2012

“The courage to build a team”

by Ileane Pearson

The career of an elementary principal includes as broad a range of emotions as it does experiences.  My first few years as a principal were a blur --fast-paced and a bit overwhelming.  The challenges presented by a sea of students, staff, parents, district administrators and the learning curve of doing it all for the first time leave little time to contemplate those things that really make a difference, but may not be in the immediate line of sight.  Thankfully, with each passing year, things improved.

A year ago, having taken stock of all that our school had accomplished during my early tenure, there was much to be proud of.  Implementation of new curricula in math and ELA, new instructional approaches, improved use of data and rising student enrollment all suggested that we were doing things right. The pace of professional life, while still fast, became familiar and therefore easier to manage.  The vision of good leadership practice became a bit less cloudy, the overwhelmed feeling abated. But, just as I was feeling planted and confident in our accomplishments, then came an emotion that I hadn’t expected, one that didn’t go away: I felt “lonely at the top”.

Looking back, of course I would feel lonely.  After all, leadership implies singularity, a certain amount of insulation necessary for healthy, non-biased guidance and management.  But it began to occur to me that that although leadership practice can be facilitated from the top, it can best be driven by a sense of the whole.  I began to feel that if I could pursue a formula of leading WITH, perhaps that lonely feeling would dissipate.

What I really needed in order to further advance our school culture, climate and student performance was an ability to live vicariously, to begin to feel and hear more of what my staff was feeling and saying, in their words and in their sense of time and rhythm. To achieve that, I would need a team of willing partners, a group I could feel close to, a group that could help bridge the inevitable divide of “manager” and “staff”. Working through my own vulnerability, and being fully honest, I divulged to staff in a series of small conversations that I was feeling that there were pockets of needs that existed in the school, but that I couldn’t identify them clearly acting alone.  Finally, I decided to put out an “all call”. I invited staff to consider being part of a working group whose goal it was to address challenges while representing and supporting fellow staff.  My “advertisement” read, “If you would like an opportunity to be a thought partner, a colleague who recognizes problems as part of a collective, and agrees to be part of the solution, this may be the opportunity for you.  Participants need to be willing to assume a leadership role among their colleagues.”

Was this a bold initiative?  Maybe.  Risky?  Perhaps. Behind us were the days of instructional leadership teams, principal advisory teams, curriculum teams and the like, but these were groups with a narrow function, not necessarily teams that could transcend so many of the roles and boxes we find ourselves in, as part of a school community. This group would need to function more organically, to be responsive, open, trusting, thoughtful and skillful. Teachers are often not used to being on the “inside” and talking openly about heated issues, problems and concerns. We needed to deliver some results, since the genesis of this group was public, new and different, and therefore, high-stakes for all of us.  But, the temptation of tapping into valuable resources --our staff—was, for me, irresistible. It was the best interests of staff, and their welcome response to my calling that gave me the courage necessary to put a plan into action.

The Action, Betterment, and Collaboration Team (ABC) have carefully explored new terrain. The ABC Team includes special educators, general education teachers, “specials” (art, technology, etc.), service delivery providers (??? What does this mean in English? J ) and administrators.  We spent several meetings on our role clarity, and agreed that we could all provide a sort of constituent representation, with an eye toward assessing and/or improving operations, climate, culture and communication within our school, and which builds expertise in critical areas.  Working together as trusting thought partners we concluded that we needed transparency, honest communication, good data collection and a promise to include all voices in order to build integrity for our efforts. As our ERC facilitator suggested, we should encourage one another to all spend some time thinking like a principal as well as some time thinking like a teacher.  It turned out to be a norm that has been exceedingly helpful.

People don’t have to be troubled by misinformation or rumors. Even though I always strove for honesty and disclosure, to have a dozen helpers now, folks who trust and believe in each other, and in me, has begun to take our climate to a higher and more positive level. We also take time to name the positive things, and to celebrate. Great baked goods and snacks are present at every meeting and are a little something special to see us through our hard work.

We’ve made some big strides -- no one group member or faction controls the agenda or has a heavier hand than any other.  We worked through a protocol to careful identify issues, needs and challenges and participated in an exercise referred to as “root cause analysis.”  That root cause analysis proved to be important since it carefully identifies the factors that can result in a problematic outcome and the conditions that need to be changed to prevent recurrence and achieve better outcomes.  That challenging discourse resulted in our establishing priorities that are best addressed through action, a drive for betterment and respect for collaboration. Hence, our name!

The candid dialogue among group members has been refreshing and empowers us all. It’s a really different group than so many of the others that we’re used to in school, The group really does allows this principal to think like a teacher because I’m now more aware of the subtle things that impact teachers.  And teachers are relieved that their needs and concerns are unearthed, examined and understood, and in their own words and their own rhythm. I am fortunate that I took the risk. I’m not feeling quite as lonely up here anymore.

Teaching with Humanity: Seeing Without Watching

Most people can relate to that moment of anxiety that boils up suddenly upon walking into a room full of people, as heads turn simultaneously to assess your presence.  It makes one suddenly aware of the mechanics of their walking. Something that, up to this point, came naturally now feels measured, awkward or contrived.  Why is that?

Jean Paul Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, writes: “The appearance of The Other in the world corresponds to a fixed sliding of the whole universe...the world has a kind of drain hole in the middle of its being”.  The human anxiety induced by the look of “the Other” requires a defense to preserve the self, often in the form of overcompensation, a “puffing-up” to avoid the threat of total dissolution. What is it about the human being that quakes in the eyes of the Other?   In teenagers, bad attitudes, misbehavior and confrontations often emerge in response to the anxiety of a lifetime of being watched. This theory may seem high-minded or esoteric, yet it serves as my practical philosophy of education.

