Monthly Archives: September 2014

Candidate Forum: Laurie Halverson on Evaluating Educators

  1. Evaluating Educators.MCPS has gone its own way in Maryland on teacher evaluation.  It did not participate in the Race to the Top (RttT) grant that would have given MCPS funds in exchange for implementing a test-based teacher evaluation system.  Now, the state superintendent may require MCPS to adopt MSDE’s requirement that 50% of a teachers’ evaluation be determined by test scores. Would you support MCPS standing its ground or should it become more aligned with the state’s approach?  Would you support the new proposal in MCPS to have student, teacher and principal feedback as part of teacher, principal and associate superintendent evaluation, respectively?

 

Laurie Halverson is long-time resident of Montgomery County, parent and PTA leader  for over 10 years. running for Board of Education District 3.

 

Response

Though I do support testing as one element of input to teacher evaluations, I do not agree with the state that teacher evaluations should be based 50% on test scores.  The goal is to provide balanced and fair evaluations based on the individual and professional objectives set out for each teacher. I believe it is better achieved by including feedback from students, teachers, principals and appropriate administrative staff in addition to testing to provide the best analysis of competence.

 

I have two concerns regarding professional reviews heavily weighted on test results.  First, each year any given class will be made up of a wide range of students; some much less ready to learn than others. Expecting all students to achieve at the same rate is not equitably meeting students where they are, and judging their teachers on this same inflexible model is similarly unfair. Secondly, nearly half of the states that first committed to PARCC tests have withdrawn leaving only 12 states plus D.C., which indicates to me that there is an uncertain future for PARCC tests. I have reservations about using a test that the “jury is still out” on whether it will accurately measure learning.

Though Maryland’s Department of Education agreed in 2010 that teacher evaluations would be based 50% on test scores, MCPS disagreed and therefore decided to forego seeking the “Race to the Top” grants.  MCPS legally declined to seek these grants, has not been a recipient of any of these funds, and so should not now be bound by their parameters.

The 2015 teacher contract does include a proposal to include student, teacher, principal and associate superintendent feedback as part of the evaluation. According to a recent NY Times article, there is significant value in student feedback and this is a concept I strongly support.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/04/technology/students-grade-teachers-and-a-start-up-harnesses-the-data.html?_r=0). Finally, I also would like to see parent feedback added to the evaluation process for teachers and principals. Parents and students can provide valuable insight on teacher and principal performance.

Candidate Forum: Evaluating Educators

Evaluating Educators. MCPS has gone its own way in Maryland on teacher evaluation.  It did not participate in the Race to the Top (RttT) grant that would have given MCPS funds in exchange for implementing a test-based teacher evaluation system.  Now, the state superintendent may require MCPS to adopt MSDE’s requirement that 50% of a teachers’ evaluation be determined by test scores. Would you support MCPS standing its ground or should it become more aligned with the state’s approach?  Would you support the new proposal in MCPS to have student, teacher and principal feedback as part of teacher, principal and associate superintendent evaluation, respectively?

Response: I do not support using student test scores as a percentage of teachers’ evaluations.  Too many factors play a role for student test scores to be a valid indicator of a teacher’s performance.  That said, principals should review test scores with teachers to identify trends, set goals, etc.  Test scores are a tool for understanding what our students have learned; they do not necessarily indicate what our teachers have taught.

For years I have supported student surveys to provide “customer” feedback to teachers.  Students are able to identify effective teachers, especially when the right survey instruments are used.  To take it a step further, 360 degree assessments should be embraced by MCPS as well.  These 360 degree assessments (which include peer as well as student and principal evaluations) are easily administered and valuable to staff members and their supervisors.  It is critical to have this type of data when evaluating teachers and ALL administrators within MCPS.

Montgomery County’s elementary school curriculum: Where’s the beef?

It was back-to-school night last week at my son’s elementary school in Montgomery County, Maryland, which meant that we moms and dads got a first look at “Learning for the Future: A Parent’s Guide to Grade 1 Curriculum 2.0.” Several years ago, MCPS sold the curriculum to Pearson. Which is rather bizarre, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Let me start by saying that MCPS does a lot of things right. My son’s teacher, who has her own classroom for the first time this year, seems great (and graduated from one of the best teacher prep programs in the country, according to NCTQ). She also gets a ton of support from her fellow teachers, and from the central office, which is simply not available in the typical American school. (And that is the sort of support that both Dana Goldstein and Elizabeth Green called for in their recent books.) Most importantly, MCPS has a curriculum, which, surprisingly enough, is an anomaly for public school districts. (Many districts, especially the itsy-bitsy ones, hand out textbooks and call it a day.)

The problem is that the MCPS curriculum—at least what I’ve seen so far, which means Kindergarten and first grade—is weak when it comes to content in science, and extremely weak in history.

