Teachers: Never Forget How Much You Matter

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Whether you teach at an elementary school, a middle school, a high school, or an alternative school, this message is for you. This message is for ALL teachers, regardless of your school’s zip code or socio-economic status. This message is for ALL teachers, from first year teachers to teachers one year removed from retirement. This message is for ALL teachers: Never forget how much you matter. Never forget that you’re making a difference.

Some students may respect your authority; others may challenge it. Some students may sit up straight and listen to directions the first time; others may slouch and need constant redirections. Some students may participate in every activity; others may never participate at all. Regardless of student engagement, never forget how much you matter. Never forget that you’re making a difference.

Some students may respond well to positive reinforcements; others may need a stern “talking to” in the hallway. Some students may complete every single assignment; others may complete a single assignment. Some students may create a thank you card for you to keep; others may never say or write those words for you to hear or read. Regardless of student behavior, never forget how much you matter. Never forget that you’re making a difference.

Some colleagues may devote as much time to planning as you do; others may devote the bare minimum. Some colleagues may be rock star teachers; others may be struggling to maintain order in their classrooms. Some colleagues may have a wealth of experience and tricks of the trade; others may be novices and in need of advice. Regardless of teacher experience, never forget how much you matter. Never forget that you’re making a difference.

Some parents may be super involved in their child’s school life; others may never make contact with you or attend a school-sponsored event. Some parents may provide every material that you’ve requested; others may never supply the bare minimum. Some parents may visit your classroom and engage in a positive conversation; others may visit your classroom and engage in a not-so-positive conversation. Regardless of parental involvement, never forget how much you matter. Never forget that you’re making a difference.

Some administrators may be your strength in time of need; others may be missing-in-action. Some administrators may encourage risk taking and creativity; others may micromanage your talents and demand rigid scripts. Some administrators may foster a healthy school learning environment and school culture; others may drive wedges between key stakeholders throughout the building. Regardless of administrative leadership, never forget how much you matter. Never forget that you’re making a difference.

Some days you may feel like the best teacher on planet Earth; other days you may feel like the worst. Some days your lessons may flow exactly as planned; other days your lessons may fall flat of its face. Some days you may be glad you are a teacher; other days you may feel like updating your résumé. Regardless of the day-to-day grind and emotional roller-coaster, never forget how much you matter. Never forget that you’re making a difference.

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The Impact of IMPACT: A Teacher’s Perspective

Introduction

This piece is a response to a recent report titled, “Incentives, Selection, and Teacher Performance: Evidence from IMPACT” by Thomas Dee and James Wyckoff (2013). This response attempts to offer a ground-level perspective from a teacher working within a high poverty neighborhood public school; It’s not trying to undermine the report’s findings. In fact, I believe we need more research conducted on the effects that the IMPACT teacher evaluation system has on the DCPS teacher workforce. Below, you will find certain passages I’ve selected, and my response to the claims and assertions made by authors of this report. Again, this isn’t an attempt to undermine or contradict this report’s findings; rather, it’s an attempt to shed light on the effects of IMPACT from a teacher’s point of view.

#1: Regarding the uniqueness IMPACT, Dee and Wyckoff (2013) claim:

A second unique feature of IMPACT is that its incentives are linked to a multi-dimensional measure of teacher performance (e.g., multiple classroom observations as well as test scores) that is likely to have more validity than test scores alone (e.g., MET 2013). This targeted performance measure may also enhance the efficacy of IMPACT’s incentives because it places some weight on actions teachers control more clearly and directly (e.g., how their classroom practice relates to defined standards of effective instruction). (p.2)

Personally speaking, I believe multiple classroom observations is a great assessment tool if, and when, feedback is purposeful and practical. Meaningful feedback must strike a balance between assessing effective instructional practices and understanding the context of a classroom’s composition. When employing a standardized teacher evaluation system, one significant problem that emerges is the propensity for an evaluator to favor, albeit directly or indirectly, certain classrooms over others. For example, a colleague once mentioned how a Master Educator, who is suppose be an objective observer, once said, “I’m evaluating you the same way I will evaluate a teacher from Deal or Hardy.” Both Deal Middle School and Hardy Middle School are not high poverty neighborhood public schools.

