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Blog: Monday, December 29, 2014


Confessions of an Average Teacher

For 2015, I’d like to become an average golfer. If you had ever seen me golf, you’d realize that it’s quite an ambitious goal. Average sometimes gets a bad rep -- no one, it seems, wants to be average. No teacher wants to be an average teacher and no school wants to be an average school.

For much of my teaching career, I was an average teacher. When I look back on those years, I cringe at the period of over-reliance on the textbook and the period of creative lesson planning with insufficient attention to formative assessment (I taught it, so they must have learned it). I always cared about my students but when I made the effort to really get to know my students (all 110 of them) and remembered to ask about the weekend football game and how a student’s family was doing with the new baby, I marveled at what a difference this made to student engagement. How could I have not known about the value of relationships?

I wasn’t born a fabulous teacher, but I’d like to think that I evolved to one. Perhaps one of the most significant things I did to improve my practice was to become National Board certified. The process required that I video lessons, collect evidence of good assessment practices and family engagement efforts, and reflect on my work. The process didn’t simply confirm that I was a good teacher, but instead it developed in me a critical eye that allowed me to continue to improve my practices after achieving certification. Following each teaching day I learned to reflect on the lesson structure, the degree of student learning, and other aspects of my teaching and was far more critical than any administrator that walked in my room; I was continually looking for ways to improve.

A recent Washington Post article, written by Steve Peha and summarized by Kim Marshall (Marshall Memo, 2014), focuses on the benefits of attending to improving the classroom methods of teachers that are neither superstars nor are least effective. Having teachers utilize better instructional practices can have a significant impact. Peha posits that “average teachers who trade inefficient techniques for optimized techniques experience above-average success.” “Pick the right 10 practices, implement the right 10 solutions, and average teachers would get above-average results.” It is through doing just this, every week, every month, and every school year, that average teachers become above average teachers, average schools become above average schools, and average districts become above average districts. Leaders need to have both the moral courage to advocate for improved instructional practices and the true care for their teachers who they believe can and should be more than average.

We’ve been identifying practices and corresponding solutions through learning walks and through a review of educational research. These include posting and focusing on learning targets and success criteria, differentiating instruction to challenge every student, and applying the gradual release of responsibility model of instruction for our students. None of these solutions are new but the gradual release of responsibility model (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983), in particular, has seen a resurgence. This model is exactly as it appears from its name. Gradually, the teacher releases the responsibility for performing a task to her students, rather than continuing to provide explicit directions for the work. The simplest analogy is teaching a child to ride a bike. Eventually, you need to let go.

At the start of this new year and as I begin my third year in Leicester I’ll also be looking to trade my own inefficient techniques for “optimized techniques” to experience above-average success so that I, too, can move from being average to being something more. While I have my own list of areas for improvement, I’ll also be asking for input from staff and others over the next few months.

As for golf, I’ll also be looking to replace my inefficient techniques for optimized techniques but I’m not ready to aim for anything more than average!

“A ‘Do-able’ Solution to Teacher Quality” by Steve Peha in The Washington Post, November 5, 2010, http://wapo.st/1CvSnU4

Pearson, P. D. and M. C. Gallagher, “The Instruction of Reading Comprehension,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 1983, pp. 317-344.


Posted by Judy Paolucci at 4:03 PM | 0 comments

 Blog: Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Purpose of Evaluation

Funds provided by the government often come with a price tag in the form of rules and mandates. When Race to the Top funds were passed to the states, one requirement was a focus on educator evaluation. While some districts did a good job with evaluation already, many did not. The focus on evaluation wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The education system in the United States needs to continually improve to meet our students' needs and in order for our country to compete in a global economy. Schools can only improve if individual teachers improve and a good evaluation system can support that goal.

