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Lead from the Start: May 2008

Friday, May 30, 2008

Is your state a tortoise or a hare? the NCLB race - 2014

As some people may know there are different types of athletes but they basically break down into tortoises and hares. Tortoises set a goal and work towards it steadily, hares take their time in the beginning then dash to the finish.
A recent study by the Center on Educational Policy describes states' strategies for the dash to the finish line of 100% proficiency in 2014. Their descriptions include, Incremental (like Virginia), Backloaded (like California) and Blended (like Kansas). I can see the value in each. Virginia's seems sensible but I am not sure that raising the pass rate 5% every 2-3 years will necessarily be realistic down the road. There are diminishing returns on some investments and unless there is a financial push to help effects of poverty in the state I am not sure we can make it to 100% by 2014. However, at least we only need to make up about 25% in the next 5 years. California, possible thinking the law would not be renewed, only set pass rates aimed at 100% beginning in 2006 instead of 2002. Kansas may not want to work so hard as to make steady progress but perhaps wants to hedge their bets on NCLB being around in 2014 so they hope to make progress at varying rates. I wonder if Kansas's might be the most realistic? I mean, once the kids start to "get it" won't they make progress easier and progressively at least until the final kick?

Some states are faced with making huge gains in a short time or suffering consequences.
Jack Jennings, the president of CEP described it this way in an EdWeek article:

“Many states may have originally set lower achievement goals for the first few years under NCLB in hopes of getting systems in place or gaining some flexibility from Washington later on, But right now, they are still on the hook for the academic equivalent of a mortgage payment that is about to balloon far beyond their current ability to pay.“
Of course this presupposes that the bill will be intact in 2014. Will it?

IMAGE From The Æsop for Children, by Æsop, illustrated by Milo Winter

Project Gutenberg etext 19994

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

its OK if I talk to myself

Yes, a researcher has given me, well at least my preschool students, permission to talk to ourselves. This is great because I already talked to myself and of course my students already thought I was crazy. Now I can use this research to show them they are wrong! I actually know what I am doing when I make those noises.
Adam Winsler a researcher at George Mason has conducted a study published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly that finds that preschoolers are better able to perform motor tasks better when they talk to themselves.
He said:
"Young children often talk to themselves as they go about their daily activities, and parents and teachers shouldn’t think of this as weird or bad," says Winsler. "On the contrary, they should listen to the private speech of kids. It's a fantastic window into the minds of children."

In the study "78 percent of the children performed either the same or better on the performance task when speaking to themselves than when they were silent."

This practice, of talking while doing an activity, is also considered a "best practice" in reading instruction when teachers talk about what they are reading and how they are understanding it as they read aloud to students. It develops metacognition of reading strategies can increase reading comprehension. I remember a particular third grade teacher who I watched do this with astounding skill. She has since moved I will always remember her as one of the most effective teachers I have ever seen.

So, research has confirmed something else I already "knew" but couldn't prove because I am a teacher, not a researcher. I say this as I continue my doctoral program to become a researcher so please don't read this as overconfidence, just a desire to possibly look at research in a different light. Am I to going into research to confirm what I already know or am I trying to generate new knowledge?

What was this researcher doing?

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Blog Buffet Carnival

Bluebird's Classroom has put together a buffet of banana creme and ham bisuits at this "end of the Year Buffet luncheon". Check out the exhaustive selections and dessert table. While your there read some of Bluebird's other posts. She is one of the best writers about the life of the classroom in the blogosphere. If you want to know what if feels like in a classroom subscribe to her blog.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

To a Successful First Year Teacher

Q: When is a rookie not a rookie?
A: When they don't suffer from Pobrecito Syndrome.

Thanks to Vanessa at Pre-(K)Now's Inside Pre-K blog I finally have a vivid term: Pobrecito Syndrome, to describe when teachers feel sorry for at-risk students. This is a concept I was adamant about with the student teacher I supervised last year. She currently works as a 1st grade teacher in my school. I told her that she had to have high expectations for the students, don't pity them more than you expect them to succeed. If you do you fail and so do the kids.

