Chalkboard on the Wrong Road

10:28 am

Someone ought to tell the leaders of the Chalkboard Project that no one uses a chalkboard anymore.

And someone should also tell them that schools are about educating kids not teachers. There is a great confusion in educational circles that the major problems in the schools can be solved by better educating or evaluating teachers. Yep, we need more realistic education in our university teacher-training programs, and mentoring young teachers is a good idea. But spending millions of dollars and stealing time from children’s education in the form of half days and stealing hours and hours of time from teacher classroom preparation to do in-service to make teachers incrementally better, and sometimes worse is an educational travesty.

Most education takes place in the classroom and within schools. Improving education should focus on these two things. How do we make the school run better? How do we make the classroom work better so kids can learn more? These are not questions which will be solved in Washington D.C. with Race to the Top bribes or by school reform based on suspect, supposed educational research.

School problems need to be directly addressed by the staff in that school working together in an open manner which focuses on the problems particular to that school. Sure, the staff can ask for help upstairs in the administration office (which might include such requests as we need a librarian), and sure this can include training the staff thinks they might need. But, training in the latest educational trends, mostly designed to cover the backsides of administrators, is not particularly helpful. (This doesn’t mean an administrator can’t write down ideas and give them to his or her teachers to consider.)

Same goes in the classroom. Each classroom is different. Each is a little world unto itself with an infinite number of interactions and nuances. Spending hours on imparting national trendy reforms isn’t really much help. But that is what we do. Instead we should create an atmosphere which allows real communication between staff, including administrators, about ideas which teachers might find useful, including ideas specific to that particular classroom or the teaching of that subject. This doesn’t mean evaluating more, it means encouraging and supporting more.

My fervent hope is that PPS and the State of Oregon will figure it out. The Chalkboard project isn’t helping.

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Steve Buel has taught in public schools for 41 years. He served on the PPS school board (1979-1983) and co-authored the 1980 School Desegregation Plan. He has followed PPS politics since 1975.

filed under: Chalkboard Project, Labor Relations, Media, National, Race to the Top

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25 Responses

  1. Comment from Miss Merry Sunshine:

    Amen! Applause! I’ve always said that I would be a far more effective and better teacher if: a) I had books to teach with, and any consumables to go with them, (not to mention other supplies necessary( b) had support from administrators in the form of handling discipline issues and BACK-UP when necessary, and 3) give me reasonable numbers of students to work with in each class and appropriate support for students in Sped and ELL.

    TA DA! EDUCATION CRISIS SOLVED! Seriously, the few times I did have those three things, were the best years ever in teaching. It’s simple. More inservice without materials and support for implementation is a waste of money and time.

    It’s all very, very simple. Anybody agree?

  2. Comment from Zarwen:

    Absolutely, Merry. But I hasten to point out that you have stumbled on the major obstacle preventing reform in your penultimate sentence: yes, the solution is TOO DAMN SIMPLE!

    Or, to put it another way, the “education crisis” has become a BUSINESS. The folks who make and market these trendy materials and inservices are doing it to MAKE MONEY, NOT to educate children. Therefore, they need to do everything possible to PERPETUATE the “education crisis” because if, God forbid, any ACTUAL solutions are ever implemented, these poor folks would be out of a job!

    Actually, we could get rid of them tomorrow if so many superintendents and school boards across the country were not so gullible. But what are the odds?

  3. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Miss Merry Sunshine, who says we need books? Not the president.

    Headline from today’s news is:

    “President’s budget freezes library funding, omits school libraries from education increase”

  4. Comment from Bonnie Robb:

    Yes Miss Merry, my best years are also the ones where I had small class size (20-22) and lots of support from non-classroom staff. The small class size has made the most difference with high needs kids. Simple, but almost impossible when the district closes schools and mushes us all into overcrowded K-8’s.

    The k-8 mess aside, this is simple, elegant, and “shovel ready” solution.
    I have a few suggestions on where they can “shovel” this merit based pay. All of this aside, from what I understand, they can push through the merit pay without the backing of PAT, which is not forthcoming. Good luck Chalkboard Project. Why don’t you propose to Arne Duncan that funding for smaller class sizes is one of the most immediate, proven, and actually useful “reforms” the feds can make. (and one you have actually suggested)

  5. Comment from howard:

    When the grant money runs out, Chalkboard will flutter away. PPS will still have the structural defects it has been accumulating for lo these many years.

  6. Comment from Chalkboard Project:

    Chalkboard appreciates your passion for education and your hope that the state will do what is best for Oregon’s students.

