Testing: Can We Find the Rational Middle?

Recently I visited Glen Iris Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama to meet with a group of teachers and their principal. I was in Birmingham as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and it was highly recommend by local educators that I visit Glen Iris while in Birmingham to see the incredible work going on at the school. During my visit I learned about the school’s focus on project-based learning, how it energizes teachers and promotes cross-curriculum connections and implementation of college and career ready standards in a way that has significant meaning for students and the surrounding community. I learned how this type of learning relies on several factors including the internal capacity among teachers to lead and bring others along in this work and a supportive principal who will work to make sure the resources needed are provided (even grow a beard and sleep on the school roof to fundraise if necessary!). I also learned about their school garden, which was a sight to behold and a powerful a lesson for how to keep learning focused on developing the whole child.

The assessment culture was also very different at Glen Iris Elementary. It was clear that every teacher in the room agreed that we can and should measure learning, but, also, that current “tests” were measuring learning. When I asked Principal Wilson to share his views on testing he looked at me very calmly said, “There is more than one way to measure the standards. We have to be ever-growing.”

Since returning from Birmingham, much has happened in the “testing” world.

Recently, the Foundation for Excellence in Education came out with an analysis of district testing calendars from the 2013-14 school year. The foundation looked at 44 districts and found huge variation; some required as few as eight tests on top of required state assessments – and one required 198 additional exams. In addition, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Secretary Duncan have shined a spotlight on testing and are asking states and districts to have difficult conversations about the quantity and quality of tests administered to students. Also in recent weeks, several school districts in Florida have moved to cut down on testing. Miami-Dade County cut 24 interim assessments, adding 260 minutes of instruction back into the schedule, while Palm Beach County cut 11 diagnostic tests and made all district-level performance assessments optional. Moreover, Hillsborough County school district leaders are calling on the state to reduce the amount of testing in schools while several school officials have already eliminated final exams at middle and high school levels, as well as reduced the number of assessments for elementary grades in math, science and language arts.

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to hear his perspective on the current state of testing and accountability. While the testing pendulum has swung from one side to the other, my hope is that we will land somewhere in the rational middle. And as I continue in my education journey, I will forever keep those timely words of Dr. Wilson at the forefront of my mind and will challenge all of us to be “ever-growing.”

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

An Invitation to Commit to Lead

When I was honored to be named Nebraska teacher of the year in 2007, almost in the same breath folks said, “Congratulations – when are you leaving the classroom?” Unfortunately, we have built into the American teaching culture this perverse disincentive that only seems to listen to and honor educators who move farthest away from those who need us most – our students.

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Teach to Lead seeks to flip that by allowing teachers to lead from the classroom. We know that the many of the best ideas come from teachers – in fact, the solutions to today’s educational challenges will not be solved without the involvement of classroom teachers in the development as well as the implementation of innovative educational ideas.

Teach to Lead was developed by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to advance student success by expanding opportunities for teacher leadership – in other words, to make sure that teachers were involved in the development and implementation of education transformation.

One of the components of Teach to Lead is our virtual community, Commit to Lead. Commit to Lead is for those who have a seed of an idea, those who are developing their ideas, and those who are deep in implementation. It’s for classroom teachers, administrators, system leaders, advocacy groups – all those who are working to include teacher leadership in their decision making. The platform is a place to discuss and learn from others who may have already been down your path – or who want to learn from your success!

Commit to Lead is easy to use. After you join the community, you can post your own idea (just 300 words or less) and interact with others who comment. Or you can join and then peruse the ideas posted by others, offering your suggestions and giving a “thumbs up” by voting for those ideas that you find most compelling.

Christina from Willamsport, Pennsylvania, has submitted the most talked about idea so far:

“Principals, central office admin, consultants, and state ed departments would be required to teach just one prep or class for a 3-6 month period at least once every two years. The teacher in which they are ‘subbing’ for would then be released during that time to participate in some of the leadership responsibilities of the person assuming their role as teacher. Or they could use their release time to coach a colleague (or new teacher).