This is what I told her when she asked me if she should come work at our school.

Our school is one of the 3-4 toughest elementary schools in the entire city. Possibly THE toughest. I am at this school for a reason. I am here to give the most help to the neediest children.
You were successful. Everyone (including principals from other schools and other local school systems) knows that if you can teach at here, you can tech anywhere.
Before our turn-around principal came the kids ran the school. 3 years ago, after spring break there were approximately 2-5 incidents of disruption every day. At least one false fire drill from students pulling the alarm per week.

The kids haven't changed, the school has.
I will give you my best advice, if you want to make a difference, if you think you can cut it, you should give it a try for at least 3 years. If I were you, I would commit totally to a certain amount of time, and then decide after that amount of time if I wanted to stay.
Most of all you have to realize that if you do come to here, you have to buy-in completely to the school and its culture. Don't do it if you think you need to come because you have to change the way things are done. You will only be disappointed. I have seen it many times with young teachers. You have to be comfortable with an authoritative environment. That is what our kids need because many of them don't have anyone in charge at home. They need to know they can't get away with stuff, it makes them feel safe, (and frustrated.)
Most of all I would do it while I was young, while I was still idealistic, while I had a great deal of energy. It is much easier to go from a hard school to an easy one than the other way around.
You will never be bored, you will always be challenged.
What ever you decide I *know* you will be successful and, in a couple years, you will be ready for a new challenge.(Maybe National Boards ;)
Best wishes in your decision. I hope I see you next year, if not, you will make a really great teacher for some really deserving kids.
Have a great summer and get lots of rest, you won't get much next fall now matter where you are.
She has done awesome this year. She totally has it down and her kids... are the best behaved on her grade level. She bought into the authoritative approach, which has got to be hard for a 23 year person, and she made it work. I find it fascinating how the authoritative approach translates into high expectations when it comes to at-risk students. I am so impressed by her I had to tell her in front of the entire blogosphere.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Does three make a movement?

from ednotes online:

Joining teachers from North Carolina and Washington State. Maybe it's a trend. Hey, TFA people! If you are going to leave after 2 years anyway, why not go out in style?

Do Three Concientious Objectors constitute a movement? Teachers is now the time to claim our profession?

How many will be critical mass?

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A Very Strange Carnival

Most education carnivals have a theme. Nancy Flanagan's has a theme AND a point. She invited teachers who blog to submit posts this past week and got a slew of new voices. Check them out or as Heinlein might say..."Grok it!"

Monday, May 19, 2008

Merit Pay - Hand-out or Hand-up

Nancy Flanagan, TLNer and brilliant writer posted on the EducationPolicy Blog about merit pay. She juxtaposed two views, one of a 40 year veteran teacher who said,"Don't do me any favors." and one on principal merit pay.

Some teachers are offended by the offer to pay them based on merit, saying they can't work any harder. I am not sure this is the point. Even ineffective teachers work hard. I have always said it is harder not to teach than to teach. Managing 19 kids is much harder than teaching 19 kids. So if it is not about working harder, what is it about?

In a recent post on Swift and Change Able they highlighted an article with this statement: "We put way, way too much emphasis on holding schools accountable," Haertel said. "If educators in failing schools knew what to do, they'd already be doing it."

This was not said by someone who has actually worked in a school. Failing schools fail because of a disconnect between teachers and students feeling accountable to each other not because teachers are stupid or incompetent.

Nancy makes some great points especially about how merit based pay has been co-opted. Here are my comments.

I would argue from an economic standpoint that we should always reward what we want more of and more great teachers seems obvious.

Where i find a bone in the soup is that as soon as I say merit based pay many policy folks say value-added measures. I think we really need to rethink why we want to base teachers' pay on what students do instead of on what teachers do. I am fully aware and comfortable with high standards. That should be one of the things I am held accountable for but I don't feel like because I do a good job and Nancy next door does a stellar job, I shouldn't be rewarded for meeting standards. One of the problems I discovered recently with value-added measures is the problem of fade. This is when a kid has a great teacher in 3rd grade then two average teachers. That kid's learning that the 3rd grade teacher would be rewarded for has not been maintained. Then what do we do?

