Putting together the puzzle pieces

Delaware won the Federal Race to the Top grant in 2010. With it came to the state $120 million. Of that $120 million, the 19 school districts and 20+ charter schools received roughly half to implement key programs like data coaches ($8.2 million to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.). The other half of that $120 million was reserved for the DoE to use toward their internal programming. These funds likely went towards new units at DoE like the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit and other areas of bureaucratic largesse.

However, it was revealed quite a while back that the state hadn’t fully spent its half of the RttT funds by the time the grant expired on June 30, 2014. They were given an exception by Federal DoE to keep the funds as long as they were to use it in an appropriate manner.It’s expected that those leftover RttT funds will be used toward this Priority Schools initiative in Red Clay and Christina.

In order to fully inform myself where the monies are expected to come from for these Priority Schools AND to get an idea of HOW the DoE’s portion of RttT funds were spent in those four years, I sent the following email to DoE Sec. Mark Murphy:

Hello, Sec. Murphy:

 

Hope the school year has gotten off to a great start for you. I’m feeling quite at home with my new friends at Warner Elementary. They’re quite the dedicated and talented staff.
In doing my own research related to the proposed Priority Schools in my District, I’m interested in getting some financial information from you. In this email, I’m requesting year-by-year financial reports on how the Department spent its portion of the Race to the Top funds. As is known, roughly half of the $120 million dollars went to the school districts and the other half remained at the Department. I’d first like to know the total amount received as the Department’s portion. I’d then like to see the annual reports of how those monies were spent. As well, I’d like to see how much has been unspent and what projects DoE will be doing in order to spend down those monies.
If this information is easily accessible — and digestible — on the Department website, please feel free to forward me to that link. I’ve had members in my Association question me about this new Priority Schools initiative and the potential connection to RttT. Some of those members and myself are quite concerned about the lack of details provided at the press conference on Thursday and would like to peruse financials to learn more.
Hope you enjoy the weekend and thanks so much for your assistance,
Mike

It’s also expected that a California transplant named as DoE’s Chief Accountability and Performance Officer, Penny Schwinn, will be heading up this project at DoE. For those interested, John Young has some information on what Mrs. Schwinn brings to Delaware.For some perspective, she has less than a handful of years of actual teaching experience. At last month’s State Board of Education meeting, she was quoted by multiple sources, myself included, as saying that violence in our city communities “isn’t necessarily something our children need to overcome.” Mrs. Schwinn must have some perspective to make that comment. However, considering she only started her job in Delaware on June 9 of this year, I fail to see how her perspective and understanding is relevant.

I’ve shared with some of my RCEA members my concerns about the state’s plans. There is still much internal discussion to be had, particularly with our three impacted buildings, Warner, Shortlidge, and Highlands Elementary Schools. Within the next week, I’m sure you’ll all be hearing as more and more information and interpretation of said information is digested. Stay tuned.

 

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Partnership Zone v2.0?

I pride myself on having excellent long-term memory. As friends and family would likely attest, my short-term memory regarding things like what I ate last night or where I placed my wallet is severely poor. However, I can remember bizarre facts to the day about something I was doing 20 years ago.

Though I don’t recall who recruited me, in my first year of teaching I was selected — likely by my union — to serve on the planning committee for the implementation plans for Race to the Top. I received a substitute day to attend a seminar on RttT held at the Groves Center in Marshallton. I didn’t know him then, but I believe future Red Clay School Board President Kenny Rivera was there representing Brandywine School District. ON another day, I remember going to District headquarters, which at the time was still located in the penthouse suite in Linden Park in Pike Creek. My good friend Vicki Seifred was there, if I recall correctly, and we were tasked with reviewing the final RttT application before we were going to submit it to the State for final approval. One of the first questions that left my mouth — this novice, non-tenured teacher’s mouth — was about sustainability. How was Red Clay — in working with the State — going to ensure the SUSTAINABILITY of the funding for the programs that would be included in our Race to the Top application?

The short answer was there was no guarantee of sustainability because Race to the Top, all along, was a temporary program meant to set in motion a few key practices that could be maintained without future funding. PLCs? Data Coaches? $60 million cash straight to the DoE with little accountability? No problem!

Under Race to the Top, provisions for Partnership Zone schools were made. Some of the “lowest-performing” schools could get access to some cash to implement new programming and professional development for its staff. Sounds great, huh? Well how about a mechanism to sustain those funds once they dried up? Ummm…nope! Not part of the discussion. Case closed. Good night.

