Category Archives: Data Driven Instruction

Race To The Top in New York: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

To get in the right mood, think Clint Eastwood as bounty hunter, spaghetti westerns, and the haunting theme music of Ennio Morricone. Think gun slinging outlaws, dusty deserts, tired horses, and poorly lit bars. There we go. Now we’re ready to talk about the biggest modern day reform agenda launched in New York state history, ie. Race to the Top (RTTT). One reminder, however. All significant change events carry with them good, bad and ugly elements, and so it goes with the New York State Board of Regents Reform Agenda-an agenda which has taken more than its fair share of heat. Here’s how I see the breakdown.

  • The good: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.
  • The bad: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.
  • The ugly: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.

Okay, that’s not fair. How can we have all these various RTTT deliverables categorized as good, bad and ugly together? Is there a way to differentiate the best RTTT has to offer from its worst elements? I’m biased, obviously, so I don’t dare venture too deeply down such a path. However, I think it’s fair to venture a little.

Common Core Standards are not good, they are great, and their adoption across the nation brought consistency and rigor to the 45 States in which they now exist. Rigor that was sorely needed to increase our students’ capacities to successfully compete in a flattened world. It’s hard work when a curriculum bar is suddenly raised, particularly when the rigor is two years higher than past curricula. Our students are now being asked to do 5th grade math in 3rd grade. To do 7th grade reading in 5th grade. Etc. Needless to say, there are serious growing pains with such a change in standards.

Data-Driven Instruction is not good, it’s essential. Many schools claim they’ve been doing it for years. Yes, end of year student assessment data have been analyzed and curricula changed in some schools. And yes, primary school teachers regularly use running records and other reading data to inform decisions. However, the widespread, purposeful actions of Assess, Analyze, and Act are done sparingly in our nation’s classrooms. Too much to do, a lack of professional development on how to do DDI, and other reasons compromise a truly data-driven instruction mindset.

Evidence-based observations of teachers AND PRINCIPALS are not good, they are desperately needed in all schools. Perhaps for the first time ever, all teachers and principals are being observed by lead evaluators trained to do such observations. And the observations conducted are based on analytic rubrics proven to be aligned with teaching and leadership standards. That’s fantastic! I remember years ago having observations done sparingly, and with checklists. There were no detailed descriptors built around reputable standards of teaching or leadership. Rather, they were primarily subjective evaluations (think judgments) of what good instruction or leadership looked like. That’s a dangerous proposition, particularly if the evaluator has unsound understandings or values.

There’s so much angst about Race to the Top, so let’s jump to the “ugly” elements. I will admit to being a fan of more rigorous state assessments, but there are obvious flaws in our present model that are blemishing the Regents Reform Agenda. The biggest issue is tying teacher and principal performance to student assessment data while the plane is still being built. Though the vast, vast majority of teachers are placing in the effective or highly effective APPR rankings, it is still exceedingly stressful to have one’s professional performance review partly contingent on how your students do on a new assessment based on new and much more rigorous standards. That’s very scary for many, and that is what adds the ugliness to the equation. Other “ugly” elements are just part of the change landscape. We will always have our “deniers” and “chicken little” types who prefer the comfortable status quo they’ve grown to love. However, most professionals within the field are working their best to make the necessary adjustments, and doing so successfully, though not without the periodic “hiccup” or “crash” such wide scale change brings.

Let’s Celebrate Academic Rigor, Rigor, Rigor…….

Imagine yourself a classroom teacher walking into school to start your day. It’s 7:00AM on a cold November Tuesday, and as usual, your lesson plans tucked in your plan book hold promise for a good day of active learning. After signing in at the main office, you check your mail box, catch up with colleagues on the morning chatter, and then head down the hall to your classroom. After you unlock the door and turn on the lights, you are greeted with the following student scribbled words in big, bold letters across your white board:

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You know that beneath the scrawl lies a hidden message, and that message brings a smile to your face. Your students get it. They know the high expectations you have for them, and they proudly broadcast their cognizance for you to see. Congratulations. You have raised the proverbial bar in them, cultivating an appreciation for rigor which bodes well in their future endeavors.

We have a motto in our SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury school culture class: The Three R’s for quality teaching and learning are Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Whether we are looking at impacts of the New York State Regents Reform Agenda on school culture, evidence-based observations and teaching rubrics, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, or change theory, individual and collective success in education (life for that matter) hinges on Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Good teaching is about the Three R’s.

Our most effective educators maintain high expectations for their students. They work hard on lesson plans to make the learning meaningful, and they structure activities that promote relationship-building. In the process, their students’ natural curiosity and desire for social interaction lead to greater cognition and competencies. These master educators accept the challenges and look beyond the distractions that exist in any significant reform effort, focusing instead on ensuring students are pushed towards greater academic rigor through relevant, relationship-building instruction.

As we know all too well, we play and perform at the level of our competition, or in the case of school, at the level set by standards and educators. To my School Culture student who shared this picture with me, “Congratulations! You are making a difference with your students.”

