VIVA Teacher Speaks Out on Chicago Teachers Union’s Common Core Vote

Freeda Pirillis, a first grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools, was a member of the very first VIVA Idea Exchange, Voices from the Classroom. For the last three years, she has been working with the Chicago Teachers Union to develop Common Core curricula.

As she describes in this story on Chicago Public Radio, she was stunned to learn union delegates had voted to oppose the standards.

Chicago Teachers Union votes to oppose Common Core (by Linda Lutton, WBEZ 91.5, May 8, 2014)

Freeda said she understands the frustrations her colleagues have with how Common Core is being implemented. (Read her blog post, Implementing the Common Core State Standards: Too Little Too Soon, from last spring.). She is personally concerned about how the standards can and will be applied to students who have special needs or are English Language Learners. And, of course, she wonders what will become of the considerable amount of work she has done with the union the past few years.

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.

Chicago to Add Gym and Art Classes Recommended by VIVA Teachers Two Years Ago

For the first time in nearly 20 years, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will require its students to have daily physical education. Two years ago, 600 CPS teachers participated in online VIVA Idea Exchange™ about how the district’s students spend their time in school. Among the six recommendations that came out of the Idea Exchange, two specifically focused on physical activity:

  • Ensure all CPS students a well-rounded education, including art, music and physical education.
  • Ensure all children have time for free play in the school day.

On Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, Chicago Board of Education will vote on new policy mandating 30 minutes of daily PE for elementary school students, and an average of 42 minutes of daily PE for high school students.

Currently, elementary school students average 60 minutes of PE per week. High school freshmen and sophomores have one semester of PE per year.

The VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers called for doubling physical education minutes for all grades to 180 minutes per week. Under the new CPS policy, elementary schools will provide up to 150 total minutes of PE per week.

These changes represent two gems in a whole treasure trove of improvements that the board can access by listening to classroom educators.

Citing obesity rates among CPS students, which have only gotten worse over the last two years, the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers wrote: “We cannot morally neglect our students’ physical health. Many students also suffer from chronic stress, fatigue, lack of focus and disruptive behavior. Research shows that an increase in physical education can alleviate all of these problems as well as support student learning.”

New Voice Strategies, the nonprofit operator of the VIVA Idea Exchange™, applauds CPS for its action to increase physical education in its curriculum.

Xian Barrett, national program director for New Voice Strategies, participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange when he was teaching in a CPS high school. He said, “We are gratified that the CPS board is implementing a solution that VIVA Teachers and our parent and community allies have advocated for years. We also would urge CPS leadership to invite educators to lead the discussion as how to best implement this needed change.”

The new physical education policy will roll out over three years. CPS will use TIF funds to cover 75 percent of the cost to hire new teachers in the first year and 50 percent in the second. Schools will cover their own costs in year three. TIF funds will pay for 84 new PE teachers. Schools with the highest needs will be staffed first.

VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers also recommended that each elementary school week should include 90 minutes of art. CPS has announced it will use TIF funds to hire 84 new art teachers, as well.

“VIVA Teachers have emphasized the importance of a well-rounded curriculum; especially in the face of the growing focus on standardized tests and tested subjects. There are many students whose joy of learning depends on access to rich opportunities in the arts. We hope that CPS considers further reforms to how time is used in school that place student needs before bureaucratic and political priorities.  These changes represent two gems in a whole treasure trove of improvements that the board can access by listening to classroom educators and the parents, students and communities we serve,” said Barrett.

CPS has already implemented other recommendations that were outlined in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange report, Time, Teachers and Tomorrow’s Schools, which was presented to the district, Chicago Teachers Union, and Mayor’s Office in December 2011. For example, CPS reduced the amount of time spent on tests and called on VIVA Teachers to develop a plan for implementing recess in all elementary schools.

 

 

Listening to Be Heard: Elizabeth Evans at TEDxWellsStreetED

At the TEDxWellsStreetED event “Teacher Voice Beyond the Classroom,” on Sept. 28, 2013, New Voice Strategies Founding CEO Elizabeth Evans shared her vision for VIVA: to give teachers the opportunity to raise their voices and work together to elevate their profession and practice to make public education better.

At the event, Elizabeth joined nine teachers, one principal and five other community members to share stories, ideas and proposals about teaching and learning, and the role of teachers’ voices in education policies. The event sponsors have posted the talks on Youtube to “better inform the public and decision-makers about the important work teachers do and the impact of practices and policies – existing ones or those proposed by the speakers.” They hope the talks will “encourage more educators to speak out and join the local and national conversations on public education issues.”

To access videos of the talks, visit www.TEDxWellsStreetED on Youtube.

