Autonomous Teamwork and the Common Core

By Wade Sutton

“We live in a world that’s increasingly social, interdependent and transparent….the most innovative among us are breaking away from traditional structures to be more flexible, more collaborative and nurturing.” – John Gerzema, author of The Athena Doctrine at TedxWomen Talk 2013.

Imagine your child’s day at school: In History they read and examine forms of government, the next period he or she plays soccer after reading and discussing an article on the qualities of leadership and teamwork, in Environmental Science the class examines the needs of a balanced ecosystem and reads an essay on current issues and later continues to build a terrarium in shop. At the same time in English your son or daughter is reading The Lord of the Flies and discussing Democracy and Fascism. It all fits together and reinforces itself. In this imaginary school, each teacher is autonomous and expert yet nurtures the learning experienced by the students throughout their day. Imagine autonomous teamwork.

Traveling to MSNBC’s Teacher Town Hall and Common Core Teaching Institute in New York last October gave me the opportunity to revise a lot of what I thought I knew about Minnesota’s transition to the Common Core Literacy Standards. I like these standards, however, the basic truth remains that educational improvements (including the Common Core) must come from within a school where staff, students and parents work together. Mutual trust and teamwork is essential.

Of course we at Indus can always improve, and trust is built over time. But autonomous teamwork among teachers is what makes good education become great. In the 21st century, schools must be “flexible” and “collaborative.” Good leadership nurtures and encourages this, and, if it is the common practice, your school is serving you. Your son or daughter will benefit. When students, parents, educators, and administration commonly rely on each other’s strengths we become the real core of education.

Autonomous collaboration makes education work. Literacy standards begin at home and great student achievement is the result of school staff and parents working together. This has struck me consistently in my conversations with educators whom I respect from across the country working in schools I admire. As an educator at Indus School who values an extended team, I am not alone in feeling the desire for more parental involvement. This is not a criticism; it is a request that parents accept our respect for what they do. Parenting is difficult and a good school seeks involvement in the learning community. Parents are the foundation for successful literacy. I trust parents more than the Common Core because that trust is key to a successful education.

The Common Core itself will not raise standards of education, but excellent educators, trusted and trained, will. As Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, said at MSNBC’s Teacher Town Hall last October, “Teachers need training; teachers need respect; teachers need autonomy.” As an educator, every day I consider how I am working in unity with my peers. The responsibility that comes with professional trust within a school can drive me toward high standards far more than any directive could. Over the years I have experienced how a professional team of autonomous educators can leverage basic education and transform it together to meet literacy needs throughout the day. While literacy begins at home, the Common Core at least recognizes that reading is not isolated in English class but is taught “in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.” A hallmark of a school implementing Common Core literacy well is a team that works together. Classes are not islands and teachers are not overwhelmed with classroom sizes so unmanageable that they are not able to be flexible according to the needs of your son or daughter.

As a parent can we evaluate whether teaching is done as a community? I believe yes. You can judge your child’s school by how well they listen to you and by how much time is created for educators to educate themselves, improve and work together. One of the exemplar educators at the MSNBC Common Core Workshop confided in me that her school does not provide time to work together. It is a major failure in her district while at the same time it is necessary to meet the literacy standards. At your next parent/teacher meeting ask your teacher what the atmosphere is like for them: Is there an atmosphere of professional trust? How do they collaborate with other subjects? How is administration nurturing and valuing time to collaborate among professionals? If your child’s school organization provides time for educators to meet, plan and teach together then they are on the right track and ready to work for you, the parent. If it does not, then speak to its leaders to encourage them.

Find out how often teachers meet to match the reading and exploration in their class with another: At Indus we keep learning. Our science teacher and FACS teacher collaborate on the topics of food safety and sanitation and scientific principles related to biology and chemistry. Best of all, they work together on the school garden project. We have created a working timeline in our hallway where students from all grades post responses to informational texts and topics in their classrooms. Our history teacher has recruited me to grade the essays on her World and American History tests according to what students learn in English and I organize my subject matter according to her timeline to streamline the literacy and student learning. In science students practice similar methods for reading and understanding texts as in other classrooms to meet Common Core Literacy standards. Our art teacher critiqued the rough drafts of the World Literature projects for visual communication and I use art to teach text interpretation. She is also having the seventh and eighth grade illustrate their own short stories for publication. And the ninth grade class at Indus is mentoring the 5th grade in composition which helps both grades. As a parent I like what I see. As a teacher I have learned that this works and hope to keep improving together.

