Monday, March 30, 2015

Changing not just teacher prep programs, but how we think about teaching

Arne Duncan thinks the U.S. Department of Education hasn't done a good job of overhauling teacher preparation programs. I don't think he should be too hard on himself because I don't think it's the U.S. Department of Education's job to overhaul teacher preparation programs. Perhaps the U.S. DOE could be tasked to provide guidelines that make sense. Making sense and the federal government, however, may be asking for too much.

Despite of all of the blowback about standardized testing and despite how foolish many think it is to measure the quality of a teacher by her students' test scores, the government cannot seem to help but plod down that same road that meanders to nowhere.

There are many theories about why students are not really prepared to teach. We could start with the limited amount of time they really have in the classroom. We could start with the fact that even a brand new shiny degree is not really evidence of knowing how to teach and that any teacher with any experience will tell you it takes a few years to really get the hang of teaching.

So maybe we should start by applauding kids who go into teaching but also caution them that no matter how fabulous their student teaching experience, having their own classrooms with the potential for limited support is a way different and harder experience. I don't mean dissuade them from the profession, but if we know that teachers leave teaching within the first five years and we know why they leave, then let's be more honest with them.

Let's also point out, again, that the reason most teachers leave the profession with the first five years is because they have little or no support. Doctors serve lengthy internships and residencies before they're allowed to practice on their own. Lawyers spend years working their way up through the ranks, often doing what might be considered legal drudge work to prove they're truly capable, but also to remind newbies in the professions that there is a lot yet to learn and know. Why do we assume teachers need any less support when asked to be responsible for the social, emotional, and educational well-being of up to 30 young minds and bodies for several hours a day, and often by themselves? Why do we set up our new teachers for possible failure?

The new teachers who succeed and thrive? They have not only administrative support but collegial support. There are structures in place to help them succeed because if they succeed the students succeed and if the students succeed the school succeeds. This is not rocket science.

Perhaps we forget that traditional teacher education majors are not just future teachers, but students themselves. They continue to learn about teaching and how to teach from their professors, and what their professors value, they are likely to value, too.

I am not saying that some teacher preparation programs need to be overhauled. I am not saying that CAEP needs to be diligent in looking at the validity and viability of some education programs. The Deans for Impact seem to think they could do better if only they had more data. Data is only part of the answer, and a very small part of the realities of the classroom. And so I wonder. . .
  • I wonder how many college education faculty have been in a school for longer than a supervising faculty visit. In other words, how many of them have spent a few days in a school and in multiple classrooms? 
  • Or how many college education faculty and deans have had meaningful conversations with the two- and three-year veterans of schools about what has helped them and what they wished they'd really known when they got their own classrooms. 
  • Or how many college education faculty and deans have had meaningful conversations with curriculum directors and media specialists to learn what changes have come down from federal, state, and district offices and how those changes have complicated and maybe even eased some parts of their instructional lives. 
  • Or with instructional coaches, special needs teachers, and various compliance officers to learn about potentially conflicting mandates and requirements that can impede as much as help. 
  • Or with veteran teachers about the ways administrations can and should support them, or how weak administrations simply cause more drama and difficulties but how teachers are frustrated by the absence of mechanisms to rid themselves of weak and ineffective administrations. 
  • Or with veteran teachers and administrators how various stripes of political influences can confound any potential for improvement. 
  • Or with parents and educators about how home life, especially in high-poverty areas, complicate every facet of a child's life and sometimes education seems the least important thing.
Now those are some data points that matter and will not be found in any standardized test. Then let's be realistic about what an undergraduate can really do in the classroom for his or her first few years and moderate our expectations accordingly. And let's also be realistic and really inventive in our thinking about competency-based capabilities for career changers. Then let's think really creatively and constructively about the kinds of support we can put in place for both groups. I bet if we shudder out of the constraints that bind us to current ways of doing and thinking we'll discover not only solutions, but ways to fund them.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Stop teaching subjects at school

What?!?!? I can hear the responses and head smacks now. Just because the Finns are doing it doesn't mean everyone else in the world can or should do it. Yes, I hear those arguments. Those who have implemented IB well in their schools are shrugging their shoulders and thinking that ain't no thing. It's not that IB students don't learn math and science as subject areas, but it is the way they learn about math and science which is PBL writ large.

I love the idea of not teaching subjects once kids reach a particular competency level and I think it's a powerful move forward.

I've seen elementary school teachers do amazing work at teaching their young students how to read and write, how to do math, and do so in wonderfully intracurricular ways. The agendas on their walls don't say "science" or "math," they say "learning centers" and "reading circle." Maybe the book being read and discussed in reading circle is a Magic Schoolbus book. The students aren't learning to differentiate subjects: they are just learning.

