Monday, February 27, 2012

How Do You Spell Respect?

Yes, I know this book was published in 2009.  And yes, I know that it's 2012.  Perhaps this book was ahead of it's time and it's moment is now.
Against a policy backdrop of reductionist accountability run amok, The Mindful Teacher by Elizabeth MacDonald and Dennis Shirley quietly restores a measure of sanity and balance.  This book could not have arrived at a better time for educators feeling under siege.
The Mindful Teacher displays profound respect for the teaching profession by throwing into high relief the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of teaching.  It is a demanding volume that honors the reader by showing confidence in the intellectual capabilities of educators, drawing on the best of the philosophical traditions of both east and west.  The book is more than a philosophical tome, however.  It constantly grounds this elevated discourse in concrete examples of improved teaching practice and better student learning, through six moving case studies of urban teachers, displaying teaching as a profession in the finest sense. 
MacDonald is a teacher in the Boston Public Schools; Shirley is a respected researcher and academic.  Together they pioneered the Mindful Teaching seminars, really a professional learning community (PLC) which is a product of an exemplary school/university partnership.  Dennis Shirley is a rare academic who is humble enough to see the correct role for academics in the education enterprise.  He sought ways to respectfully support educators.  Rather than pushing an agenda on a group of hard pressed urban teachers, he supported a process enabling them organically discover the questions they themselves needed to explore.
The seminars took place over a four year period and yielded ten clusters of questions specific to participants, but universal in character, and an “eightfold structure” which could be adapted to other PLCs with different circumstances.  An example of a question I found particularly telling: “What does it mean to be a teacher leader? How can I help build support networks for teachers in a way that leads to my renewal rather than burnout?”
An essential part of the eightfold structure of the seminars is the role of meditation in creating a space in which mindfulness can grow.  The concept of mindfulness emerges from the Buddhist tradition, and the concept of mindful teaching is advocated in the book as a means of mitigating alienated teaching, a concept borrowed from Marx.  The authors handled the practice of meditation in their seminars in a way that made it accessible and helpful to people from a variety of spiritual traditions.
The Mindful Teacher concludes with an exploration of dialectical tensions in the profession of teaching.  The Seven Synergies are individually necessary and jointly conditions for mindful practice, including concepts such as a caring disposition, professional expertise and collective responsibility.  The Triple Tensions acknowledge the existence of polarities in teaching practice: contemplation and action, ethics and power, the individual and collective.  The faith the authors show in us, that we can hold these tensions in our minds in what Estelle Jorgensen calls a “both/and” synthesis, demonstrates a profound respect for educators as intellectual and spiritual actors.
I was a bit troubled near the end of the book when the authors referred to teaching as a vocation.  As a labor activist, I fight for professional compensation and working conditions, and worry that teaching as a vocation leads us down the path to martyrdom.  But then I realized what The Mindful Teacher had taught me: profession and vocation are just one more tension that can be creatively embraced.  I felt both moved and honored.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

One Mouth and Two Ears…

Sharla Steever is a fourth grade teacher from Hill City SD.  She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the United States Department of Education (I was a TAF in 2010-2011.)  Sharla is also a dear friend, with a powerful commitment to the Native American community.  Her guest blog here fits with the social justice orientation of Education Worker.
The last few months I have spent a great deal of time travelling around the rural beauty of the state of SD to places even I, who have spent my entire life here, had never seen. I had the honor of holding a variety of teacher round tables and personal interviews with the educational leaders of our Native American Reservation schools and videoed every bit of it.
My goal? To bring the voices of this unique group of people, with their unique educational issues to ED in their own words.
These people are from places in our own backyard that are dealing with levels of poverty, alcoholism, and unemployment far exceeding national averages, but they are also some of the most self-determined, creative, beautiful people I have ever met in my life.
I began this project with a desire and hope to educate myself and others about issues in Native American education on our reservations. What I didn’t expect was the gift it would become to me. As I sat across from each person in this video and so many more, I was given the gift of story – some sad, some inspiring, some anger-filled, some so beautiful they moved me to tears. Through all of them I discovered something very important. If we truly want to impact change, we must first start by listening…not only to the words that are shared, but to the heart behind the words.
I learned a great deal about the issues facing our educators and students in these areas, but more than that I learned that there are amazing people doing incredible work day after day and year after year in areas of poverty that are far beyond most of our imaginations. If we want to help improve the situations these schools are facing, we must begin by working to understand them. How do we do that? We do it by listening to their stories. My hope is that this video provides a glimpse into these incredible stories and helps to inform those in positions to create change.
I hope you will enjoy and share, “Tokata: Moving Forward in Indian Education.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