Because autonomous education within a school team should be commonplace.

wadeWade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minn. He was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.


View the original postings on Wade’s blog, ProspectiveEducation, and The Journal 

Reimagining School: Why Creativity & Innovation Matter Symposium

Monday, March 3, 2014
6:30 – 8 p.m. CST

The Reimagining School symposium series, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, brings together nationally recognized visionaries to discuss the ways schools can and must foster the creativity and innovation essential to our students’ global competence in a changing world. While New Voice Strategies is not an official partner in this event, we invite you to join the conversation either in person or online. There is no cost to participate.

Attend this event in person with an RSVP to the live event or register for the online live stream.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater
800 East Grand on Navy Pier
Chicago, IL 60611

Featured speakers:

Trung Le has an incessant energy and curiosity exploring the intersection of design and learning. Le’s recent collaboration with Bruce Mau resulted in the publication The Third Teacher, an incomplete manifesto on how design can transform the ecology of learning. Launching from the collaboration with Bruce Mau, Le founded The Third Teacher +, an education design consultancy. As the world is pivoting from the industrial model of education to a new landscape of learning, The Third Teacher + believes in curating an authentic engagement with our clients that uncovers and amplifies our human capacity for empathy toward designing this new learning landscape.

Nichole Pinkard, Ph. D. believes that digitally literate kids – those who can critically consume and produce alternative media – grow up to be better citizens. With a B.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University, and an M.S. in Computer Science and a Ph.D. in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University, she is an Associate Professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University in Chicago, and is the founder of Digital Youth Network and RemixLearning. Both organizations focus on developing digital literacies as tools for extending traditional literacies. Dr. Pinkard is also a co-founder of YOUmedia, a public learning  library space that immerses high school students in a context of traditional media – books – where they make and produce new media artifacts such as music, games, videos and virtual worlds. The recipient of a 2010 Common Sense Media Award for Outstanding Commitment to Creativity and Youth, the Jan Hawkins Award for Early Career Contributions to Humanistic Research and Scholarship in Learning Technologies, and an NSF Early CAREER Fellowship, Dr. Pinkard serves on the Boards of Institute of Play and ChicagoAllies.

The Educator Forums series was created by Golden Apple, National Louis University, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and Family Action Network (FAN). Conversations are moderated by Alison Cuddy, WBEZ Arts and Culture reporter.

The Next Generation of Cheating: Improving Academic Integrity in the Age of the Common Core

by Katherine Doerr Morosky

Another day, another cheating scandal. Students at Stuyvesant and Harvard, teachers in Atlanta and Philadelphia, adults on K Street and Wall Street. Dishonesty is rampant in American society.  The ultimate consequences are significant: the IRS estimates the tax gap to be around $300 billion in any given year; the National Retail Federation reports their members lose approximately $30 billion to shoplifters each year.

An Unabated Concern for Schools

Cheating starts young, and academic dishonesty is pervasive.  A 2012 survey by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics reported that about three-quarters of American high school students admitted to copying another student’s work and around one-half had cheated on a test in the past year. The picture does not improve much at the college level. Surveys of tens of thousands of university students elicited admission of cheating on tests, exams, and written assignments. Since the student respondents were self-reporting, the data around faculty perception of cheating versus students who actually admitted cheating are quite stark: Faculty reports of cheating behavior were generally 20-30 percent higher than student admission of the behavior.

Putting the prospect of graduating the next Bernie Madoff or Lance Armstrong aside, educational institutions need to address academic integrity directly for two reasons. First, cheating eats away at their central mission: student learning. Second, integrity itself is a learned behavior. It needs to be modeled, practiced, and discussed to become habitual. School is one important place for that learning to occur.

Cultivate Community with an Honor Code

Since 1919, Wellesley College has asked students “to act with integrity, honesty, and respect” in their academic and personal conduct. David Haines, a Chemistry professor there, notes that Wellesley’s honor code allows him to assign open-ended, challenging work with the assumption that collaboration allows each student to develop her own best ideas. He says,“when the honor code is working, it’s because the community has bought into it,” but that can only happen when “the code is externally defined.” Research backs up his experience. Cheating is reduced significantly when a school has a clearly articulated and accepted academic integrity policy, when students perceive that infractions will be reported and penalized, and when students perceive their peers are honest. All schools will benefit from putting resources into cultivating their communities’ relationships with integrity.