An easy idea to implement? Not really. Worthy of discussion? Absolutely! To be done right, this wouldn’t just be a simple schedule change, but a real culture shift that exemplifies the importance of being as close to the classroom as possible. I’ve often heard teachers say that some policies would never happen if administrators had to live by their own rules. I also know many teachers that don’t understand the heavy burdens and isolation faced by many in traditional leadership positions. A change of this magnitude would be great if it was done thoughtfully and with the best interests of students at the forefront.

Commit to Lead isn’t just about posting your own ideas. It’s also about sharing your “teacher wisdom” with colleagues across the country. Meeting the needs of her English Language Learners is what prompted Donna from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to reach out to colleagues through Commit to Lead:

I would like to start a discussion of ways to foster accurate academic participation for ELLs (or other student populations). Currently, I use scaffolds such as posted and practiced academic sentence frames to assist students when reporting out ideas after “Think-Write-Pair-Share.” I would like to collaborate with others to broaden my strategies and increase student use of academic language and structures.

Maybe you are just the person Donna is looking for to help fill her teacher toolbox! The best ideas are stolen or borrowed from other teachers – maybe even you!

Deidra from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, saw a problem in her teaching community and stepped up with a solution:

All teachers benefit from collaborative interaction, so I am starting a collaborative learning group among the CTE [Career & Technical Education] teachers I work with at my high school. Because our planning times do not coincide, I am using Google classroom to share professional readings with my colleagues, opening up discussion threads, and encouraging them to post articles and reading suggestions as well.

I’ve been reading The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein and she advises, “…the next step in American education reform may be to focus … more on classroom-up interventions that replicate the practices of the best [teachers].” Christina, Donna, and Deidra – and so many other teachers like them – are doing just that: leading from their classrooms!

Commit to Lead is just a beginning and we know this work isn’t easy, but it won’t be done correctly unless professional educators are key players.

We invite you to be part of the dialogue by joining us at http://teachtolead.ideascale.com/. Do you have more questions? Please email me at info@teachtolead.org and let me know how I can help!

Maddie Fennell is Literacy Coach at Miller Park Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska and a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow working on Teach to Lead.

Let’s Do This Work Together: The Importance of Parents in Today’s Schools

“I ask you to hear my remarks not as information, nor as argument, but as a call to action.” Secretary Arne Duncan, National Convention of the Parent Teacher Association, Austin, Texas, June 20, 2014

Secretary Arne Duncan spoke these words today during the National Convention of the Parent Teacher Association, when he addressed a crowd of about 1,200 parents, teachers, and students gathered in Austin, Texas. The Secretary outlined the changes needed to improve public education and talked about the need to challenge and prepare students for their future, taking questions and sharing his vision for moving education forward.

The Secretary shared stories of his experience as a parent and the state of education nationally. He urged parents to work together to create the types of schools that will meet the needs of future careers by advocating for the advancement of the teaching profession, as well as college- and career-ready standards, preschool for all, and college affordability.

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Secretary Arne Duncan chats with Teacher Ambassador Fellows JoLisa Hoover (left) and José Rodriguez (right) at the National PTA Conference. (Photo credit: Karen Stratman/U.S. Department of Education)

As I listened, I thought of all the volunteers that have come through my classroom and of my own young niece and nephews and the paths that lay ahead of them as they begin school. As a teacher, PTA member, and proud aunt of preschool and public school children, I share Secretary Duncan’s call to action to improve education and his invitation to work together.

My mother was my class’s “room mom” throughout my elementary school experience and both my parents actively supported schools throughout the time they had kids in public schools. My mom and dad still volunteer and support my classroom, and they’re also involved in their grandchildren’s school lives. They have always been models for me regarding the importance of service to others and have demonstrated how to be involved and supportive without becoming “helicopter parents.”

Parent volunteers have been a lifeline for me and have enriched my classroom more than they will ever know. Every time a parent volunteers to take a task that saves a teacher time, he or she enables that teacher to be a better educator. Parents have raised money to fill in budget gaps and have routinely provided items not in the budget. I am so thankful for parents that have dutifully read e-mails, checked homework, attended parent conferences, and kept their children reading through the summer, all to support their child and their school.

Parents, you are important learning partners and teachers are so thankful for all you do!

