Uncovering Ineffective Methods of Accountability

By Rachel Rich

This December, along with colleagues from Washington State to New Mexico, I flew to Washington, DC to present a report to the NEA summarizing the passions and concerns of over 900 teachers. Our writing collaborative was granted an opportunity as rare as a perfect SAT score—a chance to speak with the NEA’s Vice President, Board, and Accountability Task Force. Our project stemmed from a joint NEA and VIVA Idea Exchange website that allowed teachers to discuss “360 Degree Accountability”. One focus of the debate was the term “accountability”, which unfortunately often implies that teachers bear sole responsibility for student success and that the only way to achieve such success is through standardized testing, testing, and more testing.

 In spite of this, I expected the 900 contributors to mostly share their philosophies, best lesson plans that support tests, or even praise for the glitzy computerization of tests, probably sprinkled with a few gripes. I was wrong. The VIVA/NEA sounding board reverberated with endless outcries against the standardized tests de jour. Too long. Exhausting. Demoralizing. More a test of computer skills than knowledge. Putting instructional focus solely on teaching to the test. Shortening instructional time. Disruptive. Taking over the whole school from March to May. Not what they hoped for. Uninformative. And way too expensive.

Charged with the mission of summarizing these (and unrelated) views, I decided I had better inform myself about the terminology and technology of current assessments, as well as their implications. I also shared a vested interest in observing the outcome of educational reform, since before retirement I served on several committees for the Oregon Department of Education to draft standards and a common curriculum underlying such tests. These benchmark standards were then incorporated into House Bill 3565, Oregon’s Education Reform Act.

Rather than just jump on a bandwagon with other educators with their minds already set pro or con, I decided to first hunt down the facts myself, as found in the testing industry’s own manuals. My focus is specifically on Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests used in my home state of Oregon, because I can consult with local teachers for clarification. SBAC is now used by over 20 states, although many other states employ the similar PARCC.

Like winter wool on bare skin, these questions began to prickle: What are the logistical issues for schoolwide tests taken at a computer? How much time do they consume? How expensive are they—including fees, technology, and administration? Do SBAC results detail each student’s strengths and weaknesses or merely summarize the progress of a whole class or school? Are results prompt, allowing teachers to tailor instruction throughout the year, or do they merely give schools a thumbs-up or thumbs-down at year’s end—an autopsy, if you will? Are scores fair and consistent between students, schools, and states? Do these tests guide or rule instruction? Besides improving learning, do these tests serve other purposes? And most important of all, do they actually raise student scores?

Scrolling through SBAC’s online guides and other primary sources, I uncovered some strange answers and equally peculiar implications. This blog invites you to share your own testing experiences and especially your solutions to any problems. How should the goals, parameters, and outcomes look? How would you fix or replace today’s version of standardized tests?

But first, let the SBAC literature speak for itself:

Test length according to Smarter Balanced Online Field Test Administration Manual, p. 34

For the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests, the youngest students test for seven hours, while the eldest sit at a computer for eight-and-a-half hours. The literature admits students actually need much more time, probably 10 ½ hours for high school students. Here is the SBAC minimum timetable from p. 34 of the manual:

Grades 3-5: SEVEN HOURS

Fortunately, SBAC allows students to take breaks and spread tests over days or even weeks. But to complicate things, it’s impossible to administer tests only within the relevant class period, given the time it takes to log each student into his or her computer and then conduct the required instructions and warmups. Consequently, blocks of 90-120 minutes are recommended, although breaks cannot be longer than 20 minutes without shutting down the program. These scheduling factors are a real headache for administrators. Likewise, lengthy tests pull both students and teachers out of their other classes, burdening both with make-up work.

Clearly, this SBAC timetable shouts out why so many students and teachers, not to mention administrators, label these assessments lengthy, stressful, and exhausting. By comparison, college exams are only three hours, the SAT is three and three quarters, and our military’s ASVAB is only two and a half! We have to ask, how is it that the SAT manages to test a senior in less than half the time it takes for SBAC to assess a third-grader? Who knew I would stumble across such revealing manuals? I merely intended to research the acronyms and dense terminology swirling around standardized tests like a dust cloud. But once penetrated, the online SBAC guides reveal a method of “accountability” that is both inefficient and extreme.


