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?

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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.

Data-driven decisions require CIOs to help educators interpret and organize vast amount of information

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When it comes to data analytics, Maribeth Luftglass,CIO at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, focuses on ensuring privacy of all student data. And, she adds, it should be a top concern for all CIOs. (Photo: Donnie Biggs, Fairfax County Schools)Just a few years ago, CIOs—if they were involved in data analytics at all—would run a report, export it into an Excel document and create a chart or a graph to share with teachers and district leaders once a week, or at the end of each semester.

Now it’s all about creating systems that aggregate and sort data automatically, making it easier for educators to view crucial information every day.

“The CIO is really becoming more of a leadership position,” says Elizabeth Dabney, director of research and policy analysis at the Data Quality Campaign. “It’s not just an IT role—it’s having a very broad vision and a good understanding of the value of data in supporting education goals at the district and being able to communicate that.”

Since creating its first custom data dashboard in 2014, Sun Prairie Area School District in Wisconsin has been in a constant push to develop easier ways for educators to analyze data pulled from all of its schools.

The district used to rely on the state’s WISEdash system, which is a data portal that uses “dashboards,” or visual collections of graphs and tables, to provide multiyear education data about Wisconsin schools.

But it was barely used, because it didn’t allow schools to really drill down into detailed data. So the Sun Prairie district joined a data consortium of local districts a few years ago and has been creating different custom dashboards with the help of a software company.

The most recent project: An early-warning system that identifies students at risk of not graduating high school. The system feeds data from 12 indicators—including attendance, grades and discipline—into an easy-to-use program so educators can provide extra support to at-risk students as early as middle school.

Educators would previously look at the risk indicators individually in WISEdash. The new system overlaps the data to show which students are most at risk.

“What we’ve seen is the need to get data into the hands of our teachers, and get that into their hands in real time so they can use that information for decision-making on an almost daily basis,” says Michael Mades, Sun Prairie’s director of technology.

Sun Prairie’s data transformation reflects changes in the day-to-day roles of CIOs and CTOs in many other districts. “I am not someone who is allowed to be in the background making sure that our infrastructure is working—that isn’t my job anymore,” says Tony Spence, chief information officer at Muskego-Norway School District, also in Wisconsin. “It’s on a much higher level. I spend most of my time making sure the data systems we have reflect the needs of the district.”

So how do CIOs keep up with the changing demands? Here’s what four CIOs and CTOs had to say about how data analytics is changing their jobs—and their districts.

CIO as data interpreter

CIOs say their role is increasingly that of a data interpreter—someone who bridges the gap between the technology department (or product vendor) and the academic and operational branches.

Mades, at Sun Prairie, says he speaks two languages. In meetings with principals, he talks in academic language about the kinds of data that can be generated to improve student achievement, for example. Then he goes back to his IT team and, in much more technical language, discusses the systems needed to track and analyze that data.

Mades is a member of both the academic and operational branches of the district, meaning he keeps tabs constantly on how every department uses data. “Part of my work in the meetings is to listen to what their needs are and then help our data system support those, whether that’s building new dashboards or modifying some of the reports,” Mades says.

Because Mades understands the problems leaders are trying to address, such as behavior, he can provide better analysis.

For example, if misbehavior reports increase at a school, he can help a principal determine if there’s a buildingwide issue or if the problem is limited to specific classrooms or teachers.

For Dane Conrad, director of technology at Hattiesburg School District in Mississippi, interpreting data involves working with the district’s academic evaluation specialist to determine what data should be collected and analyzed. He then turns to his vendors to identify programs or products that meet the specialist’s needs.

On a different day, he might help schools take better advantage of existing data—for example, showing them how to track and identify trends in teacher or student absences.

CIO as data visionary

Because systems change so quickly, analyzing systems is a task that requires being something of a data visionary. And it means understanding how data supports current district goals, and then thinking about what information its educators will need in five or 10 years.

Many CIOs are shifting their focus from managing district data servers and applications in-house to seeking out third-party vendors and cloud-based systems that automate analytics for them, says Tracy Weeks, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

For CIOs who don’t have time to develop relationships with vendors that can provide analytics services, Weeks suggests teaming with neighboring districts to seek out the best products via consortium procurement agreements.

