Sunday, November 13, 2011


I expect to be posting a lot less for a while.  Various personal and professional responsibilities will likely consume much of the time I would have used for posting.  I hope to post about those professional issues soon, but until then, thanks for reading these past months.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Teacher Pay

Teacher pay is much discussed these days.  The conversation centers either on the merits of merit pay or the level of pay.  Last week the American Enterprise Institute released a report weighing in on the issue, and argued that public school teachers are not underpaid.  (Full text here.)

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responded, saying the study was insulting to teachers.

I was struck by a couple of things.

First, the AEI claims are based on the comparison of teacher salaries with non-teachers who scored similarly on various tests to measure skill/knowledge/competency/whatever (GRE, and the like).

Average teacher scores on those tests aren't all that great.  And it turns out that teachers make more than their test score neighbors.  I'm more interested in a connection between teacher test scores and the achievement gap.   In all the furor about teachers and achievement gap (in the school board campaign), I noticed a somewhat overlooked detail in one of the reports that the 'get rid of bad teachers' camp relies on.  Teachers with higher skills (math, verbal and content area) do better in closing the achievement gap. I saw it expressed even stronger than in this document, but I can't find the original source.

So, we could pre-test teachers for skill level.  We do so now, it's just that the tests aren't that rigorous.  Maybe, just maybe, higher pay would allow us to demand that teachers be "smarter."

Second, what if we use a different aspect of market analysis?  What if we asked about the marginal value of education?  If we start with the data that show a bachelors degree is worth over a million dollars in extra lifetime earnings (over a high school graduate) and start calculating the marginal contribution that each year (and each teacher) makes to that, then we'd see that teachers are radically undervalued.  When I was teaching full-time at university, I had about 100 students a year, and each of them took about 3% of their coursework from me.  So, my class was 'worth' $30,000 of their extra future lifetime.  Give me credit for only 1/30th of that, so $1000, and my marginal contribution to those students' future wealth was $100,000 (each year).  For the record, I was getting paid much less than that.

The numbers would be different for earlier grades, but the idea is the same.

My point isn't that teachers are underpaid--I don't know that they are.  My point is that you can do fascinating things with numbers, if you try.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It's (semi-)official!

There are relatively few votes left to count and Scott Heinze continues to lead by about 850 votes.  It is effectively over--Scott Heinze is Tacoma School Board Director-Elect.

Congratulations, Scott!  Excellent campaign!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

First Results Are In!

Scott Heinze has an almost 900 vote lead for Director #3!  There are plenty of votes still to be counted, but unless there's some reason that the remaining votes are not distributed about the same as the ones already in, 900 is a lot to make up.

Great Campaign, Scott!

Veterans Day

We are required to have a Veterans Day assembly every year.  Very often, it's a difficult day.  I find it distressing to try to get 8th graders to give right honor and respect to the complicated idea of what veterans do and have done for our country....About as distressing as trying to figure how I can extend appropriate honor and respect to that complicated idea.

And this in a school where about half our students have a military connection.  You can throw a pretty heavy stone from our building and hit Fort Lewis property.  Many mornings soldiers will be doing physical training activities on our field and track.

Well, this year we had the privilege of having Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry, Medal of Honor winner, speak.   I don't know the precise criteria for winning the Medal of Honor, but as I told my class afterward, it has something to do with taking great risk to yourself in order to save your comrades.  More often, of course, the award is granted posthumously.

We had an inside track--his daughter attends our school, but seeing his humble demeanor and servant heart, I suspect he would call it a privilege to speak at a middle school anywhere.  

I count it an honor and privilege to have heard Sergeant Petry, who signed off his talk with the Ranger motto, "Rangers lead the way." 

Sgt. Petry, men of character lead the way.  Thank you.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What did I learn?

Some people have asked me what I think about the process of running for office.  All I ever come up with is, it was interesting.  I should probably say, "It was unbelievable."  That could go either way...good or bad.  And parts of it were unbelievable.

I had a hard time believing that the union lied to me...well, not directly to me.  Rather, they lied about me when they told a News Tribune reporter (who then relayed it to me) that they had called me to participate in the endorsement interview process when they had not.

Now I appreciate that preparation--it wasn't so unbelievable when they lied to a colleague (in a similar pattern--about contacting him) regarding district business.

I have also had a hard time believing that the union endorsed Dexter Gordon when he stands for so many things that they oppose.  Aligned with Stand for Children and Vibrant Schools Tacoma, Gordon supports "getting rid of bad teachers"--words he spoke at the News Tribune endorsement interview--by way of administrative fiat determined by test score-based teacher evaluations.

I'm generally skeptical of such arguments, but my skepticism of the union is compounded by the fact that  they endorsed a candidate who has these views.

I also have a hard time believing the News Tribune.  I found some of the things they did and said to be rather strange.

An explanation by way of a recent e-mail exchange with one of the editors.

From me to the editor:

Back in June, when we had the endorsement interview at the paper, I was brand new to the whole business of electoral politics.  So when we sat down for the interview I didn't really know what to think or expect.  While I enjoyed myself in the conversation, a couple things struck me as odd.

Scott Heinze was not present.  While at the time I was 'glad' for the extra exposure that he didn't get, it seemed odd that one of the candidates didn't get to participate.  (I understand that Scott had a previous and unbreakable commitment.)  I guess I wondered why we hadn't all tried to find a mutually agreeable date, since the endorsement choices were going to made at later date anyway.

