Category Archives: Education Policy

New Gallup Poll: “U.S. Teachers Love Their Lives, but Struggle”

Last week Gallup released a super interesting poll that looks at how people rate the quality of their lives, emotional health and workplace environment based on job type. I was unsurprised to see that, after doctors, us teachers love life more than anyone else.

Life Evaluation Index


AND we’re as emotionally healthy as forest rangers and famers and much more emotionally healthy than waiters and the sales clerk at Macy’s.

Emotional Health Index


But when we start talking about work place environment its a different story. This seems to be mainly because we don’t like our bosses:

Despite earning top marks in most areas of wellbeing, teachers’ answers to various questions about their workplace produces a 49.9 Work Environment Index score, which is eighth out of 14 occupation groups. The nation’s educators rank sixth in saying their “supervisor treats me more like a partner than a boss.” And they are dead-last –14th — in saying their “supervisor always creates an environment that is trusting and open.”


Work Environment Index Score


So colleagues, does the shoe fit? Do you love your life but feel dissatisfied with your work place environment?


Strange Bed-Fellows and Why We Should All Climb In Too

I love education policy and enjoying keeping on top of issues as much as any teacher/mother/sane/healthy person can but it drives me crazy when folks in education start to cat fight. The incredibly pressing crisis of education in our country is such that those of us in this demanding field really do not have time to attack each other. Charters vs. districts, unions vs. administrators, reformers vs. traditionalists, TFA vs. old guard – it feels like cannibalism.

This is why I was so pleased to see this article in the New Republic which was co-written by Gates Foundation director Vicki Phillips and AFT president Randi Weingarten. The self-proclaimed “odd-couple” advocate for the following six steps towards more effective, and fair, teacher evaluation systems:







The recommendation I particularly appreciated was that teacher development, and not only evaluation, be tied to the Common Core State Standards. Many people are too quick to jump on the link-test-scores-to-evaluations boat with the CCSS and while that linkage is important it should only come after several years of test vetting and professional development for teachers.

What is truly remarkable about this article is the collaboration of what have been two polarized factions within the education world. Instead of focusing on areas of difference, this article highlights areas of agreement and consensus; a process that can hopefully be a model for moving forward. Finding commonality is always so much more productive and helpful for popular movements than lines of difference. What is also remarkable is the flack they have taken from their traditional allies who would rather they no “lend credibility” to the “opposing side.”

I say bravo! Yes! Amen! More of us need to look for common ground where we can work together because the truth is when adults fight about what we should do in our schools it is our students who are the real losers.

What do you think about reformer/traditionalist collaboration?

Speaking Truth to Power

On the 7th floor conference room of the Department of Education (hence the official flag) about to present to senior ED officials. Yup, I'm kind of flipping out.

On the 7th floor conference room of the Department of Education (hence the official flag) about to present to senior ED officials. Yup, I’m kind of flipping out.

Last week I had the enormous privilege of putting on my only suit (and this time, no Toms), flying to Washington D.C., and advising senior education officials on teachers’ perspectives on the Common Core (CCSS). Despite being from Texas which, along with being the best state in the union, is also not adopting the CCSS, I love the new standards and think they represent a higher bar for all students. I for one will shed no tears on the day when I trade a multiple choice Jeopardy trivia exam for a written expository essay that requires students to use primary sources.

Unfortunately, such an exam is a long way off not only because I’m in Texas but also because these “next generation” exams take time to develop and field test. We are still several years away from being able to extract standardized data from exams based on the CCSS. This however will not stop many states as well as charter schools from linking students’ exam results to teacher evaluations. My colleagues and I specifically advocated for restraint in this area.