Make Common Core Curricula and Assessments Fair and Meaningful

David Haines also notes that underclasswomen at Wellesley often experience “a difficult transition [to the Honor Code environment], because high school is so focused on grades and credentials, rather than authentic learning.” His perception is borne out by numbers. Students who view their education as a “means to an end” are almost 40 percent more likely to be academically dishonest than those who view education as a path to “personal development.”

The Common Core places strong emphasis on performance-based assessment. In theory, this type of test should promote integrity. However, it can’t be fostered unless the new curricula and tests truly promote critical thinking and relevant application. This requires an iterative and time-consuming development process. Unfortunately, the rollout of Common Core has been rushed, resulting in myriad problems and complaints. The authentic problems in new math curricula are often just rebranded word problems, while complexity in ELA is mostly manifested in confusing wording. In the realm of testing, a recent Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education report asserts, “the progress made by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia in assessment development, while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purpose.”

States and districts need to invest in more thoughtful curriculum development and truly authentic assessment if we want the scores to reflect what was learned and not how much someone can cheat. As the Wellesley honor code points out: if you cannot trust someone, respect is even more difficult to give. Poorly designed curricula and weak assessments are already losing teachers’ trust. If teachers don’t trust the standards and curriculum, we can’t expect them to respect the test.

Taking a Journey Away from Walmart

In Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch warns that Common Core represents the “Walmart-ization” of American education. Walmart is most certainly a means to an end, not a destination for personal development. If the ultimate goal of K-12 education is for Americans to be college, career, and citizenship ready, they need opportunities to learn and practice integrity every day of their K-12 experience.

KMoroskyKatie Morosky teaches high school science in Wilton, Conn. She was a member of the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.




Chicago to Add Gym and Art Classes Recommended by VIVA Teachers Two Years Ago

For the first time in nearly 20 years, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will require its students to have daily physical education. Two years ago, 600 CPS teachers participated in online VIVA Idea Exchange™ about how the district’s students spend their time in school. Among the six recommendations that came out of the Idea Exchange, two specifically focused on physical activity:

  • Ensure all CPS students a well-rounded education, including art, music and physical education.
  • Ensure all children have time for free play in the school day.

On Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, Chicago Board of Education will vote on new policy mandating 30 minutes of daily PE for elementary school students, and an average of 42 minutes of daily PE for high school students.

Currently, elementary school students average 60 minutes of PE per week. High school freshmen and sophomores have one semester of PE per year.

The VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers called for doubling physical education minutes for all grades to 180 minutes per week. Under the new CPS policy, elementary schools will provide up to 150 total minutes of PE per week.

These changes represent two gems in a whole treasure trove of improvements that the board can access by listening to classroom educators.

Citing obesity rates among CPS students, which have only gotten worse over the last two years, the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers wrote: “We cannot morally neglect our students’ physical health. Many students also suffer from chronic stress, fatigue, lack of focus and disruptive behavior. Research shows that an increase in physical education can alleviate all of these problems as well as support student learning.”

New Voice Strategies, the nonprofit operator of the VIVA Idea Exchange™, applauds CPS for its action to increase physical education in its curriculum.

Xian Barrett, national program director for New Voice Strategies, participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange when he was teaching in a CPS high school. He said, “We are gratified that the CPS board is implementing a solution that VIVA Teachers and our parent and community allies have advocated for years. We also would urge CPS leadership to invite educators to lead the discussion as how to best implement this needed change.”

The new physical education policy will roll out over three years. CPS will use TIF funds to cover 75 percent of the cost to hire new teachers in the first year and 50 percent in the second. Schools will cover their own costs in year three. TIF funds will pay for 84 new PE teachers. Schools with the highest needs will be staffed first.

VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers also recommended that each elementary school week should include 90 minutes of art. CPS has announced it will use TIF funds to hire 84 new art teachers, as well.

“VIVA Teachers have emphasized the importance of a well-rounded curriculum; especially in the face of the growing focus on standardized tests and tested subjects. There are many students whose joy of learning depends on access to rich opportunities in the arts. We hope that CPS considers further reforms to how time is used in school that place student needs before bureaucratic and political priorities.  These changes represent two gems in a whole treasure trove of improvements that the board can access by listening to classroom educators and the parents, students and communities we serve,” said Barrett.

