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A conversation among researchers, educators, and smart observers about the New York City schools.
October 30, 2013
Over the course of the mayoral race, if you listened to the candidates discuss public education, one of the most pressing issues facing our education system today is whether schools should be able to share space, or co-locate, in public school buildings.
There are fundamental and meaningful differences between district-run schools and charter schools, which can include curricular choices, autonomy and level of union involvement. But the political fights focusing on the differences draw attention away from another important conversation that needs to be taking place, about what we have in common.
The goal of providing the best education possible is a shared goal, and teachers in both kinds of schools tend to check politics at the door and focus on educating students. The debate over real estate does little to recognize what’s happening in schools every day: the very difficult challenges educators confront and the hard work they’re doing to improve education for all students, no matter what kind of school they attend. (more…)
October 24, 2013
Moving to a new school this fall marked a role shift for me as a teacher. After eight years as a general education teacher (as in, Ms. Jacks, Eighth-Grade English), I am now the learning specialist and co-teacher in an eighth-grade integrated co-teaching class, which means I follow a group made up of both “special ed” and “general ed” students from class to class throughout the day. My job is to support teachers and work with individuals or groups of students to maximize learning for all.
I’m thrilled, because now I get the chance to do what I’ve always wished I could do more of as a regular teacher: experience other teachers’ classrooms, focus intensely on the neediest students, and devote my energy to thinking about how people learn best. We’re only a few weeks in, but already some insights are emerging. Things about teaching and learning that felt true to me intuitively are becoming clearer now that I’ve stepped out of my single-classroom cubby-hole and can see a bit more of the forest and the trees.
As I began to record my observations, I realized they break into two rough categories: teacher moves on the one hand, and curriculum on the other. I’ll focus this piece on the former and discuss curriculum in a separate piece soon.
What I’ve learned, or relearned, since I began stepping into my colleagues’ classrooms during the school day:
October 17, 2013
When I first saw the Common Core math standards, I wasn’t sure precisely what made them more rigorous than the old ones. It wasn’t until New York State released sample Common Core-aligned questions, and I started working with teachers to adjust their classes accordingly, that I began to understand what sets the new standards apart and how we can prepare students to meet them.
When New York State adopted the Common Core in 2010, I was working as a math coach in the Fayetteville-Manlius School District in the Syracuse area. (I recently left to become a science, technology, engineering, and math coordinator for Skaneateles Central School District). I worked with many teachers to figure out what the new standards asked of students and how classroom instruction should shift as a result. This article comes out of conversations I had with math teachers and especially with Caryl Loranidini, an eighth-grade teacher in Long Island, as we worked together to figure out what the new standards asked of students and how classroom instruction should shift as a result.
Shifting our instruction to reflect the Common Core was tough those first two years, since we didn’t have many examples of what Common Core-aligned questions actually looked like. Our first break came in June 2012, when New York State released sample questions for grades 3-8. Our initial reaction to these questions was, “Wow. You’ve got to be kidding! These are really hard.” We noticed problems we were used to seeing in one grade moved down one or more grade levels, which meant students would have to master material sooner.
But as we dug deeper, we were able to name and describe some of the things that made the substance of the new questions, not just their placement, different from the old ones. This understanding helped us develop practice questions that would familiarize students with the problem-solving skills they needed for the new tests. (more…)
October 9, 2013
For several years, when the phone rang in my classroom, I instructed students not to answer it. “They’re not calling for us,” I’d explain.
At first this was an annoyance. Today, it reminds me of the complexity of working in the ever-changing landscape of schools in New York City: in my case, of the hubris that comes with being a founding staff member of something “new” in something old, and then fighting to defend that new thing against something newer.
My classroom was a former administrative office of Samuel J. Tilden High School, which had been converted from a classroom a few years earlier to accommodate the co-location of several new public high schools, including my school, the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School. This phone line remained, months and years after Tilden graduated its final class in 2010, the phone number for Samuel J. Tilden High School.
