Wait, wait! Don’t evaluate me.

Posted by James Scoolis on October 5, 2013

Man holding up hands, I have been evaluating teachers for 21 years, all the way back to a time when I was required to assess a teacher’s hygiene and appearance as “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”  Thankfully, we have progressed as a profession.

Charlotte Danielson’s work that synthesized research on effective teaching and put it all together in a rubric form was published in 1996.  It took several years for her work to make its official way to San Luis Obispo, California, where I work as an elementary principal.  I know that for years, many administrators here were unofficially using her work to evaluate the work of teachers.  Eventually, the district made the leap to accept the four domains (planning, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities) and 32 components.  Just two years ago, we abandoned “satisfactory/unsatisfactory” ratings in favor of “unsatisfactory, basic, proficient and distinguished.”

Last year was our pilot year for collecting data/evidence of teachers’ work as it related to specific components and then scoring with the four level rubric.   Data collection was all done by analog scripting and note-taking.  When it came time for us administrators to write up our evaluations, we were faced with collating and reviewing piles of handwritten feedback cards and two-column legal pad notes.  Hearing the complaints from administrators on increased workload and time commitment, our district purchased a software solution called TeachScape.

Seven uninterrupted hours?

There are three components to this software.  One is a series of videos of teachers teaching with commentaries on how the video evidence relates to the rubric. All of us were required to watch the videos and then pass the assessment piece at the end.  What I didn’t know was that the assessment piece itself requires seven hours of uninterrupted time!  I arrived at this point in the training module a few days before school started.   Well, it’s a month later and somehow those seven uninterrupted hours have eluded me.  Nonetheless, having made it through all the videos, and given my previous experience with the framework, I feel qualified and calibrated at this time.

The second component is a digital communication system for sharing data and observational notes with teachers. Implementation glitches abound.  First of all, it’s tough when the software is not intuitively designed.  You know what I mean?  (Apparently Apple engineers were involved elsewhere when this product was designed.) To their credit, the TeachScape folks are attentive and helpful.  They actually answer the helpline when you call and speak understandable English! But there are terminology problems.  What I call a walk-through is, to TeachScape, apparently something much more structured.  And I am just now trying to figure out why I would have to “schedule” an informal observation—wouldn’t that make it formal’?

Missing modules?

In addition, it seems our district hasn’t purchased all the right modules that allow us to input data. I don’t want to start the arduous process of entering all my handwritten notes and observations in one place and then, at the end of the year, find there are two different systems to collate. These issues may be solved by our new personnel director, who has taken over as the single point of contact for getting questions and glitches addressed.  She calls the helpline on our behalf, and she is learning the system along with us.

TeachScape’s third component?  At this point, I do not know exactly what it does.  Heck, I’m still looking high and low for those seven uninterrupted hours.

How will this all end up? Who will save us?  Will we be saved?  Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Evaluate Me!”  Coming soon!


Keys to Implementing Common Core Standards

Posted by James Scoolis on July 9, 2012

The movement to Common Core Standards represents a change in how students are taught.  It promotes thinking and problem solving over memorization and item knowledge.  It provides students with skills and strategies that they can use throughout their lives.  It is good for kids.   As a school or district leader you have a lot of influence on how successful this implementation will be.  Here are five important things every administrator should know and do.

Establish a clear vision for instruction.

In Change Forces: Probing the Depths of Educational Reform, Michael Fullan writes,

Working on vision means examining and reexamining, and making explicit to ourselves why we came into teaching. Asking, “What difference am I trying to make personally?” is a good place to start…I cannot stress enough that personal purpose and vision are the starting agenda. It comes from within. It gives meaning to work.

Communicate your vision consistently in writing and in person to anyone who will listen—teachers, parents and students.   Communicate to your school community that adopting Common Core Standards  is a change that will build on the school or district strengths.  Your commitment comes from a desire to capitalize on teacher strengths rather than repair teacher weaknesses.  Find and compliment teachers’ areas of expertise.  Implementing the Common Core will require long-term commitment.  Support teachers with professional development and collaboration time.  Make sure you actually do what you say you are going to do.