Teacher Evaluation at Chicago Public Schools

By Allan Fluharty

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is now into the second year of implementing a new teacher evaluation system called REACH (Reorganizing Educators Advancing Chicago) Students. This new system is comprised of several components, including a teacher observation process (based on the CPS Framework for Teaching), a ‘value added’ measurement intended to determine student growth, a self-reporting mechanism that allows teachers to provide evidence of their good teaching practice, and, potentially, a survey that lets students rate teachers. The question is whether this new program, one of several major changes CPS has rolled out in recent years, will improve student outcomes.

I think most would agree that the previous evaluation system was broke. It was based on an observation done by the principal using a complicated checklist. As the “educational leader” of the school, it is the principal who is responsible for developing teacher effectiveness and “weeding out” poor performers. However, my impression was that many principals showed up to observe without warning and filled out the form during an observation that lasted maybe 10 or 15 minutes. There may or may not have been a post-observation interview. Most teachers were rated with no real mentoring on what they did and how they could become better teachers. Many principals rated teachers proficient or superior in order to get the evaluations in on time. The effectiveness of the old system depended on whether principals took the time (or had the time) to provide mentoring to novice teachers. It was my experience and is my observation that there is little to no organized mentoring for teachers. This was unfortunate, because teaching is a highly reflective profession that is mostly learned through experience. Studies show that most teachers don’t feel competent until five or more years of teaching experience. And, most teachers agree the first couple of “sink or swim” years prior to making tenure are especially stressful.  Hopefully, the principal likes you or you are out the door.

While I was not a member of the Chicago Teachers Union negotiating team, I did participate in several discussions on a new evaluation system with a group of teachers at the union hall. I was excited that CPS was planning to assess teaching skills using the Danielson Framework of teaching. This framework is based on four domains of effective teaching, including Planning and Preparation, Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. Each domain includes several elements, which succinctly outline what teachers need to do to improve their practice. The domains align closely with the standards of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).

The Danielson Framework and the NBPTS processes include a comprehensive process of mentoring with a master teacher who collaborates with the principal to design an evaluation “intervention” to improve the practice of the teacher. Attaining national board certification requires mentoring by master teachers and the submittal of extensive portfolios that provide evidence of superior teaching. Teachers who attain national board status are recognized as superior teachers through careful analysis of their peers. Unfortunately, CPS decided NOT to keep the mentoring part of the Danielson Framework. This was a mistake. I feel that not including mentoring makes the CPS Framework for Teaching only a half-measure.

Evaluating teachers requires extensive training and experience. I do not feel that most administrators are qualified to do evaluations. They are not receiving adequate training, and there is still potential for favoritism, particularly for teachers who are good at self-promotion. Furthermore, CPS is ignoring a crucial part of teacher improvement, which is the use of highly trained and skilled mentors who consult with principals and spend significant time with novice teachers to reflect on their practice. To its credit, CPS has created “Framework Specialists,” who could fulfill the role of mentors. But it seems doubtful that this relatively small group of teachers could support the entire district in the manner required by the Danielson method of teacher development.

The CPS evaluation system also incorporates a ‘value added’ measure of student growth. Basing teacher effectiveness on student growth seems reasonable. After all, the basic function of teaching is to teach. CPS has implemented this part of teacher evaluation by creating REACHStudents performance tasks that teachers are required to administer to their students at the beginning and end of the school year. I feel that basing teacher effectiveness on a few standardized tests to determine a ‘value added’ metric is unfair for several reasons:

  • The CPS REACHStudents performance task is based on assessments that are administered by the teacher being evaluated, which creates a potential for ‘teaching to the test’ or outright falsification.
  • CPS uses a system of ‘tracking’ to segregate low and high performing students. It seems unfair to use the same assessment to compare teachers at a magnet school—whose students tend to be better prepared to learn—to teachers at a neighborhood school.
  • In parallel, because the higher resourced magnet schools have an instructional advantage, they are superior to neighborhood schools.

A better assessment of ‘value added’ would be to include consideration of the large number teachers who work in challenging situations such as classrooms with high absenteeism and turnover, and poor facilities such as a lack of lab facilities or air conditioning.

Finally, I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea of using student survey results to rate teachers. Basing teacher performance on the opinion of children is problematic for many reasons: Children’s brains are not mature and they do not think like adults. Children will say things with no understanding of their ramifications, as portrayed by Arthur Miller in his play “The Crucible.” It seems to me that online applications that give students a venue to rate their teachers contain too many comments of disgruntled students. Maybe the idea that students should rate good teaching comes from the corporate idea that businesses serve the customer. I agree, but do not feel that children are the customer in education.  The real customer is society as a whole.

