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Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Teacher Leadership | April 16, 2014

Leadership, Implementation, and Puppetry


Picture0017 copyBy Mark

Education Secretrary Arne Duncan recently shared his "Teach to Lead" initiative, which has sparked some interesting responses, including this one on Education Week which discusses a couple of perspectives on the issue. (Duncan has partnered with Ron Thorpe and NBPTS to focus on "raising the visibility" of teacher leadership.)

I believe, like many others do, that teachers and teacher leadership are essential to the success of our public education system. There is a difference, though, between leadership and implementation. Rick Hess in the Education Week post linked above takes the position that Duncan's call for leadership is "a call for teachers to help promote the Obama agenda--to shill for the Common Core, celebrate new teacher evaluation systems, and be excited that the feds are here to help." My gut makes me tend to agree with Hess's interpretation of Duncan's call--something tells me that the USDE would not be thrilled with teacher-leaders who design and advocate for alternatives to the Common Core. 

Should teachers be driving the implementation of Common Core, new teacher evaluations, and all the other changes? Absolutely. However, that's driving a vehicle that someone else designed, bought, and parked in our parking lot. 

Maren Johnson | April 11, 2014

Teaching Assignments: A New Guidance Policy with Teeth?


By Maren Johnson

Off target“It’s not a ‘report card.’ It’s a guidance policy with some teeth.”
     ~One individual describing a potential new teacher assignment reporting policy soon to be considered by the Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB).

So what’s going on? Potential new policy would create a public data base on the Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB) website reporting the number of students in each school without properly endorsed teachers.  At the same time, endorsements in areas such as general science might be limited to specific courses—more limited than they were previously. It is important to note that teachers would not be prohibited from teaching outside of their endorsement area, but the numbers would be publicly reported.

Targets would be set, and schools failing to meet these targets would be reported to the state legislature. Finally, no grandfather clause—these new endorsement reporting guidelines for teaching assignments would apply to all current teachers, no matter when they originally received their endorsements, and what specific courses those endorsements were valid for at the time.

Here’s the potential WAC language—it’s from the March 2014 PESB meeting documents: 

Beginning September 1, 2014, the Professional Educator Standards Board shall annually make publicly available a report on the number of students in courses assigned to a teacher of record with or without a matching endorsement appropriate to that course.

No later than September 1, 2017, the Professional Educator Standards Board shall adopt performance targets related to teacher assignments match to state course codes and report annually to the House and Senate education committees of the Washington State Legislature those districts failing to meet these targets.

Without a doubt, it is important to have teachers who are well prepared to teach the courses to which they are assigned. One concern? The report of districts failing to meet these targets might not reflect a problem with the teacher workforce, or a problem with schools making poor staffing decisions. Rather, this report might reflect variables over which the school has no control--for example, the size of the school itself.

Small schools, with their small staffs, find it difficult to hire teachers with exactly the right endorsements for each course—many small schools only have one science teacher! If there are concurrent policy changes such as teachers with general science endorsements not being considered appropriately endorsed for certain advanced science courses, we are going to end up with a very large number of schools reported as “failing to meet the target.” 

Tom | April 10, 2014

I (Sort Of) Support Initiative 1351


ClassroomInSanAntonio_jpg_800x1000_q100By Tom

By now you’ve probably heard that there’s a campaign afoot to gather signatures for Initiative 1351, which, if passed, would significantly lower class sizes in Washington State. The campaign to get the initiative on the ballot is sponsored by Class Size Counts, an organization whose name pretty much sums up their mission. But the campaign picked up most of its steam last month at the WEA Representative Assembly when the delegates voted to support it.

This initiative would mandate class sizes of 17 for primary grades and 24 for fourth grade on up. High-poverty schools would have class sizes of 15 and 23.

All of this sounds great, of course, except for the issue of money. 1351 would put half of the financial burden on the state and the other half on local districts. And that financial burden is definitely not nothing.

Mark Gardner | April 9, 2014

A Pivotal Moment in My Career


Washington-quarterBy Mark

Soon after I earned my NBPTS certification in 2006, I started getting all these emails. Unfamiliar names soon became familiar (Jeanne Harmon, Terese Emry, Jim Meadows) and the common theme emerging was that earning my NBPTS certification was kind of a big deal. 

