Teaching and Learning

The Multidimensional Impact of School Climate

Guest post by Cheryl Spittler

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 has ushered in a new paradigm for student achievement that now includes nonacademic indictors in addition to measuring proficiency in math, English language arts, and English-language proficiency (for English-language learners), as well as high school graduation rates. These nonacademic indicators are aimed at providing a broader measure of student performance and include:  (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.

Fifty Years in the Making

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

At first glance it seemed like an unlikely place for an extended philosophical discussion of education. Then again perhaps it was the perfect setting for teachers, young and old, to gain an appreciation for the potential lifelong impact of their classrooms and consequently the heavy responsibility that possible outcome brings with it.

And to think it was supposed to be simply a 50-year high school reunion.

Oldies but goodies

For the sake of full disclosure I must explain that recently I was dragged by my best friend thousands of miles, kicking and screaming most of the journey, to a gathering of my high school class of 1964. For my buddy this event was just another in a long series of these get-togethers. Of course he had good reasons to relish these meetings—fifty years ago he had been the star of the state championship football team, steady date of the captain of the cheerleading squad and on his way to a scholarship to the University of Virginia. I, the owner of a significantly lower social profile during those same years, was far less motivated to revisit a world in which I perceived I had made scant impact.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was not a total outcast among the 200 in attendance and that my experiences in the classroom both as a student and teacher would somehow become center stage.

Time does not dull all memories

It was at breakfast on the Sunday after the final gathering and a group of six alums were gathered around a large round table. Richard, now a dentist in Lake Tahoe, posed an interesting question to the assembled group: “Which of your teachers was the most influential in your life?” Without hesitation I answered “My Junior English teacher John Harocopus,” then added, “he was my model in my career especially in terms of classroom management. He was young and not physically imposing but he was passionate about his subject and ran a wonderfully disciplined and demanding class.” I went on to explain that I later adapted many of his methods in my own classroom.

My friend, who in addition to his athletic talents was highly successful academically, quickly joined the conversation. “For me it was Col. Brose. He brought history alive for me and to this day he gave me a strong interest in the subject. He was a great teacher who brought the curriculum alive for everyone in the class.” A former star basketball player seated across the table nodded in agreement with this choice.

And so it went for fifteen minutes, six men all hovering around the age of 68 and five decades removed from public education vividly discussing the profound influence wielded by educators they had encountered when John Kennedy was President. In the midst of the conversation my wife, a retired Biology teacher, leaned over to me and whispered, “More than a little scary what a difference teachers can make. Every person in education should have to listen to something like this.” The proof of this assertion was clearly on display.

And on the flip side

During the course of the reunion not all of the memories were so positive. At the second reception a man approached me and introduced himself by saying, “I don’t know if you remember me but I’m Steve Alsop. We were in eleventh-grade U.S. History together.” Surprisingly once he had given me his name I did, indeed, remember him. “When I saw your name on the list of attendees,” he continued, “I couldn’t wait to ask you if you remembered the time you were asked the question about the British and Colonists in the Revolutionary War.”

My blank look indicated a total lack of recall of an event that occurred in 1962. “I’m afraid I don’t,” I said somewhat sheepishly.

A smile crossed his face. It was apparent that this incident was still an amazingly fresh memory. “So that crazy teacher of ours says to the class, ‘Given all of the circumstances entering into the war, which side had the advantage, the British or the Colonists?’” The grin widened. “Well, everyone was terrified that she would call on them and then she looked at you and said, ‘Stu Singer, what do you think?’ I’ll never forget how you gave a wonderful answer explaining all of the numerous factors favoring the British. It was a compelling argument, an extremely powerful argument. So after you had finished and most of the class was nodding in agreement she says, ‘Now that was very logical, but it just wasn’t the answer I was looking for.’ Steve shook his head and put his hand on my shoulder. “At that point you just looked back at me a few rows away and rolled your eyes. I will never forget that moment.”

While I had no such recollection the implication was clear—this hypocritical and bizarre response by a teacher had left a permanent and obviously negative impression on this individual. The question that went through my mind was “how many other people at this reunion have similar stories?”

During the course of the three days other teachers, some good others not so much, were placed under a similar half-century old microscope. The take-home message for this retired educator was clear. Fifty or more years after the classroom instruction had been completed the palpable impact on many of the students, positive and negative, remained.

It is as important lesson for educators in 2014 as it was in 1964.

