Am I a geek or a nerd?

standards schmandards, or why teachers and leadership matter more

I have a colleague (a super crazy bright kind of colleague) who is currently doing some work with a School Improvement Grant recipient district. The district turn around agent has asked to her to review the social studies curriculum with teachers, observe these teachers implementing the curriculum, and provide PD to help teachers meet the standards outlined by the curriculum.


The teachers have been a bit hostile toward her and the process, and told her to observe them first period if she really wanted to see what’s what. (She would describe the teachers are mixed bag of dedicated high fliers and folks who couldn’t hired elsewhere.)


So she did. And she shared the pictures with me. Of course, I’m not sharing them here, but I will describe what she saw and heard. The bell rang for first period in the class she selected to observe. Four students were present. She took a picture. After several minutes she went into the hallway. Dozens and dozens of students in the hallways, mingling with the security staff, talking at their lockers, none moving toward a classroom and no one asking them to. She took several more pictures. Back in the classroom, students begin to arrive. All have a yellow pass in their hands. This pass is from the office, it shows that you checked in late and the teachers must admit you and provide your missed work. She asked a student about the pass. The student said you just tell the office staff you need one and they give you one. No hassle, no guff, no repercussions.


What’s a curriculum specialist to do? Well, she wrote up her daily report and included pictures and quotes and sent it to the principal and the superintendent. She also pointed out that all the PD on curriculum wasn’t going to do a damn thing if students didn’t attend class. I’ll give you one guess what the principal said.


“who authorized you to take pictures”




This is just more proof of what the Brookings Institution found in their recent report about standards:

States have had curricular standards for schools within their own borders for many years. Data on the effects of those standards are analyzed to produce three findings. 1) The quality of state standards, as indicated by the well-known ratings from the Fordham Foundation, is not related to state achievement. 2) The rigor of state standards, as measured by how high states place the cut point for students to be deemed proficient, is also unrelated to achievement… 3) The ability of standards to reduce variation in achievement, in other words to reduce differences in achievement, is also weak.


Having standards means nothing if teachers don’t teach to them and students aren’t present or able to master them. Consider my relationship with my triathlon coach. Since having a baby we are starting from scratch with my training and I’m not even a little bit close to being the athlete I was. I tried to train without a coach; I’d spent years training, you’d think I’d have learned something. But my efforts were poorly planned and poorly executed as I tried to reach a standard I’d previously held. My coach understands that I can’t hit those targets right now; she gives me an attainable plan and we measure improvement based on where I started during this round, not on where I was 2 years ago (Team USA anyone?).  But I need to show up. I have to complete the workouts. All the standards in the world won’t matter if the student isn’t present or prepared.


The superintendent has a much bigger hurdle than curriculum and PD for teachers; he needs to change the culture of the schools (and possibly his high school principal).


What Administrators Don’t Know
January 13, 2011, 11:39 am
Filed under: curriculum, professional development | Tags:

I’ve spent the last two days meeting with different groups of elementary, middle school and high school principals about what to look for in social studies teaching and how to help their teachers based on our observations of them.

I started these meetings the same way I’ve started lots of my teacher meetings; with a blank k-12 sequence for social studies. The participants are asked to jot down the content or course title for each grade of social studies. I didn’t always do this. AtotheB and I first tried this at a NCSS workshop, figuring that since it was a national conference it was a quick way to see similarities and differences in social studies among the participating schools/states. Turns out almost no one in that NCSS workshop could tell us what is taught in all 12 grades of social studies, even in states that require it through graduation. I started to wonder if our teachers could do it. They couldn’t either.

Finding this out was eye-opening. We stress ideas of progressions of learning and continuous growth of our students and our teachers (and these were teachers who were actively trying to improve–they paid to attend NCSS and our local workshops!!) don’t know where their students are coming from or where they are heading to! Most could name the course immediately preceding and immediately following the one they teach. Or if a teacher had been assigned to a variety of grade levels through their career we found a good sense of progressions. Or if you had kids in particular grades you likely know what they are learning. In general, though, teachers seemed to know only their own course and grade level.

So I pulled this blank document out and fully expected the building principals to know what we are required to teach at each grade level they supervise. Really, I thought this would just be the lead in to the news that while admin knows this, teachers don’t. Imagine my surprise when principals couldnt’ do this either. Most could summarize the grades in their building (some couldnt’ even do that) but not one could complete the prior or subsequent grades.

So what did I do? I pulled up the stuff we use with teachers, showing progressions of learning from grades k-8. I had them compare the Foundational Expectations listed in our high school documents (the stuff that’s supposed to be review of middle school learning) to what the state actually requires in middle school (hint: it doesn’t match up very well). We discussed the importance of having teacher meet as multi-grade level teams to examine instruction and assessment data. They examined the implications of teachers writing curriculum without the benefit of knowing what students had learned in the past 5 years or what they would be expected to learn in the next 5.

What will they do with this information? I have no idea. I expected them to know how important it is to understand the sequence of content/skills but was stunned to see that while they recognize its importance they didn’t actually do anything to make it happen. I wish I was continuing to consult in this county, I wish that I hadn’t learned this about the admin while nearing the end of my contract, I wish that I could attack this problem in my remaining time here. Is 48 hours enough?

If PD isn’t effective, is a Master’s Degree?
November 23, 2010, 1:35 pm
Filed under: Nerd, professional development | Tags: , ,

According  to an article in the Huffington Post earlier this week, it isn’t. I don’t think anyone is surprised by this; just because I went to school longer doesn’t automatically make me better at my job. Reading the comments section, filled with responses from teachers, I’m left thinking maybe all those master’s degree’s mean nothing. Comments that claim the studies (there are more than one) wrong, that common sense would say more education is good, that ‘you can’t tell me what works until you’re a teacher too,’ that accuse everyone of trying to take something away from teachers.

But the point of the article is that districts pay teachers with graduate level course work more than those without. Even if you went to grad school for your teaching certificate and had no undergrad training in education, you get paid more than the teacher whose bachelor’s degree is in education. These teachers are not paid more because they are better, they are paid more because they went to school longer. The argument can be made that in many fields candidates with advanced degrees are more desirable and while that is true, if the candidate stinks at the job he may not make more; he may even get fired.

Look, I was a teacher too and I still work in a public school system under a contract that pays me more because of my degree and gives me more money every year simply because I’m here. I get it. Its cushy system. But if we want to be taken seriously and treated as professionals then its time we start acting like it. We should be demanding more evaluation from our employers and pay that goes with those evaluations, not just pay because we lived another year. We should want a system that rewards the best, advanced degree or not. And we should really stop complaining about our pay, most teachers earn more than the average American and work less days per year. I know, summer’s aren’t really off, and we don’t get vacation days when we want them, but not many people get to completely check out from work for even 2 weeks during the year; I don’ t know a single teacher who doesn’t give themselves at least that much time off every summer.

Public school systems are looking for ways cut costs because they have to. In many districts, personnel is more than 80% of the expenditure every year. Where else can they look? I don’t want a pay cut either, but I sure don’t want the guy who doesn’t do his job very well to get rewarded at the same rate that I am if my employer knows that I’m better at my job.

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