A Meeting with Hillary on Education Issues

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On Monday (Nov. 9, 2015) I met with Hillary Clinton and AFT President Randi Weingarten to discuss educational issues – to express my concerns about a particular issue that is important to me and to hear Secretary Clinton’s views on a range of K-12 educational issues.

IMG_0499-1It was a private meeting – just Secretary Clinton, President Weingarten, and me. And 24 other teachers. And some people from the political staff and the communications staff of the AFT. And a few Clinton Campaign staff. And a couple of Secret Service agents. And a photographer and three cameramen. It was private in the sense that no press was invited, and the doors to the room were closed.

A wide range of topics got discussed. Common Core, high stakes testing, special education, teacher evaluations, and educational funding stand out in my memory. But that’s not a complete list. The list was mostly developed in a meeting of participants just before the meeting with Secretary Clinton.

When the topics of Common Core and high stakes testing came up, the response was along the lines of No one ever thought it would come to this. Secretary Clinton seemed to say that we needed national standards, but not necessarily these national standards. It was my impression that perhaps just national guidelines for what standards should look like might be sufficient. That was my impression. While she supports the idea that we need a test, I never heard her say that we need to test every child every year. She was explicit on the question of the value-added model: test scores should not be part of a teacher’s evaluation.

Twenty-five teachers were in the circle of chairs in the room. Most were from New Hampshire. There were a few from Boston, a couple from New York, one from Connecticut, one from Baltimore, and then Dorothy from Ohio and me from West Virginia. At least one was a paraprofessional. We were in the circle for an hour. President Weingarten moderated and called on people. Teachers asked questions, Secretary Clinton answered.

Secretary Clinton talked about special education funding. She said that the original law had committed to pay 40% of the cost of special education but that the most we’d ever gotten funded was 17%. I thought about what my school (where 30+% of kids have an IEP) could do if our resources were doubled.

How did I end up at this meeting? The AFT Action Alert system sent out a request for questions we’d ask Hillary if we got the chance. It was a contest. I’m told there were about 5000 responses. My question was one of three picked. “If elected President will you support and fund community school initiatives?” When my time came I mentioned school-based health clinics and wraparound services, and I talked about addressing Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs before looking at Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom.

The two other winners were Liz Lynch (President of the North Bergen, NJ Federation of Teachers – and a BAT) and Dorothy Fair of Cleveland (who works in a unionized charter school). Liz asked about high stakes testing, Dorothy asked about charter school accountability. The AFT flew me from Charleston West Virginia to New Hampshire for the event and covered my expenses.

In response to Dorothy’s question, Secretary Clinton talked about the need for charter school accountability and about the fact that charters don’t take the hardest kids to teach. There was also a question about “churn” – about constantly changing what we do as teachers and what products we use. Secretary responded that we needed to do what works and stop being the testing ground for new and interesting products. We should stick with what works.

There were other questions. Secretary Clinton talked about the importance of Title I, and teacher preparation, about the role child poverty plays in education, the reauthorization of ESEA and about early childhood education. I’m sure I’m missing something.

President Weingarten saved my question for last. And the answer to my question was a one word answer: yes. Then Secretary Clinton went on talked about child poverty and school resources and the plight of rural America. “We have too many poor kids attending too many poor schools and that’s the real tragedy in education, not test scores,” Secretary Clinton said.

I was impressed with the detail Secretary Clinton went into in her answers. I was struck by how she was both relaxed and passionate at the same time. While my question and the questions of the other two winners were contrived in advanced and could have been the subject of specific briefings, many of the questions were the product of a discussion that took place right before coming into the room for the meeting. Of course, I doubt there are many secret issues in education.

For the last seven years I have been disappointed in the Democratic agenda for education. Perhaps the Obama administration has kept Conservatives from selling our souls to corporate America. But while we might have gotten to keep our educational souls, Arne Duncan’s Department of Education has let Corporate America squat in the yard. I was a victim of one of Arne Duncan’s School Improvement Grants. I’ve expressed my exasperation at times by saying that if education was the only issue I might stay home on Election Day.

