Monthly Archives: July 2013

Christel Meth: 5 Thoughts On The IN School Grading Controversy

If you want to read Florida education chief Tony Bennett’s side of the controversy about school grading changes in IN Rick Hess has it this morning (and before you assume Bennett only went to a friendly interviewer with soft questions to give his take he also did an open-question presser with national and local press yesterday afternoon as well).  Background here. Five thoughts on the whole thing:

– This probably wouldn’t have been news if it wasn’t midsummer or if a plane had crashed this week.  It’s not that big of a deal and calls for Bennett to resign pretty obviously overstate the issue. Clearly IN officials did discover a problem with their grading system that unfairly penalized 12 or 13 schools with non-traditional grade configurations. It was one particular school that brought it to their attention. That’s not surprising during the development of a system like this, which do always have a lot of wrinkles that need to be ironed out. We pointed that out in the Hangover paper on teacher evaluations and tried to make clear that people should not be afraid to make changes as needed.

– That said, there do seem to be two problems here.  First, there was not enough transparency about the changes. And that’s something that , even though the need for a fix looks clear here, should worry reformers because at the regulatory level gaming of accountability systems is pervasive. You get these issues as these systems are stress tested and then as they’re implemented and evolve . But it’s vital that people have confidence in how and why decisions are being made and given the tenor of the debate these days things should be communicated extra clearly to avoid episodes like this. Second, it does appear from the emails released so far that IN officials worked with the explicit goal of getting this school to an “A” rather than merely fixing the problem. Granted, the emails released so far are selective (and in some cases lack context, for instance the “lies” remark makes sense within context) and it seems to me that AP should request all of them and Bennett should want them all released rather than just a few calculated to paint him in a bad light.

I don’t think the effort to help this school or similar schools is about money.  As a friend remarked yesterday to me about this episode, many times “follow the money” is not especially useful advice. In this case it’s a great headline but a distraction that misses what happened here.  It doesn’t look like Bennett or his team made these changes because this school’s founder was a donor (and other affected schools were not). That’s correlation.  Rather, I think that they wanted to make sure a school that is generally regarded as a good one – and that they frequently praised in public – was not unfairly dinged by their new grading system.  That is arguably about pride or politics or both, but it’s not about money.

Bottom line, at the time IN officials should have handled what is at its core a defensible situation better. But now, today, our field might think about handling it better, too.  The general reactions – both the predictable rush to attacks from critics and rush to blanket defenses from defenders – don’t really reflect well on anyone.

– For some real inside baseball there is some grumbling in IN about the timing of all this coming on the heels of good news on test scores under Bennett’s watch and also a report that undermined a key claim his opponent, now the state’s school chief, made during the campaign and subsequently about IN’s assessments.

Also see Mathew Tully on this in the Indy paper.

Two Articles – Common Themes, Plus No E in MOE? And Pensions.

I was away last week but did catch this important article in The Times about private alternative schools.  It’s a largely unregulated part of the sector and the article highlights some abuses and sketchy – at best – arrangements.  The Washington Post then ran an important story yesterday about another largely unregulated part of the sector in Virginia – homeschooling.

Both articles share two common themes. One is that one size does not fit all, so allowing for various alternative arrangements is important.  I’m a public school supporter and people are often surprised to hear that I am also a supporter of homeschooling rights.  I don’t see it as a choice, both have their advantages and drawbacks and will work for some schools and not for others. Unfortunately, in Virginia homeschooling rights are out of balance with homeschooling responsibilities in a way that’s untenable for the schools -as Andy Block points out in the article – and not good public policy in terms of child welfare.  Worse, things are moving the wrong way. In 2006 then-Governor Tim Kaine signed legislation further lowering quality standards for homeschooling, the last time the issue was seriously revisited. There are ways to balance homeschooling rights and autonomy with light touch oversight but that’s not happening.

Nationally, alternative schools are another small but vital part of the sector.  But here, again, a pervasive lack of regulation leads to some horrific examples that discredit the entire class.  That’s too bad because wilderness based options and other strategies can help some at-risk youth.  That points up the second commonality – innovative approaches still need some regulation in a sector that is about serving youngsters.

