Monday, April 7, 2014

On Teachers United, WEA Rep Assembly, and Engaging New Educators

I arrived back in Seattle yesterday morning from my first experience at the WEA's Representative Assembly in Spokane, and I learned a lot.

I've been a part of a number of different teachers unions in my day (TEA, WTU, UFT, WEA), and I came back from the WEA RA feeling that the WEA is overwhelmingly the strongest among them.

Had you asked me about teachers unions ten years ago, I probably would have told you that I was skeptical of their work. I would have told you that teachers unions are mostly about protecting their members' compensation, jobs, and pensions.

You see, when I began teaching, I was eager to learn as much as I could about teaching. At the time, most of the media was in agreement about the necessary fixes to our system of public education: fire bad teachers; hire younger, more effective ones; get rid of tenure; consider complete school makeovers when tests failed to show academic improvement. It was all I ever read about in Newsweek or TIME, or heard about on the news.

So, in 2009 I left the state of Washington to work in the city of Washington, DC to find out if what Michelle Rhee was doing there was really working. By the time I returned to Washington State from the East Coast, my take on public education and teachers unions had shifted dramatically (see posts here and here).

If you ask me about teachers unions today, I would still tell you they serve to protect teachers' compensation, jobs, and pensions. But I would add that the good ones also serve to protect democracy, the 'public' in 'public education,' and the educational values that I hold dear. I do not believe that unions are comprised of saints, but I've come a long way in ten years.

I know I'm not the only idealistic, type-A college grad to have been disillusioned by what passes for education reform these days. I've met a number of others. A group of us even considered starting a blog at one time to share our stories. (Note: Diane Ravitch's thinking also did an about-face.)

It's because of the changes I've gone through in my career that I spoke in favor of a new business item presented before the WEA RA Saturday night by Daniel Calderon of Federal Way and Evin Shinn of the Highline School District.

Their proposed NBI recommended: "That WEA identify early career teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness and leadership in the classroom and/or school community and that WEA establish a year-long, online fellowship that offers professional development on union leadership for those teachers, including three two-day, in-person meetings during the year and using existing resources such as the professional development network."

At the beginning of the debate around this NBI, I had the sense that a majority of the body seemed to support it. The conversations I heard going on were mostly in favor, and many members spoke in favor. But then, after about six or seven speakers, it was brought to the body's attention that the makers of the motion may have been connected with a Gates funded group out of Seattle known as Teachers United.

I don't know if Daniel or Evin are members of TU, or even what it takes to be a member of TU (I've been to a few meetings myself), but knowing Evin's thoughts on education relatively well, and having eaten lunch with Daniel earlier in the day, I think it would be fair to say that the makers of this NBI did think like most of the members of TU. In other words, their views on testing and teaching are not in line with a majority of WEA members. However, to be sure, Daniel and Evin are members of the WEA. 

When the final vote came on the NBI, after many members of the body had had a chance to look up TU, it was overwhelmingly defeated.

And I had a hard time accepting that.

As strong as the WEA is, and as much as I believe it to be, by far, the best professional association I've been a part of, I don't believe we do ourselves any favors by failing to address something that is a real problem: a lack of newer educator involvement in WEA.

Of course, opponents of this NBI were deeply concerned that it would serve a more sinister purpose. Perhaps the language would somehow be construed in order to serve some corporate reform agenda.

I don't think so.

Take young teachers, listen to what they have to say, and engage them in honest conversations about what's right for students, and I think that's a discussion where the truth comes out on top every time. It certainly happened for me.

I found what happened Saturday night to be deeply concerning, not because the body choose to vote against it in the end, but because of how it happened and what happened afterward.

Many of us reacted quickly and out of fear, and to be fair, that's understandable. But following the vote, were quick to laud a "take down" of TU over Twitter and Facebook. Delegates discussed the nefariousness of Bill Gates and his money (despite the fact that most teachers have worked on some project or another tied to Gates money). 

