Elizabeth Tarbutton

After her first year teaching math in Brighton, Colorado, Elizabeth Tarbutton grew discouraged by her students’ low standardized test scores.

Professional development opportunities, especially for math leadership, were currently lacking within her school district, but then she heard about the Rocky Mountain Math Teachers’ Circle, a program at the University of Colorado Denver that connects middle-school teachers and mathematicians to develop capacity with the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice.

As a free weekend event (with lunch included), Elizabeth was easily able to attend the workshops where she met math teachers from all over the state and was soon asked to join the Leadership Team and facilitate adult circle sessions as well as collaborate with the American Institute of Mathematics to study implementing a student math circle.

Through her involvement with Math Teachers’ Circles and a greater understanding of standardized practices, Elizabeth was able to make math more engaging for her students and provide real world application for her classroom lessons. Besides improving her students’ test scores by nearly 70%, Elizabeth became a resource for teachers at her school and other local districts, and was asked to become the math department and data committee chair. She also recently helped a local public high school develop new math curriculum, and as a result of her recommendations math scores improved by 30%.

Elizabeth is passionate about promoting student achievement by supporting teachers in building capacity with common core state standards, and she is currently a VIVA Teacher, Teach Plus Fellow, and PARCC item reviewer. You can read Elizabeth’s latest blog on how to create meaningful assessments that inform teacher practice by clicking here.



Engaging the experts in education

by Paul Toner

As an educator and union leader, the past eight years have been challenging on many fronts, and I look forward to bringing my experiences as a middle school social studies teacher and former local and state teacher’s union leader to NVS to help elevate the voice of frontline practitioners in the ongoing debates and discussions over the future of public education.   As a nation, we have struggled through the great recession and have been forced to confront numerous international and domestic challenges.   We live in a constantly changing world and we need to be prepared to lead change.   Our public schools are the catalyst to bring about that change.

As educators we have been asked to make rapid changes in an effort to improve our public school systems. We work towards adopting and transitioning to new academic standards and assessments, creating new evaluation frameworks, using student data in new ways and experimenting with new technologies — all while trying to do the day to day work of teaching and learning.  These demands for change are being made by parents, business leaders, government officials and policymakers in the name of preparing our students for life in our 21st century global society.   This is an urgent and worthy goal but too often the demand for change comes without providing classroom educators, schools and districts with the adequate time, training or resources to do the work well.  Even worse, the plans for implementing change are frequently developed without the voice of those closest to the students and the work– frontline educators.

This is why I am excited about my new role as president of New Voice Strategies.  I believe that in order for our public schools to be successful in preparing our students for our increasingly knowledge based economy, we need to have frank and open dialogue among all stakeholders about the goals and expectations of our schools and the educators.  But most importantly we need to hear from our frontline educators themselves.  Our public education system must be prepared and supported to educate all of our students to the highest levels.  They will need to be highly skilled, creative and critical thinkers, and active participants in our democratic institutions and communities.

As an organization, New Voice Strategies’ mission is to engage  educators, parents, community groups, teacher unions, district and civic leaders in an open, unbiased dialogue to develop the best solutions and policies to move our schools and communities forward in a collaborative manner.  Through our innovative VIVA Idea Exchange™ we are able to engage frontline stakeholders in positive problem solving.  By providing an online open platform with trained facilitators, we provide the space for an open constructive dialogue among educators about how best to serve students and meet the challenges today and in the future.

Our goal is to remove the discussion from the polarizing debates in the headlines and blog posts and return the discussion to where it belongs, focused on students and led by educators.  I hope you will join me in these future discussions.


Paul Toner serves as the president for New Voice Strategies

Innovation that leads to failure makes me stronger and smarter

by Katherine Doerr Morosky

I made a career change recently.  Professionals who switch into teaching are lauded for their altruism, but it’s not the same for those who switch out.   When I realized that I wasn’t finding the right kind of satisfaction in my job anymore, and that it was time to move on from being a classroom teacher, I felt like a failure.  But, as we tell our students, you learn best from making mistakes, from trying and trying again.

