Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Time for Teacher Work to Work (Part 3)

Today, we continue to explore solutions to the problem that teachers don't have time to do the work needed to be effective. Read Parts 1 and 2 to catch up. Today, we will examine 2 more of at least 7 possible solutions ...

3) Longer work year: This option is one of my favorites. It doesn't necessarily mean more school days for students. (That's a whole other ball of wax, one that's pretty hot right now.) Instead, it means teachers doing professional work on the days students are out of school, either during the summer or during shorter, more spread-out breaks for year-round schools. I think using student vacation days for professional work is a particularly good for with year-round schools, so planning and analysis can be done while the teaching year is still happening. If all the professional work is done in the summer, we can still make good instructional plans and materials, but it's less meaningful to analyze student data and differentiate instruction with our old students gone and our new ones not yet arrived.

Of course, a longer work year means giving up that mythical treasure of the teaching profession, the summer vacation. We teachers like our vacations. Of course we do -- who wouldn't?! But, much as I would miss the long stretches of time for horseback riding by the Mediterranean or working in a progressive bookstore, I would gladly trade them for better year-round quality of life for me and mine, and better learning for my students. Teacher readers -- would you?

4) Alternate student programming: Some (or all?) Fairfax County schools have Early Release days for students every Monday. I suggest alternative student programming as a way for teachers to get the weekly planning and collaboration time offered by Early Release, but with consistent supervision for families and additional learning opportunities for children. Students could stay in schools, perhaps in programs led by Recreation and Parks counselors or part-time employees. Alternate student programming could follow a wide range of calendars. In my opinion, more time is better, as are longer blocks of time. (I and many other professionals tend to be more productive in one 4 hour block of work as opposed to two 2-hour blocks, especially at the end of a school day, half or otherwise.) Two possible configurations for alternate student programming are a half-day every week, as in Fairfax, or one full day every other week. Even one full day per month is far better than nothing.

To increase the pool of high-quality educators available to deliver alternate programming, schools could take their professional time on different days. So one alternate programming counselor might see students from different schools each day of the week, leading to part-time programming for students and part-time professional work for teachers, but full-time employment for counselors. And to accommodate the reduction in students' weekly academic hours, districts might add more school days throughout the year, or find qualified, professional educators to deliver academic and/or special subject instruction during Early Release days. Alternate student programming, like options 2 and 3, carries the advantage of giving shared planning time to all teachers in a school, thereby facilitating collaboration of teachers within and between grade levels.

Check in next time as we explore more solutions ...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Time for Teacher Work to Work (Part 2)

Today, we continue to explore solutions to the problem that teachers don't have time to do the work needed to be effective. Read Part 1 to catch up. Today, we will examine 2 of at least 7 possible solutions ...

1) Efficient, applied professional development: We need to start by maximizing the time we already have. Sadly, even when time is so short, much of our scheduled professional development time is wasted or minimally effective. In a 2002 study quoted by Heather C. Hill's March 2009 Phi Delta Kappan article, less than a quarter of teachers reported that the professional development they had attended changed their teaching. This finding is echoed by Linda Darling-Hammond and other researchers in their comprehensive report for the National Staff Development Council, Professional Learning in the Learning Profession, which goes on to point out that teacher's dissatisfaction stems at least partially from the "one-shot nature of much PD." (Thanks to Claus von Zastrow for pointing me to NSDC as a great resource.)

As I've written about in past posts, my biggest frustration with even well-planned PD is that it's usually disconnected from our actual teaching, and therefore often doesn't get applied in our classrooms. When we use PD time to learn a manageable amount of new information and then apply it to our own lesson plans, we get a double bang for our buck: planning instruction (which needs to happen anyway) and improving our practice. As that North Central Regional Educational Laboratory report said years ago, "Professional development can no longer be viewed as an event that occurs on a particular day of the school year; rather, it must become part of the daily work life of educators. Teachers, administrators, and other school system employees need time to work in study groups, conduct action research, participate in seminars, coach one another, plan lessons together, and meet for other purposes."

2) Longer work days: As a teacher, I don't like this one much, but it's an option and it has some benefits. Typical teachers work about 7.5 official hours per day. If we provided support to work a more typical 8.5 or 9 hour day, we would more efficiently and comfortably do the work we now gerrymander into our mornings, nights, weekends, and lunches. Support for working longer official hours could include higher pay, professional supplies like phones, computers, and printers for every teacher, well-organized work space, and use of extended hours to schedule meetings and planning in more efficient blocks of time. (E.g. Teachers could all have 2 or 3 uninterrupted hours of work time after students have left rather than 50 minutes squeezed between picking up and dropping off students and and often interrupted by student needs.) When I was googling on this, I came across a work schedule for teachers at TEP Charter School in New York City, of which I have little other knowledge. According to this schedule, "To meet ... redefined expectations, TEP teachers work professional hours, typically from 7:45 AM to 5 PM in a work-day filled with a variety of teaching, learning, and leading experiences. ... Each teacher observes his/her partner teacher 1 period per day, is observed by his/her partner teacher 1 period per day, and plans/debriefs with his/her partner during a common planning time each day."

