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.


Design Lessons for Students, not Standards

By Adam Heenan

I consider most conflicts to be problems of design.  As a teacher, my first task is always to design lessons that are engaging.  Some teachers do this very easily with humor, or great storytelling.  I do this by prioritizing relevant and valuable ideas shared by the students in the room, and I excel at that…  or so my students and their parents tell me.  If my designs are off, my lessons will not be engaging and my students will not learn.  And, believe me, students are quite effective at letting me know when my lessons are not engaging.

In general, learning standards are implemented as a design solution for a problem that never was.  In my nine years of teaching social studies and Spanish, I have had to learn and prioritize the Illinois Learning Standards – of which there are six different sets for the social studies ‑ along with socio-emotional standards, the ACT-aligned College Readiness Standards, and now the Common Core State Standards for literacy.  (There are no social studies standards for this newest set, so by default, I am directed to use the non-fiction reading and writing standards.)  As part of my evaluation, all of these standards are to be accounted for in my lesson plans, as if they add value that wasn’t already there in the lessons I’ve been teaching.   Please consider the value and relevance of the following lesson currently happening in my classroom.

I teach Financial Literacy as a semester-long social studies course for high school juniors in a Chicago public school.  The first quarter, which just finished on October 31st, focused on professional skills; the second quarter revolves around money management.  This week my students – who have just completed their mock interview for a future career – must go through the steps of determining a place to live on a fixed salary, and then present their decision to their peers in the form of a brief PowerPoint presentation.

To complete this project, the students must first determine their biweekly net pay and cost of living expenses (determined by scale based upon their grade from last semester, e.g. students who received an “A” earn $42,000, and performance in the mock interview), and then they must find a place to live.  To do this, students scour the Internet for classified ads on webservers like Craigslist. They quickly realize that the students who did really well in the mock interview have an easier time finding a desirable living arrangement, while the ones who didn’t do so well might have to find a classmate willing to be a roommate.  Some even have to explain in their presentations why they are living at home in their parents’ attic!

Year after year, this is one of the most popular lessons I do with my students because they consider it both relevant and valuable to their real lives.  Students will (hopefully) be moving out of their parents’ homes in a few years, and this lesson is usually the first opportunity they have had to navigate their possibilities for determining their living options.  This is an assignment that requires some adult support, but relies on students’ autonomy and ingenuity.  They love being able to compare who got the “better deal” on the “coolest” apartment.

They apply mathematical skill-sets of adding, subtracting, multiplying and proportioning for the paychecks; techno-literacy, geo-spatial mapping, and economic decision-making to determine a place to live; and communication skills both in the presentation of their PowerPoint and in the negotiations of “what’s fair” between roommates for who get different sized rooms.  Some of the students argue that since their partners/roommates are contributing unequal amounts money, than perhaps that person’s bedroom will be the size of a walk-in closet.  We all get a good laugh, and then move on to budgeting in the real world the following week.

If I have explained the purpose of this activity clearly, the reader probably wasn’t judging this lesson based upon their determining what standard I was trying to teach.  That’s because I’m not trying to teach a standard, I am teaching a valuable lesson to young people: how to find a place to live when you are on your own, something that most people have to do sometime in their young adult lives.

This lesson has changed very little over the years I have taught it.  Neither the Common Core nor the College Readiness Standards, and not even the Illinois Learning Standards have any bearing on the value of this lesson.  The standards are inconsequential.  The activities are not derived from or determined by standards; the lesson comes from the students’ needs to master content that is relevant and valuable to their lives.

Most of the lessons I design prioritize what is relevant to the content and valuable to students and our community.  But this is changing in my classroom, as it is across the profession, with the pressure either to align our current curricula to the standards, or to design different activities that justify the assessments (read: standardized tests). What then happens to valuable lessons like the one I’ve describes?   They get relegated to “extra credit” instead of being the subject matter of everyday learning, and teachers have to tailor classroom learning to the assessments that teachers most likely did not design.