Elsewhere: Chuck Edwards says MOE is the wrong hill to die on.  David Skeel looks at pension obligations and bankruptcy.  Some educational implications broadly but Detroit teachers are covered under a state not city plan so outside the immediacy of the crisis there.  And via my Twitter feed a few other articles including the rush to the exits on Common Core assessments, HI’s clean bill of health on RTT, new ASD data from TN, and off-topic a great Springsteen cover via Nathan Martin.

Thanks To E4E

Thanks to the great folks from E4E for keeping things warm here last week.   You can read their blogging below and the blogging from Teach Plus in the archives from June.

Voices of Reason From the Classroom

Guestbloggers Sydney Morris and Evan Stone are co-founders of Educators 4 Excellence, a teacher-lead organization of more than 12,000 educators nationwide

Education used to be a place where Democrats and Republicans could reliably come together and collaboratively make important policy decisions. Look at No Child Left Behind, which brought together the likes of Ted Kennedy and John Boehner who both sponsored the bill in their respective houses.

Fast forward twelve years, and the first comprehensive education bill to pass either chamber since 2001 – the so-called Student Success Act – came out of the House without a single Democratic vote—a sign that there was little collaboration to forge a compromise.

We’re seeing this polarization play out at the state level as well, to the detriment of schools, teachers and students.

Just a few years ago, Republican and Democratic governors from 45 states jumped at the chance to sign on to the Common Core standards, a commitment towards providing a more rigorous education for all students. Now, state after state is bailing on the assessments tied to these standards, as a result of a full out assault led by Tea Party activists and liberal democrats in these states.

This education policy yo-yo risks paralyzing the very people these policies are supposed to be helping—teachers and students.

In every state, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Common Core is now delayed or dead, teachers have already been training and preparing for months or longer—now with just a few weeks before the start of school, there is a lot of confusion around how to plan for an ever-shifting target.

With the real world consequences of these radical decisions largely being ignored, it’s clear that what public education needs is a return to the middle.  This rational voice is not going to come from Washington or from either of the extremes that are currently defining the debate. It needs to come from the classroom.  Teachers who are focused on the interests of their students need to stand up, take back the ownership of their profession, and demand policies that will elevate teaching and help improve student outcomes.

Teachers don’t think about these issues and challenges as red v. blue or federal overreach v. local control, but rather how they will help them better instruct their students and grow as professionals.

Not surprisingly, across the country we are seeing teachers raise their hands—and their voices—demanding an opportunity to break through the paralysis with reasonable solutions.

That’s how our organization, Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) was born three years ago. As teachers at a public school in the Bronx, New York, we became increasingly frustrated with the policy directives being placed upon our classrooms – decisions were being made with little input from the very educators who would be charged with implementing them.

Since our inception, E4E has grown into a national movement of more than 12,000 educators who have taken ownership over the fight to bring the conversation back to the center and back to a focus on the interests of our students.

In California, E4E teachers pushed for increased funding, but also called for the additional dollars to be tied to meaningful reform so that it did not get dumped into a school funding formula that limited equity and perpetuated a failing system.

In New York City, our members twice stood up for a fair compromise in the debate around teacher evaluation.  First, they called for an appeals system that guaranteed due process through the use of an independent, third party observer, but also expedited the dismissal process for teachers with multiple ineffective ratings.  And then, when the district and union were unable to negotiate a deal locally, E4E-NY teachers encouraged decision-makers to help enact an evaluation system that coupled accountability with meaningful support and feedback, and grounded that evaluation in multiple measures, including their students’ academic growth.

In Minnesota, E4E teachers pushed for increased funding for early childhood education and a local version of the Dream Act because these common sense policy stances are good for our students and good for our country.

America used to be a place of compromise, where left and right came together to do big things on behalf of the greater good.  As we watch the dysfunction in Washington spread from state house to state house, it is becoming clearer than ever that the answers to our country’s pressing education problems need to come straight from professionals – the ones in the classroom, rather than the ones in politics.

In New York City, Building Upon the Past

By guestblogger Matthew Schatz, an elementary special education teacher in New York City.  He was also a member of the 2013 Educators 4 Excellence-NY Teacher Policy Team on Teacher Evaluation Implementation.

