14 April 2014

Policy Goes to School

In the last post, I suggested that policy work should be part of what teachers do---but it doesn't have to be labor intensive, yet another thing added to your daily routine. There are things teachers do everyday that don't look like policy (such as taking attendance), but end up as policy. It's this hidden piece I want to draw your attention to.

Recently, there was some new data released by the US Department of Education (USDOE) through its Civil Rights Data Collection. You might have seen the articles on the number of pre-school students suspended (including the disproportionality when it comes to minority children) and the variation among the states in terms of teacher credentialing. But it was the kerfuffle on course offerings that caught my eye.

According to an article on Politico, "Nationwide, at least 10 percent of high schools — and perhaps as many as 25 percent — fail to offer the complete sequence of core math and science classes: Algebra I and II, geometry, biology and chemistry... Minority students also had far less access to courses considered critical for college and career readiness. Among high schools that serve the largest share of black and Latino students, 25 percent don’t offer Algebra II and 33 percent don’t offer chemistry. Black and Latino students are also considerably less likely than peers to take Advanced Placement classes."

On the surface, this looks pretty bad, but not particularly surprising. Read on a little further and you find out that school district superintendents (or their designees) submitted the data. And while I don't think anyone purposefully doctors or intends to mislead, not all schools are alike. The article from Politico further states (emphasis mine):
The federal report found that barely half of Georgia’s high schools offered geometry; just 66 percent offered Algebra I.

Those data are just plain wrong, said Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the Department of Education. The state requires Algebra I, geometry and Algebra II for graduation, so all high schools have to offer the content — but they typically integrate the material into courses titled Math 1, 2, 3 and 4, Cardoza said. He surmised that some districts checked “no” on the survey because their course titles didn’t match the federal labels, even if the content did.

“It’s the name issue,” Cardoza said. “I think schools just didn’t know what to say.”
The term data quality refers to a variety of attributes about data, such as its timeliness, usefulness, and validity. At the end of the day, we're looking for the truth in the data. And the differences among schools can make it very difficult to find that truth. Let's take a look at these data submitted by districts to get an idea about their quality.

Suppose you're a working at a high school. You offer an algebra class...but you might not call it Algebra I. You might call it just plain Algebra. Or Algebraic Thinking. Heck, you might even have Advanced Algebra or Honors Algebra or 9th Grade Algebra. At the school level, this distinction doesn't really matter. The school has a master schedule, assigns highly qualified teachers to whatever sections it has that they identify as math. When a new student shows up and needs a math credit, everything in the student information system enables the placement.

But that isn't the end of the story. There's another layer of data that few---maybe just the registrar or district data manager, but rarely the superintendent---will ever see. There's a whole taxonomy of course codes determined by the National Center for Education Statistics. These course codes are collected by the state and are part of the district student information system. But because the district doesn't use them for anything---remember, they have their own labels---not many pay attention to what fills those fields.

Here is one example (click to embiggen):


These are the math classes for Bellevue High School for the 2012 - 13 school year. (data source here). Columns 4 - 6 include state course labels---the invisible ones---and 7 and 8 are designated for the district. So, let's dig into the last row ("Mathematics-Other") and see what the district is lumping in there.


Notice that in the second column from the right---District Course Title---we have things like Alg I Seminar, Gmtry Seminar, G-Alg 1 Seminar. We can't see the syllabi for these classes, but it's likely that algebra and geometry concepts are being taught. Kids are getting math credits and are being scheduled into math classes, but a data pull at a state or federal level will never see these.

It gets worse. Start digging through "miscellaneous" categories, and you start to see things like this:


The state course code on the left says English Language and Literature-Other...and the district has assigned biology, chemistry, physics, nanotechnology, and more to this category. Even assuming these are courses for English language learners, special education students, or other population, it's still science content---it doesn't belong in English. At this level, data quality is a real mess. And when a district submits these data to the USDOE, it distorts the number of students (especially special populations) enrolled in math courses.

This is not to say that there isn't a problem with minority students being funneled into low-level math courses...or that the problem is a lot less significant than what was reported. But I do think that as soon as state or federal level policy wonks can dismiss an issue based on data quality, we only serve to further entrench institutionalized racism.

But what to do? After all, it doesn't make a difference to the district. They have their own codes and credit systems. It does make a difference to anyone outside of that system. It's public data. Anyone can use it for any reason---from bureaucrats trying to make decisions about allocations to think-tanks sounding the alarm about equity. But it's only when these data become public and cause districts to re-examine them do the issued bubble up. We have to do it before then. Data quality needs to be integrated with daily work.

