Teacher Blog Posts

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

That Which Gets Measured Matters…

By Ann Neary

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

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

annneary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time teachers had their say.

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

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

Teachers Speak, VIVA Listens

By Andria Mitchell

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Innovation that leads to failure makes me stronger and smarter

by Katherine Doerr Morosky

I made a career change recently.  Professionals who switch into teaching are lauded for their altruism, but it’s not the same for those who switch out.   When I realized that I wasn’t finding the right kind of satisfaction in my job anymore, and that it was time to move on from being a classroom teacher, I felt like a failure.  But, as we tell our students, you learn best from making mistakes, from trying and trying again.

When I made the decision to become a high school teacher, I was a graduate student in a Ph.D. program at Yale.  The career choice was shrouded in my desire to  “give back”, but I quickly realized that I was going to need to innovate if I was going to do a job that was meaningful. The chemistry curriculum that my school had been using “for years” (basically starting at chapter 1 and going through the textbook until the school year ended) was exactly what I did not want to teach.   I innovated for over ten years, changing things up every year, making sure we didn’t burn the school down while always consciously teaching on the edge.  Student feedback is what I valued most, and the thing that I heard over and over again as school year after school year drew to a close was, “you are different than any teacher I’ve had.”  What did that mean professionally?  Well, in my public school, it meant that I was an uneasy fit with my colleagues and the administration:  “You’re so smart, but do you really have to speak your mind?”  “We need you to get back into our box.” I could never force myself to be in that box, and we all know that the real you is going to come out when you are alone in the classroom with your kids (for better or for worse).

Now I work from home and teach asynchronous online classes through a computer.  What a difference!  I was not excited to start, with this thought running through my head: “the reason teaching is meaningful is the personal connections, so I am going into a completely meaningless job.”  Wow, I have been so happily surprised.  I make meaningful remote connections with kids every day.  They are the digital generation and I have to say that it’s starting to feel like this medium is better for instruction than in a classroom full of teenagers.  And it’s a for-profit company, no union, with a bottom line.  I am learning so much (and not in a bad way, which is what I expected) about how K-12 education can, may, and perhaps even should change in the future.

So if this essay is about failure, it’s also about being an innovator.  My path is not linear, not clean, and not predictable.  But if innovation requires iteration, and iteration is necessitated by the need to improve, failure is the operative concept.  I never failed a class, but maybe failing from time to time in life is the only way I am going learn enough to graduate to my next level of adulthood.

KMorosky-150x150VIVA Teacher Katherine Doerr Morosky teaches online at Connections Education. She participated in the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

Multiple Measures or Multiple Data Points?

Multiple Measures

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

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

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

Is this whole less than the sum of the parts?

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

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

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

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

Multiple data points.

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

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

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

There is one other key piece – you need a research-based rubric, which everyone accepts and understands, to provide a basis for professional conversation, and a roadmap for improving practice.  In our district we recently agreed upon using Danielson’s Framework.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.