An Innovative Way to Improve Teacher Observations

ptoneby Paul Toner, President of the VIVA Project

Observations are a vital part of teaching practice and career development, but sometimes they can be a burdensome source of tension between teachers and administrators. So researchers at Harvard have been experimenting with new technology based on the input of teachers and administrators to improve and streamline the observation process.

Specifically, the Best Foot Forward project gave digital video cameras to 347 teachers in Colorado, California, Delaware, and Georgia, who then recorded themselves teaching over several class periods and chose a few to submit to their administrators as classroom observations. A test group of 108 administrators were then able to watch the videos at their leisure and provide time-stamped observations.

Our own VIVA Idea Exchange™ with MET (Measures of Effective Teaching) in 2013, entitled Reflections from the Classroom, showed that teachers and administrators overwhelmingly welcome new technology, not just when it comes to student success but also when it can help them as professionals.

In their report, our teachers said “The MET research makes clear that technology not only plays a vital part in how students learn, but in how educators can reflect, refine and implement new teaching practices from something as simple as a video of a lesson to creating new ways for teachers to share, communicate, and reflect with each other.”

And the results from the Best Foot Forward project at Harvard bears that out. The teachers who participated felt as though their observation evaluations were more fair, and that their supervisors were more supportive. They even reported fewer disagreements and clearer steps to improve their teaching practices.

Also, administrators were able to observe teachers whenever their schedules allowed, instead of during predetermined class periods, and reported that teachers were less defensive during their post-observation conferences.

It’s just another example of how listening to educators—in this case, their ideas about improving observations with video—can lead to better practices and results, not just for students, but for teachers and administrators as well.

Let’s Be Honest

by Freeda Pirillis

Educators possess a moral authority that exemplifies the values we strive to teach our children, our students, and even the adults around us: the value of being honest. We teach Character Education lessons on communicating your feelings when another person has called you a name, identify mentor texts that demonstrate how children can stand up for themselves when they are being bullied by a peer, and engage our students in role playing activities to build their self-esteem.

There’s a natural developmental milestone children reach when they begin to realize being completely honest is not always best. Children start to recognize when and where honesty is valued, how to convey a message without hurting another person’s feelings, and when it’s better not to say anything at all. As educators and parents, we begin to explicitly identify those situations for children so they can transition into adulthood with a deeper understanding of the human condition and successfully navigate the social world.

Let’s shift the focus to educators, who are at the forefront of shaping children’s understanding of themselves in a world full of conflict. How do educators learn to navigate their school buildings, their districts, or the world of education? How do educators craft their conversations with colleagues or their principals? Are they truly being honest when conversing with the various stakeholders in their school building?

In the book, The Cage-Busting Teacher, Rick Hess reports teachers are simply not being honest. When dissecting the topic of professional development, Rick Hess reported that in 2012, 73% of teachers surveyed felt their professional development was excellent or good. In 2013, 60% of teachers that teach ELA or Math stated their CCSS PD to be extremely helpful. Yet, as teachers, we can attest to the numerous times we’ve heard a colleague privately complaining about the last PD they attended or the grade level meeting they sat through. What accounts for the discrepancy between what teachers say and what teachers “say”?

We could look no further than a school’s culture. There are some school buildings where teachers are hesitant to be honest on a survey or on an exit slip for fear of being singled out by an administrator.  There are schools where administrators ask for honesty from their staff, but respond with disappointment or frustration when teachers provide critical feedback. There are teachers who have become apathetic simply because no one has ever asked them what they think. What can be done to improve the professional culture of these school buildings so teachers are providing honest, critical feedback to their colleagues and administrators?

Much like teachers, school leaders possess a moral authority to establish trusting relationships with their staff, likened to the classroom community that educators strive to build with their students. A community based on shared responsibility, respect for one another, and trust that when one student (or teacher) shares their thinking, it will be received with an open mind and a willingness from the listener to meet in the middle.

A school’s culture is a reflection of a school leader’s ability to establish systems for collecting feedback from teachers that not only engages the top 5% of teachers, or those that are often the loudest in the room, but the remaining 95% who have valuable perspectives to offer, but may not be willing to raise a quiet hand. As educators, we strive to engage all our students and validate each person’s contribution.

Providing teachers with a multitude of platforms for providing honest, critical feedback can ensure school leaders have an accurate pulse of how teachers are feeling and what they can do to improve the school culture. Engaging all teachers in the hard, but crucial work of fostering a culture of openness and respect will result in greater gains for students, greater teacher retention, and an increased commitment to the school leaders in the building. Honesty is a virtue which necessitates open dialogue between all stakeholders, within the classroom and beyond.

freeda_300Freeda Pirillis is a First Grade Teacher in Chicago, an NBCT, and a 2015 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow.

An ESEA Reauthorization That Could Empower Teachers

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by Paul Toner, President of the VIVA Project

An update of the ESEA is long overdue, and this week, the Senate has a real chance to improve it with the following bipartisan amendments based on the wisdom and input of classroom educators, written in collaboration with the Teaching Policy Fellows at Teach Plus.

