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12 posts from May 2011

Tom | | May 30, 2011

Cool. Now Get Busy.


070203_olympia_capitol2 By Tom

Three important things happened in Olympia last week.

First of all, the lawmakers passed a budget bill that made tough cuts everywhere, especially in education. School administrators and classified employees had their salary reduced by 3%. Teachers, who already lost 1.1% to the previous legislative session, lost another 1.9% this time around, in order to even things out.

Secondly, when it came down to the end, the Legislature rejected the Tom/Zarelli RiF reform bill that would end the practice known as Last In-First Out. They may have decided that the carrot works better than the stick; we’re better off supporting teachers in their efforts to improve than making it easier to fire those that haven’t improved. Either that or they decided to wait until we actually have a four-tier teacher evaluation system in place before passing a law that’s predicated on the use of that system. Or they may have decided that passing a law that almost every teacher hates while cutting the salaries of those teachers might just be a bad idea. Who really knows what they were thinking.

The third important thing, though, is what’s truly remarkable: Washington’s National Board stipends survived the budget axe. Granted, they did move the payout date to July, effectively eliminated the 2011 bonus, but the fact that the program wasn’t suspended entirely surprised a lot of us, even those of us who worked hard to keep it off the chopping block. The non-elimination of the National Board stipend represents a long, exhausting , and ultimately successful effort by NBCTs to convince the Legislature that it was right to promote National Board Certification ten years ago, when the state had money, and it’s just as right to promote it now, when the doesn’t have money.

This is remarkable because it signifies the emergence of the NBCT community as a major player in education policy in our state, both within the teachers’ union and beyond. It’s been building steadily over the past decade, driven by a unique and coordinated collaboration between the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state’s education office (OSPI) and the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP), a non-profit focused on amplifying the voice of teachers and teacher leaders in education policy. OSPI has focused on National Board candidate support and the training of candidate facilitators. The WEA has focused on National Board pre-candidacy support and pro-National Board lobbying efforts.

That’s right, the WEA. The teachers’ union. For the past ten years, the WEA has devoted an enormous amount of energy and resources to promote National Board Certification, for no other reason than because the organization values good teaching. It has also actively recruited NBCTs to leadership positions within the WEA. And for obvious reasons: NBCTs have proven their capacity to complete a complicated project, but most importantly, as accomplished teachers, they have the credibility to lead. There are now a significant number of NBCTs serving as local association presidents, including Tacoma's, one of the largest district in the state. 

And now we see the consequences of that agenda. Thanks to the WEA, OSPI and CSTP, the Accomplished Teacher community, which represents about 5% of the total teachers in Washington State, has become a real player.

So now what?

I think the true test of any movement is what happens after and beyond self-promotion. And off the top of my head, I can think of three important things that the NBCT community should focus on. (and yes, I realize that “focusing on three things” is an oxymoron.)

1. Become involved in the implementation of our new teacher evaluation system. It was piloted this year, which means now we get to work out the kinks and make it work throughout the state. This is important work; work that needs the talents and credibility of our most accomplished teachers. And having the WEA on board won’t hurt, either.

2. Help restore an effective and sustainable mentoring system. At some point we’re going to start hiring new teachers, and when we do, they’ll need mentors. This is an area that’s taken more than its share of financial hits, to the point where in many school districts there really isn’t anything left. That’s a shame, and it’s something the Accomplished Teacher community is in a perfect position to address.

3. Other stuff. Education thrives on innovation and hard work, both of which take time. Time beyond the school day. If the talk in my faculty room is any indication of the general mood among the teaching force, well... let's just say there's some angst in Washington's classrooms. People are talking a lot about "working to contract" and very little about "taking on new projects." That's not helpful. Some of us will need to step up and carry a little extra for the next couple of years.  Accomplished teachers will need to do a little more than their share of accomplishing until things get back on track.

So congratulations, NBCTs. We’ve arrived as a real force. Cool. Now get busy.


Mark Gardner | | May 21, 2011

The Direct Approach


Game Controller.png We all know how parent partnerships are so critical to the education of our students. We also all know that not all students go home to less than ideal situations.

