“Growing” children into capable, contributing adults

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As a long time educator and parent of 5 children, we have seen phases of how to approach “growing” children into capable, contributing adults come and go and then return for another cycle. These phases focus on terms and topics such as “growing children’s self-esteem”, delivering praise, determining behavioral consequences, becoming “helicopter parents”, etc. Just today, I saw an ASCD article about delivering praise and heard the term “helicopter parents” on a radio talk show. SO, I have revived an article I wrote in the 1990s which seems as apropos today as it was many years ago.

Self-esteem is the elusive factor that many researchers have identified as critical to young people becoming “high” or “low” risk members of society. Success, feeling good, doing well, or the dictionary definition “having a favorable impression of oneself” might lead us to believe that we only add to our self- esteem when things go well. Since we know that “high risk” kids are generally ones with low self- esteem, the key question becomes, how do we increase, add to, raise, or enhance self-esteem for children — or maybe, the question is: How do children develop their own self-esteem?

H. Stephen Glenn, an expert who has dedicated his work toward training and authoring books to “Develop Capable Young People” by helping adults become more capable in their skills for working with children defines CAPABLE as an essential piece of self-esteem. “People need to believe they are CAPABLE.” How does one develop this belief? Is it done for them or by them? Could it be that each of us develops our own self-esteem – our own perception of who we are and what we can do? Could it be that others can’t do that for us? Oh, we can get feedback from others but, each of us filters that feedback like water through a purifier. What goes in is not what comes out!

Research tells us that much of our sense of CAPABLE comes from knowing we can have difficult times and learn or grow from them; that life has bumps and we have the skills, stamina, courage, and whatever else we need to survive them. If we believe self-esteem develops in this way, could it be that the pressure adults (teachers and parents) take on to “ease the way” through life for kids is exactly the opposite of what should be done? Would it be better for children to learn that life is full of mistakes, little failures, disappointments and — that they are CAPABLE of dealing with them. Wouldn’t it be better for children to encounter smaller difficulties earlier and in smaller doses when support from adults is both available and accepted than to wait for larger ones to become life threatening?

Think about the straight A student who has everything going for him or her; class president, athletic hero, tremendous parent involvement – who gets a B or breaks up with a steady friend – and decides the world has come to an end. Have we taught children that the only time they can see themselves as CAPABLE is when the world is problem or disappointment free? As you think about what to do when situations in children’s lives require adults’ to get involved, you might want to ask yourself two questions: 1) Will s/he believe her/himself as CAPABLE as a result of what I do? 2) Will s/he truly be more CAPABLE? If the answer is “yes”, do it!

Children who experience the “real” world early in their development will develop the coping skills and attitudes that support them throughout their lives. Children who see themselves as CAPABLE are not the children who make decisions that will hurt them!

I wonder if this is not just as true for some of the adults in today’s world.

Helen Ryley

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Creating the Right Setting for Self-Evaluation

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There is no magic formula to creating an environment in which self-evaluation can flourish, but there are some underlying principles that will help you to gain some personal clarity, establish a conducive setting and keep the school moving in the right direction at the right speed. It is essential to remember that people carry out self-evaluation and this is where you must initially focus your attention if you want the processes to work. Without the people aspect, you will simply have a production line that runs at a pre-set speed and churns out the same thing time after time – this is when self-evaluation becomes a meaningless activity and is essentially a burden on any school.

Create an inspiring vision for the school

Strategy is about big picture and about taking a long-term view that transcends day-to-day operational issues. It is very easy to get sucked into the detail and bogged down in the minutia of daily life in the school, but you must make sure that you filter what is most important and relevant. You can only do this if you have a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve — a representation of what your strategy will actually deliver.

  • Establish in a vision takes time but it is time well spent.
  • Imagine what the school’s future will be like.
  • The vision should be clear and simple.

Your vision should be an aspirational description of what the school will look like in the future. It should allow people to see a picture in their mind and imagine what the school will achieve and accomplish, as well as providing them with a clear direction to plan their future goals and actions. If you represent the vision purely in words, then it is left open to different interpretations of language and things will get lost in translation.

As principal, you may understand and appreciate the importance of having a clearly articulated vision, but what about your senior leaders … your middle leaders … your teachers … your governors? Think about bringing different these different stakeholders together for a session during which you collectively create a vision board that summarizes and represents your school’s vision, which can then be displayed and shared across the school.

What makes your school unique and different from the school down the road? Your vision needs to answer this question and should serve as a marketing tool to convince potential parents that this is the school community that their children need to be part of. Yet, producing a vision and engaging in self-evaluation and improvement are not unique to schools, so reading about approaches outside education can help you think in a different way and see things from a different perspective — look to other cultures, education systems and the world of business for inspiration.

Create the right environment for people to buy in

This may sound a little obvious, but you might be surprised by the number of times school leaders struggle with some of the things they are asked to do in the name of self-evaluation. One of the biggest barriers to successful self-evaluation is when people blindly take part in activities where they have little emotional investment. In other words, they are simply going through the motions. Although this may ensure that the processes run and that some form of evaluation activity actually takes place, it is neither a useful nor profitable approach and wastes precious time and energy.