I found it equally odd that a friend of Dexter Gordon's got to sit in on the interview.  [You two editors] greeted him warmly, and I chose not to make an issue of it, wondering if doing so might seem petty....Again, I was a neophyte in all this, and only discovered that our TNT interview was unusual when other groups specifically said that the only the candidates could be present in those activities.

Well, all that to say, have you given any thought to having another interview with Dexter and Scott--to start on an even playing field for the new election round?

The editor responded thusly:

I appreciate your interest in our pages and especially appreciate the fact that you ran for school board.

Candidates often perceive our endorsement interviews as being more important than they actually are. I learned a very long time ago not to judge a candidate on the basis of how well he or she comes across in a single meeting. Some of the most impressive-seeming people I’ve met in interviews have turned out to be frauds or incompetents on closer inspection.

We don’t endorse people on the basis of a dazzling show. We have conversations with people we respect in the community, we read our own news coverage, the candidates’ literature, and other sources of information.

In this case, we wound up with a very favorable impression of you, Scott Heinze and Dexter Gordon. We felt comfortable that any one of you would make a fine member of the school board. Six members of our editorial board all had their reasons for recommending Gordon (I don’t remember any dissent about it). I personally was influenced by watching his public advocacy - over a period of years - for more successful ways of educating disadvantaged students.

It was very unfortunate that Heinze couldn’t be there. Schedules conflict, and sometimes it’s all but impossible to get everyone in the room at the same time. But in this case especially, the meeting was not a dominant factor in our decision.

I have tried to believe this, but I have not been able to...not in its entirety, anyway.  Dexter Gordon is flashy.  Everyone agrees, he's a stirring speaker.  Many add that they never quite know what he's saying.  That's flash...and Dexter has it.

I do believe that the meeting was not the dominant factor in the editors' decision--they'd made up their minds already.  You know, after Dexter's years of advocacy.  At the interview, he explained that advocacy in this way.  "When I came to Tacoma nine years ago, I met with the leaders of the communities of color, and agreed with them that if they would fast-track me to leadership, I would speak their needs in the community."

Some might call it advocacy.  Others might call it ambition.  Just as some might call me skeptical while others might call it sour grapes.  The latter might be more substantiated for you by my disappointment that the News Tribune never did post my Letter to the Editor (after two attempts on my part).

So, sour grapes it may be...but it is what I learned.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

New model for school?

I wonder what all the Ed. Reformers will say about Shanghai's success.  I hear that our governor (not an Ed. Reformer) is proposing to close some of the budget gap by cutting 5 school days.  I'm sure that if we just find the right curriculum and do enough things on the top of Bloom's Taxonomy and align our EALRs appropriately and  do 'what works' and emphasize Marzano's 9 high-yield strategies and all that, then we'll be able to close the gap between our now 175 6-hour days and Shanghai's 12-hour days.

If we have to cut school days, let's at least do something sensible.  Close every third Wednesday--don't lengthen the weekend and make the first day back all that much less productive.  That's about 12 days, so add a week --or 4 days on the end and 3 on the beginning?--so that we cut a little bit into that summer drop-off problem.

Try to find some way to make something good out of this bad situation.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

High Stakes Testing

This line in a recent EdWeek piece about grants caught my eye:

"...awarding bigger grants in return for greater evidence of program effectiveness..."

Every institutional arrangement (in this case, the program development that is stimulated by grant money availability) creates both opportunity and constraint, as well as both intended an unintended consequences.

It shouldn't take a PhD in organizational leadership to know that if we incentivize people with the promise of big grant money for big results, they will try to create programs that show big results.  And unless we are completely sure that the big results on the standardized test correlate well with what we really want to accomplish in the education process, some of those programs created in response to the grant money incentive will simply be for the sake of showing results in order to get the money.

Oh, I don't mean people will intentionally be quite so instrumental (though some will).  More, I mean that such an arrangement creates a culture and climate that subtly encourages people to focus on test scores so emphatically as to make them a kind of shibboleth.

After all, the stakes are quite high...for the adults.  It means jobs and prestige and so on.  For the students, though, the stakes are actually quite low.  In Washington state, at least, the state test really has very little impact on a child's educational route until the 10th grade round.  A student must pass the 10th grade test in order to graduate.  They can have several tries at it, and if they don't succeed, there's an alternate route to the same goal--at least there was, or has been, or is talked about it.  We've been changing our test every other week, it seems.

So, every institutional arrangement creates a set of expectations, guidelines and parameters that people have to work with and in.  Clearly, the direct intention of the high payoff for high performance is to stimulate achievement of students in school.  But every institutional arrangement generates more than we intend.  When those who are being so incentivized figure out just what measures of "high performance" are going to be rewarded, they will target their programs at that.  And in the nature of the case they will target other things less emphatically.

We are assuming, in other words, that the grant money for performance actually translates down to outcomes that we actually want students to have.  Since students are not a group of monoliths with monolithic goals, hopes, aspirations and needs, we should understand that no institutional arrangement will meet every goal we value.  That's been true since the first relationship was entered into.  Not so sure that throwing big money around helps this.

To be specific, see here and there and everywhere.

Oh, if we really want students to pass tests, why not transfer all this financial incentive to them?  You think students wouldn't have a little more enthusiasm for the test if there were a monetary payoff involved?  Just asking...