Just recently, I had shared a few conversations with colleagues about how I, a transplant from Oregon, had not even ventured into central or eastern Washington (other than years ago to visit family friends near the Tri-Cities). In my email popped an invite from CSTP to attend the spring NBCT Leadership Conference in one of those aforementioned unexplored regions of the state. Serendipity, and it forever altered my trajectory as a professional.

After a couple of years' hiatus, the spring NBCT Leadership Conference is returning, this time at Sun Mountain Lodge in Winthrop--another section of the map I've yet to explore, so I'm going.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | March 29, 2014

Washington Education: A bargain, for now...


By Mark

A recent guest piece by Bill Keim in The Seattle Times's Education Lab Blog points out some sobering numbers about education funding in Washington, particularly considering the Supreme Court ruling that the state of Washington is not adequately funding public education.

Keimgraphic-517x620Particularly interesting is the infographic from the Washington Association of School Administrators that compares Washington's per-pupil funding over time as compared to the national average, to Massachusetts (similar in demographic, economy, and education standards), and to Alabama (historically under-funded and under-performing by various measures).

Simply put, our state has been in neutral while Massachusetts, Alabama, and the nation as a whole has been in high gear. 

And here's the problem with that: As of right now, Washington's schools seem to be performing well

This is of course a problem for two reasons. First, it weakens the argument that Washington schools need to be better funded. Second, it runs the risk of leading people to believe that good performance can be sustained without resources.

The last three years in my classroom I have been living the good life. Due to local support, my program received funding that provided me access to desktop computers every day, every period for each my 9th grade English students. Every day, if I want, I can have my students use technology to consume and produce meaningful texts and engage with content in exciting ways. Instead of having to rely upon the (decades old) literature anthology on the shelf, the whole world can be our textbook thanks to the technology--which of course, came with a cost.

CSTP--Staff | March 21, 2014

Teaching and Learning - Reflections from a new NBCT


NBCT Spencer Olmsted is a new NBCT in Early Adolescent Mathematics and has been teaching 5th grade in Olympia, WA since 2006. He recently attended NBPTS Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, DC.

I’m a fifth grade math and science teacher. I spend most of my work day in the company of 10 and 11 year-olds, helping them develop critical thinking skills so they can learn how to read the world. We work on getting better at collaborating, accessing and analyzing information, and communicating our findings and questions to others. It’s good work, but all too often I work in isolation of other adults.

When I became a new NBCT this past year the thing that surprised me most was my sudden connection to new network of teachers and education advocates. I began to receive regular communication from people looking to engage and empower teacher-leaders. One of the emails that caught my attention was an invitation to attend the Teaching & Learning Conference in Washington D.C. I was instantly excited by the expanding line-up of impressive speakers, but as I live in the other Washington, on the other side of the country, and would need to pay for airfare, hotel, and arrange for a substitute to teach my classes (I had never considered the possibility of doing this during a school day!) I struggled with the decision. Around this time the Seahawks were imagining a Super Bowl win, and Russell Wilson was famously asking “Why not us?” I asked myself the same question, why not me, and decided to go.

Tom | Assessment, Education Policy | March 20, 2014

New Study: Teachers Who Pass ProTeach are better than Those Who Don’t


Cedar leavesBy Tom

A new study commissioned by Washington’s Professional Educator Standards Board shows that ProTeach – our teacher licensing assessment – seems to contribute to an increase in student learning. The study was conducted by UW Bothell’s Center for Education Data and Research (CEDR). It was a complicated study, but essentially they compared teachers who passed ProTeach with those who didn’t by looking at their students’ test scores using Value Added Models (VAM).

The main conclusion reached by CEDR is that teachers who passed ProTeach correlate to higher student test scores, especially in reading. Not so much in math. It's worth noting that this is essentially the same conclusion they drew conducting a similar study on teachers who earned National Board Certification. The study also found the effect was greatest for those teachers who scored high on Entry 2; the one that concerns classroom management and family communication. I found that interesting; it seems more likely that Entry 3 – which is all about teaching and assessment – would be the one more closes associated with higher test scores. I guess that goes to show how important classroom management is. Overall, the results seem to indicate that ProTeach is an effective measurement of teacher quality, which must make the PESB feel relieved.