Yet parents have another valuable role, and that is in making their voices heard regarding education policy. I am so thankful that my parents taught me how to be my own best advocate and demonstrated for me the importance of speaking up. During his speech, Secretary Duncan urged parents to use their collective voice to support ideas to build schools that will meet the needs of the next generation.

So, what exactly can parents do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Be a voice for higher expectations;
  • Be a voice for elevating the teaching profession; and
  • Be a voice for the kinds of changes our schools must make to truly prepare our young people for the future they will face.

Improving schools is an important job and one that teachers, parents, and policymakers should do together.

JoLisa Hoover is a 2008 and 2014 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow and educator in Leander, Texas.

#AskArne: Teaching and Leading

At this year’s National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Teaching and Learning Conference, over 5,000 educators from all 50 states shared in two days of teacher paradise, which included some of the most influential and knowledgeable trailblazers in education. I felt proud to be part of the event and even more proud to witness history in the making.

Watching Secretary Duncan unveil a new initiative titled “Teach to Lead,” I saw heads nodding and smiling. Even though I work at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), hearing that ED is partnering with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to focus on advancing teacher leadership is music to my ears.

But is it really? As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow I have had the opportunity to listen to hundreds of educators the past few months talk about what it means to be a teacher leader. Their responses range from self-initiated teacher leaders, who reach out to help colleagues on a daily basis, to teachers who are excited to take on new roles, but don’t know where to start. Others want to join in but feel they already have too much on their plates.

When I think about the size and scale of an undertaking such as Teach to Lead, it is easy to become cautious, if not skeptical. How we will be able to highlight all of the different types of teacher leadership that occur in schools throughout this country already? How will we even define teacher leadership, given the many forms it may take? How will we involve principals and state and district leaders in a vision of teacher leadership that truly improves education? Will they be willing to share power and rethink structures to create systems for teacher leadership to thrive?

What I am not skeptical about is whether or not teachers will embrace leadership. I have seen firsthand that teacher leadership is alive and well. Monika Johannesen a veteran teacher from Dan Mills Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn., explained that in her 20 years of teaching, not a day has gone by that she hasn’t helped teachers foster their craft. Her ability to collaborate and build relationships within her school has directly impacted the school’s success, and she is viewed by all as a teacher leader.

As the Teach to Lead initiative takes off, I am encouraged that teachers are the ones being called on to help shape it. As Teaching Ambassador Fellows continue to engage with teachers from the field and work with the National Board to engage educators via survey, I am reassured to hear Arne Duncan voice sentiments like these, “Teachers have spoken eloquently about how important it is to have a voice in what happens in their schools and their profession — without leaving the classroom.”

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to ask him how @TeachToLead will work, but more importantly how we will maintain the integrity of teacher leadership, without it being just more thing on our plate. Ultimately, creating an initiative by teachers for teachers can and will lead to historic transformative change that will boost student learning and provide a critical next step for the teaching profession as envisioned in the RESPECT blueprint.

I look forward to next year’s National Board conference to see how far we have come and the milestones we “teacher leaders” have accomplished. The road ahead is not an easy one, but it is one worth taking.

Tweet us your ideas @TeachtoLead using the hashtag #TeachToLead.

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education

The Learner Project: A Student Art Exhibit

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What does it mean to be a learner? On May 15, in ED’s headquarters auditorium, student groups from both coasts explored this question. Students from the School for the Visual Arts and Humanities at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles (SVAH) and the Elevated Thought Foundation (ETF), a nonprofit student arts and social justice foundation that worked with students in Lawrence, Mass., collaborated to open the Department’s current student art exhibit, featuring 63 works of SVAH on the themes of learning, symbolic portraiture, knowledge, and art and technology.

A dozen students from SVAH and six from ETF, all with funding from their communities, served on a panel to discuss the power of education and of their voices in it, and to reveal what facilitates and hinders their learning. Students most often mentioned that the influence of the arts throughout their curriculum and access to teachers who cared about and guided them throughout the college application process significantly benefited their learning.  The most-cited learning roadblocks were the lack of teacher and administrator support, and lower education funding for students of color, and low-income and first-generation students. The audience received valuable insights on how our education system could better serve all U.S. students, including those who are undocumented.