Now, I am not suggesting that effective best practices won’t work in high poverty neighborhood public schools. To the contrary, best practices can, and should, be applied across all schools, regardless of its zip code. However, if student “redirection” is seen as a sign of poor classroom management, then behaviors associated with chronic poverty will undoubtedly punish teachers working within high poverty neighborhood public schools. Therefore, in my professional opinion, the DCPS IMPACT Teaching and Learning Framework (TLF) scoring rubric needs differentiation. Contrary to popular opinion, all neighborhood public schools are not created equal.

#2: Regarding the uniqueness of IMPACT, Dee and Wyckoff (2013) assert:

In the current context, there are several substantive reasons that IMPACT offers a unique opportunity to examine the effects of a robust package of performance-based teacher incentives. First, as we describe below, IMPACT introduced exceptionally high-powered incentives (i.e., the threat of dismissal for low-performing teachers as well as substantially larger financial incentives for high-performing teachers). Second, these incentives were linked to a multi-faceted measure of teacher performance consistent with emerging best practices (e.g., clearly articulated standards, the use of several data sources including several structured classroom observations) rather than simply to test scores alone. (p. 8)

I certainly appreciate the multi-faceted measurements within the IMPACT teacher evaluation system. That being said, Group 1 teachers – ELA and math – are held accountable for student performance on high-stakes, standardized tests. It’s a well-known fact that a student’s performance on standardized tests have a direct correlation to his or her family income. Therefore, Group 1 teachers, specifically within a high poverty neighborhood public school, have a unique set of obstacles to overcome. At first glance, the opportunity for Group 1 teachers, particularly those working within high poverty schools, to earn a higher bonus seems extremely fair. However, given the shear stress and unique set of challenges, education policymakers must revisit the use of back-end financial incentives.

In my humble opinion, a front-end bonus, or pay increase, for Group 1 teachers operating within one of the 40 lowest performing schools can serve as a powerful recruitment tool. Their work is often the most challenging within the entire school District. If we want our best and brightest teachers working in the most challenging environments, then we need to reward teachers who not only excel in such environments, but also take on the challenge in the first place. The back-end bonus falls short of showing appreciation for the day-to-day challenging work.

#3: Regarding the use of IVA as part of the rubric for Group 1 teachers, Dee and Wyckoff (2013) state:

A second component of a teacher’s overall score is based exclusively or in part on the test performance of their students. More specifically, for “Group 1” teachers, these scores include their calculated “Individual Value Added” (IVA): a teacher’s estimated contribution to the achievement growth of their students as measured on the DC Comprehensive Assessment System (CAS) tests and conditional on student and peer traits.4 The “Group 1” teachers for whom IVA is calculated are only those for whom the available CAS data allow for the estimation of value added (i.e., only reading and math teachers in grades 4 through 8). The IVA measure is not defined for the majority of DCPS teachers (i.e., about 83 percent of the general-education teachers in DCPS). In lieu of an IVA score, these teachers instead receive a Teacher-Assessed Student-Achievement (TAS) score. At the beginning of each academic year, teachers choose (and administrators approve) learning goals based on non-CAS assessments. At the end of the year, administrators rate the teacher’s success in meeting these goals using a rubric that emphasizes student learning or content mastery. (p. 9)

Yes, the IVA applies to Group 1 teachers only. Yes, there are four components to the IMPACT rubric. However, the indisputable fact that chronic poverty affects student performance is simply not addressed or accounted for equitably. There are vast differences between teaching a low-income student within a low poverty neighborhood public school versus teaching a low-income student within a high poverty neighborhood public school. High poverty neighborhood public schools aren’t necessarily provided with additional resources, and often suffer from an ineffective student-to-teacher ratio. Simply put, the educational playing field is not level. For example, the chart below illustrates school composition, with respect to student performance, across DCPS public schools, per ward. A Group 1 teacher working in Ward 3 doesn’t have the same percentage of students performing at the basic or below basic level, as a Group 1 teacher in Ward 8. For example, according the data (2012), Ward 3 neighborhood public schools are largely comprised of students on, or above, grade level. In contrast, Ward 8 neighborhood public schools overwhelmingly consists of students at the basic, or below basic, performance levels.

