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A Teacher's NEWPrint for School Change

Over at Teachers' Letters to Obama we have been digging in to the details of education policy. We are unhappy with current policies, but we want to propose constructive alternatives. One discussion recently posed this question: What does a Blueprint that "we can all believe in" look like?

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Most education reformers declare the teacher to be the most important variable in the education equation. Unfortunately few actually behave as if teacher's views on reform policies matter. If reforms are going to succeed, they need to tap the imagination of teachers, and draw on the deep knowledge that resides in the people doing the hard work of educating the nation's children. Here are some ideas from the perspective of a teacher.

How about a teacher's NEWprint?
For me a NEWprint would deliver on some core values. First of all, we need to step back from our obsession with low quality data. We have been pushing for increased test scores as the way to measure and improve student learning for the past decade. But student learning has not improved, and I believe the gap between the education that poor students are getting and what more privileged students get is wider, as those in impoverished areas continue to face tremendous pressure to increase scores, while those in wealthier areas have been relieved if such pressure.

So we need a better way to measure student learning at the school level. We know that formative assessment connected to timely and concrete feedback is a powerful tool to promote learning. But rather than seek to externalize and standardize these assessments, we need to empower teachers to do this critical work. In order to provide some check on the quality of instruction at our schools, there are several entirely reasonable approaches. We could reduce the frequency of tests to every few years, and have them function as a rough check on student performance. Then a small team of inspectors could periodically visit schools, and use a rubric to evaluate how well the school is working.

We need to shift the emphasis away from external measurements. This data is not driving us anywhere we ought to be. This is where teacher insight is the most valuable. The Blueprint and Race to the Top have bought into the idea that data (almost always standardized test score data) should have an even larger role in the educational process.

Race to the Top encouraged the use of test score data to evaluate teachers and reward them monetarily, assuming that this will result in better student outcomes. But I believe all the emphasis on test scores fundamentally corrupts the mission of a school, because test scores are a flawed means of measuring learning. The tests measure a specific set of concepts and do so in a narrow way. I work in schools under huge pressure to increase their scores, and although scores on state tests have increased marginally, the NAEP tests have shown little growth over the past decade.

A Teacher's NEWprint would build a sense of accountability among school faculty by giving them real responsibility for learning in their school. Yes, we have a mission to make sure every child can read, write, do math, investigate nature, and understand his history. But we have a broader mission to ensure that our students learn to think critically, to work together to solve problems, to communicate their ideas using 21st century tools. We arrive at these goals not through pressure to raise test scores, but through giving teachers time and responsibility to collaborate - to model these skills themselves as professionals.

What would this look like?
School faculty should be challenged to create a working professional development model that draws on their expertise and builds leadership from within, based on collaboration. There are a variety of effective models in use. Some schools are having great success with Take One!, the National Board's process where teachers can tackle one portfolio entry at a time. Other schools use the Lesson Study model to plan lessons together, then observe and reflect on the result. Some schools use a teacher action research model, where we choose questions to investigate, collect evidence and reflect on what worked. Every school needs the autonomy to figure out the model that works for them, and the chance to work together, make mistakes, and try again.

The faculty need to look closely at evidence of student learning.
The work that individual teachers do to assess student work should be shared in collaborative meetings, where goals for the whole school are set, and progress monitored carefully. External standardized tests have a role, as a way of checking to make sure the school has an accurate understanding of where the students are.

Our teacher evaluation process could also be a valuable tool in the growth of our skill.
Currently this process is often meaningless or counterproductive. The emphasis on the use of test scores does not improve this. What we need is to connect the evaluation process to real professional growth. What would this look like? How about a fall meeting between a teacher and the administrator - or colleague - responsible for his evaluation. This meeting would be a chance to reflect on how instruction has been, and set some goals for growth in the coming year. We could identify an area for growth, such as differentiated instruction, and some professional development and instructional strategies to drive this. Evaluation could then be part of the professional growth journey, helping guide the reflection and collaboration that is the real engine of improvement. For more details, take a look at the report recently released by Accomplished California Teachers here.

How about struggling schools?

There is no question that some of our schools are not giving students the foundation they need to succeed. However, many of these schools are located in communities where jobs are scarce and most students live in poverty. Inequitable school funding means schools in these neighborhoods are often poorly equipped. The current strategy of declaring schools in these neighborhoods failures and forcing them to fire teachers and their principal is not working. In my district most of the schools recently declared failures were already reconstituted five years ago. These schools struggle with high staff turnover, and what they need most of all is stability and a chance to build a strong collaborative culture.

What about a turnaround strategy that builds on the strengths within a school and community? We need to deliver steady, reliable support to schools that are in impoverished areas. We need to emphasize the elements that lead to stability of a staff, and move away from the high turnover models we have chosen. We need to pay our teachers well, and make these jobs attractive enough to sustain professional teachers with the understanding that these schools are great places to grow. We need to leave behind the revolving door that comes with temporary interns working for two-year long stints. We cannot build a sustained culture of growth when the staff is turning over every two or three years.

Congresswoman Judy Chu has developed a proposal that embodies these principles, offering turnaround schools a far greater degree of flexibility than the four limited options in the Blueprint. She says, "What we need is a system that promotes flexibility and collaboration instead of tying the hands of administrators, teachers, and parents. We must remove barriers to student success instead of ignoring them. And finally, we must support teachers and leaders, instead of breaking them down." More details can be found here.

These are some of my ideas. I invite you to come over to Teachers' Letters to Obama to discuss and debate, and add your own ideas to the mix. We want to be heard when we object to elements of the Blueprint, but we need to get into the details and offer some solutions of our own if we are going to get anywhere.

What do you think of these ideas? What would YOU put into a Teacher's NEWprint?

(illustration by Anthony Cody)

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