A good friend sent me this article on the 8 surefire ways to demotivate your employees
in order to get me thinking about the true connections there are between office workers and teachers when it comes to us feeling wanted and appreciated on the job. Unfortunately, I can think of specific examples for each of the eight items mentioned in the article, leaving me to believe that the leadership across schools really doesn't get it - in order to truly be a cause for public good we need teachers to feel valued and trusted.
Recently, we feel more and more stamped upon, leading us to fight back and be a catalyst for change. Teachers in Seattle won a major victory on Monday
when they were given the option to administer a standardized test know as the MAP. Budget cuts in Philadelphia have spurned regular informational protests in the mornings before school with our Union president in attendance
Students across the city are also feeling the pressure coming down on them - through potential across-the-board cuts that imply certain programs are less meaningful than others. Groups like StandUpPhilly
are bringing kids, parents, and community members together against the harsh and austere conditions that will ensue shortly.
Wherever you live - urban, rural, or suburban neighborhoods - you are surely feeling what is happening in education right now. It is quite callous and harsh for all involved and will likely come to a head quite soon. Strikes across the country (including the Chicago Teachers Union earlier this school year) will become more common and the grassroots movement will gain footing.The revolution is here
This evening I was called to answer a survey of teacher's thoughts on the current issues in public education in Philadelphia. The survey was conducted by Peter Hart Research Associates
, a firm with connections to local Philly and PA politicians
. While the surveyor on the phone would not say for what purpose she asked her questions, I can glean from the list of clients that local government might be involved. Below is an almost question-by-question breakdown and what I think about them.
The survey began with some basic demographic information (age, racial group, number of years worked in the School District of Philadelphia, etc). This was unsurprising and I'm glad their data might be able to correlate for other things in the future.
The first few questions focused on various job conditions of teachers with two responses only: "as good as can be expected" or "falling short." The focal points were class size, salary, job security, and discipline. I tried to ask for clarification on what "as good as can be expected" meant but obviously the survey was not designed to explore that nuance.
The next set of questions was asking my opinion on a few major figures in the current education debate. The spectrum ranged from "very positive" to "very negative" in terms of my reaction to them. The figures included: Tom Corbett, Superintendent Hite, The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Charter schools, the School Reform Commission, Mayor Nutter, the Principal of my school, and Jerry Jordan. What I didn't totally understand here was how specific and how vague they were. Beginning with a name and then transitioning to an organization, and then a type of school? It was difficult to answer that question because I don't dislike all
charter schools. But this false dichotomy arose again in these questions.
There were a few strange questions in the middle about how has control over the city schools - should it be the SRC appointed more by the Governor or should it be a local school board. These questions, I think, were more straight forward.
Then they asked about the potential things that could be done to reduce the budget gap. The pieces here were increased state funding, requiring tax-exempt institutions to pay property taxes, reducing salaries/benefits of school employees, spending $100s of millions on schools instead of prisons, closing down 24 schools, devoting more of the city budget to schools, closing down poorly performing charter schools, or layoffs. They did not ask me for what I thought we should do, which was probably a good idea. I would have given them a lecture as an answer.
The next type of question was strange for me: they asked which 2 items would concern me the most from the following list: cutting summer school programs, increasing class sizes, no art/music programs, no counselors/psychologists, no extra curricular activities, or no school nurses. I find it hard to choose in these situations because I think they are all critical to the proper running of a school.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers was focused on for a little bit at this point, with me rating their performance from excellent to poor on the following: teacher conditions in the classrooms, approach to the negotiations, supporting elected officials, keeping members informed, being democratic in giving members a say in how Union is run, and dealing with individual problems of members (like grievances). This was a tough set of questions to answer because - while I support the Union - I do think it could use some work in its democratic processes within membership.
There were some questions here about my agreement on whether the PFT should be "buddy buddy" with management or be adversarial. There were also a few questions on my confidence in the PFT leadership. It seemed like they were looking for ammo on how to known teacher's confidence in the Union.
After, there were a series of options of things that could be implemented from the District's original contract proposal. They asked what would I do for the following (vote against or for): principals hiring staff, eliminating the Health and Welfare fund, increasing word day by 1 hour, no raises until 2017, filling by site selection only, eliminating class size limits, changing medical contribution rules, offering raises based on performance rather than seniority, getting rid of pay raises for educational attainments, or a pay cut in general. Since I felt this original proposal was bonkers, you can guess how I responded.
They got more specific on these goals and asked what I think the PFT should focus on and then what I focused on myself. Finally, they asked what should be done if the SRC and the Union do not reach a deal. Should the Union a) accept new conditions without a fight, or b) take every legal action. Honestly, the only thing I could say was "the PFT should strike."
The survey was long and hard to answer (probably because the options were not the best) but a fascinating exercise in quick typing and dealing with someone who has no idea what they are talking about because they are paid not to.
For those of you interested in teacher evaluation either for personal, political, research, or other reasons, you should definitely watch this video released on a conference
in Arizona on the topic. While I cannot verify everything said in the video, there were some short bursts of truth that I believe strongly:
At around 4:30 - Accountability has shifted over the past decade from students to their teachers. This might cause students to not care as much about the tests themselves yet teachers still force them to try their hardest (to no avail, perhaps) because the test evaluates them.
At around 8:50 - Cutting corners on implementation of these tests affects the reliability and validity of the data collected.
At around 14:45 - Just saying that achievement tests are flawed is not enough. The speaker relates it to saying that cancer is bad - I true statement but not one that provides reason for us to do something about it. The fact that cancer reduces lifespan and causes pain and suffering for all involved is our reason. We need to better articulate what these kinds of tests are doing to our students and schools (for example, this week in Philadelphia my classes are 20 minutes long to accommodate the Keystone test).
While overall I take a lot of issue with current policy surrounding evaluation of teachers I think it is a fascinating discussion to have and I wish more people would attend and debrief conferences like these.
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.