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93 Articles Categorized in "Current Affairs"

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

Leadership, Implementation, and Puppetry

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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. 

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

Washington Education: A bargain, for now...

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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.

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

HB 2800

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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

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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."

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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

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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

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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

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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?

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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

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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.

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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:

Tom | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy | February 8, 2014

Enough is Enough: Fund the COLA

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ColaBy Tom

For the past six years, educators in Washington State have gone without a cost of living adjustment to their salary. In two of those years, 2011 and 2012, teacher salaries actually went down. All of this despite the fact that back in 2000 the state voted two-to-one in favor of Initiative 732, which provided an automatic, annual COLA.

Although many legislators oppose it, Governor Inslee has proposed reinstating the COLA for several reasons. He thinks it’s fair, he thinks we can afford it and he thinks the State Supreme Court has essentially mandated it, by insisting that the state spend more on education.

I agree. Since 2006 teachers have lost 16% of their purchasing power. Housing, groceries, fuel and college prices have gone up, while our salaries have either gone down or stagnated. A COLA, by definition, is not a salary increase. It is a salary adjustment; a device meant to keep salaries parallel to the cost of those goods and services that we use our salaries to purchase. The absence of a COLA, also by definition, is a salary decrease; there’s no other way to conceptualize it.

When voters passed I-732 fourteen years ago, critics were complaining that we were passing a spending bill without a corresponding mechanism to pay for it. Maybe not, but consider this: in a state that’s essentially financed by sales tax revenue, the sales tax is effectively that mechanism. As the cost of goods and services rises, so too does the sales tax. Since teacher salaries are financed by sales tax, increased revenue should correspond to increased expenditure.

Another point that bears mentioning is that the workload of teachers in recent years has greatly increased coincidental to an actual decrease in salary. We’re doing more work for less money. The new teacher evaluation system requires, in my estimation, at least 40 hours per year of hard, thoughtful work by every teacher in the state. Although some of this work has been incorporated into our in-service calendar, not all of it has, and even those hours that are part of our paid time have effectively displaced other, necessary tasks, so that the net result has been an additional 40 hours of work time.

In addition to the increased workload resulting from the new evaluation system, our class sizes have also gone up. Fifteen years ago I was used to classes to 23 or 24. Now it’s more like 28 to 30. Every new kid in my room means more time planning lessons and more time evaluating and scoring student work. As a fourth grade teacher, I can feel the difference in my workload when my class size goes up by five percent; I can only imagine what it’s like for my high school colleagues, especially those charged with reading and grading extended student writing samples.

I sympathize with our lawmakers. They’re on the hot seat. They have a lot of programs to fund and not enough money to fund them. That’s a tough job. But remember, that’s the job they were begging us for. Remember all those yards signs and TV ads? Our legislators not only knew what they were getting into, they couldn’t wait to start doing it. So do it. Teachers have gone too long without a COLA. That has to end.

More work for less money isn’t fair.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Games, Life in the Classroom, Parent Involvment, Social Issues | February 2, 2014

Playgrounds and Education Policy

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File52eec04d490efBy Mark

This story was circulating on social media recently, and despite my initial reactions, it appears to be true.

A primary school in New Zealand has changed rules around recess as a result of research conducted at local universities. The essential finding: fewer rules on the playground resulted in "a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing" (from the article linked above).

At my own son's elementary school, students are apparently not permitted to run during recess. That's right, no running during outdoor recess. Only brisk walking. And forget about tag, let alone touch football. I am not an elementary school teacher or staff member, so sure I can sit over here and judge, but the findings from this (albeit small) research project where children were allowed to be children during recess seems to me yet another indicator of how our drive to protect children from harm actually harms them more than the bumps, bruises and grass-stained knees we want to spare.

Sadly, this article above also makes this statement:

[M]any American school administrators do not feel they have the freedom to eliminate playtime rules the way Swanson [the primary school in New Zealand] did. And they certainly don’t see it as a zero-cost game. Parents drive our nation’s tendency toward more restrictive playground rules because parents are the ones who sue schools when their children get hurt.

It is all very interesting to me both as a parent and as an educator.

I wonder: what if a whole education system had no externally ascribed rules? Would the flaws we are trying to eliminate with laws, rules, and policies diminish (and achievement increase) as analogous to the positive changes witnessed on that playground in New Zealand? 

Maren Johnson | Current Affairs, Education Policy | January 30, 2014

What box do I check? Time for a COLA

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Photo (5)

by Maren Johnson

My school district sent out a new survey this past week. They were trying to do some planning, and for informational reasons, they were hoping that certified staff would be willing to answer.

I had my choice of three boxes to check on the school district survey:

To help us in planning for next school year we would like to know if you have
plans to earn credits that would change your placement on the salary schedule:

    • Yes, I anticipate earning ______ credits which would advance my placement on the salary schedule.
    • Yes, I anticipate earning my Masters degree.
    • No, I do not anticipate earning credits that would change my current salary schedule placement other than the experience step.

So what box do I check?  None of them quite fit. Yes, I anticipate earning quite a few clock hours/credits this year, but no, this won’t get me anywhere on the salary schedule, and I won't be getting the "experience step" the third box in the survey mentions. I finally hit it this year, that lower right hand corner of the salary schedule. 

At this point, there is nothing I can do to move forward any steps on the salary schedule—no clock hours, no years of experience, no certifications, not even performing hand stands in the middle of the high school commons.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | January 10, 2014

Growth, and then...

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Rock and rollBy Mark

Two steps forward, one step back. Climbing a hill of sand. Sisyphus without the deceitfulness.

Or, January in my classroom.

For the three weeks prior to winter break, we all worked very hard in room 116. By the time the quiz rolled around, we'd practiced, reviewed, self-assessed, strategized, tried new approaches, and for the most part, achieved the goal. On my proficiency level scale for identification and analysis of figurative language, the data was finally--finally--showing not just growth, but mastery.