The Education Association of Leicester (teachers' union) took an active role in helping to formulate our evaluation system to meet state expectations, ensure fairness, and focus on continual improvement. In fact, a team of teachers and administrators continue to meet to refine and improve upon our evaluation process. The change from few, longer, planned observations (often referred to as the "dog and pony show") to multiple, 5-15 minute, unannounced observations increased the likelihood of authenticity. Goal-setting added an individualized component to ensure a focus on improvement aligned to school and district improvement plans. We adopted the state rubrics, decided on the number of observations to be made each year, developed a goals-setting process, decided on district-determined-measures (assessments that will be used as one measure of teacher effectiveness) and are now working on incorporating student surveys into the system.

The decision of our state to collect and make public data on teacher evaluations seems to indicate that our policy-makers don't understand the purpose of evaluation. Are we interested in developing a system and helps teachers and administrators to continually improve, or are we looking for some sort of accountability system? I contend that these two purposes are at odds. Moreover, using evaluation data as an accountability measure for schools is unfair.

We chose to adopt the rigorous state rubric for evaluation (see link here and decide for yourself how rigorous "proficient" really is), while other districts have adapted the rubric to ease expectations for their teachers. We require 5-7 observations, while others have as few as 2. Yet, when the newspapers report data on the percent of teachers in various districts who are exemplary, proficient, needs improvement or unsatisfactory, they neglect to report that each district's evaluation system may be different, and that work has not yet been done within districts, never mind among districts, to ensure consistency. When data is reported this way, it doesn't support the notion of evaluation for the purpose of continual improvement. Instead, it creates fear and distrust as well as an incentive to water down expectations so that reported data can make a school look more favorable to its community.

The majority of schools in Central Massachusetts have only 12-30 teachers. Each individual teacher accounts for 3-8% of the teachers in that school. When 7% of teachers in one school are exemplary and only 3% of another school are exemplary, we can't say that there are significantly more exemplary teachers in one of these schools; both may have one exemplary teacher. Why should the conversation in a community be focused on who those 7% of exemplary teachers are? Instead of comparisons, I want our teachers to focus on how they can personally be the best they can be and how they can be better this year than they were last year. This is what results in continual improvement.

Regardless of how the evaluation data for Leicester teachers compared with the evaluation data for teachers in other schools, I am proud of how our teachers' focus has been on improving their practice. We will continue to hold expectations high and work together to make the instructional experience of our students the best it can be.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 11:39 AM | 0 comments

 Blog: Saturday, November 1, 2014


Influencing and Leveraging

We can choose to spend our time complaining about state mandates and change or we can work to influence what is mandated and leverage those mandates to do the best for our students here in Leicester. I choose the latter.

Admittedly, one can barely keep up with the legislation being proposed, many of which never make it to a vote. If we all take a piece, the burden can be spread over many. Our School Committee structure now includes a legislative liaison, whose role is to track legislation that may have an effect on our schools. Membership of administrators to state professional organizations provide another route to collective influence. The Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS) keeps me informed of the legislative agenda and draft regulatory rules developed in response to passed legislation and provides opportunities for input to such rules. The principals' associations do the same as does the teachers' association.

When legislation is passed and regulatory rules are promulgated, we can approach these as compliance exercises or leverage these to improve the instructional experiences of our students. Are we using the new educator evaluation system to provide effective feedback to teachers so that they can be the best they can be or do we march through the process to simply ensure compliance? Are we readying ourselves for the PARCC assessments to get it done, or are we taking advantage of the improved technology required for these assessments to bring our classrooms into the 21st Century? I believe that the positive attitudes of our teaching staff, School Committee, and administrative team keeps us focused on the right things.

The DESE Summit, attended last week by a team from Leicester, provides some insight into the initiatives being worked on at the present time. Below is a selection of sessions to give you an idea of what initiatives are in the works or are on the horizon.

