Viva la Revolution! State Teachers of the Year Advise ED about Teacher Policy

At the end of a week of activities in Washington to honor the accomplishments of the state Teachers of the Year, those teachers engaged in a conversation about how to improve the teaching profession.

It began as ten small-group discussions about the new RESPECT Project to elevate the teaching profession. But it grew into a passionate plea by the teacher leaders for total transformation, as representatives from each of the small groups addressed the room at large. “Our key concern is making sure this project is moving along at a faster pace,” the first teacher reported to officials at the U.S. Department of Education.  “As a nation we need to elevate the status of the profession and change the culture of teaching.”

Teachers of the Year at ED

Teachers of the Year at ED. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Johnson

As the two-hour session continued, teachers called on one another to lead the change of the profession.  “If we want to see radical change, we need radical reform,” said Alvin Davis, the State Teacher of the Year from Florida.

Alana Margeson (Maine) urged both the Department and teachers to put systems in place to implement changes, arguing that without practical solutions, the vision would go nowhere. “Any idea without legs will never walk you very far,” she urged.

When asked to describe how they lead their profession from the classroom, one by one, the teachers described their strategies and pressed one another to be agents of real transformation:

    • “I teach because I want to change the script.” Elena Garcia-Velasco (Oregon)
    • “Anything worthy of your passion is worthy of your preparation.” Tyronna Hooker (North Carolina)
    • “I believe we can always do things better.” Mark Ray (Washington)
    •  “The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution.” Chad Miller (Hawaii)

Because of their passion and courage, I left the meeting with these teachers with ideas about how to improve the RESPECT Project.  Mostly I felt encouraged about my profession and the future of teaching because of their inspiration.  Viva la revolution!

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is the Teacher Liaison at the U.S. Department of Education, an English teacher on loan temporarily from her school in Buncombe County, N.C

Keeping REAL-Time at Glasgow Middle

Three years ago, Principal of Glasgow Middle School (Fairfax, Va.) Deirdre Lavery found herself face to face with the classic middle school dilemma: how to make all students in her diverse population feel a part of large school community while also setting rigorous academic standards.

Not an easy task for any middle school principal. But Lavery’s dilemma was intensified because hers is an International Baccalaureate (I.B.) school offering eight content subjects. The variety of academic courses gave students choices and let them dig deeper in subjects of interest, but it also made it tough to organize teachers into grade-level teams who work together with teams of students in the same grade level.

Picture of Students

Sixth grade students in Curg Lines’s technology class show off one of two towers they built using the design model. Glasgow employs six technology teachers, but the high number of course offerings has forced the school to be creative to engage everyone.

Still, Lavery was determined to offer a middle school experience where students feel that they belong, where they have a strong relationship with at least one adult, and where students are engaged in their own learning and 21st century skills (collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication) could be discreetly taught.

Where did Lavery turn for her answers to the challenge?  To her greatest resource:  her teachers.

Lavery commissioned a group of teacher leaders to conduct a survey of research strategies to engage students and develop a program for Glasgow.  Give me “a program and a structure,” Lavery told the team. “We’re going to do what’s right for the kids.”

According to Stephanie Barrus, a newcomer to the school who led the team, the group followed the classic design structure that they teach their students in class. “We defined the problem, investigated alternatives, created and implemented a pilot program, and then evaluated and adapted it to fit the school.”

Their result is called REAL-Time — an advisor/advisee program that fits Glasgow’s unique circumstances.

    • Every teacher has 15 students from three different grades. Mixing the grades helps the 6th graders to be mentored by the older students and cuts down on bullying.
    • Staying with the same teacher, counselor and administrator for three years helps helps students to bond with at least one adult who knows them well and advocates for them.
    • REAL-Time meets every day for 25 minutes during sixth period (so students aren’t tempted to sleep late and skip it).
    • Tuesdays-Thursdays, there is a planned curriculum for REAL-Time that includes organizing, team building, meeting about academics, and holding group discussions. On Mondays and Fridays there is flex time to help with homework, work on IB lessons, and sustained silent reading.

How is REAL-Time working?

The truth is in the numbers.  In the pilot conducted during the 2010-2011 school year, 80% of students reported that their REAL-Time teacher knows them and their academic goals; 63% said they are learning skills in REAL-Time that will help them be successful in school and life; 81% reported that REAL-Time has helped them improve organizational skills; and 70% reported that their REAL-Time teacher is helping them develop skills to increase their grades.