When looking for new products, Conrad from Hattiesburg relies on an email Listserv for district technology leaders in the state. He also finds ideas from Linkedin and technology conferences.

Even if the end goal is to automate analysis—when data from different areas, such as attendance or behavior, is merged in ways that educators can easily access—selecting the right systems involves hands-on work.

“We want somebody who used a product, preferably somebody who has had it for a while, that can tell us their experiences and how the product fits into their flow and make sure their flow matches our flow and our needs,” Conrad says.

CIO as trainer-in-chief

cCreating ways for teachers and administrators to study multiple kinds of data has opened up the problem-solving potential of analytics, says Rich Boettner, chief technology officer at Hilliard City Schools in Ohio.

But it’s also created a new role for CIOs: trainer-in-chief.

It’s important to make sure educators who may not have a background in analytics can use the information in meaningful ways, Boettner says.

Spence, at Muskego-Norway schools, trains teachers, academic coaches and certified staff during summer breaks and throughout the school year in how to use data systems and understand the numbers. Before CIOs can plan training or make sure data is being used effectively, however, they also must have a deep understanding of the data and how it supports district goals, Boettner says.

Boettner points to several main sources for professional development for himself and his staff: product vendors; internet resources, local and state networks for technology leaders, and conferences like ISTE.

CIO as silo regulator

And finally, after administrators understand how different departments use data, such understanding can help reduce or eliminate the data silos that exist within many districts.

At Muskego-Norway schools, Spence relies on a building-by-building plan that outlines how each school site is working on the district’s continuous improvement goals and which data will be used to support which efforts.

The plan gives Spence a clear understanding of what data each department collects, so he can ensure the systems are kept timely and up-to-date.

“Without the data plan it would be stabbing in the dark,” Spence says. “Instead we have a very specific goal about where we need to be.”

Peer-Led Anti-Bullying Efforts Yield Payoffs

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No matter how diligent teachers and administrators are, it’s easy for bullying to happen under the noses of adults at school. In the bathrooms, the hallways, and on social media, students are often the only ones around to police themselves.
That’s why researchers at Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale universities are analyzing middle schoolers’ social networks to find the students most likely to change their classmates’ attitudes around bullying. They are finding that bullying is generally driven not by a few bad apples but by a majority of students within the overall culture of a school. Shifting alliances and cycles of harassment and retribution can all play into that culture, and undercut adults’ anti-bullying campaigns.

“Adult-identified leaders are often very different from student-identified leaders,” said Hana Shepherd, an assistant sociology professor at Rutgers University. “Adults look at traditionally defined ‘popular’ kids, the ‘good’ kids, while kids who are leaders of smaller groups might not be on the social radar of adults, but often are [influential] too.”

During the 2012-13, school year, Shepherd, Elizabeth L. Paluck, a Princeton psychology professor, and Peter M. Aronow of Yale University repeatedly surveyed more than 24,000 students across 56 middle schools about the students they respected most and liked spending time with online and in person, out of a list of every student in their schools. They also asked students to list peers they had conflicts with, and the social norms in each school around behaviors shown to increase conflict, such as retaliating on behalf of a friend who has been bullied.

Not Just ‘Popular’ Kids

The researchers used the data to create network maps of student friendships in each school, identifying not just the most popular students or those whom teachers considered leaders, but the students who are most influential to different peer groups throughout the school. Of those so-called “seed” students, the researchers randomly invited half to participate in the Roots program, an anti-bullying program intended to support students in recognizing and finding ways to improve their own school climate around bullying.

In a study published late last fall, the researchers found schools using Roots had 30 percent fewer discipline reports on student conflict than similar schools not using the program.

Through 10 sessions over the course of the 2012-13 school year, Paluck said a “breakfast club” of influential students in different cliques in each school met to think out their own responses to bullying and discuss ways to reduce peer conflicts. Even the wording mattered. Rather than discussing “bullying”—a term that prior research has shown is linked more with stereotypes of physical intimidation and lunch-money theft—the students typically referred to conflicts as “drama.” Students talked through exercises among themselves about how they would respond if they either saw or heard about conflicts among students.

Critically, the seed students also discussed how their peers would react to their responses, and how they could influence their classmates better. In each school, students came up with their own projects, such as creating positive GIFs, or looping animations, for Instagram or handing out wristbands to reward a student who is seen de-escalating a fight or supporting a bullying victim.