CPS has already implemented other recommendations that were outlined in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange report, Time, Teachers and Tomorrow’s Schools, which was presented to the district, Chicago Teachers Union, and Mayor’s Office in December 2011. For example, CPS reduced the amount of time spent on tests and called on VIVA Teachers to develop a plan for implementing recess in all elementary schools.



A Year Without: Building Hope for a Safer Future in Newtown

By Katherine Doerr Morosky

This Saturday, December 14, 2013, pin on a green ribbon and remember the children and teachers who died senselessly a year ago. And do more than just remember … It’s about keeping our future alive.

Newtown’s first snow fell yesterday and I felt the sensation that my year of mourning has waned. For the first time in nearly 365 days, our grey world seemed illuminated and the day seemed to linger, as the ice-trapped light refracted through the soft snowflakes. Although the recent release of an investigative report on the Sandy Hook massacre and the 911 tapes chafed at the scabs, I can look to the future knowing that, though the road to recovery is long, there is light at the end of this dark journey.

Last December 14 was sunny, snowless and fairly warm. I drove to work at 7 a.m., with thoughts of the weekend and holidays. Two hours later, a babysitter walked my two little girls through our backyard to Hawley School. The school day that started happily quickly became a nightmare: a morning was spent in lockdown, listening to sirens screaming past their school to get to Sandy Hook. When I picked them up from school that afternoon, I couldn’t hold back tears when I explained that a bad man went into the school down the street and hurt many, many children. Twenty of their peers were dead, six of their teachers’ colleagues, at least 10 of whom we knew as friends or neighbors, and I had no idea how to tell them this.

I didn’t sleep that night. As dawn broke on December 15, I knew the only way I could get out of bed that day, or any day soon thereafter, was if I devoted myself to helping correct what it was that created this disaster. I soon understood that there was not one easy answer. The investigative report made it clear that the shooter Adam Lanza behaved bizarrely for almost his entire adult life, and that his family was concerned but enabling. While his motive will never be known, his easy and legal access to guns and large ammunition magazines made December 14 the massacre that it was.

United by grief

I took my daughters to Washington D.C., at the end of January, to march and rally on the National Mall. The group of Newtowners who went quickly formed into the Newtown Action Alliance, devoted to strengthening laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. A few weeks later, a bipartisan committee from the Connecticut Legislature was in Newtown, listening as citizens from all walks of life and every political stripe asked for laws to prevent what happened to us from happening in another town. Around the same time, I worked  with 10 other teachers from across the country to collaboratively write the VIVA Idea Exchange report, “Sensible Solutions for Safer Schools. We all had very different backgrounds and opinions, but we found consensus because our common sense priority was keeping children safe.

A graphic in the Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

A graphic in the Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

The Connecticut Legislature was able to pass major gun violence prevention measures in early April with bipartisan support.  Twenty-one other states, including Florida and Texas, enacted some sensible legislation in 2013.  The effects are real. A graphic in the new Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard: Why Gun Laws Matter, clearly shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

The tipping point begets a cultural shift

For awhile, it seemed that the massacre at Sandy Hook School would be the “tipping point” that would compel even the U.S. Congress to act.  Members on both sides of the aisle wore green and white Sandy Hook ribbons during President Obama’s State of the Union address. As the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on expanding background checks and bans on assault weapons, high capacity magazines and straw purchases of guns, I called congressional offices around the country, telling them about my family, friends and neighbors’ intense grief at losing our innocent loved ones.

We all had very different backgrounds and opinions, but we found consensus because our common sense priority was keeping children safe.

It was discouraging when the federal bill failed in a cloture vote on the Senate floor, but we were not very surprised. The journey to making our country safer so that kids can grow up without being shot will be a marathon, not a sprint. It’s as much, and probably more, about changing our culture as changing our laws. We are making incremental and significant changes. When Starbucks became a magnet for “open-carry enthusiasts” this summer, CEO Howard Schultz changed company policy and requested that patrons not bring their guns into its shops. NASCAR recently rejected NRA sponsorship of its races, and the NFL has refused to air a pro-gun commercial during the 2014 Super Bowl.

