Getting Evaluation Right

The verdict is in … traditional approaches to teacher evaluation aren’t working. See the recent Rand report assessing the multi-year, multimillion dollar Gates effort, that found: “the initiative did not achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation, particularly for LIM students. ”

In Here’s How Not to Improve Public Schools, Cathy O’Neill argues that the Gates initiative did more than “not achieve its goals” … it actually “unfairly ruined careers, driving teachers out of the profession amid a nationwide shortage. And its flawed use of metrics has undermined science.”

And in a recent opinion piece in Forbes by Peter Greene, he simply states: “Creating a teacher evaluation system is hard—really hard.”

But there is a way to get evaluation right … for the past several years I have been working with schools who are intentionally designing systems that build collective efficacy. Join me at the IB Conference in Vienna this October to learn how to get evaluation right, or contact me at Tigris Solutions.

The Importance of Student Thinking

In an NPR interview with Philip Sadler of Harvard:

“Students are not empty vessels,” he says. “Students are full of all kinds of knowledge, and they have explanations for everything.” From birth, human beings are working hard to figure out the world around us … cognitive science tells us that if you don’t understand the flaws in students’ reasoning, you’re not going to be able to dislodge their misconceptions and replace them with the correct concepts …

Teachers who find their kids’ ideas fascinating are just better teachers than teachers who find the subject matter fascinating.”

Read the interview here.


Thank You Seymour Papert

childrensmachineWhen I was a fledgling doctoral student, my mentor Ralph Ginsberg introduced me to the work of Seymour Papert. Reading The Children’s Machine profoundly changed my thinking about teaching and learning … his books continue to influence all of my work — whether I’m teaching children or adults, whether my focus is on teaching specific content, or coaching, or supporting groups to strategize. Constructionism always informs my purpose.

As I prepared my dissertation proposal defense years ago, I struggled with my literature review. My committee chair suggested I get in touch with Papert, since I relied so heavily on his work. I felt as though I was reaching out to an ancient greek philosopher and couldn’t believe he’d have time for a lowly Penn student. But Seymour replied quickly to my email, patiently answered my questions, and shared several articles (some of them unpublished) to assist me. He didn’t just accommodate my requests — he also encouraged me to push my thinking and consider aspects of instructional design that I hadn’t previously considered. As impressed as I am with his theories and passion about education, I will never forget that he took the time to support me (a complete stranger) in learning.

The world lost a great mind and a superb teacher yesterday. Let’s continue his work.

FIT Teaching … the book!

FITT_Cover(Warning: shameless self-promotion ahead )

Very excited that the book I’ve co-authored with Doug Fisher (@DFISHERSDSU) and Nancy Frey (@NancyFrey) is available here!

FIT Teaching is a field-tested and experience-honed process that captures the essentials of the best educational environments and empowers teachers to adapt the most effective planning, instructional, and assessment practices to their particular context. We highlight teachers as leaders who work collaboratively to support their students.

Free textbooks?

Emblazoning their social media posts with #GoOpen, teachers, principals, advocacy organizations and trade groups rallied behind what the department described as “high-quality, openly-licensed educational resources” for K-12 schools. Worth noting: These books and materials are free.

“Openly licensed educational resources can increase equity by providing all students, regardless of zip code, access to high quality learning materials that have the most up-to-date and relevant content,” acting U.S. Education Secretary John King said in a statement.

Read the article here.

The Need for Sleep

Fewer than 1 in 5 middle and high schools in the U.S. began the school day at the recommended 8:30 AM start time or later during the 2011-2012 school year, according to data published today in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Too-early start times can keep students from getting the sleep they need for health, safety, and academic success, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Read the CDC press release here.

Kids Need Time to be Kids

20 years ago, I was interviewed by a local news station. They wanted a Kindergarten teacher’s perspective on what kids should best do over the summer. Camp? Summer School? Activities? While I described an ideal childhood summer — reading, activities, outdoor time — I also cautioned against too much structure. Young children need time to simply BE … run, play, do nothing, be bored, figure out how not to be bored.

According to a recent NY Times article, it appears as if everything old is new again:

As American classrooms have focused on raising test scores in math and reading, an outgrowth of the federal No Child Left Behind law and interpretations of the new Common Core standards, even the youngest students have been affected, with more formal lessons and less time in sandboxes. But these days, states like Vermont, Minnesota and Washington are again embracing play as a bedrock of kindergarten …

Using play to develop academic knowledge — as well as social skills — in young children is the backbone of alternative educational philosophies like those of Maria Montessori or Reggio Emilia. And many veteran kindergarten teachers, as well as most academic researchers, say they have long known that children learn best when they are allowed ample time to go shopping at a pretend grocery store or figure out how to build bridges with wooden blocks. Even the Common Core standards state that play is a “valuable activity.”

But it’s still controversial. Read the entire article here.