Opening Plenary - Commissioner Chester - The Commissioner praised Massachusetts educators for the accomplishments over the past few years and provided a challenge for our future work. ELA scores are climbing for Hispanic, African America, and White subgroups. This is about the program of instruction and is not about testing well. Students are reading better and doing math better. On the other hand, 15% MA students performed in top performance category of countries on PISA while 55% of Shanghai students performed in this top category. A high percentage (over 35%) of students are being placed in non-credit bearing courses in college. On 2 year campuses, 2 out of 3 high school graduates are placed in non-credit bearing courses. ESE employs four core strategies: (1) Strengthen curriculum, instruction, and assessment; (2) Educator Evaluation; (3) School and District Turnaround; and (4) Use of Data (doesn't this sound a lot like our 3-year district action plan???)

How are Districts/Schools Embedding Practices Introduced Through SEI (Sheltered Engliss Immersion) Endorsement Training? - All educators are required to take a course (SEI) focused on strategies for English Language Learners. Presenters emphasized that SEI implementation needs to happen school wide. (While Leicester Schools have a low incidence of English Language Learners, these strategies are good for many students). Teachers and administrators need to be trained to use the Sheltered Immersion Observation Protocol, schools must be organized for teachers to share and collaborate, and all educators should adhere with fidelity to SEI strategies.

Implications of PARCC Accommodations and Accessibility Features for Instruction of All Students and Technology Skills and Readiness for PARCC - Two sessions focused on preparations for PARCC testing. These new tests will be given to students in grades 3-8 in Leicester this year. The presenters advocate for having PARCC teams (both district-based and school-based) and for ensuring that training is provided for both student and teachers. Specific technology requirements (agreement with ISP, proctor caching is a must, virtual server (build a proctor cache server), do a pre-caching ahead of time, learn how to purge your cache, access points in EVERY classroom, don't put on microwaves during testing, stop guest access, etc.) were shared, as well as other tips that ensure student and teacher readiness. Of course, most important is for students to be ready for the more rigorous questions they will experience in PARCC.

Measuring Student Growth: Setting Parameters for District-Determined Measures (DDMS) and Maximizing Impact and Efficiency: Educator Evaluation Implementation Strategies from the Field - Although most districts, including Leicester, have already begun to use DDMs as part of the educator evaluation system, details, including how to measure student growth, are not entirely worked out. There will be continuing conversations with our evaluation committee about next steps to use DDM data most effectively.

Teaching “Writing to Text” to Adolescents: Strategies from Writing Standards in Action; Writing to Texts in Grades 3-8; Bringing Disciplinary Literacy to Life: Stories from the Field; and The Implications of PARCC Mathematics Assessments for Math Instruction in Grades 3-8 - In keeping with DESE's core strategies, some sessions focused on instructional practices and emphases that are being advocated.

Connections: Model Curriculum Units, Aligned Curriculum, Educator Evaluation, and PARCC - There are several Model Curriculum Units (MCUs) that have been developed with the Understanding by Design Framework and which are aligned to standards, that can help districts connect multiple ESE initiatives, help with curricular alignment, improve instruction, collaboration, increase teacher knowledge of standards and content. The ESE website has MCU and lots of related information including videos and rubrics http://www.doe.mass.edu/candi/model. There is also a grant currently available to districts to implement MCUs. We are planning to apply for this grant, which is due November 14th.

Planning High Quality Professional Development Using Educator Evaluation Data - New DESE standards on high quality PD, along with the use of evaluation data (what are staff struggling with?) and other data enable districts to focus PD on what is most important to their teachers and students.

Leveraging EDWIN to Strengthen Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment - Edwin is the new Massachusetts teaching and learning platform that provides educators with a means of looking at student, school, district, and state data. There are additional tools and resources that are intended to help educators improve teaching, learning, school readiness and education outcomes. Districts must to sign a "commitment" form to access EDWIN Teaching and Learning (we already have access to EDWIN Analytics). Previously, this was available only to RttT districts.

