The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Convention: Days 1 and 2: Hillary, Randi, ESSA, Governors, Senators, Debate and Guests.

Wow!! What a day…

Sunday night: The convention begins with a Progressive Caucus meeting; over a decade ago there were opposing political caucuses within the AFT, currently the majority, the vast majority caucus is the Progressive Caucus. Although the Karen Lewis and the Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) defeated an incumbent slate in Chicago, at the AFT most of the Chicago delegates are in the Progressive Caucus, the same for the Los Angeles (UTLA), the union president defeated the incumbent slate; however, at the AFT his local is inside the Progressive Caucus umbrella. About 2/3 of the delegates are within the Progressive Caucus – the opposition caucus, from what I can see representing teachers in Berkeley and a few in Detroit is very small in number; although, they speak on the floor every chance they get. The Progressive Caucus took positions on about a dozen of the ninety-one resolutions.

Monday morning: A UFT delegation breakfast meeting at 7 am over watery scrambled eggs and lukewarm bacon Mulgrew gave an update and a preview. The union and the Department still have to negotiate a teacher evaluation plan, without the use of student test scores in grade 3-8 by the end of the year, or, lose half a billion dollars in state aid: probably SLOs, MOSLs and the like … Although there are now almost 150 PROSE schools many other schools struggle with school leadership, especially school leaders who fail to include the union chapter in the planning of educational policies – the union contract, Article 24, calls for mediation if the school leader fails to involve the chapter – the clause was only used three times last year. The union will pursue a major initiative to increase teacher participation at the school level.

Off to the first convention session: Randi Weingarten’s State of the Union address. One of Randi’s best speeches, she spoke about her path to becoming a passionate advocate, the role of her mother who was a teacher, her father who was laid off from a job as an engineer, and introduced her partner, Sharon Kleinbaum, the rabbi at the largest LGBTQI congregation in the nation. For those of you who have heard Randi speak at times she begins to shout, almost shrill, she simply said that’s the way she is … and wondered whether male speakers received the same criticism. The core of the speech:  the most critical election of our lifetimes.  Watch and listen to the speech on the AFT.org website.

Off to the Divisional Meetings, the AFT represents, in addition to teachers, health care workers, colleges and universities, school-related personnel and other public employees. Linda Darling-Hammond, at the K-12 session, hopefully the next Secretary of Education in a Clinton Administration described her new gig – CEO of the Learning Policy Institute : the goal is to publicize evidence-based approaches to the major issues confronting schools, authentic assessment of student performance as well as teacher assessment/evaluation.

The Learning Policy Institute has been created to answer this new moment’s call to action. The Institute conducts and communicates independent, high-quality research to improve education policy and practice. Working with policymakers, researchers, educators, community groups, and others, the Institute seeks to advance evidence-based policies that support empowering and equitable learning for each and every child. Nonprofit and nonpartisan, the Institute connects policymakers and stakeholders at the local, state, and federal levels with the evidence, ideas, and actions needed to strengthen the education system from preschool through college and career readiness.

Next, the thirteen committees meet to debate the ninety-one resolutions. This year the Education Issues committee attracted about 800 delegates, I chair the International Affairs Committee, usually quite rambunctious, this year much milder. The committees concur, concur with amendments or recommend non-concurrence to the convention and select the three priorities that will be debated on the convention floor.

Waiting for Hillary:  the 4:30 Hillary speech is delayed, she is coming from the NAACP Convention in Cincinnati. About an hour later the Minnesota Senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobushar speak to the convention – both played major roles in dumping NCLB and crafting the new ESSA law. BTW, they’re wonderful speakers – Franken is self-deprecating, and, as you would expect, funny. Klobushar’s mother was a union teacher in Minnesota who worked as a classroom teacher until she was seventy!

We later find out Hillary was meeting with the family of the food-services worker, Phil Castillo, who was murdered at a traffic stop in St Paul, before her address to the convention. As I entered my hotel I was amazed by a sign. “No firearms allowed on this premise,” Minnesota is a concealed carry state!

Hillary’s speech was “workmanlike,” she covered all the bases, addressed every issue, and was interrupted endlessly by spontaneous applause. At the beginning of the speech some Black Lives Matter folk, it turns out guests, not delegates, were chanting slogans. My Bernie friends were totally on board, the critical nature of November was apparent to all. The convention endorsed Hillary with enormous enthusiasm; with the Republican convention in the process of endorsing Trump a Hillary victory is clear to everyone. Whatever reluctance or Bernie pangs are gone – the defeat of Trump is the goal.

