Teacher Leader

Cultivating Strong Teacher Leaders

Guest post by Marianna Valdez and Tisha White

New Leaders has been training and supporting principals of high-need schools for more than 15 years. From this experience, we have learned that principals who achieve dramatic gains at their schools virtually never lead alone. Our most successful principals unfailingly encourage and cultivate leadership among their teachers so that the burdens and rewards of conceptualizing and carrying out instructional improvement efforts are shared.

There is growing recognition that fostering teacher leadership is key to accelerating school improvement. (more…)

The Real Problem with Teacher Evaluation

by Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

The title of a recent post on the Principal Difference site asked “Teacher Evaluations: Are Principals reluctant to issue low ratings?” This question reflects a painful reality. Placing the responsibility for teacher evaluation squarely on the shoulders of a school’s administrative staff frequently results in inaccurate and often incomplete assessments. These shortcomings are not a reflection on the competence of the administrators. Also somewhat irrelevant is whether these appraisals are unrealistically high or low. What is critical is that teacher evaluations too often fail to reflect with precision an educator’s classroom performance.

Ironically, the solution is simple but will require a changing mindset.

The wrong people for the job

The task of running a school is full time and then some. Asking Assistant Principals to be the primary evaluators of teachers is not fair to either party. Here is a question whose answer may explain the dilemma—how many observations and/or follow up meetings have been postponed because of a school emergency? An honest answer reveals the rank of teacher evaluations on the priority lists of the vast majority of school administrators. It is not that there is a lack of appreciation of teacher evaluation. It is simply the fact that a food fight in the cafeteria requires immediate attention and that there are only so many hours even in an extended work day.

It is time for educational assessments to be the purview of professional evaluators. School districts need to hire, train and employ a cadre of carefully selected individuals, whose sole job is observing, assisting and evaluating instructional personnel. They would work in multiple schools, focusing primarily on academic areas in which they are fluent.

The advantages of such an approach would be numerous.

  • A broader viewpoint. Observing Algebra 1 teachers at five different high schools gives a vastly superior sense of overall quality than watching five in the same department who may be sharing instructional materials. As previously mentioned an additional positive of this plan would be that observers would be better equipped to understand the material being taught. This would resolve the problem faced by so many APs—evaluating staff employed in multiple departments.
  • A more impersonal analysis. School personnel whether in the administrative wing or the English hall, develop relationships, good and bad, as a result of constant interactions. People who are not affiliated with a school would avoid such complications.
  • Evaluation is job one. The typical distractions and interruptions of the AP day are eliminated when an individual’s sole responsibility is to assess educators. The finished product would reflect this singular focus.

The best way to ensure that the most productive teachers remain in the classroom is to develop assessments that determine these individuals and help them to refine and improve their skills. The employment of professionals to conduct these evaluations would be the first step in that critical growth.

Upping the Price of Teacher Absenteeism

By Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

In a recent post, Mel Riddile explained in great detail one of the primary reasons for the academic success of the students at our school—low teacher absenteeism. The conclusion of his post accurately summarized the overall plan:

“We trusted our teachers and treated them like the professionals they were. They trusted us and cared about their students and fellow teachers. They took ownership of the problem and the solution. Our teachers didn’t feel as though they needed to sneak around or feel guilty because they were absent. Many of the substitutes developed a loyalty to the school and would only sub for us. They felt wanted and appreciated. In this scenario everyone wins. We had the lowest teacher absence rate and the highest percentage of class coverage by substitutes and the best pool of quality substitute teachers in our entire school district. Most importantly, we faced a challenge together and we solved another problem by trusting each other and working together.”

The problems inherent in teacher absenteeism are obvious. It is common knowledge that any time a student misses a class it has a highly negative impact on their academic progress. A classroom without its regular teacher is the equivalent of twenty-five students losing a day of instruction multiplied by every period in that day. In addition, as Dr. Riddle points out, the costs in teacher coverage and potential additional administrative discipline issues increases the price exponentially.

The view from the classroom

In his post Dr. Riddile listed a number of important steps that resulted in lowering teacher absenteeism. But there was one that was the most important from the perspective of the classroom instructor: (more…)

Be Careful How You Imitate

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle and a forty-year veteran math teacher.

