Archives for category: Teachers and Teaching

Joanne Yatvin, now retired, wrote the following commentary in 1990, almost 25 years ago. It was published in Education Week. It remains as pertinent today as it was then. In fact, with the Common Core adopted by most states, it is even more pertinent today than it was in 1990. Special thanks to Education Week for granting permission to reprint the article in full.

 

 

 

Published: September 19, 1990

 

Let More Teachers ‘Re-Invent the Wheel’

 

By Joanne Yatvin

 

 

 

As a young teacher, I served from time to time on committees charged with writing curricula and selecting new materials for teaching language arts and reading. Often, during committee deliberations, someone would come up with an idea that involved having teachers produce their own classroom strategies and activities. There was something very appealing about many of these ideas–at least to me–and we would spend a lot of time exploring their possibilities.

 

Invariably, however, some old hand on the committee would haul us up short and remind us that Faraway Publishers had already produced the kinds of materials we needed and that Next Door School District had already developed an efficient method for teaching what we wanted to teach.

 

“Let’s not re-invent the wheel,” Old Hand would say, and we wild-eyed visionaries, sobered at last, would agree. We stopped talking, adopted the publisher’s materials, accepted the other district’s method, and went our separate ways.

 

Nowadays, I am not so compliant. Maybe that’s because I have become an old hand myself and an administrator to boot. But I prefer to think it is because I have learned something along the way: You have to re-invent the wheel, whether you want to or not, because nobody else’s wheels will work on your wagon.

 

 

I recount this personal reflection now because it bears on a key issue in education today: Should we use “top-down” or “bottom-up” models for improving our schools? Which way works better for school districts, particularly large and troubled ones where a few people at the top are bright, capable, dedicated, aware of the newest research and theory, and well paid; and the masses at the bottom may not be any of those things?

 

Under such circumstances, wouldn’t it be better–no, the only way–to give those folks at the bottom a well constructed6wheel, teach them how to use it, and make them accountable? Of course, some clods would never catch on but, at the very least, every teacher would be using a proper wheel, so the kids would be sure to get some benefit.

 

 

My answer to the question is swift and unequivocal: No, dammit! For three good reasons. The first has to do with the so-called “Hawthorne effect” that all those bright, well paid types may have heard about in graduate school but, in my opinion, didn’t quite understand. In that famous experiment in an Illinois manufacturing plant, dimming the lights so it was harder for workers to see was found to increase production.

 

Many graduate students (and unfortunately, some of their professors) think that the Hawthorne anomaly illustrates the fact that human subjects who know they are part of a scientific experiment may sabotage the study in their eagerness to make it succeed. What it really shows is that, when people believe they are important in a project, anything works, and, conversely, when they don’t believe they are important, nothing works.

 

The second reason for championing greater creativity for all is that, through the process of inventing, people learn to understand what their inventions can and cannot do. They learn how to fine-tune them for optimum performance, and, maybe, figure out what changes are needed to produce even better models in the future. In short, they acquire the intimate knowledge of object, system, and use that makes an invention truly their own.

 

The third reason is simply that a big part of teaching is inventing. Good teachers invent successfully all day long, every day. They invent better ways to explain lessons, to entice reluctant learners, to bring unruly classes under control, and to fire children’s imaginations. When teachers won’t or can’t invent, believe me, the kids will–100 ways to shoot their teachers down. If we want good teaching at the bottom of the pyramid, we’ve got to let all teachers learn their craft.

 

But given the structure of schools and school districts we now have, changing to an inventing mode is extremely difficult. The model of school operation in use for more than 50 years rests firmly on premises of industrial efficiency, institutional uniformity, whole-into-parts logic, and worker obedience that are completely antithetical to the concept of invention. That model never takes into account the fact that the people who make up the mass of the school pyramid have professional and personal needs that–however we try to suppress or sublimate them–will screw up efficiency and logic every time.

