Posts Tagged ‘
collaborative culture ’
I love reform. I’m excited that as a state and nation we are looking at making changes to public education. But sometimes in moving forward, it’s good to look back.
I’ve been moved to look back at my earlier career by the publicity around Jose Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and product of the California middle school where I taught. I’ve been thinking about the Jose days (mid-90s) and the staff and organization of that school. Of course, he is only one student, but there were many new immigrant kids who did quite well there. So what were we doing there that worked?
One thing that we did have was lots of faculty communication across the grade levels. I taught an intense and rigorous program partly because it was jointly developed by all the teachers on the 5th grade team. We met every Wednesday during prep, opened our plan books and shared. As a 5th grade teacher in a 5-8th grade school, I was reminded in staff meetings and in passing about where kids needed to be in order to be successful in later grades. There was a mindset that we were preparing kids for college. It helped that we were a Silicon Valley school sitting in the shadow of Yahoo, Netscape and SGI, where innovation and hard work were cultural norms in the neighborhood.
There are some very inspirational leaders in the education profession. These are the people who seem to have the capacity to view the big picture and articulate so clearly what they see and hear. Linda Nathan, headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, author, and Harvard instructor in democratic schools, is such a leader.
Linda came to Oregon in May as the keynote speaker at the Oregon Small Schools Leadership Institute in Ashland. The theme of the one day Institute, led by E3 Small Schools Director Kathy Campobasso, was “moving forward.” Linda spoke with rich and vivid examples on the importance of leadership with a strong and clear vision and about the complexities of sustaining the work of personalizing education through the power of small. Principals, teacher leaders, teachers, superintendents, and board members from 22 small high schools participated in a variety of break-out sessions. They shared outstanding practices that are happening in their schools and celebrated the positive results.
Students from southern Oregon small schools presented a panel on their small high school experiences. The concluding forum was presented by Duncan Wyse, Executive Director of E3, Barbara Gibbs of Meyer Memorial Trust, and Linda Nathan on the importance and challenges of moving forward with positive school change on the state and national level. All were inspirational!
The last few months reflect a time of momentous change in public education. Weekly, it seems, headlines tout new developments from across the country. Much of this conversation has morphed into a broader, polarized rhetoric, portrayed with clear winners and losers. Whether it is the publication of VAM data by the LA Times, the exit of Michelle Rhee as chancellor of Washington, DC schools, or the redefining of tenure in Illinois, we sense that a battleground of high stakes change is afoot.
I suspect this positional media frenzy is more symptomatic of national political discourse than an accurate portrayal of the challenging yet rich high stakes conversations taking place in many states. Certainly in Oregon, we have chosen a more thoughtful path as we navigate the forces of reform together.
I was pleased to learn that President Obama specifically cited emerging work in Oregon and a few other states as part of his weekly radio address this past Saturday (watch the full address here). In fact, I believe there is a compelling and admirable story to be told within our state. This is not a headline story based in union bashing, erosion of contracts, or top-down directives from a governor; rather, it is a more subtle, compelling story of collaboration, hard work, and creativity in the midst of extreme economic hardship.
Jennifer Singleton is an elementary school music teacher with seven years of teaching experience in Portland metro area schools. She was born, raised, and educated in Oregon, and loves nothing more than connecting with kids through music. We’re excited to have her joining the conversation about teaching and education reform as the newest member of the ChalkBlogger team.
My seven-year teaching career has taken me to five different schools in the Portland metro area. Most of them, including my current school, have had low socio-economic status (SES), which refers to the income, education and occupation of the students’ parents. While there were definitely some advantages to teaching in a high SES school, I choose to teach in a difficult school because for me, the rewards outweigh the challenges.
Obviously, there were a lot of great things about working in a high SES school. For the most part our students were well cared for physically and emotionally. Classroom management mostly meant controlling chatty kids. My program was adequately funded, and our school had a supportive community with plenty of volunteers for classrooms and school events. In many ways, teaching in a high SES school was a breeze.
The learning environment I’ve just described sounds ideal, but there were also some frustrating problems. I have a few colleagues who, like me, have taught in both kinds of schools. And like me, they prefer to teach in a low SES school. When asked about it, one of my colleagues even exclaimed, “You couldn’t pay me to go back!” The question is: Why? With all of the advantages, why choose a school with so many struggles? The answer for us boils down to a lack of appreciation.
One of the questions I posed last week to my fourth graders was, “If I’m a carnivore, do I need plants?” Some said yes and some no.
I spend a good deal of time teaching kids how to convince with facts and polite discussion. They sit in teams, put heads together and work out their issues. The yes people proved their point to the no people. We don’t always have smooth discussions and feelings sometimes get hurt. We work on it—a lot. Kids learn that they can stand down from an initial idea when faced with proof and not lose face. Some of the phrases we use are “That’s a good idea, but have you thought about…”
Yes, civility and debate need to be explicitly taught as does critical thinking.
