Sunday, March 30, 2014

Addendum: Another Meeting

Bill HJ 1has passed both houses in the Virginia Legislature.  This bill is titled "Teacher Career Ladder program; report.  Requests the Department of Education to study and make recommendations regarding the feasibility of a Teacher Career Ladder program in the Commonwealth.

This legislation had wide approval with 97 voting yes in the House with one Nay vote and a voice vote in the Senate.

What does it mean?  MORE study.  Similar to the report I heard at the meeting in 2001 mentioned in this post.

Talk, talk, talk.  No action.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Stepping on Toes or Time to get Rude

My husband tells me I'm cynical.  Maybe so.

But I can't help the feeling that Arne Duncan's speech to the Teaching and Learning Conference on Friday, March 14 (after the press corps has packed up and gone home for the weekend) was designed to mollify a group of increasingly loud teachers.

He called, in effect, for a meeting where teacher leadership would be discussed.  (There.  That should keep them happy for awhile as we continue with down the road in our mission that already has wheels and full gas tank.)

And he promised money for the meetings.  (For airfare? Snacks?)

It reminded me of my first hopeful foray into teacher leadership way back in 2001.

I sat in Richmond, along with other Nationally Board Certified teachers and teachers-of-the-year and teachers-of-the-building, district, state along with other fresh-faced-Milken-gosh-we-just-love-our-underpaid-teacher-prize winners to hear an alternative career plan for successful teachers.

On the last day a statewide education committee which reported to the DOE said they had been meeting for ten years to decide what a teacher does that can be named.  They decided that there was no way to identify accomplished teaching so they had determined to......wait for it.......have some more meetings.

What?!  More meetings?  Hadn't the National Board for Professional Standards already defined the standards and evaluated teachers?  What is the next meeting for?

At the end of an exciting weekend of discussion about changes to the teaching profession, I got a sinking feeling.  Oh.  I get it.  Delay on a politically sticky wicket.  There's a lot of pushback from somewhere.  After that meeting, no more movement statewide.  It's been thirteen years.

So Duncan has called for more meetings.  A delay.  Sticky wickets (lots of $$ around the current system of evaluation and punishment.)

And then he left the Teaching and Learning meeting to urge state education leaders not to back away from testing and fudged on a question about assessing teachers by using the, still questionable, scores from the current blizzard of tests as evidence of teacher effectiveness.

But Duncan did make a comment that makes sense by acknowledging that Congress is dead in the water: change will come from outside Washington.  States will have to make the reforms needed (and he says, to support the untested experiment in the Common Core that is currently underway.)

So, only one thing left to do my teacher friends.  Waken the Sleeping Giant and be the change you want to see in the world.

No way around it.  It is time to get rude, get some sharp elbows and start making sure that accomplished, successful educators are leading the charge in your district and your state.

Don't sit down for yet ANOTHER meeting.

Stand up for what you believe in and make sure every policy maker knows that what is being done in the name of reform will ultimately improve teaching and learning for every child in the United States.


  • Universal preschool
  • Support for underserved students in the form of nutrition and health care
  • A new school day where teacher development and collaborative learning is built into the day
  • New pre-service models that involve a clinical phase
  • Identification of teacher leaders accompanied by responsibilities and income to match
  • Teachers on EVERY task force from the district to the national level
  • A transformation of teacher unions to self-regulating enterprises with the goal of improved student learning
Would you sit back and let your own child suffer through these nationwide experiments?

Monday, March 17, 2014

And now from Arne the T&L

On Friday afternoon of the Teaching & Learning 2014 conference, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the teachers before a nearly full room.

As part of his commentary he announced a new partnership with NBPTS. Here is what Duncan foresees as his plan:
We will convene a group of teachers, principals, state Chiefs, teachers' groups and district leaders, among others.  This group will take the steps foster real-world commitments on teacher leadership.  This group will announce significant commitments from districts, teachers' groups, and others who want to be part of the solution to make teacher leadership real at scale.
Duncan mentioned other items which indicate that he has at least been cribbing from all of our online and face-to-face conversations, and he knows the complaints.  Many of his comments seemed designed to elicit nods from those who have been working toward a teacher-led profession for years.  Our own words parroted back.

