Bill Gates is Listening to Teachers on Evaluations

ImageYesterday, Bill Gates published a piece in the Washington Post titled, Bill Gates:  A fairer way to evaluate teachers.  Skeptically, I clicked the link.  I wasn’t sure if I would read the typical education reform buzz words with little depth to the issue or if he would actually move the debate forward.  Sure, the title infers that he wants us to fairly evaluate teachers, but in this chapter of education reform, teachers and former teachers like myself, have come to brace ourselves for people who are in the spotlight, but who misguided in their solutions.

However, to my surprise, Bill Gates made it clear that he’s been listening to teachers or at least he now wants to not only listen, but seriously take the suggestions of teachers and put them on table. Below are some of the concerns he brought up:

1.  Data gone wild:  States are rushing to develop standardized tests for any and everything without giving much thought to whether that’s even the best way to assess that particular subject. 

One glaring example is the rush to develop new assessments in grades and subjects not currently covered by state tests. Some states and districts are talking about developing tests for all subjects, including choir and gym, just so they have something to measure. – Bill Gates

2.  Teaching Purposefully:  Just how do the yearly standardized tests help teachers improve their practice?  Currently, teachers are unable to analyze standardized test data to look for student trends.  If teachers were able to receive data on which objectives where students scored poorly, teachers would know how to problem-solve around it and plan purposefully for that unit for the next school year.  Also, if teachers received data on which objectives students performed well, they would know that that unit and lesson plans were an effective way to teach those standards.

Even in subjects where the assessments have been validated, such as literacy and math, test scores don’t show a teacher areas in which they need to improve. – Bill Gates

3.  Myth Busting:  Contrary to what many people outside the profession may think, teachers want to be evaluated.  However, like Gates is emphasizing, teachers want to be evaluated fairly using multiple measures–not student performance at one point of the year on one standardized test.  They deserve to see their professional growth throughout the school year and over many years of teaching.

The fact is, teachers want to be accountable to their students. What the country needs are thoughtfully developed teacher evaluation systems that include multiple measures of performance, such as student surveys, classroom observations by experienced colleagues and student test results.  – Bill Gates

4.  Teachers aren’t in it for the money.  I know plenty of teachers who seek out teaching positions in low-income communities because they know there’s a need for high-quality teachers in those schools.  However, when teachers decide to teach in a high-need school, districts and schools need to ensure that those schools have a strong curriculum, on-going and tailored professional development, and transformative leadership.  Now once at the school, it’s up to the teachers and staff to build and maintain a strong culture.

Teachers also tell me that while compensation is important, so are factors such as high-quality professional development opportunities, a strong school leader, engaged families and the chance to work with like-minded colleagues.

5.  A Path to School Leadership:  We need to rethink the teacher career ladder.  There are many schools that are beginning to shift focus on ways to keep teachers in the classroom while also giving them opportunities to lead in various areas such as school culture, professional development, and student enrichment.

In top-performing education systems in other parts of the world, such as Singapore and Shanghai, accomplished teachers earn more by taking on additional responsibilities such as coaching and mentoring other teachers and helping to capture and spread effective teaching techniques. Such systems are a way to attract, retain and reward the best teachers; make great use of their skills; and honor the collaborative nature of work in schools.  -Bill Gates

It’s refreshing to read Bill Gates thoughts, but these are the same things that teachers have said for years.  Read the education blogs, check out different ed chats on twitter, go sit down with teachers in the school lounge and you’ll see that these views are brought up time and time again.  The real questions is, “Will these concerns make it into policy?” Only time will tell.

Read the rest of Bill Gates piece here.

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The Fiscal Cliff Deal’s Impact on K-12, Higher Ed

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If you thought what you saw over the past few days was frustrating, just wait for what the next two months have in store.  The fiscal cliff bill passed last night only delays the impact of the fiscal cliff.  There’s no doubt that many people are concerned about what the incoming Congress will decide on a number of issues–including education.  I’ve compiled a list of pieces on the fiscal cliffs impact on education below:  

  1. Education Services and Special Education Cuts are at Stake

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten summed the problem up best, noting that, “Kicking the can down the road for two months means that we still face the possibility of staggering and debilitating cuts to public schools, health care and services that our kids and families count on.”