Accidentally On Purpose

As a traveling educational consultant, I plan learning sessions for adults who (for the most part) I’ve never met and develop learning goals for teams based on (for the most part) a phone conversation or two. It’s challenging and results in frequent surprises when I actually meet groups face-to-face.

I recently worked with teams in a large county-wide district where the charge was to work with K-6 curriculum developers on the UbD process of identifying learning goals and developing transfer tasks. This is a group that has received significant PD on Understanding by Design and have already spent months identifying priority standards and considering next steps.

A departing administrator decided at the last minute to include a group of secondary folks who had zero PD on the process and little information about why they were sitting in on the elementary work sessions. After Day 1, I quickly realized the need for a re-design to provide a purpose for their attendance (as well as accomplish the original goal for the elementary team). The sessions became a modified fishbowl so that the newcomers could learn from the working teams.

The original sessions were structured for learning and working — and fortunately, this enabled a quick redesign. In the end, feedback from the secondary folks  indicated that there was, indeed, high value in their sitting in with the elementary teams:

  • I used to think that my content was all I needed to teach, now I think I need to use everyone’s content
  • I used to think outside of the box inside of my classroom, now I know I need to think beyond my classroom
  • I used to think good assessments assessed many standards, now I think good assessments assess many contents
  • I used to think my secondary assessments were more difficult to create, now I think that pre-K assessments are incredibly difficult to create
  • I used to think the work I did was more important than elementary school, now I know how deep the elementary teachers build the foundation of learning
  • I used to think that we were doing an adequate job, now I think we need a whole new mindset
  • I used to think that in order to assess my students I had to be an expert in my content, now I think I need to be an expert in all contents
  • I used to think my ELA content was most important (if they don’t know what a simile is, where are they going in life?), but now I know that we are really supporting all the other content areas
  • I used to think that I was preparing my students for the next level, now I think I am so narrow minded
  • I used to think that our system prepared students for their future, now I think we can do so much better with a more global view
  • I used to think middle schools had to teach foundational skills, now I wonder why we aren’t raising the bar
  • I used to think it was a really bad idea to bring secondary folks in with the elementary teachers, now I think it was a really good idea (based on the feedback you gave/asking challenging questions) and the vision of the process

To quote Eisenhower: Plans are useless, but planning is essential.

Observations Deserve a Response

Cross-posted in the January issue of the NJEA Review:

At this point in the school year, teachers have probably been observed at least once. Whether the observation was announced or unannounced, it involved someone visiting the classroom, writing things down, and relating that data to the district’s teacher evaluation model.

Many districts have made significant efforts to make the process collaborative, inviting teacher input and ensuring strong, instructionally oriented conversations. For those who experienced a less than collaborative process, there are steps that can be taken to make one’s voice heard. It’s important to remember that teachers were actually present during these observations, and they might have something valuable to say about their own instruction.

In New Jersey, regulations require a post-observation meeting for every observation. They specifically state that the post- observation conference is for the purpose of:

  • Reviewing the data collected at the observation;
  • Connecting the data to the teacher practice instrument;
  • Connecting the data to the teacher’s individual professional development plan;
  • Collecting additional information needed for the evaluation of the teacher;
  • Offering areas to improve effectiveness.

Although it may be tempting to avoid the post-observation meeting, an electronic communication is a challenging method to address all of these points. So how should teachers prepare?

First, review the data collected. Make sure that it is objective, free from bias and opinion. A list of judgmental statements, quotes from a rubric, or suggestions for improvement are not objective data. Rather, they are the observer’s impressions and judgments that were made on the spot. If the data  received by a teacher appears biased and subjective, it becomes an important topic of conversation during the post-observation conference. Without good data, any discussion of instruction is inherently flawed.

Second, review the data set to analyze how it specifically ties to the criteria and rubrics of the teacher practice instrument. There should be enough data connected to each component or standard to make a judgment about the level of performance. There should be enough data to represent a teacher’s overall pattern of practice throughout the lesson, not simply small snippets of information that might possibly be considered outliers.

Third, offer supplemental data that is relevant to the observation and tied directly to the data collected by the observer. For example, the lesson plan is an important artifact that should relate closely to the data collected around the implementation of the lesson. Student work is also highly relevant, and many observers typically do not have an opportunity to review the work products produced during or at the culmination of a lesson. Share any aspects of the lesson that did not go according to plan—where adjustments were made based on individual students’ needs and abilities, where flexibility was required to handle those unexpected issues that are a regular part of the school day, or instructional changes were made based on the formative assessments  conducted during the lesson.

Fourth, plan on sharing impressions of the lesson, the data collected, and where it falls on the rubric. Consider those aspects of instruction that appear strong, and consider one or two areas that might benefit from a shift in practice. It is important to remember that the observation focus should not necessarily be on things that need “fixing.” Teaching is a complicated business— even when a lesson is very good, it might still benefit from some modifications.

Finally, summarize the observation data, the supplemental data, and the language of the teacher practice instrument. Writing a well-informed response to every observation, whether it was positive or not, ensures that teacher voices are heard.