Oh, and don't get me started on how the article uses the word "innovation."  Talk about shibboleths!

Thursday, October 27, 2011


From the heart of computer land, a school without any computers at all.  I don't understand....They must not recognize all the benefits of the technology they produce and distribute.  They don't understand that computers are "where education is headed."  This article must have been in The Onion, not the New York Times.  That's what it was...I just know it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

TNT Letter?

I submitted the following to The News Tribune on Sunday, but so far they have not posted it.

The Tacoma school district is in disarray--broken trust abroad in the community, a board that alternates between abdicating authority during the strike to brazen assertions of power to jerry-rig the Superintendent selection process, and more.  In this election we have a chance to say something about this, and the best mechanism for doing so is a vote for Scott Heinze.  
Mr. Heinze knows the issues, understands the policy process, works well with and in the community, and attends to financial realities.  More importantly, he listens--you can have a real conversation with him in which he’ll engage you and respond to what you say and think.  
As a school board candidate last summer, I heard all the candidates many times and in various settings.  Of the four remaining candidates, Mr. Heinze has consistently maintained a sharp focus on the important issues before the school district.   He is not flamboyant, but he is what we need--knowledgable, reliable and committed to the success of our schools.

PACs for Gordon and Vialle

I got a mailer from Stand for Children today.

In it they encourage us to "change the odds for Washington students" by voting for Dexter Gordon and Karen Vialle.  The mailer assures us that Gordon is an "acclaimed policy expert."  They don't make clear who has proclaimed him so.  His web site professes that he's been "sought out by academic journals and The News Tribune" to write pieces on education.  At the bottom of his "Media" page on his web site, you can find a link to one TNT piece.  That's all I've ever found (by my own searches), and that's all I can find on his own web site.

Karen Vialle is portrayed as offering a fresh start for education in our city.  Big order, but at least we know how to evaluate her performance in 6 months or a year.

Stand for Children, of course, is a political action committee.   That means they take money from big donors then leverage it in political races in the fashion they see fit.  Perfectly fine thing to do.  Please understand, though, that SFC is financed primarily by people who have little involvement in Tacoma.  Their names are Amazon, Microsoft and Genie Industries.  (Top 4 donors--Bezos, Ballmer, Partovi and Bushnell.)

Communities in Schools (the organization Scott Heinze is connected to) actually serves students.  This web site is for the local branch, and they participate in the Find an Hour program that connects tutors to students in Tacoma.  By contrast, Stand does not participate in Find an Hour, and searching for Tacoma Stand for Children connects you to the state office.

Communities in Schools celebrated these accomplishments last year:

  • We served more than 800 kids in our after school programs
  • We helped 77 percent of the students served reach grade level in reading
  • Served more than 4,000 family members at our school sites
  • Provided backpacks to more than 3,000 kids in our community

Stand for Children, by contrast, invites you to Join (give them your e-mail in order to get their mailers), or make a donation.  Not quite the same thing.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Slippery Campaign Tactics?

I just got a call to listen in and participate in a live forum hosted by Stand for Children.  The Tacoma branch is hosting Dexter Gordon and Karen Vialle in a chat.  They didn't invite Scott Heinze or, I presume, Kim Washington.

I listened long enough to hear the same rhetoric I've been hearing for months.  The insidious part is that this looks and sounds like a forum for candidates.  You join the conversation after it has started, so you don't hear anything about rationale or ground rules.  So, I'm wondering the whole time, 'I bet Scott wasn't invited.  This is a campaign event dressed up as a public forum.'  So I checked with Scott...sure enough, he wasn't invited.

Nice work on Stand's part...for a political campaign.  Not so nice for rebuilding the trust the candidates so adamantly insist they'd rebuild (that was the question I listened to).

These are very politicized people.  Tacoma Stand has aligned itself with Vibrant Schools Tacoma--an organization that aggressively pushes an unproven agenda of school reform.  (You have to read all the way through this to see all the connections.)

Disappointing to see the process distorted in this way.  I want to stop short of saying that I'm not sure why I should trust these two candidates when they participate in this deceptive campaign activity....I'm working hard at it.

The whole thing kind of reminds me of when the TEA didn't even call me to participate in their endorsement interview process last summer.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Education for life?

Besides being an 8th grade English teacher, I'm an Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Troy University (the Joint Base Lewis-McChord branch).  I enjoy both jobs thoroughly, and the combination of the two even more than their sum total.  

I'm also struck by some frustrating similarities.  One thing that holding the two positions has revealed is just how consistent we are as human consistently irrational, short-sighted, selfish, etc.  What's clear is how well we develop the power to cover or hide this when we get older.

8th graders are guileless about acknowledging their likes and dislikes, and wildly transparent about their feints and deceptions.  I don't always know when something does happen, but I usually know that something has happened.  The stories of explanation are too one-sided, too implausible, and too urgent.

The bureaucratic life of 8th grade and university are both vexing, too.  In both, a lot of 'managers' spend time making the work of those below them more difficult, but without obvious rationale.  I have gotten several mandates from on high in both environments, and it's never been completely clear that the new procedures serve students better.  It is clear that money is part of the story, which makes sense, though the administrative drive to cut budgets or maximize revenues really can have a net negative impact on the   mission of the organization.

