Teacher Blog Posts

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

Multiple Measures or Multiple Data Points?

Multiple Measures

Perhaps no profession is as endlessly fascinated with evaluation as teaching.  The concepts of transparency and accountability are woven into the very fabric of our work as educators in a way that is unique among professions.  On the one hand this is laudable.

On the other hand it leads to building of elaborate evaluation systems, systems that are costly, time consuming, and which are frequently criticized for efficacy.  Too often these systems became exercises in bureaucratic hoop jumping, disconnected from improvements in actual practice.

The trend during the Race to the Top/NCLB “flexibility” has been for states and localities to go down a rabbit hole of “multiple measures”, where a variety of components are added together, producing a number by which teachers can supposedly be compared, and which becomes the basis for various high stakes employment decisions, including hiring, firing, promotion, tenure and compensation.

Is this whole less than the sum of the parts?

In many places student test scores (including the dreaded value added or VAM approach) have become a large (or even largest) component of the evaluation score.  This has created (at least) two problems:

1) The majority of teachers teach in subjects without standardized tests. How do you capture a test score component for these folks?

2) The use and misuse of student testing has spiraled out of control.  Parents are starting to wake up to fact that their children are being tested not diagnostically and for their own benefit, but for the purpose of sorting and firing their teachers.

Because of the history and culture of our profession, we must be practical: teacher evaluation is not going away.  So how can we build an evaluation model that is time and cost effective, objective, and connects to improvements in professional practice?

Multiple data points.

In this approach, you put something at the center of the system.  In many cases this would be traditional administrator observation, but it could easily be a Tripod style student survey, or a National Board portfolio, for example.  Then you admit other data into the conversation for confirmation.

The variety of these data points and what they reveal is in a variety of books and research papers, including notably Everyone at the Table and Getting Teacher Evaluation Right.

We know that no one data point is a silver bullet that provides a complete, valid and reliable picture of professional practice.  Professional practice is a complex and sophisticated enterprise that must be viewed through a variety of lenses.  Observations, student achievement, surveys, artifacts, portfolios, etc, talk to each other in this scenario and become mutually reinforcing.

There is one other key piece – you need a research-based rubric, which everyone accepts and understands, to provide a basis for professional conversation, and a roadmap for improving practice.  In our district we recently agreed upon using Danielson’s Framework (Great Lakes TURN Regional Conference Nov. 3-4, 2011).

It is important to understand that a rubric is not in and of itself an evaluation system.  Rather, it provides the language to talk about practice, and you build the evaluation system around that language.

Within the rubric, “anchor components” are individual components in each of the four domains that drive the other components of that domain.  These anchor components are different for new and experienced teachers.   Examination of practice within the anchor component provides reasonable assurance that things are OK in the other components of that domain.

This simple idea has two important implications:  first, it provides a way to differentiate evaluation for the career stage of the educator by looking first at key areas of practice.  Second, it streamlines the process – by focusing an administrator’s attention, it reduces the data that needs to be looked at.  One need only look at the full spectrum of components in a domain if an issue is detected in the anchor component.

By using multiple data points, a research-based rubric and anchor components, it is possible to create teacher evaluation which is streamlined, accurate, and useful for planning professional growth.   If you can take some of the stress out the experience, educators will naturally embrace a good rubric and internalize it.  Why?  Because teachers spend a huge amount of time with their students, and if they are more successful in this endeavor their lives will be better in very concrete ways.  When educators take ownership of the profession, it reduces the need for elaborate teacher evaluation systems because the work is embedded in practice.  A virtuous cycle ensues.

Then the trick is how to connect this with professional development – but that’s subject for another blog!

What improvements in teacher evaluation would help you in your work?

Owens picSteve Owens is a National Board Certified music teacher who teaches P-6 general music, strings, band and chorus in Calais VT and Sharon VT.  He holds a second endorsement in technology integration, level 3 certification in Orff-Schulwerk (an approach to general music teaching) and has attended the Orff Insitut in Salzburg Austria. Steve participated in the VIVA NEA Idea Exchange on Time in School. 

