Coming Up for Air

Just a quick note of apology to loyal Eduflack readers.  I realize that posts have been a little light in recent weeks.  As I have been fighting the fight for school improvement in my day job, I’ve finally had to realize there are only so many hours in the day.  Unfortunately, that has meant that Eduflack (and by extension, @Eduflack on Twitter) has suffered some.

But don’t fret!  We have a new month that begins tomorrow, and with that new month will be regular posts focused on all those edu-topics that you know and love.
In the meantime, if you want to check these two items.  The first is a video focused on the need for education reform.  And here is the website to drive real action on efforts to improve Connecticut’s public schools.  

Working with Unions on Reform

Can real reforms, particularly those targeted at fundamental issues such as educator evaluation, be done in partnership with teachers, or must they be done in spite of teachers?  This has been a question asked over and over in recent years, usual with a poor answer that gets us back to the same question.

Of course teachers need to be part of the reform process.  Educators are the ones on the front lines, the ones who need to implement (with fidelity) the reforms and transformations that policymakers, parents, and educators themselves are seeking.  Excluding them from the process only likely sets us a process destined to fail.
Case in point, the New Haven Public Schools teacher evaluation system.  Here, the City of New Haven worked with the American Federation of Teachers to build a better mousetrap.  An effective evaluation model.  A system that prioritizes student performance above all.  A system that finally aligns our expectations with what is happening in the classroom.
And the system is starting to show its potential.  Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times has also taken notice, penning an interesting piece on “The New Haven Experiment.”
From Kristof:

Yet reformers like myself face a conundrum. Teachers’ unions are here to stay, and the only way to achieve systematic improvement is with their buy-in. Moreover, the United States critically needs to attract talented young people into teaching. And that’s less likely when we’re whacking teachers’ unions in ways that leave many teachers feeling insulted and demoralized.

The breakthrough experiment in New Haven offers a glimpse of an education future that is less rancorous. It’s a tribute to the savvy of Randi Weingartenthe president of the American Federation of Teachers and as shrewd a union leader as any I’ve seen. She realized that the unions were alienating their allies, and she is trying to change the narrative.

Yes, the model itself is a remarkable step forward for public education.  But it is particularly refreshing to see NHPS, Mayor John DeStephano (New Haven is a mayoral control district), the AFT, and the New Haven Federation of Teachers working together to develop, implement, improve, and maintain.  
As Kristof notes, “It’ll take years to verify that students themselves are benefiting, but it’s striking that teachers and administrators alike seem happy with the new system.  They even say nice things about each other.  In many tough school districts, teachers are demoralized and wilted; that feels less true in New Haven.”
Indeed.  If only all reforms could work this way.

What Parents Want from Student Assessments

It is quite clear that student assessments are quickly becoming the driving force in public education.  In state after state, we are now using student assessment to drive funding, teacher evaluation, and institutional direction.  While many may squabble on what types of assessments to take and how to apply them, there is no denying that student assessment is now ruling the day.

So what is that parents (and teachers) actually want from the learning assessments administered in our classrooms?  That is the question that the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) and Grunwald Associates asked earlier this month, and some of the responses were surprising.  All told, Grunwald Associates surveyed more than 1,000 K-12 teachers, more than 1,000 K-12 parents, and 200 district administrators.  The findings included:
* 90 percent of parents said monitoring their kids’ progress in school, knowing when to be concerned about progress, and determining preparedness for the next stage of learning was “extremely” or “very” important;
* More than eight in 10 parents (84 percent) said formative assessments are useful for instructional purposes, while only 44 percent said summative assessments were; 
* More than six in 10 teachers cited monitoring individual student performance and monitoring growth in learning over time as most important to them;
* With both parents and educators, 90 percent said it is important to measure student performance in math and English/language arts, as well as in other subjects like science, history, government and civics, economics, and technology and media literacy; and
* Only half of parents believe that summative assessment results are delivered in a timely manner.
And the big takeaways?  Teachers value formative and interim assessments far more than they do summative assessments (and that opinion is trickling down to parents).  The vast majority of teachers and parents want more testing (at least in more subjects) and want results delivered in a timely manner.  And an inordinate amount of K-12 parents seem to understand the subtleties among formative, interim, and summative assessments (or at least pretended to in distinguishing between all comers in responding to this survey.
It is valuable to see that we continue to discern value from student assessments, regardless of the form they come in.  But we also have a few key lessons learned from the NWEA/Grunwald data:
* We still aren’t seeing that data is being effectively used in classroom instruction.  Neither parents nor educators seem to believe that current data is being used to tailor and improve instruction in the classroom.  Why not?  With all the data we capture, we should be putting it into practice.  If not, this is all a fool’s errand.
* Testing turnaround time is taking too long.  Teacher and parent alike seem to believe the turnaround time from taking the test to getting the scores is just too lengthy.  Seems like the perfect opportunity to call for online, adaptive testing (whether it be formative or summative) where scores can be turned around and applied in real time.
* Parents follow the lead of their children’s educators.  On the whole, parents’ responses aligned with the teachers leading their kids’ classrooms.  Both the frustrations and benefits of teaching, from the educators’ eyes, is making it back to the parents at home.  This relationship can serve as a valuable tool.
* There seems to be a call for adding testing to the school calendar.  While some bemoaned those “horrible” “high-stakes” summative assessments, there was a strong call for more tests on the front end.  This seems to run contrary to the drumbeat that there is too much testing in the classroom, and, if used properly, can be powerful in further shaping data-driven classrooms.
While such surveys will likely have little impact on the in-developed common core standards assessments or on current state exams, they do provide some interesting context as we look at how to use tests in educator evaluation and other such measures.  Some food for thought.