Not as far as the management types see it.  They've always got reasons for things, and those reasons make perfect sense to them.  So when the Troy administration in Colorado (our regional office) decides that all class structures will be Friday night and Saturday, instead of the weeknights that I had been doing, the need to make the live distance (teleconference class) elements smoother--for the management to operate, that is-- was the justification.  When I asked whether anybody had ever asked what the students preferred, the predictable answer was 'no.'  But without connecting the one or two students from the remote site to our local class of 7 or 8, that remote site would have to close down.  And the university will do everything possible to avoid that.  Apparently, Friday-Saturday packages are better for all this, though it's not clear to me why, and my informal poll of my current students showed a decided preference for weeknight classes over Friday-Saturday.

We undertake such rational decisions in our school district, too.  After 4 years of of time and energy invested in a web site service (for class web sites like this one) that teachers and parents have been enjoying, we're switching to a new company.  Vague promises of 'better' feel a bit dubious when I hear that the system isn't quite ready....We're going to be the beta-testers.  In the words of one junior management type who does some of our computer stuff, "It's going to be a nightmare." When I enquired about the rationale, I got that kind of strange assortment of this and that.  The kind of urgent and one-sided explanation that makes the whole thing seem implausible.  No individual element of the explanation makes sense on its own, but together they seem, at least to the explainer, like they must amount to something, probably a lot.

Schools, universities, armies, wherever.  Everything makes sense to those who are doing the explaining. Sounds a lot like working with 8th graders...they're certain they make sense, and I'm certain they'll eventually see the sense that I make.  8th grade's a lot like life, really.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Best Tacoma School Staff Member?

Tacoma Weekly put out its Best of Tacoma 2011 guide.  Readers cast votes for the various best categories, and on p. 5 they note that Karen Vialle is the best School District Staff Member.  This is both confusing and vexing.  Presumably, if Vialle wins the election (as she almost certainly will) in November, she will no longer be able to serve as a substitute teacher.  Full-time teachers and staff members cannot serve as staffers and board members, so I presume Vialle can't either.

More importantly, this rather fanciful (farcical?) 'best' selection is obviously a mere popularity contest. Does this reflect badly on her as a political candidate?  Is she winning so much voter approval more for her name recognition than for her qualifications?

Every time I've heard her speak, even in one-on-one conversation, she is primarily in 'transmit' mode, and rarely in 'receive.'  The last forum I saw, she seemed to simply repeat Dexter Gordon, who himself was rather uninspiring.  Not exactly what we need on the Board, in my estimation.

And, wouldn't it have been nice to recognize some full-time staff members who labor with much less recognition?  I know plenty of classified staff and certified teachers who devote extensive energy to their work, and deserve the recognition more than Vialle.

Friday, October 14, 2011

I'm liberated

Part of Puyallup school district's new commitment to standards-based grading includes this:

No more penalizing students with reduced marks for work that's turned in late.

I'm sure the Ed. School professors who dream up these things happily tell their deans and tenure committees that there really isn't or can't be a deadline for submitting tenure review materials.  Or how about grant applications and funding follow-up reports.  As long as the professors turn the material in at some point, the granting agency will be fine with that.

And I'm sure that the administrative types who sign on to such plans don't penalize their assorted staff members for any tardiness in their work--say, administering the MSP.?

As for my part, I'm going to tell OSPI that the work for my upgraded teacher certification requirements may come in a bit later than they expect.

And I've notified a few other folks about my new plan for liberation through tardiness.

To the IRS, don't get hung up on that whole April 15th thing.
To my mortgage company, the check's in the mail...soon.
My wife's birthday...well, let's not go too far.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hiring a new superintendent is NOT the most important thing

A lot of people--school board candidates not least among them--are anxious about the hiring of the new superintendent for Tacoma schools.  Just the other day I heard two candidates--Karen Vialle and Dexter Gordon--name that in their answer to a question about one policy they'd pursue if elected.

The answer was something of a non sequitur, as expressing the importance of hiring the superintendent isn't really a policy, but we can give some license there because the more relevant point is that hiring the new superintendent really isn't that least not in the way most people--Vialle and Gordon among them--think.

If we go out on a big national search (as I've heard Gordon say we must) we'll end up with some sort of education high-flyer.  Somebody who professes expertise and wisdom in the reform process.  They'll likely promise, at least implicitly, dramatic results and fast.  The new superintendent (or what I prefer to call überintendent) will arrive with a sense of purpose and mandate to show progress on all the indicators that are low in Tacoma.  This likely means a kind of administrative forcefulness and top-down orientation that will not endear the überintendent to the community and will not rebuild the deeply frayed trust.  (I've written of this before.)

What I think we really want is someone who has the patience to discern what already works in Tacoma and the relational capacity to rebuild trust by building on what is working.  This person may be an education reform stalwart, but doesn't necessarily have to be.  None of the last several superintendents has lived up to this hype.

And that may be okay.  If we hype less--by not overblowing the need to get an überintendent--and relate more, we won't be in such a panic to get everything done next year...with the latest surefire curriculum...applied through another round of professional trainings promised to be the one that will solve our problems.

Rather, we can all just get to the slow steady work of improving education and raising performance of our students.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Neighborhood Forum--Tacoma Elections

I went to a Candidate Forum held by one of the Neighborhood Councils here in Tacoma.  All four School Board candidates were there.

