Sunday, March 29, 2015

Should Observations Be Part of a Teacher's Evaluation?

As a principal, I should be observing teachers and helping them to reflect on the strengths of the lesson as well as any challenges that can be areas for growth.  The question is, should a formal observation be part of the evaluation system? Should one observation be part of a teacher's year-long rating?

Our department uses a modified version of the Danielson Framework, and during the observation, we collect evidences for only five different components.  Prior to the observation. the teacher responds to questions on-line, the administrator comments, and there is a pre-conference to discuss any changes in the lesson plan or to ask final questions.

This is why I read Peter DeWitt's Education Week blog -"Leaders: Are Your Teacher Observations Active or Passive?" - with interest.  I wondered if he shared my view about observations that are tied to evaluations.  Peter suggests that administrators approach observations like an instructional coach would, with the purpose of providing feedback and helping the teacher improve in their teaching and learning. As he states, "Unfortunately, just because observations are tied to point scales doesn't mean they provide any more feedback to teachers.  It is often seen as a process to get done . . . instead of a process to get done right."

I spent the morning reflecting on the teacher observations I've been doing every year since I became a principal over 12 years ago. Here are some of my thoughts:
  • A trusting relationship between the teacher and the administrator is essential.  In such a relationship, the teacher will often come to the post-conference having already reflected on how they can improve the lesson in the future.  I think the greatest example of the trust a teacher had with me was when she shared that she was having difficulty with one of her students.  She had hoped he would exhibit the challenging behaviors during the lesson so I could observe how she dealt with the student and possibly give her some suggestions or insights. This teacher viewed the observation as an opportunity to grow and improve in her practice, not just as a score on her evaluation.
  • Visiting classrooms is the best part of my job, and spending time with students informs me about the teaching and learning taking place every day in the classroom, not just during a formal observation. The informal conversation afterward is one way for administrators to create a trusting relationship with the teacher; that relationship is essential as we constantly strive to improve teaching and learning at our school.
  • As teachers begin to "blend" their lessons  with students using technology as an essential component of their learning, the Danielson Framework may not be the best tool to observe what is going on in the classroom.  The Framework does not take into account the learning that can happen virtually or collaboratively via technology. When teachers have to "plan" their lesson so an observer can collect a "plethora" of evidences to warrant a rating, it is less likely that a teacher will plan a virtual assignment where evidences may not be observable.
  • Any formal observation by an administrator should be an opportunity for improvement rather than an evaluative tool. We want teachers to take risks and to be flexible when they are teaching. When teachers are given a rating that counts towards their evaluation, most of them will play it safe and not plan something different that may not be successful.  Yet, in our classrooms everyday, we want teachers to take risks and be flexible with their students. We want them to be creative and to learn from lessons that "failed" and to reflect on what they might need to change to make it successful in the future. Peter DeWitt suggests that administrators be more like instructional coaches:  "Teachers should be able to learn what they do well, what needs some tweaking and what needs improving.  The observation process should be structured like instructional coaches do it so that the focus is on providing effective feedback to bring learning forward." 
The conversation prior to and after the observations are essential to building positive relationships with teachers.  It is my hope that teachers trust me to be honest with them and to ask the tough questions to get them to think about their lessons. In the end, though,it is just one lesson for one hour of a whole school year. We should care more about what happens on the other 179 school days.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Funding Woes and Empowerment

Spring Break was a perfect opportunity to reflect and reconsider how to implement change at our school that will be both meaningful, efficient, and impactful. Our accreditation visit confirmed and validated the positive teaching and learning that is happening at Hale Kula, but we know that we can never get too comfortable with what we're doing and how we're influencing students so they can have the tools they need to be successful in their future.

This past week, results of a survey of Hawaii public school principals were released to the media. The results were less divisive than last year probably because changes were made after last year's survey to decrease the requirements of the Educator Effectiveness System for teacher evaluations. This lessened the load for principals, but this year, the Smarter Balanced Assessment is taking its place as a source of concern.  Additionally, the issue of empowerment - or lack of it - is still a major concern for school leaders. 5 out of 6 principals believe they are not empowered to lead their school. The Education Institute of Hawaii website states that 19 out of 20 principals believe that weighted student funding should be increased to 75%.

