Am I a geek or a nerd?

How Do I Know I’m Doing My Job Well?
November 12, 2010, 2:26 pm
Filed under: assessment, Geek | Tags: , , ,

I’m a Social Studies Consultant for an intermediate school district in Michigan. That means I provide professional development services to our local school districts. Most people still don’t know what that means. What do I do all day? How do I know I’m doing it well? That I have trouble answering that concerns me.


Education Week has recently been working on a series on Professional Development for teachers and its effectiveness, generally finding that not only is effectiveness not often measured, but that there are very few standards for what constitutes PD. EW suggests that PD needs to be targeted toward student weaknesses and how teachers can attend to those weaknesses. I agree, but I think there is more to PD as well.

Some of  my job includes attending to specific requests of districts. I assume when a department head or administrator asks me to assist their teachers with something specific it is because there is a known shortcoming. Mostly this is true, but sometimes it isn’t, and as I don’t work with one building, one department, or one district I’m often at a loss to determine what teachers really need. For example, many administrators called me to assist with Social Studies data analysis of last year’s state exams but clearly were not aware that we should not and could not do this. Should not because the exams were slated to address different standards this years, so knowing how we performed on standards no longer in place wouldn’t assist us in preparing students for the next assessment. Could not because the state no longer releases specific social studies items; we can’t see more than the content strand of each question. Without specific question language the percentages and scores provided by the state are as deep as we can go. Now had they asked me to help teachers create assessments and then analyze that data we would have been on our way to some good PD.

Another portion of my job is creating PD opportunities based on what I know many teachers and districts are struggling with. For example, I know that county-wide our students struggle with supporting their assertions in writing. I’ve put together workshop series to address this idea specifically in Social Studies. Do I know if it works? No. I don’t get to observe teachers and I’m fairly confident that the people doing the observing don’t know what PD teachers have attended. I also don’t know if the teacher who attend are those who most need this PD.

A third part of what I do is awareness. When the state adopted new content standards I did some PD about how to read them and adapt to them. I’ve since been part of a project to create a comprehensive k-12 SS curriculum based on these new standards; there has been a tremendous amount of PD for teachers to learn the progressions of learning, the units of instruction, and the various ways to implement lessons. None of this is specifically targeting weaknesses among our teachers, but it is necessary information for them to do their jobs.

On one hand I would like to know that any PD I conduct results in improved instruction and student performance, I’m also aware that some PD doesn’t manifest itself this way. Learning about changes in state requirements, for example, has less to do with improving student performance and more to do with learning the minimum requirements of your job. If I were locked into provided only services that could be measured by student test results I wouldn’t be providing very broad or rich PD.


School Improvement?
June 14, 2010, 10:57 am
Filed under: Geek | Tags: , ,

I’m going to try to explain what I think I learned about some of our school improvement process this morning in our staff meeting (besides the fact that staff meetings sometimes seem like they are something we do because we’ve always done them…). 

If I have this straight, the Michigan Department of Education will be identifying schools in need of improvement based on those that are in the bottom five percent of achievement based on MME/ACT scores. Those schools at the bottom will be told in August/September and will have 30 days to write an  improvement plan and submit it to the state. The state (and I’m not sure exactly who ‘the state’ will have representing it) will then either accept or reject your plan. In order for your plan to be accepted there are one of four paths the school must take; each path includes removing the school principal and replacing that person with someone who has experience in leadership and school improvement.  Schools will be notified sometime in late fall if their plan has been accepted. So when do they fire their principal? January? June? No answers to that one.

If the plan is rejected the school becomes part of the state reform school district, and again, your principal is gone. When is still the question. There are several buzzy superintendents who actually don’t mind this part–high schools are much more expensive to run than k-8 buildings and while it takes FTEs/money away, its seriously reduces their headaches.

In all cases there will be a weekly progress monitor on side to determine if the school has the means and ability to accomplish whatever plan it has set forth/the state has created for it. If they progress monitor decides that the schools running their own plans do not have the ability to create improvement, the ISDs will then be able to manage the schools. While our county schools may not be unhappy about that (we have a pretty positive relationship) there are lots of other counties where that is going to go over like a lead balloon.

But back to the principal thing and my main concern/point/bug in my butt: when will they be replaced and with who? Its been stated that there were not practitioners present when the state created these guidelines that essentially make all principals in failing schools lame ducks, if not for the whole year then at least for half. And certainly the Assistant Principals who have often been assumed to take the helm are not going to be interested in taking their turn in front of the firing squad. Where will these experienced administrators come from? One can only assume from other districts and we don’t have a wealth of people who’ve had success turning around a school who are jumping up to try it again. In truth, we don’t even have a few people who have actually improved a school…

I’m not saying I think our current batch of leaders in failing schools should keep on doing whatever it is they are doing, but I’m not sure we are going to get better replacements either. I don’t have an answer, but I do feel that more bureaucratic hoop jumping allowing elected officials to claim they are taking action isnt’ an answer either.