Let the madness stop. Here is an idea, just pay everybody who teaches fair to fabulous better and send the rest back to teacher school.

Finally, consider basing pay on "what teachers do with kids" (Pianta, EdWeek 2008) instead of the results of what teachers do with kids. We need to think about Karl Popper's theory of falsification, "How could this child's achievement not be due to how well the teacher did or didn't teach?" How many factors are there that could affect how we answer that question? Could we ever really "know"? This, to me, is the fundamental problem of basing teachers rewards on student testing. I can't see a valid causal relationship. What can be seen, with a number of tools,(NBPTS, CLASS, etc.) is what a teacher "knows and is able to do" in a classroom with kids.

Is there another way we can hold teachers accountable? If schools are accountable for the whole child (health, safety, psychology, etc.) but only rewarded for academics how does that affect 'what teachers do with kids?"

Thursday, May 15, 2008

research finding: "what teachers do with kids" matters

I love when education research confirms what is obvious to teachers, as an Education Week article on preschool education did this week. I am glad that we can finally "know" that "Pupil-Teacher Relationship (is) Crucial in Preschool Learning". In the article of the same name Linda Jacobson covered a report that compared National Institute for Early Education Research(NIEER) benchmarks for preschool education with findings of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), an instrument designed by Dr. Bob Pianta of the University of Virginia.

Using a sample of more than 2,400 4-year-olds in 671 pre-K classrooms in 11 states, researchers at the University of Virginia found that minimum standards for classrooms—including teachers’ field of study, their level of education, and the teacher-to-child ratio—were not associated with children’s academic, language, and social development.

Instead, academic and language skills were stronger when children received greater instructional support, such as feedback on their ideas and encouragement to think in more complex ways. And children’s social skills were more advanced when teachers showed more positive emotions and were sensitive to children’s needs.

This finding was not new to me. It was one of the first things I learned when I served on a committee for Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's Start Strong Council. Dr. Pianta was on several of the committees and he constantly pushed for the grounding of our recommendations in “what teachers do with kids” as opposed to simple policy fixes like teacher certification and training. His position was that the most credentialed teacher in the world can't help kids learn if kids don't feel safe, nurtured, and valued by that teacher. At the same time, a grandmother with minimal education can provide the foundation for learning if she helps the child explore the world and learn from their experiences while feeling safe, nurtured, and valued.

One of the things I really liked about Pianta in those committee meetings was that he was always quick to frame his research so that policy makers didn't take it out of context as he does in the article here:

“If one were to rest the whole system on those structural indicators that people tend to talk about, you could vastly overestimate the level of quality that is in the system,” said Robert C. Pianta.

Mr. Pianta stressed, however, that the study does not imply that those “elements of program infrastructure” are not important. Instead, both such elements and the supportive qualities identified are needed, he said.

Two more findings from research using Pianta's CLASS tool are:
Teachers who give both instructional and emotional support can raise achievement among 1st graders who are considered at risk for school failure because of such factors as poverty and low maternal education levels.

For teachers of children displaying behavioral and social difficulties: When teachers were warm, sensitive, and positive, the children performed at levels almost identical to those of children without a history of behavior problems.
Pianta's work is changing the way policy makers think about education and his CLASS has provided a tool for evaluating classroom environments that could change the way we think about accountability.

Finally, Pianta would never extend his research reasoning beyond looking at the findings of the research tool, that is my job as a preschool teacher and budding researcher.

So I'll ask the question, "What can we learn from preschool classrooms about teaching and learning?" The argument in Pre-K circles is always that we are supposed to get kids ready for school, that is why we make students conform to schooling's norms like testing. But, maybe if schools acted a little more humanely we wouldn't have to get kids ready for them. Maybe they should look a little more like preschool classrooms where relationships and supporting learning are part of the "curriculum".

What if teachers were held accountable for building good relationships with kids instead of test scores? -- Realizing that those relationships are what make learning possible. What would education look like in a world like that where “what teachers do with kids” is what really matters? Can we imagine what it would look like?

