Named One of the Best Educational Blogs 2010 by the Washington Post

About CSTP

Stories from School Blogs by State

Stay Informed

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

Enough is Enough: Fund the COLA


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


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


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 | January 29, 2014

Does the McCleary Ruling Have Teeth?


I wondered this a long time ago.

Earlier this month, the Washington State Supreme Court issued a nine-page evaluation of the legislature's fulfillment of its obligation to meet its consititutional and paramount duty to amply fund public education--which as a reminder, is what the ruling in McCleary, et al. v State of Washington concluded back in 2012.

You have to wonder what the Supreme Court will, or even can, do if the legislature doesn't take appropriate action. Even though several of our legislators believe that the Court has overstepped its authority, as this article from the Seattle Times mentions, there are some other states where the highest court issued orders to their state legislature to take action to rectify some discordance. From the Times (linked above):

The reality is, no one knows exactly what the court would do.

Maren Johnson | January 28, 2014

1080 Instructional Hours?


Timeby Maren Johnson

I'm not the counselor at the school.  I'm not the one out there telling people alcohol is bad. I'm the one at the end of the line trying to save the teenager's life after they have had too much to drink.

~Guest speaker in my science classes last week, my brother, an ER physician, talking about the effects of drug overdoses.

I was extremely appreciative of my brother for taking the time to come into my classes for the day and share his stories and knowledge with my high school science students.  The information he presented was scientific, relevant, and interesting—a great use of instructional time.

It was also interesting to hear his reaction, as someone outside the education system, at being a "teacher for a day."  While I was there to introduce him and provide some moderation of his presentation and student questions, my brother was essentially serving as a guest teacher for the entire school day.

So what were some of my brother’s impressions?  He remarked on the diversity of student backgrounds and attitudes.  (I teach all the tenth graders at my school.  Every one.)  Describing how he felt at the end of the day, he said, “I was tired.”

"I was surprised by the pace of the day.  The bell rings, and the students leave.  Immediately a new group of students come in, and within four minutes, the bell rings and the next class starts.  There's no time to think."  This was my brother, an ER physician, saying he was surprised by the pace of the school day.  My brother is a busy guy at work, so for him to say the day was fast paced tells you something!

There is clearly no extra time in our school day.  A new law would extend the number of instructional hours to 1080 annually in grades 7-12, and would not allow early releases or late starts for collaboration or professional development to count towards that 1080 hours.

Kristin | January 27, 2014

Why Tests Aren't the Point of Education


ImagesCA3LWQ7SBy Kristin

Every summer, we go to the lake to swim, and my daughters have to pass a swim test before they can go beyond the rope to the deep water, where it's fun.

Like being able to swim, and not drowning in deep water, being able to read and do math to a certain level of aptitude is important in our society.  Tests were written that measure whether or not a child has basic skills at certain points in her school career.

In the hysteria and panic following our realization that children who live in poverty, predominantly children of color, aren't meeting minimum standards of skill, we've focused more and more on the test.  That's unfortunate. We haven't lengthened the school day or year, reduced class size for those students, or put any money into summer training of teachers.  Instead, we're simply told to test more, and we're told the test results have real consequences.

Tom | Education, Education Policy, Elementary | January 25, 2014

Why I support SB 6082


ImagesBy Tom

One of the ironies of my job is how lonely it sometimes feels. I’m surrounded by kids all day long, yet I seldom get to talk to the teacher who works right next to me in the hallway. That irony was brought home last week when I noticed some of her kids working in the hall on a social studies project involving Native Americans. As it happened, my class was also studying Northwest Tribes, and both classes would have undoubtedly benefitted had the two of us planned that unit together, instead of in total isolation.

But unless Olympia does something, it’s only going to get worse.

Currently, students have to receive 1000 hours of instruction per year. But this only has to be a district average, which means some kids have more than a thousand, some less. According to legislation passed last year, next year’s students are supposed to have six hours of instruction per day, 180 days per year. That works out to 1080 hours. That’s for secondary students; for elementary students the total has to be 1000 hours.

Teachers, for the most part, will probably not notice the increase in hours. What they will notice, however, is the DECREASE in collaborative time. Take my district, for example. We have a waiver from the state to convert five of those 180 days into professional development days, which are divided into district-wide PD, building time, collaborative time and individual time. The thinking is that the decrease in instructional time is offset by the benefits gained through the professional development of the teachers. Up until now, the state has agreed with that thinking and granted our district a waiver, year in and year out.

Last year the Legislature changed the law. But this is the same Legislature that passed TPEP, which includes a mandate for teachers to collaborate. Districts like mine, therefore, are stuck in the position of mandating that teachers work together, yet will be unable to provide time for that to happen.

Enter SB 6082, sponsored by Senators McAuliffe and McCoy. This bill simply includes language that allows teacher collaboration to count as part of those 1000 or 1080 hours. (By the way; recess, passing time and parent-teacher conferences are already counted.) This doesn’t address the issue of district time, building time and individual time, but it does allow teachers to work collaboratively.

There are other ways to increase collaborative time, of course, but they involve money. And it’s looking more and more like the Legislature is holding tight to the purse-strings. Which is why SB 6082 was introduced.

It makes total sense. If we value teacher collaboration – and we apparently do, since it’s mandated by law – then we should include it in the school day.

And maybe I’ll be a little less lonely.

Tom | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Elementary | January 13, 2014

At least there's one school that won't be wasting time on test-prep this year


Wasting-timeBy Tom

In years past, February marks the beginning of “Test-Prep Season” in my classroom. It isn’t all we do, of course, but I try to weave activities and practice assessments into my plans, gradually increasing the intensity throughout the late winter and early spring until mid-April, when it’s basically an all-out siege.

But not this year.

This year I’m not doing of that. This year I’m teaching, and my students are learning, all year long; including the second half of April.

And here’s why: this year our school board decided that each school in our district (Edmonds) could decide how they wanted to transition from the MSP to the Smarter Balanced Assessment. Option one was to take both. Option two was to take only the MSP. Option three was to field test the SBA and not take the MSP. We chose option three, in the most lopsided vote we’ve ever had, even though the results of the SBA would not be released.

I voted with the majority on this one; in fact I was a leading voice in the discussion that preceded the vote. Option one, taking both tests, seemed ridiculous. Our faculty is trying to become familiar with the CCSS, and that takes time. Getting the students ramped up for another round of MSPs also takes time, and time is the scarcest resource we have. It also takes time for students to become familiar with the new standards, which is what they’re doing this year. Taking two tests on two different sets of standards seemed like a bad idea.