We are a culture of copycats. If a new offensive scheme works in the National Football League, one year later ten other teams are using it with wildly varying degrees of success. When ridiculously low-slung pants became fashionable, too many folks with the entirely wrong physical silhouette grabbed a pair. Madonna gave us Lady Gaga who lead to Molly Cyrus. No further explanation is necessary.

A tale of two double-blocks

Such blind imitation in math education can be equally perilous.

Mel Riddile recently sent me two articles discussing the success and failure of double-block math programs. The first told of research which demonstrated the profoundly positive effects of having ninth graders utilize two periods for the study of Algebra 1. This is, of course, no surprise to me since I have written a book documenting a decade of improved student academic performance based on the utilization of that course.

The second post was considerably more disturbing. It chronicled a school district’s implementation of a double-block sixth grade math program. The thrust of the article was that such a plan was a waste of a student’s valuable class time.

“Doubling up on math classes for a year may help middle school students in the short term, but the benefits of doing so depreciate over time—and are likely not worth the price of missing out on instruction in other subjects, according to a new study published by Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis.

“At the end of the year, students with double math scored substantially higher than their peers who took just one math class. However, a year after returning to the traditional schedule with one math class, those gains were about half as large. Two years into a regular schedule, that difference was down to about one-third of the original gain.

“And when those students reached high school, the gains all but diminished completely.”

The problem with this program (and the Stanford analysis) is that it is predicated on the notion that a single inoculation of a double-block course can fix all of a student’s difficulties in mathematics. If only it were that simple.

Some problems require long-term fixes

The mistake inherent in this sixth-grade approach is not in the formulation of the double-block class. As demonstrated by the Stanford research, the problem was in the subsequent classes. These previously low performing students were demonstrating significant gains for one year and moderately good improvement for two. But after three years back in the regular program these gains had been lost. Such a regression should not have been surprising. And sadly, it was avoidable.

A one-year double-block “Band-Aid” can be highly effective for some students but definitely not for all. Successful math achievement for at-risk students requires constant monitoring and adjustments.

Our program consisted of far more than a single ninth-grade course. It was based on careful study of statistics and teacher input. As a result of those factors a portion of the double-block Algebra 1 students did move comfortably into regular Geometry and Algebra 2 classes. However, many did not. For those individuals more time was required and a double-block Algebra 2 class was created. Several years of data collection clearly indicated the wisdom of this adjustment. In an interesting twist, a two-year Geometry program was determined to be of little value and was quickly eliminated.

The bottom line in such a discussion is this: the development of a math program requires careful consideration of adjustments at all levels. An isolated year of remediation is often inadequate for many students.

Connecting the Educational Dots

By Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

Random and contradictory thoughts can sometimes coalesce into a cogent answer. Here are a few to consider:

The breathtaking rise in student debt has led many to believe that college degrees may not be worth the time and expense.

The stubbornly high unemployment rate juxtaposed with the reality that there are also millions of unfilled jobs leads many to wonder how the two numbers can concurrently exist.

Dropout rates decline but still translate into nearly one of every four American students.

According to the U.S. Department of Education only 18% of Community College students receive an Associate’s Degree within three years. One in four (25%) of Community College students enroll in a four-year college within five years. Overall less than 15% will ever attain a diploma.

And the drumbeat goes on and on and on…

Making sense out of nonsense

While no one has found the magic potion for ensuring academic success, it is apparent that there are plenty of persistent problems in education that simply refuse to go away. It would appear that much of the problem resides in the refusal of policy-makers to look at new perspectives such as lengthening both the school day and calendar. But there are other ways to address the aforementioned concerns.

Despite some arguments to the contrary based on the available data in 2014 possessing a college diploma is of significant value. According to Labor Department statistics in December, 2013, the rate of unemployment for high school dropouts was 9.8%, those with a high school diploma 7.1%, anyone with some college 6.1% and those with at least a four-year degree 3.3%. Of course in addition to the disproportionate joblessness tremendous (and parallel) differences in average earnings exist among these groups. With all of those figures in mind there is one other very troubling pair of numbers.