Imagine my surprise when I was told late last week that three schools in Red Clay would have the “honor” of essentially being the “new” Partnership Zone schools. Only now they’re called Focus Schools. Or, wait, sorry. Scratch that. They’re call “Priority Schools.” Holy hell if only we had the same level of outrage with this rebranding of BS that the public did over New Coke!

The three schools named in Red Clay are Highlands, Shortlidge, and Warner Elementary Schools. Coincidence they’re all located in the city? Hmmmmm…

I don’t at all question some of the positives that can come from this. If these schools are getting funds to run effective and meaningful after school programs or perhaps provide some truly engaging professional development for the teachers within, then by all means let’s have at it. However, until we have:

  1. Identified a sustainable mechanism that can KEEP those funds for key services coming into these SEVERELY high-needs schools and…
  2. Decouple the idea that FAILURE to achieve certain scores on standardized tests would then mean the school would potentially be targeted for closure and turnaround through, of all things, a charter organization.

then you’d better damn well believe you likely won’t get the support of either the EDUCATORS into those buildings or the communities who send their children there.

Priority Schools are borne out of this idea that SOMETHING needs to be done with the bottom 5% of schools in the state. Rather than Gov. Jack Markell and the legislature truly coming together to look at something like our dysfunctional UNIT COUNT system, they’d rather take the easy way out through competitive grants and coercive faux-accountability provisions like No Child Left Behind to further the instability of the communities in which our neediest schools reside.

I’m proud to report that the staffs at the three schools impacted in my District brought their A-game today. At each of the three schools, a District administrator showed up to share the news about this opportunity. Some of the questions in these three buildings were quite direct. In one school, a teacher said with a somewhat quivering voice, “I’ve been here for 16 years and for 16 years our students have been slighted. And now the Governor wants to come here and grandstand?” One member asked a question surrounding sustainability. The response? Well, we can plan for three years and they’re we’ll “have conversations.”

I will say this once again: For too long, teachers have been the type to go along to get along. They neither need nor desire conflict. They want to come in, work with their children, and then go home to their lives with friends and families. However, at a certain point and at certain schools, enough has turned into enough. Teachers are starting to speak up with a clear passion. And no amount of secretive government money or grants will be able to shut that up at this juncture.

Thanks to the members in those three buildings who spoke up. I hope THAT becomes the new norm.

DE Dept. of Ed. and State Board of Ed. Need to Check Themselves

It’s been an interesting summer break for me. Full-fledged “summer” with the soaring temps outside. Not so much of a “break,” though. And that’s ok. Keeping busy keeps me sharp and out of trouble.

Or so I thought.

Let’s back this train up quick, fast, and in a hurry.

About three weeks ago, the Delaware State Education Association sent a request to all local presidents asking for their assistance in writing letters to the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education to protest three planned regulation changes regarding teacher evaluations. These regulation changes included:

  1. Reclassifying the “pre-observation form” as the “observation form” and allowing it to be used in conjunction with unannounced observations
  2. Allow for the use of “short observations” (a.k.a. Walkthroughs) as part of a performance evaluation
  3. Changing the summative rating of “Needs Improvement” from “Satisfactory” to “Unsatisfactory”.

A summary of our actions/letters can be found here. This was a whiz-bang effort coordinated by DSEA, as all letters had to be turned in to the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education two weeks before its scheduled June meeting. I turned my letter around in about a day. It cannot be overstated the value of these letters. Collectively, they represent the voices of THOUSANDS of educators from around the State of Delaware calling into question these recommended regulation changes.

How this works is the Department of Education makes recommendations to the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education. The unelected and unaccountable State Board then votes on changes at its monthly meeting. There is, of course, a public comment period before the meeting where submissions can be forwarded to the Board for inclusion.

So the unelected and unaccountable State Board receives the thoughtful letters from over a dozen local association presidents. Letters that explicitly spell out WHY we feel these regulation changes are not appropriate for our profession, which in the past decade has seen a rising tide of almost insurmountable bureaucratic BS on top of the day-to-day responsibilities of educating children. Honestly, I figured the local presidents had made a damn-strong case as to why these regulation changes were bad for the profession. Namely, the recommendation that “defines a summative rating of “Needs Improvement” to be considered an Unsatisfactory Evaluation,” which could prematurely hasten the termination process for some of our novice teachers, for whom a “Needs Improvement” has actually been a rating to provide appropriate development and support in the past.