This is not an appeal for more help in learning how to implement the standards better in my teaching.  If I wanted support for applying the Common Core in my classroom, I could get it.  I could ask my administration or my union, and both would be responsive.  I could attend any number of professional development sessions, or sign on for some webinars in my pajamas any night of the week.  Google turns up unlimited implementation ideas I could put in place immediately, and Education Week is forever advertising a new solution system for my administration to buy.  Yes, the Common Core has designed an entire market of solutions for a problem that didn’t exist five years ago.  What if all that money went directly into classrooms instead?

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.

AHeenanAdam Heenan teaches social science at Curie Metropolitan High School. He participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange and is a member of the VIVA Leadership Center.


International Falls Journal: Uncovering Common Core


VIVA Teachers at Education Nation 2013 (from left to right): Glenn Morehouse Olson, Wade Sutton, Mark Anderson, Katie Morosky, and Freeda Pirillis

Wade Sutton (VIVA Minnesota I) was one of five VIVA Teachers to attend Education Nation 2013 in New York City in October. He is writing a series of commentaries for his local paper, International Falls Journal. The first one is called Uncovering Common Core (published Nov. 9, 2013), and looks at how Wade’s opinion about Common Core has changed.

He writes:

Attending the 2013 MSNBC’s Education Nation in New York shifted me from “unconvinced” to partial supporter of the Common Core. It is an honor to be one of the few rural educators to have sat with the architects of educational policy, and parents are usually left out of the conversation completely. As an educator at Indus School, I do not think this is right; after all, this is not only my ninth year serving parents by teaching their children, but I also am invested as a parent. The difference is that I have been given the opportunity to have a voice. When you speak directly to the minds behind the national standards there is a lot to respect.

Go to the Journal website to read the full article.

Wade 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.

What I Would Tell the New Mayor of NYC

By Ann Neary

Begin by respecting educators. Show that respect by appointing an educator as Chancellor. Business people have transferable skills certainly. But as one who spent 30 years in business before becoming a teacher, what is often lacking is the empathy needed to work with children. Then show your understanding further by turning over your eight appointments to the Panel for Education Policy to educators who have that heart sense.

Bring back comprehensive high schools. They have a place in our large school system. They mirror the existing diversity by offering a myriad of academic challenges, after school activities, sports teams, and clubs. Children can test their wings on many levels all within the school community. No data has shown that creating multiple small schools on one campus has benefited any student.

Support partnerships with the community surrounding the schools. Because of the “choice system” allowing students to select a school, our students travel long distances every day. They are not connected to the community in any way. Job opportunities cease to exist, parents are not able to be a part of the school fiber; there is no pride in place.

Allow teachers within classrooms the freedom and flexibility to be innovative. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, “do not be loose on goals but tight on how to get there.” We all want our students to be ready for the next step, and college and career ready. Teachers know there is more than one way to get there.

Support teachers to prepare our students by offering creative, useful and timely professional development. Afford them what we all want for our students: multiple ways to access and use knowledge.

In NYC we know that struggling schools have a disproportional number of high needs students. Give NYC schools the resources needed to help those students succeed.

When expanding student choice of schools by building charter schools, ensure that all financial data, political donations, student demographics-including suspension rates and attrition-are transparent. Give the same advantages offered charter schools to public schools. Do the same with the new small schools. And if you decline to disclose, do not compare these schools to existing schools.

Finally, listen. Listen to what children are saying about their educational experiences, listen to what parents want for their children, listen to what teachers need in order to prepare their students for the future that we envision for them, for our city and for our country.

AnnNearyAnn Neary teaches at DeWitt Clinton High School in Bronx, NY. She was a member of the VIVA MET Idea Exchange.


The Atlantic: Why Do Teachers Quit?

safe_imageIn his recent Reality Check blog (EdWeek, 10/28/13, subscription), Walt Gardner explains why he thinks teachers get burned out. “If teachers are treated like tall children, they soon become demoralized, regardless of their knowledge of subject matter and pedagogy,” he quips.

The crux of Gardner’s argument is that teachers do not have enough respect, authority, or input in the ways schools are run. Gardner cites University of Pennsylvania Professor Richard Ingersoll, whose research was recently profiled in “Why Do Teachers Quit?” (The Atlantic, 10/18/13).

Besides not feeling empowered, teachers often quit because of they feel stressed, unappreciated, overworked, and underpaid. The article also examines reasons why teachers stay, including the one big reason: helping students.

