possibly matched (but certainly not surpassed) by counselors and administrators. Knowing the curriculum allows the librarian to anticipate teacher needs as well. Collaboration between these teachers means that students (and even the classroom teachers) have better content for study, and learn the most up-to-date research skills and informational tools. Our librarian makes continual efforts to promote reading and literacy – not just by acquiring and checking out books, but also by finding out what students want to read, what form they prefer (audio, e-book, print), and what their individual tastes and interests are. She identifies what’s timely, relevant, important, popular. She has improved instruction by teachers, and made a remarkable difference in the academic careers – perhaps even the lives – of many, many students.

As much as I admire her, she is not Superwoman. This is not heroism – it’s professionalism. And she couldn’t do that job without having her own support. That means she has a budget to spend, authority to spend it, and classified staff supporting her.

My question is, why is the norm for Palo Alto, and not every other school in California?

The Problem with Outcome-Oriented Evaluations

May 24, 2014

Teacher evaluation and value-added measures have both been topics of frequent consideration here at InterACT. This re-blogged post by Ben Spielberg makes some excellent points about both, and provides a fine explanation of why we need to be cautious about relying on outcomes to evaluate teaching. Ben writes at where his bio notes: “Ben is currently a math instructional coach at two traditional public schools (one middle school and one high school) in San Jose, CA. He partners with all the teachers in both schools’ math departments to deliver high-quality instruction to students. ”


Imagine I observe two poker players playing two tournaments each. During their first tournaments, Player A makes $1200 and Player B loses $800. During her second tournament, Player A pockets another $1000. Player B, on the other hand, loses $1100 more during her second tournament. Would it be a good decision for me to sit down at a table and model my play after Player A?

For many people the answer to this question – no – is counterintuitive. I watched Player A and Player B play two tournaments each and their results were very different – haven’t I seen enough to conclude that Player A is the better poker player? Yet poker involves a considerable amount of luck and there are numerous possible short- and longer-term outcomes for skilled and unskilled players. As Nate Silver writes in The Signal and the Noise, I could monitor each player’s winnings…

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“Sorry I cannot write more” – A Smarter Balanced Tale

May 7, 2014

IMG_1760The Common Core transition reached me on a more personal level this week when my 11-year old son came home and asked, “Dad, do you know anyone who made the Smarter Balanced test?” When I replied that I do not, he said, “That’s good. It’s a bad test.” My older son chimed in as well, giving the test mixed reviews.

Some people who know me might think I’d opt my children out of standardized testing, but so far, I haven’t. While I don’t care for standardized tests, I haven’t felt the need for my sons to opt-out because I don’t believe they have been over-tested, or had their time wasted on test prep; to my knowledge, no one in their school, or in our district, has suggested we should put those test result to any inappropriate use for the children or teachers.

I might have considered opting out anyways because I don’t like the use of tests to rank and punish schools, but even that objection has faded for now, with California moving away from its prior accountability program and entering a transitional period to something new. To be honest, I don’t fully understand the new system yet; schools can report the same rankings or ratings this year that they had last year, as we pilot test the Smarter Balanced assessments, and the eventual accountability measures will involve more local decision-making about a variety of measures beyond testing.

My sons had a few specific critiques of the test questions, user interface, and other issues. The whole family got a good laugh out of my 11-year old telling us about his essay. Due to a glitch in the system, he reports, his full response turned out like this:

Sorry I cannot write more than a line or it deletes itself.  😦

My point in sharing this anecdote is not to criticize. Next year, the test will probably be improved, and from my sons’ perspective, the novelty will be long gone. What’s too hard this year may seem normal next year. Maybe not. It’s too soon to say.

But I will say this: I think my son’s response was perfect for the situation. And I think this anecdote perfectly illustrates how stupid it would be to evaluate his teacher based on results from a first-ever administration of a flawed assessment. (Even using the old tests, the problems of VAM in teacher evaluation are, at this point, insurmountable).  Thankfully, in California, no one will even see the results from the first run-through. And why should we? No one would be able to say reliably what the results even mean, and it will take at least a few iterations before year-to-year comparisons have even a chance of offering any real insights.

