Randi Weingarten, Unions, and Teacher Quality

Just a little over two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend an hour listening to Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. I eagerly anticipated that session at the Teach For America 20th Anniversary Summit because, in my opinion, unions have been one of the biggest obstacles to improving educational outcomes for poor kids, and Randi Weingarten – thanks both to her casting as the villain in “Waiting For Superman” and her role in prolonging negotiations for the latest D.C. teaching contract – stands as that obstacle personified.  

I have to say – I left that session very impressed. 

First of all, despite the fact that Richard Whitmire devotes an entire chapter of his new book The Bee Eater (about Michelle Rhee) to the antagonistic relationship between these two powerful women, I think they have a lot more in common than they realize. Essentially, I think they are the same person – just on different sides of the fence. Like Michelle Rhee (and I say this as someone who used to work in the Office of the Chancellor and got to spend quite a lot of time in the Chancellor’s presence), Randi Weingarten has been rather pigeonholed by the media into representing one view without willingness to yield or apologize for playing rough. If you asked a random person on the streets who knew just enough about education to know who each woman is, that person would likely tell you that Michelle Rhee is the one who likes to fire teachers and Randi Weingarten is the one who likes to keep the bad ones in the classroom. I know that Michelle Rhee is about much more than just firing teachers, and I’m giving Randi Weingarten the benefit of the doubt too, especially because of what she had to say during this session.

Randi showed up in gray slacks and a violet sweater – not her “Darth Vader outfit”, as she pointed out to us almost immediately. Wise choice – she looked like she was truly there for a conversation (the title of the session was “A Conversation with Randi Weingarten”) rather than a war. The message she reiterated throughout was: unions have to change, and we need you to be part of it.

Fair enough. I’ll admit that during my years in the classroom I couldn’t possibly have had less to do with our union. I joined it (since dues would come out of my salary regardless) and heard about how it managed to get us one or two more days of professional development during my second year, but that’s about it. Do I really have a right to bitch about what it did? No.

 A good chunk of the “conversation” dealt with the issue of evaluation. Randi advocated 360° accountability, saying that teachers should be able to evaluate principals – “they want a voice”. I can certainly get behind that. The company I work for now (ranked in the top 100 places to work in the US) does 360 evaluations, and (if the feedback is actually noted) this makes a ton of sense. Equally logically, Randi suggested that unions should be involved in designing teacher evaluation tools – “let us police our own profession”. I remain skeptical about the effectiveness of this (I worry unions would allow low expectations to set the bar), but it’s true. Union leaders were once teachers themselves; while they can leverage their perspective to advocate for things that make teachers’ lives easier (like more professional development days), they should also be able to draw on their experiences with different teachers to come up with a framework for what effective teaching actually looks like. I wouldn’t trust an evaluation system designed entirely by the unions, but a tool resulting from collaboration between unions and districts might actually be worth something – as long as negotiations haven’t drawn out so long that the end result is a super-diluted version of an originally valuable plan.

I left the session with a little more hope for the future. I recalled a scene from the movie “Thirteen Days” about the Cuban missile crisis when the Russian ambassador, after his last meeting with Bobby Kennedy at the climax of the crisis, says to him, “You are a good man. Your brother is a good man. I assure you, there are other good men. Let us hope the strength of good men is enough to counter this horrible thing that has been set in motion.” I feel more faith in the AFT now that I’ve seen its leader. And sure… she’s a smart woman who knew exactly what to expect from our audience; no doubt she gave careful thought to her words ahead of time, but she spoke with such real conviction that I can’t believe it was only playing to the crowd.

Adding further strength to that hope is a piece in Friday’s New York Times: “Leader of Teachers’ Union Urges Dismissal Overhaul”. Apparently, Randi Weingarten announced a new plan to revamp the evaluation and dismissal of teachers. This plan:

 “would give tenured teachers who are rated unsatisfactory by their principals a maximum of one school year to improve. If they did not, they could be fired within 100 days…. Teachers would be evaluated using multiple yardsticks, including classroom visits, appraisal of lesson plans and student improvement on tests. Teachers rated unsatisfactory would be given a detailed ‘improvement plan’ jointly devised by school administrators and experienced master teachers. School improvement plans – like maintaining better classroom order – could last a month. Others would take a full school year. The results would be considered separately by administrators and the peer experts, whose judgments would be sent to a neutral arbitrator. The arbitrator would be required to decide within 100 days whether to keep or fire the teacher.”  