Of course, we can also look at these results from another direction. Maybe they indicate that VAM is a valid measurement, at least for reading instruction. Personally I found the entire report a little presumptuous; strongly implying that VAM is the gold standard and that teacher performance assessments like ProTeach are valid to the extent they correlate with student performance assessments like VAM. I may be biased (I’ve never been a big fan of VAM), but I place a lot more credence on an evaluation that focuses on what teachers are actually doing when they teach than an evaluation that looks at student performance, which is effected by a myriad of factors that include teacher quality. So perhaps the fact that VAM results and ProTeach results are correlated might show that VAM is legitimate. At least in reading instruction.

In a larger context, it seems to me that if there’s a place for VAM, then this is surely it; used on aggregated data like in this study. Where VAM is not appropriate is when it’s used on individual classrooms and individual teachers. That’s a complete travesty. It’s also a shame, because advanced statistical analyses – like VAM – can be invaluable when it comes to showing which instructional practices are effective and which aren’t. And I’m here to tell you: teachers across the country who are evaluated using VAM hate it with a passion you don’t often see in education. If we manage to steer clear from that mistake in Washington, I can see the day when TPEP reaches maturity and we have a large database of teacher evaluations and researchers like the folks over at CEDR can use metrics like VAM to help us understand which teacher practices are most effective.

But for now, we’ll have to settle for what we have: a somewhat obvious conclusion that tells us that good teachers produce good students. 

Tom | March 18, 2014

Reflections on Teacher Leadership


123280454227616203596_washmonBy Tom

I spent last week in Washington DC. For three days I worked with an amazing group of teachers redesigning Jump Start, the WEA’s National Board Certification candidate training program. We were holed up in a conference room at NEA headquarters working with their staff along with staff from the National Board. And we ended up with a product that will definitely help National Board candidates understand the new assessment process and make their way through certification.

I also spent two days at the National Board conference. Between breakout sessions and keynote addresses, I heard a lot about teacher leadership. Two speakers in particular seemed to epitomize the opposite poles of what that concept actually means. Arne Duncan spoke about teacher leadership and the subtext seemed to be that teacher leaders are those who help administrators execute their decisions. They’re the ones who lead the workshops on the Common Core and the new evaluation systems. Tony Wagner also spoke about teacher leadership. But his definition seemed to give teachers authority over actual education policy. Teachers should be involved in continual reexamination of what we teach, how we teach it and how we should be assessed.

Personally I think they’re both right. Teacher leaders should have a voice in policy decision and have a hand in executing those decisions. Unfortunately, however, I think our voices have been stifled and our hands held back. Why?

Three reasons:

One of the ironies of teacher leadership is the fact that teaching itself gets in the way. First of all, most of us are too exhausted at the end of the day to do much more than eat dinner and plan the next day’s lessons. Being a leader takes energy. Energy and time. Teaching uses up both of those things. Besides that, teaching is generally more fun than leadership. Given the choice, I would much rather spend a day working with my fourth graders than working with colleagues. It’s not that I don’t like working with adults; I just like working with kids better. They’re more fun. When I get opportunities to take on leadership roles, I frequently turn them down if they conflict with my teaching schedule simply because I would rather be teaching.

Another barrier to teacher leadership is that many teachers have a lack of confidence in their ability to lead. Of course, sometimes a lack of confidence is justified. I have no confidence, for example, in my ability to pole vault because I’ve never done it before and it looks complicated. Teaching and leading require two fairly distinct skill sets. That’s not to say that a person couldn’t do both; but being a good teacher doesn’t necessarily make you a good leader. But a person who has learned to be a good teacher can certainly learn to be a good leader.

And finally, there’s failure. Sooner or later, a teacher leader will encounter it. It’s certainly happened to me. I’ve fought hard to get my district to adopt a particular policy only to have them turn it down. The natural impulse is always to throw in the towel, go back to my classroom where I know I can find success and forget about trying to change anything. Forget about trying to lead.

That attitude, of course, is exactly what we need to reject. We also need to get over our lack of confidence in our capacity to lead, either by learning the necessary skills or by finding a leadership niche that fits with the skills we already have. The hardest barrier, at least for me, is finding the time and energy to lead. But it can be done. It has to be done. Because if thirty years in the classroom has taught me anything, it’s that teachers need to be both in and out of the classroom in order for anyone to be successful in the classroom.