The New York Times published an important editorial earlier this month on the challenges facing the city’s next mayor and the need to stay the course on many important education reforms put in place over the past twelve years. The importance of staying the course goes beyond New York City as districts around the country have followed our lead. All eyes are on the race for the second Mayor to control the nation’s biggest school system, asking: will the Big Apple continue to lead the nation when it comes to improving our schools?

As the article points out, the mayor’s race to date has focused largely on what the Times calls “emotional flashpoints”—mayoral control, school closures and charter school co-location—without digging into the actual policies needed to improve teaching and learning for the city’s 1.1 million school kids.

Certainly the next mayor will want to put his or her own stamp on the city’s education landscape and reengage many stakeholders who feel they’ve been disenfranchised during Mayor Bloomberg’s three terms.

But there are many positive changes taking hold that haven’t necessarily grabbed headlines but that are making an enormous difference in helping principals and teachers build successful school communities. The now expired 2007 teachers contract, which the next mayor will renegotiate, was the starting point for many of these changes. He or she should seek to build on them to ensure schools are organized around the needs of children and elevating their achievement.

1)    Ending of forced placement: In the past, the city used to force place tenured teachers who were not able to find positions, stifling principals who were trying to build school cultures around a specific vision and mission. Starting in 2007, the district and union agreed to end the practice and instead, began placing these teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool instead of forcing them on principals who did not want to hire them. While the effort has created an expensive pool of teachers who are collecting a paycheck but not working, providing principals the power to hire the right teachers has made a big difference for schools and for families. The policy has also blazed a path for many other districts around the country.  A new mayor will need to negotiate with the UFT a comprehensive plan for the educators in the ATR.

2)    Mutual consent hiring: Another major change in the 2007 contract was instituting what’s called “mutual consent hiring.” This allows principals to interview teacher candidates and for both the candidates and the principal to have to opt in to the hiring. In the past, principals had little control over whom they could hire and teachers had little say in where they taught. This was a major step forward in efforts to professionalize teaching and to attract and retain talent in New York City’s public schools.

3)    Support networks: When the State Legislature handed the mayor control of the schools in 2002, the city reorganized the way it supports schools from a system that grouped them geographically by district to one that allows principals to join networks tailored to their individual needs. For example, a dual language immersion program can now group itself with other dual language immersion programs rather than with schools that have very different challenges. The networks have experienced some reorganizing over the years but the basic idea is strong. According to the most recent survey of principals, over 90% were satisfied with the support they receive from their network. This level of satisfaction has been consistent over the last few years.

4)    Budgetary powers: Another really important change was giving principals more discretion over how they spend their funds. This change has allowed them to prioritize their schools’ needs, whether that means extra staff, new technologies, professional development or curriculum materials. The process has also provided teachers with opportunities to shape their schools by allowing them to be involved in the decision making process. In the old days, principals were given a set amount of funds in each category and they had to spend that money whether or not they were needed. In addition, having teacher salaries based in school budgets has created a more equitable distribution of dollars across all schools instead of the old system where schools in higher income neighborhoods had all veteran teachers and schools in more challenging neighborhoods had all novice teachers.  The new mayor should continue to work to find ways to ensure teachers are equitably distributed across the district based on quality and tenure.

5)    Teacher leadership opportunities: Over the past twelve years, the city has experimented with different teacher leader models that provide educators the opportunity to grow in their profession and younger teachers the chance to learn from their experienced peers. Whether they were called Master Teachers, Lead Teachers or Teacher Ambassadors, the approach proved popular and effective. Unfortunately, ill will between the administration and the union killed each effort prematurely. The next mayor should use his or her early political capital to push to re-create these roles and additional opportunities for effective teachers to expand their impact, as studies have shown that leadership opportunities contribute to recruiting and retaining great talent.

There are many challenges facing our public schools in the coming years, most notably implementation of a new teacher evaluation system and the more rigorous Common Core standards. The most effective implementation will happen at schools where principals and teachers work together well, trust each other, and focus on how to continually grow and improve. Promoting and building upon policies such as the ones outlined above, that create professional and respectful work environments, should be a top priority for any mayor hoping to get off on the right foot.


