Empowering teachers to own their profession

This guest blog originally appeared as a series of comments on one of the discussion threads here in the Collaboratory about teacher evaluation and effective teaching. I thought these ideas deserved broader discussion, so I invited Carl Draeger to share them here on TeachMoore.

Carl Draeger has taught for 28 years, 27 as a high school math teacher and one as a Teacher Mentor Specialist. He is National Board Certified and believes “that our best hope for the future is empowering teachers to own the profession.”

A colleague of mine (he is BRILLIANT!) is pursuing a doctoral degree in educational psychology. We have had several conversations involving measures of teacher efficacy. He is currently of the opinion that effectiveness is so complex that a reliable measure is decades away. I find it absurd and meaningless to rate a teacher using a single word descriptor (Fair, Emerging, Distinguished, etc.). To borrow from Thomas Guskey, having a single measure for health makes no sense. If your doctor told you that he combined the measures of your heart rate, blood pressure, height, weight, diet, and exercise level into a single number; you would find a new M.D. in a New York minute. Similarly, having a single rating for a teacher is equally useless. This is why I appreciate Danielson’s Frameworks for Teaching so much. Instead of getting overwhelmed by the complexity of what the teacher is doing, an observer can collect evidence specific to an area of desired growth (classroom procedures, for example). Purposeful conversation results in light of specific observations.

Our district uses the Frameworks for Teaching (FfT) as the foundation for our Teacher Appraisal Plan. Danielson intentionally kept the FfT independent of content. While Domain 1 addresses knowledge of content and content specific pedagogy, it does so with calculated vagueness. The concept of a value-added rating is not currently addressed in our contract language. This is as troubling as the state mandated that a measure of student growth be included in all teacher evaluations THIS YEAR. I understand the concern about using the Frameworks for Teaching (FfT) by evaluators. I believe that Danielson herself has raised the same issue.

The district in which I have the pleasure to work in has intentionally worked with the teachers’ union to create a collaborative and growth focused teacher appraisal system. Initially, all teachers and administrators were trained in using this model to promote teacher growth with an eye on student learning. This broke the mold of teacher evaluations as a punitive tool and moved us down the road of a growth mindset prior to Carol Dweck’s book.

IF evaluators are trained, base their ratings based upon evidence, and follow the protocols intentionally, then the process is designed to promote learning focused conversations. I admit that these protocols are not currently being followed with fidelity within all schools, but the Director of Human Resources is requiring all new administrators doing teacher evaluations next year to attend a workshop presented by the appraisal oversight committee assisted by both union and administration representatives. I am not being naive when I say that having difficult and time consuming conversations in the formative phase of evaluation followed by a detailed and evidence-based conversation to agree on a summative rating is not impossible. In fact, I have had that experience for my last three evaluations. For this to occur it is critical that the move towards growth-based evaluation culture comes from both the top down and the bottom up.

“How might we go about meaningfully and accurately measuring students’ learning?” Wow, that is a doctoral dissertation. Unfortunately, if teachers don’t answer this question thoughtfully, it will be done to us by state legislatures, departments of education, and/or boards of education. I think the first step is deciding what matters most to us that our students learn. I think of Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design.  What are the essential questions we want them to be able to answer? The next step is to develop both formative and summative measurements which measure authentic/transferable learning. That is, can our students apply what they’ve learned to novel situations with limited or no scaffolding? Very different from my daddy’s assessments in school, or mine, for that matter. It is difficult to assess the PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests since they were only given a ‘dry run’ last year. Reports I’ve heard are that early results have not been favorable even with the Gates Foundation calling for a three- year delay in testing (actually a 2 year moratorium). This is a great question and a great talking point for teachers to make with state and local policy makers.

I’m not sure that teachers have had control of anything relating to education for decades. Publishers like Pearson and others, ETS, and the College Board have had more impact on curriculum than teachers. Principals and district administrators have been selecting staff development options for teachers with horrid results. No one does a post-mortem of failed staff development. We just get pushed on to the next thing. The ownership component will only become reality if teachers rise up and convince the public (and lawmakers) that teaching is an exceptionally complex endeavor. You don’t go to your doctor for legal advice. Why would you go to a politician for wisdom regarding best practice for teaching?

Step one is realizing that we teachers DON’T have sufficient influence.  The second step is equipping teachers to self-advocate. The public sees teachers as characters on The Simpsons. We need to be more like Taylor Mali (see Video). Our students deserve our best.  Instead, politicians are gathering mobs (like in Frankenstein movies) and searching to fire “bad teachers”. We know this will not solve anything, especially when we don’t know how to accurately measure either teaching or learning in a meaningful manner. As Linda Darling-Hammond says, “We can’t fire our way to Finland.”

Where we are in five years really depends on us. I believe that forward thinkers like Barnett Berry, Ann Bryd, Rick Hess, Tony Wagner, Linda Darling-Hammond, and many others have provided avenues, research, and options for the future of education. The onus is on us. Teachers, community members, unions, administrators, and lawmakers will need to come together to transform, not reform, our schools. However, teachers must self-select themselves as leaders in this process.

This leads directly into your question about self-selection of teachers as leaders. I am not sure this is a universal experience, but my past perception of the teachers’ union has been of the industrial union model. That is, teachers don’t care about the union until they’re in trouble or are not being treated fairly.  Active participation within the union hovers between 1% and 5 % of membership (best guess; not based on facts). If the union is viewed as a change agent for social justice and as a collaborator with the district, increased opportunities will arise.

The collaborative design of PAR programs and growth-based teacher appraisal plans are just some of the opportunities for teacher participation and leadership. As teachers see these opportunities, they will gravitate towards them since it aligns with their innate pre-disposition to do what is best for kids.

In their book Switch, the Heath brothers talk about motivating change when change is hard. They use a patient who suffered a heart attack as an example of how people won’t change even if they know it is for their own good. Even though maintaining their current diet and exercise will dramatically increase their risk of a second heart attack, few people are able to make permanent change in those personal habits. Similarly, despite knowing that PARCC and Smarter Balanced evaluations change what our students are expected to do, many teachers will simply keep doing what they have always done. So, the million dollar question is: “How do we motivate teachers to get better so that are students can perform at higher levels?”

Some of the criteria for change are:

  • Give teachers opportunities for early “wins”.
  • Have a specific plan and identify roles for all.
  • Clearly communicate first steps.
  • Have goals that are easily and quickly measured.
  • Have a jumpstart in the program (e.g. 77% of our students are already meeting standards, we only need 3% more to meet our 1st year target.)

​The transformation of teacher leadership is already occurring. CTQ has been a major player in the empowerment of teachers (Teacherprenuer, anyone). Participating in any of the Collaboratories is another expression of increased conversations beyond our own little fiefdoms. The explosion of teaching blogs, teacher use of Facebook pages, increased Twitter activity, and webinar availability has increased the teacher voice in this country.

I had the opportunity to attend the Teaching and Learning (T&L) Conference 2014 in Washington, DC. The universal theme I heard (even from Arne Duncan) was the need for teachers to step up and take control of education in this country instead of having things dictated to them. As a teacher mentor specialist, I intentionally use my platform to prepare young teachers to assume leadership roles early in their careers. Specifically, I encourage them to be assertive in grade level meetings and participate in committees of their interest IF their participation will not negatively impact their students’ growth. The sooner they are empowered, the better.

Many challenges are present. Teachers have the tools, the heart, and the brains to get their job done effectively. We just have to come together nationally as well as within our communities to be the change we want to happen. True teacher leadership begins with us. Now.

Do you agree with Carl’s assessment? Should teachers be more empowered [..okay, that was a trick question..] How?

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