    We agree that staff and administrators need to have more meaningful conversations about what is working in the classroom- they need the time and structure to be able to do so. We also agree that the ultimate goal is improving education for Oregon’s children. We do believe that the teacher in the classroom is the key to raising student achievement. We do not champion reforms that support effective teaching for their own sake, but because these reforms will have an impact on how well students are learning, on how much we can close the achievement gap, and on how many of our students are prepared for college, career and life.

    We support a more effective evaluation system not as an inspection model, or a way of punishing teachers, but as a way of creating a system of continuous improvement and supporting a culture where teachers receive constructive feedback about their work in the classroom. In our conversations with teachers, they want feedback. As you say, every classroom is different. Evaluations are about supporting teachers to do their best work in their classrooms- if no one sees them in their classrooms, it become harder to provide that meaningful support.

    As you say, teachers need encouragement and support. We completely agree that in order to strengthen education in Oregon we need to empower our educators. We all want what is best for Oregon’s students.

  7. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    If Chalkboard is serious about making “our K-12 public schools among the nation’s best,” they should advocate for comprehensive tax reform and full funding for our schools.

    I don’t see that anywhere in their list of priorities. (They did advocate for a one-time diversion of the corporate kicker for a rainy day fund, but that’s far short of the comprehensive rebalancing of the tax burden our state needs.)

    We know reducing class sizes is the single most important thing we can do to improve education, yet the “business community” consistently stands in the way of the tax reforms necessary to maintain even the current inadequate levels of funding. Witness the tantrum they had when law makers shut them out of the process last year and passed modest tax increases on the wealthy and corporations.

    Like other “philanthro-capitalists,” Chalkboard seems to blame teachers for the problems that result from underfunding our schools and persistent poverty in our cities.

    It’s not hard to conclude that they may be motivated by something else, e.g. the desire to disempower teachers’ unions.

  8. Comment from Chalkboard Project:

    Here are a few links to our work on Stable and Adequate funding:

    From our original 15-point action plan: http://www.chalkboardproject.o.....unding.pdf

    2005 report on Oregon school finance: http://www.chalkboardproject.o.....Report.pdf

    The full 2006 Finance and Accountability Workgroup Report: http://www.chalkboardproject.o.....ullrep.pdf

    We agree that stable and adequate funding is an essential part of strengthening Oregon’s schools.

  9. Comment from Rita:

    I’d like to follow up on Steve Rawley’s comment. All these pledges by the Chalkboard Project, Portland Schools Foundation, and others that they are committed to making Oregon schools “among the nation’s best” are disingenuous in the extreme. Oregon currently ranks at or very close to the bottom in most measures of state support for both K-12 and higher education, including class size, length of school year, and expenditures per student. It would require a major restructuring of our tax system to bring state support up to even the national median levels, never mind the top.

    In light of the business community’s longstanding anti-tax position (continued in the recent ballot measure campaign), can we just be honest about it and admit that the business elite in this state don’t really want “the best” for our kids? Minimal adequacy appears to be what we’re shooting for. It’s certainly what most kids are getting.

  10. Comment from Zarwen:

    Amen, Rita!

    If you want to know what it looks like where education is valued, try looking at some of the east coast states. They’ve been doing it for 200 years.

  11. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Personally, while I am big on adequate funding for schools and support the educational floor idea that my brother and Ben Cannon brought before the legislature recently, I am talking more about what my 43 years of experience working in schools has taught me. It isn’t about outside programs which someone thinks improves teachers. It isn’t about evaluations. It isn’t about reforms which people say, because of the research, will help with student learning. The research is no good. Check it out. Really look at it. It is not the savior. Doesn’t mean some of it isn’t somewhat helpful, but it detracts more than it helps. Same with the testing. It detracts more than it helps.

    You want to make the schools work, particularly at the middle grades which is where they are most vulnerable. Here’s how. Try this. 1) Fix the discipline. No school works without it. Period. 2) Make sure teachers know they are supported and appreciated and respected. They will get better overnight. 3) Truly follow through with kids. Look at each kid. Make sure the ones who can’t read learn to read. Make sure the ones who have poor attitudes and work habits get the help they need. 4) Create an engaging atmosphere in the school. 5) Base your curriculum and what you think is important on the future needs of the students and education in general,not some evaluative testing, which is helpful, but in the end detracts from the real education. 6) Create an atmosphere in the school which truly celebrates not only the rigor of good education but the creativity of good education.