Transitioning to Revised Science and Technology/Engineering (STE) Standards - The new STE standards articulate expected performance/demonstration but do not limit curriculum and instruction to the included practice. The presenters shared that even though the standards are written such that all 4 disciplines are taught in each grade, a district can decide to move topics within grade spans. For high school, there is no change in structure. They propose introductory grade 9-10 courses and incorporation of engineering into the core science courses. A great graphic shows commonalities among the practices in science, mathematics, and ELA. www.doe.mass.edu/stem/review.html The public draft of these standards are available online. DESE will continue to work on STEM pathways; implications for upper-level HS courses; edits based on input; develop Framework resources; and posting model curriculum units. Districts should be transitioning to standards in curriculum and instruction and use these to inform educator goals and district determined measures. The standards will move to official public comment and adoption process in 2015-2016 and they expect a multi-year implementation and transition period (3 year). For PK-8, there is a significant enough content overlap that it is unlikely to negatively impact accountability status. For HS courses in which students take an MCAS, courses should remain aligned to current standards because of competency determination/ graduation implications. Some districts are deciding to simply add the technology portions or make some changes in the courses in high school that are not MCAS tested. The districts that presented suggested the following tools and initiatives to move toward the new standars: NSTA formative assessment probes, Sarah Michaels and Laura Resnick’s productive/accountable talk to shift teachers’ practices away from lecture toward having the students be able to carry on a scientific discussion, Betsy Fulwiler’s work on reading and writing in science was also helpful (I have this book!).

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 11:35 AM | 0 comments

Blog: Thursday, October 2, 2014

Is it Common Core or is it Good Number Sense?

A recent Facebook comment stream criticized Common Core standards as well as second grade homework. Some misconceptions were evident. I hope that the information found in this blog entry will make the goals of math learning in Leicester (and in Massachusetts and the rest of the country!) more clear.

Second graders have been practicing addition through grouping. This idea comes more naturally to some than to others, but is, in fact, something good number thinkers do at all ages. Here’s what I mean….
If you were adding ½ cup sugar to ¾ cup sugar, you’d know you’d have a cup and a quarter, not because you found the least common denominator, converted both numbers to equivalent fractions with that least common denominator, then converted to a mixed number and fraction, like this:
1 + 3 = 2 + 3 = 5 = 1 ¼
2 4 4 4 4

Instead, you would know because you would “deconstruct” (in your head) ¾ as being ½ + ¼ then you would recognize (grouping!) that ½ + ½ = 1, so the end result would be 1 and ¼. Of course we do want to teach our students the standard algorithm of finding the least common denominator, but we DON’T want them to only know that way!

Second graders are not working with fractions but, instead, are working with whole numbers and grouping 10’s. For 9 + 4 …. We know that 9 + 1 = 10 and 4 is just made up of 3 + 1 so we’d have one ten and another 3 so the answer would be 13: 9 + 4 = 9 + 1 + 3 = 10 + 3. I know parents know this but if you are doing it automatically, realize that your child isn’t, so we’re working on teaching them that.

Here’s another real life example: When adding and subtracting money, we group by dollars (100 cents). If I added 85 cents to 30 cents, I know in my head that another 15 cents would make the 85 cents a dollar and I also know that 30 cents is 15 cents plus 15 cents, so I’d group the 85 cents with one of the 15 cents to make a dollar, leaving 15 cents. So, the answer would be a dollar and 15 cents.

The way this second grade standard is written is:

Fluently add and subtract within 20 using mental strategies (counting on, making ten (e.g. 8+6=8+2+4=10+4=14); decomposing a number leading to a ten (e.g., 13 – 4 = 13 – 3 – 1 = 10 – 1 =9); using the relationship between addition and subtraction (e.g., knowing that 8 + 4 = 12, one knows 12 - 8 = 4); and creating equivalent but easier or known sums (e.g., adding 6+7 by creating the known equivalent 6 + 6 + 1 = 12 + 1 = 13).