I did not leave New Hampshire with the impression that a Clinton Presidency would mean eight more years of neo-liberal education reformers having a free hand. I left New Hampshire with the impression that she will restore the teacher voice in education policy – in a way that it wasn’t heard when Common Core was being formed, in a way that it hasn’t been heard in the last 15 years of federal policy. I know that the activist wing of American Education is still shopping around for a perfect candidate. I may not get everything I want from Hillary Clinton’s term as President. But it’s not difficult to imagine the level of disrespect I’ll get or the lack of resources I’ll have under a Rubio Administration or a Trump Department of Education or a Cruz Presidency.

It’s not just that the choices are limited. I’m with Hillary. I’m with her because I now believe she will be a far better education President than we’ve had in quite a while. Maybe since Lyndon Johnson.

Why I Don’t Support Common Core

At the AFT-WV convention a few weeks ago I was asked by three different people, privately, why I do not support Common Core. In light of that, I thought I would take a moment to spell out exactly what it is that I do believe and support in education.

I believe that we need standards. I am not convinced that those standards need to be national standards. I understand that children sometimes move from state to state. But that is the exception for us, not the rule. And there are now so many states that do not use the Common Core standards, that that alone is not in my mind a sufficient reason to embrace a national set of standards. We should have our own standards in West Virginia, and we should be able to change them as we see fit – not when someone else outside the state eventually decides that the time has come to change them.

I believe that rigor and pedagogy have their place. But I don’t believe that high test scores alone should be the primary measure of a school’s success. I definitely don’t believe that the Smarter Balanced test adequately assesses my students’ academic achievement. Nor is it a reliable measure of my performance as a teacher, by any means. West Virginia has one of the best teacher evaluation tools in the nation when it comes to the role that test scores play in a teacher’s evaluation, but we should do away with the 5% that remains. We should not tie student test scores to teacher evaluations. I believe the goal of the creators of Common Core was to create a value-added model whereby teachers could be evaluated based on student test scores. And I do not support that goal.

If Common Core means common testing, and common testing means evaluating student data in a warehouse for data in another state (like Battelle for Kids), then I do not support Common Core’s approach to the privacy of student data. If Common Core means that giving a Common Core test to every child every year is a necessity, then Common Core is an abuse of instructional time and is wastefully expensive. If Common Core means bullying parents into subjecting their children to long periods of high stakes, high pressure testing whether they like it or not (for the sake of a flawed, politically motivated teacher evaluation system), then I don’t support Common Core; children have to be assessed to measure learning, but parents have a right to opt out of these sorts of questionably effective high stakes tests – whether the state wants to concede that right or not.

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You have probably figured out by now that when I use the phrase “Common Core” I’m really talking about the whole Ed Reform movement. Why? Because they are inseparable… The single biggest lie in education today is that Common Core “is just a set of standards.” The same celebrity “experts” (like Bill Gates) that funded the development of the standards went on to promote a value-added model of teacher evaluations to go with it. The same Chamber of Commerce that supports the standards because they create economic opportunities for tech companies and education publishers also view us (unionized teachers) as an economic threat.

There are flaws in the current standards. But there are no perfect sets of standards. All standards are flawed. They express values that not everyone completely agrees with. They are out of date almost as soon as they are published – like paper encyclopedias. That’s why all standards change with time.

While we need standards, and while we need rigor and pedagogy, what we need more than any of those things is a whole child approach to addressing the needs of our students. We need to find ways to mitigate the impact of poverty and its trauma in the lives of our students so that they can be ready to learn. We need to address Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs before we address Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom. The Education Reform movement and the Common Core approach that they employ (an approach that includes testing, includes value-added models of teacher evaluations, includes warehousing and student data) works against that.

I support standards. I want high standards. I support appropriate rigor and good pedagogy. I support best practices. I support educational research. But more than that, I support an approach to public education that sees addressing the needs of the whole child as foundational to supporting the learner. Without that, a child is not ready to learn. And when they come into the classroom hungry or worried about whose house they will sleep at this week, you can’t expect them to be overly concerned with arithmetic and phonics.

