Monthly Archives: January 2011

Common Core Standards 4: Experts We Must Become

This afternoon at Harlem Link we’re diving in to the Common Core standards and starting the long process of integrating them into our 2011-12 curriculum maps.  At the same time, we’ll begin our mapping protocol by reminding ourselves to reflect on the year as we go, making notes on the maps and being prepared to repeat “what works” and change “what needs to be changed” for the coming school year.  We’ll spend less time on the maps this afternoon, and more time getting to know Common Core.  This is a first date, but it’s also the first date of an arranged marriage, so we better get cozy and fast.

I imagine that after our exercise of cross-walking Common Core with our NYS-based Harlem Link Learning Standards, I along with our faculty will have a better understanding of what Common Core is trying to accomplish.  It’s been a hard and sometimes confusing road getting to know the content of the standards.

For example, I was a bit mystified and even angry when I discovered recently that the word “pattern” does not even appear in the math content standards from kindergarten through second grade!  (We have a whole section of our school learning standards in math devoted to pattern, in each grade from K to 5.)  I was even angrier when I saw that New York State added in a pattern standard to the new Pre-Kindergarten standards it added to Common Core.  ‘They [meaning NYSED] agreed, dammit!’ I though.  ‘If they could change the Grades K-2 standards and explicitly add in patterns, they would!  What’s going on?’

I was brought back down to earth by Joan, the wise hand who has been our contracted staff developer through Math in the City since 2006.  “They are concentrating on number,” she reassured me, “and you will find pattern in the number system.”  I also reminded myself that pattern is featured in at least one of the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice, which are the same in all the grades and serve as an almost metaphysical companion to the content standards.  The exact language in the Common Core is, “Look for and make use of structure.”

‘Oh my gosh,’ I thought, ‘teachers really have to become expert in the field in order to make good decisions about how to do this well.’  Intimidating?  Yes – but with our steadfast choice as a school to create our own curriculum and write our own standards, and to implement them with an inefficient, messy and demanding pedagogy that is based on student inquiry, choice and independence rather than the robotic recitation of a script, how could we do it any other way?

UPDATE: The session went well, inasmuch as we met the objective and embarked on the work.  See photos for faculty members in action and one of the key tasks of crosswalking the Harlem Link learning standards with Common Core.  The protocol we followed helped demystify the standards and get teachers to understand the structure and the details of their grade’s standards quickly.  We generally found the Common Core standards to be a step up in terms of rigor, which is both daunting and exciting. 


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Make Teacher Peer Evaluation Happen

Forget the fuss.  Let’s put in the hard work required to involve teachers in evaluating each other.

As is often the case when complex topics are debated in the media, creative thinking is a casualty in the current hubbub over whether school districts should publicly release teacher value-added scores.  Reformers on both “sides” are digging their trenches so fast and sternly that they are missing the busy bees on the surface spreading good ideas like pollen.

Deputy Chancellor John White, even while staunchly defending the controversial metric, said much the same himself in a letter to the New York Times published on New Year’s Day: “It would be unfair to claim that any one statistic, such as newly developed ‘value-added data,’ should stand alone as definitive evidence of a teacher’s effectiveness.”

One such idea is including a peer component in teacher evaluations.  This practice has been tried in some districts, most notably in Ohio, in some form since the 1980s.  But the fact that it requires a nuanced and locally specific structure – a strength that is a counterbalance to value-added data – makes it difficult if not impossible to bring to scale.  For this reason and others, I’m doubtful that the idea has been given a fair shake.

In other professions, peer evaluation is the norm, along with feedback from one’s superiors and direct reports.  Teachers deserve “360-degree feedback”; they occupy one of the most complex, demanding professions around.  Supervisors should have at their disposal more data and more diverse sources of information.

I know from experience that as a teacher surrounded by one’s four walls and focused so tightly on one’s classroom, it’s hard to see the big picture of what a school community needs as a whole.  But teachers have valid opinions about the practices of their colleagues that simply can’t be ignored, opinions that are sometimes more pointed and helpful than those of administrators. 

At our school, building the boat as we’ve been sailing for the past five years, we have not yet incorporated peer feedback into teacher evaluation in a meaningful way.  But we have laid the groundwork with teacher leadership through school walkthroughs, teacher-facilitated lesson study observations and teacher coaching. 

We already trust our teachers to give meaningful feedback.  For example, teachers are heavily involved in the hiring process.  Our teachers observe and debrief teacher candidates’ demonstration lessons, and recommend student teachers for a temporary or permanent assignment when a vacancy arises.  Anecdotal evidence tells me that while teacher leadership opportunities (outside of the traditional, Peter Principle-plagued ladder climbing to Assistant Principal, Principal, district office, etc.) are scattershot, but these feedback opportunities in the hiring process are more commonplace.  Should teachers’ opinions stop counting once a colleague signs on the dotted line?

Some critics of this idea – especially those stumbling over the sins of a toxic work environment – would question teachers’ willingness to criticize their colleagues when necessary.  After all, why wouldn’t a teacher concerned about protecting his or her own hide take it easy on a colleague in exchange for the same treatment back?  One clear answer is that a strong process with purposeful layers of feedback and oversight will prevent such an indulgence.

A better answer is that as constant learners, committed teachers are their own harshest critics—and when relationships with families and students are involved, that value extends to colleagues.  Those who work hard and take pride in their students’ success, who have strong bonds throughout the school community and are focused on children, will not stand for a teacher in the next grade faltering and ruining their hard work.  By the same token, imagine the motivation to help a teacher in a lower grade get it right when the evaluator will be teaching the affected students in only a few months! 

Finally, if folks aren’t willing to be honest when it comes to student results, then the school community has bigger problems than incompetence.  In other words, a modicum of two-way trust is required for this process to work.  But rather than an obstacle, that’s another reason why fretting over value-added data is beside the point; without a supportive, trusting environment, it’s a fool’s errand to evaluate teachers anyway.

This post also appears at the Bank Street Alumni Blog.

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