More on Vermont Teachers Negotiations

I appeared on CCTV on October 28 with Avery Book and local VT-NEA leader Amy Lester, who is vice president of the Vermont Workers Center.  Just discovered it was online.  I was incorrectly identified as an executive board member - in fact I am a member of the VTNEA board of directors.  This broadcast speaks to the reasons that we need to reform teacher negotiations, and to the reality that we need to act in solidarity with others on matters of social justice.
Please view the video.  The teacher negotiations issues start at around minute 10 for those of you in a hurry.  The program happened over three months ago, but all the issues are still valid.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Vermont and NCLB Waivers: Student Learning or Power Politics?

In order to understand the Vermont NCLB waiver application you have to understand the waiver process itself.  An op ed in the Times Argus recently critiqued certain features of the state’s application, including emphasis on high stakes testing, and failure to address poverty as a factor in low student achievement, but the waiver process is a Federal policy of the United States Department of Education.
To understand waivers you also have to take into account the power dynamics in Washington.  There is an ongoing effort by Congressional Republicans to block virtually every Obama administration initiative.  The Republicans strive to deny the administration a signature domestic policy achievement during an election year, even though an Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization has been the first term hallmark of virtually every administration since LBJ.  The last re-authorization happened in 2001 during the Bush administration.  We know this iteration as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.
I believe the Obama administration put ESEA on the back burner for a variety of valid reasons.  There was the possibility of bipartisanship.  They expended political capital on fixing the economy, on wars, on health insurance reform, and embedded a major education policy initiative in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – Race to the Top (RTT).  RTT was a highly successful competitive grant program which leveraged states to make wholesale education policy changes at a very modest cost – just four billion dollars. 
Against the background of severe revenue problems in almost every state, RTT moved policy in significant ways even in states that did not receive grants.  For example, Vermont’s State Board of Education adopted Common Core Standards along with 45 other states and joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to develop a new generation of tests for Common Core.  But we did not even apply for RTT.  The results of RTT were well nigh astonishing.  Seldom has so much change been achieved for so little federal money.
NCLB waivers are a continuation of RTT.  There is enough similarity between the requirements of the two programs to make this assertion.  For example, the adoption of College and Career Ready Standards (Common Core meets this requirement) and the adoption of new teacher accountability systems that take into account test scores in some way are salient features of both programs.  So Vermont’s waiver application makes perfect sense – these are requirements for a waiver.  If you don’t meet the requirements, you don’t get a waiver.
The difference between the programs is rather than dangling cash in front of revenue starved states like RTT, the waiver program dangles regulatory relief from the NCLB ticking time bomb of 100% student proficiency on tests by 2014, a statistical impossibility that will label virtually every school as failing and subject them to a draconian set of restructuring requirements, including firing their teachers and their administrators.
In essence, the Obama/Duncan administration is doing a political end run around a recalcitrant and uncooperative Congress.  In my view, the whole thing has a lot more to do with Washington power politics and whole lot less to do with student learning.  If states adopt the basic tenets of the “Blueprint”, the Obama/Duncan plan for ESEA reauthorization, wholesale via RTT and waivers, then the ESEA becomes moot, and the administration has won the political battle for education reform without firing a shot. An ESEA reauthorization, if it occurs, will merely be codification of changes led at the state level.   It is an audacious political strategy.
Why is student learning jeopardized in this scenario?  Waivers assume that all states have a similar capacity to assimilate these policies.  I found it interesting that states like Massachusetts and Colorado already have waivers in hand.  The former was a round 2 RTT state that has a huge jumpstart on the work.  The latter is a state noted for pioneering many of the innovations that are becoming embedded in Federal education policy.  In Vermont we are starting from scratch.  Ten years of slash and burn budgeting during the Douglas administration have reduced our DOE to a shell of its former self, a compliance agency for Federal formula grants.  Whatever little capacity to respond to national policy is left is embedded in outside organizations like VT-NEA.
We are left asking permission.  Instead of treating the waiver process as an opportunity to rethink systems, we treat the waiver application like a bunch of hoops to jump through - hardly a way to make effective policy.  And student learning is left out of the equation.
The great danger here is that our legislature will panic and do something nonsensical, like New York or Tennessee did around teacher evaluation.  Our legislature has a history of doing that sort of thing at the eleventh hour – things like the “two vote mandate.”  I hope instead that our leaders think about how to bring together people with interest and expertise in great education policy to rebuild Vermont’s capacity so that we can not only respond effectively to the national policy context, but learn to lead it.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Navigate Towards Your Best Hopes