The convention adjourned about 8 pm – a long, long day.

 

Tuesday: Day 2

 

The Tuesday agenda: speeches, videos and business.

 

Governor Mark Dayton – a wonderful governor who has been a spectacular supporter of public schools with a close relationship with the teacher union in Minnesota – a merged NEA-AFT state. Leo Gerard, the president of the Steelworkers Union, the AFT and the Steelworkers are working together on infrastructure projects around the nation. School building average age is 43 years – Gerard supports a major investment in school infrastructure.

 

Representatives from organizations with which the AFT collaborates spoke and gave examples of collaborative initiatives across the country: the Color of Change http://www.colorofchange.org/about/ and the Alliance to Reclaim Our School (AROS).

 

A resolution to endorse Hillary Clinton: speaker lined up at the eight microphones with passionate plea after plea – a generation defining election. One speaker, a teacher from Detroit, opposed endorsing any candidates and I think supported militant, disruptive opposition. The resolution passed with only a handful of dissents. Some of the most adamant Bernie supporters gave vigorous endorsements to Hillary.

 

A couple of committees reported out and we adjourn – closing in on 7 pm – another long day ends.

Off to Minneapolis: Preparing for the American Federation of Teacher Convention: Will the Bernie and Hillary Supporters Bond?

On Monday the American Federation of Teachers will celebrate its hundredth anniversary at their bi-annual convention, this year in Minneapolis. About 3,000 teachers, school-related personnel and nurses will spend four days setting policy for the national union, listening to a range of speakers and on Monday afternoon meet the “presumptive” Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. (You can watch on the AFT.org website).

National conventions are always fascinating, an opportunity to meet teachers from around the nation. Chicago (CTU-Local 1) has been at war with Rahm Emmanuel, their mayor, with another strike possible in September.  California appears to be making positive changes away from endless testing, or, are they creating a dense accountability system – talking with teacher trade unionists from across the nation is always enlightening.  I will be meeting teacher union guests from other countries. Recently I was speaking with teachers and school leaders from Austria: How do you become a principal in Austria? “You belong to the right political party.” Are teachers involved in hiring staff? (Odd look) “No, neither is the principal, teachers are assigned by the bureaucracy, and have lifetime tenure after a few years.  We needed a history teacher, they sent us a gym teacher, and our system is totally top down.” BTW, Austria scores above average on PISA assessments (See here).

The convention schedule is packed full of meeting – first meeting 7 am Monday morning. The delegates will debate changes to the AFT constitution and bylaws and debate, in committees, ninety-one resolutions submitted from locals around the country. Linda Darling-Hammond will lead a discussion of teacher assessment and the new federal All Students Succeed Act (ESSA) that replaces No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The US Department had just released draft regulations – no question the regulations and the possibilities for innovation pilots will be discussed (See Education Week discussion here)

On the convention floor there are multiple microphones (usually six, seven or eight) scattered around the arena. Any delegate can jump up to a microphone to support, oppose or amend a resolution. The committees, after debating the resolutions, set priorities, the highest priority resolutions must be debated on the floor – there are thirteen committees – the top three priorities must reach the floor.

The Democratic Platform on Education was set last week, the original platform reflected the de-reformers, led by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a coalition led by Bernie supporters and Randi Weingarten made significant changes (Read details here), angering the DFER faction, who are supporters of the Duncan-King policies.

A theme of the convention will be bonding the Hillary and the Bernie acolytes and building a teacher-led Hillary campaign across the nation. Not an easy task since passions were high during the lengthy campaign, considering the Trump alternative, one would hope the Bernie folks will jump on board.

The latest polls, if you have any confidence in polls, predicts a very close election (Read polling results here).

I’ll be blogging from Minneapolis – stay tuned.

Magic Bullets Equal Duds: Why Do Top-Down Educational Initiatives Rarely Succeed? Will ESSA Change the Face of Education?

I asked an astronomer friend whether the Juno spacecraft would find life under the frozen oceans of Ganymede, one of the moons of Jupiter, he answered,

The frozen ocean is essentially the surface, it’s thought that the watery mantle of Ganymede might be within the range tolerated by extremophiles, but again, a lot of speculation has been done. 

