Teacher Accountability & PLCs

 [This post was written with contributions from Cari Begin of Performance ED, LLC]

Teacher Evaluation & Accountability reform has been firmly placed on an educational front burner becoming a hot topic of state boards of education, district boards across the US, local school administrators, teacher advocate groups, teacher unions, the media and the general public. {The topic has also served as a seemingly endless source of material for blog posts, this one not excepting.}

This year, the NEA (National Education Association) has adopted a Policy Statement on Teacher Evaluation and Accountability; many individual state teacher unions as in Delaware, Missouri, Oregon and others have begun initiatives honing guidelines for teacher evaluation.  In North Carolina, Pay-for-Performance and the new North Carolina Teacher Evaluation Process (NCTEP) will affect almost a hundred thousand teachers beginning next year.

 In Charlotte, where the authors have spent recent years as Professional Development Coordinators, we witnessed first-hand the groundswell of anxiety with which the NCTEP was met by teachers.  In our opinion, the NCTEP is a solid, though far from perfect, document; but like most evaluation instruments, its use in practice exists in a context of evaluator intention – principals’ intentions, in this case.   In a climate of shrinking budgets and Reductions-in-Force (RIFs), it’s hard to convince teachers that the NCTEP is an instrument for professional growth and not for ridding faculties of their ineffective teachers.  Regardless of how principals actually use the instrument, teacher perception of possible misuse quickly pins teachers’ stress needles.

 All this is not to suggest that we think teacher evaluation and accountability is a bad thing.  It is not.  Nor do we oppose, a priori, the notion of external teacher evaluation based in part on student performance.  (We said, “in part.” 🙂   Our query is this:

Regardless of the criteria or instrument used in evaluating teachers, At what point do we teachers begin to hold each other accountable?  Lawyers do it, doctors do it, journalists do it, basketball players and filmmakers do it.  When will teachers wean themselves from their dependency on edicts of administrators and hold one another to the standards of high quality teaching?  After all, if we were doing this all along, there wouldn’t be such a need for external evaluation and imposed accountability systems.  There will always be some degree of external evaluation and that’s not unreasonable.  But isn’t it high time we did some serious self evaluation and took action based on that evaluation?  Are we not the ones in best position to decide what is not working and what it might take to improve those things?

 There is no telling when teachers will move toward active (both proactive and reactive) self-evaluation but we’re quite sure how this will happen.  It will involve teachers working together as authentic professional learning communities (PLCs).  Self-evaluation and self-accountability will require big doses of trust and honesty among educators – the degree of trust and honesty found in authentic PLCs.

 It’s not that we should do it; it’s more that we must do it.  Would educators really prefer the continued bombardment of external evaluation and accountability systems to sitting down together and having honest, often hard, conversations about what is needed to do better by kids?   We don’t think so.

Daniel R. Venables and Cari Begin are Education Consultants with the Center for Authentic PLCs.

To invite them to your school, district, or event, contact them at www.authenticPLCs.com.





Professional “Doing” Communities (PDCs)

As I visit schools which have requested my assistance with their Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), I am regularly exposed to what I have started calling PDCs – Professional Doing Communities.

PDCs are characterized by subject-specific (in the case of 6 – 12) or grade-specific (in the case of K – 5) teams of teachers who spend coveted common planning time doing any or all of the following:

(1)  deciding the pacing for the next topic to teach – which day will we introduce topic X, which day will we test topic Y, or

(2)  completing some (usually) administration-dictated template for the next week of lessons, or

(3)  sharing – almost always without feedback – various activities (usually from the more veteran teachers) that have worked in years past for some upcoming topic

Paradoxically, despite pinpoint focus on these teaching-related tasks, PDCs almost never talk about teaching and learning.  Not really.  They are so focused on doing – and planning the next doing – that they rarely engage one another in conversations that allow for serious questioning or discussing the why? and the how? of all the what? they talk about.  PDCs are characteristically focused on the what?.

