Are Children Learning

Teachers seek clarity, training at Common Core summer sessions held by state DOE

Renia Williams and Jeffery Mister participated in the summer common core training.

Renia Williams waved her blue-painted finger nails in the air at a training in Memphis last week as she shared her classroom experience teaching Common Core with fellow middle school teachers.

“Common Core is forcing kids to think,” she said, eliciting finger snaps from the other teachers in the room, like at a poetry jam.

Williams is an eighth grade teacher at Treadwell Middle School in Memphis. She was one of 187 teachers trained at Ridgeway High School last week as “learning leaders,” who will go back to their own schools and train other teachers how to teach Common Core standards. About 14,000 teachers in all will be trained in sessions held by the state department of education this summer at 40 sites across the state.

Common Core  is a series of baseline reading and math standards Tennessee adopted in 2010 that determine what children should learn in each grade. Unlike standards used in the past, Common Core emphasizes that students build critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills that often require a different style of teaching. Instead of  children calculating math problems and presenting their answer, for example, they instead must now show how they arrived at their answer.

Initially adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia, the standards have been subject to political controversy in recent years, with many states  passing laws that have repealed or weakened their impact. This past spring, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to delay the use of PARCC, a national test designed specifically with the standards in mind.

Teachers have complained that the new standards come at a time of more pressure to boost test scores.  They have pointed out that, with districts’ constrained budgets, professional development opportunities have decreased while standards have increased.

Last week’s training offered by the state department was geared toward providing teachers with pedagogy skills such as encouraging students who don’t pick up new skills right away or helping students organize their thoughts while preparing to write an essay.

The teachers did not receive compensation for attending the three-day training sessions. The department’s spokesperson, Ashley Ball, could not provide the cost of the summer trainings.

Williams considers teaching math her destiny. She had dreamed of being a math teacher from the age of four, inspired by a devoted kindergarten teacher and her late mother who was a math teacher. She opted out of more lucrative career options her engineering and computer science degrees proffered to go into the classroom.

Williams had been teaching for almost two decades when Tennessee first rolled out the Common Core standards as a way to boost student achievement.

She said she felt like she was good at her job, and already knew what her students needed to succeed without Common Core. The new standards seemed an unnecessary departure.

“At first I was reluctant to even deal with it,” she said. “They’ve been throwing Common Core out here, but not helping people realize where the pieces fit.”

But at the recent training, Williams displayed the zeal of the converted.

She said she has grown to appreciate the Common Core Standards after realizing that it helped her teach more like the teachers  who had instilled her love of math, by connecting skills in the classroom to real-world problems. She said her “Aha!” moment came when she received her students’ TCAP scores after the first year of Common Core, and they had improved – despite the fact that she didn’t teach to the test at all.

This summer’s training made the state’s expectations and the national standards clearer.

The content of this summer’s trainings build on the learning from previous summers, but target the areas of greatest need for continued support, which department officials felt were writing and math, Ball said.

“Last year was to make sure teachers understood what the standards were,” said LaShanda Simmons, the site leader for training at Ridgeway and a literacy coach for Shelby County’s Innovation Zone, a cluster of schools that academically rank in the bottom 5 percent of the state. “Now, we can go deeper.”

During last week’s session, elementary English teachers practiced modeling essays for their students and were introduced to a writing strategy called Self-Regulated Strategy Development, for the first time. Teachers use the strategy to give students a “road map” of six stages, including various levels of planning, writing, and revision, that they can use to be successful writers.

Coaches in both the math and English sessions emphasized that harder work must be paired with a culture of encouragement.

“If [a student] sees all zeroes, he’s not going to fix anything,” a literacy coach told teachers. The coach urged the teachers in her session to find things to praise kids for, even when they’re struggling with reaching most standards.

The math teachers worked on a technique where students derive their own mathematical equations from word problems. At least three teachers volunteered that their students found the teaching method frustrating.

Williams said that the key to giving her students such difficult assignments was establishing that she believed they could do it. She attributes her students’ high TCAP scores to high standards and expectations. Talking about how to help guide her students through challenging math concepts was helpful, she said.

“Words can’t describe what I got out of the first day,” she said. “It made me realize we’re on the right path.”

 

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”