Now… do I see some red flags in the above? Sure. What are the requirements to be one of these “peer experts”? Who would be a “neutral arbitrator”? Do principals realistically have time to sit down with master teachers to devise improvement plans that would actually make an impact? These are all questions I would want to see answered.

But that being said… this is a HUGE step forward. I wish Randi would have said something about this two weeks ago; I can say pretty confidently that she would have received thunderous applause from her audience of TFA alumni. It’s a sign of major progress when the president of one of the national teachers’ unions says that she’s got a plan to get rid of bad teachers. I can’t wait to see more details on this. I’m taking it as proof that Randi meant what she said at the very end:

 If there’s “any union fighting for due process for mediocre teachers rather than helping good teachers shoulder the burden created by that mediocrity – shame on them. Shame on them.”

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Parents who fight for better education

Parents of poor, at-risk students tend to get a pretty bad rep. I think one of the biggest misconceptions that people have about parents of students who attend struggling schools is that they don’t care about their children’s education and/or don’t want to be involved in it. Sure, there are some parents like this – but the vast majority of the parents with whom I interacted were deeply committed to their children and wanted them to do well in school. More often, it’s not that parents choose not to be involved but can’t be involved, either because of timing (many work in the evenings while their kids are trying to do homework) or a barrier of language or education (I spoke with many parents who felt uncomfortable at school because they were not proficient in English or did not have the education that teachers and administrators do). That’s why it’s sad that two recent stories about active parents do not have more positive news to report.

The first is old news at this point. An Ohio mom sparked a story about “the Rosa Parks of education” after she served nine days in jail on a felony charge for falsifying records to get her children into a better school system. I’ve read pieces that call Kelley Williams-Bolar a hero and pieces that call her a deserved felon. And, as someone starting law school next year, I’m not going to say that she deserves a full pardon – she did break the law. But I find her story inspirational. I wonder how many other parents might be doing the same thing she did in order to get better schools for their kids. (I do know of students in the Prince George’s County school system who were technically DC residents but used old records to stay in the slightly better system.)

More recent news comes from Los Angeles, where on Tuesday the Compton Unified School District voted unanimously against a petition submitted by the parents at McKinley Elementary School that would have allowed them to turn their school over to a charter operator. A new state law gives parents “the power to petition for major reforms of low-performing schools, including shutting them down, changing staff and programs, and turning the campus over to a charter operator. … Under the law, valid signatures representing parents of half the school’s students are required to trigger the reforms.” (See the whole article in the L.A. Times.) When I saw an article on this new law a few weeks ago, I thought: wow, this is awesome – I can’t wait to see what comes of it! What a pity to see that the first attempt to make changes under its provisions has failed.

The L.A. Times article suggests that a variety of errors in the petition resulted in its being deemed “materially non-qualifying” and “returned as insufficient”. I don’t know what the requirements are, but I would hope that a) they are clearly posted (and explained) somewhere and that b) there is a process now that provides support to the parent group so that they can improve and resubmit the petition. I fear that this will serve as a deterrent to others who might have been inclined to take similar action.

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a response to Diane Ravitch’s “The Problem with Teach for America”

Valerie Strauss, in her seemingly limitless capacity to focus on the critical rather than the positive in the world of education, included in her column today a piece by Diane Ravitch that examines the principal shortcoming of Teach For America (which, by the way, capitalizes the For). Here’s what I think.

Ravitch echoes familiar criticisms. “The problem with TFA is that it grossly overstates its role in American education. This year, TFA sent 8,000 young people into high-needs schools; they agree to stay for two years; some stay longer, but most will be gone within three years.” The brevity of the teaching commitment bothers a lot of people, and for many good reasons. However, over 60% of corps members choose to stay in the classroom longer than two years. I actually think that percentage might even be growing – the majority of my friends from the DC corps are still teaching (year number four now). Ravitch continues further on: “TFA is a huge success story, but there is also something scary about seeing so much money and power assembled around its core belief that a brand-new college graduate with only five weeks of training is just right to educate our nation’s most vulnerable students.”

