Category Archives: School Reform

Cultivating Teacher Leadership Through P-12 and Higher Education Partnerships

Partnerships matter. Partnerships empower people and organizations to do good work. They build trust and camaraderie, and expand opportunities for all participants. Partnerships are critically important to the success of any institute, particularly in an era of rapid change and scarce resources. For the past two years, SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury has partnered with neighboring school districts to promote teacher leadership. Over three hundred teachers, school leaders, and district administrators from Fort Ann Central School District, Cambridge Central School District, and Warrensburg Central School District have partnered with SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury to the benefit of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and higher ed faculty and staff.  See the following link and feel free to contact Stephen Danna with questions or for more information about how we’re working with school districts to grow teacher leadership in our schools.




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.

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.”

Change and Common Core Standards Implementation

Thankfully, Commissioner John King will restart his Common Core forums this week beginning with a presentation at Myers Middle School in the Albany City School District this afternoon. I’m relieved and heartened he is resuming the important work of getting the message out and discussing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) with community members across the state. The CCSS implementation is a dramatic, far-reaching standardization initiative that bodes well for our P-12 education system now and for years to come. CCSS brings a rigor and shift in instruction our schools desperately need to graduate students ready and able to contribute to a democratic lifestyle and compete globally in literacy, math, science, and arts. At this point in the change cycle, we need our Commissioner and other key leaders to be visible and responsive across the state to ease concerns as districts struggle with the processes of reform.

Speaking of change, when considering the volatility of Race to the Top on schools and communities, it’s helpful to reflect on Dr. John Kotter’s Eight Steps of Change:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create the guiding coalition
  3. Develop a change vision
  4. Communicate the vision for buy-in
  5. Empower broad-based action
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Never let up
  8. Incorporate changes into the culture

Or, think of lessons from Michael Fullan’s Change Forces:

  1. You can’t mandate what matters (The more complex the change the less you can force it)
  2. Change is a journey not a blueprint (Change is non-linear, loaded with uncertainty and excitement and sometimes perverse)
  3. Problems are our friends (Problems are inevitable and you can’t learn without them)
  4. Vision and strategic planning come later (Premature visions and planning blind)
  5. Individualism and collectivism must have equal power (There are no one-sided solutions to isolation and group think)
  6. Neither centralization nor decentralization works (Both top-down and bottom-up strategies are necessary)
  7. Connection with the wider environment is critical for success (The best organizations learn externally as well as internally)
  8. Every person is a change agent (Change is too important to leave to the experts, personal mindset and mastery is the ultimate protection)

There are other models for change, but the point is change is complicated, hard, and messy. Change takes time and patience, and change is oftentimes hardest on the individuals bringing about its implementation.

Thank you John King. Thank you to your administrative cabinet and staff who are doing their finest to create an exemplary public school system. And thank you for pushing us to do our best. Peace.

Fullan, M. (1993). Change forces: Probing the depth of educational reform. London: Falmer Press.

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.