Teachers are getting more Common Core training, but on 1/4 say students are prepared

According to Catherine Gewertz at Education Week, “teachers are getting an increasing amount of training to prepare for the common core, but that doesn’t always make them feel ready to teach the standards.

 

According to the article, a recently released study, “From Adoption to Practice: Teacher Perspectives on the Common Core,” shows that while far more teachers are attending common-core training, they are giving those sessions low marks for quality.

  • Professional Development and Training. In last year’s report, 71 percent of teachers said they had attended professional development or training for the common core. This year, that figure rose to 87 percent.
  • Teachers were far more critical of their training sessions in 2013 than they were in 2012, however. Two-thirds felt they were of high quality in 2012, but barely half said so in 2013.
  • Only 23 percent reported that the assessments had been a topic of professional development.
  • Far more common is training on the English/language arts standards; training on the math standards runs a distant second.
  • Their sense of preparedness, ranked on a scale from 1 (“not at all prepared”) to 5 (“very prepared”), was about the same in this year’s report as it was the previous year: just under half gave themselves 4s or 5s on that preparedness scale.
  • Only one-quarter said in this year’s report that their students were well prepared to master the standards, and 14 percent said their students were well prepared for the tests.
  • Teachers are unhappy with the lack of alignment between their instructional materials and the common core, a situation that’s stubbornly unchanged from the year before. Nearly six in 10 said their main curricular materials were not aligned to the new standards.
  • Teachers are pretty cynical about publishers’ claims that their materials are “common-core-aligned.” Fewer than four in 10 said they’d trust curriculum providers’ claims of alignment.
  • Only 18 percent classified themselves as “very familiar” with the math standards in the fall of 2012, but that number rose to 31 percent in the fall 2013 survey.

Source: blogs.edweek.org

Why was there “far more training on the English/language arts standards; training on the math standards runs a distant second?”

 

Literacy is now a “shared responsibility” across all content areas. This means that all secondary teachers are expected to integrate purposeful reading, writing, and discussion of complex text into their lessons. In reality, few teachers have received the training or support to carry out this formidable task, which will take several years of focused practice to reach an acceptable level of proficiency.

Although elementary teachers are much better prepared to teach literacy skills, they must increase the amount of informational text and do more argumentative/persuasive writing, which are significant changes.

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…)

Teacher Attendance and School Culture – Revisited

Note: This is an update of an article originally posted on June 3, 2014

“Culture eats strategies for breakfast.”–Peter Drucker

Great schools can be average in some areas, but great schools cannot have a glaring weakness and be considered great. Great schools find a way to solve the problems that stifle or debilitate good schools.

Increased accountability coupled with new, more rigorous standards and more challenging assessments place increased pressure on principals to improve classroom instruction. Maximizing instructional time is a key way to raise student achievement. Teacher absenteeism and the use of substitute teachers, which reduce instructional time, have long been problems faced by every school. Faced with budget shortfalls, many districts have resorted to removing teachers from classrooms during the school day in order to attend professional development sessions. Labor agreements have been structured in a way that encourages teacher absence. States have reduced the number of school days in a school year.

While principals often face district and state policies that actually encourage teacher absenteeism, principals can impact teacher attendance. Like every school problem, the long-term solution lies in the culture—attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, expectations, and relationships—of the school.

In Teacher Absence, Leading Indicators, and Trust, Raegen Miller made some important points regarding teacher attendance pointing to the need to look more closely at school culture:

  • If teachers’ presence in the classroom matters so much, shouldn’t we pay more attention to teachers’ absences?
  • Professional culture in a school can exert a strong influence over the leave-taking behavior of its teachers
  • Forty-five percent of the variation in teacher absence is between schools working under the same district and state parameters.
  • Paying attention to teacher absence gets at the professional culture in schools through the notion of trust, a universal human tension if ever there was one. In particular, theory and evidence point to trust between teachers and management as a moderator of teacher absences.

Teacher Attendance and Student Achievement

Here is the reality. When teachers are absent, students lose valuable instructional time. No matter how qualified they are, substitute teachers do not improve student achievement. “When I was absent I knew that my classes would regress no matter who was the substitute or how well I planned.” – Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

A recent study indicates that teacher attendance is an overlooked factor in improving student achievement. “Given the time and attention spent on school programs, new curriculum and strategies to strengthen teacher quality,” the report’s authors wrote, “we may be overlooking one of the most basic, solvable and cost effective reasons why schools may fail to make education progress.”

