I hope the SRC realizes what it is doing. Even if they are able to amend this budget in the future it is setting a dangerous precedent.
This should be [their] last formal vote.
This afternoon I - along with hundreds of my colleagues across the city - attended a rally to protest the budget resolution just passed by the School Reform Commission. Students, teachers, parents, and other community members came out to support the effort and disuade the commissioners from voting "yes" on the resolution tonight. Obviously, the SRC members are in a bind as they are legally required to accept a budget by May 31st, but many among us were hoping they would join the movement to force the state to provide more funding. Instead, at approximately 9:30pm on May 30, 4/5 members voted in favor of the budget (Joseph Dworetskt voted no).
I hope the SRC realizes what it is doing. Even if they are able to amend this budget in the future it is setting a dangerous precedent.
I echo the words of Helen Gym when she testified in front of the SRC. I hope people take it seriously in future elections and policy decisions.
This should be [their] last formal vote.
NCTQ Study Analysis: Standard 2
The second section of the National Center for Teacher Quality's (NCTQ) study focuses on Evaluation. This is a meaty section as the topic is on most teacher's minds during this era of high-stakes testing fostered by the No Child Left Behind Act. Research is being done across the country, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's recent Measuring Effective Teacher (MET) study published this year. NCTQ attempted to incorporate some of that research into its indicators and recommendations:
Finding 2.1 & 2.2: NCTQ argues that teachers should receive an annual official rating of some kind and that it should occur early enough in the school year to "provide sufficient time for struggling teachers to improve and for administrators to make a final decision about a teacher's continued employment within that school year." There is certain merit to these statements - administrators should definitely know what is happening in their classrooms and teacher should have enough time to improve. I would argue any good principal does this all the time and does not need a formalized process to ensure high-quality instruction is taking place.
Additionally, NCTQ puts pressure on the teacher's contract, pointing out the difference between a "rating" and an "evaluation" happening yearly as a reason why low quality tenured teachers remain in the classroom. I find this to be a misuse of the term "tenure" at its finest. A teacher with 3+ years of experience is not guaranteed a job - there is just a procedure in place that does make it possible to be dismissed within a 3-year cycle of formal observations. Oftentimes, however, the process is difficult to understand and principals have so many other responsibilities with less budget money to pay for assistants/secretaries, they might find less time to complete the procedures.
Finding 2.3: This is the section everyone expects in a discussion of evaluation. NCTQ argues that more test-driven data using value-added modeling (VAM) be used to evaluate teachers "objectively." As I have mentioned on this blog before, there is a lot of debate over whether VAM is a valid and reliable measure of teacher effectiveness. Gary Rubinstein has a six-part analysis of the NYC VAM data and debunks the theory that your scores remain the same year-to-year or school-to-school. I don't think this data is much better in Philadelphia.
Finding 2.4: NCTQ finally brings up that multiple measures are important in evaluating teachers. Bill Gates himself mentioned the importance not to rely too much on test scores when measuring teacher's effectiveness. One of the most important parts of this finding is that outside observers are critical, especially from peers who are experts in your subject-area as a high school teacher. While I received a new teacher coach my first few years teaching they were keenly unaware of the trials of a math classroom and all they had to say was "good job" on multiple occasions. I find it hard to swallow, however, that there is a magic "percentage" that would make it so that teachers do not focus on the test as much as other aspects of their teaching. Next year in Philadelphia we will be evaluated on observations (50%), teacher-specific test scores (15%), building-level test scores (15%), and elective data (20%). That is a lot of testing to worry about.
Finding 2.5: NCTQ argues something positive and gives the example of DC teachers in focusing on what teachers are evaluated on during formal observations. We currently use a framework with a variety of weights for certain pieces and it often seems a bit arbitrary. So much so that while I received an ecstatic rating this year, I almost was considered unsatisfactory two years ago. How can I be that different today?
Finding 2.6: NCTQ argues that we should be rated on a scale of more than just Pass/Fall (Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory). I can agree to a certain extent but I am wary of what that will mean in the future. If some teachers are declared "distinguished" and given performance bonuses, it is entirely possible that high-quality teachers will dumb themselves down in order to teach to a test and get that award. I am not saying it is bound to happen but I am worried.
Overall, this section was unsurprising. Most education reformers say similar things nowadays about incorporating "objective" data into evaluations. From my research these tests are not truly objective nor are the mathematical frameworks set up to compare teachers to each other through VAM.
NCTQ Study Analysis: Standard 1
I have begun reading through the National Center for Teacher Quality's study on the School District of Philadelphia and have decided to post my thoughts/comments on the various sections here. I have not read the entire study just yet but will be providing feedback on each section as I have time. I will start with the Introduction and Standard 1:
The Introduction provides the basis and rationale for their study. I understand the need and their goals and approve of an organization to find out what is really going on in Philadelphia schools. That being said, there is a serious methodological flaw that they mention briefly on page 3: "The number of respons to [our] survey was not sufficient to consider it a representative sample, so information from this survey was treated similarly to responses to questions in the focus groups."
