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What I’ll Be Reading During Winter Break…

Pablo Delcan/New York Times

Sometimes I need to take a break from reading about education during my vacation time. But right now, there are too many good edu-books out there. Here are two books I’ll be reading over my winter break (after I finish Mindy Kaling’s book, that is):

1) “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone)” by Elizabeth Green. In this book, Green explores how teachers are trained in America, and what we can learn from educators who are pioneering new ways to train teachers. If you read “Why Americans Stink at Math” in the New York Times a few months back, you’ll be familiar with some of her arguments. Read more about her book here.

2) “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” by Dana Goldstein. I think the title is pretty self-explanatory. I’m interested to learn how Goldstein thinks teachers became so “embattled,” and what we can do to make the profession less so. Read more about the book here.

What will you be reading over your upcoming break(s)?

Educators: How Will Wilson’s 5-Year Plan Affect Teaching Policy in Oakland Schools?

Superintendent Wilson released his updated plan, “A Pathway to Excellence, 2015-2020”, at the last OUSD School Board meeting. The plan focuses on three primary areas: Effective Talent Programs, an Accountable School District, and Quality Community Schools.

Wilson writes, “Someday, somewhere in America, a school district and a city will fulfill its obligation to its children. Why not now? Why not Oakland?”

To watch the video of Wilson unveiling his plan at the school board meeting, click here.

To read Wilson’s gripping reflections on the recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York, and their implications for our work here in Oakland, click here.

What are your reactions to the plan and what implications do you think Wilson’s plan might have on teaching policy and practice in Oakland schools? Is this the plan that will move Oakland from a community with great potential to one that has exceeded it?

We’d love to hear from you!

What Happens When We Look At What IS Working?

cartoon6393The coolest thing about teaching is that there is no one right way to do it. There are some essential components of the craft that we know work, but the innovative strategies teachers use to incorporate those essentials can vary in beautiful, creative, stylistic ways. When teachers have the opportunities to learn from each other what works for them, teacher expertise expands and student learning improves.

The same can be argued for school improvement and district policies. The GO Teacher Policy Fellows had the opportunity recently to sit down with Superintendent Antwan Wilson to discuss the state and future of Oakland schools. While we had many questions for him, he had only one for us: What is working at your school site? I appreciated the focus on our successes and decided to document some of the responses.

Here is what some of our teacher policy fellows have to say about what is working at their district and charter schools:

“The most impressive efforts at my school include daily collaboration time for teachers that is built into the schedule and expected by the administration, peer observations and evaluations, student evaluations of teachers twice a year, a professional development plan informed by teacher input, college and career pathways, full time college and career counselors (who also teach classes), a flexible and accessible administrative team, block scheduling, active student leadership, and a commitment to relevant and engaging curriculum that is all open-sourced…just to name a few!” Rachel Friedman, Instructional Lead, Civicorps

“The freedom to hire people who fit the school culture and agree with the school’s approach is one major policy that works at my school site. In conjunction with this, the school leadership has established a culture of kindness where teachers are given the benefit of the doubt. For example, if a student pushes a desk over, the school leadership helps the teacher respond appropriately and doesn’t blame the teacher for the incident. In general, if I make a mistake (which inevitably I will), I don’t feel worried that I’m going to be yelled at or punished. I know I will receive help and support instead. Teachers are also supported in several specific ways: with release time for planning and collaboration; with professional development time that allows for structured work time that aligns with the school’s goals; with administrators who offer help and ask, “What do you need?”; and with good curriculum resources paired with professional development that helps me use the resources more effectively.” –Jennie Herriot-Hatfield, Think College Now Elementary School

“This year my site has a new, first year principal. She has a clear vision – that all students can learn and that our school will make sure all learners are successful academically and socially/emotionally. In terms of making this happen, teachers have been given one 50 min. a week collaboration prep. All teachers are eager to collaborate and work well with their grade level team. There are 5 special education classes that serve students with autism, so I suggested that we form a PLC that meets once a month to modify/measure the school goals for our students. The principal is very open to building teacher leadership capacity, which has been great in terms of making sure that all teachers are using their strengths.” –Caitlin Healey, Emerson Elementary

“We created a ‘Pillar’ system, with five pillars.  Each pillar ran one portion of the PD for the month.  Every teacher was required to be on a Pillar and we had built in time in the school month to plan the upcoming PD.  The pillars were: accountability and systems, curriculum and instruction, building school capacity, intervention and culture and climate.” –Lacy Lefkowitz, Formerly at Claremont Middle School