Much heat and little light, or, when Sagan was asked “yeah, but what are your gut feelings?” he replied “I don’t think with my gut.”

Science is a process of enforced intellectual rigor (enforced by peer review) which requires going from known data toward new understandings. We fill in the pages of a blank book with observations, measurements, and analysis, and then try to elucidate new models of how nature works. 

Going from the “already filled in book” to elicit behavior changes is the province of religion. 

Sadly, education policy-making is in the realm of faith, not science.

The reformers abjure “enforced intellectual rigor” and make sweeping decisions that impact millions of students based upon the absence of peer reviewed “observations, measurements and analysis.”

The current and former US Secretaries of Education support a portfolio system of schools – public and charter schools competing with each other for students – the competition, they argue, will raise student achievement in both public and charter schools. The belief is loosely based on the theories of Nobel Laureate economist Milton Freedman,

 In a famous 1955 essay, Friedman argued that there is no need for government to run schools. Instead, families could be provided with publicly financed vouchers for use at the K-12 educational institutions of their choice. Such a system, Friedman believed, would promote competition among schools vying to attract students, thus improving quality, driving down costs, and creating a more dynamic education system.

The current day reformers cannot point to any evidence and, in fact the current system of public and charter side-by-side schools has not “raised all boats,” they may actually diminish student achievement.

In New York City another example is the rekindling of the “Reading Wars,” Chancellor Farina is a close friend of Lucy Calkins and “balanced literacy, her approach to the teaching of reading. Most experts are sharply critical of the Calkins’ approach and support the use of phonics to teacher reading. Friendship rules: the chancellor supports her friend (Read a discussion of the “Reading Wars” here)

Will a teacher evaluation system based on student test scores sort the best and the worst teachers and lead to higher student achievement?  Once again, there is no evidence, and, in fact, scholars tell us that value-added measurement is highly inaccurate and inappropriate for measuring teacher competency.

To make the realm of policy creation and implementation even more depressing is  when schools and school districts attempt to use the “wisdom and knowledge of experts” the attempts fail.

Anthony S. Bryk, Louis M. Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Paul G. LeMahie in Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better, argue,

… there is no universal mechanism in education for transforming the wisdom and knowledge experts accumulate as they work into a broader professional knowledge base … well-intentioned educational reforms across the ideological spectrum were unsuccessful because they were formed around a novel solution (such as the small schools movement, etc.,) rather than a practitioner-driven problem and were imposed from above without attention to the ways local conditions might require adaptation.

To address these two challenges, the authors argue that practitioners, policy makers, and researchers should collaborate across traditional organizational boundaries to engage in ongoing disciplined inquiry.

(Read a detailed description of the book here)

The authors lay out what they call “The Six Core Principles of Improvement”

  1. Make the work problem-specific and user-centered.

It starts with a single question: “What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve?” It enlivens a co-development orientation: engage key participants early and often.

 

  1. Variation in performance is the core problem to address.

The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works, for whom and under what set of conditions. Aim to advance efficacy reliably at scale.

 

  1. See the system that produces the current outcomes.

It is hard to improve what you do not fully understand. Go and see how local conditions shape work processes. Make your hypotheses for change public and clear.

 

  1. We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure.

Embed measures of key outcomes and processes to track if change is an improvement. We intervene in complex organizations. Anticipate unintended consequences and measure these too.

 

  1. Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry.

Engage rapid cycles of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) to learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly. That failures may occur is not the problem; that we fail to learn from them is.

 

  1. Accelerate improvements through networked communities.

Embrace the wisdom of crowds. We can accomplish more together than even the best of us can accomplish alone.

 In other words, there are no magic bullets. The “answer” is not the program; the answer is the competency and cooperation of the practitioners at the school, district and university level.

By competency I mean the ability to collaborate within and across schools, the ability to understand data and convert data into classroom practice, to become reflective practitioners. The New York City-based Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) encourages schools to break free of perceived or real constraints, to craft research-based solutions at schools with the guidance and support off labor and management.

The International Network supports twenty schools, fifteen in New York City, that work with English language learner high school students who have been in the country four years of less. The six year graduation rates match all other schools, the schools share instructional practices.

How do we seed fertile soils?  How do we prepare teachers and school leaders to use peer reviewed research to drive actual practice?  And, vitally important, how we create district leadership that supports schools and not constantly chase the magic grail, that magic bullet that has never existed.