Finally, the philosophical foundation for Common Core is simple: to make students “college and career ready.” I find that foundation to be so narrow as to seem offensive. It should be our task to prepare students for life, not just for work. We shouldn’t steal a love for learning. We should not be talking to second graders about their career choices, or about whether or not they’re on track for college; we should be talking to them about the things that matter to them – about their value and worth, about their favorite story, and yes perhaps about what they want to be when I grow up. It should be framed in the context of who they are and how they want to live their life, not in the confined margins of what career choice they intend to make.

That is why I don’t support Common Core, as I understand it.

What is a Community School?

There is a push today in many places in the US for something called community schools. In rural areas where economics have led to consolidation of small schools, it is understandable for people picture red brick schools with 9 teachers and 135 students – schools that have disappeared in the last decade across the state West Virginia, where I teach. That is not what we’re discussing.

The Coalition for Community Schools has this definition:

  • A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities.

What this widely used definition fails to mention is that community schools are becoming an important school improvement model. It’s a model that will probably stand alongside the turnaround, transformation, and charter models as an option under the federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) soon.

Education reform has been around since Plato implied that children wouldn’t learn unless they wanted to, by saying in The Republic that, “compulsory learning never sticks in the mind.” For the last few decades school reform has focused on pedagogy, content quality, testing, and the effort to redefine rigor. But it’s clear that instructional competence is sometimes not the primary factor in academic achievement.

The community schools approach to school improvement is an effort to help students be ready to learn, by mitigating the effects of poverty. The idea is that in many places the “achievement gap” is really an advantage gap that needs to be addressed, usually through services that don’t have much to do superficially with traditional academics but are essential to learning.

The community school initaitive at Southside K-8 School in McDowell County, WV. From right to left, Florisha Christian McGuire (Principal), Sarah Muncy (Community School Facilitator), Cheryl Cruey (Principal of Curriculum & Instruction), Greg Cruey (Community School Steering Committee Chair).

The community school initiative at Southside K-8 School in McDowell County, WV. From right to left, Florisha Christian McGuire (Principal), Sarah Muncy (Community School Facilitator), Cheryl Cruey (Principal of Curriculum & Instruction), Greg Cruey (Community School Steering Committee Chair).

In McDowell County, WV the community school approach is being tried in a rural setting. The approach has been success in urban areas like Cincinnati and Baltimore. But community schools haven’t gained much traction in rural areas. Southside K-8 School in War, WV in McDowell County is the first school in West Virginia to hire a full time person (a site resource facilitator) to manage their community school initiative.

“Child poverty is tied more closely to poor academic achievement than is any other single factor,” according to Bob Brown. Brown is the project manager for Reconnecting McDowell, an initiative of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

“The children we teach today come to school with issues we couldn’t even dream about 20 years ago. We’re dealing with issues of acute poverty in pockets of West Virginia. It was shocking to me when we started researching and discovered how many kids come to school hungry each day,” Brown says. “They come to school with all sorts of social and emotional problems that are foreign to someone my age. Those are issues that we have to deal with if we’re really going to educate our children.” Brown, Reconnecting McDowell, and the AFT promote community schools as a model that successfully addresses poor academic achievement in impoverished areas in a way that the more traditional “pedagogy and rigor” models usually fail to do.

“High quality community schools are necessary particularly in rural high poverty areas,” says McDowell County Superintendent Nelson Spencer. “Health, social and recreational resources are limited or non-existent in many of our communities. Our students are in school five days a week so it only makes sense to bring any and all needed services and resources to the children instead of having them travel somewhere else to receive them.”

The community schools model brings partners in the community together to provide services on campus. Those partners can include non-profits, faith-based organizations, and government agencies.

“Community stakeholders must insure that the individuals serving community schools are highly trained and qualified to address the children’s needs,” Spencer says. “Anything less will only add to the instability that children in poverty experience.” Spencer has led McDowell County into this area of innovation by working to implementing SB371 (County Innovation Zone).