He acknowledged the flood of departures by effective teachers who have given up in despair after battling damaging reforms.

He highlighted places where teacher leadership has made a real difference.  And he gave lip service to the growing debate over the Common Core--but claimed that where teachers had the chance to work with the standards they were loving it.

He also reminded us that teaching can be a rewarding profession.  If, as I was told once by a supervisor, a strong teacher finds a way to do what's right for kids in spite of policy.

This is how teacher leadership has played out in most situations--a ballsy teacher taking all the risks of innovation--working outside of the lines.  Duncan gave anecdotal instances where teachers had created real success for kids.  Now, if only THIS--elevating effective practice--were the policy instead of the exception.

Some heads were nodding.  But many had assumed the wary, arms-folded posture of the once-hopeful teacher who has been duped one too many times into sitting on a committee where their presence was a token nod so the real "deciders" could claim that teachers were a part of the decision making.

Fool me once.....

The only enthusiastic applause in the speech occurred after Duncan indicated that funding would follow the announcement.  We at least know that words without dollars are just that: words.

For the most part, we remained polite.  (Just like my school weary students.  Gotta love 'em.  They are at least polite to the teachers who have been boring them out of their minds to reach pass rates...)

A panel of teachers were invited to question Duncan after his remarks.

The cheer-inducing question came from Maddie Fennell who asked Duncan how he could envision a collaborative workplace in the face of the highly competitive levers already in place--like (she did not say, but I improvise) public VAM scores, graded schools and systems, high-stakes tests, and a races for funding that pit districts and states against each other.  How can you ask teachers to be innovative when the stakes are so high?

For most of the questions, including this one, Duncan pulled out the old politician canard of relating anecdotes of individual successes, as in "See?  It's already happening."  (But only by those ballsy teachers mentioned above. If they succeed, we'll make a movie out of it and rally round a teacher hero. If they fail, new profession.)

On the VAM scores Duncan denied ever endorsing VAM as a measure of effectiveness and found the publishing of scores unacceptable. (Time to go to the tapes?)

For my own part, I was alert when I heard him say "We're meeting next week to figure out how to do this."

So, announce first, figure it out later.  Hmmm...doesn't sound like a lesson plan to me.  I count myself among the wary arm folders.

Disclaimer:  I had forehand knowledge of what Duncan planned to announce: a partnership between NBPTS and DOE around teacher leadership.  Duncan was, and has been, pulling from the report I helped author as a member of the NEA Commission of Effective Teachers and Teaching. Maddie Fennell chaired that Commission.

I still stand by that report as having the potential to help create a real profession since the observations in it were drawn from the current landscape in the profession, from teachers own hopes for our future, and from proven effective teacher induction and teacher-led reform. It spoke to all the stakeholders, including the NEA which was encouraged to assume a voice in the quality of instruction and the preparation of teachers nationwide.

Duncan has pulled from that report before when announcing the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. program.

The what? Yeah, he said that--in February of 2012.

The conversations around gaining respect were held--I held one with teachers in my district--and a RESPECT vision was produced.  The document is "a discussion document for use in conversations with teachers and principals about the teaching profession."

i.e.: Rhetoric.

However, I may part with some of my colleagues in my hopes for the future of the teaching profession.

In 2001 when I began working on policy in earnest, Teacher Leadership was never discussed by policy makers.  I was told by a union activist that she "had a lot of problems with that."  Now there are a consortium of organizations working toward this vision and Duncan has made Teacher Leadership part of his official platform, in words anyway.

It is up to us to make sure it shows up in deeds as well.

Leaders lead.

Though I still have my arms folded in scepticism from decades of being the token teacher, I still believe in the power of conversation and argument to win the day, and that it is naive to think that one side will say "Yeah, you're right" and capitulate.  It will be an ongoing struggle to get things right.  And we are going to have to be rude.

The online conversations must persist.  Our parents need to be informed about the damage that has already been done in the past decade.  We all have to take responsibility for making the change, for insisting on change as a moral imperative.  I sense a tipping point coming.  We have to be alert.

