Friday, July 29, 2016

A Tale of Two Philosophies: New Leadership Provides Hope for Pittsburgh

Sometime in the last few years it became trendy for my employer to refer to its staff as "human capital." In the never ending cycle of learning and re-learning edujargon, this term is particularly revealing. Calling teachers and staff "human capital" denotes widget philosophy--teachers aren't really education experts with unique skills, talents, and perspectives, rather we are replaceable cogs in a machine or robots on an assembly line.

But enter Dr. Anthony Hamlet.

About a month removed from the controversy surrounding his hiring, Pittsburgh's new superintendent announced the first steps in his plan to improve Pittsburgh's schools. We had a sense of who Dr. Hamlet was from his work in Florida and his comments when he accepted the position of Superintendent.


Here's a highlight reel:

"I believe in connecting ideas, people, and resources, not controlling them."

"I lead by allowing others to take greater ownership for their work, understanding their strengths, and helping them with their weaknesses."

"We have to focus on the culture of the school. Culture trumps any restructuring process that you have anywhere."

"We have to focus on what the constituents in the particular organization need to thrive."

"We need to focus on culture, systems, and instruction."

"[We need to] focus on capacity building."


Contrast these comments with the actions of the previous administration:

While leadership paid lip service to using evaluation to improve teaching, its time and energy seemed to be focused on finding and firing the ever elusive bad teacher. It dominated conversation and policy, even frustrating many who believed in the possibilities of the evaluation system as a growth mechanism.

The leadership partnered with astroturf A+ Schools to lobby for legislation that linked furloughs to the controversial system.

It spent a great deal of time fighting for cut scores three times higher than any other district in the state.

It championed a pay structure that massively penalizes proficient teachers with the unproven system (with a 40% pay cut compared to their "distinguished" peers and a 33% pay cut compared to teachers on the old pay structure).

Each of these actions intrinsically signaled the district's distrust in the quality of its teaching force and, for many of us, drove a wedge between its "human capital" and management.


But fortunately, due to real grassroots work and a democratically elected volunteer school board, Pittsburgh has a bright future.

As Dr. Hamlet begins his work in Pittsburgh, his mindset indicates a sharp left turn from "find and fire" to a capacity building and growth mindset, similar to one we should employ in our classrooms.

When hiring a firm to assist with the logistics of planning the district's future, his message couldn't have been more clear. He said, "As Superintendent, I am approaching this transformation-seeking planning process from the belief that people in the system are competent, hard working, and need to be supported."

What a breath of fresh air.

Focus on the right things--supporting, not threatening, the lion's share of the people doing the work well (97% according to 2016 evaluations) and helping others who want to improve. Focus on school culture rather than blame-shifting systemic problems to "those teachers" who don't want to teach "those kids." Build systems of collaboration rather than competition amongst staff. Give teachers real ownership, not faux engagement and ultimatums.

Dr. Hamlet claims to be a man of actions rather than words, but his words are indeed promising. I, for one, am hopeful and energized to begin this school year with my students and under his leadership. August 29 can't come soon enough.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Don't Let Big Money and Sold-Out Media Ruin Pittsburgh's Progress



I’ve grappled for a few weeks with Pittsburgh’s superintendent dilemma on a number of fronts. I’ll assume that my readers are basically familiar with the situation, but here are the Sparknotes.

Chapter 1: Pittsburgh has a democratically elected school board.
Chapter 2: Pittsburgh’s citizens vote for pro-public education candidates.
Chapter 3: A+ Schools’ (a.k.a. Bill Gates’ employee) candidates lose.
Chapter 4: A+ Schools doesn’t know what it feels like to lose and becomes upset.
Chapter 5: Pittsburgh’s democratically elected school board selects a pro-public schools superintendent without allowing A+ Schools to railroad the process.
Chapter 6: A+ Schools becomes more upset and elicits the support of local media in a witch hunt against the new superintendent.

So that’s where we are. I’ll admit I don’t envy the school board in making its decision, not because the decision is unclear, but because the board is going to have to answer to media outlets and rich, powerful foundations that have already revealed their intentions.