There are highly successful schools, succeeding, frequently under the radar while schools with similar populations struggle.  Unfortunately the most successful principals, and occasionally superintendents must resort to practicing creative resistance, smiling, nodding, and continuing to do what actually works in spite of “higher ups” that chase that elusive secret sauce.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) devolves power from the feds to the states; states have until the spring of 2017 to create plans to address struggling schools: will states simply replicate the failed federal programs or actually create creative approaches to school improvement?

School Leadership Matters: Why Are So Many School Leaders Mediocre?

Why is the quality of school leadership, to be polite, so mediocre?  Everyone who visits schools on a regular basis comments on the lack of effective leadership – exceptional school leaders are hard to find.

The first question: Is this a new phenomenon, or, have principals always been mediocre?  Let’s remember, we have had decades of low achieving schools. Scores of large high schools have been closed, high schools that were dropout factories, and, schools in which the powers that make policy seemed  not to care. The lowest achieving schools were staffed with the substitutes, called PPT’s (Provisional Preparatory Teachers), teachers who could not pass the required pre-service exams. There was an unofficial triage system: some schools were sacrificed so others could survive. The most effective teachers and principals found their way to the highest achieving schools.  An (in)famous surreptitiously filmed video showed a principal boasting, “Just because I paid for my job doesn’t mean I’m not competent.”  I spent my career working in a “good “school,  with mostly effective teachers and principals; all of whom “cut their teeth” in high poverty schools and figured out how to move on to a “better” school.

There were exceptions, dedicated teachers and principals who worked with the neediest children, it was a struggle, higher salaries in the suburbs, parent associations that raised tens of thousands of dollars, highly motivated kids, easy transportation into safe neighborhoods, the allure of moving on was great.

An answer to the first question: the past may not have been as bright as it appears in retrospect.

Does the age and lack of experience of current school leaders account for the mediocrity?

Over the last dozen years the Department has closed over 150 schools and created hundreds of new schools. Twenty-five years ago there were about 125  high schools, comprehensive and vocational schools, now there are over 400 high schools, mostly small schools, additionally, the Department has also closed middle schools and created much smaller schools: hundreds upon hundreds of new school leaders thrust into positions of school leadership,

Virtually every school of education has a leadership program, you take the courses, complete an internship, usually in your own school, and pass a state exam and you receive certification, the program admission standards are low.  New York City Department of Education has a Leadership Academy – part of the program selects teachers and fast tracks them to school leadership positions, under the current administration the candidate must serve seven years as a teacher, under the former regime there was no requirement. Are these new, younger, less experienced school leaders less effective than predecessors?

Does teaching experience impact the success of the school leader?

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell lays out the much quoted “10,000 hours rule,”  simply put: gaining mastery requires 10,000 hours of “deliberate” practice.

The principle holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field.

But a new Princeton study tears that theory down. In a meta-analysis of 88 studies on deliberate practice, the researchers found that practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains. 

  • In education, a 4% difference
  • In professions, just a 1% difference

In it, Johansson argues that deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. For example, in tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. 

But in less stable fields, like entrepreneurship … rules can go out the window… mastery is more than a matter of practice. 

“There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important, from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective. It is just less important than has been argued,” the study’s lead author, Brooke Macnamara, said in a statement. “For scientists, the important question now is what else matters?”

Others questions emerge: are “highly effective” teaching skills a prerequisite to becoming a “highly effective” school leader?”  How do you assess leadership skills prior to entering a certification program? And, the most controversial, and core question: can leadership be taught, or, is it an innate skill or quality?

In his book The Sports Gene, David Epstein muses over the question of athletic prowess.

In high school, I wondered whether the Jamaican Americans who made our track team so successful might carry some special speed gene from their tiny island. In college, I ran against Kenyans, and wondered whether endurance genes might have traveled with them from East Africa. At the same time, I began to notice that a training group on my team could consist of five men who run next to one another, stride for stride, day after day, and nonetheless turn out five entirely different runners. How could this be?

We all knew a star athlete in high school. The one who made it look so easy. He was the starting quarterback and shortstop; she was the all-state point guard and high-jumper. Naturals. Or were they?

In other words, is athletic prowess nature or nurture?  Is there a hereditary predisposition to some sport or is it a learned behavior?

