I just finished watching an inspirational and wonderful TED Talk
from Rita Pierson, 40-year veteran of the classroom and descendent of the same. It was entitled "Every kid needs a champion.
" In it she focused on one of the most important parts of classroom instruction: relationships. She pointed out what every person knows: you had a teacher that inspired you; that pushed you to be where you are today. This is something I truly believe and I think it is something lost in the conversation surrounding education today.
So many people focus on test scores, Value-Added Modeling, graduation rates, and the like that we forget about what teaching is: a discursive relationship between adult and child. I long for the day when students come up to me to reconnect after graduating - that is when I will truly know if I have made a difference or not.
The unfortunate aspect of this is the lack of investment on teacher retention in order to build and nurture these relationships and, instead, the focus on identifying the low-performing teachers to remove them. While I understand and empathize that we do not want poor teachers in front of kids, this is demoralizing educators across the country and causing good people to leave before their time. Even Teacher For America corps members - those who might be considered the most motivated young teachers - have been leaving at rates above the average
. While about 50% of all teachers leave before their fifth year, almost 75% of corps members are gone in the same time.
And while I applaud those families who have structures in place to demand high performance from cyber charter school kids, even current parents will point out
, "to succeed in an asynchronous learning environment, a kid needs either a firm support system at home or a strong internal drive." I would argue that there are many students in these schools that do not have those supports.
So when we are thinking about where to invest money in the future I hope policy makers and administrators understand that it is not just that the teacher is the most important academic
provider in the classroom - we are also the most important relational
provider in the classroom, a task much more important. As Rita Pierson said, without us there will be no "legacy of relationships."
State law mandates 990 hours of instructional time be provided for each student under its authority with a minimum of 180 school days
to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, the School District of Philadelphia is not fulfilling this requirement, instead using that time to process report cards and administer state tests, reducing the true number of instructional hours by a large percentage.
Let's take my school as an example: we have 47 minute periods that students attend 7 period per day. With 181 days planned for the school year, that is 47*7*181/60 = 992.5 hours. That means if we lose half a day to an unapproved issue we are technically in violation of state law.
It just so happens that this year the School District of Philadelphia has decided to require teachers to submit grades by the end of the day on Wednesday, June 12 even though classes do not end until Friday, June 21
. That is a loss of 7 school days (or 7*7*47/60 = 38.4 instructional hours).
Additionally, this year was the introduction of the Keystone Exam
so we have organized administration in the Winter and Spring with delayed openings totaling 10 days. That is a loss of 10*3 (hours per delayed opening) = 30 instructional hours. (I am well aware that the state wants this test - I would argue its use is way too hectic and not as valuable to be valid).
In total with just the end-of-year calendar and testing schedules we have lost almost 10 school days (roughly 6% of the school year). Not only is this a bad idea but it also seems to go against the very laws we are supposed to uphold in Pennsylvania.
I wish more people would pay attention to this issue.
The past week or so has been quite hectic for me: my student-teacher has finished his work in my classroom, 3rd quarter has ended, and new, austere budgets were announced across the School District
. In all that time, the one major thing that has kept me going despite all the distractions has been the conversations I've been lucky enough to have with my students. Even if they are not focused on math content in particular it is always interesting to hear and discuss what they have to say. Unfortunately, with the new wave of budget cuts I worry that those conversations will go by the wayside as I'll be dealing with content- and management-related issues instead.
Student relationships are at the core of what I do as an educator. When people ask me what I do, my response is usually, "I teach kids math." Notice what came first? Kids.
Then my content-area.
Over the past few years, however, there has been such a drive for content that we as an education system are losing the drive we once had. I've been thinking about this a lot in the context of cyber schools in general and the one the School District of Philadelphia wants to open in particular
. The choice to invest money into cyber schools is a sensitive one at both a District and State level - it involves funding, politics, and most importantly kids. The main thing that often gets left out in the conversation, however, is that idea of relationship-building between student and teacher that could case amazing outcomes for students across the spectrum. How can a student sitting at a keyboard using online software be as engaged with their teacher as someone in the same room?
