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Break Time!

Just wanted my readers to know that I’m taking a little break from blogging for a couple of weeks.  We’re going to Europe --  flying into Berlin and flying home from Rome, hoping to see all the sights inbetween.

Just to add a little more challenge to the trip, my husband broke his ankle a couple of days ago, so I may be seeing Europe through the eyes of a sherpa.  Luckily, we’re following Rick Steve’s advice:  “Pack light, pack light, pack light!”  Since I can’t wear two backpacks, however (and can hardly wear one), I’ll be dragging a carryon with wheels as well.

So back in early October with, I hope, some fresh insights.  And some new muscles.


Good Teachers Are Made, Not Born

In their paper arguing against using test scores to evaluate teachers, Ravich et. al. included this observation:

 "… a teacher who appears to be very ineffective in one year might havea dramatically different result the following year.  The same dramatic fluctuations were found for teachers ranked at the bottom in the first year of analysis.  This runs counter to most people’s notions that the true quality of a teacher is likely to change very little over time [my italics] and raises questions about whether what is measured is largely a “teacher effect” or the effect of a wide variety of other factors."

Of course scores will vary year to year based on outside factors.  That’s why I always insist that principals take the long view:  What do a teacher’s scores look like over 3 years?  Over 5 years?  Over 7?  I doubt if anyone is foolish enough to believe that one year of test scores reveals anything about the efficacy of an individual teacher.

But it’s the assumption that "most people” believe that the “true quality of a teacher is likely to change very little over time” that I find remarkable.  If that were true, what is professional development all about? Dairy-test    Why have teacher improvement plans?  Why wait for several years to award tenure if the “true quality of a teacher” really doesn’t change?

I admit it’s true that some rookies seem to show glimpses of real ability their first year.  But the problem for nearly all of them is classroom management.  Learning to handle groups of students with varying abilities and attention spans is tricky for just about all new teachers.  Likewise, lack of classroom management skills can make a nervous rookie look worse than she really is.  I’ve advised many a new teacher (and administrator):  “The good news is you only have to do the first year once.”  Good teachers look a lot different their second year (and maybe their third, fourth, fifth year and longer) as they hone their skills and learn the job.

Part of a teacher’s growth should be looking at an item analysis of tests administered to her students and making the appropriate curricular adjustments for the next year.  After all, consistently poor test scores for individual teachers is an indictment of the district leadership as well.



Career Questions: Supervision in June

Q:  Can you stand one more question about supervision?  Here’s my pet peeve:  Not visiting my classroom (or anybody’s classroom) until May or June.  I’d like to see the principal in my classroom anytime during the first half of the year.  And I’d like to see him in other teacher’s classrooms, particularly those who aren’t doing the best job they could.  When he waits until the spring, it’s pointless – the whole year is over!

A:  I completely agree with you.  Your principal should be doing “walkarounds” just about every day of the year.  It’s the only way he or she can have a good handle on what’s happening in the classrooms and in the building in general.  A principal who makes himself accessible to teachers can learn a lot about issues that may need to be addressed.  In addition, teachers want a “visible” administrator so that students are aware of who he or she is.

June 2011  In regard to scheduling formal observations, waiting until the last couple of months leaves no time for teacher improvement and is a disservice especially to new teachers trying to learn their job.  A principal cannot be an “instructional leader” if he or she rarely witnesses instruction!

Perhaps you and other teachers can work with your principal to establish a supervision schedule that begins in late September, allowing teachers to get their feet on the ground and the bugs worked out before a formal evaluation.  Many principals have found that a written schedule of two or three formal observations a week (as well as walkarounds) makes supervision more meaningful and avoids the year –end crunch.

Is It Foilable?

You’re probably tired of reading about value added analysis, but I just can’t figure a couple of things out.

A couple of weeks ago on All Things Considered, host Robert Siegel interviewed Donald Martin, superintendent of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth Country School District in North Carolina.    You can listen to the whole interview (below) and if you missed it, it’s probably worth your time. 

Martin explains that the school district has been using value added analysis for the past three years to evaluate teachers.  (The district uses other types of evaluation as well).

But something that the superintendent said still puzzles me.

Martin:  I will say that our state board of education, I think, very wisely passed a policy that says that information [value added analysis] is exactly like the teacher evaluation instrument that we would have in a person’s … permanent record file.

Siegel:  And therefore it’s not public information?

Martin:  It is not public information in North Carolina.  It is treated as your evaluation document and it is confidential information.

I would have thought that standardized test scores would be a matter of public record and therefore available under the federal Freedom of Information Act.  A teacher’s own personal test scores (SATs, for example) would be confidential, but wouldn’t parents (or anyone) have the right to see general test results from a teacher’s students?  Can anyone enlighten me on this?

Luck of the Draw

If you’re an elementary principal, what do you say to parents new to the district if they ask you which classroom placement would be best for their child?