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, National Board Certification, Science, Teacher Leadership | March 16, 2014

Want innovation in the classroom? Get teachers involved in Policy

image from


by Maren Johnson

I spent the weekend in Washington DC at the Teaching and Learning 2014 Conference. It was dazzling. Famous and thought provoking speakers, incorporation of art and music, huge diversity in education viewpoints and experience.

With all the hubbub over the big names at the conference, what I'm heading home thinking about is a session led by a middle school science teacher from Washington state. From the small town of Cheney, no less.

Teacher Tammie Schrader's session was titled, "Coding in the Classroom." I went into the session expecting to learn a bit about coding itself, and perhaps a bit about how to use coding to teach concepts in life science. I came out of the session thinking about innovation and education policy.

Tammie started out the session by introducing herself and her classroom programs. She has been facilitating student coding in her science classes for several years now. That, itself, is innovative, but not extraordinarily unusual.

Then Tammie started talking about education policy. My ears perked up. What was going to be the tie-in here? I've been to sessions on innnovative instructional methods. I've been to sessions on education policy. I have rarely been to a session incorporating both.

Tammie's point? She wanted to do cutting edge things in her classroom. In order to be free to do these things, she needed to be released from some of the usual considerations of what might be expected in a classroom. There were a few non-negotiables, however. She would still need to assess; she would still need to show student growth. She wanted to assess and show student growth in a way that would fit her classroom. The solution? Get involved in policy. Tammie has done this, in a big way, at state and national levels.

I thought to myself, "This woman's message needs to get out there." So there I was, like the paparazzi, taking photos and tweeting. Not that Tammie isn't already well known in many education circles, but I wanted to do my part!

image from

The policy involvment has allowed Tammie's innovative classroom work to become systemic. Tammie has worked on state assessment committees and on designing frameworks for Career and Technical Education. She helped write the state science test. Because she knows what students are expected to do, she's not ignoring the state science standards or the Next Generation Science Standards. She's not letting all of that go. She's just helping to shape policy and then use it in a way that helps herself and other teachers be innovative in their classrooms.

Tammie has spent time talking to policy makers at all levels. Having a teacher involved in these areas allows education policy to encourage innovation as opposed to stifling it. Want innovation in the classroom? Get teachers involved in policy.

Mark Gardner | Teacher Leadership | March 9, 2014

What do Teacher Leaders Need?


Tl cstpBy Mark

From the BadassTeacher Association to WEA to CSTP and everywhere between, regardless of positions on the "big issues," many organizations recognize that teachers are the change-makers in our system and thus should have their voices amplified and listened to.

The tougher question is how teachers do this. Many approaches are in the toolbox, from painting signs and marching to harnessing social media. 

A while back, CSTP convened teachers to develop a Teacher Leadership Skills Framework that outlined the need for teacher leaders to have knowledge and skills, opportunities and roles, and mindful dispositions that triangulate to foster authentic leadership.

I'm brainstorming a project--hopefully in conjunction with CSTP and modeled to an extent from the original Auburn Teacher Leadership Academy--for my own district.

Therefore, I'm shopping for ideas: What do teacher leaders need? (Not just in terms of tangibles or trainings, but I'll take suggestions for those as well.) What books or articles are good resources to get us off to a good start? What has helped you along your path in teacher leadership?

Mark Gardner | March 6, 2014

Deacronymization of Education


51Fr24ZYv9L._SS400_By Mark

One education reform movement I can get on board with is DEM: The Deacronymization of Education Movement. This is a small, grassroots movement located primarily in my house and in room 116 of my school building.

It is not that I seek to eliminate the programs or initiatives for which acronyms stand. Far from it. The point of deacronymization is about recognizing the inherent merit and value that may (may) be present in those very programs and acronyms. 

For example: this year, I've been deliberately avoiding talk of "TPEP" in favor of either "teacher evaluation" or better yet, "effective teaching." To me, the essence of TPEP is the promotion and development of effective teaching. The acronym "TPEP," while convenient, enables a teacher to slip into an affliction called TIJOMT, pronounced "TIE-jomt," which stands for This-Is-Just-One-More-Thing, and often precipitates the classic TTSP (TIT-spee), or This-Too-Shall-Pass, which is a widely acknowledged excuse for polite disengagement from what is perceived as the next BTIE (BEE-tie), or "Big-Thing-in-Education" to ride the EP (Education Pendulum).