Interpreting abstract figurative language is difficult enough for grown ups, let alone for adolescents who struggle to even understand overtly stated concrete concepts. Add to that the fact that interpretation of figurative language hinges tremendously on a reader's prior schema and life experiences upon which to draw and adolescents are set up to struggle. Nonetheless, through practice, diverse examples, more practice, and trial and error, growth happened by December 20th.

And then it went away.

Tom | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Parent Involvment, Social Issues | January 1, 2014

Thirty Million Words

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LogoBy Tom

There’s a kid in my class who I’ll call Arthur. Although he’s in fourth grade, he started the year reading at about the first grade level and his math skills were even lower. He wrote nothing. When we discussed his situation during a September Child Study meeting we decided to “pull out all the stops.” And so we did. Arthur gets pulled out for one-on-one phonics lessons every day from 9:30 to 10:00. He goes directly from there to his small-group reading lesson with our special ed teacher. From 11:30 to noon he receives in-class support for writing and organization skills. At 2:15 he gets an hour of math support.

That’s pretty much “all the stops.” Fortunately, he has started to making progress; if you were to draw a line representing his academic growth since September, it would have an upwards trajectory. But if that line were a ski slope, you would not tremble at the top. And as far behind as he was four months ago, he is even farther behind now; his classmates, after all, have also made progress, but at a faster rate.

It didn’t have to come to this. A famous study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley resulted in the Thirty Million Words Initiative. Simply put, they found that parent-child communication has an enormous impact on a child’s development and academic success. The name of the initiative reflects the optimal number of words a child should hear from his parents before entering school.

I have never met Arthur’s dad, and apparently neither has he. I have met his mother, though, on several occasions. She is very quiet, somewhat sullen, with the air of a person who looked at the low hand she was dealt and folded pretty early in the game. Which was about when Arthur was born.

Arthur is exactly the kind of student that TMW wants to prevent. Had his mother known how important it was to simply talk to her child, perhaps he wouldn’t be in his current circumstances. Perhaps I’d feel a little more certain that he’ll be in fifth grade next year. Perhaps his ski slope would be a little scarier.

We’ll never know. But I do know this: The most important thing non-teaching education stakeholders can do to support education in this country is to help parents help their children. And Thirty Million Words is an example of how simple that support can be. Talk, after all, is cheap. But apparently it’s pretty important, especially early in a child’s life.

Because sadly, fourth grade is a little bit too late.

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy | December 27, 2013

Student Growth Percentiles and Teacher Evaluation: More Questions than Answers

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by Maren Johnson 

Just this month, OSPI released a new kind of data: Student Growth Percentiles (SGP).  What are student growth percentiles?  In short, SGPs describe a student’s growth in state test scores as compared to other students with similar prior test scores.  Here’s a five minute video:

  

You can find Student Growth Percentiles for your specific school or district here: http://data.k12.wa.us/PublicDWP/Web/WashingtonWeb/PublishedReports/PublishedReports.aspx 
or http://bit.ly/1lE2Pi9

What are student growth percentiles for?  Teacher evaluation is one potential use, and will be an issue in the upcoming legislative session.  Washington state recently received a high risk warning from the federal government regarding teacher evaluation.  The issue?  Whether state test scores “can” or “must” be used in teacher evaluation—the U.S. Department of Education is saying that state test scores must be used in order for Washington state to continue to receive a NCLB waiver.  We’ve written extensively about this waiver on our blog—see posts from Mark, Kristin, Tom, and myself.

One issue with including state test scores in teacher evaluations?  Very few teachers in Washington state even teach classes associated with a state test!  The number of teachers with state test data has been estimated at 16% at the most by OSPI—see the chart. Student growth measures

How do you evaluate teachers with state tests when these teachers don’t even teach courses that are tested?  In Tennessee, teachers without test scores were able to choose a test for their evaluation, leading to some unusual conversations, “The P. E. teacher got information that the writing score was the best to pick,” said the art teacher. “He informed the home ec teacher, who passed it on to me, and I told the career development teacher. It’s a bit like Vegas, and if you pick the wrong academic subject, you lose and get a bad evaluation.”   In Florida, teachers have been evaluated using school wide test averages, meaning that some teachers are evaluated based on test scores from students they have never taught.  North Carolina attempted to test students of all teachers in all subject areas with 52 different standardized tests.  All these approaches have proved problematic.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development, Social Issues | December 19, 2013

Common Core: Irony, Commerce and the Clock

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File52a4a9f585e15By Mark

For English Language Arts 9-10, Common Core standard #8 for Informational Text is this:

Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

I thought of this when I read a rant recently about how Common Core required education about safe sex rather than abstinence. This was the same week I read two different assertions: one claiming that Common Core specifically outlawed the teaching of cursive, the other claiming that cursive was now required. A few weeks ago I was lectured by a parent about how Common Core was forcing kids to just memorize a list of facts and spit them back on a test. My school year this year started with a colleague upset at the required reading list identified by the Common Core State Standards for high school English.

A seven-second Google search enabled me to "evaluate the argument and specific claims... assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient" and "identify false statements." 

1. Common Core does not address issues of sex education...

2. Common Core does not address handwriting or cursive in the standards...

Tom | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Elementary | December 8, 2013

Let's Build a Waiver Loophole

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LoopholeBy Tom

Twelve years ago, George Bush signed “No Child Left Behind” into law. Among other things, the law requires that by the end of this school year every student in America has to meet standard. That level of success will never happen, of course, not even in Finland, but no one has bothered to change that part of the law. Instead, the Obama Administration has used that law as leverage to advance their own educational agenda, which includes expanded school choice, adoption of the Common Core State Standards and tougher teacher evaluation laws. They’ve done this by granting waivers from the law's punitive aspects to states that adopt certain policies.