When I made the decision to become a high school teacher, I was a graduate student in a Ph.D. program at Yale.  The career choice was shrouded in my desire to  “give back”, but I quickly realized that I was going to need to innovate if I was going to do a job that was meaningful. The chemistry curriculum that my school had been using “for years” (basically starting at chapter 1 and going through the textbook until the school year ended) was exactly what I did not want to teach.   I innovated for over ten years, changing things up every year, making sure we didn’t burn the school down while always consciously teaching on the edge.  Student feedback is what I valued most, and the thing that I heard over and over again as school year after school year drew to a close was, “you are different than any teacher I’ve had.”  What did that mean professionally?  Well, in my public school, it meant that I was an uneasy fit with my colleagues and the administration:  “You’re so smart, but do you really have to speak your mind?”  “We need you to get back into our box.” I could never force myself to be in that box, and we all know that the real you is going to come out when you are alone in the classroom with your kids (for better or for worse).

Now I work from home and teach asynchronous online classes through a computer.  What a difference!  I was not excited to start, with this thought running through my head: “the reason teaching is meaningful is the personal connections, so I am going into a completely meaningless job.”  Wow, I have been so happily surprised.  I make meaningful remote connections with kids every day.  They are the digital generation and I have to say that it’s starting to feel like this medium is better for instruction than in a classroom full of teenagers.  And it’s a for-profit company, no union, with a bottom line.  I am learning so much (and not in a bad way, which is what I expected) about how K-12 education can, may, and perhaps even should change in the future.

So if this essay is about failure, it’s also about being an innovator.  My path is not linear, not clean, and not predictable.  But if innovation requires iteration, and iteration is necessitated by the need to improve, failure is the operative concept.  I never failed a class, but maybe failing from time to time in life is the only way I am going learn enough to graduate to my next level of adulthood.

KMorosky-150x150VIVA Teacher Katherine Doerr Morosky teaches online at Connections Education. She participated in the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

Sara Arnold

Sara grew up in a family of educators (from her grandmother teaching at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School to her mother being the school nurse at her own elementary school) and the importance of education was instilled in her at a very young age. Since she was two years old, Sara describes music as her first love, and after teaching music and band for 12 years she now serves as the Program for Academic and Creative Talent (PACT) Resource Specialist at 3 elementary schools in the Cedar Rapids Community School District for the past 3 years.

Her experience and passion teaching music has directly influenced her mission to advocate for gifted education for students and their families, focusing on both academic and creative talent. Sara describes the wide spectrum between ADHD, autism, and gifted students and how she strives to find opportunities for her students to utilize their existing skills, cultivate new talents, and apply both to new and challenging situations. For example, her students create and solve their own math problems (it’s one thing to answer a question but another to create one from scratch!), conduct a mystery Skype with students from around the world as part of their global literature curriculum, and participate in creative writing exercises on Kid Blog where they also review peer writing from nearby schools. All of these activities extend the school day from beyond the school walls and allow her students to think creatively and outside the box.

Beyond the classroom, Sara serves as a member of the NEA State Network of Educators for Smarter Balance Digital Library, where she reviews lesson plans and instructional tools to help teachers meet Common Core standards as well as provide formative assessment tools to help them monitor student learning. She was also recently appointed by the Governor to serve on the Board of Educational Examiners to discuss licensure changes and handle peer ethic complaints. After being selected to participate in the Teacher Leadership Initiative, Sara told her students that: “I’m doing this for you to make sure you have the best educational environment available.” Sara continues her advocacy efforts and systems thinking through her work as a VIVA Teacher and member of the CREA Executive Board.

VIVA Teachers Talk: Teacher Evaluation

Pia Payne-Shannon

Pia Payne-Shannon says she was raised to give back to her community.  As a child growing up in Minneapolis, Pia said it was hard to relate to the teachers who taught her.  Most came from somewhere else to teach in Minneapolis Public Schools.  Pia aims to be an example to others in her hometown, and she demonstrates her commitment to her students every day as an ELA teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools.  Pia was instrumental in writing the VIVA report, “Connections For Learning:  Unifying the Academic and Social Curriculum in Minneapolis Public Schools.”  Participating in the Minneapolis VIVA Idea Exchange TM helped Pia to realize that District leaders need to listen more to teacher experts.  “My experience with VIVA was positive.  The fact that my voice was heard and New Voice Strategies allowed me to be heard prompted future opportunities for me as a leader.”

Multiple Measures or Multiple Data Points?

Multiple Measures

Perhaps no profession is as endlessly fascinated with evaluation as teaching.  The concepts of transparency and accountability are woven into the very fabric of our work as educators in a way that is unique among professions.  On the one hand this is laudable.