Even if you're not going to make calls and send letters to politicians, you're making policy in your classroom. I tell teachers all the time that paying attention to data quality is the simplest way to have a direct effect on policy. You might not think that attendance you took in first period matters...but it does. As it rolls up, districts will make decisions about how they make resources...states will consider policy. How many absences before a student should be considered "at-risk"? What strategies work best to improve attendance rates? What should be the legal consequences for students or parents when kids don't attend school?

If we want better policy...if we want policy makers to "get it right"...then we have to do more than complain about them. We can take accurate attendance and grades. We can review our courses in the schedule to make sure they're coded correctly. We can use community outreach programs to ensure underreprented voices are reported. You don't have to step outside of your classroom to make a difference in the outer realms of policy. You just have to realize you're connected.

11 April 2014

Hot and Steamy...Policy?

I've spent a few years watching the policy sausage get made. It isn't pretty. On the train home from a recent conference, a college professor asked me if I miss the classroom and why I keep working where I do. The answer to the first question is easy: I do. The second answer is more complicated, but a major factor is that there are very few teachers in my role---and I think that decisions made at the state level about classrooms should include a teacher's voice. Actually, I think it should include lots of teachers' voices, but policy is not a particularly arousing endeavor.

But you don't need to leave the classroom for the cube farm to have an impact on educational policy. And you don't have to go to Washington DC, either, to make a difference. So, in this post, I'll give you a few ideas to get you started. And in the next one, we'll take a look at why even small steps can be so very powerful.

Legislators know that teachers are voters. Maybe that sounds obvious, but let's face it, a lot of people who can vote don't choose to do so. But educators take their responsibility seriously. Make the phone call, send the email, or write the letter about an issue that's important to you. When you make contact, you remind them that you vote and they are accountable to that.
  • Identify the correct level of government that can make the decision. Don't like standardized testing? You can talk to someone at the federal level, but I can pretty much guarantee you that won't lead anywhere. Having said that, there are still things you can do to change outcomes if you can't have an effect at the source.
  • This leads to point two: pick your battles wisely. You have to be realistic. For example, your state legislator will know (or a staffer will remind them) that having tests is tied to federal funding---so a legislator will not eliminate them. However, they do have power over how the results of state tests are used. Does your state have policies around graduation requirements, funding formulas, or other areas tied to testing? They don't have to. Put your pressure there. You're not going to get rid of big tests. You can get rid of bad policy around how they're used.
Don't want to chat with the yahoos at the state capital? Work more locally, then. Meet with the mayor or send an email to a city council member. Sure, they don't make policy around testing (for example), but they are in regular contact with those who do. Share your opinion and experience. You might be surprised how interested others can be and where your words are repeated and shared.
  •  Be patient. Policy making is glacial. Not only does it take a long time for something to be put in place...it can take even longer to get rid of it. (Just look at NCLB...now nearly a decade past when it was to be reauthorized, but no one will touch it.) But don't mistake the lack of complete resolution to your request to represent inaction. 
  • One passionate squeaky person raises the awareness and ideas in a lot of other people. Part of my role, for example, is to advocate for our small districts. They don't have a designated person for their needs in the agency. Instead, I spend a lot of time adding "What about the little schools?" to conversations. Sometimes, that's met with "Meh." But more and more as of late, I get people telling me their stories along the lines of "I thought of you when I was talking to x about education topic y and said we needed to remember how to address what this looks like in small schools." Equity for small schools is starting to be normalized as people talk about policy. It doesn't mean those schools will see something different tomorrow, but it means there are a lot more people who will start to address them directly. Speak  up. Speak often. Even if it's just a question you raise during a hallway conversation. Put your $.02 in as consistently as you can.
Don't want to go to the mountain? You can always invited policy people to come to you. If you're convinced your legislator is clueless about what happens in a classroom...give them a clue. Ask them to come hang out for a day (or a class period). I never hear of EdCamps or other local events that actively recruit policy people. Instead, I hear attendees whine about how "they [policy wonks] don't get it." We're teachers. Why not take advantage of our skills and educate them? If you can't get your legislative representative, grab their staffer. S/He is likely the one feeding the opinions to the rep, anyway. Reach out and get the power behind the throne on your side. Again, work at local levels, if you need to.

