Consider a new equity meter to measure closing the achievement gap

So here’s a question: If the No Child Left Behind law really does go away, and if we really do adopt a whole new set of tests, are we still “closing the achievement gap”?

For years now, if someone said their goal was “equity,” it was a fair bet that their work was to close the gap on the California Standards Tests. Of course, there have been skeptics who argued that the test was too narrow and pointed out that the test is not sufficiently tied to the real-world goals of “college and career readiness.” But most of the equity work of the past decade has focused on strategies to boost the test scores of chronically low-performing students, increase enrollment and success in “gatekeeper” courses like algebra, and increase the number of students who are “college and career ready” – for example through policies about enrollment in “A-G” courses or the adoption of what are now called “Linked Learning” approaches.

All of these strategies seem important. All appear to yield gains on the specific metrics to which they are aligned. Yet after a decade or more of work, do we have a more equitable system of schools in this nation? I think most observers would say no.

We have some schools and even more classrooms that are more equitable; a few of these dramatically so. This is progress and worth celebrating, especially since this work is an uphill battle in a society in which the distribution of income and opportunity is becoming less and less equitable. But despite hard work by many people, we do not yet have a dramatically more equitable system of schools, and such a system is badly needed. And it is only by creating a far more equitable system of schools that the public education system can be what this nation needs it to be: not just the engine of our economy but also the backbone of our democracy and the route for individuals to achieve their own American dream.

What would we accept as evidence that education systems were becoming more equitable? This is actually an important practical question as California embarks on the task of revising the Public Schools Accountability Act, which established the API. If we imagine a new-and-improved accountability system for California, test scores still matter, as do leading indicators of student learning like student attendance and engagement. But a narrow focus on these seems to have led us to pockets of excellence but not to a more equitable system of schools. Where else might we look? Once we start looking, we find achievement gaps – or perhaps we should call them equity gaps – in all sorts of places. If we were to build an “equity meter” that would be very sensitive to equity trends in an education system, what might we include? Here are some possibilities:

  • Resource allocation: Do poor students and students learning English receive more resources than others? Do struggling students, struggling teachers, and struggling schools receive extra support?
  • Community engagement: Do parents and community members feel connected to and engaged with the schools that serve them? Are schools able to respond to parent needs and concerns? Are parents living in poverty, parents with limited English, and parents of color equally engaged?
  • Social capital for students: Are students supported by the kind of web or network of supportive adults that will help keep them in school and make them resilient in the face of life’s challenges? Are students living in poverty, students learning English, and students of color equally supported? Are they engaged in school?
  • Professional community for adults: Do all the adults in the system feel a sense of personal and professional efficacy, that they can bring their whole selves – hearts and minds – to work every day? Do adults feel accountable to students and parents, including those who don’t look like them? Do they feel accountable for educational outcomes for all of their students and for helping to build a more equitable school system?
  • Customer satisfaction and system responsiveness: Do parents and students feel satisfied with their schools?

It is easy to argue that these things might be important, but they aren’t easily measurable. That’s a problem. But if in the past we’ve settled for accurate measures of some of the wrong things, should we experiment with some less accurate measures of things that matter more, or at least that matter differently? As we move into a world in which the simple definition of equity as “closing the achievement gap” on a test no longer seems sufficient, we need to think differently about the goal of equity work: a far more equitable system of public schools in this nation.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Schools must repair their other damaged infrastructure: relationships

Infrastructure is not sexy. It sounds like pipes, highways, and wiring. In education, it is both people and organizations, and it takes both kinds of infrastructure to deliver – but also to improve – education.

The problem is that budget cuts seek to preserve the service delivery infrastructure at the expense of the improvement infrastructure. We cut professional developers and coaches and keep classroom teachers.

This isn’t necessarily wrong: Teaching children is our first priority. But as California enters the “awareness” stage of work on Common Core State Standards, one of the things we are becoming aware of is that we have decimated the improvement infrastructure that we will desperately need if California is to do anything useful about the Common Core.

"Three Doors to the Common Core" approach allows districts to choose a door (focus) - Curriculum or Instruction or 21st Century Skills, that is the best match for their specific needs. Each door leads to the same destination: a new vision and implementation of 21st Century Teaching and Learning in every classroom.
"Three Doors to the Common Core" approach allows districts to choose a door (focus) – Curriculum or Instruction or 21st Century Skills – that is the best match for their specific needs. (Click to enlarge)

What do I mean by improvement infrastructure? Inside schools and districts, it is structures like regularly scheduled collaboration time. It is also processes, which may range from lesson study to a protocol for visiting classrooms.