I don’t think any independent expert in educational measurement or assessment is ready to go on record vouching for the validity of value-added measures in teacher evaluation if the inputs come from brand new assessments – tests that were never validated for that purpose in the first place. It’s mainly politicians and certain “accountability” enthusiasts in the education bureaucracy or think tank crowd who are ready to plunge recklessly into these unknown waters. Of course, many of these individuals, and their districts and states, are reacting to the pressure from the Education Department to take these unwise steps. Despite the legal ambiguities around his approach, and the deficiencies in research and reasoning, Secretary Arne Duncan continues to play at carrots and sticks to push VAM into teacher evaluation.

My sympathies to those of you living and working with the consequences; for the time being at least, in my state and district, the imperfections are being handled perfectly. Who knows? California’s slow and sane approach just might work.

Deeper Than Deep Learning

April 27, 2014

A more philosophical post than usual – for what it’s worth.

This morning I had the opportunity to listen to a talk by Elane Geller, a Holocaust survivor originally from Poland, and now a resident of Southern California. I’ve heard Holocaust survivors speak a number of times in my life, and it’s always a profound experience, but there were two particular take-away ideas I thought would be worth sharing in this space. 

The first was an observation Geller offered about Holocaust education, particularly for Jewish children. She commented that any learning about the Holocaust should be considered in a wider context (my words, not hers), when she talked about a cycle, “from joy, to pain, and back to joy again.” In other words, Holocaust education would not be a starting point for Jewish education; instead, you should start with the positivity of traditions and living culture. Then, yes, it is necessary to understand the negative history of the Holocaust, to confront evil directly and name it. And finally, you wouldn’t want to neglect the importance of closure that brings the child back to a sense of joy and positivity about the future.

It struck me that this cycle could apply to any learning experience, within the span of  day, week, month or years. If academics are relevant to our students’ lives as members of a challenged society, then we must confront challenges openly, honestly, in ways that are sensitive to individuals and cultures while also academically focused. On the personal side, it makes sense to establish a sense of joy about learning, a degree of comfort among people in an academic community. Then, it should be safe to move into content that may be uncomfortable for some, but absolutely necessary. Such work can be done in an age-appropriate way that is still academically “honest” and true to the core of an academic discipline, and able to respect and honor the personal, emotional side of learning. The cycle is complete when our uncomfortable or challenging learning experiences are brought to a positive conclusion, with a sense of agency and purpose, and clear evidence of new learning.

The second observation that stuck with me this morning occurred when Geller talked about a sense of mutual responsibility, and even a sense of mutual peril in looking at world events. It’s a sentiment that has been expressed many times in many cultures, that a threat to human rights anywhere is a threat to human rights everywhere. The word ubuntu, found in multiple languages and dialects in southern Africa, identifies a similar concept – that my humanity is bound up in your humanity.

Given the scope of the humanitarian crises right now in places like Syria, South Sudan, central Africa, and North Korea, American education policy debates begin to look relatively minor. But on the other hand, the United States is not exactly leading the world in efforts to avoid a humanitarian crisis of its own (though of a different nature). The overall poverty rate in the United States is shameful, given our overall economic output. The childhood poverty rate is an embarrassment, and a blight that should speak to all of us on a personal, moral level. The potential social and economic upheaval that awaits us if we continue down this path should give us all pause, and then, prompt us to act.

Considering the severity of the poverty problem and the obvious deleterious effects of poverty on children’s health, social and academic development, it’s frankly troubling to me that philanthropists, politicians, and others supposedly dedicated to children’s welfare can remain relatively silent about economics and broader social policies, while dedicating considerable time, money, and energy to vigorous battles over policies that have questionable chances of producing minor improvements in children’s lives. I’m not trying to seize the Holocaust or other vast social problems as a high road to attack the positions of people whose education policy ideas I disagree with; setting aside the merits of any specific policy position, I will go so far as to say that those focused on marginal issues while ignoring essential issues lack credibility when they try to seize the moral high ground.

Let’s have those debates. But maybe those debates would be less contentious and more productive if we had more ubuntu.


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