The Post-Gazette editorial board makes no secret about its interest in privatizing schools. But even I was absolutely floored that the paper printed a suggestion that the mayor should appoint the school board. I guess the motives for the Post-Gazette’s coverage should have been clear from the first day Dr. Hamlet was hired, when he was referred to as an ex-NFL player rather than a lifelong, award-winning educator.

I will admit the plagiarism issue could be a serious one. Fortunately I have some networks that include respected education and education philosophy researchers. I spoke at length with one, and talked through the claims. She was unequivocal. What Anthony Hamlet did was not plagiarism. Unlike the extensive expertise of the commenters on the Post Gazette’s website, I have never claimed to have a full grasp on what plagiarism looks like in the context of a resume. But a person with a doctorate in education who is constantly conducting and publishing education philosophy knows. Edu-jargon and definitions of specific terms like transformational leadership do not constitute plagiarism.

While the Post-Gazette is complicit in this scheme to defame and destroy Dr. Hamlet, the real enemy here, as always, is A+ Schools. They simply cannot pursue their Gatesian agenda with a superintendent who believes in community schools. They need one who believes in firing teachers. They can’t pursue their agenda if the superintendent believes in collaboration rather than stacked ranking. And they can’t pursue their agenda of closing schools and turning them into charter profit factories if the narrative in our schools shifts away from “achievement” being measured by high stakes tests. Simply put, Anthony Hamlet is not their style, and they can’t stand that Pittsburgh’s community, through real grassroots activism and real community empowerment, elected a school board which genuinely engaged its community in a selection process that produced a once-in-a-lifetime superintendent selection.

Anthony Hamlet was hired because of his extensive background in real public education. He was hired because of his vision for Pittsburgh Public Schools. He was hired because he believes in the things Pittsburgh values about its public schools. We don’t value the A+ Schools’ bullshit astroturf faux advocacy Gatesian agenda. We value collaborative learning environments with high quality principals and supported teaching staffs. We value an education that involves the whole child and keeps our kids in classrooms rather than suspending them. We don’t value outside groups like A+ Schools running a search and railroading a process. A+ Schools is a disease that needs to be eradicated, not a voice that needs to be valued.

And finally, I won’t pretend to know all of the dynamics at play in the hiring/vetting/reconsidering process. But one thing I know for certain is that our democratically elected, pro-public education, volunteer school board has a challenging job to do. I hope they stand on their principles and make a decision that is in the best interest of our students. I know them, and I know they will. This is the job they were hired to do. And I know that they will do it well.

Monday, July 13, 2015

It's Not Me, It's You: Union Engagement in the Era of the 1%

Recently my national union, the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign. Many eloquent bloggers have dissected the endorsement, its process and its repercussions. Rather than rehashing those issues, I have some good news for unions, you've managed to answer the age-old question, "Why can't we engage more of our membership?"

It's not me, it's you.

There. That's your answer. You.

When you choose to make your members pawns (at best) in political endorsements, it's you.

When you support policies that serve corporations rather than your constituents, whether those policies be developmentally inappropriate standards, flawed evaluations, statistically abhorrent value added measures, annual testing, foundations seeking to undermine and takeover public education, or a litany of other unmentionables, it's you.

When you become entirely out of touch with what happens in classrooms, it's you.

When your membership is over a million and a half educators and your endorsement process engages fewer than 1,500 of them, it's you.

When you pass out shirts that say "Your Voice Matters" immediately following an endorsement that says "The 1% Matters, Screw You," it's you.

See, while it may be true that many teachers want to teach and be left alone in the classroom and some even gristle at the thought of dues being deducted from their paychecks, there are a good number of us that try to engage in meaningful constructive criticism of our unions and are beaten back by the blatant disregard for our voices.

And now in some sort of strange irony, you've engaged your membership, but it's not for you, it's against you. You've seen a summer break social media eruption of anger and disenfranchisement. Sadly, this isn't the time for battling on the inside of our union. It's time for fighting outside forces that seek to destroy public education for profit.

I'll still gladly pay my dues and make my voluntary PAC contributions. I will continue to shout as loudly as I can for changes that make our schools better and changes that make our union better. But the next time I hear some perplexed union leader wonder why unions are struggling and membership isn't engaged, I'll resist the urge to punch that person in the face and instead I'll direct him to the nearest mirror.

