In Rhode Island, Students, Educators and Allies Standing Up for “Hope”

Guestblogger Kevin Gallagher is an attorney in Providence, Rhode Island and a former public school teacher who taught in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a member of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE).

It’s one thing to believe in the power of collective action, but it’s another to see it at work. As I stood in the room with nearly 50 other current and former teachers, policymakers, and allies, I soon came to realize that the fight for marriage equality wasn’t just my fight – it was our fight, a fight for something bigger than any one person in that room.

As a nation, we are in the midst of a struggle for marriage equality. This year, the movement had some big wins, including the expansion of marriage rights to same-sex couples to now 13 states and D.C., and the Supreme Court’s decision rejecting Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, as unconstitutional.

I’m proud to say that among these victories was the enactment of marriage equality legislation in Rhode Island. This could not have been accomplished without the hard work and dedication of committed citizens – gay and straight – who demanded that their voice be heard. In true democratic fashion, Rhode Islanders from a variety of backgrounds committed to seek this change together. In February, while the legislation was stuck in the State Senate, I had the opportunity to co-host a house meeting with other current and former teachers compelled to speak out and take part in the movement on behalf of their family, friends, and most importantly, their students.

Marriage says “We are a family” in a way no other word does. These other members of Leadership for Educational Equity, or LEE, knew that their students had a right to know their families are supported and cherished. As a former teacher, it was always my goal to teach my students to love, respect and to see beyond themselves. Sharing in this collective belief, LEE members worked tirelessly to make sure their students knew that they, and their families, were equal in the eyes of the law.

One of the most compelling moments of the fight for marriage equality in Rhode Island was the testimony of 6th grader Matthew Lannon. Testifying before Rhode Island’s legislators, Matthew sought clarification on one simple idea – he wanted to know why his family had to return to the State House, year after year, to ask permission just to be treated like everyone else. In the end, Matthew challenged his elected representatives to “choose love” – and they did.

Thanks in large part to teachers and students alike, Rhode Island lived up to its simple, but powerful motto – “Hope” – and expanded the right to marry to all Rhode Islanders. I cannot help but be moved by the thought of all of the children, like Matthew, whose families were made whole by that vote. And I cannot be more proud to have stood, side-by-side, with LEE members in the fight to ensure that all families receive every protection the law will allow.

Standing Up Together to Demand More for Kids

Guestblogger Adam Gleicher is an organizer and education advocate in Denver, Colorado. He is a former public school teacher who taught in New Orleans, Louisiana and a member of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE)

Alex’s* nickname at school was termite because he was so skinny. Of all the challenges I faced as a first year teacher, Alex was perhaps the greatest. During class, he would torpedo around the classroom, toss textbooks while my back was turned, and hit other students – anything to avoid doing work.

It was 3 weeks before I could even get him to look at piece of schoolwork.

I had heard about the Achievement Gap, and it was the injustice of inequitable education that inspired me to become a teacher—but there is nothing that hits you in the gut like seeing a 15-year old who can’t read a single letter.

How could we as a society allow a child to go 15 years without learning how to read?

Alex was dyslexic, and just like every other school he had gone to, the one he attended had no adequate plan to address his learning disability. Eventually, Alex was permanently pulled from my classroom where he spent his days roaming the halls and running errands. He never received the services he needed.

By the end of the school year Alex was in jail. He had the misfortune of being born in a Zip code full of failing schools, and that dictated his future.

After two years I left the classroom, intent on reforming a system that had drastically failed Alex and students like him throughout the country. Believing that this egregious inequality in education for children like Alex was a civil rights issue, I turned to community organizing.

I moved to Colorado to organize for a Senator who had been a groundbreaking superintendent of public schools. He and I shared the belief that meaningful education reform requires bold action. To improve outcomes for children, we need to challenge a status quo that sometimes places the interests of adults before students, and do whatever it takes to ensure our school system meets the needs of all kids.

During the campaign, I discovered the real impact of a people-powered movement. Concerned citizens talked to their neighbors, conversations led to votes, votes led to victory. On the morning after Election Day, it became clear—by a razor-thin margin, an army of volunteers had propelled the Senator I worked for back to Washington, where he could continue to be an advocate for children.

I spent this summer with another people-powered movement. Community Campaigns for Educational Justice was comprised of 30 college students from all over the country who had come to Denver to ensure better opportunities for all Colorado children. Some of the participants had benefited from excellent schools and some had the misfortune of attending failing schools – but all were committed to creating change.

By the end of the summer, participants had conversations about schools with tens of thousands of voters throughout Colorado, and collected thousands of signatures to demand a more equitably funded educational system. When regular people take action—like committed campaign volunteers and passionate college students—they can move the needle.

Every child deserves the opportunity to fulfill their potential and to attend a school that allows them to do so. If we as a community stand up and collectively demand more, we can create that future.

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the student

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.


