You're So Smart ;)

Just thinking today about an interaction I had a while back with a friend and colleague.

Courtney and I were sitting in a session on teacher leadership at SUNY Plattsburgh in Queensbury.  The facilitator had just directed us to a URL for some additional resources.  I'm pretty quick about those things and realized before the rest of the room that the link wouldn't work, unless you were case sensitive.

I pointed this out to the facilitator and she quickly redirected the room.

Courtney, very tongue-in-cheek, said, "You're so smart."

My reply was, "That's just because I fail faster than everyone."

I originally said it just as a snappy comment; it made Court chuckle.

But the more time passes, the more I think it was probably accurate. We only succeed through trial and error. There are countless famous examples of this already- Abe Lincoln, Michael Jordan, Einstein, Eminem.

I had a student teacher who was riffing on students who get hung up on having to write the introduction first.  He wanted them to get past this sticking point and just move on. In full Irish brogue he said to me, "Ok, write down your intro, then just bloody delete it!"

Anyway, I know I'm not covering new ground really.  But a quick quip just got me thinking about embracing failure on the path to success.

Embrace the Grind

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. -

Embrace the grind. -Marshall Yanda, Baltimore Ravens guard

We wanted to take a few minutes to think about how much the work laid out before us
requires constant, conscientious, hard work.

Especially with Common Core and the instructional shifts, a real gauntlet has been
thrown down. Not only are teachers expected to change the content of what is taught,
but the shifts are requiring a change in how we teach as well. This is something that has
never been attempted before. Content has changed on occasion. Assessments have
changed on occasion. And different classroom methods have been proposed and even
strongly advised- think differentiated learning and multiple intelligences for example-
but never has an instruction shift been absolutely required for the academic success of
students. This is hard for teachers.

What we know and what we continue to learn is that these changes have to be
addressed consistently and systematically. One of the math shifts is an embrace of
fluency. The folks writing the math modules build in fluency exercises every day. On
the ELA side of things, there are shifts to supply text-based answers. These folks have
a very "protocol-based" system to give teachers and students the practices needed to
make this shift a habit. And they use the protocols constantly.

When teaching the priorities of the Danielson Framework- cognitive engagement,
constructivist learning, and 21st Century Learning- we show a video of a teacher and
students in the middle of a great lesson demonstrating how climate works in a soda
bottle. We often get push back that the classroom in the video is not real life, that our
students are not like those students. Those are charter school students. First, charter
schools are often in the toughest neighborhoods with the toughest kids. Second, we
should recognize that that highly effective classroom didn't just appear. There was a lot
of hard work on the parts of both teacher and students, learning the protocols, learning
the habits, practicing to eventually look that good.

North Star Schools in Newark, New Jersey consistently scores tops in the state on NJ
assessments. Paul Bambrick-Santoyo makes no secret of how they do it. Lots of hard
work, lots of practice, all with the use of protocols that force the development of good

Making these shifts, bringing our students up to the level expected is hard. And it
requires constant hard work. Without working on changing our habits, our practices, we
may get what we always got.

Embrace the grind.

A Simple Analogy

Back in the day, in those simple days of yore, I used to teach Shakespeare. One exercise I used a few times is having students try to write a sonnet. It was really just an exercise in appreciation of how difficult a task it really is to write sonnets.

I would start the process simply. Write a love poem in four parts.Then I would add criteria one by one. So after they had a rudimentary poem established in four parts, I changed the game. Now those four parts had to be lines of four, four, four, and two. Ok, now things get tougher. Each of those four sections had to conform to a specific rhyme scheme.

And then they were told each line could only contain ten syllables.

And then they were told each line had to come darn close to the dreaded iambic pentameter (ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump ba-bump).

You can imagine, many students ran into road blocks long before they had 14 lines of iambic pentameter with a specific rhyme scheme, that told a story in four parts, the fourth part being a clever two-line wrap up.

It's a heck of a challenge.

Shifting gears, the more I study and learn about the curriculum modules that are coming out, the more I appreciate all the layers of work that have gone into them. Now, NYSED is advising that the filed can really do one of three things: adopt them, adapt them, or ignore them (at your own peril of course).

If ignored, it's a task akin to trying to write a sonnet one criteria at a time. First, you must ensure that you choose grade appropriate texts using both qualitative and quantitative measures. Then after choosing texts, you must find the proper balance between fiction and non-fiction texts. You must also balance your reading with complimentary amounts of writing, narrative, argumentative, and informational.

Once you have your reading and writing balance, please ensure that you have also incorporated both science and social studies.

Don't forget to build in high quality formative and summative assessments.

And keep your eye on how your work will bootstrap next year's work.

And don't forget strategic vocabulary instruction.

Once again, it's a heck of a challenge. Think about the challenges of surviving in the teaching trenches. Now think about taking on any one of the above challenges. Hopefully, you can see the challenge the vendors for NYSED have taken. It looks more and more like they are truly incorporating all of it.