I don’t think even Wendy Kopp (the founder and CEO of TFA) thinks that TFA corps members are “just right” or that they are preferable to any other options. But in my experience and that of many others, we are definitely preferable to some of the people in classrooms now. Do I have criticisms of how we were trained and supported? YES. (See my blog on 4 claims about TFA from last week.) But despite the many things I knew I needed to improve, I also heard (far too frequently) from my students that I was one of the best teachers they’d ever had – and I was in the first cohort of TFAers to teach in my school district, so that wasn’t based on previous bad experience with other people with my training.  The fundamental question that kept me from ever considering quitting was: who will teach them if I don’t? TFA corps members aren’t perfect, but they are relentless in their quest to improve – and at the end of the day, for our students, a mediocre teacher is unfortunately probably better than an average teacher.

Ravitch and I do find some common ground with her next point, that “recently, some 60 civil rights organizations wrote a letter to President Obama, with a copy to Secretary Duncan, contesting the claim that teachers with so little training should be considered ‘highly qualified.’” I don’t think I was highly qualified. I do think, however, that we need to rework the definitions in No Child Left Behind of different teacher qualifiers. TFA corps members deserve to teach where they are needed, and many districts (DC included) require corps members to enroll in graduate school programs while they are teaching in order to continue boosting their training. TFA’s own professional development sessions (which are mandatory and take place at least monthly) also help to ensure that corps members are reaching a level of maximum impact in the classroom.

I like Ravitch’s closing paragraph because it provides an invitation for me to respond.

“The alums of TFA are now taking their places in Congress, state legislatures, Wall Street, and the other corridors of power in public and private sectors. Will they recognize the need for a genuine national solution, modeled on the progress made in other nations, or will they simply continue to expand TFA’s belief in the virtue of a revolving door of bright young people? The future of the teaching profession hinges on the answer to that question.”

This issue isn’t so black and white. I don’t know a single person (and this includes a lot of people who now work for TFA) who think that Teach For America is the ultimate solution to the problem of education in the United States. Everyone, regardless of how much of “the TFA Kool-Aid” they drank, has criticisms of the organization. It is not perfect, and its leaders know it – that’s why they expend so much energy and funding working to figure out what works and what doesn’t. TFA doesn’t advocate for the abolition of traditional teacher training programs. Both approaches have merits and faults and can learn from each other. Last year, TFA published Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap. This book isn’t meant to brainwash graduates of traditional teacher preparation programs or to replace that experience – it’s meant to provide an approach to leading students to success for the courageous educators of any age who are teaching the students most disadvantaged by our current system of education. It’s based on 20 years of trial and error, and let’s not forget – especially in its earliest days, but even now, TFA’s training relies on some of the same research that determines what education majors learn.

Teach For America’s success depends only in part on the type of people it selects. There ARE a very definite set of characteristics that make someone more likely to be successful in difficult teaching environments, but that’s definitely not a guarantee of stellar student performance. We TFA alumni who are shaping and will shape some of the educational discourse in the US are looking for solutions that can help the greatest number of students – we are, after all, looking forward to the realization of the promise in our mission, that “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education”. Realistically, TFA cannot be THE solution. It should, however, be part of it. Amidst all the celebration at the summit this past weekend, we heard from Wendy Kopp and from others the sobering reminder that we still have millions of children in this country living in poverty and more likely to fulfill the destiny promised to too many in their zip code, socioeconomic group, or race. TFA is pursuing education reform with the kind of urgent zeal that ought to drive everyone in the education world, regardless of ideology and experience. I hope we’ll soon reach a point at which all parties can recognize their respective strengths and shortcomings and work together to find solutions that work for any teacher in any school in any city.

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Coming Up on Education Inside Out

Greetings readers, old and new!

I have a long list of topics I’ve been wanting to cover and will attempt to write about in the coming days – I’ve been busier lately and need to make a more concerted effort to set aside time in the evening to blog! Please be on the lookout for posts on the following topics and feel free to suggest other items for me to cover.

Teach For America’s 20th Anniversary Summit (including words from/sessions with Wendy Kopp, Kaya Henderson, Joel Klein, Dave Levin, Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, John Deasy, Randi Weingarten, Pedro Noguera, Arne Duncan, Mike Johnston, and President Obama)

Education’s “Next Rosa Parks”

Richard Whitmire’s book about Michelle Rhee, The Bee Eater

DC’s IMPACT teacher evaluatin system (continued)

The LA law on parental lobbying for school reform

The 2011 education budget

The aftermath of the failed DREAM Act

Please stay tuned, and follow me on Twitter if you aren’t already! (Michelle Rhee does!) @EduEscritora

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4 Claims about Teach For America… true or false?