Rachel Rich taught middle and high school English and Foreign Language for 21 years, while leading the longest running international student exchange program between them. An early advocate of educational reform, she worked on several committees for the Oregon Department of Education to pass House Bill 3565 (The Oregon Educational Reform Act), and helped draft Oregon’s Certificate of Initial Mastery and Certificate of Advanced Mastery. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

Crafting a New Career Ladder

By Lesley Hagelgans

Who is qualified to lead?

At the Teach to Lead Summit in Louisville (December 2014), a team of regular classroom teachers were asked how they knew they were qualified to take on the initiative they had proposed.  They explained that they believe in the wealth of their knowledge in pedagogy, their experience in the classroom, and their ability to research and network empowered them to be qualified. Effective teacher leaders take it for granted that they are qualified to rise to the new challenges in education. Maybe that’s why the role of defining a teacher leader has become so difficult at this point in our educational society.

Emerging Road Map

There is an emerging roadmap to becoming a teacher leader, but it is difficult to put into words.  Previous career pathways ended in administration or university classrooms. In the corporate world of the late twentieth century, women had to bust through the glass ceiling into corporate offices; education is very similar.

The evolving career ladder of Teacher Leadership is similar to the evolution of Nurse Practitioners from the medical field. Defining what that role should be is tough, because there are countless variables to consider about what goes into an effective teacher leader. Besides the aforementioned variables, there is an endless supply of people (who are not teachers) who feel that they should be shaping the job description of this new position.

Teachers need to be front and center – if not leading – this conversation! They provide valuable insight and research for defining what a teacher leader should be. Sometimes that research is more qualitative than quantitative, but the value in both methods of research cannot be overlooked.

Supporting Organizations

Organizations like New Voice Strategies and VIVA Teachers, the Department of Education, the Network of National State Teachers of the Year, Hope Street Group, the Center for Teaching Quality, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and other similar groups are all seeking to define what it means to be a teacher leader.

These organizations are working collaboratively to raise the voice of teachers in the crafting of this new position within the profession and to highlight the actions of those brave educators willing to step out of the traditional classroom role in hopes of inspiring meaningful, sustainable reform in a movement towards a more equitable, quality education for all students through teacher leadership.

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.


When did you know you were a Teacher Leader?

By Lesley Hagelgans

As I was sitting in the beautiful Grand Ball Room on the tenth floor atop the historic Seelbach Hotel, Annice Brave, the keynote speaker asked, “When did you know that you were a teacher leader?”

For me, it was this summer. I was on the phone with a representative from the NEA. She was telling those of us on this conference call, “We are so pleased that you all are coming to Denver to present at the Raise Your Hand: Empowered Educator’s Day. We are privileged to have you join us because you are WORLD CLASS educators.” Then there was a pause.

I’m not sure if she paused on purpose or not, but I thought to myself, “Does she know who she is talking to?” Then it hit me.

15 years ago when I was interviewed for the job I currently hold, the principal asked me one memorable question, “How would you describe yourself in just ONE word?”


Ambitiously, I have created lesson plans aligned to the Common Core, unit designs, and assessments. I met with students, contacted parents, attended PLCS, IEP’s and parent meetings, joked at lunch with my colleagues, emailed everyone (parents, students and staff), analyzed data, decorated for school parties, published the yearbook and sadly, even attended funerals of former students to be there for the friends they left behind.

Ambitiously I have sat on curriculum boards, school remodeling boards, textbook committees, hiring committees, eighth grade party planning committees, the local union board, the leadership team for my district, the evaluation committee for my district, the Faculty Council for my building and the committee to plan this year’s staff skit for the annual holiday assembly.

Ambitiously, I joined VIVA 5 years ago in October. I have met the most inspiring teachers who deal with challenges far greater than what I can imagine. I have had the privilege of representing their voice through writing blogs, attending events like Education Nation or Raise Your Hand, and sitting on various boards.  Through VIVA, I have been graced with knowledge from experts who calculated value added measure algorithms, piloted the Common Core, defined what collaborative teacher evaluations actually look like and even sat down at the table with Secretary Arne Duncan.