Will it take another elementary school massacre for Congress to move beyond business as usual? Safety from gun violence goes beyond the partisan divide: 80 percent of the American public supports background check legislation. This Saturday, December 14, 2013, pin on a green ribbon and remember the children and teachers who died senselessly a year ago. And do more than just remember. Speak out. Call or write to your members of Congress and tell them to act to reduce gun violence.  Remind your neighbors, family and friends why you care. It’s about keeping our future alive.

KMoroskyKatie Morosky teaches high school science in Wilton, Conn. She was a member of the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Common Core

By James Kobialka

In a recent VIVA Teachers blog, Design Lessons for Students, Not Standards, Adam Heenan wrote about his distaste for the Common Core standards. He described a lesson he uses to teach his high school social studies students financial literacy, and said, “No, I don’t want support for Common Core. I simply believe we should not do it, because it does not prioritize the needs of the people in the teaching and learning process: students and educators.  In fact, I believe we should actively resist its implementation, and provide educators with the autonomy, support and time to design engaging lessons in the ways they know best: by prioritizing the people in the room.”

I disagree with Adam’s dismissal of the Common Core – I think it is a valuable tool. My perspective on this has developed very slowly, beginning with a rabid mistrust of the standards and moving to a moderate admiration. I’ll try to break it down my thoughts, but if you desire a concise opinion, this entire post can be summarized thusly: Excellent, student-centered teachers don’t need the Common Core, but everyone else does.

Adam is clearly a wonderful teacher. The lesson he talks about does, in his own words, prioritize “relevant and valuable ideas shared by students in the room.” This is the main purpose of education: to help youth uncover their truths, share their ideas, and build skills relevant to their lives.

Unfortunately, many – especially new teachers with no experience beyond textbooks – do not agree with this. These are the “drill and kill” teachers who place the holy grail of content above all other goals, and who are egged on by administrators who seek high scores instead of competent students.

The Common Core is a set of standards for good teaching. Good, effective, thoughtful teachers already hit dozens of standards in their everyday lessons. They integrate reading, writing, thinking, questioning, and numeracy into their classes, just as the Common Core suggests.

However, many growing teachers do not. For them, the Common Core – combined with reflection and pedagogical evolution – provide a road map to success. Hitting those standards means that they must teach questioning, analyzing, modeling, presenting, evaluating, thinking about perspective, and more skills that an intellectual agent for change would need.

The standards are not the issue here. The implementation is.

Just as many people the world over grab hold of the New Testament’s message of charity and forgiveness, so too can educators grab on to critical thinking and writing to learn. On the other hand, just as many zealots choose to focus on the text’s mentions of death to sinners and perpetuating slavery, so too can administrators, bureaucrats and companies focus on “meeting standards.”

I am reminded of the following exchange from the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch:

Tommy: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?”
Hedwig: “No, but I love his work.”

In this case, the Common Core is Jesus. (How’s that for a soundbite?)

Or, in other words: Adam’s blog post let readers into his classroom, a place where fantastic lessons unfold… lessons designed for youth, not for tests. And, as it happens, it is also a Common Core ready lesson. Based on just a quick skim of the standards, it covers at least the following 14 (and probably more, if you’re inclined to look):

HSN-Q.A.1-3 (Reason quantitatively and use units to solve problems
Standard Set: Modeling (An aggregate standard about creating and using models)
All ES and MS standards dealing with basic functions and data analysis
RI.11-12.7 (Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information)
RI.11-12.4/5/6 (Analyze the intent of authors and determine their validity)
SL 11-12.1/2/3 (Discussion and response, using diverse info, using diverse media)
SL.11-12/4/5/6  (Present information, make use of digital media, adapt speech to tasks)

The phrase I once heard and held onto (at, full disclosure, a Gates Foundation conference last year) was: common is not the same, and standards are not curricula.

The standards are not a checklist, and districts that use them as such are flat-out wrong.

In my mind, adopting the Common Core should mean doing away with standardized tests. Instead of whatever the PARCC is, students should be rated on these standards with a portfolio and performance assessment. Have they written critical papers (W.11-12.112)? Developed ideas influenced by historical thinkers (RH.11-12.6)? Solved real life math problems like Adam’s, or crafted their own scientific investigations? Are they ready to move out of the protective walls of our schools and into the more rigorous halls of academia? Or onto the even harsher world where the only thing between them and homelessness is their wit and ability to survive our biased capitalist economy?

These questions should be thriving under the new standards, caring administrators, and talented teachers. They should not be displaced by some sort of artificial checklist tied to our professional lives as educators.