Does “practice make perfect” or, is there such a thing as a “natural?” Schools of Education argue school leaders can be made through coursework and an internship; however, we still don’t know how leadership skills are acquired.

Is leadership an inherited trait, is there a genetic predisposition to leadership?  Once upon a time it was commonplace for the football coach to become the principal or the superintendent: do coaching skills translate into leadership skills? To be blunt: are there “natural” school leaders?

A new term is “churn rate,” the percentage of teachers that leave a school each year. Under the Department of Education Open Market Transfer Plan any teacher can move to any school only requiring the approval of the receiving school. Some schools have high “churn rates,” teachers spend a year or two in a school and leave. Yes, some to move to a better school in a better neighborhood, others to get away from a school leader who is less than effective.

School leaders are frequently frustrated, mistrusted and criticized,

* “The teachers nod and agree and nothing chances, they don’t take me seriously.”

* “The principal spends all of his/her time on school climate and discipline and nothing changes.”

* “The principal spends all of his/her time in the office complaining about paperwork.”

* “The kids think the principal’s a joke,”

* “I don’t get any support – I feel like I’m left adrift to sink or swim.”

I was visiting a school co-located on the top floor of another school – both middle schools. As I walked upstairs I heard angry yelling coming from classrooms (“Get into your seats!!”), kids wandering in the halls, as I walked onto the top floor, the school I was visiting, a kid walked up to me, introduced himself by name, and asked if he could be of assistance. I was impressed and told the folks in the office – all the kids were trained to act that way with any visitor. The classrooms were interactive, the kids seemed engaged. In the lunchroom some teachers were sitting with kids – teachers were paid to tutor during lunch (called “Lunch and Learn”). What was the difference?  Why was one of the schools chaotic and the other orderly?  Why did the school leaders have such different skill sets?  Different training?  Different life experiences? All the kids came from neighborhood elementary schools; they all lived in the nearby crime-infested projects.

Some argue that knowledge of culturally relevant pedagogy is essential to becoming an effective school leader: learned skills. Others imply that race is an important component in relating to students of color: implying teachers and principals of color are desirable. Are prior leadership/team experiences necessary? namely, is participation in group/team activities (sports, dance, orchestra, etc.) prerequisites?

In my view leadership programs should be as selective as law schools and medical schools – too many candidates should never have been accepted in the first place.  School leadership requires a unique skillset.

Advice to principals:

* Spend at least half your time out of the office – most of it talking to students.

* Teach a class – maybe not every day – show off your skills.

* Include the union rep and teachers in all planning activates.

* Meet with parents and the community in structured meetings – not complaint sessions.

* Listen, listen, listen … most principals talk too much and listen too little.

* Say thank you … to everyone who deserves a thank you.

* Don’t settle – be tough and fair – set high standards for everyone – especially yourself.

* Exercise regularly – maybe with staff…

* Be a leader – and, if you have a problem defining what that means we have a problem.

The New York State Legislature Adjourns with a “Whimper,”as Educational Policy-Making Moves to the Board of Regents

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men (1925)

The last stanza of Eliot’s poem is an apt description of the end of the 2016 legislative session. The final days, called “the Big Ugly,” is a scramble, an endgame, the Republicans and the Democrats vying for an advantage as the state moves toward the November election. All the seats in the legislature, the 150 in the Assembly and the 63 in the Senate will be on the ballot. While the Assembly is firmly in the Democratic column the Senate is far more complex, and byzantine. The Democrats hold a single seat edge in the Senate (32-31); however five Democrats (Jeff Klein, Diane Savino, Tony Avella, David Valesky, and David Carlucci), the Independent Democrat Conference (IDF), under the leadership of Klein (Bronx) caucuses with the Republicans, giving the Republicans control of the Senate.

Hanging in the balance were mayoral control, campaign finance reform, removal of pensions for convicted legislators, online fantasy sports betting and scores of other bills.

You may ask: why is all this conflict and wheeling and dealing necessary? Why can’t legislators have civil conversations and decide the issues?

James Madison, in Federalist # 51 wrote,

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary

The Constitutional Convention (1787) was not covered in CSPAN; the Constitutional Convention was a secret meeting. The only notes we have are Madison’s personal notes, not made public until after the death of all the delegates, The fifty-three delegates argued, came and went, delivered lengthy speeches, met in private, and made deals.

