Friday, July 26, 2013

Bringing Teacher Evaluation Back from the Cliff

Teacher evaluation is a miss in far too many places because of the level of interference it puts in the way of effective teacher observation and the absolutely necessary, formative feedback and professional growth that ought to follow.  I want to lay out some ways observation and evaluation can look if it is done correctly, some reasons why evaluation so often gets in the way, and one strategy that I’ve created - with substantial help from @Blakekonny, whom I first conversed with as part of my Twitter PLN, but was also able to hook up on  the phone to finalize my work - to help increase the amount, timeliness, and specificity of the data my school had from observations.

Teachers’ observation (formative) and evaluation (summative) ought to be a combination of interactions, reflections, and  conversations that lead to the improvement of teachers’ craft and yes, ultimately, improved students’ learning.  The information teachers get about their work ought to come from as many sources as possible and be tracked conveniently so that it can all be juxtaposed.  Picture a collection of data gained through discussions, observations, academic assessments and reviews of the teacher’s body of work that is generated by the students, colleagues, parents, and administrators that inhabit that teacher’s professional world.  Both goals that teachers set for themselves as part of the system in which they’re working and the norms/expectations established by administration ought to serve as guides for the feedback.  It’s a place where items including the wording of essay questions, pacing of curricula, contributions to grade-level meetings, classroom environments, use of technology, proactive family communications, peer support, depth of meeting SMART goals, and the amount of HOTS put to use in a class are all effectively collected and tracked and discussed, and reflected upon.  All of this, by the way, ought to be done with a frequency that reflects teachers’ needs, milestones throughout the year, and yes, some level of seemingly arbitrary regularity for good measure.  

How are we missing the boat with teachers...simply by adhering to our failed philosophy of measuring what we claim is the objective attainment of teaching standards without speaking enough about teachers’ growth.  In today’s climate, with the volumes of research we are now looking to utilize - from Dweck’s work on mindset, Pink’s work on motivation to mastery grading, technology, pbl, etc, etc, etc - we have to know that all teachers are going to be less than perfect with at least some of these things.  It’s a perfect example of too much, too fast, but too bad. While it’s true that the amount of research in our culture is greater than ever and that most of the initiatives’ implementation is being done for the benefit of our students, the system’s put so many things forward at once that we can - if we want to - catch most teachers not doing something well at any given moment.   I hope, by the way, that that’s not what we want to be doing.

To make matters worse, we claim to measure growth against our teacher standards/protocol, which almost always top out with items that are admittedly “aspirational,” meaning that the bar has been set to mark professional habits that turn the S, M, and A of SMART goals into jokes.  I was once told, for example, that my content knowledge didn’t portray the “depth and breadth of expertise” that it should.  When I asked how many texts and by what authors, time periods, and cultures I should know in order to be considered “advanced,” I was told that it’s just something that can be sensed, that there wasn’t a list of any sort, even though the particular class and curriculum being observed was considered thoughtful, thorough and well-organized.  I was told that “everyone needs to be growing at this.”  This is a problem because people are going to be less willing to grow and try if their work will always be considered sub-par; it’s the same reason so many struggling students just drop out.  Could you imagine a classroom teacher not giving A’s to student writing unless it gets accepted for publication by someone outside of the school community or telling students that they’ll only get Cs in physical education unless they get drafted by a college?  Raising the bar, fine.  Having aspirations, perfect.  But they can’t be the foundation for success.  

In my humble opinion, teaching is an imperfect activity.  The best of my own classes and all classes that I’ve observed in my 14yrs have had some level of flaw, something that ought to have been done differently, something that could be improved.  A teacher’s skill, in my opinion, is being able to not only proactively minimize those flaws, but also - and most importantly since there will always be something - recognize and improve upon them afterwards.  The perfect teacher in my model is one who puts accepted best practices to use, is able to recognize what is and is not working well in class and can identify needed next steps to improve his/her teaching and the students’ learning.  What do I do to create the environment in which this is possible?

  1. Clearly identify practices teachers are expected to be implementing

  1. Make sure that these practices either come from sources identified by those people for whom we work and/or are well-researched best solutions to identified needs of the students and/or the school.  There is very little, if any, room for my “pet interests” these days, and a less-is-more mindset helps me keep things off the table.

  1. Provide as much context and support as is initially available and ultimately necessary for teachers to understand the initiative and substantially begin and thrive throughout his/her journey.  

  1. Give and discuss frequent  and specific feedback.

  1. Always repeat observations that don’t go well.  

  1. Work vulnerably, meaning that I model struggling openly

  1. Evaluate teachers on their willingness to consistently come to an understanding and increase facility with expectations.  Nobody’s learning is done, so a teacher who says (s)he has nowhere to grow is my biggest worry.  

  1. Give my observation feedback quickly and then offer time for discussion so that it’s always used formatively.  

  1. Allow the evaluation cycle to include teachers’ own goals.  The “relevant” piece of smart goals keeps this from being scary, and the intrinsic motivator is great for morale, the sustainability of a positive school culture, and as a model for teachers’ work with students.

Keep tuned in, I’m working on a follow-up post that’ll explain how, with the help of @Blakekonny, I put iPads and Google Forms to use to help my team’s efforts with using walk-through observations and Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching to improve practice.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

What EDU ought to learn from going to camp

The other night I went to my kids’ camp’s parent night and was truly floored, personally and professionally, but what I felt emanating from the counselors, directors, CITs, and - of course - campers...JOY. I’ll give you a bit of context so you can picture it a bit.  The night was essentially a run down of lip-synced songs from Disney’s Camp Rock.  Each group (broken up by gender and age) had a song/dance on a stage with the actual soundtrack playing.  There were 5 kids doing some actual speaking as a means of giving the story and transitions.  A bit over a hundred kids.  Place packed with parents.  The show ran from 6:30-8 and then the pool was opened up for the kids to swim until 8:30ish, all after a full day of camp and before this morning’s start to another full day of camp.  It was hot, high 80s and humid.  Aside from the directors, none of staff were out of college and/or experienced professionals in any form of caring for children.  

Here’s what I saw that made the educator in me just stand up and take note:

- Everyone was excited to be there.  Period.  While at schools’ back-to-school nights, I’ve heard pretty consistent grumpiness about the long day, this event was about celebrating the relationship between the kids and the camp.

- Every staff member there knew each of my kids names and greeted them with high-fives as we walked around.

- All of the compliments we got were about the effort that they’ve been making to meet people, get involved, and improve and/or how hard they’ve been working at something and/or the pride that they’ve been showing in their work.  Nobody spoke to us about measured accomplishments.

- The night’s show was a great example of differentiation.  Everyone performed.  Period.  Some definitely had big roles and, yes, some kids were in the back lines of the performances, but all kids were on stage.  The younger kids had simpler songs, simpler dances and people on stage to help, but nobody considered it “cheating.”  The girls’ groups had cuter dances with more twisting and “gymnastics.” Some of the boys’ groups literally ran up and down the aisles getting high-fives from the families as they went; that was dancing for most 7-10 boys.

- The night ended with all of the camp staff forming lines on either side of the exit’s pathways and literally cheering, clapping, laughing, and high-fiving each camper and family as they walked through.  People left camp that day feeling fully loved and energized.  

Listen, I know school isn’t camp, and I don’t think it ought to try to be camp, but I do know that my kids love going every day and that they are getting better at tons of things like swimming, diving, team sports, archery, and making friends.  I know there are definitive outcomes schools ought to be helping students meet and that teachers work a lot harder than camp staff.  At the end of the day, though, I also know - and was reminded by this night at camp - that schools need to find a way to integrate as much joy and acceptance as possible.  It is a truth in learning theory, after all, that students will gravitate towards scenarios and activities that make them feel valued.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Semantics Matter

I fully believe that educators and parents do what they do because they see their actions as serving students' best interests.  I don't want to come across as being critical of an idea or of the people excited by it.  Trust me, I understand that this post stems from a bit of my own psychosis around words and two things I've come to know about them that make our choices so important: 1) they hold emotional weight 2) they slip into our consciousness much more easily than they are taken out.

Here, I'm hoping to process an idea that seems to be gaining a lot of ground because there are numerous educators and writers I deeply respect hoping to change our reaction to the idea of "failure."  These are bright, passionate people who are bold enough to stand up in the middle of our world full of helicopter parents, social promotion, ubiquitous trophies, baby leashes, and hot-content warning on coffee to say that failure is not only okay, but that it would actually benefit students in school if we let them fail.  Wait, did I read that correctly?  Are these people - many of whom have become highly inspirational to me via my Twitter PLN - now siding with those snarky, traditionally minded teachers I've know (and been in my past) who promote students' "right to fail" as a means of justifying the idea that the onus for student failure lies solely on the student?  Could they be agreeing that students being left on their own to fail is a valuable way of preparing them for the "real world"?

No.  That's not what they're saying, at all. It's a semantics issue that I'm having with the use of the word failure, not a disagreement about what's good for students.  Spoiler alert: I'll explain - up front - why we agree.

People - students and toddlers and adults - grow the most when they're allowed to work through issues, problems, tasks and questions. Valuable learning experiences are just that, the end result of long, varied, complex and often repeated attempts at finding and/or creating a path/process that may or may not actually result in a new idea, accomplishment, understanding, ability, friendship, etc.  Defining learning is a lot like defining's messy, murky, unpredictable, frustrating, inclusive, time-consuming and absolutely important and necessary.  What we've done in our modern world is to sanitize this process, thinking that safe, sanitary, and time-efficient means are better the version of learning I've just described.  Many systems that don't respect process have done things like this, in fact.  Examples include 1) the way we gentrify neighborhoods with chain coffee shops and t-shirt stores because the product and profit are more comfortingly predictable and 2) our urge to pass top-heavy legislation because it's what Thoreau called "an expedient," the quickest way to the end.

And we've essentially turned public school into a place where students are way too often expected to show up with facility in the academic, social, and technical skills and knowledge schools require instead of coming to us to first learn them.  Replacing the organically murky and unpredictable learning processes with three ideas, however, leaves our students at a significant disadvantage.  The truths we're hoping have worked and will continue to work? 1) All students are going to learn curricula in a given amount of time within a given system of experiences in a pre-determined given order.  2) The things we teach aren't meaningful enough to insist that all students gain proficiency in them, or even finish them in many cases. 3) The system will not accommodate the needs of individual learners nearly as much as is necessary.

This is where "failure" comes in.  The system doesn't work, and the idea of failing and/or being a failure has become an entrenched feature of the psyche that runs it.  It's used to say that kids don't measure up, that they haven't done what's necessary (whatever that may be), and most importantly - that their chances of doing anything about it are done and gone.  In our schools, "failure" is something that's either come and gone or has happened so often that it's become a defining characteristic of a student as in "(s)he is a failure."

It is not currently seen the way my educator/PLN friends want to see it defined when they say it's good for kids.  They want the failure that Thomas Edison talks about when he says - and I'll paraphrase - that every time he got the light bulb wrong, that was one less thing he had to try on his path to getting it right.  Or the amount of missed shots that Michael Jordan says helped him to make the ones for which he became so famous. They want failure to be something from which our students will bounce back to try again using different starting points, materials, or methods.  They want failure to remain part of the organic, messy process of learning.  They don't want parents, coaches and educators to swoop in anytime something get rough for kids.  They want to promote Dweck's "growth mindset" and Duckworth's "grit."

I do, too.  I just think we shouldn't say that failure is good for kids.  I want us to call it "struggling" instead.  I know, revealing my point is as anti-climactic and semantic bound as promised, but I still think it's important because I don't want to have to explain it repeatedly.  Let's let the traditionalists have their "failure" and come on board with the benefit of having students "struggle" in classes.  It's going to beyond wait time to a place where they are compelled to work out problems and questions with classmates and look up information to add to their thinking.  It's the place where they come to us with an answer, find that their solution is wrong and then prompted to figure out why?  It's a place where students feel comfortable learning instead of being embarrassed because they don't know something.  It's like I tell my own children, who are 5 and 8, instead of saying "I can't" or "It's too hard," we say "I'm still trying" and "This is tough.  It takes a long time."

And that's where I want their heads to stay.