Indeed, a looming $1.2 billion cut to Title I funding alone will reduce or eliminate education services for over 1.7 million low income children and federal spe­cial education funding could still be slashed by $1 billion, eliminating support for 536,000 students and resulting in 12,000 special education teachers and paraprofessionals losing their jobs. That means school districts still face significant financial uncertainty as they make budgets for the 2013-2014 school year.”  Read  more: GOOD’s Why the Fiscal Cliff Deal Doesn’t Solve our Education Crisis

2.  Early Childhood Education on the Chopping Block

“If the sequestration cuts do end up going through in March, most school districts wouldn’t feel the pinch until the start of the 2013-14 school year, because of the way that key programs, such as Title I grants for districts and special education aid, are funded. That gives districts a planning window to figure out how to implement the cuts without hurting student achievement—and it gives Congress and the Obama administration more time to work out a deal.

But other programs, such as the Head Start preschool program for low-income children, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, would be cut right away. And the impact-aid program would feel the sequestration sting in April, when districts receive their next payments. That program helps districts with a large federal presence, such as a military base.”  Read about this and more on Ed Weekly:  K-12 Aid Faces Uncertain Future, Despite ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Deal

3.  Higher Education Saved 

The final agreement to avoid certain tax increases and spending cuts passed both houses of Congress late Tuesday, staving off several measures that would have raised the tax bill for college students and potentially deprived universities of critical research funding.

The deal to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff”spared the American Opportunity Tax Credit and extended the measure for five years, EdWeek reports. Born of the 2009 stimulus bill, the American Opportunity Tax Credit allows middle- and low-income families a tax deduction of up to $2,500 a year in education expenses for four years. It can trim the overall cost of a college degree by $10,000. Read more on The Huffington Post:  Fiscal Cliff Deal Spares Higher Education Research Funding, Tuition Tax Credit 

I’m glad higher education was spared.  I hope that K-12 comes out victorious when the final legislation is passed in two months.  Call your representatives and let them know to save education! Our nation’s future depends on our ability to educate our children today. 

Not Every Low-Income Student Who Makes it to College makes it through College

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Today, The New York Times shared the stories of Angelica, Bianca and Melissa, who despite being academically prepared for college, faced other obstacles that have hindered them from obtaining their degrees. These stories are not atypical. I’m afraid they continue to disproportionately affect students from low-income households because of what Maslow describes as “safety needs” aren’t met. I know that there is more we can do to support our students in selecting the right colleges to fit their circumstances and ensure they graduate once they get there.

Check their stories below:

GALVESTON, Tex. — Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“I don’t want to work at Walmart” like her mother, she wrote to a school counselor.

Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.”

Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.
Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.

“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”

Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”

The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.

Read more of For Many Poor Students, Leap to College Ends in a Hard Fall

How can we ensure that students who make it to college, make it through college?

Can Our Children Have It All? The Case for Diverse Schools

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Heather Harding and I approach the education reform movement using a similar lens: as parents. Sure, you’re probably thinking, “Darla, you don’t have kids. How can you view education through a parent’s eyes?” Well, first of all, I view my students as my children. When I contemplate just what solutions I support to create better schools, I think of the type of learning environment I want for my own children. Each education policy decision created now has a direct impact on the learning experiences of my future kids. So when I read Heather Harding’s piece posted on Teach For America’s Pass the Chalk Blog, I immediately could relate with her sentiments.

Heather wants her children to attend diverse schools that prepare them for a global world. Like Heather, we are not satisfied with schools that mostly educate low-income black and Latino youth. In our ideal world, our children would attend schools with children from varying socioeconomic levels and diverse backgrounds. However, we realize that accepting schools as segregated now–even if they are high-performing–is not the way to give our kids the best education.

In Heather’s piece, “Breaking Down the Persistence of Segregated Schools,” she calls out the elephant in the room of all education reform conversations. She forces us to have the difficult conversation about how important diversity, in many aspects, is an important part of the learning experience, and how so many people are sweeping it under the rug.

Every time I see a story about high-performing urban charter schools where 98% of the kids are black or Latino, I get queasy. I worry that while the academics at these schools are superior to their peer schools, they lack what most middle-class parents want in an education—world-class academics in an environment that provides the social capital necessary to be successful in an ever-more-diverse world.

When we relegate some kids to a singular racial and cultural experience but extol the virtues of our growing global society, we are decidedly not closing the achievement gap. As a parent who enthusiastically embraces school choice, I cannot accept that common response to calls for racial desegregation in our urban charter schools: “Well, should I turn these poor kids of color away in favor of non-poor white kids?” My answer is likely to be “Maybe.” I want it all: quality education and diversity. This is the only recipe for true excellence. We shouldn’t settle for less.