Now, you might say, “who in their right mind would subtract 4 from 13 using 3 steps like the example just provided?????” Of course, one wouldn’t do this in practice, but as we teach these young students the strategy we want them to do it out the long way. Once they learn it, it can be done in their head. Through this work, we are making great mathematicians.

While I did provide the current standard, please don’t think this is anything new. My son is 27. He was in 2nd grade in 1994 – well before the “Common Core.” He learned math this way 20 years ago and I am proud to say that he can do mental math (and any other kind of math as well) with ease. Some requirements of Common Core are, in fact, a bit different, but mostly in the depth of understanding of these mathematics concepts we are asking our students to show.

Why do some blame the Common Core for these approaches? Unfortunately, the Common Core has become a political football. Those who are against central control or government in general don’t want to see national standards or anything that looks like national standards. So, while we argue whether or not to have national standards and whether or not the ones we have are any good, a significant portion of the world’s nations that have national standards are running circles around us. We need to move forward in a positive way and to do that we need everyone here in Leicester – students, teachers, parents, and politicians alike – to help ensure a positive learning environment both within and outside our school walls. When homework or assessments aren’t clear, ask a teacher; we have wonderful teachers that are ready to help parents as well as students.

Posted by Judy Paolucci at 1:14 PM | 0 comments

Blog: Saturday, September 20, 2014

Great Beginnings and Successful Endings

Good storytelling includes both great beginnings and successful endings. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has ripped through an engrossing book only to be disappointed by a feeble ending. Worse yet, I've abandoned otherwise worthy books after long, languid starts.

Lessons. likewise. benefit from both great beginnings and successful endings. When I first learned about lesson planning, way back when, the start of the lesson was called "set induction." I looked up "set induction" and found the following definition provided by Dr. Cheryl Grable:

Set is a mental state of readiness
Induction brings it on
Set Induction gets learners thinking and ready for the lesson

As part of set induction, I had learned that at the start of every lesson we should let the learner know what it is we expect the learner to know and be able to do (in Leicester we have been referring to this as the "mastery objective") and to relate this to past and future learning as well as to something relevant to the student. From what we now know about the brain, there is a reason for this; if we can help the brain to make neural connections we can ensure learning that is lasting.

In Leicester, we have come a long way in only a year's time making it a habit to post and communicate our objectives to students. While each teacher has interpreted this in slightly different ways, overall our efforts to help students understand what we want them to know and be able to do following a lesson or series of lessons has improved instruction from grade K to grade 12. Some educators refer to these as learning targets, objectives, mastery objectives, goals, target learning goals, K-U-E-D (don't ask what this stands for!!!) and by other terms, but no matter what we call them, our goal is for students to understand what we expect and for those brains to put the new knowledge and skills in their place.

As I see each of our teachers dutifully posting mastery objectives, I hope each understands that we do this, not for compliance, but to provide students "a mental state of readiness." As we, as a district, move forward with this practice we will want to make small adjustments to make these practices more consistent from classroom to classroom and school to school and to leverage this practice to improve results (rather than ensuring compliance).

It has long been understood that the end of a lesson is equally important. First, our brains remember best what we learned last. When we spend the last few minutes of the lesson recapping important learning, it is like taking a highlighting pen and underscoring what we want students to remember. This can be done in a variety of ways including a simple recap, reviewing the lesson objectives, using an "exit slip," or by other means. A Google search of "ending a lesson" provides a number of links to many great ideas.

Providing a successful lesson ending requires good timing, especially in the secondary classroom where bells signal period endings sometimes well before we're ready for the period to end. Time has a way of getting away from us. Appointing a student to a timekeeper role is one way to help ensure that time can be set aside for lesson closure.

Teaching is a complex endeavor that requires continual efforts to hone pedagogical skills. I have learned much about good instructional practices, including effective ways to start and end lessons, through my visits to Leicester classrooms. Spending this month focused on those beginnings and endings will enable continual improvement to instructional practice.


Posted by Judy Paolucci at 4:40 PM | 0 comments
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