Sunday, April 24, 2011

Teacher evaluations and test scores

What does it mean to link teacher evaluations to student test scores?  I feel like this is all the rage right now, and I get it.  Students are not testing proficient in reading and math, and we all "know" there must bad teachers out there milking the system who can never be fired.  So, if we can just find a way to get rid of those teachers then we can solve our problem. 

Here is the thing...I worked in some really low preforming schools, I don't have any data, but I'll bet you that no one in knocking on those school doors, even in this economy, to work there.  There is no large pool of highly effective teachers just waiting for an opening at those schools, hoping they will get a chance to go in there and make a difference.   I do not mean to say that there are not excellent teachers working at those or other low preforming schools, I know and have worked with many excellent teachers who are making a difference.  I also know there are a few mediocre teachers who work at low preforming schools.  And I know, and was one of the, many hard working and new teachers who work at low preforming schools.  The new teachers are often effective teachers, but not as effective as a good experienced teacher.

But, back to my question.  If teachers are going to be evaluated on the students' test scores, what happens to low preforming schools.  If, I as a teacher have a choice to take a job at school A with generally high test scores, or school B, with generally low test scores, which do I pick?  Well, if I can take a risk because I believe I can make a difference and raise test scores, perhaps I will pick school B.  But, if I really would like to make a career out of teaching and want good evaluations and positive feedback, I will pick school A.  Remember, I make exactly the same job, and making the same amount of money no matter my choice.  Of course, if I choose school B, I will probably be working longer hours to meet the needs of my students, because I really do believe that my students deserve a chance at moving more than one grade level in one year.

So, if we go ahead, as it seems we will be, and make teacher evaluations linked to student test scores, who is going to teach our highest need students?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Where do Obama's daughters go to school?

I have no doubt that there were complex reasons that went into choosing Sidwell Friends School for the Obama children.  I know for example that Sasha and Malia can not be very well protected from the media at a public school, but I also believe that was not the only factor that went into the decision.  I have never been to Sidwell Friends, and have never met a student or former student, but I’m sure I would be happy for my daughter to have the same educational opportunities that are provided there.  I’m sure most parents in the US would be happy if their public school even vaguely resembled the education received at Sidwell Friends.  I am also fairly sure that if I was in the same position as Obama I would have made the same choice.  I can be that sure just by looking at the numbers, never having set a foot in either a DC Public School or Sidwell Friends.

DC Public Schools have been under enormous pressure to improve test scores, while Sidwell Friends is so successful it is accepting only about 15% of the students that apply.  As a district DC’s proficiency levels are in the mid 40% range for math and reading.  Although, Obama’s daughters clearly took some kind of standardized test recently, these are not public numbers.  I think it is fair to assume that Sidwell Friends would have proficiency levels above 90%.  I suspect Obama’s girls would test proficient on a standardized test no matter where they went to school.  So, it is not exactly just a question of their tests scores.

I believe, that average test scores of a school tell a story about who it is that attends a school.  And I also believe that a school is a lot more than test scores.  Here are some of the other facts.  In DC the average student to teacher ratio is 12.5:1, at Sidwell Friends it is 10:1.  DC spends approximately $18,600 per student, and Sidwell Friends spends $24,600.  Sidwell Friends has a strong athletic, after school, art, music, science, English, history, Chinese, technology, math, library, community service, and counseling program.  I doubt many schools in DC could compete in even one subject.  Sidwell Friends sends 25% of its graduates to the top 10 most selective colleges, and I assume they have high school graduation and college acceptance rates close to 100%.  DC Public Schools have a 72% high school graduation rate, with 58% of graduates going to college, but only 9% of them graduating.  In DC Public Schools 75% of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.  At Sidwell Friends only 23% of the students get financial aid to attend a school that costs $32,000 a year.

Assuming we lived in a world where any kid could get into Sidwell Friends, I would assume that on average any kid would get a better education and probably end up testing better at Sidwell Friends.  But, just any kid doesn’t get in anyway, so we can’t really know.  Only the children of Presidents, senators, and the elite generally find their way to Sidwell Friends.  And while I say I would be happy for my daughter to go there, I would actually prefer that she went somewhere with some sort of socio-economic balance.  I also doubt that an average kid from inner city DC would be very comfortable or happy amongst the children of the elite, but they would have a very different education there. 