Overall, I think that the CPS Framework is far superior to what was done before, although there is significant room for improvement. In particular, CPS needs to create a more extensive program of teacher reflection and mentoring. Hopefully, in collaboration with the Chicago Teachers Union, we will see the REACHStudents program evolve to be more equitable and able to develop superior teachers who can meet the needs of all students. This effort MUST be done in partnership with teachers.

Allen FluhartyAllan Fluharty teaches high school science for the Chicago Public Schools. He was a member of the VIVA Chicago Writing Collaborative and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

 

Design Lessons for Students, not Standards

By Adam Heenan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I don’t want support for Common Core. I simply believe we should not do it, because it does not prioritize the needs of the people in the teaching and learning process: students and educators.  In fact, I believe we should actively resist its implementation, and provide educators with the autonomy, support and time to design engaging lessons in the ways they know best: by prioritizing the people in the room.

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

 

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

 By Wade Sutton, Glenn Morehouse Olson & Freeda Pirillis

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

- A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

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

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

VIVA: Elevating Authentic Teacher Voice for Impact and Activism

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

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

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

Asking Teachers, Building Professional Collaborations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Idea Exchange Process: A Conversation Begins

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

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

Impacting Policy: One Idea Exchange at a Time

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

Wade Sutton

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

Freeda Pirillis

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

Glenn Morehouse Olson

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

VIVA’s Place at the Table

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

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

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

Wade Sutton profile

freeda_300

Glenn Morehouse Olson

 

A Remarkable Year

By Brian Graves

What started off as a war-zone in Chicago, with the Chicago Teacher’s strike, turned into an unexpected opportunity for me and my students.

I can honestly say that while the strike was an event of the past I surely will not forget, I will shelve it in my “teacher experience” box.

The school year had begun with a big gray cloud hanging over the city of Chicago, ready to rain down picket signs for every Chicago Teachers Union member.  Three days of school before the strike was not enough time for me to build a rapport with my students.  Still, with great pride, I spent seven days on the picket line with my colleagues, standing up for what I believed in.  After the strike ended and we went back to the classroom, I was a little hesitant on how my school year would present itself. I also wasn’t quite sure how to explain to my students or the need to explain what had just happened. I concluded that their future history class could teach them why they missed those seven days in 2012.

When we got back into the classroom, my assistant and I were banging our heads about how to get our students fired up for a fun third grade year.  She offered the suggestion of incentives.  I wasn’t a huge fan of reward-based incentives, but after enough arm twisting, I gave in. We created and implemented an Accelerated Reader monthly challenge and a homework-responsibility classroom store challenge.

The reading challenge was quite simple:  In a given  month, read x number of books within a specific genre (non-fiction, animals, states, countries) and generate an 80 percent or higher on the Accelerated Reader test.  If the students achieved their goal, they were invited to a lunch pizza party.   Last year’s class read and took 220 Accelerated Reader tests.  This year, the final tally on tests taken was over 1,200!  The students were encouraged to read a variety of genres, but we focused heavily on nonfiction. Because they needed to score at least 80 percent on test, they were motivated to read for understanding instead of finishing the book quickly.  What a sweet success to end the year, made better by all the students passing the ever-so-lovely Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT).

The homework challenge was also a success.  It too was simple.  Bring in your homework everyday and earn a “homework buck” for shopping at the classroom store (stocked by me and the Target dollar section).  Our homework return rate increased from 45 percent last year to an astounding 98 percent.

What did I learn from this year?  A challenging beginning often ends in sweet success.

Brian Graves is a third grade teacher in Chicago. He participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange.

Implementing the Common Core State Standards: Too Little, Too Soon

By Freeda Pirillis

As a nation, we have made a shift from varying state standards to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a national benchmark for all students. These standards have aimed to level the playing field for students across the U.S., regardless of school district, socio-economic status, or demographic background, and to equip students with the skills to be college and career ready. Unlike the state standards of the past, which often resembled a random set of skills students would learn at each grade level, the CCSS expect that students develop a deeper conceptual understanding of subject matter, with more discussion and collaboration among students, and less paper-pencil tasks that require students’ memorization. Parents and teachers agree moving towards a common set of goals for students and eliminating the disparity between state standards is a step in the right direction.

As of the fall of 2012, 46 states had adopted the CCSS. Parents of school-age children in those states can now be confident that regardless of what district, school, or teacher is educating their child, the CCSS have determined the same learning criteria for all students, and therefore, teachers are fully prepared to teach to these standards. That is the assumption, anyway.