Consider the social studies content that my son is expected to learn this year:

  • Civics: Importance of rules; rights, responsibilities, and choices; leadership and authority; contributions of people important to the American political system; United States symbols and practices
  • Culture: Different ways of meeting human needs; people share and borrow culture; social skills.
  • History: Differences between past and present; people and objects of today and long ago.
  • Geography: People modify, protect, and adapt to their environment; geographic tools used to locate and describe places on Earth,;physical and human characteristics of places.
  • Economics: Economic choices about goods and services; production process; technology affects the way people live, work, and play; markets in the community; differing values of goods and services.

Notice what’s missing: Proper nouns. Which historical figures will he study? Time periods? Which countries or continents?

People who study education for a living understand what’s going on—this is straight out of the standards promulgated by the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization that has long prized such “conceptual understanding” over “rote facts and figures.”

Yet the NCSS lost a big battle in 2010 when the Common Core State Standards explicitly called on schools to adopt a content-rich curriculum, with the 57 most important words in education reform:

“By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Montgomery County claims that Curriculum 2.0 is aligned to the Common Core—always a dubious assertion considering that both documents were finalized in 2010. Clearly, when it comes to content, at least in the elementary grades, MCPS has missed the boat.

So what could first graders be doing if challenged with a truly Common Core-aligned and content-rich curriculum? Consider the Engage New York English Language Arts Curriculum, whose “sequence of domains” for Grade 1 includes:

  • The human body
  • Early world civilizations
  • Early American civilizations
  • Astronomy
  • The history of the Earth
  • Animals and habitats
  • A new nation
  • Frontier explorers

Finally, some specifics! Some content!  Some acknowledgment that we don’t have to wait until kids can read before teaching them about how the world works!

I’m fortunate to have the resources to supplement what my son is getting in MCPS; we can read about these topics at home and even watchcarefully selected videos about them. But the lack of content is a significant barrier for the district’s lower-income students, who are going to struggle with reading comprehension unless and until they learn about the worlds of history, science, literature, and more. What will it take for MCPS and other districts to grasp this fundamental lesson from cognitive science? (Maybe plummeting proficiency levels, a la PARCC, will be a wake-up call.)

Montgomery County has plenty of “capacity.” It has a robust curriculum department. And it claims to be committed to the Common Core and to narrowing achievement gaps. Adding real content to Curriculum 2.0, starting in the early grades, is eminently doable. So let’s do it!

What Happens to the Good News for MCPS?

Recently, I looked for a way to share some observations of some good things happening in at MCPS.  These were not big research-driven observations, but what I saw in very local and personal encounters as I will describe below.  I found in searching MCPS web sites no place or mechanism to communicate this information.  Many who have worked with MCPS for a long time have said it can be an insular kind of organization; at times ignoring criticism as it pursues its plans, which may also be related to a harsh and at times unfair tone of its critics.  This dynamic was one of the reasons we started the MoCoEdBlog, to provide input—balanced input— about important topics that we had some substantive knowledge about.

Summer Worker

This past summer a reading specialist at my son’s school organized a summer reading program where she provided books and games/puzzles for kids to work on during the weeks school was out.  My kids are in a language immersion program and one of the biggest challenges for families who do not speak the language at home is early reading.  The specialist on her own time organized playdates at playgrounds where the kids could run around while parents exchanged books and information about student progress.  Summer progress, or for some cases what is called the “summer melt” when kids regress, is very important for preparing kids for the coming school year.   This was individual initiative taken by a teacher beyond what was required in order to help the students.  It is no small thing, especially for the families of those students.

My Good Friend’s School

I have a very good friend whose son and mine have been pals since they were 4 years old in Montessori school.  While our son went into MCPS in kindergarten hers stayed few more years in Montessori where he did well in some subjects but also was delayed in reading in part because of undiagnosed perceptual issues.   When she brought her son into MCPS she found initially different views of what was the best grade and best approach.  Over the last two years, while our kids played, I have heard her describe the collaborative approach her MCPS School (Flower Valley) has taken, how the principal listens and they have worked together, the universal and complete commitment to her child by that school.  It has been a heartwarming and very encouraging story to hear how he is understood and valued and has also now steadily climbed up in school performance.  How big a deal is this?  If it is your child or a child you know it is a big deal, naturally.  It is also highly likely that in this school this is not an isolated success story, but part of a culture of doing the right things.  This is an example of the kind of school-level autonomy that MCPS is practicing working very well where those in the school are empowered to do the right things and in the case of this school they do.

My Kids Ate Salad

It may not seem like a big deal that both of my kids ate salads at school not too long ago.  They are kids after all.  However, they ate these salads at lunch and came home to explain what they ate and how good it was during the Farm-to-School week MCPS recently had.  I know people who have been advocating for MCPS to have more healthy food and snack options and have expressed frustration over what they see as a preference for institutional food over more locally grown options.  Seeing that the Farm-to-School week not only happened, but it worked educationally was very interesting.  This is a state program implemented by MCPS and it shows for me the important role MCPS can take helping to promote healthy lifestyles.

Who Gets This Good News?