Is Heather asking for too much? I don’t think so. I’m glad someone is courageous enough to bring it up. How about you?

Read more of Heather’s piecehttp://www.teachforamerica.org/m/blog/breaking-down-persistence-segregated-schools.

The Best Chicago Strike Op-Ed!

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Tonight, as I sifted through tweets checking for articles on the Chicago Teachers Union, I found a gem. In my opinion, the best Chicago Teachers Union Strike op-Ed by far. Posted in The New York Times, the author Alex Kotlowitz asked a serious question, “Are We Asking Too Much of Teachers?” This is a question I asked myself earlier this year as I made the difficult choice to leave the classroom.

Fueled by my passion to create better schools for all public school students, I started teaching giving it 100%, even when that meant putting my life on hold as I struggled to manage the individual life circumstances of each of my students. You see, I never intended to be a career teacher. Being a teacher was just my first step in a lifelong journey to help bring innovative solutions to the most ailing problems facing our nation’s most poverty-stricken communities. I hope to one day be at the table where major decisions are made to benefit our
students. I believe that teacher voice is critical at that table.

Moreover, as my teaching days went on and years passed, writing objective-driven lesson plans aligned to standards every day wasn’t all that would deem me effective under DC Public School’s IMPACT evaluation system. I had to create Girls and Boys Day to introduce my scholars to positive mentors that look like them and had gone to college. I did home visits to build relationships with parents. I brought volunteers into the school to help get it ready for the first day of school. I wrote Donors Choose grants to get more resources into my classroom. I did everything in my human power to try to circumvent poverty’s impact on my classroom.

Nevertheless, late nights and early mornings entering student data in a computer taught me (the hard way) what I knew all along from growing up in an poverty-stricken city in southern NJ–just being an effective teacher alone cannot solve poverty, and I could not stress myself out about it. Because stressing myself out about my some of my students living in homeless shelters, not having food on the table or proper clothes to wear will break a person down–especially a teacher who comes to school every day garnering all hope possible to challenge this reality head on.

Now do not get me wrong. I agree that teachers must teach the best they can while knowing that we’re working against negative neighborhood environments that can suck our children into a tornado of negative choices that limit their life’s positive outcomes. I know that great teachers in every classroom will ensure that a student can be strong enough to believe in their future more than the dark reality that they live. I know that great teachers make a difference, but what Mr. Kotlowitz sheds light on is that teachers alone cannot rid our country of poverty. Putting so much pressure on schools does not serve our children or communities. Schools must also be supported by economic policies at the local, state and federal levels that create more sustainable and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods that produce more equitable schools.

While so many people have the luxury of never stepping foot in an impoverished community, teachers in our most troubled schools don’t. It’s easy to be on Capital Hill and never come to Southeast DC, but make sweeping generalizations about all the teachers who work in the “failing” schools. It’s easy to work in Chicago Public Schools’ Central Office and never fully empathize with a student who asks you every day to see his incarcerated father, but you have to tell him it’s okay and help him stay focused on the lesson. When we dare teachers to be on the frontlines, having the audacity to fight poverty in they see and feel, we better have their backs every step along the way.

More than likely, Chicago won’t be the answer to Mr. Kotlowitz’s question–just like schools alone cannot heal our nation from wound of poverty. However, when we bring thoughtful dialogue and perspective in the conversation, we allow a better product to be produced. Here’s to a quick end to the strike, but to continued conversation. Thank you for Chicago for sparking the dialogue. We can either use this as a time to point fingers or to really begin to ask the tough questions that help us create systemic solutions.

Mr. Kotlowitz, I applaud you for bringing depth to the conversation. To read his piece that inspired my post click here

Why do I spend so much time at work?

Last night, I came home extremely tired.  I’ve been working nonstop.  I worked through my weekend and I envision that being the case this weekend as well.  I haven’t gotten in before 8:00pm this week because I’ve been spending every waking moment in DC Scholars Stanton.  I say this not because I want admiration or pity, I say this because I wholeheartedly want to do everything possible to be an effective teacher and lead my scholars to achieving their academic goals this year.

