Educating Kids is harder than rocket science

Jack Schneider writes in the Washington Post:

“most of us—reformers, particularly—think we know what’s best for the public schools. But we would never presume to have answers about where to look for sources of Gamma-rays or about the importance of measuring Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Imagine Congress exerting control over NASA through a bill like No Child Left Behind, or coercing policy shifts through a program like Race to the Top. Or well-intended organizations like Teach For America jumping into the fray—recruiting talented college graduates and placing them on the job as rocket scientists. Or philanthropists deciding to apply lessons from their successes in domains like DVD rentals to “disrupt” the NASA “monopoly.”

How long would any of this be taken seriously? …

Schooling … is plagued by a number of challenges. Some are relatively straightforward; schools need adequate funding, for instance. But most of these issues are dilemmas rather than problems. The difference being that whereas problems can be solved, dilemmas can only be managed. What, for instance, do you do about student engagement? That’s a question not easily solved by introducing new gadgets or by paying students to stay focused.

Want to put a rocket into space? No problem. Just get enough brains working on the task.

Want to educate 50 million students in a powerful, relevant, and relatively equal way? Now that’s a challenge.

As it turns out, educating kids isn’t rocket science. It’s harder.”

Read the entire article here.

Student Success Starts with a FIT Culture

Cross-posted at ASCD In Service

Now that the school year is underway, you’re rockin’ and rollin’ and making great strides with your pacing guide and curriculum content. As you plan your lessons and consider activities and instructional strategies, take a moment to pause and reflect on the culture of learning that is being established, both in your classroom and in your school.

“Academic press is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient to operationalize the mission of the school. . . . No school improvement effort will be effective, maintained, or enhanced unless school culture and academic press are both addressed and aligned” (Fisher, Frey, & Pumpian 2012, p. 5). Within the FIT Teaching™ model, school and classroom culture is a critical prerequisite to implementing effective instruction.


In their book How to Create a Culture of Achievement, Fisher, Frey, and Pumpian. identify five pillars that are critical to student achievement. These pillars are useful when working to implement a strong school and classroom culture. They are also invaluable when examining the current state of affairs in your learning environment.

Pillar 1: Welcome

Imagine checking into a hotel and waiting a long, long time to be helped, only to then be treated brusquely at the front desk and shuffled off, unceremoniously, to your room. You would probably choose never to patronize that hotel again.

Similarly, many visitors to schools and classrooms often feel as though they are an unwelcome disruption rather than an honored guest. The same goes for students as well. This pillar suggests that educators need to make a conscious effort to establish a welcoming environment for all learners and visitors.

How do we know our school and classrooms are welcoming?

  • Try the secret shopper method and invite a stranger to visit and have them report back.
  • Send out a student and/or parent survey asking for anonymous feedback.
  • Hold student focus groups to allow free discussion about the nature of your welcoming environment.

Pillar 2: Do No Harm

Behavior issues—often referred to as disciplinary issues—are a sticky subject for many schools and classrooms. Discussions around behavior issues and how to respond to misbehavior monopolize time and can often be emotionally charged.

This pillar describes the importance of all adults agreeing to be the models of correct behavior. This begins with the adults discussing behavioral goals and expectations and making a concerted effort to work together to hold everyone (not just students) to the agreed upon standards. In such an environment, one teacher doesn’t permit gum chewing in class while another ignores it. With this approach, school rules have a purpose and are consistently monitored. Ultimately, however, the goal is for students to self-regulate so that “enforcement” becomes a moot point.

How do we know our school and classrooms subscribe to a policy of “do no harm”?

  • Survey the students about school rules. Don’t just ask if they know the rules, but ask if they know why the rules are important.
  • Audit your discipline referrals. What are the trends, patterns, and commonalities? Do certain issues warrant further action—perhaps a more concerted effort on the part of all staff?
  • Survey the teachers. What do they believe are the major behavioral issues? Do their answers match what your audit results suggest?

