Surprising news: Gates Foundation sees reason

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the country’s largest donors to educational causes and a strong backer of the academic guidelines known as the Common Core, has called for a two-year moratorium on states or school districts making any high-stakes decisions based on tests aligned with the new standards …

“No evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable, and it’s very hard to be fair in a time of transition. The standards need time to work. Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests and offer their feedback.”

Although Diane Ravitch doesn’t think 2 years is enough:

“If the sanctions and punishments tied to test scores are wrong now — promoting teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, cheating and gaming the system — the sanctions and punishments will still be wrong two years from now,”

Full New York Times article here.

Tinkering Toward Utopia

In “Shooting Bottle Rockets at the Moon: Overcoming the Legacy of Incremental Education Reform,” Thomas Kane says:

…we must be able to make a plausible argument that a given set of reforms will produce improvements of the desired magnitude.   There is no reason to expect that non-controversial, incremental policies such as more professional development, incrementally smaller class sizes, and better facilities will produce substantial change.  The current backlash against the Common Core and new teacher evaluation systems is, at least in part, a result of our long history of underpowered, incremental reforms.   By failing to worry about magnitudes, we have led politicians and voters to expect school reform without controversy.   We cannot return to shooting bottle rockets when Saturn V’s are required.  We need to recognize the magnitude of the changes required to achieve our goals.

I wonder what David Tyack and Larry Cuban would say.

Read the entire analysis here.

DOs and DON’Ts for determining professional responsibilities ratings

(Cross posted at

No matter which teacher practice evaluation instrument a district is using, now is the time of year when educators are taking a look at the standard or domain dealing with Professional Responsibilities (Standard 1 in McREL, Domain 4 in Danielson, Domains 3 and 4 in Marzano, and Standard 6 in Stronge).

Causing anxiety for supervisors and teachers alike, this is the “backstage” work of teaching — very little of it can be seen when one visits a classroom to conduct walk-throughs or observations. This is an evaluation area dealing with participating in the professional community, leading and collaborating, and practicing in an ethical manner. For many years, teachers have been evaluated on these criteria in a binary fashion: satisfactory or not. Now, state legislation requires the criteria to be examined and rated on (minimally) a 4-level rubric.

The problem is most of the models for evaluation systems are rather generic when it comes to describing a teacher’s professional responsibilities. In schools where the rubrics have not been further developed to provide concrete local exemplars of effective and highly effective practice, both supervisors and teachers may be perplexed about what constitutes enough data for analysis and exactly what those data represent.

Here are a few DOs and DON’Ts for both teachers and evaluators to keep in mind:

  • DON’T make the Professional Responsibilities Standard all about the collection of lots and lots of artifacts. This leads to the “shopping bag” syndrome where teachers have so little guidance, they throw massive numbers of documents into shopping bags to bring to their end-of-year conferences. Or worse, supervisors confuse highly effective practice with enormous quantities of paper.
  • DO select several thoughtful and meaningful examples of professional responsibilities that represent a pattern of practice throughout the year and consider how they positively impact student learning experiences.
  • DON’T forget that ratings of “highly effective” shouldn’t be unattainable. Keep in mind that the rubrics for most models seek extensive practices, demonstrations of leadership, and meaningful contributions in order to achieve a highly effective rating.
  • DO keep these standards in perspective. Both “effective” and “highly effective” professional practices result in positive learning environments for students.

It’s important to keep in mind that there are a tremendous number of teachers that put forth mighty efforts on behalf of their students. When it comes time to evaluate their professionalism, those teachers’ efforts should be acknowledged and honored.

We Don’t Learn From Experience …

Cross posted at Education is My Life …

Race to the Top and related state legislation has brought a klieg light focus to the issue of teacher evaluation … and along with the spotlight has come the expected frenzy as schools and districts comply with yet another partially funded mandate. As with many such initiatives, educational leaders are faced with an important choice: get it done (compliance) OR seize the opportunity to consider the potential of developing an evaluation system that positively impacts student learning. The beauty of choice #2 is that it does not preclude complying with the legislation.

Why Do We Evaluate Teachers

There are essentially two important reasons to evaluate teachers. The first is quality assurance … no one would argue that families have a right to expect that a school system provide quality teachers for their children. The second, however, is to support and encourage professional growth. The key is in finding the balance between these two goals.

As schools and districts embark on rethinking their evaluation systems, the most urgent demand is to attend to the WHAT and HOW of the initiative: what model will we use for our performance criteria? How many observations a year for each teacher? What forms will we use? How will we train the observers to collect objective data? The list of WHAT and HOW is lengthy, complicated, and important. More relevant to professional growth, however, is to address the question of WHY. Why are we using this model? Why are we choosing to observe teachers x numbers of visits a year? Why will this form enhance the process? Why are we training observers to collect objective data?

It’s More Than A Process

Wrestling with the WHY leads to the most critical aspect of the process: providing teachers the support and encouragement to become reflective about their own practice. It is far too easy to get caught up in the processes of teacher evaluation and lose sight of the rationale for doing it in the first place: to positively impact learning experiences for students. To do that, teachers need the time, resources, and supportive culture to become increasingly reflective about the complex work that they do.

In the traditional evaluation process—one that so many teachers in the US have experienced—a teacher might be observed once a year and the observer (typically the principal) would write up their impressions of the observation for the teacher to read and sign. In this model, the teacher has very little opportunity to become participatory in the process.

As we attempt to reform evaluation processes in our schools, the most important shift is not about the model, the forms, the processes, or any of the WHAT and HOW pieces—it is to create reflection opportunities for teachers. No matter what process a school or district adopts, there are multiple opportunities for reflection.