Because it's you.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What Happens When Students Become Post-it Notes?

It was bound to happen soon enough. The old standby “bubble kids” topic came up at this morning’s meeting. For non-educators, the name my elicit images of young children at a birthday party blowing bubbles and chasing them and popping them. Or maybe a child who loves bubble baths. Or that kid in the old movie whose parents were worried about him getting sick, so they made him live in an actual bubble. Yes, that’s a bubble kid.
But in education circles, the “bubble kid” is the student whose standardized test scores are close to proficiency but not quite there. These are the kids (we are told) who require just a teensy bit of extra attention, perhaps a few more test taking strategies, a test prep study session in place of a waste of time elective like music. Pull the student out of gym class for a month or grab him during lunch and say “Hey, kid, our school’s rating relies on whether or not you get those two questions right on The Test, so pull a little harder on those bootstraps.” That’s a “bubble kid.”
                Lest you think that this situation is unique to me, I would suggest that educators everywhere are expected to address the “bubble kid” issue. Most schools generate lists of some sort, identifying these children as data points and planning interventions to move the yellow post-it note to the green post-it-note. Some schools post these color coded names on walls in data-centric common planning rooms, some circulate spreadsheets, some assign individual teachers to mentor these students. Some have data retreats, where they individualize plans for the middle of the pack achiever. Some link students with an upperclassman mentor who has already passed the exam. No matter the level of intervention, most public school teachers will engage in the “bubble kid” discussion at some point.
So what happens when we start talking about “bubble kids?” What’s wrong with focusing our efforts on kids who are so close to proficiency? Why should we not give them a little extra attention? Why not team with one another and give them the boost they need to improve our school’s rating? It’s helping kids, right? That’s what teachers are supposed to do, and all of a sudden we've convinced ourselves that we’re part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
I would suggest to you that when we talk about “bubble kids,” when we make a concerted effort to treat these data points as if their performance on high stakes tests identifies our school’s worth or their own individual worth, we are complicit in a system that devalues real learning and will destroy public schools. No matter the dictate from above, no matter how well-intentioned, we cannot make bubble kids the focus of our efforts as teachers.
But this isn't just an ideological battle about high stakes testing. This is real life, with real consequences and real long term damage inflicted on children. Because the real victims in the “bubble kids” conversation are not the “bubble kids” themselves. The real victims are the children (the red post-it notes) who have long been disenfranchised by a system of test and track, test and punish, that identifies them as “below basic” or “failing” while they’re still wearing sneakers that blink when they walk. The red post-it notes then land in drudgery remedial reading and math, pulled from interesting “specials” and gym class and recess, because they’re a lost cause already. It tells seven year-olds loudly and clearly “Not only are you a failure, but you are not worth our time and individual attention. You are a lost cause. You’re a red post-it note.” And when we tell seven year-olds that they’re not worth our time, how are we shocked when fourteen year-olds act out? It’s much easier to misbehave than to try your best and be called “failing” again.

“Advanced” and “proficient” students and “bubble students” alike certainly feel the consequences of a test and track system, but no one feels it as much as the red post-it note whose entire public education experience has been shaped by a label of “failing” or “below basic.” If we can’t center our focus and our conversations on those children, the ones who need us most, then we are the failing ones.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Happy Teachers Matter Week, I Think...

An article in this morning's Pittsburgh Post Gazette announced the beginning of "Teachers Matter" week, a celebration of the important role teachers play in our community.

I'm not a cynic. Really. But pardon my reservation when the first two paragraphs of the article discuss Time magazine's recent tenure article and a ridiculously hyperbolic comment about molestation and teacher firings from charter school advocate Howard Fuller. Then after saying Pittsburgh's conversation about teaching is different than the national conversation, the article spends about half its time talking about how many of Pittsburgh's teachers are fired, how many resign when faced with the prospect of poor evaluations, and a litany of other issues highlighting all of the "ineffective" terrible-human-beings-parading-as-teachers Pittsburgh's students are subjected to.

Before I say anything else, if you're in Pittsburgh, would you please consider attending the teacher celebration this Saturday at the Carnegie Science Center? I will be in attendance (I don't know if that encourages or discourages your attending), and I think it is crucial that our community rallies around its public schools and the teachers who work hard for our students.

