Sunday, February 26, 2012

Virginia--the new Wisconsin

In the state of Virginia it is hard to keep track of all the ways our state representatives are trying to affect my life.  Big government seems to be all up in my grill.

My biggest complaint is with my own Senator, Jill Holtzman Vogel, who has unfortunately just been re-elected.  Last year she made it a point to render abortion clinics obsolete with legislation she sponsored, and which passed, to raise building requirements on clinics.

This year she has returned with legislation requiring pre-abortion ultrasounds -- legislation that has made national headlines.  You would have to have been out of the country to miss the commentary on this step into Neanderthal Land.

Vogel has consistently employed Orwellian language to promote her legislation stating it "increases safety" and allows women to have "more information" for their own good.  Thanks Jill, but I'm a big girl now and can watch out for myself.

In further business, Virginia legislators are considering bills to remove continuing contracts for teachers (who are primarily women), reduce pensions for Virginia employees (who are largely teachers, who are largely women), and to recommend zero pay increases for Virginia teachers.

Not all state employees will be denied pay raises. The House is proposing increases for College and University employees, Constitutional officers, state employees, and Members of the General Assembly--but not teachers.  The Senate is putting forth recommendations for increases for College and University employees, and state employees--not teachers. Care to guess what the gender makeup is of the groups listed?

Just think--if all these pass I can look forward to more work, less pay, and no job security.  What a deal.  I'm sure there are legions of 22 year olds standing in line for a low-paying career with little security and a pension that guarantees an impoverished old-age.   Our students are sure to benefit from the kind of teacher this scenario will attract.

Who is surprised that this Republican-dominated state house has moved swiftly on these bills?

Not me.

Follow the path of states who have flipped their governance to Republicans (Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio...) and the pattern is clear.  The legislatures merely turn to their McLegislation provider ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and pull from a menu of legislative initiatives.  There are thousands of them, all similarly worded but with Orwellian titles ("Teacher Choice Compensation Act,"  "Student Right to Learn Act," "Protection of Minors and Students Rights Act").  The list is long so the practice of flooding the committees with safe-sounding horrors keeps lobbyists running circles in a mad game of whack-a-mole.  One of the multiple measures is sure to slip through the chaos.

The dismantling of public education--by attacking and discrediting unions--is a chief goal so that education can be privatized for profit.  If you want to know how well this might work out visit Chile--where the system has long been in place thanks to our involvement in Chile's revolution and where Milton Friedman's plan to bring the wonders of the free-market to our own democracy-supporting free public schooling system was widely adopted.

But wait, there's more.

ALEC proposes legislation in any area of government that would clear the way to corporate dominance: worker and consumer rights, voting rights, social programs, environmental regulation, prisons, guns, health---all individual rights are challenged under names which swear allegiance to God and Country.

Lucky me, both my representatives in the Virginia Legislature are dues paying members of ALEC--House Representative Beverly Sherwood and Senator Jill Holtzman Vogel.  

Help me vote them and their cronies OUT.

Check out the list.  Is your representative pulling from the menu?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Coming to a computer near you: A National Conversation on Teaching

Secretary Arne Duncan announced a new initiative Wednesday--and a new acronym: R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (Kinda makes you want to sing, doesn't it?)

RESPECT stands for Recognizing Education Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching.

He wants to "spark a dialogue that results in strong policy and a sustainable transformation to the teaching profession."

If we can get some, (respect, that is) I'm all for it.  It has been a brutal two years to be a classroom teacher.  And "joy comes well in such a needy time."

Duncan and Obama have entered a $5 billion grant program in the current budget proposal to "support states and districts that commit to bold reforms at every stage of the teaching profession."  In his remarks, Duncan commented on the need to include teacher voices in policymaking, the need to compensate, train, and support teachers as professionals, the need to fix a dysfunctional system.

As a member of the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, I was invited to be in the room when the announcement was made.  Duncan said all the right things about the need to elevate teaching as a profession, as far as I was concerned, because--as he himself stated--"we did just copy your report" Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning.

So why has it taken me four days to compose a blog?

Duncan made his remarks Wednesday.  On Thursday he appeared on The Daily Show and slipped back into the same rhetoric of his Race to the Top program and barely a peep was made about transforming teaching into the profession it needs to be in order to reform every classroom in America.  His RttT program has worked amazingly well.  Schools and districts all over the nation are currently revamping programs to evaluate teaching in order to qualify for the grants under this program.  But the emphasis has been on measuring tools tied to testing.

In terms of getting people to make sweeping changes RttT has worked.  But is it good for kids?

Not if teacher evaluation rests on a program where students are repeatedly tested in order to determine how well a teacher is doing.  This is precisely the wrong direction.  And it is a direction he did not back off of in his remarks to Jon Stewart.

It was a big low after the high of Wednesday's meeting.

And what about the $5 billion in potential grants?

In the past, when grant dollars are offered they can inspire much change (just look at RttT). But as soon as the next guy rolls into office, programs fall apart and teachers are left holding the shreds of the "change dujour," a familiar landscape for veteran teachers--one unsustainable initiative follows another.

This is why the entire system needs to be revamped.  Change needs to be sustainable and ongoing and at the classroom level. And it will be, when continual learning and peer evaluation is embedded in the job of the classroom teacher.

