Thursday, March 5, 2015

 Christie: Don’t #OptOut 

At a town hall meeting yesterday, Gov. Chris Christie defended New Jersey’s new standardized exams, and asked parents not to opt out. New Jersey’s public schools began implementing Common Core-aligned PARCC tests for the first time earlier this week.

 Teach the Arts 

Urban school districts in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Diego are making room for more arts education, years after many art and music classes were cut in the wake of No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on math and English Language Arts.

 Math Problems 

A new study by found that an overwhelming majority of math curricula across the country aren’t aligned with Common Core standards. How can we resolve implementation and alignment issues?

 Blended Learning 

Teachers in California are using “blended-learning environments” to leverage technology, individualize student instruction, and create new roles for teachers.

 Empowering Teachers 

The “Distributed Leadership” movement, which encourages school principals and district superintendents to empower teachers, is making inroads across the United States by putting teachers in charge of school functions as diverse as admissions, professional development, and new teacher mentoring.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

 No Vote on NCLB 

This week, House Republicans canceled a vote to rewrite No Child Left Behind due to a lack of conservative support in Congress. However, serious changes still need to be made with regard to student assessments. What should they entail?

 Disappearing Teachers

Across the country, enrollment in teacher training programs has dropped dramatically, particularly in states like California (53%), North Carolina (20%), Texas, and New York. What’s causing the decline in teachers?

 Christie on Common Core

New statements from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may indicate a shift in his stance on Common Core. Is it a genuine change of heart, or a move to position himself favorably for a presidential run?

 The Consequences of Opting Out

A new study by the Education Commission of the States reveals how unclear the consequences are for parents who opt their children out of Common Core and standardized testing. What’s the solution?

✧ Education Rally in New York

Singer Janelle Monae will perform a free public concert in New York today to raise awareness on education issues affecting students in some of New York’s lowest-rated schools.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


✧ Teacher Quality

The opinion section of The New York Times today features a debate among five experts–including teachers– on “How to Ensure and Improve Teacher Quality”. Their opinions on teacher evaluations, teacher education, testing, and respect for the profession are sure to spark heated conversations.

✧ Not-So-Common in Louisiana

At an event in Shreveport, Republican Jay Dardenne established himself as the only gubernatorial candidate in Louisiana who supports Common Core, in stark contrast to current governor Bobby Jindal. After criticizing his opponents for basing their opinions on “which way the wind is blowing,” Dardenne said “I’m standing by my principles that we need to have stability in education.” Will his endorsement have a positive or negative impact on his chances in 2016?

 Schools + Nonprofits = Better Communities

Dr. Shannon Mason made a compelling case for integrating efforts between schools and the nonprofit community in an op-ed for The Times of Trenton.

 A New Kind of Professional Development

Over 300 teachers came together for an Edcamp (link to EdCamp site) in Northern Kentucky to learn #edtech basics like using Google apps and moving toward a totally paperless classroom. Teachers were impressed.

✧ New Teacher Evaluations in Tennessee

Legislators debated Governor Haslam’s plan to revise the state’s teacher evaluations, Tennessee’s Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS). Currently, 35% is based on student growth, but the governor wants to offer teachers “more ownership and choice.”

Test, Test, Test. Why Can’t I Just Teach?

by Joy Peters

Test, test, test. All I ever do is test. When do I have time to teach? Why are these students taking all these tests when the results never change?

What are the results, you ask? The results always say that ESOL students in the beginning levels are at the bottom of the range of scores. When I do a breakdown of the reasons why they don’t score well, it always comes back to the fact that they don’t know enough English to comprehend what they’re being asked. And guess what? I already knew that.

Personally, I like standardized tests. They usually give accurate results for those students who understand English or do not have special needs. If the test is geared toward ESOL or Special Ed, the results are accurate enough as well. My problem is the number of tests that we give. I don’t mean the weekly or biweekly tests that a classroom teacher gives to check for learning. I mean the tests that require students to sit for hours and answer questions in a bubble sheet or online. These are the tests that effect how schools and teachers are evaluated at the end of the year, the tests that make students hate testing.

