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

About CSTP

Stories from School Blogs by State

Stay Informed

59 Articles Categorized in "Social Issues"

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

Washington Education: A bargain, for now...


By Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HB 2800


boxesBy Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


George is watchingBy Mark

I'm not sure I understand. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


500px-Seal_of_Washington.svgBy Mark

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

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

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

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

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

The simple conclusion: We deserve the waiver.

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

The Simple Solution: TIME.


File52fd6410c3384By Mark

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

"When do I get to?"

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

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

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

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? 

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.

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.

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."

Rob | Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | September 6, 2013

Interest Based Bargaining


By Rob

Last June the members of the association gathered into a high school gymnasium to vote on a new labor contract.  No union member or district official can recall a contract that was settled so early.  We have always bargained through the summer.  Our ratification meeting usually happens in August when room is hotter and tensions are higher.

After the bargaining team briefed us on the new contract a teacher approaches the microphone and asks, “What did we give up with this contract?”

“Animosity.” was the reply.

The district and the union followed a new model of contract negotiation- Interest Based Bargaining (IBB).  In IBB both sides generate a list of issues they wish to see resolved in the contract.  But unlike traditional bargaining solutions are not proposed.  Instead the bargaining sessions are used to brainstorm solutions and the negotiations become problem solving exercises. 

The contract was ratified with over 99% of the union voting yes.  The Association was very happy with the outcome.

The next morning I attended the district’s contract briefing.  Surprisingly, the district was just as satisfied.  In this briefing, the Director of Human Resources shared each issue and solution.  The common denominator in nearly every agreed upon solution was “What is best for student learning.”

The only solution that has the potential to negatively impact student learning was to remove the cap on the number personal days that can be taken by staff on a given day throughout the district.  There is a possibility for a substitute shortage.  Both sides have agreed to revisit this topic next spring and share data on the impact of this new contract language.

I contrast this bargaining process with our past negotiations and the recent brinksmanship in Seattle and I’m convinced IBB should be the model we follow going forward.

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

Myth and Misunderstanding about TPEP


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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Schools Really Failing?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maren Johnson | Education Policy, Science, Social Issues | May 26, 2013

Ambitious Teaching = Rigor + Equity

Photo May 19, 2013, 12:32 PM

by Maren Johnson

"Ambitious teaching = rigor + equity. What does this mean for the Next Generation Science Standards?" This provocative question, posed at a conference last week by Mark Windschitl of the University of Washington, has been a framework for me for the last few days not just for thinking about science standards, but also for thinking about teaching in general.

First off, I like the term "ambitious teaching." Ambitious teaching sounds accessible, because, well, that means we as teachers can all aspire to high goals--and if we don't succeed, we can always try again! It's kind of like a "growth mindset" for teaching. Ambitious implies continuous growth, as opposed to reaching an endpoint.

Ambitious teaching in the context of the Next Generation Science Standards? That means rigor for both the teachers and the students--the new standards marry science practices, disciplinary ideas, and cross-cutting concepts in a way we haven't seen before. This will challenge our teaching, and it will also challenge our students. How to get the students to achieve this level of rigor? Growth mindset might again be part of the answer: Ann Renker, principal of Neah Bay Middle and High School, serving the Makah Indian reservation, has had remarkable results with growth mindset and incorporating the ideas of “hard work, not natural intelligence” throughout the school.

The Next Generation Science Standards have been designed from the ground up with equity in mind. Previous national science standards were based overtly, explicitly and almost exclusively on European tradition: Science for All Americans, basis of the National Science Education Standards, stated, "The sciences accounted for in this book are largely part of a tradition of thought that happened to develop in Europe during the last 500 years – a tradition to which most people from all cultures contribute today."

Maren Johnson | Social Issues | March 2, 2013

Fund Education First? It just won't work



Photo Mar 1, 2013, 9:58 PM

by Maren Johnson

When the state Supreme Court ruled on the McCleary case, we all cheered. The state has a constitutional duty to fully fund public education--all right! So how is this going actually going to happen?

One budgeting strategy that has been widely floated is to "Fund Education First." That means to actually go ahead and write a separate budget that would fund public education, see how much it costs, and then with whatever is left, fund the rest of the state's needs.

Sounds good, right?

But fund education without simultaneous consideration of the wrap-around social services? It won't work. Here's just one example why not:

I spent a day in Olympia this week with a school bus driver and a few other people, speaking with our legislators. The bus driver has had a long and varied career: special needs transportation, different routes, services all over his school district.