Option two, taking only the MSP, was another non-starter. In order for our students and staff to get a handle on the new standards, it seemed imperative that we get a chance to see the new assessment this year. Besides that, the new tests are all on-line, and piloting the tests will give us a chance to see if our technology can handle the demand. Furthermore, we wanted to have our students’ scores become part of the pilot pool. We have a relatively high-need population; when it comes time to set the benchmarks, it’s good to have a broad student base.

But the most important reason for me was the simplest one. I love to teach and I love to watch my students learn. Test-prep is not teaching and taking practice tests is not really learning. And when you’re in a classroom and you’re not teaching or you’re not learning, you’re wasting your time.

I hate wasting time.

Maren Johnson | Assessment, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Science | January 11, 2014

Speed Dating and Student Work: Half Days and a Senate Bill


Stopwatchby Maren Johnson

We sat down at a table in the science classroom at 2:30, just 10 minutes after the bell rang at the end of the school day.  We were ready to go: three teachers looking at student work.  Oh wait, there’s a student at the door who needs an assignment—one of us went to help him, the rest continued on.  What were we up to?  We were trying to collaborate, and we only had twenty minutes.  One of our members had volunteered to facilitate, and we even had an informal agenda: 5 minutes—introduce the lesson and provide background.  10 minutes—follow a simplified high-medium-low protocol for finding characteristics of the student work.  5 minutes—debrief.  

Partway through the high-medium-low protocol, a recently graduated student appeared at the door with a big grin, coming back to our high school to say hello.  We were happy to see him (he was a very jolly student)—we wished him well and sent him on to visit the math teacher.  Then we continued looking at the student work!  2:50 rolled around—we got up and left the room.  None of us usually leave the school at 2:50, the end of the contracted day, but on that day, I had another appointment, and needed to go, meaning that our collaboration time truly was limited to twenty minutes.  Twenty minutes is the length of time collaboration would have to be if it were to fit within the normal school day, with no early release, late start, or other modified schedule.

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

Growth, and then...


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


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.

Kristin | Education, Education Policy | December 30, 2013

Washington Teachers Still Sacrificing COLA


20131230_153121By Kristin

Mr. Ungritch, my tenth grade geometry teacher, was a superstar.  He gave each of us nicknames, made us do push ups for goofing off, and allowed us to throw the whole year's work out the window in exchange for whatever score we earned on one final proof, drawn out of a hat and done on the board.  We loved him.  He was a superstar in another way, too - he never complained about being a teacher.  He didn't complain about the work load, the pay, or the parents.  He once said, "Teachers actually get paid really well, if you know how to live right." 

I have always remembered what a rare gift it was to have a teacher who was so content, and I've tried to follow his example.  I love my job.  I love my students and their parents.  I feel blessed to have great benefits, time off with my daughters, and a reliable paycheck.  I'm grateful to taxpayers, and I want to be worth my pay.

On the other hand, it has been a long time since voters approved a cost of living allowance, or COLA, for teachers with Initiative 732.  Over 60 percent of Washington voters said "yes" to giving educators in public k-12 schools, community colleges, and technical colleges a cost of living adjustment.  It was suspended in 2008 because there wasn't enough money.  Teachers didn't like that, but we are nothing if not public servants, so we accepted it.  We're still accepting it. 


Kristin | December 28, 2013

Can You Sue the State Over a Poor Education? Yes. You Can.


B Vergaray Kristin

Students Matter, a national non-profit organization whose mission is to sponsor litigation that will improve education, will go to trial on January 27th in what will be a groundbreaking lawsuit.  Vergara vs. California is about educational inequity - that current dismissal, tenure, and evaluation systems cause "devastating consequences" for students who live in poverty.  The focus is on teacher quality and how current firing, RIF, and tenure systems work to keep ineffective teachers in classrooms, disproportionately in classrooms of high-poverty schools.

The plaintiffs in the case are nine public school children, ranging in age from eight to seventeen.  If Vergara wins, enormous change could happen.  Teacher quality and how to measure it is a hot topic here in Washington State, too.  The vague anecdotes fly back and forth - a terrible teacher shuffled from school to school and reading the paper at her desk, a brilliant teacher whose politics earned her the wrath of her principal and who was unfairly dismissed.  I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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

Student Growth Percentiles and Teacher Evaluation: More Questions than Answers


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: 

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.

Tom | December 21, 2013

OSPI, KUOW and the Seattle Times


Triangulation-methodBy Tom

By now you’ve probably heard that Washington State’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has agreed to provide the Seattle Times with a large amount of data concerning student test scores, attendance records, discipline records and demographics. They will also provide the newspaper with staff data. To be clear, this is data that is not already available to the public.

It seems clear why the Seattle Times wants this data. They are in the business of selling information. If they can get a better understanding of what’s happening in our state’s schools, they can package that information into news articles and sell it to the public. That seems obvious. What isn’t clear – at least to me – is why OSPI has entered this agreement. I honestly don’t see what they stand to gain by providing The Times with data that isn’t already released.

This bothers me at two levels. As a parent, I’m not crazy about my sons’ scholastic information being sifted through in some newspaper office by a bunch of reporters who are essentially looking for a story. It’s not that our family has anything to hide, but it’s still our information, and it should be our decision on who gets to look at it. The Times has tried to assuage those concerns by maintaining that the information will be “de-identified,” but as KUOW pointed out, it wouldn’t take much effort to use all the data to triangulate which student earned which test score or which student was suspended for which offence. That bothers me.

I’m also bothered as a teacher. It seems clear to me that The Times will have the capacity to report test scores aggregated at the individual classroom level. If you’ll remember, The Los Angeles Times did this a few years ago, and the fallout was disasterous. Whether the Seattle Times is planning this or not, we’re not sure; but it sure looks like they’ll be able to.

The problem is that when a specific teacher’s student test scores are published, they’re devoid of context, because that context would breach confidentiality. Here’s an example: two boys in our school recently lost their stepfather. He was killed violently while in the process of committing a felony. This had an adverse effect, not only on those two boys, but their teachers and their classmates. And when I say “adverse effect” I mean an effect that will probably show up in student test score data. Statisticians call this “noise,” which refers to random happenstances that push or pull data either up or down. They call it noise, because when you aggregate data, positive and negative noise tends to balance out, and the aggregated data isn’t affected. The negative effect of a homicide, for example, could be balanced by the positive effect of another family in the same school whose father got a huge promotion and raise.