It is all I think about.  How can I teach this reading strategy better?  How can I reach my lowest students?  How can I make sure I’m creating a welcoming atmosphere?  How can I be a great school teammate?  The list of questions–much like my to-do list– is never-ending.  Whenever I think I’m ahead, I think of something else that needs to be done because we are in an educational crisis.  The stakes are too high and I refuse to be part of the problem.

Earlier today, President Obama delivered his annual Back to School speech, right here in Washington, D.C. at Benjamin Banneker High School.  Although, I could not see it delivered live, I felt compelled to watch it tonight before hitting the sack.  I was not disappointed.  I felt like he knew exactly how I felt at that moment.  It was like he was in my living room and speaking directly to me.

In one part of his speech, he talked about teachers.  Below is what he said:

Let me say something about teachers, by the way. Teachers are the men and women who might be working harder than just about anybody these days. (Applause.) Whether you go to a big school or a small one, whether you attend a public or a private or charter school –- your teachers are giving up their weekends; they’re waking up at dawn; they’re cramming their days full of classes and extra-curricular activities. And then they’re going home, eating some dinner, and then they’ve got to stay up sometimes past midnight, grading your papers and correcting your grammar, and making sure you got that algebra formula properly.

And they don’t do it for a fancy office. They don’t — they sure don’t do it for the big salary. They do it for you. They do it because nothing gives them more satisfaction than seeing you learn. They live for those moments when something clicks; when you amaze them with your intellect or your vocabulary, or they see what kind of person you’re becoming. And they’re proud of you. And they say, I had something to do with that, that wonderful young person who is going to succeed. They have confidence in you that you will be citizens and leaders who take us into tomorrow. They know you’re our future. So your teachers are pouring everything they got into you, and they’re not alone.

President Obama, you answered a question that many of my friends have asked me time and time again.  Why do you do it?  Why do you spend so many hours at work?  I do it because I want my scholars to succeed.  I know through life experiences that education is the way to a better life for the kids I teach.  I know that what I do in that classroom could set them on the path to success or to a life of poverty.  I want the best for them.  I want them to love learning, and most importantly I want them to succeed in doing what they love most.  I do not want their life’s outcomes to be dictated by their zip code or their parents income level.  I want their life’s outcomes to be controlled by their will to make the world a little better for those coming after them.
Thank you President Obama.  You just recharged my battery.

Education Reformers: We cannot ignore poverty


No matter how much people try to ignore poverty’s influence on the education of our nation’s most vulnerable children, as a teacher, I am hit head on with its power each day.  Last night, a teacher told me that one of her students is now homeless because their family has been evicted from their home.  Immediately, I thought about how this would affect his learning.  Yes, we can provide a stable environment for him at school, but that does not change the fact that he is homeless.  Also, one of my students has a skirt that is too small, but it is the only uniform skirt she has.  She wears the skirt pulled up and unzipped on the side.  I have to buy her a skirt.  These are just two of the countless experiences of students growing up in impoverished urban communities.  These are situations that they were born into and cannot control.

Being a teacher has created a heavy heart in me that impacts how I feel about solving our nation’s failing public schools.   I feel compelled to purchase everything my scholars need.  However, on my teachers salary, I am faced with the reality that I cannot but everything that my students need no matter how much I want to.  I read this week that someone said that the problem is not just on failing public schools, but it is also on failing communities.  As a nation, we must do everything possible to eradicate poverty.  If we really want to reform public education, we must also charge our elected officials to create policies that create more sustainable communities.  We also have to charge communities to unite and become a voice that takes back their futures.  As teachers, administrators, central office personnel, and other staff, we must also speak out against this injustice.  That’s how we truly level the playing field.

There is talk around some new school reformers that poverty isn’t a factor.  Yes, in the “exceptions” poverty may not be a factor.  However, success for all should be a rule.  I am becoming more convinced that people who say that poverty is not a factor have the luxury of escaping poverty in their daily lives.  They do not have to live in it.  They do not have to frequent the social circles of those living in poverty.  It is easy for someone who does not live or truly interact with people living in poverty to say to someone living in poverty that they can “just get over it.”  People with this mentality encounter poverty on the surface level.  As education reformers, we have to dig deeper.

Poverty is at the root of our nation’s public school monstrosity.  Yes, we do need to transform how public schools operate, increase the rigor and academic performance of our nation’s schools, and attract and retain the best and brightest teachers in the classroom, among other internal school issues.  Nevertheless, we must simultaneously address poverty.  If we do not do this, we are doing our students and their families a disservice for we know that economic inequality is an injustice.  And I refuse to be silent about it.

