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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Many of My Friends Didn’t Attend College

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My high school has the lowest college-going rate in rural Cumberland County, N.J. This is the same rank the school had when I graduated in 2004 and it’s the same rank it has now. So when I read a recent post on Education Week by Sarah Sparks titled, “Why Do Academically Promising Students Not Choose College?” I was immediately reminded of my high school. Many of my capable peers did not attend college or some enrolled in less prestigious institutions for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, the reason I work in the field of education is because I’ve always believed in my peers and in students who attend schools like the ones in my hometown. I know that their life’s outcomes do not need to continue a path of poverty. With community and school supports, they can stop the cycle of poverty and put their family on the path to achieving the America Dream.

Sarah’s piece highlights a recent Harvard Study that reveals sheds light on the reality for students attending high schools like the one on my hometown. Many of them could go to college, but instead choose not to. Here’s what she had to say:

[Researchers from Harvard’s Center on Education Policy] found that, of students who showed academic potential;as judged by their cumulative high school GPAs and math and verbal SAT scores—18 percent enrolled in less-selective four-year colleges, two-year institutions or no higher education at all. Moreover, students who chose less-selective colleges were less likely to continue through to earn a diploma.

“These are people who are clearly poised for success and are not clearly moving into it,” said John Fullerton CEPR’s executive director. “That could be because some high schools are not preparing academically kids who were high performing, and so they slip back during high school, or others might not provide the support for students” such as college selection and financial aid guidance needed to plan which college to attend, he said.

“This is particularly true of kids from lower economic backgrounds. Going to a college just because it’s local or cheap may not be the best decision, because if you are more likely to drift away and drop out, that will have long-term economic consequences,” Mr. Fullerton said.

Mr. Fullerton was spot on in describing many of my peers experiences. Sure, I was bright in high school, but so were many of them. There’s no reason why some of them did not go straight from high school and into four year colleges. We sat in the same honors classes or some chose to take a less challenging route and enroll in college prep because they were not pushed to excel to their fullest potential. Their ability to achieve mirrored mine, but our life’s took us down two different paths.

My friends and I would discuss college in high school. Once a month, a few of attended Talent Search–a partnership with the local Community College that exposed us to college. We were excused from class for an hour and our Talent Search Coordinator would teach us about the application process and taking the SAT. During Spring Break, those of us who could afford it, went on a trip to college tours. For many of us, Talent Search was our ticket out of Cumberland County. I will never forget when I had the chance to go to California the first time. It was part of Talent Search’s Spring Break trip to tour University of Southern California in Los Angeles and other schools. Yet, for many, Talent Search was not enough to sway the hold their environment and family circumstances had in shaping their life’s path.

I knew, and I wholeheartedly believe they knew they were more than capable. However, it was difficult to crack their tough exterior and help them believe that attending college was their doorway to success. By the end of our four years, many of my friends and peers did not go on to college or some went to the local county college, dropped out, or re-enrolled and graduated many years later. Like Mr. Fullerton said, some of my peers didn’t have the proper guidance to navigate the application and matriculation process. If no one in your family has gone to college, and it’s not the norm for students to go to college in your hometown or high school, applying to college can be frightening. I am lucky to have a father who is a guidance counselor by profession at a school in the neighboring town who could support me in the process. My peers, although intelligent, did not have that support.

Moreover, some didn’t believe they had the financial means to go to college. Again, I had a father who knew FAFSA like the back of his hand. He could also help me apply for scholarships. I will never forget during my senior year, I would spend hours at the computer writing scholarships essays and preparing these unique scholarship packages with all of my accomplishments. During my senior year, I decided I wanted to attend the University of Maryland, and my dad informed me that since it was out-of-state, I would have to work really hard to pay for it. I ended up receiving 18 scholarships, two of which were four year and the rest were enough to pay for my entire first year of college. I was fortunate to have my dad to make a sometimes overwhelming process for a high schooler be one that was paved with love. For my peers who did not come from that family background, trying to figure out how to apply and then how to pay for college was a daunting task.

Nevertheless, a child’s family’s background or economic status should not determine the life they envision for themselves. That’s why I would take it a step beyond Mr. Fullerton’s reasons of lack of knowledge of the application process and financial aid, and also assert that tracking done in high school and the high school’s college-going culture both play a significant role in a young person’s decision to attend college or the colleges that make it on a student’s college short list.