I return to my image of yesterday's posting.  There are two rivers converging.  Both were represented at the T&L Conference.  John Holland, friend and colleague of the CTQ, feels it too.

By far, for the attendees, the spokespersons who married reality with research had our ear.  We loved Doris Kearns Goodwin (the only standing ovation).  We loved Tony Wagner, and Linda Darling-Hammond, and Pedro Noguera, and Pashi Salzburg.

We loved our own teacher-practitioners who brought effective lessons and shared. The rooms where this was happening were packed.  Teachers are getting the work done in spite of, not because of, current reforms.

But the money people were in the room too and the attendees went and listened.  We know how to model democracy.

We need to make sure that the flood of commentary rises on our side of the river and an effective education system for all of our children is the end result of all the rhetoric.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Teaching and Learning from Bill Gates in the Nation's Capitol

Maybe it was Doris Kearns Goodwin's passionate admiration of son Michael Goodwin's Rivers and Revolutions instructional program that brought the image to mind, but this weekend's inaugural Teaching and Learning Conference at the Washington D.C. Convention Center presented by NBPTS felt like standing at the confluence of two rivers.

Or maybe one river and one tributary swollen with unlimited cash.

By far the longest line (besides the one for Starbuck's Coffee) was for Bill Gates' plenary session at 1 p.m. on Friday.  The house was packed.  But that session revealed the gaping disconnect between the world of corporate charity and real teaching.

I had just left NYU professor Pedro Noguera's session on Education and Civil Rights in the 21st Century where he spoke without notes but from the clear experience of his research and work in bringing the bottom up through the only equalizer we've ever had: education.  (His newest book is on teaching resiliency to young men of color, Schooling for Resilience.)

All of Noguera's comments struck a chord.  I still remember the classroom before NCLB. I remember the seventies,  and work daily with children of poverty and second language learners.  Locally we are preparing for the next flood of underserved students which will smash headlong into the boulder of "more rigorous testing" that will supposedly make all children above average. 

Noguera knows the landscape well.  He echoed my world. "We are boring our kids to death." "We were making progress in the '70's when we were paying attention to childhood development."  "Give up on the feds, and even the states, and work locally.  Our kids can't wait.  We need this now."  

He reminded us that America is where public education was born, not as a commodity to be bought and sold by Wall Street investors, but as the only hand-up we can offer citizens to level the landscape.  He told us we need parents as partners in education, not as consumers.

It was a bit of a whiplash to go directly from Noguera to Bill Gates. As an English teacher I would have advised Gates to consider his audience when preparing remarks--though admittedly this involves a leap of imagination into empathy that can be challenging.

He addressed the room of teachers in a boardroom-appropriate flat affect. He indicated that we should help shore up the Common Core.  He needs teachers (now, he has realized) to make the program work. If we get behind CCSS we can make it possible for all kids to go to college. He told us kids need to be better readers.  He told us teachers need to be better teachers.

The audience was polite.  (If teachers have a failing it is that we are too polite.)  

Set aside for a moment that by show of hands throughout the weekend nearly two-thirds of the crowd were already highly accomplished, board certified teachers. And ignore also that we all know with clarity just how well our students can or cannot read with depth and understanding. Even set aside the notion that we are aware that setting high-expectations is a cornerstone to good teaching.  

The argument that more rigorous testing and standards and a college educated workforce are the solutions to the American doldrums is an assumption that is still highly debatable.  But to the very successful Harvard dropout, Bill Gates, college-for-all is the goal.  

Conversely, Tony Wagner, in his plenary speech the following day, indicated that the top innovative companies like Google and other start-ups find GPAs and SATs "worthless."  They are not interested in college degrees, but look for problem-solvers and collaborators.  Our top students generally negotiate the current system of schooling by following rules and meeting deadlines. By that measure, increasing standardization is the enemy.  The schools Wagner revealed in a short video sparkled with activity, color, and students working hard while having the kind of fun Daniel Willingham promises real learning can engender.

Gates stayed on stage to take questions from George Stephanopoulos.  Not much there that I can recall, except my worry that a star-struck audience might get distracted from substantive issues.