Evaluation Time
June 11, 2010, 8:11 am
Filed under: assessment, Geek | Tags: , ,

My office doesn’t evaluate people. We don’t go into schools and evaluate teachers. It’s a strange position we’re in; schools and teachers require staff development (by law in some cases) and we have the responsibility to provide it, but we do not have the authority to evaluate its impact. That’s not to say we don’t collect numbers, but it’s not specific evaluation of people attending our staff development offerings. We get MEAP numbers, MME numbers, teacher cert numbers, drop out numbers, graduation numbers. One of my plans for next year is to actually try to observe teachers from our networks–not an evaluation, just an observation. 

We also don’t get evaluated ourselves. In some ways this is good. When I left my position as an assistant principal I left behind an a boss who was outstanding at his job, but hard to please as well. His evaluations of me were sometimes confusing, in that he would suggest improvements in things that were simply unmeasurable. One I remember was Visibility. He had trouble articulating what he meant and I’m not sure I ever lived up to what we in his mind, but it was a fuzzy thing to be evaluated on. When I came here, I was accustomed to reporting my work constantly, keeping my boss in the loop so to speak. After about three weeks of my regular emails detailing various projects and proposals, my new boss (also outstanding at her job) replied that I had been hired to do a job and that could just do it, I didn’t need her approval. Wow. So I roll along, creating staff development projects based on district requests and my own anticipation of needs.

Things might be changing. For the first time here, I’ve been asked to evaluate my administrative support. I could write pages on the awesomeness that is Carol–she not only keeps a babillion plates spinning at once, she also cleans up after my figurative messes (like forgetting contracts or mixing up dates or ordering the wrong book).  She tolerates my potty mouth, saves me from sales reps, and lets me borrow her pickup truck.  She came up with the ingenious way to track attendance at our networks. She manages grants in her sleep. And she has excellent penmanship. Okay, great eval on the way. Except when I look at this evaluation document it doesn’t allow me express that we make a great team and she makes up for my shortcomings and I make up for hers. Instead, I have to check boxes ranking her as above average and so on for technical knowledge, accuracy, amount of work, cooperation, flexibility, and punctuality.

Not much of  picture of Carol, is it.

Reminds me of the teacher evaluations. You know, where all teachers are excellent.

Bringing me to my point. I know Carol is awesome, I watch her work everyday. Its only because I’m intimately familiar with her work style and work load that I can say she is great at what she does. I’ve had other secretaries, one was horrible, one was awesome. How do you measure their awesomeness, or lack of? Its so much more than a check list. How do I quantify her creativity (for example, I don’t make my own workshop announcements any more, Carol has a great creative sensibility that allows her to whip these things up and the are always better than what I can do)? The same is true when we look at teachers. Ask any principal who his best teachers are and I’m sure you will get a quick response, but look at the paper trail of observations and you’ll find many more teachers seemingly just as good.  How do these administrators know who is the best and why don’t they record it? They know it because they walk around their buildings all day, hear reports from kids and parents, see who is early to work and late to leave. Principal Walk Throughs were one of my best tools to learn who my go to teachers were–a non-evaluative  and unannounced visit can provide a glimpse of what goes on in our classroom.

Public Impact has created a new website and a report dedicated to the idea that identification and better use of our outstanding teachers can create substantial change for our students. Their assessment of the change possible is inspiring, until you realize that the have jumped right over the GIGANTIC task of IDENTIFYING these amazing people. The report doesn’t clearly state how to determine who the high fliers are, but does give some interesting predictions for what will happen when we use them properly. Okay, so we just ask those principals, right? The ones who are only allowed to use the paper trail of observations as evaluative tools even if they know better. Or maybe test scores? Lets use test scores, cause all kids are exactly the same so it should be a snap to see if the teachers achieved something with their widget children. Oh, I know, lets look at training and credentials. That should tell us. Or not. Seems that credentials aren’t at all a predictor.

The task of evaluating teachers must include bits of all of these things. Just like I with my eval of Carol; its includes my day to day sense, examples of great work, a piece of paper ranking some technical aspects, honesty on my part, openness to being evaluated on hers.  Before we can use our great teachers (or heavens, make staffing and salary decisions) we need to overhaul the current system of check lists for evaluation.