Students at my school have come to find a second chance. The majority have been over-looked and overly looked-at, and yet not really seen at all". They experience a world in which they are constantly being sized-up--by their families, friends and neighbors--for any signs of exploitable weakness.  They have been repeatedly told that they are failing, will continue to fail, and that they should give up.

At home, the material concerns of life press harder than the abstract and far-off ideal of a college education that they have been told will pay off with a good job, “in the long run”. There are few “long run” success stories to be viewed in their neighborhoods and families. Many of my students have dropped out of the giant, one-size-fits-all public school behemoths, frustrated by their experiences in the traditional educational model, a model where students dwell in an inferior role to their teachers, and where they are asked to take it on good faith that what they’re learning will serve them some far-off day.  They are referred to by some as the lost ones, branded as failures.  The truth is, I find them smarter and braver than those, who as I did, bite their tongue and wait it out.

Our school is different.  Without ACE Leadership many of these young people would be out of options.  Our new small school aims to fully connect the student, as a whole human being, to both the content and the community.  Through partnership with Associated General Contractors (AGC) of New Mexico, our school incorporates professionals from the architecture, construction and engineering professions with opportunities to shape our curriculum, projects and assessment, so that students have access to real-world information and opportunities. They also have access to those professionals themselves, as Deborah Meier deems them, “an inviting adult community” to which they might someday belong.

William Butler Yeats famously wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”.  We do our best to ignite students’ interest through the projects and problems which define our curriculum, with a guarantee that in the end, their work will be made public.  The relevance of their efforts becomes palpable, a driver and motivator.  Students collaborate together to create products that demonstrate mastery of specified learning outcomes. We do not rotely address long lists of standards in sequence as many schools attempt to do, but create interdisciplinary projects where multiple teachers collaborate to design and differentiate curriculum.  As a team, teachers work to make possible vital, engaging, real-world opportunities for students to design, collaborate, build, promote, assess and explain their work.  Next trimester, for example, I plan to co-teach a class called “Solarium”, which incorporates reading, social studies, Spanish and science, and culminates with solar-powered team products, written statements and oral presentations.  The outcomes are of course derived from the Common Core curriculum and our state standards, but they are presented within an interdisciplinary context, much the way knowledge exists and materializes in the real world.

If they do not meet the learning outcomes at first call, we give them as many opportunities as possible.  There is no “failure”in our vocabulary--something that can at first bewilder students,--only a “not yet mastered”.  Students who have worked hard during the trimester, but need more time to demonstrate mastery are invited to a week of interim school, where they get more time and teacher attention to master content and skills.  Our project-based learning (PBL) curriculum means that students gain, for example, literacy skills and science content knowledge through a project examining cutting-edge design and build practices in the industry.   Instead of presenting this product only to a teacher and classmates within the school, at our exhibitions teams of students learn to speak to and interact with industry professionals they might otherwise have no access to.   In this way, students learn not only the fundamentals of science and humanities, for example, but also that their work can have an effect on others around them, and in the community.  Projects are pursued in small groups, emphasizing the importance of collaboration and communication, of speaking one’s mind in a constructive way.

Our greatest strength at ACE Leadership, however, is not our PBL curriculum or our strongcommunity engagement, but the lens through which we see students as social-emotional beings, not to be corralled, but cultivated. Balancing love and understanding with boundaries and expectations challenges a teacher’s understanding of his/her authority-if only because most teachers came of age in a school system where adjusting for an individual’s social-emotional health threatened structures of power.

I came to ACE Leadership from the New York City public school system, carrying with me some of the attitudes endemic to that environment.  My authority was abstract but more powerful than my students, to be accepted without question; content knowledge was supreme, and standardized tests defined success or failure, both for the student and for the school.  There, I joined the Watchers, other “drain-holes in the world”, as Sartre described.  I sat in the Teacher’s Room and lamented the injustices I experienced at the hands of disengaged students, and the vagaries of our distressed administration.  Conversations about learning always centered on the teacher.  I assumed this was a natural behavioral reaction.  It was, in fact, a distorted perception I did not see more clearly until I joined ACE Leadership where, as part of the induction, I began to learn about Positive Youth Development (PYD).

As the name indicates, PYD focuses on assets.  A student may be working “below grade-level” in a subject, may come from a violent home or neighborhood, and may exhibit unhealthy or self-destructive behaviors, yet there is always something good to be found and noted about that student, something they “bring to the table”. For us at ACE, the conversation begins here.  What is good in that student’s world today?

That simple shift in focus can be transformative.  Many of our students mistrust adults, because the focus has always been on what is wrong with them as “students”.  The adults in their lives have only seen and talked about what they as students lacked.  The resulting natural defensiveness can erect walls between teacher and student, adult and adolescent.  Don’t get me wrong. Lovey-dovey is not a phrase I would use to describe our approach to discipline.  It is still necessary for us to be firm, resolute and principled. There is a saying we share often with our students, “Don’t mistake kindness for weakness”.  Our teachers approach students from an asset-based perspective, while at the same time being clear and purposeful about protecting our school community.  Students then have the opportunity to experience, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “a strong, demanding love”.

