Category Archives: Race to the Top

How I See the Math Common Core: A Guest Post

Betty Barrett is a friend, colleague, and master teacher. With 40+ years work as a math teacher, director, and professional developer, she has a perspective and historical knowledge of math instruction few can claim. Enjoy.

How I See the Math Common Core

By Betty Barrett

Remodeling my kitchen was a cataclysmic upheaval of my life, especially considering that all during the restructuring time I had to continue to prepare meals and clean up afterward. But, once the stressful period was over, the end result was a modern, more efficient kitchen that made my food-preparing experience much easier and more productive.

At the present time there is a cataclysmic upheaval occurring in our educational system with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. In the classrooms where I have spent my 40-plus years of teaching mathematics, conducting effective teaching workshops, and coaching teachers, there are necessary, albeit stressful, restructurings taking place.

I have been living with the K-12 Common Core Math Standards 24/7 for the past 30 months. All the educational research on how teachers effectively deliver instruction and how the Brain learns, along with the mathematics necessary for students entering the world of the 21st century went into creating the new Standards.

In my workshops and in-school training, I hear teachers discussing mathematics as never before. I hear them telling stories of elementary students who can think more clearly, demonstrate more understanding, who have become more fluent in their number sense, and who have more strategies available for them to solve abstract, novel problems involving real-life situations.

I spend numerous hours observing the Common Core Math Standards being taught in classrooms. In the past two years I have seen many positive changes.

I see students spending more time practicing the “Core” operations to become Fluent in basic mathematical skills, freeing their brain’s working memory to concentrate on more complex application processes.

I see students learning more than “how to get the answer”; I see them understanding the “why” of mathematics.

I see students being taught number bonds, tape diagrams, area diagrams – strategies by which to  “picture” a mathematical situation.

I see students being asked to extensively apply their learning to problem-solving. We are taking mathematics out of the classroom laboratory and into real-life. Students are immediately knowing when they are “going to use this.”

During the reconstruction, my kitchen was a stressful mess. Workers did not do all they were asked; materials did not arrive on time. The finishing backsplash was brought in before the wallboard had gone up. The cost was more than projected. My family wondered if eating would ever get back to normal. But, eventually, it did; and it is now so much better.

Yes, right now, during the process of implementing the Common Core Standards, there IS an educational mess. We are all absorbing new curricula, changing instructional styles, adjusting to new assessments with higher expectations; and all this under the stress of being evaluated on the finished product before it is completed.

Education is being changed one student, one teacher, one administrator, one parent at a time. The final result of this restructuring is going to be students who possess a far better understanding of the concepts of mathematics and who have a greater ability to analyze problems and make better decisions. We will see improvements in education that will be well worth the wait.


Common Core Standards Breaking Bad?

29–remember this number–we’ll get back to it.

Meanwhile, what is going on with the Common Core State Standards? From reading the sensationalized media, it seems in a matter of months the Standards have broken bad as their cachet reveals cracks through supposed flawed rollout programs, accountability measures tying student achievement with teacher and principal performance, communication with parents problems, and threats of new assessments. What began five years ago as a solution to many of public education’s ills, including declining US competitiveness on international student achievement measures has now seemingly become problematic. What started as a pathway to nationwide rigor and consistency has become fragmented and politicized in some states. What promised to increase literacy and math skills for all students is now accused of stressing children (and parents) and lowering their sense of worth. What in the world has happened? Are things really that different? Are the standards no longer worthwhile and valid? Are they beyond our children’s capacities? Are they too hard? No, No, No, No. Rather, the standards are now more critically important than ever (Remember that number, 29). What’s happened is the Standards are being confused with other challenging elements of school reform including standardized testing and student assessments tied to teacher performance.

As a refresher, the Common Core State Standards were created five years ago through the efforts of the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They were designed to ensure students in every state of the nation graduated high school ready for college or career, leading to fewer remediation classes at college, less time for new employee training on communications, basic skills, team work, and so on.  In other words, the Common Core were written to pull America up by its boot straps by raising the proverbial bar of academic rigor. To be exact, two years increased rigor were part of the package. What was once reading material at 5th grade would now be found in 3rd grade, 9th grade literacy expectations were now required in 7th grade. The same rules applied for math. The elementary math curriculum was heavily pruned to remove the excess baggage that bogged students and their teachers down, and at all grade levels, there was a call for mathematical fluency, process skills, and application of mathematics in familiar and unfamiliar scenarios. Increased academic rigor are what the standards  promised and are now delivering in schools across the nation.