We want to know what would make you feel more valued as a teacher.

A Shift Towards Trust: Voices, Ideas, Vision, Action

 By Wade Sutton, Glenn Morehouse Olson & Freeda Pirillis

“If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.”

- A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

From the center of the fevered storm to restructure education, a small voice speaks. It has always been there. It is still there. We might miss it for the crowd surrounding our institutions of learning. It is the voice of those working within the building…the voice of educators.

It is popular for policy makers to appear to be listening. While the power for change does not sit in the hands of the experienced educational professionals, the words of Dr. Ralph Nichols from the University of Minnesota offer a solution: “The best way to appear to be listening is to listen.” However, many teachers, worn out from raising their voices against educational doctrine, accept their minor role in policy. They endure and teach. Often their growing skepticism results in simply giving up on finding their own voice through the noise.

VIVA: Elevating Authentic Teacher Voice for Impact and Activism

In 2010, a new organization entered the throng to clear the clouds of obscuring politics. It seeks to trust to educators to answer the foundational questions we need to ask about education. We talk to doctors about health. We talk to lawyers about justice. But we talk to politicians about education. With patience, the conversation shifts toward trusting those who live education.

VIVA is a project of New Voice Strategies, a national nonprofit that operates online peer collaborations for teachers. They call these teacher-to-teacher conversations a VIVA Idea Exchange. ™ We have each participated in at least one of the 14 VIVA Idea Exchanges that have occurred since VIVA launched in late 2010. The innovation of these VIVA Idea Exchanges nails real solutions onto the doors of education departments across America.

VIVA arrived at a time when the “assessment era” laid bare the way policy has direct impact on our teaching practices, even if not a single classroom teacher is involved in crafting that policy. It is part of a small collection of nonprofit organizations and initiatives to give classroom teachers new avenues into broader policy debates in their districts and across their states. Together, these groups are opening up a new national dialogue between teachers and between teachers and policy makers about the broader education policies that reflect our expectations of public schools. To us, this phenomenon is both long overdue and a necessity.

Asking Teachers, Building Professional Collaborations

We are three teachers from different locations, different setting, different grades and different training.  VIVA connected us to hundreds of teachers in a problem-solving collaboration on a policy issue that we see as vital to our profession, it connected us to each other, creating a community of like-minded teachers who want our voices to be part of broader education policy questions but have no interest in leaving our classrooms and it connected our ideas to senior policy makers who can make real and lasting change.

Not only did each teacher present a report directly to policy makers, but VIVA became the vehicle for teacher voice to stretch beyond the walls of their classroom. From attending the Department of Education’s Respect Conference in Washington, D.C. to NBC’s Education Nation in New York, voices within the teaching profession continue to engage with the policies that affect educators nationwide.

VIVA Teacher Wade Sutton, 7-12th Grade English, Indus School, Birchdale, Minn.

Teaching in a rural Minnesota district bordering Canada can be isolating. Participation in VIVA’s Idea Exchange removed the innate barriers this location placed on my professional experience. Although I had taught under five administrators in seven years, I had no expectations of finding a platform to address principal competence. I had never been heard before. Schools maintain a culture not about listening and innovating, but structure themselves with division: between teachers and administrators, between disciplines, between public and charter, between rural, suburban and urban. While I thought voicing my professional conclusions about creating great principals would go unheard, I was wrong. The VIVA experience changed my perspective.

VIVA Teacher Glenn Morehouse Olson, 9-12th Grade, St. Francis, Minn.

When I first logged on to participate in the VIVA Minnesota Idea Exchange, I was not sure what to expect. As a journalism, theater and language arts teacher, I don’t have a lot of extra time between publications, productions and grading, but I cared enough about the idea of legislation regarding principal evaluation that I put in my two cents. One thing that struck me about this Idea Exchange was the diversity of experiences teachers expressed. It was hard to imagine how a rural teacher in a 7-12 school could relate to an elementary teacher from Minneapolis with a minimum of five different languages in one classroom. But what I found was an online community of teachers who were passionate about similar issues, and were able, with the help of a moderator, to discuss their ideas with a level of respect for one another.

VIVA Teacher Freeda Pirillis, First Grade, Chicago, Ill.