Pillar 3: Choice Words

In his book Choice Words, Peter Johnston writes, “Language . . . is not merely representational (though it is that); it is also constitutive” (2004, p. 9). He shares an example of a teacher asking students questions for which she already knows the answers. This reinforces the teacher’s role as the font of all knowledge and students as recipients. In another example, a teacher announces that the class will have free choice time, but only after finishing the reading task first. This subtly indicates that the reading is a necessary work chore to be completed before having “fun.”

According to this pillar, the language teachers choose to use has a great effect on how students come to view their lives at school, the tasks they are to complete, and their roles as learners. Consider the nuanced difference between these exchanges:

Student: I’m having trouble correcting the grammar in this sentence.

Teacher: What have I taught you about subject-verb agreement?

Or …

Student: I’m having trouble correcting the grammar in this sentence.

Teacher: As a writer, what have you learned about subject-verb agreement?

In the first example, the teacher is firmly in control of the knowledge and expects the student to recall what has been taught. In the second example, the teacher reinforces that the student is a writer who is learning the critical aspects of a writer’s craft.

How do we know our school’s educators choose words carefully?

  • Teachers can self-assess the language they use in the classroom. Are they phrasing things in a way that creates a sense of agency for their students?
  • Administrators can support teachers’ self-assessment by collecting observation data and sharing it with teachers so they can reflect on their language choices.

Pillar 4: It’s Never Too Late to Learn

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

This Chinese proverb suggests that there is value in working toward achieving goals no matter how late we are in getting started or how daunting the task may seem. This idea is particularly relevant for our students, who arrive at school with test scores labeling them a certain number of years “below grade level.”

This pillar suggests that all educators must believe that students can be successful and competent learners—not merely compliant students. In her book Mindset (2006), Carol Dweck describes the power of people’s beliefs. In the first mind-set she depicts, one believes abilities are etched in stone, permanent and immutable. Our intelligence is fixed and thus we hold a fixed mind-set. In the other mind-set, one believes that learning and achievement can be cultivated through hard work and perseverance. In this example, we hold a growth mind-set.

Imagine the difference for students when administrators and teachers in their school regard them with growth mind-sets, not fixed ones! Combine this with the notion of choice words and compare these statements made by a teacher:

Wow, great work on this project. You are so smart.

Or …

Wow, great work on this project. You put a lot of thought and effort into it.

In the first example, the student is reminded that her inherent intelligence was responsible for her success. This creates a lot of pressure for a student—what happens if that intelligence isn’t enough? In the second example, the student’s work and effort is acknowledged. Hard work is not a finite resource. When a student struggles, perseverance will see them through.

How do we know our school and classrooms are places where it’s never too late to learn?

  • Review the content and level of cognitive tasks given to students. Do they represent high expectations for all?
  • Analyze formative and summative assessments for the depth of knowledge required. Are the questions asking students to recall and reproduce or to analyze information and extend their thinking?
  • Discuss academic recovery efforts in your classrooms and your school. What happens when students don’t achieve as expected? What supports are in place?

Pillar 5: Best School in the Universe

Although this statement might invoke images of bragging educators—We work at the best school!—it is actually about members of a school holding themselves accountable for creating the best possible environment for students. This pillar suggests a continuous improvement effort in order to make a school great. Teaching is a complex and demanding job that requires constant attention from motivated individuals in order to be effective.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (2009), Daniel Pink identifies three critical aspects of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy speaks to our ability to be self-directed in our work and learning. Mastery describes our desire to get good at something. Purpose reflects our wish to pursue meaningful tasks—not busy work or artificial assignments.

These principles can be applied to the work of educators and the work of students within a school. After all, the best school in the universe is one that’s a great place to work as well as a great place to learn.

How do we know our school and classrooms are the best in the universe?