We have been in school since August. It is now December, and we’ve given 1 to 3 of these tests each month. In January, my district will give 4 major tests that will require our class schedules to be changed for 2 weeks. If you’re an ESOL student, you get to take the longest test of all, WIDA ACCESS for ELLs, and it takes 2 half-days and part of a third day to complete.

By the way, this is the only test that determines where the student will be placed in future classes. It is the only test that shows growth and progress 100% from year to year. The other tests show growth and progress, but not to the degree that ACCESS does. By the end of January, my students will be burnt out on testing, and they’re not even done yet. March, April, and May will bring more tests each month.

Where does that leave us? Changing the Story: Transformation Toward Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education makes several recommendations for testing. One recommendation is to limit the number of tests given to ESOL and SPED students. Too much testing takes away from instructional time that is desperately needed by these students to learn enough to succeed at the tests that will honestly help their teachers drive instruction.

PetersJoy Peters works as the only middle school ESOL teacher in Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland. She participated in the NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

Teacher autonomy is the secret to student success


By Amanda Koonlaba

During my work with VIVA on the Accountability 360 Idea Exchange–and with the Writing Collaborative for “Changing the Story: Transformation towards Fair Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education”–I kept coming back to the theme of how essential it is for teachers to be a part of all decision-making processes. This theme oozed out of every idea and comment in the Idea Exchange, and was a central aspect of every recommendation written for the report:

Teachers are in the BEST position to make the BEST decisions regarding what is BEST for students. (Period and amen!)

This includes all levels of decision-making, from classroom decisions like what text to use for teaching specific skills, to district decisions like textbook and resource adoption and acquisition, as well as state- and national-level policy decisions like what curriculums should be adopted and how students should be assessed. All of these things fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and teachers know better than anyone how to make the puzzle whole.

One Idea Exchange participant stated, “Give teachers back their autonomy and respect, and watch us work even harder than ever to reach and teach each child.” This is an incredibly relevant statement in today’s current educational climate where teachers are reporting high levels of dissatisfaction with their careers and leaving the field at alarming rates.

How would you feel if you were depicted on the cover of a national magazine as a bad apple? Or constantly berated in other media? Maybe that sounds like we’re taking it all too personally. But we have to take it personally. When the discussion about teachers implies that we’re all lazy and self-serving, it’s personal. When our students are catching the effects of negative media, it’s definitely personal. Because after all, teachers are in this for their students. I believe that with my whole heart and mind. I don’t know any bad apples in the teaching profession.

I know teachers who want the respect they deserve as educated and dedicated professionals. I know teachers who want back their autonomy and ability to make decisions about their students. I know teachers who care so much about their students that they would rather leave the profession than participate in a top-down policy that forces them to do something that could ultimately be detrimental to their students.

In Recommendation 4 of “Changing the Story”, our statement of the problem clearly identifies that the exclusion of teachers from decision-making processes is not working for students. It is a witch hunt, a blame game, a finger-pointing debacle, and it is time to end it.

We proposed six solutions to this problem. We held our students at the heart of our problem-solving at all times. Everything we put forward in this report was done for the betterment of America’s public education system, and that includes every single student. If America is truly serious about student success, it will get serious about giving teachers back their autonomy and respect. I, for one, can’t wait to see the results!

KoonlabaAmanda Koonlaba, M.Ed., NBCT is a Visual Art Specialist at Lawhon Elementary School. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

The 5 Attributes of a Teacher Leader

By Josh Agpalza

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending the Teach to Lead Conference in Denver with other teachers and educators from around the nation. As I was listening to stories and presentations of teacher leaders making a difference, I realized they all had 5 things in common.