Even if I am in the same room, though, how do I focus my attention between 33 kids in a class (the legal limit in Philadelphia). Class sizes have ballooned so much I sometimes forget things my students tell me - a fact I am trying to fix but find it difficult when I have to remember what happened with 150 students every day. Honestly, I can tell you I am unable to forge the kind of strong relationships that foster good teaching with that number of students.
Articles like this one dating back to 1988
report on the importance of lowering class size. And this one from 1998 focuses on Philadelphia in particular
, mentioning the need to reduce class size to help student achievement. While recent research focuses on the teacher as the most important in-school factor for student success, I would argue that my quality diminishes with more and more students in my room. It takes me longer to grade assignments so I make easier ones; my feedback is less thorough so students learn slower; I am forced to focus on content to the detriment of my student's feelings on the subject leading to more math anxiety
If we as a society are serious about improving education we need to make sure to invest in it. As said in The Centennial Anniversary of Public Schools of Philadelphia
, "A school system that is not costing a great deal these days is not worth a great deal."
Yesterday the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the PhillyPLUS program - the new School District "Pathway to Leadership in Urban Schools" - has selected some of its first cohort to begin in the Fall
. For those unfamiliar with the program or its impetus, it is important to note that there is more than just a teacher churn going on across urban districts in the USA. Recent statistics for our city place two thirds of schools with a leadership change in the past five years
. Anyone inside or outside of schools knows that consistent high-quality leadership is a cornerstone of a good education system.
: a program designed to take potential leaders and put them on the fast track to principal-ship of schools across Philadelphia. Participants, also known as "residents," will receive a six-week intensive summer training and then be placed in a high-needs school somewhere in the District. During their year in the school they will receive support through mentorship and once-per-month meetings in schools where residents are located. At the end of their year they receive PA certification and can get a job in the District as full-fledged principal.
One might ask: are there prerequisites for this program? Perhaps teaching experience? My understanding of this from years past was that each principal had to have at least five years of teaching under their belt before getting a job as an assistant principal and/or principal. Apparently these rules have changed as the PA Department of Education only requires three years of "professional experience in an educational setting that is related to the instructional process."
I find this trend in this country to be alarming: parents and community members are demanding more and better teachers while criticizing the profession and reducing requirements thereof. While there is a mixture of data on the effectiveness of Teach for America corps members, one thing is clear: overall they do not stay in the classroom much more then 2-3 years. Those who stay longer generally do better.
So what will happen with a program of this nature? Will these new principals really have the experience necessary to stay long-term? Since, like TfA, they are being placed in the highest-need schools, are we demanding too much without enough support? I hope this program does well and increases the supply of high-quality leaders but have serious concerns about this process.
This evening I attended the Math + Science Teacher Forum
hosted by the Philadelphia Education Fund and can honestly say my world was rocked.
The session I went to was about how to think about unit placement and place value for middle school students, but really applies to all students across the board. During the conversation we talked a bit about how the emphases in the Common Core curriculum are supposed to focus more on the conceptual basis for how we do things like multiplying 34x38 but on the ground in schools teachers are still using the same pedagogical tools.
The thrust of the argument is this: more often than not math teachers are teaching procedures and specific guided techniques instead of the concepts behind the mathematics. This might be so because our teachers are poorly trained or because the tests don't emphasize enough of the concepts or some other reason. Whatever it is, the problem exists and we are tasked with fixing it.
So, now for the example:
This session was run by Dr. Ellen Clay of the Math Forum
, a wonderful group from Drexel University that tries to make sure math teachers do a good job. They have a lot of resources, including sessions like this one.
The basic problem is multiplying 34x38, as I mentioned earlier. If you are like me, you learned to set it up this way and use the procedure where you multiply the 4 and the 8, then the 3 and the 8, then the 4 and the 3, then the 3 and the 3. If you complete the steps correctly, you will get an answer of 1292.
This is all well and good, but it is such an isolated skill. With some deeper understanding, you can connect it to fractions, polynomials, and more. Let's take a closer look.
Instead of thinking of the numbers as blocks like "34" or "38," Dr. Clay suggests we think of them in groups. 34 is 3 tens and 4 ones. 38 is 3 tens and 8 ones. So multiplication becomes a series of "unit matching" problems.