Washington State received one of those waivers, along with 31 other states. And for the most part, we’ve toed the line. We now allow charter schools, we’re transitioning to the CCSS, and we have a brand-new Teacher and Principal Evaluation Project. (TPEP)

But there’s a problem. As written, TPEP allows state assessment scores to be used for teacher evaluation. The feds want TPEP to require that they be used. The feds have recently notified our state, warning us that we risk losing our waiver unless TPEP is changed so that it mandates the use of state assessment data. 

As a teacher, I can see no possible way in which state test scores can be used as a valid basis for my evaluation. I teach fourth grade; my students took a state test last year and they’ll take another one this year. But it’s not the same test. Last year they took a third grade test and this year they’ll take a fourth grade test. The smart kids in my class passed their test last year and they’ll probably pass their test this year. The kids who are struggling this year didn’t pass their test last year and they’ll have a tough time passing this year’s test.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | December 7, 2013

More on Coverage vs. Learning: Student Growth

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220px-Johann_Heinrich_Füssli_054By Mark

Last month I shared my thoughts about how "coverage pressure" nearly led me to move on before my students were ready. My decision to slow down and focus on my students' skills rather than simply plow forward resulted in far better student performance both on that essay as well as the next essay they are currently writing for me. I have had several students voluntarily tell me that they understand what to do far better now because we slowed down and spent more time digging deeper.

The new evaluation law requires that all teachers be able to demonstrate how their planning and implementation results in student growth toward an important content standard or goal. As I wrote that piece linked above, a minor epiphany occurred to me: coverage of content and student growth are not the same thing.

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy | December 3, 2013

Using Teacher Evaluations for Human Resource Decisions: Unintended Consequences?

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image from http://aviary.blob.core.windows.net/k-mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp-13120306/7bcaca66-dc03-4381-9172-01cd3fd5a88a.jpg

by Maren Johnson

Earlier this year, Washington state received a high risk warning from the federal government regarding its teacher evaluation system. One issue: whether state test results can be used in teacher evaluation, or whether they must be used. Randy Dorn has requested that the state legislature address this issue in the upcoming session.

The high risk warning letter concerns one of the "inputs" of teacher evaluation--the potential use of state tests. Yesterday, OSPI issued a report concerning one of the "outputs" of our evaluation system--human resource decisions. The report, "Using Teacher and Principal Evaluations to Inform Human Resource Decisions," was put together by OSPI and the education research organization American Institute for Research (AIR). They surveyed and conducted forums with Washington stake holders and looked at national trends. It includes interesting data about teacher and administrator views--see the graph up to the left.

Clearly, evaluation results can already be used in human resource decisions such as non-renewal. Recent changes to the law mean that by 2015-2016, evaluation results will also be included in human resource decisions such as layoffs, RIFs, transfers, and moving from provisional to continuing contract status. Some districts are using evaluation results for decisions on leadership opportunities and professional development. This affects a lot of people--we need to have a good system here. 

An interesting section of the report talks about some of the unintended consequences of using evaluations in human resource decisions. A few quotes:

"Teachers expressed a desire to use their focused evaluations as an opportunity to try new strategies that might not result in a Proficient rating. Some teachers would be deterred from trying new approaches if employment decisions would be based on those results."

"By using teacher evaluation data in HR decisions, particularly employment decisions, participants worried that teachers would begin to compete with each other rather than cooperate to improve student learning."

One striking trend that emerged in the report was time.  This is the first year that ALL school districts in the state of Washington are using TPEP evaluation.  Educators wanted time to ensure that both evaluators and those being evaluated received appropriate training, and also wanted time to test out the new system itself.

The report states (p. 13) that in the upcoming legislative session, OSPI is pursuing a change to current state law that would delay the use of evaluations in human resource decisions until the 2016-17 school year. A delay like this is a good idea: let's try our new system out before increasing the high stakes consequences attached to it! We need to get this right.

 

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy | November 18, 2013

Student Growth and State Testing: "Can" versus "Must"

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120px-Canofworms1By Mark

The current law regarding teacher evaluation states that all teachers must demonstrate impact on student growth as part of their evaluation. Growth (in RCW 28A.405.100 2f) is defined as the change in student achievement between two points in time, and presently states that assessment data for determining growth can be drawn from classroom, school, district, or state based tools.

This terminology did not sit well with the USDE, who labeled Washington's NCLB waiver status to "conditional" last August. Last week (November 12, 2013), OSPI issued a press release that included the following (bold emphasis mine):

Dorn’s second major request involves a change in state law. Paragraph 2(f) of Revised Code of Washington 28A.405.100 states, in part:

“Student growth data … must be based on multiple measures that can include classroom-based, school-based, district-based, and state-based tools.”

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction secured a waiver from some requirements of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act in August. But the Department of Education termed the waiver “conditional” because it objected to the word “can” in 28A.405.100.

“When the Legislature was debating this back in 2010, I said the language didn’t go far enough,” Dorn said. “The Department of Education wants state-based tests to be a required measure, not a voluntary one. I’m introducing legislation that will basically replace the word ‘can’ with ‘must.’ Test scores should not be the sole measure used to evaluate teachers, but they must be one of the tools we use in our new accountability system.”

This is not a simple syntactical switch. 

What complications do you foresee from a "can" to "must" switcheroo? Or is it the right path to take?

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | November 16, 2013

College Ready?

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File5287936e9b106By Mark

Why do we want every kid to be "college ready"?

True, the new phrase is "college and career ready," but I feel that the word career too often carries a distinctly cubicled and clean-fingernailed connotation. A very informal verbal and non-scientific poll of a few of my own students helped reinforce this to me. When given a list of professions, from plumber to welder to salesperson to doctor, I asked them to identify which ones were careers. Being a doctor, lawyer, businessperson, teacher, and nurse were immediately identified as careers. Without me even giving them the words, most kids identified being a welder, electrician, plumber, mechanic, and engineer as "just jobs, not careers." When I pushed for the difference between a job and career, most kids couldn't articulate it (and by then, the bell was ringing and I needed to get class started). A couple did say something about college being required for a career. In effect, "college and career ready" is redundant.