I saw a link to this piece on Twitter and thought it would be appropriate to respond given that this weekend is Teach For America’s 20th Anniversary Summit right here in Washington. This is an interview between a guy named John who did Teach For America for six months and a guy named David who is his teacher mentor now. John quit TFA because “it doesn’t prepare or support its teachers for the challenges they will face”. John cites a few major frustrations: a) he was assigned to teach English even though is background was in Social Studies; b) he taught Social Studies during his summer training rather than English; c) TFA’s supervisors are too inexperienced to be helpful; and d) TFA uses scripted solutions that don’t work for everyone. I’d like to address each of these in turn.

1. TFA assigns people to teach a content area they are not prepared to teach.

This is true – or at least, it’s true that people are assigned to teach contents they may not have a ton of experience with. That happens more in certain school districts and in different ways – New York City places a lot of corps members in math teaching positions, for instance. But John’s experience doesn’t sound that horrible. English is probably the most commonly taught content area among TFA corps members, and it strikes me as one that would not be significantly harder to teach if you didn’t have much of a background in English. With our students, the goals are: get them on reading level, and get them to write well. Social Studies has the same goals but from a different angle. I’m not feeling too much sympathy for John here.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think this is an issue worth further discussion. If you think about it, tons of TFA teachers are placed in content areas they are less prepared to teach. For example, I have significant concerns about the number of corps members we place in Special Education. In my opinion, teaching Special Ed requires more training and specialized knowledge than anything else. You have to really understand some fundamentals of learning and what the various learning disorders are so that you can figure out how to help your students. TFA corps members do great things in Special Ed, but I think they’ve got it particularly tough and would probably accomplish more if they weren’t coming in at such a disadvantage relative to their peers teaching in general education.

This leads into the next point…

2. TFA’s summer training doesn’t provide adequate guidance or experience.

Here we come to one of the most controversial parts of Teach For America: the summer institute. It’s evolved a lot over the years, and in its current form, it’s a five-week experience during which corps members truly live up to one of my favorite quotes: “the first year teaching is like trying to fly a plane while building it”. CMs spend the first week in sessions learning the most basic elements of teaching, then it’s four weeks of teaching for about 45 minutes in the morning followed by more sessions. CMs are in groups according to content area; my group of 16 was comprised of Spanish teachers from each of the regions represented at my institute. Group leaders have experience in that content area and provide some feedback and pedagogical guidance tailored to the content area.

I was fortunate to teach Spanish at institute before teaching Spanish at my placement school; not everyone gets to do exactly the same thing. TFA does its best to align institute assignments to future teaching assignments, but it’s tricky: the school systems don’t necessarily have the same teaching needs. A lot of people in my corps who were teaching at the secondary level didn’t get to teach exactly what they’d teach later, but they at least got to work with students near that grade level. It’s not ideal, but it’s also not a guarantee of future failure or increased struggle. Unless John’s corps experience was a long time ago, his institute probably offered content-specific workshops that should have helped him learn how to teach English even though he was teaching Social Studies at institute. He shouldn’t have been completely clueless walking into the classroom.

I actually had a different complaint from institute – although I got to teach the content area to which I’d been assigned, I only had five students in my class. Others might disagree, but from my perspective, I would rather have had the opportunity to manage a larger class than to teach my content area. It was easier for me to figure out how to teach Spanish than to respond to misbehaving children. Going from five kids in July to 35 kids in August was a rough transition!

Either way, TFA does what it can. They also offer workshops that corps members can choose based on what they feel they need the most help with. I went to sessions on classroom management; others went to sessions on instruction. The point is that when we started school in the fall, all of us had some experience being in front of kids, crafting and executing lesson plans, developing assessments, and implementing a classroom management system, and we knew what our weaknesses were so that we could try to preempt them.

