Professional Development is Broken, but Be Careful How We Fix It

This morning, Jal Mehta tagged me on a tweet to linking to his recent Education Week blog post, entitled “Let’s End Professional Development as We Know It.”

The following exchange ensued:

He then asked if I could share some of my research to back my perspective. I sent him an email with journal articles and such, but I thought I would share my ideas with y’all too.

Here is my argument about why putting professional development (PD) back in schools may be necessary but not sufficient to improving its impact on teachers’ instruction.

Unlike medicine and other scientific fields, where problems are taken-as-shared and protocols for addressing problems are roughly agreed upon, teaching problems are locally defined. What needs attention in one school may not need attention in another. For instance, some schools’ “best practices” may center on adapting instruction to English learners, while other schools’ might center on the mental health ailments that have become prevalent among affluent teens. Likewise, other professions share language, representations, and goals for critical aspects of their work — these all important resources for learning together. In teaching, we see repeatedly that terms acquire the meaning of their setting more often than they bring new meanings to these places. Take, for instance, Carol Dweck’s ideas about mindset. The various ways that her construct has taken hold in education led her to explain why what she means by mindset is not how the idea is being used. If we leave professional development entirely up to individual school sites, this means that “doing PD” on Topic X probably looks fairly different from place to place, so radically localized professional development will exacerbate this problem.

Leaving professional development to local sites also limits teachers’ access to expertise. When my colleagues and I have studied teachers’ collaborative learning, we found that the learning opportunities are not equally distributed across all teacher groups. Some of this has to do with how teachers spend their time (e.g., focused on logistics or deeper analysis of teaching). But some of it has to do with who is sitting around the table and what they have been tasked to do.

Teachers’ collaborative learning can be described as an accumulated advantage phenomenon, where the rich get richer. That is, teachers who have sophisticated notions of practice are able to identify teaching problems in complex ways and deploy more sophisticated strategies for addressing them. This follows from my previous points, since problem definition is an important part of teachers’ on-the-job learning. For instance, if we have a lot of students failing a course, how do we get to the bottom of this issue? In many places, high failure rates are interpreted as a student quality problem. In others, they are taken as a teaching quality problem. Interpretations depend on how practitioners think this whole teaching and learning business goes down. In other words, problem definition is rooted in teachers’ existing conceptions of their work, which in other professions, are codified and disseminated through standardized use of language and representations.

Unequal access to expertise is only one of many reasons the optimistic premise of teacher community often does not pan out. There is a tendency to valorize practicing teachers’ knowledge, and, no doubt, there is something to be learned in the wisdom of practice. That being said, professions and professionals have blind spots, and with the large-scale patterns of unequal achievement we have in the United States, we can infer that students from historically marginalized groups frequently live in these professional blind spots. For reasons of equity alone, it is imperative to develop even our best practitioners beyond their current level by giving them access to more expert others.

Even in highly collaborative, well-intentioned teacher communities, other institutional pressures (e.g., covering curriculum, planning lessons) pull teachers’ attention to the nuts-and-bolts of their work, rather than broader learning or improvement agendas. Add to this the norms of privacy and non-interference that characterize teachers’ work, you can see why deeper conversations around issues of teaching and learning are difficult to come by.

What about, you might say, bringing in expert coaches? Research shows that expert facilitators or coaches can make a difference. In fact, there is evidence that having expert coaches may matter more than expert colleagues when it comes to teacher development. At the same time, we suspect that expert facilitators are necessary but not sufficient, as coaches often get pulled into other tasks that do not fully utilize their expertise. In our current study, we see accomplished coaches filling in for missing substitute teachers, collating exams, or working on classroom management with struggling teachers. None of these tasks taps into their sophisticated instructional knowledge. Additionally, being an accomplished teacher does not guarantee you have the skill to communicate your teaching to others. In our data, we have numerous examples of really great teachers underexplaining their teaching to others.

Lee Shulman famously called out the missing paradigm of teacher knowledge, giving rise to a lot of research on pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). While PCK gave a very useful way to think about teachers’ specialized knowledge, little progress has been made on understanding how teachers develop this and other forms of knowledge, particularly in the institutional context of schools, which often presses teachers’ practice away from what might be deemed “good teaching.” As long as we don’t have strong frameworks for understanding how teachers learn, PD –– even localized, teacher-led PD –– risks being just another set of activities with little influence on practice.


Responding to Federal Oversight of Teacher Preparation Programs

Today is the last day to register reactions to the proposed federal policy on teacher preparation programs. The regulations would evaluate teacher preparation programs based on graduates’ value-added scores. If you want to register your opinions, please do so here. This is what I wrote.

I am writing to state my reasons against this proposed policy. It oversimplifies the work of teaching and punishes teachers who want to work in underresourced communities.

One definition of teaching is that it is “the deliberate cultivation of learning in others in distinctive teaching situations.” In other words, teaching involves recruiting other people in a teacher’s goals for *their* development — and with a unbelievably inequitable set of resources for doing so. Variations in class sizes, material resources, and bureaucratic burdens are all beyond the control of individual teachers yet are highly consequential to what is possible in the classroom.

To place the effectiveness of teaching solely within teachers themselves — without truly equitable funding for schools, without universal healthcare, without adequate supports like childcare for families living in poverty — places teachers in the center of blame for learning or not learning when there are many aspects of the teaching situation that are beyond their control.

We have already seen the unintended consequences of mass annual testing of students in the devaluation of untested subjects, the educational triage of re-teaching students on the cusp of proficiency, and other types of number gaming. I predict an unintended consequence of this proposed policy would be to discourage teachers from working in schools and communities who are already disenfranchised and underresourced. It is much easier to move students to “proficiency” cut points when Mom and Dad can afford supplemental tutoring. We already have a teacher maldistribution problem in this country, where the most qualified teachers work disproportionately with the best-resourced students. This policy only stands to exacerbate this problem.

The Calm of Experience

This is a story of my own learning as a teacher.

During my student teaching, I particularly struggled with a boy I will call Aidan. He was a gloomy 7th grader, a social isolate with no particular sense of humor who regularly antagonized other students.

One day, when I was patrolling the hallways between classes, Aidan rolled by a row of lockers on his Heely’s, elbowing several girls along the way. Because I did not have much empathy for the child to begin with, this incident angered me, perhaps more than it should have.

I brought him to the Head of School’s office, ready for him to get his just desserts. After I relayed what I had witnessed to Teacher Celia (her real name — she deserves all the praise I am about to give her), she turned to Aidan with a calm look on her face.

“Aidan, is what Teacher Lani* said accurate?”

Aidan looked at his lap and reluctantly nodded.

“Can you see what the problems are with what you just did?”

Aidan was quiet. She waited, watching him intently.

After a pause that was longer than anything my 21 year-old self would have had the patience to endure, he looked up at her sheepishly.

“Well, yeah.”

In the remainder of the interaction, Aidan admitted to his poor judgment in both wearing Heely’s at school and elbowing the girls. He and Teacher Celia agreed to the consequences.

I no longer recall what they worked out, since I was so dazzled by her calm, accepting presence. I remember that it seemed measured and fair, giving Aidan an opportunity to repair his relationship with his peers and learn from his mistake.

Why am I writing about this now?

I have two reasons.

First, we are in an era that thinks that just because you learn so much about teaching on the job, there are those who would simply put new teachers in the classroom without much student teaching or mentoring.

Watching Teacher Celia with Aidan helped me see that I needed to move past identifying with the elbowed girls and reacting to Aidan as an annoying boy. I needed to figure out how to be his teacher too. Teacher Celia’s poise and humanity in dealing with him became my go-to image when I dealt with a child who I struggled with. I did not spend a lot of time with administrators in my own career as a student, so seeing the right way to handle misbehavior was critical to my own development.

Second, I am concerned that we are normalizing teacher turnover so that the calm presence of experience has become a rarity in many schools. Estimates of teacher turnover in the first five years range from 30% to 50%, with the rates being even higher among TFA teachers (about 80% leave after 3 years). The burdens of turnover are high, impacting everything from achievement to the cost of staffing and retraining.

I think there is another cost to turnover that involves the social well-being of children. When I see the disciplinary statistics in schools, I wonder if the calm wisdom of experience exists on the most afflicted campuses. Aidan was lucky that Teacher Celia was the go-to for the consequences of his misbehavior and that his discipline was not left to me. She was measured, whereas I surely would have been more reactive. Likewise, in the second school I taught at, we had an administrator with the same matter-of-fact calm when dealing with behavior issues; I was always grateful when children in my class had last names that fell in the first third of the alphabet so we could sort things through with her. I could trust her to preserve the student’s and my own humanity and help us arrive at a reasonable solution.

I am not trying to romanticize experience or say that all veteran teachers share this wisdom. However, I do think it is easier to muster a calm perspective when dealing with students from the vantage point of experience. This calm is certainly a rarity in barely-mentored newbies. I believe that the first year of teaching is often so difficult, in part, due to the steep learning curve and constant novelty of high stakes situations. As experience accrues, these situations become more manageable and teachers’ reactivity diminishes. But if we continuously staff our schools with minimally mentored novices, we take away an important resource from children and their development.


* This student teaching placement was in a Quaker school, where teachers are called “Teacher [First Name]”, showing respect and familiarity.

The Echo Chamber Has Opened on NCTQ

The following quotes have been compiled by my colleague Ken Zeichner from the University of Washington. As he predicted in his interview with EduShyster, NCTQ’s sham rankings of teacher education would bounce through the echo chamber of both traditional and new media. Among the many methodological problems with the rankings, which look truly bizarre to those of us insider teacher education who know the quality of the graduates, is that faculty expertise is nowhere accounted for.

Despite these and other critiques, the rankings have been spread around as truth, a phenomenon Ken calls “knowledge ventriloquism.”

Ken quotes from NCTQ’s publicity materials to make his point about the way this is playing out.

Endorsements Continue to Flow in for NCTQ’s 2014 Teacher Preparation Review

Support is coming in from former U.S. Secretaries of Education:

“All of the nations’ children deserve teachers of the highest quality. We cannot ignore reports like NCTQ’s that call attention to our challenges in teacher preparation.”
–Dr. Rod Paige, Former U.S. Secretary of Education

“To ensure that every child in this country receives a quality education, teachers must be well-prepared to lead in their classrooms. Teaching institutions are critical to success. NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review serves as a source to districts and states by providing them with knowledge about how to strengthen recruitment, hiring, and training of teachers and arms aspiring teachers with the information they need to choose the most effective program for them.”
–Margaret Spellings, Former U.S. Secretary of Education; President, George W. Bush Presidential Center

Delaware joins 32 other states making measurable improvements to their teacher prep polices.

“Amongst educators in Delaware it’s no secret that teacher preparation programs are not completely aligned to the real demands of the profession. NCTQ is again issuing a report that grabs a hold of one of the elephants in the room–that the rigor and relevance of teacher prep is simply not where it needs to be.”
–Christopher Ruszkowski, Chief Officer, Teacher & Leader Effectiveness Unit, Delaware Department of Education

Over 105 District Superintendents have lined up behind our efforts to ensure that the teachers they hire are classroom-ready on day one.

“The National Council on Teacher Quality Teacher Preparation Review provides an additional element of data to consider when recruiting highly skilled candidates for our rigorous selection process. Building this information over time will help inform improvement opportunities for teacher preparation programs.”
Ms. Barbara Deane-Williams, Superintendent, Greece Central School District (NY)

Over 90 Education advocacy organizations have endorsed NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review:

“Teachers are the single most important in-school factor contributing to student success. Accordingly, we must ensure that all teachers are adequately prepared to teach on day one,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review provides us with crucial information – not only for prospective teachers to pick high-performing programs, but also for programs to ensure that they’re meeting the needs of our students.”
Kati Haycock, President, Education Trust

“Expanding the pool of exceptional teachers who are prepared for the difficult work of leading our nation’s classrooms is in everyone’s interest. NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review keeps the pressure on all of us – the ‘public’ part of ‘public education – to get this right. This isn’t just about children, but about the future of the public education system that we need to thrive for future generations.”
Joe Williams, Executive Director, Democrats for Education Reform

Editorial board support has begun:

“Even more importantly, though, we need to improve the quality of our teacher education programs themselves. There are some real standouts in New Jersey — including Montclair State, Rider, Rowan and Kean — but most still aren’t adequately preparing teachers for the classroom, according to a new study released yesterday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a non-profit group.

This reflects a national problem. Too many educational colleges in the U.S. let almost anyone in, and it’s the school children who end up suffering for it. For a lesson in reform, look at Finland. To stop the proliferation of diploma mills, the country shut down its education colleges in 1968 and reopened them in only the top eight most selective universities in the country.”
Star-Ledger Editorial Board, June 17, 2014 Editorial

Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World weighs in:

“In a handful of statehouses and universities across the country, a few farsighted Americans are finally pursuing what the world’s smartest countries have found to be the most efficient education reform ever tried. They are making it harder to become a teacher. Ever so slowly, these legislators and educators are beginning to treat the preparation of teachers the way we treat the training of surgeons and pilots—rendering it dramatically more selective, practical, and rigorous. All of which could transform not only the quality of teaching in America but the way the rest of us think about school and learning.

Over the past two years, according to a report out Tuesday from the National Council on Teacher Quality, 33 states have passed meaningful new oversight laws or regulations to elevate teacher education in ways that are much harder for universities to game or ignore.”
Amanda Ripley, June 17, 2014 Slate article

Teachers themselves voice the need for providing high-quality cooperating teachers to candidates, a key component of NCTQ’s Student Teaching Standard:

“Teacher candidates must be paired with a master teacher who is not only phenomenal with students but who has been trained to observe and coach new teachers. Teaching adults is not the same as teaching children and there are research-based practices that support adult education. Mentors should be skilled in this work to ensure that they are educating student teachers effectively and not simply look at them as interns helping out in a classroom.”
Erin Lane, 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts Teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum via HuffingtonPost article

Our 16 member Technical Panel, comprised of education experts, has signed a statement of support.

“Scrutiny of teacher preparation programs is important, from selection of candidates into the program all the way through student teaching. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to teacher training is fundamental to making sure that new teachers have the skills they need on the first day they are entrusted with instruction in their own classrooms. I believe NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review represents an important step down the road to connecting the features of teacher training to the quality of our nation’s teachers.”
Dan Goldhaber, Director, Center for Education Data & Research, University of Washington-Bothell

The drumbeat calling for change has clearly been heard and we look forward to continuing the conversation and the work needed to make sure teachers are ready on day one.

The Vergara Decision and the Shock of Inequality

“The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

— Judge Rolf M. Treu, Vergara v. California, June 16, 2014

Are there ineffective teachers in California classrooms? Undoubtedly.

Do students living in poverty find themselves disproportionately faced with ineffective teaching? Absolutely.

Is this a good justification for weakening unions and limiting due process in the termination of teachers? Not at all.

Let me explain.

When we look at inequality from the comfort of privilege, it does indeed “shock the conscience” –– especially the first time you really look at just how unequal our educational system has become.

Like Judge Treu, I am outraged at what Richard Ingersoll first identified as the “maldistribution of teachers.” This refers to the way the most qualified teachers disproportionately work with the highest achieving and most affluent students –– even within the same school.

In fact, international comparisons reveal that the United States stands out in this maldistribution problem: our country’s disparity in students’ access to qualified teachers is among the largest in the world.

Shocks the conscience, doesn’t it?

The diagnosis of teacher tenure as the root of this problem will not produce a cure. It’s the educational equivalent of putting leeches on the patient to let out “bad blood.”  It may make some intuitive sense based on our everyday educational discourse of “grit” and “innovation” –– but it also means you don’t actually understand the underlying causes of the problem.

What Ingersoll and other scholars have pointed to, time and again, are the organizational and working conditions that make it hard to staff high poverty schools –– so much so that there is a literature about “hard-to-staff schools.”

How hard-to-staff? As documented by Lora Bartlett in her book Migrant Teachers, between 2000-2010, US schools could not find enough teachers domestically to fill open positions, bringing in over 90,000 overseas trained teachers. They teach predominantly in urban schools with the highest poverty student populations in America.

With all the focus on Teach for America, Bartlett reports that “more overseas trained teachers have been sought to teach in America in the last ten years than there have been Teach for America teachers in the entire history of that program.”

The truth is that the problems facing our schools in the highest poverty communities exist so far off the experiential map of middle-class Americans that just seeing some of their challenges would provide a “shock of conscience.” Given that shock, the way is paved to point fingers at whatever bogeyman can be conjured.

In the Vergara case, the billionaire backers pointed to teachers unions and their role in giving teachers due process before termination.

Ironically, if research shows that poor working conditions are really the root cause of the maldistribution problem, reducing the negotiating power of unions is exactly the wrong solution.



Why We Need Strong Teacher Communities

I am glad that there have been a spate of headlines about the limitations of value-added modeling for assessing teachers. Ranking teachers primarily on the basis of student test scores not only goes against intuitive sense, but it is also junk science, as numerous professional organizations have said repeatedly. (Here is AERA’s statement. Here is ASA’s.)

There is a robust educational research finding, however, that seems to stay out of the headlines: the importance of good colleagues for teachers — and students.

This particular finding, which has been around for decades now, has a hard time capturing the public imagination because we are a society that thinks we do not have a society. We are a society that imagines individual characteristics like grit and dynamism and determination can overcome anything. We make movies about teacher heroes going against the grain, making us complacent about real inequities in our schools. The message seems to be, “Well, if we only had more determined teachers, these problems wouldn’t exist.”

Yet all the research on schools and departments that defy the statistical odds of their student demographics find the same thing time and again: it is not the individual teachers in themselves that make the difference. It is teacher teams working together to raise expectations, coordinate systems, and support students over the years that make a difference.

Think about it. Inequality is an institutional problem. Why do we imagine a lone individual can change these systemic forces?

Especially when we have so much evidence that strong teacher teams can.

In high schools, Valerie Lee and her colleagues looked at the situations that support equitable achievement. To find such achievement, they looked for schools in which students’ demographic background variables (among them race and socioeconomic status) were not strongly predictive of their eventual level of attainment. Schools that have achieved equitable outcomes share identifiable traits: they have a rigorous common curriculum and a strong organizational push for students to enroll in challenging courses. In mathematics departments, Rochelle Gutiérrez found that teachers who take collective responsibility for their students’ success contribute substantially to this organizational push.

Similar findings have been published in top journals by David Strahan, Karen Seashore Louis, Tony Bryk, Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert. In my own work, I have seen how teachers’ collective responsibility supports students’ long-term positive engagement in the mathematics curriculum.

Teachers who work together can coordinate expectations across the grades, increasing expectations for student responsibility as they mature. Teamwork can give the teachers a place to hold the sometimes-abstract ideas of professional development up against the complex realities of their classrooms. For instance, in one school I worked with, the teachers were implementing a new curriculum and had received training in using it. When one unit required particular cultural knowledge that many of their students did not share, the teachers figured out an appropriate adaptation to bring their students up to speed on a topic the textbook took for granted.

In addition, the team allowed the teachers to coordinate their instruction, pacing lessons together and developing shared language and representations for key mathematical concepts. This allowed teachers to easily tutor one another’s students after school or in support classes, since everyone knew what kinds of conversations and presentations were going on in the classrooms. The collaboration directly contributed to the teachers’ mathematical learning as well. When teachers did not fully understand a concept, or could not anticipate the ways in which a topic would be hard for students, they turned to one another for brief tutorials or ideas to bring into their own classrooms.
Besides all of the ways in which the collaboration supported the goal of increased student achievement, the teachers consistently reported the unexpected benefit of the emotional support they garnered from the team approach. As one teacher reported, “When there’s a problem, when there are issues with a kid, there’s a group to talk about it, to say, ‘Hey, there are issues here. What do you suggest? What do you think? What’s a good way to go?’ And so you have this whole giant support system.”

If the preponderance of evidence points to the importance of collaboration in achieving equity, why is this not a commonplace feature of teachers’ work?

Teachers who want to meet and collaborate with their colleagues often do so at great personal expense. Frequently, they end up donating hours before and after school or sacrificing their scant preparation time. Even in places where teamwork becomes an explicit part of their work, it is seldom adequately offset by any reductions in other time-intensive job duties or it gets taken over by administrative demands.

I would love policy makers to shift their imagination from threats and sanctions against either individual teachers or entire schools to think about how to make productive collaboration a meaningful part of teachers’ work.

How do we build math- and kid-positive department cultures?

I was pleased with the responses to my last post. A number of teachers reached out via twitter and comments, asking how they might build math- and kid-positive cultures in their own schools.

I can’t offer any large scale studies of the answer to this question, even though I am currently engaged in a research project that is trying to work with districts on similar issues. But I can share some of the experiences I had working with teachers in the Pacific Northwest toward this goal.

Gather invested colleagues around a common problem.

I always say, I have yet to meet a teacher who goes into the profession for the glamor or the money. Almost everybody who becomes a teacher wants to help kids. Find the folks whose heart is still in that. Find the ones who are willing and able to invest the time in their professional growth and look for a problem to work on.

That is what we did in the partnership project that went on for 6 years with some urban high schools. We started teachers at a school we called Septima Clark High. To get started on our work together, we used a process called “The 5 Whys” to try to get at the root of a problem that was bothering them. Their burning question was: why are so many kids failing 9th grade math?

First we brainstormed the answers to this question. I listened and recorded the brainstorm non-judgmentally and without conversation. This went on for over an hour, and we only got to a second level of “whys.” The result came to be known among us as “The Wall” because, as I wrote all the reasons on giant post it notes, they filled an entire wall. Seeing all the answers to this question was rather overwhelming.

The Wall

The next step in the process was to look at this vast list and identify the things we could actually do something about. I underlined these. A small fraction of the reasons were actionable, but they gave us a way in to make a plan and set goals.

We sorted the actionable reasons into categories. From this, the teachers arrived at two conclusions:

  • that their curriculum wasn’t engaging all students, and
  • they needed to update their teaching practices.

The process was vital to teachers’ sense of ownership over our subsequent work.

Work together on a productive framing of that problem, linked back to math teaching and learning.

It’s one thing to identify a problem, like a high failure rate in 9th grade math. It’s altogether another thing to come up with a productive framing of that problem. Problem framings are how we define the parameters of something.

All too commonly, it is easy to point fingers and play the blame game: prior teachers did not do their job; the promotion policies that pass kids along; a lack of academic role models in kids’ lives. These reasons made the teachers’ brainstormed list. But none of them supported anything actionable on the part of the teachers. On the other hand, things like “kids aren’t engaged in the mathematics” did provide inroads for the teachers. By pressing teachers on what they can do, the framing that came out of this observation was that classroom activities and structures needed to encourage more participation. That was something teachers could work on.

Get support to have the time and space to meet to work on that problem regularly.

The hardest part about this process is that there is no way around how time-intensive it is. We all know teachers’ days are already overly full, despite the myth of teaching as an “easy, kid-friendly schedule.” Time diary studies of teachers’ work show that they work long hours, fitting a lot in on schooldays, weekends, and summers.

