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Posted by on in Professional Development

stencil.twitter post 58

Teacher evaluation, aka accountability, continues to be a topic of wideranging debate. On the one hand, we have lots of folks who call for teacher "accountability." On the other hand, Race to the Top and the state waiver programs gave us systems of teacher evaluation that are spectacularly dysfunctional and conceptually stupid (how well some eighth graders do on a single, bad reading test should determine how good the shop teacher is?). And on the third hand, the new education law (ESSA) gives each state a chance to come up with new ways to make a hash of the whole business.

Critics (and I'm one of them) have said repeatedly that value-added measures and test-based ratings and a few other stupid things that have been tried are, in fact, stupid, destructive and bad for everybody. Supporters of the accountability movement have replied, "Fine then. What do you want to do instead?"

Okay, then. How do we get on the path to a useful method of teacher evaluation? Step one is to figure out what purpose the evaluation will serve. This may seem obvious. It isn't. Here are some of the goals that a teacher evaluation system might try to meet.

<b>To find bad teachers. </b>For a while, this was the focus-- we would find all the Bad Teachers and fire them, and then life would be swell. This remains the focus of attacks on tenure and seniority; we  plan to cut your budget to the point that you have to fire people, and we want to be sure you fire the right ones. The bad ones.

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Posted by on in General

stencil.twitter post 29

Humans come out of the womb predisposed to believe in One Right Answer, and some of us spend our whole lives searching for it.

I watch my students (mostly high school juniors) struggle with it. There's supposed to be One Right Answer for which college to pick, which career to pursue, which partner to marry. One beloved fantasy has persisted for all the decades I have taught (and my years as a student before that). "I wish," says a student, "that somebody would just appear and tell me what I'm supposed to do. I wish somebody would tell me what the right answer is."

Growing up, I believed in One Right Answer even as I didn't. Like many fifteen-year-old, I believed that many of the right answers proposed by The People In Charge were wrong-- and that I knew what the One Right Answer really was. I went to college and learned there were two kinds of English professors-- those who believed that there was one way to read each work, and their job was to teach us what it was, and those who believed that there were many right answers, and their job was to teach us how to find an answer that could be argued successfully with evidence and sense. I decided I wanted to be the second kind.

I still thought there was One Right Answer to most of life's questions, and that was a belief that I rode right through marriage and into divorce, plus any number of other major and minor screw-ups. I believed that the way to navigate life was to lock the steering wheel in place and set a brick on the gas pedal, and if you hit a tree or drove off a cliff, that just meant you needed to recalibrate the steering wheel and get a different-sized brick.

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Posted by on in Assessment


Critical thinking is one of the Great White Whales of education. Every new education reform promises to foster it, and every new generation of Big Standardized Tests promises to measure it.

Everybody working in education has some idea of what it is, and yet it can be hard to put into a few words. There are entire websites devoted to it, and organizations and foundations dedicated to it. Here, for example, is the website of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. They've got a definition of critical thinking from the 1987 National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking that goes on for five paragraphs. One of the shortest definitions I can pull out of their site is this one:

The intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully  conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating  information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience,  reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and  action.

Bottom line-- critical thinking is complicated.

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Posted by on in School Culture


<i>That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those... of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years.</i>
<i>       --Our Town, Thornton Wilder </i>

<i>Our Town</i>, like most great works of literature, gives up new rich layers of insight<i> </i>every time it's viewed, read, performed. The only dramatic work I've taught more often is <i>Hamlet</i>, and like <i>Hamlet, </i>it turns out to be about something a little different every time I teach it. But for both works, there are always some constants. <i>Hamlet</i> is always, at least in part, about death. And <i>Our Town</i> is always, at least in part, about wasting time.

The above line is from the bitter, troubled Simon Stimson, talking to Emily about her troubling journey back into her own past (at this point they are both dead-- Simon from suicide, and Emily in childbirth). What Emily has seen is a world of people who don't pay attention, who don't really see, who fail to "really realize." She doesn't say it, but she could have-- people ignore Thoreau's idea to "live deliberately." Emily might even have quoted Hamlet, appropriating the infamous "to be or not to be" not as its cliched contemplation of suicide, but as the question, "Do you want to really, actually live your life, or just sort of sleepwalk through it?" Wilder chooses to put a more apt summary into the voice of the failed and unhappy Stimson-- "To spend and waste time as though you had a million years."

These thoughts are never far from the surface for me; they're central to how I try to live my life. But there are times that strike them hard, make them resonate like a tuning fork planted hard against the bone.

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Posted by on in Education Technology


I'm never a fan of embracing technology for technology's sake, but I do love a good technological solution to a teaching problem, and I have found some technology is an absolute boon to engaging introverts.

It helps, of course, to understand what the heck an introvert is. Introverts aren't necessarily shy, and don't hate all human contact. But interaction is work. The classic distinguisher for extroverts and introverts-- two people go to a party, where both mingle and talk and have a good time with all the folks in the room, but the extrovert comes out pumped up and ready to go do something else, and the introvert emerges wrung out and ready to settle into his own chair in his own room in his own home by his own self.

Some extroverts really don't get introversion and suffer from the notion that introversion is a problem that needs to be solved. This can be problematic in a classroom; many introverts can tell you a story of some extroverted teacher who decided to force the introvert to come out of her shell, or to get more engaged with the other students in the room.

When I take a test like, say, the Myers-Briggs inventory, I peg the introvert-o-meter. But I've been a performing amateur musician my whole life, and I was a union president. Your introvert students can do everything that your extroverts can; they just may approach it a bit differently.

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