In my high school, students were put on different tracks. Each year, we selected classes that were either on the honors, college preparatory, or general education track. Although, my high school has a low college-going rate, the number of students who were on the honors track who attended college was quite high. Since our freshman year, we were supported and guided on the track to college. My friends who attended these classes with me are now successful in various sectors. One of my friends is a journalist, another recently graduated law school and working in the legal department of a Fortune 500 company, another is a high school guidance counselor, and another is on her way to graduating with her Masters in Social Work. I wonder just how many high school students are missing out on the chance to go to college because they’re tracked in high school?

There are a lot of out-of-school factors that sway many students’ decision to attend college. Nevertheless, there is much that schools can do to put more students on the right path. I believe that if my high school really invested more students outside of the honors track in going to college from the ninth grade, and put in comprehensive supports to help more students apply and matriculate into college, the college-going rate of my high school would be much higher.

What do you think? Do you think high schools, specifically that serve students from low-income neighborhoods, do enough to push students who walk the tight rope of achievement and mediocrity? What is your high school doing to create a college-going culture?

Let me know your thoughts and be sure to read more of Sarah’s piece in Education Week.

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.

Mississippi’s School to Prison Pipeline

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Colorlines recently published “The Shocking Details of a Mississippi School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which gives readers a peak into the serious injustice happening in the state. Check out an excerpt below:

Among the infractions that landed Green, who is black, in juvenile detention were talking back to a teacher, wearing long socks and coming to school without wearing a belt. He was behind bars for stretches of time as long as two weeks, and the real rub, his mother Gloria said, is that weekends didn’t count as days served. A 10-day suspension stretched to 14 actual days; time for Meridian juvenile justice officials apparently stopped on weekends. All that back and forth out of school and in juvenile took a real toll on Green’s education, and he was held back from the eighth grade.

“It was mind-boggling,” Gloria Green said. “My son loved school and to be kicked out as much as he was, one year he just couldn’t catch up.”

“We did everything we know to do. I went over to the school and got make-up work, and he still failed two subjects and at that point I didn’t know which way what my child was going to go.”

“We talk about the school to prison pipeline and it’s often an abstract thing,” said Shakti Belway, an attorney who worked closely with families on the Meridian case for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But here it is literally happening over ridiculous, minor charges.” Indeed, children as young as elementary school students have been taken directly from school and forced to serve school suspensions inside a jail cell. In its complaint, the DOJ charged the city’s police department with operating a de facto “taxi service” shuttling students away from school and into youth jails.

In parts of Mississippi, the extreme measures to curb minor infractions in schools are labeling youth and putting them on a path to confinement. As educators, we must be thoughtful in how we invest children in school policies in order to create a positive learning environment.

Reading the stories highlighted in this piece bring me back to my childhood experiences in school. I’ve had family members and peers become victims of the judicial system at early ages. We must support children, not use excessive force to encourage them to want to learn at school. Effective relationship building by partnering with mentorship organizations, an appropriate ladder of consequences, strong school wide culture initiatives and student support staff are just a few ways schools can meet the needs of all students.

In my experience, I learned that my most challenging students are the ones who need the most love and guidance. Their disobedience is a cry for help. Spend more time with them and steer them in the right direction because shoving students into the judicial system is a sign that we’ve given up on them. We cannot give up on our kids. The kids are our future.

Read more about what’s happening in Mississippi http://m.colorlines.com/archives/2012/11/school_prison_pipeline_meridian.html.

States Creating Separate and Unequal Standards for Students

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Over the weekend, I read a troubling piece in The Washington Post written by Andrew Rotherham. It described how Virginia has separate expectations for its students based off race, income and class. Instead of improving educational opportunities for all children, it seems as though Virginia is taking the easy way out to not face penalties from the No Child Left Behind Act.

While I understand what Virginia is attempting to do: give schools that are historically under-performing more attainable benchmarks, I disagree with the implementation. Virginia’s policy makes it seem that since under-performing schools are overwhelmingly occupied with students who are poor, black or Latino, as a result the expectations for those students should be lower. However, not all black and Latino students attend under-performing schools, and many capable students are not reaching their full potential–not because of their race, but because they attend schools in neglected communities.