The bus driver told the story of driving homeless students to school through the McKinney–Vento program. The federal McKinney-Vento Act is designed to provide assistance to youth who are homeless or awaiting foster care. One of the provisions of this act is that students who are in a disrupted housing situation because of homelessness must be transported to their original school. Yes, any stability we can provide these students, who are among our most vulnerable, is of course needed, and those involved are glad to be able to provide it. However, when the student is originally from one school district, and then must be transported to another, it makes for some very expensive rides. The bus driver shared some specific numbers, and I was really surprised by the total costs. These costs vary quite a bit from district to district, but even though the extra transportation is mandated, no extra funding is provided. It is a huge unfunded mandate, and the money ends up coming out of classrooms.

Clearly this is a complex funding issue, with both Washington state and federal components. When neither the state nor the feds pick up the bill, local districts are left to make do. So what about the "Fund Education First" idea? Do we fund education but not fund services like those supporting homeless youth? Makes no sense--the two are deeply intertwined. Education is the state's "Paramount Duty," according to our constitution. It must be fully funded. However, education doesn't happen in a vacuum, and putting together a fully funded education budget demands consideration of other factors affecting students' lives.


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

Matters of Education...and Class Size


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

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

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

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

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

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

Failing at Education Funding


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

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

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

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

Janette MacKay | Assessment, Education, Elementary, Professional Development, Social Issues | October 3, 2012

Teacher Fever



I woke up in the middle of the night, and knew something was wrong. I was cold, hot, shaking, queasy, everything ached. I stumbled into the bathroom to find a thermometer and wait…


yup. A fever. Now it’s definitive. I’m sick.

Like somehow I didn’t know that until after the little number popped up on the thermometer.

Well, it’s probably just a little virus, or something I ate. Uncomfortable, unpleasant, but not serious I consoled myself as I curled up on the floor by the toilet where I would be spending the next few hours.

A temperature tells us our immune system is working. It’s fighting off the weakness in the body and in a day or two, we will be well again. Most fevers don’t send us running off to the doctor. Unless they persist…

A fever tells us something is wrong. But by itself, it doesn’t tell us what is wrong or how serious it might be. It takes a while to figure out if you need to call in sick, or check into the hospital.  Just get some rest, or run expensive tests using big humming medical equipment. These are the thoughts running through my head at 2am on the floor of the bathroom.

What does any of this have to do with teaching? Well, since I’m home sick today, I’m sitting here looking at my school’s MSP scores from this past year. We, like many schools, seem to have a bit of a fever. Our scores aren’t where we’d like them to be. They certainly aren’t terrible, but they’ve declined two years in a row. I guess you would call that a fever in reverse.  Anyway, it appears that we’re a bit under the weather. However, the numbers that I’m looking at don’t tell the whole story. It’s a small school. A few kids having a bad day are enough to change our scores from one year to the next. Listen to the staff conversations about this, and we all have an idea what caused the trouble. But what we don’t have is expensive medical equipment that can give us a definitive diagnosis. All we have is the number on the thermometer.

Do we need more professional development to help improve our instruction?

Or new curriculum?

Or a new intervention program?

Or new technology?

Or stronger anti-poverty initiatives?

Or maybe a better thermometer?

Maybe the one we have is broken.

After all, in the past few years we’ve changed our test from the WASL to the MSP, and then changed the administration of that test from paper and pencil to computer based. It’s hard to compare year to year using an inconsistent tool. Looking at National Assessment (NAEP) scores from the past ten years, our 4th grade state scores have remained relatively unchanged.  It doesn’t seem to matter what we do: which curriculum we adopt, which diagnostic test we administer, which RtI model we embrace. The scores have not wavered in the past decade.

According to the Flynn Effect, we are getting more intelligent over time. If that’s true, then seriously, why aren’t our test scores rising?

I’m not saying we can’t or shouldn’t do anything to try and raise student achievement. On the contrary, I think we need to do even more…way more…to figure out how to level the playing field, provide meaningful, appropriate instruction, and assess it in ways that aren’t skewed by politics. If after a decade this fever has persisted, it seems like it’s time to do more than just keep taking our temperature over and over.

Rob | Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Parent Involvment, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | September 22, 2012

Guidance Team


By Rob

Struggling students are referred to the Guidance Team.  We identify the most significant barrier to student success.  We develop a plan to address the barrier.  We choose metrics to track the effectiveness of our plan.  We document our interventions and meet regularly to track progress. 

A teacher may bring a student to the team who’s reading below grade level.  We review the student’s reading data.  Perhaps we find evidence they need phonics support.  We align our school’s resources- this student will meet with our reading specialist for an 8 week phonics intervention.  This may lead to improved fluency and the student can then carry the meaning while reading.  As a result, their reading comprehension improves.  I’ve seen this happen.  It demonstrates some of the best work a school can do.

Travis Wittwer | Life in the Classroom, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | May 7, 2012



By Travis Picture 7

I took my sons to school with me on national Take Your Child to Work day. It humanized me. I have a good rapport with students because I care about them as people outside of my subject area. I know for many students the intricacies of Shakespeare’s language in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is not what is important for their survival that day. I also know that my class may just be a blip on their day of ups and downs. Given this, I work hard to make their time in my class an “up.”

