Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shifting the Responsibility for Creating Good Schools Back to the Principals Who Run Them

A disclaimer:  The following is purely an opinion piece and I welcome any insight into what is written here that may serve to shed light on the process of teacher evaluation...

There is a great deal of ongoing discussion about what is wrong with our schools, how to fix them, how to gauge student performance, and whether to utilize student performance data when evaluating individual teachers.

I contend that we need to start looking at our schools like a corporation and applying the same expectations to them, specifically in terms of management.  A principal typically earns, in our county, $80,000 a year, sometimes tens of thousands more.  They oversee a staff of some 50 people.  Like corporate executives, they must deal with all number of issues all of which involve running a successful division within the budgetary constraints of the company, including dealing with upper management and everyday staffing.  An individual school is the same as a division in a corporation; the principal the same as a vice president.  And like a corporate division in which the vice president is ultimately accountable for his or her division, a school principal is accountable for his or her teachers.

In a nutshell, I would say that the furor over teacher accountability needs to change to a furor over principal accountability, and that, among the things a principal should be held accountable for, the quality and effectiveness of their staff should be number one.

Touching back on teacher performance, I've had many discussions with both teacher and parents on the subject, and I've come to my own conclusion that the practice of tying test scores to teacher performance is patently unfair.  The teaching profession is unique in that you can't utilize the success or failure of the student population as a gauge of teacher competence because it's such a moving target.  That is, in a class of 24 or 30 students, every one of those students has their own unique situation going on at home that plays a bigger role in their success at school than what the teacher is doing during instructional time.  But we have, as a nation, been unable to come up with any other methodology for gauging teacher performance, and we need to.

Despite all of the obstacles that a teacher faces in their profession - low pay, long hours, and twenty different bosses so to speak - the fact remains they chose teaching as a profession despite those obstacles.  It is not much for them to expect to deserve to be evaluated in some meaningful and fair way as to their competency level.

The fact is, there are many good teachers out there, but there are just as many bad ones.  I have encountered innovative, creative teachers who have utilized all sorts of cool activities and project that have engaged their students while still teaching all of the curriculum required by the Board of Education.  And I have encountered mediocre teachers who flat out don't know how to challenge students at individual levels, and who see no need to move a centimeter outside of the required curriculum to stoke any fire whatsoever that might be inside these kids.  I have heard stories of teachers who not only teach poorly, but who teach inaccurate information as well.  By evaluating teachers differently, we can weed out the poor teachers, and encourage an influx into the profession of excellent ones.

So, going back to the school as corporate division idea ... like a corporate executive, part of a principal's job is hiring qualified staff and managing that staff properly.  It is a principal's responsibility to find a good teacher, one who is uniquely qualified for the position, who can prove in an interview that they bring something excellent to the table, and who can provide examples of ways they stand apart from the other applicants in what they plan to bring to the classroom and the students.

It's my opinion that this isn't currently happening.  Too often in schools, hiring is an afterthought, done under the gun when time is short and a position needs to be filled with a warm body.  I have personally dealt with teachers who have been hired last minute in this manner, and who have been mediocre at best.  This is simply unacceptable - how can we expect excellence from our students when we are putting such little priority on the hiring process?

I realize the constraints that a principal must work with from a budgetary perspective - they have to prove the need for every teacher they hire.  There are classroom caps in place that dictate whether and when they can hire a teacher at all.  They may deal with a limited labor pool.  But that's their job.  That's part of what they get paid to do.  So they must do everything they can to make hiring a top priority.  They must do everything they can to put the best and most innovative professionals in place.  Doing so creates good schools filled with good teachers.  It creates competition.  It creates excellence.

And of course, hiring an excellent teacher does not mean the principal's job is done.  Like corporate employees, the teachers must be evaluated, not on student test scores, but on their own performance.  We must accept that the profession of teaching is unique to all others in that the end result of their performance is impossible to evaluate.  You simply cannot say that a teacher has done a good job or a poor job based on whether the majority of a class of 25 or 30 students have passed a test.  The quality of the teacher's day-to-day teaching is the only real thing on which we can evaluate them.

For teachers, this evaluation is traditionally done through classroom observation at random times of the school year.  This is effective only if it's tweaked to yield more meaningful results.   Principals need to treat evaluations not as an afterthought, but as a priority.  Observations need to take place more often, and outside of testing times.  They need to take place not at the very beginning or very end of the year, but throughout the year.  Teachers need to be evaluated not only on whether they're hitting all of the base curriculum objectives outlined by the Board, but on how they teach, how they engage their students, whether and how they're thinking outside the box in their teaching and what innovations they're using.