When students weren’t in the classroom and I was able to answer the phone, often it was Tilden alumni calling for transcripts, or former employees seeking references. I did my best to provide callers with phone numbers I had been given to direct such calls, but these conversations were never short, which is why I only took them when I wasn’t teaching. After I provided the numbers, callers would usually ask, “What happened to Tilden?” (more…)
October 1, 2013
This piece originally appeared in YCteen, a magazine written by NYC teens, and is reprinted in collaboration with Youth Communication. Christopher Alcine wrote it after graduating from John Adams High School in Queens this June. He just started his freshman year at Syracuse University.
Absenteeism is a real problem in New York City public schools. Just look at the numbers — or look at my friends.
In New York City, at least one in four students is chronically absent from school each year. Chronically absent means missing school 20 or more days in out of a 180-day school year, which is just over 10 percent of the time. I know this information because I read a report written by the Youth Justice Board, an after-school program for New York City teens that gives youth a voice in the policies affecting them, and interviewed a student and an adult involved in the research.
I also know the effects of absenteeism from my own experience as a student at John Adams High School in Queens, where the dropout rate is slightly above the city average, and from observing my friends. When I read the list of the possible solutions the Youth Justice Board proposed to deal with chronic absenteeism, I thought of my own high school and what might have worked there. (more…)
September 25, 2013
Across the city right now, teachers are choosing how they want to be observed this year: through a pre-announced, formal supervisor visit and three or more shorter, less formal ones, or through at least six informal observations. Some city teachers, including Tim Clifford, who wrote on GothamSchools about teacher evaluations earlier this month, say they can’t imagine who would choose six short visits from their administrators over a combination of one formal observation and three short ones.
They don’t have to leave the question up to imagination anymore. We chose the six visits, and here’s why:
The more feedback the better
We work to give specific, actionable feedback to our students so they might improve their skills and sets of academic knowledge. As teachers, we are also learners, and we want that kind of feedback from our administrators. We believe that more feedback delivered more frequently will make us better teachers. Frequent conversations with colleagues and administrators allow us to establish relationships with each another, which makes it possible to be more frank and honest in our self-assessment and assessment of one another.
Humans gather information and data, make sense of it as best we can with the tools at our disposal, and then make choices as to how to move forward. As teachers, we do not strive to give our students timely, specific feedback because only five- to 18- year-olds learn best this way, but because all people learn best this way. Frequent adult feedback, alongside student performance data from tailored assignments and feedback directly from the kids, helps teachers get the best read on their performance. And having a minimum of six guaranteed observations means six guaranteed opportunities to maintain a feedback loop and have a real conversation about what good teaching and learning look like. This is the strength of frequent visits and is something all educators should want.
Informal observations are more authentic
Teachers might want to know in advance when they’ll be observed, but we think it’s actually better not to know.
If we’re going to be able to use feedback to actually change the way we teach and thereby improve our students’ learning, it needs to be based on the daily life and routine of our classrooms. The problem with formal observations, for which teachers are given the date in advance, is that the practice can easily slip into an inauthentic display of pedagogical practice — more like a performance than window into a teacher’s classroom.
Our students might remark on our penchant for showmanship when we do things like wear wigs while helping them break down a complex writing task during their study of the American Revolution. We do this to make history more concrete for students, but we do not have time to put on a song and dance for administrators. While some educators might argue that this one-time performance could inform future instruction, we fear teachers would simply give administrators what they want to see in order to receive a high rating — in other words, that they would focus on creating a single impressive lesson without actually incorporating it into the routine of their classrooms or meeting the same bar on a day when they aren’t being observed.
Classroom observations are not a means to an end or attempts at the acting careers we never hoped to have, but a way of collecting information to help us do better work every day. While we do want our administrators to know how well we do our jobs, which could be demonstrated by an over-planned, arranged observation, we also want them to belly crawl through the muck of our worst lessons and, once on the other side, say what they think can be improved and then work with us to figure out how to do that. That could happen during a formal, full-length observation, but it’s more likely to happen when visits are informal and more frequent.