Isolated in one of more than 400 schools in the third largest urban school district, I am one voice drowned out by the noise and confusion of a system weighted down by turnover, misguided principles, and unprofessional practices. The VIVA Idea Exchange represented an opportunity to elevate my voice and those of teachers like me who rarely are included in discussion shaping policy in education. I had never heard of New Voice Strategies, participated in an Idea Exchange, nor been asked how educational policy could be changed to improve the quality of teaching and learning conditions in my classroom.  Participating in the Writing Collaborative with five teachers nationwide shifted my perspective from one teacher in a classroom, isolated from others, to a teacher with a voice, representing many others at the district, state and national level. Being part of the VIVA National Task Force, meeting with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and jointly discussing solution-oriented recommendations on the major issues facing the nation’s education system demonstrated it was possible to ignite systematic change with one meeting.

The Idea Exchange Process: A Conversation Begins

Using a central question, the VIVA Idea Exchange connects teachers with a policy maker, creating an incentive for participation. After the weeks of the open discussion, where educators across a specified geography speak from their experience and offer solutions, VIVA forms a writing collaborative from participants. These thought leaders distill the ideas and solutions into actionable recommendations for policy and deliver their report to a public policy official. VIVA’s first Idea Exchange, asking teachers for new ideas to strengthen federal teacher professional development policy, culminated in an in-person meeting between eight classroom teachers and Secretary Duncan and his staff. Their proposals can be found in elements of the department’s teacher effectiveness initiatives, including the Presidential Teaching Fellows program.

Since this first success, VIVA has engaged more than 5,000 teachers in one or more of the 13 collaborative, solution-oriented discussions resulting in actionable recommendations for policy makers. At the state level, New York teachers tackled the issue of teacher evaluation, Chicago teachers delivered a framework for restructuring the longer school day, Minnesota teachers developed recommendations for legislatively mandated principal and teacher evaluations, and Arizona charter school teachers laid the groundwork for the successful transition and implementation of the Common Core State Standards. (To access any of the VIVA Idea Exchange reports, visitwww.vivateachers.org.)

Impacting Policy: One Idea Exchange at a Time

Often, the impact of teacher voice is unclear to educators, therefore deepening the skepticism teachers feel about participating in discussions on educational policy. Amongst all the noise created in the media on what teachers need, want, or demand that is deemed fair, VIVA has worked to sift through the noise to identify actionable solutions and immediate change. VIVA has also strived to identify the impact on educational policy following an Idea Exchange and the delivery of a report to a public official. As educators, we look for the evidence of growth in our students, chart the progressions, gather the data, and synthesize the results. Similarly, with each Idea Exchange, VIVA has identified how teacher voice has shaped policy in the affected districts and states.

Wade Sutton

Since participating in the VIVA Idea Exchange, teaching in rural Minnesota is more relevant than ever. The educational event horizon expands the world every time a teacher is given a voice. While my students are the center of my career, it is encouraging that my experience has reached beyond my local community. From the Respect Conference in D.C. to Indus School in Birchdale, Minn., from NBC’s Education Nation in New York to the students in my classroom, I know that an educator’s professional voice needs to be heard. The health of our schools requires that more educators speak and that policymakers listen.

Freeda Pirillis

As a VIVA Teacher, I actively seek opportunities to elevate authentic teacher voice at all levels of my work. Serving as an Instructional Leader in my school building, a Common Core unit developer at the local level, attending NBC’s Education Nation Summit in New York in 2012 and 2013, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Respect Conference in Washington, D.C. have allowed me to stretch my thinking beyond the confines of my classroom, to collaborate with educators who share a vision: systematic change for teachers by teachers. I believe VIVA is the vehicle by which that can be achieved.

Glenn Morehouse Olson

In short, I was empowered by my first experience with VIVA. Since that time, I have participated in the Respect conference in Washington, D.C., blogged, written an article for MN Educator encouraging other educators to share their voices, and presented information to my local union. This summer, I was on a panel about bringing teacher voice to the table at the Learning Forward Conference in Minneapolis, with Education Researcher Ellen Sherratt and VIVA founder Elizabeth Evans. That led to Sherratt recommending me to producers at Education Nation, which resulted in my participation as a teacher panelist. Through these experiences, I have met and collaborated with people I would never have otherwise known and who, though geographically separated, I have come to consider colleagues in this great profession. As a journalism and theater teacher, I have always understood the power of the written and spoken word. As a VIVA Teacher, I have been able to put those skills to new use and actually connect with an audience who might not only dare to listen, but who has the power to take my voice, ideas and visions to a new level of action.