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Sources: Please refer to the end of this blog entry.

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Sources: Please refer to the end of this blog entry.

Furthermore, there are popular misconceptions on the use of an IVA component based on Value Added Models (VAMs). Politicians and education policy experts often promote the idea that VAMs capture student academic growth. However, what they fail to understand is that VAMs don’t account for “multiple guessing.” If a student enters the school year reading multiple years behind, he or she will struggle to “access” the text (i.e. Lexile scores) of the standardized test. What we – teachers – see within the classroom, during high-stakes testing, is a struggling reader’s propensity to “Christmas tree” the exam. Since the test format is predominantly multiple-choice, every student has at least a 25% chance of guessing the correct answer. So, a low test score may show a student’s inability to “access” the text/passage itself, and not an individual teacher’s “performance.”

In fact, VAMs based on proficiency rates don’t capture Group 1 teachers’ efforts in raising student growth based on diagnostic data. If the IVA reflected a diagnostic-based student growth model, then, in my opinion, it will be a more accurate assessment of any given teacher’s performance. But, if it’s benchmarked to proficiency rates, it will undoubtedly favor schools consisting of students that are on, or above, grade level. This isn’t difficult to understand or earth-shattering to consider. For example, the chart above illustrates the distribution of “highly effective” teachers, per DC Wards. As per the data (2012), Ward 3 had the most “highly effective” teachers, the highest percentage of students on, or above, grade level, and the lowest percentage of children living under the poverty line. In contrast, Ward 8 had the lowest percentage of “highly effective” teachers, the lowest percentage of students on, or above, grade level, and the highest percentage of children living under the poverty line. Subsequently, Ward 8 neighborhood public schools also had the highest percentage of students performing at the below, or below basic, levels.

#4: Regarding the threat of dismissal on minimally effective teachers, Dee and Wyckoff (2013) stress:

In addition to these mechanical dismissals, IMPACT may encourage some low-performing teachers who otherwise would have remained to voluntarily exit DCPS. Thirty percent of first-time Minimally Effective teachers voluntarily exit DCPS while only 13 percent of teachers who are Effective or Highly Effective do so. As might be expected, Minimally Effective teachers closest to the Effective threshold are more likely to remain in DCPS than those furthest from it. Only 28 percent of first-time Minimally Effective teachers whose IMPACT scores are within 25 points of the Effective threshold (IMPACT scores of 225-249) voluntary exit DCPS, while 39 percent of those within 25 points of the Ineffective threshold (IMPACT scores of 175-199) voluntarily exit. These descriptive outcomes are consistent with a restructuring of the teaching workforce that is implied by the incentives embedded in IMPACT. Less effective teachers under a threat of dismissal are more likely to voluntarily leave than teachers not subject to this threat, and those furthest from the threshold even more likely. (p. 17)

Personally speaking, part of the reason “minimally effective” teachers within high poverty neighborhood public schools voluntarily leave is due to a “demoralizing effect” of IMPACT ratings. For example, although there are four components to IMPACT, a Group 1 teacher may score “effective” or “highly effective” in three of the four components, yet ultimately receive a final IMPACT rating of “minimally effective.” In addition, I believe there’s a significant difference between a Group 1 teachers and Group 2 teachers, with respect to earning a “minimally effective” rating. Whereas a “minimally effective” Group 2 teacher may feel motivated to improve his or her instruction practices, commitment to school community, and teacher created assessments; the direct correlation between a student’s performance and chronic high poverty may cause Group 1 teachers, particularly those working with in high poverty neighborhood public schools, to feel demoralized and unmotivated.