Still, I find much to celebrate in this announcement.  

Ten years ago no one was advocating for a teaching profession.  A state union representative once told me that "there's a lot of problems" with that model.

That isn't happening now.  All concerned education groups are arriving at the same conclusion: teaching needs to be elevated.  And now we have a national leader taking up the language.  What form that action takes remains to be seen.

So, what to do?

I have chosen to embrace, and then follow closely, this new language.  As has been seen with RttT, the grant money does put a fire under some.  If it enjoins teacher leaders in reshaping the profession, then the vision will have been moved to another level.

But it is easy to give lip-service to a new, bold idea--especially on the cusp of an important election.

It is quite another to follow lip-service with policy.  But loud groups can make this happen (Yes, We Can.)

Teachers--you have a job to do.  If ever there were a need for the Sleeping Giant to awaken it is now.
We need to simultaneously work toward a teacher-led, teacher-controlled profession while we continue to point out the narrow constraints of defining our work through more and more student assessments.

The window is opening just a crack.  Climb through and bring your friends.  Sit on committees where teacher evaluation is being discussed and help create documents that engage teachers in the work of improvement--and away from student testing.  Talk with your representatives.  Explain your position to parents. Share the realities of your job and the impact of policy on student learning with the public.  Engage your peers.

And when the call comes for the National Conversation, pick up the phone and speak your mind.

ADDENDUM:  Here is a document where you can send your view of the teacher RESPECT program.  Within the document is a link to the ED's RESPECT Narrative.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why teachers need to own their profession

Friday was a fun day in the classroom for me.  I was doing the one thing that continues to keep me energized after all these years: trying out a new idea.

It worked pretty well.  I think the students agreed.  We will be working together to fine tune this new lesson model, and I will rely on the students' feedback and behaviors to make additional changes.

To make short work of a long story, here is the history of what led me to the new discussion model we tried this week:

  1. During the work on my National Board Portfolio (in 2000), I film myself leading a whole class discussion.  Whole group discussion is a requirement.  The portfolio requires reflection on the lesson noting what works, what doesn't.  I decide I'm doing a pretty poor job of leading a discussion.  I'm insecure in my questioning.  The student answers are perfunctory.  Only a few students are involved.  It looks like all the whole-group discussions I had when I was a student.
  2. I ask for help.  A colleague agrees to help me begin using Socratic Seminars.  I'd had a workshop on this but felt too unsure of the methods to try it on my own.  (The kids do all the work?! No way.) With her coaching I start using this method, first in one class before expanding it to others.
  3. Several of my goals are met: the students are taking responsibility for the reading and thinking.  They are learning to devise their own questions.  The seminars engage most of the students.  All students are coming to class prepared.  Sometimes there is actually excitement in the room, and I often hear the comment "I love seminar day..."  I'm sold and begin using this as a regular feature.

All good, right?  Not quite.  I still have lingering issues.  I am unable to engage the shyest of the students.  After a discussion their follow-up writing reveals these students often have powerful ideas which are never brought to the group.  A shame.  We need their ideas too.  I tinker with a few things.  Still no movement on the shy students.

It also bothers me that even though the students are bringing up valid and well-supported points ( a goal for seminar), too frequently the points go unchallenged.  Topics are introduced and then dropped as students try to 'score points' by leaping to their own views without absorbing or considering new views.  Now that's not really a discussion, is it?  It's more like a series of short lectures.

What to do?

As part of an Advanced Placement List serve I had read numerous posts where teachers mention training in the Harkness Discussion model.  I keep wondering how that differs from what I am currently doing. Finally, with enough dissatisfaction built up I expend many hours over the holiday to follow and absorb a link to Jodi Rice's superb google site (Thank you Jodi) and begin to explore how this model differs from the socratic seminar model.

Turns out the major difference is in the assessment of the discussions.  Harkness places emphasis on the group's behavior by issuing a group grade, one that even the students' themselves can assess by looking at a diagram of their work.  Cool.

There's more to Harkness of course, and I have to think and plan well in advance so we can all clearly understand the multiple goals of our class discussions ( which are many: I hope they will learn annotation, inquiry, speaking, listening, supporting comments with evidence, critical thinking, and understanding the literature and author's craft) but the simple change from an individual grade to a group grade has already made a huge difference in the quality of discussion.   (Please note, everyone, just how much assessment affects behavior--especially as you devise your Teacher Evaluation plans and standardized testing.)

So now we have a new method, and the students and I will continue to determine how well this meets all of our needs (see parenthetical list above).

So, how could professionalizing teaching help?

Look at what it takes to improve--i.e. reform practice--in substantive ways:

Observation (of self and others)
Reflection (revisiting the work and evaluating it)
Diagnosis of problems (clinical research)
Search for solutions (research)
Collaboration with peers (sometimes in person, sometimes in electronic forums)
Prescription (application of new methodology)
Adjustment based on evidence (which changes year to year, class to class)
Lather, rinse, repeat.

These are the skills, knowledge and practices it takes to continue to improve.  The up side to such a self-study is that the answers are owned by the teacher--just as the discoveries in an invigorating discussion are owned by the students.  These moves mirror those by other professions and should be job embedded.  During the 11-year journey outlined above, none of the moves made were supported or encouraged in the work day through the current model of managing teacher work.

They could be.