I spent the morning live-tweeting "Finding the Link: Teacher Evaluation and Professional Development, an event hosted by Education Sector.
Let's be honest: getting to go downtown, occupying a spot at the bloggers table, chatting with great teachers from other states, listening to the education debate and sharing my thoughts via twitter? Totally different than my school-year day-to-day. There was no snot, no one asked me to tie their shoe, no fear of getting lice from those around me, no chance of suddenly having to leave what I was doing to sprint down the hallway after a run away child.
Live-tweeting in itself was an adventure. Re-reading over the twitter conversation (#esteach) made me dizzy. I was typing so fast while trying to record one thought at the same I was following the panelists conversation that I didn't realize my tweets were so disconnected and confusing. Some of them I don't have any memory of writing, and I can't quite piece together what I intended to say when I read back over them. Regardless, it was certainly an experience!
The entire morning left me with so much to think about that it is hard to boil down into one post. The whole question about teacher development and teacher evaluation and the role of the federal government/states/districts is so large, with so many subplots that it was difficult to even capture in the two hours.
The panelists we were reacting to were:
Scott Thompson, IMPACT, the new teacher evaluation system for the Washington, D.C., public schools
Brad Jupp, senior program adviser for teacher quality initiatives, U.S. Department of Education
Jen Mulhern, The New Teacher Project, who worked with New Haven on their new evaluation system.
To be honest I went into the whole event a bit nervous. I'm pretty skeptical of a lot of top-down initiatives on teaching, and even inside my own school I tend to subscribe to the philosophy "it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission." If you put your head down, do what you know is best, and teach your heart out, you'll usually end up doing the right thing. I have strong opinions on education policy, but that usually involves telling policy makers where to stick it. So, I was pleasantly surprised that, for the most part, I didn't find myself sucking in my breath and holding back from exploding about how far removed from education everyone was. It's happened before, and it's not pretty.
For the most part I was impressed with all three' panelist's insights into the teaching profession and their understanding of the picture as a whole, but I was particularly impressed with Brad Jupp. Many of his comments reflected an appreciation for everything that happens within a school, and the need to support, respect and trust the teachers. He compared not trusting educators to be a part of developing the solution to refusing to allow engineers to be a part of fixing a bridge.
Listening to Judd also gave me a clearer picture on the road the US Department of Ed is taking. As a teacher I've heard about Race to the Top, but honestly, it will be so long before it actually impacts my classroom practice that I haven't paid much attention. As Jupp talked about how districts themselves should take on comprehensive reform in order to improve as a whole, and how the educators themselves need to be a part of this process, he explained that they've created a structure and a goal, and want to give educators (states, districts, policy makers) the freedom to find any way they can to get to the end.
This method annoyed me at first (nobody understands what you want from us!! I wanted to screech) until I realized this method is a tool I love to use in the classroom. Give students an open ended task with a clear goal and sit back and watch what happens. Usually, the students go above and beyond my expectations and manage to do so creatively. Although, to be honest, the middle part- where all the creativity and problem solving skills are working themselves out- is extremely noisy, messy, and embodies exactly why I named my blog "organized chaos".
Judd explained that Arne Duncan's mantra that drives their department, is "Tight on goals, loose on means."
With first graders this process usually starts out in a few different ways.
The "structure-seekers" ask a lot of questions like "Where do I put my pencil?" "What is the right answer?" and "Do you want us to use blue paper or light blue paper?" while the "oh good, freedom! Let's see what we can do/get away with" group gets busy making something happen. Not necessarily the right thing, mind you, but paper gets cut, glue bottles are out, excited chatter starts. Then another group, of course, the "run and hiders" manage to sneak into the classroom bathroom, or into the classroom library hoping I wont notice they are entirely avoiding the project. Which is easy to do because I'm busy trying to answer the structure-seekers questions, and make sure the freedom group is not simply seeing if they can empty an entire glue bottle in one sitting. All the while, the "I have the right answer" group of children is walking around the room telling everyone else what to do with utmost confidence. And of course, because they are 6 and 7, they end up crying, stamping their feet, and swearing that they are not Susie/Jamie/Max's friend because Susie/Jamie/Max wont listen to their idea.