Policy work isn't attractive to most educators. I know I don't find it sexy. However, it's important to remember that this is public education. I don't doubt for a moment that teachers are the most critical component in affecting student learning, but they are not the only part in the system. Closing the classroom door and complaining about the rest of the education world will change nothing. Make something happen. Make policy part of your work.

31 March 2014

ASCD 2014: The Travelogue Edition

Even after nine years, this is still a personal blog. Sure, the posts are more career-based, but I'd like to think my sum is more than my educator parts. So, here's the inside edition from my trip to the ASCD annual conference.

The Train
I first took an overnight trip on Amtrak for the 2010 ASCD conference in San Francisco. And I fell in love with the whole thing. I have taken several trips that time, and heading to Los Angeles and back was no exception. The Coast Starlight offers amazing views of the ocean, small town life, snow covered mountainscapes, and more. I saw a ton of wildlife---a flock of pelicans landing in the Pacific, a herd of elk moving through the Oregon Cascades, seals at the nature preserve near Salinas, California, coyotes, deer, and countless species of birds. The plant life is also fabulous. I always meet great people on the train (some are a little...different...but that makes them all the more fun to chat with over dinner). I sleep well and enjoy the opportunity to let someone else drive, cook, and clean for a few days. It's perfect for someone like me who is usually more focused on the journey than the destination.

The Hotel
I have to say that Los Angeles is full of impossibly good looking people behind every counter and order pad. The hotel was no exception, perhaps as a distraction from the IKEA meets Motel 6 interior. I did get hit on in the bar by a randy older (70+ year old) conference attendee who gave me his card and told me to call him if I was feeling "adventurous" while at ASCD. I am not uninitiated about the teachers-gone-wild attitude at conferences, but I admit that it's been a long time since I've seen it in action. Between him and the day-drunk at the bus stop who also decided I was fair game, I'm not sure what it says.

The Earthquake
I haven't felt an earthquake since the 2001 Nisqually event. I had been wondering about a California quake while wandering around the city...and then, it happened. (Not implying a cause-effect relationship, mind you.) This time, I was on the fifth floor of a building---no roaring sound, no wavy floor. But I felt it long before I saw evidence on the local morning news program on the tv. (No, I wasn't watching the station where the anchors dived under the desk.) Being in Los Angeles for an earthquake was not on my bucket list. Still isn't.

Sightseeing
Yes, I did some tourist things. I rode the open-air double decker bus through Hollywood, down the Sunset Strip, through Beverly Hills and downtown LA. California always feel a little surreal to me. The weather is too perfect, the people both good looking and friendly, and every view reminds you of a movie you've seen. Mirage or not, it's easy to see why so many people have moved there...why I had so many students who pined to go back after their families headed north.

My favourite stop, however, was the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Unlike the earthquake, this was on my bucket list. I have wanted to visit since reading Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder in the mid-90's. It is a difficult museum to describe, as it's really a meta-museum---a museum about what it means to be a museum. How do you know whether the placards beside a display are accurate? What about the ones who dedicate a specific room to someone---does the someone really exist? How do we decide what's "worthy" of display and what isn't? Mind you, none of these points are outwardly raised by the museum, but you can't help but think about them when you see an exhibit dedicated to oil paintings of dogs involved with the Russian space program, a series of artfully displayed miniature staircases with architectural information as you ascend a stairwell, or put on glasses for a 3D presentation that is ostensibly translated from the French version. After waiting nearly 20 years to visit, I have to say that the experience exceeded my expectations. If you find yourself in the City of Angels, make time to stop by.

Conference Center
I don't mean to sound sleazy, but I've been in a lot of convention centers...and the one in LA is larger than any of them. You might expect to go to a conference and do a lot of walking. If you go to LA, double your expectation. Los Angeles is not a good city for walkers---nor bike-friendly, either---but at least there is shopping, food, and more convenient to the conference. You could do worse.

My netbook died my first day in LA. So I ended up tracking down a new one (and HDMI cable) for my presentation. Tech support at the conference center was very helpful.


Have you been to LA? Were you there for ASCD? What are your favourite memories or places to visit?

27 March 2014

A Well-Measured Diet

One of the things I like about the ASCD annual conference is that it's a smorgasbord of topics. I've had a varied career---taught science, worked in an elementary, was a district curriculum specialist, done state assessment work, and so on. I like that I can catch up on these elements and reflect on how the pieces fit together.