 

How to Create Meaningful Assessments that Actually Inform Teacher Practice

By Elizabeth Tarbutton

Teacher evaluation is a hot topic in education these days, but has anyone stopped to ask what the purpose of it all is? I think most evaluators would say that the purpose is to grow better educators to create meaningful change in schools.  In order to affect these changes, evaluators collect a lot of data on students and teachers.  I would like to think that these data are commonly used to have a meaningful, actionable impact on student achievement. Unfortunately, many states, districts, and schools lack protocols as to how data should be used.  As a result, data is often misunderstood and used as an autopsy and not as a tool of improvement.  I served for three years as a data coach, while also taking on the responsibilities of classroom teaching.  I helped my peers figure out what data meant and how to use it to improve student achievement.  If meaningful data protocols were more widely employed, educators would be able to improve their instruction, and have a significant impact on student learning.

Subjective Data
Subjective data come in many forms during teacher evaluation: teacher observations; informal formative assessment; student surveys; school culture; etc.

In my experience these data are most useful when protocols for the generation and analyses of these data include the following elements:

  • The intent for subjective data collection is clear
  • The evidence collected has a purpose that ties back to the intent for data collection
  • Instruments used for data collection are intentional and thoughtful (i.e. use of technology enhances data collection as opposed to just be novel)
  • There is training and discussion as to what the evidence means for all players
  • Time is built in to reflect on data
  • Meaningful goals can created out of data
  • Action plans are created to enact goals
  • Action plans are reflected on and amended, as necessary 

Objective Data
Objective data most commonly come in the form of student assessment data.  As a data coach, the most overwhelming feedback I received was how meaningful and transformative it was for educators to finally understand what assessment data meant and how they could leverage that data to differentiate instruction in their classrooms.  The scary thing about this feedback is that, for years, educators administered assessments, but never understood or used the assessment results.  Empowering educators as to what data mean allows them to use assessments as a tool to improve the classroom experience and learning of their students.

In 2011 I received student data from the state test on two of my incoming students (we get state assessment data on our students after they start the new school year in a new class). Bryan’s score improved 650 points from the year before, while Austin’s score decreased by 95 points.  Bryan went from ‘low unsatisfactory’ to ‘low unsatisfactory’ (his score was significantly low the previous year), while Austin stayed ‘mid Advanced’.  According to the Colorado Growth Model, Bryan had inadequate growth, while Austin had adequate growth.  Perplexed, I looked into why this was the case and learned that the statistics applied to students in the Colorado “Growth” Model are ranking statistics: the model should truly be called the Colorado “Rank” Model.  This exemplifies that data analysis needs to be appropriate and meaningful.

After having successfully coached educators in interpreting and using data to inform their instruction, I have seen test scores increase by as much as 55% in one year.  What I have learned is that protocols need to be in place for creating assessments to generate meaningful data and to reflect on assessment data to inform instruction.  These are the key elements for successful data protocols.

Protocols for Creating Meaningful Assessments should include these elements:

  • Assessments should be designed to assess specific student learning
  • Evidence of student learning should be mutually determined when creating the assessment
  • Grading rubrics should be written so that student mastery is easily identifiable via key elements of performance
  • Rubrics should highlight key advances from one level of mastery to the next such that it is easy to identify methods of differentiation to promote student improvement
  • Assessment should be timely and administered in a way that educators and students can act on results
  • Assessment should take minimal time out of classroom instruction, and would ultimately enhance instruction

Protocols for Reflecting on Assessment Data should include these elements:

  • Educators and administrators should be trained as to what assessment data mean
  • Data should be analyzed/processed in a meaningful, appropriate manner
  • Educators should be given time to analyze assessment data using common procedures
  • Educators should be given time to collaboratively reflect on assessment data
  • Educators should be given time to plan a “response to data action plan” for their students
  • Students should be given ownership of their data by:
    • Including students in analyzing data
    • Students should be guided in creating, reflecting on, and amending goals as a result of their assessment data
    • Students should be aware of their resultant learning plan, and be given action items to enact their learning plan to reach their goals
    • Parents should be included in the data conversations
      • Parents should be informed as to what assessments their student is given and the purpose of that assessment
      • Parents should receive student data and be trained as to what their student’s data mean
      • Parents should be informed as to educational decisions being made regarding their student as a result of their assessment data

When all players are brought to the table, data is used to diagnose mechanisms to improve the student learning experience. When data is understandable and meaningful, the mounds of data collected during educator evaluation can drive meaningful change in the education profession.

