Teacher Blog Posts

The following posts are authored by Teacher Leaders who participated in a VIVA Idea Exchange. The opinions expressed are their own.

VIVA Teacher Leaders in Chicago Call for ISAT Boycott

By Adam Heenan

ice-the-isatEarlier this week, teachers at Saucedo Elementary, a public school on the southwest side of Chicago, unanimously voted not to administer the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT).  Parents at Saucedo submitted close to 500 opt-out letters, and now that number is rapidly growing across the city.  As of this morning, the Local School Council (school-based democratic decision-making body) at Murray Language Academy, in the upper middle class neighborhood of Hyde Park,  also recommended that they “Ice the ISAT” at their school.

My hometown newspaper in Kankakee, Ill., weighed in to register its support of the ISAT, and condemned the Chicago Teachers Union for seemingly taking sides with the protesting parents.  I responded to the editorial with a letter to the editor, and encourage teachers across the country to do the same.  As teachers well know, testing as it is today is not the tool it was meant to be. The more we communicate to people who don’t work in schools or currently have children in the system about what’s really happening, in our classrooms, the more likely we are to create allies for better American schools.  

Below is the text of my letter to the Kankakee Daily Journal. Please feel free to borrow from it to send letters to the editor of your local papers.

Born and raised in Kankakee, I now teach social studies in a large Chicago Public School (CPS) on the southwest side.  I am also an elected and active delegate to the Chicago Teachers Union.  I am directly involved in the testing Opt-Out boycott, which to clarify on behalf of the Journal, does not state that parents should “keep their children home” as the Journal claimed, but rather, send their children to school on ISAT Testing Day with an Opt-Out letter and books to read silently while tests are administered.

Last year, a few of my students opted-out of the second day of the Prairie State Achievement Exam (called Work-Keys), and you know what happened?  Nothing. The Work-Keys test only gauges certain non-academic workplace tasks, like reading a manual and following a set of instructions (like, to build a “thing” the student won’t actually get to build in real life because they’re just taking a test). Neither CPS, the state of Illinois, nor potential colleges are holding anything against those students. In fact, I know of at least one student who wrote about his opting-out experience as “civic engagement” for a college entrance essay.

In the way that it is being used today, there is very little that standardized testing can tell us.  I draw a very clear distinction from the kind of standardized testing that I was doing in high school, little more than a decade ago.  The newest assessments do not reflect content being taught, and are not created,or scored by actual educators.

In nice round numbers, I am mandated by CPS administration to dedicate more than one month of my students’ classroom time to testing and test prep, of which only three hours of that is mandated for graduation in the Illinois.  That’s for only my class; my students have seven others they visit each day.  As multiple news local outlets have reported, even kindergarteners in CPS elementary schools are spending a third of their year — 60 days — on testing.  Yes, Kindergarten.

In the Civil Rights era, standardized tests were created to assure equitable distribution of resources in schools. That doesn’t account for the upsurge in testing today. What is different now is the that we have two-fisted “carrot-or-stick” legislation: the No Child Left Behind Act, which labels schools that don’t make the grade as “failing,” and the follow-up Race to the Top, which “leases” those public schools — and all our tax dollars that go with it — to the highest bidder, namely charter school operators who are not beholden to public school funding transparency laws.  With those groups, we never know how much of our money they are spending on classrooms or slick advertising, nor why they keep kicking out students with special needs because they claim those public school laws do not apply to them.  However, we do know that charter operators suspend students at higher rates right before times of standardized testing, which has the effect of increasing their average test scores, making the charter schools look much better on paper than their public school counterparts.  I should know, I taught at a charter school.

We know that, as a whole, standardized testing does not show us what students know. It’s more likely a predictor for what zip-code they live in and, at best, can tell us how well any given student may do in the first year of college.  The newest brand of tests coming to Illinois next year, the Common Core-aligned MAP and PARCC (and the whole reason we’re phasing out ISAT anyway) do not test content, only math and reading skills, and only on a computer screen.

We also know that with the high-stakes attached to the tests, principals are increasingly under pressure and even willing to cut programming, especially in the arts, vocational technology, and electives such as my American Law class (one of the more popular courses we used to offer) to make room for a test-prep courses.  Perhaps Kankakee teachers (Yes, I used to be one of them) aren’t sending in Student of the Month photos for “top-speller” because Spelling Bees have been all but eliminated along with everything else we used to love about school.

The bright note in all of this is that there are only three tests that are mandated by state law to graduate in Illinois: the first day of the PSAE, a beginning-of-the-year (BOY) exam, and an end-of-the-year (EOY) exam.  Everything else is added on by local districts and can be opted-out of, if parents so choose.   We need parents across Illinois to choose to opt their children out of irrelevant, valueless, and ultimately harmful tests.

You can learn more about the ISAT boycott at More than a Score and Common Dreams.

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.

Autonomous Teamwork and the Common Core

By Wade Sutton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because autonomous education within a school team should be commonplace.

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


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

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

by Katherine Doerr Morosky

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

An Unabated Concern for Schools

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

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

Cultivate Community with an Honor Code

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

Make Common Core Curricula and Assessments Fair and Meaningful

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

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

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

Taking a Journey Away from Walmart

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

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




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

By Katherine Doerr Morosky

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

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

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

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

United by grief

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

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

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

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

The tipping point begets a cultural shift

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

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

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

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

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

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Common Core

By James Kobialka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that you needed reminding.

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


An End to the Blame Game Starts at Home

By Jim Barnhill

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.


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.