As principals, it is an expectation that we allocate sufficient funding for personnel, resources, supplies, maintenance costs, and other necessary expenses to run our school.  When we have an increase in student enrollment, we have the extra resources to fund personnel to support our students or our programs, or we can expend funds on more expensive items such as technology.  When enrollment doesn't meet projections, however, we are forced to make difficult decisions that impact students. Purchases may then be limited to necessities, often related to health and safety.

75% of the total funds allocated to the Department would be great, but is it realistic? The DOE takes money off the top for services such as student transportation and food services, programs that are essential but also money-losers. Without funding from government, these services could not sustain themselves because student revenue is such a small portion of what it takes to run programs like transportation and food services.

Schools do need additional funds especially to purchase items like technology devices or mobile labs or textbooks, if that is their preference. School districts are committing to the goals of Future Ready to put devices into the hands of every student, but how do we sustain such an ambitious initiative when we already are having to choose between art, RTI. physical education, or a mentor teacher? Personnel to support the six priority strategies of the Department means that other positions may have to be eliminated and that the budget for "extras" such as technology or learning resources may not be included in the school Financial Plan.

In this blog from Connect Learning Today, Eric Sheninger shares what he believes are 5 leadership problems for educators today. I agree that all are challenges that must be addressed if we are to provide our students with the kind of educational experiences that will prepare them to be successful in their world, now and in the future.  To do that, though, schools need to be empowered and sufficient funds need to be allocated in order to personalize our school to meet the needs of our students.  If we are going to be held accountable, we need adequate funding to support and engage all of our students and to personalize teaching and learning to educate the whole child.

What is the solution?  More funding would be nice. Why isn't our Department getting more funding when everyone agrees that education will make a difference for our students and help them to achieve their goals and aspirations?  Perhaps we also need to understand the intricacies of the budget and ask questions about why more funds aren't getting down to the schools.  Is it because of the educational reforms and top-down mandates or the shrinking budgets that Eric Sheninger mentions as leadership problems? Or is it something else that we have little control over?

We owe it to our students to find out the answers.  The more funds that come down to the schools, the more empowerment we have to try out new ideas and resources and to make a difference for our students.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

WASC is Done. Future Ready Next?

Whew! All that hard work paid off, and our WASC visit went well! The Visiting Committee made recommendations, but most of those were already part of our Academic Plan for next school year. I wish I could have been a fly-on-the-wall during meetings with the Focus Groups, the parents, and students just so I could hear what they shared about our accreditation process as well as their perceptions of and experiences at our school.  I wondered whether the participants would feel comfortable about sharing if a particularly challenging question was posed to them.  I really didn't need to worry; everyone who came out of those meetings were excited to share about how positively they felt it went! Now that the Visiting Committee has made its recommendations, we need to determine the best way to ensure implementation. By the end of the visit, our WASC co-chairs and I were already discussing what our next steps are.  Truly, WASC is a reflective process that can benefit a school if it is done with fidelity and the whole school community understands the benefits.  I am appreciative that at Hale Kula, the accreditation process is valued; it validates our progress but gives us a plan to continue to improve teaching and learning so our students can achieve to their potential.

After the accreditation visit, we had a two-day training for Future Ready.  No rest for the weary! The training required a school team, and the principal was a required participant.  No problem - I wouldn't have signed us up if I wasn't committed.  As a school, we are ready for additional support to implement a 1:1 program where students use technology as a tool for learning.  We would love to be part of the next phase within our Department and to contribute to the discussion about digital leadership, personalized professional development for teachers, and personalized learning for our students.

Unfortunately, not everyone believes in the power of technology to transform student learning and engage them in learning projects that can influence their perceptions about their place in this world. Unless the State House and State Senate fund the 1:1 project as requested by the Department and the Governor signs the budget, schools like ours will have to find other resources to purchase more devices for students or continue to use what we have and hope that we have funds in the future.