"Photo used with permission of Pre-K Now. All rights reserved." image from:

Saturday, May 10, 2008

and the survey says .... EdSector doesn't get teachers

What do you mean teachers don't want to be financially rewarded by comparing their students to other teachers' students? A recent study by Education Sector and the FDR Group titled Waiting to be Won Over, surveyed 1,010 K–12 public school teachers and found:
Teachers are less likely today (than they were in 2003) to support paying teachers more based on test scores. Only half of teachers support the idea to measure teacher effectiveness based on student growth or "value added."
This finding struck me as convoluted because as a teacher I would not consider "student growth" and "value-added" synonymous. Student growth is what happens naturally when a student is supported and taught by a good teacher, but, it happens whether a teacher is good or not, it is natural. Value added is a measure of what the teacher does that makes a difference. It is not the norm, it is over and above "normal" student growth.

Below are the questions that I could find in the survey related to student growth and value-added. The number in front of the answers shows the percent by respondents.
How much would you favor or oppose giving financial incentives to each of the following: [Questions 19–23]

19. Teachers who consistently receive outstanding evaluations by their principals

24 Strongly Favor
34 Somewhat Favor

18 Somewhat Oppose
21 Strongly Oppose
3 Not Sure
To me this says that generally (58%) teachers trust the principal evaluation system to identify outstanding teachers.
20. Teachers whose kids routinely score higher than similar students on standardized tests
11 Strongly Favor
23 Somewhat Favor
25 Somewhat Oppose
39 Strongly Oppose
3 Not Sure
64% of teachers do not trust test scores as an evaluation system. This could be because teachers see test scores as invalid measures of their effectiveness not because they don't want to be held accountable.

21. Teachers who receive accreditation from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
25 Strongly Favor
40 Somewhat Favor

16 Somewhat Oppose
15 Strongly Oppose
4 Not Sure
This finding, not mentioned in the summary, shows that 65% of teachers trust National Board Certification as a valid measure of teacher effectiveness.
23. Teachers who work in tough neighborhoods with low-performing schools
34 Strongly Favor
46 Somewhat Favor

11 Somewhat Oppose
7 Strongly Oppose
3 Not Sure
Another finding not mentioned by EdSector, 80% of teachers understood the inherent complexity of teaching in tough schools and favor financial rewards for those teachers.

24. Suppose that in your district the students of some teachers make more academic progress—in terms of improved reading levels, teacher evaluations, and classroom tests—when compared to similar students taught by other teachers. How much would you favor or oppose financially rewarding those teachers?
10 Strongly Favor
34 Somewhat Favor
22 Somewhat Oppose
29 Strongly Oppose
5 Not Sure

This question asks a similar question to 19. concerning test scores. It runs into what I see as a philosophical wall because they both compare students to each other. This, I believe, for most teachers runs counter to our situational understanding of teaching. It expects teachers to trust the assumption that value-added statistical measures can accurately account for the differences between students including, geographic, financial, parenting, race, culture, ethnicity, language, family make-up etc. etc. This sort of "large" view of teaching does not honor what teachers are taught from the very beginning. Students are individuals, they have their own stories, problems, strengths, and that if we compare two different students to each other we do them both a disservice.
At your school, do you think there are outstanding teachers who deserve to be especially rewarded because they do a stellar job?
48 Yes
5 No
40 There are outstanding teachers, but I don’t think they should be especially rewarded
7 Not Sure
This question does not ask about "good" teachers. It asks about "stellar" teachers. There is a great deal of baggage associated with the "star" teacher in schools. They are often ostracized from the "group" because of a strange group mentality that tries to maintain the status quo. It happens in all parts of society but may be even more prevalent in teaching.

In the research I read recently most of the statisticians (see Doug Harris) stop short of using "value-added" measures for teacher evaluation but do support their use in school wide and district wide evaluation of schools' effectiveness.