Steps to Reflection

Pre-Observation … Teacher lesson plans come in all shapes and sizes, from 1-inch sticky notes slapped in a spiral notebook, to lengthy narratives complete with research and blow-by-blow descriptions of activities. The planning process is a prime opportunity for teachers to think critically about an all-important question: what do I want my students to learn? Most teachers will be able to describe what the students will do, but it sometimes takes some reflective digging to get at the true learning objectives of a lesson.

Post-Observation … I look forward to the day when a post-observation meeting is no longer simply about filling out and signing a form for the HR department. The post-observation meeting is a golden opportunity to review the data collected during a lesson and have a meaningful professional dialogue about what worked and what might be improved. The observer’s most important job is to provide an environment and structure for the teacher to engage in cognitive analysis about his or her own practice. This requires a shift from the traditional conference in which the principal does little more than inform teachers of their “rating” on a lesson, to one in which the post-observation meeting is a conversation between two professional educators who share the same goal: how to positively impact instruction.

On-going … Yes, time is tight and demands on teachers and school leaders are pressing. But if we really embrace that the prime directive of schools is to create excellent learning environments for students, then our focus needs to move away from management to instruction. This notion suggests that we should continually be seeking ongoing opportunities to do this—not reserve it for a district-mandated beginning and end-of-year meetings. Simply marching through the steps of a process will not result in any meaningful change. That will only happen through deep reflection and a desire to learn and grow.

In reality, this notion is independent of any particular initiative, or system, or legislation … it’s a simple idea based on an ages-old principle of practice. To paraphrase John Dewey: We do not learn from experiences, we learn from reflecting on those experiences.*

*Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan

Learning Focused Conversations … a great opportunity for educational leaders

Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman of Miravia are offering a 1-week seminar this summer on Learning Focused Supervision … the art of guiding conversations with educators so they are focused and productive. The week-long seminar will offer support, training, and practice – all in beautiful Simsbury, CT. Click here for more details.

LFS Summer Promo

What’s Next After Teacher Evaluations?

cross posted at Education is My Life

The spotlight has been shining on Teacher Evaluation reform for several years now – and not without considerable furor over the use of student test scores and reliability (or unreliability) of supervisors. Underlying the hand-wringing and political posturing is an undeniable truth: the things that get measured are the things that get done … and it is about time that we consider how to accurately assess and support the complex work that teachers do.

In much of my work with teachers and administrators, most are eager to embrace processes that acknowledge the challenges of teaching and provide support for professional improvement. However, there is one consistent question that school leaders frequently ask: “Once I observe teachers and we identify areas of strength and areas for focused improvement … how do I support them with information about best practices?”

Therein lies the crux of the matter. We are currently caught up in measurement frenzy – especially for American states receiving Race to the Top funding. But constant data collection and measurement is meaningless until we identify the best practices teachers can employ that will actually change the educational experience for students.

Identifying Best Practices

Instructional strategies, new technologies, high expectations, and rigorous standards can be an overwhelming menu for teachers, when truly there is one fundamental question that should be asked and answered when designing learning experiences for students: will they be cognitively engaged? Simply keeping students busy or delighting them with technological bells and whistles does not insure cognitive engagement.

One of the more definitive explorations of student engagement is Phillip Schlechty’s “Working on the Work” (revised in 2011). Schlechty discusses the relationship between student motivation to pursue challenging work as directly related to the quality of a teacher’s design efforts.

We have now become familiar with the advice that teachers embrace a shift in practice from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” and become facilitators of student learning rather than dispensers of content. However, this raises many questions about how to truly facilitate engaging activities. Schlechty’s list of design qualities can provide direction for teachers to help increase the attentiveness, commitment, and persistence of their students:

  1. Content and Substance – the subjects or topics to be learned should be authentic and meaningful.
  2. Product Focus – the task or activity has relevance and value.
  3. Organization of Knowledge – how work is structured (for example, using a problem-solving or discovery approach) should consider learning styles.
  4. Clear and Compelling Standards – the clarity students have around the work products … do they know what benchmarks they will have to meet?
  5. Protection from Initial Failure – how a teacher conveys that students may take risks in their work without fearing humiliation or negative sanctions.
  6. Affiliation – the opportunity for students to work with someone other than the teacher: peers, family members, other adults, community members, etc.
  7. Affirmation – the opportunity for student work to be shared with a community beyond the classroom.
  8. Choice – the possibility that students have some determination either about what they learn or how they will learn it.
  9. Novelty and Variety – providing a range of media and approaches to the activities assigned to students.
  10. Authenticity – the possibility that learning tasks might be linked to real interests of the students.

Schlechty’s list is a good place to start, but it is ultimately the job of coaches, mentors, and supervisors to hold professional conversations with teachers about instructional design. Rather than brainstorming possible activities, teachers and their mentors can work together to analyze instructional practices, seeking to enhance the qualities that might result in student engagement. Whatever instructional strategy or methodology a teacher employs, the true measure of it as a “best practice” will be in its potential to cognitively engage students in learning.

Measures of Effective Teaching

The recently released preliminary findings around the Measures of Effective Teaching study provide some important insight into teacher evaluation. One of the most critical is the predictive validity of the Danielson Framework for Teaching.*

However, I was struck by this statement:

“…the teachers whose students show gains on the state tests also tend to see unusual gains on other tests. Because the BAM test focuses more on conceptual understanding and uses a very different format than most state tests, this would imply that those teachers who are showing strong value-added scores on the state test are not simply “teaching to the test”. Their impact seems to generalize to other tests as well.”

This suggests that students who engage with content in a meaningful manner (i.e. not just memorize in preparation for testing) will still do well on low-level standardized tests. Will this finding influence test-prep mania that has gripped our schools?

Read the entire preliminary report – download here.


*full disclosure: I am a consultant for the Danielson Group