 

tarbuttonElizabeth Tarbutton is a middle school math teacher at Hill Middle School in Denver, CO. She participated in the VIVA CEA Idea Exchange: Ensuring an Effective and Supportive Teacher Licensure and Renewal System in Colorado.

Flip the Script

By Lesley Hagelgans

Now is the time to flip the script on teacher evaluations. Teachers can no longer afford to be passive in the receipt of their evaluations – both literally and figuratively.

The livelihood of 3.1 million people – teachers – will be affected if they don’t become active in this process. More importantly, according to the Institute of Education Sciences, the 49.8 million students enrolled in public schools this fall will not receive the best education their teachers could provide for them.  Time spent pulling together data reports and documenting every accommodation for every child takes time away from the art and craft of good teaching, including connecting with kids, finding research to improve one’s craft, and planning for more effective instruction thus ultimately hurting student achievement.

Change in Policy
Over the past four years, the process of teacher evaluation evolved faster than the Common Core and State Assessments. Teacher evaluation, the vital instrument intended to organically improve student achievement, has eroded while debates over a nationalized curriculum and high stakes testing distracted educators and administrators alike.

Students and parents have become customers. Administrators have become little more than retail managers trying to improve sales from the year before as demonstrated by test scores. Teachers have become clerks trying to retain their customers while meeting the quota. Republicans and Democrats created a role for themselves as upper management dictating corporate policies.

But students and teachers are not cogs in a capitalist machine.

Time to Take Action
Teachers need to find their voice in the process and coach others as well. While some administrators seem to sadly enjoy wielding the sword of evaluation, they are a minority.

Principals cannot be everywhere at all times and see everything. They can only document what they observe and what the data shows them. They need help from teachers to provide anecdotes and data if something doesn’t appear quite right.

An evaluator might see a messy classroom and note the teacher does not adequately provide an orderly learning environment. What that person cannot see are the relationships an educator was building with students all day long with no time to tend to the mess. The teacher can bring anecdotes, video footage, student reflections and data to explain the messy classroom and effect on student achievement.

The evaluation process and the game of baseball have a lot in common. Administrators and evaluators are like pitchers, and when they document a concern on an evaluation, it’s like sending out a pitch. Teachers need to practice swinging in order to be able to hit a pitch. Is the educator going to score a homerun, hit a foul, bunt, take a walk on balls or strikeout? Many teachers have become complacent in the process by striking out or taking a walk without even swinging.

START SWINGING FOR THE FENCES
Educators need to start swinging for the fences. Here are some warm-ups:

  1. Never sign an evaluation the day or even week it is presented. Take time to let it resonate.
  2. If you are not given your written evaluation prior to your meeting, ask to reschedule the meeting until you have had time to carefully review the document.
  3. Read ahead. Know the evaluation tool and process before the year starts.
  4. Do your homework. Once you have received your evaluation, carefully examine it looking for anything punitive. Then gather your data, anecdotes, video footage or whatever you can to support how your actions have improved student achievement.
  5. Focus on the information in the evaluation and the evidence to back it up – both good and bad. Staying focused helps to keep emotions at bay.
  6. Reach out to parents and elected officials. Let them know what’s going on. Seek reforms where the evaluation process is created and calibrated by experts in the field not politicians.
  7. Share. It’s time for meaningful professional learning communities. Educators who are christened highly effective can share what they are doing with others. Teachers who are pegged as minimally effective seek the expertise of fellow teachers to mentor you.

 

Lesley-Hagelgans-150(2)Lesley Hagelgans teaches Language Arts at Marshall Middle School in Marshall, Mich. She was a member of the National VIVA Task Force.