More than that, students are developing very specific skills cooperating with one another and helping each other to grow.  When I visited a REAL-Time class at Glasgow, students were discussing a short video about setting goals and practicing interacting in an academic environment.  Reviewing the norms for group work, one student reminded the others about the need for everyone to “speak with good purpose.”

At the time, I thought, that is a lesson that adults everywhere could stand to be reminded of from time to time.

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a Teacher Liaison at the Department of Education, on loan from her school in Buncombe County, N.C.

Lisa Jones Grows Her Own at Watkins Elementary School

Lisa Jones

Lisa Jones, Watkins Elementary teacher

No doubt about it, the best part of my job as teacher liaison for ED is getting to watch teachers who are really great at their jobs caught up in the art of teaching.

This happened not long ago, when I tagged along for a morning in the third grade classroom of Lisa Jones, a District of Columbia Public Schools teacher at Watkins Elementary. As I arrived, Jones’s kids were collecting basil from their community garden, but Jones was harvesting something else altogether.

“Be nice, baby,” she said to a little boy having trouble sharing. “Always put out good energy. When you put out good energy, what comes back?”

“Good energy!” he yelled and gave her a high-five.

“That’s right!”

It’s clear that Jones has a special knack for covering so much academic ground, while at the same time honing important interpersonal and teamwork skills.

Watkin Elementary students

And her classroom indoors works the same way. In fact, I was amazed at the number of objectives Jones’s students accomplish in a very short amount of time. In under two hours, her students review the life cycle of plants and check on the progress of their squash and peppers; write, share, and garner feedback on their writing about self esteem; read independently from books of their choosing; perform a rap song about how to succeed; and work in small groups to construct perfect sentences defining the word “immigrant.”

The whole time, Jones–a former insurance underwriter who changed careers six years ago to become a teacher–never lets up, never misses a beat. She expects every student to be engaged and working at all times.

As students work independently, she says, “Good writers don’t have to count the number of sentences they write to know they are done because good writing comes from the head and the heart, not the count.”

As students complete a social studies task using small whiteboards, Jones gently taps one who is becoming angry with a team member who is slow to finish a task.

Watkin Elementary students

“What’s the best way to help her learn?” she asks. When he responds, she whispers, “Why is it better to show her than to fuss? Can you show me how that might work?”

When it is time for me to leave, I absolutely do not want to go. Before I do, I take a minute to chat with Miss Jones about her pedagogy. “My style doesn’t fit for everyone,” she admits. “The academics, I know they are going to get. But I work the other side too. It’s important that they have self esteem.”

Laurie Calvert
Laurie Calvert is a Teacher Liaison at The U.S. Department of Education and a 2010-11 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

Out-of-Work Teachers Visit White House, Weigh In on Jobs Bill at ED

As President Obama held up a copy of his American Jobs Act in the White House Rose Garden Monday and urged Congress to put aside political differences to put Americans back to work, he was surrounded by a supportive audience that included more than 20 educators who have personally felt the sting of tough economic times.

Special education teacher Terrell Williams works in a Baltimore, Md., school that is in such poor condition that he gets angry with the debate about whether or not to fix it.

Teachers who have been laid off because of budget shortfalls applauded loudly as the President described how “all across America teachers are being laid off in droves” and argued that this is “exactly what we shouldn’t be doing if we want to prepare our kids for college.”

These teachers had very personal reasons for applauding the President’s plan. More than half off them have been laid of or are facing potential layoffs. Others work in schools that are falling apart, where brown water flows from faucets, ceilings leak and they share their classrooms with rodents.

Later in the day, many of the educators who had come to Washington for the President’s speech congregated at ED to share their stories with some of the ED staff and Secretary Arne Duncan.

They included teacher Lisa Bruska, a mother of three who’s fighting cancer, who described being laid off from teaching first grade at Becker Primary School in Minnesota. Her husband, Randy, a machinist, is also out of work. Bruska described the President’s speech as “inspirational” and urged Congress to invest in putting educators like her back to work.

Lisa Bruska, a mother of three who’s fighting cancer, described being laid off from teaching first grade in Minnesota

Stephanie Harris Walker, an English teacher from Amsterdam, Ohio, who lost her job at Jefferson County Joint Vocational School, said that when the President described “schools that desperately need renovating,” she could really relate. “I was picturing my own school with a leaking roof,” she said, through tears.