  1. Teacher leaders are innately progressive. This should not come as a surprise because teachers are professionally trained to reflect and refine their lessons every day. So teachers being empowered to make changes is inevitable and built into their gut. At the conference, one teacher leader after another kept reiterating their natural urge to improve systems that would help student growth. They also spoke about their passion to revolutionize professional development, education policies, and their communities. This innate progressivism empowers teacher leaders to keep moving education forward.
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  2. Teacher leaders are committed to their ideas. I had the opportunity to work with a 12-year veteran teacher from Arizona. She came to the conference to share her ideas on building positive relationships between teachers and administrators within her district. I asked her how long she had been working on the project, and she said, “Well, for 12 years now.” It took me a second to realize that she had that idea the day she started teaching. She further explained that she wanted to improve on the idea of building positive relationships, despite the growth and progress that the district had already made. She was also determined to expand her project at the state level. Her relentless commitment exemplifies the unwavering spirit that is common among teacher leaders.
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  3. Teacher leaders are not afraid to fail. Unfortunately, we often see people, including our students, give up on complex ideas or difficult tasks on their first try. However, a teacher leader is willing to learn from their mistakes, improve on their ideas, and try again. During a breakout session, a teacher from the state of Washington shared his experience with an administrator who shot down his innovative plan for student growth. He said he wanted to give up, but he was just too passionate to let it go. Through trial and error he learned who to go to for the proposals, what to say to people, and how to effectively implement the project. No matter how many times he failed, he kept on trying, and eventually his idea became a reality. Teacher leaders learn from failure.
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  4. Teacher leaders never do it alone. Throughout the conference I never heard a teacher leader say they successfully implemented an idea all by themselves. In fact, teachers acknowledged that their success couldn’t have happened without the support of other teachers, educators, parents, students, and the community. Furthermore, the collaboration framework of the conference provided teachers with the opportunity to seek help, ask for support, and learn from one another. This structure gave teacher leaders the confidence and expertise to make their ideas real. It also supported the concept of making sure teachers never do it alone. Teacher leaders understand the significance of “power in numbers.”
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  5. Teacher leaders do it all for their students. I am a diehard Seattle Seahawks fan. I could have chosen to stay home for the weekend to watch the Seattle Seahawks defeat the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Playoffs, but I didn’t. I chose to go to Denver to share my experience, my story, and my life as a teacher leader. I did this because I am passionate about creating change in a complex education system. I did this because I learn a lot about other teacher leaders making a difference in their communities. But most importantly, I did this because of my students. My energy to move education forward draws from their stories of struggle and success. Everyday I am inspired by their lives, their thoughts and dreams. It’s the students that push teachers like me to give a presentation on leadership. It’s the students that inspired the teacher from Arizona to keep building relationships with administrators. It’s the students that helped the teacher from Washington persevere and commit to his idea. It’s the students that made it possible for the 200-plus educators from around the nation to come together to make a difference and inspire change in education.

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These 5 attributes of a teacher leader were a common theme this past weekend. I challenge teachers and other educators to identify other attributes of a teacher leader. Share your story or a story of another educator trying to make change by leading.

Email your stories here:

Joshua Agpalza PhotoJosh Agpalza is a Cambridge World History and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher at Federal Way High School in Federal Way, Washington. He participated in the VIVA NEA Time in School Idea Exchange.




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When it comes to Common Core, content is what counts.


By Mark Anderson

The Common Core standards have provided rich fodder for outrage and tendentiousness throughout 2014, and will likely continue to do so in 2015. But why do we endlessly debate and polarize policies, instead of seeking to implement them in a way that best helps the citizens they were crafted to serve? (See early education, healthcare, etc., ad nauseam).

While folks are still arguing over whether Common Core is the hellspawn of all evil, educators at my school are working to revamp our curriculum and practices, using the new standards as a guide.

Last year, my ELA department elected to try Expeditionary Learning’s Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum, which has been made freely available on NY Engage. We found much to admire, but we also realized we had other areas of study we would like to explore further. For example, this year, all grades (6-8) are reading a dramatic text by Shakespeare, and each grade has dedicated a unit to studying poetry. We’re balancing the materials we developed around EL’s curriculum last year–along with curriculums we’re developing on our own–using the Common Core to steer our planning and assessments.

The standards are vague on details, so there’s a lot to unpack. What does it mean to “read closely”? Annotation must be an aspect of reading closely, so what expectations for annotating do we communicate to our students? And how do we assess them?