I Teach a Non-Tested Grade…But I Want to Talk About Testing, Too

By Guestblogger Catherine Tighe

As we clean up the classroom for the end of the year, my kindergarten students’ reflections and conversations about their accomplishments indicate how much they have learned this year.  One student observes how her classmates’ handmade names, created in the beginning of the year for our display board, were big, wiggly, and uppercase; now they write their names with precision and expertise and with appropriate upper and lowercase letters.  Another asks if next year’s kindergarteners will learn all of the letters and sounds so they, too, will be able to write and publish stories.  A few students enthusiastically stack and organize the books in our “favorite stories” library.  They share quick references to characters and storylines that have instilled in them a love of literature and reading.   They are filled with pride and excitement, thinking about all they have learned and the joy that they experienced throughout the year.

I can see their progress clearly, but finding precise ways to capture that progress is a huge challenge for educators like me, who teach the grades and subjects that are inherently harder to measure. Even though my kindergartners don’t take traditional tests, I still use established assessments to measure their progress regularly, inform my instruction and help me identify gaps in their learning. Figuring out the right assessments for that purpose is critical, both for my students’ learning and ultimately for how my effectiveness as a teacher is evaluated. That’s why I am honored to be part of the conversation that is happening at the state and national level about how we, as educators, should measure progress of our students in non-tested grades and subjects.  Next month, I will be attending two events aimed at bringing teachers’ voices to the discussion about assessment tools.

First, I’ll join a group of other Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows for a meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his senior team to discuss this issue and share teacher feedback from Assessment Advisor, an teacher-created online ratings tool that allows teachers to review the assessments they use in their classrooms. The teachers behind Assessment Advisor have created a database for feedback about assessments already in place, including the amount of time used to administer and the quality of the information that is generated. That data—which comes directly from more than 1,000 reviews written by teachers in almost all 50 states—is incredibly valuable as states, districts and school leaders make decisions about how to measure student learning across all grades and subjects, and how to make sure all our students are getting the skills they need to succeed.

Then I will come home to Boston to participate in the District Determined Measures Anchor Standards Development Panel for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  For that panel, I’ll join other kindergarten teachers to give feedback to my state education leaders about appropriate and effective ELA/literacy assessments for kindergarten.  The district-determined measures will play an integral role in the newly implemented teacher evaluation system.  I am thrilled to have the opportunity to voice my opinion, experiences, and knowledge to help shape the way we document and showcase developmentally appropriate growth, and to identify measures that will ultimately contribute to a fair picture of my effectiveness as a teacher.

I am extremely hopeful that the two events will elicit specific indicators we can use to measure progress in kindergarten.  This is by no means an effort to implement testing for the young.  Rather, it is a way to gather teachers’ input on how educators can start using more precise, reliable, and effective measurements to capture and celebrate the learning and growth that happens in non-tested grades and subjects. Just because our subjects aren’t measured easily by traditional tests, that doesn’t mean that we don’t need and want data on our students’ progress to help us improve our practice, target interventions, and celebrate our students’ achievements.


Catherine Tighe teaches kindergarten in the Somerville Public Schools in Somerville, MA. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.


No More Blank Faces: Common Core In My Classroom

By Guestblogger Kylie Alsofrom

Common Core is coming under fire from critics who claim the new standards amount to a common curriculum (false), federal overreach into states’ control over their education systems (also false), or simply because they’re just too hard.

It’s that last argument that I have the biggest problem with. When I first learned about the Common Core, I was so excited for the potential it had to improve student learning nation-wide. Recognizing that the new standards were going to require students to have a deeper understanding of the concepts they’re taught, I wanted to give them a test run by pushing my students’ practice to see what they actually understood.

Here’s what that looked like in my classroom: I presented my students with a type of problem they hadn’t seen for a while. I wanted them to solve multiplication problems using arrays.  When I noticed they were stumped, I modeled a few problems on the board. They were then able to mimic what I had done to solve the next problems. They were getting them correct!  Then, feeling that they’d had a necessary warm-up, I asked them to solve a few more in the form of word problems.  They read the problem, they took the two numbers, they drew an array. High-five for me…they got it. But then I asked them to explain how they knew to use an array, or what the array was showing them. Blank faces. They only knew because they had just practiced it. They plugged in some numbers. They couldn’t explain to me the conceptual understanding.

This is what is happening to our students. They can go through the motions and get the correct answers, but is this enough?

Kids answering questions correctly does not mean it is time to move on to the next topic.  Do they truly understand? Do they know why they are getting these answers? If we settle for mere correct answers, we are not only not closing education gaps—we are creating gaps. With Common Core, there are fewer standards, over the same amount of time, that push student learning to a deeper conceptual level. These standards allow teachers to spend more time on conceptual understandings and higher-order thinking skills. If we get the Common Core right, kids will be able to relate their work to real-life applications, rather than just use a formula to answer questions. Students will build the problem-solving skills they need to persevere through any problem, regardless of when they learned the process.