Unfortunately I find myself hesitating to chant "TEACHERS MATTER *clap, clap, clap, clap, clap*" from the rooftops for a few reasons.

First, I'm aware of a distinct employment bias, that all people value their own line of work more than others do, and teachers may be excessively biased about their choice of employment. While teachers matter, so does every other worker. Except politicians.

Second, I think the dialogue around the impact of teachers often distracts from the important work of so many other people in shaping the mind of a child. Teachers do matter. But so do parents, grandparents, community members, principals, district leadership,  counselors, cafeteria workers, custodians, and office staff. Our resources should focus on wrapping around the whole child rather than a hyper-focus on defining effective teaching and finding and firing those who are ineffective.

Third, I hesitate to jump up and down about being an effective (or distinguished) teacher, as it is a field that requires constant reflection and self-awareness, constant improvement, and never-ending challenges. Some days I am Socrates, most days I'm Mr. Kotter, and some days I'm Kindergarten Cop Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's a profession that can inspire and suck the life out of you in the same 42 minute class period, and it feels disingenuous to be applauded while I think "Did you see how my fourth period class went yesterday? There was nothing distinguished about that."

But if we're being totally honest here, I became a teacher because of Mrs. Zoller, Mr. Flint, Mr. Smith, Mrs. Hall, Miss Jordan, Mrs. Ohman, Mr. Hansel, and many others. Their primary characteristics? They challenged and inspired me. They helped me figure out who I was. Whether it was Latin, American Literature, Civics, or Math (yes, I cried about triangles my junior year of high school), my teachers loved their subject matter and their students. They only accepted my best, and they always saw the best in me. While there is no doubt in my mind that my parents influenced me more than anyone else did, my teachers played an immeasurable role in who I am today. So teachers should be celebrated because they do matter.

My colleagues matter. They arrive at school early and stay after school late. They attend games and recitals; they pat students on the back and (figuratively) kick them in the pants. They celebrate successes inside and outside school. They put their arm around students who see violence outside the classroom walls every day. They seek to understand their students' perspectives and to value their opinions. They plan lessons that are engaging and put stickers on high school students's papers when the students finally get it. They never give up. Ever. They fight for their students' needs to be met and discuss how they can improve their own approach in the classroom. They work hard and should be celebrated. Because they do matter.

Do we live in a society that values teachers? Unequivocally, no, as the half feel-good half how-many-of-them-suck-and-are-we-firing-enough-of-them article can attest.  But have there been teachers who impacted our lives, whose impact continues on even today? Emphatically, YES! And so Teachers Matter Week is both appropriate and important, and I will gladly celebrate it, if for nothing more than the teachers who shaped my life and those who I see shaping the lives of students Every. Single. Day.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Tripod Opt Out Conundrum

In a recent post I discussed my concerns with implementation of the Tripod survey in Pittsburgh, specifically involving the suspect timing of feedback, the stacked ranking of teachers, and the loss of learning time from administering the surveys.

As a teacher, I am always encouraged by community engagement around our public schools' issues and decisions, even when we disagree. Some very reasonable and thoughtful questions arose from a few parents around the issue of opting out of the surveys. Unlike opting out of PSSAs or Keystones, the process for opting out of Tripods is remarkably simple. All schools mailed opt out forms home in the last two weeks. A parent just needs to sign the form and return it to school by Monday, November 3 to opt out. If the form isn't returned, the student will take the Tripod survey.

Unfortunately the decision to opt out of the Tripods isn't quite as easy as the process of opting out. This decision is entirely local and certainly can have a more direct, personal effect on a student's classroom teacher. Where many parents have no emotional connection to the corporate education reformers and bureaucrats that require excessive testing (besides despising them), opting out of this survey becomes an issue of pitting teachers against parents, making it a much more nuanced and personally meaningful decision. I'll lay out the typical questions I have heard about the decision in no particular order as well as my individual perspective as a classroom teacher* whose students are subjected to these surveys twice a year.