When a principal, like a corporate executive, makes hiring and meaningful observation and evaluation a priority, they can create and maintain a staff of excellent teachers.  This levels the playing field, creates necessary competition, encourages innovation, and creates a teaching environment in which teachers know they are the best of the best and valued for what they do.  It eliminates the misguided effort within the American education system to desperately attempt to gauge our student and teacher success through testing and its results.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Case 21 Tests and Single Subject Acceleration

A brief note about Case 21's, for those of you who aren't familiar with them ...

Case 21 tests are benchmark assessments administered at NC schools periodically throughout the year.  The tests typically have anywhere from 50 questions on them and take an hour or so to complete, and they are administering them this year to students as early as second grade.  It's my experience that many parents are only vaguely aware of them, since the school typically keeps them under the radar.

The tests are aligned with the EOG's and the Common Core curriculum and are meant solely as a tool for teachers to periodically see whether their students are learning the required material.  However, at least in Wake County, and at least according to our school's AIG teacher, Central Office is encouraging the use of a student's results on the Case 21 tests as an indicator of whether that student is an appropriate candidate for higher level AIG services, specifically Single Subject Acceleration.

Single Subject Acceleration or SSA, by the way, is a new offering by WCPSS, in which certain identified academically gifted students may be able to remain in their current grade, but take Math or English with a higher grade level.  Though this is being offered at both the elementary and middle school levels, it seems more suited to middle school since that is when students begin changing classes for each subject. At the elementary level, it's logistically difficult to provide a situation in which a handful of students are being taught at the higher level - it would require some planning, I think, to put this in place, and since it's so new, individual schools are still trying to work it out.  At our school, the current solution is for students to learn via an online format.

But back to Case 21 and how they factor into SSA and other interventions typically available to students...

The shortcomings of Case 21 are these (aside from the fact that it's yet another test):  This year, the first year that Common Core has been put into practice, is what I would call a norming year.  In other words, everything is in the process of being realigned.  So the Case 21 test questions are being written to try to match up with the new Common Core curriculum, but it's going to take some time before that happens accurately.  For example, some of the questions administered, say, on the second quarter Case 21, include material that may not have been covered yet by the teacher in class, because they're trying to normalize standards for what is taught when and that doesn't yet align with the schedule of questions on the Case 21's.  Additionally, some of the results for certain questions had to be thrown out, as they were found to have been flawed in some way - either poorly written, or containing more than one correct answer, or the like.  So the actual student score is not much of an indicator of anything.

This would be all fine and good, but if it's true that WCPSS is encouraging administrators to use the scores as a determining factor for access to SSA, then there's a problem.  Clearly, the tests aren't a reliable indicator for the reasons stated above, and in fact, there should be a whole host of criteria that is used for consideration of things like SSA.  After all, the schools certainly require an unwieldy battery of aptitude tests to determine students eligibility for initial access to AIG offerings.

It's true that SSA is relatively new, and I'm sure WCPSS is trying to work out the kinks which, like all things involved in government and education takes far longer than it should.  But this seems like a far too simplistic approach, and therefore, what's the point?  If this is how they, or individual AIG teachers, plan on determining students for additional services, then they're not going to be appropriately reaching all students who may qualify and that is fundamentally flawed.

EOG's and Common Core

EOG'S for Wake County Track One students take place today and tomorrow.   Here are some quick facts about this year's tests:

Because of the implementation of the new Common Core standards this year, the EOG's will look a little different this year.  The main difference is that scores will not be released anytime soon.  Our school, Sanford Creek Elementary, has provided a tentative timeline of October of 2013 for the release of the scores.

Basically, the material on the tests has changed in order to align with the Common Core curriculum.  The Department of Public Instruction needs to have time to norm all of the scores - to determine based on the overall results, what now constitutes an achievement of a 1, 2, 3, and 4 on the tests.

This means that there will be no retakes of the test this year.  In the past, tests were scored fairly quickly and students who scored a 1 or 2 had to take a retest in order to ensure the scores weren't an anomaly.  Final score results played a role in determining whether a student was retained or received intervention of some sort.

So, essentially, while this year's tests will eventually provide educators and parents some information about student progress, they do not provide much immediate guidance for schools in terms of placement for intervention.  Therefore, parents, be on the lookout for what the school may be utilizing instead as guidance, whether you're looking for your child to be eligible for additional tutoring / help in areas where they may be struggling, or looking for your child to be included in the academically gifted offerings available at your school.

Because all of these offerings are limited in scope due to ever-increasing budgetary restrictions, it is worthwhile to stay on top of this info so your child does not miss out on an appropriate learning opportunity.