 

Ultimately, the only way to improve American education is to let schools be small, self-governing, self-renewing communities where everyone counts and everyone cares. Yet the people who have the power to make that happen–legislatures, state departments of education, superintendents, and school boards–will not. Convinced that they are the only intelligent, competent, and caring people around, they fear those barbarians in the classroom, teachers and children, who, if allowed, would dissipate all our public treasure of time and money hacking away at rough stone wheels as our nation sank into chaos.

 

They are, of course, dead wrong. But even if they were right, those rough stone wheels, forged by people who needed to use them, would roll and carry the load of learning, while the smooth round ones sent down from the central office would languish in classroom cupboards.

 

 

Joanne Yatvin, a former elementary-school principal and classroom teacher, is now superintendent of Clackamas County School District 107 in Boring, Oregon.

Update: Yatvin is a former teacher, superintendent, and president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is retired but remains concerned about education issues.

 

 

Ken Futernick, a wise educator who has written about the improvement of the teaching profession for many years, has a brilliant article in the Los Angeles Times about “grand bargain” post-Vergara. Futernick testified for the state in the Vergara trial. He has long understood that schools in urban districts with low scores often have poor working conditions, inadequate resources, and high teacher turnover.

The term “grand bargain” typically refers to compromises by warring parties. In this case, he has laid out a program that all states can learn from.

He writes:

“Unless it’s overturned on appeal, the Los Angeles Superior Court’s June decision in Vergara vs. California making it much easier to fire teachers will hurt students if lawmakers, unions and other state education leaders don’t move beyond its limited focus and address the many factors that adversely affect student learning and teacher performance.

“Stakeholders must come together around a “grand bargain” that would address not only teacher incompetence but all the obstacles educators face that, in the end, prevent many students from learning.”

Making it easier to fire “bad teachers” won’t make it easier to hire good ones.

“To be sure, many of those who teach in poor neighborhoods don’t have the same effect on test scores as those who teach in wealthier schools. But most schools that serve poor and minority students — those with high concentrations of English learners, transient students, students with health problems and so on — have fewer resources to meet students’ many needs, larger class sizes and inadequate materials and facilities. In addition, they are staffed with many beginning teachers who turn over at high rates. Not surprisingly, student achievement suffers.

“Also, schools that serve poor students routinely assign teachers to subjects in which they have no expertise. For instance, a 2008 study showed that 27% of math courses in schools serving poor students were taught by teachers who were not qualified to teach math.

“Why are schools that serve poor and minority students overstaffed with inexperienced and out-of-field teachers? Most teachers seek to make a difference and are eager to teach disadvantaged students. But many don’t want to teach in such schools because most of them are extraordinarily difficult, dysfunctional places to work. The teachers there suffer from poor professional support, low morale, run-down facilities, a revolving door of principals and unrelenting accountability pressures.

“Ineffectiveness in the classroom often does not derive from incompetence.

“Consequently, administrators in these schools can’t attract and keep enough well-qualified, experienced teachers. That, in turn, highlights another critical flaw in the judge’s decision — the assumption that these schools can find suitable replacements for fired teachers. Quite the contrary, and administrators’ power to fire teachers without real due process will only exacerbate the teacher recruitment problem….

“For starters, the state should develop a new teacher dismissal process that is fair and efficient. It should not take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to fire an ineffective teacher if he or she has been given a reasonable chance to improve, has been carefully evaluated and hasn’t done better.

“[Governor Jerry] Brown signed legislation this year that provides a fair and efficient way to adjudicate cases of gross teacher misconduct. Education leaders should develop a similar way to handle cases of teacher incompetence. They also should develop solutions for the other statutes that the court struck down, such as the one that allowed teachers with more seniority to keep their jobs during layoffs. California could do what other states have done, recognize experience along with other factors in making layoff decisions.

“But California must have a solid due process system for teachers, and contrary to popular belief, that’s all that tenure provides. Without a reliable way to determine whether a teacher is truly incompetent, the state will return to an era when employment decisions were fraught with abuse that included higher-salaried, experienced teachers replaced with less-expensive beginners and competent teachers fired because of their political or religious views.”