Parents Beware! Of Unnecessary, Invalid and Unreliable Test Scores

By Judy Smizik

Are all of the tests our children taking at school necessary? Are the results valid and reliable? Should our kindergartners be assessed on reading skills? Our tests today reflect the Common Core State Standards, but are the standards developmentally appropriate? These are questions parents need to ponder when reviewing their children’s test results. They also need to ask themselves if all these tests are necessary. Are they depriving their children of valuable instruction time, as well as other vital educational components such as play, recess and creativity?

As a teacher, parent, and grandparent, my answer to that last question is, “yes.” There is no research that says five-year-olds need to read. Yet, the tests used at the beginning, middle and end of kindergarten require children to do just that. I have had many students reading in kindergarten, but these children were developmentally ready to read. Reading was encouraged, but not forced. Years ago, tests were not required at all in kindergarten. Kindergarten was once a blooming garden where children could play, socialize, create, imagine, explore, and develop skills at an individual pace.

Because of the rigorous standards of today, kindergarten is now a place where students are required to sit for long periods of time, pay attention, and perform tasks that were once considered first grade skills. Kindergarten teachers are forced to administer a plethora of individual and group tests throughout the year. Most teachers, through classroom observation and progress monitoring charts, know their students’ strengths and weaknesses without the need for standardized testing. Have you ever tried to give the DIBLES (a mandated individual test in most states) while monitoring a classroom of 25 other kindergarten students? Did the DIBLES tell you anything more than what you already knew about the students? The answer is, “no!” So why give them?

The overuse of tests has caused many students to give up. Some of our students are late bloomers and need a little more time to develop. Some have learning difficulties. Are all these tests helping them overcome their learning challenges, or are they creating anxiety, stress, and feelings of failure? Overuse of testing begins in kindergarten and continues throughout the student’s schooling. Last week, I was asked to assess a student’s readiness for second grade. When I pulled out my stopwatch, the child responded with a look of trepidation on his face. “Do you have to time me?” he pleaded. “Just this once, “I promised.

When designing this student’s individual education plan, I needed first to help him overcome his fear of making mistakes when reading and let him see he can be successful. All the testing he has experienced has had a detrimental effect on him.

This student is not alone. I have witnessed numerous children cringe when the teachers announced it was time for a test. I have seen others who have just given up and put their heads down on their desks.

What can parents do to help eliminate the overuse of testing? In Pittsburgh and other places, a group of parents and teachers are asking parents to “opt out of the testing.” Parents need to put in writing that they do not want their children taking standardized tests. Because teachers are forced to teach to the test, test results are not reliable. Teaching to the test narrows the content of the curriculum, denying students a comprehensive education. It also makes the results questionable.

Parents need to demand we go back to a developmentally appropriate curriculum, where students are encouraged to take risks, be creative, imagine, problem solve, and think critically. They need to have time to socialize and play when they are in younger grades. Too much testing is depriving them of the experiences they need to become well-rounded individuals. If a student is experiencing academic difficulty, he should be given the gift of time to develop his skills in a stress-free learning environment that accommodates his academic needs. It is not the time to put more unnecessary stress on a student who is already feeling inadequate.

It’s time to eliminate the overuse of tests and focus on the real needs of our children. We need real educators with real practical experience to establish educational policy. The Common Core State Standards need to be revisited, and a new direction in the best interest of all students needs to be taken. Our children are our future.

Judy_SmizikJudy Smizik is an educator with over 35 years of experience. She is a  former President of the Pittsburgh Association of Kindergarten Teacher and a member of Delta Kappa Gamma, an International Educational Society.  Presently, she mentors new teachers, provides professional development workshops, and has a private practice.

Let’s Fix Inequality in Public Education

By Allan Fluharty

A central tenant of education is to prepare students to participate in a democratic society. We want them to value a diversity of thought and culture, as well as a commitment to equity and justice. Unfortunately, I do not see equality and justice in public education in Illinois on several levels.

Families raising children in Chicago are faced with tough educational choices, decisions that have life-changing impact on their kids. One is to stay in the city or move to a suburban district with well-funded schools. There is a vast difference between city, suburban, and rural schools in Illinois, in funding and educational outcomes. Most families who can afford it move.

Funding public education in Illinois is based on property taxes, which has created a dysfunctional system that favors the students who are lucky enough to live in well-to-do communities. Public education in Illinois is not progressive; it does not provide an equal education for all of our citizens.