With Spencer’s support, McDowell County leads the way now. Southside K-8 in War stands on the verge of becoming the state’s first full service community school. Its year-old steering committee has selected areas of focus, including starting a school-based health clinic and finding a way to provide dental care on campus. They also want to open a community center, improve recreational options in the city, and provide mental health counseling. The steering committee just selected the state’s first full time community schools site resource facilitator to work on these projects.

The importance of community school hasn’t escaped the new state superintendent.

“Highly effective community schools create strong partnerships with parents, local business leaders, health experts and countless others,” said Michael Martirano, West Virginia Superintendent of Schools.  “If we are to increase the graduation rate across the state, a key goal in the One Voice, One Focus: All Students Achieving vision plan, everyone within a community must support schools and students.”

The community school approach of seeking to provide wrap around services for a school has been a successful model in nearby urban areas, like Cincinnati and Baltimore. McDowell County is in the national spotlight at the moment as a location where the model is being tested in a rural area.

(Greg Cruey is a teacher at Southside K-8 School in McDowell County. He is the chair of the school’s Community School Steering Committee. He is also the local president for AFT McDowell in the school district.)

Poverty vs. Civil Rights: The Irony of ESEA

It’s ironic. In 1965 we enacted a law called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). That law’s primary goal was to mitigate the effects of poverty in American education. We got Title I. We got greater national involvement in education.

In 2001 we changed the focus of the law. We convinced ourselves that enforcement of civil rights could be measured by collecting and examining educational data in a more vigorous way than previously imagined (through testing, through disaggregating data). We focused on academic achievement among ethnic minorities (racial and linguistic) and among students with disabilities. We decided to punish schools when these groups within their classrooms failed to achieve. This effort to enforce civil rights by using testing to measure academic achievement failed miserably – to the point of endangering the very existence of public education. And the schools most punished by the new approach? Well, they’re the poorest schools. They’re the schools the law was originally crafted to serve.

As No Child Left Behind, ESEA has gone from seeking to mitigate the effects of poverty in public education to aggravating the effects of poverty in public education – without any significant improvement in the quality of education for the groups whose data we seek to disaggregate, despite spending $4 billion on School Improvement Grants. Commercially though, No Child Left Behind is a roaring success story whereby corporations like Pearson and McGraw-Hill have amassed fortunes in public money.

If we want a better education system in America, we need to mitigate the effects of poverty in our schools. That’s the path to a better workforce, to a better economy. And if we want a more cost effective, more efficient school system, we need to start hanging on to the billions of dollars to turn over to testing companies every year and instead put that money into hiring more and better teachers.

Let’s find some other way to enforce civil rights – perhaps through the courts, like we did with Brown v. Board of Education or P.A.R.C. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We made history in the past on these issues by swinging a broad, sharp sword. In contrast, the No Child Left Behind approach to civil rights has been more like “death by a thousand paper cuts.” I’m not denigrating civil rights. Let’s find an approach to that task that works. This one doesn’t.

While we’re at it, let’s return ESEA to being a law that mitigates the effects of poverty in American public education. I suggest this not because I’m a bleeding heart liberal who feels bad about the plight of poor children in America. I suggest it because the most influential international studies show that academic achievement is slowed most predictably by child poverty. And America has an obscene amount of child poverty.

Fixing education in America doesn’t mean testing students to death and beating teachers with the results. Fixing education in America means addressing child poverty – or at least mitigating its effect.

ESEA, Civil Rights and Annual Testing

Let’s begin this with some self-disclosure. I am a Title I teacher. I work in a school where over the course of its history, about 90% of the kids on average are eligible for free lunch. And I have a picture of President Lyndon Johnson hanging in my classroom; I think of him as the father of modern education in America.

I hear four main voices in the debate over Reauthorizing the Elementary & Secondary Education Act. They each seem to be shouting for attention, ignoring the other three. And each seems to have its own distractors and opponents.