You tell me, where would you send your daughter and why?

Monday, April 4, 2011

How can we make sure no child in poverty is left behind?

It's been awhile...but I've been reading blog posts by Anthony Cody who is a former Oakland science teacher, and was my new teacher coach for two years in Oakland.  He, along with many other educators, is questioning Obama's Department of Education policies.  He asks if the high stakes testing model that results in the poorest schools having teachers and principals fired when they "fail," is actually a model that will create positive change in poor schools.  Cody argues that our current system works to punish the students at those schools rather then help them.

So what does a (poor minority) student think when their school is labeled as failing, and teacher are fired?  They think the teachers were bad.  They think the school failed.  They think they failed.  But I think they already knew all that.  I think that not just their school culture, but also the culture in general has already told many students in poverty that their schools are no good.  So NCLB is just helping to reinforce that idea.  NCLB is just helping to perpetuate the status quo and helping keep poor students under educated.

What I don't know is how a school system or the federal government can turn that culture around.  I'm sure the words "culture of success" are in NCLB somewhere, but to really overcome the cultural norms of poverty and school failure, a much larger cultural shift will need to happen.

I taught at two "alternative" schools in Oakland.  They were falling apart.  The buildings were dingy and old.  The portables had long since out lived their usefulness, and sometimes were now repurposed as classrooms.  The computers were refurbished, the furniture mismatched and beaten up.  The custodians came and went and so did the cleanliness of the school.  Some quit, others reassigned, some were just temps anyway.  The yard was asphalt full of pebbles and one piece of playground equipment was stuck next to a very busy street. The other school had some picnic tables. We had paper, pencils, and decent condition textbooks.  The teachers were all first or second year teachers or "problem" teachers who didn't show up to work all the time.  Teachers taught "elective" classes such as art or gym depending on the needs of the school.  My principal regularly told me I was a good teacher, but it might have just been because I stayed late and showed up to work.  One year my principal made us each cookies for Christmas.  Another year two parents said thank you to me at the end of the year for all the calls home and hard work.  More than 80% of the school was eligible for free or reduced lunch, and were all minority students.  The schools were in program improvement or would soon find themselves there.

The "hills" school I taught at was still a public school in the same district, but received a large sum of supplemental funding from the PTA.  Not everything was perfect.  The main building was of the same vintage, but with slightly better up keep.  The furniture was in good condition and replaced by the PTA as needed.  The portables had mostly been replaced with a new building that the PTA raised a large amount of capital to have built. The custodian had worked there for a number of years.  He kept the buildings cleaned on a regular basis.  I believe he missed work once the whole school year, and genuinely seemed satisfied with his job.  The yard was mostly new asphalt with a new cool play structure.  A nature area was fenced off; there were classroom gardens, and general landscaping overseen by parent volunteers.  I had a small supply budget from the PTA in addition to the supplies supplied by the principal from the district.  Most teachers were experienced and had been at the school for more than 10 years.  The PTA supplemented the district staff with classroom aids, language, gym, art, and music teachers.  My principal regularly told me I was a good teacher, and I always assumed that was because there were parents who told her they liked me a lot better than the "teach to the test" science teacher they had they year before.  For teacher appreciation week the parents organized flowers for all the teachers.  The PTA hosted a few lunches for the teachers during the year.  Individual parents, and the PTA gave me, and all the other teachers, Christmas, and end of year gifts and thank yous.  Less than 2% of the school was eligible for free or reduced lunch, and about 25% minority.  The school had higher test scores then any other near by school and was a CA Distinguished School.

So, what's the difference?  Why do some schools in Oakland fail while others thrive?  I certainly experienced the extremes in the district.  I do not think the kids at the "alternative" schools were being given even a fair shot to score well on the high stakes tests, even if you do not even take into account the poverty level.  My students at the alternative schools did not meet the standards on the high stakes test, my students at the "hills" school did.  I know for sure they were not being provided with an equal school or education.  I know that separate but equal schools were ruled unconstitutional over 50 years ago, but how did that lead us back to separate and unequal?

