What I Did this Summer

I had fun this summer–a few good hikes, some good runs. It also, without a doubt, was the most intense summer of professional development I’ve ever had, and as this blog is about education, that is what I’ll talk about here. I was challenged, I felt uncomfortable, I was out of my element–more so than I have been in a long time. Clearly, learning was happening. Here’s what I did:

New Media Bootcamp
The summer started with a bang, literally, with fireworks at the Whitehouse and New Media Bootcamp in Washington DC along with three great Washington state teachers. The amazing trainers at the New Organizing Institute put a group of about 45 of us from every corner of the nation through eight days of learning about politics, technology, and engagement organizing.

This wasn’t the type of training where we just sat and listened to speakers–we were there to work collaboratively, and work as a team we did, at all hours of the day and night. My six-member team included a graphic designer, a campaign manager, a geocoding whiz kid, a slow food activist, a SEIU organizer, and of course, me, school marm from Washington state. My teammates were talented, tumultuous and wonderful: we went from the lowest of lows in terms of a team dynamic to actually sending sentimental group texts to each other long after the training.

What did we do? We studied theory of change based on the work of Marshall Ganz. We then applied this theory of change to develop an integrated new media campaign: there was a governor’s race in the mythical state of Columbia, and Alice Paul, author of the Equal Rights Amendment, was running. We were her campaign team: you can see us over to the left riding in her campaign bus tour across the state. You may notice Alice looks a bit ghostly; then again, she has been dead for 34 years, but was still able to garner an amazing number of Twitter followers in just a short period of time.

Stiff competition from other gubernatorial candidates including Cesar Chavez and Harvey Milk were no match for the progressive platform my team developed and presented through Twitter, a website, Facebook, and of course, email. It was old-fashioned writers’ workshop meets the latest technology as we learned to do chi square analysis on click-through and conversion rates. The peer feedback, by the way, could be fairly hard core: it was not appreciative inquiry, and it was not “two stars and a wish.” This was no teachers’ conference.

We heard “Bootcamp will change your life” from alumni. I was skeptical, but in retrospect, I think it may actually be true. Theory of change and the other concepts and skills we learned were powerful. I can’t think of another training I’ve been to where I so highly valued so many of the contacts I made; wanted to read and reread the training materials LONG after I had finished with the training; and, though I wasn’t feeling this when it was time to leave, I wished it could have lasted longer so I could have had the chance to learn more. The training, the participants, and the work we did was amazing–looking at current political races, I think we would be competitive! Are these skills transferable to issue efforts? Oh yes.

I look back at the experience with both delight at our teamwork, and awe at what we accomplished. Working together, I think we really could turn the world upside down!

Simian retroviruses. Yes, that’s right…Monkey Herpes.
Next is was off to Seattle for the Science Education Partnership with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute. I spent time developing a curriculum project along with some fellow teachers, and then five days with a senior research scientist working on projects in his lab. What did he study? Well, monkey herpes, of course. Herpes in macaques, for the most part. It turns out that 9 different types of herpes have been discovered in every single non-human primate, no exception. Only 8 different types of herpes have been discovered in humans. The goal? You guessed it–find that ninth type of herpes in humans.

My mentor scientist asked me at the beginning of the week, “What do you want to learn?” I listed a few techniques, and that is what we did–it was like having a personal lab tutor in biotechnology along with access to all the equipment. Truly a unique opportunity. He also challenged me, telling me at a few key points, “Your students NEED to learn this.” Alright, there will be bioinformatics this school year!

Educator input into education policy
Near the end of the summer I was part of a work group to develop a process to get educator input into education policy, on issues like the implementation of Common Core standards and teacher evaluation. We were trying to put together a sort of guide that would work for getting input on whatever the issue at hand might be, and then transmit that information to policy makers and policy implementers.

There were ten of us working on this, nine teachers and a principal. We had HIGHLY disparate views on some major issues in education. These were not just people who talked about their views, these were people who had acted on them, so opinions were strongly held.

The challenge? We were placed in situations early in our time together which highlighted our differences, and after that we needed to work together productively. It was our work together that made me realize, in general, how great teachers and educators are at working in groups. Despite our differences, a core value we all held was the prime importance of educator voice in forming education policy, and this helped guide our work.

What did I learn from all this?
Well, I learned that How People Learn is how people actually learn. Not that I doubted it before, but the three key findings from this document: engaging preconceptions, organizing knowledge into a conceptual framework, and reflection, were clearly incorporated into each of the events I attended. This made a difference: the pre- and post activities associated with these events have been, or sound as if they will be, as valuable as the events themselves!

Here’s to a great school year!

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Stand for Children & Coalition present ‘People’s Plan’ for Washington Education

Excellent Schools? We all want them–and many excellent schools already exist in our state.  Excellent Schools NOW?  It’s not going to happen now, it’s going to take time and hard work.   A coalition that names itself Excellent Schools Now therefore deserves some extra attention as to their members, motives, and funding.   Who’s in this coalition?  Stand for Children, Teachers United, Partnership for Learning, Washington Business Roundtable, League of Education Voters, Washington Technology Industry Association, and many others.

The other day I had the opportunity to attend an event to provide feedback to the Excellent Schools Now (ESN) coalition on their legislative agenda for next year.  It was named the People’s Plan.  We met in a well-appointed hotel conference room with wine and fancy chocolate. There were about 15 teachers and perhaps about 12 community members present.  We had all been given a draft of the ESN’s “People’s Plan for Education” so we could read it beforehand.