I'm lucky that my parent interactions have been generally positive. I tend to try to work with the kid as much as possible before getting a parent involved, whether the issue is academic or disciplinary (which means that by the time the parents are fully involved, most other avenues have been exhausted). Even still, most of my parent partnerships are positive.

However, I've started becoming a little more direct about what I am willing to ask from my "parent partners." I might be overstepping some boundaries, but I figure that after ten years of parents asking me to create extra credit assignments in the last weeks of the year so their little precious can make up the points they squandered earlier in the semester, I might as well try a bolder approach and start making requests of what should be going on at home...not just from the kid, but from the parent as well.

For example, I told a pair of parents last year that they needed to have some backbone and take away the video games and skateboard away from their son. 

Tom | | May 15, 2011



66 Valiant By Tom

Back in the 80s I drove a 1966 Plymouth Valiant. It was slow, ugly, comfortable and simple. When I looked under the hood, there were about four different items and even I could figure out what each of them was supposed to do. Now I drive a 1996 Geo Prizm. Looking under that hood is like looking into a human brain. There are at least 175 different items and I have no idea what any of them do. I’m not even sure which thing is the engine.

Cars have changed. So has teaching. Specifically, I can think of three major changes happening right now that are having – and will have – a major impact on how teachers do their jobs.

Tracey | |

Collaborating Sameness


Nk sameness
By Tracey

When I was an exchange student in South Africa, 20 years ago, I entered an education system unlike any I had ever encountered.  To be fair, I had only encountered one at the time – that of the United States.  But, I was a Navy brat and that brought with it the experience of moving around the country to some degree.  My kindergarten through eleventh grade education included public schools in Wisconsin, (You’re right, that was pre-Navy brat life.) Washington, and Hawaii.  All were very different from each other.  In fourth grade, Mrs. Velacich taught a fascinating unit about the Bushmen.  I was so enthralled with their culture and way of living; to this day I’ve never forgotten it.  In fifth grade, Mr. Huff showed The Blue and the Gray, a long TV mini-series set during the Civil War. In seventh grade I copied lengthy epic poems off the board for reasons I’m still not sure of while Mr. E read car magazines in the back of the classroom.  In high school I studied myths and wrote my own to explain the world.  I still remember putting Teddy Ruxpin at the center of the universe, creator of all living things.  I also served on the prosecution as we tried King Charles I for high treason. 

Overall, I was pretty lucky with my education.  Apart from my seventh grade English teacher, I mostly had great teachers and came away with a well-rounded education.  Today, I attribute this to luck.  I don’t think I would have learned about the Bushmen if I had gone to the other elementary school across town.  It’s not like the study of Bushmen falls squarely in fourth grade core curriculum.  But, I’m sure I would have learned about something else, and developed my reading and writing skills through another equally interesting topic of study.  I hope.  I suppose that depended on the teacher.

Mark Gardner | | May 13, 2011

Thank you, Mike Rowe.


MikeRowe1a I've long been a fan of Mike Rowe, his show "Dirty Jobs," and the fact that he sheds light upon the backbone of our country: the skilled workers who keep pipes clear, lights on, toilets flushing, and walls square, among many other critical services.

What I particularly admire as well is that he is aware of how American public schools, buckling under the pressures of high stakes testing and the pervasive fallacy that "everyone must have a four-year-degree," have all but eliminated vocational education--and where it isn't eliminated outright, it is marginalized or labeled as "alternative" education. On May 11, 2011, Mike testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, highlighting this very reality and how it threatens the very backbone of our economy, country, and communities.

Though I encourage you to follow the link above and read his whole testimony, there is one portion I want to highlight. He says:

In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch, that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree.  And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.

In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a “good job” into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber – if you can find one – is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we’ll all be in need of both.

Throughout his testimony, Rowe refers to the "Skills Gap." This is the very real situation where schools are producing droves of graduates who lack fundamental skills to, as he puts it, do anything that "looks like work."