    No one is fooled by saying teachers want feedback so we give them 50 programs periferally relevant to what they are doing. Teachers say this so they cover their behinds. What they really want is real feedback when they need it. Real help directed specifically to their own needs.

    I once had a principal who understood all this. His school was maybe the best elementary school in Oregon. Fabulous place. One time he drove across Portland to personally get me some English texts for my class because I had complained, in a way, that I only had 22 books for 22 kids and if a kid left his book home it was driving me crazy. Three days later he showed up with 6 more texts. That is real support. Once Matt Prophet when he was superintendent had a parent call his office and complain about her son’s education and said he didn’t have his books at home. Prophet drove across town to the school and got the kid’s books and dropped them off on his way home. That is support. Try to find administrators like that today. By the way, my wonderful principal quit early because there was so much crap he was having to do from the superintendent. Didn’t have time to make the school really work any more.

    All that stuff doesn’t work. How are we doing? We’ve been going down this road since 1989. Has anything gotten better? Not that I can see. Gotten a lot worse.

    Read the book In Pursuit of Elegance, then set up your programs again. You will do much better. Of course, it is not so sexy as messing around in the edu-political world. But guess what, we might start making some progress instead of regressing.

  12. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    The documents linked from the Chalkboard Project are from 2005 and 2006. Their latest annual report doesn’t even mention funding adequacy as an issue.

    In any case, actions speak louder than words. Where was Chalkboard on 66 & 67? Where have they been in the last four years with regard to tax reform?

    You can wave your hands all you want about teacher effectiveness and evaluations, but if you’re not working for full funding, you’re not working for a true solution.

    Chalkboard’s funders — including the Meyer Memorial Trust, the Ford Family Foundation, the Jeld-Wenn Foundation, Gates, Intel Corporation, Fred Meyer Foundation, and more — have the institutional might to sway the “business community” in Oregon to work for comprehensive revenue reform.

    Despite some four- and five-year-old words in support of “adequate” education funding, Chalkboard has not shown an interest in using their considerable influence to move our tax code in a way that would actually support this.

    Hence my conclusion that they’re more interested in busting the chops of teachers (and reducing their political influence) than actually improving education for our children.

  13. Comment from Miss Merry Sunshine:

    Amen, on the thought that Chalkboard is more interested in “busting the chops of teachers” and reducing/eliminating ANY influence we have, including dismantling our union. I thought Chalkboard was a suspect organization from the get-go, glad to hear people speaking out on it.

    Y’know, there’s a new show on CBS (starting SuperBowl Sunday) where CEO’s go anonymously to work side-by-side with hourly employees–for once I would love to see the think-tank types be responsible for a classroom and EVERYTHING that goes with it, while a certified teacher stands in the background and gets a good chuckle.

    Let’s start from the top, when was the last time Carole Smith taught? How about that Zeke guy, is he a teacher at all??? Put the Broad people in the classroom, let the board members try it, FOR A WEEK, minimum…

    Just a mischieviously wonderful idea thrown out there to bring a laugh or two at the thought…..can’t you just see Bill Gates in a classroom in the PPS? Pick your school, ROFLOL!!!

  14. Comment from Zarwen:

    Sadly, Merry, you could say the same about quite a few principals that are in charge of the buildings. . . .

  15. Comment from Rita:

    You know, that’s not a bad idea, Merry. PPS already does an annual “principal for a day” thing for local notables. How about we make it “teacher for a day” instead? That could be a real eye opener.

  16. Comment from Stasia:

    I often worry about how quickly we teachers become defensive, often at the expense of real discourse. This post and many of the responses to it only heighten my worry.

    Are schools messed up? Absolutely. Do we need good teachers who can work in their own classrooms, according to what they know is best, for their own students? Absolutely. Do those teachers need support to sustain them through the incredibly difficult, often alienating, exhausting work of teaching? Again, absolutely.

    I can’t speak for all organizations who have their fingers in education, but in my interactions with Chalkboard, I’ve found only that they are on the side of teachers in this crazy messed-up system. They’re not looking to enforce some kind of one-size-fits-all evaluation onto teachers. They’re not trying to come in to your school, tell you what’s wrong, and tell you how to fix it. They’re just trying their damndest to help foster what the original post calls “an atmosphere which allows real communication between staff, including administrators, about ideas which teachers might find useful, including ideas specific to that particular classroom or the teaching of that subject.” Chalkboard is trying to work with us to find a way to keep us in this profession, to give us the support we need, to find ways to encourage us to keep getting better at the incredibly difficult job we do.