3. TFA’s corps member supervisors don’t have enough experience.

I definitely do not disagree with this, and I’ve written about it before. The supervisors – called Program Directors or PDs – usually come straight out of their two-year corps experience. Although the selection process is extremely rigorous (yours truly wasn’t picked), you’re ultimately still talking about people who have taught for two years. I’ve been out of the classroom for two years, and I’m still thinking about all the ways I could have improved during the two years I was teaching. Could I go into a teacher’s classroom now and use a rubric to determine how well he or she is doing? Yes, but I wouldn’t necessarily be able to offer a ton of solutions for the problems I saw. Two years of teaching just isn’t enough to figure all of that out. If I hadn’t done it myself, I would have had real trouble explaining to someone how to implement a new classroom management technique or Spanish speaking exercise.

As if that’s not troublesome enough, PDs also don’t necessarily work with corps members who teach the same thing they did. My PD my first year was a 5th grade teacher; my PD second year was a middle school science teacher. Both helped me to be better teachers, but they were limited in the support they could give me – particularly with what I felt I needed most, which was how to actually teach Spanish. (Classroom management is really just a matter of trial and error with a list of techniques; teaching a foreign language is far less intuitive.)

The support structure is what I would most recommend changing within the TFA structure in order to see increased student achievement among corps members.

4. TFA uses scripted solutions and tricks that don’t work for everyone.

There certainly are some things that are “typically TFA”. John mentions using chart paper; that’s definitely a TFA favorite. (I personally loved chart paper and used it every day.) But I don’t think that any of them are forced upon corps members; I never had anyone in TFA tell me that I had to do something a certain way. I felt a lot of freedom to sift through the large amount of resources I’d received and figure out what worked best for me. I’m also not sure where John got the impression that teachers shouldn’t show personality – that was definitely never implied to me, and my personality was the thing that helped me the most in my classroom.
I’m only one of thousands, and there’s definitely some truth to the idea of TFA being cult-like… so I’m willing to admit that my skepticism of this claim doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not true elsewhere.

Here’s my general message: TFA has grown and changed tremendously in its 20-year history. It’s far from perfect, but it’s also an incredibly introspective organization. I don’t anticipate ever being in another group that pays so much attention to its effectiveness and what contributes to that. In terms of the experience each corps member has, the application system can have just as much impact as the training – some people just aren’t cut out for TFA as an experience or a culture. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be good teachers; it just means that teaching is complicated, and if you’re not flexible and creative enough to overcome the challenges that come with the type of training you receive and the day-to-day experience of teaching, you’re not going to be as happy.

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Grading the Programs Who Make Teachers

This article in the New York Times got me pretty excited. I witnessed more than enough evidence of mediocre schools of education during my two years in the classroom to think that evaluating teachers’ colleges is a wonderful and overdue idea.  As Arne Duncan noted, “it is time to start holding teacher-preparation programs more accountable for the impact of their graduates on student learning.”

This, like most issues in education, is one that has a tendency to get people pretty riled up. First, you have the people who believe that at the end of the day, teachers just don’t have the power to overcome other barriers to student achievement, like poverty. Those people believe that regardless of how much teachers know about instruction, they can’t erase the damage that the socioeconomic lottery has already inflicted on their students. A teacher’s performance isn’t a reflection of the quality of his or her training; it’s a reflection of a sad social truth.

Then there are the people who are convinced that you can’t be a good teacher unless you’ve been “officially” trained to be one by a school of education. They reject the potential of Teach For America recruits or others like them who are trained in a matter of weeks before entering the classroom. There is only one formula for producing a good teacher, and an essential ingredient of that formula is the time and courses required for traditional licensure.

It’s tough. I’m pretty sure all of my teachers went through schools of education, and the worst teachers I had were just mediocre, not actually bad. But… maybe they would have been bad if they hadn’t been teaching privileged students like me. I can definitely think of a few of my teachers who wouldn’t have stood a chance in a school like the one where I taught. The point is that there are plenty of good teachers who come out of traditional programs, and it’s important to remember that. But there are also a lot of mediocre to bad teachers who might not result in a net loss of learning for students like me but could do real damage in a struggling school. As the product of a non-traditional certification route (Teach For America), I can say that the same is true on my side: there are some great teachers who come through a different route to teaching, and there are some teachers who might have benefited from longer training or just aren’t cut out for teaching. It’s a two-way street.