Special education teacher Terrell Williams works in a Baltimore, Md., school that is in such poor condition that he gets angry with the debate about whether or not to fix it. “Sometimes I just find it offensive,” Williams said. Explaining that it is difficult to assure children that education is important when their schools are falling apart, Williams urged teachers and families to show decision-makers what the conditions are like for his kids.

Today, Secretary Duncan is traveling with President Obama to a school in Columbus, Ohio, to talk about the need to fix sub-standard school facilities. After his discussion with teachers, Duncan said, “These are the very conversations we need to be having across this country right now.”

The White House has prepared a fact sheet explaining how the American Jobs Act will help upgrade schools and community colleges, including how much money for modernization and renovation will flow to each state and some of the nation’s largest school districts.

Laurie Calvert

ED Teacher Liaison Laurie Calvert, a high school English teacher, is on loan to the Department of Education from Buncombe County, North Carolina.

Summer Seminars at Six: An Introduction to Education Policy

These seminars are designed to share information about education policy that will help teachers to be engaged and participate in policy discussions at the federal, state and district level. Led by teachers working at the Department, along with other staff, there will be opportunities for questions and discussion both in person and online.

Dates: Every other Thursday: July 14, July 28, August 11 and August 25.

Time: 6:00 PM ET-7:30 PM ET

Location: U.S. Department of Education’s LBJ Building (400 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington, D.C. 20202) and online through U-Stream.

Read More

A Teacher’s Agreement and Frustration at the Save Our Schools Rally

At the SOS rally with other teachers at the ellipse in front of the White House this weekend, I wrestled with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, signs everywhere testified to our universal frustration with the failed policies of NCLB and to damaging cuts to education:  Education Cuts Never Heal . . . Education is Not Just for the Rich & White . . . No Teacher Supports the Status Quo . . . Education is Not Test Prep . . . Build Schools, Not Bombs.

I came to ED one year ago as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, and have extended my position for one additional year. I share teachers’ concerns expressed at the rally. But, unlike them, I have witnessed Arne Duncan’s team working tirelessly to fix these very problems and overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act. President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform would dramatically reduce the number of schools labeled as failing for not making AYP so that only the bottom five percent would be identified, and those schools would receive considerable support to turn around. It would end the flawed practice of requiring students to reach an arbitrary bar on a poor proficiency test and ask states to focus on each student’s growth instead. It would provide incentives for programs to support teachers’ professional learning and use multiple measures to evaluate them, not only student growth scores. It would encourage states to expand their curricula to include the arts, history, and others neglected under NCLB. And the plan would support the states in their efforts to create better tests that cover critical thinking and really show what students know and can do.

And this is the source of my frustration:  that the teachers at the rally seemed unaware that the administration is with them on so many of the issues they care about. Since he took office, Arne Duncan has been calling for ESEA to be reauthorized so that we can fix the very problems that plague our schools, handcuff teachers, and handicap students. He talks with teachers continually and listens to their concerns. Secretary Duncan is working hard with Congress to pass a bill. If Congress fails to act before the beginning of the school year, he will consider offering regulatory flexibility to help alleviate the burdens of NCLB.

The Arne Duncan who I know developed a passion for education while his mom tutored students in her inner city Chicago Sunday school class who couldn’t read. He worked with her to help these kids, and since then he has built a career focused on educational equity, on ensuring that students do not to become victims of their zip code. He believes the fight for education is a fight for social justice.

At the rally, however, teachers clearly were angry at Arne Duncan for the law that he did not create and that he does not support.  Instead of blaming him, teachers and policymakers need to work together as a team to fix a law that we all agree is broken.

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a teacher liaison on loan from Buncombe County Schools in N.C. and working temporarily at the Department of Education.

View A Teacher’s Guide to Fixing No Child Left Behind

Teachers Inaugurate ED’s Summer Seminar Series

Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood

On July 14, teachers participated in the first of four Summer Seminars designed to inform teachers about education policy and how they can become involved in the national and local education conversations taking place throughout the nation.

Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood

Online and at the Department of Education, teachers learned about the basics of education policy, including the purpose and mission of ED, how education is funded, and how the Department is structured. Additionally, they drilled down on Title I and heard about the factors that determine how Title I dollars are distributed in their state. To view the seminar, review the Power Point presentation, or check out the reading list, visit our Summer Seminar webpage.

The next seminar takes place Thursday, July 28 from 6:00-7:30, both at ED and online.  To participate and receive materials, visit the Summer Seminar Registration Page.