The last session I attended at this year's conference was called "Measuring What Matters" and was presented by Giselle Martin-Kniep of Learner-Centered Initiatives. The premise for the session was that when we consider what we want most for our students, teachers, and administrators, those outcomes are either left unmeasured by the system or are present but distorted. Therefore, we should make systemic changes to our evaluations so that we align our practices with our values. In particular we should focus on performace-based measures.

This was a 30,000 foot level discussion. I don't think anyone disagreed with the premise. It speaks to the kind of system we'd all like to see. The 30 foot view...even the 3 foot view...are much different and we didn't get to that part. So, if you can set aside the "This would never work because..." side of your brain for a moment, read on.

Martin-Kniep's first point was that we are working in a system "where reliability trumps validity." In other words, we value information that confirms the same thing over and over as opposed to whether or not the information is true. Call it what you like---confirmation bias, echo chamber---we like to surround ourselves with the familiar. Somehow, we need to find ways to reach out of our comfort zone.

Maybe that's like going to a new-to-you restaurant with types of food. Martin-Kniep stated that "Our measurement diet is extremely poor." She expanded the analogy to advocate for performance assessments that are nutrient (data) rich. I really liked this idea. A well-balanced diet has different components---we can't, or shouldn't, subsist on junk food alone. You can be vegetarian, but you have to find different ways to include protein. A well-measured evaluation system must also be diverse and rich with opportunity to gain the data we want.

Finally, Martin-Kniep advocated for us to remember that it is "important to look at student work not just for learning gaps, but also whether it is respectful of what we value." Whether or not you are able to translate the ideals presented during this session into action in your school, this last point is a commitment we can make. I won't claim that it is easy, but taking a moment to reflect on the tasks we provide students and the tools we use to evaluate teachers and principals is important. Do they measure what they should? (Are they valid?) Do they measure what we want them to? (Are they aligned?) Do they measure what we value (e.g. creative thinking, citizenship, problem-solving, collaboration)?

It's "testing season" in most places. Schools are focused on state tests---or even giving the new national tests a try. Martin-Kniep's session was a good reminder for me of the importance of making sure that we continue to push for multiple ways for students to show what they know...to keep pushing for the well-measured diet of assessment strategies.

25 March 2014

I'm Not Racist, But...

I tend to look at equity through a different lens these days. Our work with small schools is driven by a need for equity---for teachers, for students, and for communities. The effort to be effective with data means applying a critical lens to implications of what we collect, who collects it, and why. But these are not conversations a lot of (white) people want to have. It's an uncomfortable space, although that's no reason not to engage.

So, with that in mind, I've been tracking a variety of short conversations over the past week.

Part One: Strangers on a Train
I rode Amtrak to the ASCD conference. There is a wine tasting each afternoon and I decided to join a table with a woman who had immigrated from Mexico three years ago, and her father, who was visiting from Mexico City. One of the things they commented on was the Amtrak crew, which was comprised of several different races. They said that where they were from, that wouldn't happen. "It's not that we're racist," they said, "it's just that we don't mix."

I've been thinking about that comment. Is racism a universal construct...or can it differ by culture? If so, what are the implications for how we address racism in our classrooms and institutions? Are there varying degrees of racism---can one be "a little bit racist" unlike being "a little bit pregnant"? I haven't a clue what the answers are, but they've been interesting to kick around in my head. What do you think?

Part Two: Stories from the Field
Purchase a copy from Heinemann
One of the more interesting sessions I attended was presented by Sonia Nieto. She shared what she's learned from interviews with teachers for her recent book: Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds.

Nieto states that there is not a single pathway to being a culturally responsive teacher...no list of best practices that will transform a classroom. While she didn't provide any particular supporting evidence for her statement, I suspect that it has to do with the very nature of diversity itself. Classrooms are a complex mix of personalities, curriculum, and teaching and learning.

Based on her interviews, Nieto shared some insight into how these teachers keep their passions aflame for the work they do. I didn't capture them all, but here are a few:
  1. Teaching is an act of love: empathy, solidarity, respect, and expectations. This includes getting kids to goals.
  2. Teaching is an ethical act. You not only have the right, but the responsibility to teach ALL kids.
  3. Teachers are learners. Look for diverse experiences to engage with.
  4. Teaching is political work. We must be advocates.
Nieto made some powerful statements---ones that will stick with me for a long time. First, if you believe that all students have the right to dream...we must do better. And secondly, from a quote from one of the teachers she interviewed, "Don't wait for kids to be who you want them to be before you teach them. They're ready to learn now. Put your 'stuff' away and work."

