Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Questions from Public Event

This thread captures some of the comments shared at the table discussions during our public event on October 14. As you can see there was a lot of conversation generated and some interesting comments.

We're quickly posting the raw comments. Over the next few days we will compile them, and summarize consistent themes and comments, but for now you have it to review.

Click on "comments" to see most of the discussion which took place at the event. PLEASE NOTE: not all comments have been posted yet... stay tuned!


  1. Question #2 - What opportunities can the following groups create in making sure all students in our schools are learning, including school leaders, the teacher’s union, teachers, parents, and community members?
    Know/understand/respond to students’ social-emotional needs; implement constructive evaluation system that works for individual leaders [some felt that principals should lead this effort]; really drill down into absenteeism, time in class
    School leaders have to be held accountable to put these practices in place. Hold principals accountable, follow recommendations
    Recommendations put a lot of power in the hands of the principal, and research supports that. Important for leaders to be aggressive in hiring good principals
    School leaders and teachers union:
    Much of what’s discussed is all decided at the negotiating table. Those two groups are the most responsible for the structure that currently exists and for making changes to it. Those two groups sit down on a regular basis and come to agreement about their working arrangement. If union and school leaders can each talk about where they can give then we will get somewhere. It will be the leadership that is negotiating the contract.
    Continue to ensure that principals aren’t arbitrary in evaluating teachers; advocate that principals have strong evaluation system too; be open to reconsidering 2-year tenure benchmark; reconfigure how profl dev days are allocated (don’t take up so much school-day time with PD)
    The relationships make it impossible for quality education – they need to play nicer
    They should have the responsibility to develop a plan for compensating teachers for good performance; they should talk about student achievement and what they can do to make it better – define their role in impacting student achievement; support the quality teachers that are RIFed – they are still dues paying members
    Be more inviting to families in the classroom; work collaboratively with peers; give students opportunities to evaluate their teachers
    We need a system in which teachers to encourage everyone to work together to achieve. We need to change our thinking to create environments where families are engaged.
    Teachers want to work with high quality colleagues, and need to make their voice heard.
    Continuing education thing is interesting. Conunterintuitive. Issue is exactly as Kate said it. People want the fastest, easiest degree they can get to raise their pay.
    Unite to change state funding system/formula
    Show up at school board meeting, parent teacher conferences, it makes people accountable. Ensure that students are ready to learn – fed, rested, clothed
    Be vocal, continuously let concerns be heard by administration. Stay involved in teacher activities and interact with the school too
    We see a lot of negativity. It’s clear that that negative voices feels intense disenfranchisement, they feel powerless. One of the most important things the Alliance could do is figure out how to let those voices be heard.
    Parents who walk into the principals office in a private school have a lot of clout. Parents who walk into the principals office in public school don’t have the same clout. Not a consumer with power. There are very different responses to parents in public vs. private schools.
    Community members:
    same as above

  2. QQuestion #3 - What is the concern or issue about teaching quality that you find yourself most often telling?

    System is not working well at improving teachers, or exiting teachers (per low exit rate); takes a lot to run an effective evaluation system, but can be done; needs to be fair yet subjective evaluation system; should consider teacher effectiveness as well as involvement in community;

    We theorize the conversation rather than bringing it to the school level; not adequately supporting teachers, or tailoring to individual schools; differentiated for different schools and communities

    Students know who the bad/ineffective teachers are; hard to define what makes a teacher “bad”; principals have a large staff, hard to provide quality evaluation for every teacher on an annual basis

    When districts had to RIF teachers in the spring, a lot of good/effective teachers were laid off; individuals right to due process is important, but it can’t be the only thing; student performance should be a factor in evaluation, but other factors must be considered; principals dropping in to classrooms is a good thing, as well as other staff

    Teachers need more constant feedback, as well as actionable feedback; need to open up evaluation process to peer evaluations; helpful for teachers to receive feedback from evaluators with content area expertise

    There should be requirements for administrators too; certain numbers of as a teacher, etc.

    Has worked with principals with two years of teaching experience, and others with lots and lots; no correlation

    Peer evaluation is valuable, as well as “customer” evaluation; “teaching as a profession can lift itself up” – be open to evaluation; students need to be represented in all of this, they are the ones who win or lose; everyone is pointing fingers (administrators, teachers, union)

    We know who the good teachers are so we push for our kids to be in their classes, but then who gets the bad teachers? – the kids who really need the more effective teachers (not closing the achievement gap)

    Wonderful teachers should be rewarded; when there are ineffective teachers, 25 kids a year are falling behind

    Teachers can and should be positive, because we cannot progress with negative attitudes and systemic lack of trust. Our children are affected by their attitude, both positive AND negative.

