Assessing Teaching

Have you read the book “Never Work Harder Than Your Students”? (I didn’t) It’s true of course you should not be working harder to cover the content you are teaching than the students, after all you know this stuff and they don’t.

The hard work is in creating the setting for learning in your classroom. If you are not exhausted at the end of the day from capitalizing on learning moments and teasing out formal products from half-baked ideas you aren’t doing your job.


It’s hard.


So how does a teacher know they are teaching, and not managing content? (or “How does a teacher assess quality teaching?”) Good question I’m glad I asked myself that.

If the students are putting all of their energy into passing the test, if they are cheating, staying up late to study, asking for extra credit, etc…. then their focus is on passing the class and not learning the material, therefore failure (and not in the good sense).

Try not to misunderstand that last paragraph, but no, I will not explain it.

Perhaps we shouldn’t go too far the other way either. Public education (not plain education) isn’t all about teaching students to love learning, true we want people to become lifelong learners, but we also want them to have a solid grasp of content (the CCSS is a start, but needs to be cut waaaaaay down). Focusing too much on content is wrong, but never considering content is also wrong. All that teaching time cannot be focused on building a love for learning, it has to be more than that.

How do teachers know when they are focusing too much on just loving to learn? When students don’t know their content. This however, has nothing to do with tests. Students don’t know content when they pass a test, they know content when they use the content in a way they haven’t been taught. True mastery of content is being able to see and understand the basic concepts underlying the content and then connecting in a unique way. (Now try to measure that)

Are we teaching to mastery? Should we teach to mastery in every subject? How do we standardize, the assessment of mastery, in this way?

I’m sorry I don’t have the answers to these questions for you. All I know is that good teaching is somewhere between teaching a love for learning (as well as good practices in learning) and finding mastery of content. At the end of the day most of the particulars of the content will be gone, but the relationships between that content and our lives will remain.

A wonderful quote from John Merrow’s blog Taking Note might just say it better.

“Tim Best and other teachers at Science Leadership Academy told me that projects are designed to teach both content and process. … And science process, you could argue, is almost more important for the general person who is not going to be a scientist.”


The “almost” really means, in my opinion, that it IS more important, but is not the only thing of importance.

Better Homework

In yesterday’s problem we took apart a poorly designed math homework. Essentially the math textbook asked the students to practice a highly sophisticated method of addition.


The strategy for breaking one number and adding it to the first to make a 10 then mentally adding the rest is great, but probably should come naturally as it occurs to students as opposed to being forced on them. The real problem is the students who need it the most probably wouldn’t come upon this strategy naturally. So what we have to do is teach this strategy to our students so they can add it to their arsenal of weapons to use when solving math problems. We want to do all of this without actually walking them through a step by step process.

Why not just teach a strategy straight out? Two reasons: First teaching a procedure doesn’t always lead to “ownership” of the procedure. Second, because that isn’t the hard part of math. The hard part is recognizing when it might be the best strategy to use. (Which I suppose is kind of the definition of ownership.)

So for homework (and I am really against homework, but if you insist on giving it at least make it painless and force the parents to be involved as more than a checker of correctness) I might take these same problems and then ask them to choose one and talk out a strategy. They could use a phone or iPad to record the strategy, or call my google voice number and leave a message, They could tell it to their parents, or in any number or methods. The one caveat might be, if they are leaving me a recording it has to be less than 15 second long. (Do you ever notice how much you ramble when you are unsure of yourself?),  The next day I might ask two or three or even four students if I could play their recording or if they would like to explain their method. Then I could ask the rest of the class if they tried a similar or different method.

Another alternative, I could ask them to ask their parents to solve one of the problems in their head and teach them the steps they took. Then the student would have to do a different problem and explain the steps back to their parents.

A third alternative, I might ask the students to choose one problem and ask the them to solve it in 3 different ways. Explaining their work each time. I like to encourage a voice recording the when a procedure is new, because it is easier for the kids, I just want them to keep redoing it until it is short enough so that I can listen to 30 in less than a week.

Yes the textbook and I would like to teach the students all of the great strategies for addition, but I think they are going about it the wrong way. They are pulling each strategy out and teaching it explicitly, so instead of learning one way of “doing” addition students are forced to learn a plethora of ways to “do” addition. Completely missing the point of understanding the concept of addition and choosing the best strategy based on the situation.