  • The First Voice: The voice of those who remember (or at least look back to) the Great Society. They see ESEA as a civil rights law first and an education law only second. They think that annual high stakes testing is a way to document and monitor inequity in American society.
  • The Second Voice: The voice of those who sincerely believe that public education needs to be strengthened (and that Common Core is likely do that); they see testing as essential to measuring and monitoring the strength of public education.
  • The Third Voice: The voice of those who pretend to believe that  testing is essential to measuring and monitoring the strength of public education, but are really interested in using a test and punish model to make the argument that public schools are a bad idea and need to be replaced with private and charter education.
  • The Fourth Voice: The voice of those who think that, whether you’re talking about civil rights or about a stronger education system, the federal government has had almost 50 years to get the job done and has failed. They want their states to take education back from the feds. They want tests to go away. They want Common Core to go away.

I sympathize with the First Voice. I want education to be a tool for empowerment, an equalizer in society, a workshop for equipping students for success in life and social mobility. I’ve watched kids take a variety of end of year tests. But I’m not convinced that testing has ever helped close the achievement gap between rich and poor – which is the most important metric in the achievement gap.

I don’t really sympathize with the other three voices. I think my school, most schools do quite well. The biggest single take away from the last PISA report (December, 2013) was that child poverty is America’s big education problem. When we index for poverty, America’s schools perform as well or better than schools in any country. But we have an obscene amount of child poverty. The bottom line is that my students show up behind. They learn at school, but factors outside our walls prevent them from learning as much or as well as they could. That has nothing to do with how well we teach.

Once we accept the premise that the biggest impediments to academic achievement are outside the walls of the school, high stakes testing stops making much sense. Voice Two is misguided about the value of testing, Voice Three is promoting it deceitfully as a way of undermining public education. And the solution to our problem with academic achievement becomes a community development problem, a job creation problem, a rural healthcare problem, etc. A community schools problem; not a pedagogy problem or a lack of rigor.

I want to see ESEA reauthorized. I want No Child Left Behind (No Child Left Untested) to go away. Common Core can live or die and I’m good either way. I want the federal government to continue providing resources, but I’d like more insulation from the politics of school reform.

More than any of that, I’d like the standard of living to be raised in the community where I teach. Whether it’s minority rights or simple equity for communities in persistent poverty, the time has come to admit that we can’t fix America by simply doing better in the classroom. Maybe schools should start playing more of a role in what happens outside the classroom. If we want stronger schools, we need to stop the test and punish cycle that runs teachers off and undermines the morale and culture of our schools.

Ten Things Testing Every Kid Every Year Won’t Do

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Senator Lamar Alexander (who just because the new chair of the Senate Education Committee) are have just become involved in a struggle over the future role of the federal government in education in American. Perhaps neither of them will win and we’ll simply go on living with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as it is, without reauthorization.

If ESEA is reauthorized, the most contentious issue will be the role of standardized testing. I heard it said recently that standardized testing doesn’t close the achievement gap, it just measure it. As we enter into a new era of testing with Smarter Balanced and PAARC, I don’t know how we can be sure that testing even does that much reliably. But I can tell you what testing doesn’t do, won’t do.

  • Testing every kid in most grades every year won’t change the teacher turnover problem at my school, where 40% of the teachers in my building are novices (under three years in the state, on the job).
  • Testing every kid in most grades every year won’t change fact that my school is in one of the 10 poorest school districts n America. That’s a statistic, not hyperbole. And academic achievement seems more tightly correlated to poverty than to any other single factor.
  • Testing every kid in most grades every year won’t change the fact that infant mortality is high & average birth weight low in my school district.
  • Testing every kid in most grades every year won’t change the fact that in some grades at  my school over 40% of my students have been identified as have a disability, and have IEPs.
  • Testing every kid in most grades every year won’t change the low educational level that already exists in my district – where only about 6 in 10 adults have completed high school and only about 1 in 20 adults has a 4-year college degree.
  • Testing every kid in most grades every year won’t change that almost half my student live in home without either biological parent.
  • Testing every kid in most grades every year won’t change the fact that transience & family instability are endemic in my school district.
  • Testing every kid in most grades every year won’t change that 35% of my students are only in my school for part of the year – enrolling part way through the year or transferring to another school before the school year ends.
  • Testing every kid in most grades every year won’t change the fact that the number kids in my district who qualify as homeless under the McKenney-Vento Act is 3 times the state average.
  • Testing every kid in most grades every year won’t change the fact that drug overdose is the leading cause of death in my school district.