On the other hand it leads to building of elaborate evaluation systems, systems that are costly, time consuming, and which are frequently criticized for efficacy.  Too often these systems became exercises in bureaucratic hoop jumping, disconnected from improvements in actual practice.

The trend during the Race to the Top/NCLB “flexibility” has been for states and localities to go down a rabbit hole of “multiple measures”, where a variety of components are added together, producing a number by which teachers can supposedly be compared, and which becomes the basis for various high stakes employment decisions, including hiring, firing, promotion, tenure and compensation.

Is this whole less than the sum of the parts?

In many places student test scores (including the dreaded value added or VAM approach) have become a large (or even largest) component of the evaluation score.  This has created (at least) two problems:

1) The majority of teachers teach in subjects without standardized tests. How do you capture a test score component for these folks?

2) The use and misuse of student testing has spiraled out of control.  Parents are starting to wake up to fact that their children are being tested not diagnostically and for their own benefit, but for the purpose of sorting and firing their teachers.

Because of the history and culture of our profession, we must be practical: teacher evaluation is not going away.  So how can we build an evaluation model that is time and cost effective, objective, and connects to improvements in professional practice?

Multiple data points.

In this approach, you put something at the center of the system.  In many cases this would be traditional administrator observation, but it could easily be a Tripod style student survey, or a National Board portfolio, for example.  Then you admit other data into the conversation for confirmation.

The variety of these data points and what they reveal is in a variety of books and research papers, including notably Everyone at the Table and Getting Teacher Evaluation Right.

We know that no one data point is a silver bullet that provides a complete, valid and reliable picture of professional practice.  Professional practice is a complex and sophisticated enterprise that must be viewed through a variety of lenses.  Observations, student achievement, surveys, artifacts, portfolios, etc, talk to each other in this scenario and become mutually reinforcing.

There is one other key piece – you need a research-based rubric, which everyone accepts and understands, to provide a basis for professional conversation, and a roadmap for improving practice.  In our district we recently agreed upon using Danielson’s Framework.

It is important to understand that a rubric is not in and of itself an evaluation system.  Rather, it provides the language to talk about practice, and you build the evaluation system around that language.

Within the rubric, “anchor components” are individual components in each of the four domains that drive the other components of that domain.  These anchor components are different for new and experienced teachers.   Examination of practice within the anchor component provides reasonable assurance that things are OK in the other components of that domain.

This simple idea has two important implications:  first, it provides a way to differentiate evaluation for the career stage of the educator by looking first at key areas of practice.  Second, it streamlines the process – by focusing an administrator’s attention, it reduces the data that needs to be looked at.  One need only look at the full spectrum of components in a domain if an issue is detected in the anchor component.

By using multiple data points, a research-based rubric and anchor components, it is possible to create teacher evaluation which is streamlined, accurate, and useful for planning professional growth.   If you can take some of the stress out the experience, educators will naturally embrace a good rubric and internalize it.  Why?  Because teachers spend a huge amount of time with their students, and if they are more successful in this endeavor their lives will be better in very concrete ways.  When educators take ownership of the profession, it reduces the need for elaborate teacher evaluation systems because the work is embedded in practice.  A virtuous cycle ensues.

Then the trick is how to connect this with professional development – but that’s subject for another blog!

What improvements in teacher evaluation would help you in your work?

Owens picSteve Owens is a National Board Certified music teacher who teaches P-6 general music, strings, band and chorus in Calais VT and Sharon VT.  He holds a second endorsement in technology integration, level 3 certification in Orff-Schulwerk (an approach to general music teaching) and has attended the Orff Insitut in Salzburg Austria. Steve participated in the VIVA NEA Idea Exchange on Time in School. 


Kelly Waller

Meet Kelly Waller, a 6th grade ELA and journalism teacher in Florida.  Kelly participated on the Writing Collaborative for the MET VIVA Idea ExchangeTM and was instrumental in writing the VIVA MET:  Reflections from the Classroom Measures of Effective Teaching Idea Exchange Report in 2013.

Kelly began her teaching career eleven years ago as a full-time substitute teacher in the neighborhood school down the street from where she lived.  Kelly loved it so much she was offered a full time position the following year and has been teaching there ever since.  Kelly has had lots of opportunities to lead in her school setting:  She’s now in her 11th year as an Honor Society advisor, she’s a Mentor to new teachers in the school, she oversees the production of the school yearbook and the school newspaper, and she plays a leadership role on her school’s AVID team.  Kelly’s also active in her community as a Girl Scout Troop Leader.  Kelly earned her Master’s degree in Curriculum and Development from the University of Tampa.