  • So how do you create the right environment for people to buy-in to self-evaluation?
  • Basically, you have to live your values and lead by example.
  • The buck may stop with you, but you cannot do it alone!

Demonstrate integrity by following your own advice, being honest and treating others the way you wish to be treated. In the context of self-evaluation, this means challenging yourself about what you are asking other people to do and being sure that your motives are clear enough and they understand why this action is important. By focusing on the why rather than the what or how, you will increase buy-in and subsequently accelerate the pace and speed of the process.

Practice humility by not letting your ego control your thoughts and actions. Instead of comparing yourself and your school to others — and then trying to do everything yourself — focus on how you can help the people around you to achieve their part of the evaluation and improvement process.

Practice humility by not letting your ego control your thoughts and actions. Instead of comparing yourself and your school to others — and then trying to do everything yourself — focus on how you can help the people around you to achieve their part of the evaluation and improvement process.

Share your gratitude. Schools can only realize their strategy by working in teams and it is important to build in opportunities for recognition and acknowledgment of this. The most effective schools distribute their self-evaluation across all parts of their community — remember the Ninja metaphor and the pitfalls it can create!

Engage all stakeholders with authenticity and purpose

The most important thing to remember is that everyone must be pulling in the same direction and share a sense of urgency to make things happen. As principal, you need to be explicit about everyone’s responsibilities and set clear expectations and boundaries. Each individual should be able to explain their key priority — the main focus in their area of responsibility at any given point in time — and then be able to articulate their contribution to both evaluation and improvement.

Have courage and take responsibility for getting things done

It is important to realise that, although exterior conditions do have an impact, it is your internal decisions that are far more important when it comes to the actions you take and the type of school you are striving to create. As principal, your job is simply to take charge of the school’s self-evaluation, which requires responsibility, courage and discipline. Now that you have ensured that everyone understands the contribution they are expected to make to self-evaluation, your job is to set key targets and milestones that will allow you, and your senior leaders, to take the pulse and manage the rhythm of school improvement.

Create unity and motivate your team to perform

The successful delivery of your school’s self-evaluation will depend and rely on the people who implement the process. It is very rare that schools do not have some appropriate processes in place, but it is much more likely that they do not have consistent behaviors among their people. As principal, you need to understand how to motivate the different individuals on your teams and ensure that everyone understands that successful teams deliver more than the sum of each individual’s effort. There will inevitably be times when it would be quicker for you to do things yourself but demonstrating respect and empathy in the workplace means showing others that their ideas and opinions are valued. If someone makes a suggestion it is important that their voice is heard and that you, and their colleagues, do not dismiss it too quickly. Team building is a learned skill and fundamental to that skill is the ability to identify the individual’s voice and ensure that voice is recognized by the wider group.

See obstacles as challenges and opportunities to grow

Having a strategy for school-led self-evaluation is important but having the capacity to be flexible and adaptable when circumstances change is just as important. There are inevitably times when the unexpected will occur and you are faced with giving up or pushing through — this is where resilience and perseverance come into play.

The speed at which your school will deliver its self-evaluation is as much about managing the challenges and obstacles that get in your way than aligning performance with targets and goals. If you have someone on your team that you know is skilled in an area you may be lacking, don’t be afraid to go and ask them for help — remember everyone has a special talent and skill looking for an opportunity to shine and add value.

Despite their hierarchical position in the school, principals are often left feeling vulnerable and isolated, especially when things are not going well. As principal, you need to accept that feedback is rarely intended to insult — even when it may appear blunt and negative. It is important to learn to take whatever truth there may be in the criticism and act to move forward rather than dwell on it.

  • Never give up!
  • We often underestimate the time and amount of effort a goal will take to achieve.
  • Instead of giving up or lowering the mark, give yourself more time and/or increase your efforts.

Schools are learning organizations and, as such, have developed highly effective systems for reflection, review and development that are applied to personalize students’ learning. It should therefore be a relatively easy and natural progression to extend this same philosophy to a school’s self-evaluation to ensure that it is truly personalized to the needs of the school.

Reflect — what is working well and what is not?

Review — what challenges and obstacles are we facing?

Develop — what can we do differently to make sure our self-evaluation remains fit for purpose?

Blend all the pieces to develop sustainable practices

We already know that self-evaluation is an ongoing process rather than a one-off or intermittent event, so how do we blend all the principles together to develop and implement a coherent strategy that creates sustainable self-evaluation practice in the school?

  • Don’t try to do it alone!
  • Keep it simple — prevent yourself and your school from over-complicating things to the point of paralysis and inaction.
  • Create a clear and compelling vision to engage all stakeholders and make sure they understand their contribution.
  • Break every action up into smaller pieces until each individual chunk seems like a manageable task (focus and plan for one priority).
  • Define and articulate the behaviors you expect from your people.
  • Recognize, acknowledge and celebrate success.
  • Navigate obstacles — adapt your approach — learn from your experience.

Once you have developed your strategy it will be much easier to embed effective self-evaluation into your school’s practice … the next challenge is to ensure it is sustainable. This hinges very much on maintaining the morale and well-being of the people who have to implement the practice. Finding the right balance or combination of work and play in your school can be a challenge, particularly when the stakes are high. However, it is important to step back and build in time for renewal and recognition to ensure that everyone is engaged and feels valued.

School improvement is hard work —students and families are demanding — governors expect results yesterday — regulators expect schools to implement initiatives overnight. Consequently, as the accountable school leader, you must take responsibility for setting and monitoring the direction and pace of the school’s self-evaluation by having a clearly defined strategy.

by Lesley Hunter and Maggie Wright

St. Vrain Valley School District (Longmont, CO) Opens Educational Third Eye with Video Coaching

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September 6, 2018

St. Vrain schools have utilized iPads, authorized by a mill levy in 2012, to enhance teaching and learning through technology and improving the way students are taught with Edthena—a video coaching tool.

SVVSD’s initiation of iPads and the use of video coaching was an approved technology resource to better teacher practice. When first receiving iPads four years ago, the video recording function on the iPad was one of the applications they quickly considered using.

“If we don’t use technology to better ourselves and to hone our craft, then we’re going to be missing out on all the different ways that we can help students use technology to increase their knowledge and skills,” said Diane Lauer, Assistant Superintendent of Priority Programs and Academic Support for SVVSD.

That led SVVSD on a path towards exploring different options with a tool that was going to support their work and support their teachers. “If students are using technology to better their learning and to support their learning, and teachers are using technology to better their teaching, why aren’t we using technology to better our practice?” added Patty Hagan, Teaching and Learning Coach for SVVSD.

Before SVVSD spent any mill levy money, they gathered a group of teachers, principals, and parents from all across the district to have a series of meetings that became a learning technology steering committee. Its purpose became finding different ways students could learn. It developed into a process of looking at how they could meet the needs of not only students but also teachers.

“We looked at what was the best practice, in what ways can we use technology to help students become producers of knowledge, not just the passive receivers of content,” said David Baker, Professional Development Coordinator for SVVSD. “How do we help students learn more effectively? It wasn’t let’s go buy them a blank, it was how do we help students and teachers carry through the learning in ways that are more effective?”

SVVSD’s motto is, “Academic excellence by design,” striving for kids to graduate with skills that are going to be marketable for their future, and academic technology is a big part of that. “By investing in technology, which is going to last them, those skills to further their education, whether they’re going to take online classes in college, or they’re going to need to be able to use technology in any kind of job,” Lauer said.

Before they started using the camera video recorder on the iPad, most SVVSD schools used VHS cameras. The librarian kept it in an office and each teacher could check it out. Teachers could use it for a day, and possibly another teacher could use it the next day, an often long-winded process. With Edthena, teachers can operate it instantly. “You can see it so easily in so many different ways. You can share it flexibly. I can take it out of my iPad, put it on my laptop so I can really see it and think it, and I don’t have to get seven cords to plug it in. I can share it digitally,” Baker said.

This new school year, SVVSD welcomed 230 new teachers. Around 50 to 60 of those teachers are brand new. That’s where the district decided to break the ice and chart new territory with video coaching. The district wanted to help new teachers accelerate with confidence and receive as much feedback as possible in the process with matched mentors or similar types of teachers. “We’re not just using it with our first-year teachers, we’re also using it with our experienced teachers as a tool to facilitate dialogue and learning for both parties,” Hagan said.

Edthena has provided the ability for teachers to reflect on aspects of their teaching that they might not have seen before or would ever see. When watching video of the lessons they facilitate in classrooms, they have the ability to reflect on teaching practices and improve classroom instruction.

“By using Edthena, I am able to watch and rewatch lessons, pausing to think about strengths and areas of improvement for both myself and my students,” said Kelly Addington, 5th Grade Math Teacher at Longs Peak Middle School. “As a mentor teacher, I improve every time I watch video of someone else. I am constantly trying to grow and learn as an educator and peer observation allows me to borrow ideas from other teachers and implement them successfully into my own classroom.”

Edthena allows teachers to jump to specifically marked areas in a video to show students their performance, including verbal and non-verbal communication during group projects and presentations. “When students see their own behaviors, it helps clarify what they are doing well and where they need to improve within their group roles and responsibilities,” said Sherie Dike-Wilhelm a Literacy Teacher at Columbine Elementary. “Even with years of experience, and eyes in the back of my head, videos always capture information that I otherwise might have missed.”

Through SVVSD’s induction program, teaching and learning coaches assist new teachers by partnering them with a mentor. Teachers continue through coaching cycles, and video coaching is part of those cycles. Typically within one coaching cycle, they have recorded themselves a minimum of two times, and there is an opportunity for three to five videos to be passed back and forth between teachers. Mentors will ordinarily engage in three coaching cycles per year with new teachers.

“That’s just one cohort of teachers that use the tool. We also have teachers who are using it with a colleague to reflect on their own practice,” said Karen Smith, Teaching and Learning Coach for SVVSD. “People are initiating, and self-initiating as well, with other cohorts across the district.”

SVVSD also teaches professional development classes and have built a video requirement into those classes for the application of learning. “I have a classroom management class where teachers are required to video the implementation of certain strategies for their self-reflection,” Hagan said. “It’s really for them to reflect, and we guide them in reflecting. It’s an opportunity to take that learning and apply it to the classroom, and demonstrate learning through that.”

Teaching and learning coaches also pair the video observation protocol with other tools and resources across the district. They pair the video with a certain type of content and focus on a particular element of instruction. For example, they have a new math curricular adoption happening in every elementary classroom across the district. “Teachers now have the opportunity to pair video with this tool so that they can observe themselves teaching this program, and they can see what their instruction looks like with this tool,” Smith said.

With the iPad app, malfunction has virtually become an obstacle of the past. Teachers, mentors, and coaches can re-record immediately afterward if an unfortunate mishap were to occur. “I had one video that didn’t work well, because when I was videotaping I put my hand over the microphone. There was this great video with no sound. Well, that was easy to fix, because that was user error. We knew right away it didn’t work,” Baker noted.

Although some school districts currently record teachers for the entire duration of a class, SVVSD does not have any future plans to do so. “That’s cumbersome. That almost makes it like, ‘I don’t have a choice. This is forced upon me, done to me as a gotcha.’ It’s our goal that we really want to shift the perception from gotcha to this is about you, this is about your own growth. That’s where it has to grow organically,” Smith said.

The camera isn’t always on the teacher during the video coaching session. Some of the best feedback teachers collect is when the camera is turned on the students to discover what they are learning. “We have to be responsive to where our students are in the world that they’re living in,” Smith said. “If I’m a high school teacher, I need to be responsive to that. I need to start learning about the tools that technology or that this iPad or that this phone has to offer. As an office of professional development, we need to be responsive to that as well. As the tools continue to evolve, our use of those tools evolves with that as well.”

Most parents can remember when they were students, when the principal or supervisor sat in on a class, watched quietly, and scribbled listlessly on a legal pad. That still happens. SVVSD’s biggest hope when they started video coaching four years ago was that teachers would get used to videotaping themselves to establish a habit that could be used throughout their entire career. “They did that on their own, and they didn’t have to wait for me to show up in their classroom,” Baker said.

SVVSD places confidence in the concept that video coaching has the power to help teachers accelerate their growth, as opposed to teachers that do not use video coaching. “It can be really, really empowering,” Lauer said. “Everybody wants to be the best that they can be. Video is something that surgeons use to reflect on their practice. Athletes use it, whether it’s basketball, or golf, or baseball. People, they watch their swing over, and over, and over again. They can tell if their shoulder is in the wrong place. They can tell by their stance. As education professionals as well, to be able to have that kind of technology to help ourselves improve is exciting. It is groundbreaking technology.”

Many teachers coming in from different universities and colleges already have experience videotaping themselves while teaching, as well as plenty of other teacher-prep programs. “As technology continues to evolve, so do the norms around using technology,” Smith said.

Educational technology has come full circle. It isn’t uncommon for students in college courses these days to sign in on their computer and interact in a virtual classroom setting with other students and teachers.

“Our memories fade. Video is concrete. It lasts,” Lauer said. “That doesn’t mean you want to videotape yourself every single day, all the time, but when you have a question and you are wondering. It’s just another eye that you can use to help you reflect.”

What Schools Can Learn From Google (Spoiler: It’s Not What You’d Expect)

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Talia Milgrom-Elcott Contributor

Mo-Yun Lei Fong, Director of Google Technical Solutions, co-authored this article.

It’s Management 101 that employees need to be inspired to create services and products that are relevant and effective. Identifying the workplaces that do the best job of keeping employees inspired, motivated, and productive has become a cottage industry. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just to give out blue ribbons.  It’s because places that are great to work in return the greatest value to their shareholders, employees, customers, and communities. Feeling fulfilled and supported at work leads employees to go the extra mile to deliver on their mission, whatever it may be, and that translates into great outcomes.

Yet, one of the American workplaces with the most to learn is, ironically, public schools themselves. Too few schools prioritize employee satisfaction, failing to recognize the link between it and customer value. In other words, they fail to see how fulfilled and supported teachers lead to better student learning and growth. In too many schools, teachers don’t get the right kind of support to flourish. If the teachers at your kids’ school aren’t flourishing, you can bet that your kids aren’t either.

There’s a lot that schools can learn from the companies that do this best, and Google regularly ranks at the top. One of us runs a national network focused on STEM education, and the other is a 12-year veteran at Google and was a public school assistant principal and teacher for four years. Together we thought we might share some lessons from Google that schools can adapt and put into place to improve student learning by focusing on the experience of teachers.

  1. Leadership Matters

Google ran an “uncontrolled experiment” in 2002 that offers insights for those hoping to foster strong school culture. They got rid of all managers. But like a conductor-less orchestra that slowly veers off-beat, it turned out that teams needed managers, because they set the culture, decide who comes into the organization to be part of that culture, and determine who and what is prized or valued within that culture.

Within schools, principals play a similar role. But in too many places, principals are treated like middle managers with too many direct reports and too many responsibilities in too many domains, and what little flexibility or support they get is rarely devoted to nourishing healthy cultures for the professionals under their wings. Leading non-profits like New Leaders understand this, as does USHCA, a non-profit advising districts on their talent portfolios. The most important support principals can get isn’t pedagogic, and it isn’t in business practice: It’s in creating environments in which the experts – teachers – can thrive.

There is already strong evidence that support from principals is one of the most important factors in predicting whether teachers stay, and it’s especially important for minority teachers.  Laszlo Bock, former SVP of Google’s People Operations details the eight essential attributes of what makes a good manager in his book Work Rules, including the ability to be a good coach and empower teams.  School leaders who co-create the school environment and culture alongside their teachers will have the highest chance of achieving a successful outcome.

  1. Empower Teachers to Experiment in the Classroom

What does thriving look like in the 21st century economy? The most attractive and successful workplaces don’t tolerate failure. They encourage it. Astro Teller, CEO of X (formerly Google X), who has led efforts from balloon-powered internet services to self-driving cars, often talks about innovation and improvement being reliant on the ability to fail fast.  Google also support the culture of 20% projects, where engineers have the opportunity to tinker with projects that are not core to their daily roles, but may lead to greater innovation – case in point: this was how Gmail was born.

Granted, when it comes to students, we need to be able to experiment and fail by creating safe spaces to carry out those experiments – understanding our risk tolerance and when to stop if the outcomes are not producing great results.  But neuroscience has long shown that the brain is elastic, and simply believing that improvement is possible yields greater growth. We should encourage our teachers to change – or adjust – their mindsets, as studies have shown that when math teachers change their mindset about which students can succeed, student grades increase dramatically.

Authentic growth demands experimentation, and experimentation goes hand in hand with failure. Yet schools are not places where teachers are empowered to experiment or encouraged to fail and learn. Celebrate failure, for students and teachers alike. Chandra Byrd-Wright, a principal at a Chicago-area school, speaks here about the importance of fostering such a “growth mindset”—and there are useful tools developed by Achievement Network that can help schools rethink their approach to learning and continuous improvement.

  1. Give Teachers the Time to Collaborate and Improve Their Craft

At Google, a hallmark of the company culture is the level of collaboration. Even the buildings and workspace layout are set up to facilitate chance conversations and increase opportunities for “watercooler” encounters. The décor is bright and colorful full of whiteboards and long tables that invite everyone to gather around and brainstorm together.  Each conference room is outfitted with video conferencing units and projectors so there can be real-time discussion and document editing. It only takes a few minutes to generate and start refining ideas. Even without the expensive gadgetry, schools can embrace similar approaches.

100Kin10’s analysis of the biggest reasons people leave teaching – or don’t choose to teach in the first place – found that time for collaboration and professional growth during the work day are among the most critical issues. Indeed, teachers confirm that they lack time for their own professional development and do not have sufficient opportunities to collaborate with other teachers.

Making time for collaboration and professional growth isn’t something reserved just for Fortune 50 companies like Google. Schools in Japan and Sweden build time for teacher collaboration into the school day and put budgets and time behind teachers’ professional growth. Public Impact has created a model they call Opportunity Culture that helps any school create teacher leadership and growth within existing budgets. Creating a collaborative environment has even been shown to help lower teachers’ elevated stress levels. The models are there, and our schools and school systems can choose to make this a priority and allocate the necessary resources to make it happen.

  1. Give Teachers the Tools to Succeed

If you work in a high-performing environment, you don’t even think about having the tools you need to do your work. Phones, laptops, and tech-enhanced meeting spaces are the floor, not the ceiling. But if you’re a teacher, those kinds of perks are practically unheard of, and too many lack even fundamental supplies. Only one third of adults believe teachers currently have the resources they need to provide a quality STEM education, and for good reason: Ninety-four percent of public school teachers in the United States reported paying for supplies without reimbursement in the 2014-2015 school year.

At the end of August, DonorsChoose.org, a crowd-funding platform that helps teachers nationwide buy supplies, tallied nearly 14,000 projects requesting basic classroom supplies like copy paper, notebooks, pens, and pencils. Last year, there were 70,000 of these projects, coming in at about $9 million. That number might seem big, but it’s a rounding error on the $620 billion spent annually on public education. The lack of these basic supplies stings, and it’s a one of the primary reason teachers leave. It’s no surprise that pictures of shoddy textbooks or broken school chairs went viral on social media during this spring’s teacher protests.  Considering that each time a teacher leaves, school districts spend more than $20,000 on average to bring on a new one, it’s clear that the return on investment for adequately resourcing teachers is very high and would pay for itself even if it only slowed the rate of teacher attrition.

It goes without saying that there are many key differences between working at Google and helming a classroom or school. But we believe that all organizations can foster an environment that supports and champions everyone’s learning, creativity, and collaborative spirit.  That alone will yield dividends for students.

We can’t just wave a magic wand and make schools a great place to work.  Ingrained structural barriers may seem insurmountable, but parents, advocates, funders and administrators all have a role to play in changing a school’s environment and operations and addressing unexpected and complex challenges.  Finding common ground starts with asking the simple question, “how we can make schools more supportive and compelling environments for the adults who work there?”  The evidence suggests that once those elements are in place, a cascade of benefits for teachers and students will follow — the proverbial snowball down the mountain.

Talia Milgrom-Elcott is the co-founder and executive director of 100Kin10.

Mo-Yun Lei Fong is the Director of Google Technical Solutions. Previously, she was Director of Google’s K-12 Education Outreach, which endeavors to inspire girls and under-represented minorities to pursue studies and careers in computer science and other STEM fields.

The Greatest Lesson in Life from the Commencement Address Never Given

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I remember starting my first job as a systems engineer on an aerospace project. My new boss gave me an unusual assignment on my start day. He wanted me to tell him what “E = mC(squared)” and “You can’t push on a rope” meant.

As part of figuring out the answer he said to first ask anyone you want in the department for advice or insight. Of course, I thought he just wanted me to meet everyone on my own since I already knew the answer to both questions.

It turned out I was wrong on all parts.

Here’s what I told him when we met for lunch in the cafeteria on the third day of my first job.

“E = mC(squared)” While I got the scientific principle right the bigger purpose was to understand how this relates to the real world of product design given competing constraints on functionality, time, cost and manufacturability. The lesson: It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you lose sight of the big picture.

“You can’t push on a rope.” I thought this one had to do with strength of materials, some kind of force diagram and one of Newton’s laws. But it turned out to be about human nature. The lesson: The most important part is that you can’t push the people involved to do what you want them to do despite overwhelming analysis or engineering evidence. You have to understand their needs first.

I learned later that Zig Zigler said it more eloquently, “You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

That’s a principle everyone needs to apply to get ahead regardless of their age or their job.

Here are a few other useful life principles I learned early on in my career.

In my first engineering design class the professor showed a picture of a bridge across some river that didn’t meet perfectly in the middle. There was a six-inch offset. The professor started by saying that in this course you’ll learn how to ensure this will never happen to you. Planning ahead was the big lesson. Thinking of the consequences of your actions was the more subtle point. Stephen Covey’s “Begin With the End in Mind” pretty much sums it up. While this stuff is easy to say, it’s hard to do whether you’re building a bridge or figuring out how to just get through the day.

Persistence overrides intellect. In most of my engineering classes the answers to the problems were given. My non-engineering friends thought this was too easy. I thought so too until I was given one very complex problem to figure out. It took me all night and a lot of trial and error to get the right answer.

There were a lot of lessons learned that night. The obvious one: Getting the answer right was secondary. Figuring out how to find the right solution was the purpose of having the answer given. A lot of smart people gave up too soon. That’s when I realized that persistence is far more important than intellect.

Some similar things happened a short time later as an intern and during my first full-time engineering job. I was assigned two very complex technical projects. In each case there was an initial 2-3 weeks of total confusion. It was clear I was going around in circles, over my head and an abject failure. After stumbling about, talking with people and thinking about the problem from a totally different perspective, the fog starting lifting. Soon a solution emerged. In both cases it took a few very uncomfortable weeks to go from nothing to a potential solution. Of course, getting the actual solution took a lot longer but that was the easy part. The lesson learned again: It’s okay to be confused but it you keep at you’ll figure out what to do.

I learned later that Winston Churchill said it much better, “Never ever give up. Never!”

But that wasn’t the big lesson in all this. By not giving up too soon you build confidence in yourself to take on any project as long as you can figure out a solution and create a vision of where you’re going. As a result I then started volunteering for projects and positions over my head and even asking for promotions in different departments. And I got them by selling the vision to others and getting them to see how this would personally benefit them. This got them to be allies not foes and they became proactively involved in ensuring we were all successful.

The real lesson is that true confidence is contagious. But you need to struggle a lot before you develop it in yourself. So look for some struggles to tackle. A lot of them. And never give up despite how easy it might be to do. I’m not sure, but maybe this is how leaders are developed, too.

Trends in Teacher Evaluation: At A Glance

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Trends in Teacher Evaluation: At A Glance

For decades, teacher evaluations were little more than a bureaucratic exercise that failed to recognize either excellence or mediocrity in teaching. As such, evaluation represented a missed opportunity for giving teachers valuable feedback that could help them improve their practice.

Increasingly, this is no longer the case. Since 2009, over two-thirds of states have made significant changes to how teachers are evaluated. For most states, the change was motivated by incentives available through the federal programs Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers, and Teacher Incentive Fund. State applications for these funds earned additional credit for upgrading teacher evaluation systems so they take place annually and are based in part on student achievement (Bornfreund, 2013). Other states revamped their systems in response to new political leadership. Regardless of the reason, the end was the same: in most states, teacher performance will now be judged for its impact on student learning alongside traditional measures such as classroom observations, lesson plan reviews and others. Combined, these measures make for more accurate evaluations and serves as a tool for continuous improvement.

The changes states are instituting are far from minor. The most dramatic and controversial is the inclusion of student achievement measures in teacher evaluation. The way student achievement data is used, however, varies significantly by state. For example:

  • Most states use student scores from state standardized tests, but many also combine this data with measures such as student learning objectives (SLO), formative assessments, or some other indicator of student achievement.
  • States use different statistical methods for attributing student learning to teacher performance. The most widely used models are value-added and student growth percentiles (SGP), both of which attempt to measure student gains so that the system doesn’t unfairly disadvantage teachers whose students were low-performers when they entered their classrooms.
  • Student achievement data comprises only part of teachers’ overall evaluation score. In no state does it count for more than half; in several states it’s considerably less.
While linking student achievement to teachers is certainly groundbreaking, nearly every state is revamping how classroom observations are conducted, too. Gone are the days when a principal sits in on a teacher’s class every couple years, armed with a checklist of instructional requirements that rarely were associated with high quality instructional practices. In contrast, teachers are now being observed every year — and for many, multiple times a year — by trained evaluators using a researched-based rubric that more accurately judges instructional effectiveness. More importantly, the new classroom observations provide more useful feedback to teachers.

Student achievement and classroom observations are not the only measures used to evaluate teachers. Student/parent surveys, lesson plan reviews, teacher self-reflections and student artifacts are just some of the other measures included in teacher evaluation systems. In most states, districts have wide discretion on which measures to include along with student achievement and classroom observations. Each of these measures has their strengths in providing teacher’s valuable feedback about their instructional practices. There is less evidence, however, that they accurately predict teachers’ impact on student learning. The exception is student surveys. In fact, a recent study by the Gates Foundation found that a high-quality researched-based student survey can accurately measure a teacher’s future effectiveness and can enhance the accuracy of an evaluation system when combined with measures of student achievement and classroom observations.

Keep in mind that identifying teacher effectiveness is a relatively new concept and no system will be perfect. But by examining the different approaches states have taken, state and local education leaders can learn from each other to refine and improve their own systems.

Across states we found:

  • Forty-seven states require or recommend that stakeholders, including teachers, provide input into the design of new evaluation systems. Such input is important to gaining broad-based support.
  • Forty-six states require or recommend that evaluations include measures on how teachers impact their students’ achievement.
  • Classroom observations are a component of every state’s evaluation system; about a third (33) of them require or recommend all teachers be observed at least once a year.
  • Forty-one states require or recommend teachers be evaluated on multiple measures as a more complete and accurate gauge of performance.  No state evaluates teachers on test scores alone.
  • Most states are primarily focused on using evaluation for the purpose of raising teacher performance but also use the results to inform personnel decisions.
    • More than half (31) of states use evaluation results to target professional development opportunities for individual teachers.
    • Teachers can be dismissed due to poor evaluations in 32 states. However, typically teachers are not eligible to be dismissed until they have been rated as low-performing over multiple years and only after being provided interventions to improve. Even if the teacher fails to improve, in most states the decision to dismiss is left up to the discretion of the school district.
  • Local school districts need flexibility in designing and implementing teacher evaluation systems so they are aligned to the needs of the district. But they also need strong support from their states.
  • Seventeen states provide districts flexibility as well as support in developing evaluations systems while 21 states leave almost all the responsibility for developing an evaluation system in the hands of districts.

Developing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system is far from straightforward. But state and district policymakers should make every effort to ensure teachers are being evaluated fairly and accurately.

Whether developing a teacher evaluation system, or implementing a new one, school district leaders should ask these questions:

How is the evaluation system developed?

What is the goal of the evaluation system?

Do those goals align with the district strategic plan?

What flexibility do districts have to tailor the evaluation system to the district’s strategic plan?

Does the district have the knowledge and resources in-house to develop their own evaluation system or modify the state model?

Who was involved in development of the evaluation system? Were key stakeholders, particularly teachers, involved in some way?

What is included in the evaluation system?

What measures are included in the evaluation system? How much weight does each measure carry in the overall score?

How accurate are the results? What are the evaluation system’s strengths and weaknesses?

What measures are used to determine the impact a teacher has on their students’ achievement?

What statistical model is used to measure the impact? Why is that measure used? How accurately does it isolate a teacher’s impact on student achievement?

Are the same measures used to evaluate all teachers? If not, how do they differ?

How often are teachers observed in a classroom setting? Does the frequency differ by experience or the teacher’s previous performance level?

Do evaluators have enough time to conduct all the observations required without impeding on their other responsibilities?

Who conducts the observations? How are they trained?

Is the observation rubric researched-based and aligned with the district’s goals?

How are results used?

When do teachers receive feedback from each observation?

Are the overall evaluation results used to improve instructional quality? If so, how?

Are the results used for personnel decisions? If so, how?

Are the results made public? If so, what information is made public?

The lowdown on STEM schools

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17309.jpgGiven the crying need for graduates with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees, is a STEM school right for your child?

A high school student tosses a ball into the air and watches it fall. Then he films the falling ball and graphs the movement on his computer. Nearby, a soph

omore scrawls out equations with a blue marker, while a classmate looks over his shoulder and shakes her head. “I think that number should be negative.” They come to an agreement before the teacher stops by, nudging them to explain how they got it. This action-packed hour is a science class — “Scientific Inquiry — Physics,” to be exact.

This type of noisy, exuberant classroom exemplifies what Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) schools are about. Learning is collaborative and project-based; kids work closely together in a hands-on way to solve real-world problems. Learning problem-solving skills — and helping students develop into creative, critical thinkers — is at the core of any true STEM school. “Teachers are not just telling us,” says Jennifer Bailey, 17, a senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. “We use our own data and discovery to realize a concept.” While all schools teach math and science, good STEM schools focus deeply on these subjects in hopes of better preparing students for the high-demand tech jobs of the future.

Is a STEM school right for my child?

If your child has an innate interest in science or building things, a STEM school may be a natural choice. But administrators say these schools cater to all kinds of learners and that most students appreciate the hands-on nature of the curricula. Students who manage their time well may succeed in STEM programs that are self-paced and have kids working on independent projects.

Why you might consider a STEM high school

Over the past 10 years, jobs in STEM fields have grown three times as fast as jobs in non-STEM fields, according to the Department of Commerce, and STEM fields are expected to grow by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, compared to just 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM fields in the same time frame. But without an influx of graduates in these areas, the U.S. will not have enough workers to fill those jobs. STEM schools can help young people gain the skills necessary to succeed in these fields. Over the next decade alone, the U.S. must produce approximately 1 million more STEM-degree graduates than currently projected to meet the demands of the economy, according to a 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Recognizing this gap, educators have focused on getting more students hooked on math and science earlier in their school careers, which is why more STEM programs are being launched nationwide.

You’ll mainly find STEM high schools, but there are some middle schools with a STEM emphasis, too. Some STEM schools are open to all students, meaning there are no tests required; others are selective and consider a student’s academic record in admission decisions.

There are three primary types of STEM programs:

  • A STEM specialty school: The entire school’s focus is on STEM and every student participates in a curriculum of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
  • A STEM program within a larger school: Some schools create STEM academies within their schools that allow interested students to study STEM in more depth.
  • Residential STEM programs: For these intensive programs, students live on campus and attend a STEM school.

Programs may delve broadly into all STEM subjects or they may specialize in a particular area, such as computer technology. Vocational or CTE programs that prepare students for certain high-tech fields also fall within the spectrum of STEM schools.

What you might find in a STEM classroom

  • Students behaving as scientists: On a typical day, they may be recording observations, carrying out experiments, or conducting their own research. Learning is project-based and sometimes messy, but students learn by doing, not by rote memorization.
  • Connecting STEM learning to a career: To help students understand what kind of STEM jobs are available, schools may bring in tutors from local technology companies or organize internships at hospitals or research institutions.
  • Integrating with other subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math subjects are woven into other areas of the curriculum, with courses such as the “History of Science” or “Environmental History.”
  • Making use of technology: By taking quizzes on their laptops, entering data into spreadsheets, and creating graphs to illustrate the results of their experiments, students are using technology in their daily studies. STEM programs such as L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville, TN, participate in one-to-one programs through which students are given their own individual computer (or iPad, in this case) for their work. Teachers may have web pages featuring necessary classroom materials, which may also allow students to work ahead if they want to or review a lesson if need be.
  • Noise: Classrooms are not quiet and are often arranged so that students can sit and work in groups. This encourages collaboration as students discuss their work and challenge each other’s ideas.

Questions to ask when considering a STEM school

  • Is this really a STEM school? With the recent national focus on creating more STEM graduates, “You see lots of places springing up calling themselves STEM schools, but they don’t necessarily have a clearly articulated explanation of what makes them STEM,” said Christopher Kolar, founding co-chair of the Committee for the Advancement of STEM Specialty Schools. Does the school offer a full STEM program beyond the science and mathematics offered in typical schools? A look at the course schedule may indicate whether the coursework is there to challenge students and prep them for higher-level college STEM courses. For instance, are pre-calculus, calculus, and AP calculus offered? Can students take a second year of physics or engineering? Consider the breadth and depth of the school’s STEM offerings.
  • Does it help prepare students for a STEM career? To be sure the school is properly preparing students for the jobs of the future, ask school administrators if they communicate with students’ potential employers. Businesses should be partners, bringing in resources, providing role models for students, and keeping staff up-to-date on new developments so the curriculum stays relevant.
  • Are students working with computers and other technology? Or are the new iPads sitting in a box in the corner because teachers have not been trained on how to incorporate them into lesson plans? Ask for examples of how laptops (or tablets) help with instruction and if the administration provides ongoing technology training for teachers. Likewise, does the school have the lab equipment necessary for students to do a broad range of experiments?
  • Do teachers have backgrounds in the subjects they are teaching? Science should be taught by teachers who are excited about and understand science. Also, do mentoring programs exist to encourage teachers to improve their STEM skills and knowledge?

What supporters say

If we want to have the scientists and engineers to solve future problems, STEM schools are important to the country’s future: finding sustainable energy sources, keeping water supplies clean, and discovering new technologies that help us compete in a global economy. Supporters say there is an urgent need to attract and educate more students in these fields and keep them engrossed throughout their elementary, high school, and college years. And from the student’s perspective, if they have the skills employers need, they will have an easier time finding a job upon graduation.

What critics say

By increasing the emphasis on science, math, technology, and engineering, some worry that students may lose out on other key skills. Electives like foreign languages and the arts help foster creativity and broaden students’ world view. Some STEM programs try to make up for this by offering arts programs after school; others say they recognize the need and incorporate as much arts education as they can into the school day.

Because girls historically have not shown the same interest in STEM fields as boys, critics say the schools need to do more to reach out to girls and get them excited about science by providing role models in female scientists or crushing traditional gender stereotypes in the classroom.

A final word of advice

Make sure you understand how fully the school has embraced a STEM curriculum. If you are expecting your child to be taking advanced physics courses and the school only offers one introductory course, both you and your child could be disappointed. Ask the school to see sample schedules. As always: visit any school you’re considering. Talk to teachers about the ways students use technology in class. Poke your head in the labs. Ask what professional development opportunities exist for teachers to stay on top of their game and whether the school has networked with local companies and research institutions.

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