Ambitiously, I take my next step in this journey of Teacher Leadership. Instead of using numbers as another means to identify failing kids or teachers resulting in punitive measures for all, I believe in analyzing those numbers proactively and prescriptively to help students, reach out to parents and support teachers. It is time for the education system in this country to become proactive instead of reactive. Teachers need time to teach and really work with kids and access to meaningful research. Please don’t let the next generation of teachers think you need an accounting degree to do this job (unless you’re teaching Accounting, of course). I was humbled when this idea was selected to be a part of the Teach to Lead program in Louisville.

Awards and accomplishments aside, I am still that same ambitious teacher I was 15 years ago. I just wanted to help kids – all kids – reach their fullest potential. So when did I really become a teacher leader? I’m not really sure, but I know it was the support of my colleagues – past and present – at both VIVA and Marshall Public Schools that helped my ambition find focus, purpose and meaning. Ambitiously, I am excited about where this new wave of teacher leadership will take us all.

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.

Failing Schools, or Failing Paradigm?


Newest blog from Daun Kauffman exposes the missing piece in the discussion.

“Childhood trauma is absent as the explicit, crucial keystone of our urban education paradigm. We will not have a successful education paradigm, or even accurately interpret success while ignoring its overwhelming presence”.

How Loud will Your Voice Be?

By Jim Szewc

The late, great Stephen Covey once said, “Find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.”  The following success story shows how lending your voice to issues that are important within our school walls and communities, such as teacher evaluations, can lead to equity and positive change.  If you take away anything from this piece it is that banding together and getting others to follow your passion whether you are sitting at the negotiating table, or sitting in the faculty lounge, leading and supporting change, your voice has infinite value – use it!

I was fortunate to have experienced the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system from the classroom teacher perspective and have watched it develop as I transitioned into my current role as a new teacher mentor within the Hillsborough County Public School system (FL). This evaluation system was designed by various stakeholders both inside and outside of our school district, supported through a grant awarded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that gave our district a financial advantage to start developing such a system before most other districts were required to by state mandate.  What makes our story so unique is that the development and implementation of this system included teacher union involvement and classroom teacher input at every step of the journey.  Although I was not as involved in this area of the district five years ago, I was able to speak with several people who were both within the district and outside over the past year and was pleased at what I found.  This collaborative relationship with school board members, the superintendent, various district personnel and the teacher union and its members was paramount in making such a massive systematic change possible. I have no doubt as to why, five years later, we are continually viewed as a model district for others in the same position.  As with most major paradigm shifts within systems as large as this, there were definitely hurdles to conquer in order to accept and successfully adapt to the changes. However, it was evident that collaboration and equity of voice were the keystones in developing a fair and efficient system. If you are involved in the same process within your district, I encourage you to find a seat at the table so you can help raise the volume of teacher voices from the first conversation through the final negotiation and invite others to do the same.  We are always asking our students to understand and design how they should be evaluated, so it is vital that we do the same when the opportunity arises.

As the new evaluation system was being introduced, I was a 4th grade classroom teacher, and like everyone else I was hungry for as much information and details about this new framework, developed by researcher, Charlotte Danielson.  As a participant and spectator during the early months of the roll-out, I observed my colleagues showing signs of concern, trepidation, and even fear in some ways.  This fear derived from the knowledge that several new faces would be in the classroom throughout the year and each time, they’d be critiquing the instructor’s every move.  In some ways, I shared this same fear as it was an early stage of my career, but also, having come from the business world in my first life, the thought of being evaluated based on my performance was not something that was new to me.  In addition, within this observational component would also include feedback from school administrators and seasoned veterans of the classroom, so how could this be a bad thing?  In making this my personal stance, I was able to undergo the first two years of implementation with a positive attitude and willingness to listen and help my colleagues do so as well.  This is where I lent my voice, in helping others see the value in feedback and how it could change how you taught and how much the students were learning.  If I were in that position again, I would have tried whatever I could to be a bigger part of the development process, and would have tried to share my sentiment outside of my school walls.  Whatever stage of the process your district is in, I whole-heartedly encourage you to do the same, keep an open-mind and be receptive to feedback and help your colleagues see that same value!