The Essential Value of Mentorship: An Equity Issue

By guestblogger Christopher Records, a special education teacher at a high school in Southeast Los Angeles and a member of Educators 4 Excellence

At its best, education is collaborative. Teachers see it in action every day at our schools. We work with students, parents, fellow teachers, administrators, and other service providers to ensure that what’s going on in our classrooms is successful, day in and day out. Our efforts take a number of different forms: collaborative planning, student and family conferences, school governance councils, and student enrichment and support programs. We understand, however hackneyed the phrase, that it does “take a village to raise a child,” and that supporting our kids toward success and life-readiness means enlisting every possible resource and person in their growth and development.

But what about our own growth and development as teachers? Shouldn’t our careers mirror the relentless pursuit of growth and lifelong learning that we want for our students?

While we recognize the essential value of community and collaboration in supporting kids toward excellence, we’re failing to effectively provide just that kind of support to developing teachers, especially at the beginning stages of their careers. For far too many new teachers, the first years of teaching are experienced in relative isolation, with minimal opportunities for interaction and collaboration with more seasoned and effective colleagues. This “you figure it out” approach for those entering the teaching profession directly leads to new teachers feeling less effective and more stressed, inevitably leading to burn-out and high attrition. One need only look to the alarming statistics on new teacher turn-over to see the results. Unsupported, isolated, and demoralized, nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the teaching profession within 5 years of entering it. A 2007 National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future report estimated the annual cost of this to the country at $7 billion.

A truly collaborative approach to supporting new teachers’ growth and development will go a long way in addressing this problem. Providing effective mentorship is a key component of that, affording new and developing teachers with both holistic and content-specific support. A 2013 survey of 310 teachers in Los Angeles Unified School District conducted by Educators 4 Excellence showed more than 90 percent of respondents rate holistic and content-specific support for developing teachers as either “impactful” or “critical.” Organizations such as The New Teacher Project have reported that, where effective mentorship is provided to new and developing teachers, some school districts have seen teacher attrition rates cut by as much as 50 percent.

Districts must define what this mentorship should look like, and work toward making it meaningful, systemic, and impactful for mentor and mentee teachers. Throughout this year, as part of the 2013 Educators 4 Excellence Teacher Policy Team on Teacher Career Pathways, I and 12 other Los Angeles-area educators have met to discuss issues like mentorship, and to put forward a number of common-sense, easily implementable recommendations for a new approach to teacher professional support and pathways for advancement in our district’s schools. Our report, entitled “STEP: Supporting Teachers as Empowered Professionals,” offers a comprehensive outline for what effective mentorship for beginning teachers should look like. Our approach calls for two distinct mentors for beginning teachers: one providing holistic support, and one providing content-specific support. We also call for shared planning time for mentor and mentee teachers, extra release time for beginning teachers to observe their mentors in the classroom, and involvement of mentor teachers in the professional development offered to their mentees. 

In other words, we firmly believe that any mentorship program for developing teachers must be broadly utilized, and that the teachers involved in this program must be given the resources and flexibility—both in terms of training, time and autonomy—to truly leverage and support our mentors and mentees. In creating meaningful mentorship programs, district should prioritize giving mentor teachers enough release time to effectively support and coach their mentees; provide consistent feedback and evaluation for mentor teachers by, for example, surveying their mentees; and ensure mentors offer low-anxiety and no-stakes mentee observations and feedback (with an understanding that administrators will be providing the formal evaluations for stakes).

 Finding a solution to this problem is more than just a staffing issue. It is a fundamental issue of equity. New teachers are disproportionately placed at high-needs and hard-to-staff schools, and disproportionately teach low-income students. High turnover only contributes to the instability of these schools, and to the deficits in educational achievement of the students who attend them. By building effective mentorship systems to support retention, we can reduce instability within the teaching force, and thereby influence better student outcomes.

Unlike many other educational reforms, mentorship is easily implementable and low-cost. It builds on the existing human capital resources that districts already have (i.e. teachers currently leading peers in informal and formal ways). Moreover, models of effective mentorship exist throughout the country, in Boston, Chicago, Durham, and in other districts, large and small, urban and rural. In Hillsborough County, Florida, where a comprehensive mentorship and induction program for new teachers has existed since 2011, retention of first year teachers increased by 14 percent in 1 year, with 86 percent of teachers remaining in the classroom after their first year. 