The previous $8 million that was allocated to our Department for a pilot 1:1 program was an example of poor implementation, and the resulting negative publicity probably contributed to the reluctance of the Legislature to appropriate additional funds in subsequent years.  I am hopeful that the Department, realizing their previous errors, is able to convince the Legislators and the Governor about the importance of preparing our students for their future in this 21st century world.

Because, really, it is a question of equity.  All students need equal access to technology to collaborate, communicate, think critically, and create.  Is it fair for one school to have devices for every student while another school has to share a lab in order for students to access resources via technology? new building funds that helped us to purchase devices, but those funds aren't available every year. We know that Future Ready is expensive,  but how can we ensure equity so all students have access to the tools that can prepare them for college or careers?

Equity is also a factor when we test students on the Smarter Balanced Assessments. It would be interesting to see whether access to technology has a direct correlation on student or school performance on these computer-based assessments.  If students don't perform well, is it due to the content or is it because of the format of the assessment? And will schools with 1:1 devices do better because their students have access to technology every day? I am curious to see whether access to technology has a significant impact on test scores.

Our WASC Visiting Committee commended our school for our use of technology with all stakeholders.  They noted the use of technology to communicate with our community and in all classrooms by students.  In fact, one team member shared, "I see students using tech, but I don't see teachers using it." I smiled when I heard this statement because that is exactly what we want to see - students using tech to explore, discover, create, and share.  Of course, our teachers are also using tech to collaborate and communicate with each other to create lessons and interdisciplinary units based on the Common Core State Standards.

We would love to be part of the Future Ready initiative if funds are allocated for that purpose. Even if we don't receive funds, however, we will continue our journey to make learning relevant for our students using technology and other resources.

These second graders are using computers to build a community in Minecraft.  I was impressed with how much they communicated with each other to problem-solve.  

Many of our students shared their technology projects with their parents during their student-led conferences.  It was pretty impressive to see what students shared! 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Proud Principal

We have an accreditation visit in about a week.  Our current term expires in June, and it's time for us to share what our students are learning, how we know they are learning, and what we do for those students who are struggling.

Accreditation is a process, a challenging but very worthwhile process.  Seven years ago when we applied to be accredited with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, our staff was unsure whether the extra work was worth it.  By the end of our first full self-study six years ago, everyone was invested in the process, and the resulting 6-year term with a mid-year review was a reason to celebrate. We are proud to be an accredited school because that status validated that we provide a quality education for our students.

Since that first self-study and visit by the 6-member committee, so much has changed within our Department as well as at our school.  The other day at a Leadership Team meeting, we reflected on where we were and where we are now, and the pride in our staff was noticeable. Our Focus Groups were led by new co-chairs who stepped up to take a leadership role for the school.  As we went through the challenging self-study process, I saw our co-chairs grow in confidence and successfully guide their members to closely examine and respond to the questions.  This was a team effort, and everyone contributed to the final product.  Our WASC co-chairs were also new to the process, and they kept everyone on-task and on-time.  They were really the glue that held everything together.

This has been a challenging time for our school.  Not only have there been new initiatives that are mandated for all Hawaii public schools (e.g. Educator Effectiveness System, Smarter Balanced Assessments), but our school has faced a substantial budget shortfall due to not meeting our enrollment projections for two years in a row. The result is that we have no substitute or professional development funds for teachers to articulate, to examine student data, or to discuss issues related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  But rather than complain or take a 'woe-is-me' attitude, our teachers found ways to collaborate, often through the use of social media (Google+) or Google Drive. Despite having funds to purchase only the essentials, our teachers nevertheless found ways to engage their students and share resources, learn from each other, and search for lessons and activities on the Internet. I am also proud that so many of our teachers are willing to share a new tech tool, app, or other resources during after-school sessions, and their colleagues look forward to attending and learning something new which they can apply in their classroom.  I believe we are on the cusp of becoming a true blended learning school where students and teachers use technology seamlessly throughout the day.

I am a proud principal!  As our Focus on Learning self-study indicates, we still have challenges to address. However, we also have numerous reasons to celebrate.  Hopefully, the Visiting Committee will agree!