By asking students to talk about how they solve a problem in their head, especially with others like parents, students are exposed to a variety of strategies for “doing” math.  By choosing to have students explain a few different methods the teacher can then make sure each child is exposed to all the strategies she feels the students should know. Now instead of asking students to solve a problem by the “making tens” method we can ask students which method did they choose. Did you choose Bobby’s method, Sarah’s mom’s method, etc… and why did you choose that method?

The point is not to make students practice problems, but to give them an arsenal to choose from and the knowledge of which weapon works in which situation.

A conversation

You should comment more on blogs.

Sure pot calling the kettle black and all, I don’t comment as often on blogs as I should, but still you should.

Not because I want to feel special, but I do every time you make a comment.

You should comment simply because it furthers learning. It forces me and my blog, and you by extension because you are reading it, to think, grow, and evolve.

And no please don’t comment here just for the sake of commenting, go find another blog that has few comments and just say something, even something that is critical.


Vergara v. California

I think a lot of people have heard the buzz about the Vergara v. California case in california last week.

I was particularly interested in the response from our Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

I don’t think the last sentence could be emphasized enough …”we all need to continue to address other inequities in education–including school funding, access to quality early childhood programs and school discipline.”

Tenure is not the primary cause of problems in schools and those who attack tenure first are not looking to improve schools they are trying to destroy education. If you want to improve education in our worst schools, start with repairing or replacing the buildings, feed the children 3 times a day with healthy food (not the crap they feed them now), make the schools inviting, keep the schools open until 9PM and hold parenting classes, English classes for adults, dance, art, anything to increase the sense of pride and culture in a neighborhood.

Education is more than just skills and standards, it’s the glue that binds us. More on this tomorrow I hope.

Edcampusa, pedagogy not policy

Monday June 9th, 2014


Four days ago it was my youngest son’s birthday. I woke up early and made him breakfast in bed, handed over presents of a Lego Steve and toy light sabers (he is way too young for a real light saber), then I packed my bags.

lego steve lightsaber


My wife and I had debated driving all night on the 4th, but instead decided we really didn’t have enough resources to drive the family 1,000 miles away in a car with well over 200,000 miles on it just so dad could go to a conference. Again and again I’ve had to justify to my wife why I was spending my own money to go to Washington DC for a conference. She is used to losing me for the occasional Saturday, especially when the conferences are free, this time I spent close to $400 to pay for the trip.

Luckily I have relatives who would have taken offense if I didn’t sleep in the guest room and eat all their food because my district won’t pay for out-of-state conferences. I also used vacation days, I don’t earn professional development credit, and as career networking goes, well this is education and an edcamp to boot, there just won’t be high-powered executive looking to hire away great talent. I love my job, but occasionally I dream about being able to pay the mortgage on a regular basis.

On Friday June 6th 7:30 AM I showed my driver’s license to the security guard and was permitted to enter the hallowed halls of the Department of Education. Over the past several months an energetic and very excited teacher fellow, Emily Davis (I think the only person, besides myself, at the edcamp who follows more people on twitter then she has followers), had worked hard to carve out space for us edcampers to do what we do at edcamps right there under the noses of the driving force of programs such as Race To The Top.

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Mr. Duncan stopped in for a few minutes in the morning and then was off.  The cynical amongst us called it a drive by, others reasoned that one should not expect the Secretary of Education to dump his entire schedule to chat up a random selection of teachers. (Rumor has it that he had an interview with NPR.)


There were some folks from the Department of Education in the sessions with us, some more obvious than others. The great thing about an edcamp is one person is the same as another. Perhaps if Duncan had stuck around, all the sessions he took part in would have devolved into a group of people trying to talk at him, (and occasionally throwing tomatoes). It may have been for the best that he left us alone to try to do what we do at edcamp.

topicsThere are always a few session on policy at an edcamp. This of course was edcampusa, some, perhaps all, thought is was the opportunity to have real teacher voice heard at the Department of Education. Whatever, we aren’t the first group of teachers to visit, though perhaps the first grassroots group of teachers.  Edcampers are by no means a political organization, rather they are educators who are actively stepping up to make changes in their schools and classroom.  I guess, being invited to the Department of Education felt like being asked to consult on policy.

policyDuring edcampchicago in 2012 (maybe 2013) I led a session on the RESPECT document. A paper written by former Department of Education fellows about how they envision a “renewed and transformed teaching profession in the 21st Century.” I talked to one of those fellows during that time and she said that as Arnie went on a bus tour around the country they would set up shop at each stop and ask teachers to comment and improve the document. There was space online at the Department of Education website, that allowed interested educators to comment on the document. During my session at edcampchicago of 300 attendees I think 4 showed up.