This is where administrative support can help. If there is already professional development time designated for your school, see if you can repurpose it for your goals. Even one hour after school weekly can make a difference. The best situation is to have common planning time with your collaborators, but this is a tricky and even expensive investment for schools.

Set short term and long term goals for your work, and find resources.

Too often, educational reform is treated like an appliance that can be brought anywhere and work the same way every time. We expect schools and teachers to “try” something, as if it’s just a matter of flipping a switch and saying yea or nay.

Education, however, is a human endeavor. The specifics of any setting and situation matter a lot for what works and how to get it working. Change takes time, especially ones that press on teachers to examine their core assumptions about teaching, learning, and mathematics.

One of my former doctoral students, Nicole Bannister, studied the Septima Clark teachers for her dissertation. She writes about their learning process and how they found ways to see and support their struggling students in their classrooms.

Celebrate the small victories, because there will always be setbacks and challenges.

School was originally designed on the factory model. Knowledge was thought of as a product that teachers could give to students efficiently on a set schedule. We now know that learning does not work that way — deeper understandings that support retention and fluency with mathematics cannot simply be delivered.

Re-culturing teaching –– reimagining the relations among students, mathematics, and teachers, as well as the activities that happen in the classroom –– to support more effective learning  is challenging work. Fundamentally, it involves working against the institutional grain of schooling, so there will be setbacks and challenges. For this reason, the small triumphs cannot go unnoticed: the student who makes sense of an idea for the first time, the one who participates after a long period of silence, the eagerness students have for a certain problem or project. All of these moments matter and need to be shared with the team. Otherwise, a team risks discouragement and burnout.

Share your work to help build critical mass.

Even before any results came in, the Clark teachers worked hard to communicate what they were doing with colleagues and parents. They held a meeting in the school library one evening to explain their understanding of the failure rate problem and the work they were invested in addressing it. Having the community support mattered. Even skeptical parents were heard saying, “If the teachers are this excited about what they are doing, I won’t stand in their way.”

Eventually, the kind of results administrators care about came in too. In the 2004-05 school year, before the team’s work began, less than half of the students who entered ninth grade at or below grade level were promoted to 10th-grade math. The following academic year, 83%
of those students were promoted.


This was not about dummying down content. In fact, the mathematical depth of classroom activities increased, as did student participation.

During the next state testing cycle, the student gains at the school caught the attention of the district. As the above chart shows, we saw higher achievement among Black* students and low income students, two groups that were of concern in the school and district. Soon, other schools wanted to learn about their work. Clark became a place that administrators visited, as did other teams of teachers.

*   *   *

The ongoing challenge for departments that reculture is how to sustain that work over time. In the last post, I told you about Railside, a place where I studied and taught. They managed to sustain their work for over two decades before policy pressures undid significant aspects of their work. Maybe if we can get critical mass at a national level, we can convince more people that organizing teaching so kids can learn is a worthwhile investment.



* I use the term “Black” because some students were African and some were African American, but they generally referred to themselves as black.


A Cascade of Errors in Interim “Summative” Assessments

I have been working on a paper investigating teachers interpreting student performance data. The data come from their district’s interim summative assessments, tests given every 6-8 weeks to help them predict how students will perform on the high stakes end of year tests. These interim assessments have taken a very important place in these schools, who are under the threat of AYP sanctions.

The teachers are all working so hard to do right by their kids, but there is a cascade of errors in the whole system.

First, the assessments were internally constructed. Although they match the state standards and have been thoughtfully designed, they have not been psychometrically validated. That means that when they are used to measure, say, a student’s understanding of addition of fractions, it has not been determined over repeated revision that this is what is actually being tested.

Second, the proficiency cut points are arbitrary, yet NCLB has everybody worried about percentage of students above proficiency. This is a national problem, as was so eloquently laid out in Andrew Ho’s 2008 article in Educational Researcher.

In the end, we are sacrificing validity for precision. We think these data reports tell us with great accuracy about who is learning what and to what degree. But there is reason to believe that this cascade of errors is just another sorting and labeling mechanism interfering with real teaching and learning.