The study goes on to point out the following:

  • One in six teachers in some of the country’s largest public school districts are out of the classroom at least 18 days, or more than 10 percent of the time, for illness, personal reasons and professional development.
  • Overall teacher attendance rate is 94 percent.
  • Districts spend an average of $1,800 per teacher to cover absences each year.
  • No measurable relationship between teacher absence and the poverty levels of a school’s students
  • No difference in absentee rates among districts with policies meant to encourage attendance, such as paying teachers for unused sick time, and districts without those incentives.

A study by the Columbia University School of Business offers some interesting findings:

  • Substitutes are worse than the regular teacher. “In teaching, the person with whom an absent teacher is replaced is clearly worse in a substantial way. Substitute teachers are less likely to be highly skilled, since otherwise the chances are she would already have found a full-time teaching job. Even if a substitute is highly skilled, there is a start-up cost: just because someone has a degree in math doesn’t mean she can hop in and be a great sixth-grade math teacher.”
  • Students do worse in years when their teacher takes more time off.
  • “When a teacher takes an extended medical leave, it causes a drop in math and English test scores on par with putting a rookie teacher in the place of a teacher with four years of experience for an entire year.”
  • Shorter absences are more detrimental than longer ones. Ten one-day absences over the course of a year were found to lower student scores more than when a teacher missed two consecutive weeks.
  • Incentives for teachers to not be absent don’t work.

A Short Success Story

I received a call from the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. He was calling to arrange a time for his staff to visit our high school. Unbeknownst to me, our school had the highest rate of substitute coverage for absent teachers in a district of approximately 270 schools.

In our school, when a teacher was absent, we had substitute coverage approximately 96% of the time. I was shocked to learn that other high schools averaged 65% coverage. In addition, our school had the highest teacher attendance among the almost 30 high schools in the district.

This came as a shock to the district staff because (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.

School leaders, math anxiety is negatively impacting the math achievement of your students!

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” – Henry Ford

With the adoption of new, more rigorous college and career ready math standards principals and math teachers across the country are putting in a lot of time and effort to not only understand the new standards, but to change the way we teach mathematics.

The primary implication of these new standards is that the current predominant practice of didactic-only instruction, with some guided practice of rote procedures, must give way to more well-rounded approaches to instruction that give students the opportunity to make deep sense of the content they are to learn and the practices in which they are expected to engage.

In other words, instead of simply working problems, students are expected to apply math concepts to unique situations and to explain their thinking—in writing—using higher-order thinking skills. According to veteran math teachers, the emphasis on application to real-world problem solving “will completely change the way math is taught.”

However, new evidence suggests that the monumental effort required to change math instruction may pale in comparison to what will be needed to change another invisible yet formidable barrier to improved student math achievement—an irrational, culturally induced fear of mathematics that is further complicated by our “number naming system” (Gladwell, 2008, p. 229) and the widespread overreliance on the use of calculators for simple mathematical computations that students should know how to do mentally.

Notice to school leaders: Math anxiety among students has been found to be widespread and tied to poor math skills. “Math anxiety means, unsurprisingly, that one feels tension and apprehension in situations involving math.”

While we have always known that some students had doubts about their ability to do math, I had no idea to what extent those attitudes permeated our schools. Here is what researcher and author Dan Willingham has discovered:

  • “Half of all first and second graders feel moderate to severe math anxiety.”
  • “Many children do not outgrow math anxiety.” Note: In other words, math anxiety does not go away, and, from my experience as a principal, may actually get worse and infect more students as they advance through the grades.
  • “25 percent of students attending a four-year college suffer from math anxiety.”
  • “Among community college students, the figure is 80 percent.”

After thinking about this research from the perspective of a high school principal, I would assume that at least half of my students were experiencing at least some level of math anxiety that was significantly diminishing their math performance. Most if not all of these students have the ability to do much better, but their mental and emotional state is detracting from their capacity to learn.

Distressingly, we could successfully change math instruction over the next five years and still not see significant improvements in student achievement. Overlooking student math anxiety may guarantee that all our hard work would go for naught.

stuObviously, this is a huge obstacle for students, teachers and schools. However, I know from experience that this can be changed. As Math Department Chair and author, Stu Singer, describes in The Algebra Miracle, our school completely turned around our math achievement. However, we did it the hard way—through trial and error learning. But if you are willing to learn from other peoples’ experience, our arduous, decade-long trial-and-error learning experience can pave the way for a much less strenuous pathway to success for your students.