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Two quotes from great men:

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” -Martin Luther King, Jr

I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight. Malcolm X

A Day at the US Dept of Education with Arne Duncan

On Tuesday, I attended a day long event at the US Department of Education.   The event, planned by Leadership for Education Equity and Teach For America, brought together 150 people within the field for a day of speakers, panels, and question and answer session with the highest federal education policy advisers.  The highlight of the day was definitely getting a chance to ask US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan questions and hear his responses.

Taking a quick shot outside the White House.

The day began with a brief tour of the White House.  After the tour, I trekked over to the Capital Hill Holiday Inn to officially start the day.  I heard from several speakers including two of the Department of Education’s Teacher Ambassador Fellows.  They emphasized that the department really wants to hear from teachers.   Both women are lifelong teachers, who are taking a year off teaching to go around the country, lead town halls and focus groups,  and report back to the department, among other things.   I got a chance to chat with one who’s interested in visiting my school and learning more about our turnaround work.  I hope we are able to connect in the near future.

During lunch, there was school board panel that was of particular interest to me.  One of the panelists, Tina Hone, At-Large School Board member in Fairfax County in Virginia, shed light on her experience as a minority on a board comprised of people who differ greatly from her on various issues.  (She’s a Democrat, most of the people on her board are Republican.)  She spoke about being willing to take a stand–even if that means you will lose the vote.  I thought that was so timely and extremely important in this day, when so many people comprise for the common good.  As proponents of the common good, we must not comprise on what we know is true and just for Americans.  I applaud her for her dedication and fearlessness in the face of opposition.

After lunch, it was time to head over to the US Department of Education to hear from the chief– Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Duncan wore some slacks and baby blue button up, which matched his calm demeanor.  He spoke for about 10 minutes and then went right into questions.  “I want to see more teachers in unions,” said a stern Duncan.  He said that more teachers need to be told to join their unions and get involved.  He said, “that’s where change will happen.”  Duncan also talked briefly about the egos of many reformers and how that mentality is counterproductive to the education reform movement.  I completely agree with his sentiments.   The back and forth between the “new reformers” and “old reformers” needs to cease.  I do not completely agree with either side, and believe that the labeling and trash-talk hinder our progress in the field.

Additionally, the secretary went on to answer a question pertaining to Race to the Top.  “Race to the Top is about pushing policy,” he said.  Then he adding that many states who did not win money made many changes to their policy that would not have done before.  I do agree that Race to the Top has led to significant changes in our education system.  I also believe that it did produce massive changes in a short amount of time.  However, I am very concerned by some specific policies linked to the grant.  (I will talk about them in future posts.)

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and I

Furthermore, Duncan also went on clearly state his priority of pushing colleges of education to better prepare teachers.   He stated plans to track college of education graduates and how effective those teachers are in the classroom.  Duncan emphasized that it is imperative that we bring the teaching profession  to the prestige of being a lawyer or doctor, and that we must pay teachers more.  Duncan understands that many teachers find it difficult to live off their salary, and that is one reason why it is difficult to attract and maintain talent.  The department is researching ways to be innovative in the future of teacher pay.

Although questioned about teacher evaluations, and more specifically,  linking teacher pay to test scores, Duncan said that “… just because a system isn’t correct, doesn’t mean we do away with it altogether.”  I understand how he feels about this.  However, what concerns me is linking teacher evaluation to test scores without adequate professional development and ongoing support.  Ensure that teachers have equal opportunities to develop, while simultaneously evaluating their progress.

Also, Duncan stressed strategic push for more people of color–particularly Black males–in the profession.   He said that he has been traveling around the country discussing this issue, and related the lack of Black and Latino males as teachers has an impact on how schools are able to support Black and Latino males.

It was a pleasure to here from Secretary Duncan.  Overall, the day was extremely insightful for me as a classroom teacher.  Rarely do teachers get a chance to engage with policy advisors and policy makers so I thank the Leadership for Education Equity and Teach For America for planning this event.  While I do not agree with every solution Secretary Duncan presented, I did believe that he is in fact  seeking teacher input.    During the last panel of the day, the department’s Communications’ Director said it best, “We’re just the bully pulpit.  The real work happens on the grounds.”  I could not agree more.   The department can only do, but so much in their position.  It is teachers, administrations, and communities that can lead grassroots, systemic change.