Will my decision to opt out my student hurt his teacher's evaluation?
The Simple Answer: In theory yes, pragmatically, one student's decision one way or another is not enough for it to be the deciding factor in opting out. Teachers are certainly concerned when their "good students" opt out of the surveys. However, the point swing on final evaluations is not significant enough for one student opting out to negatively impact the teacher. Is there a tipping point where five opt outs or ten opt outs in one classroom will be statistically significant, of course. But I don't think we're in that place at the moment.

The Nuts and Bolts: The survey is 15% of the teacher's evaluation, and where two years of data are available they are used (meaning a larger sample size). The scores are scaled against the norm and stack ranked, so even if a student or a few students were to opt out, so it becomes difficult to identify what one score would mean in that complex process. The scaling and stack ranking also makes it complex to breakdown all of the involved math. In theory a 75th percentile on the Tripod would equal 33.75 points while a 50th percentile score would equal 22.5 points on the evaluation. The numbers should correlate with that basic math, but scores are given a Normal Curve Equivalent, changing the final number depending on where other district scores are. While these are real numbers with real consequences for real people, those points should not be the deciding factor in the final performance range of the teacher (and one or two students opting out isn't going to move the scores that much anyways). There are much more weighty items in the evaluation. That said, the Tripod is probably a more volatile number than, say, building or individual VAM, as Tripod's sample size is significantly smaller.

Complicated Situations: If your child's teacher was hired after July 1, 2010, the Tripod number (and all other numbers) are more meaningful as they are linked to the teacher's base pay. This nuance may be relevant, and it may benefit parents to know how significantly the opt out decision will impact his or her child's specific teacher. Also relevant here is an understanding of the building environment. If a building principal is a reasonable and fair human being and really interested in teacher growth, the observation component of RISE will be fairly used. If, however, a principal is interested in sucking the life out of teachers and students, parents may want to fight for every point on evaluations by allowing their students to take the Tripod. The decision becomes linked in many ways to these specific circumstances.

There is also a point in your student's life where he or she should be engaged in this conversation. I think Tripod opt out is a great time to have a candid discussion with students about pragmatism and principled action. Some Thoreau reading would be appropriate here (said the English teacher). If the student is old enough and understands the dynamics of the survey, then he or she may be ready to make the decision about taking the survey or opting out. Obviously any situation is unique to the student/parent/teacher dynamic, but this could be a great learning opportunity for your student.

Takeaway: If the students in your child's class are having similar experiences to your student, her Tripod score will not be substantially affected one way or another by your student's choice to opt out.


Will opting out my student make any difference in whether or not the surveys are administered in the future?
The Simple Answer: Probably not, but we can always hope.

The Nuts and Bolts: The sample size for survey results is quite small. Some of the surveys will be thrown out by Cambridge if they're determined to be invalid. Even in the largest high school classes, the average is probably around 60 students (30 per class * 2 administrations) taking the survey. A two year aggregate of the data makes the size larger, so one or two students opting out isn't likely to require systemic change. If we're talking about hundreds of students opting out, perhaps the message would be louder.

However, I think there are times when loud action is appropriate action. Denying data collection, whether through high stakes test opt out or survey opt out, cuts to the core of the anti-privacy, we-can- measure-everything corporate education reform strategy. Opt out hasn't peaked in Pittsburgh, and I'm optimistic about where it can go. There are other ways to protest the implementation of Tripods such as speaking at public hearings, blogging, or voicing concerns through the parent hotline, but I think opt out is the most likely action to create volume around the issues with the surveys.

Takeaway: Every movement starts small, and opting out will not change the immediate future. If we could get some attention around necessary changes to the survey's administration and/or feedback loop then I think it's worthy cause.


What will my student do during the time that his classmates are taking the survey?
This is the easy one question, so pardon the break in formatting.

  1. A great suggestion from a parent is for the student to write a letter to his or her teacher about their experiences in the class. This approach seems natural in the context of Tripod administration, and I am sure that the teacher would appreciate it. 
  2. If your student/teacher relationship is productive, he or she may take the opportunity to give feedback to the teacher on the classroom experience. There is nothing more important than student voice in the classroom, and while Tripod claims to provide that feedback, a student who opts out can give meaningful feedback to the teacher without participating in the survey. 
  3. I suggested Thoreau reading earlier tongue in cheek, but opt out is a loose form of civil disobedience, so an older student could do some research on Thoreau or Ghandi or the civil disobedience components of the American civil rights movement.