After seeing Pedro, Bill seemed woefully out of touch, describing perhaps a teaching and testing system for the children of the upscale Seattle suburbs and not my kids--who miss school to watch over younger siblings while mom goes to her minimum wage jobs--who dismiss the need for homework when they can work through the night at the grocery store, and then fall soundly asleep during Silent Sustained Reading. Or miss multiple days due to asthma attacks, or anxiety, or illness from poor diet, no exercise and infrequent doctor visits, or just stay away to avoid the sheer boredom of spending the days preparing for THE test and then more days taking THE test, remediating for the FAILED test, retaking THE test....

He didn't even seem to understand my own children, all of whom have college degrees and are married to college graduates. Their lives have had slow and rocky starts as they shoulder the shared debt of earning those degrees, trying to start families, find jobs in a depressed market, look for (and not find) affordable daycare.....

Gates didn't hang around to shake hands.

Next Blog:  Arne Duncan and Teacher Leadership 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Educate with Trust in Mind

In the dead of winter, revisiting the Summer Institute.

July, 2013
I have just walked the promenade on the east side of the Johnson Center on the George Mason campus.  Where is the crepe myrtle, I wonder?  

Ah, there, behind the maples which now shade the entire walkway. 

Fourteen years ago these maples were mere afterthought, and the crepe myrtle stunned the brick walls and bare sidewalk with their variety and fecundity.  Now I can barely find them.  I remember watching them flame into color and then ebb as I dashed each morning from my parking spot, surprised to find a bit of the beach and the various shades of myrtle in the land of concrete.

The maple trees remind me that fourteen years is a long time, long enough for saplings to crowd out the salmon, pink, and white bushes and darken the sidewalk with thick shade on a cloudy morning.

In my July—in 1998—the Northern Virginia Writing Project Summer Institute quickened my teaching into a life of inquiry, a place where classrooms could be home to my learning as well as my students’.  And returning to this campus has always rekindled my energy and my focus on teaching as a puzzle in human enterprise.  I like the puzzle.  It’s interesting.

And yet, it seems that I must continually learn my lessons over and over again.  Here in this space, where we have the luxury of time, we build a fire of conviction fed by the sparks created when minds rub up against one another.  The fire will burn through the next school year and, hopefully, I won’t forget what it is that students need, as opposed to what we hand them.  There are plenty of buckets of water waiting to douse the flame. 

What do they need?  They need to be invited to take hold of their own education just as I was invited to take hold of mine.  Things seem better, richer when teachers are merely setting the sail and not steering the craft.  For a teacher, that means providing choice, time, tools, the thing-you-need-to-know-when-you-need-to-know-it, and the chance to continue on a journey in the company of someone who is willing to celebrate along the way.

But all that is old news. What have I learned this time, in this new and different, and yet oddly the same Summer Institute? 

I’m a slow learner, and I like to keep things simple.  So this year I will take just one small thing into the storm.

This year, I choose trust. 

The basis for most learning lies in trust, but we supply it in miserable quantity. 

Trust first that we can be engaged in our own growth.  Trust that our students and our peers already bring experiences we can learn from.  Trust that there can be gain from taking what the others offer. Trust that none of us learn until we have had the chance to go inside an idea and walk around a bit. Trust that the outcome of that experience is unpredictable, startling, unique, and entirely human.  Trust that the blank page will be filled.  Trust that waiting will bring an answer.

I would like to think that after fourteen years I am fourteen-years wiser, but that would be a lie. 

Teaching is complex and intellectual and frustrating and exciting and best done in the company of those who are in on the fun.  Surround yourself with those who grapple, wrestle, dance, sing, write, draw, run with ideas and you will never feel “wise”—just childlike in the face of that endless pursuit of the next best thing.

If you do it right, those people could be your students.

Trust in that.

*Written in the Summer of 2013 as a final Position paper to my final George Mason Summer Institute.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Poverty Leaves Every Child Behind

  • "What Happens When the Poor Receive a Stipend?"  ran on the New York Times Opinion page on January 18.  It reveals a study that occurred when the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina decided to distribute the largess of their new gambling casino to every family, no strings attached.  Luckily, 1,460 children in the group had already been under a study by Professor Jane Costello of Duke University Medical School. She was tracking incidents of psychiatric disorders among the group.  She had a baseline measure and was in the perfect position to track the effect of the infusion of cash, which eventually reached $6000 per family per year.