As I said, I don't love the idea of officially extending my work day. At the end of a teaching day, I am TIRED, and rarely at my best for planning and innovating. I'm curious how these work days turn out in reality. If you know of schools with a similar schedule, please write a comment to let us know how it works. This school year, I will be informally experimenting with this option, changing my self-designed schedule from working about 8 hours on Sundays to adding about 2 hours of planning to the end of each school day. Working consistent 10-12 hour days sounds daunting, but I want a 2-day weekend. We'll see how it goes. What is your experience with extended work days for teachers?
Check in next time as we explore more solutions ...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Time for Teacher Work to Work (Part 1)

Lawyers would flip out if asked to spend 80% of their work time in trial. Surgeons would revolt, and probably make serious mistakes, if they had only 20% of their time to research cases, prepare for operations, and follow up with patients outside of the O.R. How good would plays be if actors spent only 8 hours rehearsing for a 20-show run of a 2-hour play?

I wouldn't want to be a lawyer, doctor, or thespian in any of those professional environments. And you probably wouldn't trust any of them with your lawsuit, health, or admission fee. Why then, do we think it's okay to give teachers 80 minutes or less each day to develop 5 or more hours of rigorous student instruction*?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has spoken recently of increased quality and length of professional work time for teachers, and many educators have known it's necessary for years. Teachers who carve adequate professional time out of their personal lives often burn out and turn over quickly, which of course causes loss of professional wisdom and high recruitment and training costs for districts. When we don't get the time needed to plan and develop our skills, the effectiveness of our teaching for children suffers. The role of the teacher is growing fast, but our professional systems have changed little. In an older but on-the-money report by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Cathy J. Cook and Carole Fine write, "The reality is that teachers likely will require more than 20 percent of their work time for learning and collaboration if they are to be successful in implementing ambitious reform initiatives."

In my own teaching experience, I find myself looking for a road between the no-win options of over-working and under-preparing. I often work too much, which compromises my teaching as well as my ability to stay long-term if I can't find a way to slow down. But other days I choose not to complete plans and preparation I know will benefit my students, because I need the time for my life. Either way, children and teachers suffer. We all know it's a huge problem. (If you know of other articles which document and analyze the issue more fully, please post them as comments.) My purpose in this series of posts is to explore possible solutions to the problem that teachers don't have time to do the work we need to be effective.

From research and brainstorming, I compiled a list of 7 possible solutions. Many of these solutions could co-exist and complement each other. I'm sure there are many more possibilities. I don't think any of the ideas are original, and people who think about these issues full-time have probably written about them in greater depth than I will here. My hope for this post series is to briefly explore a range of solutions from a classroom perspective to remind us of our options and renew a conversation of them.

Ways to give teachers the professional time we need to excel:
  1. Efficient, applied professional development

  2. Longer work days

  3. Longer work years

  4. Alternate student programming

  5. Co-teaching

  6. Departmentalized teaching

  7. Smarter scheduling
Each day this week, I will write about some of these alternatives from a classroom perspective. Please contribute your thoughts and resources on each.

* A note on figures: I calculated these numbers based on my own teaching schedule -- one with MORE planning time than many. For me, each official school day contains 30 minutes before students arrive, usually used for school meeting or training, 50 minutes during the students' day for planning, often scheduled for grade-level planning or development, and about 5 hours teaching students. Like many teachers, I spend a great deal of time after school and on weekends developing plans, assessing student work, and meeting one-on-one with students. Those hours and the fact that official school days are shorter than a typical professional day make the calculation a little murkier. For me, the widespread anecdotal evidence is more convincing. Find me a good teacher who isn't overworked, and we'll talk.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

And Now for Something Different

Dear Readers,

In my continuing quest to live as a teacher AND a blogger, I am trying a new posting format. Starting tomorrow, I will publish shorter, serialized posts on a (hopefully) daily basis. So, on the weekends I will write a long, thorough piece on the topic du jour (or de la semaine, I guess.) Then, each day that week, I will publish a section of the writing as a serialized post.

I'm trying this as compromise between the media of blogging and the styles of my writing and life. I'm not great at finding daily writing time while teaching, but I very much want to contribute to the conversation regularly. I also like to write longer posts, which can be time-consuming to read all at once. I hope this format will offer a way for me to keep writing and you to keep reading.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful reading and comments. Let me know how this works for you as we try it together!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is DC's Teacher Support "Highly Effective?"

6% of DC Public School teachers were fired last Friday, many of them for scoring "Ineffective" on DC's new IMPACT teacher evaluations. 17% more were denied scheduled raises and placed in jeopardy of losing their jobs next year if their scores do not improve from "Minimally Effective." (See the Wall Street Journal's story here, but note that 80% of teachers' evaluations come mostly from 5 teaching observations, 3 of them unannounced, rather than student test scores.)

What I want to look at here, from a DCPS teacher perspective, is: How effective was the support provided to us teachers to help us rate as "Effective" on IMPACT? And how effective CAN it be for all of us in the future?