  • Are students’ tasks challenging, authentic, and relevant?
  • Do tasks offer students choices and collaborative opportunities?
  • Are supports designed so that students can master important learning?
  • Are educators given opportunities to be self-directed?
  • Are educators given opportunities and supports to continuously improve their craft?
  • Are educators engaged in meaningful pursuits that have a direct effect on student learning?

Don’t get too caught up in your curriculum without considering the environment. FIT Teaching™ begins with a culture of achievement.


Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., Pumpian, I. (2012). How to create a culture of achievement in your school and classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children’s learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Speculating on the Secrets of Teaching

Interesting conversation between Amanda Ripley and Elizabeth Green. A few highlights:

… I have close friends and family members who are teachers, but my appreciation for the work was skin deep. I thought about the physical challenge — like, you have to get up so early, and you have to blow kids’ noses. But it’s actually really cognitively challenging …

… Once you believe kids are quite capable and actually more capable than adults when it comes to learning, then that opens up a whole cascading realm of possibilities…

… In the US, partly because of federalism, we have no central government that can really create coherence. The Feds just keep pushing the one button they have—which is accountability. This idea that if we can just put more pressure on schools, they will produce…

… When you have not done the serious work of selecting and training teachers thoughtfully, you end up having to do all the work on the back end—which is unfair to teachers…

… Why not a reality teaching show? The idea of getting people to watch a teacher teach in a really masterful way and then talk about what she did…

Read the entire conversation here.

Want answers about teacher evaluation? Ask!

 This column appears in the October 2014 issue of the NJEA Review.

Ah, October. The smell of pumpkins, fall foliage, a chill in the air … and a critical deadline that affects all teachers in New Jersey. According to AchieveNJ regulations, a district must annually notify all teaching staff members of the adopted evaluation policies and procedures no later than Oct. 1. If your superintendent hasn’t provided this information to your staff, it’s time to start asking questions.

Your District Evaluation Advisory Committee (DEAC) should have made a series of recommendations to the district superintendent regarding the design of a district’s teacher evaluation system. These decisions go well beyond the selection of a model (Danielson, Marshall, Marzano, McREL, Stronge, etc.). The district should compile all of the policies and procedures related to how it will implement the evaluation process for all staff members so that everyone knows what to expect from their observations and can begin to prepare now for summative evaluations.

For example, do you know the planned timeline of your observations for the year? The regulations require a minimum of one observation per semester (and three for the year if you are a non-tenured teacher). But there are other important timing considerations. Will your announced observation come first (so that you can take advantage of a pre-conference) and your unannounced come later in the year? Will there be a planned gap between observations (giving you an opportunity to reflect on your practice and consider opportunities for growth)? Timelines are important.

Do you know how your district is approaching the behind-the-scenes work of teaching (such as Instructional Planning and Professional Responsibilities)? These cannot be observed (for the most part) during classroom instruction — so how will they be assessed and when? What constitutes exemplary practice in, for example, record-keeping? Teachers need to be aware of these expectations and build a portfolio throughout the school year so you’re not scrambling in May to locate evidence in time for a summative evaluation meeting.

Most critically … what is your district’s approach to creating a summative score based on your yearly observations? Many schools are using software packages that default to a straight averaging method — one that is not conducive to highlighting teachers’ strengths or need for remediation. Will the district use a conjunctive formula (typically associated with the Marzano system)? Or a holistic approach (more often used with the Stronge model)? Perhaps there is a growth-oriented approach (only using the ratings from the strongest observation) or a modality focus. This is one of the more critical DEAC considerations and system design decisions that must be made and communicated to every teacher by October 1. Teachers must know how they will be assessed during their summative evaluation meeting; those conversation should never be a surprise.

Teachers and their supervisors all need to be on the same page. So if the October 1 deadline has come and gone, be sure to ask: What are the district policies and procedures regarding evaluation? A healthy system is one that keeps everyone informed.

Are tests designed for students or for adult convenience?