    Getting real parents involved in these kinds of forums is difficult because it seems as though the most recalcitrant teachers show up and shut down honest discussion
    Everyone needs to work together for maximum impact on student learning. Leadership has to work with teachers in a concerted effort to come up with strategies to effectively deal with poor teachers.

    Principals can utilize the behavior records better and keep track of who the teachers are that have issues in classes and what grades look like in those classrooms also.

    Education is a priority. We can help fund it, take a greater concern and become more engaged.
    School leaders- create a more transparent process. As a parent I’m just supposed to trust that leaders/teachers are doing what they should. TRANSPARENT PROCESS.

    Governance in regards to District Board

    Classroom should be a much more welcoming place to parents. Should feel as welcome as the teachers.

    Biggest problem (parent) teacher/parent communication. Should have a solid awareness of what’s going on in students classrooms. Many things parents would never know

    Biggest problems-teacher contracts:thinks it works against improving teacher quality specifically, tenure, absentee policy, lack of pay for performance of students, Kids are the ones that bear the brunt of the outcome of teaching quality/accountability.

    Rigor is important but must be a benchmark instead of a”2x4”, and has to be tied to teachers effectively delivering to students and student learning.

  3. There is a lot of talk about "teacher quality" but I have yet to see a coherent and useful definition for that term. On what scale can we reliably measure teacher quality? What is (or are) the metric, the assessment, and the benchmark? It seems to me that, absent these, we don't have a functional definition of teacher quality. Without that, any discussion of how to improve it is meaningless.

    We need to find some measure - or set of measures - of teacher effectiveness that is rational and mutually accepted by the majority of stakeholders. Then, maybe, we could have meaningful discussions and make sensible decisions about how to improve it. I think this is where our time, energy, and effort should be focused - not on "ready, fire, aim" changes in policy or law.

    The report, like most of the reviews by outside experts commissioned by the District, was largely a re-statement of known problems. There was nothing in this report that advanced a definition of teacher quality or teacher effectiveness. Consequently, the report fails to work as a basis for action. The recommended actions only make sense in the context of a shared definition of teacher quality. They make little sense without that.

    If the Alliance intends to pursue this effort - and I encourage you to do so - a more fruitful direction would be to bring stakeholders together to find a mutually acceptable definition of teacher quality, complete with metrics, assessments, and benchmarks. For this work, the Alliance would have to be seen as an honest, unbiased broker. I'm not sure you are. I also think it would be wise to simultaneously do the same (set definitions for effectiveness) for school administrators and central staff.

    Finally, I think that we also need to accept the limitations of what improvements in teacher effectiveness will achieve. It is certainly a significant factor in student achievement, but it is not the sole factor and it may not even a dominant factor. Even if we were to optimize our teacher effectiveness that doesn't mean that all students will meet Standards. Our goal may be 100%, but that is not a reasonable benchmark and teacher effectiveness alone will not get us there. The burden of this change cannot fall entirely onto teachers.

  4. Charlie, you're absolutely right that the burden of this change cannot fall entirely onto teachers.

    We ALL have a responsibility to address the issues that result in a system that works for some students, but not for others. So this is a start. Let’s have conversations. Let’s disagree. But let’s focus on what our goal is.

    At the Alliance, our goal is to be an independent organization that supports students in the schools, but also works closely with communities to identify and provide a voice and advocacy when necessary.

    We’re in the process of updating the information about our community engagement effort for our Web site, but you are welcome to stop by or give us a call and we’ll be happy to share more about where we are in that effort. (We’ve been short staffed in that area recently.)

    To your points:
    “There is a lot of talk about "teacher quality" but I have yet to see a coherent and useful definition for that term.”
    There is a lot of discussion about how to define teacher quality and part of our community discussion should be to provide constructive input into what the definition should be here in Seattle. We are battling the same challenges as every other large urban district, and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel but we need to make our effort relevant to our region.

    But that means representing the voices of many stakeholders, not just a small percentage of the population. Too many voices have been left out of the discussion.

    “If the Alliance intends to pursue this effort - and I encourage you to do so - a more fruitful direction would be to bring stakeholders together to find a mutually acceptable definition of teacher quality, complete with metrics, assessments, and benchmarks.”
    You should have joined us last night. We are starting with different components of the same conversation, but working toward the same goal. We need to work in collaboration -- the school district, families, the communities through our city – to collectively address the many complex issues that are resulting in an unequitable system.

    “…we also need to accept the limitations of what improvements in teacher effectiveness will achieve.”
    There is no silver bullet. But we also should not hold back in areas that can have a potentially positive impact for a large number of students, not to mention teachers, staff and other principals.