    I think it’s the word “evaluation” that trips us up. Everyone’s so afraid of from-the-outside evaluation that any mention of the word shuts us down. I see it in my colleages; I see it in the people who have posted here. We hear the “e” word and we don’t every want to talk about anything else. Conversation closed. The truth is, though, that evaluation can be used to foster the real discourse that teachers need to feel supported, create a community of people dedicated to their students, and to help them get better at what they do. It doesn’t have to be evaluation in the pass-or-be-fired kind of way as many of you seem to be afraid of; it can be as simple as collaborating with a co-worker and getting feedback about what works for each of you. Chalkboard is just trying to help us find school- and district-specific ways to get better and to better serve our children–but we never will if we’re so afraid to talk about the difficult issues.

  17. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Stasia, It is neither defensiveness nor fear of evaluation which drives me. It is the realization that we have lost the ability to have true discourse in education between professionals. How else to account for the reliance on faulty educational supposed research and national trends as the crux of the school reform movement? How else to account for the reliance on teacher accountability as the basis for much of the reform movement? How else to account for the over emphasis on narrow high stakes testing criteria? I am not buying this — and you shouldn’t either.

    When the organizations pushing these ideas are willing to admit that school improvement is best done within the schools themselves and the classrooms themselves and the decisions for how best to make these improvements should come from open and unrestrained discussions, and that the national trends and testing are not helping in any major way then I will send them money to help their plight and support them to the hilt.

    In the meantime, I will keep working for a sensible approach based on what is good for kids, and which recognizes that each school is different and that each teacher teaches differently and that is a good thing.

  18. Comment from S. Wilcox:

    Well said Steve. Why is standardized testing the only evaluation tool these groups recognize? There is nothing standardized about the kids that I teach, yet this seems to be the only approach Race to the Top and Chalkboard will consider. I went to ODE’s website for the RTTT grant, and I was hardpressed to find a teacher on any of the committees. Lots of “executives” (Botana, Smith, etc.) Is it that unreasonable to ask teachers what would make their jobs more successful? Why is the simplest answer the most overlooked?

  19. Comment from Stasia:

    To S. Wilcox and Steve:

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you both are saying. Standardized testing is a horrible way to evaluate anything, and teachers should be trusted to know what’s best for their students. I know I certainly wouldn’t be in this job if I felt like someone from on high were always telling me what I needed to do to be better.

    So the reason I’ve found Chalkboard to be so helpful is that they DON’T want to just come in with a canned solution and evaluate us based on standardized tests. I’ve found them to be super helpful in facilitating the discussion between teachers and administrators to really open up that conversation you want, Steve, about the real, tangible, building-specific things we can do to help us get the support we need.

    I just worry when the immediate reaction to an organization who wants to help is to assume their form of “help” is more testing and canned curriculum. It’s not always teachers vs. everyone else; some people/organizations out there really do have some good ideas and I think it’s important to at least make an effort to listen to them (for example, Chalkboard is not actually proposing evaluation based on standardized test results) before dismissing them as just another Race to the Top.

  20. Comment from Miss Merry Sunshine:

    Chalkboard hasn’t helped me one little bit, and I will continue to be suspect. Maybe, Stasia, you work in a school (if you are a teacher) where you are in a TRUE collegial atmosphere and frankly discuss your shortcomings, room for improvement, ask for assistance/advice, etc. And you don’t have it backfire in your face??When I have worked in such a positive situation, and asked to be observed and needed feedback and input, it was wonderful! Constructive help from peers made me a better teacher, and we do learn from each other.

    HOWEVER, having worked in a snake-pit like atmosphere, where any admission that a teacher might need assistance was looked on as inadequacy and failure–well, you can guess what that did for collegiality! Unfortunately, there are too many schools where teachers who aren’t in ‘the loop’ can be set up for harassment, a poor evaluation, or sent packing, etc—so you will have to excuse me for being suspect of Chalkboard and their motives. The PPS can be a very destructive place to work, instead of lifting and supporting teachers.

    I would love to know WHAT they have done to make my time in the classroom better or improve it. Stable funding of education would be the big one, but three decades, and I still don’t see a rat’s chance of that happening. If Chalkboard would work on that, and get tax reform passed so that schools are faithfully and reliably funded, I’d bow at their heels and toot their horn.

    I have yet to see them facilitate any discussion, so I’m assuming they get invited to do that in situations where the admin. is not “climbing” or threatened?