If you see the text at the top, it says "3 tens times 3 tens = 9 hundreds;" then "3 tens times 8 ones is 24 tens" and so on and so forth. Instead of using a procedure, we are thinking about the units being used. Since we know that 3x3 = 9 and tens x tens = hundreds, we can conceive of 900 in a deeper way. We still get the same, correct, answer, but now we can apply it elsewhere.
This then extends to if you had a math problem like (x + 3)(x - 2). Now I am multiplying "1 x times 1 x = 1 x^2" and "1 x times -2 ones = -2 x's." It doesn't look so good in text, but I hope you get the idea.
If we want to get some use out of the Common Core we need to understand the mathematics at a deeper level and learn methods to explain that deeper level to our students. Dr. Clay and the Math Forum will help that happen.
I was surprised to read Bill Gates' piece in the Washington Post
this evening mostly because - while he acknowledges some of what teachers desire in our profession - he equates the measurement of student performance to getting points in a football game:
If the New England Patriots had chosen a quarterback based only on foot speed, they would have missed out on three Super Bowl victories.
One of the major issues that is often overlooked in the debates surrounding testing is that it is so incredibly difficult to measure "success." Is it attendance rate? High school graduation rate? College acceptance rate? A certain score on a test?
Many of my readers know I have certain beliefs regarding standardized tests: from what I have read and experienced they do not tell me nearly as much about my student's knowledge level than what I can glean from just talking to them. Moreover, they have many negative effects as evinced by the recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette piece
where a mother describes opting out of the Pennsylvania state test (PSSA). Negative outcomes abound for students in the form of high anxiety, a hatred of schooling, and a belief that education is the same thing as filling in bubble sheets.
This past Tuesday I attended a workshop discussing the new wave of high school tests for Pennsylvania called the Keystones. Modeled after the New York Regents, they will be required for graduation beginning with next year's 9th grade classes. At this workshop we discussed how the questions are significantly more difficult than ever before because they are at a higher level on Webb's Depth of Knowledge
meaning they require deeper thought and connection in order to answer. The problem here is that the PSSA test beforehand has narrowed the curriculum so much that students are mostly exposed to multiple choice questions demanding simple recall in isolated situations - they have no idea how to apply concepts in new contexts.
Granted, this seems like a good goal: change the test to make it force deeper critical thought. But, it is still focusing on a few subject areas and the students are not used to these questions yet. And the new policies have "eliminated the requirement for students to complete a culminating project in order to graduate
." A project that allowed students to be creative and think at a deeper level (Level 4 according to Webb) has been curtailed and a lower-quality assessment has replaced it.
As a society we need to foment curiosity amongst our students and not reduce their learning to bubbles on a page.
I spent much of the month of March dreaming about some of the things I was reading in a wonderful book called Trusting Teachers with School Success
. In the book, the authors explain their research into 11 schools across the country that are allowing some type of intense autonomy to the benefit of their students.
At the core of this vision is the idea that if people (administrators, parents, community members, policy makers, etc) just asked us teachers what we thought would make sense, then we would better be able to prepare our young people for the new future that awaits them.
A few specific aspects of this autonomy are:
1) Teacher control over curriculum - this may be obvious to some teachers, but probably not to some administrators. With control over what to teach every day, I can better serve my students.
2) Teacher control over budgets - imagine a world where we could help purchase new materials not just for our classrooms but for the school. If teachers could come to agreement on if they needed money for trips, new furniture, storage, etc, then we'd understand some of the financial pinches of wasting paper but also how to balance the money we need for good use.
3) Teacher control over hiring/firing - this is a tricky concept that can run us into trouble but I think overall is an intriguing idea that should be pursued. The staff at a given school understands the culture the best and would know if a new hire would work well or not with other teachers.
There were many different aspects on which that these schools were compared (check out the autonomy matrix here
) but they all were implemented in slightly different ways. I think it would do districts across the country a great service to trial some of these ideas. Some are scary but all have interesting opportunities.