The strong, demanding love that is the basis of PYD works when teachers and staff are trained in the philosophyandtogether in professional development sessions.  The condition for its possibility exists when the tenets of PYDare built into the curriculum (as in advisory), and the logistics of school functioning.  We do not use a bell system at ACE Leadership, for example, because we want to prepare students for the professional world, where they will more likely be working in an environment where they need to have a different awareness of the role of time, as opposed to a factory where they mindlessly move from one place to another.  Because projects are intenselycollaborative and our day runs from 9-5, as in the professional world, students are not tasked with rote homework assignments, our grades are not the result of an accumulation of points, but rather the final product that is evidence of their learning.  Through Positive Youth Development (PYD) and Project-Based Learning (PBL) we at ACE Leadership are working to de-institutionalize education and create a culture that grows people who do the right things for the right reasons.

Approaching a young person from a perspective such as this quickly induces an observable change in attitudes and behaviors.  Nearly half-way through the year, working with students who have not succeeded conforming to traditional school,we have had no fights, minimal vandalism and minimal behavior management issues, believe it or not.  With dignity intact, a student’s motivation begins to come from within.  They no longer need to scramble for external rewards to bring favor or evade punishment as an animal would.  Their work is for them. It requires relevant, critical thinking to solve problems, and it has the potential to make possible success in real-world opportunities.  Their agency and ability to choose well can preserve and empower them.

Arriving at a new and hopeful community of teachers and learners, I have experienced first-handthat offering relevant, Project-Based Learning, in conjunction with strong Positive Youth Development can ameliorate the damage done to young people, and to our society, by an increasingly anachronistic educational system.  Supporting students’ growth as creative, divergent thinkers and problem-solvers, while considering their social-emotional context and challenges creates a new possibility --the chance for a more humane relationship between those with power and authority and those who have come to see themselves as powerless, if only because they have been watched for so long, yet never really seen.

Hope Kitts is a Resource teacher in the Humanities at the Architecture, Construction, and Engineering (ACE) Leadership HS in Albuquerque, NM. She is a graduate of Eugene Lang College/The New School where she majored in Philosophy and of Brooklyn College, where she received her Master’s  in Education. 

ERC at CES Fall Forum 2012

ERC Co-Founder Dr. Larry Myatt and ERC Consulting Practitioner Katrina Kennett presented to a packed room at the recent 2012 Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum in Providence. Their day-long seminar focused on the dramatic need for a “Copernican revolution” with roots in the classroom and at the systemic levels. Myatt, a former Thompson Fellow National Faculty member and CES consultant, opened the session with a panoramic view of the history of education policy, trends and issues over the past 15 years, concluding with the troubling perspectives of today’s students concerning formal schooling. Ms. Kennett then presented her rationale for the necessity of a student-centric approach and a vision of practice. Other components included an exercise to re-think current structures and systems that purport to flow from core values but produce poor results, an “Ed Café” where attendees got to re-think the role of teacher, where and when learning can take place, and the nature of curriculum, design aspects of the new Albuquerque Leadership High School network, and a demonstration of the potential of classroom technology to provide crucial access and linkage in the re-designed school.

Helping to make the session special was the day-long presence of Deborah Meier, founder of two CES schools, CES Board member, well-known author and progressive education advocate, and that Kristina Lamour-Sansone, Chair of the Design Department at the Art Institute of Boston/Lesley University and noted proponent of mobilizing and connecting graphic design expertise with innate cognitive function to assist classroom educators.

The Unintended Consequences of the Nation’s Teacher Evaluation Binge

[The American Enterprise Institute’s Teacher Quality 2.0 is part of their ongoing series of conversations, which attempts to enliven and elevate the debate around student learning and teacher evaluation.]

In The Hangover, Thinking about the Unintended Consequences of the Nation’s Teacher Evaluation Binge authors Sara Mead, Andrew Rotherham, and Rachel Brown caution the wider education and education policy communities to exercise caution as no fewer than twenty states are moving at warp speed into the unchartered territory of “changing teacher evaluation systems to include evidence of teachers’ impact on student learning.” The authors suggest that while the need to focus on instructional quality and teacher performance and the impact of those things on a student’s success, policy- makers and education professionals need to proceed cautiously.

“After years of policies that ignored differences in teacher effectiveness, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. By and large, this is progress—research shows that teachers affect student achievement more than any other within-school factor. Decades of inattention to teacher performance have been detrimental to students, teachers, and the credibility of the teaching profession. Addressing this problem is critical to improving public education outcomes and raising the status of teaching, and neither the issues raised in this paper nor technical concerns about the design and mechanisms of evaluation systems should be viewed as a reason not to move toward a more performance-oriented public education culture that gives teachers meaningful feedback about the quality and impact of their work."  However, Mead, Rotherham, and Brown worry that a dramatic pendulum swing from almost wholly ignoring instructional practice to an almost obsession level involvement with how to measure teaching success will almost certainly overwhelm the good intentions.

Follow this link to read the entire report, http://www.aei.org/files/2012/09/25/-the-hangover-thinking-about-the-unintended-consequences-of-the-nations-teacher-evaluation-binge_144008786960.pdf

Randolph HS Freshman Academy on Pace to Make a Difference

The new Freshman Academy at Randolph (MA) High School has been in operation for four months and has many accomplishments to its credit. The effort began last spring with the announcement that the Nellie Mae Education Fund would provide support for an initiative to reduce drop-outs and suspensions and to improve school climate and achievement, beginning with students new to the school.  Under the guidance and supervision of Asst. Principal for Instruction, Joshua Frank, the professional development and team-building for his 9th-grade team has been focused on a two-sided approach –building positive relationships and inquiry-based teaching.  According to Frank, “we held our first Parent Breakfast and our first Back-to School Night.  And in late September, we held the first of what are now regular ‘Good News’ meetings for staff to celebrate what was going well for our students and for us”.