Replicating the successes of those models, and building systems to improve and develop our own, is the necessary work of teachers and districts, for the teachers with whom we work, and for the students and schools whom we serve.

Giving New Teachers the Right Start

By guestblogger Scott Wade, an 8th Grade English teacher at PS/MS 29 in the Bronx, New York. He was also a member of the 2013 Educators 4 Excellence-NY Teacher Policy Team on teacher preparation.

The recently released report from the National Council on Teacher Quality on Teacher Prep Review instantly became a lightning rod for both praise and criticism. While the NCTQ’s declaration that teacher preparation programs have become largely “an industry of mediocrity” shocked many outside of the education field, as a teacher, it was tragically not a surprise. I am all too familiar with the consequences of this mediocrity; teachers live with them every day.

As a first year teacher at PS/MS 29 in the Bronx, New York, I encountered a vast array of issues from classroom management and data collection to the painful split between my theory-based education and the realities of my urban classroom.  I experienced the consequences of this “industry of mediocrity” firsthand.  And I, for one, will not accept this.   

By all means, my teacher preparation program at the University of Pennsylvania, ranked in the top 10 nationally, should have adequately prepared me to be ready on day one. Yet, it took only my first principal observation to point out my inadequacies in the classroom. It was only then that I was introduced to such fundamental concepts as modeling a lesson for students and checking for understanding – concepts that are second nature to successful teachers. In spite of my endless amount of enthusiasm for the job and having completed a top ranked teacher preparation program, I lacked many of the most basic skills necessary to do the job.

Working to fill in the gaps of my teacher prep program on my own, I reached out to experienced teachers and groups. In that process, I found the teacher advocacy group, Educators 4 Excellence. As an active member, I, along with a diverse group of 17 current NYC teachers, joined a teacher-led Policy Team to propose improvements to teacher preparation programs.  Our policy paper, “Preparing for the Classroom: A Vision of Teacher Training in the 21st Century,” envisions a set of policies for a program which will effectively prepare the next generation of teachers, including changes such as a rigorous admissions process and a notable portfolio defense. Our recommendations reflect the type of training that each of us wishes we had received.

Our policy paper focused on four main aspects of preparation program:

1. Want it: Preparation programs should only accept teacher candidates who show that they “want” to achieve excellence by meeting a minimum threshold as measured by a 3.0 undergraduate GPA, and by passing a baseline entrance exam similar to the GRE. Similarly, preparation programs must also account for non-cognitive skills, such as empathy and leadership, to bring individuals into the teaching system who possess the traits found in quality teachers.

2. Learn it: Teacher preparation programs must teach a wider range of competencies beyond theory to include content knowledge, diversity training, classroom strategies and the design of real life lessons. Furthermore, institutions need to hire professors that have recent experience as highly effective classroom teachers. Ultimately, the education school needs to reflect an understanding of the environment of real classrooms in diverse settings.

3. Live it: While certification requirements change by state, many fall woefully short in providing proper student-teaching experience for candidates. It is only through actual practice that a teacher can understand what strategies work for their style. As such, we recommend a year of student teaching in which candidates are gradually given responsibility and eventually take over a classroom. For this to work, candidates must be matched with highly effective teachers as mentors that are fully vetted by the preparation program.

4. Prove it: We must also ensure that those who are certified go through not only a rigorous entrance and training process, but also an equally rigorous set of exit requirements. It’s hypocritical to ask our students to take more intensive Common Core aligned tests while their own teachers are somehow allowed to squeak by with much less scrutiny. We must elevate our field by creating Common Core aligned exit exams for teacher certification based on data that links to student achievement.

As a dedicated educator, I am tired of a system that accepts mediocrity from teachers and hopes for brilliance from their kids, and I am fed up with training programs that forego rigorous screening for candidates and then provide those in their programs with minimal training in the classroom. As a first year teacher, I should not be filling in the gaps of my education and learning strategies on the fly, but building off of great training, theory and student-teaching experience. If we are committed to social justice and improved outcomes for all kids, then we need more than theories – we need preparation programs that produce exceptional teachers.    