A collaborative poem the ETF students wrote got at the social justice issue: “Is education based on your ethnicity or the amount of money you have in your pockets? We are the shadows you see on the pavement filling in the cracks seeking light.” Echoing this analysis, an SVAH student stepped up to say “Learning is teamwork, not solo work. No one person is better than all of us together. We all have to work together to better our world.”

Acting Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach Massie Ritsch reminded everyone of Secretary Arne Duncan’s views on the arts in education: “All students—100 percent—should have access to arts instruction.  All children should have arts-rich schools.”

Ritsch also mentioned the importance of the Department’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAF) to the exhibit. Linda Yaron, SVAH teacher and 2010 TAF, initiated the exhibit during her time at ED, and current TAF Emily Davis recommended including ETF.  Serendipitously, both groups of students were tackling the same questions about learning and using education to make a better world.

Yaron, ETF Co-founder and President Marquis Victor, and SVAH Principal Eftihia Danellis provided additional remarks highlighting the importance of the arts in a well-rounded education.

An excerpt of Yaron’s reflections on the event is below.

A Teacher’s Voice: Creating Authentic Learning Experiences for Students, by Linda Yaron

Before the plane ride back to L.A., the fifteen of us circled around and said one word that captured how we felt about our trip.  Many students chose the word “blessed,” yet it was I who felt blessed to be a part of their experience.

We had just presented an art exhibit at the U.S. Department of Education on the importance of the arts and student voice as vehicles for education reform. Students … wrote learner statements that they made into a blog and book, created artwork that captured their ideas about education, and did other tasks that encouraged their … voice in education.

… Later on in a discussion with Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Delisle, students expressed both hope and determination to go to college, as well as the fear of being among a small percentage of minorities at their future colleges.

Our art teacher, Eric Garcia, grappled to find the word to capture his thoughts about the trip.  He said that the picture that was imprinted in his mind was when during the presentation our student Maricruz had difficulty finding her words to express the challenges of being an undocumented student. Her classmate Juan reached over to soothe her and hold her hand. All at once, many of us told him the word: Family.”

View photos from the event.

All photos are by Diana Schneider.

Nicole Carinci is a management and program analyst in the Office of Communications and Outreach.

The Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program provides students and teachers an opportunity to display creative work from the classroom in a highly public place that honors their work as an effective path to learning and knowledge for all. To visit the exhibits or for information about exhibiting, contact Jackye Zimmermann at 202-401-0762 or at jacquelyn.zimmermann@ed.gov

The “Softer” Side of Summer Learning

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It can be challenging helping children with reading, writing, math and science skills during the summer months to combat the “summer slide,” the learning loss than can occur when school is out.  Parents work hard helping their children stay engaged in summer packets and reading lists to reinforce academic skills, or “hard skills,” which though beneficial are often difficult to assist and not very motivating to students during the carefree days of summer.

Instead, a focus on “soft skills,” often called “people skills” can be a more inviting focus of summer learning, can be developed in children of any age and can be the start of successful life-long habits. Skills such as cultivating a growth mindset, setting goals, journaling, reflecting, collaborating, and communicating are just to name a few.

A national survey reports 77% of employers believe that soft skills are just as important as hard skills in the workplace. Some “soft skills” and ways you can help your child cultivate them this summer are:

  • Work ethic – This is also known as “grit.” Grit allows us to keep going and not give up. Give your child a difficult task to complete and encourage them throughout the process for not giving up and teach them how to bounce back from failure.
  • Goal Setting – Have your child write goals for each week and then have them check them off as they get done and celebrate success!
  • Dependability – Make your child responsible for tasks that they can complete independently. Give them a chance to be the leader at a family meeting, or decision-maker for family activities for a day.
  • Positive attitude – Create a gratitude calendar with your child where each day they write down one thing they are grateful for in their lives.
  • Teamwork – Get your child involved with athletics or other activities where they will need to work as a part of a team. Create family and friend activities where all members must work together to accomplish a fun task.
  • Problem solving –Think about ways to make everyday routines and activities a puzzle, such as leaving clues around the house that lead kids to solving puzzles while doing chores. Have them interact with online simulations to solve problems.
  • Reflection – Help your child begin a journal. Each day have them write about the events of the day, observations in nature, or things they have learned. Younger students can use pictures to express thoughts.
  • Communication – Create opportunities for your child to speak to you, family and friends. Use pictures, online field trips, role-play scenarios, or educational videos as conversation starters to get your child thinking and talking.