Summer Stuff
June 4, 2010, 9:00 am
Filed under: Geek | Tags: , ,

A mish mash of stuff regarding summer:

1. PD:  2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade networks begin in August, China Corp Summer Camp registration is happening now for July, The Center for Korean Studies at U of M is offering several workshops, the various centers for ethnic studies at U of M are combining to offer a cultural competence workshop in mid June (contact,  and I’m still working on a Econ workshop for August 26.  There is a Principal Walk Thru series in August by invitation, and a group of economics assessment writers meeting several times to create items.

2. Summer Contract Work: By contract I can work 29 days during the summer, although I must account for each day. I could have done the same this year, but we were asked to ‘really consider how many day you need’ meaning try not to take 29 days but we can’t say that because it violates contract. So I’m working 23. That means I’m off for two weeks in June, three weeks in July, and one week in August. I have to say I’m pretty excited, although concerned about making sure my August workshops are well planned and that the fall conferences and workshops don’t feel rushed. I’ll be out of the office from June 15 to July 25 (I’m attending  conference for some of that time and doing PD out of the building, and oh, going to Italy).

3. Tar balls in Pensacola: I find the oil spill to be heartbreaking and frustrating. I can’t even look at the pictures of the oil spewing from the pipe, but today watched a news story on the oil on shore in Florida. I’ll admit some of my attention to this story is related to Ironman. I wonder what impact this has on water, the beach, the race. Will they swim if the water is super oily? My friends and coach who are training for IMFL might find their efforts to be for naught. I think of my swim in the gulf, how clear the water is and how when you are alone the great expanse of life beneath you is frightening and overwhelming.  My first practice swim was alone. I headed out from the beach and at first its a light blue, almost clear, and you can see small fish and sand and its pleasant. Soon the water becomes deep and dark but you can still see quite far and the immensity of it combined with the knowledge that shit lives out there is disconcerting. So I turned parallel to shore and found that breathing shore side was fine-I could see the light water and the buildings and sand. But breathing sea side was the same disconcerting feeling. So I turned to head into shore and again was happy to see the sand and tiny fish and that’s when it happened. I gigantic (I’m sure it wasn’t, but at that moment it seemed bigger than life) ray swam directly under me, from my toes toward my head. I think my heart stopped. And then adreneline shot through me and I practically ran on top of the water back to shore. What will the oil/tar balls/death do to this place?

5. Cheap Property: Yippee! I got my condo for a price lower than a new compact car. I don’t want to revel in the economic misfortunes of Michigan but how can you not be thrilled?

6. Office Environment: The dust hasn’t settled. The folks who expect to contract pulled up stakes and got out by May 28. Those who aren’t expecting to contract are trying to make their decisions by next friday. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. I can confidently say we won’t replace our retirees and that will make some elements of our jobs more challenging. I’m already the only consultant for SS and World Languages, so I’m familiar with not having a back up, but our newly lonely-only science consultant was worried about the load. We initally lost two math people, but one rescinded. I’m not sure about ELA. Our data person retired but will most certainly be contracted to do the same job (he’s amazing!). Some of our existing contracts probably wont’ be renewed. We are negotiating a new contract that will cut our pay and require us to contribute to health care. Add in the 3% contribution to retirement and the best I can say is that our office is not a positive place right now. My biggest concern is the future health of consultant services; shoudl I be looking for a job now?

Why do we bother?
May 22, 2010, 11:43 am
Filed under: Geek | Tags:

I just read this article ( in Ed Week and am wondering why the MC3 group bothers to create curriculum. The common core folks are trying to figure out how to best create useful curriculm for teachers that integrates the core standards. Who do you think they mention first? You got it, the companies selling stuff.

Here’s a thought: how about using the people who are paid to assist classroom teachers, like, oh, say, the curriculum consultants? I know not every state has the same structure as Michigan, but all states/districts employ people who are assigned the task of assisting teachers through curriculum, professional development, and observation. And we aren’t motivated by any profit agenda–it’s our JOB!!

For three years I’ve been paid to help social studies teachers; MC3 has been the result. And schools don’t pay for it. But don’t let me stop you from turning over taxpayer dollars to the best salesman.