I got to thinking even more about this when a former student of mine came to ask for some advice about a paper he was writing in his English class. The students were looking at power structures in society and considering different perspectives on literary criticism, and he was learning about the Marxist literary critical perspective by considering the social and power dynamics of his hometown. His essay, tentatively titled "The Hill and the Mill" was attempting to explore the social and economic dynamics of a small town originally built around a local mill (the mill), but which has in the last decade and a half seen an influx of high-tech businesses (the hill).

The resulting shifts in the community are not inherently negative, but certainly precipitate changes in the culture. Many men and women have cultivated success and lucrative careers through hard work in the mill, just as many men and women have done the same up on the hill. Nevertheless, assumptions to the value of each are not unique to this small down. This dichotomy, oversimplified, is the divide in perception of what constitutes a "career" versus a "job."

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Mentoring, Teacher Leadership | September 23, 2013

Finally: Growing our Newest Teachers and Leaders

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File523f26e8d88c7By Mark

I had an amazing mentor my first year of teaching. Fresh out of my M.A.T. program and almost three hundred miles away from my small-town home, she was exactly what I needed. 

A great start makes all the difference.

Any investment we can make in a great beginning is a worthy investment, whether for our pre-K kids, our own new students in September, or for those teachers just starting their careers. Of course, resources are sometimes the stumbling block. However, the Beginning Educator Support Program is a way to provide opportunities for early-service teachers. Grant applications are due October 4th... so get those ducks and row them up. Here is the text of a recent email from CSTP about this work:

Districts or consortia of districts may apply now for grants from the Beginning Educator Support (BEST) Program, administered by OSPI and funded by the legislature. BEST provides competitive grants for districts to create comprehensive support for early-career teachers. Specifically, BEST grants provide $2500 per first year teacher, $2000 per second year teacher and $500 for other provisional-status teachers who change assignments. Districts agree to provide a paid orientation for new teachers, well-trained mentors, professional learning for both new teachers and mentors, and release time for mentors and mentees to observe others. 

Applications are due to OSPI by 5 pm on Monday, Oct. 4. You can find the application and more information about BEST here - http://www.k12.wa.us/BEST/

To read the State's Induction Standards go to CSTP's website -  http://cstp-wa.org/sites/default/files/CSTP_ind-standards.final_08.pdf

 

As exciting is the recent news that the state of Washington has been selected to part of a $15 million, three-year grant program from the U.S. Department of Education via the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and which will be collaboratively administered by the powerful trifecta of WEA, OSPI and CSTP in the coming school years. These grants are in part aimed at cultivating teacher capacity as instructional leaders. The name of the program, SEED (which stands for Supporting Effective Educator Development), says it all.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | September 20, 2013

Growth, Part Three: Growing Others

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File5234868add499By Mark

One drum I beat constantly is that if we want education reform to work, teachers must be the ones empowered to not only implement the change, but to be the ones who design it.

I often hear about "layers of bureaucracy and waste" in school districts. The comments under the news website articles about education tout the inefficiency and top-heaviness of school systems. That is perhaps the case in some places. Over the last few decades, instructional coaching has been in fashion as a layer somewhere in limbo between classroom teacher and building administrator. In tight budgets, these positions are often the first to go, since their impact on students is not always so obvious and traceable.

To some, coaching or being a TOSA (like I am for .4 of my day) is a stepping stone out of the classroom into administration. That's fine, but I believe that for most of us in that role, it isn't a means to some personal ladder-climbing end. For me, having no aspirations to be in administrative leadership, coaching or TOSA-ing is about supporting classroom instruction.

Logic and research both prove that of all the factors within the control of a school, the one with the greatest impact on student learning is teacher pedagogical skill. If this is the case, the potential power of teacher-leaders in coaching or TOSA roles cannot be understated. With so many demands on building administrators for everything from student discipline to recess duty to teacher evaluation, it is very easy for the difficult and time-consuming work of improving instruction to get unintentional short shrift. In too many cases, efforts to improve instruction manifest as hastily assembled sit-and-get powerpoint assaults or the spending of inordinate amounts of money to fly in some expert to talk at teachers for a day or two about decontextualized theory and the next new curriculum to buy. Missing are the intense and reflective one-on-one probing conversations that demand not only time but strong relationships that likewise require time to develop.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Professional Development | September 14, 2013

Growth, Part One

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File523486ab2d024By Mark

If you say the word too many times, it starts to sound funny (like if you say "moist" or "pancake" too many times and they start to sound strange...maybe that's just me). It seems like every sentence in my professional life includes that word "growth" in one context or another. Student growth scores, Professional Growth Planning, proficiency growth scales...

I like it. It does something more than grades or labels once did: talking grades and labels felt so static and permanent, talking growth is talking movement. Where I used to talk to kids about "bringing a grade up" (in other words, struggling to move something beyond themselves) now I find myself talking to students about developing their skills and growing toward proficiency. There is a real difference. 

I attribute this directly to my professional and personal learning about the new teacher evaluation system. 

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | August 30, 2013

Myth and Misunderstanding about TPEP

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File5220b00b5c523The History Channel recently ran a series called Your Bleeped-Up Brain, and if you can get past that staggeringly stupid title, there are some interesting tidbits to be found about how our minds work.

In particular, I caught a snip the other day about how humans define "truth." The main salient points: first, we are wired to believe the first information we see, hear, or learn; second, it is incredibly difficult for us to unlearn that "first" and replace it with new information. This is essentially the "primacy effect," where we are inherently more apt to trustaccept, and maintain belief in the first thing we hear or read. Add this as well: we are far more apt to believe information that confirms feelings we already hold, regardless of the veracity or validity--or even logic--of that information.