This is a drum I and others have beaten again and again here at SfS. When we as a system finally realize that more tests, more often, are actually the best way to weaken our country by underpreparing an entire generation for "real work," perhaps we'll value the vocational arts and sciences once again.

Kristin | | May 10, 2011

Dang You, Dave Eggers


Daveeggers By Kristin

Dave Eggers is smarter, a better writer, and more successful than I am.  Plus, he has better hair.  It's hard not to hate him just a little, under all my love, admiration and gratitude.

And now he and Ninive Clements Calegar (who also has better hair than I do) have said what I want to say, but a thousand times better, and via the New York Times.

I'd throw my laptop against the wall in jealousy, but I need to make a quick donation to 826 Seattle - an amazing tutoring spot for kids.  A FREE tutoring spot.  Go Dave, Go.  And thank you.

Kristin | | May 9, 2011

Well, Duh.


ConstitutionBy Kristin

The New York Times reveals the concern some feel about how little American students know about civics.  On a test given by the Department of Education, students did a pretty poor job of demonstrating mastery of "how government is financed, what rights are protected by the Constitution and how laws are passed."  Sandra Day O'Connor calls this a "crisis."

I call it a crisis too, but for different reasons.

Tom | | May 8, 2011

Should Less Pay Mean Less Days?


By Tom

It’s looking more and more like teachers in Washington State will get a pay cut. It’ll either be 3%, if the Senate gets its way; or 1.9%, if the Governor prevails. Whichever way it ends up, the issue begs the obvious question: should teachers work less days if they get less pay?

On the one hand, the last thing our students need is a shorter school year. And despite the logic that the public should “feel the pain” after voting down a couple of juicy tax bills last election, the people who would feel most of that pain are the citizens not yet old enough to vote.

On the other hand, it stands to reason that if you get less money you shouldn’t have to work as much. My brother in law works in construction. Things have slowed down lately in that industry, so his salary has dropped. But so has his workload; he now works a four-day week. Teachers work 180 days. According to my math, three percent of 180 is 5.4 days. If we ran the school system like my brother in law’s construction firm, teachers would get an extra week off for the next two years.

Personally, I’d rather work those extra days. I enjoy teaching and I have a hard enough time getting everything done in 180 days.  And I’m willing to take a three percent pay cut if that’s what it takes to balance the state’s budget.

I do, however, have some conditions.

Tom | | May 6, 2011

Last In, First Out


By Tom

Suffice to say, this hasn’t been the easiest year to be a teacher. And with the Legislature back in session, figuring out where to make cuts, it’s likely to get even worse. To add insult to injury, our school, like many, recently learned that we’re going to lose one of our teachers. As you might expect, she’s young, talented and enthusiastic. The kids like her, the parents like her and the rest of us like her. But she was the last one in, so she’s the first one out.

Many of us would like to see her stay. We’d prefer to have someone else leave; someone who isn’t as good at teaching.

It would be nice to have the means to do so, and if certain legislators have their way, we soon will. We may end up with a law that forces districts to force the least effective teachers out during staff reductions.

But while that might sound like a good idea right now, I don’t think it’ll work out in the long run.

Mark Gardner | | May 5, 2011

Teacher Credibility, Part II.


Rct2Lg And, of course, I'd love to see Bill Gates teach sentence structure to a class of forty 14-year olds if class size doesn't matter.

In my last post about Teacher Credibility, I shared how my efforts to forge relationships and build trust with my students has resulted in greater success in my recent lessons about everyone's least favorite Language Arts subject: grammar.

This got me thinking about Bill Gates et al.'s assertions about increasing class sizes. Rather than take the standard educator response about the value of connecting to each student blah, blah, blah, I instead thought about sales.

Tom | | May 2, 2011

A Response to Arne Duncan's Letter


Duncan Dear Mr. Duncan,

Thank you for the letter. It was nice to read your sincere appreciation for the people who work in our nation’s schools, and a refreshing change from the treatment we received seven years ago when one of your predecessors referred to us as “terrorists.”

Most of us genuinely believe that you and the administration are working hard for the best interests of our public schools. We feel that you value and respect America’s teachers. While we may not always agree with all of your specific strategies or policies, it’s clear that you want the best for our students.