So, I’m all for evaluation and oversight of teacher preparation programs, whether they’re university-affiliated or not. Is US News & World Report the best group for that job? It depends on the criteria they use. This article mentions courses, textbooks, and admissions selectivity as among the parts being evaluated. Personally, I don’t see how any of those is relevant. I’d prefer to see data about the classroom records of the faculty – how did THEY do as teachers? – and the types of student teaching experiences that students have. (Student teaching – that is, shadowing another teacher and occasionally taking over instruction – is the one thing missing from my Teach For America preparation that I think would have significantly helped me.) Admissions selectivity? Please. Unless that selectivity is based on things that I know make teachers successful in challenging schools (like perseverance, creativity, tenacity, dedication, organization, and sense of possibility), I don’t see how that’s relevant. I’ll tell you right now: Teach For America is very hard to get into, but that doesn’t mean all of us went to Harvard. There are corps members from schools I’ve never heard of who do great things, and there are corps members from the schools everyone has heard of who drop out or don’t lead their students to academic gains.

At the end of the day, the origin and type of training that a new teacher has received isn’t the only determinant of that teacher’s success, just like skin color or zipcode isn’t a definitive determinant of how well kids do in school. Other factors matter too, and some of those are harder to identify and measure. Evaluating teacher preparation programs is one key to education reform that will make a difference, but it won’t fix things. Is it worth the battle? Yes.

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Giving Teachers Guns???

Moments after writing the previous post about keeping weapons out of schools, I found this in the Washington Post about proposed legislation in Nebraska that would allow teachers to have concealed guns at school. “Under [Sen. Mark Christensen’s] legislation, each Nebraska school district would be allowed to set a policy that would require a two-thirds majority vote of the school board to allow teachers and administrators to obtain permits to carry guns on campus.” Apparently, Christensen’s reasoning is that “if you have a kid come in to shoot a teacher… or other kids, it’s best to have somebody that can take care of the situation.”

Are you f—ing kidding me?!

This is seriously the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Let’s list some reasons why this is a horribly stupid idea.

  1. Let’s say a kid does whip out a gun during class and either threatens to shoot or actually starts shooting. At what point is the teacher supposed to have a chance to retrieve the gun that is, one would hope, hidden and locked away?
  2. Even if the teacher could get to a gun – is the idea that you’d shoot the student?
  3. It’s much harder to fire a gun and hit the intended target than most people realize. I have shot a gun (an experience I have no desire to ever repeat) and don’t think I ever succeeded in hitting the target. Does Christensen also suggest that teachers go through some sort of training? And if they don’t, is he okay with a gun being used ineffectively (and potentially injuring a non-threatening student)?
  4. I don’t believe for a moment that there is a secure way to store a gun in a school. Teachers get their stuff stolen all the time regardless of how careful they are.
  5. Are teachers supposed to spend their own money on a gun, or would the school district pay for it? I can’t imagine that money meant to educate students would be shifted to pay for firearms, but then again, I never thought I’d see a proposed law about allowing teachers to have guns.

I hope common sense will prevail here…

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Keeping Schools Safe

Two students at Gardena High School in Los Angeles were wounded on Tuesday when a gun stored inside a classmate’s backpack went off during class. Both students are still alive and expected to recover, but obviously that doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the situation.

School districts vary widely in their approach to school safety. Most high schools in DC require students to pass through metal detectors when entering the building, but across the Maryland border in Prince George’s County (where I taught), students just walk into school.

Coincidentally, Dr. John Deasy, the current deputy superintendent and future superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, was the superintendent of Prince George’s County when I started there. He actually escorted me and a group of other TFA corps members to our interview fair at the school where I would end up teaching, and I asked him on the way about whether or not there were metal detectors in PGCPS. His response: “no. We don’t want the kids to feel like they’re in prison.”

At the time, I felt a little nervous about this. I was on day three of my TFA experience and had heard only scary things about where I’d be teaching. As it turns out, I felt very secure in my school.  I think the number of weapons-related incidents that have occurred around the country despite the presence of metal detectors is evidence that bad things can happen anywhere, and I agree with Dr. Deasy: kids shouldn’t feel like they’re in prison. I went into DCPS schools pretty frequently last year and felt anxious each time I had to put my stuff through a metal detector. It just creates a vibe of fear and paranoia.

The Huffington Post reports that “since 1993, Los Angeles Unified School District has required some campuses to randomly check students with hand-held metal-detectors every day at different times”. From what I can gather, there is no standard security procedure in place in LAUSD, yet gang activity there is among the most notorious in the country.