 “Our staff is intentional in working together. While much of the staff has experience, the majority are new hires to our site this year. We seem to have started the year with a mindset of collegiality and camaraderie which has served us well to communicate openly and often.” -Cori Belew, North Oakland Community Charter School

 “The administration and support staff are incredibly strong. It is so clear that everyone on campus cares about our students, teachers, and families. Our principal and other staff members put in an incredible amount of work to make teachers’ jobs more manageable (by providing planning time, reducing paperwork, and supporting class needs) while continuously working to ensure students and families feel connected to the school. Our administration also collects and reviews feedback forms after every PD or school-wide event in an effort to encourage teacher and staff voice and to continuously grow and improve as a school.” –Emma Coufal, Think College Now Elementary School

We’d love to hear from you! What is working at your school site? What strategies from those listed here might you bring back to your school leadership and why?

How a teacher is hired can influence how much collegial support she will find on entry

As a fourth year teacher in Oakland, I have gone through the hiring process in OUSD twice. Each experience was profoundly different from the other and did in fact influence the collegial support I encountered. I came to OUSD through Teach for America. As an incoming teacher, it was TFA’s job to “place” me at a school site. They worked with the district and sent my resume to different schools. I was then contacted by a school principal who conducted a brief phone interview with me.

After the phone interview I completed a Skype interview with a TSA to assess my command of Spanish (as I was being interviewed for a bilingual position). Soon after I was offered the job. No other teachers or staff members participated in my interview or hiring process. When I began my job I found that the collegial support was lacking. My colleagues seemed distant and in a way, distrustful, of me- and I believe they had every right to be wary.

They knew nothing of my background or credentials, had no say in hiring me, and were probably doubtful that I would stay past my two-year TFA commitment. It took almost a year to develop relationships with a majority of the staff and even then the environment was not a particularly collaborative or supportive one for me.

After three years at my initial school site I made the choice to seek out a different position. I researched and spoke with other educators in the district to learn about schools that could be a good fit for me professionally. I found schools that interested me and proceeded through their application processes. For my current position, I began by completing an online application and touring the school. Then I was invited to teach a 30-minute model lesson in which I was observed by both administration and teachers on the hiring committee. After the lesson, I participated in an interview conducted by a panel of administrators and teachers, who took turns asking me questions designed to determine whether I would be a good fit for their school community. When I was offered a position at the school, I was immediately put in contact with the school literacy coach and my future grade-level partner to begin getting to know each other and making plans for the upcoming school year. Prior to the start of the school year I was given a new teacher orientation to the school and participated in staff PD, planning, and an overnight retreat. I felt welcomed from the moment I stepped on the campus and I knew that I was part of a team that valued my presence. I felt excited and inspired to begin the work as part of a collaborative and caring group of educators.

Teaching can be incredibly challenging and emotionally draining. Having a supportive staff culture is so important to develop sustainability in our profession. In order to create the type of collaborative, supportive, and collegial environment that encourages and allows for teachers to stay in teaching I believe it is crucial for teachers to choose where they teach and for current staff members to have a strong say in who is hired to join their team.

STANFORD HOLLYHOCK FELLOWSHIP FOR HIGH SCHOOL TEACHERS

This is an interesting opportunity and practically local!

From The Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET) at Stanford University is now accepting applications for the 2015 Hollyhock Fellowship Program.

“This competitive fellowship provides early-career high school teachers who teach in low-income schools with a sustained, high-quality, research-based professional development experience.  Apply today and join 100 other educators from across the country at Stanford University for two weeks of residential workshops–for two consecutive summers–that feature sessions taught by university scholars and expert practitioners.  Fellows also receive online coaching and mentorship for two school years.  Teachers are awarded a stipend for participation, and the program covers all travel and boarding expenses. Check out our video to learn more and for further information, please contact hollyhock [at] gse.stanford.edu.”

This American Suspension

The much beloved public radio program, This American Life, recently aired this episode exploring behavior management in schools. With the title of “This Isn’t Working”, the show highlights stories and interviews with students, teachers, ‘guinea pigs’ and parents all questioning and shedding light on behavior management practices in our schools, from the good to the bad to the truly ugly.


Mixing hard-hitting data with moving personal narratives, the streaming show (also available as a downloadable podcast) bring to life the complex and controversial issue of punishment in its many incarnations in our school, diving deep into why we as teachers and educational leaders arrive at decisions that as the evidence suggests, ends up feeding into a self-fulfilling cycle of defiance, control and failure, which commonly leads many of our Latino and African-American students straight into the hungry arms of the penal system.  

Oakland is no stranger to the themes and situations mentioned here. From Restorative Justice programs to the harsh and humiliating practices experimented at the American Indian Charter School, this episode delves into what has and has not been working in our schools and why.