When one kid declared that, “We are all in this together,” after our food web discussion, it made me think of the remarks that I often hear about educational issues. One argument in particular strikes me time and again: the one about how public education generates no money so it should bear the brunt of the economic crisis while corporations should have a lesser tax burden because they drive the economy. Obviously, these people have not reflected on the interdependence of the public and private sector, just as some of my students at first didn’t see the connection between individual members of a food web.
I wonder if across our nation, we are reaping the harvest of a generation that wasn’t asked to dig deeply to find connections. The inability to debate civilly quite possibly stems from inadequate training in school, the result of sitting in rows and competitively trying to get the highest score on tests that have no gray areas. Our curricula have always tended to stress superficial knowledge of lots of subjects at the expense of in-depth collaborative analysis.
The good news is that there is a move to develop an American public that is more thoughtful. Educators at all levels currently use “larger questions” to teach higher level thinking through content. Just last week we debated whether Capt. Meriwether Lewis was a good leader, which prompted a search for direct evidence. And it’s not just me—it’s happening in many classrooms. A current national push for high school graduation requirements to include community service will develop a generation that also looks beyond themselves.
In Oregon, we have developed testing that now necessitates that kids think critically. In fourth grade, students are asked to write a multi-paragraph paper in order to pass the writing test. Writing takes considerable logical thinking to organize and stamina to produce. New this year in elementary school math, we now have three tested areas where kids need to show a truly deep understanding of the topic. Gone are the days when success on standardized tests solely involved memorizing the algorithm to answer a computation problem.
While today people may look exclusively at test scores and think that public schools are failing, many of us are thinking more deeply about what defines success in our schools. We are aiming for higher standards. We work to develop a generation of superior thinkers who will debate logically and civilly, and who will in turn respect the contributions of all individuals in our society.
Recently I attended a great event hosted by the Oregon Education Assocation (OEA). The Symposium on Transformation in Public Education was well-received by an enthusiastic audience. It was encouraging to see so many educators and state leaders give up a Saturday to participate in a deeper conversation about possibilities for meaningful reform in our delivery of public education. OEA is commended for intentionally engaging a wide range of stakeholders and bringing strong speakers to the forefront.
Our keynote speaker, Dr. Yong Zhao, launched us well with a provocative and humorous look at public education contrasted with some of our questionable long term assumptions about global competitiveness. He offered a healthy and balanced perspective that was refreshing and funny. His message reminds us all, as we pursue this path of collaborative reform in Oregon, to maintain balance and common sense.
Our renewed Governor, Hon. John Kitzhaber, provided a powerful closing. I see in our state leader an intentional move to bi-partisan balance and a willingness to courageously tackle tough issues with a sense of immediacy in the coming few months. This urgency is welcome, knowing the magnitude of our larger challenging context. His selection of Nancy Golden as Educational Policy Advisor is a compelling choice for sustained reform, a signal to all of us that he is serious about deeper work in the educational enterprise.
Kudos to OEA for delivering a well-planned day that appropriately sets the stage for the shared challenges ahead.
A great school has at its core, I believe, a strong leader. Great schools, like winning teams, have leaders with coordinated plans of action, intimate knowledge of the skills of players and a determined, focused eye on outcome. I’ve been in a few schools and have seen the styles of quite a few principals. All principals want their school to churn out successful students. Like the fans of teams who second-guess a coaching decision, I have wondered about the decisions of some of my principals. It’s an easy thing to do, to coach from the stands, but the reality of the game is much more complicated. A principal’s job is a lonely one that demands a leader who is Teflon coated, personable, tactful and caring. It’s a tough recipe to find.
My current principal seems to fit the bill pretty well. He exudes enthusiasm even in the face of last year’s lackluster test score data. He understands that the work of teachers is more complicated than seen from the stands. Some qualities that make him stand out:
- He has been a teacher so he has credibility and a deep understanding of the challenges we face in the classroom.
- He not only encourages collaboration but has also put in place measures that demand it. As grade level teams we look at the state standards every month and align our monthly curricular plan to meet those standards. There is no set allegiance to a textbook. Whatever lessons that get our kids to meet the standards will do. That respects our professionalism, and allows for creativity.
- He demands evidence that our students have met the standards set forth from the previous month. What assessments have we given and what percentage of kids have met those challenges?
- He is a frequent visitor to the classroom. He is often talking to kids about their learning and will even take on a group and teach them.
- Above all, his positive nature permeates the school.
He’s only in his second year as a principal and I’m hoping that his work reflects on our school “Report Card”. He already has an “Outstanding” rating from his staff, but is that enough for a quality leader to stay in the profession?
What can be done to measure the progress of principals that goes beyond looking at only their school’s test scores? The stress of making adequate yearly progress sits squarely on the shoulders of school principals. I would like to see evaluations by teachers and parent input put in place to ensure that our principals are recognized and retained for qualities that go beyond mere numbers.
Teaching is a lonely profession. At some point in their career, everyone bemoans the fact that teaching, planning, grading, attending meetings, and tending to bureaucratic necessities leaves little time to reflect on one’s practice, much less to talk to another knowledgeable adult about it. It’s one of the paradoxes of education: to get better at something, you need time to reflect on what you can do to improve, but with so much pressure to show improvement, there’s no time to get real feedback on how to get there.
With that in mind, I was thrilled to see how many English teachers showed up in Orlando last weekend for the annual conference put on by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Over three days, teachers attended sessions on everything from using Facebook as an instructional tool to helping middle school students talk more deeply about literature, from improving grammar to being mindful of the social justice obligations of English instruction, and everything in between. Teachers had a chance to hear from other successful teachers what was working in their classrooms and also had the opportunity to mingle with principals, instructional coaches, and professionals whose experiences were drastically different from their own. It was an amazing opportunity to learn from each other’s experience and successes—not to mention a chance to be constantly inspired by the good work that’s going on across the nation.
Of course, the teachers who were there had predominantly been supported by their districts. Most needed to take at least one day away from their classrooms to attend; many balanced their time attending sessions and talking to other teachers by day with time spent in their hotel rooms at night, grading the student work that never quite comes to an end. Regardless, for one weekend, the focus was only on being reflective about one’s practice, about doing things better. To me, it seemed double or triple the worth of any district-sanctioned professional development.
So does it seem reasonable to assume that conferences like the annual NCTE conference, events that bring professionals from all walks of the nation together to reflect on their work, are the way education is going to improve? Sort of a grassroots movement that comes from those who are actually implementing change in their classrooms? To me it seems to embody the way change should happen: brought about by those who are most directly involved and knowledgeable about it. Is it possible that this is the way to make sure the important voices in educational change are heard?
Oregon, as part of a consortium of states, is helping to develop a new assessment system that would align with the Common Core standards. Called the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, the group received federal funds to develop the new system and provide a model for any state to adopt. The key components the Consortium is working on are:
- the required summative exams;
- optional formative, or benchmark, exams; and
- a variety of tools, processes and practices that teachers may use in planning and implementing informal, ongoing assessment. This will assist teachers in understanding what students are and are not learning on a daily basis so they can adjust instruction accordingly.
The next steps the consortium plans to take include:
- Winter 2010:
- Post user-friendly crosswalk document for CCSS (Common Core) mathematical standards. Assist teachers in comparing new CCSS to current Oregon standards, allowing determination of grade-level movement of content
- Create “packets” with handouts and powerpoints that can be used with district staff in math standards awareness campaign
- Spring-Summer 2010:
- Create statewide implementation team to draft comprehensive implementation blueprint
- Re-examine state policies to ensure alignment with Diploma requirements
For more information about the SMARTER Balanced Consortium, go to: http://www.k12.wa.us/smarter/default.aspx
Do you have questions or comments about the plans for the new assessment system?
This is the question of the hour and one we expect to answer throughout the next five years. But the answers will not be as simple as some would hope.
There has been a great deal of media coverage around “merit pay” recently. The problem with throwing around a term like merit pay is that there is not a singular definition and yet everyone has strong opinions about it. When the Center on Performance Incentives released a report last week that “merit pay” does not raise student achievement, some individuals rushed to discount any efforts to compensate teachers in new ways. In actuality, the only conclusion the report out of Nashville reached was that giving teachers bonuses for improving test scores did not correlate to greater improvements in test scores. Chalkboard has always been opposed to “merit pay” when defined as paying teachers based on single test scores.
Chalkboard saw the Teacher Incentive Fund grant as an opportunity to expand and deepen the work of the CLASS Project. The money that Chalkboard and seven Oregon districts are receiving from TIF will not be used to pay teachers for test scores. CLASS is a comprehensive approach to reform that integrates expanded career paths, effective performance evaluations, relevant professional development and new compensation models.
Compensation should be integrated with career paths, professional development, and evaluation, and cannot stand alone as it does in most current systems. From what we have seen, it is not the additional dollars, but the integration of the components and the collaborative, teacher-led nature of the district design process that has led to outstanding outcomes for educators and students in the CLASS districts. Unfortunately for those looking for easy answers, this work does not translate well into simple correlations.
We would all love for there to be silver-bullets in education reform, but so far we have not found any. For example, the compensation component of CLASS is as much about recognizing and rewarding effective teaching as it is about the actual dollars. But, we do believe that a comprehensive, teacher-driven approach will raise student achievement, provide teachers with greater professionalism, and improve district culture. We fully expect for these seven Oregon districts to set examples for districts across the state and across the nation about what is possible when you invest in the effectiveness of educators.
I would encourage readers to go to educators4reform.org and hear directly from educators about what this work means for their students and their careers.