  5. Karen, you write that
    "a for some students, but not for others."

    This is a fallacy, one that perpetuates the whole issue with disproportionality and the the opportunity gap (achievement gap):

    Your statement suggest that students are failed GENERALLY by "the system," when this is not the case. Students have some good teachers, some maybe not so good, some good experiences, some not so good...Students are failed by individuals (and themselves, sometimes)

    In other words, the students aren't usually "failed" by the "system," there are only aspects of it, individual actions, that don't work.

    For instance, a student can find success with a particular teacher who knows how to work with that "sort" of student (learning style, culture, etc) while the student might not be served by another educator.

    The inaccurate generality of "system failure" results in such things as the idea that there are "failing schools," when in reality there are parts of a school that succeeed while parts fail. This fallacy has contributed to NCLB identifying whole schools as failing, possible restructuring them, and allowed the media to portray whole schools as failing, possibly moving them into charter mode in the public opinion, while ignoring the individual responsibilities of parent/guardians, economic factors, racism, student preparation, teacher skill, etc.
    Accountability, with such phrases as "systems that...don't work for others" goes out the window. Systems aren't accountable; people are.

  6. Actually, I think there is a system failure. The system is set up on an industrial mass-production model in which the students all get the same one-size-fits-all education. All of the students are in the class together getting taught together, so they receive the same instruction, at the same time, in the same style, from the same teacher. Why then do some of the students learn the material, gain the knowledge and skills, meet the Standards and pass the WASL while other students - who were sitting there in the same classroom getting the same instruction - do not?

    We know what isn't the cause. We know that the teachers didn't whisper the lessons into the ears of select students and withhold it from others. There is no intentional effort to teach only some of the students.

    Is it about teacher quality? Not in any ordinary meaning. If the teacher is a poor teacher and ineffective, then how did any of the students learn? If the teacher is so good, then how did any of the students fail to learn? The answer to that is obvious: it's not really about teacher quality.

    Nor is it about student quality or student family quality. I don't really understand these attempts to blame someone or blame people's failings. That's important - just as there is no villian, there is no personal failure.

    The people are not failing, the system is failing. Seriously, read some Deming.

    The problem here is that we are using a one-size-fits-all solution to a problem that presents in wide variety. One size of education does not fit all. One style of teaching doesn't work for all students because students don't all learn in that one style. We know this, yet we absurdly continue to try to hammer square pegs into round holes.

    We need to move past the industrial mass production model to a post-industial model that can deliver the curriculum in a variety of ways to match the students' variety of needs. I don't know exactly how this is going to look or how it is going to work. I know it going to require some technology to keep track of student progress and to allow for more individualized instruction. I know that it is going to require the students to be more self-managing and it will put the teacher into more of a mentor and coach role than a dispenser of information. It could be a brief introduction by the teacher followed by students working in small groups or even ones and twos and the teacher moving from group to group, keeping them on task, asking open-ended leading questions, and encouraging them. Then, at the end of the class, sharing lessons and discussion. There is no need for the students to be working on the same material or learning in the same style.

    I also know that this fixation on teacher quality - a term that has not even been properly defined - is horribly misguided. Seriously, read Dr. Deming's work and it will be self-evident that changing the teachers are NOT going to change the results. We can try to change the students (see KIPP schools for an example of that) so they will more readily accept the one style of instruction. We could try segmenting the students into groups by learning style I suppose. But the best solution is to individualize education to match the needs of the individual students. That is going to require a change in the system. A big change. A revolutionary change.

    Oddly, Seattle Public Schools is moving is exactly the opposite direction - towards more standardization. Schools that do well, however, will earn autonomy to allow them more flexibility. Schools that don't do well will get increased supervision from the District and be required to adhere more closely to the scripted lessons. This is completely backwards. It means that if the system works for your population you can deviate from it, but if the system does not work for your population you must follow it more closely.

    There does not appear to be any awareness that it may be the system, and not the execution of it, which is at fault.

  7. I agree, Charlie
    With the District focus on data, on getting a clear pictue of EACH student's levels, successes and needs, it would follow that there would be a responsive system to tailor offerings to students individual interests/expertise/needs

    I don't know how this would look, either, but there are possibilities in offering a wider range of course, of levels, of subjects, through a wider range of methods, such as digital tech, student portfolio, etc

  8. Charlie - thank you for posting the Deming stuff... I have tried to introduce his ideas to the Board with no success so far... as you know, I've been advocating for individualised education for a long, long time... and it was such a relief to find that idea had finally entered the mainstream though systems theory...I came across Deming's views through the Peter Senge works The Fifth Discipline and Presence... f I remember correctly, in the forward to The Fifth Discipline, Deming actually admits that he had been wrong in his approach for many years, and writes quite passionately about the need for change if we are to survive as a species....