The issues that inhibit academic growth in my school district are not issues that can be addressed by more instruction rigor, by better education metrics, and an army of consultants. We need a whole child approach the sort of approach exemplified by the community schools initiative.

Why My School Doesn’t Want another Transformation SIG Grant

In 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined an ambitious program to bring academic change to a thousand schools a year in the United States. Price tag: $3.5 billion over a five-year period. Schools would be turned around, transformed. By the start of the 2011-12 academic year my school had one of those grants.

 Our grant award was for about $1.8 million over three years. I started at the school the same year the grant did – transferring from another school in the district to my new position as a Math interventionist. My new school served PreK through 8th grade in an impoverished rural community in a Southern West Virginia county designated as “distressed” by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The idea behind our SIG grant was simple. Using the program’s transformation model, our school would get new leadership; the transformation model is the only one of Duncan’s four improvement models that’s legal in West Virginia, the school’s current principal started with the grant. We would form a relationship with an “external partner” – a private sector education consultant who would observe our teaching practices and make suggestions as to how we could improve those practices. There would be other consultants – math consultants, reading consultants, writing coaches, cooperative learning gurus, classroom management experts, and more. At the end of the process our faculty would have accumulated three years’ worth of invaluable human capital on pedagogy and content. We would know how to teach – with relevance and rigor. And if we knew how to teach, our students would perform better, academically (which, translated, meant that test scores would go up).

Of course, some of the money went for things: technology and other materials.

Without question, we benefited from the grant (even though some of us had a pretty good idea of how to teach already). We greatly expanded student access to technology devices and strengthened our technology infrastructure. We exposed our teachers to new instructional strategies. We changed our conception of student engagement. We moved toward a more collaborative teaching process. We started down the road toward more teacher leadership in our school. But there were also problems.

One problem was that our consultants and external partner mostly seemed to have prefabricated solutions for our weaknesses and deficits (or at least the ones they perceived us to have). Our external partner came with solutions that had worked for them elsewhere and promised, upon arrival, that those solutions would work for us. Ultimately, they didn’t. In general, the smaller and more local a consultant was, the more likely they were to actually understand our issues and to work with us (instead of working on us).

Another problem was that some degree of animosity developed between school staff and one or two of the state-level bureaucrats tasked with monitoring our progress. They would question the competence and (worse) integrity of school staff. Their presence tended to poison the atmosphere around our efforts at improvement.  Such people were the exception; but their impact was profound.

A third problem was that there seemed to be little effort in the context of our grant to address the needs of our exceptional students. In the upper grades as many as 40% of our students were classed as having an educational disability. These were the least successful students in the school, and yet (to me) it seemed like our efforts failed to recognize or address the needs of those students or teachers as being different from the rest of the school.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, that we faced in achieving the grant’s goal of turning our school into one where the staff was trained to properly teach our children was that the grant did little to address the difficulty we had in retaining teachers, and perhaps even aggravated that problem. If I was asked today to list my school’s five biggest problems, I’d probably list them, in order, as 5) teacher turnover, 4) the low level of educational attainment in our surrounding community, 3) social needs and issue outside our school that impact our students’ readiness to learn in school, 2) teacher turnover and 1) (you guessed it) teacher turnover.

If we could find and KEEP teachers, academic achievement would stand a better chance of improving. But currently, only seven of our 20 core content general education teachers were there when the SIG grant started. Throw in Title I and Special Ed staff, and we now have 15 out of 33 faculty members who survived the grant’s full three years. With the art and music staff, PE and counseling tossed into the mix, 19 out of 39 teaching staff at the school were present at the start of the grant.