I was shocked to learn last week that all three questionable regulation changes were voted for unanimously by the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education. How could they have bypassed the considerate letters of concern representing so many thousand teacher voices? How? I had much to think about.

In the meantime, I’d scheduled myself to attend a State Board of Education Workshop in Dover to hear teacher evaluation framework goddess Charlotte Danielson speak. I’ve long admired Danielson’s work. Although her framework has been effectively bastardized by states across the country and applied in punitive manners — against her wishes — I’ve always enjoyed her candor and experience on the topic.

I went in to this meeting knowing what question I would ask. In effect, “Ms. Danielson, you have said that you don’t appreciate when your framework is used in a punitive manner. Well, in Delaware just last week, our State Board of Education voted on a regulation change related to how a teacher rated ‘Needs Improvement’ would be evaluated as ‘Unsatisfactory,’ which could hasten the termination of some of our youngest teachers. As someone who has shared concerns with using your framework in punitive ways, do you believe it’s right for our State Board of Education to have voted in this manner?”

That is not quite how the question came out, but that was the gist of it. So, I asked the question. And, you know something? It obviously pissed some folks off. Immediately after the question and NOT EVEN ALLOWING MS. DANIELSON TO RESPOND, one member of the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education assailed me as having not known what I was talking about. In front of a crowd of perhaps 50 people. I said “Sir, I have the regulation language right here.” Meanwhile, a Department of Education employee chided me “Mike, you’ve got it all wrong.” I said “Oh do I now?” In conversations I had with others AFTER the contentious meeting, it became clear to me that I did not have anything wrong.

The unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education member took offense that I had characterized his body in such a manner as to pervert the intent of Charlotte Danielson’s framework for teacher evaluation. He didn’t like that I called out his unelected and unaccountable body in a public manner. 

I stand by the comment I made.The unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education needs to check itself and start listening more to the teachers who work for the children of Delaware as opposed to the bureaucrats in the Townsend Building who have their own ed-reformy ideology that doesn’t square with best practice in our classrooms. Can’t take criticism from controversial, foolish votes you take on your unelected and unaccountable Board? Then find somewhere else to serve.

I think it’s high time the State Legislature look at the power the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education wields. And they also need to look at the cozy relationship between the Department of Education and the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education. Time for some legislation clarifying their roles.

Attacking the symptoms instead of the root cause

In yesterday’s News Journal, there was an extensive article detailing the results of a survey to all teachers in Delaware asking them how the DPAS-II teacher evaluation system went this year. This, of course, was the first year where student test scores played a part in a teacher’s evaluation rating, so understandably, results from the survey are less than stellar.

The survey results, which will be released completely very soon, go on to detail some shocking numbers:

“Three quarters of the surveyed teachers did not think the system should continue in its current form. More than 80 percent of administrators thought the same thing.”

Wow. I don’t know what’s more fascinating. That an overwhelming 75% of teachers hate this evaluation system or that more administrators hate it than do teachers.

DSEA President Frederika Jenner says it best in what is a great quote early on in the story: “There is an erosion in the confidence teachers have.” This is very true, for as we come to read in subsequent paragraphs of the article, it seems that erosion of confidence comes exactly because leadership at the State Department of Education is oblivious to the reasons why confidence has eroded.

Let me back up just a bit for the uninitiated. Teachers have always been evaluated. The evaluation system, for the most part, is fair in that it requires continual monitoring by your building principal. There are five components to a teacher’s evaluation. The first four are rather harmless and encompass such areas as professional practice, planning and preparation, and classroom environment. They require administrative EYES and EARS in your classroom to OBSERVE what you’re doing. The most controversial, though, is Component V. This is the part of a teacher’s evaluation that is judged solely on student test scores. If students don’t reach some pre-determined growth or benchmark goal, then that could have a negative impact on a teacher’s evaluation.

Yes, there were foul-ups in the implementation of the Component V portion of the evaluation this year. For those teachers who teach subjects NOT covered under the state test, DCAS (which is a majority of educators), they had to administer their own tests under the guidance of the state. Tests developed by cohorts of content-area-specialized teachers. Bubble sheet tests, for the most part. Well, many teachers in my District, particularly at the secondary level, were complaining well into November and December that they had NEVER received the materials FROM THE STATE to give their students the pre-test that should have been given the first week of school.