How Tenure Reform Can Improve Teaching

Does tenure reform denigrate the teaching profession?  Earlier this week, Eduflack spotlighted teacher tenure proposals offered up in Connecticut.  The significance of this is that Connecticut is a true-blue state, Dem legislature, Dem governor, with strong teachers unions.  So efforts to eliminate “life-long tenure” demand one stand up and take notice.

A valued reader, though, commented that such an approach must mean that Eduflack is anti-teacher.  Nothing could be furthest from the truth (if I were, I don’t think my teacher mother would let me come home for Christmas).  But I do believe, as Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy does, that one can be both pro-teacher and pro-reform. 
As I’ve written on these electronic pages many a time, there are few professions as demanding, as necessary, and as downright hard as teaching.  Far too many of us (Eduflack included) are just not cut out to be classroom teachers.  Those who enter the profession do not do so for the pay, the pensions, or other such considerations.  They do so to make a difference in the lives of kids, no matter how difficult it may be.
In return, they get low pay.  They get berated by parents.  They get attacked in the media.  They become the punchlines for jokes and the targets of horrible urban legends.  
Just last year, as a leader on a local school board, my district was working hard to find a way to provide raises to our educators, who had seen there salaries frozen for several previous years.  We did give them the pay increases they deserved (or at least a start to what they deserved), but along the way, I heard some choice words from constituents about how teachers don’t work full time and how they deserve low pay because they have those “huge” pensions coming to them.  To folks like that, teachers are simply a commodity, not a partner in the process.
But I digress.  If done correctly, efforts such as tenure reform can return a needed level of professionalism and respect to the teaching profession.  Yes, tenure is earned.  Yes, any teacher worth her salt is doing everything possible to encourage learning in her classroom.  So why not have that check-in every five years to ensure that a tenured teacher remains on task?  Use the process to applaud the leaders, while helping provide additional resources and supports to those who may be struggling.
Ultimately, tenure reform is a necessary component to current efforts to focus on educator quality.  We start with certification, and what is necessary to gain entrance to the classroom.  It is followed by educator evaluations and those measures necessary to determine if effective learning is happening in our classrooms.  And it is followed by a tenure process that incorporates the key tenets of that evaluation system and ensures those goals are embedded in keeping our best educators in their classrooms for their entire careers.
Certification reform is about getting the highest-quality teachers in the classroom, dispelling the myth any warm body can teach.  Educator evaluation is about demonstrating the effectiveness of our teaching force, not about targeting teachers for dismissal.  And tenure reform is about demonstrating the effectiveness of all our instructional leaders, not about taking away benefits or collective bargaining rights.
For far too many, education reform is seen as a punitive action, as an effort to assault our classrooms and attack our teachers.  And yes, in some instances, that has indeed been the case.  But it does not and should not be that way.  At its heart, education reform is about strengthening the teaching profession while improving the learning processes for all of our students.
Real reform, real school improvement, cannot happen without educators.  Our teachers and principals cannot do it half way, they can’t sit on the sidelines and hope to wait out reforms, and they certainly can’t ignore the proposed changes.  They need to be full partners in the process, and agents for improvement in the classroom.  We need to trust all educators to implement with fidelity, and we need to provide them the resources and supports to do it right.
To get there, we need to continue to build a public confidence in our educators.  We need to demonstrate that the strongest, most effective teachers are teaching “my” kids.  To do that, we need to use the continuum of certification, evaluation, and tenure.  All teachers — from first years to veterans — should be held to the highest standards.  They should be evaluated every year.  Those who need additional supports should get it.  And those who are exemplary should be rewarded for it.  
Most educators I talk to are not afraid of such measurements or such expectations.  They just ask that it be applied fairly and with a common sense that can often be lacking in public education.  Couldn’t agree more.