So what can/should we do to make schools safer? I’m open to suggestions and would love to see some comments about this. I don’t think my school needed metal detectors, but that doesn’t mean that the same threat isn’t there or that no schools need metal detectors. I’ll be interested to see if Dr. Deasy applies the same philosophy he had in PGCPS as he assumes control of LAUSD.

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Evaluating Foreign Language Teachers in DCPS… hay problemas.

One thing I don’t often hear in the debate about teacher evaluation is how evaluations should be differentiated depending on the level or content area of each teacher.   People argue about the validity of value-added test data and who should conduct evaluations, but public discourse doesn’t seem to include conversations about evaluating different types of teachers differently. I want to discuss this within the context of the evaluation system with which I am most familiar: IMPACT in DC Public Schools.

IMPACT relies on the same rubric, the Teaching and Learning Framework (TLF), to evaluate all of its teachers. The only exception to this sameness is for Special Education teachers, whose performance is judged by slightly different rubrics depending on whether they are inclusion teachers (working with students as part of a General Education classroom) or pull-out (working with students in a Special Education-only class).

There are multiple reasons to rely on one main rubric to evaluate teachers regardless of what they teach. First, teachers can’t make the argument that one group has it easier or harder than another. Second, people often say (and I agree) that “good teaching is just good teaching”; in other words, that certain standards of excellence are the same across the board. I agree with both of those.

This becomes more complicated when you consider more specialized areas like art, music, physical education, and foreign language. Instruction looks different in these classes, primarily because (at least in the case of the first three) they tend to be more than usually student-led, so it’s hard to see instruction in the usual sense (a teacher presenting information and leading students in practice of it).

As a former Spanish teacher, I take most interest in how DCPS evaluates its foreign language teachers. The main point of contention is over the amount of the target language that teachers should use during any given class.

Let me take a moment to give you some information about my background so that you can understand my perspective. My best foreign language teacher was my 8th grade French I teacher, who spoke ONLY in French unless English was absolutely essential for explaining a complicated grammatical concept.  My worst foreign language teacher was my French II teacher who taught mostly in English, resulting in a loss of oral proficiency for me that I have never gotten back even after taking French into college.

From my perspective, the best foreign language teachers always speak the target language to the fullest extent possible. Admittedly, I was not good at doing this while I taught. I felt that English was necessary just for the sake of discipline – my students tended to give up or zone out REALLY fast the moment they felt lost. My biggest regret from teaching is that I didn’t speak enough Spanish in class.

That being said: how should the acknowledged benefit of using the target language factor in to a foreign language teacher’s evaluation? Should there be a rubric specifically for foreign language teachers? (I think so.) And if there were, how do you evaluate the teacher’s use of the target language? IMPACT gives teachers a score between 1 and 4 for each standard on the TLF – 1 means ineffective; 4 means highly effective. Would a foreign language rubric standard for use of the target language assign a percentage to each score? For instance: 4 = 90-100% of the class takes place in the target language, 3 = 80%, 2 = 50%, 1 = less than 50%.

There are two main problems with the IMPACT system as it applies to foreign language teachers.

  1. The TLF rubric does not allow for an evaluation of the teacher’s use of the target language (arguably the most important component of a foreign language classroom).
  2.  Foreign language teachers are being evaluated on their use of the target language even though the rubric says nothing about that.

A friend of mine teaching Spanish in a struggling school recently received her scores from her Master Educator evaluation. Apparently, use of the target language falls into Teach 2: Explain Content Clearly. Here is the exact language used to explain a rating of a 3 (effective):

The following best describes what is observed:

  • Explanations of content are clear and coherent, and they build student understanding of content.
  • The teacher uses developmentally appropriate language and explanations.
  • The teacher gives clear, precise definitions and uses specific academic language as appropriate.
  • The teacher emphasizes key points when necessary.
  • When an explanation is not effectively leading students to understand the content, the teacher adjusts quickly and uses an alternative way to effectively explain the concept.
  • Students ask relatively few clarifying questions because they understand the explanations. However, they may a number of extension questions because they are engaged in the content and eager to learn more about it.

As you can see, because this is the same rubric used to evaluate every general education teacher in the city, there is no mention of using the target language in a foreign language classroom. You could easily make the argument that, from one perspective, it makes more sense to use English in order to score highly here – that is more likely than the target language to result in students asking “relatively few clarifying questions” and explanations of content that are “clear and coherent”.