If I had witnessed that happen ten years ago, I would have thought, "These people are just here to protect their own interests. Never mind that this body is far from representative of teachers in Washington State in terms of age and political leaning. I think I'll be going somewhere else to effect change in education." And I wouldn't blame Daniel or Evin for thinking the same.

I'm afraid we may have missed an opportunity for real dialogue. I understand why. We have real reasons to be afraid and angry about the direction education policy is headed. But I urge all of us not to let those emotions stop us from engaging in real conversations with those who disagree with us. Who knows, we might just learn something.

There are new educators entering our system all the time, and many of them have very different perspectives than we do. If we don't engage and listen to them, they may very well stop listening to us.

Friday, March 14, 2014

New Teacher and Principal Evaluation System Driving Out Principals?

If your Washington State school is anything like mine, your administrator(s) has/have been so overburdened with completing documents related to the new TPEP system, they've hardly had time to be administrators.

As I was talking this over with my administrator, she pointed out that there are more openings for principals in our region than she's ever seen (and it's only March). Her boss at the district told me that he agreed with her opinion. They both also agree that the burdens of TPEP are probably a cause of much of this. They went on to imagine that lots of principals close enough to retirement are happy to get away from what is a nightmare workload.

Administrator Openings in King County (

Principals at poorer schools, where there are more teachers newer to the profession, are forced to complete more comprehensive evaluations than other schools, taking away time they would otherwise have to do all the other things principals need to do.

Our principal is leaving after this year, and there is a real worry that we will be left with few, if any, qualified candidates to take our principalship - particularly since we're a small school (which means less pay and more work) and we have an extremely high rate of students who are high-needs. An administrator I know told me that she doubts many experienced administrators would want to touch the job at my school a ten-foot pole.

I think this issue deserves media attention. The outrageously burdensome new teacher evaluation system in WA has really taken a toll on administrators. Schools having to hire new principals this fall may suffer, as many may be forced hire from mediocre candidate pools. If this happens, and instruction suffers, few in the public will see any connection to the teacher evaluation system. What was supposed to support quality instruction in the classroom might lead to poor leadership in the principal's office. And nearly everyone in schools understands just how important it is to have an excellent leader.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Washington State Legislature Considers Tying Test Scores to Teacher and Principal Evaluations

Two bills currently under consideration before the legislature in Olympia, Senate Bill 5880 and House Bill 2800, would mandate the inclusion of state test scores in both teacher and principal evaluations.

These bills were introduced after US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Governor Jay Inslee that he would not consider extending a federal waiver currently in place beyond this year if state test scores were not included in teacher and principal evaluations. The current waiver allows Washington schools more control in the way they direct Title I funds and frees them from having to send letters to parents indicating their schools are not meeting the goals NCLB set for them when it was passed.

In other words, Duncan sent a clear message to our state: tie test scores to evaluations OR lose discretion in the way you spend federal money and send home the letters (nearly 100% of WA schools are failing by NCLB standards).

After Duncan's meeting with Inslee, the governor and Washington's state superintendent sponsored HB 2800, which mandates the inclusion of test scores in teacher evaluations beginning with the 2017-2018 school year.

Many Democratic proponents of HB 2800 and SB 5880 argue that this is a necessary measure if we want to avoid losing federal money and sending home loads of letters indicating to parents that our schools are failing. One of my own legislators, Democrat Eric Pettigrew, expressed exactly these sentiments as I followed him down one of the hallways of the legislative building yesterday. In a later meeting with teachers, Democratic Representative Mia Gregerson expressed similar concerns if the bills fail to muster the necessary votes.

It is not accurate that the Title I money would be lost, however. It would be redirected. This seems not to be understood by some lawmakers. The possible consequences of that redirection are debatable.

Dr. Susan Enfield, the superintendent of my school district, Highline, sent out an email to Highline staff yesterday explaining why she was in Olympia lobbying in favor of HB 2800. Among her reasons were: 1) she is concerned with the way the redirection of Title I funds would affect HSD schools; 2) she believes we may lose our Race to the Top grant money (applied for with seven other districts in the surrounding area); and 3) she is concerned that the labeling of so many of our schools as ineffective would be detrimental to the community's perception of the good work we're doing.