In the Chicago, there are also great differences between schools. Some families send their children to private or parochial schools; however, most parents don’t have the means to pay both for taxes and tuition. Many families live in areas of Chicago with fine CPS schools, but other families don’t. Over the last 25 years, public education in Chicago evolved into a potpourri of options with magnet, select enrollment and neighborhood schools, both at the elementary and high school levels. There are also numerous charter school operations, some large and politically connected—who operate semi-autonomous schools with public funding. The “best” schools—those with the most successful results and highest funding, are the magnet and certain charter schools. Competition to enter the best schools is intense, involving a combination of grades, standardized test scores, and a lottery. Parents with students in CPS hope their children will have the grades and the luck to get into a magnet or a good charter school.

Incredibly, the separation and categorization of students also occurs inside schools, where students are placed, or “tracked,” into regular, honors, AP, and IB classes. IB classes are particularly divisive, creating a “school within a school” that splits the student body and the faculty into separate cliques. An after effect of splitting out the best students is that  “reluctant learners” are concentrated into lower level classes whose teachers must focus on social/emotional issues—such as tardiness, absent students, poor behaviors, and so on—at the expense of academic learning. It is typical that novice teachers are assigned to these challenging classes—teachers with the least experience handle the most challenging students.

Public schools in Illinois are divided by affluence, grades, behavior, and social-economic status. Perhaps the best gift a parent can give to their children is to live within the boundaries of well-off school districts. CPS separates children into neighborhood, select enrollment, magnet, and charter schools. Families pray that their children win the ‘educational lottery’ and get into the best schools. This separation continues with a vengeance within most schools through tracking and now school-within-school programs.

Enough is enough! Separating students based on class and ability is not done in public school systems of other industrialized nations as now practiced in the United States. More equitable systems in Europe, Asia, and North America—Finland, Singapore, and Canada, for example—are outpacing the U.S. by wide margins. Public education in the U.S. needs get back on track. It is time to put the “public” back into public education and introduce equity as a key provision.

Parents need to vote for politicians and policies that support the ideals of progressive education, in particular the ideal of educational equity.

Allan-FluhartyVIVA Teacher Allan Fluharty is a National Board Certified high school science teacher for the Chicago Public Schools. 

Design for Safety

By Mark Anderson

We talk a lot about the physical design of schools on this blog, as we know that the physical environment can have a great impact on learning. In this article on CNN from Paul Caron from last year on designing schools for safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, here’s some principles of school design that are worth exploring.

Layers of hurdles can be designed for unwanted visitors, with corridors, entries and exits that are still clearly visible to teachers, said Robert Ducibella, a member of the Sandy Hook commission and founding principal of DVS Security Consulting and Engineering.

Adding transparent buffering allows time for visitors to be assessed. If we consider this design feature from the standpoint of aesthetics, not only safety, we could also consider how entryways can be used to transition visitors from the external community into the school community in a manner that communicates what the school is about. For example, there might be a series of switchbacks leading up to the school doors that could be adorned with plantings made by the students, or a short hallway before the entryway that depicts pictures and artwork made by the students.

Some security features can improve everyday life in schools. Adding doors that connect classrooms can make it easier for teachers to work as teams, and in a dangerous situation, makes it easier for them to move students to safer areas.

Glassed hallways allow teachers and other adults in the schools to see an intruder but also to combat problems such as bullying.

Visibility and connectability are important design features in a school. Open space design has been tried and rejected in education and now in many offices as too distracting, but having the option to both open up and close off spaces is important. Design that allows for this level of flexibility and control would be much appreciated by teachers so that they can collaborate in bigger or small groups as necessary without the acoustic and visual distractions of an open space.

Visibility is highly critical in a school not only for safety, but furthermore when we consider the importance of allowing natural light into a building. All too often schools feel like enclosed dungeons rather than like spaces we’d want our children to grow in and spend the majority of their day within.

The topic of physical infrastructure of schools isn’t a sexy topic, and it’s not written or discussed much in the media on education, yet it is clear that it is a critical consideration in education not only for its impact on learning, but furthermore for safety. As the article notes:

But it often takes a local tragedy to make security a priority. Security experts said lawmakers need to make safety upgrades mandatory, as they have in other areas.