“Here is the framework Futernick suggests for a “grand bargain”:

“*The state must develop a robust teacher evaluation framework designed to help all teachers improve, not just to identify low performers. Such systems would ensure that principals and other evaluators have the time and training needed to conduct meaningful evaluations.

“*The state should build on the successful peer assistance and review programs that exist in places such as Poway Unified and San Juan Unified. These programs provide high-quality support to struggling teachers. Most participating teachers improve; those who don’t either leave voluntarily or are dismissed without grievances and expensive lawsuits.

“*The state and school districts must improve the conditions in hard-to-staff schools to attract and retain the best teaching candidates and the strongest principals. Among other things, these schools need high-quality professional development, time for teachers to plan and collaborate, and the authority to make professional decisions.”

Without adequate resources, changes in the law will be a hollow promise.

The following was reported at politico.com:

“AMERICANS CALL FOR STEPPING UP THE TEACHING PROFESSION: Americans want better prepared teachers in the classroom – and a vast majority think educators should be required to pass board certification and submit to licensure standards like doctors and lawyers. Those views come from a PDK/Gallup poll, released today. Seventy percent of respondents said new teachers should spend at least a year teaching under the guidance of a certified colleague. And 60 percent said the entrance requirements for teacher training programs need to be more rigorous. The results come as the Obama administration plans to resurrect an effort to regulate teacher prep programs. They also reflect public attitudes about whether the standardized testing regime ushered in by No Child Left Behind has improved education, said William Bushaw, who until recently served as executive director of PDK. Segun Eubanks, director of teacher quality at the National Education Association, says it’s clear all that testing hasn’t boosted student learning. So naturally, the focus is now swinging to improving the teaching profession. I have the story: http://politico.pro/1uEZjLi

- In another intriguing finding, 61 percent percent of the 1,001 adults surveyed opposed using student test scores in teacher evaluations. On a related note, researchers at The Brookings Institution are out with a study today that argues improving teacher observations is the key to upgrading evaluations. Observations are often biased by student ability and background, the authors say; they urge districts to adjust their observation scores accordingly. The study, published in Education Next: http://bit.ly/1wxBpUV

Inda Schaenen is an eighth grade English language arts teacher at Normandy Middle School in Ferguson, Missouri. She writes in Education Week about how students were affected by the death of Michael Brown and how she as a teacher was affected.

School started nine days after the shooting.

“Even before the shooting and the dramatic aftermath broadcast around the world, our district was accustomed to being and bearing bad news. Normandy is a poor, predominantly African-American community beset by challenges in housing, employment, and access to social, emotional, and physical health care.

“In January 2013, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education stripped the Normandy school system of its accreditation. The district consequently lost close to 25 percent of its students (and related education funding) to a transfer program that was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court. Then, on July 1 of this year, the state board of education officially took over the Normandy district; meanwhile, the transfer program’s fate continues to play out in the state courts….

“I was assigned to teach 8th grade language arts; I now work in circumstances that daily, even hourly, challenge the most seasoned of the seasoned veterans. Middle school teaching is a new experience for me, and my learning curve is beyond steep; it’s a cliff. In rock-climbing terms, I am “crack climbing”-locating available seams, trying any grip, using all of who I am to gain purchase during my ascent. I am working 18 hours a day.”

The tragedy is the background and often in the foreground of school.

She writes:

“Will I be able to make what happens in my classroom so compelling that these children will feel it’s worth their time to come in and take a seat alongside the 32 others in my classroom?

“Now, factor in the shooting, followed by the protests, the looting, the hyper-militarized reaction to the protests and looting, and the local reaction to the reaction. Many of our students showed up at school traumatized; teachers, too. The granddaughter of one of my colleagues was related to Michael Brown. Another staff member was his great-aunt. In many ways, north St. Louis County is one community….

