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.

Two Minute Megaphone

Why Educators Need Social Media

Michael Petrilli compiled a list of education policy interested folk with the highest Klout scores. Through the some quirks of fate and metric silliness, I ended up ranked fifth among individuals, behind Arne Duncan, Diane Ravitch, Michelle Rhee and Randi Weingarten, and ahead of a number of folks who’ve mentored me and consistently produce outstanding analysis and content.

Some of them have written on the challenges of the metrics behind Klout though none better than Audrey Watters, who made Petrilli’s list for the second straight year only to promptly delete her Klout account, and Jose Vilson, who had a different view and successfully fought last year for the equal inclusion of folks of color and active teachers on the list.

What I take from this list: The landscape of education policy discourse—however measured—is shifting: after the top four, who either have large staffs or the power of title, the next folks rank ahead of large, deep pocketed organizations and are current or former educators. Is it enough? Absolutely not, but change is coming; not with the approaching sound of inevitability, but a rising tide built by the Herculean efforts of classroom educators.

So, beyond caring about a list or ranking system or not, why should educators join social media?

One, it is high time the folks in the classrooms had the lead in the educational policy discussion. Educational policy is still by-and-large determined down onto communities by people who are not the ones who have to directly experience the implementation of those policies. When I sat at the highest policymaking tables, often I was the only educator. In sharing stories with other educators in those situations, often we are there as tokens rather than serious partners or leaders. We must grab that power to lead.

And I’m not just talking about educators. Students need to have impactful outlets to share their own experiences as well. I’ve learned from my colleagues to speak strongly and lovingly on social media. I’ve taught my students to do the same, even as they’ve taught me beautiful new ways to use the media. During the strike in Chicago, two of my students created a Facebook page for fellow students to receive updates and discuss what was happening. It received 13,000 likes in six days. Another group of students raised their voices to help pass legislation fighting against the criminalization of youth of color in the Chicago Public Schools.

Secondly, through social media, we can improve our classroom instruction. Within the classroom, authentic social media engagement is another way for students to passionately connect to the material. I still discuss real life legal issues with nearly a quarter of my graduated law students from my time at Gage Park. For students who want a prepared text or small scale system, I can provide that. For other students, the opportunity to connect to a world beyond their neighborhood might be what hooks them on education for life. Furthermore, my time on Twitter has been the best professional development I’ve ever had. I’ve had incredible in-person mentors and that’s an indispensable support. That support has been amplified by having access to a whole world of legal experts, experts on intersectional justice movements, and a whole world of people fighting for justice.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current situation in #Ferguson, Mo. As an Asian American educator who has taught predominantly African American and Latina/o American students, I cannot rely exclusively on mainstream media sources to understand how my students are experiencing these events. In surveying them in our law classes, the vast majority of them are actively fearful of police in our city and these events are triggers for them that evoke years of human rights violations they have suffered at the hands of law enforcement in our communities or even within their school experiences. When a student experiences this kind of trigger, it’s irresponsible to power through the existing material and prepared lesson plan. As teachers, we must be prepared, of course, but also flexible to changing that plan to support our students the best ways we can. Social media helps me be more successful in these vital moments. For example, earlier this year, a number of educators from #educolor put together a guide to help teach during the Jordan Davis trial. (Jordan Davis was a Black teenager shot and killed in Florida, in November 2012, by a White man.)

Finally, let’s consider this: On the chaotic street in #Ferguson, with a near abridgement of first amendment rights, which would you rather your student have in their hand, a textbook or a gateway to entire world?

So whether you have one or one million followers, get out there and amplify your teaching with social media (you don’t have to sign-up for Klout), and let us know how we can support you!

How can we support your voice on Social Media?
What issues do you hope to lend voice to on social media?
What resources do you use to learn about current events for your classroom? 

Two Minute Megaphone

Students, safety and sharing

We can’t engage our students if we don’t let them teach us who they are and what they value in their own words. Often we can bring our own societal perspectives and preconceptions into the classroom. Strong student voice can lead the way to better relationships and better education.

What do you think of immediately when you hear the name of my home, “Chicago”? Michael Jordan and Al Capone? Pizza and Chiraq?

The visible violence in our communities often grabs the spotlight as it robs us of so many wonderful people and robs so many Chicagoans, especially youth, of their lives. It is vitally important to acknowledge this violence and address it, yet too often the mainstream narrative focuses on young people’s deaths and never remembers to honor their lives.
In the midst of this media frenzy on the violence, young people are courageously making their own voices heard. On Saturday, the youth from Urban Gateways held their annual film screening. Urban Gateways is a program for high need Chicago youth to study social issues and technical filming techniques to create their own films. How do you feel watching the world through their eyes?