Dr. Larry Myatt, ERC Project Coach for the effort, explained that the Randolph team’s effort “contains just the right ingredients, and has enormous potential to re-make the high school experience at the school. I consider it an exemplary initiative in its thoughtfulness, design and the impact it is having in building capacity among the teaching professionals. It’s in sync with what we know works in high schools”.  Myatt praised Frank’s leadership and the dedication and effort of the teachers involved.

Parts of the “relationship-building” blueprint include developing respectful “safety” language, check-in’s for students as they start classes, using guided discipline techniques and conferencing rather than punishments, and beginning to introduce more thoughtful interventions when students present complicated patterns of behavior.  On the instructional side, teachers are developing “essential questions” to help students connect topics to larger ideas in the world, and using a rubric for lesson design and instructional strategies to push and support their students towards challenging intellectual work. Behind the scenes, ERC Consulting Practitioner Katrina Kennett and Math Coach Richard Dubuisson are providing the Freshman Academy staff with iPad training, lesson-design support and inquiry strategies.

Frank says there are some signs of struggle in changing to a new way of doing business, “as we raise the academic bar”, yet other very positive commentary. Math teacher Erica Keane told the group in a Good News meeting that the term “shut up” among students has vanished from her classroom.  English teacher Jamie Steinberg pointed out that her students are really starting to take ownership of their learning and reflected on her own emerging ability to sit back and let students do the work.  She sees this as an indication of the power of high teacher expectations.  Another math teacher, Frank Morreale, stated that he is learning to “bite my tongue and let students answer each other’s questions.” Science teacher Kyle Marshall talked about the power of conferencing to help a girl who had been “completely shut down” get back to work the following day.  His Science counterpart, Karen Resendes, described having 15-20 students come after school to work on homework, “the first time so many students came after class.”  Social Studies teacher Caitlin Walsh described “several great days of instruction” in which students transferred their understanding of perspective from a description of a football game to an 18th century primary source.

Special Educator Brian Cartwright reported on successful conferences with students, as well as a growing number of “regular customers” in the brand new, after-school Learning Center, something long missing in the school, and one of the key structures the grant has made possible.  A “Student of the Week” initiative for each freshman team has begun, another indicator of “a very powerful, positive year for our students, and for us”, according to Frank.

Back to School 2012-13: Giving Our Schools More Hope

by Forum Convener and ERC Co-Founder Dr. Larry Myatt

It's back-to-school time for many over the next few weeks.  What do most public teachers and students across the nation have to look forward to as they head back for the 2012-13 school year?

  • Yet another "common core".  (What's wrong with the dozens, if not hundreds, that states, curriculum and cultural organizations have already constructed over the past decades?  Is it the lists or what we do/don't do with them that make us need a "latest version"?)
  • Lots more testing, costing us hundreds of millions to implement even in times of budget scarcity. (Have you been in or around a school when testing is taking place?  Stress. Anxiety.  A brink's truck worth of secrecy and security passing as education.  By the way, our new generation of school leaders and teachers hasgrown up on standardized testing.)
  • A federal administration that says that those tests don't give a full picture of the quality of learning.
  • A federal administration, with friends at the state bureaucracy level, that say those same tests are good enough to use to measure teacher performance
  • Loads of schools that will be crushed by new teacher-evaluation mandates that rely on those same test scores, "data-driven goal setting" and hundreds of hours of report writing, all in the name of holding teachers accountable.  (These mandates will swamp them all:  schools with strong cultures of pedagogy, schools with good plans in motion and schools with neither.)
  • Surveys across the land that say more kids are bored and tuned out in school, especially in high schools, and are sick of being told "what matters" more than their own questions about the world.
  • Big high-school dropout numbers.
  • Fewer qualified individuals who want to lead our schools.
  • Traditional public schools in every town and city in which two hours of meetings a month pass for the thought partnership needed to improve a mediocre experience for 75% of our students.  Institutions that should define the intellectual life of the community haven't figured out how to employ computers in a way that vaguely resembles the real world.  It boggles the mind.
  • Proliferating charter schools that mimic the architecture and adacemic platforms of 1950's schools that served the affluent, many under the banner of "no excuses".

Yes, it's a troubling take for those heading back into the trenches.

We will not get a lot of real and timely support from the policy and bureaucratic worlds.  Despite their good intentions, they have put us into this predicament.  As my longtime friend and mentor Ted Sizer said at every opportunity, the best thing that policy makers can do is to create the best possible conditions for schools and get out of the way.

Teachers, administrators and, above all, students, need and deserve some relief.

Here's how I think we can dig ourselves out:

  1. Accept the harsh reality that, at present, we don't have enough time for or skill in deep, collaborative analysis and problem-solving at the school level.  Let's make the time.  Find the time at every school and invite smart, design-oriented, capacity-building help from the outside.  Let's include hyper -involved local brain trusts.
  2. Sweep away the residual weight and glut of inherited, competing frameworks for teaching.  Have a school-wide conversation about how and why we should use theauthentic achievement rubric as the lodestone for teaching and learning.  Every teacher needs to know what truly cognitively-rigorous work looks like.  Every teacher needs support and accountablilty for bringing truly cognitively-rigorous work to students.  This can and should be real institution-building--a school development dream come true--if thought out and led well.  The work can only be done one school at a time.  (Sizer said that too.)  Work of this kind flows beautifully into the ascendant, national "multiple measures" and performance assessment conversations.  This good policy thinking helps to gauge classroom learning and teacher skills in smarter, more positive ways.  What teachers' association wouldn't want to grab on to those in today's climate?
  3. Place a two-fold, heavy emphasis on opportunities for student choice and the intense application of technology tools.  They go together, and are critical to meeting students where they're at and take them where they want to go as intellectual/social beings.  Too many people don't realize that Bloom's taxonomy has been dramatically updated in a way that can propel our agenda for better teaching and learning.  This is totally in sync with the ways that real, working adults do business and can move us towared the elusive, much bandied "21st century learning" goal in every school's plan.
  4. Make sure that we have deep and expansive programs (and adult cultures) that recognize the critical role of social/emotional resilience and positive youth development (PYD) as the critical underpinning of achievement in schools serving poor families.  We need more resources, of course, in such schools, but without the PYD framework, we fail to respect and activate young minds and hearts.
  5. Have knowledgeable and skilled teachers work together to, literally, take scissors and cut up copies of the "standards".  Then--after planning inviting, authentic, achievement-oriented lessons--paste them back together in ways that make sense for students and schools, not for bureaucrats and "culture mavens".  They'll all fit just right, believe me.  Haven't we learned over 30 years that approaching these standards as lists to cover doesn't get the job done?  I work with schools that are readily succeeding with this liberating tactic and they refuse to let top-down, linear approaches and pacing guides rule the day.
  6. Abandon the usual rubber-stamp or stubbornly contentious "school site councils" and statutory oversight/approval groups that pass for governance or quality-assurance mechansisms.  Replace them with real, highly-trained and empowered leadership teams or study groups whose work would guide the school, develop resident expertise and involve all constituents who truly want to work for improvement.  And, following the ground-breaking work of some of the new Abuquerque small high schools, let's get real and smart about parent engagement and business/community involvement that can drive change and improvement.
  7. Finally, if you're a charter school, or an in-district pilot, and you have the five autonomies (budget, curriculum, staffing, governance, clock/calendar) we all thought would surely rescue us from sleepy tradition, please take on some real innovation.  You have the bully pulpit and the flexibility.  Revisit such things as the age-alike cohort model that binds us, the arcane and unproductive curriculum hierarchy, the brittle partnerships we form with businesses and communities, the egg-crate scheduling, and our sorely-lagging attempts at technology integration (!).  That's a short list of the structures and practices we continue to employ that, in reality, misguide and fail us.  There are so many others that need to be abandoned or replaced!  Bring in people who are used to thinking deeply about school design to help that work flow productively.

Our schools sorely need hope.  We can provide some with these simple but potentially powerful suggestions. Above all, we need some genuine leadership to take these issues on.  School's in!

Forum Convener Dr.Larry Myatt is the Co-Founder of the Education Resources Consortium and a former National Faculty Member of The Coalition of Essential Schools

For full story go to, http://www.forumforeducation.org/blog/back-school-2012-13-giving-our-schools-more-hope

“Tiger Mom” and the “Race to Nowhere”

by Joshua Frank

“Where were you yesterday?”  The question came from a seventh-grade girl on a Tuesday morning in February.  She was among hundreds of students entering the large suburban middle school where I am principal.  I usually greet these students as they enter the school from busses between 7:30 and 7:40, but I’d had a meeting at 7:30 the previous morning, and hadn’t been there. She had noticed.  That she had noticed might seem ironic.  After all, seventh graders generally try to put a lot of distance between themselves and the adult authorities in their lives.  Her question reminds us that even as they seem to be pushing us away, our middle-school age children are paying careful attention to our presence.  They thrive on the consistency of our presence in their lives, even if they rarely tell us so.

 Two critiques of our parenting and educational culture had generated much discussion that winter.  A book entitled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, “preaches tough love and high expectations,” according to The New York Times Book Review, and Race to Nowhere, a film described as “featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink.”  These critiques, and the buzz that both created, had me wondering.  Why are these messages so contradictory?   We are being told that we work our children too hard at the same time we are being told we don’t work them hard enough.  We are being told that we focus too much on achievement, and at the same time that we don’t focus enough on achievement.  Why do we react so strongly to these critiques?  Chua’s book was on the cover of Time magazine, while Race to Nowhere was playing at schools and theaters around the country.   Don’t we trust ourselves to raise and educate our children?

It’s important to ask these questions, without settling for simple answers.   There should be joy, creativity and engagement in learning; at the same time, hard work is often required before we experience joy, creativity and engagement.  We all have strengths and challenges as learners.  We must understand our strengths and be willing to acknowledge and address our areas of challenge. Hard work is required for achievement, but achievement is empty if there is no joy in the work. Children are individuals who develop at different rates, and who have different areas of engagement and strength in what and how they learn.  These differences should be respected, but not at the expense of learning the value of effort.  That seventh grader’s question reminds me of something just as important to raising and educating children: we need to be there.

“Why am I doing this?”  -a senior in high school asks this question halfway through Race to Nowhere.  She then outlines a simple formula.  “Grades, college, job, happy.  But if I’m not healthy, it doesn’t add up.”  She’s right; it doesn’t add up.  It doesn’t add up because she has been offered too simple a formula for happiness.  As adults, parents and educators, I hope we learn to trust ourselves enough to let children play, learn through engagement, and experience joy when they can.  I also hope we trust ourselves enough to require our children to acknowledge when learning is a challenge, and require them to work hard when learning is more difficult, or to take a step toward a difficult and distant goal. I hope we trust ourselves enough to understand that it will take a long time for them to grow up, so getting it right may take them many attempts.  I hope we trust ourselves to recognize and value their differences from each other, and from us.  I hope that we trust ourselves to realize that sometimes it’s important to let our children live in the moment, and sometimes it’s important to have them think about the future, and that over time we can help them figure out that balance.  Our children can learn this more complicated formula for happiness by living it with us every day.  That’s why I was so happy with the question, “Where were you yesterday?”