While we benefitted from having a SIG grant, it did not significantly improve our school in terms of its own measure of success – improved test scores. It failed to address our most pressing needs – the social issues in the community that inhibit learning. And it exacerbated our most pressing problem: teacher turnover. New teachers show up with a network of friends from college who take teaching jobs in other places. Working at a school with a SIG grant meant added pressure (stress) to achieve, and extra tasks – more detailed lesson plans, loss of planning period time to meetings, extra layers of data analysis, and demands to participate in hours and hours of professional development. Eventually, new teachers compare notes with their friends in other schools – and they leave for more relaxed environments. It does not help that our own school is situated in a location where housing is difficult to come by and many staff members drive 30 minutes to an hour one way to get to work.

A recent article on School Improvement Grants in the Washington Post reviewed a current research brief from the Brookings Institute on the federal program. It described the program’s goals as “harmful fantasy” and compared the prevalence of successful school turnarounds under the SIG grant program to the likelihood of seeing a unicorn in the morning mist. In addition to the tedium and strain involved in the hundreds of extra hours of professional development endured by teachers at my school, and in being scrutinized by experts on pedagogy who knew little about us, each year teachers at my school have been made to feel guilty (or at least disappointed) at their own inability to achieve something that no one else was accomplishing either. That’s bad for morale, which in turn contributes further to our problems with teacher retention.

I cannot tell you exactly how our $1.8 million was spent. Despite being on the school leadership team for two of the grant’s three years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a copy of the grant; and I never asked for one. No one ever discussed the grant’s budget in broad terms, publicly, to my knowledge. I can estimate that we spent at least $250,000 and $300,000 on iPads and laptops. We paid consultant to come to the school. We paid teachers to attend trainings after school and on weekends. We paid for facilities in some cases to host those trainings. And we paid our external partner a lot of money, even though they were unable to deliver on their promises.

While it would be nice to have felt like we had more control over our own grant, I’m not questioning the intentions, integrity or competence of anyone in my district. I’m simply questioning the federal policy that made it all possible. In keeping with much of the education reform movement, the program seems to serve primarily to move federal tax dollars into the hands of commercial interests with a stake in education.

My school district has the opportunity, I think, to renew our grant soon. I hope they don’t. I hope my school board members vote against it, if it comes to that.

Like so many schools that have been subjected to the current model of SIG grants, our problem is not that we have veteran teachers who never advanced in their skills beyond mediocrity. We have a faculty made up mostly of relative novice teachers who will develop more competence in the normal course of their professional life – without a transformation model SIG grant. But those teachers serve one of the 10 poorest school districts in America (statistics, not hyperbole), where infant mortality is high and average birth weight is low, where only about one in 20 adults has a college degree and only about six in 10 of them even completed high school, where transience and family instability are endemic, where almost half our student live in a home without either biological parent, where the number of students who qualify as homeless under the McKenney-Vento Act runs three times the state average, where high childhood obesity reflects a myriad of profound health problems in the local community, where disabilities are common and drug overdose is the leading cause of death.

Our students come to school with things other than arithmetic and phonics on their minds and hearts. More instructional rigor seems unlikely to fix that. I hope Arne Duncan finds a way to funnel money into something that will fix the kind of problems my school faces. A billion or so dollars for a federal program awarding community school initiative grants would make America a better place – especially if the money was simple cut from the turnaround and transformation models of the current SIG grant program. I’d apply for one of those grants.

Greg Cruey is the local president of the American Federation of Teachers in McDowell County, WV.

I Used to Blog…

I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions, but I used to blog and I should start doing it again.

I have blogged (often getting paid for it) on a huge variety of topics – from travel in Asia to search engine optimization, from wine to social networking, from venture capital in China to dating websites. I’ve blogged about political issues. I’ve blogged about my personal life. And, of course, I’ve blogged about education.