The reality is teachers may not understand the instructional shifts required to teach to the CCSS, have had little chance to read or digest the standards, and are in school districts that are providing little in the way of curriculum, materials, resources, or professional development to successfully implement the CCSS. Yet, teachers are being asked to design daily instruction around the CCSS and, further, are being evaluated by the progress their students make towards them. No one would ever allow their surgeon to operate if he or she had not had rigorous training to safely and successfully perform a procedure, and certainly wouldn’t trust a physician who was equipped with only a handful of tools to treat them. However, teachers are often expected to perform miracles with far less than basic classroom materials. As a nation, the disparity continues to exist between those who have and those who have not. Surprisingly, the have nots continue to be students and teachers.

As a Chicago Public School teacher, I received my copy of the CCSS last school year and was told to read them. That was the beginning and end of the support I received from my school district to understand or use the standards. Teachers across the district have been given weekly deadlines by their principals and network administrators to submit instructional units in every curricular area aligned to the CCSS. Many of them have been left scrambling to read, digest, analyze, review, and develop curriculum all in one to two week cycles. I, on the other hand, was hired by my teacher’s union to participate in writing collaborative to develop one instructional interdisciplinary unit that will exemplify the CCSS. This five-week unit will be piloted in CPS schools next fall, and placed in several national databases to assist teachers in understanding the instructional shifts of the CCSS.

My team of five National Board Certified teachers spent one year writing the unit and this entire year on revisions. We have been given the opportunity to delve deeper into the standards, study the progressions, craft and structure  the ELA standards, and engage in numerous discussions on the intent of standards. The difference between my experience of working with the standards over the course of two years and that of the other 26,000 CPS teachers is polarizing. Parents of students in CPS can be assured that depending on what school their child attends and in which network their school lies, teachers are being bullied into churning out units that do not represent the true vision of the CCSS and teaching has not shifted to prepare students better for the college and career readiness standards.

CPS has provided little in the way of support, but continues to hold teachers and students accountable to meeting the CCSS. One small effort was a conference last summer that was a joint venture between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union. Collaborate Chicago, hosted by Teach Plus, brought together 1,600 CPS teachers to learn more about the CCSS though teacher-led presentations. I was fortunate to present at the conference, and hoped CPS would continue to fund large professional development opportunities for teachers. Although this April’s Collaborate Chicago 2.0, which accommodated another 300 teachers, was another step in the right direction, it continues to feel like it’s not enough. There is so little support being given to teachers who want to ensure their students meet the new college and career standards, they are truly unsure how their teaching needs to change in order to get them there.

Freeda Pirillis teaches 1st Grade for Chicago Public Schools. She was a member of the team that wrote the first VIVA report, Voices from the Classroom.

The Myths of School Closings

We might have a genuine opportunity here in Chicago to learn from our decades-long effort to raise the floor in our public schools by “closing” tens of schools and replacing them, often in the same building with the same kids, with “new schools.” The Commission on School Utilization gives all of us an opportunity to deepen the understanding about what happens to students, teachers and a neighborhood when a school is “closed,

What we have here is a failure to genuinely communicate and a chance to change that. In my personal experience everyone new in the building means you have lost years of experience and knowledge and social capital, people who know how to handle the minutiae and the mundane of running a complex ship. We spent that first year reinventing every wheel you could possibly think of: testing protocols, how to manage advisory, bell schedules, how to handle truancy, how to program students, how to manage security, how to handle discipline, how to handle tardies, how to handle parents, how to handle the students who are pregnant and parenting, how to handle 18 year old students who have 2 credits, how to handle the students who just got out of jail, how to handle 30% plus special education population, how to handle angry kids and angry parents, how to handle depressed and hungry and homeless kids, how to handle staff meetings, how to handle professional development, how to handle external and community partnerships, how to handle service learning, as well as the pressures of the Chicago Board of Education and visitors and Principal for a Day.

CPS loses students because we push out kids instead of instituting indispensable programs such as Restorative Justice and wraparound services that these students need to help them build skills.

You want parental involvement? Study the schools that have parent resource centers and successful models of welcoming, supportive culture
for parents, and spend time on making that happen system wide.

The fact is, it’s not an exaggeration that in some Chicago neighborhoods, schools are the main community asset. We have to build on that asset if we are going to begin to address the other challenges facing these neighborhoods and their residents. Instead of “closing” and “opening” schools year in and year out, we need to take a broader, longer term approach to making sure we are making all schools work. Study what works! Make it happen in every school, not piecemeal and only if a school is lucky and has a high functioning administration. Make parents feeling welcome and a part of the school a highly valued metric, especially in high school.

The Commission on School Utilization may be our last chance to get this right. There’s a lot of “transformation” fatigue out here. Let’s not waste this chance.

The author teaches art in the Chicago Public Schools.