These standards are no panacea. We have known what will “fix” education for years – more support for students, more community involvement, more funding, professional communities and benefits for teachers, a robust public education system instead of corporate charters – and this is not that. But in a political climate where real reform is an uphill struggle at best, these standards are a step in the right direction.

Using the Common Core as direction, combined with the right sorts of development, induction and training for teachers, has the potential to change classrooms from drill and kill hellholes into oases of discovery. Inspired teachers – like Adam, our colleagues, and that one high school teacher who really got you all those years ago – can create transformative spaces under this model. We can still help our students become agents of change, fires burning for the fuel of knowledge.

Teachers, students, bureaucrats, and community members need to cooperate to let education flourish; I think the Common Core has the potential, more than any other standards, to let that happen.

I do worry that the Common Core will be used to enforce narrow-minded agendas instead of fighting them. This is true of almost anything: the best intentions, when systemized and standardized, suddenly become the worst ideas. Those who support testing and hierarchical education could use these standards to remove ingenuity and agency from the classroom. I am already hearing stories of that happening – I only hope that these stories are flukes, not dominant narratives.

The Common Core should provide direction, not punishment, to those who use it.

So, to Adam and all of my colleagues who might read this – take these standards in the spirit meant by the teachers who sat on the advisory panels, not the profit-hungry test-makers.

We will dismantle this testing culture. Piece by piece, student by student, day by day, with or without the Common Core. A good teacher – reflective, positive, endlessly dedicated, masterful – is a good teacher. You do the same thing regardless of the bureaucracy: take what you want, sneak in the rest, stay subversive, stay strong, and always stay true to yourself and your youth.

Not that you needed reminding.

jkobialka2013James Kobialka teaches science and English in Worcester, Mass. He was a member of the VIVA MTA Writing Collaborative.


New NEA Idea Exchange on Time in School

Time in school is a hot topic among both educators and education policymakers: If your school or district isn’t already talking about it, it won’t be long before they do. For that reason, NEA is launching a new initiative to develop a national strategy to help its state and local associations respond to time in school issues.

NEA-Banner-190-1To inform that strategy, NEA has launched a VIVA Idea Exchange™ on this question: If you could redesign the school structure to best fit the needs of your students, what would the school day, week and year look like?

As every educator knows, time in school is a complex issue that relates not only to how long the day or year is, but how much time is spent teaching, how much time students spend on learning, and how teachers balance preparation, professional development and non-classroom activities. NEA is encouraging its members to be creative, push the bounds of current structures, and challenge conventional thinking to structure time in school that provides the most benefits to students.

If you are a member of NEA, please join the VIVA NEA Idea Exchange: Time in School to share your ideas for making the most of teacher and student time in school. At the end of the online dialogue, a small group of participants will present recommendations to NEA leadership in Washington, D.C.


An End to the Blame Game Starts at Home

By Jim Barnhill

Let’s face it. We are all exhausted from the education wars between education reformers and teachers. It’s time to end the polarized debates and find a new way to dialogue. This is not going to happen in the current climate unless we all do something radical. The ongoing battle has had harsh consequences in districts around the country, as evidenced by massive school closures, attacks on collective bargaining, and an unprecedented testing-industrial-complex. Caught in the middle of it all are kids of color in the ever-widening opportunity gap. The longer labor and management fights, the more students suffer. But they aren’t the only ones because we all suffer with them. Every player in the education conversation—teachers, administrators, board members, reformers, and community activists—has handed out and been on the receiving end of verbal bullying, hostility and misrepresentation. We all say we are on the side of students, but are we willing to put down our agendas just long enough to listen to one another?

Before I became a teacher, I worked in family counseling. In any family conflict, identifying one person as the “sick” individual is a recipe for family stagnation and dysfunction. Focusing on the one person allows the rest of the family to deny any responsibility for the overall patterns of dysfunction. Worse, when a family tries to force that “sick” member to change, it often backfires miserably. And so it goes with our education debates. Depending on who writes the article or who testifies before the legislature or who rises to speak, a “patient” is often identified in the debate. It might be the bad teacher, the incompetent district administration, the uninvolved parent, the self-interested teachers union, or the corporate-backed education foundation. However, when we talk about each other in such a way we create resistance to change and make it nearly impossible for others to hear our very real concerns. In effect, we all become tone deaf.