I have been fighting a slow and constant battle within my district to help implement our new evaluation system (TPEP, though I hate acronyms) and empower teachers to understand and use the framework not just when thinking about their performance review but moreso when thinking about their own practice. In our district of roughly 400 certificated staff, it is obviously difficult to communicate to everyone in a personal, meaningful, and clear way. It is also a challenge to accurately and authentically monitor what they really do and don't understand. 

Because we are human beings, we often look to one another first for information, before digging into things such as legalese about what is actually policy. The clear problem with this? It is easier to chat in the staff room and spread hearsay than to actually look it up. Sadly, we're then more likely to use unsubstantiated hearsay as the foundation for our feelings and opinions--and then refuse to accept new information when confronted with fact that contradicts what we thought we knew.

Case in point: recently I was told that it states unequivocally in the state RCWs that teachers are required to compile an eight-section portfolio of evidence to support their performance on each of the eight state evaluation criteria (and in areas of focus, cross-referenced with framework elements). I know the law, and it states absolutely nothing that could even be stretched to construe such a directive. Yet, this colleague of mine was certain she was right and I was wrong. Why? She heard it from a friend who teaches in another district. 

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | August 21, 2013

Test Scores and Teacher Evaluation: Now What?

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File521431c138930There are few things worse than being fired up and not knowing what to do next.

That is where I find myself with the recent discussion about student growth, teacher evaluation, and the federal government. (Chances are you've already read a little about this from me, Tom, Maren and Kristin.)

But here's where I get stuck. It is easy for me to sit here at my desktop and engage in discourse with my peers about how misguided is the federal position on using one-shot test scores to evaluate teachers. In discussion here, on facebook, on other blogs, and even in old-fashioned face-to-face conversation, I've discovered that there are a lot of very intelligent people talking about this issue. (CSTP even noted that the traffic on this blog has spiked by a couple thousand pageviews in the last few days alone.)

For other issues, I've known to whom to go: my local leadership, state legislators, and so on. With this one, though, I truly don't know what to do next. Conversation needs to continue, for sure. At some point it needs to translate to action, or else this is all just a bunch of cached webpages.

Brainstorm with me, if you will: What can you and I do next? Who do we talk to? Is there hope? And what do we do once we've ignored the people who answer "no" to that last question?

If nothing else, let's keep the conversation going--and invite others to join in.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | August 16, 2013

Ignore the Feds on Student Growth

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File520e39cc23477By Mark

So, we got a warning.

The Feds have sent a letter to the state of Washington indicating that we aren't quite doing what they want when it comes to teacher and principal evaluation. Aside from our crazy approach of taking time to learn, train teachers and administrators, and implement the system thoughtfully rather than quickly, one sticking point appears to be that we are a little too willing to differentiate when it comes to how student data is used to evaluate teachers.

In my opinion, we're right, they're wrong. As it stands, the state law...

  1. Does not require districts to use state test scores in teacher evaluation; this option is a district choice. (In most districts, only about 12-15% of teachers actually teach tested grade levels and content... oh, also see #2 and #3 below that clarify the limits of state assessments.)
  2. Emphasizes evaluating the teacher's professional ability to choose the right assessment sequence to determine student growth, and then set meaningful growth goals for classes and subsets of students based on student needs, entry skills, as well as appropriate content standards. (This is actually weighted more heavily than whether "all the kids pass" the assessments.)
  3. Requires multiple points of data all aligned to the same learning or skill standard, rather than a single snapshot assessment. (Multiple points show a trajectory, whereas a single point captures a moment.)

Like too much policy, the further the "deciders" are away from the classroom, the more out-of-touch the policy is and the more focused it becomes on what is easiest to administer. Which is easier... looking a a once-a-year matrix of test data OR tracking each individual student using targeted skills assessments over the course of time? Duh.

But the right question is which is better?

That, to me, is just as obvious.

Washington: we're doing the right thing. It may not be perfect, but it is better for kids, teachers, schools and communities than hinging everything on a single moment in time.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Literacy, Mathematics, Social Issues | July 14, 2013

Are Schools Really Failing?

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CompassesSome "discourse" about all the failing seniors in Washington State wants us to believe (using Washington as a proxy) that schools are continuing to fail.

This Reuters article seems to suggest they aren't, at least in terms of "closing the achievement gap." (Here is the link to the source data.) In the Reuters digestion, though, one key passage stood out:

The only scores to stagnate were the overall averages for 17-year-olds. While black and Hispanic students improved quite dramatically, the overall averages for the age group barely budged in either reading or math.

Peggy Carr, a federal education analyst, said the flat trendline among older students was actually good news.

More 17-year-olds with shaky academic records are staying in school rather than dropping out, which makes them eligible to take the NAEP exams, she said.

Even though some groups showed significant gains, the overall average was the same. My math knowledge tells me that if gains happened somewhere and the average stayed the same, some group's performance decreased. That decrease is being explained as a change in the survey sample--kids who otherwise would have dropped out are now part of the pool. Makes sense. That might figure in to the "high" number of "failing" seniors on Washington State math assessments. In that first article linked above, Randy Dorn even alludes to the fact that a priority in schools today is to keep kids from dropping out: keeping them in the system longer. This is a good thing, but does have an affect on our "data."

So, wait a minute. Where else might this matter?

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Teacher Leadership | April 20, 2013

Trust, Power, Change and Risk

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File5172abe3badc9By Mark

Change is hard, and for change to happen, trust is critical.

I've been thinking often about trust lately--sitting in meetings with administrators as they strategize how to build trust within a staff. In meetings at the ESD and with OSPI, I hear about how cultivating a climate of trust is vital for evaluation to produce growth.

Thus, we have more meetings, use surveys to find the root of the distrust. Still, I have bosses I trust more than others. I have colleagues I trust more than others. 

And when I sit and listen to my fellow teachers, they likewise lament situations where they do not trust their administrator or evaluators. As a building union representative, I sit in meetings where we talk about erosion of trust, and that the climate of distrust needs to be fixed. We talk about it, point at it, discuss it, and then leave the table waiting for that trust to somehow repair itself.