The most important thing you can do to support these skills is to model them daily. By engaging in activities with your children that focus on the “softer” side of learning this summer you will send them back to school in the fall with critical skills that will impact their future college, career and personal lives.

Dr. Toni Hull, a 2010 Teaching Ambassador Fellow, currently is an Instructional Specialist and Science teacher at Mesa Middle School in Las Cruces, NM. You can follow her on twitter @enchantedleader.

Extending Learning Outside the Classroom: The Power of the Summer Internship

As a teacher, I’ve seen the tremendous impact internships have on a student’s ability to see him or herself as capable of success.  They can provide students deliberate exposure to role models who have used education as a vehicle for success, thus helping students see success as tangible for themselves.

Through summer internships, students gain real-world skills and cultivate a sense of pride and purpose. They also see that they have something of value to contribute to the world.  Internships can expose students to academic majors they never previously considered and provide them with real-world career preparatory skills.

Students of mine who participated in such programs have remarked on how much their lives and perspectives have changed.  One of my students, Joy, said of her internship with the Bureau of Engineering, “I was able to learn about a community by contributing to society and helping it achieve a cleaner environment. I job shadowed important city officials, got involved in the Echo Park Lake rehabilitation process, and the gained a once-in-a-life time opportunity which will open up my future.”

Another student, Paola, recently applied social media skills she learned in a Global Girls Internship last summer by creating a class blog on what it means for our students to be learners (thelearnersproject.wordpress.com) and has decided she wants to major in journalism.

So, how does a student go about getting a summer internship?  Here are five easy steps for students to make the idea a reality and for their supporters to help them do so:

  1. Research.  Schools often have a career center, career wall space, or a staff member who knows about current internship and community opportunities.  Also, a Google search will return a plethora of listings. Narrow down by location, field and time frame.  You may even be able to travel for free with your internship — the possibilities are endless!
  2. Resume.  Assemble a basic resume that includes your experiences in and out of school.  Highlight experiences that show skills including leadership, community service, teamwork, technology or linguistic skills.  Be sure to have someone you trust proofread your resume.
  3. Letter of recommendation.  Tell a teacher, coach, counselor, or community member you’ll be applying for internships and ask if they know you well enough to write you a good letter of recommendation.  Give them a few weeks notice if possible.  You may want to ask for a few copies of the letter and ask if they can also be a reference for you on your application.  Be sure to note if the application asks for a letter that is signed and individually submitted, or simply included with the application.
  4. Essay.  Some internships may ask for statements on why you want the internship, what your goals are, how you’ve faced hardships or how you’ve contributed to your school or community.  Remember to focus not only on what you did, but what it says about who you are as a person.  When writing from a solutions-based, survivor mindset, focus on focus on how you dealt with challenges, rather than simply the challenges themselves.
  5. Job interview.  Be prompt, be prepared and be present.  Attend school or community offers workshops on job preparation. Practice your interview handshake and greeting, rehearse questions ahead of time, research their organization so that you have some knowledge about it going in, and come up with a couple follow-up questions to ask your interviewers.  Follow up with a thank you email or card telling them you really enjoyed meeting them and learning about their organization.

In an ideal world, all students would have the opportunity to participate in internships and programs to enrich their education.  This would not be separate from their education at school, but an extension of their academic learning.  Internships and programs are powerful opportunities for students to take charge of their own learning and invest in their own potential.  Thought it takes time and planning, it has made a world of difference for my students and I’m sure yours will feel the same.

Good luck!

Linda Yaron, a 2010 Teaching Ambassador Fellow, currently teaches English, Peer College Leadership, and Healthy Lifestyles at the School for the Visual Arts and Humanities in Los Angeles, CA.