There seems to be no shortage of blame and shame going around, or an end to efforts to force change through legislation, contracts and local elections. The inability to see that we are all a part of an interdependent system ‑ with mutual responsibility for the failures and the solutions in education ‑ is a communal failure for our children. The way forward must start with an acceptance of our mutual responsibility for the education of our children and a focus on how we can change our part of the system. Put simply, the more time we spend pointing fingers at the “sick” member of the system, the more polarized we will become.

The Way Forward

It’s not an easy thing to do, but we won’t see an improvement in the quality of our national dialogue until educators and our unions take the unilateral step of naming our responsibility for the improvement of public education. For example, as a teacher in this multicultural society, I must be culturally competent in my classroom. I need to be aware of the positive and negative ways in which my teaching impacts the diverse students in my multi-national classroom. I also must be aware of, embrace and implement research-based teaching methodologies without remaining stuck in techniques that are past their prime. Moreover, I have to learn to become a collaborative teacher. Gone are the days when I can just teach behind closed doors in the ways I see fit. Today’s profession requires that we collaborate with teams of educators, and support one another in the goal of improving our craft.

My responsibility does not end in the classroom. Like so many of us, I have more than one role in education.

As a union member, I have to ask if we as teachers are willing to hold ourselves to the highest standards of the profession by asking for support when I need it, offering support when others need it, and embracing a fair evaluation process as a path for professional growth. Knowing how important it is to communities of color that their children also be taught by teachers from their own race or culture, I have to be willing to find ways to help our district attract and retain a racially and ethnically diverse workforce. I will also stand up for my profession and remind others that the best and brightest teachers come to and stay in this profession when we pay them enough to provide for their own families.

As the parent of three children in public schools, I will read to them nightly, volunteer in their schools, and offer homework support. For the sake of equity, I will also advocate for those schools that need more resources in communities with greater needs. I will assume responsibility as a taxpayer to write my elected officials urging them to sufficiently fund public education so schools don’t have to rely on Target or General Mills Box Tops to pay for critically important programs.

Responsibility for the improvement of education in our country is in everyone’s hands. By accepting our own responsibility for finding solutions for improved educational outcomes, we are not accepting all of the blame for what ails our schools. We are, however, creating the climate in which others can start to own up to their own responsibility for this very complicated public good. In this way, we stand a chance of breaking out of polarized education debates for the sake of our children.

jim barnhillJim Barnhill is a special education teacher at South High School in Minneapolis, Minn. He’s a member of the Minnesota Board of Teaching and served as the Recording Secretary of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers #59 from 2008-2012. He was a member of the VIVA Minneapolis II Writing Collaborative on teacher evaluation.


Listening to Be Heard: Elizabeth Evans at TEDxWellsStreetED

At the TEDxWellsStreetED event “Teacher Voice Beyond the Classroom,” on Sept. 28, 2013, New Voice Strategies Founding CEO Elizabeth Evans shared her vision for VIVA: to give teachers the opportunity to raise their voices and work together to elevate their profession and practice to make public education better.

At the event, Elizabeth joined nine teachers, one principal and five other community members to share stories, ideas and proposals about teaching and learning, and the role of teachers’ voices in education policies. The event sponsors have posted the talks on Youtube to “better inform the public and decision-makers about the important work teachers do and the impact of practices and policies – existing ones or those proposed by the speakers.” They hope the talks will “encourage more educators to speak out and join the local and national conversations on public education issues.”

To access videos of the talks, visit www.TEDxWellsStreetED on Youtube.

Teacher Evaluation at Chicago Public Schools

By Allan Fluharty

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is now into the second year of implementing a new teacher evaluation system called REACH (Reorganizing Educators Advancing Chicago) Students. This new system is comprised of several components, including a teacher observation process (based on the CPS Framework for Teaching), a ‘value added’ measurement intended to determine student growth, a self-reporting mechanism that allows teachers to provide evidence of their good teaching practice, and, potentially, a survey that lets students rate teachers. The question is whether this new program, one of several major changes CPS has rolled out in recent years, will improve student outcomes.