Daniel Pink:

Are our education policies designed for the convenience of adults or for the education of our children? Take high-stakes testing—it’s easy, it’s cheap, and you get a number, which makes it really convenient for adults, whether they’re taxpayers or policymakers. But is heavy reliance on punitive standardized tests the best way to educate our children? Probably not.

Read the article in ASCD Educational Leadership here.

Yikes! Be careful choosing your textbooks.

During a recent curriculum review meeting, a social studies teacher looked at the US History final exam that had been used for years in the district. “Why are there 10 questions about the Alamo?” she asked.

Good question for teachers in Pennsylvania. While the Alamo may be interesting, should it comprise 10% of the final exam (and consequently, 10% of the year’s instruction)? With some digging, it didn’t take long for the group to realize that they were using the final exam provided by the textbook manufacturer, and that the textbook was designed for students in Texas. Thus began a deep discussion about the teaching of history, and the realization that sometimes no textbook is better than a significantly biased textbook.

Enter new information from a group of educators assessing proposed textbook updates for Texas — and this should be a concern for everyone. Because, as Texan textbooks get adopted, they are marketed to the rest of the United States:

Scholarly reviews of 43 proposed history, geography and government textbooks for Grades 6-12 — undertaken by the Education Fund of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog and activist group that monitors far-right issues and organizations — found extensive problems in American Government textbooksU.S. and World History textbooks, Religion in World History textbooks, and Religion in World Geography textbooks.  The state board will vote on which books to approve in November.

Ideas promoted in various proposed textbooks include the notion that Moses and Solomon inspired American democracy, that in the era of segregation only “sometimes” were schools for black children “lower in quality” and that Jews view Jesus Christ as an important prophet.

Here are the broad findings of 10 scholars, who wrote four separate reports, taken from an executive summary, followed by the names of the scholars and a list of publishers who submitted textbooks.

  • A number of government and world history textbooks exaggerate Judeo-Christian influence on the nation’s founding and Western political tradition.
  • Two government textbooks include misleading information that undermines the Constitutional concept of the separation of church and state.
  • Several world history and world geography textbooks include biased statements that inappropriately portray Islam and Muslims negatively.
  • All of the world geography textbooks inaccurately downplay the role that conquest played in the spread of Christianity.
  • Several world geography and history textbooks suffer from an incomplete – and often inaccurate – account of religions other than Christianity.
  • Coverage of key Christian concepts and historical events are lacking in a few textbooks, often due to the assumption that all students are Christians and already familiar with Christian events and doctrine.
  • A few government and U.S. history textbooks suffer from an uncritical celebration of the free enterprise system, both by ignoring legitimate problems that exist in capitalism and failing to include coverage of government’s role in the U.S. economic system.
  • One government textbook flirts with contemporary Tea Party ideology, particularly regarding the inclusion of anti-taxation and anti-regulation arguments.
  • One world history textbook includes outdated – and possibly offensive – anthropological categories and racial terminology in describing African civilization.
  • A number of U.S. history textbooks evidence a general lack of attention to Native American peoples and culture and occasionally include biased or misleading information.
  • One government textbook … includes a biased – verging on offensive – treatment of affirmative action.
  • Most U.S. history textbooks do a poor job of covering the history of LGBT citizens in discussions of efforts to achieve civil rights in this country.
  • Elements of the Texas curriculum standards give undue legitimacy to neo-Confederate arguments about “states’ rights” and the legacy of slavery in the South. While most publishers avoid problems with these issues, passages in a few U.S. history and government textbooks give a nod to these misleading arguments.

Read the entire Washington Post article here.

Public education getting better, not worse

Catherine Rampell writes:

“Data from the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, a survey about education: Over the past four decades, respondents have become increasingly likely to say that today’s students receive a “worse education” than they themselves did.

But it’s not clear that any of this is true, at least at the national level.