All the candidates introduced themselves for one minute, then spent one minute each on two more questions.  One was, What do you think the district should do with the buildings that it has closed?  The second was, What is one policy you will pursue if elected?
3 minutes total, then much later a Q & A, that I did not stay to see.

Some interesting things....
Scott Heinze (seeking Seat #3--the very same which your blogger sought in the primary) did a very good job.  He answered both questions thoroughly and clearly.  In fact, Scott reinforced my feeling that he's the best of the four remaining candidates.  Dexter Gordon (Heinze's opponent) offered little specific material by which to take a good sense of what he's about.

Scott answered first of all four on the 'closed buildings' question.  And after he said that we need a long-term strategic plan by which to make better projections about facilities use, he advocated for 'repurposing' empty buildings into things like community centers for neighborhoods.  Last week, he was at a meeting at the Portland Avenue Community Center (which I also attended) in which Eastside community members talked about a variety of plans to establish community activities and a center in their neighborhood.  It was a good example of the specific ways that Scott works with regular Tacomans to solve problems.

Dexter Gordon and Karen Vialle (Seat #5) both largely recycled Scott's answer.  Dexter even used the word 'repurpose,' which I had always avoided (Scott's early and consistent use made it "his" word) and which I had not heard Dexter use before in 5 or 6 public events.

As for the 'one policy you'd implement' question, Dexter led off with a reasonable observation about eroded trust and the need to rebuild it among all players in the story.  Karen Vialle parroted Dexter, even to the point of squeezing in the same quick reference to how important the hiring of the new Superintendent was going to be.   Interesting observations, and I agree with them.  Neither of them answered the question, though.

Scott, by contrast, emphasized the need to focus energy on early childhood education.  He rightly pointed out how serious the consequences are for children that begin to fall behind early, and said we need to make sure we get the pre-school to 3rd grade students on an early track for success.

Nicely put.

Some interesting (as in, odd) things, too, I thought.

Everybody pushed their doctoral status pretty hard.  Kim Washington emphasized the 'Dr.' in her name when she introduced herself.  (She's an Ed.D.)  Dexter Gordon introduced himself as a Distinguished Professor at UPS, sort of hitting 'Distinguished' hard.  Karen Vialle noted that she finished all graduate work for the Ph.D., except the dissertation.  Only Scott neglected to mention his doctoral status.  Last I heard, he was beginning work on his dissertation.

Another interesting aspect....I saw and heard Kim Washington (Seat #5) for the first time.  All during the primary, she participated in none of the public events to which we were all invited.  It's tough to imagine she can surmount Vialle's sizable lead.

The most surprising, however, was Dexter Gordon's listlessness.  As a voter, I have not been thrilled with his zeal--it tends toward zealotry.  But as more than one observer has pointed out, "He's passionate."  Well, the passion seemed absent.  Recycled answers, lower intensity....I hope he's not flagging.  Not with a month still to go.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Standards based assessments not a panacea

A Tacoma School Board candidate that I know asked me what I thought of standards-based assessment.

Well, I told him, I have a lot of thoughts...depending on the more specific framing of the question.

First, I think everybody just imagines the 4-3-2-1 as grades anyway--A-B-C-D.  So there will need to be some relearning of what the scores mean.  Unless that IS what they mean?

More importantly, the human element still exists in the determining of how well the student met the standard.  Last year we had some oddly written standards rubrics (from OSPI, for the social studies CBA), so we had quite lengthy discussions about how to evaluate whether the student met the standard.  (The question of what the standards are and how they're created is another matter.)

Further, I think teachers are subtly encouraged to read the standard then simply look for the presence of material that matches that standard.  And it doesn't matter whether that material is any good or not.  This is particularly problematic in social studies/humanities kinds of subjects.

Ultimately, I think the impulse toward standards based assessment is driven by the (mindless) desire to numerate and technologize things.  If we can put seemingly replicable numeration to something we can believe that we're standardizing the measurement and production of what in this case is hard to measure in that way.  We've thus technologized it in a way that makes us think we can routinize the production of that thing.

Neil Postman writes extensively of this in his book Technopoly.

In the end, I don't think we're any clearer that a student is actually learning something or learning as much as they should/need to.  I think the standards movement thinks that standards based assessment does give us a better sense, but I don't know that it does.

Take 'inference making,' for instance.  I can teach about that.  Talk about what goes into it, etc., but some kids will always be better than others.  Or writing.  We are going to work on a 'standard' that involves teaching the writing process.  We'll measure their facility with naming and knowing the process, but not worry so much about whether they actually write anything worth reading.  Seems strange to me, but the logic goes, 'well, at least they know the process.'

As I've said before, education is an endeavor that entails a certain degree of sloppiness.  Thinking that we can clean up that sloppiness with a new evaluation system may be too hopeful.  I'd much rather prepare teachers and administrators to identify the ways that teachers and students accomplish good things in looser ways, and encourage a general alertness to shifting and stretching what works to cover more students in more skills and content areas.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Perception management

My father--who was for years the public relations director for a major state agency in CA--often said, "It doesn't matter what IS....It matters what people THINK things are."  Obviously, that can be used cynically or constructively.  He being my father, I liked to think that his candor reflected that he was trying to open, honest, etc.  His truism also reflects on our penchant for conspiracy.  It is all too easy to think something, even if that something ISN'T!