In the United States the high school dropout rate is consistently at about 25% and the percentage of Americans with a college degree has ranged from 25% to 33% over the past 20 years. When taken together that leaves nearly half of all U.S. citizens somewhere in between. Unfortunately too often that large group is ignored as the two major policy goals of education continue to be lowering the dropout ra

A more realistic approach

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

The critics of the Common Core are wrong. While the CCSS may be far from perfect, I am reminded of a quote from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi.

“If you strive for perfection you will never reach that goal but you may pass excellence along the way”.

If the emphasis on the real world outcomes found in the Common Core could be combined with changes in education to better meet the demands of employment in the 21st Century, the needs of all students could be addressed. These changes would include placing a greater emphasis for providing courses that will directly pertain to actual job descriptions. Preparing everyone for college sounds wonderful but when the numbers clearly indicate that two of every three students will never receive a degree, it suddenly seems less effective. Making the situation direr is the reality that, of those not earning a degree, two in five will not graduate from high school.

Turning academic success in a better direction will require an adjustment in attitude. The goal of earning a four-year college degree must remain an excellent outcome but it cannot be the only positive one. Currently pushing individuals to learn a real-world skill such as plumbing, construction, computer hardware and retail marketing only occurs after attaining a college degree has proven impossible. Instead these options need to be available and accepted early in high school.

Placing increased value in higher standards will potentially result in numerous positive outcomes. It will produce more individuals with viable skills upon graduation. It will also lead these students to refine those talents in far less expensive two-year community colleges. And perhaps it may also encourage many potential dropouts to remain in school.


Bad Weather is Bad News

By Stuart A. Singer, The Teacher Leader

Her one word response said it all.

I had just returned from a district math department chair meeting and was relating the angst of the County Math Coordinator. He had told us, “I am very troubled by the decline in the Algebra 1 SOL (state barrier exams) scores last year. What was particularly troubling was the fact that it was so uniformly across the board. Everyone’s were down”. The intensity of his concern indicated that this issue was being seriously discussed at levels well above his in the school hierarchy.

That afternoon I raised that question with my best Algebra 1 teacher. Her succinct answer was “snow”. The previous winter had been brutal with snow days and delayed openings piling up at an unprecedented rate. She then elaborated. “Here’s how I can quantify that answer. I always reserved the two weeks prior to the testing for review. That review is crucial for my students especially at that level. Last year I finished the curriculum on the day before the exams. The review period was gone due to the snow days and the scores suffered as a result.”

No one messes with Mother Nature

That awful winter has been replicated in 2013-14. All across the country snow and ice has played havoc with school calendars. In my old district ten days have been cancelled and more than a half-dozen have been truncated. The damage that such disruptions cause is far more than just a finite number of missed classes. One of the most important components of a successful classroom is momentum and nothing stops that more than weather problems. As an illustration due to snow and ice students at my former school had a five-day weekend followed by two days of classes followed by a four-day weekend caused by teacher workdays. After three more days of school another five day weekend followed because of the white stuff. The official count was five snow days (one of the days was a holiday) but the reality count of the losses would be more like three weeks.

The district’s response has been as follows. The President’s Day holiday in February and a teacher workday in April are now school days. Two additional days will be added to the end of the year in June. No other classes will be rescheduled. While on paper such a plan may sound bad, in the classroom it is much worse. Two school days in June (adding to the insanity is that they are a Monday and Tuesday) will do nothing to improve test scores in May. The earlier make-up days will suffer as well. They were originally parts of three-day weekends for students and many families will have planned to use them for travel, doctor appointments, etc. Absenteeism will be disproportionally higher for both students and staff.

And it is inevitable that next year someone will be asking the question as to why scores have gone down.

There are few good options

It would be nice to be able to list some suggestions that would make this dilemma disappear. Years ago (that should probably read “decades ago”) Spring Break and even Saturdays were utilized for making up snow days. Those options do not happen much anymore. Plus local school administrators have no real-time input into make-up day decisions. But there are steps that can be taken to recognize and help mitigate the problems.

Share strategies. Have teachers meet to brainstorm ways to cover the necessary material in reduced time. Often half of the solution is the mere recognition that there is a problem and the other half is to find creative ways to deal with them.