There are two issues I see here: a) not enough people were willing to participate in the sample, possibly because they disagree with the politics of NCTQ or they did not do a good job of following up; and b) this means NCTQ can pick and choose what anecdotes to use. Since they don't have share survey results in aggregate, they might simply show quotes that support their goals.
The next section was Standard 1: Staffing. All 16 pages seemed to be from the playbook of corporate reformers, bringing business-style strategies to the education world. While I may agree with some of those strategies, there are some important considerations to keep in mind. I've divided this up based off the findings in this section:
Finding 1.1 - NCTQ reports that the School District does not provide enough support in the way of criteria or knowledge base to support hiring high-quality candidates to their schools. I could be wrong, but when I was interviewed years ago I remember receiving some kind of "score" from my interviewer that put me at a different position on a list to be hired by an individual school. Does that score no longer exist? Otherwise, the recommendations listed here almost entirely rely on standardized assessments. I find this troubling.
Finding 1.2 - NCTQ argues that site selection should become the end-all be-all to hiring across the School District. As opposed to seniority-based decisions made by the teacher, site selection allows principals to interview and select whomever they want. While I agree in principle to this idea, in practice it could create a host of issues. Imagine a principal who holds numerous grudges against teachers who are activist in their views (like me) - perhaps those teachers will not be hired, even though their classroom experience justifies it. I would promote site selection more if teachers within the school were give more control over the hiring.
Finding 1.3 - This finding pertains to the hiring timeline in Philadelphia. I must say I agree to almost all of the commentary. The idea that most hirings happen over the summer is strange and any new hires after September seem ludicrous. That being said, I think some of that situation is caused by a lack of planning (both fiscal and otherwise) on the part of the District leadership and Union. They need to get together to work out issues like this.
Finding 1.4 - NCTQ finds that Last In, First Out (LIFO) rules of seniority are anathema to high-quality education. To me, this exacerbates the claim that teachers are to blame for the failures of our students. States like Massachusetts that have strong teacher unions and long-standing seniority rules are outperforming those that do not. If teacher quality is the only thing that matters as many reformers would have you believe, then LIFO should be considered a good thing. Additionally, how will we entice teachers to apply and continue working in Philadelphia without some guarantee of job security?
Finding 1.5 - This finding was probably the most insulting: NCTQ posits that the dismissal rate for teachers in Philadelphia is too low and that it takes too long to get rid of poor-performing teachers. On page 17 they argue this clearly by pointing out that "the average dismissal time was two years" (emphasis theirs). First of all - people should care more about the median dismissal time, which I am certain is less than that. Additionally, just because the new Peer Assistance and Review program is not dismissing that many teachers does not mean the evaluation system is broken. This clearly lays all the blame on teachers, even though many other factors contribute more collectively to the outcomes of children.
Finding 1.6 - The last finding of NCTQ I agree with almost completely. Principals need to be trained in ways to keep the good teachers more than they need to be trained in ways of getting rid of the bad ones. There are many teachers who are resigning or retiring now when they could stay in the classroom for years to come. The sacrificed morale in search of the low-quality teacher is demeaning our profession. Instead, focusing on how to train principals to keep their staff would have a better outcome in the long run.
Teachers across the Philadelphia area (and I'm sure other places as well) often lament the time spent on official "professional development" run by their school districts. Oftentimes it is a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all lecture-style presentation - something that many regard as the exact opposite of what is demanded of teachers in their own classrooms. Even if it is of higher quality, no one has asked each teacher in the room if they really need to be there. Perhaps Teacher A needs a refreshers on using the TI-84 Plus calculator but Teacher B has run workshops for Texas Instruments. In short, no one asks the teachers what we need to grow as educators.
That is, until today.
10 schools from across Philadelphia were invited to come together for what we termed Professional Collaboration.
Instead of being told what to learn, teachers were surveyed ahead of time for their interests. Instead of being told who would lead the workshops, teachers were asked to step up and lead themselves or identify organizations that could come in and present.
The result: an agenda packed with time for teachers to learn from each other, collaborate, and really learn and grow.
I was particularly impressed with the use of the hashtag created for the day: #May21PC. Teachers from all different schools were sharing what they knew during the day while others were chiming in from their own sessions or their own schools. And now you can search back with the same hashtag to see what people learned. I, myself, led a workshop on using Twitter for education purposes (and was happy to see new folks tweeting during the day).
At the end of the day each school had a place to sit and reflect on what they had learned. Our staff went around the room and each shared something we learned or a session that we attended; the comments people made were deep and thoughtful.
My principal said it best when she pointed out that each person was smiling as they reflected. When was the last time that happened because of a District-provided workshop?
In conclusion, I challenge Dr. Hite and the rest of the School District staff to allow teachers to organize these kinds of days for themselves. Support us in learning what we really want to know and give us the time to plan it.
The revolution is here
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.
Every kid needs a champion
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."
I am a math teacher in the New York Department of Education. I infuse technology and real-world problems into my curriculum in order to prepare my students for the future. I would love for people across the country to recognize we teachers can't do it alone. If you don't believe me, come visit my classroom!