It is also roles: professional developers, teacher coaches, teacher leaders, even assistant superintendents of curriculum and instruction.

It is tools: formative assessments, a data system that provides teachers with timely and actionable data reports, a communication system that makes it easy for teachers to reach out to parents and that includes space for online collaboration.

Finally, it is agreements: How often will the professional learning communities meet? How long will it take the data guy to run those reports? This kind of improvement infrastructure has been downsized almost everywhere. In many districts key parts of it are gone without a trace. And policymakers who talk easily about implementation of the Common Core should not underestimate the difficulty of generating either the political will or the resources at the local level that it will take to rebuild this infrastructure.

Of course, while the in-district improvement infrastructure is essential, external sources of professional development, tools, coaching, and consulting also matter, and these, too, have been decimated. Part of that is scarce resources, but for the most part the infrastructure that supported schools to work on improving teaching and learning was dismantled intentionally: the old subject matter projects were dismantled and a diverse ecology of nonprofit organizations, consultants, and university-based programs were replaced by a one-size-fits-all set of training programs that were intended to align professional development with state-adopted curriculum and tests.

That was a grand experiment, and while elements of it were wildly unpopular with teachers, it was not a failure. Scores rose, achievement gaps narrowed, and many underperforming systems were improved. Cultures also changed, with many more teachers embracing collaboration as a strategy and common practice as a worthy goal. The use of data and formative assessments to guide instruction became the norm rather than the exception.

Yet the failings of this approach are too obvious for it to be attractive to recreate it:  Not only teachers, but also parents rebelled against a one-size-fits-all curriculum, and many of these parents voted with their feet and opted for charters. There is more to say, but this is enough: In 2012, public education cannot afford a policy approach in which standards require standardization.

So what does this mean about improvement infrastructure for Common Core? We need one, and actually, the solution is simple enough:  If Governor Brown is serious, as it seems he is, about valuing local control and local decision-making, then the goal of state policy should be to foster a vibrant and locally-responsive set of service providers that can provide ongoing professional development, coaching, and support to schools and districts.

What it takes to do this is both simple and difficult; it takes two scarce ingredients: money and trust. California can implement the Common Core if policy provides districts with funding that is earmarked for improvement support and if Sacramento turns its back on the culture of distrust that says locals cannot be trusted to make good decisions about how to spend the money. Actually, the stakes in this decision are high: We cannot make an education system that supports kids to be thinkers and creators unless we’re willing to create a system in which adults, too, can be trusted to think for themselves.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Don’t skip this step: Designing evaluations of teachers starts with trust

Where do teachers fit into the current landscape of education reform? The results of the recent Met Life survey should surprise no one: Teachers’ morale is at an all-time low. The causes are not hard to see, and include a combination of budget cuts and layoffs along with a decade of NCLB-inspired scripted curricula and a steady diet of union bashing in the education press.

It is ironic that all of this comes at a time when the mantra of “good teaching matters” is on everyone’s lips. Is there a way to reform education, survive budget cuts, and also re-inspire teachers and reinvigorate the teaching profession? The answer is not clear, but the stakes could hardly be higher. The future of California depends on ensuring that about 280,000 people continue to love teaching. Most of them are already at work in classrooms. Do any of the reforms currently being tested have the potential to capture the imagination and channel the creative energy of this key group? Does anyone working on these reforms even have this goal in mind?

Maybe.

Here’s the problem as well as the opportunity: An unlikely but effective laugh line that works with both teachers and administrators is to ask them whether their current teacher evaluation process communicates a vision of excellence that inspires teachers. Some people don’t just laugh, they guffaw.

That’s the point: If we began the redesign of teacher evaluation with the goal of creating a shared vision of what excellent teaching looks like and how teachers will be supported to achieve it, we can take a step toward re-inspiring teachers. Of course, that is not the approach to this topic that gets the attention of the media (where the focus is on firing incompetent teachers) or of most policymakers (who keep worrying about the role of test scores). But, as is often the case, there are school districts that are taking a more innovative approach. These are largely smaller districts with a collaborative culture whose leaders from both labor and management are convinced that what they have been doing needs an overhaul. Several such districts have made the choice to retool their teacher evaluation process and to do so ahead of any policy mandate. Policymakers would do well to take the time to understand both the goals of such efforts and the lessons that are emerging, since the wrong set of mandates can easily stifle the emergence of promising practices.