At some point I quit blogging. I can’t really say why. Life got busy. But it’s time to start again…

Comment Now on the New WV Teacher Evaluation Policy

A proposed new version of WV Education Policy 5310 is on comment at the moment (until May 13 at 4PM).

The policy, “Performance Evaluation of School Personnel” shapes the new evaluation process for teachers, administrators, counselors, coaches and service personnel. That process was used in 25 schools last year, has been more widely used this year, and will be in every school in the state next year.

Enter your comments in the online comment form. You can read the policy here. You can see a guide to the evaluation procedures here.

I commented regarding a couple of issues. First, I said that we need the evaluation process to be more easily available – that it should be accessible to teachers at home, not just inside the school building. Currently the various forms (self-reflection, observations done by your evaluator, forms to submit evidence) are only available while you are on a computer inside a school building.

I also suggested some changes to the way self-reflections work and to the way evaluators comment on our self-reflections. Finally, I suggested that there was a need to clarify parts of the rubrics that are associated with the Professional Teaching Standards.

You can read my comments below. They were submitted in box 126-142-9 Educator Evaluation of the online comment form.

The new evaluation process will be unnecessarily tedious and stressful as long as educators can only access their self-reflection and evidence forms while they are physically in the school building. This process needs to either be removed from WVEIS WOW, or the forms in WVEIS WOW’s EMP EVAL section need to be accessible from home with simple password protection.

9.2 An October 1 self-reflection should NOT be the basis for evaluating educations in the Spring, since this process is designed to promote professional growth which hopefully will result in the educator not rating themself the same in the fall as they would in the spring. Policy should specify that educators can update their self-evaluation until perhaps the beginning of February before evaluators indicate whether they agree or disagree with the self-reflection. Evaluators could then indicate by sometime in March whether they agree (element-by-element) with the self-reflection, and educators would know clearly which elements they needed to compile evidence to support for (and which ones they didn’t).

9.3.c The self-reflection asks educators to rate themselves on an element-by-element basis, but evaluators respond on a standard by standard basis. While there is no need for the evaluator to write more (or longer) comments, the evaluator should be required to specify where they agree and where they disagree with the educator’s self-rating on an element-by-element basis. A set of simple radio buttons or check boxes on the electronic form (perhaps labeled “evaluator agrees” and “needs evidence”) would take the ambiguity out of this process and prevent the educator from having to enter evidence unnecessarily.

While the policy doesn’t specifically mention the rubrics attached to the Professional Teaching Standards, those rubrics play a central role in the evaluation process. In places those rubrics are subjective, even vague. Perhaps the most obvious point that needs clarity is collaboration with students. In six of the first nine elements the difference between being accomplished and distinguished is whether the teacher collaborates with students. There seems to be no consensus as to what that looks like at various grade levels, and without guidance the result will be inconsistency between evaluators. That will rob the process of meaningfulness.

(Greg Cruey is the President of the McDowell County AFT.)

Enter your comments online now.

Crafting a School Technology Statement

Roughly what the policy says now…

Students shall be provided the opportunities within the core courses to master the standards set forth in our state’s Technology Standards. Students must be provided sufficient instruction and experience in technology applications to enable them to demonstrate technology literacy and skills to meet the standards.

What I wish it said…

The educational environment needs to be characterized by easy access to technology, leading to comfort with and proficiency on a variety of devices and programs. This comfort and proficiency should be modeled by teachers who use technology to support instruction. Students will be provided regular opportunities within the context of normal coursework to master the standards set forth in our state’s Technology Standards. Students must be provided sufficient instruction and experience in technology applications to enable them to demonstrate digital literacy and technology skills to meet the standards. The infrastructure of a classroom should be such that technology works together with pedagogy and content to infuse and transform instruction, leading to improved student engagement – an environment where students produce authentic, constructive products with technology, often collaborating in the process. These activities should sometimes provide for the prospect of extending the learning environment beyond the normal school time or setting. They should also lead to the development of good digital citizenship skills in students.

References:

TPACK
Levels of Technology Integration