It would be tempting, for instance, to see a public agency post notice of a fairly unusual idea/plan after close of business on a Friday (as the Tacoma school district did with its unusual Deputy to Elect to Interim--to beyond??--Superintendent plan) and think they did so with the intent of minimizing the prospect of questions or blowback.

(Just as tempting, by the way, as when I kept asking the Tacoma Education Association why they had not interviewed me as part of the endorsement process during the campaign last summer and they finally responded to my 4 phone calls and one in-person visit by calling me Friday--the last day before they would be closed for a week--at 5:15 PM.)

It would be tempting to look at that Deputy Interim Elect Super plan and think it is a back-door mechanism by which to give Carla Santorno the job, since they seemed eager to do so in September.

It would be tempting to look at the idea for the current Superintendent to represent the district in Olympia as a way for him to sharpen up his lobbying credentials while drawing a big salary and move into an attractive career after he finally leaves Tacoma.

These--and many more--tempt one to conspiratorial thinking.  I'm working hard to resist that inclination...but I'm just saying.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tacoma comes up with another dubious plan

The school board in Tacoma is considering a plan to...well, read it here.

I think this is a very problematic idea, not because of the individuals involved but because of the organizational realities of such things. 

Interim, Elect (interim), what does all that mean?  Is it a probationary period?  What kind of expectations does everybody have?  What expectations will develop?  

Patterns tend to get set, so in 18 months she's "in place" or we need to remove and replace, which becomes another political brawl because she's entrenched with allies.

Is this a back door way to get her the job?  And why in the world is the district paying Jarvis a fat salary to go grease the way to a lobbying career?

Why does it seem like 2 board members (Dugan and Golding are lame ducks, Winskill seems absent) are driving this so hard right now?

The personal, personnel and organizational tangle that such things create primarily promise to project the staffing/appointment process into the future.  

Organizationally, this seems like a dubious plan that generates a lot more questions than clarity.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Up the pyramid...better but sloppier

We did the Mark Twain on Gadgets plays.  As you can imagine, not great theater, but I think the work of creating (highest level on the updated Bloom's taxonomy--of learning processes) a Twain interaction with contemporary gadgets did help students think about themselves and their gadgets a little bit.

If you look at the taxonomy you'll notice that the higher up you go the more interpretive and debatable we get.  You may remember that Twain wrote Huck Finn.  You probably understand that there were significant literary aspects that made Huck a great novel (and Twain a great writer).  You might be able to use the understanding of Twain's social critique to think about issues in contemporary life (like communication patterns).  But even here--only half way up the taxonomy--we veer into thoughts inflected by the particular disposition and values of the the one doing the thinking.  As we move up to evaluation, the whole question gets even more diffuse.  (Remember the debates in the academy a while back about whether Twain even belonged in the canon of great American authors.)

Think of it this way.  Those first two tasks--remembering and understanding--were things your teacher could basically provide.  Moving up, you're more and more on your own.

So, creating a play about Twain texting is fraught with ambiguity and weakness (as a lesson plan), because it must be, if it has any chance of working.  Too much direction on a task at the top level and you stifle the process that's supposed to yield the learning.  And I, therefore, must surrender my desire to closely control the learning outcome.

That's what I mean when I say, "education is a sloppy endeavor."

Mark Twain on Gadgets

Shortly after the phone was invented, Twain satirized its impact on the character and quality of human interaction.  Overhearing just one end of a phone conversation, Twain says, is the solemnest curiosity in modern life.  We've gotten a lot better--or at least a lot more accustomed--at listening to one side of a conversation, so now we think little of it.

But we're not much deeper into the texting/tweeting/Facebooking age than Twain was into the telephone age in 1880.  (The digital tools are far more widespread today than the phone was then, of course.)  And I'm the age Twain was when he wrote "A Telephonic Conversation."  And I'm about as befuddled by the digital communication tools as Twain was by the telephone.

For the last few days my 8th graders and I have been reading about our brains on gadgets and the effect excessive electronics use has on not only our attention and performance, but brain biology as well.  Nearly all the research shows that we don't multitask nearly as well as we think we do, excessive use of gadgets tires out our brains and diminishes performance even while we think we're being more 'efficient,' gadgets can become bio-chemically addicting, and gadget use is rewiring the circuitry of our brains.

What in the world would Twain make of that?  We'll find out today!  We've written and will today perform brief plays in which Twain time warps into a contemporary scene, replete with teenagers conducting their multi-level interactions.  They will, for instance, talk to Twain while they are texting each other about Twain...all in presence of each other.

My hope is that they will be at least a little more mindful of the ways in which they communicate so that they might be a little bit more aware of how and what they're communicating in their interactions.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Assessment Culture

This year, we have an early release (for students) on Wednesdays in full 5-day weeks.  Instead of seemingly countless half-days with professional development, we're getting an hour a week for about 26 or 27 of the weeks.  I prefer this....1/2 days are much less than half the value of a full day, whereas 5/6 of a day is just fine.

We're spending the first several ACE days (we call them) developing, re-working, aligning and evaluating our power standards, the set of 10 or 12 über-standards that serve as an umbrella for our subject area grade-level-specific expressions of the state requirements (written as Essential Academic Learning Requirements, with appropriate Grade Level Expectations--at least they were called that; now that we signed on to the Common Core State Standards those names might change).