The following post is from an interview with Brad Jupp by James Liou, a 2008 Teaching Ambassador Fellow from Boston.  James’ excellent blog The Teaching Pulse gives unofficial voice to the aspirations of members of the Boston Teachers Union.  I selected excerpts which follow the broad themes of Education Worker, and urge readers to check out the original interview, which is much longer - a rich and profound essay on the contemporary education policy scene.
Brad Jupp is Senior Program Advisor for Teacher Quality Initiatives in the U.S. Department of Education.  He has the ear of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and has considerable, if not central, influence on any federal policies that relate to teacher quality and effectiveness.
As a former middle school English teacher and union activist in the Denver public schools, he is most known for his role in the development of Denver’s ProComp teacher compensation system—one which ties teacher incentives to both school and student performance and growth.
JL: How has being an accomplished unionist affected how you do your work now? 
BJ: I think what I bring from my background as a union leader, first and foremost, is the sentiment that working people want first and foremost, good, fruitful jobs; not the political struggle that they often find themselves in.  And then second, I bring a really three-dimensional understanding of the psychology that [often] occurs in the relationship between unions and school districts, [and between] unions and state legislatures… Frankly, I’ve been on all sides of the table.  And I have an insight into what’s in people’s heads on all sides of the table at this point.  And that’s because [like I mentioned earlier], I pay attention to [connecting evidence to shifts in understanding with] whomever I’m working.  Over the years, [I’ve gathered] an experience base in thinking like a leader of a local, of thinking like a leader of a state affiliate, or thinking like a superintendent or thinking like a governor’s education policy aide.
So the union experience is double.  I understand the aspirations of the people that unions represent and I also understand the motivations and sentiments of people who represent large numbers of teachers.
JL: Can you think of some practical ways and avenues that you might suggest for teachers to understand, influence and implement policies….in our school districts at the local level?  How do we make policy less abstract and how do we understand it, influence it and implement it?
BJ: Be a building rep for your union, be on your building faculty senate or building committee, partner with people in the central office so that you are a practitioner [figuring out] the difficult problems of execution with administrators, because just like teachers don’t want reform to be done to them, they want it to be done with them, administrators want policy implementation to be done with them, not policy implementation arguments done to them.  And we should assume that no one wants to be part of that kind of loud argument.
And don’t hesitate to use those opportunities to be building reps and union leaders and district leaders as vehicles for career advancement.  The ambitions of teachers to be successful and efficacious are the things that actually animate the best things about their career.  And we should always be encouraging teachers to act on those aspirations.
JL: What can we do, as teachers and as members of our teachers union, to make this happen more often in general? 
BJ: In a sentence, navigate towards your best hopes and away from your worst fears.
Too much of the adversarial discourse in public education is discourse buttressed by worst fears.  ‘What if the worst principal in the world were in charge of that school?’  We need a rule to protect all teachers against the possibility of the worst principal in the world.
It’s the wrong way to be organized.  [We] should be organizing instead on ‘how do we get the best principal in the world in as many schools as we’ve got?  That means that we’re going to need really great incentive packages for principals, and by golly they might need to be paid more than teachers and as maybe as a teacher union leader, I need to advocate that we accelerate the pay for high school principals so that the working conditions in my high schools get better.
It’s a simple example, but if you begin to think like that, then you can begin to proliferate other examples.
JL: So is it up to the individual teachers in our buildings as building reps, as partners with district officials, to talk and frame the conversation in that way?  Because sometimes a lot of the rhetoric out there is very negative, as you’re probably already aware….how do we break through that?
BJ: We didn’t say, when we negotiated ProComp, ‘let’s embrace the arbitrary and capricious.’  We said instead, ‘let’s embrace the reasonable, the consistent, the credible…’ and then we said, ‘let’s make sure we’re protecting against the arbitrary and capricious by embracing [the] reasonable and consistent and credible.’  We never said anything about getting it all right.  We always said though, we want to keep our antennae up and avoid treating people badly.  And what’s more, we made a commitment to use data as a way to inform our future decisions so that we were not being arbitrary and capricious.
Again, check out the original interview!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Once a Fellow Always a Fellow