Few consistent tools are available to measure the quality of U.S. education over time; the best we have is probably the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, first administered in 1971. And believe it or not, NAEP scores have been steadily improving, with most national measures now at or around all-time highs. The biggest gains have generally gone to nonwhite students, helping narrow — though not eliminate — the achievement gap. Other metrics, too, suggest that schools are improving.Dropout rates are at record lows, and the share of high school students who take higher-level courses such as calculus has risen.”

Why is this?

Rampell argues that heavy media criticism and “misplaced nostalgia” around one’s own schooling are partially to blame. She also suggests that the need for college education in today’s marketplace is conflated with a lack of preparation by K-12 institutions. All interesting notions.

Read the entire post here.

Strategies to make the evaluation process meaningful

Note: This article was written for the NJEA Review and appears in the September issue. It makes specific reference to teacher evaluation as written into NJ regulation … however, teachers across the US are wrestling with these issues. Although the regulations may vary, the critical concerns do not.

I left the advertising industry to become a teacher. The transition brought an intensive year of graduate school, student teaching and credentialing exams. In a very short time, I went from a luxurious office in Manhattan to a roomful of five-year-olds, just outside Philadelphia. Culture shock is a polite way of describing that change.

As I acclimated myself to the demands of teaching, friends and colleagues from my previous life in advertising would ask about my new job. When I explained that I was teaching kindergarten, the response was almost always the same: “Oh! You must be having so much fun!”

Well, yes, I enjoyed the work. But that’s not what they meant. In their minds, I was sitting on the floor with adorable kids, playing with building blocks, singing songs, and skipping home at 3:25 every afternoon. In reality, I was learning what experienced educators know very well: teaching is an unbelievably demanding job. It is physically exhausting. It is emotionally draining. And it’s incredibly challenging on an intellectual level.

The reaction from folks outside of education is woefully predictable. Teaching kindergartners is intellectually challenging? Well, yes, if you do it right. It relies on knowing content in four major disciplines deeply enough to develop relevant objectives for five-year-olds, while understanding pedagogy deeply enough to relate complex information to young children. My story uncovers a fundamental and crucial problem: those with limited experience in education have very little understanding of the complexity and demands faced by teachers and school leaders. In fact, many policy-makers and public critics believe they know quite a lot about teaching simply because they once went to school. “How hard can it be?” they muse. Sadly, these are many of the same folks who have developed policies around teacher evaluation.

The 2013-14 school year was challenging and frustrating for many educators as the state rushed to implement new evaluation systems too fast and failed to provide the necessary resources. As we begin a new school year, we can continue to work to correct the flaws in the system. At the same time, however, this September provides another opportunity to focus on ways that a thoughtful evaluation process can help us strengthen our skills and ultimately boost student learning.

So, what exactly should you do? Take the following actions so that the evaluation system can be successfully implemented in a fair and productive manner.

1. Deeply understand the model

Everyone—that means everyone—in the system needs to fully understand the evaluative criteria and rubrics that will be used to assess practice. It is not uncommon for districts to focus training on supervisors or a handful of teachers who are expected to inform their colleagues. It is not sufficient to simply select a model (whether it is Danielson, Marshall, Marzano, McREL, Stronge, etc.) and have an in-service day; all teachers and administrators must learn the model and the rubrics deeply enough to apply them in practice. Whether using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge or Bloom’s Taxonomy, applying concepts is a higher-level activity. Therefore, it is not enough to have basic recall of the model and rubrics. It must be something all participants can make meaning with, and relate to, their complex work.

2. Become well versed in the process

While every school district must adhere to policies defined by state regulation, there are still a number of procedural decisions that should be made by the District Evaluation Advisory Committee (DEAC). The committee must include the superintendent, a special education administrator, a parent, a member of the district school board, one or more central office administrators, and representatives from each school level. In addition, the NJDOE website recommends that districts consider expanding this minimum requirement to include more educators whose involvement is important to the success of the evaluation system implementation, such as teacher leaders, association representatives and other teaching staff.