Which is, actually, somewhat similar to what's going on in the education-sphere as we all react to Race to the Top, and the (possible?) changes in Elementary and Secondary Education Act (The act formally known as NCLB).
Some states immediately got busy applying for RttT grants, while others refused to participate in the process. Some are not acknowledging that any change is occurring and will not until they've seen progress from other states, while some, who comfortably followed NCLB, are still waiting for specific instructions. Even in the room today, as I listened to the debate over how much students' standardized assessments should play into teacher evaluation I couldn't help feel that this how we are reacting to the discussion even on a personal level. Some of us are the bossy first graders announcing we know what the answer should and should not be. Some of us figure it will all play out in the end and we're just along for the ride, while others look at this as a blank check to start some change.
In first grade this all turns into a 4 ring circus, or, as I like to call it, Organized Chaos. ;) Eventually, everything starts to settle down. It takes some coaxing to get the "Structure Seekers" to try something outside their comfort level, while some good guided questions lead the "Freedom" group to reflect on what they are doing and make it meaningful. The Run-and-Hiders need to be given some leadership in the whole process, ("Don't you want to be the one to hand out the special paper when we're ready? Better get started on your own project then!") and the Bosses get some social-skills instruction and problem-solving strategies along the way. In the end, the product is usually worth it, and everyone gains a new skill outside their comfort zone.
Brad Jupp continued to talk about how the goal is to have teachers and districts wrestle with all aspects of these questions in order to solve these problems themselves. In other professions, he pointed out, when there is a problem no one says, "this is a deal breaker," instead they look at all aspects of a problem, acknowledge the trouble spots, look at the worst possible scenarios, and then examine how to make sure that doesn't happen.
I get what he's saying with this. I like it, and I think works when we are talking about the people actually making the decisions. Sadly, though, teachers do not feel like they have been a part of making those decisions, and so they feel they have no voice in problem solving how to make sure the worst does not happen in schools. Jupp touched on the voice the unions have in this process, but when was the last time, as a teacher, you felt the union gave you an opportunity to have a place at the decision making table? Most teachers join the union for protection from law suites.
Part of feeling that we do not have a voice is the NCLB culture, where we all still feel as though the government is inherently judging us as failures and that we are being treated like we are part of a machine. And to be honest, it wasn't until today that I realized that culture is changing. Inside schools we are still terrified of not making AYP, and desperately tracking data on different subgroups of students. On the ground, we haven't adapted to a new mindset yet.
Judd commented that teachers need to stop feeling as though it is them verse the management. And yes, this is true, but teachers feel that way for a reason. In some places in education management needs to realize that they are not against the teachers.
Listening to the panelists today I could sense the shift in culture. The two teacher-evaluation systems being discussed, one in New Haven and IMPACT in DC, are being put in place with the right tone and theory behind them. They are looking at what teachers need, where teachers are coming from, and how teachers can grow. They do not seem like systems that are only in place to get rid teachers, but instead seem like systems that are intended to make good teachers great teachers, and give professionals constructive feedback. I have my own doubts about both systems, but all three panelists seemed to understand that there are many ways to be an outstanding teacher, and that needs vary from school to school, district to district.
Perhaps turning educators loose with a goal in mind and telling them how to find their own way there is the answer. If it works it will not only allow school systems to meet these goals, but on their way to the end they will gain insights and create a structure and resources for how to solve problems and create change. I give my first graders open ended assignments in order to not just get a final product, but to force them to challenge themselves so they learn new skills. Maybe the shift from NCLB culture to RttT will give states and districts opportunity to further develop themselves so that in the future they will have a new problem solving framework in place.
Or, of course, maybe not.
There is so much more I floating inside my head, from the general discussion on professional development to the test scores question.
More posts are coming in a few days, after I've escaped into the blue ridge mountains for the weekend.
Part 2: Systems in place in New Haven and DC
Part 3: Testing (every one's favorite subject)