That said; I want to discuss the eighth paragraph of your letter:

“So I want to work with you to change and improve federal law, to invest in teachers and strengthen the teaching profession. Together with you, I want to develop a system of evaluation that draws on meaningful observations and input from your peers, as well as a sophisticated assessment that measures individual student growth, creativity, and critical thinking.”

When are you planning to begin working together with us? It’s been over two years since you’ve had this job and so far we haven’t seen much change in the federal law. I’m talking about NCLB, with its onerous sanctions. Those of us in the field are watching as good schools and good teachers are being labeled “failures” due mostly to the demographics of their student population and the relentlessly rising expectation of bad legislation.

And another thing. When you say you want to “work with us to change and improve federal law,” what exactly do you mean? As teachers, we know that could mean one of two things. There’s the “working together” where teams of teachers actually work together to plan a lesson or unit. In this form of “working together” the end is unknown at the outset. The team engages in genuine collaboration in which each partner contributes to the product. This is real and authentic teamwork.

Then there’s the other kind of working together. Many of us start the year by inviting our students to “work together” to form a set of class rules and responsibilities. For many of us, this is a disingenuous exercise; a façade in which the outcome is essentially predetermined. There’s no way, for example, that the rules we end up with won’t include something about “keeping our hands to ourselves.”

It might be OK to “work together” disingenuously when the rest of the team is eight years old, but we’re much older than that. And frankly, most of us know at least as much about education as you do.  

The evaluation system you describe in this paragraph sounds pretty cool. But it sounds a lot different from the plans proposed by the states that won your “race to the top.” Most of those plans seemed to use student performance as a proxy for teacher effectiveness. There’s certainly a connection between the two, but it’s not as clear as you might think. There’s a kid in my class, for example, who is so hyperactive that his body literally vibrates all day long. But his low test scores belie the enormous amount of effort and work it has taken to get him to read and write almost at grade level, and to get him to complete his math assignments independently. At the same time, the girl who sits across from him, whose parents are both doctors, reads better than either you or I. Her high test scores represent almost none of my effort and talent. I’ll gladly take credit for them, but frankly, she would have done just as well on that test with a folding chair in charge of the class.

One more thing. Our unions have taken a beating this past year. Mostly at the state level and by members of the media and business community. But there’s a sneaking suspicion by many of us that a lot of these people have become emboldened, not so much by what you and the rest of the administration has said or done, but by what you haven’t said or done. Contrary to popular myth, most of us actually feel represented by our unions. Their policies, after all, are directed by the teachers they represent. Our unions are us. And they do a lot of great work, for both teachers and students. Would it be too much to ask to have you stick up for us every now and then? 

So anyway, thanks for the letter. It was good to hear from you as we head down the homestretch of the school year. And if you really mean that part about “working together,” give me a call. I’ve got a few other ideas.


Mark Gardner | |

Teacher Credibility, Part I.


WRcGEw I loathe teaching grammar.

Every year, it seems that I try a new approach, and seldom does it accomplish what I want it to (improvement in student writing). I'm no expert, and a cursory read of my posts will probably produce scores of errors which would infuriate devout grammarians, but I do believe that by high school, there is merit in helping students see the "interior structure" of the language they use. Knowing that structure, hopefully, helps the strong writers refine and the weak writers give name and therefore understanding to their weaknesses.

This year, my rocky relationship with grammar led me to make a dangerous decision. Last semester, I did not teach it. At all. I responded to student writing and offered revision advice, but I didn't instruct about anything grammar-related. Instead, we focused on higher order rhetorical arrangement (argument, essay, paragraph). Over the course of the semester, I proved to my students through lessons, assessments, and feedback that I knew what I was talking about and knew how to help them. They started intentionally responding to my feedback and advice, and in reflections on their writing processes, I repeatedly saw references to "I never knew this before" or "now I understand." A strange thing happened, then, a few weeks ago when I finally, grudgingly and anticipating epic futility, settled into my hardcore grammar lessons and curriculum.

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