    Stasia, have you ever been evaluated where the evaluator WANTS YOU GONE, and will concoct anything to get you out the door? I’ve seen 4 teachers gone (fired, etc) for exactly that. Bucking a trend, speaking out, going against the flow…..I find it hard to believe some places could have Chalkboard come in and facilitate. Suspect of Chalkboard? You can’t sell me on their “benevolence”.

  21. Comment from John Dewey:

    The Annenberg Report said PPS principals and administrators were some of the worse they’d ever seen… anywhere… dozens of new hires in sharp pantsuits… wandering around BESC without job descriptions or meaningful work to do. Holding up The Super’s vanity mirror is NOT honest work, sorry. So, what has Chalkboard said or done about that? Nada. Not a dang thing.

  22. Comment from Miss Merry Sunshine:

    John Dewey, can you post a link to that? Otherwise, I’ll go look it up. No surprise to me. Especially when an administrator that one school staff voted “no-confidence” on is PROMOTED to a BESC position!

  23. Comment from Todd:

    Ms. Sunshine, I sincerely feel bad for you that you work in a school setting in which you do not feel supported or that you can trust your district and school administrators. I’m fortunate to teach in a different kind of school. In fact, in some ways I feel too supported! (Bizarre,huh?)

    After 13 years of teaching, I realize that my colleagues and my administrators — school and district — have no clue how I perform in the classroom or what, if anything, I’m doing to improve myself as a teacher. That’s why I’m not surprised when I read news articles on how national studies rank Oregon extremely low on teacher accountability.

    It doesn’t make sense to me that, up until this year, I see an administrator in my room only once a year for a formal evaluation — a prearranged time chosen by me — and that my written evaluation includes only pleasant anecdotes. It doesn’t make sense to me that I mailed in my license renewal to TSPC this morning and, with regard to professional development, all I had to do was check a box in a sheet declaring yes, I worked on professional development over the past five years.

    One of the subjects I teach is business and economics, and I teach my students that one of a business manager’s primary responsibilities is to support workers in becoming as highly skilled as possible. I, too, want administrators’ support, whether it’s driving across town to get texts students need, or helping me improve my craft.

    That’s why I support the work of the Chalkboard Project. They, like I assume everyone in this blog conversation would agree, believe that the single best way to support and improve student achievement is to place and support strong teachers in every classroom, and they’re backing that up with the CLASS project they’ve piloted all over Oregon. (I assume Chalkboard has info about CLASS on their website if anyone wants to explore it further.) Looks like an intriguing model to me, providing teachers support from administrators and colleagues and rewarding them financially for assuming leadership positions and taking strides to get better. Mr. Buel, you’re right when you say school improvement is best done within schools and classrooms, and CLASS strives to support exactly that.

    Please recognize, too, that just as schools are people, not institutions, Chalkboard is people, not simply an organization. I know a couple of the top Chalkboard folks, Sue Hildick and Kate Dickson, and I know them to be intelligent women of the highest integrity who are genuinely committed to student success and teacher support.

  24. Comment from howard:

    Very informative discussiion. Oregon’s nearly 200 school districts are definitely not homogeneous. Nor, for that matter, are the various clusters in PPS homogeneous.

  25. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Todd, thank you. I have looked at the Chalkboard’s website. Here is the four goals of the CLASS Project: expanded career paths, relevant professional development, effective
    performance evaluations and new compensation models. Take a careful look. What part of this model directly (not indirectly) affects children. Professional development — that’s for teachers. Performance evaluation — that’s for administrators (note, it doesn’t say helpful feedback, but “evaluation”), expanded career paths — that’s for teachers, compensation models — that’s for teachers.

    What I want to see from these organizations are their support for ideas which directly affect kids. Chalkboard does talk about one on one reading (kind of pie in the sky, but an initiative which really works toward having all children be able to read would be plenty welome) and smaller class size for k-1. Good ideas. Where is their legislative push for these ideas? Sadly, not there. Instead their agenda works within the typical educational-political framework which has done very little the last 20 years to help education and, in fact, has probably made things worse.

    Of course, this type of program will get supported by OEA. (I am a proud member of NEA for 40 years and have been a union president.) But OEA does not speak for children or even education in general. It is a union to help teachers.

    Now, if the Chalkboard would just define what it specifically means by “student achievement” and guarantee that its programs would be interpreted as such then it might have a chance of making a positive difference. Unless of course its definition is the same one all of Oregon is using now — test scores on narrowly defined educational standards.