Slavery was one of the most significant stumbling blocks, the anti-slavery Northerners versus the slave-holding South, The compromise: slavery is not mentioned in the constitution, the question of slavery was left to the states, and, as part of a compromise; slaves were counted as 3/5th of a ”free person,” and referred to in the clause as “all other Persons.”

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Deal-making, as reprehensible as it may seem, is at the essence of making government work.

Whether to extend mayoral control in New York City had nothing to do with education. Weakening the mayor might give the Republicans a chance in the 2017 mayoral election. In spite of pleas from Merryl Tisch and others in the upper echelons of power Senate leader John Flanagan offered “unacceptable” plan after plan until in the closing hours an agreement was reached, the NY Times describes the plan as a one year extension plus,,

It would effectively create a parallel system of charter schools within the city, allowing “high-performing charter schools in good standing” to switch to join the State University of New York umbrella or the Board of Regents of the State Education Department.

Probably a meaningless change, currently charters schools authorized by both New York City and Buffalo make reauthorization proposals after five years, the authorizer, SUNY or the Board of Regents can reject the recommendation. The proposal allows the charter school, if it’s  “high performing and in good standing” to move directly to SUNY or the Regents for reauthorization.

The session is most interesting for what it did not do – the houses steered clear of legislation directing the State Education Department to take any actions. A host of education bills simply died. Neither the governor nor the party leaders had any desire to once again get involved in the morass of teacher accountability or testing, any of the issues that birthed the opt outs and/or angered teachers and their unions.

The budget was generous and the political leaders appear to be leaving the educational decisions to the educational leaders.

In December the Cuomo-appointed Task Force released their report with 21-recommendations: a blueprint for the Commissioner and the Board of Regents. The core of the report was a 4-year moratorium on the use of student test scores as part of a metric to assess teacher performance.

In the six months since the release of the report the Commissioner has made tests untimed, a recommendation in the report, established a number of large field-based committees to review elements of the Common Core, and, the Regents created a number of alternative pathways to graduation.

Quietly, very quietly, the Commissioner announced a change in the observation section of the teacher evaluation regulation. The outside observer would be scrapped – what might be a good idea in theory was both overly complex and a financial burden on school districts. There was no high drama – no headlines, simply an announcement undoubtedly based on quiet discussions.

The decisions before the Board of Regents are complex, politically explosive and without explicit answers.

Can you create a teacher evaluation plan that is acceptable to principals and teachers and not trashed by external critics?

Can better tests win back opt out parents?  And, what do you mean by “better tests?”

Will alternatives to testing, perhaps, portfolios or other performance assessments, be acceptable to the feds, and acceptable to the principals and teachers?  Are performance assessments practicable in actual classroom settings?

Will additional alternative pathways to high school graduation make students more or less prepared for college?

The Regents appear to have a window – three or four years – to make decisions based on their expertise as well as respond to external pressures and scrutiny, and, hovering aloft: “disruptive” solutions such as unlimited charter schools or vouchers.

Windows open, and windows close.

Getting It Right: Building a Research-Based Teacher Assessment System

A couple of years ago I was participating in a Danielson Training Workshop, two Saturdays in a room filled with principals and network support folk. We watched a video of part of a lesson – we were told we were watching a first year teacher in November in a high school classroom.

Under the former Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory rating system the lesson was clearly satisfactory. The Danielson Frameworks (Read the 115-page NYSED document here) requires that teachers are rated on a four-point scale (Distinguished, Proficient, Basic and Unsatisfactory) while New York State also requires a four point scale (Highly Effective, Effective, Developing and Ineffective). The Frameworks divides the teaching process into four domains, 22 components and 76 elements.

The instructor asked us to rate the lesson: at my table we were all over the place. For a teacher in the third month of her first year of teaching the lesson was excellent – clearly “proficient.”  Others argued the time in teaching was irrelevant, you had to rate her against all other teachers regardless of experience – at best, she was “developing.” Inter-rater reliability was absent.