Upcoming seminars Include:

Who’s on First? State and Federal Roles and Responsibilities for Education, Thursday, July 28.
Questions to be answered include:

  • What are the states’ and the federal government’s responsibilities for education?
  • What is the Common Core?
  • What are the primary ED funding streams and competitive programs?
  • What is Race to the Top and how does it support teachers and students?

Fixing What’s Broken in No Child Left Behind, Thursday, August, 11.
Questions to be answered include:

  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Act and No Child Left Behind—same or different?
  • What problems are teachers, schools, and states having with NCLB?
  • In their Blueprint for Reform, what do President Obama and Secretary Duncan propose to do to fix what is not working in NCLB?
  • What does the Blueprint propose with regard to testing?
  • What is the federal School Improvement Grant program for low-performing schools and how might it affect my school or state?

Leading Their Profession: Teachers and Education Policy, Thursday, August 25.
Questions to be answered include:

  • What are ED’s proposals for strengthening teaching and supporting teachers?
  • What does the Blueprint say about teacher evaluations?
  • What can teachers do to get involved in educational issues both at the national level and in their state or district?
  • What are the Teacher Incentive Fund and Title II?

Duncan and DC Students Talk on NPR

Secretary Duncan at NPR

Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood

In an interview earlier this week on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” Arne Duncan discussed plans to provide regulatory flexibility to states seeking relief from the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) in exchange for enacting educational reforms.

Secretary Duncan Takes Questions on NPR

Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood

During the live broadcast, the Secretary explained to students in the audience and to host Neal Conan, that doing nothing is not acceptable, and that “where states are raising the bar, where they’re doing the right thing by children, we need to provide them greater flexibility, and we need to meet them half way.”

The Secretary said the best way to fix NCLB’s problems is for Congress to reauthorize NCLB. Yet, with the new school year just months away, the Department of Education is considering ways to provide flexibility for states and districts.

For most of the interview, Duncan took questions from District of Columbia students about Duncan’s support for arts education, his perspective on why teaching quality varies so widely, and his opinion about lengthening the school day. Duncan also answered questions from listeners around the country, including questions regarding how to best serve students with disabilities and over-use of standardized testing.

Listen to the  44-minute interview.

Read the transcript.


Recognizing Education’s Middle School Syndrome

“Many [students] make that decision to drop out–either consciously or unconsciously–during those middle grades years.” — Deborah Kasak

Listening to several middle school experts describe their experiences during a recent panel discussion at the Department of Education left me scratching my head and wondering why–more than 30 years into the middle school movement–middle schools still seem like the neglected middle children of education.

Robert Balfanz spoke on a panel May 12 at a Department of Education Policy Briefing, “Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path,” along with Deborah Kasak of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, and Principal John Miller and teacher Tara Kidwell, of Stonewall Middle School.

Dr. Robert Balfanz, noted researcher from Johns Hopkins University, described in detail not only the number of students that schools lose during the middle years, but also the early warning signs that a young adolescent is veering off the path leading to graduation. The middle grades may be the most important years in a child’s education, the “most fertile years,” according to Balfanz. It is during this time that students ask and answer for themselves, “Is schooling for me?” Because of this, Balfanz urged the audience to understand that the middle grades are the one place where educators “really have a chance to reform outcomes.”

To change the trajectory, however, Balfanz made a strong case that educators need to be much more intentional about how we serve our early adolescents, paying attention to what he described as the ABCs:  chronic absenteeism, behavioral problems, and low course grades in middle school. According to his June 2009 middle school policy and practice brief, the earlier students develop off-track indicators, the lower their graduation odds appear to be.

Of course, as a former teacher of eighth-grade language arts, I know that the middle grades are crucial, a time when students often turn off to school permanently. Yet I found myself as astonished as the rest of the room to learn from Balfanz that, to date, there do not appear to be clearly articulated standards of practice for the middle grades.

John Miller testified that high expectations are a key to turning around low-performing schools. “Students will rise to a teacher’s high expectations if the teacher believes they can achieve them,” he said.

Balfanz, John Miller (principal of Stonewall Middle School in Manassas, Va.) and Deborah Kasak (from the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform)  made a number of insightful recommendations to move policymakers, educational leaders, and teachers in the right direction, including tracking chronic absenteeism in middle school, computing graduation rates of seventh and eighth graders, paying greater attention to suspensions for sustained mild misbehavior, keeping track of students’ grades, and developing articulated standards of practice for middle schools so that they become the baseline for operating and measuring middle school performance.