And that’s just the basics. Then there are the real doozies, like Reading Literature Standard 5 for 7th grade: “Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.” How do we teach students to conduct such an analysis? What knowledge and vocabulary do students require to understand the structure of a sonnet or a soliloquy? How will we prepare our students in each grade to understand how structure conveys meaning, across all different types of texts?

To support our understanding of the standards, I decided to draw on other resources to fill in the gaps. For example, I like the approach and guidance that the Massachusetts ELA standards have provided, so I used Sandra Stotsky’s ELA Curriculum Framework as a guide for content and knowledge specific to poetry. And to better determine the discrete skills specific to the standards and how they might evolve across grades, I reviewed ETS’s CBAL Learning Progressions. Using these and other resources, I tried to break down the knowledge, skills, products, and scaffolds of each standard across the grades that I teach (I co-teach 6-8 as a special education teacher). So far, I’ve only barely gotten through the Reading Literature standards!

My analysis document was useful for my own thought process, but difficult for planning purposes, so I condensed the potential products for each standard, trying to visualize what would be most concrete for both teachers and students. For example, for Reading Literature Standard 5 in 6th grade, one method of both assessment and scaffolding would be to utilize a narrative arc graphic organizer to track the development of a story’s plot.

By engaging in this process, I began to establish how I and other teachers could assess and teach the standards consistently across grades, as well as how we might sequentially build on the knowledge and skills taught at each level.

We just completed our units on poetry across all grades, and are now immersed in Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet). As we plan our units, I refer back to my standards analysis to assist our thinking in how we will target and assess our instruction. For example, we decided to focus on Standard 5 in our poetry units. Across the grades, we consistently taught concepts and vocabulary based on poetic structure, such as stanza lengths like quatrain, cinquain, or rhyming couplet. Our current 6th graders will now be equipped to build on their introduction to enjambment and caesura, so that by the time they get to 8th grade, they will be much better equipped than our current 8th graders with cumulative knowledge and skills.

To see how we assessed Standard 5 across grades and get an idea of how we view each grade building successively on the other, you can examine our 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade culminating tasks.

I present this process not to imply that my school’s analysis and curriculum development is better than anything else out there, but rather to suggest that time spent digging into the standards will yield resources and knowledge that will be of benefit to students. I encourage educators who may find themselves caught up in political currents to engage in a similar process to keep our focus on what really counts: the content we teach our students.

In 2015, I’d like to see less bickering about politics and ideology, and more resources and knowledge shared by professionals about how we can better support our students and teachers in exceeding the targets of the Common Core standards.

Mark-Anderson-150-Mark Anderson is a 7th and 8th grade Special Education teacher in the Bronx, NY. He participated in the VIVA New York Task Force.



Not Junk Mail

By Justin McGehee

Junk mail. It looked exactly like junk mail.

Okay, it only looked like junk mail for a second, but if I hadn’t given it a second glance, it would’ve been deleted. What a change that would’ve been.

The subject line said something NEA something something Accountability something...or something. Probably just another FYI on education policy and upcoming elections sent by a union-related emailing site. Not spam, but not personalized either.

Couldn’t hurt to take a look. I opened it.

Okay, they wanted ideas blah blah blah, school accountability, what-did-I-think-as-an-educator. One link took me to a forum where I’d need to create a sign-in (with a password) to comment.

“Bah! Humbug!” said the minute-pinching time miser of my brain. It’d probably take a whole minute to create a working sign-in, and I’d probably forget the password, and nobody would read what I wrote, and nobody would make anything happen. Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dis!\

I backed out…but I didn’t delete that email. It just didn’t feel like the millions of others I’d seen. It stayed in my inbox for days, maybe weeks, egging me on until I finally broke and created a sign-in. I only made one post and later just one comment. It wasn’t much in quantity, but I truly put the best ideas I had, the kind of thing I just wished “somebody out there” would hear, please, just somebody please hear this… In other words, I had ideas, but not much hope. Not until I got the next e-mail, that is.


Okay, that’s not what it said, but it might as well have.