I will allow her point 1. She knows better than I how the redirection of funds might affect schools. But I, and many others, take issue with points 2 and 3.

I listened to House Education Committee Chair Sharon Tomiko Santos speak at length with Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp yesterday in the halls of the legislative building. Knapp pointed out that a memorandum of understanding included in the Race to the Top Application that Seattle and Highline were granted last year makes it clear that our access to that money will not be affected by whether test scores are tied to teacher and principal evaluations. Santos asked for those documents, and Knapp promised to supply them. If Knapp is correct, then it would appear that Dr. Enfield has no grounds for concern.

Dr. Enfield's third concern was that letters going out to families informing them that their schools are not meeting AYP would be detrimental to our community. Possibly. But, if these bills fail, those letters will also be going out to nearly every other family in our state with a student in public schools. I, for one, would welcome that. I think it would raise public awareness of a terribly flawed federal law.

When it comes down to it, tying high-stakes tests to teacher evaluations is bad policy. 

In some ways it makes sense that a superintendent would support such a policy. Dr. Enfield is, after all, judged on her ability to raise test scores by the public. The more she can create teacher and principal ownership of that, the more likely she is to succeed in that endeavor. But there are very grave concerns about using tests in such a manner, and a number of other Washington superintendents wrote to oppose the bills.

Lots of research suggests that the results of high-stakes tests may correlate more strongly with a student's zip code and parents' educational background than with the student's knowledge of the subject ostensibly being assessed (see Michael Marder). Importantly, test makers across the country warn that their tools are NOT designed to evaluate teacher effectiveness, much less principal effectiveness.

While many among the public are concerned that poor test results are indicative of an ineffective school, teacher, or principal; I seriously doubt that is always (or even often) the case.

Students perform well or poorly on tests for a variety of reasons. Last week I attended a function at the University of Puget Sound where Bellevue Elementary Teacher Linda Myrick made an excellent point. She noted that some (certainly not all) of her students who fare well on tests have told her that they think some of their performance can be attributed to the extra tutoring their parents paid for them to attend over the weekend. At the same function, University of Washington at Bothell Professor Wayne Au, an expert on standardized tests, said that even he is still unsure that standardized tests are actually measures of learning so much as they are measures of other things.

Moreover, high-stakes tests hurt low-income students the most, exactly those students the accountability movement professes to be attempting to help. At my school (approximately 90% free and reduced), we have seen teaching positions go unfilled for months at a time. Our reputation is not what we would hope, and many of our students are faced with significant life challenges. The first response I received from my staff when I alerted them to the possibility that some of them may soon have test scores compose a part of their evaluations was: "Thank you for the information. And now I want to quit."

Faced with the reality that a) nobody, not even "experts," has discovered a surefire method for improving student test scores and b) this affects teachers' livelihoods; many teachers in low-income schools will be delivered a strong incentive to find a more affluent school to teach in if they want to continue in this profession.

And take it from me - someone who's worked in inner-city DC and the South Bronx - most of the people who work in these kinds of schools in 2014 are among the most dedicated people you could ever hope to work with.

Tying student test scores to teacher and principal evaluations is bad policy.

I will grant there is some room for argument as to whether it's worth swallowing bad policy in exchange for some of the benefits the federal government might offer. But in this case, I believe it is not.

I believe this is a chance for Washington State to make a clear statement to the federal government: You can't bully us into accepting your bad policy - policy you not only have no evidence to show is effective, but policy for which there is tremendous evidence that it is affecting schools in states where it has been swallowed extremely negatively.

So I urge you, Washington State citizens, to use this link to find and contact your legislators regarding this matter. Contact them now, contact them often over the next week, and contact them in different ways with stories of how you fear this will affect our schools negatively.