We know this stuff, I couldn’t help thinking, but we really are not paying attention.

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County Schools in North Carolina.

Read Robert Balfanz’s 2009 policy brief, Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path.

Check out the Schools to Watch Criteria for high-performing middle schools.

Connect with the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform and the National Middle School Association (NMSA).

More than a Memory: Teacher Appreciation Week

Secretary Duncan stops at Randolph Elementary on Teacher Appreciation Day

No doubt about it, last week was a great time to be a teacher at the Department of Education. During Teacher Appreciation Week, the atmosphere brimmed with teacher focus and teacher gratitude.

All week our staff wrote pieces reflecting on the value of teachers. Arne Duncan opened the week with a video message thanking English teacher Darlene McCampbell and encouraging the nation to thank teachers. Later Duncan wrote an open letter to America’s teachers that triggered hundreds of impassioned comments from teachers and generated a robust debate around issues of testing, teacher evaluation and ways to strengthen the profession.

Assistant Secretary Thelma Melendez wrote an homage to her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Silverman, and followed with a video message. Elizabeth Williamson, who works in Region III, posted a message thanking two teachers whose kindness changed her life, while Deputy Secretary Martha Kanter praised Miss Leverich, and Assistant Secretary Alexa Posny commended Mr. Otto. The president of the Future Educators Association, Leilani Bell, weighed in on our blog with a note of appreciation for Ms. de Costa. The Department also launched Twitter and Facebook campaigns to #thankateacher and sponsored a blog encouraging students to create videos thanking teachers. The #thankateacher tweets and retweets garnered a number of celebrity messages including those from Al Roker, Randi Weingarten, Kurt Warner, and Nancy Pelosi.

The week was also spent celebrating teaching and talking with teachers about issues they face in the classroom. Arne Duncan began Teacher Appreciation Day with a surprise visit to the Arlington County Teacher of the Year at Randolph Elementary School, and he thanked all of the teachers at the school for making a difference in children’s lives. He also congratulated the State Teachers of the Year at a ceremony in their honor at Rose Garden of the White House with President Obama.

On Thursday, the Teaching Ambassador Fellows hosted the Teachers of the Year at the Department for roundtable discussions about important issues in education and a Town Hall with senior staff. New Jersey Teacher of the Year, Danielle Kovach, captured her experience at the roundtable and Town Hall in a post on our Strengthening Teachers Page. While at the Department, several of the Teachers of the Year also took a few minutes to record short videos thanking teachers who had changed the trajectory of their lives.

Besides our respect and admiration for these teachers, the Department of Education offered teachers something that they can use every day of the school year: relief from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Following the Town Hall, the teachers viewed a preview of a new video entitled “A Teacher’s Guide to Fixing No Child Left Behind,” which explains the President’s plan to solve many problems created by the flawed law, including an over-reliance on testing, narrowing of the curriculum, and evaluating teachers based on one limited measurement.

Over cake afterward, teachers commented that when we truly fix NCLB, every day will be a great day to be a teacher.

See photos

Laurie Calvert
Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County, NC. Read an EdWeek blog article published about the Fellows this week.

Video Released: A Teacher’s Guide to Fixing No Child Left Behind

Fixing NCLB logo

Test obsession, narrow curricula, blaming teachers—these are a few of the problems created by the No Child Left Behind law that are unpacked in this animated video available online now.

The video details some of the problems created by NCLB and describes President Barack Obama’s proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and solve them. Written by a teacher at the U.S. Department of Education, the video offers a vision that strengthens teaching, narrows achievement gaps, raises standards, and prepares all students for colleges and careers in a global economy. It includes video clips of Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

View the video or leave a comment below.

Laurie Calvert
Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County Schools in North Carolina and the author of the video. She is also the author of Built for Teachers: How the Blueprint for Reform Empowers Educators.

Thank a Teacher

During Teacher Appreciation Week (May 2-6) and All Year Long

We owe so much to our nation’s teachers. Teachers have lit a spark in us, brought us into comfortable and challenging learning communities, and helped us to see who we could be. They have believed in us, and in so doing, teachers have changed the trajectory of our lives.

This year, students from all across the country are recording short videos to thank individual teachers for the difference they have made in their lives. We invite you to create your own video thanking a teacher and upload it to You Tube, School Tube, or another video sharing site. Then post a comment below and include the link to your video.

Be sure your video identifies a specific teacher and describes what that teacher did that made a difference in your life. Then check back and view others videos that honor teachers.

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County, NC.