“Since Aug. 9, there is the unspoken but ever-present awareness, especially among the boys, that life can end in a flash, even for the kids-like Michael Brown-who manage to navigate the system and graduate…..

“Over and over, I assure my students that I will not leave. That I am here for them. That principals and teachers are working together to figure out how to get our school right, or at least more right…..

Are we as a society willing to address the needs of these children, these communities? The answer seems to be no. We want them to have higher scores, and the state will punish their teachers if they don’t get higher scores. But we refuse to address or acknowledge the conditions in which they live, or our obligation to change them.”

Ben Jatos is a high school English teacher in a Portland, Oregon area high school. He has taught for 20 years. He just started his own blog, and he began by asking why he became a teacher and why he continues to teach.

He begins:

“As a new school year begins, I think it’s important for every teacher to answer the question: Why do I teach? This year, this is my answer.

“When I reflect on the circumstances that led me into teaching, there are three main things that happened to me prior to declaring as an education major in college.

“First, when I was 17, my father told me that when I went to college I should earn a degree that came with a title. For example, if I were to major in business I wouldn’t leave college as a businessman. But if I had a degree in education, I would exit as a teacher.

“Second, my senior year in high school I had an English teacher named Trece Greene who made her job seem important, fun, and honorable.

“And third, I took an intro to education class as a sophomore in college and I loved it immediately. Path set.

“The reasons I stay

“Now after 20 years in the classroom, I look at the reasons I stay.

“First, I want to provide for my family and after so many years, and an advanced degree, I can do so with the help of my wife’s fulltime office job. But I know that most people have it rougher than I do.

“Second, I love my job. I can sincerely say that I look forward to each and every day spent with students in the classroom.

“Third, it’s the light bulbs. When a person all of a sudden has an epiphany and figures something out, light bulbs appear over their head. I love seeing light bulbs in my class.

“Fourth, I teach because there is honor in my chosen profession. Serving 150 students in my classroom and the other 1,400 in my school is a task that I take seriously. When a parent releases their child – the most important thing in the world to them – to my school and also to me for guidance, instruction, mentoring, compassion, and a myriad of other roles which can pop up, I don’t want to let those parents or children down in any way. I still remember my sixth grade teacher who was mean to me in front of the class and would pick on most of the kids. She haunts me. I do not want to be that person and have no respect for any teacher that does the same. Conversely, I remember my fourth grade teacher who made me believe that I could accomplish anything. To this day, that man, Jon Snyder, is a huge inspiration.”

Read on to learn about the low points and also the incredible rewards of teaching.

Ben ends by saying:

“Twenty years down and twenty to go. Why do I teach? Because I woudln’t want to do anything else.”

As the saying on Twitter goes: #evaluatethat!

In case you missed, here is my interview with Tavis Smiley from September 8. It is about 12 minutes. Tavis asked about the Vergara decision and teacher tenure, about the attacks on teachers and public education, about the goals of the current “reform” movement, Common Core, and my judgment of Race to the Top.

All in 12 minutes!

By the way, if you wonder why I was holding my head in last minutes of show, I should explain that I didn’t have a toothache. My earpiece with the audio feed was falling out, and I was holding it in my ear.

A reader with the name “Sad Teacher” wrote the following comment:

“My problem is that I cannot follow the Marzano rubric and continue to get excellent test scores. I’ve been told for many years what to teach, but now we are being ordered how to teach it. It is almost against the law now for a teacher to go to the dry erase board and explain the strategies to solve a proportion. That is called direct instruction, and it is a bad word in my district, thanks to the Marzano model of the teacher evaluation system.

“I was actually told by my evaluator that I needed to teach the highest kids in my classroom how to properly solve a proportion – and then they would teach the rest of the class in small groups, of course. It is my job to just walk around the classroom and look up at the ceiling (facilitate their learning they call it) and, of course, TEST LIKE CRAZY! I can’t teach this way! It has all gotten so ridiculous that I can’t stand the stress anymore. I love my students dearly, but all they have is a kind teacher with dark circles under her eyes with a sad smile on her face looking at the calendar on her desk to see the next assessment deadline. They deserve so much more.”