In my work with these teacher teams, they almost always have a deep and obvious care for the kids in their charge.  They want to do right by them.  But for some reason (often explainable by the dictates of cookie-cutter-thinking administrators) these teacher teams seem unempowered to step back from the doing long enough to engage in serious talk about what we as teachers do and how that affects kids’ learning.  Maybe they put a little too much literal stock in DuFour’s Learning By Doing (DuFour, 2006).

I’m not convinced that teachers “learn by doing” so much as they merely “do by doing”, at least when it comes to working in collaborative teams.  Teachers learn when they “construct community knowledge” (Venables, 2011, p. 31).  They learn when they pursue new ideas and new knowledge together, in real time.  This puts the “L” in PLC for me, and it is something that PDCs – however well-intentioned – rarely get to do.  dven.

[Daniel R. Venables is author of The Practice of Authentic PLCs:  A Guide to Effective Teacher Teams (2011, Corwin) and Executive Director of The Center for Authentic PLCs.]

When Losers Win

(My apologies for my recent hiatus in posting…I have focused all writing energies into finishing a book that will be released on 1/11/11 by Corwin Press.  It’s still in production, so there’s more to do when I get the galley pages to proof and final edits.  Corwin has posted information for those interested: here)

At a time when it’s easy and very often appropriate to bash the efforts of the Obama administration and Arne Duncan and the latest incarnation of NCLB, I would like to offer a bit of positive praise for the Race to the Top campaign.

While only 9 states (and DC) are still in the running for the federal funds, the enormous amount of serious planning and restructuring to meet the requirements and the goals of the campaign by many, nearly all, states can only be a good thing.

The thinking behind Race to the Top was very clever.  There is only so much federal money available, not all states can be recipients, so have a competition that forces states to engage in serious tactical planning and restructuring to meet the goals.    After all, many of the efforts will endue, even in cases where states were not finalists, and those efforts can help lots of kids.  Sure, some states who receive no money will have to abort their elaborate plans due to a lack of funding, but many will pursue what they’ve started, even if in scaled down (and therefore self-fundable) forms.

Some states are disgruntled on not being finalists.  They claim that too many states who received the finalist status are clumped on the Eastern seaboard; others claim that more “blue” states will get the funding and that this reflects political maneuvering on the part of the administration.  Still others are disgruntled because they’re, well, just sore losers.

No matter.  The good that is likely to come from this cleverly designed competition for funds is, I believe, undeniable.  Kids will benefit in many cases – regardless of whether the state in which they reside is a finalist.

What do you think?  dven.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Diane Ravitch has written a new book on education, titled The Death and Life of the Great American School System:  How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.  For readers unfamiliar with Dr. Ravitch, she is a research professor of Education at New York University and served under George H. Bush as Assistant Secretary of Education.  President Clinton appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal testing.  She has had a heavy hand in subsequent federal policy, including No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

In her new book, Dr. Ravitch is forthright about her prominent influence in American Educational policy and in the fact that she has changed her mind about the merits of NCLB.  What once seemed to be a sensible policy of accountability and choice, she asserts, has turned out in practice to undermine education in general and failed to serve the scores of kids the law was originally designed to help.

I must admit not having finished her book at the time of this post, but what I’ve read so far compels me to write this blog recommending it to all educators and policymakers.  She has a lot to offer and she does so from the inside, with credibility and candor.  Do check it out.  dven.

Inauthentic Math Contexts

In my role as a PD Coordinator for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and also as an outside consultant in other districts, I get many opportunities to observe classes.  I see episodes of great teaching and I routinely share strategies with other teachers from strategies I observed in action.  But in one seventh grade math class I recently visited (pre-EOC review), the teacher had this problem on the SmartBoard for her kids to solve:

Johnny went bowling and had the following scores for his games:  100, 150, 200, 300.  Find the LCM (Least Common Multiple) of his scores.

What?  The LCM of his bowling scores? This problem may have been an attempt on the teacher’s part to provide a real-world context – instead of a question that simply asked students to find the LCM of 100, 150, 200, and 300.   This would have been a perfectly fine problem.  But the context she offered seemed to me to be grossly inauthentic for at least three reasons.