Think of it this way: If I am making a list of tasks to do today, "TPEP" is a convenient little term that could be listed there, as if it were something I could finish and cross off and be done with. That's easy to do when the OMT is added to an already full plate: we naturally want to find a way to cross the OMT (One-More-Thing) off our list. If I were to write "be an effective teacher" on that list, I would not cross that off and say "Phew! Thank goodness I'm finished being an effective teacher!"

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Games, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Social Issues | March 3, 2014

HB 2800


boxesBy Mark

I strongly believe that civil consideration of all sides of an issue are important for a literate society.

So let's take the Inslee/Dorn joint venture, House Bill 2800, which adds to RCW 28A.405.100 at section 2(f) a passage that begins on line 31 of page 3:

"Beginning with the 2017-18 school year, when relevant to the teacher and subject matter, student growth data elements must include results from federally mandated statewide student assessments."

This language is also inserted elsewhere in the document where it is relevant to define student growth.

Based on what I am reading, I hesitate to boil this issue down to a simple pro v. con. This issue, as are most, is more complicated that our society's convenient dualistic reduction.

Tom | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education Policy | February 28, 2014

Inslee Fought The Law and The Law Won


DownloadBy Tom

I was at a staff meeting once in which a colleague made a presentation. She wanted us to take on some new initiative. I can’t remember what it was, since we voted not to do it. She came to me afterwards and asked what she did wrong. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “You were clear and articulate. You explained what the program was about and told us why it was a good idea. Then we thought about it and decided not to do it. That happens sometimes.”

I tell this dull story because it sounds like what happened in Washington D.C. last weekend. Governor Inslee went out there and explained to Education Secretary Arne Duncan why our teacher evaluation system should be good enough to obtain the NCLB waiver, even though it clearly doesn’t require the use of state tests like the feds want. Governor Inslee, I’m sure, was every bit as clear and articulate as my colleague, yet in the end Duncan said no.

That happens sometimes.

So now what? So now Inslee is going to help the legislature pass a bill that will change TPEP in a way that the feds like. And then we’ll get our waiver, which will allow the state more freedom to spend $40 or so million dollars. And we also won’t have to send home letters to our parents telling them that our schools are bad.

And as for us? The teachers in the classroom? We get to use state tests to measure student growth. Of course by “we” I mean the 16% of us who actually teach in state tested grades and subjects. Everyone else gets to use meaningful assessments that reflect what they actually teach every day.

Personally, I’m trying really hard to get upset about this. Really hard. But all I can muster is a sense of disappointed resignation. Sure, our new evaluation system is damaged, but the damage is only to those of us who teach state-tested students, and since the student growth part of our evaluations are supposed to use “multiple measures,” state assessments will only matter to a slight degree to a small number of teachers. And there’s yet another caveat: we’re switching to a new student assessment system. This year is the field test. Next year is the first year; the year we gather base-line data. The year after that is the first year in which we could actually misuse the assessment for teacher evaluations, and since CCSS promises to be the essence of professional development for the foreseeable future, there’s every reason to expect student test scores to rise, at least in the short-term.

While I would like to see a way around using student test scores for teacher evaluation, what I would love to see is a reasonable, rational US Congress completely rewrite ESEA, better known as NCLB. Remember, all the nonsense we’re going through right now is an effort to secure a waiver from the onerous sanctions of that ridiculous law. ESEA, as it was originally conceived decades ago, was designed to provide support for our country’s high-needs students. If Congress could set aside their bickering long enough to write a law that actually did that, we wouldn’t have to worry about all this crap.

Dream on, Tom.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Games, Social Issues | February 27, 2014

Inslee and Dorn: "Can," "Must," and "Will Not."


George is watchingBy Mark

I'm not sure I understand. 

Did Jay Inslee travel to Washington, D.C., solely to tell Arne Duncan that our Washington will do whatever the USDE wants? And this was initially heralded as "progress"?

The Governor's office has issued this press release, which is thin on details and basically says a bill will be proposed soon by Dorn and Inslee that will include requirements for statewide assessments in 2017-18 (which I thought was already the works) and a recommendation from the TPEP steering committee (about what, it is unclear) by 2016-17. The media seems to interpret this is as a victory for "must" over "can" which, as I've already pointed out, does NOTHING to actually make our teacher evaluation system better for kids, nor does it make teachers more accountable."Must" over "can" only means we have to budget to spend more money on standardized testing instead of more money on making student learning happen. My weak metaphor, considering my goals to get healthy this year: we're buying a very, very expensive scale (and an invalid and inaccurate one at that) instead of investing in healthier lifestyle.