On the flip side, a lesson that counts as a teacher’s formal observation could go wrong for unforeseen reasons, even if it’s well planned. In that case, the teacher would also be better off with six informal evaluations. Many teachers dislike standardized exams in part because they are administered over the course of a single day (or two). If a student has a bad day because of factors out of their control and out of the teachers’ control, which happens often where we work, their scores reflect poorly on the both student and teachers. The same thing could happen with formal evaluations. The more lessons our administrators see, the clearer the window they get into our strengths and weaknesses, and the better positioned they are to give us feedback in the areas we most need it.
Relationships are built through frequent conversation
We know that learners value feedback from those with whom they already have a strong relationship and that relationships are forged through shared experiences and real dialogue. We’re fortunate to have worked in the same school for six years and built relationships with our administrators.
We realize that not everyone has that kind of relationship. Some teachers have a valid concern that principals who have the opportunity to pop in and out of classrooms may try to use this system to get rid of teachers or play “gotcha.” Between us, we have experienced or know teachers who experienced principals who were incompetent, racist, and tried to run teachers out of their buildings. In those cases, even if teachers at those schools are being given these two evaluation choices, it will likely not matter; hence, the phrase Clifford used, “pick your poison,” rings true.
But for teachers whose concern is not malice, but rather principals who are simply not trained to give good feedback to teachers, or teachers who haven’t yet built relationships with their administrators, six informal observations represent an important opportunity.
If teachers do not trust that their principals are able to give helpful, authentic feedback, they should try to open a dialogue with their administrators by selecting the six observations. Even in our current positions, we have not defaulted to trusting the judgment of all of our administrators, but instead built — and continue to build — relationships with them over time through a conversations in numerous settings about what good teaching and learning look like. Just as we hope a feedback system will improve teacher quality, we hope principals’ ability to give feedback will also improve through the teacher and principal evaluation systems. And just as new teachers need to learn how to apply grading rubrics fairly in their classrooms, principals need to learn how to implement the Danielson rubric and evaluate the rubric’s 22 core competencies fairly and consistently in their schools.
There are, of course, larger issues involved in how useful the evaluation system is for teachers. For example, principals need to be properly trained on how to use the rubric for evaluation and to give that feedback to teachers. Within a single school, it is possible for administrators to interpret Danielson in disparate ways and thereby give teachers mixed signals about what good teacher looks like. That would be a failure in a system that we, as teachers, can’t control regardless of which observation option we choose. But we can choose the observation option that supports us as we work to maintain open dialogue with all of our administrators.
Nick Lawrence and Erick Odom teach at East Bronx Academy for the Future.
September 23, 2013
This piece first appeared this morning on the website of Harlem Link Charter School, where Steven Evangelista is the founding co-principal.
The scene: a community board meeting in New York City, circa 2005. A charismatic executive was speaking to the crowd about a new charter school network that was in the offing. The executive emphasized that the school didn’t need community board approval but felt it was important to have the blessing of these community leaders. After a few perfunctory comments about school design and achievement gaps, the executive uttered a carefully crafted statement I have been thinking about ever since:
“We will work with any family that will work with us.”
On the surface it sounds great, even noble. Who wouldn’t admire such openness, even magnanimity? A typical public school educator would probably shrug and say, “I do that every day.” But a reformer with a cape coming down from the elite to work with the little people promises to work with them all!
A close parsing of the dependent clause of that sentence, however, reveals another side of the hero story and raises questions that get to the heart of a core issue about school reform and school design that our board of trustees will debate tonight at its public meeting. Who exactly are we serving? What is the real cost of serving everyone? And who, exactly, wants to work with us?
An alternative — and, I would say, more noble — statement would be: “We will work with any family.” (more…)
September 19, 2013
This excerpt is drawn from “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens?: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx,” a book published this month by Ilana Garon, who teaches English at a small high school on the Christopher Columbus Campus in the Bronx.
Garon writes in the introduction, “This is a book about being a new teacher: about the trial by fire that all teachers must undergo, about making mistakes, and about learning from one’s own students. It’s is a book about trying to work within a broken system, while at the same time being bolstered by the very same kids you came in wanting to save.”