While I believe in the importance of teacher evaluation, the goal should be growth rather than punishment or even reward. Student achievement is and should be the end goal of successful teaching however the exams used to evaluate student achievement need to be fully vetted. It is premature to actively move towards linking teacher evaluation to new CCSS exams when many teachers are unaware of what the CCSS shifts mean for their day-to-day instruction. Good teachers backwards plan their instruction to summative assessments. In order to do this well, teachers need to fully unpack and understand the objective they are teaching. Additionally, teachers need numerous examples of the the types of questions the new exams will use to assess each objective in order to create formative assessments that accurately mirror the final exam. The two testing consortiums – PARCC and Smarter Balanced – have not released nearly enough examples to develop curriculum materials which we can confidently say are fully aligned.

I also worry immediately linking teacher evaluation to CCSS exams might turn teachers off to the Common Core. The CCSS will only succeed if teachers are fully invested. Teacher evaluation is a tricky subject; everyone now acknowledges it must be done and done better than before however many questions still remain over issues like what percentage of the evaluation should be linked to student test results. We should first focus on issues like developing effective support structures for teachers that go beyond a mentor teacher the first year and an annual 15 minute observation from the principal. Teacher evaluation should provide constructive, growth-minded feedback for teachers throughout the school year.

In the same way we have a long way to go before the next generation exams roll out, most districts have a long way to go in building effective teacher evaluation and development systems. So let’s back off on creating evaluation systems that link 50% of teachers’ evaluations to any student exam, Common Core linked or otherwise and move towards evaluations that are actionable and aimed at cultivating our sacred profession.

What are your thoughts on the Common Core and teacher evaluation?

Please put your curriculum away and get out a scantron

It is the time of year when the optimism of January and the sugar rush of Valentines Day is behind us and we teachers spend more and more time thinking about standardized tests. Today I read a nice reflection by a 20 year classroom teacher who categorizes “the good, the bad and the ugly” of standardized testing.  She wrote:

As a veteran teacher with more than 20 years of teaching experience in Missouri and Florida, I say with confidence, my fellow teachers and I are not afraid of evaluation based in part on our students’ performance. Our purpose is to ensure that our students are successful in school and life. However, we object to the thought that students’ performance on a single test alone is a valid measure of what they have learned or how well we have taught them. As teachers, we are more worried about the impact of standardized testing on our students than on ourselves.

That last bit really stayed with me because much of the backlash teachers who speak out against testing receive is this line of “Oh you just don’t want to be evaluated.” However, most of us in education dismiss this claim. Go ahead, evaluate us but please be fair. Here are my suggestions for surviving a flawed testing system:

  • Empower your students to be successful: In Texas, our state exams are tied to promotion and ultimately graduation. We teachers cannot afford to be flippant or dismissive of an exam that will dramatically impact our students’ futures. What has worked for me is to block off a nice chunk of time (2 – 4 weeks) and specifically teach my exam’s objectives as well as test taking strategies. Through carefully tracking of progress via objective mastery I am able to pin point where my students need more in-depth review as well as where I can cut corners and skip content.
  • Use the Sexy Six: Looking for a quick, catchy and extrememly effective multiple choice test taking strategy to teach your kids? The Sexy Six work for me – check it out.
  • Advocate for Change: I am hopeful about quality of the assessments coming out of the Common Core exam writing consortiums (Smarter Balanced and PARCC) however, because I live in Texas, I cannot look forward to aligning with these next generation tests any time soon (But someday! Texas isn’t going to hold out on adopting the Common Core forever! I am optimistic!). I think teachers can play a key role in calling for helpful standardized testing. This might look like boycotting unaligned and extraneous exams as is happening now in Seattle or it might look like me writing a letter to my state senator and asking for legislation to allow districts in Texas to opt into Smarter Balanced or PARCC (Fellow Texans – who’s with me?!?!)

Awesome Blog: “The Edge of Ed”

Edge of Ed

Have you ever thought how amazing it would be if you could go to graduate school and spend day after day reading and thinking about the convoluted would of education? Imagine the depth of perspective you, as a former teacher, could bring to academic discussion! Imagine all of the insights and connections you would make between what you studied and what you experienced as a teacher! Karen Pezzetti and Katie Kirchgasler are living the dream AND writing about it in a blog. Their writing is thoughtful, provocative and grounded in their experience as veteran educators – check out the Edge of Ed!