I think most would agree that the previous evaluation system was broke. It was based on an observation done by the principal using a complicated checklist. As the “educational leader” of the school, it is the principal who is responsible for developing teacher effectiveness and “weeding out” poor performers. However, my impression was that many principals showed up to observe without warning and filled out the form during an observation that lasted maybe 10 or 15 minutes. There may or may not have been a post-observation interview. Most teachers were rated with no real mentoring on what they did and how they could become better teachers. Many principals rated teachers proficient or superior in order to get the evaluations in on time. The effectiveness of the old system depended on whether principals took the time (or had the time) to provide mentoring to novice teachers. It was my experience and is my observation that there is little to no organized mentoring for teachers. This was unfortunate, because teaching is a highly reflective profession that is mostly learned through experience. Studies show that most teachers don’t feel competent until five or more years of teaching experience. And, most teachers agree the first couple of “sink or swim” years prior to making tenure are especially stressful.  Hopefully, the principal likes you or you are out the door.

While I was not a member of the Chicago Teachers Union negotiating team, I did participate in several discussions on a new evaluation system with a group of teachers at the union hall. I was excited that CPS was planning to assess teaching skills using the Danielson Framework of teaching. This framework is based on four domains of effective teaching, including Planning and Preparation, Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. Each domain includes several elements, which succinctly outline what teachers need to do to improve their practice. The domains align closely with the standards of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).

The Danielson Framework and the NBPTS processes include a comprehensive process of mentoring with a master teacher who collaborates with the principal to design an evaluation “intervention” to improve the practice of the teacher. Attaining national board certification requires mentoring by master teachers and the submittal of extensive portfolios that provide evidence of superior teaching. Teachers who attain national board status are recognized as superior teachers through careful analysis of their peers. Unfortunately, CPS decided NOT to keep the mentoring part of the Danielson Framework. This was a mistake. I feel that not including mentoring makes the CPS Framework for Teaching only a half-measure.

Evaluating teachers requires extensive training and experience. I do not feel that most administrators are qualified to do evaluations. They are not receiving adequate training, and there is still potential for favoritism, particularly for teachers who are good at self-promotion. Furthermore, CPS is ignoring a crucial part of teacher improvement, which is the use of highly trained and skilled mentors who consult with principals and spend significant time with novice teachers to reflect on their practice. To its credit, CPS has created “Framework Specialists,” who could fulfill the role of mentors. But it seems doubtful that this relatively small group of teachers could support the entire district in the manner required by the Danielson method of teacher development.

The CPS evaluation system also incorporates a ‘value added’ measure of student growth. Basing teacher effectiveness on student growth seems reasonable. After all, the basic function of teaching is to teach. CPS has implemented this part of teacher evaluation by creating REACHStudents performance tasks that teachers are required to administer to their students at the beginning and end of the school year. I feel that basing teacher effectiveness on a few standardized tests to determine a ‘value added’ metric is unfair for several reasons:

  • The CPS REACHStudents performance task is based on assessments that are administered by the teacher being evaluated, which creates a potential for ‘teaching to the test’ or outright falsification.
  • CPS uses a system of ‘tracking’ to segregate low and high performing students. It seems unfair to use the same assessment to compare teachers at a magnet school—whose students tend to be better prepared to learn—to teachers at a neighborhood school.
  • In parallel, because the higher resourced magnet schools have an instructional advantage, they are superior to neighborhood schools.

A better assessment of ‘value added’ would be to include consideration of the large number teachers who work in challenging situations such as classrooms with high absenteeism and turnover, and poor facilities such as a lack of lab facilities or air conditioning.

Finally, I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea of using student survey results to rate teachers. Basing teacher performance on the opinion of children is problematic for many reasons: Children’s brains are not mature and they do not think like adults. Children will say things with no understanding of their ramifications, as portrayed by Arthur Miller in his play “The Crucible.” It seems to me that online applications that give students a venue to rate their teachers contain too many comments of disgruntled students. Maybe the idea that students should rate good teaching comes from the corporate idea that businesses serve the customer. I agree, but do not feel that children are the customer in education.  The real customer is society as a whole.

Overall, I think that the CPS Framework is far superior to what was done before, although there is significant room for improvement. In particular, CPS needs to create a more extensive program of teacher reflection and mentoring. Hopefully, in collaboration with the Chicago Teachers Union, we will see the REACHStudents program evolve to be more equitable and able to develop superior teachers who can meet the needs of all students. This effort MUST be done in partnership with teachers.

Allen FluhartyAllan Fluharty teaches high school science for the Chicago Public Schools. He was a member of the VIVA Chicago Writing Collaborative and is a National Board Certified Teacher.