Do not get caught up in the details of each standard.

Keep your eye on the big picture.  I am reminded of a statement about standards that I heard when the term standards first became common place in education.

“We have upped our standards. Now up yours.”

Improving or even establishing standards by themselves will not improve instruction.  Improving instruction will improve instruction; use the Common Core Standards as guides and talking points, but focus on the process of teaching.

Focus instruction on process not content.

One of the keys to the common core standards is a recognition that we cannot teach all students everything they need to know.  We can teach them how to use problem solving tools to find out what they need to know.   Access to information—on the Internet for example—is a key component of this effort.  Technology is a tool, not an end in itself.  Students should also be encouraged  to solve real world problems and communicate their thinking in blogs and websites, collaborating with peers and colleagues.

Build capacity.

Leadership is strongest when it is given and shared.  The best organizations and schools grow leaders and, in doing so, develop people. One person cannot implement the new standards.  It will take the collective effort of everyone working together. Growing leaders is a conscious act. Developing and spreading leaders throughout the school is not an accident.

Leaders grow leaders by sharing decision-making, creating an environment in which trying new ideas is the norm, and by creating a culture of continuous improvement.  Rely on in-house expertise for professional development.  Support collaboration.  Start with the willing and support them with materials and professional development opportunities.  Set them up as mentors and observe how they do.  You will probably find that some teachers are natural at being teacher leaders and others are not.  Writer’s workshop guru Lucy Calkins writes,

In general, I tend to find that the people who push to the front of the line, saying, “Oh, I would definitely be wonderful in a leadership role. I know so much!” tend not to be well accepted by their peers, and those who instead say, “I don’t feel ready for such a role, I still have so much to learn,” will fare better.


Demonstrate your willingness to be a public learner.

Start a blog, be a collaborative partner, learn how to give a common assessment, learn through common reading of professional books.  Explain to parents in writing and in person what students are learning and how they are learning it.  When others see you taking risks and doing what they are being asked to do, they will be much more likely to do so as well.


Everything is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy

Posted by James Scoolis on February 29, 2012

The school district I work in just offered a sizable cash retirement incentive for teachers and administrators age 55 or older with at least ten years of district service.  About a third of the district’s teaching and administrative staff was eligible for the incentive, and that includes me, an older digital immigrant.  So of course I looked into it.  What I found was that despite being a twenty-eight year retirement system veteran, for me, even a $50,000 incentive (the amount offered if forty or more teachers agreed to retire), wasn’t enough to make up the difference in annual retirement payments two more years of service would provide.  So, here I will be for two more years.

Am I ready to retire?  Psychologically, yes.  I do love being around these children, now our second or third generation of digital natives.  But frankly I can’t seem to deflect the stresses and pressures—and the tragic aspects of some of their lives—as well as I used to.   Or perhaps it is true, as many of my generation are saying, that it just is getting to be ever more sad and tragic out there.

We just marked the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s wild ride.  I was alive then, not quite yet in kindergarten.  I remember sitting in front of the black and white console in my jammies watching the blast off.   It has been fifty years since Bob Dylan recorded his first album.  John F. Kennedy was president, but he didn’t survive through my first grade year.  Telephones had curly cords and sat on tables and desks, and you had to walk over to them and stand there to use them.  Television had three channels and all our news came from Walter Cronkite or the newspaper that was actually printed on paper that made your fingers black.   The majority of music was printed on 45 RPM discs but the primary way to hear music was on a transistor radio.

I may be an older digital immigrant, but at least I was one of the first pioneers.  When I was a young inexperienced teacher, I helped unpack Apple II computers in an inner city Los Angeles school with another teacher who knew how to set up a lab.  I learned how to use LOGO.  I have seen the Mac and Windows wars won and lost and then won again—and that argument now rendered basically irrelevant.  And now behold the flat-out amazing handheld computer.   Thank you and may you rest in peace Mr. Jobs.  What an amazing fifty-five years it has been.