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



File5561335491384By Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I'm Happiest


File5971332208838By Mark

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

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

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

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

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

The Budget Battle in the Other Washington


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

Travis Wittwer | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | February 6, 2012

The School of the Future


Picture 1
By Travis

The school of the future will not be housed on a cloud, or a floating pod. The school of the future will not have whole sides of buildings made out of windows, nor will students sit, discussing great works of literature through their hand-held discussion devices.

No, the school of the future is more real.

It IS attainable.

It IS possible.

The school if the future will have No Tardies, No Failing Students, and No Homework. The school of the future is only a few years away. 

Rob | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Social Issues | January 25, 2012

The Bill That Shifts The RIFs


Each spring the uncertainties of student enrollment, teacher transfers or retirement, and funding make budgetary predictions difficult.

To remain financially sound some districts send out pink slips to the newest teachers. In no way is this ideal. These teachers face uncertainty about their employment future. Some of the district’s best teachers, who happen to be new hires, may not have their contracts renewed.

New legislation, yet to be introduced, may change how districts respond to RIFs. Instead of RIFs base on level of experience they may be based on a teacher’s evaluation relative to other teachers.

This bill, I assume, is in response to schools being unable to retain effective teachers when they are forced to lay off staff.

In 2009-2010, 3% of Washington’s teachers were given RIF notices. 87% of those teachers were recalled. Evidence does not suggest that the best and brightest young teachers are losing out to ineffective veterans.

Still, this idea is compelling. Shouldn’t the best teachers be the last ones to be laid off? Yes. If only it were that simple.

Distinguishing between the best and the worst teacher in a school may not be that difficult. But it is much more difficult to distinguish between the second and the third worst (one may keep their job while the other may not).

New evaluation systems are expected to have different criteria for novice and experienced teachers. Is a good novice teacher more effective than an average experienced teacher? Who wins in this RIF race a teacher with five years of solid student growth and one recent year of poor growth or the second year teacher with two years of average growth?

What are the recall rights for a RIFed teacher?

When the art program is cut can somebody determine the relative effectiveness between a high school and elementary art teacher?

The idea, keeping the best, is elegant. Implementing this idea? Not so much. Since relatively few new teachers actually lose positions this law is unlikely to result in an improved teaching force.

I'd like to see lawmakers put their efforts elsewhere. If lawmakers want to address the problems related to RIFs they should fulfill their paramount duty and fully fund education. And they should allow local school districts the time and space to implement the new evaluation criteria. Many stakeholders came together to put this evaluation model in place. Rolling out this system will be challenging. Rolling out this system while simultaneously addressing the complexities of a new model for RIFs seems unwise. But I'm no lawmaker...

Rob | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Social Issues | December 23, 2011

Motoring Towards Privatization?


By Rob

Tom has written some thoughtful posts (here, here, and here) about charter schools.  When I read about charter schools with a cohesive staff, a common vision, and high standards for all I’m excited about the possibilities for their use in education reform.  I am also a firm believer that the same reforms are possible for public schools. 

If charter schools take hold then resources will shift towards making them viable.  Who provides the transportation?  Who maintains the facilities?  Who provides the special education services in the least restrictive environment?  Who provides the oversight?  Undoubtedly answers to these questions are possible.  But what if the resources used to address these questions were invested in local school improvement?

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Games, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | December 6, 2011

The Four Point Scale.... again.


Elephant-clockBy Mark

I sat at a table with two other teachers, two building administrators, and the top two admin from the district office. We'd spent the better part of an hour sorting through the assessment rubrics and frameworks associated with the new teacher evaluation system mandated through legislative action in Senate Bill 6696

Silence settled on us all at once. The weight of what we were examining suddenly became overwhelming. 

Like so many things in education, the ideas and philosophies behind this new evaluation system (in brief: a shift from the binary satisfactory/unsatisfactory on a menu of teacher behaviors to a four-point continuum of evaluation using as many as sixty individual descriptors of teacher practice) we could all agree were sound, necessary, and powerful both in terms of evaluation and potential professional development.

But as we began to picture how it all could transition from philosophy to action, the beast began to be revealed.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | November 26, 2011

Turning the Corner


Mayan_calendarBy Mark

For me, mentally, the coming December holiday break marks the "half-way" point in the school year. While this is not necessarily chronologically true, it is certainly emotionally true.

Back when I was a pre-service teacher, I remember seeing a chart like this one that graphs a first-year teacher's motivation and emotion over the calendar year--with November and December being the pit of disillusionment--but don't despair, rejuvenation and hope are just around the corner!