But that doesn’t work so well when you drill down to the classroom level, where what remains of our privacy protections prohibit us from providing the context of our students’ test scores. Consider my classroom. I voluntarily took all eight IEP kids in our school’s fourth grade. This was a decision that worked well at the school level; by placing all eight of those kiddos in one class, I could more easily collaborate with the reading resource teacher. Instead of pulling out two or three kids from three different classrooms, each of which is at a different place in the curriculum, she can pull her whole group out from one classroom and focus on the specific skill that they’ve been working on. It works great at the school level, but it’s not going to look so great (for me) if and when my students’ test scores are published in The Times.

It’s great that the Seattle Times is taking such a keen interest in education. They don’t always get it right, but sometimes they do. And obviously, the more information they have to work with, the better. But it seems to me like this agreement gives them access to more information than they can be trusted with.

And that bothers me.

Tom | December 20, 2013

Snow Days


Snow-DayBy Tom

Snow Days are literally, if not figuratively, a gift from above. They usually come with some warning, and frequently don’t come despite warning, which is why they always come as a surprise.

Snow Days, of course, aren’t much of a gift. They’re more like a bad loan. We trade a day with inclement weather and 8 hours of daylight for a day with 16 hours of daylight and 70 degree weather. That’s a horrible deal.

And as much as we might think we need a day off now, that need will be far greater in mid-June. Trust me.

But of course Snow Days are neither a gift nor a loan. They’re a response to nature. Moisture blows in off the ocean over a mass of cold air and precipitation falls in the form of snow. Snow makes it hard for vehicles to get around, so schools close for the day. And everyone sleeps in.

And for me, the beauty of a Snow Day is that act of yielding to nature. They remind us that we are not fully in charge here. We can predict snow, we can hope for it, we can even pray for it, but we can’t order it. It either happens or it doesn’t.

And when it does happen, it makes no sense to wish that it didn’t happen or worry about the plans we made that won’t reach fruition.

Just let it happen.

And enjoy it.

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


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...

CSTP--Staff | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Social Issues | December 11, 2013

Teacher of the Year is Dyslexic


Jeff Dunn 1

Our guest blogger, Jeffrey Dunn is 2014 Regional Teacher of the year from ESD 101. Jeffrey is an educator, cultural critic, & backwoods modernist currently teaching in Deer Park, Washington. He invites others to read bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Richard Brautigan.


Try and imagine the impact this fact has on my students. No longer am I a model of all that is correct. No longer am I the authority on all that is academic. In this case, I am learning disabled as defined in Washington State law (WAC 392-172A-03055). This law reads that learning disabilities may include “conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.” In short, I am not the model of perfection students are led to believe all we teachers are.  

Researchers from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity's Sally Shaywitz (Overcoming Dyslexia) and the College de France and  Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale'sStanislas Dehaene (Reading in the Brain) estimate that between 10-20% (call it the midpoint, 15%) of all human populations are dyslexic (variation  is a result of definition and assessment practice). Think of it, in any class of 25, we should expect 4 of our students to be dyslexic. My thirty-six years of teaching experience has proven this statistic to be true.

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

Let's Build a Waiver Loophole


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


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?

image from

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.


Kristin | December 1, 2013

The Smarter Balanced Assessment


Computer testBy Kristin

The first time I tried taking a practice Smarter Balanced assessment I almost lost my mind.  I was overwhelmed by the user interface, which required me to scroll up and down through a long skinny column of text.  I was defeated by my inability to mark up the text, see the questions and text at the same time, and the test's awkward expansion tab which allowed me to widen the text's column but then prevented me from seeing the questions.  With a big knot of anxiety in my stomach, a headache, and a sense of failure I shut it down without answering even the first question.

When this video went viral, I cheered the student's every word.  Yes, I thought, this has all gotten out of hand!  But then I remembered how much I really liked both the Common Core and its intent - that every student in the country be held to the same high standards.  I like the standards, and I like how well they're aligned from K-12, so I decided to try the SB assessment again and guess what?  It's a good test.

Tom | November 30, 2013

How do you deal with Helicopter Parents?


ApacheBy Tom

I was reading the Seattle Times the other day when I came across an editorial by the venerable Lynn K. Varner. In it, she describes an essay written by a guy named Ron Clark who quit his principal job because he was fed up with dealing with over-involved parents.

That’s too bad. It sounds like Ron Clark was a good principal, and it’s unfortunate that he was essentially run out of town by people who actually love him. He’s not alone, of course; the education world is awash with tales of helicopter parents who badger their children’s teachers and principals with complaints, questions and comments. They want to know more about a grade on a test. They want to suggest the next field trip. They want to know why their child is sitting in the back of the room. They wonder why their daughter is always picked fifth in kickball.

What they don’t realize is that in a typical elementary school there are 26 kids per class, and twenty classrooms in the school. A teacher deals with fifty parents each year; a principal deals with about a thousand. If every parent contacts their child’s teacher twice a week, either by voice or email, that teacher has to produce one hundred responses. If each response takes three minutes to compose and send, that’s five hours. That’s a lot. Nothing, though, compared to the principal. If she gets only one message per parent per month, that’s 250 responses per week. Her responses, of course, take much longer, since she probably has to find out exactly what happened in whatever classroom the child is in. If this takes ten minutes per message, then…well, you get the idea.

My point is this: teachers and principals in some schools spend an incredible amount of time dealing with parents. Granted, some of this time is well spent. Dealing with parents is an important part of our job. Parents have every right to advocate for their children and we have the responsibility to address their concerns. And there are legitimate concerns that do need to be addressed.

But this should even out across schools. There’s no reason to think that parents in school A, in the affluent, well-connected suburbs, should have more legitimate concerns than parents in school B, twelve miles away, in the high-risk low-income area. (If anything, they should have less) Yet, it seems that wealthy, connected parents have more concerns – and send more messages – than parents in less affluent areas.

In fact, educators in high-needs schools seem to have the opposite problem. They can’t seem to get parents involved at all with their kid’s education. They have low turnout for events, fund raising efforts are futile and permission slips go unsigned.