As of my groggy pre-workout-and-coffee reading this morning, the Dorn-Inslee bill doesn't appear to have been released for me to examine the text. If the bill holds back on changing the law, and the waiver is granted pending the TPEP steering committee recommendations in 2016-17 (a.k.a. kicking the can down the road), then I suppose I'm satisfied--I just hope the steering committee has the guts to do and say what Inslee apparently didn't. If the bill proposes the same word change as the bills that already died in the legislature, then the fight picks up again. But seriously, everyone: Stop playing games and give us the waiver. We're doing the right thing. 

With renewed focus on "can" and "must," I guess I'll repeat: Our teacher evaluation system may not be perfect (though I think the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses), but including a "must" around test scores will not hold more teachers accountable, will not impact student learning, and will not improve the profession.

Tom | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Professional Development | February 23, 2014

NEA President is Concerned about Common Core Implementation


070309 Petco 2By Tom

As you may have heard, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel had some sharp words to say about the rollout of the CCSS. He called the implementation “completely botched.” His assessment is apparently based on feedback he’s received from NEA members over the past year. There’s no way to interpret this as anything other than a major blow to proponents of the Common Core. The NEA – our nation’s biggest teacher organization – has been one of the strongest supporters of nation-wide standards and has consistently pledged to use classroom teachers as “ambassadors” to spread support for CCSS.

I certainly can’t speak for all NEA members, but I can speak for myself. When I first started teaching, thirty years ago, standards were effectively hidden; curriculum companies seemed to know what students should know and be able to do at each grade level and they used that information to write and publish textbooks. Teachers were simply consumers; we used what they wrote and didn’t ask too many questions.

There was an attempt in the early 90s to create a common national set of standards, but it was defeated by conservatives who argued for local control over education. Each state subsequently began to write and implement its own educational standards.

Then came 2001. With NCLB, our lawmakers decided that every school had to get every kid “up to standard” within twelve years, something not even Finland could ever achieve. Making it even more ridiculous was the fact that by that time every state had its own standards and assessments. Actually, some states didn’t even have standardized assessments.  

As the sanctions required by NCLB began to loom large, Obama became president. He decided to use the threat of those sanctions as leverage for his own reform agenda, which included the Common Core. Not surprisingly, 45 states and DC signed on, partly because they liked the standards, but partly because they wanted a waiver from NCLB sanctions.

As a teacher, I embrace the standards from an instructional perspective. The standards themselves make sense; they’re narrower and deeper and for the most part seem developmentally appropriate, at least from my perspective. But what really appeals to me is the fact that they’re (mostly) national standards. Not only will curriculum publishers have more consistent targets, but it opens the door for collaborating at a scale never imagined before.  

But with the standards came the assessments. When I first started scrolling through the fourth grade SBAC language arts assessment, I remember thinking, “Wow, this will be challenging for my students. But I’m sure there will be support and with that support I’ll be able to get my kids to achieve something remarkable.” And in my state and my district, that support has started to materialize. We’re focusing on CCSS-related instruction in district professional development time, and I hooked up with an awesome training in an instructional model called Literacy Design Collaborative.

But there’s a problem. The implementation of Common Core and its attendant assessments are unfortunately occurring while teacher evaluation is undergoing a major shift. Teachers are, for the first time, being assessed in part on the basis of student growth; student growth which is – or soon will be – measured by brand-new assessments based on a brand-new set of standards.

Teachers are, quite predictably, freaking out over all this. It’s one thing to change the standards and the tests used to measure those standards. It’s another thing altogether to use those tests for teacher evaluations before teachers have a chance to fully delve into those standards and understand what the assessments are actually demanding from our students.

That’s exactly why Dennis Van Roekel is calling for a “course correction.” It’s a simple request to slow things down to a manageable pace. Let us get to know the standards. Let us understand the tests. And then, down the road, maybe we can use those tests as part of teacher evaluation. Or maybe not. But to press on both fronts right now is counter-productive. The only way to ever successfully implement the Common Core is to get teacher buy-in.

And the only way to insure that the Common Core is not successfully implemented is to alienate those same teachers. And that seems to be what’s happening. 