When I think about the high stakes testing, taken by all my students, which lead to the punishment and reorganization of the schools with high poverty students, I just wonder why.  Were my very hard working principals at the "alternative" schools ineffective?  Was I? Yes, and yes.  They were brand-new principals, I a new teacher; our students were some of the highest need students in the country.  But why were we the ones there in the first place?  Because no one else was, because no one else would want to work in that kind of environment, for that kind of pay, and work so hard, and then just know at the end of the year that you will be told you are failing.  Even if we did an amazing job, and our students got really high test scores, what would it matter?  We still would be working so much harder and for less pay then our colleagues with more years teaching experience and tenure who would never again take the harder job for no additional pay.  So we all worked there until we became demoralized and then moved on to slightly easier jobs in the district, and with each year we make a little bit more money too as we moved along in the pay schedule, but we don't have to work quite as hard as when we worked with those really high need students.

I had a few coaches and advisers who were retired teachers and I heard them all say that they thought experienced teachers should be offered more money to work in those really hard schools.  We all know that those kids need experienced teachers in that classroom, but not very many people can figure out how to negotiate to get them there, and I honestly think the pay difference has to be quite big.  I will say that the current contract between teachers unions and school districts generally do not include a way to pay more for experienced teachers working in high need schools, but I see no other way around this problem.

A number of those retired teachers also remarked on how there are other things besides pay that might entice teachers to teach at high need schools, like more prep time, and fewer students.  I had fewer students, so perhaps that helped.  No more than 15 students were ever enrolled in my class, so usually 5-10 were in attendance.  I'm fairly certain I wouldn't have made it through the year with 30 students in a class at the "alternative" schools.

I never heard any of the retired teachers talk about the facilities, but I'll tell you it makes a big difference.  My third year teaching I applied for a transfer and looked at two schools.  One would be another high need school with a staff I liked, and a mission I believed in.  The whole school, but especially the classroom I would have, was dark, dank, and falling apart.  The "hills" school had new desks and chairs and felt like a science lab.  I had cabinets and counters for science experiments.  It was light and had lots of windows.  I just couldn't teach another year in a dank room.  Most good teachers I know spend 8-12 hours a day in their classroom.  Many don't even leave the room for lunch because they are tutoring students or grading papers.  Where would you want to work?  Where would you want to go to school?  All I know is the longer I am a teacher the less I want to work in a dark, room in disrepair, working long hours with little recognition, and with high need students for no additional pay and with the label of "failure" looming over me, the school, and my students.  A nice school, with a clean room, decent hours, lots of recognition, average students, average pay and the label "success" for me, the school and my students just sounds like a better job.

So that gets me back to my question of how you get experienced teachers into those highest need classrooms.

1. Pay More for the Experience
Certainly a pay difference will help, but it will have to be big.  I would guess that it needs to be more than $10,000 above what they would be making in an average school, perhaps even much more.  Teachers are generally paid for slightly less than 40 hours a week, but I would estimate good teachers work at least 60 hours.  So the pay difference may need to be as much as an additional 50% of their salary.

2. Better Facilities
If a school is "failing" build a new one.  Literally.  Maybe just a good renovation will do, but make sure it is clean bright and is someplace you would want to spend 8-12 hours a day.  Ensure the worst schools have the best maintenance staff, maybe pay them better too.  Make sure things are clean and in good repair.  Make sure all the teachers have computers, projectors, and all the supplies they need.

3. Positive Recognition
No one wants to work somewhere were they are told they are bad at their job.  Teachers are teachers because they want to make a difference.  Figure out some kind of systems to recognize good teachers publicly and privately and do it often.  This might sound different then the current trend of reporting bad teachers test scores in the newspaper, and that is because it is the exact opposite.

While getting good, experienced teachers into the "failing" classrooms will not change the entire culture of failure it will certainly help the cultural shift.  Kids know the difference between a quality experienced teacher and a new teacher, and that combined with the excellent new facilities will send a strong cultural message about the value of the school.  I'm sure some similar measures need to be taken to bring in experienced administrative staff as well.  I've never met a principal who didn't work hard long hours, but the experienced ones just do better at a hard and complex job, and every teacher will tell you that good leadership is important to the success of a school. Probably the high stakes testing won't really be needed in the same way since the only goal of the tests would be to identify the highest need schools that would get more money for teachers pay and better facilities. 