The organization I lead, Pivot Learning Partners, is a nonprofit whose mission includes working with districts to develop and implement promising new approaches to improving teaching and learning. We have partnered with a growing group of districts working on redesigning teacher and, sometimes, principal evaluation systems. Here is some of what we are noticing about the work these districts are doing:

  • They understand that effective evaluation systems rely on high levels of trust, and as a result they design a collaborative process that includes both teachers and administrators and that has trust-building as an explicit goal. Such a process will likely look different in different districts. Any new policy should support – but not constrain – such a collaborative process.
  • They begin not with the question of how to measure teaching excellence, but rather with the far more fundamental and engaging question of what is being measured. What are the dimensions of good teaching? What does it look like in practice? Importantly for policymakers, tools like the California Standards for the Teaching Profession inform, but do not short circuit, this discussion. One teacher’s comment at the end of a highly collaborative process of exploring these issues was “That was some of the best professional development I’ve ever experienced.” That’s also a big step in the right direction. On the basis of what we’ve seen, policymakers should not mandate any tool – including the state Standards for the Teaching Profession – that encourages locals to think they can skip these sometimes difficult conversations.
  • They treat the shift from the old to a new system as something that needs to happen over a period of time. Policymakers: Deadlines help, but unrealistic deadlines are deadly.
  • Finally, these discussions do get to the issue of evidence of student learning, but teachers’ skepticism of test scores is profound, as is the damage done to trust by steps taken in high-profile districts such as publishing teachers’ names and rankings on value-added measures in the newspaper. Policymakers need to put the onus on locals to design systems that include evidence of student learning that reflects the vision of excellent teaching that is at the center of the process. Nothing else matters as much as this.

I believe that some of the reforms being debated today have the potential to address the problem of plummeting teacher morale. Redesigning teacher evaluation in particular has the potential to communicate an inspiring vision of teaching. But reforms will not have this kind of impact unless they are designed with this goal in mind.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Opportune time to rethink accountability and factor in improvement

California is apparently passing up the opportunity to request a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law, setting up another round of schools and districts to be labeled as failing. Interestingly, state leaders say they are opting to keep in place a set of requirements that no one seems to support as a protest against the imposition of a new set of requirements, even though states are being invited to help craft the new requirements.

Let’s be clear: The central issue with regard to the NCLB waiver is not cost, it is accountability. The primary cost of a waiver is the cost of implementation of the Common Core standards. The primary cost of Common Core is associated with new instructional materials and associated training and support for teachers. But we are facing these costs, waiver or no waiver, since our current books are wearing out. There are also costs – though much smaller ones – associated with a longitudinal data system. But despite disagreements about the design and management of such a system, California certainly has a data system in its future.

The real issue with regard to the waiver is accountability. For more than a decade, public education has been focused on accountability. The architects of this approach held that by increasing levels of accountability, outcomes for students would improve. Today, after more than a decade of work, outcomes have improved somewhat; but despite a lot of work, the system has not been transformed. Meanwhile, unintended consequences have included a narrowing of the curriculum, the elimination of enrichment opportunities, and gaming of the system or even cheating.

Opinions differ on what to do now. Some argue that the testing-and-accountability strategy has not been disproven; we just need better standards, new tests, and a different set of targets. Others argue that the real problem is that NCLB got the unit of change wrong and that we need to hold teachers, not schools or districts, accountable. The Obama administration has opted for a “both/and” strategy.

But what does California want to be accountable for? Is our answer really “nothing” or “as little as possible”? Surely we can do better than that. Surely we can agree that accountability is part – but only a part – of this nation’s approach to school improvement. Of course, schools should be accountable. But to whom and for what?

What can we learn by looking at other fields? Decades of experience in arenas like health care tell us that accountability data is rarely or never useful to drive an improvement process, and that trying to create a blended data system that serves both purposes usually leads to a system that is not very useful for either one. This makes good sense in health care; hospitals need to keep track of who died and why, but to improve mortality rates they may need to start counting how many times doctors wash their hands. Yet nobody thinks hand washing belongs in the accountability system; hospitals need to keep two different kinds of data and use them for different purposes.

Schools do, too. For example, “wait time” – the length of the pause between a teacher asking a question and her next sentence – might be worth measuring since it, like hand washing, is part of improvement. But no one thinks it should be part of an accountability system. Our problem is partly that limited resources means required data trumps optional data. But the other half of the problem is that we’re not trying; in education, when someone says “data,” listeners usually hear “test scores.” Period.