If I don't trust my administrator to make good choices, there is an assumption about how that lack of trust is to be remedied: If I don't trust you, the only way for trust to be repaired is for you to change.

Bam. There it is.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | February 9, 2013

Matters of Education...and Class Size

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Class sizeLast year was my first foray into tromping the halls of Olympia as a novice education advocate. I'm still far from an expert--which was one of my reasons for being so reticent to have a political voice.

I think many of us feel that way. The first step, as always, is just to pay attention...read, watch, listen, make up your mind (and remember, it's okay to disagree with your colleagues, your school, and your union, as long as your disagreement is informed).

WEA keeps an active site that is a good place for your radar to first ping: OurVoice. A few bills of note (and I think they're all still live as I type this...but things can change quickly!)

  • S5588: Restricts use of half-days for professional development, marketed as "changing the definition of 'school day.'" (WEA's take, here.)
  • HB1293: Requires districts to disclose the real costs of testing, which has led parents to ask legislators a question they cannot seem to answer.
  • HB1673: Gradually reduces student-to-teacher class size ratios for calculating state allocations, including provisions for even smaller class sizes in high-poverty schools. According to this document, Washington would need to hire over 12,000 teachers to bring our class size to the national average (we're presently the 4th most crowded). 

While there are other bills (and troubling ideas) out there and various stages of their life cycles, ranging from misguided attempts to businessify the teacher evaluation model that hasn't even been given the chance to get off the ground to others that affect collective bargaining, the class size bill, HB1673, is the one I'm thinking about at the moment. 

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development | January 12, 2013

Reading, Thinking, the Media and the Truth

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I teach 9th grade English so one of my Common Core State Standards reads like this: 

Informational Texts: Delineate and evaluate argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

I usually focus most on this standard when examining logical fallacies portrayed in advertising as part of my propaganda unit during the teaching of Animal Farm. The kids quickly see the illogical and unsupported claims about toothpastes, beauty products, diet pills and any number of other too-good-to-be-true product pitches. When the validity of the reasoning only takes a moment of critical thought to deconstruct, they get good at it. When claims are presented that "seem" valid on first blush, though, the kids have a hard time decoding the nuance of falsehood behind the presumptive truth.

The route information takes nowadays is more like the game of telephone than ever before, with information being stripped, twisted and de-contextualized until it emerges at the end of the line as a statement whose meaning is a completely different message than the original referent. Thus, our challenge is not to help students spot the obviously fallacious reasoning, but to have their radar on for the subtle (and I believe, often intentionally manipulative) misinformation, misguidance, incompleteness, or writerly interpretation that portrays itself as truth and fact.

This was already in my mind when I read this seemingly innocuous passage in an article about teachers:

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Social Issues | December 21, 2012

Failing at Education Funding

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The McCleary ruling, which established that the Washington legislature was not adequately funding public education, is popping up in the news again. When the ruling was first issued at the Washington State Supreme Court ordered the legislature to remedy the ed funding debacle, I worried that it was just lip service with no teeth

Recent news makes me optimistic that people are paying attention, though my worries still persist. The 2018 deadline is now a year closer than it was when first established, and it is hard to really point at "progress." The court has now said that it wants "yearly reports that 'demonstrate steady progress.'" (Sound familiar?) See the latter part of this article for a "clarification" about what this expectation from the courts might mean, and here's the link to the actual Supreme Court Order dated 20 December 2012. I particularly like this paragraph from page three of the court order:

In education, student progress is measured by yearly benchmarks according to essential academic goals and requirements. The State should expect no less of itself than of its students. Requiring the legislature to meet periodic benchmarks does not interfere with its prerogative to enact the reforms it believes best serve Washington's education system. To the contrary, legislative benchmarks help guide judicial review. We cannot wait until "graduation" in 2018 to determine if the State has met minimum constitutional standards. 

I've learned to not read the comments under any online news report about teachers, education or policy--there's no dialogue there, and too often the perpetuation of incorrect information. I used to whack-a-mole the trolls, but it was futile. Perhaps StoriesfromSchool can be a place for reasoned and thoughtful discourse about this issue.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, National Board Certification, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | December 9, 2012

The Time to Do the Right Work

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Ship in a bottleAs a writing teacher, one of my greatest struggles involves getting kids to understand the writing process. Writing can be frustrating, arduous work. Understandably, then, when a kid puts the last period on the last sentence in the last paragraph, the impulse then is to put down the pen or click "print" and pass that piece on to the teacher.

As adults, we know that the last period is not the finish line, and that often the toughest work begins when the writing is "finished." The act of meaningful revision--the analysis of effectiveness, the cutting and splicing of sentences, the refining of vivid vocabulary--that formidable work often makes the first stages of writing seem simple. We know, though, that the difference between mediocre and exceptional comes with the time invested in revising, polishing, and refining. It is hard work. It is the right work to do, and it takes time. If that work is skimped upon or shirked, the end product will not have achieved its full potential.

When I had the opportunity to present to the Gates Foundation last week, the other presenters and I never met ahead of time to coordinate our message--yet the same point resonated loud and clear: the new evaluation system is the right work to do to improve teaching, schools, and student learning. 

And the corollary to that point: doing this work will take time.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, National Board Certification, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | December 8, 2012

The Right Work

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As some of you might have seen on Facebook, this past Thursday, December 6th, I had the privilege and opportunity to offer a short presentation and serve on a discussion panel for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Education Pathways meeting.

IMG_1558In the audience were names attached to some of most important and influential groups in public education in the state of Washington--and beyond, since also present were Ron Thorpe, President and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and Washington's own Andy Coons, who serves as the Chief Operating Officer of NBTPS. Walking into a room with leadership from OSPI, the Gates Foundation, the Association of Washington School Principals, CSTP, and numerous other organizations, I was quick to feel intimidated. After all, my main thought during my drive to Seattle was about whether my ninth graders were behaving for the sub--nothing quite so heady as the future of statewide policy.