My inferential findings are:
Teachers value principals opinions and the NBPTS. They don't value test scores and star teachers. There is something that many business folks and Wonks don't get about teaching. Outstanding teaching is not necessarily what should be rewarded (or punished). It is not about 1 teacher making a huge difference with 12 out of 18 kids and letting 3 kids slip because that is a good pass rate, it is about the teachers that consistently push kids to do their best. This may not show up in test scores, it may show up years later in a better society.

Don't wait up... I can not be won over to thinking about children or teachers as numbers.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

to the art of teaching (teacher appreciation)

What we do is important. No one else will ever understand how many decisions we make over the course of a day. It must be hundreds. As I reflect each day I count the decisions like rocks weighing my soul. Was that the best response? Did I teach them? What did I do that made it better? The best thing about teaching is that you can get better at it but, only if you want to. So, here is to every teacher who tries to do it better than they did last time. And to every teacher who has inspired a child, even it it wasn't to become president, but may play an instrument, or like my daughter's Pre-K teacher did, inspire in my daughter a love of rocks. This is what gets at what we really do. Words like, standards, assessments, points, NCLB, don't mean much when you look at the world like teachers do. Teachers think in words like, inspire, learn, and wonder.

Here is to the artists of the field because teaching will never be a science, it is too big, wonderful and mysterious for that...

Teaching as an art

Art is about creating the remarkable from the ordinary. It is about raw materials, the history of the discipline, and the tireless pursuit, one might even say obsession, with making something remarkable. When I was a student in art school I gradually drifted towards creating room size sculptures called installations. I hoped that when someone entered an installation they would have an experience that changed them in some way.

To me, this is the definition of teaching. Teaching means to provide students’ experiences that change them in some way. For me it was a natural progression from creating installations to creating classroom environments in preschool. After all, the classroom is your most valuable tool for teaching young children.

Now, as a professional artist I find similarities in the process of teaching and painting. The aspect of teaching young children that is most like painting is the teaching of reading. My students come from poverty. They have very few prior experiences. When I paint I begin with the background, filling in the farthest horizon with aspects of the world that might not even be seen in the final painting. Then I begin to move forward, teaching letters and sounds in multiple ways. All the while I am focusing on these details I am building my students’ desire to read by bringing the literature alive. I am always thinking of the end result but responding to particular areas of a painting’s needs. With my students I am always monitoring the entire class’ progress while paying particular attention to the students the farthest behind and to the students who will light the fire of the desire to read. It is crucial in a painting to bring a painting forward in such a way that it seems like it has arrived, with its own logic and reality fully intact. Without considering the layers of paint under a representation of an object in a painting it is impossible create a painting that is true to itself. Without understanding the varieties and levels of experience a student has had before reading it is impossible to know what a student will understand about reading. When one or two students finally start to read and other students begin to see that they have the potential too it is like getting close to the completion of the painting. It is the most rewarding and the most important. Each mark on the canvas can make the painting better or set it back. It is the same with reading. As a student begins to read it is important that every advancement of their understanding is acknowledged and rewarded.

Teaching is an art because it requires a teacher to dig deep into their soul to find answers. It is not merely skill or technique, a conglomeration of lessons, charts, and assignments. It can best be described as knowing what to do when what you never imagined could happen, happens. It is important also to remember that the false dichotomy of art versus science is indeed false. Art and science are indeed two branches of the same tree of understanding. Each providing it’s unique light into reality.

Frank McCourt, in his memoir “Teacher Man”, describes just this type of situation. It happens on his first day, when a student throws a sandwich at another student and it lands on the floor of McCourt’s technical high school English classroom. If he were merely a technician he would mentally skim threw the training he received at teacher school, find the heading “What to do about flying food,” and perform the procedure. Of course that was not covered. He knew he did not have the students’ attention yet. He knew that his next move would decide his relationship with his students. He could have made the kid pick it up, he could have picked it up, he could have called the principal, he could have done a great many things but he knew he had to find the one thing that would accomplish his goal of creating a relationship with his students so he could teach. He had to innovate. So, he ate the sandwich. Was it the best move? That could be debated. The principal didn’t think so. But, it accomplished his goal. After he ate the sandwich he had them. They were putty, paint, clay, in his hands. He could teach. He was an artist.

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