It’s terrible to say, but America is built around response management,” said Ducibella, the Sandy Hook commission member. “In most states in the country, we don’t have a perfect security criteria document for school design, which the Sandy Hook commission is looking at. We don’t have uniform criteria that is legislatively enforceable.”

This is unfortunately true. But given that we tend to ignore the impact of the physical environment of schools on learning, I wonder how long the tragedy of decrepit schools must be inflicted on our children before we realize that how we design our schools reflects how we value our future?

Mark-Anderson-150-Mark Anderson is a 7th and 8th grade Special Education teacher in the Bronx.

 

 

This blog was originally posted on http://schoolecosystem.wordpress.com on July 6, 2014

Small Steps Will Save Kids Lives

By Katherine Doerr Morosky

December 14, 2012, is in my, and perhaps all of America’s, pantheon of “days that will live in infamy”. Almost every moment of that day — when 20 of my daughter’s peers and seven of her teachers’ colleagues were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, one mile from our home — is etched in my brain like a nightmare that has no end. My family and I cope with our intense pain by lending our voices to the struggle for gun violence prevention. Trips to Hartford and Washington D.C., are practically a monthly occurrence. I cold-call senators and representatives, dash off letters to the editor in less than an hour, and tweet in my sleep.  Newtown was supposed to be a tipping point. So many of us gave it our all: President Obama and Vice-President Biden, the devastated parents of murdered children, and even my daughter, who walked the halls of the Congressional Office Building to show our elected officials just how small a six-year-old really is.

Shockingly, a few cowardly politicians, beholden to the corporate gun lobby and its extremist mouthpiece, the NRA, blocked a vote on universal background checks for gun purchases. What has their perversion done to innocent children across this country? According to Everytown for Gun Safety, in the one and a half years since the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, 74 school shootings have occurred and nearly 50,000 Americans have been killed by guns. The toll that gun violence takes on Americans is an escalating crisis.

Not all politicians are craven, and progress has been made at the state level. For example, Connecticut state legislators bravely worked in a bipartisan fashion last spring to strengthen laws that will make my state safer, including a limit on the size of ammunition magazines, restrictions on military-style assault weapons, and universal background checks. Although all American children deserve these same safeguards to be federal law, progress is going to be incremental.

The intersection of domestic violence and gun violence is an area where several federal bills have recently been introduced.

KMOROSKYThe author, Katie Morosky (right), meeting with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and staff on June 18, 2014.  Sen. Blumenthal is the author of the Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act.

One in particular is meaningful to me. It honors a Connecticut woman who was shot and killed by her violent husband after she received a temporary restraining order. Because the law allowed him to possess a gun before the order became permanent, this dangerous person was able to kill his wife with a legal weapon! The Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act will compel domestic abusers who are subject to temporary restraining orders to temporarily surrender firearms they possess, and bar them from purchasing firearms for the duration of the temporary order. This important law will protect women and children in abusive relationships when they are most in danger. In fact, 57% of mass shootings involve the murder of a close family member.

Of course, the Lori Jackson bill and other laws designed to protect vulnerable women from gun violence can work best when the United States passes universal background checks for all gun purchases. In states like Connecticut that require background checks on all handgun sales, 38 percent fewer women are shot to death by their partners than in states with no background checks. Would the Lori Jackson bill have made a difference at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2014.  Perhaps not, but every small step in the right direction creates positive momentum. The difference to me as an educator and mother is this:  the bill will have a real impact on the lives of countless children who live in homes where the intersection of domestic and gun violence is potentially lethal to them, their loved ones, and to their communities.

KMorosky-150x150

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

Race, Class, and Justice in Education- it all comes down to trust

By Annie Tan

When I started the process of becoming a teacher, I was idealistic. I was going to be Ms. Sheridan, my first-grade teacher, who made me feel confident for the first time. Or, I was going to be my second-grade teacher Mrs. Yee, who sat with me through lunch periods to work on my handwriting. I was excited. I was going to incorporate social justice into my teaching, and make sure everyone was heard! Yes! Then I started teaching.