The United States Department of Education has opened the application process for Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAFs) for 2012-2013.  In 2010, I was a Classroom Fellow for the Department.  I urge any teacher with an interest in education policy to consider the Fellowship.
The path of every Fellow is unique.  We are urged to pursue our policy passions, which in my case was labor-management collaboration.  I had applied for the Fellowship in part on the basis of my work as an NEA leader on the local level. As a veteran of several negotiation cycles, I was frustrated by the disparity between processes I saw in my two districts. 
Through the Fellowship, I was introduced to Getting to Yes and the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  Astoundingly, given all the negotiations training and experience I had with VT-NEA I had never heard of this work.  The Fellowship also introduced me to the Teacher Union Reform Network and got me on the team that performed the qualitative research for the Denver Labor Management Conference.  It was in Denver that I had extensive conversations with folks from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), an incredible outfit which has got to be one of the best kept secrets of the Federal government.
As a Classroom Fellow, I was able to bring this knowledge and these resources right back to Vermont.  In the Washington Central Supervisory Union, FMCS mediators are guiding us in an Interest Based Bargaining process which is proving a revelation to participants from both sides of the table - in fact there is not a table and no sides. 
The Fellowship program looks for teachers with a record of leadership and existing networks to help facilitate conversations with practitioners.  What I did not dream of was that participation in the Fellowship would lead to the exponential growth of my own networks.
  • I joined the Teacher Leaders Network Forum at the Center for Teaching Quality.  This organization functions both as a virtual policy think tank for teacher leaders and as an action tank in promoting education change.
  • I became active in the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN), where I get to meet like-minded union leaders striving to bring the union voice to great education policy.
  • I joined the Board of Directors of my state NEA affiliate, VT-NEA, attended RA, spoke in front of 9000 delegates, and helped organize a TURN caucus that supported the NEA leadership on  the policy statement on teacher evaluation.
  • I attended the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards conference in Washington and learned how to do effective Congressional lobbying.
  • Finally, all this work led me to create a resource for other teachers interested in Labor Management Collaboration – Education Worker.
As the TAF Director Gillian Cohen-Boyer is fond of saying, “Once a Fellow, always a Fellow.”  In fact, on the website it says that “For Fellows, the program adds greater knowledge of educational policy and leadership to their toolkits to contribute to solutions at all levels for long intractable challenges in education.”  I hope I was of service to the department during my official Fellowship year, but I know they trained and prepared me to be far more effective than I ever dreamed going forward in what Mark Simon calls “advocating in the public interest from a teacher’s perspective.”   
Every Teaching Ambassador Fellow’s journey is unique. The diversity of the group and the diversity of the leadership work of past and present TAFs is astonishing … but it’s also only a beginning.