Saturday, March 26, 2011

International Sound Bites!

I was delighted to receive an invitation from the Council of Chief State School Officers to attend the International Summit on the Teaching Profession that was held in New York City on March 16-17, 2011. Thirteen State Teachers of the Year (three of whom became National Teachers of the Year and several finalists in the bunch) represented America's teachers at the summit that brought delegates from fifteen countries to meet with the delegation from the United States to talk about teaching.

I was star-struck upon entering the room and seeing our Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (even though I don't always agree with his politics.) At 6'5" he looms large anyway, but he had quite the presence in the room full of dignitaries as others clambered to speak to him. Also members of the US delegation were NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and AFT President Randi Weingarten. Marguerite Izzo, 2007 New York Teacher of the Year, served as the teacher representative, welcoming the other delegations to her state.

Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford University, was present as well and wrote about the experience in a eloquent manner that I won't attempt to match. Instead, I'll share the "sound bites" that I wrote down or sent out to the Twittersphere on those two days.

Arne Duncan began by saying that the goal of the summit was to "strengthen and elevate the profession" and that it shouldn't have taken this long to "get to this day."

Here are a few quotes from representative countries:

Brazil - "The dignity of the profession has to do with more than salary."

Canada - "It's important to further explore professional development for teachers and roles that school boards, schools, and teachers play."

"We should stop talking about teachers and instead talk about teaching. We need to talk about the skills of teaching."

China - "We must create an atmosphere of protecting teachers and continue to elevate teachers."

"The movement around the world is education for all. We must be careful it doesn't become test scores for all."

"Teachers must support reforms in order for them to work."

Denmark - "Teacher evaluation doesn't have to be so difficult. Principals should talk to teachers about their teaching."

Estonia - "We must invest in education."

Finland - began by saying, "We're proud of our teachers."

"The climate of the school and school leadership are the most important factors. Also, teachers need time to study, to have formal continuous learning."

"Only one in ten who want to teach actually get to become teachers. All must have master's degrees. 6,000 applicants for 600 jobs."

"There are no national tests in Finland."

"Teachers are considered experts of their work, academic professionals."

Japan - "Teachers are the vital force in education."

Netherlands - "We have secured autonomy of schools. We need to secure autonomy for teachers, but it's important to have accountability."

Norway - "We must respect and listen to teachers. We must raise the status of teachers."

"Curriculum doesn't change what happens in the classroom."

Poland - "We're inspired by these discussions of leadership and teamwork."

Singapore - "It's important to look at principals and how effectively they 'rally their team.'"

"Evaluation should be formative, not summative."

Slovenia - "We need cooperation between unions and ed leaders."

UK - "Evaluation shouldn't be so individual; it's like surveillance. Teachers should observe each other for higher impact."

"The voice of teachers is the heart of public policy."

"We need a system that's aligned and coherent. We need to trust teachers and design improvement WITH teachers."

US (Gene Wilhoit - Executive Director, Council of Chief State School Officers) - "It's inspiring for sixteen sovereign nations to come together to talk about the future of our countries by talking about our children."

"Developing school leaders who in turn develop good teachers is the way to go about it."

"The voice of teachers is the heart of policy."

Arne Duncan - "We've got to get better faster than we have before."

Dennis Van Roekel - "In US we have charter schools in an effort to provide autonomy. Only 17% do better than regular public schools. Most do about the same. Some do worse."

"We need to get the voice of teachers there...their perspective, create their vision. That voice should be in the room."

"There's so much conversation about the profession of teaching. Everyone's an expert because they WENT to school."

Randi Weingarten - "States are heirarchal instead of horizontal."

"Professional development and teacher learning should not be left to chance."

"Those closest to kids - teachers, parents - have the least amount of voice in policy."

"Historically we've had 'drive-by evaluation.' Now we have 'observation by test score.'"

Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General, OECD - "The research shows that teacher evaluation doesn't change anything."

Fred Van Leeuwen, General Secretary, Education International - "Testing is a teacher's tool, not a political device."

Marguerite Izzo, 2007 New York Teacher of the Year - "I've waited a long time to be at this table. I'm proud to represent America's teachers here."

An audience member from the UK - "Teachers aren't afraid of evaluation. They're afraid of being evaluated by people who don't teach, who haven't for a long time, and who don't know what they're doing."

Fernando Reimers, Professor of Education at Harvard - "Many countries mentioned the need for teacher autonomy, teachers being allowed to design curriculum, plan lessons, and make professional decisions. Pushback - in these days of Facebook, Twitter, etc., do we really do anything alone? Is autonomy irrelevant?"

All agreed: We need a systematic approach to education. We need to get the voice of teaching to the table.