First, nobody is named “Johnny” anymore (Ok, it’s a pet peeve of mine when teachers refer to the typical or representative kid as “Johnny.”).

Second, who bowls a 100 (a crappy score) and then bowls a perfect game (300) just three games later?

Third, and most importantly, who ever calculates the LCM of their bowling scores? This is a totally useless calculation in this context.  The LCM, 600, means nothing in the context of bowling scores.  I could see if she asked kids to find the mean of the four scores, but the LCM?!

How can we expect kids to see the usefulness and purpose of the math concepts we teach them when we offer such lame examples?  It’s not as if the LCM of a set of numbers doesn’t have authentic applications in the real world (e.g., in digital music tracking when repeating sequences are played together but vary in bar length).

Is it that the teacher didn’t really understand the value of finding LCMs or what LCMs really mean?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that if we’re going to bother assigning a real-world context to a math calculation we’re asking kids to perform, we ought to make it a little more realistic.  Our students’ value, respect, and sense of purpose of what they’re learning is in the balance.  dven.

EOC Prep v. Actual Learning

Crunch time.  All 200 schools in my district are furiously preparing, once again, for state EOCs.  Reviewing, relooping, and reteaching all the stuff kids used to know or never learned at all for the dreaded state assessments in a week.  Everybody’s nervous:  district folks, principals, teachers, and, to a disturbingly lesser degree, students.  In an era of severe budget cuts and district-wide RIFing (reduction in force), everybody’s ass is on the line.  Everybody except maybe the students themselves.  Most will be promoted to the next grade or course regardless of how they perform on state EOCs, provided they pass the courses based on the traditional teacher-assigned grades.

Something is terribly wrong with this picture.  Students should be the largest stakeholders in all this, yet many could care less and some may not even show up on test day.

I can’t help but think:  If there were no NCLB-induced state testing in a week, what might these classroom teachers be doing with their kids?  Might students be actually learning new things related to their course content, instead of learning how to eliminate choices in multiple-choice test items?

I get that NCLB has increased state, local and teacher accountability in good ways.  But this week, it seems like it has completely interfered with quality teaching and learning.  dven.

Reform Effort Du Jour

For a profession that is constantly bombarded by a continuous flow of reform initiatives like we are in education it’s amazing to me how slowly our wheel of improvement turns.  Maybe it’s because we’re constantly trying the next reform effort du jour and we never seem to stick to one effort long enough for it to show significant gains in student achievement.  Why are we so ADD about what we focus on?  How can we ever see significant and sustainable progress when we keep changing our minds about what we want to do and where we will put our collective and individual energies?

It’s easy to blame policy makers at state and local levels for this schitzo behavior patterns; but truth be told, I have seen this happen equally at the building level, by nervous school house administrators whose worries about student performance immobilize them from having a clear vision for what to do and how to do it.

It’s no wonder that teachers – particularly veteran teachers – who have weathered so many failed initiatives in their tenure become apathetic to the latest idea embraced by zealous administrators.

Then, when an initiative comes along that does have proven merit to really make differences for kids, like building authentic PLCs in school faculties; it is often met with cynicism, skepticism and resistance by otherwise caring faculties.  This notion is particularly dear to me; I’ve written an entire book on how to do PLCs well (Corwin press, forthcoming in early 2011).

It’s not that teachers don’t want to improve and be more effective.  In my work consulting in schools, I believe nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s that the history in many schools of constantly trying out the latest educational fad in half-hearted, short-lived and unsupported ways have created reasonable doubt that the next idea will work or be around long enough to bother personally investing in it.  The net results is a continuance of the status quo and a deceleration of the wheel of progress – all at the cost of our students’ education and their future opportunities. dven.

[If you are interested, go to corwin.com in January of 2011 to preorder your copy of Daniel Venables’ book, The Practice of Authentic PLCs:  A Guide to Effective Teacher Teams]