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Social Issues | February 21, 2014

Inslee and Arne: If I Wrote the Governor's Talking Points


500px-Seal_of_Washington.svgBy Mark

Now that fear-inspired changes to teacher evaluation law (to include "must include state tests" rather than "can include state tests" under the ominous threat of losing our NCLB waiver) are effectively "dead" in our state legislature, Governor Inslee will be meeting with Arne Duncan in D.C. this Monday, February 24th, to seek some sort of agreement that keeps the two Washingtons copacetic.

Regarding our teacher evaluation law, this is what I hope Governor Inslee communicates to Secretary Duncan:

1. Our current teacher evaluation law, though it does not require state test scores, does something better: as written it holds every single teacher in the state of Washington accountable for demonstrating student growth. State test scores, at the very best, could "hold accountable" roughly 16% of teachers. The current law sets a higher bar.

2. Our current teacher evaluation law recognizes the reality of the learning process, and thus requires that teachers do not simply demonstrate student achievement, but instead must demonstrate a change in student achievement between two points in time; change that must be based on multiple measures (RCW 28a.405.100:2f). The current law demands more from our teachers.

3. Our current teacher evaluation law includes language that requires that student growth data not simply be used for data's sake--student achievement data must be "relevant to the teacher and subject matter" which helps ensure that data used to evaluate teachers is actually reflective of that teacher's impact on student learning; this is unlike other states where, say, the PE teacher's evaluation is based on the building's state reading test scores. Washington's current law holds teachers accountable for what they are actually charged to teach.

The simple conclusion: We deserve the waiver.

Tom | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Elementary | February 18, 2014

Randy Dorn Favors Using Achievement Tests on Teacher Evaluations


20110830-203622-pic-719702789By Tom

In a recent guest editorial in the Seattle Times, Washington State School Superintendent Randy Dorn spoke in favor of using student achievement tests on teacher evaluations. Basically his rationale boils down to two reasons:

1. The state’s NCLB waiver is at risk. The Department of Education granted us a waiver from the onerous requirements of NCLB, but takes a dim view of our teacher evaluation system’s provision that student test scores can be used for evaluative purposes, instead of mandating that they must.

2. Using student test scores will make teacher evaluations more consistent, since these are tests all students must take, as opposed to district-based tests, which vary from district to district.

Let me respond to his second reason first, since it’s the weakest. As we’ve reported time and again on this blog, a main argument against using student test scores is that they aren’t consistent. The fact is, only a small minority of teachers teach in “tested” grades or subjects. Consider my school, which has 34 certificated employees. These include four music teachers, one PE teacher, one librarian, six special education teachers and one counselor. We also have three kindergarten teachers, four first grade teachers, three second grade teachers, and three third grade teachers.

None of these people teach grades or subjects for which state achievement tests could be used for their evaluations.

We also have three fourth grade teachers, three fifth grade teachers and two sixth grade teachers. That’s only eight teachers. Eight out of 34 teachers – less than 24% – for whom state tests could be used. The rest of our faculty would have to use district or classroom based tests. Yet Mr. Dorn argues that using state tests would be more consistent? How?

On the other hand, his other argument – the risk of losing the waiver – does make sense. I have to assume that Randy Dorn, Governor Inslee, or both of them have asked Washington’s congressional delegation to press Department of Education officials about the true risk to Washington’s waiver. And the fact that Mr. Dorn is still arguing in favor of capitulating to the DOE’s demands means he doesn’t think they’re bluffing. Either that or he just doesn’t want to take the chance that they aren’t.

And that’s where he and I agree. Like Dorn, I’m not willing to gamble that much money ($38 million) for the sake of fairer evaluations for teachers like me. Put another way, I’m willing to use state achievement tests instead of more meaningful district or classroom based tests as part of my evaluation if it means ensuring our NCLB waiver.

Maren Johnson | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Mathematics | February 16, 2014

Adjunct Math Instructor right after College: What was that like?


Community collegeBy Maren Johnson

I had just graduated from college and I wasn't sure what I was going to do next: Graduate school? Peace Corps? I didn't know, and I needed an interim job while I figured it out.

I answered an ad in the local paper to be a math tutor for a nearby community college. I got a call-back after the interview—they didn’t need me for a tutor, but there were two math classes starting the following week—would I be willing to teach them? I was very surprised by the offer, but I thought, “What an opportunity!” and said yes almost right away.