#5: Regarding policy considerations for teacher-evaluation systems, Dee and Wyckoff (2013) acknowledge:

Overall, the evidence presented in this study indicates high-powered incentives linked to multiple indicators of teacher performance can substantially improve the measured performance of the teaching workforce. Nonetheless, implementing such high-stakes teacher-evaluation systems will continue to be fraught with controversy because of the difficult trade-offs they necessarily imply. Any teacher-evaluation system will make some number of objectionable errors in how teachers are rated and in the corresponding consequences they face. (pp. 28-29)

In my honest opinion, we need to isolate the effects of high-stakes teacher evaluation systems to Group 1 teachers, specifically within high poverty neighborhood public schools. In doing so, we will be able to identify gaps, such as the resource or professional development gaps. Once identified, education policymakers can provided targeted solutions and resources to Group 1 teachers within high poverty neighborhood public schools. Identifying which teachers are “less effective” is not the aim of any credible teacher evaluation system. On the contrary, a credible system should identify least effective classroom environments.

If we can identify which environments are least conducive for highly effective instructional practices, then we can begin problem solving effectively. Conversely, if we choose to ignore the correlation between student performance and chronic high poverty, then we are avoiding an important issue that is plaguing our high poverty neighborhood public schools. Thus, I urge education policymakers to not only seek the input from Group 1 teachers within low poverty neighborhood public schools, but also seek input from Group 1 teachers within high poverty neighborhood public schools.

Sources (Illustrations)

http://www.davidcatania.com/ward_1_education_conversation
http://www.davidcatania.com/ward_2_education_conversation
http://www.davidcatania.com/ward_3_education_conversation
http://www.davidcatania.com/ward_4_education_conversation
http://www.davidcatania.com/ward_5_education_conversation
http://www.davidcatania.com/ward_6_education_conversation
http://www.davidcatania.com/ward_7_education_conversation
http://www.davidcatania.com/ward_8_education_conversation
http://www.neighborhoodinfodc.org/wards

A Thin Line

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Undoubtedly, I’ll receive some pushback from fellow educators on this piece. Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice an ominous tide emerging out at the sea of education reform. This potential tidal wave of unregulated criticism dangerously resembles the likes of an Occupy ______________ protest. Even if the message is worthy, the tone of the messenger is becoming more and more counterproductive.

Opponents of the CCSS and high-stakes testing need to cautiously tread the line between sophisticated, researched –based critiques versus populist, conspiratorial rants. If left unchecked, the arguments against the so-called corporate take over of public education, albeit true or not, is going to taint the valid concerns of all educators and parents alike.

Putting aside the message and it’s delivery, what exactly is the ultimate end game, anyway? Are we to throw the baby out with the bath water? Are we to shun for-profit partnerships within public education? As a public school teacher, am I not supposed to use my smart board or any high-tech apps because they have a corporate logo? Am I to use chalkboard and chalk, or white board and dry erase markers only?

We cannot go back to the 20th century. There IS a need to redefine how we educate a tech-savvy generation of students. Many of us – educators –were not born with iPads or iPhones, so I can understand the reluctance to change. But, if you don’t meet the students where they are, then you will risk losing them. Why? Well, because our students live in a flat, technological world. There is no denying that fact.

Therefore, there IS a need to reform instructional practices, at the very least, to include the use of technology in classroom. To suggest otherwise would be foolish and disconnected. Those who incessantly bash the corporate world “agenda,” all the while tweeting on their iPads or iPhones, are falling for the irrational “it’s us versus them” narrative. This is an extremely dangerous shift. In order to maximize teaching and learning in the 21st century, don’t we need to use technological products? Do we really believe that taxpayers’ monies, alone, is sufficient enough to fund tech-ready classrooms and schools?

*** Side Note: This is NOT the part where you insert the 99%-ers argument about the uber-wealthy. As much as I can agree that we – the U.S. – need a fairer income tax formula, shouting about injustices, alone, doesn’t necessarily change the realities on the ground. ***

Please understand that I’m not parroting a message, “brought to you by ____________, Inc.” I’m genuinely concerned that the cause, i.e. a need for more bottom-up education reforms, is becoming tainted by unfettered anger. Education independents, or moderates, need more than the 24/7 all-you-can-tweet rants about the corporate take-over of public education.