Please feel free to ask questions that I haven't addressed in the comments section here, through twitter (@patsfan_in_pgh) or by messaging me on my Facebook page.

*A couple important personal notes:
1. I am incredibly pro-opt out as a principle. In my opinion high stakes testing is a result of horrendous public policy, and opt out seems to be the primary mechanism by which parents can push back against that policy.
2. It should be obvious as this is a blog, but these are my own individual opinions. I am sure that district leadership feels differently about Tripods, and I believe union leadership does as well. Often the argument is that the alternative (more high-stakes tests in the evaluation equation) is worse than Tripods.
3. I truly value student feedback, so this is not a judgement on silencing students' voices. Long before Tripods existed I would survey my students regularly about what I did well and what I could do better. I think Tripods could still be effective to that end, but there would have to be an intentional effort to return results to teachers so that they could take action. My half sheet informal surveys are much better at accomplishing that task.
4. My Tripod scores have been really good, so I don't have a personal stake in changing the Tripod other than what I believe about its value and the flaws in its implementation.


Friday, October 31, 2014

What is Necessary for Teacher Growth?

Proponents of newly developed teacher evaluation systems, both union leadership and philanthropic leadership, call for these systems to focus on teacher growth while still providing summative data on teacher performance. If these two are to exist simultaneously, the systems must make space for the following:

1. Teachers must be able to participate in honest self reflection.
In some places, evaluation stakes are so high that teachers must inflate their own ratings in order to continue to teach, even though they're actually good teachers. Then any truthful reflection that occurs has to occur outside of the evaluation framework, a perversion of the original stated attempt of many of these systems. Across the country evaluation systems started with the premise that even an effective teacher "visits" the highest ratings category while "living" in proficiency. While this assessment is realistic, ratings inflation has to exist as teachers are stack ranked against one another. More about that issue later.

If instead we were to focus on the lion's share of teachers that were effective, then we could strategically connect teachers with resources and with one another based on their strengths and weaknesses. Instead, it becomes challenging to assess whether or not a teacher's evaluated strengths are their actual strengths, and that connection becomes impossible.

2. Administrators must be diligent in assessing teacher practice.
I sympathize with administrators on this issue. Often the administrative team is tasked with doing everything from passing out bus tickets to running detention to dealing with altercations, and at the same time, they are expected to give meaningful feedback on teaching practice to an entire staff of teachers. It is certainly a complex job, especially in high poverty schools. The honest assessment that must exist for teacher growth requires attentiveness to good teaching practice, and it can become overwhelming for even the best of administrators.

This fact explains the old "checklist" style of evaluations. Do you have objectives and standards posted? Do you have students working together? Is behavior appropriately managed? Is the classroom organized? Are you wearing clothes? It's a lot easier to assess these things than to get into the real nuts and bolts of good instruction. However, for instructional practice to grow, a feedback loop must exist. It is hard work, but the effective growth and evaluation system relies on an evaluator and a teacher both actively and honestly participating in that loop.

3. Professional development must be flexible for an individual teacher's needs.
As teachers learn the implementation of evaluation systems, there is a learning curve that exists. Between digesting rubrics and navigating electronic dashboards for loading evidence, some professional development must apply to the entire group of teachers. But to really grow teaching practice, teachers must both be self aware and be given the space and resources for focused professional development.

Good teachers are naturally resourceful. Many use social media to connect to others. Some attend professional development on weekends or during the summer. Regardless, districts should commit as much or more in terms of resources to growing practice as they do for assessing it. Simply identifying a teacher's strengths and shortcomings is not enough. There must be intentional outlets for the improving teacher to access if districts intend to grow practice.

4. Data must be reported to teachers in a fashion timely for action.
As I've referenced before there can be a mixed message about evaluation and growth based on the timing of feedback. In my setting, a full 50% of my rating (15% from student perceptions survey, 35% from high stakes test measures) is reported to me in May. Last year high stakes test data from the previous school year (yes, 2012-2013 data reported for the 2013-2014 school year) arrived on May 8, and in epic fashion, there were four days of instruction remaining when my final student perception scores arrived on May 28.