So in feeling motivated to share these observations with someone in MCPS, I went to the new website and found no place to provide this kind of feedback.  There is no central suggestion box where anyone who has a comment can send it and expect it will land at the right office  and also be part of a systemic process of sensing how well different parts of the system are performing.   Would it be meaningful to know about individual employees going above and beyond to serve kids or to know about schools that seem able and willing to organize for student success?   Would it be also helpful to collect other kinds of comments that maybe are indications of uncertainty or parts of the system in need of support?  I think it would.  While there is an Office of Public Information, there is no function I can see for public feedback.  This might be as simple as a small addition to a website, that digital suggestion box, or might involve staff aggregating and disseminating this information.  One of the new trends in performance evaluation involves surveys that provide information on teacher and school activity.  With these kinds of instruments coming in the future and with the kinds of specific and useful comments that test scores can never provide, perhaps MCPS might want to develop some capacity for handling this information.  My suggestion is to begin small with an easy and accessible place for feedback.

Cultural Competency: Responsibility, Research, and Results (plus Ron Edmonds still relevant after all these years)

Today, the MCPS Board of Education will be discussing efforts MCPS is making to address cultural challenges (ex, race, language, home settings) the system faces with implications for reducing the stubborn achievement gap the system finds itself challenged by.  Some of the editorial team members of the MoCoEdBlog have looked at this issue and some of the briefing documents MCPS is using and have a few comments to add to the discussion.  This post is a synthesis of email conversations among some members of the MoCoEdBlog, specifically Joe Hawkins, Mike Petrilli, and Phil Piety who authors this post.

Responsibility

There is general agreement that this is an important issue for MCPS.  How well schools serve the needs of all students is a critical issue and the role of educators’ attitudes and school culture have long been known to be keys to addressing these issues.  One of the documents shared with BOE to prepare them for this discussion focused on helping educators to not blame children and their parents for school failures, but to look for what they can do to take responsibility. This reminds me of an educational equity scholar, Ron Edmonds, who in 1982 made a famous declaration about effective schools:

“It seems to me, therefore, that what is left of this discussion are three declarative statements: (a) We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; (b) We already know more than we need to do that; and (c) Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

Edmonds was not saying poverty and home circumstances do not matter.  How could he or anyone suggest that?  What he was saying was that the solution lie not in focusing on those issues as determinants of results, but adults taking the responsibility for success in spite of those realities. Edmonds went on to provide six core recommendations for schools in achieving these ends.

  1. Strong administrative leadership.
  2. High expectations.
  3. An orderly atmosphere.
  4. Basic skills acquisition as the school’s primary purpose.
  5. Capacity to divert school energy and resources from other activities to advance the school’s basic purpose.
  6. Frequent monitoring of pupil progress.

In Edmonds framing, the culture is evidenced by actions, by deliberate things that include high expectations and strong instructionally focused school leaders.

Rhetoric

Several readers of the MCPS briefing document noted the powerful rhetoric including this statement:

“In building upon the cultural synchronicity, demographic parity, and humanistic commitment dispositions, OHRD increased its recruitment effort with an emphasis on colleges and universities as the major recruitment source for new teachers.”

This kind of statement is rich with intention and inference.  For the general public and for those intending to carry out this mission, what does it mean?  MoCoEdBlog is not sure.

These kinds of statements are a reminder that it is all too easy to use the language of equity, but that this may not be the same as the actions.  While a teacher or a school leadership team may profess commitments to universal success, this isn’t the same as actually doing it.  Despite the many problems with accountability and oversight, the unfortunate truth is it is needed in many cases as not all educators do the right things on their own.

Research

Part of the plan MCPS is previewing involves finding teachers (ex: African American males) who are more like the kinds of students that are traditionally harder for school systems to reach.  What does the research say about the selection of culturally connected teachers?  Mike Petrilli points to a piece in EducationNext from 2004 that suggests that this is an area that can make a difference. This important paper highlights the many challenges to studying these populations, including student mobility.  Incidentally, student mobility is much higher in higher needs populations and this complicates efforts to evaluate educators serving these students as well.  The paper also provides a caution by saying:

“[The] results clearly support the conventional assumption that recruiting minority teachers can generate important achievement gains among minority students. However, they also suggest that a typically overlooked cost of such efforts may be a meaningful reduction in the achievement of nonminority students.”

Results?

A challenge for MCPS going forward is how will it know whether these efforts are actually yielding results.  How will the system’s leadership know that workshops are leading to actual changes in schools or just more opportunities for school leaders to find a new set of jargon to use while still treating students the same?  As the MCPS Chief Community Engagement Officer has noted, communities with greater needs are also ones where family participation is difficult for many reasons.  If a privileged family believes there is an educational problem in their school they are more likely to advocate within the system and raise red flags for school system leadership. In disadvantaged communities there are both practical issues to parent advocacy as many parents are working hard at survival and even more cultural barriers that make family advocacy not assured.

In raising a few questions about these efforts, MoCoEdBlog recognizes this is not a trivial exercise.  It is not a trivial issue.  MCPS’ efforts are not trivial and deserve attention and discussion.  We invite additional commentary from MCPS and from others in the community to address these important challenges.