It Starts With Hiring

By guestblogger Laurie Walters, a veteran teacher at Los Angeles Unified School District who has been teaching students for over 30 years. She was also a member of the Educators 4 Excellence-LA 2013 Teacher Policy Team on attracting and retaining teachers. 

As a veteran teacher, I hear a lot about the importance of providing our students with 21st century skills. I’m often left scratching my head every time I watch our schools employ antiquated practices when it comes to setting themselves up to be successful.

Nowhere is this more pervasive than in the way many schools go about hiring teachers.  This includes the practices in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second largest public school district. This district, where I currently work, still operates under a contractual system of “forced placement” where principals must make hiring decisions based solely on a candidate’s seniority and, if applicable, license area. Characteristics such as performance or mission, vision and culture fit hold no weight. It’s a system no modern organization would utilize to make hiring decisions, yet public schools do it year after year.

Not surprisingly, our schools end up with high teacher attrition and low student achievement. In LAUSD, more than ten percent of teachers are hired after the first day of school has already begun, and sixteen percent of educators in low-income schools are teaching outside their area of expertise. The median career length at a LAUSD school is less than three years and sixty percent of teachers leave the profession entirely within five years. Despite the obvious goal of bringing qualified and passionate teachers into the classroom, we’re setting ourselves up to fail before educators even reach the classroom.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Part of the problem is that most hiring decisions happen at the district level instead of the school level. As a result, both employers and candidates can’t screen each other for a proper fit. We need our district and union to agree to a system of mutual consent hiring, which decentralizes the process and gives employees and employers more choice and power over these critical decisions that affect our students, schools and careers. Principals should have the ability to base hiring decisions on a variety of factors and not just seniority. Teachers as well should be empowered to seek out schools that align best with their career objectives. We strongly believe schools should have thoughtful hiring processes that include diverse stakeholders such as teachers, community people, administrators, and perhaps students, and provide candidates with ample information to determine the best fit for schools and teachers. This was one of the recommendations a group of Educators 4 Excellence –LA members outlined in a policy paper released in June called Building for the Future: Attracting and Retaining Great Teachers in Hard to Staff Schools. I was a member of this all-teacher policy team and focused on ways districts can improve the hiring process for teachers and schools.

Instead of a rigid, top-down approach, our districts should empower local schools to tap into the collective potential of teachers, leaders and the community.

Not only should schools have more control over hiring, but they should also use the opportunity to get the entire school community invested in these decisions. That’s why the Policy Team of Teachers at E4E recommended the development of a “hiring toolkit,” which would provide a protocol for establishing hiring committees made up of teachers, school leaders and community members. The toolkit would also provide guiding questions for candidates, criteria for evaluating demo lessons and customizable rubrics for evaluating prospective teachers based on school goals, culture and mission.

What’s more, our districts must tap into and reward a teacher’s willingness to work in challenging environments. Our teacher-led team recommended using financial and non-financial means to incentivize teachers and principals to work in high needs schools. While much attention is often paid to financial incentives, I believe it’s critical that districts also offer non-monetary ways to attract talent to challenging schools. Principals should receive increased autonomy around hiring, curriculum and professional development while teachers should be provided leadership opportunities so they can advance in their careers while remaining in the classroom. Of course, there is a meaningful place for money in this conversation about attracting and keeping talent. Our districts can recognize great educators with financial rewards for teaching in high-need areas and helping to close the achievement gap. Money alone, however, won’t keep great talent. Like any talent-driven enterprise, our principals should to be trained in smart retention strategies and districts should provide pathways for teachers to lead, support peers and share best practices.

Better hiring alone won’t solve our retention issues, but it is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, we can’t snap our fingers and put these policies into place. We need the support of elected officials, policy makers and union leaders who need to understand their role in positioning teachers for success from the beginning. Stakeholders—from our mayors to our parents—need to realize exactly what we have to lose and gain when it comes to hiring, developing and keeping excellent teachers. Every great teacher we attract and keep in public education is inspiring and training the future of our colleges, communities, cities and nation.