VIVA’s Place at the Table

With a growing number of teacher advocacy groups claiming to be the answer to education’s problems and represent authentic teacher voice, VIVA has something new to offer. Educators who have participated in the Idea Exchanges agree the difference lies in the process. VIVA addresses a central question and maintains short timelines with specific deadlines. Every Idea Exchange results in a solution-oriented, actionable list of recommendations, and a seat at the table with the people who shape educational policy.

VOICE “I hear and I forget.” IDEAS & VISION “I see and I remember.” ACTION “I do and I understand.” – Confucius, (551–479 BCE)

Wade, Freeda and Glenn collaborated to summarize their VIVA experience for the article “Educators Speak Out: Organizations offer teachers new avenues for influencing education policy” that appeared in the July/August edition of Harvard Education Letter

Wade Sutton profile


Glenn Morehouse Olson


Addressing Student Behavior through Parent Education and Home Visits

By Aubree Huso

The VIVA Minneapolis Idea Exchange I participated in earlier this year revolved around how to address student behavior, which falls under the responsibility of the community as well as the schools. The issue goes beyond just classroom teachers, beyond parents, beyond administrators, beyond students. It’s more than any one of those pieces on its own. With that said though, parents are one, if not the most important, piece of a child’s life and education.

As an early childhood educator, my work revolves around parent education and home visits. Positive, healthy habits first start in the home, and the best way to support the child is by supporting the parent. I see parents when things are going well and when there are struggles. My presence alone is not an indicator that something’s wrong. My presence is normal; I’m part of the team and support system.

I currently work on a research project with the University of Minnesota. The aim of the study is healthy growth in children and families in relation to behavior and obesity outcomes. Taking our cue from Minnesota’s Early Childhood Family Education program, our study involves monthly home visits and weekly parenting classes as the two dominant intervention tools to achieve healthy growth. Those two components are designed to be synergistic; their combined effect on parent and child behavior change is stronger than each individual unit by itself.

In our study, we cover child development, nutrition and positive parenting behaviors through home visits and parenting classes. We build relationships with the parents, enhance motivation for target behavior and home environment changes, and facilitate goal setting and skills development in a way that fits within each individual family’s home environment and circumstances. We’ll follow the families for three years, disseminate information about long-term engagement of parents around obesity and healthy growth, and connect our findings with broader whole child health and development goals that are of high concern among parents of preschool children.

One answer for managing student behavior is right there. Addressing just the child, parent, or teacher doesn’t work. You have to reach all of them. As a home visitor, I’ve been the liaison between the child, family and the school. I’ve been the connecting piece between them. I’ve see the child both at home and at school. I’ve been the one in consistent, frequent contact with both the teacher and the family throughout the entire school year, not just during parent-teacher conferences.

Why do we need home visits and parent education?

Who explains child development and age-appropriate expectations to parents? I do. Who explains the connection between learning and play to parents? I do. Who helps them get appropriate, positive and effective discipline (not punishment) established in the home? I do. Who decides what the best action is to take and how to take that action? Parents do. My role is to support not to control. I offer suggestions with their permission. We work in collaboration.

The role parents play is just as important as the one I do. Parents drive what we talk about; our conversations are tailored to their goals and values. My input is tailored to the support what they need when they need it. I don’t go into their homes to tell them they’re wrong; it’s not about that. I see their strengths and we capitalize on them. I recognize them as the expert on their own children. I recognize they are often doing the best they can with what they have at that time, and that’s really all I can ask of them. Because this type of support system ends once children enter kindergarten, they oftentimes have a stronger relationship with me than they do any classroom teacher. I am the missing link in the K-12 system.