Then there’s my school. Right there in the sweet spot. Our parents are generally supportive, yet generally hands-off. Permission slips get signed, but emails go unsent. There are well-packed lunch boxes in every backpack, but no helicopters in the hallway.

And that’s just fine with me. When I tell my district colleagues from the rich side of town that I get about two parent emails per month, they ask if we have any openings. I get the same response from teachers in the other end of town when I tell them that I don’t have to buy any coats or shoes for my students.

Life in the sweet pot. And for that I’m thankful.

How about you? Which side of the sweet spot is your school? And how are you coping with it?

Rob | Education, Education Policy, Mentoring, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | November 27, 2013

Beginning Educator Support


By Rob

The top priority of the Quality Education Council Report is to “Make Progress Toward Ample Funding for Basic Education.”  The QEC recognizes many “non—basic education programs to be essential for providing critical services for students” – including funds for professional development.  A little further down the list of priorities is support for the recruitment, development, placement, and retention of educators who are culturally competent and possess skills and competencies in language acquisition.

That’s what I do.  I am part of a team of six Instructional Mentors who oversee the novice teacher induction program.  But funding for our position does not come from the state.  


CSTP--Staff | Education, National Board Certification, Professional Development |

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants - Gratitude from an NBCT


The following is a guest post by NBCT Shelly Milne who serves as the teacher librarian at Cashmere Middle School. Shelly is the current president of the Washington Language Arts Council, and this summer she was part of a team that created and presented a 4-Day Common Core Jump Start for Washington Educators. 


In August my grandson, Dylan was preparing to start kindergarten. His family had just purchased a new house. Since they were busy with renovations, I was lucky enough to get to take him to buy school supplies. Dylan and I strolled enthusiastically down the school supply aisles at Target filling our cart with paper, glue sticks, pens, and the promise of a year filled with new discoveries. As we filled the cart, it occurred to me that after twenty-six years of teaching, I was just as excited as Dylan to start the school year. Instead of getting bogged down with many challenges facing today’s educators, I looked forward to the promise of a year filled with new discoveries just like Dylan starting his first year of kindergarten.

However, before I achieved my National Board Certification eight years ago, I was feeling isolated and powerless in my profession. A feeling I wrote about at a writing retreat funded by the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession.  At the writing retreat and other professional development activities I attended after I certified, I finally felt like my voice mattered. I also realized that there were others who had gone before me on this NB journey who were ready, able, and dedicated to helping me develop my leadership skills. When I made the shift from feeling powerless to feeling empowered and supported, everything in my world changed.

Last spring as I organized my professional growth experiences for my Renewal Portfolio, I reflected on the many leadership opportunities that marked my growth as an educator since becoming National Board Certified in 2004.  As I put my renewal portfolio together I asked myself an important question, “What made each of these experiences so beneficial to my professional growth?” One answer bubbled to the surface. These professional growth opportunities had provided me with the chance to learn, grow, plan, collaborate, stretch, work, and create with talented, dedicated, forward-thinking professionals. More than anything else, I concluded, as I reflected on my eight years as an NBCT, I was grateful for the people I had worked with and the opportunities presented to me.

It’s for that reason that I’ve already started encouraging my daughter, a first year teacher in Washington, to start planning when she will begin her National Board Portfolio.  Teachers need support and inspiration to grow and the National Board network provides members with both. Sir Isaac Newton knew that when he stated, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I want my daughter and other young educators in Washington to have the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of innovators in education just like I was able to do. The National Board provides a support network that encourages growth, leadership, innovation, and reflection.

In this season of gratitude, I would like to thank all of the giants who have made this journey so meaningful to me. Thank you to all of you who have sent me an email about an opportunity available for NBCTs! Thank you to all of you who sat beside me in in-service classes and shared your ideas, hopes, and dreams! Thank you for organizing events, making travel arrangements, presenting, and planning. I would like to express my gratitude for educators who have inspired, led, and pushed me to reach higher, dream bigger, and see further. As I enter the next ten years as an NBCT, I am mindful of the giants who paved the way for me and aware of my responsibility to provide inspiration, insight, and hope for the next generation of NBCTs in Washington State. 

Tom | November 24, 2013

Congratulations, New NBCTs!


DownloadBy Tom

The National Board recently released the scores to last year’s candidates. If you’re one of those who received some good news, I have a few things to tell you.

First of all, congratulations! You did something incredibly difficult, and you did it successfully. You should celebrate. And I mean a real celebration, not a six pack and a thing of Oreos. This is why they make champagne. This is why they sell “surf and turf.” This is why they let certain bottles of bourbon sit there for ten years. Have fun! If not you, who? If not now, when?

So after your party – and the inevitable hangover – you’ll begin to wonder “What next?” The first thing you need to do is thank those who supported you. Start close to home. Then branch out. Your colleagues. Your cohort facilitator. Your cohort. Your Jump Start trainers. The students who endured your mood swings. Yes, you worked your butt off last year, but you probably weren’t alone. Thank those who helped.

And then think about giving back. Those of us on whose shoulders you now stand worked very hard to build a strong support system in Washington State for National Board Certification. We created Jump Start. We created a system of facilitated cohorts. Most importantly, we pushed for legislation to provide bonuses for NBCTs. You need to know that when we pushed for this legislation, we sold it as an investment. Lawmakers were convinced that the state would get more back than what they spent on the bonuses. We convinced them they would get better instruction and leadership from NBCTs. What that means for you is that you now have to live up to that portfolio you wrote. It also means that you should give thought to taking on a leadership position or two. That shouldn’t be too hard. Most teachers, especially NBCTs, have more opportunities than time. If you’re the rare teacher who has to actually seek out leadership opportunities, please consider your local association. For two reasons: they need your expertise and they, more than anyone, were instrumental in getting the bonus legislation through the legislature. And by the way, you’ve no doubt noticed that the state also has an additional bonus for those teachers who choose to take their expertise to a high-needs school. If you decide to do that, you are truly awesome.

So after the party, the hangover, the thank yous and the committee-joining spree, then what? The next step is to head over to the National Board website and download the renewal materials. So soon? Yes! The renewal process is essentially a continuation of the initial process. You basically have to document what you’ve done since certification to impact student learning. It’s not nearly as difficult as the first time around, but here’s the thing: if you look through the documents now, you can use them as a blueprint for organizing and planning your professional development over the next eight years. If you don’t, you’ll basically be playing a game of backfill; choosing things you did that kinda-sorta meet the requirements of the renewal process. Trust me on this.