Of course, doing what I have proposed will cost money.  And it will be clear and explicit that the money is going into poor schools to help poor communities.  Your tax dollars will be helping to educate the poor, and rewarding teachers who work, and maybe even live in those high poverty communities.  Perhaps the unspoken classism (and racism) in NCLB is really the problem and the reason why no politician is ready to step up and do what is necessary to really make sure that no child is left behind.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Respecting the Student

A few things today have made me think about respect today.

First, I heard a story on NPR, about a book someone wrote where she studied minimum wage works at a burger chain and followed up with them at 4 and 8 years.  One of the stories she told was about a woman who became a manager of the burger chain, and then took a job at Starbucks.  At Starbucks she made more money, but she felt like she was not respected.  She said people didn't listen to her ideas about how to improve the way they served customers because of who she was and where she came from.  So, she went back to her lower paying manager job at the burger chain.  Why?  Because she felt respected there.

Second, I cam across this math teachers blog,  I read maybe about 15 of his posts and one thing became apparently clear from his blog, he respects his students.  I didn't read his profile, so I have no idea who or where he teaches.  This teacher is the kind of math teacher we all wish we had in high school.  He loves math, believes in his students, and genuinely works hard to be a good teacher.

I know that my students, when I taught at alternative schools, did not feel respected by the school we were in and the path that brought them there.  I was unable to overcome the disrespect my students felt in the larger system, and translate it into respect in my classroom.  Thinking back, I don't know exactly what I would have done different, but I want to think about it.

Monday, November 1, 2010

"A Mind Shaped by Poverty"

A Mind Shaped by Poverty: Ten Things Educators Should Know
The other day I was on Amazon, buying rain boots, when I saw a few books it recommended for me about teaching kids in poverty.  I guess Amazon knows a few things about me, but we can discuss internet privacy another time.  Although I do buy things on Amazon, and I wouldn't mind if you clicked this link and bought the book from them, I requested, A Mind Shaped by Poverty: Ten Things Educators Should Know by Regina M Rawlinson, on interlibrary loan from my town library.  It came this weekend and I read it in a few short hours today.

I have been home with my daughter for the past year and a half, and before that I was teaching in Oakland Unified Schools.  I worked at three different schools during my time in OUSD.  My teaching career began at a High School for expelled students in Oakland.  I entered teaching through the Teaching Fellows program designed to get teachers into the highest need schools.  They follow a similar model and philosophy as Teach for America, and exist in a number of cities across the country.  Despite my experience with "at-risk" youth, I stayed there only one school year.  I took what I hoped would be a job the next year, where I could really have an impact, at a Middle School for at-risk students in East Oakland.  I hoped things would be different.  The following year I transferred to a school in the hills of Oakland.  Let's just say the demographics were different, and poverty was not a major issue for most students there.

So, now I am taking some time to look back on my experience, and perhaps do a little reading and thinking about what could be different.  My first two years teaching I do not feel like I "raised student achievement," or even made a positive impact on very many student lives, as I was promised I could do as a Teaching Fellow.  Where did I go wrong?  I firmly believe that my students deserved an education, that they were capable of learning, and that I am a competent teacher of the content. 

As a Teaching Fellow I participated in a summer institute that was to prepare me for teaching in schools with high levels of poverty and students learning below grade level.  I was given HITS (high impact teaching strategies) to use that would help "raise student achievement."  I tried, I really did.  I worked long hours, I prepared lessons, I called homes, and I met with parents.  I used all the HITS like having high standards and using graphic organizers.  But, I did not really reach most of my kids. Now, I was working at what I believe to be the extreme end of the spectrum in the school system.  I don't know that the kids in my classroom were poorer, or more abused, or any worse off than other students in OUSD, but I do know that their reactions to their experiences created a major interference with their ability to learn at school.  Very few of my students had serious learning disabilities or mental illness as classified by schools or doctors, but it is clear that they had a problem with learning at school.