As any teacher can tell you, it has been exhausting. It’s not just from preparing for and teaching my students who have autism, cognitive delays, and developmental disabilities. Everything seems so overwhelming when you’re new: the evaluations, testing, constant meetings, new policies, learning Common Core standards. So, it was refreshing to attend the VIVA Teachers Talk with Jose Vilson and Melinda Anderson, to hear research and personal experiences from other teachers on the ground going through cycles of reform, all while learning how to teach, and teach well.

The June 14th event, “Race, Class, and Justice in Education,” featured Vilson via video chat (his plane to Chicago was grounded by weather) and Anderson via Twitter @mdawriter. Vilson began by reading excerpts from his book, This is Not a Test, about his first years of teaching and the difficulties he faced being a teacher of color in an urban education setting. He weaves in elements of memoir and research to speak to the pertinent education issues of the day. I listened and related to his story. I know what it’s like to be a young, idealistic, and often lost teacher who’s trying to make a difference with my students. I too am a teacher of color and who knew, at least a bit, what my students were going through. The discussion that followed Vilson’s reading covered a dizzying array of topics related to everything education reform: teacher tenure, especially in the wake of Vergara in California; diversity in our teaching force; Common Core; the influx of teachers through programs such as through Teach For America; and how to incorporate social justice into teaching today.

One key thread through the conversation was about creating trusting relationships between teachers and students — something Vilson said was simply not on the top of the education policy agenda and constantly ignored.

Vilson said we cannot focus so much on building curriculum if we don’t have humanity, trust and camaraderie in teaching. That’s hard to do, especially with everything teachers are juggling.

Race and class complicate and widen this issue of trust. Vilson called it “hair-raising” how few teachers of color — all colors — there are. I am Asian, so I very much related to what he was saying. It’s not something that’s often talked about when we talk about education reform today, but as a student, I know how important it was for me to see people who looked like me. It wasn’t just about representation; it was feeling that I could trust this person, and that this person had lived, at least a little bit, what it meant to be Asian in America. I teach in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, so I don’t always look like the kids I teach. This makes me responsible for learning the neighborhood, having good parent relationships, being as open as possible while checking my own biases. Without that trust, openness and honesty, especially with parents, students don’t buy in either.

In my mind, much of the frustration in education today is based on not feeling heard. I know I oftentimes don’t feel heard when I have to administer test after test and complete different paperwork every week, without really understanding why I’m doing such work, and without feeling like I know how to apply this to my teaching. For me, it comes from a top-down approach to education. Both those who provide education services and those who fight for their rights to an education deserve a voice in the conversation.

When teachers feel they have a voice and are heard, they can do wonders. Vilson and others spoke about the importance of treating teachers as professionals, like they know what they’re doing! As Vilson said, schools succeed with teachers of all ages, teachers who are open to new methods, veteran teachers sharing their experiences, not through de-professionalizing education.

I think everything comes down to trust, in all aspects of the education system. From administrators, teachers, principals, students, community members, boards of education, secretaries of education, we need to trust each other in order for us to work together. And we need to put our kids first.

As I saunter around this summer, planning for the upcoming school year, I’m going to focus on my role in advancing social justice in education. Social justice starts from something very basic: hearing from everyone, especially those who aren’t often heard. It’s important to have an anti-testing, anti-corporate movement in education, but it’s also important to make sure those who are at the mercy of such reforms, those who have been and are marginalized, are those who are heard through these conversations. It can be hard for teachers to incorporate that social justice mindset in their classrooms. It can be especially hard as a special education teacher, when most of my students have speech and language impediments due to disabilities. But, I know when my students actually say what they mean, whether through augmentative communication systems, picture cards, one to three word utterances, or scripts and songs, they actually feel invested in building something in the classroom with me. If I’m going to be like Ms. Sheridan or Mrs. Yee, then I have to listen. That’s the way to build critically conscious and aware citizens in our country. And that is how trust is built … one step at a time.

Annie Tan PictureAnnie Tan is a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools. While building up her teaching, Annie is also working with many other teachers, activists, and community members to fight for voice in Chicago.

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