Affirmation in the Churning Whitewater of Educational Reform

Before finalizing a purchase, stock investors conduct what is known as due diligence. They evaluate a company’s products and services against its competitors, study its balance sheet, and look at various charts and ratios to decide if it is an investment worthy of their hard-earned dollars. Not necessarily so for teachers and principals in public education. Instead, policy makers in concert with experts at all levels, conduct the due diligence to write regulations that educators and administrators are then required to follow. In the recent case of the Common Core State Standards, Data Driven Instruction, and Evidence-Based Observations through Race to the Top, that has been a good thing (not so sure about tying teacher and principal performance to student state assessment results, however). The really good news is all stakeholders are working hard to implement the change, even if they weren’t privy to the due diligence work. One only needs to spend time with P-20 educators to see the hard work happening across the state.

Fortunately for me, I get to see great educators and leaders at work frequently in my job, and last week was particularly favorable for such observations.

Tuesday, AM: High School Presentation on Understanding by Design and Lesson Planning using Backwards Design.

Tuesday, PM: SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury Seminar Series for Student Teachers on Common Core Instructional Shifts in Literacy

Wednesday, Full Day: edTPA in New York Implementation Conference

Thursday, AM: Principals as Instructional Leaders Seminar Series (SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury and WSWHE BOCES Partnership Project)

Thursday, PM: New York Association of Colleges for Teacher Education Reception and Dinner

Friday, AM: Teachers as Instructional Leaders Seminar Series (SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury and WSWHE BOCES Partnership Project)

Granted, I wear rose-colored glasses, but the events of this past work week clearly show significant progress in our efforts to raise student achievement. On Monday, I visited a small rural high school in upstate New York and was greeted by an audience of teachers in black t-shirts sporting a Wordle design celebrating their roles as teachers. Their solidarity spoke volumes of the dedication to each other and the children they teach, and our review of UBD led to a spirited discussion on  daily lesson planning and student achievement. The teachers greatest concern was writing detailed lesson plans while learning and implementing new curriculum modules and data driven instruction. There is plenty on their proverbial plates. Later that afternoon, I met with 25 student teachers and field supervisors to discuss and model some of the Common Core Instructional Shifts for Literacy. We covered each shift, but practiced text-based answers, academic vocabulary, and building knowledge in the disciplines. Ending the day with young, ambitious future teachers was very nice indeed.

Lest we forget the stressors on the higher ed community, on Wednesday I joined 250 other university and college professors and administrators to learn how best to roll out the edTPA. As we know, future teachers will be required to pass more rigorous exams and complete performance assessments that ask for descriptive, analytic, and reflective thinking and writing on their videotaped lessons. The edTPA demonstrates the value of assessing teachers’ capacities to thoughtfully process their pedagogy against standards of effective teaching. The complexities of rolling out edTPA can not be understated. However, at the edTPA in New York Implementation Conference, my colleagues and I got to see first hand the success stories of early edTPA pilots in colleges and universities spanning the state. It’s working! It’s hard, and it’s messy. However, if you are a fan of authentic, clinically rich self-assessments, then you do what’s necessary to make edTPA work. Another great day.

On Thursday, SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury launched the Principals as Instructional Leaders Seminar Series in partnership with WSWHE BOCES. 17 school administrators showed up for the first of a yearlong series of seminars and group research studies that focus on developing instructional leadership skills. Despite their frenetic schedules, these busy school administrators joined together to seek strategies and supports as instructional leaders, and we’re hopeful the content of our seminars and the research each group will conduct around data-driven instruction, common core instructional shifts and standards, and cultivating teacher leadership will meet their needs. Most importantly, we expect the seminars will provide opportunity for sharing ideas, asking questions, problem solving, and networking that otherwise would be unavailable to busy school administrators. Later that evening, I joined other invited members of the Professional Standards and Practices Board for a NYACTE Reception and Dinner, highlighted with Presentation of the New York State Teacher of the Year Award to Ashli Skura Dreher.  The evening ended with an uplifting presentation by Ashli on her deeply held and success-proven convictions that all students will learn. Another great ending.

Friday brought together a small group of seven teachers chosen by their superintendents to participate in the SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury Teachers as Instructional Leaders Seminar Series in partnership with WSWHE BOCES. The teachers began arriving at noon, though we weren’t officially scheduled to start till 12:30. What energy these folks have! As with the principals who participated in Thursdays seminar, these folks signed up for the series in spite of their workloads and lack of time. Most interestingly, when asked what their greatest fear was as instructional leaders, their concern was that the Common Core Standards would change. It wasn’t things like, “I’m worried about credibility from my colleagues,” or “I don’t know if I have the skills and understandings to be an instructional leader.” Instead, they simply hope there are no more changes. They want to get Common Core, DDI, and Evidence Based Observations right! Hopefully, this seminar series will help them realize their goals. And so ended a very busy, exciting, affirming week.

P-20 educators understand all too well the “churning waters” analogy as the weight of omnipresent forces impact teachers, principals, teacher assistants, superintendents, higher ed faculty, deans of education, student teachers, and most importantly, our children. Despite the chaotic nature of reform and the fact that few were invited to do the due diligence and “sign up” for the changes, most are committed to the Common Core State Standards and concomitant instructional shifts, data-driven instruction, and evidence-based observations. However, most are also frantically clawing to keep their heads above water as they grapple to adapt to the new and seemingly ever-changing landscape.  And they don’t want to “Wait five years till something new is in place.” To my P-20 colleagues, I say “Hang on.” “Don’t let go.” It’s extremely challenging, and at times imperfect, work. Still, steady progress is being made which will ultimately best serve our students and this great nation.