Empty classroom  I dreaded that question from parents of new kindergartners in particular.  Out of the 10 sections of kindergarten in my school, I would have with confidence placed any child in 8 of them.  The ninth was iffy, and the 10th well, it was clear to me that kids in her room, despite our best efforts, would not have a good year.  And by the way, those “best efforts” included extra training, mentoring, and a plan for improvement.  Any change in her performance, however, was slight and short-lived.

She wasn’t terrible enough for dismissal, an arduous, expensive process that may or may not have yielded good results either for her or for the district.  But I knew in my heart that I would not place my own personal child in her classroom as the child’s initiation to 13 years of schooling.  She was simply not good enough.

Of course, parents who knew better (or had had an older child in her classroom) requested someone else – anyone else.  So allowing for parent requests, gender distribution, ability grouping, etc., this teacher’s class was usually under-enrolled.  Consequently, new parents invariably had their child assigned there.

Blogger Sara Mead says she pities the poor elementary principals in LA who may be besieged by parents who saw their child’s teacher’s poor scores in the paper and want their child moved.  I too can commiserate with the principal who has to explain to parents that value added means nothing.  And there is a limit to what you can do a few days before school begins.  You can’t have some teachers with 40 kids in a classroom and others with 15. 

So it will be a difficult start for some LA elementary schools.  But it may begin to resolve the ethical dilemma we all face as principals.  

Career Questions: What Is the Point of Supervision?

Q:  I read the Q & A about “drive by” supervision.  Here’s another problem we have in our school.  Our principal comes in on the day and period scheduled and stays for the whole class.  But then, nothing!  Months later we get the written evaluation in our mailboxes.  By that time the feedback is pretty vague and generally useless.  I’m not sure she even remembers what happened in the class she observed.  I know she’s busy, but why bother to even visit the classroom if there’s no valid feedback?

A:  There’s more than one problem here.  Valid, useful feedback needs to be timely and specific.  But even more important is a chance to sit down with your principal and talk about the class she’s just seen BEFORE any written evaluation is completed.

I know from many years’ experience as a principal that supervision takes a lot of time to do well.  I used to try to meet with teachers before visiting the classroom to talk about what I was going to see.  Next I’d visit the classroom.  Then I’d sit down and talk with the teacher as soon as I could (maybe even that day) so we could have a useful discussion while it was still fresh in both our minds.  Finally I’d write up what we’d talked about (no surprises for the teacher!). 

It was a great system, but it took a lot of time.  So the year that my assistant principal’s position was cut, instead of meeting beforehand, I asked teachers to fill out a form telling me the goals, strategies, etc. of  FeedbackTitle  what I was going to see.  I still met with the teacher as soon as I could after the lesson.  Both the teachers and I considered the follow-up meeting the most important part of the process.  The written report wasn’t hard to do afterwards because we’d already talked about what would go into it.

There is no question that good supervision takes time, but it’s one of the most important jobs a principal has.  And nearly every teacher I’ve ever worked with enjoyed talking about his or her class.  I am always impressed by how reflective and self-critical teachers can be about their own teaching.

Anyway, the point of all of this is what your principal is doing simply isn’t helpful.  Your faculty council (if you have one) should confront this topic and share your feelings with the principal.  If this isn’t possible (for various reasons), try making an appointment to see the principal right after her classroom visit and ask for direct feedback.

Career Questions: Drive By Supervision

Q:  Our teachers’ contract requires that all of us have a classroom evaluation at least once a year.  I’m fine with that; in fact, I like having an administrator visit my classroom and see what the kids and I are doing. 

The problem is that we schedule a day and a period when the principal says he’ll visit and then he may or may not show up.  Or he comes in late and leaves early without seeing the best part of the lesson.  This isn’t just my problem, by the way – he does this with everybody.  Some teachers plan a special lesson for him to see, only to have him not show up at all or show up later in the day to visit a different class.

Our evaluations are always fine, by the way, but I’m beginning to think that the whole thing is just a charade so he can say he’s doing classroom supervision without actually doing it.

A:  The point of classroom supervision is supposed to be improvement of instruction.  Under the best circumstances, your principal should meet with you to talk about what you’re going to do, what he should look for, and what goals you expect to meet.  Unfortunately, classroom supervision, if it happens at all, is sometimes a “drive by.” 

Principals need to protect the time designated for classroom visits.  Unless there was an emergency situation, my secretary was instructed not to interrupt me during a classroom visit.  I always wanted to see the very beginning of a lesson (Bellringer?  Shared goals?  Use of prime instructional time?  Student Principal-office   engagement?) and the very end of a lesson (Check for understanding?  Closure?).  Not watching the entire lesson unfold makes it impossible to evaluate what you saw.  In addition, coming late, leaving early, or missing the entire class is disrespectful to the teacher and to the process.

I suggest you start by talking to your principal informally about how you and your colleagues would like him to visit your classrooms and would appreciate any suggestions he might have.  The beginning of the school year is a good time to approach the subject.  If nothing changes, you might want to talk to your association leadership.  Classroom supervision is an important dialogue between teachers and supervisor. 




You Work with What You Have

I’ve read the August 30 briefing paper published by the Economic Policy Institute regarding the Value Added Model to assess teacher effectiveness.  The researchers are all respected professors at respected universities.

I’m only a practitioner, but I have spent about 25 years as a school administrator. I’ve done hundreds of classroom evaluations and worked with hundreds of teachers.  So I guess I was a little taken aback at a couple of the ideas expressed by this erudite group.

First of all, as an argument against value added, the researchers once again pointed to the discrepancy between kids from middle income families whose parents support them in school and kids from lower income families whose parents may not.  Having worked in poor schools and wealthy schools, I’m not sure how far that assumption will take you.  Again, I’m just a practitioner, but here’s what another practitioner said about her students:  “It doesn’t matter where they come from.  Your job is to teach the kids you have.” 

TeacherChild  She was a veteran of 30 years in a kindergarten classroom.  Her classes were large – 30-38 students.  About half every year came from the surrounding Amish settlements, and their expectations were to leave school after 8th grade.  They came to school not knowing their colors and unable to count to 10.  They had seen little if any television, and their world view was small.

“My job is to take them where they are and move them along a year, “ she said.  “That’s what I do.  That’s what teaching is.  No excuses.  You get what you get.  That’s what the job is.”

She’s not the only teacher who feels that way.  Another teacher said to me, “I can’t control their families.  I can only control my classroom.  So I do the very best with what I have.”

The unions would have us assume that all teachers are angry about parents having access to their students’ test scores.  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe some teachers who work hard, who accept their assignments without excuses, and who make no negative assumptions about their students’ ability to learn are OK with value added.  I’m thinking there may be a lot of teachers quietly and efficiently doing what they were hired to do who don’t really care what the media says.




So with the opening of school, are kids thinking about RttT, posting teachers' test scores, Edujobs, or Arnie Duncan (Arnie who?).  

Well, I am leafing through the 4 pounds of flyers that came in Sunday’s paper.  Three and a half pounds of them are for back-to-school sales; the rest are Labor Day sales (which are really back-to-school sales too).

The kids in the flyers are happy, smiling, excited about going back to school with their new clothes.  They are wearing earphones or tossing a football or just hanging with their friends.  There is a mix of races, sizes, hairstyles.  It’s all good.

Yesterday I went to the huge outlet mall.  Let me tell you, it was not a live version of the tableaus found in the flyers.  Younger kids were whining because their shoes didn’t light up.  Older kids wanted to pick out their own things without their mother.  Dads just wanted to find a bench to sit on.  Moms were telling their kids that they didn’t NEED $85 sneakers. 

The first day of school can be traumatic for kids in terms of clothes, which is why many kids prefer not to buy a lot of stuff until they actually get to school and see who’s wearing what.  This is actually a great idea and will save parents a lot of grief.  Unfortunately, the sales are NOW!  It won’t be BOGO forever!

One year a local television station asked me to meet a reporter and cameraman at the mall.  The reporter would interview me as we walked through stores and talked about appropriate school attire.  The report would be broadcast at 6 and 11 (and, as it turned out, the following day as well on the morning show).

Why not? I thought.  So I did a segment for the news about how bare midriffs were inappropriate, “wife beaters” were inappropriate, chains that could double as weapons were inappropriate, etc.   Retailers were happy that I stayed away from commenting on what WAS appropriate so that I didn’t inadvertently give some of their fashions the kiss of death.

It was a creative idea, but not one you would call effective, and many of my colleagues asked me later if I was employed by the mall to do commercials.  So I watched the high school principal meet with each class on opening day and remind them again about the dress code.  They were polite but didn’t hear a word he said either.


Fun at the DMV

Moving to a new state requires that you eventually have to get a driver’s license and plates in that new state.  It requires dealing in person with the DMV.

A few years ago I took one of my kids to the DMV to get her license.  We got there when the office opened and believe it or not, we were the only ones there.  So we ignored the rope lines set up to weave the usual line of customers back and forth while they waited and instead went right up to the window.  DMV  

 “You have to go through the lines,” the guy at the window admonished us.

“But there’s no one here but us!” I protested.

He gestured to the ropes. 

I could feel the top of my head about to blow off, but my daughter intervened.  “Mom, Mom!” she said.  “I need to get my license!”  The top of my head stayed put and we plodded through the rope lines.

So last week I went to the DMV in a different state.  After an hour’s wait, I was called to the window. 

A thin veneer of Southern charm was the only difference between her and the guy I had dealt with before.  After 30 minutes of bureaucratic hassle during which I became more and more the kind of New Yorker I suspect the DMV lady hates, she told me to stand in front of the camera for the license picture.

Well, the license arrived yesterday, and now I understand the woman’s cruel smile.  I look like a convicted felon, about 30 years older than I am.  Worse yet, the license doesn’t get renewed for 7 years.  That’s power.

Not long ago there was a commercial in which kids looked directly into the camera and said things like, “I want to grow up to work in a cubicle my whole life” or “I want to be stuck in a dead-end job.”  Frankly, I don’t remember the product or service, but the kids were chillingly memorable.  Maybe one of them even said, “I want to work at the DMV.”




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.