So, again, what exactly is the endgame for the anti-CCSS movement? What exactly is the endgame for the anti-charter school movement? Are you asking for an end to high-stakes tests, or an end to the CCSS aligned, or not so aligned, high-stakes tests? Are you asking for an end to teacher evaluations based on VAMs, or teacher evaluations altogether? There needs to be a clear, concise agenda if the cause is to remain valid. If not, the message risks treading into the conspiratorial echo chambers of social media. There’s a thin line between love and hate, but the line between a great cause and a grandiose conspiracy is even thinner.

If I Were A Student, I Would Ask My…

If I were a student in a high poverty public school, I would pose the following questions to my teachers, guidance counselor, principal, and parents/guardians. This piece is not intended to score cheap education reform or political points. After a few years experience teaching in a high poverty public middle school, this piece simply reflects some of my students points-of-view.

Question #1

If I were a student, I would ask my teacher, “Why do you spend more time yelling at the misbehaving students, and not reminding me that I’m doing a great job? I would like to hear you tell me that you’re proud of me. I hate being ignored, especially when I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do.”

Question #2

If I were a student, I would ask my teacher, “Why do I have to fill-in worksheets? Do you realize I live in a tech-dependent world? Why do I have to turn in my smart phone? Why can’t I use it for learning during class time? Why am I writing on a sheet of paper, when I could be practicing on my typing skills?”

Question #3

If I were a student, I would ask my teacher, “ Do you genuinely care about me? Did you become a teacher because it’s a job or because you believe in me? I want a positive, fun, and exciting teacher. I want to come to your class, but I don’t want to be bored.”

Question #4

If I were a student, I would ask my guidance counselor, “Why don’t we meet often to discuss my academic future? Do you really want me to go to a great university or are you just saying that because it sounds nice?”

Question #5

If I were a student, I would ask my guidance counselor, “What should I be doing, now, to make sure I’m on the right path toward achieving academic success? It would be nice to have an individual education plan, not based on learning disabilities, but based on achieving MY academic goals.”

Question #6

If I were a student, I would ask my principal, “Why are certain students allowed to ruin my school’s climate? Do you realize how much time my teachers spend on redirecting disruptive students? I’m tired of not being able to learn in a fun and exciting environment, because my teacher has to waste time calling someone’s parent, or filling out a referral form?

Question #7

If I were a student, I would ask my principal, “Why do a majority of students get promoted, regardless of whether they mastered the skills they needed? Do you realize that I can tell which students have earned a promotion and which ones have not? Do you know that promoting all students, regardless of whether they earned it or not, tells me that the time and effort I put into completing my schoolwork doesn’t really matter?”

Question #8

If I were a student, I would ask my parents/guardians, “Why aren’t you a part of the my school’s PTA? Do you really want to be involved in my academic future? Do you really care about my well-being, while I’m at school?”

Question #9

If I were a student, I would ask my parents/guardians, “Why haven’t you visited my school? Don’t you want to meet my teachers? Don’t you want to see my work hanging up in the classroom? I’m proud of my work. I want you to be proud of it too.”

Question #10

If I were a student, I would ask my fellow classmates, “Why do you feel it’s ok to just show up to class? Do you really want to be a professional lawyer, doctor, artist, etc.? Do you really want to go to college, or are you just repeating a nice slogan? Do you know that you have the power and ability to control your academic success?”

Considerations

All too often education reform debates claim to speak for students. Every education reformer, think tank, specialist, etc., claims to have the students’ best interests in mind. However, what’s missing in these discussions is the students’ points-of-view or student voice. Instead of spending so much time and energy slugging it out on the top floor, we need to focus more of our attention on the classroom level. Contrary to popular opinion, every public school is not created equal. Each one will have its own set of circumstances and challenges. So, instead of spending valuable time, energy, and resources searching for the illusive panacea, we should re-calibrate our efforts and try to understand our students’ points-of-view.