Teacher evaluations no longer required, but useful with changes

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The nonprofit New Teacher Center recommends using evaluations as a tool for improvement

Armed with research about a teacher’s impact on student achievement, policy makers have required states and school districts to evaluate their teaching force, and the most readily available data has been standardized test scores. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act effectively back-tracked on this accountability strategy. No longer is there a federal mandate that schools evaluate teachers. And those that do will not be required to base their analysis on scores.

But former superintendent, principal and teacher Lisa Andrejko does not believe such evaluations will become a thing of the past.

“With so much time and effort undertaken at the state level in the implementation of accountability measures such as Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), prescribed teaching standard frameworks or rubrics and student achievement data, I cannot imagine a scenario in which states would abandon their new methods for grading teachers,” Andrejko wrote for PeopleAdmin in May. She expects revisions, but not necessarily another overhaul.

Still, ESSA creates a level of freedom that some districts may find exciting. The law provides for the use of federal dollars to survey teachers about working conditions and offer professional development, professional growth and leadership opportunities. And, importantly, it offers an opportunity to recalibrate after the last 15 years of No Child Left Behind.
Anne Udall, executive vice president of program strategy at the nonprofit New Teacher Center, hopes district administrators stop and think carefully about where to take teacher evaluations in the coming years. NCLB attached accountability to test scores, primarily, and Udall says research clearly shows that is not a useful way to gauge educator effectiveness. “My hope with ESSA is that we’ve learned enough from what didn’t work that we’re going to try to find the more comprehensive, nuanced approach,” Udall said.

What, then, should this new approach entail?

Udall and Andrejko agree evaluations should be used to help teachers improve their craft. That means they have to come with more nuanced feedback and targeted professional development. While many advocates of test-based accountability demanded it to weed out the worst teachers, advocates of new teacher evaluation systems aim to use it as a tool for improvement.

How administrators can adapt

Administrators, in this new design, will need to sharpen a few skills of their own.

“You can know what great instruction looks like, but you may not have the skillset to mentor or coach a new teacher because you don’t know how to tell them what they’re doing well and what they’re doing poorly,” Udall said.
Professional development for administrators should cover strategies for recognizing high-quality instruction as well as providing useful feedback.

In many schools, even carving out the time for regular classroom observations will require a major shift. This is where district administrators come in. Central office leaders can provide the support that frees principals from other management duties, delegating administrative tasks to other staff members and leaving principals to focus on staff development.

One trend the New Teacher Center has identified is the formation of instructional leadership teams in schools. These groups bring together principals, vice principals, department chairs and teacher representatives into a learning community that focuses on how best to support teacher improvement, design evaluation systems and approach coaching

After years of watching evaluation be used as a tool to “sort and punish,” Udall is excited to see a new trend of using evaluations to support teacher growth.

A lot is still up in the air when it comes to ESSA. But as the Obama administration finalizes its rule-making and states decide how to proceed, school districts can set their own priorities for evaluation, at least. Now no longer required by federal law, it can provide the foundation for effective school improvement that focuses on bringing out the best in today’s teachers.

Tara Garcia Mathewson I September 14, 2016

Why Punishment Won’t Stop a Bully, Punitive discipline for bullies can be counterproductive

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By Alfie Kohn

Bullying at school has attracted an enormous amount of attention, spurring academic studies and popular books, regulations, and training sessions for educators. By now its status as a serious problem is widely acknowledged, as it should be. We can never go back to the days when bullying was regarded as a boys-will-be-boys rite of passage, something that victims were left to deal with (and suffer from) alone.

But as with other ills, both within and beyond our schools, some responses are much less constructive than others. The least thoughtful (or useful) strategy is to announce a “zero tolerance” stance on bullying. Either this phrase amounts to empty rhetoric—rather like responding to repeated instances of gun violence in our country by sending each cluster of victims our “thoughts and prayers”—or else it refers to a policy of harsh punishment for bullies.
The latter approach is worth our attention precisely because it comes so easily to us, complementing a punitive sensibility already well-established in our schools. Students who break the rules or otherwise displease us are subjected to suspension, expulsion, detention, enforced isolation (“time-out”), loss of opportunity to participate in enjoyable activities, and so on.