...maybe it's a bit more challenging than writing a sonnet.
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Inter-Rater Reliability Session Reflection

Over the course of two days, Courtney and I hosted about 60 of our areas 80 principals. The focus of the work was to do a round of calibration for inter-rater reliability when rating teachers. Many APPR plans require the leaders to come to this type of training on a somewhat regular basis while some districts are doing this work in-house. It is part of the regs, so districts have to find a way to do it.

The session was structured around scoring all four domains of Danielson. So we had pre-conference notes and a lesson plan for them to work through for Domain One. One thing they struggled with immediately was the feeling that these artifacts weren't enough. Many said that they would ask more or leading questions to try to illicit more information than was provided by the artifacts. One principal said he runs his pre-ob conferences with a focus on the Effective score level. Essentially asking, "are you here?" or "how do we get you here?" I find this to be a fair method. It recalls good rubric use. I.e.- here is the performance criteria, this is what proficiency looks like, let's work towards that.

So, doing the module in this format, as TLS does when calibrating in Albany, the artifacts exist as is. No leading questions, no other help. What you see is what you get. Generally, our principals scored this teacher too high in Domain One. There was discussion of the students with different needs, there were standards clearly enumerated, there was a scheduled lesson plan. For the audience, they found this performance to be proficient. However, the calibrated score is developing. While the standards are listed, there wasn't much connection to actual learning. And while there was a scheduled plan, it generally revolved around what students would be doing, not learning.

Then we watched about 20 minutes of the teacher in the classroom. It is a 4/5 literacy classroom, with ELLs, and she is a second year teacher. I was struck by how many of the leaders in the room flat out laughed at the teacher. We've shown a developing teacher to an audience of teachers before. And, teachers being more raw, it is somewhat expected. But it was off-putting that building leaders first reaction was to ridicule her. That their coaching instincts didn't kick in. I opted to remind them of the evidence collection cycle where the collection happens first, the alignment second, and only later, the value judgements. Suffice to say, they underscored her performance in Domains Two and Three. Easiest to say, the calibrators of this video are very strict to the language of the rubric. And our attendees generally disagreed. To digress, I just spent a day with math teachers who were disagreeing about the anchor papers for the math 3-8 assessments. Our facilitator just kept reminding the crowd, that these are the calibrated scored. You may not agree, but compliance is necessary for standardization across the state.

One other thing worth noting, we frequently show a teacher who exemplifies student cognitive engagement, constructivist learning, and 21st century learning. We almost always get push back that this isn't real life- show us a regular teacher. So, ha ha ha, we show a developing, regular ol' teacher, and we get push back- show us something exemplary.

Finally, the group was right on in scoring Domain 4, teacher reflection. They generally agreed there was hope for this teacher if she could translate her accurate reflection into future planning and practice.

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Equity and Access

This post is a part of the ASCD Forum conversation “how do we define and measure teacher and principal effectiveness?” To learn more about the ASCD Forum, go to

How do we give students across the globe equitable access to effective teachers and principals?

Thinking about this structurally, there seems to be three ways which we could give students this access. We could "clean house," we could go "grass roots," or districts could focus on developing internal capacity. This third option seems to hold the most promise in my eyes.

"Cleaning house" to me first assumes there are a wide range of teachers and leaders out there of varying abilities. If we could only find an objective method- apply a rubric say- to weed out those that don't meet the standard, we could rid education of all those low performers. We need to apply objective standards, ISLLC 2008 for principals for example, but cleaning house in isolation won't be very effective. To start, take a look at NY for the challenges of implementing just such a system. And we'd have to have superintendents and principals take the drastic step of dismissing friends and colleagues. And the field would be left with plenty of vacancies to fill.

"Grass roots" would be a reinvention of our teacher and leadership training programs. In NY, this is just starting to happen. In the SUNY system, conversations have just begun to leverage Race to the Top funds to redesign the teacher prep programs to make them more rigorous and more experiential. There has even been talk of teachers being required to pass a bar-like exam to be initially certified. For leaders, I know of one SUNY school who is in the process of redesigning the Ed LEadership program from the ground up, complete with real life capstone projects and a two-year cohort model. This is all good work, and the right work, but it is going to take years to reap the benefits of these changes. 

To get our students across the globe equitable access, the best way forward is to focus immediately on building internal capacity of our teachers as leaders. Without removing them from the classroom, we should create teacher leaders who can coach, mentor, evaluate, and help improve those colleagues who need the extra help. And without removing them from the buildings, perhaps there is a way we can find a similar "leader of principals" path. Admittedly, that's a taller order. By focusing our efforts on building internal capacity, we gain the advantage of working with the troops on the ground. These peer leaders would also come with a greater level of trust than "the new guy" or "the outside expert." Perhaps, most importantly, if we want to give all students access to effective teachers and principals, if this is something we believe in, shouldn't we do this as soon as possible.

I think we can work within our current system fastest. I'm aware that we need some level of all three of these approaches. We need to weed out these who show consistently poor performers. We also need to prepare our future teachers and leaders differently. And some of the leadership work needs to come from within. But how many different initiatives can we complete effectively? A triple intensity may be too much. 

Your thoughts? Is there a fourth path I haven't considered?


This post was originally posted on ASCD Edge.