Ten years later, I feel like the chart still applies to me. It is always in November and December that I wander the web to see what other kinds of jobs my credentials and dispositions might match.

Travis Wittwer | Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | October 20, 2011

The School Stool


Picture 1By Travis

A few weeks ago, Tom had a post that spoke to me, We Can’t Do This Alone. In this post, he states how parent involvement is key to a student’s success, but somehow it seems that the focus becomes teacher quality. The idea of a shared responsibility for a student’s education, struck me as important since it has come up a few times at Stories for School. It came up again. Last week. During my parent conferences.

Each teacher had a table around the perimeter of the gym with two chairs in front for the parents and student. Parents visited any of the teachers with which they wish to have a conversation.

To my left was a senior math teacher. To my right, a sophomore technology teacher. Me … I am a freshman English teacher. I had a variety of conversations that night with parents about family responsibility. I was getting worn out having the same conversation with parents about what they can do to keep their student on track and I started to listen to the conversations on my left and right, it was clear my conversations were not unique. Many families are not ready for how school is done.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Mathematics, Social Issues | August 19, 2011

The Skills Gap...again


File000106140795 By Mark

NBC News ran a story last night about Siemens and their 3400 un-fillable jobs despite an abundance of job-seekers out there right now. The segment (embedded below) also featured small businesses who also have an abundance of openings--one owner noting something to the effect of "we can buy all the equipment we want, but it's no good if there is no one skilled to use it."

The piece discussed the "skills gap" between what the jobs require and what the prospective employees were trained for or capable of doing... and thankfully stopped just short of blaming American public school teachers for causing this, the failing economy, or current debt crisis in Europe.

The solution to the skills gap, according to the report, was more training (not testing) in math and science. Okay, that's fine. But how about training in skills?

Several of us here at SfS have beaten the drum about the need for more investment in vocational and career and technical education at the high school level. This got me thinking: what if we took every penny currently dedicated to statewide testing and test prep at all levels and instead invested it in vocational and CTE programming starting even well before high school? What about devoting funding toward funneling kids toward voc/tech speciality schools after high school instead of always talking about "college readiness" as if enrollment in a four-year is the only indicator of a school's success?

Alas, in a cursory search, I was unable to find clear numbers about the cost to taxpayers to adminster and assess all the state tests. Certainly, vocational and CTE programs can be quite expensive due to specialized equipment or facilities needs, but still, I feel like when we look at the problems facing the country, we're mismanaging our investment. 

One of the first and most important lessons I learned as a pre-service teacher was to examine the needs of my students and adjust my response, rather than just dish them a canned curriculum regardless of their needs. When I consider what our economy and country apparently need from public schools, it isn't kids who can pass tests. We need kids with skills... and report after report highlights that skills gap. Our schools apparently are not arming the emerging workforce with the tools they need to be successful.

Instead of using tests to punish schools for what we're supposedly not doing, why not fund programming to help schools do what we ought to be doing?

(Sorry about the ads in the video below. I usually open another window and check my email, but you can multitask however you choose.)

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy



Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Professional Development, Social Issues | August 18, 2011

New Standards


Checklist By Mark

At the end of July, Randy Dorn announced that the state of Washington has adopted and will begin transitioning to application of the Common Core standards for English Language Arts. I head back to my classroom next week to start unpacking and really getting down to work preparing for the school year, but I'm having a problem seeing how this shift in standards should affect my planning and implementation.

And, based on the emails that have filled my spam folder for my school email address, there are an awful lot of businesses looking to cash in on this standards changeover... so many emails in fact, that the persistent cynic in me wonders whether this change to CCSSO Common Core standards isn't more about supporting textbook and software manufacturers than it is about promoting learning. When I see on the changeover explanation that the "system will include...

  • optional formative, or benchmark, exams; and
  • a variety of tools, processes and practices that teachers may use in planning and implementing informal, ongoing assessment. This will assist teachers in understanding what students are and are not learning on a daily basis so they can adjust instruction accordingly.

...I hear the cha-ching of cash registers and start thinking about all those emails trying to sell me matierals "perfectly aligned with Common Core Standards to guarantee student success on major assessments."

It probably isn't all about lining the pockets of curriculum mills, but when I look at the standards and the timeline that OSPI posted (more on that below), I do wonder really what is going to change... and I don't mean that in a futile, cynical way. I mean it like this: don't these standards just communicate what we should have been doing anyway under the old standards?