Eliminate disruptions. Any activity that will take students out of classrooms needs to be cancelled. Pep rallies, most field trips, senior pictures, etc. are now a luxury that cannot be sustained. Consider delaying the start of after-school activities to allow more time for extra help sessions. If the student body is given an explanation of why this is being done, they may be more likely to take advantage of it.

Be proactive. While this winter may be an anomaly, weather disruptions will occur in the future. School administrators need to share with district policy makers that the current system is hurting student academic performance. Do not wait until the scores are in to answer the questions as to why they dropped. Let the public know while the memory of all of those missed days is still fresh that end-of-course, AP and IB exams will all suffer when huge expanses of class time is lost and not recovered.

Less than great solutions are better than none.

Stop Patching Education!

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle and a forty-year veteran math teacher.

This is the first in a series of rants from a frustrated educational writer.

At the intersection of politics and education the refrain is always the same.

In a recent flurry of solutions for the plight of education in America the potential answers are basically a summary of the usual suspects. The proposals include increasing school choice, incorporating more charter schools, allowing students to “backpack” their federal funding and, of course, more accountability through testing.

The problem with these cures and others of a similar ilk is that they do not address the fundamental problem—creating an educational environment which will produce more appropriate learning and graduates prepared for succeeding in the world of 2020.

The numbers tell the story

The biggest problem in education is waste. This form of mismanagement is not, however, related to the poor utilization of funding. Rather it is the incredible mismanagement of educational time. Foremost among these misguided actions is the totally outdated agrarian calendar that is at the center of virtually every school system in the country.

When looked at from a mathematical viewpoint the manner in which children in the United States attend school is appalling. The vast majority of academic calendars include 180 or so days of instruction spread over a 43-week period. Even a relatively small adjustment to that approach could create significant changes in potential learning. If that number were increased by a very modest 20 days (11%), the additional learning time would be remarkable. Twenty days over eleven years translates into (more…)

Is there a place for boredom in education?

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

In 2014 does all learning have to be entertaining?

In a recent Slate article Konstantin Kakaes, a Schwartz Scholar at the New America Foundation, argues that is not necessarily the case. In response to an editorial in the New York Times Mr. Kakaes, strikes a blow for an occasional dose of tedium in math education:

“This weekend, after American students failed to impress on the international PISA exams, the New York Times editorial board ran a piece asking ‘Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?’ By ‘boring,’ the Times apparently means any math that is substantive in a traditional sense: ‘arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, trigonometry.’ So let me answer the question: Anyone with an understanding of what math actually is believes it must sometimes be boring.”

Mr. Kakaes does agree with the Times on one point—there is a severe crisis in math education in this country. Unfortunately, he includes that newspaper’s editorial board among the mathematically challenged.

“(The NYT editorial writers) do not appear to understand what mathematics is, how it is used in the sciences, or why it is important. The Times’ solution, ‘a more flexible curriculum,’ is euphemism for (more…)

PISA Results: Good, Bad and Ugly

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

The latest numbers from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) have been released and not surprisingly the handwringing began before the ink was dry. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used the word “stagnation” in his appraisal. Others were even more pessimistic. On the surface the performance of the U.S. students was dreadful. There was little joy to be found in being ranked 20th in reading, 23rd in Science and 30th in mathematics among the sixty-five tested groups. All of these results were either the same or worse than the previous test three years ago.

Fortunately a more careful analysis of the statistics revealed that some of the worst case scenario conclusions were misleading.

The scoring was hardly comparing apples to apples. In many cases it was not even apples to oranges. Contrasting the U.S. scores to those coming out of Singapore which had the best in the world was more like apples to aged Kobe beef. Singapore is a city not an entire country. Making the outcome even murkier was that low performing students and their families are often sent elsewhere in order to maintain the city’s lofty status. It was the equivalent of taking the highest scoring school district in America and claiming it represented the achievement level in all fifty states.

The bad

But before anyone begins chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” the numbers coming out of PISA are worthy of deep concern. When Latvia and Viet Nam rank above you in measurements of academic prowess there is little room for rejoicing. The United States spends huge sums of money on education in comparison to many of the countries that performed (more…)