Decades ago the union sent me to an Educational Testing Service conference on teacher assessment; about thirty experienced superintendents from all over the Northeast, and me, one union guy. We began by watching three 15-minutes videos of lessons: one an “old-fashioned” classroom, the kids sitting in rows, the kids answered teacher questions, the kids stood when they answered; the questions were at a high level although a small number of kids dominated the discussion. In the other video kids were sitting at tables, the teacher asked a question, gave the kids a few minutes to “huddle,” and one of the kids answered for the group and the teacher followed up with a few clarifying questions, in the third classroom the kids were at stations around the room, it was noisy, the noise was the kids discussing the assignment, the teacher flitted around the room, answering, clarifying and asking questions.

We were asked to rate the lesson on a provided checklist.

The result: the superintendent ratings were all over the place.

I was serving as the teacher union rep on a Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) team – we were visiting a low performing school. We were told to wait, the principal was busy, four of the 50 teachers were absent and there were three vacancies, the principal was assigning classroom coverages.

At the initial get acquainted session a team member, considering the staffing issues asked, “What are the primary qualities you look for in assessing teacher quality?” The principal blurted, “They come every day and blood doesn’t run out from under the door.”

A colleague was touring a school with very high test scores.  As he walked the building with the principal, he saw uniformly “mediocre” instruction – teacher-dominated, no student engagement. He mentioned the low quality of instruction to the principal, who shrugged, “Why mess with success?”

Once again, there is no inter-rater reliability.

In a number of school districts across the state almost all teachers received maximum observation ratings.

The State Ed folk simply accept the observation ratings of principals and school districts.

Charlotte Danielson, in her other book, Talk About Teaching  (September, 2015), discusses the complex role of the principal as rater as well as staff developer: how can a principal, who is the summative evaluater honestly engage with teachers who they rate?

In an excellent article from the Center for Educator Compensation Reform, Measuring and Promoting Inter-Rater Agreement of Teacher and Principal Performance Ratings (February, 2012), the authors parse the reliability of teacher observation ratings. There are a number of statistical tools to assess reliability – the state uses none of them.

In New York State 60% of a teacher rating is made up of the teacher observation score, and, we have no idea of the accuracy of the rating.

In the pre-Race to the Top days, the Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory rating days, the entire rating was dependent on the observation – in the last year of Bloomberg term 2.7% of teachers in New York City received Unsatisfactory ratings, under the current far more complex system that incorporates student tests scores and other measures of student growth only 1% of teachers were rated ineffective (Read a description of the plan:  APPR 3012-c).

Under the newest  system the other 40% is a combination of Measures of Student Learning and Student Learning Objectives, the use of state test scores is suspended until the 2019-20 school year.

Read a detailed description of the current APPR 3012-d teacher evaluation law here and a lengthy Power Point here.

In May, 2015 the Regents convened a Learning Summit and asked a number of experts to discuss the use of student growth scores (VAM): Watch the lengthy, sometime contentious discussion  here.

With one exception the experts criticized the use of student growth scores (VAM), the VAM scores did not meet the tests of “validity,” “reliability” and “stability.”

There have been glaring errors in the system. In the Sheri Lederman law suit  a teacher had very high observation scores and due to the composition of her class, very low student growth scores. The judge ruled the use of the growth scores, in the individual case, was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The APPR plan negotiated in New York City, on the other hand, allows for appeals by a neutral third party, and, the “neutral” has overturned appeals in which there was a wide disparity between the observation and VAM scores.

The current plan, created by the governor and approved by the legislature has been rejected by teachers and parents. Teachers are convinced that their score is dependent on the ability of the students they teach, not their competence. Parents feel schools are forced to “teach to the test” due to the consequences facing principals and teachers.

Angry parents, angry teachers and principals and a governor and a legislature looking for a way out of the box they created.

And, a cynicism from elements among the public – if two-thirds of kids are “failing” state tests how is it possible that only one percent of principals and teachers are rated “ineffective?”

The Board of Regents has been tasked with finding the “right” plan.

There has been surprisingly little research and public discussion of teacher attrition – in high poverty schools staggering percentages of teachers, 30%, 40%, 50% or more leave within their first few years.

The December, 2015, Cuomo Commission Task Force, in a scathing report, tasked the Regents with “correcting” what has been a disastrous path. Partially the governor creating an incredibly complex teacher evaluation matrix and partially the Commissioner King rushing to adopt the common core, common core testing and teacher evaluation simultaneously.

Can the Regents separate political decisions from research-based and guided decisions? Can the Regents move from the John King path, an emotion-guided political path to actually following “what the research says”?

On Tuesday the new Research Work Group, chaired by Regent Johnson will convene for the first time.