  • Recently I heard a re-broadcast of the October 19, 2012 This American Life.  The theme that united the four stories were people or groups who managed to "get away" with something.  The fourth story was called "Pre K-O. "  It was about how the governor of Oklahoma managed to pass a law stipulating universal pre-school right under the noses of state legislators who might object to the intrusion of big government.  Now, of course, no one could imagine cutting the program.  A prominent businessman helped in the fight because he saw it as an investment that would save money in the long run.

The results in both of the above cases were immediate and lasting for children.  Measurable and economically rewarding things--sometimes astoundingly so--for both the state and the children began immediately.  The younger the child the more pronounced were the changes.

In the case of the Oklahoma pre-K instruction, teachers and superintendents saw an immediate change in student ability to learn and an increase in enthusiasm for learning, all observable in the first year following universal pre-kindergarten instruction.

In the case of North Carolina, it turns out that the reduction of stress on the Cherokee families resulted in a lessening of mental illness, an increase in on-time high school graduation, a reduction in crime among the young.  As the article states:
By age 3, measures of vocabulary, working memory and executive function show an inverse relationship with the stressors experienced by parents.
In both cases economists see the expenditures spent early in life as far out-weighed by the savings to society.  It is good business for a state to spend money on its youngest citizens.  It saves lots of money down the road.

The evidence that expenditures on children is good for the economy and future investment of resources in social programs--prisons, mental hospitals, addiction programs--has been indisputable and well-known even before Richard Nixon vetoed the Economic Opportunity Amendment in 1971.

Here is some of what he said on that occasion:
Though Title V's stated purpose, "to provide every child with a full and fair opportunity to reach his full potential" is certainly laudable, the intent of Title V is overshadowed by the fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability, and family-weakening implications of the system it envisions.  We owe our children something more than good intentions.
Family weakening.  Pish-posh.  The North Carolina study reveals that the real weakening of families is caused by the stressors of poverty.

Nixon, however, was right about something: we do owe our children something more than good intentions.

The No Child Left Behind Act has been overshadowed by both fiscal irresponsibility (billions of taxpayer dollars diverted to testing companies), and administrative unworkability (billions of taxpayer dollars diverted to the collection of data).

It has been a very bad intention -- shifting public dollars into private hands -- cloaked in the Orwellian language of a truly good intention.  We have been duped.  Repeatedly.

Dismantle the testing industry and divert the dollars to enriching the lives of our youngest, poorest citizens.

Statistics, like the ones used in the two situations above, have proven that the past decade has been reckless spending with zero results.  If we shift those dollars to shoring up our 16 million children (22%) living in poverty,  the impact will be immediate and long lasting.

And we can start to feel good about ourselves again.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Talking Education with Non-educators

It is easy to remain insular during the school year as any private life is consumed by the crowded school schedule.

It is school, school, school without a let up (nights, days, weekends) until everything comes to a screeching halt at the holidays.

Often I feel that I have emerged into another world when mingling with peers who have only tangentially thought about public schooling as it affects their grandchildren, nieces, nephews and neighbors.

After being immersed in conversations about Ed policy with educators for months at a time, I am confronted with themes as they are perceived by the general public.  Angry exclamations from those outside of our realm about what is going on in our schools--or not going on, as they see it--are informative. The texture these big issues are taking in the wider world by those who don't eat, breathe, and sleep educational issues becomes clear.

Though it may be easy to rise to a defensive posture, the commentary heard from the wider public can help us frame a message to explain the broad changes educators endorse when it comes to effective instruction for our students.

What I've heard over this holiday break convinces me that real reform in public Ed needs a framework that will engage a public that only understands one kind if schooling:  the one they had. 

Here are ways I've tried to shift conversations. Also offered are tips for transitioning a righteous rant into a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be educated, something those who played the game by the old rules (and did fairly well according to that system) haven't considered.

Tip number one:  Let your conversation partner rant. But listen beneath the outrage. What does he/she seem to be fearing?