I think what Virginia failed to do was detail its long-term vision. I surely hope the plan isn’t to always have unequal levels of student achievement. Yet, wasn’t that what No Child Left Behind created: an unrealistic goal to have all students performing at a certain level by 2014? It seems to me that this new policy still doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

Moreover, I agree that in the short-term different schools should have different benchmarks in order to bring the lowest performing schools up to par. Yet, these benchmarks should be checkpoints that lead to the ultimate goals each state has for all children. The ultimate goal should be to move that school out of the “failing” category. As a teacher who willingly worked in a historically “failing” school, progressive benchmarks are necessary in order to realistically progress towards high levels achievement. What No Child Left Behind did was penalize schools for not making Average Yearly Progress when it is these schools that need the most support and strategic investments.  Schools do not move from under-performing to high-performing in one, two or even three years. Progressive yearly benchmarks must reflect that reality.  Yet, we do not need to create race-based standards that set unequal expectations for our children.

The larger picture is that in our country we have stark inequality that greatly impacts minority groups–primarily because minorities are disproportionately living in poverty. Schools are trying to overcome poverty alone. The truth is the school must focus on its locus of control while local and federal governments must work to decrease poverty in our country.

Everyone needs to admit the following: Our nations worst schools are in impoverished neighborhoods. There are wealthy neighborhoods that do educate our students in public schools well. Schools should focus on creating better learning environments for students, but not burn themselves out trying to solve poverty. Pressure your local, state and federal government to improve our communities and neighborhoods. Doing both will simultaneously improve our country and our nation’s under-performing schools in the long term, but ignoring one or the other leads to great failure.

Below is an excerpt of Rotherham’s op-ed:

For years, Virginia tried to sidestep various provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind education law. No Child’s accountability requirements are awkward because they threaten to shine a bright light on the highly uneven performance of Virginia’s schools and the state’s significant achievement gaps. So when Education Secretary Arne Duncan allowed states to set new performance targets earlier this year, Virginia, along with many other states, jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, rather than taking the opportunity to focus more on underserved students, the state took the stunning step of adopting dramatically different school performance targets based on race, ethnicity and income.

President George W. Bush famously talked of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in education, meaning the subtle ways educators and policymakers shortchange some students by expecting less of them. Virginia’s new policy is anything but subtle. For example, under the new rules, schools are expected to have 78 percent of white students and 89 percent of Asian students passing Virginia’s Standards of Learning math tests but just 57 percent of black students, 65 percent of Hispanic students and 59 percent of low-income students. The goals for special-education students are even lower, at 49 percent. Worse, those targets are for 2017. The intermediate targets are even less ambitious — 36 percent for special-education students this year, for instance. Goals for reading will be set later.

Read more here

I would love to read your thoughts. Feel free to comment!

Homework Dilemmas: High expectations, no excuses

Last night, I received a phone call from one of my scholars.  I tell my students that if they ever have a question about their homework to give me a call.  I include my contact information on their homework packets.   Below is the conversation between myself and the student:

Me:  Hello!

Him:  Is this Ms. Bunting?

Me:  Yes! Hello, (students name)!

Him:  Ms. Bunting, I think I’m going to have homework hall tomorrow.

Me:  Why?

Him:  My mom doesn’t have time to sign my homework.  She has to put my little sister to bed.

Me:  Aww well is your dad home?

Him:  He’s a sleep.

Me:  Okay, ask your mom to sign your homework after she puts your sister to bed.

Him:  I don’t think she’ll remember.

Me:  Okay, ask your mom or dad to sign it in the morning.

Him:  It’s really busy in our house in the morning.

Me:  Okay, well have your mom or dad sign it before they drop you off to school.

Him:  Okay, I hope I don’t forget.

Me:  You won’t or else you will have homework hall.  Now, it’s late. You should be going to bed.

Him:  Okay, good night Ms. Bunting.

Me:  Good night (student’s name).  See you tomorrow!