The urgency is evident, of course, in the fact that behavior is often cited as a reason why so many teachers in Oakland and similar districts have a hard time sticking with the job. How often has an Oakland teacher heard that they are saints or masochists by those who think that our schools are cauldrons of despair and violence? There is much to ruminate upon here, and plenty of food for discussion, but few real answers to the deepest question raised here, mainly, what is the the right balance between justice and social control? And will these two be forever at odds?

Spend Your Money Wisely: Different Compensation Strategies

A Leap of Faith: Redesigning Teacher Compensation

This report on teacher compensation from the School Finance Redesign Project at Center on Reinventing Public Education, published in June 2008 by Michael DeArmond and Dan Goldhaber, analyzes three teacher compensation studies that strive to answer the question “Are there good ideas about better ways to spend money to attract and reward quality educators?”. The study considers combat pay, pay reform, and private sector v. teacher salary markets.

“To explore how high incentives have to be to attract people with technical degrees and strong academic backgrounds to teaching and to attract teachers to work in high-needs schools, we compared the structure of compensation in the teacher labor market to the structure of compensation in other labor markets…We also found that regardless of college major or college selectivity, the longer a person teaches, the more his or her wages fall behind.” (6)

Thinking Beyond Bad Teachers

Bad teachers are having their moment in the sun this summer. The message from the mainstream media right now is that teachers are the problem.

Whoopie Goldberg is a talk show host and opinionator on teacher tenure, also known as due process, who wants bad teachers fired.

Vergara v. California declares that students’ rights to an equitable education are being violated by “teacher tenure” guarantees. It is being appealed by the California Teachers Association.

Students from Fremont and Castlemont High Schools in deep East Oakland have filed a suit in Alameda County Superior Court saying that “students have been denied equal access to teaching time compared with students who attend schools in more well-to-do neighborhoods.” These students have suffered through round after round of ineffective substitutes.

We are a society that is obsessed with bad teachers. Even Cameron Diaz has staked her claim in the discourse, playing a drunk and horny teacher who wants to quit the profession to marry rich.

A more accurate, if not way more boring, version of the movie would be called Good Teacher. It would star me, the opening shot focused on my hand whacking my alarm at 6:00am, suiting up with a sensible pair of clogs so I can facilitate play during recess. All day, I am transitioning kindergarteners with autism from one 20 minute academic session to another, literally singing and dancing as I go. Then the camera would pan to me laminating individualized folder activities for 12 students, cutting out the materials that I bought myself while sitting on my sofa. I’d be wearing a fetching sweater set and an increasingly strong eye glass prescription as I finish writing an IEP late into the night – late being 9:00pm. My bedtime, like a young child’s, is 9:30. And Justin Timberlake never kisses me good night or pays my bills.

While this makes for bad cinema, it makes for good teaching. And there is a lot more good teaching going on than the media presents. Making good teachers feel eclipsed by bad-teacher-hysteria isn’t going to close the achievement gap.

Cartoon - Good T

There is no doubt that students in high-need school districts are being denied access to excellent educations. But bad teachers aren’t the root cause. Racism and classism are.

Segregation along the lines of race and class is thriving the the American public education system. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools across the country, and in the Bay Area, are desegregated in legislation only. Segregation widens the achievement gap.

If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, then we need to shift our priorities from firing bad teachers, to hiring and retaining talented teachers and desegregating schools.

We need to learn a lesson from Finland, the going gold standard of education: we need to make the standards for admittance to schools of education very high, train teachers incredibly well, support teachers in the beginning of their careers, pay teachers like professionals, accept teachers’ assessments like we would a prescription from a doctor, and make teaching a job to brag about at a cocktail party.

We need to remember Brown v. Board: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children… A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.

This is not an excuse, this is the truth: we are a nation that enslaved African-Americans 245 years. It is not a coincidence that African-American males continue to suffer the most in the public education system. The bad teacher discourse is a distraction from the reality that our political and social systems are hurting, not just our education system.

There are optimistic examples of revolutionary work to close the achievement gap that transcends the bad teacher discourse and includes acknowledging teachers who serve students tirelessly. The Harlem Children’s Zone commits to not only to academic excellence, but also to wrap around services that break patterns of poverty. Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African-American Male Achievement is doing work to coach young men outside of the classroom and is getting positive national attention.

We need to turn our attention to both cultivating and retaining a robust teaching force as we fight poverty and segregation. We need to spend time and money on preventative efforts like pre-natal care, public pre-school, and health care to close the achievement gap. We need to stop mythologizing the bad teacher and start supporting all teachers to be the best they can for their students.