Joshua Frank is Assistant Principal for Instruction and Director of the Freshman Academy at Randolph (MA) High School.  He taught social studies in the Brookline Public Schools for sixteen years, and held administrative positions in Brookline and Wellesley, MA. He completed his undergraduate education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and holds masters degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Boston and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The Massachusetts’ Model Evaluation Tool: The next best thing or …

The Massachusetts’ Model Evaluation Tool: The next best thing or …
by Wayne Ogden

Starting in 2010 with an application for “Race To The Top” (RTTP) funds, the Massachusetts’ Department Of Elementary & Secondary Education began an ambitious journey toward a near total redesign of educator evaluation in the Commonwealth. Constituents representing the largest teacher unions (MTA & AFT) as well as organizations representing school superintendents and principals (MASS, MESPA & MASSA) were invited to join the DESE Task Force on the development of a new evaluation tool and procedures in this major shift away from the prior ways of evaluating the state’s 50,000-plus educators.

Two years and thousands of hours later the new system is getting underway. With the help of federal money we have new, model evaluator tools and performance rubrics in place. The DESE has published “Guides” for schools and districts and their implementation of the teacher evaluation tools, as well as similar documents for the evaluation of principals and superintendents. The DESE also published, “Model Contract Language” for use by school districts and their unions in the mandatory collective bargaining process that must accompany these changes.

Most underperforming school districts and some “early adopters” have a year of practice under their belts and the remaining school districts are gearing up for full implementation of the new process by the 2013-2014 school year. While school districts and the state teacher unions prepare for these changes, they do so without knowing what the final two critical components of Massachusetts’ “Model System” will look like. The unfinished portions of the system are the two most complicated and controversial: how to include ratings for educator impact on student learning and how to incorporate student and staff feedback into the evaluation system.

Changes to the process by which Massachusetts’ educators have been evaluated are widely believed to be long overdue. In the words of a former school teacher and principal who served on the DESE Task Force, “Current evaluation practices in the state are wobbly, at best. We’re often stuck in place, unable to move beyond simple compliance with procedures. Now, the Task Force and the Board (of Education) have a chance to break the logjam. We can create a more ambitious, focused and growth-oriented framework. I’m hoping for a breakthrough.” (DESE Webinar, January 10, 2012).

This collaboration, with the exception of the AFT who did not send a representative to the DESE Task Force, has been described as inclusive and professional. After much negotiation and compromise all elements of the “Model System” seemed to have broad support until recently, when some of the challenges of creating such sweeping changes began to surface as educators and districts tried to take the new system from a “state model” to local implementation.

 

 

The first bump in the road to implementation appeared this spring in local school districts when local teacher union leaders and regional MTA representatives, contrary to a statewide MTA leadership endorsement of the “Model”, tried to alter substantially some key language of the Model Contract in negotiations with local School Committees.  The second impediment to successful implementation of the new system came in the form of financial considerations -who is going to fund the costs associated with the training of both administrators and teachers in the new practices required by the evaluation system? There is current legislation pending on Beacon Hill that would answer this question by requiring local districts to absorb the costs of training using federal funds if no local money was available.

The third, and I believe most threatening challenge facing successful implementation, concerns just how the educators will be “trained” as apart of this undertaking. The DESE Task Force has promoted the new system as one aimed at “collaboration and continuous growth” through a five-step process of: self-assessment, analysis, goal setting & plan development, implementation of the plan, formative assessment/evaluation, and summative evaluation. This complex set of goals and cycle of improvement, in addition to a very detailed set of performance rubrics, requires a depth of training of teachers previously absent in most school districts. Most, if not all school districts simply lack the time, let along the expertise, to conduct sessions of this depth and magnitude, AND must do it on a short time-line. Even the present level of training of principals in their work as evaluators and instructional leaders has been wildly uneven across the Commonwealth, usually dependent on the budgetary wealth of a particular school district.  Add to this many schools and districts where visits to classrooms and meaningful discussions of practice are desultory at best.

What I find unsettling is that, despite these challenges posed by the model system, many school districts are attempting to introduce the new system with out-dated and simplistic approaches to training. Routinely, school leaders across the state are being trained apart from their teachers in the specifics of observing and analyzing teaching according to the model system. In some school districts the teachers receive some training from their respective unions and, in others, training is provided by their districts. I strongly suggest that any professional development in support of this model system done by segregating teachers from their evaluators is a recipe for misunderstanding and failure.

If, as the DESE suggests, the new system is about “collaboration and continuous learning”, then let’s train teachers and their evaluators together on all phases of the evaluation tools and performance expectations. Let’s encourage teachers and principals to have open and candid conversations about what is/is not good instructional practice. Training educators while isolated in groups from one another, will result in confusion as to what the criteria are for proficient and exemplary practices.  That confusion will lead to conflict, grievances and arbitrations --the symptoms of the old “us versus them” mentality associated with decades of teacher evaluation. Furthermore, it is unlikely to result in the improvement of student performance that everyone seems to be calling for in this major change of practice.

One (maddening) Day Working with the (Latest) Common Core

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Jeremiah Chaffee, a high school English teacher in upstate New York for the last 13 years.