Teacher Tenure Reform in Blue

What does tenure reform look like, particularly in a blue state with strong teachers unions?  Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy offered up a glimpse of the future of tenure today as part of his State of the State Address.

Rather than summarize, let’s read from one governor who is jumping to the top of the “ed reform guv” lists.

But we must do one more thing.


I’m a Democrat.  I’ve been told that I can’t, or shouldn’t, touch teacher tenure.  It’s been said by some that I won’t take on the issue because it will damage my relationship with teachers.


If the people in this chamber — and those watching on TV or online, or listening on the radio – if you’ve learned nothing else about me in the past 13 months, I hope you’ve learned this: I do what I say I’m going to do, and I do what I think is right for Connecticut, irrespective of the political consequences.


And so when I say it’s time we reform teacher tenure, I mean it. 


And when I say I’m committed to doing it in the right way, I mean it. 


Since 2009, 31 states have enacted tenure reform, including our neighboring states of New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.  It’s time for Connecticut to act.


For those watching or listening who don’t know what tenure is, it’s basically job security.  Let me explain.


Right now, if you’re a teacher and you have tenure, your performance in the classroom has to be rated “incompetent” before a dismissal process can even begin.  Even then – even if you’re rated “incompetent” – it can take more than a year to dismiss you.


And to earn that tenure – that job security – in today’s system basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years.  Do that, and tenure is yours.


The bottom line?  Today tenure is too easy to get and too hard to take away.


I propose we do it a different way.  I propose we hold every teacher to a standard of excellence.


Under my proposal, tenure will have to be earned and re-earned.  Not earned simply by showing up for work – earned by meeting certain objective performance standards, including student performance, school performance, and parent and peer reviews.


And my proposal says, you should not only have to prove your effectiveness once, after just a few years in the classroom.  My proposal says that if you want to keep that tenure, you should have to continue to prove your effectiveness in the classroom as your career progresses.


I’m trying to be careful in explaining this tenure reform proposal because I know there are those who will deliberately mischaracterize it in order to scare teachers.  So let me be very clear: we are not talking about taking away teachers’ rights to a fair process if an objective, data-driven decision is made to remove them from the classroom.


I believe deeply in due process.


I believe just as deeply that we need to ensure that our children are being taught only by very good teachers.


So for those teachers who earn tenure – by proving that they are effective teachers – it’s the job of the local school district to make sure that you have every chance to continue to succeed.  That means that if you start to struggle at any point after you’ve earned tenure, the district will provide support and professional development to help get you back on track.


And finally, my proposal says that we need to do a better job of recognizing our great teachers.  That’s why I’m proposing to allow local school districts, if they so choose, to provide career advancement opportunities and financial incentives as a way of rewarding teachers who consistently receive high performance ratings.


Over the next few weeks, we’ll continue to have this discussion about tenure and I’m confident we can put in place a system that best serves our students, and their teachers.


Now let me be clear: in having that discussion, Connecticut will not join the states trying to demonize and antagonize their way to better results. 


And we won’t get drawn into making a false choice between being pro-reform or pro-teacher. 


I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I am both. 


I’m pro-teacher, as long as that doesn’t mean defending the status quo, and I’m pro-reform, as long as that isn’t simply an excuse to bash teachers. 

Game on, Connecticut!

Jobs and Ed, Ed and Jobs

One has to be living under a rock not to recognize that that education and jobs share a strong bond.  As we look for ways to rebuild our economy and create new jobs, it is clear that reforming our K-12 education systems, ensuring all students have access to the knowledge and skills necessary to perform in our future economy, is a non-negotiable.

Over at National Journal’s Education Experts Blog, this is the question of the week.  On those electronic pages, dear olEduflack opines on both the need for education reform and our failures to address the skills gap we now have.
From National Journal:
It’s shameful that we can’t fill open jobs in an economy like this. And it is deplorable that one’s ability to get a strong public education depends, in large part, on race, family income, or zip code. We have no excuse for not preparing our kids, all of our kids, to meet the demands of a 21st century economy. Education is an economic development strategy – the best one that’s out there. We should be redoubling our efforts to ensure that policy makers see economic development and education as two sides of the same coin, and look to them to guide states, localities, and the nation toward meaningful reforms that will prepare all of our kids for college, career, and a productive life.
Happy reading!