And the state wonders why the confidence level of teachers has dropped. Y’see, this State Department of Education seems too willing to attack the symptoms of the hot mess that is our evaluation system as opposed to looking at the root causes. They seem willing to simply blame a few chaotic timing and operational foul-ups as the cause for so much teacher dissatisfaction with the new evaluation.

But when I talk to teachers across my District, it’s clear to me this Component V is more universal than a few operational foul-ups. There are things going on in our schools that cannot be measured by test scores and, by extension, it makes it incredibly dangerous to then grade teachers on said test scores.

The symptoms of the problem are irrelevant to the bigger picture issues plaguing our environment of “rigor! rigor! rigor!” and “data! data! data!” and “test! test! test” and “disaggregate! disaggregate! disaggregate!” The flaws of this system are the test itself as well as the judging of our teachers based on factors that are well out of their control.

Let’s chunk this out:

  • Test Itself: Teachers don’t like this test, the DCAS. And they’re not going to like the Smarter Balanced test when it’s rolled out next year. Teachers do not believe these tests are appropriate measures of what their students do and do not know. They also don’t like that their students’ senses are assaulted for weeks every year behind a computer monitor taking pre-tests, mid-year tests, and end-of-year tests that have many students under an unnecessary amount of stress to “raise those scores!”

These tests have brought out some of the most obscene practices in our schools. On my Facebook page alone, I’ve heard from teachers up and down the state who report schools offering ridiculous incentives to get students to perform better. Special education students who will NEVER pass the test or who may NEVER show adequate amounts of growth being left out of incentive activities.

The test is a poor measure in this educational environment where teachers are supposed to differentiate instruction and accommodate students of various learning styles and intelligences. This test forces students into boxes that they shouldn’t be. 

This test is not a symptom. It is a root cause of our problems. It must be addressed and thrown out.

  • Judging teachers based on factors outside of their control: As teachers, we work hard with limited resources to see your children succeed and move on to become productive members of society. That said, a majority of our schools these days face challenges that are far out of the purview of public education, but which seem to be serviced more and more by public education. Let’s be blunt: poverty is an issue wracking our schools. It’s had a damning effect on our society.

We’ve got some great teachers at our high-needs, Title I schools. Schools that feature upwards of 85% of students on free or reduced lunch. These teachers at times go into a war zone and work their magic to bring a sense of stability — the only sense of stability these kids know — into their classrooms. Children who come to school in soiled clothing. Malnourished. Crying. Unkempt hair. Lack of sleep. Bruises. Unmedicated. Emotional distress. Neglect. Lateness. Excessive absence. Transient populations. Homelessness. Unemployment.

What folks like you and I take for granted would be a dream world to these students who’ve never truly experienced a stable lifestyle. These students come to us with such greater deficits than their middle- and upper-class peers, yet teachers in these buildings are expected to have them perform THE SAME with few extra resources. Nay, these teachers generally put forth MORE of their own buck to ensure their classrooms have the basics because they don’t have parents who can provide school supplies or snacks.

So, teachers who are already overworked and beaten down in these extremely challenging schools are going to get another potential kick in the face by receiving an Ineffective rating because their students didn’t show an acceptable level of growth relative to, perhaps, their more affluent peers?

These factors outside of our teachers’ control are a root cause of dissatisfaction with the evaluation system. This is a problem that has not been thouroughly-enough addressed by either our Legislative or Executive Branches. It must be, or else we will see mass exodus from these schools or the profession. We cannot continue to sit idly by and hope that test scores will magically increase as we continue to ignore the socio-economic challenges in these schools.

It’s clear there’s much work to be done. It’s clear the Department of Education wants the results to next year’s survey to go up. It’s clear that many teachers have taken such a cynical view of the current evaluation system that I’m not sure confidence can be salvaged at this point because the first-year rollout was such a failure of epic proportions. The state has a lot on its plate to right these wrongs. But not nearly as much as that teacher returning to his or her classroom next week ready to welcome all students — no matter the challenges that face those students personally. And teachers will be damned if tests drafted by corporate profiteers are going to define who they are personally and professionally. You can take that to the bank.

“While this could be attributed to several factors…”

Read the whole logic-proof, absurd letter from the Delaware Department of Education here. Anyone who thinks this agency is working in 100% good faith is deluding themselves.

This organization either suffers from amnesia or several delusional schizophrenia considering in years’ past across districts they’ve worked their hardest to specifically increase attrition at high-needs schools by either contracting with the saviors from Teach for America or invading key high-needs schools with the authoritarian “Partnership Zone” ideology.