From these power standards we devise intermediate grade-level specific expressions of them.  From these we craft the daily learning targets, which we post everyday, along with the power standards...and with the intermediate standards...?  Wasn't clear to me.

Or, wait.  Another group was writing very specific power standards that weren't umbrella-like at all.  They were developing very specific power standards that already looked more like daily learning targets.  Boy, I don't want to have to figure out their intermediate standards.

We better hurry up and decide which it is, though.  We've got to get to work on the mini-assessment procedures we're going to undertake with these standards.  We must create some pre-assessments to establish a baseline and determine needs of students, and post-assessments to see whether the students gained.   In between we teach material in the standard we're assessing, and rely on a 3 or 4 question mini-test to give an accurate account of whether a student can, for instance, 'make a point clearly and effectively when writing.'

And just what do I have to post in my room?

(Yes, I understand the above could be a tangle of EdSpeak for those not accustomed to the hope was to give you a sense of the Byzantine reality of education.)

All that to say, there's a lot of assessment going on.  Some, but not all, of it is helpful to stimulate instruction, motivate students (some do like to challenge themselves to do well), identify needs, etc.

We do a lot of assessing, though.  Math takes it the hardest.  We have a district-wide test that we do 3 times a year.  Takes 2 days for math.  MSP has been cut back to 4 days, which is nice.  End-of-course exam--a new state requirement, a couple days.  Chapter tests.  10-12 mini-assessments.

That's 12 full days lost for state and district tests.  I don't know how many--8 or 10?--days for class tests. 20 days partially disrupted for mini-assessments.  (A 10 minute disruption has to be planned for.)

40 days? with some sort of assessing going on.  1 day every week.  That's a lot of assessing, and a lot of 'data.'  And all that data doesn't even match up (not expressed in compatible ways), or--sometimes--corroborate other data.  Just what are we to think of a student who fails math class, passes the end of course exam (probably the hardest of the 3), and fails the math MSP?

I'm sure there's an über-standard for that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Kentucky's (among others) school performance dropped--13% fewer schools were making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), so they want a waiver from NCLB requirements.

Says, the Commissioner of Education, "This is a signal that the NCLB system is no longer fair, valid or reliable."

Hmmm.  I wonder if it would be a signal of unfairness, invalidity and/or unreliability if scores rose 13%.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Dept. of Ed.

I spent a few minutes on the Department of Education website, reading about its least as far as the Department sees it.  Interesting stuff.


The original Department of Education was created in 1867 to collect information on schools and teaching that would help the States establish effective school systems. While the agency's name and location within the Executive Branch have changed over the past 130 years, this early emphasis on getting information on what works in education to teachers and education policymakers continues down to the present day.
Despite the growth of the Federal role in education, the Department never strayed far from what would become its official mission: to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.

Fascinatingly modern language, revealing perhaps a slight revision.  The 'what works' notion is particularly revealing.  It feels too contemporary, confirmed by the Department's own project called the 'what works clearinghouse.'  

As for the the first sentence of the Department's mission, it doesn't make sense, even internally--within the sentence itself.  The department never strayed far from what would become its mission?  You mean to say it had that mission before anybody ever knew it would be the official mission?  So, they were preparing students for global competitiveness from the beginning?  And ensuring equal access (to what they don't say--presumably to education)?  Really?  That's the contemporary mission?  Historically, though?  And what in the world does "despite" have to do with the first phrase?

It all reads like an effort to legitimate and bolster the Department by showing its historical presence and merit.  The ruse unravels when modern notions of the Department's work and identity are generalized backward in time.

All the Republican candidates want to drastically cut or eliminate the department.  We'll see.  That kind of thing doesn't happen all that often.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

School Board, where are you?

The strike's over.  I wonder if the School Board now needs to resolve to take back the responsibilities they granted to the superintendent.  Or do they just assume they have them back.  It would be too much a cliche for me to say that one about 'you know what happens when you assume."  But nothing is particularly clear at the moment...except that everything is still charged with contentiousness.  (See the disagreement about teacher pay.)

THAT rebuilds trust!

The News Tribune reports that the Tacoma School District is doing some creative math with the teachers' pay.  The administration is saying that teachers will be paid for days worked in the last period.  And then they'll correct the difference in the next period.  Not exactly a trust-rebuilding act.  Doesn't make sense--to me, either.

Since teachers get paid in 24 installments throughout the year, why is it ever about the days they work in that pay period?  They won't work any in the latter part of December, but they still get paid.  

They'll still be working those days that they were striking...just at a different time.  If they're only paid for the days worked in this latest pay period, it's as if the strike days don't when Pope Gregory skipped over those 10 days in 1582.

Now, if they agreed not make up the strike days, then teachers would need to take less pay.  But they're going to work the same number of days as a non-strike year, so they should get the regular 24 pay installments.

Bitterness at (or delight in) one side or the other doesn't grant license to change (violate?) the rules.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Strike is over!

Finally, the strike is over.  I don't know that I'd say everything is 'settled,' but school is back in session in Tacoma today, Friday, September 23.

The issue of reassigning teachers has been deferred.  A committee--of teachers and administration--will continue to work to develop a procedure for reassignment.  Word is, any plan coming out of the committee has to have 2/3 agreement of the committee, but will not go before the union membership for a vote.

This means, of course, that the composition of the committee is all the more important.  Let's pay attention to what that committee looks like.

There are several questions to which we can now return.