My comfort zone is much more intimate with much clearer roles: When I walk into my own classroom, I am the expert, I am the authority. It's not that I wield power like a tyrant over my domain, but to those fourteen- and fifteen-year olds, I am the voice they are to listen to, heed, seek for advice, and learn from. I am the teacher: what I have to say matters.

In my eleven years of teaching, as I've ventured little by little into the world of education policy, there are many times when I find myself in a room filled with nicely pressed suits (and me wearing my one pair of decent slacks) feeling just the opposite way as I do in front of my classroom. I think to myself: I am just a teacher. Will what I say matter?

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Books, Current Affairs, Education Policy, Science, Travel | November 15, 2012

What’s that standard? Excellence in Washington State and Finland

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by Maren Johnson

Pasi Sahlberg 1I attended an amazing conference in Seattle this week, Excellence in Education: Washington State and Finland. We learned about some great things going on in Finland, we learned about some great things going on in Washington, and I experienced some culture shock.  Was it the differences between Finland and the United States that struck me?  Well yes, there was that, and that is what got me started thinking about culture.  However, instead of international differences, I was thinking about some of the cultural as well as philosophical differences between education groups in our own Washington state: differences between people who are in the classroom and those making policy decisions guiding classroom work; differences between policy makers and those doing education research. How to overcome those differences and build on them?  Keynote speaker Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of Finland’s Education Ministry, said, “So much of what we do in Finland, we have learned from American researchers and educators.”  He then very provocatively said the difference is that in Finland, they actually implement that research!  Here in Washington, we need to get those research<—>policy<—> implementation links tightened up, and yes, those are double-headed arrows: information needs to flow each way!

There are some vast historical and social differences between Finland and Washington—an education system cannot just be transplanted.  However, Finland has not always been an education high performer—it languished in the mid twentieth century—but over the past several decades, as Pasi Sahlberg said, “Finland has improved a lot, while the rest of the world has improved a little bit.”  This improvement can be traced to policy decisions.  What are a few of the Finnish Lessons we might learn?

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Books, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | October 20, 2012

The Mindsets

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FWhen I was an undergraduate, I loved having the opportunity to choose whichever courses interested me. Outside of my major, I took everything from calculus to photography to sociology. I also took advantage of another benefit offered: the option to take courses "pass/fail." I engaged this option whenever there was the chance that I would earn less than an "A."

At the time, I justified it from a financial standpoint. I had tuition and housing scholarships which required a certain GPA: a "C" would harm my GPA, but a "P" had no effect on it and I'd still earn the credit. However, in hindsight, I see that this behavior was a sign of something I'm only now starting to understand: my transcript was my identity.

Recently at an after-school meeting, one of our building associate principals shared an article summarizing the work done by Carol Dweck of the Stanford University School of Psychology. The gist: while it is not absolute, there are generally two "mindsets" into which people can be classified--the "fixed" mindset and the "growth" mindset. 

A person whose disposition is in the "growth" mindset will relish challenge, recover from failure having learned and applied critical lessons, and "end up" in a different and usually better place from where they "start out."

In college, I was clearly of the "fixed" mindset.

Travis Wittwer | Current Affairs, Education Policy | October 16, 2012

The Paper

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By Travis A. Wittwer 8088082266_c5ee72d6ec_n

Paper. A school is dependent on paper. This thin, white, innocuous object has value beyond what is initially seen. Paper marks the flow of ideas and learning throughout the school. It is hard to imagine a school without paper. Yet, each year imagining a school without paper becomes easier to imagine.

Paper is an indicator species for resources in the school. Paper represents the health and strength of the school. Paper is symbolic of other resources within the school such as writing utensils, novels, additional support in the library, or clubs to create school culture. 

Paper, and that for which it represents, is another item I will include on my list of Invisibles

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development | October 9, 2012

The Job

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File5074c0e3670deI was sitting in a conference in another state last week when the conversation got heated.

We had just listened to a very well executed presentation about how to improve assessments so that they minimize the "chance for student error other than not knowing." We'd heard about PLCs and how to make them work. We'd heard about the power of shared assessment rubrics and the value of examining student work. We'd all drunk the kool-aid and sat smiling, basking in the glow of new learning with all its potential for impacting student growth. 

Then reality began to crash in. My colleagues from another district (in that other state) began to recognize the vast gulf--the chasm--between the promise of this ideal about which they'd learned and grown excited, and the real resource and personnel limitations they knew they'd face upon arrival back home.

How are we supposed to do this? They pleaded. We're already so busy doing everything else we have to and we don't even have time to do all that--and now there's more?

The answer was obvious:

Travis Wittwer | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | September 25, 2012

The Woods

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8013832785_f8351707ba_mBy Travis

Sarah Brown Wessling, an English teacher at Johnston High School and 2010 National Teacher of the Year, wrote that "teachers must be able to expose all the 'invisible' work we do." 

I completely agree.

And her comment made me think of the forest adjacent my school. 

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development | August 11, 2012

Building Trust

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3d_moviesThese last few days I've been immersed in a professional experience that has shifted my direction as a teacher: how to use video as a means for facilitating my own and my colleagues' professional growth.

To use video observation successfully, one key is to look objectively at a video of classroom practice and identify critical teacher actions and student actions that are observable--and to note or record these observable actions without evaluation or judgment. Instead of watching teachers and thinking "I like how they did that" or "that is not a good assignment," my attention shifted to noticing the actions without judgment: "The teacher waited while the student revised his own incorrect verbal answer" or "The student recorded her thoughts on a continuum to self-assess."

