Saturday, December 7, 2013

It's a Puzzlement- The King and I

     I love building furniture.  There is something therapeutic about taking bits and pieces and combining them to form a beautiful cabinet or bookcase.  This is probably why I also like jigsaw puzzles and unraveling anything else that is tangled. In my eyes, Alexander the Great was a punk for slicing through the Gordian Knot rather than trying to untangle it.  Although I would never consider myself overly organized, making order out of chaos requires focus and patience, which I find soothing.

      I have friends who hate to build things, but I find that this is mostly because they don't follow the directions.  I am a visual learner, so when the directions for assembling something are written in Chinese, it doesn't matter much as long as there is a picture of what needs to be done. With puzzles, you have the picture on the box as a guideline.  

     Lately, I feel like I have been given a beautiful cabinet to build, the first of its kind, but the only directions I have are in Chinese (or Klingon, or another language undecipherable to my ears) and there are no pictures.  Being new on the job will do that to you. I am required to learn a new language, but it is often frustrating as I try to decipher directions and processes I don't understand. When I ask questions, I get more Chinese, or even worse that smile and nod when conversing with someone speaking another language that ends a conversation but makes you feel like a total idiot.  I know this requires putting the ego in check for a while and working on my patience, but I wish that I were faster on the uptake so I could spend less time deciphering Chinese and more time building that cabinet. A hard truth is that just because you have mastered one thing, it does not mean you have mastered related fields.  

      I am not the only one learning something new this year.  In my conversations with teachers across the state, they feel like they have the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but no picture to follow and in many cases they don't even feel like they have all the puzzle pieces. With so much reform and change happening at once, no one can agree on what the picture is supposed to look like. In New Jersey, thanks to local control, all 640+ school districts operate under their own set of rules and guidelines and the differences I hear from district to district about SGOs and evaluation are frightening to say the least.  If the goal is to create a more uniform way of determining effective teachers, the State has failed miserably.  Evaluators cannot agree on what good teaching practice looks like.  One teacher I know was downgraded for having kids working in groups who did not speak one at a time, even though they were on task.  What the evaluator failed to realize is that it was a miracle these kids were speaking together at all because over half the class were ESL or bilingual students.  Another teacher panicked when her kids asked about local NJ history, but pursued it as a teachable moment because the kids were hooked. The reason she panicked was because if her evaluator had walked in, what she was teaching was not in the lesson plan and she would have been downgraded. Rather than take the time to change the lesson in the computer, she actually took the time to design the resources she needed for class.  Another special education teacher with 15 students has to write an individual lesson plan for each student and log it in the computer for each subject she teaches. As an elementary teacher, if she teaches four subjects a day, that is 60 lesson plans! Some SGOs are written with such low standards that if students show any improvement, teachers get high marks.  With others, if 100% of the special education students to not make double the progress of the regular education students, the teacher is rated ineffective. I have heard of kindergarten teachers who tell the class there is no more play time because they have too much to learn. Those same kids are being sent home with 5-6 pages of homework when they are still having trouble holding a pencil. What the hell are we doing?

     Evaluation was piloted for two years, but the first year didn't use SGOs and some districts did not include SGP in their final evaluation. This means that it was really a different animal because it focused only on the observations.  Also, many of the pilot districts would have done well regardless of whether or not there was a new evaluation policy in place. The idea that the evaluation process gets better with time, especially in districts that do well already, is a no-brainer.  This leads me to the question, what is the purpose of this whole evaluation reform movement? I thought it was to improve teacher effectiveness for all students, but most importantly, to help close the achievement gap so that our most struggling students (often those living in poverty) can succeed. Social justice is always a cause I can get behind. 

     So here is what I would like to know. We know that SIG schools were required to participate from the first year of the pilot.  If AchieveNJ was designed to help low performing schools, where is the data on the SIG schools from the two years of the pilot program? Did it increase teacher effectiveness and help those students? We hear repeatedly how the teacher is the most significant factor in student achievement, so after two years are things improving for the SIG schools or are there pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that are missing? My guess is that there is a reason we have not heard about them, and it is not good. 

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