Read it here. And do something.

DCAS is rotten to the (Common) Core

I just stood over a student’s shoulder, being the active test moderator that one must be. Naturally, I couldn’t help but read the question the student was on. Fifth grade math. I looked at it once. I looked at it again. I couldn’t figure it out. Was this a reading test or a math test? Buried somewhere in the reams of blathering text was a math problem. I eventually found it but thought it so complex for a fifth grader.

I called over another adult in the room. That adult who specializes in math thought the question was just as inappropriate. Sharing the question details would be a violation of the rules, so you won’t be seeing the question here. All I will say is this test is bad. Very bad. And our students and teachers are being judged on it.

Time for a real conversation dissecting this test. Open up the books, DoE. Let the sun shine in. Gov. Markell, what say you?

A Better Idea

In my post below I took a rather heated position against what I feel is outright bullying by the Delaware Department of Education in its continued attempts to shove teacher attraction and retention bonuses down our throats without providing evidence to prove effectiveness. Truth is, there’s very little — if any — evidence to show that throwing more cash at the most “effective” teachers will get them to back up and move to a high-needs, “low-performing” schools and then work their “magic” there.

So yesterday was my complaint post.

Today is my solutions and ideas post. I’ve heard Sec. Murphy say over and over — rightfully so — that he doesn’t just want complaints. He wants good ideas to combat the weaknesses in our schools today. Here’s one: For high-needs schools that are showing progress and are achieving certain levels of growth, how about turning those bonus funds over to the schools instead of to a very limited group of potential bonus-recipient teachers?

This idea has been floated by DoE several times, but they have not bitten. Why, you ask? Well you’re answer is as good as mine. Why would the DoE continue to stand by this flawed bonus ideology when they’ve been given another, far superior, idea that could help bring a school community together as opposed to tearing it apart? Perhaps that’s a topic for another post…

Here’s how I envision such a plan rolling out. Race to the Top monies that were pegged for teacher bonuses would instead be turned over to schools if that school meets certain criterion. Identified schools would have a certain time after being notified of the reward to form a committee of staff and come up with ideas that would best meet the needs of that school’s community. Of course, the way the funds are spent would have to be approved by the DoE, which is fine by me.

However, imagine if a school was awarded $50,000 in a one-year period. What could a school do with those funds? I can only imagine what my school would do with an additional $50,000 per year. Some ideas:

  • Increase the number of parent-engagement nights: FOOD. Yes, it’s true. If you feed them, they will come. And I’m not simply talking about the neediest schools. Promise anyone food at ANY TYPE of school and a crowd will be drawn. But that food costs money. Aside from the food, there are ways schools can effectively partner with outside non-profit agencies to come in for informational nights with these parents. At our highest-needs schools we often find many of the parents need a good dose of education. Bring them out. Feed them. Teach them. That’s what it’s about.
  • More Literacy Nights and Math Nights: We’ve had some great successes at my school with these kinds of activities. But we only have one each per year. Title I funding pays for these events, but those funds are quite limited. It would have been great had Race to the Top funds been pegged to more community engagement activities like this.
  • Professional Development: There are so many amazing professional development opportunities out there for educators. The PD we receive from the District isn’t always the best quality. Worse, it isn’t always relevant to the assignments we undertake. Just like the instruction in our classrooms, PD must be differentiated for educators. Allowing schools to use funds for innovative and outside-the-box PD would truly be empowering.
  • After-school activities: For the most part, teachers REALLY want to do the things that will help their students. Teacher bonuses may help a single teacher, but that won’t necessarily trickle down to his or her students. If a school were awarded funds, then the school could decide to implement more after-school activities, something that is DESPERATELY needed at some of our high-needs, Title I elementary schools.
  • One-time technology upgrades: Technology is a never-ending issue in so many of our schools. Not enough computers. Computers that don’t work. Poor access to computers due to wild testing schedules. If a school received $50,000 then that would be great cash to put into a new computer lab. That is…provided there’s enough space IN your school for a new lab. 🙂

So, Sec. Murphy. You’ve asked for constructive ideas in the past. I’ve provided you five above. I’ve only scratched the surface and haven’t given the topic the true amount of time it deserves. Will you consider any of what I’ve written above as opposed to the ill-conceived and ultimately divisive teacher bonuses the Department is looking to implement in the coming months and years?