In that moment, I could have told my student not to worry about it.  I could have allowed him to not get it signed and just return to school.  However, I maintained the expectation that his homework needed to be signed and helped him come up with other solutions.  As teachers, sometimes our hearts tell us to allow certain thing to slide.  It is important remember, that we must maintain high expectations because we’re building the character of our students.  I’m so glad my scholar called me and informed me of his problem.  He was being responsible and followed my directions exactly.  Nevertheless, my policy must remain the same for all my students.  I guided him in figuring out other options this time.  Hopefully, in the future, he’ll be able to critically analyze situations and come up with these solutions on his own.

I’ll be sure to give him a shout out in class tomorrow.

Systemic Change: The Secret to Success

Thanks to the Google.  I can connect with my friends on Gchat.  One of my friends recently shared an article in her status, that I just had to click.  It was Paul Tough’s recent piece published in the New York Times, What if the Secret to Success is Failure?  In this piece, Tough highlights two different schools on two different sides of the track that come to one conclusion:  character building is just as important as teaching academics.

Below is a highlight from the piece:

As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. Those skills weren’t enough on their own to earn students a B.A., Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, they seemed an indispensable part of making it to graduation day.

What appealed to Levin about the list of character strengths that Seligman and Peterson compiled was that it was presented not as a finger-wagging guilt trip about good values and appropriate behavior but as a recipe for a successful and happy life. He was wary of the idea that KIPP’s aim was to instill in its students “middle-class values,” as though well-off kids had some depth of character that low-income students lacked. “The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach,” he told me, “is it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment.”

It is this type of thinking that will fundamentally change the way we educate students in America.   It forces educators to think beyond the test and build students into critical thinkers and real world problem-solvers.  Continue to read more of this enlightening and forward thinking article over at the New York Times website.

The Power of Home Visits!

This year, in partnership with the Flamboyan Foundation, my school, DC Scholars Stanton, set a goal of 200 home visits before our early September deadline.  I am proud to say that as a school we surpassed our 200 goal and teachers completed 213 home visits!   I believe that the home visit initiative kicked off this summer propelled our school to a great start this school year.  Family engagement is higher than ever.  Our Back to School Night was filled to capacity, forms are being returned at higher rates, and teacher-parent interactions have increased tremendously.   As a teacher, home visits solidified my belief that:

1.  Parents need structured ways to be involved

Each parent or grandparent I met wanted to be involved in school.  They want to help their children with their homework.   Many just did not know how–either their educational level crippled them from assisting at a beneficial level or they forgot how to do the concept.  At my school we are implementing Academic Parent Teacher Teams this year.   Academic Parent Teacher teams will happen three times this year.  At these 1 and half hour meetings, teachers distribute and analyze  student and class-wide data, teachers instruct two major learning goals, and parents learn and receive materials of practice activities to do at home.  Our first Academic Parent Teacher Team meeting will happen in October.  Parents are already excited for it!  This is just one way that parents will be involved in school this year.

2.  Schools can serve as community hubs

A child’s school should feel welcoming to the community. A parent should not feel as though they do not have anyone to go to when their child is having a problem.   Parents should feel like they belong and have a voice.  Schools must provide parents with ways to be meaningfully involved through ways that ensure their child’s academic success.   At the end of the day, it is the schools responsibility to create the structure for parents to be involved.

Secondly, schools can serve as portals from what is to what is possible.  Many parents and grandparents want to expose their children to life beyond their communities.  In fact, this exposure is an important aspect of their child’s success.  Schools can partner with community organizations and provide opportunities both inside and outside of school that give each child a broaden perspective of the world around them.

3.  We must advocate to end poverty

I’ve done home visits in apartments and homeless shelters.  No matter where I went I was faced with the daunting reality that Americans should be angered at the high level of poverty in our country.   Children should not have to grow up in these types of conditions.

Secondly, the working poor in America was rise up and reclaim their American dream.  For too long have the wealthiest people labeled Americans working poor as lazy Americans who deserve the lives they live.  That notion is farther from the truth.  Each house I went to, parents and grandparents were working or looking for work to make a better life for their family.  The problem is that there is a lack of opportunity and resources.  We must expand welfare policies that train people to be productive members of society and ensure that the communities they live in are filled with resources that uplift their children.

I challenge schools to encourage their teachers and staff members to conduct home visits prior to and during the school year.  Home visits will give teachers more perspective in their scholars home lives as well as connect parents with families prior to the start of school.  I would love to hear your plans for implementing home visits or how your school continues to engage families after the initial home visit.