Guest Blogger: Celebrating Black History Month

Anna Almore is an inspiring educator who works in teacher development here in South Texas. In addition to being a thoughtful person and friend, Anna is doing exciting work here encouraging teachers to reflect deeply on their vision for their classrooms. I saw an early version of this post in a regional newsletter and thought it was one of the best things I have read on teaching Black History Month. Enjoy the read and thank you Anna!

In 1926, historian, philosopher, and scholar Carter G. Woodson declared the second week of February as “Negro History Week.” With the birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass falling in that second week, it was only appropriate to celebrate a history systematically left out of curriculum and national consciousness would occur when the nation was celebrating the lives of two freedom fighters. Woodson’s original intent was that this week would no longer need to exist when Black History was justly represented in the story of America.

93 years later, I am pushed to consider two questions: Why does Black History month still matter and why does Black History month matter down here in the Rio Grande Valley?

To me, Black History month is one way we as a nation can commit to the study and celebration of a history of change. A history of freedom, equality, and justice denied. A history of oppression and opportunity. A history of contradictions and compromise. A history of the pursuit of the American dream. A history of this American dream deferred. This history seems to embody the American spirit and power that Margaret Meade famously stated in these words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This story of change is what compels me to study and celebrate Black History down here on the Mexico-US border. Our community has much to celebrate—increased graduation rates, the opening of new early college academies, drop in unemployment rates—but we are still in need of change. With 91% of the population in the RGV identifying as Hispanic, there is only a 12% likelihood of earning a college degree six years out of high school according to our most recent Census data. This compounded with the plight of the Colonias, aggressive patrolling on the border, a heated immigration debate, a widening gap between the “haves” and “have nots”, and policies that deny medical and essential care to the elderly, disabled, and disadvantaged—the pain of our community is real.  This pain is what connects me to Black History, and it’s the promise and hope embodied in this history that makes me study it. The lessons of leadership, community, and love are as relevant today as they were then.

What makes celebrating Black History difficult is that we must embrace and walk through the pain in order to squeeze out the universal lessons of Black history. This process of self-scrutiny, national-analysis, and historic-criticism requires us to deal with the complicated issues of race, class, trauma, hatred, and violence. How does an educator, especially one that does not share the racial background of his or her students, go about doing this? The first step, like any painful path, is having the courage to admit and name the truth of trials and victories of Black history. Once we can honestly do this, the rest comes more naturally.

Once you admit the reality and relevance of Black history, then we must turn to ownership. Why do you care about Black history and what is your point of entry into this particular narrative and tradition? Consider this list:

  • Your decision to join the legacy of education in America
  • The potential of Brown v. Board of Education
  • The power of youth embodied by the Freedom Riders and Sit-In organizers of the South
  • Your belief in MLK’s dream
  • A commitment to earning the title of “Ally” to communities in need
  • The story of Allies who sacrificed their privilege to empower others
  • Your deep friendship with and connection to Black people here, in your schools, or at home
  • A fierce patriotism and desire to see the American dream realized
  • The music, culture, stories, and values of Black people
  • The universalism of this story
  • Your faith and its power to move mountains
  • Last but not least, maybe you are celebrating Black History Month because you are the living example of Black History, a testament to why the fight and struggle was necessary, a person who’s traditions are steeped with justice, equity, and love—you are a Black person living in America today

Whatever your reason is, the next piece of the equation is courage—mustering the courage to share this tradition through your content, stories or media with students. In doing this, it’s imperative to name here that you will without a doubt open up a world of dialogue in your classroom that will undoubtedly be good for kids but also certainly difficult. Here is some advice I’ve compiled recently and over the years to navigate these sometimes awkward, full of mistakes and misteps, but totally worth it conversations:

  1.  Don’t get weird about it: if a student says something inappropriate, recognize that it often comes from a lack of knowledge or what they have seen in the media. Address it immediately, unemotionally, and follow up with a one-on-one conference. If a consequence is necessary, use it. If other students can redirect the conversation—let them.
  2. Use words wisely: Preemptively permit students to use the words “Black” and “African-American.” Redirect kids who use the word “racism” incorrectly by sharing the definition. Have your Webster’s dictionary readily available to shut that conversation down.
    1. From my favorite high school English teacher on the planet: “And, let me acknowledge that some of you are inevitably wondering or doubting yourself about the acceptable language here for talking about race, so let me give you two options: ‘black or African American’ Now, you might find other language used, even by people writing about Brooks during her own early years that uses language that was common or acceptable then but that is considered anywhere from archaic to offense today (see me if you need or want to check on examples), so to eliminate any doubt, I’m telling you to say black or African American. And, let me also be clear that you should not say these words with a whisper or drop in your voice, because even if doing so is a result of your own uncertainty about using the correct terminology, the act of doing it seems offensive, as if it is wrong to identify as or say the word black.”
    2. Add these questions to your bank:
      1. How do you know that to be true?
      2. What are other people’s opinion?
      3. How does this connect to the history of the Valley?
      4. Are you trying to say…?
      5. Is that based on fact or from a stereotype?
      6. Where are you getting this opinion from—TV, media, film, internet, music?
    3. Embrace what you don’t know: if your students ask a question that you don’t know the answer to, embrace the phrase “I don’t know but that is a great question.” Encourage students to research their questions or commit to writing down their questions and doing your own.
    4. Encourage connections: help your students find similarity and overlap in the stories of Black Americans. Show your students how you SEE yourself in this history and they will follow!
    5. Commit to consistency: reducing BHM to one day, one quick conversation reduces the potential impact and perpetuates the idea that you can celebrate and commemorate a legacy of an entire people in one day
    6. Acknowledge reality: there are not a lot of Black people in the Valley and that’s why talking about matters. It’s also why your students experience may be limited to TV, film, the news, and internet. Be sure to name that.
    7. Keep stereotype at the forefront of your mind: share the definition of stereotype and address instances of stereotype objectively, immediately, and with love. Constantly ask, how might what we are saying add to or take away from stereotypes? Commit to destabilizing your students’ stereotypes.
    8. Commit to keeping the conversation going: don’t let February 28 be the cut off for great, deep conversations! Keep the momentum going and honor the legacy of Black people, Carter G. Woodson, and others by not letting it die the last day of February.
    9. Check out this book:

How are you celebrating Black History Month? Leave your suggestions and ideas in the comments section!

Are you wearing red tomorrow?

I have been following the Seattle teacher’s boycott of a district standardized test called the MAP but was a little confused about what exactly they are trying to accomplish. Articles with headlines like “Seattle’s Boycotting Teachers Start Crusade Against Standardized Testing” make me think it is time to buckle up and prepare for the revolution. As I dug deeper I found this really helpful article in Ed Week that clarified a couple of facts: 1) the teachers are not boycotting a state exam but a district exam and 2) their main concern is the exam, called the MAP, is not aligned to the state standards they are required to teach.  The teachers were warned that if they do not administer the MAP they will be placed on a 10 day leave without pay; a threat which changed none of their minds. Want to hear from someone on the other side? The CEO of the company that produces the MAP exam wrote an OP-ED laying out his argument for the validity of the exam.

I am not sure wether or not this boycott qualifies as a “crusade” however these teachers are certainly attracting attention and gaining support. The NEA, AFT, and Chicago Teachers Union recently released a statement of support for the Seattle teachers. Want to jump on the bandwagon? The Seattle Teachers’ Association calls for those sympathetic to the Seattle teachers to show our support by wearing red to school tomorrow.

Are you wearing red tomorrow? I think I just might . . .