In this excerpt, Garon describes trying unsuccessfully to get a student moved to a more advanced math class and seeing results only when an outside consultant took charge.
I first met Tyler when I was the one teaching his math class — back when he still attended. He was thirteen. He came with a sidekick, Shawn, also thirteen. I was told they were the two youngest (and, noticeably, shortest) kids in the school, having been skipped sometime in elementary school due to impressive test scores.
Most of the ninth-grade boys were still pretty small; they wouldn’t hit their growth spurts until tenth or 11th grade, at which point I would greet them in September to find that they towered over me. But it wasn’t just Shawn and Tyler’s stature that distinguished them. Both boys, Tyler especially, had a certain round, open-faced aspect that one associates with young children. For the most part, I was used to hulking teenage boys, or at least gawky, acne-ridden adolescents. The two of them seemed like an entirely different species. (more…)
September 12, 2013
Not long ago, teachers could put their energy into student-centered questions as the new school year approached. Book choices, unit topics, and effective instructional strategies always topped my list. This year, the two professional development days that traditionally kick off the school year were far more focused on the teachers. At my school, the main dilemma discussed was how we prefer to be evaluated.
Legislators and State Education Commissioner John King decided on most elements of the city’s new teacher evaluation system, but schools can decide on some specifics, and one area of the evaluation system is left to teacher discretion: the manner and number of observations. As I delved further into the details of the observation options to decide which I would choose, I came to the conclusion that the matter of observations resembles a Hobson’s choice: an ostensibly free choice in which only true option is offered.
In theory, teachers have two options. We may either choose a traditional formal observation coupled with three informals, or opt for six informal observations. Formal observations are planned in advance and last at least a full class period; informal observations are unannounced and usually shorter. Both types of observations, of course, will be based on the 22-point Danielson Rubric, so teachers will be evaluated on all 22 competencies contained in the rubric.
After mulling over the options myself, I decided that I would select the one formal and three informals option. I’ve had formals my entire teaching career, and I feel more comfortable with them because they offer opportunities for real feedback and growth. Additionally, formals could actually improve under the new evaluation system. Administrators are expected to conduct pre- and post-observation conferences, as they were expected to do before the new plan, but now they’re supposed to tell the teacher in advance the specific lesson they plan to observe. (more…)
August 22, 2013
This excerpt is drawn from “Confessions of a Bad Teacher,” a book published this month by John Owens, a publishing executive who went to graduate school to become a teacher. Hired at Latinate Institute in the Bronx — a barely veiled version of Eximius College Preparatory Academy, where the principal was removed in 2011 for giving students credit for courses they had not taken — Owens quickly confronted many of the challenges and indignities that city teachers can face, including vindictive administrators, unfulfillable edicts, and insufficient resources.
In this excerpt, Owens describes the pressure that he and other teachers were under to prop up students’ grades.
At Latinate, as well as throughout the New York City system, the minimum grade any student could get was 55. The idea is to make failure quite difficult to achieve. So even if a kid spent the test period — or every period — wadding up bits of paper in his mouth and fast-balling them at his peers while muttering the words “F— you!” and handed in an answer sheet that was blank except for his name, his score would be no lower than 55. Failing, but still within striking distance of a passing 65. And pretty much guaranteed to pass if the teacher adhered to [Principal] P’s non-negotiable policy that was imparted at the orientation in August:
We must ensure that every failing mark for each marking period is reversed to a passing mark via make-up work (independent study, packets, etc.) for the students in our advisory groups.
Take, for instance, Africah’s sometime boyfriend, Santiago. He rarely came to class. He never did classwork, homework, or any sort of work, though he often could sit quietly. The lowest grade he could receive on his report card was 55. But if I didn’t ensure that he did make-up work to pass, I wasn’t doing my job.
A failing grade for Santiago could bite me in other ways, too. With report cards coming six times every school year, a half-dozen grades of 55 would fail him for the year. And a few students like Santiago could sink a teacher like me by bringing down the overall passing rate of my class. (more…)