Throughout these last five years, welcoming teacher voice and representation in the implementation or adjustments to this evaluation system has been a priority of our district and a mission of our teachers and union representatives.  It has been fundamental toward creating this evaluation system and will be a vital foundation for the long-term success of our district, our teachers and our students.

How loud will your voice be when the time comes in your district to make a monumental change? 

A Closer Look at HCPS’s Teacher Evaluation System:

  • The observational component makes up 60% of our overall evaluation “score” and of that the principal’s observations and peer evaluation are weighed equally, although some professionalism components are observed and rated only by the principal.  Depending on previous year’s performance, teachers may be observed multiple times both formally and informally within any given school year.
  • The remaining 40% of the overall evaluation consists of a value-added score calculated based upon annual student gains in various academic assessments both state and district designed.  What students and assessments that are included in this calculation depend on the educator’s role in the school and what students are officially assigned to you and therefore are impacted by your teaching.
  • Although the formula itself was not designed by teachers, as a component within our overall evaluation system, it was agreed to and voted on through the adoption process, which involved teachers and the teacher union every step of the way.

Links and Resources:

Jim SzewcJim Szewc teaches 4th grade reading in Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools. He participated in the VIVA MET Idea Exchange.



Sonia Smith

Sonia Smith comes from a long line of family educators (her grandmother integrated classrooms in Richmond, VA long before the national movement for desegregation) as well as exceptional English teachers throughout her junior high and high school years. Their passion for teaching made it a “natural” choice for her to become an English teacher as well, and Sonia now extends her passion for literature beyond the classroom to connect and expose her students to career and academic opportunities available to them.

When Sonia’s school offered annual field trip activities for students, Sonia jumped at the chance to give her students opportunities to learn outside the classroom.  Sonia organized 2 charter buses full of parents and students to travel to Baltimore and tour historically black college campuses as well as visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and complete an assignment for her African American Literature elective class. Another popular field trip is the yearly trip to the Alfred Street Baptist Church HBCU College Festival in Alexandria, where her students put into practice everything they learned in her class so far, and submit applications to colleges and participate in on-site interviews.

The greatest testimonials Sonia receives are from her students, such as: “You showed me there is something more outside high school, that college is possible and actually doable” and “I didn’t know what to expect in college, but your projects helped me so when I walked on campus I felt prepared.” Several of her students now share her passion for education and have actually been inspired to become teachers themselves!

Sonia is passionate about making the country better, one student at a time, and is currently her building’s local union representative and Vice President as well as a VIVA Teacher.




That Which Gets Measured Matters…

By Ann Neary

This fall, in my large, comprehensive NYC public high school, teacher evaluations were recalculated (from official Spring evaluations) to include a standardized test component. The result?  Only one teacher out of 140 has a Highly Effective rating. Teachers were shocked and puzzled. They were not part of the policy making or decision making conversations that decided what percentage standardized tests would play in their evaluations, what tests would be utilized, or how those tests would be calculated.

Here is what the breakdown looks like on a NYC teacher evaluation:


60% of the teacher evaluation is based on observation by an administrator. Last year that meant using a rubric taken from the Charlotte Danielson framework and judging 22 components (Update: this was considered too burdensome and so has been reduced to 8 components for this year’s evaluations). 20% of the evaluation comes from comparing the teacher’s student testing data with students from across the state and another 20% comes from comparing testing data in the local region. The 40% chunk raises questions.

In an effort to explain the new results to teachers, the DOE issued the following cover letter with the new teacher rating. The document raises more questions than answers. “ A teacher’s State measures were pre-determined by the State or selected by the principal from a list of State approved assessments. A teacher’s Local Measures were chosen from a State-approved list by the School Local Measures Committee and approved by the principal.” Who knew there was a Local School Measures Committee? Not a single teacher I know. And where are the State approved lists? What tests were approved?

Using my own data, I found that only 34 students out of the 70 I taught were included in this measure. And in some cases the “comparison” test was different- for the same student (a PSAT score compared to a city test score). This calculation appeared on the data sheet with Local Measures, by the way. And in several cases, a student took a city test in September but not in June (my seniors “opted out” that day) so I was unable to determine what the zero for the end of the year test did to my overall score.