It never fails that parents ask me for support with their school-aged children. Why would I stop offering parenting support the way that I do simply because a child is now in kindergarten? How would the information we’re covering in my current work not be applicable in the K-12 system? It’s not a silver bullet by any means, but the collaboration, respect and teamwork that develops between the school and the family as a result of the parenting support offered through home visits and parent education is something than cannot to be ignored.

Children grow and develop within the context of the community. As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” So why is it that this concept seems to be lost once children enter kindergarten? Parents don’t stop needing support once their children are five. Parenting is for life and every day brings new challenges. Teachers need to know the parents have their backs as well. We get nowhere when those two parties undermine each other. As a mom and an educator, I know the joys and difficulties of both sides. I know what’s going on developmentally with my two year old because of my education. Even still, I’m not an expert. I still need support.

Not every parent has access to the resources that I do, and the support that is available through home visits and parent education can’t be substituted by just reading a parenting book. My work cannot reach everyone, mainly because of the challenging fact that it really just doesn’t exist past the fifth birthday. What we need to do is ensure more parents get the support they need, when they need it, and in the way they need it.

Aubree-HusoAubree Huso teaches childhood and family education in Minneapolis. She was a member of the VIVA Minneapolis Writing Collaborative.



Character Counts, but Guns Kill

By Katherine Doerr Morosky

Last spring, in the wake of the school massacre in my community, Newtown, I worked with 10 other teachers from around the country in a VIVA Writing Collaborative about school safety. We took our report to Washington D.C. just days after a Congressional “no” vote on background checks [for gun purchases]. Presenting it senior officials at the U.S. Department of Education and National Education Association, our collaborative’s first three recommendations were “put character in the curriculum,” “practice and teach effective conflict resolution,” and “treat school as a community.” The issue of weapons and arming teachers was left to the end of the report.

It didn’t surprise me that guns weren’t mentioned during the school safety panel at the Education Nation Summit, held in New York City on October 7 and 8. The panelists, who included the actress Goldie Hawn and Dr. Meria Joel Carstarphen, superintendent of Texas’ Austin Independent School District (AISD), focused instead on social-emotional learning and restorative justice. The Hawn Foundation, whose stated mission is to “help young minds by nurturing resilience, hope, and optimism,” sponsors a social-emotional learning program called MindUp. Although Dr. Carstarphen’s main emphasis was on restorative justice, she should have mentioned guns. A week after she was in New York, a 16-year-old student, Adrian Alvarez, took a gun out of his hoodie, and shot himself to death, in the courtyard of AISD’s Lanier High School.

Of course, I agree that a strong community, where healthy hearts and minds are nurtured, is critical to growing children who are socially conscious and empathetic. It’s part of the reason that my husband and I decided to raise our children in Newtown, where the motto for years has been “It’s Nicer in Newtown.” The public schools are a large part of community life; my daughters’ school’s PTA hosts almost 50 different events and programs over the course of the school year. A sign of the importance of helping children develop healthy character can be found in any of the school foyers, which have long displayed a large poster of a tree: the bottom says “Newtown’s Core Character Attributes” and the top says “Cultivating Character.” What kind of tragic irony is it that my community, doing everything the experts say promotes school safety, had the most lethal elementary school shooting in America in the last 50 years?

noah-poznerNoah Pozner, one of the children killed on Dec. 14, 2012,
posing in Sandy Hook School’s foyer.
The character tree poster is above his left shoulder.

What made Sandy Hook the unbearable tragedy it was, with 20 first-graders and six educators dead in fewer than four minutes, is guns. I recently brainstormed a list of school crises with teachers and administrators from urban and suburban districts in Newtown’s area. Most of our concerns were like night and day.  Suburban educators worry about standards, academic integrity, parental over-involvement. Urban educators cited violence, domestic abuse, gangs. Disparate lists, with one exception: we are all afraid of being shot at school.

Guns are a school problem not only because we are vulnerable targets to deranged individuals. All American children exposed to gun violence suffer the long-term effects of too many innocent people being killed by guns. The toll that gun violence takes on children is chillingly real for us in Newtown, but in fact one in three Americans knows someone who has been shot. According to the Brady Campaign, a household gun is 22 times more likely to be used for an accidental or intentional murder or suicide than to protect the home from crime. Gun violence is the second leading cause of death for children ages 0-19, and rural children are just as likely to be killed by unintentional shooting and gun suicide as urban children are from gun homicide.

newtown_treeThe “Character Tree” poster that can be found in
the foyers of Newtown schools.