Tracey | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Social Issues | August 6, 2011

Our Problem is Poverty, not Schools



By Tracey

In continuing with the Save Our Schools March events, since it's still so fresh in my mind, I'm posting the speech Diane Ravitch gave at the rally on July 30.  She's not Matt Damon, so you may have missed her.  (I was deeply touched by the words Matt Damon spoke and am grateful he came.  But, I will assume you won't need me to hear his speech.)  Ravitch also spoke at the two-day conference leading up to the rally.  Her speech at the rally was shortened dramatically, as it should.  What you missed was a historical account of how our education system has been "in crisis" since 1910.  It's apparently what we do; we claim our schools are in crisis, and then make irrational decisions about how to fix them.  Anyone ever read Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine?  A hundred years of crises should raise some flags.  But, the greatest offender at this point in time, is pretending that poverty isn't an issue.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Social Issues | February 20, 2011

California has proof: Teachers know how to improve schools


2079482659_a201b3b6ae InterACT, a group blog by educators in California, recently shared a post by guest-writer Lynne Formigli, an NBCT and active teacher leader. Formigli summarizes the situation which resulted after three billion dollars (over eight years) had to be funneled directly to nearly 500 struggling schools as a result of a lawsuit against then-governor Schwarzenegger. (Read Lynne's post for more articulate and thorough explanation.)

The use of that money (now a few years into the eight year plan), as implied by Formigli, was apparently teacher or at least locally directed, and the results were powerful. These results included evidence to support what teachers often promote: class size matters significantly to the learners who are statistically "left behind."

This information ought to resonate all throughout the country as states face the tough budget decisions about public education. Decision makers need to hear this:

  • It isn't just about teacher pay, it is about paying for teachers.
  • When there are more teachers, classes are smaller, and that is proven to result in greater student learning.
  • When teachers are cut, schools are left with no other choice but to increase class sizes and do the exact opposite of what data proves is best for student learning.
  • Sure, everyone has to tighten the belt a little--but few choices will have as long lasting repercussions as choices about a child's education.

I really encourage you to take a look at InterACT and read Lynne's post and other posts by the teacher-leaders there.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Social Issues | December 11, 2010

Stop Digging


A6ryyv By Mark

I came across this Washington Post re-post via A 21st Century Union, a teacher blog rooted in Maryland. The piece in the Post, in a nutshell, illuminates a simple reality about the recent PISA education rankings wherein the US was situated far from the top. The maxim "if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging" forms the root of the argument.

The hole? The fact that the rest of the world is catapulting past American education on international measures.

What has dug this hole? Kevin Welner, author of the post, states it clearly: we are in the position we are in because the current generation of tested students came of age in an education system dominated by NCLB mandates centered on test-mania. We dug our hole with high stakes tests and an obsession with scores and sanctions.

The result of that test-mania is obvious: we have not gained ground in student achievement, we've lost ground. The proof is in the data. Since data analysis is all the rage in education, we should be abandoning what clearly doesn't work, right? Logic says we ought to stop digging.

Here's the link to the post, it is worth a read. I know I'm ready to put down this shovel.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Social Issues, Television | November 13, 2010

"Jersey Shore" is not real.



No, I'm not kidding. It isn't real. Those people auditioned, were hired, relocated into that gaudy house, and then filmed. The episodes aren't real, either... No, I'm not kidding. Those episodes are edited together based on a storyline the writers create by putting The Situation and his crew into situations where the writers know how they will react. It isn't "real."

It is amazing how much convincing it has taken to prove to my freshmen that the Jersey Shore is not real. These are the same kids who have no problem suspending disbelief long enough to just accept that Peter Parker can climb walls when he wears the right spandex suit but who cannot just accept that the animals on Animal Farm speak English and build a windmill.

These conversations help to illustrate a critical shift which ought to be happening in literacy instruction in American schools: rather than studying literary works, we need to be studying literary processes.

  • We need to study the process by which 360 hours of Jersey Shore footage gets edited down to 44 minutes for a one-hour weekly episode.
  • More importantly, we need to understand the process of acculturation and normalization which occurs in a viewer when they watch entertainment labeled as reality.
  • We need to study the process by which lighting, angle, score and juxtaposition are used by news organizations to communicate a message beyond the news.
  • More importantly, we need to study the subtle and not-so-subtle biases which shape the decision-making about what makes air and what doesn't.
  • We need to help young readers learn to discern which sources on the internet are valid and which are not, and even what we mean by "valid."

Are these lessons more or less important than Shakespeare or great novels and poetry?

As with the television news, whose producers must pare hours upon hours of worthy news into 20-22 minutes of air time (including sports and weather), when we must choose what literacy lessons to keep and what to cull for our limited amount of instructional time, on what should we base that decision?


Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Social Issues, Television | October 1, 2010

Someone Please Give the Whole Story


CddunUBy Mark

I am just old enough to remember Paul Harvey, and the "rest of the story."

Eve Rifkin, at our Arizona partner Stories from School has helped flesh out the "rest of the story" on that annual USNews "Top Schools" list, and it is as if she was reading my mind.