The moment we insisted that we have certain subject areas, we taught students there is little or no room for English in math or science; that there is little or no room for math or science or social studies or the arts in literature.

I know that we cannot eliminate subject areas completely and I know that most middle and high school content area teachers have chosen to teach their content areas because that is where their passion lies. Perhaps the easiest solution for most US schools is to implement PBL, and integrate edtech and approaches to makerspaces that enable students to work more freely, creatively, and constructively across content areas yet still enable teachers to draw from their passions to support student learning.

I'm working with a K-8 school in which the middle school teachers are working collaboratively to support student development across the content areas. It's a new initiative for them and they're taking small steps to figure out how best to do what they want to do and with their student population, but they're cautiously optimistic about how well it might be working. Yes, the qualifiers are deliberate because they want to get to the end of the school year to see how it all plays out for their students.

The teachers have learned that an approach to integrated learning is rather messy. The kids are learning that math doesn't stop when they leave the math classroom; that math can be a part of other subject areas. The teachers and students are discovering that integrated learning isn't a tidy graph or chart or even a Venn diagram because true integrated learning can be a bit messy.

Even if US schools cannot or will not completely blur the lines between subject areas, I suspect many teachers are already working cross-curricularly. It's not just co-teaching, but co-planning to provide opportunities for social studies, math, and science to be integrated in relevant and engaging ways with each other as well as with literature, reading and writing, and yes, even the arts and the oft-ignored PE.

My head is spinning with the possibilities.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Professional development is more than compliance

We know professional development is important. We know that professional development is often perceived as a colossal waste of time. We also know that most professional development is "sit and get" and/or designed to try to introduce a general topic for all teachers, regardless of grade level or content area. And we know how those models contribute to the perception that most scheduled PD is a colossal waste of time. Why have we been so reluctant to introduce changes?

The problems of time and choice
In this Gates Foundation report, "Teachers Know Best: Teachers' Views on Professional Development," one specific sentence rang particularly true: ". . . professional development is viewed more as a compliance exercise than a learning activity—and one over which they have limited, if any, choice" (p. 10).

I met with some administrators and teachers recently. We talked about administrator expectations for professional development. Post-meeting whispers were that teachers just wanted to know what they needed to do to be compliant so they could get back to teaching.

For educators, time is always an issue, whether it is enough time to plan, enough time to provide the kind of support teachers really need, or enough time for the actual professional development teachers need and want.

Peter Senge and the learning organization
The Fifth Discipline (1990) caught the attention of business leaders and managers around the world and prompted conversations about what it means to be a learning organization. Senge describes learning organizations as "organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together" (p. 3).

The five disciplines Senge elucidates are: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning. You can find a more detailed overview of Senge's work here. What is interesting, however, is how erratically a school, an organization designed for learning, is so rarely a learning organization, even a learning culture. Sure, this language and this work is generally geared towards businesses, but certainly there is room for seeing and applying the parallels.

What PD isn't and could be
The learning experience for teachers is much like the learning experience for students. Students don't want teachers talking down to them and teachers want to be treated with professional courtesy. Students generally appreciate hands-on learning so they can make sense of the learning and figure out how to apply to what they already know. Teachers appreciate interactive and hands-on professional development so they can make sense of the PD experience and begin to think how they might adapt it for their students. The comparative list goes on. An essential element of any learning experience is relevance.

Just now I'm fortunate enough to be doing some work with Discovery Education as an instructional coach. In my opinion, a good instructional coach doesn't waltz into a building and start making recommendations. Rather, a good instructional coach listens attentively and asks clarifying and probing questions. When a relationship is established and the coach has a sense of direction for the teachers with whom she or he might be working, then stuff can happen. Establishing a working relationship really doesn't take long, but developing and implementing an instructional coaching plan that makes sense does take time. For coaching to be effective, teachers and coaches must work together over time.

For any professional development to be effective, it must be targeted and cannot be implemented as a "one and done." As I've said before and as many have said before me, there is no secret sauce and no magic bullet for successful professional development.

And, furthermore, just as one-size-fits-all learning isn't ideal for students, one-size-fits-all professional development is ludicrous for teachers. Sure, there may be some workshops that can be generalized for teachers of all grade levels, content areas, and years of experience. But new/er teachers have different needs than struggling teachers who have different interests than more experienced teachers.

There are few PD providers who are surprised when some number of teachers schlep in a bag full of stuff, settle in the back, and do their own thing. Those are the folks who readily and shamelessly communicate that this PD event is a waste of their time. Every now and then we might be lucky enough to have one or two of those individuals set aside their grading, planning, or whatever else they're doing to pay attention. That's when we know we've touched on something of interest even to those who think (and often are) more skilled.