Five years ago, the Common Core Standards were advertised quite rightly as a game changer!! From Common Core State Standards InitiativeThe Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy. Well, with the challenges of implementing large-scale school reform, some are beginning to balk at the inherent difficulty of such reform and confusing Standards with other reform elements. As my good friend and colleague, Mike DeCaprio, said, “Part of my current push is for clarity about just what we really dislike. Are the Standards actually breaking bad? Or is the roll out breaking bad? Or was the assessment requirement? Or VAM? Or….” It’s all so confusing, but it needn’t be.

To be clear, the standards have not changed–at all. They still prepare students for college and career readiness. They remain rigorous, and continue to demand higher level thinking across all grade levels and subjects. No one is exempt from teaching or learning the standards, and theoretically, it no longer matters in what state you graduate high school from. As long as the state is one of the 45 which has adopted Common Core, the high school graduate will be prepared for success. What has changed, sadly, is people’s eagerness to lump Common Core Standards with the messiness of standardized assessments, performance reviews, federal intrusion in schools, etc…

It’s hard reforming a nation’s curriculum, particularly when politics enter the equation. It’s hard when student report cards include letters of the alphabet beyond A and B, and it’s hard when this is all done during times of economic duress. And yet, there has been immense progress made in implementing the Common Core. Students are now reading more complex text at earlier grades, learning fractions, ratios and proportions beginning in elementary school, and most significantly, using evidence to support positions. In this region of New York state, parents and educators are finding students can do Common  Core Standards work. Some are downright gleeful with the level of work being done by their children. For a variety of reasons, many of the success stories don’t pass muster in the news media. Instead, recent headlines and political whirlwinds suggest much like in Mary Poppins, a change in the weather is approaching for the Common Core.

With NPR, Lehrer Newshour, Fox News (Yes, I watch both Fox and Lehrer News Hour for my contrarian views), CBS, NY Times,……all reporting regularly about education and Common Core topics, I did a Google search January 22nd on “Common Core News.” What I found is disconcerting, and demonstrates the noise occurring in parts of the nation regarding Common Core Standards.

1. From, TN lawmakers balk at Common Core school standards.

Republican lawmakers are putting the final touches on legislation that would delay the implementation of Common Core education standards and the companion test in Tennessee, perhaps setting the stage for the type of fight playing out in statehouses across the country. Around a dozen House Republicans, according to Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, are united behind a bill to take a pause from the controversial curriculum — for up to three or four years —

2. From the Pensacola News Journal, Education chief defends changes to Common Core standards

MIAMI — Education Commissioner Pam Stewart defended proposed changes to the Common Core on Tuesday, saying they will set Florida apart and strengthen the state’s academic standards. Stewart presented the changes and fielded questions from the Board of Education at its meeting in Miami. The benchmarks for learning in language arts and math were adopted by Florida in 2010… In Florida and elsewhere, the standards have been criticized as being part of a “federal intrusion” into state education and a strategy to force children to take more high-stakes testing.

3. From Alabama Media Group’s Mike Cason, Superintendent Tommy Bice, panelists disagree sharply on Common Core standards at forum.

Bice defended the use of Common Core as an Alabama-driven approach to set benchmarks that prepare students to succeed in higher education and careers. The detractors described Common Core as a poor substitute for traditional approaches to education that focused wrongly on work preparation and indoctrination.

4. From the Syracuse Post Standard, Cuomo calls for panel to take ‘corrective action’ on Common Core.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced today that he will assemble a panel of educators and legislators to fix what he said was a “flawed” rollout of the Common Core learning standards in New York’s schools.