I agree with the insightful and hilarious Louis C.K.  who posits that we live in a time where everything is amazing and no one cares.


What’s next?

Posted by James Scoolis on January 31, 2011

Recently I went to an in-service where I was advised to make my office “impeccable,” by which they basically meant nearly empty.  I was even told to get rid of my computer!  While that is not going to happen, I did decide to clean out my office.

I started with the bookcase.  I had books in there going all the way back to my master’s degree program when I was still a regular classroom teacher.  Let me just say that was when the internet was still considered experimental and “Apple or Windows?” remained a hotly debated question in school districts.   One book I moved to the donation-recycle pile was ASCD’s 1998 Yearbook, Learning with Technology.

Flipping through the pages I reflected on how far we in education have come with our long-desired “technology integration.” For example, there were visionary discourses on school in the 21st century with statements like, “Encourage teachers and students to start using the internet to become familiar with technology,” “Provide internet access in each classroom, or at least in as many classrooms as possible,” and “Provide email accounts for teachers.”    I think we have that last one under control.

There were also articles that discussed how technology would be the centerpiece of a complete redesign of schools—well, not schools, but rather learning centers, without actual classrooms, where  teams of teachers would work as learning facilitators.  That hasn’t happened yet anywhere near where I work.

What did the visionaries of 1998 omit from their prognostications?  There wasn’t anything in the book about discouraging students from bringing or using handheld internet devices.  No mention was made of the fact we should not use a student’s name in the subject line of an e-mail, nor were we reminded that each and every e-mail is, in fact, a permanent document subject to subpoena.  You get the idea.

Despite the fact not all of  the yearbook’s predictions have come to pass, technology certainly has become integrated into seemingly every aspect of life at school, home and work.  We have Google to answer our questions, Facebook to find and be a friend, and Wikipedia as a reliable source of information.   Our music, video and other entertainment is nearly all digital and available immediately online. The nature and concept of software itself is being transformed.  Fears that computers would isolate us or expose us to all sorts of revisionist history have proven false.

Schools, students, teachers, administrators—we all have and use technology.  Wow!  Now what?  What’s next?


Exception to the Rule

Posted by James Scoolis on February 28, 2010

How does technology get adopted in the classroom?  Typically, of course, it doesn’t.

What usually occurs is  some early adopters take on the newest ideas while the bulk of teachers continue to do what they mostly have always done.  It took many years for simple email even to become a common daily tool for educators.

Yet, I am here to tell you I’ve seen this pattern broken; document cameras are an exception to the rule.

In a focused two-year effort, we provided every upper grade classroom at my school with a document camera, ceiling-mounted LCD projector, and a networked computer.  With the document camera leading the charge, this techno-trinity instantly transformed teaching in just about every subject area.

Every teacher has  integrated these tools into daily teaching.  I have seen a cow’s heart dissected on screen, student writing edited interactively by large and small groups, interactive read aloud made easy with text posted for all to see, highlighting to model thinking out loud, note taking modeled in content areas, whole group brainstorming, predictive thinking with graphic organizers, and real-time completion of a cloze reading passage with students working in cooperative groups.

Basically, all of this came about with the addition of three new tools and a forty minute in-service for teachers on how to use their new cameras and projectors.

Why has this happened?  Primarily, I think it’s because the combination of the document camera and projector simply represents a big improvement on what has been a mainstay in our classrooms for five decades—the stalwart overhead projector.   In that sense, these tools represent what Tom Carroll has called “transitional” technology; they afford teachers a way to do the “same thing” in a different and better way.

Money came from three basic sources: our parent teacher association, the federal EETT grant and our own school budget.  The installation took place in waves.  Finally, like the U.S. Army who introduced them to us, we’ve retired our World War II projectors.  And there are cost savings as well.  We’ve seen a reduction in the sheer number of paper copies being made and, perhaps best of all, no more calling the photocopy repair person to extract yet another mangled transparency from the bowels of the copy machine!