The high school English department in which I work recently spent a day looking at what is called an “exemplar” from the new Common Core State Standards, and then working together to create our own lessons linked to that curriculum. An exemplar is a prepackaged lesson which is supposed to align with the standards of the Common Core. The one we looked at was a lesson on “The Gettysburg Address.”

The process of implementing the Common Core Standards is under way in districts across the country as almost every state has now signed onto the Common Core, (some of them agreeing to do in hopes of winning Race to the Top money from Washington D.C.). The initiative is intended to ensure that students in all parts of the country are learning from the same supposedly high standards.

As we looked through the exemplar, examined a lesson previously created by some of our colleagues, and then began working on our own Core-related lessons, I was struck by how out of sync the Common Core is with what I consider to be good teaching. I have not yet gotten to the “core” of the Core, but I have scratched the surface, and I am not encouraged.

Here are some of the problems that the group of veteran teachers with whom I was with at the workshop encountered using the exemplar unit on “The Gettysburg Address.”
Each teacher read individually through the exemplar lesson on Lincoln’s speech. When we began discussing it, we all expressed the same conclusion: Most of it was too scripted. It spelled out what types of questions to ask, what types of questions not to ask, and essentially narrowed any discussion to obvious facts and ideas from the speech.

In some schools, mostly in large urban districts, teachers are forced by school policy to read from scripted lessons, every day in every class. For example, all third-grade teachers do the same exact lessons on the same day and say exactly the same things. (These districts often purchase these curriculum packages from the same companies who make the standardized tests given to students.)

Scripting lessons is based on several false assumptions about teaching. They include:

* That anyone who can read a lesson aloud to a class can teach just as well as experienced teachers;

* That teaching is simply the transference of information from one person to another;

* That students should not be trusted to direct any of their own learning;

* That testing is the best measure of learning.

Put together, this presents a narrow and shallow view of teaching and learning.

Most teachers will tell you that there is a difference between having a plan and having a script. Teachers know that in any lesson there needs to be some wiggle room, some space for discovery and spontaneity. But scripted cookie-cutter lessons aren’t interested in that; the idea is that they will help students learn enough to raise their standardized test scores. Yet study after study has shown that even intense test preparation does not significantly raise test scores, and often causes stress and boredom in students. Studies have also shown that after a period of time, test scores plateau, and it is useless, even counter-productive educationally, to try to raise test scores beyond that plateau.

Another problem we found relates to the pedagogical method used in the Gettysburg Address exemplar that the Common Core calls “cold reading.” This gives students a text they have never seen and asks them to read it with no preliminary introduction. This mimics the conditions of a standardized test on which students are asked to read material they have never seen and answer multiple choice questions about the passage. Such pedagogy makes school wildly boring. Students are not asked to connect what they read yesterday to what they are reading today, or what they read in English to what they read in science. The exemplar, in fact, forbids teachers from asking students if they have ever been to a funeral because such questions rely “on individual experience and opinion,” and answering them “will not move students closer to understanding the Gettysburg Address.” (This is baffling, as if Lincoln delivered the speech in an intellectual vacuum; as if the speech wasn’t delivered at a funeral and meant to be heard in the context of a funeral; as if we must not think about memorials when we read words that memorialize. Rather, it is impossible to have any deep understanding of Lincoln’s speech without thinking about the context of the speech: a memorial service.)

The exemplar instructs teachers to “avoid giving any background context” because the Common Core’s close reading strategy “forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all.” What sense does this make?  Teachers cannot create such a “level playing field” because we cannot rob any of the students of the background knowledge they already possess. Nor can we force students who have background knowledge not to think about that while they read. A student who has read a biography of Lincoln, or watched documentaries about the Civil War on PBS or the History Channel, will have the “privilege” of background knowledge beyond the control of the teacher. Attempting to create a shallow and false “equality” between students will in no way help any of them understand Lincoln’s speech. (As a side note, the exemplar does encourage teachers to have students “do the math:” subtract four score and seven from 1863 to arrive at 1776. What is that if not asking them to access background knowledge?) Asking questions about, for example, the causes of the Civil War, are also forbidden. Why? These questions go “outside the text,” a cardinal sin in Common Core-land.

According to the exemplar, the text of the speech is about equality and self-government, and not about picking sides. It is true that Lincoln did not want to dishonor the memory of the Southern soldiers who fought and died valiantly. But does any rational person read “The Gettysburg Address” and not know that Lincoln desperately believed that the North must win the war? Does anyone think that he could speak about equality without everyone in his audience knowing he was talking about slavery and the causes of the war? How can anyone try to disconnect this profoundly meaningful speech from its historical context and hope to “deeply” understand it in any way, shape, or form?

Here’s another problem we found with the exemplar: The teacher is instructed in the exemplar to read the speech aloud after the students have read it to themselves; but, it says, “Do not attempt to ‘deliver’ Lincoln’s text as if giving the speech yourself but rather carefully speak Lincoln’s words clearly to the class.”

English teachers love Shakespeare; when we read to our classes from his plays, we do not do so in a dry monotone. I doubt Lincoln delivered his address in as boring a manner as the Common Core exemplar asks. In fact, when I read this instruction, I thought that an interesting lesson could be developed by asking students to deliver the speech themselves and compare different deliveries in terms of emphasis, tone, etc. The exemplar says, “Listening to the Gettysburg Address is another way to initially acquaint students with Lincoln’s powerful and stirring words.” How, then, if the teacher is not to read it in a powerful and stirring way? The most passionate speech in Romeo and Juliet, delivered poorly by a bad actor, will fall flat despite the author’s skill.