True, I wasn’t being asked to sneak the One Ring to Mount Doom as part of a nine-member fellowship. That would’ve been easy; I already know that story and could take advantage of a little plot hole involving some large eagles. No, it was more serious than that, because this was real life, and I was being asked as a forum-identified “thought leader” if I would please consider doing a whole bunch of reading and writing to put people’s ideas together into a Really Cool Report that would be presented to some High-Profile People.

In other words, something important was about to be said, some very important people were about to be listening, and was I willing to make sure the right things were said, and said in the right way, so that the message wouldn’t be lost on its way to people who could make a difference?

I had no idea what I was in for. All I knew is that because I hadn’t treated an honest request like junk mail, suddenly I’d have the opportunity to make sure nobody’s voice was treated like junk mail.

See, while I often don’t want to be the leader, I do want to help the leader, because that can help everyone else by extension. But now, the leader was Everybody. I’d need to treat Everybody’s voice as an important message because Everybody would be helping and leading everybody else.

Nobody’s voice is junk mail. Everyone has it in them to listen, and everyone has it in them to speak. I wasn’t junk mail. I gave my best in a moment I didn’t even realize would matter, and look what happened. The rest of the writing team wasn’t junk mail. They gave their best, and look what has happened.

You aren’t junk mail, either, and neither is anyone you know.

Now go give your best, and see what happens.


McGeheeJustin McGehee has been teaching high school ELA for 11 years after starting with a performing arts emphasis in English and a Masters of Education.

Educators Should Take the Lead on Common Core

By Paul Toner

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a huge paradigm shift in education. Over the past five years, the widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards or some state variation of them has impacted every classroom in America–even in the handful of states that haven’t yet embraced them. Whether you’re still on the fence or deeply embedded in your opinion of the standards, consider this:

The Common Core State Standards are a historic opportunity to prove to the public just how valuable educators and their unions are when shaping education policy and practices.

We’re all familiar with the negative stereotypes that paint teachers unions as only being concerned with salaries and benefits and disavow being held accountable for student performance. But we also know these stereotypes are wrong. As a former local and state union leader, I’ve always advocated that as a union of professional educators we should be the ones leading change in our profession and fighting to provide our students with a quality education.

The Common Core State Standards are voluntary national learning goals in English language arts and mathematics. To date, 43 states (44 if we include Minnesota, who adopted the English standards, but not math), the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense schools, and four U.S. territories have adopted the standards.

This is why educators need to ensure that every local and state association has a strong group of members focused on the professional issues we are facing, from implementing the new standards and preparing for their affiliated assessments, to developing appropriate measures of student and school performance to be used in new evaluations.

It’s time for educators to own these standards. Districts should have already begun aligning their curricula with the new frameworks. If yours hasn’t, time is of the essence. Affected educators should insist that adequate time and resources be devoted to making sure what they’re teaching matches what their students are expected to learn.

Last spring, states began field-testing new Common Core-aligned assessments to measure student performance relative to the standards. In my home state of Massachusetts, PARCC tests may eventually replace our current MCAS tests in ELA and math. If that happens, students will have to pass PARCC tests to graduate from high school. In addition, student growth on these and other measures of student performance will be incorporated into educator evaluation and school accountability systems. Therefore, these assessments will be a crucial aspect of education for the foreseeable future.

There is much to be done now and in the coming years to align instruction with new standards and assessments. At the national, state, and district levels, we must continue to ensure that educators are leading the way on implementation. Timelines and expectations must be reasonable, and resources must be made available to support our work.

Your local association should be at the forefront in advocating for the professional development, common planning time, and individual preparation time you need to help your students meet these new learning goals, so that they’ll be ready for college or a career when they graduate from high school.

I believe educators are the best resource our nation has for improving education and improving the lives of our students. Standards and assessments, no matter what they are called or how they are developed, will be meaningless without educators actively engaged in their implementation. It is essential that educators get them right and ensure that they are used appropriately to improve and guide teaching and learning in our schools.


 ptonePaul Toner is the President of New Voice Strategies.