A word of warning: don’t fall into the trap of perseverating on those aspects of your results that didn’t measure up. Yes, it was a ten-part assessment, and no, you probably didn’t hit 275 on every single assessment. Neither did I. But let it go. In the world of National Board Certification, no one cares what your final score was. And no one cares whether you passed every one of the ten assessments. It’s about as meaningful as your middle school GPA. There are no mitigating factors or caveats when it comes to certification. It’s only certify or not certify. The only exception is those teachers who certified on their second or third attempt. Those people are in a class by themselves. A higher class. Those people have the perseverance, determination and grit that the rest of us can only envy.

Again, congratulations. And welcome to the community. Now get busy.

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

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


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?

Maren Johnson | Mentoring, National Board Certification, Professional Development | November 17, 2013

The National Board Wait


by Maren Johnson

The Wait. It can be stressful. One National Board candidate-in-waiting said a few days ago: "Just rip the band-aid off!" A renewal candidate emailed his thoughts in the week before renewal decision release--here's his exact quote: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagggghhhh!"

It's a bit like Christmas Eve, but you don't know what kind of present you will be getting in the morning. All across the country right now, National Board candidates are waiting for score release, the day they find out if they certified, or did not certify yet.

National Board Certification has a cycle. First candidates make the decision to pursue the rigorous certification--it's extraordinary professional development, but also a lot of work! The next phase of the cycle? Completing a portfolio based on a set of national teaching standards. Finally being able to hit "submit" on the ePortfolio is a big moment. Taking the assessment center exercises can be intense, and often happens near the end of the school year. The shared experiences throughout this cycle contribute to National Board teachers having something of a group identity--when meeting for the first time, they know they have a background in common!

We are now in the waiting portion of the cycle. The wait is a unique time. A few years ago, in the last few weeks of waiting to find out if I certified, someone pointed out to me that adults don't always get as many opportunities for anticipation as kids do--and waiting to find out the results of National Board Certification is one, so try to enjoy the period of anticipation! It wasn't bad advice.

Then, of course, the ever-cheerful candidate support providers weigh in with a chirpy, "It's a three year process!" And it is a three year process. And while it may sound trite, simply submitting a complete National Board portfolio is in and of itself a huge accomplishment--it's almost impossible not to develop as a reflective practitioner just by pursuing certification. Candidates who do not certify the first time face disappointment, but often those who decide to continue a second or third time report even greater professional growth. Score release is a time to congratulate those who certify. It's also a time to support those who do not certify in providing more evidence next time if they wish to continue.

So there is a cycle, and with National Board 3.0, that cycle is going to be changing. What will that look like exactly? Well, we should be finding out more this upcoming year. For the moment, however? Let's put our thoughts towards the candidates, the individuals who have worked so hard this past year. Good luck to all those current candidates-in-waiting!


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

College Ready?


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."

Maren Johnson | Books, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | November 13, 2013

Class Size and Deathless Prose: Clamor in the Classroom!

image from

by Maren Johnson

When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you're not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.

~Frank McCourt, Teacher Man

McCourt, a thirty-year teaching veteran and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes, is describing the reason it took him so long in life, until the age of 66 actually, to write his first book.

Unlike Frank McCourt, I am not trying to "fashion deathless prose." I am just trying to write this blog post. However, I know what he is talking about. After a day of five classes, interacting with one hundred-and-some-impossibly-large number of high school students, putting together a coherent series of thoughts can be a daunting challenge.

Last year I had a student teacher--an outstanding one. This year, she has her own classroom in a different district. One of my fellow teachers recently gave her Teacher Man, which we also read for a school book study a few years ago. My former student teacher brought the "deathless prose" and "clamor of the classroom" quotation above to our attention. Yes, that "clamor of the classroom" is often a positive thing, but, still, it is a day-long clamor! My former student teacher is dealing with many of the challenges faced by new teachers as they enter the profession. On top of all this, she has some very large class sizes! I have a few of those as well, and some of my colleagues have classes that are downright physically crowded.

My large classes are full of students with large personalities! One student wants to tell about the funny thing that happened to him yesterday afternoon. He has a new story every day. Another student has a long, complicated, and ongoing drama involving a boyfriend. A student is learning English and wants to follow me around asking questions. Another student is learning English and sits silently. One student unexpectedly shows up with some silica salts that change color when dehydrated. This will require a Bunsen burner. Three students are about to leave for the sports event and need their homework right now. All that put together adds up to "clamor in the classroom," seriously complicated by large class sizes!

While the sheer number of daily human interactions itself can sometimes be hard for both students and teachers, there are other reasons large class sizes pose problems. With smaller classes, we are able to provide more individualized attention to each student--and students have more opportunities to make relationships with adults in the classroom and with eachother. Low income students show especially large academic gains when they have small class sizes. Teachers stay in the profession longer when their class sizes are not so large--and this results in more consistent and stable instruction in schools.  School counselors with large caseloads face similar issues.

Back in 2009, the Washington state legislature passed ESHB 2261, which established the Quality Education Council. The Quality Education Council adopted recommendations for specific lower class sizes, but staffing allocations in the state budget have yet to fund these.

Now the Washington state legislature needs to put its own recommendations for lower class sizes, recommendations adopted by the Quality Education Council, into place in our schools.  It might be time to clamor for it.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | November 10, 2013

What They Learn vs. What I Cover


File527fbcb709896By Mark

I had big plans for this three day weekend. 

Like many of my colleagues, when I look at the calendar and see three or four day weekends (or five-day, in the case of Thanksgiving), I don't think necessarily about all the relaxation I can achieve. Instead, I wonder if I could get a few class sets of essays turned around in that extended weekend. Those big writing assignments take time to provide useful feedback upon. For me, that means 15 or 20 minutes per paper to provide critical, focused feedback for improvement.

My kids submit their writing via Google Drive, so I can add margin comments (and cut-and-paste the comments I find myself adding frequently). When I reviewed their papers Friday after school, I knew I had screwed up.

Kristin | November 8, 2013

CSTP is Ten!


988718_10151882181553288_1695042626_nBy Kristin

CSTP turns ten this year. 

Ten years ago I was teaching at Ingraham High School in north Seattle, pregnant with my first child, and somewhere down in Tacoma Jeanne Harmon thought it would be great if teachers were given the tools they needed to be more involved with creating the education policies that affect them and their students.