Several years ago, our district, at the demand of our state education department, hired a consultant to train teachers to develop literacy skills in students. This consultant and his team spent three years conducting workshops and visiting the district. Much of this work was very fruitful, but it does not “align” well with the Common Core. The consultant encouraged us to help students make connections between what they were reading and their own experience, but as you’ve seen, the Common Core exemplar we studied says not to. Was all that work with the consultant wasted? At one point during the workshop, we worked with a lesson previously created by some teachers. It had all the hallmarks of what I consider good teaching, including allowing students to make connections beyond the text.

And when it came time to create our own lessons around the exemplar, three colleagues and I found ourselves using techniques that we know have worked to engage students — not what the exemplar puts forth.

The bottom line: The Common Core exemplar we worked with was intellectually limiting, shallow in scope, and uninteresting. I don’t want my lessons to be any of those things.

From Valerie Strauss “The Answer Sheet”:  www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet.

ERC comes to Randolph High School “Student-Centered Classrooms: Authentic Achievement, Choice and Connectivity”

Teaching for authentic achievement came together with state-of-the-art technology, social networking and media tools as ERC Consulting Practitioner Katrina Kennett travelled to Randolph (MA) High School in early June. A new Randolph High School Freshmen Academy Team, under the tutelage of Asst. Principal for Instruction Josh Frank, was treated to an afternoon ERC seminar designed to support their move to high-challenge, student-centered instruction and assessment. The seminar was titled “Student-Centered Classrooms: Authentic Achievement, Choice and Connectivity”.

Ms. Kennett was introduced by ERC Co-Founder Larry Myatt, as “a teacher’s teacher, whose thinking and practice incorporate critical elements needed to address four critical issues in today’s educational-political environment”. In his preliminary remarks Myatt defined those four challenges as the unprecedented levels of student disinterest in classroom instruction as reflected on surveys  across the nation; the outsized appeal and availability of technology tools, social networking, and learning opportunities outside the classroom; the heightened importance and increasing role of performance assessment in classrooms to provide better understandings of links between student learning and instructional practice; and the need for teachers and administrators to be better able to define and portray what rigorous intellectual work looks like. “Kennett”, said Myatt “is able to bring those varying and diverse elements under one roof as a practitioner as she plans and executes state-of-the-art teaching and assessment”.

In her seminar at Randolph HS , Kennett provided some exemplar lessons designed with Fred Newmann’s  definition of “authentic achievement”* in mind, went on to demonstrate her approach to “paperless research”, the use of “EdCafes” to leverage students’ passion and preferences, and an array of technology tools to support student’s critical thinking, revision and “ownership of deeper learning”. One of the theme questions that got the group’s attention was “Understanding Society Through Its Monsters”, a literature and social issues unit that linked students’ passion for the sensational and macabre with historical and literary figures through research, reading and critical essays and presentations, embellished and personalized with a range of high-tech tools and strategies.

 

Randolph teachers had a number of opportunities for questions about how to adopt Kennett’s strategies for their own classrooms. According to Frank, the Randolph team was “extremely enthusiastic” about Kennett’s presentation and would like to do more detailed work with her in the future. In particular, Frank went on, “Katrina’s was not a glitzy ‘technology demo’, but a deeper set of insights into how thoughtful teachers can employ these kinds of tools with solid planning and relationship-building to push for higher student engagement and achievement. This is the future of teaching and we got a look at it today”.  Jamie Steinberg, 9th grade English teacher at RHS was even more direct –“I want to teach like that”, she said, “I want to create and use lessons and tools like she demonstrated, that make students want to push themselves harder”.

 

Interestingly, the Randolph team had just received some exciting news only days before when it was announced that some of the work of transforming the high school’s programming and practices, beginning with the Freshmen Academy, would be underwritten by a planning grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. The grant enabled the scheduled work to get underway early, beginning with two “PD intensive” weeks this summer, rather than waiting for September. Myatt had been asked to assist Frank, working over the late winter and spring with a diverse, cross-grade study group of teachers in order to guide the design of a plan for re-thinking the 9th grade experience at Randolph HS to raise achievement and engagement levels and lower drop-out rates. In late April, Frank delivered the team’s recommendations to the Randolph school district administration for submission to the Nellie Mae foundation, with an emphasis on inquiry-based teaching, high levels of teacher collaboration, and building social/emotional resilience and relationships to support the increased academic demands.  Kennett’s workshop was provided as a pro bono gesture by ERC to help catalyze the school’s efforts, and was the first formal professional development opportunity associated with the new and ambitious transformation agenda for the Freshmen Academy team designed to focus on student-centered learning. Randolph Superintendent Oscar Santos stopped by the high school the following morning to meet with Frank and the 9th grade team to express support and enthusiasm for the initiative.

A graduate of Connecticut College, Ms. Kennett teaches in the Plymouth MA Public Schools and is completing her Master’s Degree at San Diego State University. In addition to consulting with schools and individuals for ERC, Katrina serves as a leading presence on the Authentic Assessment Team for her school in the New England I3 Network, developing performance-based assessments and pioneering student choice as a motivating factor in student-centered classrooms. Ms. Kennett offers a range of model classrooms and through them is adept at guiding and supporting teachers in lesson design, instructional management, and effectively employing a range of connectivity strategies, including Twitter, Todaysmeet, Voicethread, SoundCloud and YouTube.

For more information on the supports for this effort at Randolph HS, please email Larry@educationresourcesconsortium.com.

*- Newmann, Secada, and Wehlage; Newmann, King and Carmichael.