Part Three: Distractions
Do we look for bright shiny things to distract ourselves from the conversations we really need to be having in education?

Tweet by Teresa Bunner: Because we don't want to talk about race or racism. We want to talk about tech. Much more "fun"/safer.
https://twitter.com/RdngTeach/status/445225748908228609

I saw this a lot this year at ASCD, which was rather disappointing. The reason why this conference has been so brilliant in the past is simply because it isn't ISTE. It's a conference for everyone---people in all walks of education, in all stages of their career, and with all levels of interest. We don't need more silicon-based pablum from the iPad crowd. ISTE already provides a venue for that. We need leadership and focus here on what's best for all students...not just those with their nose to the screen.

Part Four: The Exhibit Hall
I took a tour through the exhibit hall, specifically looking for data tools. (You can read more about what I found here.) I mention it here, not because what I found was racist...but because it applies to a different facet of diversity: disability. As I chatted with one of the vendors, I asked them how they checked on accessibility. Their answer: "We don't." Seriously? You design a web-based tool to sell to schools and districts and do absolutely no work to make your product accessible to everyone. I'm not sure how this is okay. If anything, the web should make content and tools better for all...not just usable by some. Not that they had a product worth mentioning to begin with, but I certainly won't be endorsing it to any school district I work with now.


A colleague at work simply says "Get over it." when someone suggests that discussions about race are hard. It's another way of saying "Put your 'stuff' away." And maybe this is how we need to provide a pointed, but gentle, reminder to those we work with. Whatever the answers are, we won't find them until we at least try to ask the questions.

23 March 2014

We Have to Believe We Are Magic

With all the fuss about new standards and assessments, teacher and principal evaluations, and other outside pressures on schools, it's easy to lose sight of a well-balanced approach to our classrooms. Washington Montessori, in Greensboro, North Carolina, is working hard to meet the challenge of focusing on the whole child. The school is the 2014 recipient of the Vision in Action: The ASCD Whole Child Award.

Principal Sharon Jacobs says of her school that "our teachers are the magicians and the children are our superstars." Jacobs has a quiet assured presence. Dressed in school colors, a warm smile, and long strands of pearls, she speaks with unguarded passion about the teachers, families, and students of her school, the journey they have taken together over the last several years, and her hopes for the future.

Jacobs brought an enthusiastic team of educators with her to the ASCD conference to receive the award: Paulita Musgrave and Shanta Buchanan from the curriculum team; Gillian Hill, Erin Deal, and Eileen Martin from the teaching staff. I don't think anything made me smile more over the last week than seeing the faces of these women when Ms. Jacobs told them about the award---the secret finally shared with the larger audience. For Jacobs, the work is not solely about the whole child, it is also about the whole teacher and the whole parent.

Teachers list Jacobs's strength as her ability as a communicator. She often begins conversations with "I need your help..." or asks what staff need in order to meet the needs of students. The school has changed greatly over the last decade. Not only has it had to rebuild from a threatened shutdown due to poor performance, it has transformed to Montessori methods and the staff has grown from 20 to 70. Eileen, one of the teachers, was originally a paraeducator and bus driver for the school. Jacobs understands how to grow people---how to help them recognize and build on their assets.

The positive effects they've had on student learning are not solely because of the principal, as she is the first to admit. It has taken effort on the part of everyone to make this difference. There is a lot of support from parents and families in the classroom and in the district. Parents from the school now lead sessions on Common Core and other topics for parents across the school district. Students also help by teaching parents at family nights. They set out the lesson materials and lead the learning experiences.

Principal Jacobs also speaks to the legacy of her school---part of the building was constructed in 1915 and she and the staff feel a responsibility to keep the story of the school alive. More importantly, however, is the legacy they are building in the abilities and dreams of their students.

This school is magic, indeed. Congratulations, Washington Elementary!

16 March 2014

It's That Time Again!

It's March, and you know what that means around Ye Olde Blog: it's ASCD Annual Conference time. This time, we're in Los Angeles for three days of professional learning. Jason, from Always Formative, and Jen, from Elementary My Dear or Far from It, are here blogging, too---so be sure to click on over and check out their lens on this event.

I'm presenting this afternoon at 3.The session is on how to Use Data to Tell Your Story and you download (and explore) the resources here.


I've been attending sessions around equity, data use, and sundry things that may support work with rural districts. Posts coming soon.