If we don’t take the time to build this kind of deep, conceptual understanding, students will continue to move to the next grade with knowledge of surface level procedures. With our current system, students often don’t push their understanding forward as the skills become more difficult and build on what they were ‘supposed to’ learn the year before. The Common Core provides us with an opportunity to ensure that students have the coherence they need between the grade levels to continue to move forward.

Fast-forward to my classroom today. Since I first tested my students on arrays that afternoon, I have been to a handful of professional development sessions around the Common Core State Standards. I am consistently asking myself, “Where are all the other teachers?” In D.C., we’re now at a point where teachers are expected to be fully implementing the Common Core standards. It is our job–teachers, school leaders, administrators, districts, and beyond–to create supports and professional development for teachers to ensure their understanding of the new standards.  Teachers who have mastered the standards must take on new leadership roles as Common Core experts in their schools, networks and districts. We need to create more opportunities for teachers to collaborate and coach one another. As I learned at the teacher-led Common Core Conference in D.C. in May, teachers learn best from other teachers (similar teacher-led conferences will take place in LA, Boston and Indianapolis over the next few months). Teachers want to hear from those who are experiencing the same struggles and achievements with the Common Core standards.

If we want the Common Core to work for students, we need to make it work for teachers. The most important thing we can do is support teachers in this new endeavor and build teacher buy-in. Teachers must believe in the potential the Common Core brings our profession and our students. So let’s find more ways for teachers to learn from each other about the standards, share best practices, and talk through challenges. I believe the best way to spread buy-in and excitement is through teachers.


Kylie Alsofrom teaches at DC Prep in Washington, DC and is an alumna of the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship.

I Was Bullied…On Twitter

By Guestblogger Kylene Young

As an educator, I have many conversations with students about online bullying. I have always known that it exists, but I did not come of age during the Internet era, so I had never experienced the phenomenon myself until recently. When I joined Twitter.

Now, some of you will say that I am blowing things out of proportion, which I know is probably true. My husband always tells me that if I ever want to be involved in politics, I need to get a thicker skin; I can be a bit sensitive. But I was bullied on Twitter by another person interested in K-12 education, and I want to share my experience.

Something was very unsettling about this exchange that I had with @sheeevan (not their real Twitter handle). Let me set the stage. I “followed” a couple of people recently who strongly disagree with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that runs a policy fellowship for teachers, in which I’m currently participating. These tweeters feel that the organization is part of “corporate education reform,” which understandably has a pretty bad reputation, and they started a conversation with me about this topic. The conversation started off respectful and I was excited that I was getting so many replies — it was the first time I had an ongoing “tweet” conversation. Enter the bully.

The first thing I saw was that @sheeevan was doing a little “behind the back” thing by tweeting at the other two in the conversation and letting them know she was about to antagonize me. She had looked at a past tweet of mine and wanted to use that tweet against me, which she did. At this point, the other two dropped out of the conversation, which I found to be mature and respectful. @sheeevan, on the other hand, was nowhere near done.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not turn the conversation into a positive or productive one. I told her that Teach Plus is an organization made up of teachers with many different viewpoints and causes, all united by our desire to improve education for urban students. I explained to her that my current cause was making teacher evaluations more fair and useful for teachers in Chicago and I asked her if she had any input on that. After each one of my tweets she responded with forceful accusations about how I must hate veteran teachers and answered each question of mine with, “get rid of corporate backed organizations like Teach Plus.”

There was no information about what she does for a living on her profile page and I got the impression that she wasn’t a classroom teacher, although she spoke as though she had some authority on the subject of corporate education reform. As her responses to me continued to be antagonistic and downright nasty, I finally decided to tap out — I realized that nothing productive was going to come from carrying on this way. My final message to @sheeevan was simply: “Sigh. Whatever.”

I’m not here to call out specific people on their Twitter etiquette. I am more concerned about the climate within the education field right now, and what seems to be an unwillingness to work together for solutions. As an educator, I am continuously working with my students on their discussion skills. It is my role to teach these young adults how to have productive, solutions-oriented conversations with people with whom they disagree — no matter how strong the disagreements are.

I am certain that my colleagues in education also strive to teach their students these fundamental skills. My concern is that we are being hypocritical by encouraging our students to have productive conversations with “opponents,” while we turn to Twitter and other forms of social media to argue our positions without even being open to finding common ground. I concede that my feelings were hurt by @sheeevan and her hatred of me due to an organization I work with, without even knowing who I am.  But I am not as concerned about my own hurt feelings as I am about the rhetoric and tone some educators (and non-educators talking about education) are taking on social media.

I don’t think I can be strong enough in my plea for those in the education sector to work together. I am certain that we have more things in common than we are willing to admit — I know that I, for one, am eager to effect change in the culture of over-testing that is forced upon our students. @sheeevan tweeted about feeling the same way last week — I would ask her if she would like to work together, but I have a feeling she wouldn’t be willing to work with me. I wish that this didn’t bother me as much, but it does. Sigh. Whatever.


Kylene Young is a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.