I don't know when I first took advantage of CSTP.  I can't remember if applying to write for this blog came first, or if I attended a teacher leadership training through CSTP and then learned about the blogging opportunity, but this is what I do remember about that first interaction: we met at a beautiful retreat center in Seattle.  It felt luxurious.  It felt really good to be sitting in a room with grown up tables and chairs, with windows that looked out onto a fountain instead of in a drafty cafeteria.  For lunch we went to the retreat center's cafe and ate delicious food in a beautiful room, and I thought, "This is what happens when teachers take care of teachers." 

Maren Johnson | Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Science | November 3, 2013

Zombie Brains, Talk Moves, and the Next Generation Science Standards!


Brain in hand
By Maren Johnson

The zombies' odd, shambling gait, and their need to hold their arms straight out in front in order to maintain balance?  That's indicative of damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for motor coordination.  The zombies' hunger, and thus their unrelenting urge to chase and eat humans?  Clearly a problem with the hypothalamus, the appetite control center of the brain—the zombies just don't know when they are full! And all that zombie rage? Oh yeah, that's originating in the amygdala, apparently overactive in the case of zombies.

I started the lesson by giving students a chance to surface their prior knowledge: students wrote answers to the questions, "How do zombies look different from humans?" and "How do zombies behave differently from humans?" We then discussed their answers as a group. I was a bit floored by the response. Students who rarely participated were eager to share, and these students knew A LOT about zombies. All that zombie knowledge gathered over the years from movies, TV shows, books, and video games? Now the students had a chance to share it in an academic setting. They also wanted to know more about the biology involved!

Many of the students were wildly excited about this science lesson.  My choice of words here is deliberate--in one of my class periods, it was a bit, well....wild. Students talking all at once, to me and to each other—they were on topic but almost no one could hear anyone. How to contain the chaos yet still direct that positive energy towards learning?

Tom | October 27, 2013

The Parent Conference


Bela-as-Dracula-bela-lugosi-12028319-456-652-1tspyvoBy Tom

Hi there! Come on in! You must be Paul’s mom.

Yes I am. Hello.

You didn’t bring Paul?

No, he wanted to stay home. I hope that’s OK.

No problem. It’s good to see you again. We met at curriculum night, but didn’t really get a chance to talk.

Yes, there was a lot of people that day.

There was. So Paul tells me your family is from Romania?

I am from Romania. But Paul was born in America.

So you must either be a vampire or a gymnast.

(laughing) I am not a vampire! They are all from Transylvania! My family is from Bucharest, south from Transylvania. But I was a gymnast; most of my life until college! In my country all of the girls they do gymnastics.

Does Paul do gymnastics?

No, he likes soccer.

Not baseball?

Not baseball, only soccer.

Well, let’s talk about his academics.

Kristin | October 23, 2013

Student Centered Classroom Management - Part II


Sensei_instruction_1By Kristin

In an earlier post, I promised to write about how I transformed my classroom management so that it was student-centered. 

It all started with my third period - a reading intervention class where every child was behind in his or her skills because of one reason or another - often unscholarly behavior.  In my third period I had five boys who were all good friends, and they were in the habit of socializing instead of working.  I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't ever kick them out - an intervention class is the end of the line, and they were behind because of time spent in the office instead of class. National efforts to end discrimination in school discipline, something my district is under investigation for, echo what we already know - African American and Latino students get in trouble more often than their white and Asian peers.  I made a personal commitment to create a classroom that served the most challenging kids, but it wasn't easy.

There were days that when 3rd period began, the boys continued their conversation about Mohammad's shoes not matching his shirt, or what happened in last night's game. I would get Mohammad to sit down and Michael would pop up, arguing with Stephen.  I'd get Michael and Stephen to sit down and Trey and Mohammad and Donald would get going.  I'd get them to all sit down and work, I'd finally have some time to go work with the other students, then Donald would fart and it all fell apart again.  Luckily, there was Sensei.

Tom | October 19, 2013

CSTP Turns Ten



By Tom

I teach fourth grade, which means that my students will turn ten at some point in the next eleven months. There’s something special about being ten. In a lot of ways, people are more confident and self-assured at age ten than they’ll be in a long time, if not forever. When you’re ten, you’ve pretty much mastered childhood. In another year or so, you’ll be in the throes of The Awkward Years, and then its adolescence, from where there’s no return. Ten year olds know a lot, but it’s what they don’t know that makes them so fun to be around.

CSTP is also turning ten. Like my students, CSTP came along at a time when those of us in education were getting blindsided by the stupidity that was NCLB, a misguided law that blamed schools for everything wrong with education. It was the beginning as the great data bath that has consumed education for a decade. Then came the current administration, which refined the blame game by targeting individual teachers, touting overbearing evaluation systems as the silverest bullet.

As this mess has played out in Washington State, CSTP has played the role of the adult child in the room, reminding the children adults that you don’t get anywhere by pointing fingers. You get somewhere by empowering teachers; by helping them help each other become better. You get somewhere by encouraging teachers to collaborate and by helping them find a voice and tell their story.

Like my students, CSTP is young; young enough not to have a vested interest in the battles that consume so many school reform and anti-school reform stakeholders. And like my students, CSTP has a long, promising life ahead of it.

Because I honestly believe we’re at the cusp of something huge. And I truly think that organizations like CSTP are uniquely poised to take us there. I think that soon we’ll see a great coming-together of all the disparate fragments in education. Advances in neuroscience and learning theory will converge with increased private and public funding and the realization that every cog in the system is important; every parent, every teacher, every principal, every lawmaker, every venture capitalist, and – most importantly – every student. We’ll stop blaming schools and teachers for our shortcomings and instead of blaming someone new, we’ll realize we can actually solve our problems by working together. And organizations like CSTP, which have always had that attitude, will become the drivers of this new spirit of cooperation.

Or maybe I’m just being overly optimistic. Which is what you get from being around ten-year-olds all day.

Kristin | October 14, 2013

Why Some TFA Alums Undermine TFA


Barkhorn_TFA_post  By Kristin

Eleanor Barkhorn, a Senior Associate Editor at The Atlantic who oversees the Education Channel wrote this piece about how she almost quit after her first year as a Teach For America corps member, but didn't.