Making children suffer for what they’ve done is often defended on practical grounds, but I’ve been unable to find any evidence to support the claim that punishment makes schools safer or leads the children who have been punished to become more ethical or responsible. Indeed, punitive responses—even if they’re euphemistically called “consequences”—are often not merely ineffective but actively counterproductive. To cite only one in a long line of empirical investigations, an eight-year longitudinal study published in 2005 found that punitive discipline was subsequently associated with more antisocial behavior, less prosocial behavior, and increased levels of anxiety.
Interestingly, when many proponents of traditional discipline are presented with such evidence, they simply pivot to a very different defense, one that can’t be dislodged with evidence: They insist that if someone does something bad, something bad must be done to that person. He or she must be “held accountable”; a consequence must be imposed for moral reasons, even if there are no practical benefits.

But the effects of punishment do matter, and where bullying is concerned, they suggest a painful irony: Punishing kids who bully not only fails to address the source of the problem, but actually makes things worse. As educator and author Barbara Coloroso pointed out in her book The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander, punishment teaches the bully “to be more aggressive and hurtful. He will undoubtedly master the art of doing his bullying in ways that are sneaky or ‘under the radar’ of even the most observant and aware adults. More important,” she adds, “punishment degrades, humiliates, and dehumanizes the children who are its objects. (Sounds like bullying to me.)”
Decades’ worth of research shows that punishment—even when it doesn’t include physical force—promotes aggression. But studies conducted in the United States and in Sweden revealed another layer to that reality: Bullies in particular are more likely to have been raised by authoritarian parents who rely on punishment. Dan Olweus, a leading authority on the subject, conducted the latter study. He, like other critics of punishment, has offered suggestions for what can curb bullying. The key is to “restructure the social environment”—the entire school culture—rather than trying to target individual students by encouraging intervention by bystanders, offering advice to potential victims, or, worst of all, punishing bullies.
“Punishment in general is likely a hidden contributor to bullying, both because of what it models and because of its effects on the students who are punished.”

It’s easy to assume that punitive discipline is an inevitable part of school life. That leaves us quibbling only about the details of implementation—for example, how severe the penalty should be for a given offense. Once we take a step back and consider whether punishment itself really makes sense, the status quo becomes very troubling indeed.Consider: A punishment is a response by someone with more power (say, an adult) to a prohibited action on the part of someone with less power (in this case, a child). Specifically, it consists of deliberately making the child suffer in some way. The intent may be to discourage the child from repeating the action, but the more common results of punishment are that the child (1) becomes angry and frustrated, (2) learns that you get your way in life by using your power over those who are weaker, and (3) becomes more focused on self-interest and less likely to consider how his actions affect others. Punishment induces kids to ask, “What do they, the people with the power, want me to do, and what’s the consequence to me if I don’t do it?”
From this perspective, it quickly becomes clear that the problem with school policy isn’t just that punishing bullies inevitably backfires. Rather, punishment in general is likely a hidden contributor to bullying, both because of what it models and because of its effects on the students who are punished.

Dig even deeper, though: Maybe it’s not just that punishment contributes to bullying. Maybe traditional discipline is a kind of bullying. That’s the unsettling implication of Coloroso’s parenthetical afterthought that I quoted above. Definitions of bullying tend to sound something like this: a hostile action—or a pattern of abuse, intimidation, or harassment over time—in which those who are smaller or weaker are victimized by those who are larger or stronger. That the larger, stronger people may have graduate degrees or can spin out elaborate rationalizations for their actions is really beside the point.

How Marginalized Families Are Pushed Out of PTA

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How Marginalized Families Are Pushed Out of PTAs
Parents with socioeconomic resources are more likely to exert influence on school officials.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP

When Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland, told parents in the fall of 2014 that it would allow students to use Chromebooks as a way to bridge the digital divide between low-income families and affluent families, there were mixed reactions. The plan was aimed at helping students become more adept at using technology, but the affluent parents, most of whom were white, were apprehensive about their children getting more screen time.

Alison Risso, then the president of the school’s PTA, said she was frustrated by the complaints those parents expressed at a meeting. “Everyone who could pay for that Chromebook with the money in their pockets was in the room,” Risso said. As Risso recalled, one parent said to her, “I don’t need my daughter to learn to make a PowerPoint.”