A Mind Shaped Like Poverty, offered me a few insights that I want to reflect on.   What if I had approached my teaching from a standpoint of teaching students who had a disability, and it was poverty.  Rawlision's book is short and to the point, each chapter lays out one thing she wishes teachers knew. 
If I used her suggestions as a guideline for planning my classroom and lessons then I would focus on a few key ideas. 
  • My classroom would be set-up to seem very fair because my students may assume that I would not treat them fair.  Their life in poverty is not fair, why would school be any different?
  • My classroom must give them access to the best materials, lessons, and teacher.  Poor students don't often get access to anything with out a fight, my class would have to.
  • Good grades must be made widely available.  This was a really interesting idea for me to read about.  When someone lives in poverty, they may assume that everything is scarce (food, clothing, medical care), including good grades.  They might figure they won't get the best grades anyway (they never get the best anything), so why bother. Tutoring, mentoring, and letting students know how to get good grades can make a difference.
  • There must be space and respect for students' "protest."  Being poor sucks, and kids might just be mad about all kinds of things.  This is another one that really got me thinking about particular students.  Some kids just protest everything.  They push back against everything.  Rawlision suggests listening to kids protests either in class or privately and treating them with respect.  Over time this creates a mutual respect and understanding.  I think that there is even more here than she goes into.  Maybe a classroom needs to be proactively dealing with the anger and protest that students are walking in the door with.  To reach a classroom full of high poverty kids, a real connection of respect needs to be made so that anger can be vented in a regular healthy way and not through outbursts or intervention.
  • Good grades come from hard work.  Students in poverty may feel that they are entitled to an education (which they are) and should be given a break for their hard situation.  This is definitely something I struggled with as a teacher because I felt like I set clear high expectations, and my students were just falling down and failing.  I didn't know how to set the expectations and then get them there.  I was then left with failing kids who tried hard or giving kids a break.  And both of those undermine the work of getting kids to see the class as fair and connecting hard work to good grades.
  • Expect first rate work.  Much of their lives is second-hand, and second-rate.  Explicit teaching, showing, and modeling of first rate has to happen. This includes first rate goals and expectations, and not making assumptions about kids abilities based on their efforts.
  • The class must be calm.  Being poor is stressful, and school is often a refugee.  Figure out how to accommodate for the fact that life outside school my not be an easy place to get work done by providing study halls, tutoring, and after school homework help.
  • Don't ignore kids who are just passing.  Many kids come to school because parents, and the law make them or for the food, and friends.  When kids are allowed to just slip past they get the message that it is okay.  Call parents, have conferences.
  • Patiently teach kids skills of organization and systematic learning and doing.  Being poor is chaotic and the culture of poverty is about trial and error.  That is why poor kids may seem messier in their work and habits.  She also suggests constructivist learning, which I don't really know much about.
  • Student's need options.  When you are poor, it doesn't feel like you have many choices.  Help kids see and have choices in school.
As I look over this list it just seems like the HITS I learned.  A menu of things to do.  But I think there is something really underlying both Rawlinson's book and the Teaching Fellows, that is not really made explicit.  It is about a teacher examining her own beliefs about poverty (and race).   I've spent my fair share of doing just that, but not in the context of me, middle class, white teacher, standing in front of a room full of Latino and African American kids in poverty.  Who do they see?  Who do I see?  Rawlinson dances around those questions a bit.  In her advice of expecting first rate work, is the assumption that middle class teachers make that poor kids are not capable of first rate work, or won't try hard enough for first rate work.  Where does that assumption lead us, and how do we really address it in our classroom.  What would have happened if I had just said it the first day or week of school, "People may not expect much of you because you live in Oakland, but I do."  My students were very aware of the low expectations people had of them, but I didn't really directly address it.  What would have happened if I had.  I told them they could get good grades, but I didn't really know how to get them there and I think they must have known it.  Maybe I missed something in my Teaching Fellow training.  Why didn't we have a workshop on poverty, racism, an oppression in education.

There are a lot of thoughts in here, and perhaps another day, I'll sort them out better.  What do you think?