Unfortunately, most educators--and we knew this before the Gates Foundation published this report--do not get the professional development they need or want. Why? Time, money, expectations. There isn't enough time, there isn't enough money (to pay for substitutes or to pay a stipend if teachers stay after school or come on a weekend), and administrator expectations are often unrealistic about the kind of impact a single PD event might have.

So now what?
You know how students will rise or fall to the level of expectations we have for them? The same is true for teachers. If they think the administration thinks they're mediocre, they will have no incentive to try to improve. They are likely to figure their administrators are unlikely to change their minds, so why bother? Which brings me to growth mindset.

Carol Dweck and her colleagues have brought to our educational consciousness the concept of growth mindset which posits there are individuals who "believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point" and, more importantly, that growth mindset can be taught.

Instructional leaders and administrators who accept the theory of growth mindset realize the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that keep teachers striving to improve. They also acknowledge that those teachers with a fixed mindset are the individuals to whom they need to give different support and attention. There are ways that "[l]eaders can work to cultivate a growth mindset" and, I believe, a culture of growth mindset in their schools.

But teachers don't have to wait on their leaders. They can begin to make those changes on their own each time they make an incremental change in their instructional planning and practice that makes a difference for their students. While teachers should keep communicating to their administrations when professional development is insufficient, inappropriate, and/or unsatisfactory, they cannot rely on complaining. They also have to be willing to make and take the time to build a realistic professional development plan. And they have to be willing to continue to ask for help and for support. Administrators can find ways to fund initiatives that are going to make a difference for the students and their learning.

As an instructional coach, one particular frustration is the teacher who willingly accepts feedback and acknowledges a change could be made but wants to wait until the start of a new school year. While we all want to start a new school year with renewed energy and commitment, there is no reason to wait to start professional development.

If we want to model the importance of learning and the value of teachable moments, there is no time like the present to draft that professional development plan and start working on some goals now.

For one of many possible ways to develop a professional development plan, check out my resources here. If you see anything you like and want, send me an email and I'll get the documents to you.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Actual learning cannot be measured by a list or a log

PARCC testing. It's happening.

As I witness teachers and students working through the processes and the tests, I've reflected on this article by Heidi Stevens (@heidistevens13). Her words saddened and heartened me.

Teachers spending too much time assessing their students? Not possible. But I'm thinking about assessment in forms different from reading logs. I'm thinking of the dozens of formative assessments teachers do every single class period and the micro-decisions they make about instruction and classroom management as a result. Reading logs? Those are a different story. And prescriptive reading logs that document that a child "has engaged in at least 20 minutes of non-homework reading per day"? That gives me heartburn.

First, I don't know what "engaged in" means. I suppose the teacher means the child has actually read for 20 minutes, but what if the child read for 10 minutes and then had an online chat with a friend about that book for another 10 minutes? Is that engagement? In my opinion, yes, that's engagement (and not just because that kind of activity means students might demonstrate skills related to reading standards, but also to speaking and listening standards).

Second, what's the purpose of the 20-minute minimum? I'm guessing that's based on some form of research that suggests a minimum of 20 minutes of "engagement" makes some sort of difference in something. Yes, there is research that tells us that independent reading makes a difference in children's literacy development. There is no doubt about that. The more time they spend reading independently can matter, but it's the amount of time they spend reading. Period. (A study by the American Library Association (ALA) can be found here and another study in response to the National Reading Panel can be found here. Those are random selections; there are others.)

Third, distilling the possible adventures of reading to numbers of pages, minutes, and even stars seems a demoralizing and counterproductive effort. Yes, teachers need to encourage students to read and need to encourage parents to encourage their children to read, but a reading log tactic just makes everyone grumpy, including the teachers.

Heidi Stevens is a mom with a conscience, but also one who wants her children to enjoy reading. So sometimes she is forced to lie on the forms, but she makes up stories for and with her children. And sometimes, like many parents and older siblings and babysitters and aunts and other adults, her children read or has read-aloud the same book over and over and over (and over) again.

With confining and prescriptive forms to complete, reading becomes a chore rather than an opportunity for discovery, even learning.

I've seen a daunting eruption of checklists intended to measure, monitor, and otherwise quantify student learning. That started with rubrics, I think, which were intended to help students know how they needed to demonstrate their learning. Rubrics have become a performance checklist so that students might believe if they check off everything, they will get an A which is far more important than actually learning something.

I believe in good rubrics and I know how hard they can be to write. I can see the value of logs and checklists, as long as we don't try to become so efficient in how we measure, monitor, and otherwise quantify student work and progress that we overlook how messy and delightfully unpredictable learning can be.