At Rolling Terrace, 68 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Sixty-three percent of its population is Hispanic, 15 percent is black, and another 15 percent is white. But the parents of that sliver of the student population that is white and affluent—most of whom were drawn to the school’s Spanish-immersion program—have outsize influence over what happens in the school

Risso explained to parents why it was important for the lower-income children to have access to the Chromebooks. Many of the school’s parents—mostly low-income people of color who didn’t attend the PTA meeting—were excited about the computers.

Despite the differences in priorities, the school’s parents are expected to make decisions as a community. That kind of unity rarely happens in gentrifying neighborhoods, however. When white, affluent parents come into a school that has a high percentage of less-affluent students of color, the more advantaged group tends to take over parent organizations and unintentionally marginalize the parent community that was already there. Ultimately, Rolling Terrace proceeded with its plan to use Chromebooks, but not all such issues are resolved in ways that give low-income parents a voice.

That’s unfortunate because parental engagement can greatly improve adolescents’ academic and emotional functioning, according to a 2014 study published in Child Development. A substantial body of research also indicates that parent involvement at home and school is an important factor in improving young children’s literacy and math skills. PTA membership was also associated with student achievement in a 2006 School Community Journal study authored by researchers at the University of West Florida.

Allyson Criner Brown, the associate director at the nonprofit Teaching for Change, said she has seen small groups of advantaged parents, many of them members of parent organizations, wield great influence on school policy. They often push for programs that would benefit their own children and not necessarily the kids of less means. When these parents don’t get what they want, they often make calls to someone higher up than the principal, such as the superintendent, to flex their muscle—something lower-income parents rarely do.

“[Affluent] parents are much more likely to think they have the right to tell principals what they think.”
The influence of the PTA depends a lot on the given school’s culture and in part on how big a role parents play in fundraising. It can be challenging for a busy principal to seek input from parent groups, especially when those organizations aren’t financially supporting a cash-strapped school.
“If the principal knows that the PTA is not a source for fundraising, depending on the principal they might not go to the PTA and ask parents if [a particular project] is a priority,” said Alexandra Freidus, doctoral candidate in urban education at New York University. In wealthy or socioeconomically diverse communities, on the other hand, “principals frequently count on parents to fill in budget gaps. Those parents are much more likely to think they have the right to tell principals what they think, to believe their opinions matters to the school, and they’re much more likely to be a dominant voice.” And while it’s true that kids of all backgrounds benefit from attending integrated schools, affluent and white parents tend to think they’re the ones bringing value to their school, according to research released earlier this year.

The imbalance of power has become especially clear in recent years as parents with means in gentrifying neighborhoods look for schools that will enrich their kids’ lives—schools with diverse student populations, for example, and supplemental-learning opportunities. Schools serving high numbers of poor children often offer Spanish-immersion or gifted-and-talented programs that attract affluent families, which often bring with them the ability to fundraise. (Although Spanish-immersion programs were initially meant to serve children who spoke Spanish at home and were still learning English, they have become increasingly popular across the country with non-Latino parents whose children speak primarily or only English at home, according to a 2015 dissertation for the City University of New York’s urban-education program.) But the ability can also mean wealthy families wield disproportionate influence on campus and in the PTA.

According to Freidus, the current body of research on parent engagement in gentrifying schools shows that schools tends to accommodate those parents’ interests and concerns. Freidus analyzed a decade of posts in a listserv for parents new to the school and neighborhood and discovered how quickly one unidentified Brooklyn school and its ostensible priorities evolved as the student population became whiter and more affluent. The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch fell from 90 percent in the 2003-04 school year to 65 percent in the 2011-12 year. At the same time, the school spent much of its resources on the playground and other facilities rather than efforts to get classroom computers and support for the student prom.

Criner Brown said she has seen similar issues play out in Washington, D.C., schools. In some cases, according to Criner Brown, white and affluent parents begin advocating for their children before they even attend the school. “Yes, it is parent advocacy, but a more forceful and entitled version that is more of a demand than a request,” she said.