On teacher evaluation: We stress a focus on collaboration, but we evaluate individual teachers.

Secretary Duncan ended the summit by saying, "We have to collectively create the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs."

Many of us asked, "What's next? What will come of these discussions?"

I did see the Secretary taking notes, and I sincerely hope that we have learned from countries that respect teachers and hold them in high esteem.

But we all know we have a long way to go...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On Seeing Michael...

The first time I saw Michael he was entering my morning reading group. He was a sixth grader, a few months into the school year, and I didn't know him. In ten seconds' time after coming in the classroom door, he was an inch from my face yelling at me, and I was struggling to maintain my composure while turning to grab a discipline referral notice off my desk. Suddenly, two students I did know, and with whom I had worked really hard at developing relationships, jumped to my defense and threatened to give Michael a beating if I gave the word. I didn't.

This reading group was part of our whole school literacy program. We rotated sixth graders around in small groups every three weeks during the first thirty minutes of the day. I was focusing my instruction on reader's theatre and short plays; I had hoped to engage my students in some fun activities while slipping in reading strategies at the same time.

Being able to teach in a way that was a little different from my run-of-the-mill remedial reading curriculum was exciting. Greeting a new group of kids that included some I didn't know was challenging. Occasionally there would be an issue as a result of not having had that first-week-of-school-get-to-know-you time. And this, of course, was part of the problem with Michael.

To be honest, I don't remember why he got mouthy with me from the beginning of that class. Most likely I told him to sit down in a way that rubbed him wrong, and it was clear that he didn't want to be in that classroom anyway. Later, I would understand more: Michael was a sixth grader who read on a first grade level.

For years as a middle school teacher I have listened to my colleagues lament over "what those elementary teachers are sending us." I've also been at the receiving end of high school teachers' "concerns" about the students I've sent them. The problem is clear: there are middle school students who can't read on grade level, which is a problem itself, but because of that deficiency, they're angry. That anger displays itself in a myriad of ways. Students may lash out, like Michael did when entering my reading classroom, or they may shut down and refuse to participate in activities or do classwork and homework.

I did eventually develop a strong relationship with Michael, beginning on the very day he lost his temper with me. We had one of those heart-to-heart talks that caring teachers initiate, and then I used all of my reading assessment tools to determine what exactly was going on. As a reading specialist, I know that middle school children are usually deficient in one (or more) of three areas when they struggle in reading:

- They are unable to recognize words immediately (in a fraction of a second as my graduate professor explained) and depend on "sounding out" which is time consuming and laborious for middle school texts. They can't, for example, look at the word "interesting" and know what it is. They revert back to first grade phonics lessons and stretch the word out - "in-ter-est-ing."

-They recognize the words but don't have enough prior knowledge or content knowledge to understand what they mean. The example I use most often is "prairie." I've had hundreds of students who can tell me the word in a second but who have no clue what a prairie actually is. Because they live in the Southeastern United States, they've never seen a prairie and, unfortunately, these treeless tracts of land aren't commonly used as settings for popular teen television shows or videos. (And they've never found the joy I found as a child in my church's library while reading all the Little House books.)

-They struggle with activities that involve processing the print - like paying attention to the text, visualizing what they're reading, and using an "inner voice" to actually "hear" what they're reading.

Last year, when Michael was in eighth grade, I assessed him again. This time he scored almost at grade level on language comprehension (he knew what the words meant) and print processing. But he recognized words only up to a third grade level. Luckily, I was asking him to read short passages that didn't wear him down as he tried to decipher the text. But we both knew that what he would be required to read in high school would be too difficult, that he would continue to struggle as he had all along.

I gave him some tips for practicing his word recognition skills, including internet word games and flash cards, but he told me that he didn't need high school anyway. His father, he said, had taught him to be a master mechanic. He would be able to make all the money he needed one day, working with a skill he already possessed, one that didn't require a high school diploma. I talked to him about other benefits to continuing in school, the life skills he would learn along the way, the fun he would have participating in the social events that go along with high school.

"It'll be the time of your life," I told him, realizing all along that maybe it was the time of my life. I didn't struggle to read.

"I don't need it," he answered.

Yesterday, while driving in our school's community, I got behind a school bus. I slowed at the flashing lights and familiar arm as it stretched across the road. As I came to a stop, I recognized one former student after another hopping off those bus steps onto the grass and it hit me: this is a high school bus!

One by one, they walked by my car and waved at me. And then...the last one...with an ear-to-ear grin...Michael.

I waved excitedly (I wanted to jump out and hug him), and as I continued down the street I kept repeating one thought in my head:

That bus came from the high school. That means Michael's still there. And he's smiling.

Maybe he'll graduate one day after all. I can only hope.