As the preceding news articles indicate, there are pockets of angst with Common Core. However, to fully appraise what’s happening, one has to have a ground level look to see the problem is not Common Core Standards but the churn, implementation dips, and struggles significant change brings. And at the ground level, one would see we’re moving through the change process. Teachers, students, principals,….are adjusting to the new rigor and challenges. Progress is being made, and students CAN DO the work. Another confounding element is the emphasis by many states on using student achievement data to rate teacher and principal performance. That is a dicey concept at all times, but particularly so when the rules have been changed with new curricula and assessments. People get stressed when there are unknown variables out there, especially when jobs are on the line. A final factor is the misinformation being sent out via the blogosphere, twitter, Facebook, and other forms of media. It so often seems when the going gets tough, the tough get going and the rest complain.

So, about the number 29. 29th is our country’s international ranking  on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  That is not good, and in stark contrast for a country that prides itself on being number one. We really must look in the mirror and accept that we are losing when it comes to P-12 education. If we truly believe that a first class education system really, really matters to our longterm global success, then we must address the income inequality gap that exists in the U.S.. 23% of our children live in poverty, which places us 23rd among industrialized nations in terms of childhood poverty. That is unacceptable and damaging to our country’s welfare. Not surprisingly, our students perform much better when poverty is not factored in to the PISA comparisons. We must also continue to demand more from students, teachers, parents, principals, community members, politicians… (The good news is the vast majority of people are rising to the challenge). Lastly, if we want to rise up the international education rankings, we must stop poking holes in quality standards that have pushed students to succeed at higher levels of rigor. Simply put, it’s important to remind ourselves that the Common Core Standards are more rigorous than what we’ve had in the past and as a result provide a pathway to inch back up the rankings list.

Let’s put as much energy and commitment into our PISA ranking as we will do at the upcoming Winter Olympics. Let’s earn the gold medals for academic performance by addressing childhood poverty, pressing all stakeholders to do more, and staying the course on the Common Core Standards and academic rigor. Too much is at stake to do otherwise.

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:

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 1.10.36 PM

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.

Ensuring Clinically Rich Experiences for Teachers and Principals

“The education of teachers in the United States needs to be turned upside down.” So reads the first line in the November, 2010 Executive Summary section of the NCATE Blue Ribbon Panel on Clinical Preparation and Partnerships for Improved Student Learning. For those in P-12 education who may be unaware (as I was before entering higher ed),  NCATE is the acronym for The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, and the Blue Ribbon Panel is comprised of educators, administrators, deans, provosts, non-profits, national and professional organizations, and others concerned with ensuring schools of education prepare and graduate effective teachers, specialists, and administrators for our nation’s schools. NCATE’s influence on education is much like that in the old E.F. Hutton commercial, “When NCATE speaks, people listen.”

Given NCATE’s leverage as an accrediting body through it’s merger with TEAC to form CAEP (you got to love the acronyms), the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations for Clinical Practice are significant: 1) More Rigorous Accountability; 2) Strengthening Candidate Selection and Placement; 3) Revamping Curriculum, Incentives, and Staffing; 4) Supporting Partnerships; and 5) Expanding the Knowledge Base. Finally! Exactly what the education “profession” needs! After all, we know there is no greater impact on student learning than teachers, and right after teachers come school principals. The Panel’s recommendations are more than appropriate if we truly want the best educators and school principals in front of our students. It’s tricky, though, and the devil will be in the details.

“I’m having difficulty placing student teachers” says one higher ed official. “I can’t possibly take on a student teacher this year. The stakes are too high,” says a 7th grade math teacher. “Who’s going to pay for this?” says everyone? Unlike the medical profession which welcomes the inexpensive, skilled labor of interns, education is reticent at times to offer clinically rich experiences to novices. With mandatory testing, APPRs, school report cards at all levels, and financial woes, the realities of current clinical practice are disheartening. However, with a “glass half full” mindset, we are on the cusp of serious reform and improvements in all areas of teacher and school leader preparation.