Why I will not carry a gun into my classroom

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hooks school shootings a number of politicians, particularly in my home state, have called for allowing public school teachers to be allowed to carry concealed handguns in their classrooms. Political figures like Texas governor Rick Perry argue such a move would empower teachers who legally own guns and are licensed to carry them to protect their students in a attack situation. Texas lieutenant governor David Dewhurst recently called for state funding to support teachers who want to receive firearm training. Before we all open our wallets, or strap a Glock next to them, let us pause and consider what it means to bring weapons in our classrooms.

Without a doubt, teachers have a sacred duty to protect – physically as well as psychologically – their students. We should strive to create safe and orderly classroom environments where students are able to focus on learning and be free from the distractions of bullies, unclear expectations, and their strong, unending desire to post to Facebook in the middle of the school day. When I first began teaching, I thought real classroom authority rested in my ability to raise my voice and be heard above my students; in other words, I was a yeller. A mentor quickly helped me see the power in waiting for total silence before you speak. I now know teachers with the best classroom management rarely raise their voices or become visibly frustrated. They administer consequences with consistency and a smile. Who among us has not learned the almost Jedi-Knight-worthy power of “the teacher look?”

Teachers can play an essential, life-saving role in a school shooting situation  I have written before about those heroic teachers who disarm shooters by persuasion or by physical restraint. We saw this again this past week when a California teacher convinced a 16 year-old boy to lay down his shotgun. But the school shooting story that springs to my mind when I think of arming teachers occurred in my community here in the Rio Grande Valley. Last January, 15 year-old Jamie Gonzales was shot multiple times by school security guards after brandishing a pellet gun at his middle school in Brownsville, Texas. On the one hand the boy’s teachers and family members described his actions as uncharacteristic and expressed shock at the lethal force used by the school security. On the other hand the security guards justify their actions as completely necessary. Who can blame them (except, perhaps, Jamie’s family)? What would you do if you had a gun and a student pointed a weapon at you? But what if you did not have a gun?

The German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt escaped the Holocaust and witnessed the harrowing testimony against the Nazi officers at the Nürenberg trials. In reflecting on these horrors she wrote “violence is mute.” Even having lived through one of the most horrific moments in human history Arendt specifically rejected the power of violence as impotent. To what extent would a teacher armed with a handgun attempt to talk down a shooter? I worry providing teachers with the option of shooting diminishes their willingness to negotiate with the shooter who is likely a merely child.

Experts seem to agree the incredible fire power used at Sandy Hooks could not have been stopped by handguns. Those who are not calling for tighter gun control focus their attention on the need to identify and provide support for the mentally ill. Regardless whether or not we should ban high capacity magazines and assault weapons or provide weapons training to teachers, we should certainly expect teachers to play a critical role in supporting young men and women with mental illness. However as a teacher my time and resources are overwhelmed by planning lessons, grading, tutoring, supervising, coaching, and other essential tasks that I overlook warning signs. I still feel deeply guilty about one student I taught who clearly exhibited obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He was “different” and “a bit odd” but he made really high grades and seemed functional – until the day he could not get out of bed and come to school. I never saw him again.

Teachers play a critical role in preventing school shootings. But instead of spending money on weapons training let us hire more social workers and licensed councilors to support our overworked educators. Let’s spend money training teachers to recognize the signs of mental illness and provide them with resources to help when needed. Perhaps guns are a necessary tool of school security guards or police but they are a poor fit for teachers. Our sphere of influence is our students’ minds and characters – a gun is ill suited to shaping these precious resources.

Sunday Night Inspiration: The Seattle Teachers’ Protest

Teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle announcing their collective refusal to administer a “flawed” standardized test. ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A group of teachers in Seattle is refusing to administer their district’s quarterly academic benchmark. On the one hand this is awesome on the other hand this is truly, deeply awesome. I believe, along with these protesting teachers, that there is a place for standardized testing. However, it feels horrible to administer an exam you believe to be a waste of your students’ time. Additionally, when you add up the amount of time our students spend taking official state exams, district internal assessments, actual exams for our courses, various placement exams, field tests, College Board exams, IB exams, etc. etc. it is truly breathtaking.