My friend, who I know to be an EXCELLENT teacher, received a score of a 2 for this standard. Although her Master Educator noted the presence of all of the above points in my friend’s lesson, the ME explained that “our goal for a beginning level language class is to be using the target language 80% of the time”, and apparently that is what they have to see in order to give a teacher a 3.  

Sounds like a great goal; no arguments there. But it’s not fair to impose that standard on teachers without making it very clear to them first and establishing it in writing as the rule. Giving my friend a 2 implies that the ME observed the following (the criteria for a 2):

  • Explanations are generally clear and coherent, with a few exceptions, but they may not be entirely effective in building student understanding of content.
  • Some language and explanations may not be developmentally appropriate.
  • The teacher may sometimes give definitions that are not completely clear or precise, or sometimes may not use academic language when it is appropriate to do so.
  • The teacher may only sometimes emphasize key points when necessary, so that students are sometimes unclear about the main ideas of the content.
  • When an explanation is not effectively leading students to understand the concept, the teacher may sometimes move on or re-explain in the same way rather than provide an effective alternative explanation.
  • Students may ask some clarifying questions showing that they are confused by the explanations.

These descriptions are significantly less flattering than those for a 3, and earning a 2 means that you are “minimally effective” at delivering content clearly. Well, my friend’s students consistently perform well on their tests (which my friend writes, and I assure you, they are rigorous assessments). It seems improbable that students would perform well on an assessment if their teacher wasn’t delivering content very clearly. It’s unfair to give a score that misrepresents a teacher, especially when the rubric lists evidence for that score that was NOT observed.

My friend acknowledges, like I do, the benefits of speaking as much of the target language as possible, and there’s no doubt that she does it more than I do. She engages her students in conversation every day, which gives them the opportunity to use the language themselves (which one could argue is more important than hearing the teacher use the language). But my friend doesn’t think it’s fair to assess teachers on an invisible, unwritten, and uncommunicated standard. If DCPS wants its foreign language teachers to take their professional growth seriously (which is one of the reasons IMPACT exists), then it needs to provide them with more reasonable feedback and resources. My friend received no suggestions for how to work more of the target language into her instruction, so not only was she penalized for something that isn’t in the rubric, but she was also left without means of improvement.

That’s not what teacher evaluation should be about, and that’s why there are so many good teachers who get defensive about it. The system is well-intentioned – I know this first-hand – but when it’s executed in this way, it creates more enemies than friends… and that’s not productive for adults OR for kids.

Posted in DC Public Schools, Foreign Language Education, Teacher Quality | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

high school… via computer?!

New York Times: In Florida, Virtual Classrooms with No Teachers

Okay, I’m sorry, but the greatness of technology does not mean we no longer need teachers. I find it 100% ridiculous that any classes, let alone Advanced Placement classes, would be taught only by a computer without a real teacher in the room. I can get behind teachers using technlogy to teach or practice a skill; I support the use of things like blogs and wikis in classes (I used them myself); I acknowledge the benefit to students of being able to become more familiar with various technologies.  But does Miami-Dade really expect students to master calculus and macroeconomics without a teacher?! I don’t care if there is a teacher somewhere on the other end of the connection who can answer questions. That just doesn’t provide the same instruction and support as a live teacher in a classroom can!

I was trying to think of courses that WOULD work this way, and I haven’t come up with any. The closest is a history course – students could read the information, analyze texts, and participate in discussions with “classmates” via a discussion board or something. But online interaction just can’t replace in person discussions. I know from experience a few online courses myself that they are usually not engaging or challenging, and they would have to be extremely structured in order to guarantee the same level of learning that a student would experience with an in-person teacher. I don’t trust these online courses to provide that.

I’m also amazed that students apparently found themselves in these classes with no warning. This is a major shift, and students should have the option to opt out if they do not want to learn online. As a student, I’d rather be in a huge classroom filled with real people and a teacher than stare at a computer screen. As a teacher, I think it would be terribly boring and unrewarding to “teach” something that only took place online. How would I develop the relationships with students that I so treasure?

I don’t know the details of Florida’s new restrictions on classroom size, but surely it can’t have been THAT bad before. I had a class of 45 students for about two weeks, and while it was challenging, it wasn’t the worst thing ever. There has to be a better way to create better learning and teaching conditions than shifting everything to computers!

Posted in Curriculum, Learning, Student Engagement, Technology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment