deepening the dialogue

New York

Teachers Working To Create Their Own Evaluation Plan

Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange. Dear Marc, I read with great interest your recent post on treating teachers like professionals. I share many of the values you listed and consider most of them to be part of our culture of professionalism at Renaissance, a fully unionized, conversion charter school. I am very happy to report to you our newest initiative. We are working in collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers to modify our teacher evaluation plan both to bring us into compliance with Race to the Top requirements and to reflect better what an innovative teacher evaluation system can and should look like in a knowledge economy. A knowledge economy requires students to be intellectually skilled, therefore creating a highly educated labor force with a competitive advantage. (For more on this topic, see the 2005 book "Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools.") What is particularly exciting is that we have asked our teachers to draft the plan. The road will not be easy especially with the Race to the Top student performance measurements that must be included.  Still, in a time when there is so much emphasis on standardized test scores, I believe we have a real opportunity to craft a plan that blends statewide measurements with other indicators of authentic learning. As a K-12 school this is a huge task, but it is one that can be instrumental in measuring teaching and learning over time.
New York

Schools That Treat Teachers Like Professionals

Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, and Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter High School, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange. Stacey, Even though I won’t use this post to react to all the ideas you listed in regards to “what makes education in Finland that good,” please keep the lists coming! If there is a dominant theme that runs through your list, it seems to be that teachers in Finland are truly valued and respected — that the profession on teaching is truly that — professional. I know I don’t need to go into the myriad ways that is not true in America, especially right now. Moving the American education system, and the larger society in which it exists, to a place where teaching is truly a profession will require more than just changing the system; it will require systemic change. But as school leaders at autonomous schools we need not wait for larger change. So I am going to throw my own list at you that describes efforts to value teachers at our new network of schools in Denver. It’s hard to become a SOAR teacher. We have a competitive, extensive, and intensive selection process for new teachers. Entry into our community isn’t easy. Teachers are held to high expectations. In education we often talk about the importance of high expectations for students. We also must have high expectations for teachers. Our teachers know that great things are expected of them. Accountability must support the culture of high expectations. And I don’t mean the student growth-data type of accountability that is coming into vogue.
New York

Changing the System, Finnish-Style

Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange. Dear Marc, I really enjoyed reading your last letter. As you know, I have a background in anthropology and so I particularly enjoyed the way you wove a reference to Alvin Toffler into our conversation. As an information-age society we can and should expect our educational system to support the changing needs of society. I would further add that the information age brings the need to nurture globally-minded citizens who will be working either actually or virtually around world. Global education includes second- and third-language mastery, geography, economics, environmental science/agriculture, and other relevant social sciences. And while I hesitate a bit jumping into a discussion that is more political philosophy, the need for a system that fosters humanistic education seems to be screaming to be heard. To quote one of my mentors, Dr. Monte Joffee, founding principal of Renaissance Charter School, "We will know we are successful when we are able to have both high student achievement and humanistic education in all of our schools." The attributes you listed in your post seem to indicate you share this belief. Unfortunately, I often feel that our efforts as school leaders do tend to fall much more into the "piecemeal" change category. I think this is both because we are too busy trying to work within the existing system and thus don't have the time to be revolutionaries and also that the kind of change you are talking about requires a real movement. Clearly, there is an educational reform agenda being pushed by some very influential people and some of their agenda does seem in line with your Info-Age paradigm shift, but not all does. So I gather that we are both looking at creating a different movement. Given all this, I decided to do some really quick research on Finland and its education system. The country is often raised as a model and interestingly, for New York at least, is fully unionized. I found  an interesting blog post by Bert Maes, who writes about industry and education, titled, "What makes education in Finland that good? 10 reform principles behind the success." By now you know I have a thing for lists, so here is my summary of what I read (more than 10):
New York

Reframing The Issue On Systemic Change

Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange. Dear Marc, Your response to my last post really got me thinking. One of the main problems with a discussion like this is that we are in the midst of a crisis as we are trying to make sense of the issues. This is very hard to do when long-standing schools are being closed all around us, lives uprooted, hard-fought-for union negotiated policies challenged, budgets dwindling and our neediest student populations growing. And yes, I do think we are in the midst of an educational crisis in New York City, New York State and this country. As educational systems we are not successful at educating all of the young people under our care. Now, before all the comments pour in on this statement, please know that 1) I recognize that there are many schools, even failing schools, that educate students who succeed academically and 2) I most certainly understand that the issues of poverty and the broader social disadvantages make our jobs much, much harder to do. Still, we cannot and should not allow these to become excuses for our not doing all we can to fight for the neediest students' success. I would find it hard to believe that there is anyone who would say that our system in New York City is working the way we want it to. However, if there is someone, I would love to hear from that person. I do believe in our accountability as educational professionals and organizations. On a personal note regarding accountability, I believe that every child that fails in my school is my failure. And the reverse is also true  — every child that succeeds is my success. I think every educational professional should feel this responsibility. I also firmly support parental accountability. It is only with the collective responsibility that we can make the shift from individualized success to systemic success. This is why education is more than a profession in so many ways — it is a mission. This is also why some of the arguments out there that attack the many hard-working, dedicated and mission-driven professionals — teachers, school staff, administrators — need to stop. But conversations around what our effectiveness should look need to be expanded and moved from blame to action. And with this action plan must come the infrastructure necessary to support success. I would like to ask you for a moment to pretend that we had the advantage of knowing all we know right now about the school systems we work in and we were starting from scratch to set-up the best infrastructure to support a system of great schools. Sure, it is the perfect fantasy: 20/20 hindsight, no emotions, no change, no PEP meetings, no constant blame-game interviews of why we are where we are today. I'm getting tired of it all and believe it is stifling the much-needed work that is urgently waiting to get done while we fight. Here are the questions I would ask:
New York

Report Card For School Success

Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange. Hi Marc, I've been thinking about your question asking me for my metaphor for the concept of teacher effectiveness. The direct answer is that I am a firm believer in these three C's for organizational success: collaboration, cooperation and communication. Therefore, while individual teacher effectiveness is important, in the end we need a team of effective educators to have a successful school. So with that, and with no slight intended to the work it takes personally to be a successful educator, let me challenge somewhat the concept of teacher effectiveness in and of itself. I want to argue that effective schools, as organizations, help create effective teachers. Now, I realize that this is a bit of a chicken and egg argument, but let me take this further. I understand that there are "stars" in many schools, no matter how poorly functioning the school itself may be. Hey, these are the folks of "To Sir with Love" and "Stand and Deliver." There are also less effective teachers in all of the top-rated schools. And while ideally we want the best performance from each individual, and operationally we must strive for each and every staff member in a school to be highly effective, the measure of a great school is a collective one, not an individual one. So, here is my list of the attributes for a highly effective school. I do not claim to be the originator of any of these, so thanks to all those people who have been advocating for these ideas. Please note that I did not put this list in value order and certainly there are schools that beat the odds by not having all of the ingredients which may in and of itself tell you something about the value of each attribute. You may notice, I hope, several charter school characteristics that I suggest should be available to all schools. Strong school-wide accountability objectives that both create a culture of high expectations for all students and understands the need to start where the kids are at (I want to thank Dr. Art Pritchard for our excellent conversation on this topic). Teacher leadership and decision-making ability.
New York

A Metaphor for Teacher Effectiveness

Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, and Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School in Queens, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange. Stacey, Let's shift gears slightly from teacher incentives to a connected topic — teacher effectiveness. As with so many terms in education, this is a bit of a jargony term and also one that 20 people might give 20 different definitions for. The concept of teacher effectiveness as currently used as part of the dominant narrative seems to be pretty straightforward — the more academic growth students show while the responsibility of an individual teacher the more effective that teacher is. Of course, this definition opens up a slew of questions. Here are just a few: What data are used, and how are they used, to measure academic growth? How is an individual teacher's impact on a student or group of students differentiated from other variables that might also impact growth?What happens in those subjects and/or grade levels where standardized assessments don't yet exist? The concept of teacher effectiveness has been used by schools and districts as the underpinning of merit pay and incentive systems. I found it interesting to learn through your last post that your school does not tie incentives to individual teachers' effectiveness. I wonder if this is because of the difficulties in evaluating effectiveness or because the potential impact on the culture of collegiality you have built or for some other reason. A new trend in public education is to use teacher effectiveness as a concept to underpin teacher evaluation. I won't claim to be an expert on all the current plans across the country or even in Denver (where legislation was recently passed on this topic specifically). At schools I have helped start and run we have never considered using student growth data as part of a teacher's evaluation, and I don't think we will any time soon even though the schools themselves have to meet very specific benchmarks in order to remain open. (Among other issues, I have definitely seen years where weak teachers have students show strong growth in test scores while the students of great teachers show little growth in test scores. It happens.) I have started to spend time thinking more deeply about the idea both as it might play out in the larger public school system and how it could play out at an individual charter school.
New York

Improving Teacher Quality Through Teacher Incentive Funds

Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, a principal of a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange. Dear Marc, You asked whether paying more to teachers is one possible long-term solution to improving teacher quality. Paying more money to teachers is not enough by itself, but it can be one part of an overall school-wide improvement plan that would have a positive impact on teacher effectiveness. The federal Teacher Incentive Fund is a program that supports efforts to develop and implement performance-based compensation systems so that teachers and administrators are rewarded financially for increases in student achievement. A first-year teacher in NYC with a master's degree is paid around $50,000 and currently has a very competitive health and pension benefits' package. I added the word currently because many of us fear that these benefits are threatened as costs become unmanageable. We continue to see these packages being diminished piece by piece. I know we are in a recession and this gives us adequate cause to tackle our spending challenges, but this has not stopped us from bailing out failing companies or ensuring that Wall Street gets its bonuses. I understand the need to do both of these things and support the notion of the trickle-down effect. But, as you mentioned, education is an investment in our society that serves a purpose greater than the individual successes achieved. I find it ironic that at the same time we are pushing for massive educational reforms we seem to be attacking some of the very benefits that attract people into the profession and make them want to stay. I am not a fan of getting short-term dynamic teachers into the system who will do their three-year stint and leave. Imagine this type of setup in medicine, law or scientific research?  I am a fan of getting dynamic, highly qualified individuals into teaching who consider their profession as a calling, a mission or in the words of Joseph Campbell — a heroic journey.
New York

Pay Teachers More?

Marc Waxman, a principal of a charter school in Denver, and Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange. Dear Stacey, As I was preparing to write back to you I decided to read a column in Huffington Post by Randi Weingarten. And, as I was reading it I saw the link to the "manifesto" signed by your chancellor in New York City and my superintendent here in Denver. I won't get into the arguments for or against each of these articles other than to say that the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. But, interestingly, the "manifesto" has a direct connection to your last correspondence to me. It states: District leaders also need the authority to use financial incentives to attract and retain the best teachers. When teachers are highly effective — measured in significant part by how well students are doing academically — or are willing to take a job in a tough school or in a hard-to-staff subject area such as advanced math or science, we should be able to pay them more. Important initiatives, such as the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, are helping bring great educators to struggling communities, but we have to change the rules to professionalize teaching. In last correspondence, you wrote, "Four years ago teachers voted overwhelmingly to participate in the Teacher Incentive Fund program (Partnership for Compensation in Charter Schools, a collaboration between CEI-PEA and nine charter schools)." You may remember that the conversion charter school I co-founded and co-directed in Harlem, Future Leaders Institute, also voted on whether to participate in the Teacher Incentive Fund program. There, teachers narrowly voted against participation. Now that your school has been part of the program for several years, I would love to hear more about how it is going.
New York

Teacher Leadership and Change

Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, a principal of a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange. Hi Marc, Your last letter to me discussing Denver Green School got me thinking about the absolute necessity of teacher voice in the whole discussion of improving education. Before I answer your question about Renaissance's collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) let me frame it first with some recent experiences I've had. Last week, I saw "Waiting for 'Superman.'" It is a heart-wrenching documentary about families seeking a great education for their kids and mostly not getting it. It raises the important issue of teacher quality as the mainstay of this great education. Who can argue with that? No one — not labor, special interests, charter advocates, politicians, educrats. This is good news because we can agree on something and that is a starting point for constructive dialogue. And speaking of dialogue, over the last year, I have followed the New York Post and its series called "The War on Charters." I would like to change the tone of this to "A Dialogue on Charters." This might seem to be just semantics, but sometimes, as in the classic Gloria Estefan song, "the words get in the way." Being in a war and having a dialogue are two very different experiences. I also followed all the education reform conversations around Race to the Top and improving education in America. As for these dialogues, teachers as agents of change were never really mentioned. Huh, you say?Sure, we talked about serving more special needs students in charter schools, eliminating rubber rooms, tying teacher performance to test scores and tenure (all important), but not the actual role of teachers themselves in bringing the change we all agree must happen into fruition. In the DPS piece, Buck highlights a core premise that is missing from "Waiting for 'Superman'" and the political debate — the role of teacher leadership in promoting real and meaningful systemic educational reform.
New York

Blurring the Lines

Hi Stacey, In your letter to me, you ended by writing "... I would love to hear how unions and charter schools co-exist in Denver." While I don't pretend to be an expert on the teacher union in Denver, I do have some experience on the issue. (Over the past couple years, I worked for Denver Public Schools in its New Schools Office  — now the Office of School Reform and Innovation — in various capacities including as executive director.) Long story short, out of the 30 or so charter schools in Denver, I am not sure any (maybe one) has a union presence. In fact, in Denver it is not obligatory that teachers in traditional public schools join the union, so in many schools there is quite a mix of teachers that are in the union and those that are not. This being said, I think there are some really interesting things going on with collective bargaining agreements, and in some real ways there is a blurring of the lines between charter schools and traditional public schools. What has made this possible is a law that came on the books shortly before I got to Denver called the Innovation Schools Act of 2008. Here's how the act describes itself: The Innovation Schools Act is intended to improve student outcomes by supporting greater school autonomy and flexibility in academic and operational decision-making. The Act provides a means for schools and districts to gain waivers from state laws and collective bargaining agreements. The Act allows a public school or group of public schools to submit an innovation plan to its school district board of education to implement innovations that result in improved student outcomes. Once approved, school district boards of education must submit the innovation plans and waiver requests to the Colorado State Board of Education for ratification.
New York

An Open, Honest, Transcontinental Dialogue Starts Now

Dear GothamSchools Community, A few weeks ago, as I read through GothamSchools, I saw a link to a column written by Marc Waxman. Even though Marc now lives in Denver, I know him well. For over a decade he worked in New York City where he worked as a teacher and administrator at KIPP Bronx and then founded and directed (with his wife) a school in Harlem which became a conversion charter school several years ago. Since his school and mine, Renaissance Charter School in Queens, are one of only five conversion charter schools in the city, we worked closely on many issues. After emailing with Marc about some technical issues relevant to running multiple charter schools (something I am working on here in NYC and Marc is doing in Denver), Marc invited me to enter into a public dialogue with him (a la Diane Ravitch and Debbie Meier). This letter is the kickoff of that dialogue. I was delayed in getting this first installment for GothamSchools' community page. Why was I late? Well, I am a school principal (aka leader, administrator, management) and this is the beginning of the third week of school. Things are busy and I am working — 60-plus hours a week. This is not meant to get sympathy — I have a big job to do and failure is just not an option — but okay, you say, where is this going? I am also busy leaving no child behind, chartering new territory (yes, this is a clue to my background), racing to the top (did I say I am afraid of heights?), advocating for anything advocatable (I am asking that this become a new eduterm), analyzing data to do all of these things and now I stand outside school every day waiting for superman.  He has not arrived. At least not yet.