Once again, there is no question the business of teacher and principal preparation needs revision and refinement, but let’s be sure there is ownership across the P-20 spectrum. It is not the sole responsibility of higher education, P-12 schools, or state departments of education to get the important work done. Not at all. Rather, it is a P-20 responsibility. Actually, it is our country’s responsibility to do whatever necessary to ensure every student has an effective teacher and school building leader.That is where the critical role of partnerships comes in. If we want skilled supervising teachers (and school building leaders), referred to as Clinical Educators in CAEP’s Accreditation Standards and Evidence: Aspirations for Educator Preparation, then higher education, P-12 education, and state education departments need to talk.

To ensure our education program students are placed in rigorous and relevant clinical experiences, we must find the very best teachers and principals to serve as Clinical Educators. To do so, we will need to collaboratively answer the following questions: 1) What are the qualifications to be a teacher or principal Clinical Educator?; 2) What are the expectations for such clinicians?; 3) What will be their roles and responsibilities?; and 4) How will we incentivize the process? To help answer these questions, the NYS Professional Standards and Practices Board (PSPB) is working on Field Supervisory Model Recommendations that can help the New York State Education Department in its quest to improve student achievement across the state. Given the P-20 membership within PSPB, the outlook for a meaningful and thoughtful set of recommendations on Field Supervisory Models and effective Clinical Educators look bright.

Big questions. Big opportunities. NCATE has put us in a position where we can “turn the entire system upside down,” and that is not a bad thing. Meanwhile, let’s all work to partner with one another and find solutions to provide rigorous and relevant clinical experiences for our future teachers and principals. Let’s look past the stressors of school reform and do what’s best for the profession and our democracy. Let’s make the NCATE Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations our own guideposts as we do the important work that lies ahead. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

“Tickets” to Meaningful Teacher-Principal Discussions on Instruction

Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Mellancamp, Dave Matthews,….. Wow! Farm Aid is coming to Saratoga Springs! We got the tickets months ago, and today we’ll be going with a group of 12 family members and friends. The tickets will get us in the venue along with 24,998 other folks, all of whom will attend for the same reasons: to enjoy the music, celebrate local farmers, and chill for an afternoon. There is no hierarchy among the mass of people. Age, gender, occupation, musical preference, food choices, etc… matter not. Everyone who purchased their ticket to access the event will come to hear good music and support a good cause.

Having a ticket levels the playing field, allowing the ticket holder to cross boundaries. In the case of the concert, the boundary is the entrance gate. But what about schools? How do principals cross boundaries with teachers to gain access to deep, meaningful discussions on instructional issues? How does the building leader cast aside their supervisory role as lead evaluator to get at the level of instruction? Just what are the tickets that allow principals to cross the boundary separating them from their staff to have relevant discussions regarding classroom instruction and student learning?

“Tickets” are boundary objects which Wenger (1998) defines as “Artifacts, documents, terms, concepts, and other forms of reification around which communities of practice can organize their interconnections” (p. 105). Boundary object are tangible items individuals use to cross boundaries between groups. For building principals, boundary objects are relevant items which promote professional conversations with teachers about curriculum, instruction and student learning. Star and Griesemer (1989) define boundary objects as “objects of interest.” Objects of interest for teachers include student writing folders, student work samples, assessment results, best practices, and curriculum maps, and savvy principals know their value in engaging meaningful discussions with teachers.

Years ago I used to hold weekly meetings with grade level teams at Glens Falls Middle School, and I remember the most significant and worthwhile sessions were those involving student work samples, curriculum maps, assessment results, best practices, and book discussions. During those meetings everyone got fully engrossed in the material. Rather than bemoaning the required time with their curriculum coordinator, the team and I talked about student learning. Those were the meetings that ended too quickly, the “where did the time go?” meetings which built value and credibility for the team time and my role as curriculum coordinator.

As we progress deeper into the 2013-14 school year, now is the time to bring greater conversation into principal-teacher meetings. It is time to firm up the calendar so meetings are scheduled well in advance, and it is time to identify the boundary objects to be used in such meetings. Whether the “ticket” is a common core instructional shift best practice, inventory assessment results and action planning template, student work, curriculum map with tier 1, 2, and 3 vocabulary identified, or an example of a teaching best practice, it’s imperative that everyone has a ticket to the venue.


Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional ecology, “translations” and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s museum of vertebrate zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3), 387-387-420. Retrieved from

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.