When asked about her experience on the VIVA MET Idea Exchange, Kelly said, “Collaborating with 9 other teachers from different locations it was eye opening, because I assumed that school districts followed the same patterns all over the country.  I was surprised at how much difference there was. Being a part of the Writing Collaborative made me feel more knowledgeable about the things that were coming up with teacher evaluations.  We were leaders in that and have already been through it.”

Kelly’s leadership at New Voice Strategies continues, as she’s helping to shape upcoming VIVA Leadership Center Programs.

How to Create Meaningful Assessments that Actually Inform Teacher Practice

By Elizabeth Tarbutton

Teacher evaluation is a hot topic in education these days, but has anyone stopped to ask what the purpose of it all is? I think most evaluators would say that the purpose is to grow better educators to create meaningful change in schools.  In order to affect these changes, evaluators collect a lot of data on students and teachers.  I would like to think that these data are commonly used to have a meaningful, actionable impact on student achievement. Unfortunately, many states, districts, and schools lack protocols as to how data should be used.  As a result, data is often misunderstood and used as an autopsy and not as a tool of improvement.  I served for three years as a data coach, while also taking on the responsibilities of classroom teaching.  I helped my peers figure out what data meant and how to use it to improve student achievement.  If meaningful data protocols were more widely employed, educators would be able to improve their instruction, and have a significant impact on student learning.

Subjective Data
Subjective data come in many forms during teacher evaluation: teacher observations; informal formative assessment; student surveys; school culture; etc.

In my experience these data are most useful when protocols for the generation and analyses of these data include the following elements:

  • The intent for subjective data collection is clear
  • The evidence collected has a purpose that ties back to the intent for data collection
  • Instruments used for data collection are intentional and thoughtful (i.e. use of technology enhances data collection as opposed to just be novel)
  • There is training and discussion as to what the evidence means for all players
  • Time is built in to reflect on data
  • Meaningful goals can created out of data
  • Action plans are created to enact goals
  • Action plans are reflected on and amended, as necessary 

Objective Data
Objective data most commonly come in the form of student assessment data.  As a data coach, the most overwhelming feedback I received was how meaningful and transformative it was for educators to finally understand what assessment data meant and how they could leverage that data to differentiate instruction in their classrooms.  The scary thing about this feedback is that, for years, educators administered assessments, but never understood or used the assessment results.  Empowering educators as to what data mean allows them to use assessments as a tool to improve the classroom experience and learning of their students.

In 2011 I received student data from the state test on two of my incoming students (we get state assessment data on our students after they start the new school year in a new class). Bryan’s score improved 650 points from the year before, while Austin’s score decreased by 95 points.  Bryan went from ‘low unsatisfactory’ to ‘low unsatisfactory’ (his score was significantly low the previous year), while Austin stayed ‘mid Advanced’.  According to the Colorado Growth Model, Bryan had inadequate growth, while Austin had adequate growth.  Perplexed, I looked into why this was the case and learned that the statistics applied to students in the Colorado “Growth” Model are ranking statistics: the model should truly be called the Colorado “Rank” Model.  This exemplifies that data analysis needs to be appropriate and meaningful.

After having successfully coached educators in interpreting and using data to inform their instruction, I have seen test scores increase by as much as 55% in one year.  What I have learned is that protocols need to be in place for creating assessments to generate meaningful data and to reflect on assessment data to inform instruction.  These are the key elements for successful data protocols.

Protocols for Creating Meaningful Assessments should include these elements:

  • Assessments should be designed to assess specific student learning
  • Evidence of student learning should be mutually determined when creating the assessment
  • Grading rubrics should be written so that student mastery is easily identifiable via key elements of performance
  • Rubrics should highlight key advances from one level of mastery to the next such that it is easy to identify methods of differentiation to promote student improvement
  • Assessment should be timely and administered in a way that educators and students can act on results
  • Assessment should take minimal time out of classroom instruction, and would ultimately enhance instruction

Protocols for Reflecting on Assessment Data should include these elements:

  • Educators and administrators should be trained as to what assessment data mean
  • Data should be analyzed/processed in a meaningful, appropriate manner
  • Educators should be given time to analyze assessment data using common procedures
  • Educators should be given time to collaboratively reflect on assessment data
  • Educators should be given time to plan a “response to data action plan” for their students
  • Students should be given ownership of their data by:
    • Including students in analyzing data
    • Students should be guided in creating, reflecting on, and amending goals as a result of their assessment data
    • Students should be aware of their resultant learning plan, and be given action items to enact their learning plan to reach their goals
    • Parents should be included in the data conversations
      • Parents should be informed as to what assessments their student is given and the purpose of that assessment
      • Parents should receive student data and be trained as to what their student’s data mean
      • Parents should be informed as to educational decisions being made regarding their student as a result of their assessment data

When all players are brought to the table, data is used to diagnose mechanisms to improve the student learning experience. When data is understandable and meaningful, the mounds of data collected during educator evaluation can drive meaningful change in the education profession.


tarbuttonElizabeth Tarbutton is a middle school math teacher at Hill Middle School in Denver, CO. She participated in the VIVA CEA Idea Exchange: Ensuring an Effective and Supportive Teacher Licensure and Renewal System in Colorado.

Flip the Script

By Lesley Hagelgans

Now is the time to flip the script on teacher evaluations. Teachers can no longer afford to be passive in the receipt of their evaluations – both literally and figuratively.

The livelihood of 3.1 million people – teachers – will be affected if they don’t become active in this process. More importantly, according to the Institute of Education Sciences, the 49.8 million students enrolled in public schools this fall will not receive the best education their teachers could provide for them.  Time spent pulling together data reports and documenting every accommodation for every child takes time away from the art and craft of good teaching, including connecting with kids, finding research to improve one’s craft, and planning for more effective instruction thus ultimately hurting student achievement.

Change in Policy
Over the past four years, the process of teacher evaluation evolved faster than the Common Core and State Assessments. Teacher evaluation, the vital instrument intended to organically improve student achievement, has eroded while debates over a nationalized curriculum and high stakes testing distracted educators and administrators alike.

Students and parents have become customers. Administrators have become little more than retail managers trying to improve sales from the year before as demonstrated by test scores. Teachers have become clerks trying to retain their customers while meeting the quota. Republicans and Democrats created a role for themselves as upper management dictating corporate policies.

But students and teachers are not cogs in a capitalist machine.

Time to Take Action
Teachers need to find their voice in the process and coach others as well. While some administrators seem to sadly enjoy wielding the sword of evaluation, they are a minority.

Principals cannot be everywhere at all times and see everything. They can only document what they observe and what the data shows them. They need help from teachers to provide anecdotes and data if something doesn’t appear quite right.

An evaluator might see a messy classroom and note the teacher does not adequately provide an orderly learning environment. What that person cannot see are the relationships an educator was building with students all day long with no time to tend to the mess. The teacher can bring anecdotes, video footage, student reflections and data to explain the messy classroom and effect on student achievement.

The evaluation process and the game of baseball have a lot in common. Administrators and evaluators are like pitchers, and when they document a concern on an evaluation, it’s like sending out a pitch. Teachers need to practice swinging in order to be able to hit a pitch. Is the educator going to score a homerun, hit a foul, bunt, take a walk on balls or strikeout? Many teachers have become complacent in the process by striking out or taking a walk without even swinging.

Educators need to start swinging for the fences. Here are some warm-ups:

  1. Never sign an evaluation the day or even week it is presented. Take time to let it resonate.
  2. If you are not given your written evaluation prior to your meeting, ask to reschedule the meeting until you have had time to carefully review the document.
  3. Read ahead. Know the evaluation tool and process before the year starts.
  4. Do your homework. Once you have received your evaluation, carefully examine it looking for anything punitive. Then gather your data, anecdotes, video footage or whatever you can to support how your actions have improved student achievement.
  5. Focus on the information in the evaluation and the evidence to back it up – both good and bad. Staying focused helps to keep emotions at bay.
  6. Reach out to parents and elected officials. Let them know what’s going on. Seek reforms where the evaluation process is created and calibrated by experts in the field not politicians.
  7. Share. It’s time for meaningful professional learning communities. Educators who are christened highly effective can share what they are doing with others. Teachers who are pegged as minimally effective seek the expertise of fellow teachers to mentor you.


Lesley-Hagelgans-150(2)Lesley Hagelgans teaches Language Arts at Marshall Middle School in Marshall, Mich. She was a member of the National VIVA Task Force.