The roadmap for the State Ed Department and the Board of Regents are the twenty-one recommendations of the Cuomo Common Core Task Force. A number of the recommendations: untimed testing, an in-depth review from the field of the standards, greater transparency of the test items, alternatives to the use of examinations for students with disabilities, and, the beginning of an review of teacher evaluation are already in progress.

The Commissioner and the Regents have to regain a lost credibility: from policy emanating from the Gates Foundation and the so-called reformers to policies guided by scholarship and supported by parents and educators.

Mayoral Control, Appointed or Elected Boards of Education: Are Urban School Districts Governable?

About 4 AM next Friday morning one of houses of the state legislature will adjourn closing out the session; with cries of they have to return over the summer to complete this issue or that issue. Extremely unlikely.

The bills will come across the legislators desks at a rapid pace, with most voted before they are read. A few are high profile: closing loopholes in the campaign finance law, legalizing fantasy sports gambling, a constitutional amendment to deprive convicted legislators of their pensions, and, mayoral control of New York City schools, the vast majority of the bills are far, far under the radar.

The Assembly bill extends mayoral control for three years; the Senate bill extends mayoral control for one year and creates an Inspector, appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate with sweeping powers. If no action is taken the system reverts to a seven-member board appointed by the borough presidents and the mayor.

The governor supports a three year extension and the power elites support continuing mayoral control. Merryl Tisch in an op ed in the NY Daily News supports extending mayoral control.

Tisch posits,

Mayoral control has not worked perfectly under either Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Mayor de Blasio, but it has worked far better than what we had before. New York City has seen consistent, significant increases in graduation rates, greater accountability across the system and the introduction of robust school choice — giving students from every neighborhood greater opportunity for a quality education. Critically, unlike the system that preceded mayoral control, we now know who is in charge. The voters ultimately can hold the CEO of the city accountable for how well our children learn.

Famously, when someone criticized a Bloomberg educational policy he responded, “Don’t vote for me next time.”

Although the mayoral control debate will end in a few days it has been characterized by an absence of debate.

Has “robust school choice” given “students from every neighborhood greater opportunity for quality education” or further segregated the school system by race, class and income?

The Bloomberg administration created scores of “screened” schools, schools that only accepts kids with high test scores, creating “have” and “have not” schools. Were these schools created to “provide school choice” or to win over middle class parents and garner potential voters?

Numbers of school suspensions have dropped dramatically: are our kids better behaved, do our teachers have been peace-making skills or did the chancellor simply tighten the faucet on approving suspensions?

Under a mayoral control system every announcement, every initiative is accompanied by a carefully crafted press release. I’m sure that the “mayor’s person” is sitting at the table vetting the political impact of every decision.

The previous seven-member appointed board has been vilified as being too political, I have to smile. The borough president appointee fought for projects for their borough while the mayor fights for projects for the entire city, or, his/her voting base.

Under the current mayoral control system the Community Educational Councils (CEC) are toothless and superintendents carry the Tweed policy torch. While under the prior elected school board system the poorest districts had the least effective boards there were highly effective boards that responded to local communities.

District 2 in Manhattan under the leadership of an innovative superintendent had an extensive and effective professional development program that impacted classroom instruction. District 22 in Brooklyn bused over 1,000 Afro-American kids for integration purposes, no court order, it was simply the right thing to do; they also implemented school-based budgeting with empowered school and district leadership teams. A superintendent in the poorest district in Brooklyn, appointed by the chancellor unified a fractious district and improved student outcomes.

Does the current mayoral-guided system build sustainability or will the next and the next school district leader impose their view of education policy?

Unfortunately educational policy appears to be the flavor of the week.

Transparency and open debate must guide all change processes. Participation reduces resistance.

Teachers and parents increasingly came to despise Bloomberg/Klein mayoral control hubris – if you don’t like the policy, don’t vote for me.  So far the de Blasio/Farina interregnum has had a kinder and gentler face. While Bloomberg/Klein treated teachers like replaceable widgets deBlasio/Farina have constantly praised the workforce.

The larger issue is creating a process that has highly competent leadership at the top and local leaders with the ability and support to make the right decisions at the school level.

Next week a decision will be made; probably to continue mayoral control, maybe with a blue ribbon commission to review the current iteration.

Parents, teachers and school leaders voice must be part of any school governance process.