Dawn Neely-Randall is a teacher in Ohio. She is in her 25th year in the classroom. For a long while, she watched in silence as the testing mania absorbed more and more instructional time. And then she decided she had to speak out. She had to defend her students. She had to defend her professional ethics. She could not remain silent. And speak she did. Here is an article that she wrote that appeared on Valerie Strauss’s blog.

If every state had 1,000 teachers as brave, bold, and outspoken as Dawn Neely-Randall, we could stop the insanity that is destroying children’s lives and debasing education. For her courage in speaking out, for her refusal to remain docile and silent, I add Dawn Neely-Randall to the honor roll.

Here are a few choice excerpts from her impassioned article.

“Last spring, you wouldn’t find the fifth-graders in my Language Arts class reading as many rich, engaging pieces of literature as they had in the past or huddled over the same number of authentic projects as before. Why? Because I had to stop teaching to give them a Common Core Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) online sample test that would prepare them for the upcoming PARCC pilot pre-test which would then prepare them for the PARCC pilot post test – all while taking the official Ohio Achievement Tests. This amounted to three tests, each 2 ½ hours, in a single week, the scores of which would determine the academic track students would be placed on in middle school the following year.”

“In addition to all of that, I had to stop their test prep lessons (also a load of fun) to take each class three floors down to our computer lab so they could take the Standardized Testing and Reporting (“STAR”) tests so graphs and charts could be made of their Student Growth Percentile (SGP) which would then provide quantitative evidence to suggest how these 10-year-olds would do on the “real” tests and also surmise the teacher’s (my) affect on their learning.

“Tests, tests, and more freakin’ tests.

“And this is how I truly feel in my teacher’s heart: the state is destroying the cherished seven hours I have been given to teach my students reading and writing each week, and these children will never be able to get those foundational moments back. Add to that the hours of testing they have already endured in years past, as well as all the hours of testing they still have facing them in the years to come. I consider this an unconscionable a theft of precious childhood time……”

“And most disconcerting of all, in my entire 24-year career, not one graded standardized test has EVER been returned to the students, their parents, or to me, the teacher. Also, for the past three years here in Ohio, released test questions have no longer been posted online. In addition, teachers have had to sign a “gag order” before administering tests putting their careers on the line ensuring they will not divulge any content or questions they might happen to oversee as they walk around monitoring the test.”

I was interviewed by Tavis Smiley a few minutes ago for a show that is airing tonight. Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy follows me. I whack the Vergara decision, he praises it.

Tavis and I talked about Vergara, Race to the Top, the “reform” movement, and why there is so much blaming of teachers for all the ills of society. I gave it my all. It was my first media gig since my knee accident last spring. Working on the blog, listening to readers from across the nation keeps me in tip-top shape, mentally if not physically

I enjoy talking to Tavis Smiley. He asks good questions, and he is very simpatico.

Check your local PBS station.

A teacher in Texas wrote this comment, which depicts (to me) a system where data matters more than teachers or learning or children, either the system is on autopilot or is run by people who confuse numbers with learning.

“They recruited from NC and from Spain (for bilingual teachers) this year because they did expect vacancies. I think it’s important to mention that all are not based on EVAAS because not everyone has those standardized scores. They are also based on Stanford testing in 1st and 2nd grade and for classes like PE, a district made assessment. I teach Kinder and am still waiting to find out what growth they calculated for my scores last year (and yes, they were bubble-in multiple choice tests). No one could explain to me how it was going to work, what percentage growth was required to be considered effective and how that was going to be calculated– so I’m very anxious about it. I was rated highly effective in the professional and instructional areas but who knows. We are supposed to use 2 different assessments for more validity but that doesn’t happen-they end up using the reading and math versions of the same test given the same week. I did wonder how many vacancies they had to start the new school year yesterday?”

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