The district where I teach, in a New York City suburb, is almost entirely white and has a median household income of $177,000. Yet in the month before the Sandy Hook shooting, our middle school’s music teacher was shot and killed by her husband. On the heels of that tragedy, the father of one of my high school students was disfigured and badly injured by a rifle during a domestic dispute. After that, my student was out of school as many days as she was present, suffering from nearly debilitating depression while holding the family together and taking care of younger siblings.

At the conclusion of Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall, Brian Williams specially recognized the teachers of Sandy Hook School for their courage in the face of terror. In the 10 months since that terrible day, more than 28,000 more Americans have been killed by guns. That’s over three times the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. Newtown teaches character and kindness, but that wasn’t enough for our community. Until we liberate our country of the scourge of gun violence, more and more innocent lives will be lost.

KMoroskyKatherine Doerr Morosky teaches science at Wilton High School in Wilton, Conn. She participated in the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.


Remaking Public Education in Pittsburgh

A group of 10 Pittsburgh citizens, representing educators, parents and community members, collaborated online to write Artisans and Inventors of a New and Brighter World: Remaking Public Education in Pittsburgh. The 41-page report, presented to Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Linda Lane on Oct. 17, 2013, outlined five key recommendations and 25 actionable solutions for improving the student experience and teaching environment in PPS.

Download full report as a PDF

The 10-person Writing Collaborative represented more than 180 educators and community members who participated in the first phase of the online VIVA Pittsburgh Idea Exchange that began in late July.

The overarching theme of the recommendations is Pittsburgh parents and community members welcome an increased partnership with the school district to improve the curriculum, rebuild trust, improve school climate, and supplement resources.

The five recommendations in the report are:

  1. Assure systemwide delivery of a relevant, coherent curriculum that makes learning a joy for students.
  2. Provide educators with the tools and support they need to effectively use the curriculum.
  3. Establish practices and communication infrastructure that promote trust among parents, students, educators, and public officials.
  4. Create a nurturing social-emotional climate in all schools to allow students to develop as productive members of a democratic society.
  5. Take innovative approaches to budget reporting and planning to build community trust and be transparent about the use and impact of public funds.

The 25 specific solutions identified by the Writing Collaborative include several concrete action items, such as

  • Make free play the main teaching tool with young students. Shorten periods of instruction in early grades to allow more time for free play. Incorporate play into the daily school routines. Look to community partners to augment opportunities for creative play.
  • Train teachers to use new curricula until they are confident they can use it in the classroom. Create a repository that houses all curricula that is easily accessible to teachers and families.
  • Survey the community and provide opportunities for community members to share their unique knowledge in the schools, and structure partnerships with organizations that already engage children and families to access talent in a way that maximizes students’ educational opportunities.
  • Provide comprehensive wraparound services for all students, particularly those who are isolated or have experienced trauma.
  • Implement restorative justice models in which older students take responsibility for their actions rather than receive punishment, with companion programs that prepare elementary students for these approaches.

The Writing Collaborative also outlined detailed strategies for creating Learning Resource Centers, in partnership with parents and community organizations, to extend learning resources beyond the school day and into the neighborhoods where students study and work, as well as attracting new public and private resources to support public schools. For example, the group proposed engaging local businesses and professionals to create supplemental programs for students, “especially for lower-income students who do not have access to all the support and experiences that contribute to higher academic achievement.”

VIVA Teacher at Education Nation 2013 Teacher Town Hall

VIVA Teacher Glenn Morehouse Olson (VIVA Minnesota I) was featured on a Town Hall panel about teacher teamwork and collaboration with NBC Anchor Brian Williams and Jeff Duncan-Andrade.

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Glenn teaches high school English, Journalism and Theater in rural St. Francis, Minn., while Jeff teaches high school English Literature in urban East Oakland, Calif. They have more than subject matter in common. During the panel discussion, both Glenn and Jeff emphasized the value of teachers learning from and sharing with each other to better serve their students.

The segment is about 30 minutes long. Just before the 20 minute mark, Glenn stresses the value and importance of teacher voice.