At edcampusa my session on webmaking with Mozilla was only attended by one person. (the session on maker spaces had 6 I think) She knew more about the subject than I did. As a college professor she was excited to see what happens when kids get a hold of tools such as webmaker and Scratch. On the other end of the spectrum, sessions on “How we should schools be evaluated” and “Measuring Education” were generally full.  I guess we should forget about the classroom and focus on fixing education, isn’t that the way most reformers do it?

At work as a technology integration and professional developer I spend a lot of time talking about pedagogy.  Using technology is not about the technology, it’s about quality teaching practices. The teachers don’t like it, the new boss wrote me up for it. Yet, I refuse to change, I refuse to be a person who teaches tools. (Seriously, when was the last time your boss hired someone to teach you how to use the accounting software at work?)

Most teachers and edcampers aren’t policy wonks, they are interested in changing classrooms. This can be seen as policy talk, but what we really do at edcamp is talk pedagogy, even if we don’t call it pedagogy. Pedagogy is the basis of quality classroom instruction, it is also the bedrock under which we should write school policy.

The natural question is how much of the policy talk actually made it across to the people in the Department of Education. Were the people from the Department of Education, that joined us in session mostly teacher fellows, there for a year and gone, or were they full-time staffers who actually have a voice in creating education policy? (How many people in these huge public buildings actually affect policy and how many just keep the government running?) We certainly had a star-studded group of educators who could speak well on such topics as education policy. Just these 8 could make a think tank worth millions.

Then again, to not have heard what we have been saying for so many years, testing is being misused and is statistically useless for evaluating teachers, schools need to be more student-centered, teachers need a voice, the model of schools we use is hopelessly outdated, and more. All of these things are not new, they are not a big secret. Heck, most of them are in the RESPECT document. They are just not being implemented.

Did we need to go to the Department of Education to tell them? Or do they need to come to us and see what we really do? Tom Whitby suggested that instead of doing a bunch of edcampusa in Washington DC, the staff should leave Washington and visit edcamps around the country. I know they have gone out in the past to visit schools, but the dog and pony shows that happen when outsiders visit a classroom is not a true indication of what really happens in our schools. Take a Saturday and spend 5 or 6 hours with teachers, don’t even tell them you are from the DOE, edcamps are like that, they don’t check your credentials at the door. Just be careful you might learn something.

Philosophy of Education at a School

The Academy will prepare elementary school students for rigorous secondary studies through exceptional foreign language programs, outstanding academics, and rich extracurricular activities. Its innovative interdisciplinary programs will instill within its graduates a global perspective.

Based on a pressing community need as described by local parents and community leadership, the Academy will prepare students in grades K-6 for both knowledge-based careers and lives as members of a democratic society through classwork that emphasizes global awareness and continual enrollment in foreign language classes.

This is the philosophy of education of a charter school. I took the above from a website and removed the name, but honestly is it any different from most schools? Are they really saying anything?

Rigorous – a word without a clear meaning

Outstanding academics – has anyone really believed that schools would skimp on the academics?

Rich extracurricular activities – I love how this is a bonus in charter schools, but an extra available for cutting in public schools.

Prepare students for knowledge based careers; lives as members of a democratic society; and global awareness (through foreign language) – I think this is part of the mission statement of every school in the country.

When we think philosophy of education why are we thinking content? Why don’t we think of method of delivering content? Especially at a charter school.

Try this for a philosophy at your school – We will meet our mission blah, blah, blah, all the stuff above, through classrooms that emphasize student independence, project based learning, critical thinking, measured through informal formative measures daily. Graded through student portfolios.

Or perhaps that is too liberal and wishy-washy. Your school would rather emphasize a back to the basics curriculum. – We will meet our mission blah, blah, blah, all the stuff above, through strict classroom discipline, expert content delivery, measured through objective testing, and graded through accomplishment.

Now which school would you like to send your child too? Better yet rewrite a school philosophy that works for you.