If we try to rethink accountability in ways that leave room for data on improvement, we run up against another complicating factor: The fundamental accountability relationships in public education are between teacher and student, school and family, and district and community. Our current approach to accountability, which holds schools accountable to goals that communities haven’t created and largely don’t understand, has eroded, rather than strengthened, these fundamental accountability relationships, and that is a major cause of the woeful state of school funding and of the appetite among parents for charter schools – even for ones that are no better than the regular schools they left.

If this is true, then state leaders have a dual challenge as we rethink accountability, a challenge that stretches far beyond the technical task of creating better tests and targets. We need an accountability system that creates the conditions for districts to collect improvement data – the education version of hand washing – and that repairs the broken bond between schools and communities. Could the current policy vacuum, in which NCLB is rapidly fading away without a replacement on the horizon, present an important opportunity to work on a system that meets these dual goals? Maybe. But only if we replace the “just say no” approach with some new thinking.

Merrill Vargo is an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings and served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education, where she was responsible for major initiatives including School Restructuring, Charter Schools, Goals 2000, and the ground-breaking high school reform report Second to None. Pivot Learning Partners is an entrepreneurial nonprofit organization providing support to more than 60 school districts.

Facing some inconvenient truths about reforming teacher evaluations

(Brentt Brown, senior writer at Pivot Learning Partners, co-authored this post.)

Good teaching matters. Yet most teacher evaluations are compliance-driven checklists that have little or no impact on teaching and learning. The question is not whether teacher evaluation should be improved, but what the goals of the new processes we seek should be.

The received wisdom is that better evaluations would provide teachers with useful feedback and also improve decision making about tenure and retention. Critics also note that in a better system, evaluations would be more frequent, more focused on evidence of student learning, more effective at sorting teachers into multiple performance categories, and more valid, in that evaluators would be highly trained. All of these are worthy goals, but hardly inevitable ones. Not only are they expensive, but they fail to address the realities of the current approach to teacher evaluation. Here are some inconvenient truths that reformers of teacher evaluation must address.

  • Districts treat teacher evaluation as first and foremost a tool to remove a truly weak teacher. The resulting process is highly scripted because it is used to build a legal case in the event it is needed. While districts believe in the value of feedback and coaching for teachers, it is not clear that formal evaluation – with all of its legal constraints – is the best tool for this purpose.
  • Districts rarely remove teachers, in large part because of the high price tag. Better evaluation doesn’t change this, and those who believe that better evaluation processes will lead to more weak teachers being dismissed aren’t being realistic.
  • California has close to the highest ratio of teachers to administrators in the nation, which means that school principals are ridiculously overloaded. A better evaluation process won’t end the checklist approach if principals are the people doing the evaluating.
  • Staff development budgets for teachers have been slashed, and it may not make sense to invest heavily in training teacher evaluators when we cannot afford to train the teachers.
  • In the past, many large urban districts rarely opted not to tenure a teacher, and this led to granting tenure to some weak teachers. In the vast majority of cases, this was a reaction to a chronic teacher shortage. If you can’t staff your classrooms, you will tenure the folks you’ve got. The current hiring climate will change this situation without a better teacher evaluation process.

I believe that better teacher evaluation is worth working on, but we need to rethink the goals.

What if the goal of teacher evaluation were to communicate and foster a shared vision of excellence, one that would guide and inspire teachers? This is the starting point for the North Bay Training Collaborative for Strengthening Teacher and Principal Evaluation, a project of Pivot Learning Partners, funded by the Full Circle Fund, which brings together teams from almost a dozen districts to take on this question. The process that Pivot Learning has used with this group of districts – and that it is using with others around the state – includes:

  • Recognizing that redesigning teacher evaluations can be contentious and that teachers and union representatives must be involved;
  • Challenging teams to study and learn from both research and examples from districts around the country;
  • Encouraging districts to develop their own vision of teaching excellence;
  • Keeping the idea of evidence of student learning on the table, while promoting a broader discussion about what would constitute evidence that students were learning rigorous content. This approach leads to a serious consideration of multiple measures instead of a dead-end discussion about test scores and the statistics behind value-added approaches;
  • Acknowledging that if useful feedback to teachers is the goal, then the most useful feedback will always come from other teachers, not from an administrator. This means that the vision of excellence and rubrics associated with it must be used broadly in the district by teachers as well as administrators.

It is too soon to determine what will come of the collaborative and inclusive approach suggested above, or for that matter from the more scripted approach being taken in districts receiving federal school improvement grants (SIGs). What is notable is how different the conversation sounds – more cautious perhaps, but also nuanced – when the North Bay Collaborative meets than when teacher evaluation is discussed by policymakers or in the media. This disconnect is hardly new, but in this case what it signals matters.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive  director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.