First, the Bennet-Collins Teacher Leadership Amendment would enable states to use Title II funds for teacher leadership training. In our own VIVA Idea Exchanges™, teachers have consistently asked for more opportunities for evidence-based professional development, more time to serve as mentors and coaches, and more chances to collaborate.

In our latest VIVA Idea Exchange™ on the Common Core, for instance, teachers across the country said, “Often [professional development] opportunities take the form of one-off workshops, where information is presented in one day with little or no follow-through…[but] professional development must be sustained over time and embedded within regular work hours. Teachers require the opportunity to work together on departmental and grade-level teams to interpret the standards and develop resources and curricula that align with their school’s mission and vision.”

Just imagine the difference $2.5 billion per year could make when put toward professional development, both internal and external. This amendment would allow all 50 states to gage which schools need the most help creating teacher and principal leadership opportunities, and then allocate Title II funds as it sees fit, including to third-party nonprofit organizations.

Second, the STEM Master Teacher Corps Act, will ensure that schools find and keep STEM teachers while helping them serve as mentors and role models, and ensuring they have enough time during regular school hours to serve in leadership and mentor positions, instead of increased responsibilities after school.

Third, the Baldwin-Cassidy SMART Act (Support Making Assessments Reliable and Timely) will reduce over-testing, one of the key concerns of our VIVA teachers in the latest VIVA Idea Exchange™ on the Common Core. The SMART Act will take a data-based approach to make sure student assessments are well-aligned with standards, curricula, and that they never conflict with a teacher’s need for plenty of instructional, planning, and collaboration time.

Finally, the Bennet-Hatch Innovation Amendment will allow teachers and schools to embrace innovative programs by providing funding for the ones that show promise. In our VIVA Idea Exchanges™, teachers have expressed their excitement for new and different ways to improve student learning and close achievement gaps, and this amendment would make those kinds of groundbreaking programs easier to implement and reproduce.

If you believe, like we do, that teachers deserve more opportunities for career growth, more autonomy in deciding what works best for students, and a better student assessment strategy, make sure your senator knows how you feel before these ESEA amendments hit the senate floor later this week.


Lowering the Expectations of Our Students

by Kelly Waller

Should students receive half credit for an assignment they didn’t even bother to turn in? That is the new trend sweeping across the country in our public school system. District leaders are either strongly encouraging or making it mandatory for teachers to change their grading criteria so that 50% is the lowest score a student can earn, even when they fail to turn in the assignment.

According to Douglas B. Reeves, Chairman and Founder of the Center for Performance assessment in Boston, “it is mathematically disproportionate when a student receives a 0 on a 100-point scale when the interval between numerical and letter grades is 10 points. Therefore, when applying a 0 to a score, the interval between a D and an F is not 10 points, but 60 points.” (The Case Against the Zero).

So, taking this theory into consideration, should schools and teachers change their grading scale so that a 50% is the lowest possible score and, likewise, give a student credit for no work at all?

The logic sounds solid, but can (or should) teachers alter their ideals and make this adjustment?  After all, our education system is not only responsible for instilling knowledge in their students, but also for life skills such as accountability. When our students grow up, will they still get paid for their job if they don’t show up to work?

There is also another factor that should be taken into consideration: the weighing of the assignments. Most teachers, me included, weigh an assessment at a higher percentage than a homework assignment. So, if a student doesn’t turn in their homework, a “0” will not drop them significantly. On the other hand, if a student decides they don’t want to complete their essay assessment, should they still receive 50%?

As a middle school teacher in the public school system, I feel an immense amount of pressure from my administration and district to make sure my students pass, especially since the dropout rate in the United States continues to rise. However, should one of those opportunities be to change a grade and give credit that wasn’t earned?

Like most teachers I’ve spoken to, I already give students every opportunity possible to help them pass my class (extra time, replacing lost materials, extra credit, in-school make-up work days, parental communication, incentives, etc.). Should changing their grade now be one of those opportunities?

If we continue to lower our expectations for our students, how will they be able to compete with graduates from higher performing schools that expect students to be successful by earning their grades?

Furthermore, how will they learn the importance of responsibility if they no longer need to be accountable for their own work?

Kelly Waller 150Kelly Waller teaches middle school language arts in Hillsborough County, Florida Public Schools. She participated in the VIVA MET Idea Exchange.

Friday, May 8, 2015

✧ Math Teaching Alternatives

Teachers are using theatre and rap to introduce math concepts to students. The results? Engaged students. 

✧ Boston Ed

Boston’s upcoming superintendent, Tommy Chang, wants to improve Boston’s public schools.  “Our job is not to just create innovations, it’s to create innovators . . . among teachers, and parents, and administrators.”

✧ Math Textbooks

New research from the National Research and Development Center on Cognition and Mathematics Instruction looks at how students learn and uses that knowledge to produce better math textbooks.

✧ Community Learning

Preschools like The Fowler Head Start Program inspire students (and their parents) to dream and pursue their dreams. By bridging the relationship between teachers, administrators, and families, schools can help create academic interests and imagination among students and the community.