Tip number two:  Rather than going on the defense, ask questions. Whenever possible, tie an issue to their own child or grandchild by describing what a policy looks like from the child's perspective. Link new ideas in education to memories of their own school experiences.

Here are issues which are raising the eyebrows of the general public.  I've had more than one adult bring up these topics as what is seen as alarming change:

Do you know that if a kid fails a test they get to take it again?

Fear:  This is unfair. Kids should get what they "deserve," which is a low grade due to laziness. We will get a generation that does not value hard work. Consequences, like low grades, will teach them a lesson.

Response:  What do you see as the goal for a course?  Is it more important to earn the first score or learn the material?  Try to shift the speaker's focus to outcomes for a system of education.   If you can maintain their interest, ask about their own grades, and what they can recall about particular subjects. Did the grade reflect what was learned?  (I recommend asking about Algebra and Chemistry. :-)) Does a good grade mean you know it?  How do you think you would react to schooling if you always failed every test?

At some point, I reference the many students I've had who've "passed" a course with the lowest possible numerical D and seem happy enough accepting several failing grades. They have learned to play the school game well, content to coast through on seat time, learning very little. (Or, as is the real case, they have given up trying to figure out how this learning thing works.)  Reteaching and retakes ensure that kids who struggle learn they can get help. They also learn that perseverance produces results. The message in this philosophy is that understanding the material is the primary goal--not squeaking by.

This issue is actually a monumental shift in the goal of public education.  It signals a move from merely ranking our students by the skills, talents, and experiences they arrive with through "earned" grades to instructing all students to a level of competency.  When the public gets behind this paradigm shift, then we will have the kind of literate, thinking workforce the biz people are always yapping about.

The teacher had the kids doing these projects and teaching each other.  She's not doing anything.

Fear:  My taxpayer dollars are being wasted. What a cushy job!

Teachers know this sounds like project-based or constructive learning. We also know that managing the projects and keeping students moving forward takes a lot of planning and skill not obvious to onlookers when the teacher is in coach mode. When the job is done well, the learning is deep and long-lasting. But it would take hours to go through the theory.

Instead, ask:  When you learn something new at work, which do you remember better--the directions someone feeds you or the tasks you had to figure out for yourself?

Or:  Tell me a specific day or days you recall learning something in school. Why do you think you remember that? Most will concede that they remember little of daily lectures, more about what they read on their own, reports they generated, and even more when the activity was unique--like a field trip off campus or a play or musical performance which demanded their active participation.  This, you can explain, is what we have learned about learning.  The mind must be engaged.  The task has to be somewhat challenging but achievable (not too frustrating).  Most adults only have experienced this kind of learning at their workplace--very few in the classroom.  This is another paradigm shift for the adult who has not experienced this kind of hands-on learning.

I'm evaluated on my results at work.  It's only fair that teachers are evaluated as well.

Fear:  Somebody is getting away with something (like that lazy, good-for-nothing history teacher I had who hurt my feelings in eleventh grade....)

With this one, the temptation is really strong to cry "bullshit" since I've worked in the private sector alongside plenty of slackers who were never fired or even pushed to improve.  However, reality never seems to enter into discussions of schooling.  Public schools, I've gathered, are supposed to reflect some place that doesn't exist in the real world where everything is "fair," all parties are happily satisfied, and no transgression goes unjustly resolved. Ah well.

Ask:  Do you have a child/grandchild/niece/nephew in school?  How would you feel about your loved one taking a high stakes test in every grade, including kindergarten, and every subject (think art, PE, band).  Now to add to the pressure of the test, imagine that the livelihood of the adults, who have their own children, mortgages and debts, relies on the scores of those tests.  What would the day/week/month look like?  Who's best interest will be served in this scenario?

That usually does it.  If you want to explore other ways that the teachers could be held accountable, feel free.  But, without a doubt, most adults can see that basing employment on the tests taken by children, impressionable, malleable children left in a room for six to eight hours a day with a stressed adult, is a very, very bad idea.

Oh, and the last big issue?  School shootings.   There has been no debate at all on this issue with my adult friends.

We all agree that something must be done about mental illness and the easy access to weaponry.