Data from high stakes assessments is typically misused by teachers and systems (more about that in another post), but in terms of teacher growth systems there are specific timing concerns. Standardized assessments are part of job ratings in most states (via the extortion approach of Race to the Top's doubling down on No Child Left Behind testing principles), but these assessments are not reported in a timely enough fashion for any action. My students will take state exams in December, and we will learn the results by middle of the following September if we're lucky. Those results are then scaled against others in the district and reported at the end of the school year. Pretty clear to say that the feedback-improving practice loop is broken in that scenario. And in a system that claims to be focused on growth, these scores comprise 35% of my annual rating.

Observation data can be a different story, however. While it relies on hard work on the part of both the administration and the teacher and a building environment with clear expectations and fair observations, really productive conversations around good teaching practice can occur. Is that the reality in most districts or in most buildings? It's difficult to say. There is no question that observation feedback can be very meaningful if it is delivered with clarity and fairness in a timely fashion. I firmly believe that a huge percentage of teachers actually want good feedback to improve their practice, and timeliness is important. Among the hundreds of other responsibilities a principal has, this responsibility should be of high priority.

5. Colleagues who do not formally evaluate practice must be available to assist the struggling teacher.
In a perfect universe, good administrators and caring teachers would have trust-based relationships that allowed space for a teacher to admit her shortcomings and for a principal to provide focused support in those areas. But for sake of argument, let's just assume that universe doesn't exist.

With high stakes evaluations of both principals and teachers, there is huge pressure for stacked rankings to meet some sort of quota requirement in identifying "failing" teachers. We've all heard the outraged line "70% of the school's students failed the state test but 100% of the teachers were effective?!" Ultimately, a struggling teacher isn't supported until she is identified as struggling, and then the situation is so challenging to navigate that the ineffectiveness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A simple way to rectify the inherent lack of trust in these systems and to encourage honest feedback and growth would be to include non-evaluative support personnel in the loop. For years, teachers have encountered the "non-evaluative" walkthrough (read: we-caught-you-without-the-state-standards-written-on-your-board-and-snitched-on-you-because-you-can't-teach-without-those walkthrough). But real, non-evaluative peer growth systems can be quite powerful.

In my district, we've spent somewhere between 40 and 80 million dollars on grant-funded "reforms." It seems reasonable to suggest that we invest in individuals whose sole purpose is to grow teacher practice. There are a wide variety of ways to make this investment, from mentorship and coaching to master teachers and other teacher leaders. But de-linking the evaluative piece from the growth variable in the equation would do a great deal to encourage honest reflection and growth. I can only imagine that being a new teacher in a high stakes evaluation system would be a brutal undertaking without intentional mentorship. I am happy to say that my union and district have started the process of intentional mentorship in assigning an excellent colleague of mine to a mentorship role. This is a step in the right direction.

6. Districts must do away with stacked ranking mechanisms which can destroy professional collaboration.

There is pretty clear consensus here, and here, and here about stacked ranking as failed practice even in the business world, ironically a lesson learned from the lost decade at Microsoft. Good organizations, both public and private, realize the value of collaboration. The teaching profession can be incredibly isolating, but collaborating with colleagues provides an avenue that encourages growth in very powerful and practical ways.

Unfortunately, stacked ranking threatens to disrupt collaboration. New teachers in my district are paid based on where they rank against colleagues. And it's a $40,000 per year swing from the "proficient" to the "distinguished" teacher. Compared to the standard step scale, a proficient teacher with a masters' degree on the step scale will make a full $27,300 per year more than the same proficient teacher on the stacked ranking pay scale for the final 25 years of her career. If anything could disrupt collaboration it is the perception that two people are doing the same work and being paid so disparately, Coupling performance pay measures with high stakes evaluations is sure to be both divisive and counterproductive; stacked ranking, performance pay, and high stakes evaluations are a toxic mix. My district may be an extreme example, but it is our reality and would be the reality for other districts if corporate education reformers were calling all the shots.




In building teacher growth systems, there are often competing interests between school districts, teachers' unions, philanthropic groups, astroturf and grassroots community groups, and state legislatures. All of these stakeholders must be willing to focus on growing teacher practice in order to positively impact students.