Ms. Barkhorn's experience teaching Black children in the Mississippi Delta had the same effect on her that it has had on so many other unfortunately vocal TFA alums - it changed her life, made her a better journalist, opened her eyes to the reality of racism, forced her to summit the peak that was Eleanor's Inner Being and introduced her to her own true self - and this is exactly why so many teachers resist the idea of TFA.

Tom |

High School Kids and Homework. Help!


6138By Tom

I went to O’Dea high school, which is a small, all-boys school in downtown Seattle. Our Spanish teacher, Brother Patatucci, had a unique way of getting us to do our homework. At the start of class he would tell us to open our workbooks to the assigned page while he walked up and down the aisles with a large, thick, leather strap. If your workbook page was finished, he would move along. If it wasn’t, you had to hold out a hand and have it strapped. It hurt like crazy, and the only relief was to grab the cool, metal bars of our desks until the pain subsided.

It was a different era, obviously, and I doubt they still use corporal punishment, even at Catholic high schools. Of course, you can’t argue with the results; not only can I order a beer and a plate of tacos in any Azteca, but I could stand on the corner in any town in Mexico and ask passersby for the location of the local library. Learning!

I was thinking of Brother Patatucci this summer while leading a training on classroom management. Most of the participants were elementary teachers and I felt reasonably comfortable addressing most of their questions. But one lady was a high school English teacher. And she came there looking for a solution to a very specific problem: how could she get her students to do their homework. Her class, she explained, was pretty much predicated on students either reading or writing something at home so they could discuss it in class. When students didn’t do their homework – and most of them didn’t – there wasn’t much for them to do in class. Hence the problem.

Frankly, I was at a loss. I teach fourth grade, and our solution to homework refusal is pretty straightforward: no homework; no recess. For reasons I’ve never understood, high schools don’t have recess, so kids who don’t do their homework simply don’t do their homework. And apparently it’s a huge problem.

The rest of the participants and I tried to offer solutions. We suggested making the reading material and writing assignments more compelling. She’d already tried that and was continuing to try it; she’d gone so far as to asign comic books, and her students still wouldn’t read them. We suggested making homework a bigger part of their grade. She tried that, but her students didn’t care. Even when they failed her course, they didn’t care. We suggested contacting the parents. She’d already been down that path; apparently the parents weren’t much help. I suggested she just have them do the reading and writing in-class and forego homework altogether. She’d already thought of that; in fact that was pretty much the strategy she’d settled upon. The problem was that by basically doing all the work in class with no homework, she wasn’t able to move through the required course content and was on-notice by her district.

Like I said, I was at a loss. I have two high school kids of my own. Frankly, keeping them on top of their homework is practically my part-time job. Like most districts, we have an on-line tool that tells parents about missing assignments. Of course these things only work when people look at them and care about them. And apparently not everyone does.

Which is why I’m posting this question: how do high school teachers get their students to do homework?

Please tell me we’ve moved beyond Brother Patatucci.

Maren Johnson | Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Science | October 12, 2013

Little Red Marbles and the Next Generation Science Standards

Photo Oct 11, 2013, 11:09 AM

by Maren Johnson

"Atoms are little red marbles too small to see," responded one of my students when I asked what he knew about atoms. I teach biology, so while atoms are important, we don't talk about them every day, and it was near the beginning of the school year. I asked a few clarifying questions to figure out what he actually meant.

No, he didn't think atoms were LIKE little red marbles, he actually thought they WERE little red marbles, that is to say, little round hard things colored red. Where did he get this idea? Well, to be honest, probably right here at school! We frequently use models at my school to teach about atoms. There's a few demonstration models up to the left created by the crafty physical science teacher at my school. Down to the right you can see a model of a neon atom constructed by one of my chemistry students.

While use of those models results in a lot of understanding, it can also can result in some misconceptions, especially when taken too literally!

Mark Gardner | October 8, 2013

Strengthening the Teaching Profession: Ten Years


Icicle River taken by Mark GBy Mark

Teachers change the world. Teachers shape the future. Teachers make a difference.

Like so many well-intentioned platitudes, over time these can start to ring hollow. When I drove to Leavenworth in 2007 for the NBCT Leadership Conference (then known just as "Sleeping Lady"), I expected a little rah-rah, a little break in that long April-to-June stretch of constant classroom push. And maybe a decent meal in a part of Washington this transplanted Oregonian had never visited.

Instead of teachers change the world, teachers shape the future, teachers make a difference, I got something better. I was shown: Here is how teachers can change the world, here is how teachers can shape the future, and here is how teachers can make a difference.

As corny as it sounds, I left that conference feeling empowered

Maren Johnson | Education | October 7, 2013

Collective Bargaining and Dead Fish: We’re just a bunch of teachers after school


Wild salmonBy Maren Johnson

The last bell rang on the last day of the school year.  I looked around my science classroom. Dead fish at every lab station, the remains of several interesting labs.  Yes, they were preserved, and yes, the students had followed instructions on putting them back in containers, but still, these dead fish just could not sit in my classroom over the summer—they would need to be disposed of properly, and I would be the one who would need to do that. 

During that school year, teachers in my district did not receive any paid time after the end of the year for closing down classrooms, performing check out procedures, and so on.  At the moment the last bell rang, that was it--any more time spent doing those activities was on our own, and unpaid.  Really, the idea that teachers are done with classroom work the moment the students leave in June is absurd.

Soon after that school day, my local association bargaining team, of which I am a member, met in my classroom for a planning session.  As we surveyed the dead fish on the lab benches, the bargaining team talked about how all members have the equivalent of “dead fish”—things that just have to be done after the end of the school year in order to ensure a great start to the next school year.  Surveys and individual conversations with members revealed the same thing—teachers and other educators needed some time at the end of the school year.

When our team put together a list of priorities for the next bargaining season, you guessed it—a paid day at the end of the school year for all members made the list—and we got it! Unfortunately, the term "Dead Fish Day" did not make it into actual contract language--nope, instead we're calling it by the much less imaginative term “M7 day,” named after the “M” section of the contract.

Kristin | October 6, 2013

Student Centered Classroom Management - Part I


By Kristin

I've been teaching a long time, but I think I'm only now figuring out what matters most - creating a classroom my students own, are proud of, and where they flourish.

Last year, my first year teaching a reading intervention class, I threw away almost everything I knew about classroom management and tried to create a room that worked for the most challenging students. Things got a little crazy, and they got a lot uncomfortable for someone who doesn't like loud noises or a lot of jumping around, but I worked hard to adapt.  