Stu and I did not have benefits of researchers like Dan Willingham, Alan Schoenfeld, or Carol Dweck. We had to use logic, trust our intuition, and sometime rely on good old-fashioned blind faith. We made mistakes.

Today, I can confidently say that if I were starting all over again knowing what I now know, I would do things the same way—collaboratively and collectively with one exception. I would now be much more intentional in my focus on changing the expectations of our teachers and students.

By chance, Stu and I had a similar set of beliefs when it came to students and learning. We believed that work and effort determined ability. We were also willing to take risks and try new things. We treated our school like a math laboratory, we believed that given time and support, all students could learn at high levels, and our students proved that they could.

“School leaders and teachers need to create schools and classroom environments in which error is welcome as a learning opportunity, in which discarding incorrect knowledge and understandings is welcomed, and in which teachers can feel safe to learn, re-learn, and explore knowledge and understanding.” (Hattie, 2012)

Raising math achievement required a lot more than believing in the benefits of hard work and effort. We had to change our attitudes and expectations. We had to change the way we approached math instruction. Finally, we had to change the expectations of our students.

We had a plan and we were willing to work that plan over the span of a decade. Every decision we made was based on whether or not what we were considering would help our students learn, and we said “no” as often as we said “yes.”

We had a comprehensive short and long-term plan to improve student math achievement. What is your plan?

Next: A plan to relieve math anxiety and raise student math achievement.

Teacher Attendance and School Culture

“Culture eats strategies for breakfast.”–Peter Drucker

Great schools can be average in some areas, but great schools cannot have a glaring weakness and be considered great. Great schools find a way to solve the problems that stifle or debilitate good schools. Teacher absenteeism and substitute teachers are problems faced by every school. Like every school, the solution is in the culture—attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, expectations, and relationships—of the entire school.

Here is the reality. When teachers are absent, students lose valuable instructional time. No matter how qualified they are, substitute teachers do not improve student achievement. “When I was absent I knew that my classes would regress no matter who was the substitute or how well I planned.” – Stuart A. Singer

A new study indicates that teacher attendance is an overlooked factor in improving student achievement. “Given the time and attention spent on school programs, new curriculum and strategies to strengthen teacher quality,” the report’s authors wrote, “we may be overlooking one of the most basic, solvable and cost effective reasons why schools may fail to make education progress.”

The study goes on to point out the following:

  • One in six teachers in some of the country’s largest public school districts are out of the classroom at least 18 days, or more than 10 percent of the time, for illness, personal reasons and professional development.
  • Overall teacher attendance rate is 94 percent.
  • Districts spend an average of $1,800 per teacher to cover absences each year.
  • No measurable relationship between teacher absence and the poverty levels of a school’s students
  • No difference in absentee rates among districts with policies meant to encourage attendance, such as paying teachers for unused sick time, and districts without those incentives.

A study by the Columbia University School of Business offers some interesting findings:

  • Substitutes are worse than the regular teacher. “In teaching, the person with whom (more…)

Common Core: Delaying Sanctions is not Delaying Implementation

States like Florida and Louisiana are not delaying Common Core implementation; they are delaying using test scores to rate schools and to punish teachers and principals.

We know that students thrive in a school with a focused school wide literacy initiative–purposeful reading, writing, and discussion in every classroom and across all content areas. By my count only about 1% of all high schools have or are attempting such a program, which, just so happens to be a foundation of successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards. A lack of content-based literacy instruction is not due to a lack of desire on the part of schools, but to a lack of training and practice on the part of the teachers and school leaders. It takes years to build teacher capacity to integrate literacy effectively into their content areas. Keep in mind that literacy is but one of many school wide instructional shifts that the CCSS are bringing to schools.

Let’s be clear. States are proceeding with CCSS implementation but delaying levying accountability measures while schools are building teacher capacity.

In fairness, neither consortium will have a fully operational assessment system–pre-assessments, mid-year assessments, performance assessments, summative assessments, and timely feedback to schools–for at least two more years. Schools will receive no feedback from the field tests. How can we possible hold schools and teachers accountable for assessments when they have no way of receiving any feedback and no way to predict student success until after the summative assessments administered in May 2015?

It is almost like asking schools to hit a moving target while blindfolded. A fair system would allow for at least two years of testing and feedback under a fully operational assessment system before holding teachers, principals, and schools accountable.