Members of the DEAC should work together to make important procedural decisions beyond the state regulations. For example, after a teacher is observed, will data be shared and discussed prior to assessment? Does the teacher have an opportunity to reflect on practice and contribute to the observation data with meaningful and relevant information? This is considered a best practice in the area of observations, but is often not specified in a district’s procedures around evaluation. Without establishing consistent and well-communicated procedures, teachers and supervisors face in- consistent practices that undermine the potential of an evaluation system to positively impact teaching and learning.

3. Get clarification on the nuances between “onstage” and “offstage”

All models outline teaching practices to be evaluated. All models rely on classroom observations to gather data about those practices. But all of the models also specify behind-the-scenes work that teachers do outside of their interactions with students. These essential characteristics of a teacher’s job are critically important in an overall evaluation. However, the tradition of relying solely on what can be observed during classroom instruction has left most schools woefully unprepared to determine how to evaluate an educator’s behind-the-scenes work.

The DEAC should make recommendations about the assessment of teachers’ planning skills and professional obligations. Teachers need clear descriptions of the artifacts or elements that constitute data representing their behind-the-scenes work. Along with those descriptions, exemplars of effective and highly effective practices help to ensure consistency in rating these critical aspects of a teachers’ work. According to state regulations, these critical clarifications must be conveyed to everyone in the system by Oct. 1 of each year.

4. Learn about the role of student achievement

Student growth objectives (SGOs) should be one of the most teacher-driven aspects of the evaluation system. Too often, this was not the case last year. According to the regulations, they are developed by the teacher in collaboration with the supervisor. While a principal has the final approval of SGOs, it is important to note that the process must begin at the teacher level. SGOs are meant to reflect the growth and performance of a specific group of students, based on their particular abilities and academic needs. It is inappropriate to set goals that are district, school, or even department-wide, since such goals would not reflect the needs of the students for whom a teacher is responsible.

There are two important steps within the SGO process that proved challenging last year; the first involves assessment. The law defines multiple measures as both formal and informal measures and includes in the definition examples of performance assessments, portfolio projects, problem-solving protocols, and teacher- based assessments. These should not be overlooked in favor of standardized or published assessments, particularly if those do not accurately reflect the curriculum being taught throughout the year.

The second step relates to developing baseline information. Since it is important to have an accurate understanding of students in order to develop meaningful goals, a simple pretest given the first week of school often yields insufficient information for setting an appropriate goal. Rather, a collection of information, including grades in past classes, assessments of prerequisite skills, scores on assessments in late September and October, some measure of student engagement including homework completion, class participation, and attendance might all be used to develop goals for a group of students. Best practice would indicate collecting data from multiple sources in order to set goals for students that are both ambitious and achievable.

5. Find your professional voice

We know our students deserve great teachers. Teachers and school leaders deserve a system designed to foster greatness. This can only be accomplished with a collaborative effort to create systems of transparency and fairness. The purpose of teacher evaluation models is to provide common vocabulary and expectations that put a focus on high quality instruction — highlighting it when it’s observed and supporting it when it needs improvement.

Teachers and school leaders must participate in dialogues for learning. This means that the data gathered during an observation or a teacher portfolio of behind-the-scenes work are opportunities to have meaningful conversations about teaching — and not just as fodder for a final “score.” Working together, we can make the evaluation process work for us, and more importantly, for our students.

Recently found … 09/03/2014

    • most of the countries with the best educational results used the same set of techniques to get there. And, second, that the American reform methods were used nowhere else in the world.
    • “We are entirely on the wrong track.”
    • The main thing that works is treating teaching as a profession, and teachers as professionals. That means that teachers are as well paid as other professionals, that they have a career ladder, that they go to elite schools where they learn their craft, and that they are among the top quartile of college graduates instead of the bottom quartile.
    • the cost per pupil in
    • the places with the best educational systems is less than the American system, even though their teachers are far better paid. “They are not spending more money; they are spending money differently,”

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