An open question, well articulated by another teacher present:  Did the ESN coalition actually want teacher input into their legislative plan, or did they just want to say they had consulted teachers in formulating this plan?  The lack of transparency in the creation and feedback process of their plan (Where was this plan coming from? What was going to happen next?) and the vague doublespeak of much of the language in the plan led many present to believe that perhaps this group just wanted to state that they had consulted teachers.

The agenda for the evening involved two rounds of small group discussion.  During the first round, I found myself seated at a table with about with about six teachers. The policy director of Stand for Children sat with us and listened in to the conversation; the leader of Teachers United acted as moderator and scribe.

Who are these people, and who wrote this plan?

This whole thing was called the ‘Peoples’ Plan.’  The title begs the question: So who are these people, and who wrote this plan?   The plan was developed by Education First Consulting. A political firm named Strategies 360  also seemed to play a role—one of their senior officers was emceeing the teacher input forum I attended.  Designating their legislative agenda as the “People’s Plan” did not seem to fit this coalition–even some of the organizers were saying this by the end of the evening forum.

Many of the points in the plan were versions of policy proposals we’ve been hearing from around the country in the past year.  Excellent Schools Now advocates for larger class sizes in their plan, just as Bill Gates did in a speech to the National Governor’s Association.

Who is funding these groups?  Well, in Washington state, Bill Gates is one of the major donors. The organizations in Excellent Schools Now do not just work on a state level: the Tacoma chapter of Stand for Children received a $150,000 grant from the Gates Foundation with the first goal of influencing local teacher contract negotiations there.

So what’s in this Plan?

At the first discussion table I sat at, the topic was listed as Teacher Job Rights: we discussed tenure, RIFs, and firing.  Tenure was the first confusing language issue we had.  Does tenure mean a teacher has a job forever, almost no matter what; or does tenure just mean that a certain process is followed before a teacher is dismissed? How tenure is defined matters when discussing these matters, and tenure was not defined at this forum.

One point in the People’s Plan concerning dismissal was to “Establish an expedited hearing and appeals process.”    What “expedited” means was not specified by ESN, and because it was so vague, it was virtually impossible to discuss in a reasonable manner.  Another point was “Allow cause for dismissal to be lack of available, applicable positions.”  Does this mean a district can decide a certain teaching position is no longer necessary and then dismiss that teacher, even if that teacher has been there 15 years?  That certainly seems to allow for arbitrary firings–and furthermore, this dismissal process will be ‘expedited’?

Teachers who are not doing their job should not remain in the classroom, but due process should be followed in dismissal.  However, teachers are in a relatively public position, open to criticism by many, and if teachers have no job security, no one will want to be a teacher.  We are already having a hard enough time recruiting great new teachers.

During the next discussion round, I was at the Teacher Evaluation table.   Much of the ‘People’s Plan’ was supportive of many parts of the Washington’s Teacher Principal Evaluation Pilot, which is a good thing.  However, while TPEP seems to focus on whole teacher evaluation, much of the People’s Plan focused on “measures” which seemed to mean test scores. The ESN coalition would have a statewide panel “identify appropriate measures in untested subject and grades.”  In other states, this has resulted in extreme amounts of testing and some ludicrous testing requirements in subjects like physical education which would tie PE teacher evaluations to the health of their students.  Not only teachers would be evaluated by test scores—schools and districts are included as well: The People’s Plan depends on implementing a “growth model to compare student learning gains across the state, disaggregated for individual classrooms, schools, and districts.”

I didn’t have a chance to participate in other discussions, such as that at the Teacher Compensation table. The People’s Plan starts off on a nice note, stating, “increase beginning teachers’ salaries to make the profession more appealing to newcomers.”  However, apparently after you get that new higher beginning salary, that’s all you’re going to get, because it also suggests to “remove the salary enhancement for master’s degrees.”  National Board Certification is also not included in the People’s Plan.  Teaching is an education profession.   Shouldn’t higher education and professional development be encouraged?

Instead of the current salary allocation model, ESN proposed an amorphous four step “career ladder” but never described it with any detail, so I can’t comment on it.

Even worse than some of the vague language was the doublespeak.  In a prime example, the People’s Plan has a section concerning the establishment of “transformation zones.”  Close reading reveals that “transformation zone” actually seems to mean “charter school.”  How are these “zones” going to be “transformed”?  Through the reduction and elimination of collective bargaining, of course.   The People’s Plan states: “All schools in Zones will be expected to renegotiate or request waivers from union contracts in order to meet the needs of students in their building.”  Can’t student needs be met through working with teachers?  Wisconsin, here we come!

On a personal note, many of the ESN coalition organizations were very vocal in last year’s legislative session in wanting to maintain the science assessment graduation requirement for the class of 2013.  Maintaining the requirement would have meant students would be responsible for two completely different sets of science standards in their high school career–an injustice.  Students who did not pass a science exam would have had to pass a biology end-of-course exam.  This end-of-course exam would not have been given at the end of their biology course, but instead, a full year later.  This defied common sense.

Rather than address these logical issues, the ESN coalition members’ entire argument was that delaying the science requirement was lowering standards for our students.  Holding students responsible for a test, even when that test makes no sense, is not, in my opinion, a valid way to have high standards.  Conversely, advocating for a delay so that a more fair test can be administered is not the same as advocating for lower standards. Their argument left me personally offended.

The Excellent Schools Now People’s Plan seems to follow in the same vein as their science assessment arguments last year–rather than cooperation with teachers, there seems to be a pattern of suspicion and blame.  Inviting a few teachers to a forum to provide input on a legislative agenda, as ESN did last week, is a good start.  Seeking input from even more teachers, and then honestly considering that feedback and incorporating it, would be an even better next step.  The only way to reform education in Washington state is to work with teachers, not against them.