NYC is not unique in this quagmire. Rochester School District (New York state) filed suit against the governing state board claiming that the state tests used in teacher evaluation made no concessions for the extreme poverty in which their students lived. States other than NY have raised questions as well about who is creating the standardized tests and how do they accommodate specific student populations.

And the other question left unanswered is the disconnect between what teachers are being asked to teach and what students are being tested on.

To engage my students in critical thinking, I often ask them to consider “what’s missing or whose voice is missing” from the text we are reading. This past September my Journalism students wondered why they had not heard from Officer Darren Wilson, accused of shooting Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. They searched diverse news outlets, watched multiple newscasts and found nothing. * The students were engaged in rigorous research, they participated and collaborated with diverse partners, learned to build on other’s ideas, evaluated information and integrated it into their own work. They expressed their own ideas clearly and persuasively in a manner appropriate for their audience.

None of that work would be tested on a standard exam. Yet all represent Common Core Standards for Speaking and Listening and College and Career Readiness standards.

Whose voice is missing from the discussion of teacher evaluations? The teachers whose job it is to teach.

Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt and Allison Rizzolo make compelling arguments in their book Everyone at the Table, for teacher engagement in evaluation processes as a means to both assess teacher effectiveness as well as improve teacher effectiveness. They lay the foundation and steps needed for teachers to take charge of their profession. Florida has led the way in this process. Teacher voice was welcomed and vital to the process.

Let’s make sure that all teachers have a voice at the table. I offer a few suggestions for ways in which you can get started:

  1. Share this blog on your social media networks.  Get your teacher friends talking about this issue.
  2. Sign up on the Commit to Lead site to share your ideas on how to get teacher voice represented in the revision of teacher accountability systems.
  3. Take a look at past VIVA Idea Exchange reports on this topic to see what your peers are recommending.  Share and discuss the reports in your school building and in social media. (VIVA CEA, VIVA MET, VIVA Minnesota, VIVA NY)
  4. If you haven’t done so already, become a member of VIVA Teachers.  There’s no cost to join and you will find yourself among a national group of teacher leaders who are actively engaged in this work. Join now!

It’s time teachers had their say.

* just this past week interviews with the officer appeared in the news

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

Teachers Speak, VIVA Listens

By Andria Mitchell

I had the privilege of attending as a speaker, representing teacher leaders at the Grantmakers for Education Conference.  Although, I was honored to be selected to present at such a prestigious event, I was a little nervous.  Speaking on behalf of teachers is a big deal to me, and I was hoping that I would represent educators well, deliver a message that was compelling enough to grab the attention of the audience, and leave them with a clear understanding of how to include teachers in the process of educational reform locally and nationally.

Patricia Loera from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation facilitated the session.  She asked several questions about my experience as a teacher leader, and allowed me to create a picture of “a day/week/school-year in the life of a teacher leader”.   Although, I was sharing from my own experiences, I never really considered how difficult it is to be a leader and serve in the classroom at the same time.  When duty calls I change hats, fall into character, and proceed into the capacity that I am needed without thinking about it.  As educators we tend to push ourselves beyond the job description in an effort to ensure that students are offered the best education possible…by any means necessary.

After my question and answer period, Elizabeth Evans took the floor.  She introduced the audience to New Voice Strategies and VIVA Teachers, and explained how her company links educators from across the country to research, discuss, and present on issues surrounding teacher efficacy.  Elizabeth also described how the collaborative efforts of teachers has allowed “teacher voice” to be heard in front of school policy makers throughout the U.S. ; including State and Local school boards, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation staff, U. S. Department of Education, and various educational conferences.  New Voice Strategies has empowered teachers to take a hands-on approach to the development of school policy.

We ended our session by allowing the audience to ask questions.  This is where I learned that our message was well received.  There were several questions about how to prepare teachers for the projected changes that will occur in education, as well as questions about how to engage teachers in planning for educational transitions.  I felt inspired by the questions that were being asked.  It made me feel like my voice was heard and someone will take action to hear the voices of the teachers in their local districts.  Mission accomplished.


Andria MitchellAndria teaches 8th grade and is a Title 1 Compliance Coordinator at Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. She participated in the VIVA MET Idea Exchange: Reflections from the Classroom.


Lockhart’s Lament

Lockharts Lament

Elizabeth Tarbutton

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

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

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

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

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