Michael Coleman shows his love for our Southwest side neighborhood here.

Antwon Funches shares a new lens on history here.

My own student Stephanie Alvardo considers how Latina Americans view their own beauty here.

And Mariah Starks portrays the power of the unapologetic Black here.

You can see the whole collection here.

In Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, a group of fifth graders published an opinion column “This is Us” that lovingly critiques the hurtful stereotypes that they face in the media while shining with love for their neighborhood and community. “This isn’t Chi-raq. This is home.” They conclude.

Finally, youth—including several of my own students—gathered from around Chicago at Roosevelt University to share their personal stories of brutality at the hands of the police. The stories they shared are heartbreaking, but the voicing of that experience can help change the culture of police violence and improve things for others.

Through these three examples, you can see three ways that I support the growth of student voice in my own classroom. First, the development of their own voices through visual arts. Second, the development of writing skills to tell their own stories. And finally, the courage and preparation to present their perspectives in a public forum.

What are your reflections on these students’ work?
What strategies do you use in your own classroom to nourish student voice?
What specific ways have your students used their voices to impact your shared community?
What support would you like to help you develop a safe and vibrant space for student voices?

Please take a couple of minutes to share your answers to these questions or other questions and insights you have around student voice via the comments section below or by emailing me directly at

Josh Agpalza

In July 2014, our staff sat down with Josh Agpalza, a Cambridge World History and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher at Federal Way High School in Federal Way, Washington, to see where his leadership journey had taken him since participating in the NEA VIVA Idea Exchange last spring.  Josh helped to author Teacher Voices for Education Reform: Making the Most of Time in School, and now serves as a national representative for the NEA.  Here’s what Josh had to say.

Q: What are you most passionate about?

A: My role as an educator, and fighting for social justice.

I know the issue of time in school is a social justice issue.  It’s not our students’ fault that they weren’t born in to a privileged family that has a chance to send their kids to preschool or summer camp.  Those students who don’t have those opportunities (for lots of reasons) are behind.

All students need the same access to education, and I’ve seen first-hand how some kids have access while others don’t.  Example:  I did a year-long student teaching at University High School in Spokane WA.  It’s an affluent, homogenous, population — 60% free and reduced lunch, but overall an affluent community.  Then I moved to Federal Way and saw a lot less privilege: students were behind in reading and writing, elementary kids living in motels, and little access or resources to do enrichment.

Q: What inspires and motivates you? 

A: The stories of the students is what drives me. Our school is an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) demonstration school.  Over 300 students participate in AVID at my school, and most of them have background stories of struggle.  Example – One of the students I teach lives in a house with 22 other kids and 7 adults.  Yet he was able to get scholarships and grants, maintaining a 3.4GPA in that environment. We don’t just talk about struggles, but we focus on their lives in general.  “What’s your purpose here? What do you want to contribute to the world?”  You take their struggles as motivation to move forward in life.  I tell them, you do go good for yourself so you can do better for your family.

All 16 of my AVID students are first in their families to graduate. 100% of them got accepted into 4-year university (16 students) and collectively they received over $400K in scholarship awards.

Q:  You played a leadership role during the VIVA Idea Exchange.  What kinds of leadership opportunities have you been a part of since then?

A: I remember that email (inviting Josh to be on the Writing Collaborative) and thinking I wanted to do something. I’ll just do it.  When it was over, it motivated me to talk to one of our building reps who also happens to be the Vice President of the Federal Way Educators Association.  I told him about it and he told me to run as a rep at the national level.  Now I’m an NEA Rep, and just returned from the national meeting.  I went to NEA and met so many great people.  This gave me more motivation.  It’s not just me in my building who is fighting for education.  I was learning the whole time.  My intention was to immerse myself, take any opportunity I could to learn. I joined the Asian Pacific American Caucus.  Learned the issues they were talking about and fighting for.

At the AVID Summer Institute earlier this month I spoke to a close friend about how other teachers are becoming more involved.  One of the reasons why is because I was so excited by the VIVA Project that I was sharing that with my colleagues.  I presented about it at a staff meeting.  Now a lot of younger teachers are becoming more involved.  My role is to help motivate others to be proactive in what we do.  Everything we do will affect students.  If we decide to just sit and not lead, then the stuff that comes form the top down will affect our students, and affect us.  Top-down mandates breed complacency.  WE have to have our voice in the realm of education.  Those who study it, breathe it, and live it, know what’s best for students.

Thank you, New Voice Strategies.  Because of you and the organization you are a part of it gives me so much energy to keep going.  I have more reasons to fight for my students.  I see my students fighting every day, which gives me more energy to keep fighting for what’s best for students.