Judgment is not forbidden, it just isn't first. By identifying the "observables"--the objective concrete details of teaching and learning--I can build a better foundation for evaluating what I can use to improve my own practice and what specific actions can do this. This all got me thinking.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | July 30, 2012

Realigning to Common Core

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File7011343695826By Mark

This summer, I've been participating in a book study about challenges in implementing Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts. In that spirit, I sat down today to look at my scope and sequence for the classes I teach (Freshman English Lit and Comp). All along I've been saying to myself and others that this whole Common Core Standards shifting is no big deal: we're already doing that work, it's just a matter of identifying in those standards all the things we already do--we won't really have to do much that is "new."

As it turns out, this whole process really made me rethink what I teach and how I teach. I found that there were many standards which were addressed, reinforced, and assessed in basically every single unit of the sequence. I also found a few standards which never appeared more than once, buried as a footnote in some broader unit. More concerning: some of the projects and assessments that I and my students enjoy the most were supported by only tenuous connections (at best) to the standards. 

This coming school year, I anticipate that many of my posts will reflect my process with the Common Core. Interestingly, when I try to characterize my feelings, the first word that pops into my head (however irrational this may be) is the word mourning. Some of those projects that kids seem to connect with so well lack strong connection to Common Core, even if they are the tasks that former students still recall to me ten years later. No matter how much I, or they, love the experience, these are the things I really need to examine and honestly assess whether they belong in my classroom under my new expectations.

As I try to help other teachers make this transition to the new standards, I need to remember that word that popped into my head. As I encounter resistance, I need to remember that isn't just about being "opposed to change." I need to remember that the first reaction when you are told to do something new might not actually be a reaction to that which is new, but rather a quick and confusing pang of loss for something deeply enjoyed that no longer seems to fit. 

Travis Wittwer | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Teacher Leadership | May 31, 2012

Edulemma

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I sat at my dining room table this morning, finishing up a crossword, before moving on to what’s new in education news.

Budget cuts, great numbers of teachers leaving the profession, and frustrating class sizes are creating an education dilemma. An edulemma, if you will.

In an effort to view the current situation from all perspectives, I donned my alter ego, William P. Levitt, and found that solutions to our educational situation are within reach. 

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Games, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | May 1, 2012

May

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File5561335491384By Mark

Of my seniors, some may graduate, some may become a statistic.

Of the total FTE in my building, some may have jobs next year, some may be RIF'd.

Of the courses on the master schedule, some classes may be scratched, some may be cobbled together.

I may decide to stay in the classroom. So much depends.

All of these this-or-thats will be decided in May. How appropriate.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Mathematics | April 30, 2012

The English Problem

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File3561335707875By Mark

For several years, my building has been identifying and aligning curriculum to standards--first state standards and now Common Core Standards--with part of this process being the identification of the Power Standards! each unit of instruction is to focus upon.

Simultaneously, we are gearing up for a new teacher evaluation system which figures heavily on a teacher's ability to define what his/her students' learning targets are and assess and document student progress toward those targets.

To an extent, both have been an uneasy fit for me as a high school English teacher. It is not so much in the philosophies underpinning these movements. It is that no one that I talk to seems to understand what I've started calling "The English Problem."

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education | April 14, 2012

Staying Informed about a Moving Target

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File7021334426465By Mark

I do not envy my colleagues who teach high school math.

In the few years I've been teaching, I've watched the mad dash and scramble to react to the nearly annual changes in statewide math assessment. At this point in our building (as I'm sure is the same in every high school), students are working toward three different sets of graduation requirements related to math credit and assessment requirements. From WASL to HSPE to EOC. If only it were just a name change...

As a language arts teacher, I have witnessed relatively little change in terms of the content and skills demanded of my students in our high school statewide assessment. Our HSPE is essentially the WASL. I still feel that the test assesses the basic skills that ought to be expected for a student to earn a diploma that has any value.

I've tried to stay informed about the current state of assessment in Washington, but as it is an ever-moving target--with many moving parts--it is easy to miss something. And I missed something that I think is rather significant. I feel kinda dumb for having missed it. I'm sure somewhere along the line it was announced in a staff meeting or mentioned in an email, but the fact is, I missed it.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Games, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | March 19, 2012

When I'm Happiest

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File5971332208838By Mark

Everyone has probably heard about, or actually read, the New York Times website article that discussed the supposed downward spiral of teacher morale. It highlighted how teachers working in struggling schools had the lowest morale, and the teachers with greater satisfaction tended to have "more opportunities for professional development, more time to prepare their lessons and greater parental involvement in their schools."

Travis recently shared his one cent about how morale can easily crumble in our present atmosphere. Tamara shared some thought provoking questions, too. And Tom found himself indigo and then entered stage five.  

In my meetings and phone calls and emails and faxes (yep, faxes) with legislators the last few weeks, I've found myself repeating the phrase that I feel like I have "a target on my back and the blame for all society's ills on my shoulders." In quiet moments in the car or after my kids are in bed, I too have thought about what other jobs I could apply for.

But the next day, I walk into my classroom, close the door on it all, turn to face them and breathe a sigh of relief.

Travis Wittwer | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Teacher Leadership | March 8, 2012

My One Cent's Worth

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By Travis

As I turned on my classroom lights this morning, I saw an envelope, sitting, in the middle of the floor. It was out of place. I paused as I picked it up, wondering. Someone had slipped the envelope under my door late last night (I left school at 6 pm) or the did so early this morning (I arrived at 7 am). 

Doc - Mar 7, 2012 1-18 PM

The note was from a former student. As I read, I was torn between the emotional beauty of being a teacher, and the sad reality of how Washington State views its teachers. I believe this is a feeling many teachers have had recently.

Rob | Current Affairs, Education, Elementary, Social Issues | February 29, 2012

The Budget Battle in the Other Washington

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Spending on education is about 2% of the federal budget.  That sliver of the budgetary pie was $63.8 billion in 2011.  Even in the climate of debt reduction the President’s education budget for fiscal year 2013 is likely to see an increase.  But this budget will need to be approved by congress.  Given congress’ track record of bi-partisanship this debate could get ugly.