Michelle Rhee says the purpose of IMPACT is "to create a culture in which DCPS school-based personnel
have a clear understanding of what defines excellence in their work, are provided with constructive and data-based feedback about their performance, and receive support to increase their effectiveness." (Quoted from the IMPACT system's homepage for DCPS personnel.) It's certainly setting high standards and giving high-stakes feedback. But is it providing teachers the support we need to reach the high bar? Let's look at my experience in 2009-2010. I received support on pedagogy through 2 major streams: 1) DCPS-designed trainings, and 2) Job-embedded professional development, designed and delivered by my instructional coach and administrators. (Although I received written and verbal feedback from a visiting Master Educators 2 times during the year, this feedback changed my practice much less than either of the 2 DEVELOPMENT streams above.)

First, let's take a look at the DCPS training. For 3 consecutive days at the start of the school year, and 4 more days throughout, school coaches around the district were given a standardized training by DCPS to deliver to teachers. The first 3 days were a broad overview of the Teaching and Learning Framework, the rubric within IMPACT which rates 3 parts of educating: Plan, Teach, and Increase Effectiveness. This past year, we were only rated on the Teach section, but all 3 parts were covered on the training. To use teacher talk, I don't think the objective of this training was for us to master the teaching skills in IMPACT. Instead, it seemed to be building some background knowledge for us to do so in the future. Important, but not getting teachers into Effective territory yet. (See what you think for yourself: DCPS posted all 3 days of Powerpoint training online here.) The next training was for all school staff, from librarians to custodians, and gave an overview of the systems and processes being rolled out for IMPACT as a new accountability system. Again, important for employees to know our expectations and rights, but not helping teachers master pedagogical skills need for an Effective rating.

So that leaves us with 3 days actually geared to support teachers in specific teachings skills on the rubric. For those 3 days to qualify as Effective support, they would have to be pretty freakin' amazing. But they were just okay. Sure, the objectives were clear (one big advantage of a district-wide rubric,) and teacher investment was relatively high among my colleagues -- we were given some choice in which aspects of teaching we wanted to work on, the trainers valiantly attempted to back up the rubric with research, and, let's be honest, we didn't have much of a choice about getting better on this scale anyway. But many other elements were off. Because most classroom examples didn't fit with the age ranges and styles in our own classes, teachers' investment and engagement suffered. I'm pretty sure my kinesthetic learning style wasn't targeted ... hey, it's hard for adults to focus, too! Most importantly, the pacing of the trainings and school-based follow-ups (or lack thereof) left little time for application to our own practice -- the meat of any Highly Effective lesson teachers give students. (I wrote more about this issue here, just after our last DCPS training.) My overall rating, in IMPACT terms: Minimally Effective. And my "teacher achievement" reflected it: my practice changed little, if at all.
Fear not, there's hope! The 2nd stream of support I received, job-embedded professional development, took a different format, delivered more targeted content, and led to much better results. In fact, I wrote a post pinpointing it as one of 3 factors which led to dramatic growth in my teaching skills -- BEFORE the IMPACT firings were announced and this debate really began raging. Read the post, especially the part about "Proactive PD" to get a sense of what strong support for teachers CAN look like. Clearly defined, relevant objectives ... engaging, hands-on format ... observations to see whether we were getting it ... plenty of time for teachers to practice using new ideas ... This job-embedded PD gets a Highly Effective score from me.

The quality of this support showed in my classroom and my IMPACT scores. In my first two observations, one by an administrator and one by a Master Educator, I was rated on the low end of Minimally Effective. And rightfully so -- I'm a new teacher, and I was struggling. These ratings were given AFTER I had been given much of the DCPS-designed "support." But, after the excellent, job-embedded PD (and a lot of hard work from me and my school leaders,) I scored solidly in the Effective range ... with my last score from a Master Educator just on the cusp of Highly Effective. More importantly than all these numbers, kids in my class were learning much more and having a much better time.

Getting this kind of excellent, job-embedded PD to every DC teacher will not be easy. Not every school has a great coach, much less one ready and willing to deliver the kind of intensive, precise coaching my school-level colleagues and I received. But it's important. We must swiftly build our coaching force and systems to deliver intensive, job-embedded PD which includes multiple cycles of lesson planning, delivery, and debriefing with coach and teacher. It's fair for teachers: This summer, hundreds of teachers lost their jobs or financial security without adequate support to reach a new standard. Had I not been in a school with a great coach and administrators, I would have stayed at the Minimally Effective rung, or very possibly declined and been out of a job right now. But I was given the support to improve -- and ANY teacher whose job is on the line deserves that. But far more importantly, we need to get these systems of job-embedded PD in place because it's right for our kids. These evaluation systems are there to evaluate teachers' impact on children's learning. Every day a teacher struggles is a day her students are fulling further behind. Please, do what you can to push school leaders in DC and your own city to examine models of PD that ARE producing strong results, and bring them to scale as fast as humanly possible -- for teachers, but mostly for kids.