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.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Learning to Teach Like a Champion

I made it! To summer, to gains in student achievement, to the end of my first year as a GOOD teacher. On June 22, I finished my third year of teaching, my second year in a consistent lead-teaching placement, and - in my opinion - my first year of teaching successfully. While I've got a loooong way to travel before I'm the teaching champion I want to be (nod to Doug Lemov for the phrase and his pragmatic codification of probably-necessary-but-possibly-not-sufficient conditions for becoming an excellent teacher), it was a successful year by most measures, of both the touchy-feely and cold-hard-data variety. I saw BIG jumps in my teacher effectiveness data (from DC's new IMPACT teacher evaluation system,) respectable growth in students' achievement data, and a much happier, much harder-working group of students.

I won't enumerate the ways my teaching has improved. There are many people infinitely better than me at teaching, and teaching about teaching, who can do that for a growing teacher. What I want to talk about here is: What MADE me get better? What systems were in place to make me a better teacher, and therefore improve my students' learning?

As I pondered that question this morning to the tune of percolating espresso, three major factors bubbled up: IMPACT's common language, job-embedded professional development, and work-life balance.

  • IMPACT's common language: In many ways, IMPACT, D. C. Public Schools' new teacher evaluation system, doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. Its Teaching section list 9 key practices every teacher of any grade and subject should do every day, including delivering content clearly, engaging all students, and gauging students' understanding. (Read the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework for the specifics, or look at its Strategic Documents page for an overview of the evaluation system.) As many people have noticed, DCPS's IMPACT looks a whole lot like Teach for America's Teaching as Leadership rubric. Having been trained at Teach for America's Institute two summers ago, I was fully aware of these practices, and that background knowledge make it easier for me to hit the ground running with IMPACT this year. But having the language all by myself wasn't enough to make dramatic progress as a teacher. It focused some of my thoughts and conversations with TFA colleagues, but I lacked daily, focused conversations about those key ideas. This year, sharing the language with my colleagues and school leaders (as well as another year under my belt, of course,) gave me the traction needed to effect a big change in my class. All of a sudden, I could ask the veteran teacher next door to share what made her effective at Teach 6, Maximizing Instructional Time, and we both clearly understood the question. Last year, I might have just trudged in her door, thrown up my hands, and lamented that my lessons weren't getting done, withe no clear language to pinpoint the problem. IMPACT gave us shared language to focus those conversations.

  • Job-embedded professional development: Without structured assistance around IMPACT's teaching practices, I wouldn't have gotten any better. I received 2 kinds of professional development from school leaders which helped me fix the problems IMPACT helped identify. I'll call these 2 kinds of help Triage PD and Proactive PD. The Triage PD came when a crisis was threatening all other parts of my class. A few months into the year, my classroom management took a sharp turn for the worse. I had made critical mistakes, and everyday best practices would not turn the situation around. With the extreme problems in management, I could not deliver my well-planned lessons or maximize my formerly-effective positive behavior system. At that point, the assistant principal became my management turnaround mentor. We met once a week, reviewed how management had gone, settled on 2-3 key actions to take the next week, and then reviewed the effects of those actions the next week. Ideally, no teacher would ever reach a crisis point and need Triage PD. But as a new teacher, I did, and many others will. Having leaders who are competent in teaching to meet consistently with teachers whose classes need turnaround made a huge difference for me. Once the crisis was averted and management returned to a manageable hum, I could benefit from Proactive PD. Proactive PD is, in a sense, optional: a class could have many effective components without it. But Proactive PD leverages one aspect of teaching to help make a functional class into a great class. This year, my most striking Proactive PD focused on IMPACT's Teach 5, Check for and Respond to Student Understanding. Our school's literacy coach assembled a group of teachers, none of whose classes were in crises, but all of whom could improve our monitoring of students' understanding. We met twice a week during the 30-minute morning meeting block for about 5 weeks. Our work took on a predictable rhythm, intentionally crafted by the coach. Early in the cycle, we absorbed new information on various strategies for checking for understanding, then set goals for ourselves around a few strategies we wanted to master. Midway through the cycle,combed through lessons we planned to teach and inserted checks for understanding. In the end of the cycle, we shared what was working in each of our classrooms, learning from each others' practice. One other strand of work made these cycles effective: Regular lesson observations and debriefs. When the coach was scheduled to observe me, I took extra care to try the checks for understanding we were studying. After the lesson, the coach and I debriefed on how the checks had gone, how it impacted overall lesson effectiveness, and what I wanted to try next time. I could feel and see the difference this Proactive PD made in my teaching. I started using the strategies I had studied in almost every lesson, having thought about them carefully during our meetings and practiced them gradually during the observed lessons. Notably, this PD cycle used the gradual release model I've advocated for in other posts, as well as clearly defined objectives (Improving Teach 5 practice) and measures of success (IMPACT scores before and after the PD) -- two things we know are indispensable for teaching kids but often ignore while teaching adults.

  • Work-life balance: I felt like a good teacher in September but not in October, in December but not November. I began to feel confident that I had BECOME a good teacher around January, after winter break. Early in the year, I had scrounged up energy to face classroom crises, but found the energy difficult to sustain. During winter break, I hit my personal reset button, recommitting to spiritual practice, seeing more of my friends and family, and taking time to just be. When I returned to work in January, I had already developed new classroom skills, so my energy could be spent on seasoning my practice rather than mopping up pots that had boiled over. Out of constant crisis mode, I also felt less exhausted, so I found myself able to continue the spiritual practice, keep seeing my friends, and enjoy my life outside of teaching a little. These personal practices provided the energy I needed to teach well CONSISTENTLY. I firmly believe improving my work-life balance helped me turn okay teaching into good teaching, and will sustain my efforts towards becoming the teaching champion all of our children deserve.