What I got in return were moments like this one, and that made it all worth it.

Phone pics 2013 057

CSTP--Staff | Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Mentoring, Teacher Leadership, Travel | October 5, 2013

Translation from Finnish


The following is a guest-post from Sarah Applegate, an NBCT teacher librarian at River Ridge High School in Lacey Washington. She is passionate about quality information literacy instruction, working with teachers to provide a wide range of resources for students, and dark, bitter Finnish licorice.

I have a confession.  I am a “Finnophile” (“one who loves all things from Finland”) and a “ChauvaFinn” (“one who displays excessive pride in Finland”) yet I hold an American passport.  My friends and colleagues will tell you that since I returned from a Fulbright study in Finland in 2011, I have sought out every opportunity to reflect upon and share what I learned and observed during my research on the Finnish education and library system.  Some might say I sought out TOO many opportunities- during casual dinners, on long runs, and while watching our kids at the park,  to share memories, insights and observations from my time in Finland. While embracing my Finnish obsession, I have continued to reflect on what I observed while in Finnish schools and libraries. I have constantly considered how schools in Washington could learn from Finnish education practice and translate them into Washington state settings.

On September 21, I was finally able to make connections between what I had learned and observed in Finland through a Finnish Education Conference, funded by the US Department of State with support from CSTP and WEA. We gathered 50 teachers from Washington to hear and think about what makes Finland’s education system work and how their approaches could be used in Washington state schools. I brought together four US Finland Fulbright teachers, as well as two Finnish teachers, to speak on how Finland organizes their education system, designs and delivers instruction and trains their teachers. During the morning, participants were able to learn about Finnish education practices and in the afternoon, teachers a chance to “translate” what they had learned to their own teaching context and plan for potential implementation of Finnish practices in their Washington state setting. What we translated has some promising implications for us in our schools - read on to see what we cooked up.

Tom | October 3, 2013

The College Visit


CampuseditSBy Tom

My son and I just returned from a weekend-long college visit. We went to the University of North Texas, which apparently has one the best music schools in the country. (My son is an aspiring jazz musician.) It was a fascinating experience, in which I learned three important things about college.

First of all, college is expensive—really expensive. You already knew that, but when it’s your money and your son’s education, you get to learn it all over again. When I was in school, I thought college was expensive. And it was. But when I was at the UW in the early ‘80s, college cost about a thousand dollars a year; it was completely feasible to work my way through with a decent summer job. Now, tuition costs over ten times that much, and it actually makes more financial sense for our son to focus on school and try for an academic scholarship than to work part-time to save money for college.

Maren Johnson | Education, Education Policy, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership | October 1, 2013

CSTP celebrates the big 1 - 0 ! Now where are those talking points?



by Maren Johnson

We’ve got something unique here in Washington state in terms of education organizations that work with teachers.  Yeah, we have some great districts, state education agencies, unions.  In addition to all that, here in Washington, we’ve got an independent nonprofit with a focus on teaching—and that organization, the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession, is celebrating its ten year anniversary this month!

So what does CSTP do?  Just a few of the activities:

Community Dialogue and Advocacy.  What’s different about CSTP advocacy training?  No talking points provided!   Whether online or in person, CSTP advocacy training gives teachers the opportunity to develop their own messages for their own audiences, whether that audience is local, state, or national.  At an advocacy training before a recent legislative session, one teacher, a tad frustrated, asked, “Where are the talking points?”  The facilitator’s response: “The talking points will be better if you, the teachers, develop them!”

The communication is not just limited to speaking—writers’ retreats (and this blog!) have given educators the opportunity to develop writing skills.

Teacher Leadership. Very frequently, in K-12 school cultures, the term “leadership” is used interchangeably with the term “administration.”  The Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession has worked to expand that definition with the development of the Teacher Leadership Skills Framework.
The NBCT Leadership Conference, one of CSTP’s signature events, has been a launchpad for many newly certified NBCTs to not only hone leadership skills, but also to develop their own personal network of statewide teacher leaders. 

CSTP doesn’t just strengthen the teaching profession, CSTP strengthens individual teachers.  One teacher recently said, “There’s a whole lot going on besides what is going on in my own little classroom, and CSTP helps me learn about it.”

Research.  CSTP commissions research to help all sorts of agencies and organizations better understand teaching and learning, as well as support for teaching and learning, in Washington state classrooms.

And hey, the audience for all this is definitely not limited to teachers!  CSTP pulls together instructional leaders of all sorts in work such as helping train and support the Instructional Framework Feedback Specialists for our new state teacher principal evaluation system.  In another example of working with administrators and teachers across the career continuum, CSTP developed a module designed to help principals better assist new teachers in their buildings. 

Advocacy, leadership, and research?  It’s been an amazing ten years.  So where is CSTP going in the next ten?
Kristin | September 24, 2013

Should We Be Doing More to Catch Cheating?


091227-g-airportsecurity2By Kristin

As Linda Shaw points out in this piece, Washington State officials aren't doing much to catch possible cheating on state tests.  Instead of spending $100,000 on "erasure detection," looking for answers that have been erased and replaced, Washington puts its energy into training and making it easy for whistle blowers to report any irregularities or suspected cheating.  Should we be doing more to catch cheating?

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

Finally: Growing our Newest Teachers and Leaders


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 -

To read the State's Induction Standards go to CSTP's website -


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


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, Books, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development | September 17, 2013

Growth, Part Two: Open to Learning


By Mark

About a year ago I was sitting in a training, titled "Common Assessments, blah, blah, blah" (I can't remember the title).

But it was in that session that I remember, for probably the first time if not in my career then in a long time, actually learning something I thought I could use. Hence, this facebook status update:

Esd training

I had just finished my tenth year of teaching, and was about to embark on my eleventh and begin referring to myself as "mid-career."

In reflection, it obviously wasn't that I had never been exposed to quality professional development. (Well, maybe...) The change, though, happened in my head. Suddenly, I was at a point in my career where I was mentally ready to learn. Seeing a new strategy was no longer a threat meaning that "the way I teach is wrong." Rather than feel obligated to accept and apply everything the trainer offered, I realized that even walking away with the tiniest applicable nugget was a success.

It was really at that moment that I finally began to grow as a teacher. It started by simply becoming open to learning that challenged me, rather than only being open to learning that already fit into my current view of myself and my practice.

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

Growth, Part One


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.