I’ve missed you!
May 5, 2010, 9:01 am
Filed under: Geek, Nerd

Its been awhile, but I’ve been busy:

1. Lonestar 70.3: I took 5 days off from work for what I call a race-cation, but what Jake calls an excuse for me to race and try to convince him it will be fun like a vacation. Anyway, I very much enjoyed Galveston and the almost shockingly friendly and supportive people I ran into. Often when I travel to race locations the locals seem to have no idea what’s happening despite the fact that 1500-2500 people have descended on their community with families and bicycles and enormous traffic signs that tell them “race this weekend, road closed.” We get yelled at for clogging traffic, stared at for wearing spandex, and picked on because we limp the next day. Of course, we also spend money in hotels, restaurants, bars and grocery stores. Galveston was the opposite: the rental car clerk wished me luck, the condo manager helped me with my bike, the Walmart cashier told me she was excited for me, a guy in his car yelled congratulations when I was walking my bike back to the condo. I could stay in Galveston a long time…a great place to run and ride with their miles of seawall, beaches that may not be white sand but are free and very accessible, a historic district to rival any city, and some bartenders and waiters who can’t be beat. The race was great too–90 second improvement over my previous best despite a longer than normal swim course, wind, and heat. My run was 10/90 for my division and I’m looking forward to racing this again.

2. Close Up Macomb County Youth Commission: I had no choice but to schedule this the same day as the AP Government exam and was worried for months that kids wouldn’t show up, or would forget, or would just have failed to see the conflicted dates. We did have fewer students than previous years, but the 50 who attended were outstanding!  They spent the morning hearing from the county sheriff’s office, the chairman of the county board of commissioners, the head of public transit, and the head of planning and economic development. Once they had gathered evidence from these presenters the Student Commissioners went to committee meetings to evaluate plans for improving Macomb County’s economic position and create a proposal for retaining and attracting young residents. Once the committees had completed their work, spokespeople for each group presented to several members of the county board and had an outstanding question and answer session.  I’m so pleased with their ideas and the quality of their work that I can’t wait to do this again next year. What I need to figure out is how to make this more than one day.

3. Third Grade Network: It ended last night. Teachers report being very pleased with the curriculum and wishful that more of their colleagues were involved, but also are very frustrated by the amount of material, the lack of support from admin for social studies, lack of a supply budget, the unknown of next year’s assignments, and the sense that the state legislature doesn’t understand why schools need to know NOW about the budget and staffing for next year.  All of this colors teacher interaction during the networks and I wish I had more to offer them than a curriculum.

4. Not something I did, but rather something I read: Why Education Research Gets an F…I know people will argue that you can’t do research on kids, that you can’t deny a control group some education reform, or that the variables are too many, but that doesn’ t mean we should use shoddy methodology and take the word of the publisher that something works. It reminds me of the Gatorade sponsored study that ‘proves’ Gatorade improve performance… 

The school year in Michigan is almost done, I’ve got one more workshop, some sessions with teachers creating assessments and then our summer programs begin.  Where did the year go?

How short is short?
April 12, 2010, 2:10 pm
Filed under: Geek | Tags: ,

Damn short. Schools in Michigan are looking at $165 per pupil cut already, but the budget plan (that isn’t in place yet) indicates addition cuts of $275-$350 per pupil. Without question, this will bring districts to their knees. Layoffs will begin before the school year is over. Many will look to privatize custodian services. I’ve heard talk of the ISDs taking over transportation (aside: imagine creating bus schedules for 21 independent school districts, plus charters, plus schools of choice, all with their own calendars, daily schedules, and definitions of half day. Its hard, no? Now imagine they want it done by July 1).  We have districts looking at sharing superintendents and other administrators. Many are closing buildings. Certainly they are laying off their youngest teachers (its all seniority).

I don’t have an answer, other than this is going to require way more than belt tightening to fix. Macomb County will need to pass a millage and even then it would only raise 50% of the revenue shortfall we expect. I wish I knew what to do. I see some things here that could change. For example,  I’m not sure why we don’t offer more, or even exclusively, evening programs so as not to pay for substitute teachers. That’s a ballpark figure of $100 for each teacher that attends a daytime workshop. Social Studies runs nearly all of its events at night or during the summer. I did this on purpose as I know that SS isn’t viewed in the same light at Math and ELA.  I’ve never cancelled a workshop for lack of enrollment, teachers seem pleased with the short but intense sessions (all of them multi-evening events, so there is follow up), and the ISD doesn’t have to pay sub costs. For my Fourth Grade Learning Community this saved $6300 (we meet 6 times after school, that would be 3 full school days otherwise, and 21 people attended all sessions). SS has evening sessions for 3rd grade as well, and next year will offer evenings to 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 8th grades. I’m also going to try to move my HS sessions to evenings. Typically, this gets more complaints from that group–the coaches in particular. To which I would like to say-you are a teacher first and a coach second and God made assistant coaches for a reason (and I was a coach too, so I know of where I speak!).

Is that the answer? No, its just more belt tightening.  I still don’t know the answer.

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