Between Waiting for Superman, Oprah, Education Nation, Obama's charge to raise the bar, and the resulting present (and I pessimistically argue ephemeral) empassioned focus on education in this country, it is clear that the whole story has not been told in far too many instances. Here is my take on the untold halves of the many stories told in the last couple of weeks...the rest of the story, if you will:

1. Unions oppose merit pay not to protect lazy teachers but because no one can come up with a fair and reliable way to assess teaching "merit." Issue number one: test scores don't work because not all teachers are in tested disciplines.

2. Those other countries who post great education stats? Their systems are different than ours. Some screen out special education kids. Some have separate vocational tracks which are conveniently not part of their data. Many in those systems lament the fact that the kids they produce are test-takers, not thinkers.

3. Weighing myself will not make me lose weight...I've being weighing in for years and the number is only going the wrong way. Testing kids more will not make them learn. In fact, testing actually takes up instructional time, the loss of which not surprisingly has a negative effect on test performance.

4. American schools held up as models of success always have the following by comparison to the mainstream: extra funding or an enrollment screen or both. These models are neither replicable nor sustainable in other schools unless those schools also get extra funding or an enrollment screen or both. 

5. Every child can learn, but not every child will. To blame that solely on teachers or on students is yet another heinous oversimplification of the complex problems facing education, educators, students, and families today. 

The rest of the story? I'm sure there's even more. I'm tired of hearing half-stories in the sound bytes mainstream America turns to as it's source of facts.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education, Social Issues | August 25, 2010

Welders Wanted


Z6YvsS The economy is struggling...all indications suggest that a good job is hard to find.

Certainly the role of the American public school has little influence on the grand scale of mortgage defaults and consumer confidence, right? Sure, maybe requiring 12-grade personal finance might have prevented a few upside-down mortgages and minimized consumer debt, but I think there is a bigger way which policymakers and schools have failed our economy. A recent headline caught my eye: Lack of skilled workers threatens recovery. That tells me maybe a good job isn't what's hard to find, but it's good workers who cannot be found. Simply, there are jobs out there but there are not workers to fill those jobs because they lack the necessary experience and training. I certainly believe it. The article by Nick Zieminski points out:

Since the 1970s, parents have been told that a university degree -- and the entry it affords into the so-called knowledge economy -- was the only track to a financially secure profession. But all of the skilled trades offer a career path with an almost assured income...and make it possible to open one's own business...

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Games, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | April 23, 2010

The Inevitable Cuts


G4ZHay  By Mark

So let's face reality. Something's got to give. 'Tis the season of budget cuts.

We can rail all we want against the flawed system of funding for public education--we can complain about cutting this and that and those as well--but there comes a point that tough decisions must be made.

I recall last year Washington Governor Christine Gregoire posted a website with the bold challenge "You Balance the Budget," where she openly shared the state's budget and the state's needs and challenged the taxpayers to find a solution. I don't have that audacious a charge, but I do have a question:

Since we have to cut somewhere, let's be solution-oriented: What can schools afford to cut?

Go ahead and say "nothing," and then rejoin us in the real world. Since sacrifices must be made, let's line up the lambs. What do you suggest should be first to go when it is time for schools to cut spending? How do you suggest that schools prioritize what stays, what goes, what is sustained and what is starved?

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Social Issues | February 23, 2010

Rethinking the Diploma


DRCgXe  By Mark

I keep hearing about how education as a system is broken. Everyone has an opinion and a finger to point, and many have "solutions." I spotted an article recently which attracted my attention: a Utah senator is being accused of "dumping the 12th grade." (The article is here.)

I think he's on to something. Part of the criticism lobbed at modern education is that it isn't a modern system at all: it is an antiquated 18th century system. One change which could help us rethink the purpose and structure of schools is to rethink the finish line.

We should abolish the high school diploma as we know it.

Kim | Social Issues | February 6, 2010

Crime and Punishment


By Kim

One of the key concepts of good parenting is making sure that punishment for an infraction fits the crime and that a lesson is learned. I’m not so sure that the same considerations are made in the school system. This year has been extreme, but I just lost my 8th student on a forty-day suspension for smoking marijuana during the school day. The suspension is convertible to twenty days, if the student agrees to and completes drug counseling.   Now, the truth is, for most of my students, four to eight weeks off of school is more of an enjoyable vacation than it is a punishment, and it obviously hasn’t worked very well as a deterrent for other students, either. Ironically, getting in a fight – assaulting another person – only gets five to ten days.