Achievement Gap

  • How do we prioritize all the suggestions the consultant’s report makes?  What evidence suggests that cultural training supports student achievement?  The district has undertaken several cultural awareness initiatives before, why haven’t those generated more success?
  • What is the best evidence about causes of and solutions to the achievement gap?  The consultant’s report contains the following two sentences--about a page apart.  

The Advisory Committee found that the achievement gap for African American students is caused primarily by: 
     Inequitable distribution of skilled and experienced teachers (p. 13)


The degree to which quality teachers are available to African American students in Tacoma schools could not be determined with the available information (p. 15)

  • How do we make sense of the “primary cause” of the achievement gap?

  • Why has there been so much less mention of the Hispanic achievement gap?

Balancing Objectives

  • The Tacoma schools have the responsibility to get students to standard, and get them college ready, and close the achievement gap.  Sometimes these objectives are at odds.  Getting a nearly-at-standard student to standard is much different from making them college ready.  How shall we reconcile these sometimes competing responsibilities?

Teacher Evaluation

  • What connection can we verify between student test scores and teacher effectiveness?  How confidently can we use test scores to evaluate teachers?

Candidate Dexter Gordon has written, rather awkwardly (what are "generative contractual arrangements"?) about this.  In a statement on the strike, in which he first professes that a candidate shouldn't interject his views before he proceeds to give his views, he subtly but clearly comes out in favor of teacher evaluations based on student scores.  

He is sure that the ability "to get rid of bad teachers" will close the Achievement Gap.  He said so in the TNT endorsement interview we participated in last June.

But, as his statement points out, it's time to rebuild trust in Tacoma.  With views like those, I doubt he's the right candidate for that.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Teacher World vs. Real World?

I read and hear a lot (about the strike in Tacoma) along the lines of 'Why do teachers think they should be able to be in charge of where they work?  That's not how it is in the business world.'

Seems like something of a shibboleth, if you ask me.

First of all, schools do have an amount of the 'you go where we tell you.'  It's just the most recently hired teachers who suffer that the most.  After the first days of school, when student counts become accurate and reliable, shifting takes place.  Since Tacoma's student numbers can shift significantly--especially downward, that can mean a lot of teacher movement. 

Second of all, the business world has its norms and customs.  Employees may not have the binding authority of a contract to back them up, but there are various cultural and company expectations about reassignment.  And if you're high enough in a business firm, you may well get all kinds of perks as a payoff for your reassignment. 

I'm worn out of the idealization of business and demonization of government, and vice versa.  Neither one is as good [or bad] as their proponents [or opponents] say, so let's be fair about our comparisons.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Where's the Tacoma School Board?

And where's the resolution?  The one in which the Board delegates all its authorities to the Superintendent.

I don't hear much chatter about this.

I remember seeing the article on The News Tribune website and facsimiles of the resolution on the district web site.  They might both still be there...hard to know; both web sites are somewhat Byzantine.

The only place I can still find a mention of the school board delegating its responsibilities--as elected leaders of the schools--to the un-elected Superintendent is in an article on the World Socialist Web Site.

So School Board, and resolutions of delegation, where are you?

Is it true, Board, that you didn't want to have meetings where the public came in and gave you grief about the strike?  I hope not...that's part of your job, isn't it?

I'm not going to raise the political comparisons that are so obvious here.  You know, the times when elected leaders surrender their responsibilities to a lone executive actor.  They don't usually turn out all that well.

Ready, set, let's evaluate schools and teachers

After running for school board and reading a lot of somewhat strident public comments about the teachers strike in Tacoma, I got to thinking that a lot of people--especially many who want to issue diktats about necessary "reforms"--may not really be aware of the kinds of strategies and directives schools are implementing in order to improve their work.

School isn't what it used to be...even in the 6 years I've been involved.  It has become ordered by a lot more protocol and procedure aimed at squeezing more learning improvement out of every class and every student.  I don't think everything we have to do is great or even good.   One has to know how to attend to these procedural details without having them impinge on the greater project.  Once comfortably incorporated into your routine, though, they do make instruction a bit better.  (For instance, as I fit the learning target--below-- into my day, I got comfortable pointing it out in the flow of the day's instruction...and I believe it does help some students keep a better focus on what they're doing.)

Herewith, a few questions to give a little taste--I'm sure it's little, as the education bureaucracy and regulation is utterly Byzantine--of some of the organizing principles of teaching.  You could think of it as a quiz, if you like.  I wrote the quiz, and I don't know all the answers.

What is the ESEA?  (It's what we all know as NCLB.)  Describe the "highly qualified" requirements for teachers.

Name any two of Marzano's High Yield Strategies.  Bonus—How many strategies are there?  Extra bonus--name the highest yielding strategy.
What's the highest level skill/competency on the updated Bloom's taxonomy?
What are Power Standards?  (Here's a set for a school district, not mine--ours are under review)
Explain the importance of a daily learning target.  From/on what are learning targets based?
What is an EALR?  What is the CCSS?  What is the connection between the two?
Which of these (GLE, EALR, CCSS, Learning Target, Power Standards, Marzano's strategies) are required to be posted in classrooms in the district where you live?
Name the content categories (strands) on the various MSP tests.  (See the very bottom of this sample score report.)
What is a CBA?  Which subjects administer these?   What data does the state record from these?
On what material, information, data, etc., are the School Improvement Plans in your school district based?