Population from 2006-2012
The 2010 census showed that for the first time in 60 years Philadelphia gained population. After bottoming out in 2006 we have slowly gained about 60,000 new residents over the past few years, according to a new report by Pew Charitable Trusts
. This is a tremendous achievement, especially considering the economic recession that hit in 2008. Yet, are we Philadelphians up to the task of keeping these folks in our city? As Larry Eichel pointed out on March 25
, there are a lot of variables at concern.
As a resident of a city block containing at least 15 kids of various ages, I know that a primary concern of new residents looking to settle is the state of the school system. Shuttering 23 schools while trying to plug a new budget hole of up to $304 million
is not a good sign of sustainability when it comes to our future children in schools. The School District of Philadelphia is finally calling on the city and state to help more, but they are still seriously considering a 10% pay cut from staff - a cut that we cannot afford.
Approximately half of the teachers in Philadelphia have five years of experience or less and chances are many of these teachers are young. If want to keep these young people around in order for them to become veteran educators in the system, we need to do something to retain them. Many principals call for an easier process to let go of low-quality teachers when there are so many good ones who are leaving in droves because of environmental issues at their schools (shuffling between classrooms, large class sizes, ineffective discipline policies, ineffective leadership, etc).
Philadelphia is a great city and a great place to teach. We need to showcase that to the world and not lose out because of poor decisions like ones being offered right now.
In reading this piece by Eric Shieh
, teacher and curriculum developer in New York City, I am struck by the similarities in Philadelphia and, indeed, across the country. Threats against teachers and schools are being thrown around as if they were legitimate and those who are losing out are the weakest population: the students.
The School Reform Commission of Philadelphia recently voted to close 23 schools
across the city - a massive undertaking that is supposed to save millions of dollars in the long run, but will actually cost almost as much as it should save this upcoming year due to transition costs. In Chicago, 54 schools are now slated for closure
and the citizens are fighting a battle that will involve a large rally quite soon. On top of all this, evaluation systems based on assumed-to-be-correct math are being proposed across the country, including New York City
, many with threats against teachers if they are not implemented.
What is missing in all this?
My answer: true dialogue involving teachers.
In Philadelphia, the School District leadership is talking directly to the Union representation with little input from those who will be affected by it most: the teachers. Perhaps more organizations should pay attention to what we think we need so that we can do a better job. That
would truly be professional.
So, in the interest of fairness I would like to share a response from a local teacher organization called Teachers Lead Philly. I have been attending their meetings for months and have enjoyed learning and discussing with fellow teachers where exactly our profession should go. Most recently they surveyed hundreds of teachers across the city and shared their data and conclusions here
. Check it out.
Last night I had the privilege of attending a raucous and inspiring meeting of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the union that represents 15,000 teachers, secretaries, paraprofessionals, and more across the School District of Philadelphia. With standing room only (check out the photos here
) President Jerry Jordan outlined the District's starting proposal for our contract and outlined the PFT position on the same matter. Unfortunately, both sides could not be further from each other - a fact I'm sure is true in any negotiation.
But what struck me as impressive and concrete was Jordan's call for an "Action Army" to include rank-and-file members of the Union across the city. The details of this group are scarce at the moment but from my understanding it will encourage participants to attend various education-related events across the city and include the PFT voice somehow.
During the Q&A portion of the evening one teacher asked how much influence teachers might have on these "actions," from choosing which events might be included to what should be said in them. From my understanding, that is not necessarily how Jordan wants the Action Army to actualize. His answer was noncommittal and made clear that the PFT would be telling members where to go and what to do.
Of course, one of the other questions relayed just how serious these negotiations are - one member simply asked, "can we strike?"
This issue arose in October 2000 as well when the PFT almost struck for similar reasons
(loss of benefits, wage reductions). Then, as now, we are affected by Act 46 - a law prohibiting the PFT from striking. If teachers were to walk out of their jobs, they would risk their certificates being revoked by the PA Department of Education. Jerry Jordan was very clear to emphasize that this is the what the law says and what could happen.
My questions is: what if teachers really decided it was time to strike? What if the contract negotiations do not go the way we want them to? Could we, collectively, tell the PFT leadership that a strike is necessary? I truly wonder how much influence teachers have on the leadership of our Union and how much they will listen to us when necessary.