✧ CCSS Skills

A new study finds that some skills don’t translate to Common Core assessments, like rote memorization, but mastering theory and connecting big ideas produce higher scores.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

✧ Chicago Teachers Fire Back

The Chicago Teachers Union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint claiming that the city’s school board is refusing to mediate with teachers on a new contract. This comes after the school board rejected the teachers’ pension payment revisions earlier this week.

✧ CCSS Implementation

Some states still have concerns and hiccups with Common Core implementation, but whether it’s tech problems or parental opt-out issues, overall the problems seem to be minor and isolated.

✧ Teachers and Tablets

5 creative ways teachers can use tablets to engage students as more than just a digital device, but as a real-life, physical learning tool.

✧ Las Vegas Teachers

Las Vegas is having a hard time recruiting enough teachers to staff its growing population.

✧ #MoveInMay

First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative set a goal of allocating 60 minutes of physical activity a day across schools nationwide. #MoveInMay is her latest campaign to get kids active this month.

How Can a Teacher Make a Difference in Education Policy?

by Sara Arnold

Seems a bit ironic, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t changes in education be made by well-trained educators?

Shutting our doors and teaching is no longer an option.

I used to believe that all I needed to do was be the best teacher I could be for my students. I had control of what happened in my classroom, but I had no idea how many decisions were being made about my profession by non-educators.

Many decisions that drive education are made in the state house, not the school house. Two years ago, I realized I could no longer sit idly by and allow policy to be made for me. Many people don’t know where to begin when it comes to education policy, so here are three things you can do to make a difference for your students.

Tell Classroom Stories to Your Legislators

It seems scary and intimidating, but your legislators want to hear from you. I made my first trip to the state house this January to be a voice for adequate funding for our schools. I was able to tell my story and offer my input back to my legislators.

You can talk about increasing class sizes, reductions in programming, increased testing….but also share your heartfelt stories. Stories of a student who learned how to read or a class that organized a food drive for a local food pantry. These stories are the reasons we became educators: to make a difference in the lives of others.

Just Say ‘Yes’

Whether it’s a state or local committee, say “yes” when you’re asked to serve. I said yes to a few local and state committees and I’ve learned so much through the process and had the opportunity to share my voice. Decisions are no longer being made for me, they’re being made with me at the table.

Always Do What’s Best for Your Students

You are the expert in your field. You know and understand your students, so do what’s best for them. As a teacher, I would never try and tell a neurosurgeon how to perform brain surgery, just as legislators shouldn’t be telling us how to do things in our classrooms. Sometimes we must stand up for what’s right and make decisions based on what’s best for our students.

Sara Arnold teaches elementary gifted and talented students in Iowa’s Cedar Rapids Public Schools. She participated in the VIVA ISEA Teachers Idea Exchange.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

✧ Presidential Candidates on Education:

Here’s a round-up of the major 2016 presidential candidates’ positions on education:

✧ CPS Distress

On Tuesday, the Chicago Teachers Union announced that the school district is asking teachers to take a 7% pay cut in their upcoming contract. [NEEDS LINK]

✧ Ed Pays Off

According to a new study, “Americans with an advanced degree are 50 times more likely to become millionaires than those without a high school diploma.” Other findings link wealth and income with education.

✧ MT Opt-Out

It looks unlikely that Montana will meet the minimum testing participation requirements for the Common Core state standards. “The challenge is that all of these things are outside our control.”

✧ Teacher / Healer

In an era of conflict, this MindShift article explains how teachers have the power to heal their classrooms and the world.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

✧ EdTech Gap

New research indicates that up to 58% of high school students (grades 9-12) are using their own tech devices for school.

✧ Grade Skipping

NPR follows up with students who skipped grades and dives into the good, the bad, and the surprising.

✧ Nashville Ed Agreement

The Nashville Public Education Foundation launched Project Reset to bring the community together to discuss what could work for local schools, instead of a heated debate.

✧ CCSS Debate

The New York Times debate, “Is Testing Students the Answer to America’s Education Woes?“ has us wondering where the expert educators are to weigh in on this issue, considering they’re the ones who see it in action, and will have to implement it.

✧ Teacher Appreciation Deals

Celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week by taking advantage of some wonderful deals and discounts from local stores for their local teachers! Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

Monday, May 4, 2015



✧ Ed Hashtag

The trending hashtag #TeachingIs from @teachingquality asks teachers to share what teaching is to them. Share your story on Twitter.


New polls from Children Now and Public Policy Institute of California show that Californians continue to support the Common Core standards. According to EdWeek, true success lies in the proper implementation and proper funding of programs that help facilitate the transition.

✧ Teacher Discusses CCSS

In The Washington Post, a teacher discusses her implementation concerns with CCSS, such as security, outsources scoring, and the use of “intellectual relativism.”

✧ NY Opt-Out

According to WaPo, opting out is a much bigger issue than just “not participating” in a single test, but rather a complete refusal of education reform. “If this [opt-out] thing goes national, the whole education reform movement is in serious trouble.” –Michael Petrelli.

✧ Informing Parents

Research conducted by Public Policy Institute of California found that “62% of California public school parents had received inadequate or no information about the Common Core State Standards.”