Kelly Wickham Hurst, an education advocate and former guidance dean at Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, Illinois, said PTAs rarely discuss race directly, instead using words that “refer to race while not referring to race” out of fear that they’d otherwise appear racist. When disadvantaged parents do try to speak up, they’re often dismissed by other parents or by administrators, Wickham Hurst said. Parents of color, she said, bring up concerns about testing and how to help students who are underperforming, but are sometimes brushed off. As one parent spoke, she recalled, a white PTO member who is considered an education expert by parents because she works in the district, sighed and rolled her eyes.

A mother of color also told Wickham Hurst that she and another nonwhite parent were dropping out of the PTO because their concerns were always left in the “parking lot” to be discussed another time—time that never came. “I’ve been cussed out many times in my career by a very frustrated parent who has never been listened to in school systems who would like to be heard but they never say it in the ‘right way,’” said Wickham Hurst, adding that black parents tell her they never hear from the school unless it’s about student discipline. Students of color are suspended at disproportionate rates, with some studies indicating teacher bias plays a role in determining discipline.

Alina Adams, the author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten, works with many parents of color who are trying to get their children into New York City-area elementary schools; she also helps parents adjust to the schools once they’re there. According to Adams, many parents of color express concern that they won’t be listened to at the school. “[Reluctance to speak up] gets magnified when it’s someone of a different race than you or different ethnicity or different economic background,” she said. “Maybe you don’t speak English so well and you feel intimidated by that. How do I challenge this person on this issue when I know that she’s a lawyer and I [just] have a high-school diploma?”

The data bears out some of Adams’s points about disadvantaged parents’ lack of involvement. Lower educational levels are a factor in their limited engagement, as is having a lower socioeconomic status and being an underrepresented minority, a 2013 study on Parental Readiness Empowerment Programs shows. Meanwhile, a 2014 paper that analyzed black parents at an urban middle school found that perceptions of racism and hostile parent-teacher interactions were significant barriers to their engagement at school.

“I get questions about how things work rather than complaints about why things are happening.”
Meanwhile, Myra Rivera-Blanco, the fundraising co-chair of the Rolling Terrace PTA, said that Latino parents tend to ask different questions about family engagement because, culturally, they see school participation differently. “I get questions about how things work rather than complaints about why things are happening,” she said. Many Latino parents believe they should trust the school to handle their child’s education appropriately and are less inclined to question teachers and administrators.

Rivera-Blanco is the main contact for many Latino families as one of few Latina members of the PTA; she also serves as the de facto translator at meetings. Rivera-Blanco said many of the school’s lower-income parents don’t have access to laptops and even cell phones, which makes communication especially difficult.

When schools are cash-strapped, the priorities of the members of the parent organization often become the priorities of the school as a whole. Rivera-Blanco says she sees this dynamic play out often at Rolling Terrace with the Spanish-immersion program, which is populated largely by students with means. For example, parents of kids in the program ensure that its teachers receive gift cards at the beginning of the year and during Teacher Appreciation Week to pay for supplies. “There are parents in our school that can’t put enough cents together to get a coat much less give their teacher their supply list,” Rivera-Blanco said. “That imbalance is huge. You can walk into a classroom and know which is a Spanish-immersion classroom and which one isn’t.”

The history of the PTA shows that these race and class dynamics have always been an issue. Christine A. Woyshner explores this context in her 2009 book The National PTA, Race, and Civic Engagement, 1897-1970, exploring how white affluent women who founded what is today known as the National PTA used their influence to achieve reforms. The “black PTA,” or the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, on the other hand, was more concerned with ensuring their schools had the basics.

school is diverse, the parents’ goals are usually too different. “It’s very hard in those situations to create an equitable school engagement and school governance model because ideally what you want in an integrated school is people are fighting together for all of their children,” Potter said. A model where all students are challenged and their particular talents are developed through similar approaches to gifted classes, otherwise known as a “schoolwide-enrichment model,” may be the best way to pursue true diversity, she said.

Parents, teachers, and administrators should state their goals clearly and work on fostering trust between low-income parents and parents of color, according to a 2013 paper from SEDL out of the Institutes for Research and the U.S. Department of Education. Schools could also increase communication through home visits, such as those made at William W. Henderson School.

As Potter said of Blackstone Valley Prep Academy, school administrators have to do more than hope families will get along. “They had to make sure that they were intentional about shared leadership,” Potter said.

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