The fact is, most of the students who get caught smoking weed on campus are not our top students, nor are they highly motivated to succeed. Thus, kicking them out for half a quarter in the best case (and a full quarter in the worst), almost guarantees both failure and loss of credit. This, in turn, greatly ups the chance that this kid will drop out. So what are our options as educators? In-school suspensions have not proven effective at helping kids keep their grades up, either. Partially because it can be so difficult and time consuming for teachers to create alternative assignments to those being missed in the classroom that rotate around lectures, discussions, or group projects. My small learning community is in the process of developing an alternative to out-of-school suspension. Kids will still be allowed to attend classes, but they will lose their passing times and lunches to teacher supervision. Additionally, they will be required to attend a one-hour detention Monday through Friday, which will include two days of study hall and two days of drug counseling. Our hope is that we will take away enough of the fun part of school from the kids that they will want to toe the line, while ensuring that they still have a chance to pass their classes and graduate on time.

What other alternatives are out there for long-term suspensions?
Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Social Issues | December 18, 2009

A Word from the Other 6.8 Million of Us


OEH2UI  By Mark

One teacher in Portland, Oregon, is making the news for all the wrong reasons. She recently plead not guilty to possession and delivering of methamphetamine.

While that's been splashed all over the news in the pacific northwest and other parts of the country, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the other news about teachers. You know, the good news. Not the one teacher out of the 6.8 million teachers presently working in the United States (according to the U.S. Census) recently indicted of meth possession. Not the one who did this in Texas or that in Arizona or the ones being threatened with irrational jail time over failing test scores in Detroit, but the other millions upon millions.

I thought, how hard could it be to find stories about all the great and wonderful things that teachers do every day? What a great idea for a post, I thought, find all this news from the last year about teachers doing great things, and post links to the stories on the blog! How hard could that be? 

Pretty dern hard, it turns out. And that is a problem I'd like your help with.

Mark Gardner | Education, Education Policy, Social Issues | December 12, 2009

Persistence and Will


NxkveK  By Mark

A recent Education Week article suggests that we already know how to fix the public school system in America, but simply aren't doing it. According to his CV, the author, Allan Odden, has been a university professor and policy maker since 1972, after spending five years as a math teacher.

The article kinda frustrated me. More than a little. A lot really. I had to walk away from the computer several times. 

First, the solutions he suggests for struggling schools: new curriculum, stronger professional development, teacher-leadership, extended literacy instruction at the secondary level...none of these are rocket science. 

But Odden's claim is is that we all know how to fix broken schools, we're just choosing not to do it. 

To me, the article illuminates two great problems with the education system:

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Social Issues | December 4, 2009

No Logos.


HaO6x8  By Mark

I'm presently working with my sophomores to examine news and web articles for the rhetorical triangle of ethos, pathos and logos. In doing so, they've become fantastic critical readers by asking these three questions: What is this article assuming about its audience? What questions is this article not answering? and What is being left unsaid?

That latter two questions came to mind when I was emailed a New York Times article detailing the potential closure of four "failing" schools in the NYC school system under Mayor Bloomberg. The gist was this: four schools had failed to meet growth expectations over the last few years, and therefore the future employment of teachers and administrators was in jeopardy and students were likely to soon be relocated.

The question that seemed to be unanswered to me: How exactly will closing schools solve the problem? 

Let's think about the logic of that...

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Social Issues | November 20, 2009

My Case for Homogenous Groupings in High School


TBg4YM By Mark

I look with envy at my peers in the math department.

Sure, I know they have the same issues I have as an English teacher: kids who don't turn work in; hours of planning, prep, and grading to do; a state standardized test looming over our heads.

But, there's one thing they have that I really want.

You probably won't find many Algebra II students who cannot do basic work with monomials and reverse order of operations. In Geometry, the kids are all likely equally confounded at first by the mysteries of Pythagorus. In Algebra I, more often than not I think the kids at least have basic number sense.

Or, perhaps it is better put this way...

In that Algebra I class, there's probably not a kid sitting there running advanced differential equations through his head while everyone else solves for x. If that kid were spotted, you better believe that his teacher would bump him up to somewhere that he could be both more challenged and better served.

But in an English 9 class, just because their birthdays fell within a given year, a kid who can immediately spot the nuances in Scout's narration in To Kill a Mockingbird and by the end articulate how the novel is a coming-of-age tale about the collapse of childhood illusions is sitting next to a kid who still thinks Scout is a boy and Atticus is African-American.

Mark Gardner | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | October 30, 2009

What makes schools work


Gear mechanism on antique steam powered grain combine, Woodburn, Oregon, photo by Mark By Mark

It's a question I and my teammates get often: "Why don't they do this for all freshmen?"

About seven years ago, some administrators with a clear vision saw a need in our building: far too many tenth graders weren't actually tenth graders. By credits, they were still ninth graders.  Far too many kids were not on track for on-time graduation...or even graduation at all. These administrators had an idea of what they thought would help solve this problem. So, they attended conferences and did some initial research.

Then, those administrators with a clear vision did something that I fear is unfortunately rare, but has made all the difference. 

They identified the problem.