And why was this community college willing to hire a 22 year old biology and French major, who had graduated just 4 days previously, to be their new math instructor? I perhaps should have done more inquiring--I knew nothing at that point about the ins and outs of education employment, and the world of being an adjunct instructor.

The job paid very little, but by living in the bedroom of a house I shared with some college friends, I was able to make it work, at least for the short term. I taught evening classes which ended at 9:00 pm, and then had to drive home across town afterwards.

With no office or regular classroom, I held “office hours” on some chairs near the building entry way, providing assistance to students with their math as crowds strolled by.

The perks of the job? I had interesting colleagues, and I did help a lot of students learn some important math.

This turned out not to be enough as I could not support myself. After two quarters as an adjunct instructor, I ended up joining the Peace Corps. At least as a Peace Corps Volunteer I would have health insurance. I taught math while I was in the Peace Corps, and then became a high school science teacher.

Why am I writing about this now? The adjunct issue has recently seen some federal interest. With a surprisingly humorous title for a congressional paper, the Just-in-Time Professor report, authored by staff of the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce, notes that 50% of all higher education faculty are now adjuncts. Other estimates put the figure at 60%.  The report states that these contingent or adjunct instructors have “no job security from one quarter to the next, work at a piece rate with few or no benefits across multiple workplaces, and far too often struggle to make ends meet.” I’m here to tell you from personal experience that is no exaggeration.

A full time adjunct might make only $21,000 a year, according to a recently posted article about the issue. The work performed by adjunct instructors is critical to our education system—they provide a foundation in basic skills to students who are pursuing two and four year degrees. Adjunct instructors deserve a living wage. It is shocking they do not receive one.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | February 15, 2014

Squeezing the Joy out of Teaching


Red_geranium_largeBy Mark

Common Core State Standards, TPEP, data-collection, student growth. These have all been the culprit in many conversations with teachers wherein they, with understandable sadness, talk of how all of these new initiatives and expectations are squeezing the creativity and joy out of teaching. I empathize with where these teachers are; I even wrote here a while back about the sense of mourning I felt as I began to align my course content to the Common Core.

When I was in the ninth grade, we found out that my mother had breast cancer. As a family before and even during this, we experienced little strife--I had it quite good on our little farm in the middle of a blank spot on the map of Oregon--but we were not particularly emotional, super touchy-huggy, or all that. (When we were first together, my wife, lovingly, equated my family's mealtimes to a board meeting.) After the cancer diagnosis, I'm sure the experience for my mother and father was very different, but I remember only the simple resolve with which my parents approached her cancer as a task to be taken care of--it is what it is and now we need to do something about it. Surgery and a slew of pills took care of the first round of cancer. It returned again a couple of years later, and surgery again was, thankfully, enough. My mother has been cancer-free since.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | February 13, 2014

The Simple Solution: TIME.


File52fd6410c3384By Mark

My six-year old son sometimes gets frustrated that there are certain privileges I enjoy as a grown-up that he cannot due to his age and size. Recently, as we built his car for his school's pinecar derby, he just didn't want to accept that we was neither allowed to use the radial arm saw nor the set of carving chisels I have in the garage. I tried to explain to him how hard it is to reattach fingers, but he wasn't having it.

"When do I get to?"

"Not yet," I explained, as I handed him a rasp and some sandpaper and readied the plastic miter box and back saw he could use to angle the nose of his car. Time, practice, growth... that's all he needs. He's a hands-on boy and I have no doubt his skills can soon surpass mine tinkering with scraps of wood in the garage.

I mentioned in comments earlier on this blog that I recently had the opportunity to host two legislators in my classroom. The discussions were wonderful, and one exchange in particular stands out: when asked how long policymakers should expect for changes in education to show real fruit, I replied "twelve years." For change to take root, it takes time. Our state education system includes something like 295 individual school districts, 60,000 teachers, and around a million students. You cannot expect to see the "change" as the result of policy changes even within the term of a single elected official. My guests admitted that they had never really thought about an implementation timeline like that.

Just like my son working his way from a rasp, sandpaper, and plastic miter box up to carving chisels and power saws, seeing the desired outcome will take time. If I rush my son into it... I give him a crash course in powertool safety and toss him a pile of wood... the likelihood that he will fail (in limb-threatening ways) is incredibly high. What we need time for if we are going to do it right: