Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A New Evaluation System for Teachers?

Administrators in my county have recently been out of their buildings for three days to learn, yet another, new teacher evaluation system. I believe it was negotiated by our union and will be the foundation for identifying effective teachers and part of the formula for paying them accordingly. I have always been an advocate for accountability and I believe that performance and evaluation should be somewhere in the formula for pay, but spending this time and attention on an evaluation system seems to be trying to solve the problem by looking at just a tiny part of the problem. It's like the blind man who picks up the elephant's tail and thinks the animal looks like a snake!

There are strong teachers and there are weak teachers in education - no argument there. That might be the problem but the solution is not to identify those weak teachers and then pay them a substandard wage to drum them out of the profession. The problem is systemic and has been a part of education for... ever. After graduation, there is no system for lifelong learning.

The problem starts in the beginning of a teacher's career. The problem is that after teachers graduate from college, their learning stops! There is no system in place to make sure that a beginning teacher has the support that she needs in those first years to figure out how to put that book knowledge that she has gained into practice. Yeah, we give beginning teachers a "mentor" but in most cases that comes with no release time and really just means it might, or might not, be someone you can ask a few questions and who might check on you every now and then. Good teachers search out a real "mentor", someone that they can align themselves with. They watch her every move, get into her classroom as often as possible and ask a million questions. But that's not a system, that's an individual teacher figuring it out on her own.

Not only that, there's not an improvement model for teachers in the midst of their career, when they have the basics under their belt, to grow and learn, so they just continue to do what they have always done - good or bad. They might get a new little nugget here and there and if they have the money and time, they might attend conferences and really seek out educational opportunities. On-line opportunities abound for the eager learner, but it's not easy. There is no system to help you navigate the opportunties or encourage you. You often pay your own money and spend your own time for benefits that are self-motivating and self-gratifying, but not necessarily rewarded monetarily.

As you move into the sunset of your career, I guess everyone just assumes you already know everything. You've had years of experience, but if you've simply been repeating the same things year after year, without growing, are you really any better? There is always so much more to learn.

An evaluation system might hunt out the weaker links in our schools, but a better way might be to put the time and money into quality professional development offered in an array of opportunities that could be self-directed or even self-designed. If the money and time being put toward designing evaluation systems could be put instead toward providing quality, empowering professional development, then the changes would be tenfold.

I know because I was part of a reform design that provided that type of on-going, job-embedded, quality professional development. The buy-in by teachers was exciting. I believe that we were able to turn very ordinary teachers into exceptional teachers because of the support that we were able to provide. One of the things about good professional development is that it changes a teacher's practice from then on. Most teachers really want to improve their skills. They didn't go into teaching because of the money they were going to make. Most became teachers because they want to make a difference in the lives of the children they teach and unless they become disillusioned along the way, they continue to believe and are eager to learn new techniques that work. So instead of spending our time on designing a complex evaluation system that labels teachers proficient and failing (haven't we seen how well that has worked with our school?), why not spend the time and money on a system that supports lifelong learning ?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer School Concerns

Wow-I just looked through the Benchmark Assessment that my students have to pass to pass their grade in Summer School! I can't help but be concerned about what I see as a disconnect. The students that I am teaching took at Pre-test and then have been taught 6 units in 6 weeks with a unit test after each unit taught. They then take a post-test - all of which is curriculum-based. The pre-and post-tests don't count toward their grade, but the six unit tests make up their summer school grade. They must pass summer school to be promoted. They must also pass a benchmark assessment. Passing both of those parts enables a child to be promoted.
Passing Summer School + Passing Grade Level Benchmark = Promotion

Concern #1
The pre-test could have been used for planning - could have been - however, we didn't receive the results from the pre-test until we were giving the post-test (!), so we never had the pre-test results during the time we taught the units. The pre-test information came as a single number -e.g., 68 - so we couldn't even use it to analyze which questions students had missed to know which types of questions, which units, should be emphasized while teaching. The pre-test information could have been helpful and useful if the results had not been received so late and in such an unusable form. The pre-test was actually in the teacher's manual, so had we known we were going to receive the information so late, we could have hand-scored the tests before sending them off to get what we needed for planning. Too little information, too late.

Each unit test was one story long with 12 questions at the end. Such a short assessment didn't really require reading/testing stamina. However, both the pre- and post-tests are two stories long, requiring a little more stamina. Stamina, especially with third graders who have failed reading, is a huge problem. They begin to loose focus, if they have not practiced reading intensely for longer lengths of time. They get tired, sleepy if they are forced to read for longer that they usually read.

Concern #3
I have taught students to underline and number their responses - requiring them to go back and prove their answers - which has been fine for the unit tests and the pre and post-tests, but when we get to the benchmark, the directions clearly state that students may not write in the test booklet! Ouch! How are they going to be able to prove their answers? Every time we practice and they don't go back and prove, they take the easy way out and just try to remember the answer - a proven road to failure. Would have been nice to know.

Concern #4
The benchmark assessment uses a scan sheet with the questions numbered and then choices A, B, C, D. however in the test booklet, the answer choices are alternately A, B, C, D, and then E,F, G, and H. While this might not cause confusion for an older, more experienced test taker, for 3rd graders who have already failed reading, this can cause a problem. They get easily confused and off the correct number. These students need every possible chance to succeed.

Concern #5
The unit tests that we have been giving throughout the summer are not timed. Many of these students suffer with fluency issues (they are slow readers) so this has been to their benefit. However, now, all of sudden, the benchmark assessment, that must be passed to move on to the next grade, is timed! For students that suffer with fluency issues - and that often relates to comprehension difficulty as students read so slowly that they are unable to remember what they've read at the end of the text - this can be disastrous!

It almost seems as if Summer School is an afterthought instead of a well thought-through remediation for students who are truly struggling. Administrators, who are so loosely connected to the students probably had to make quick decisions for large groups of students in different grades and situations. I'm sure their decisions had to be based on global needs. But these are the students who deserve our sincerest effort. They need curriculum individually designed for them. They have already proved that they can't function in a regular situation by failing. They need the most experienced, most thoughtful teachers who are truly experts in their fields. I wonder if the summer program would have been any different if it had been designed by the very teachers who are making the decisions on who is passing and who is failing and who needs to go to summer school - teachers who are in the trenches, who have relationships with children, who have cared so deeply for these students during the year, who have their own blood, sweat, and tears in every detail of each student's learning. If they had designed a summer school experience, would my concerns be the same? I wonder...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Overheard in a first grade Summer School class...

The teacher was trying to access background knowledge for a small guided reading group as an introduction to a story about Thomas Jefferson.

Teacher: Who was our first President?

Child: O'rock Obama.

Teacher: No, Barack Obama is our President now. Does anyone remember who our first President was?

Another child: I know. It was George Lincoln.

Child: No, George Lincoln was our fifth President. I know because my mother showed me his picture in the Bible.

Another child: That's not right. It was George Washington. He fought in the Silver War. Both the teams had boats with B-I-I-I-G cannons and one of the teams won.

Child: Oh yeah, I know him. He lives in Washington,D.C., right beside the Statue of Liberty.
Believe it or not, every line is true!  Oh my! A little more background knowledge might be needed so this group can understand what they are about to read! Thank goodness for Summer School!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

If I Were In Charge of Summer School

If I were in charge of Summer School (and I certainly am not), I would make some changes.

The first change I would make would be where we have Summer School. I would designate a single school in an area to be the Summer School site and that same location would be used year after year. Of course, there would have to be a financial incentive for a single school to step up to the plate (such as access to the Summer School materials by the home school or extra pay for the administrators, office staff and custodial staff who have to do extra work because of summer school). What I see as Summer Schools moves from school to school is that nobody owns the process and therefore, the process and systems weak. For instance, I was expected to do guided reading with 3rd graders but no guided reading levels were sent, because the summer school administrator wasn't in on curriculum decisions and didn't know that would be needed. If the same school had summer school, they would know from experience what was needed. Right now no school administrator wants to be designated as the Summer School site - it's just extra work for no real benefit to the school or administrator. It's a unwanted step child. If a single school owned the process, they wouldn't waste lots of time each summer figuring it out all over again - valuable time lost for students. An administrator might look forward to having summer school because of the incentives instead of every administrator dreading his turn in the cycle.

The second change would be who teaches Summer School. I am sure the process now is negotiated by our Union because it meets the needs of teachers first. If I were in charge it would meet the needs of children first. Only accomplished teachers who had proven results in that particular grade level would be eligible to teach a particular grade. From that list of accomplished teachers, those who wanted to apply could. They would be interviewed by the principal so the teachers that were selected would know the administrator's expectation instead of having teachers who were there simply for the money. Summer school would be staffed with teachers who really want to make a difference and who know what is expected of them. Right now teachers have no reason to really come together and work for a common goal. They are simply putting in their time. I would also want teachers to teach in summer school the grade they had taught during the year so that they are well aware of what a student needs to know to go to the next grade. They would readily have materials, ideas, games and materials to fill in any holes or a wealth of knowledge for reteaching. Right now teachers teach in areas where they are certified. In my case I am teaching a grade I have never actually taught. Am I really the most qualified person?

The last change I would make would be what we teach. I would open the school's media center for a few hours each week. In fact I would open it to the entire neighborhood! When you are teaching children reading that really don't like to read, you need to have the widest possible selection of books on their reading level that are of interest to them. If you are going to convince a struggling reader that he can really learn to enjoy reading, then he needs things to read that really draw him in and awaken his interest. There is no way a single program of books can keep a variety of students' interests in independent reading for an entire six weeks. These children need an expanded selection. The books are there but the Media Centers are closed to summer school. How sad is that?

Of course, I have lots of other suggestions. I'm sure that most of the teachers teaching have suggestions too, but I doubt anyone will listen or even ask. (A senior district administrator did come through recently and ask my opinion, but she's not the person really making these decisions... unfortunately.) It seems that decisions are being made by those that have little access to the actual trenches where the work is being done. Today I was told by a teacher (infromation that I hope is incorrect) that we won't even know how the students do on the final benchmark because it has to be sent in to a county office as a scantron. So we will leave summer school, after developing relationships with students (relationships that I intend to take into the school year by sending postcards and giving them my cell number and e-mail), and not even know if they passed of failed that final test. Wow, do you see the same disconnect that I see?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Who goes to Summer School?

Children go to Summer School for all different reasons? Sometimes it's for enrichment. Many of our second language students are here this summer listening to English every day - singing, laughing, learning. What a difference it makes when they've had that extra enrichment when they come back for the new year. Some students that come are really strugglers and need the extra time to master the grade level skills. Some have actually missed skills and have holes that need to be filled.

But the students that I am teaching this summer are here for other reasons. They all made a 2 or 3 on the Reading FCAT but they all failed Reading! They are here for grade recovery. How does that happen? What do these children have in common?

They each came with story. Ronnie (names changed) blows up like a frog every time he's corrected. You can tell he has trouble with authority - any kind of authority! His mom came with him the first day to tell me that he didn't get along with his teacher last year (no surprise there!). Jamie openly admits he simply hated his teacher and refused to work for her (I just had to ask him how that worked for him since he's the one in Summer School and she's enjoying her vacation!) Sammie is passive aggressive and simply doesn't do what she doesn't want to do. She's not openly defiant, just doesn't do. Tries to slip around when the teacher's no watching to do what she wants. Trouble is this class is too small for her to get away with it! Her mother came with her the first day too to tell me how unfair her last teacher was and how Sammie shouldn't have failed. According to her mom, it was ALL the teacher's fault. Chris makes up for his insecurities in reading by being the class clown ("Is pooproom a compound word?" he asked recently). Ian came the Friday before FCAT and just hadn't had time to assimilate to the new school and expectations before he got his first grades.

Most of these children openly admit - even with false bravado - that they did not do homework last year. A little sullenly they also admit that there was no one at home that worked with them daily - no one seemed to really care until the Fs came on the report card.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, each one in this group comes from a broken home. Some are living with a single parent. Others are living with a parent and step parent. Some are shuffled between families. This became apparent as we made connections to an early story we were reading and each of the children in turn talked about his or her life situation! I was surprised to find that it was true for every single child in this class. That is certainly not to say that every child of divorce is doomed to Summer School, but it was a hard fact in each of these children's lives.

Almost all of the kids have difficulty raising their hands before they speak and most of them have plenty they want to say - they really like being the center of attention - and don't really mind if it's negative attention! When I first walked into this group of angry,sullen kids who didn't want to be here and came with a truckload of bad habits, I wondered how in the world I could turn any of them around in six weeks. In a normal year, it takes six weeks just to establish rituals and routines, but with this group I needed to work fast if we were going to make a difference. After some trial and error and some pretty tough days, we are, three weeks in, finally working more as a team. That's not to say that bad habits don't rear their ugly heads every single day with at least one student. I've had to seek out every single parent to help make this work and I've had to have many individual conferences with each child quietly in a corner of the room to let each one know that I care and that I am willing to do whatever it takes to make this experience different. We are almost through with class clowns and angry huffing and fabricated boasting ("I was in Alaska yesterday." "I go skydiving after school every day.") Finally, we are beginning to function as a team. The children (and even in 3rd and 4th grade, they are still children) are beginning to laugh naturally and ask for help when they don't know the answer instead of pretending that they are too smart to ask. They have finally realized that they are all in the same boat and that we will all be better off if we pull together instead of all pulling in a different direction and going nowhere. They have learned that it is safe to take a risk within these four walls. Just as it always is, it's first about relationships. You cannot teach a child until he knows that you care and are interested. That never changes - no matter the age.

So now... let's see if we can get some more reading strategies into these children so they can quit faking it and go back to their home schools as stronger and more confident readers!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer School - What Do I Miss?

Teaching Summer School can be a time of disequilibrium. You are not at your home school. Most of the children are not from your home school, so you have to learn faces and names anew. While you may know a few of your teaching peers most are not friends that you have known for years. And, like for me this summer, you may not be teaching the curriculum that you have come to think of as second nature because you have been doing it for so long that you think you really know what you are doing. You are thrown into a new pond with a new school of fish!

So what do I miss about my home school this summer?

I miss the coffee brewing when I walk into the school in the morning. I don't drink much coffee but I love the idea that it's there for anyone that wants a cup. It's just such a welcoming smell when you walk in.

I miss Miss Julie's friendly face in the front office. No matter how busy she is or how many people are waiting in line, she is always sunshine. She has a smile that says,"I'm so glad you're here today!"

I miss the first day debrief. At the end of the first day at my home school the entire staff meets in the Media Center to debrief the day. What went well? What do we need to fix? It just gives you a chance to voice concerns and celebrate the first day which can always be stressful. You just feel "in the loop".

I miss the Principal's Memo on Friday. At my home school it comes every Friday - sometimes late, but always before the new week starts - to remind us what is coming in the week ahead and to let us know important dates and issues. It just makes me feel informed.

I miss the Media Center. Because it is Summer School, the summer school's Media Center is closed (no money to pay for the help) and we are not allowed to check out books. I really miss the children being able to have a really large selection of reading materials. It's hard to fall in love with reading when you don't have things you really love to read! I'm teaching reading for heaven's sake! I also miss KK's (Media Specialist's) smiling face and her, "I will do whatever you need to make learning possible" attitude.

I miss a clean, organized room.  I had to go back to my home school and borrow supplies because they weren't available at my summer school. The room in my summer school is really dirty.  The teacher packed up and left and the custodians haven't had a chance to get it cleaned,  I asked when they thought they might be able to remove the dust ball for the corners and baseboards and was told that they were deep cleaning so it would take them longer and it would probably be another week before they got to my room, but if I wanted my trash dumped each day, I could put it in the hallways.  (Do you see my sad face?)

I miss being able to print at school. Because teachers pay for their own ink cartridges in their printers ($100) at this summer school site, the print cartridges and/or printers were all removed and Summer School teachers are not allowed to use the school's printers. I had to take my progress reports home to print!

I miss Suzanne (our Standards Coach) because she could answer any curriculum question that I had, and teaching in summer school something I haven't taught in years, I have plenty of questions. I also miss her because she is the one in my home school that tracks down books and supplies and makes sure that I have everything I need to teach. I have come to understand that this is truly a luxury.

This is the first time I have taught Summer School in over 20 years. In those earlier years, Summer School was always in my home school. Back in the day, teachers generally taught in their own classrooms (where they were already set up and knew where everything was) and they always had a few of their own students and others from classrooms of teachers that they knew. They generally just continued teaching what they had been teaching during the regular school year. Before Summer School even started, I knew what each student was going to need and how to prepare. In this situation this summer, Summer School is at a single site where students from a dozen different schools gather. The Summer school is in a different school every summer, something no principal looks forward to because of the extra work. Nobody owns summer school. Administrators know they just have to get through it this year so they don't have to have it again for years. I am sure all of this is because of budget - offering smaller summer schools - but I really miss the days when summer school was a simple extension of the school year for students who needed the extra - when we were really invested in the children because we would see every one of them and their siblings and their parents the next year. Some things were really better back in the day...