And then they trusted teachers to figure out how to best solve it.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues | September 29, 2009

Extending the School Year (finally)



By Mark

The press was briefly abuzz recently when President Obama mentioned his ideas for extending the school year. While this seems to be far from a concrete policy decision, it reopens a discussion to which we seem to return every so often. 

Is Obama out of line? Aside from the cute arguments of fifth graders who want their summer break, why do people resist this concept so vehemently? If we can't change this, how can we change anything else about our faltering education system?

I love my "three months paid vacation and a month off at Christmas" (as if), but am for extending the school year. What are your thoughts?

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Social Issues | September 16, 2009

Why Major Education Reform Will Always Fail


Crocs By Mark

We have some new leadership in my building that is making me very optimistic. One of the movements being promoted by our leadership is the concept of PLCs, or Professional Learning Communities. We've had these in our building for a while, but the current push involves analyzing student data to assess past practice and inform future endeavors.  Makes good sense, prompts a good deal of collaboration, and seems to be ready to push teachers toward improving practice. If it sticks, I see good things on the horizon.

Not too long ago I talked to a retired teacher whose building in a different state had attempted PLCs in her last few years of teaching. "We dumped that pretty quick," she explained. When I asked why, she explained that it didn't seem to be doing any good. When I asked her how she knew that, she couldn't really answer the question, but she knew that she and her colleagues didn't really like it. They said their principal called it "reforming" their school culture...they knew it was just another passing education fad.

This small is example is all you need in order to see why major education reform will always fail.

Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Religion, Science, Social Issues | September 5, 2009

The Obama Speech: How Should Schools Handle Hot Politics?


Campfire_j By Mark

Let me be clear from the outset: I'm not here to argue about whether Obama's speech is good, bad, ugly; propaganda, motivation, or mind control. There are too many unproductive shouting matches going on about that elsewhere on the web. Missing from those shouting matches is reasoned discussion of what I think is a more important question with a much larger impact on what I do as a teacher.

The controversy about the broadcast of Obama's "work hard" speech has precipitated some interesting responses from school districts across the country, ranging from the superintendent of schools in Tempe saying all teachers shall show the address and parents are "not allowed" to opt out, to districts like mine who instructed teachers to get parent permission before showing the speech. These policies have an impact on classroom instruction--much more of an impact than the speech itself--because it brings up the question about how schools should handle politically charged and divisive content, and what the school's role is in mediating that content for students.

Many an educator who attempts to make content relevant will want to connect to current events. Whether its genetic engineering, military endeavors, alternative energies or health care, it is easy for a curriculum to turn into a volatile tinderbox, because these topics and others have clear political implications.

How should schools handle hot political topics?

Kim | Assessment, Social Issues | June 26, 2009

Looking Forward to Next Year


Next year I'm taking on something new and intimidating. I and three other teachers (history, algebra, and study skills) are taking most of the students from our feeder middle schools who failed two or more eighth-grade classes. Most of them will be boys, most minority, most who qualify for free or reduced lunch - although except for the gender, those qualifiers describe the majority of the students at my high school. Since passing ninth grade is one of the strongest correlations for staying in school and graduating, this is an important task.

Mostly, I'm excited even though part of me is sad that I had to give up my honors classes to do this and part of me is terrified that I will not be able to get the kids hooked.

I've been looking for more ways to bring kinesthetic activities into an English classroom where basic skills in reading and writing are a top priority, and believe me, there just aren't that many kinesthetic activities when it comes to the actual tasks of reading and writing. Kinesthetic projects and responses to literature I have aplenty. Actually getting them moving when they're reading and writing is pretty difficult - especially at the high school level.

We've also been exploring alternative assessment and trying to figure out how that will fit in. One of our discussions right now is how we will balance responsibility and mastery. We're playing with the idea that student can pass our final exams with a 75% or better, it won't matter whether they turned in assignments or not, as long as the tests prove mastery in skills and content. But if we do this, are we setting them up to fail when they move on to more conventional teachers?

There are still a lot of discussions to be had and decisions to be made, but I'm working with an outstanding group of teachers who are all strong relationship builders, and to me, that is the most important "skill" we need to make this work.

All in all, we are up for this challenge. It's either going to be the most rewarding, exciting year of my career, or it will be the year from H-E-double-toothpicks. But the glass is always half full to me, so I'm counting on the former.

CSTP--Staff | Current Affairs, Education, Professional Development, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership, Web/Tech | January 5, 2009

Increase of Online Courses in School


Picture 2

I have to admit, I have a bias here. I feel comfortable around technology and use it for education and social learning. I teach two online courses and use technology in my classroom for podcasts, vidcasts, and instruction; my students use technology as well for more than word-processing. So when I saw that Michigan was leading the way in online courses, I had to read the article, oh, and by the way, the article is online.