This story is incredibly exciting on a number of levels. Several months ago, I speculated that solving the education crisis in our country would involve a grassroots teachers effort much like the Civil Rights movement. I wrote:

So colleagues, I ask you: what does it look like for us to remain in our seat at the front of the bus? What does it look like for us to boycott an unjust system? What does it look like for us to carefully prepare to be non-violent when we are attacked by police and dogs so that the rest of the country will be appalled at the resulting images they see on the nightly news?

Does it look like refusing to give ridiculous exams? Maybe this is the beginning? I am inspired by a group of teachers taking their outrage beyond the teacher’s lounge by civilly articulating their grievances (see below) and actually taking action.

At any rate, I hope to God there comes a time when I can stand behind an articulate colleague, official school lanyard in place around my neck, cross my arms, and refuse to comply with an unjust system. What other problems could be tackled via whole-staff solidarity?

Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 9.18.44 PM


Tragedy and our role as teachers

I have had a hard time reading and listening to reports on last Friday’s tragedy. I find the sadness overwhelming both as a teacher and as a mother. I listened to Christmas music instead of the news over the weekend. I closed my laptop and opened a novel instead. Just today, I read through a number of commentaries and reflections. Many people wrote urgent and impassioned calls for more attention to gun control and mental illness. I agree however I think we as educators have a more specific obligation in the matter of school shootings.

First, the Newtown shooting once again reaffirmed my resolve to mentally prepare myself for what I would do in such a circumstance. What is the best corse of action in this nightmare scenario? How could I best protect my students and save lives? Could my personal sacrifice potentially save others? What would that look like? In a previous post I wrote about resources for educators to consider when thinking through these difficult questions.

Second, I was particularly moved by a piece my friend Melissa Scheinfeld sent to me from the New York Times. At the conclusion of the article, the author Christy Wampole recommends the development of “curriculum that centers around an empathic practice.”  Wampole argues children need to be specifically taught to imagine themselves in other people’s shoes:

Empathy is difficult because it forces us to feel the suffering of others. It is destabilizing to imagine that if we are lucky or blessed, it just as easily could have gone some other way. For the young men, whose position is in some ways more difficult than that of their fathers and grandfathers, life seems at times to have stacked the cards against them. It is for everyone to realize the capricious nature of history, which never bets consistently on one group over another. We should learn to cast ourselves simultaneously in the role of winner and loser, aggressor and victim.

This rings particularly true to me both as a historian as well as a high school teacher. Empathy is a profoundly effective social regulator and the more we can instill it in our students the better. Here are some thoughts I have for teaching empathy in our classrooms:

  • Say “I love you” and “I believe you have what it takes” One of the signs I keep posted in my classroom is “I love you.” I reference this sign when I am accused of giving too much homework as well as when I have just finished a “I’m disappointed in you” diatribe. Affirm your students’ potential by teaching them a growth mindset. (I love Mindset by Carol Dweck! Can’t wait to post the review!)
  • Create a safe classroom: Hold your students to high expectations for behavior. Teach them conflict resolution protocols. Guide them through stress relief exercises and help them deal with their anxiety.
  • Use babies: Recent research shows a biological predisposition towards empathy – particularly empathy for babies. It turns out that humans are hardwired to feel sympathetically towards cute little rolly-polly people. This simple fact is the underpinning for a program called Roots of Empathy which brings babies and their mothers into classrooms for lessons on feelings and relation to others. I have tried this on a small scale in my own classroom with my own off-spring via pictures and actual visits. It works! Learn more here.
  • Expose your students to empathy invoking literature and historical figures: I still remember having to hide in the corner of the library after finishing Where the Red Fern Grows in 5th grade. Books can be great entry points for students looking for something or someone to connect. Likewise historical figures like Anne Frank, Alice Paul, and Helen Keller are almost impossible not to love.

How are you cultivating empathy in your students?