Testing: Can We Find the Rational Middle?

Recently I visited Glen Iris Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama to meet with a group of teachers and their principal. I was in Birmingham as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and it was highly recommend by local educators that I visit Glen Iris while in Birmingham to see the incredible work going on at the school. During my visit I learned about the school’s focus on project-based learning, how it energizes teachers and promotes cross-curriculum connections and implementation of college and career ready standards in a way that has significant meaning for students and the surrounding community. I learned how this type of learning relies on several factors including the internal capacity among teachers to lead and bring others along in this work and a supportive principal who will work to make sure the resources needed are provided (even grow a beard and sleep on the school roof to fundraise if necessary!). I also learned about their school garden, which was a sight to behold and a powerful a lesson for how to keep learning focused on developing the whole child.

The assessment culture was also very different at Glen Iris Elementary. It was clear that every teacher in the room agreed that we can and should measure learning, but, also, that current “tests” were measuring learning. When I asked Principal Wilson to share his views on testing he looked at me very calmly said, “There is more than one way to measure the standards. We have to be ever-growing.”

Since returning from Birmingham, much has happened in the “testing” world.

Recently, the Foundation for Excellence in Education came out with an analysis of district testing calendars from the 2013-14 school year. The foundation looked at 44 districts and found huge variation; some required as few as eight tests on top of required state assessments – and one required 198 additional exams. In addition, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Secretary Duncan have shined a spotlight on testing and are asking states and districts to have difficult conversations about the quantity and quality of tests administered to students. Also in recent weeks, several school districts in Florida have moved to cut down on testing. Miami-Dade County cut 24 interim assessments, adding 260 minutes of instruction back into the schedule, while Palm Beach County cut 11 diagnostic tests and made all district-level performance assessments optional. Moreover, Hillsborough County school district leaders are calling on the state to reduce the amount of testing in schools while several school officials have already eliminated final exams at middle and high school levels, as well as reduced the number of assessments for elementary grades in math, science and language arts.

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to hear his perspective on the current state of testing and accountability. While the testing pendulum has swung from one side to the other, my hope is that we will land somewhere in the rational middle. And as I continue in my education journey, I will forever keep those timely words of Dr. Wilson at the forefront of my mind and will challenge all of us to be “ever-growing.”

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Ask Arne: The Importance of Teacher Diversity

The importance of teacher diversity hits home for me as a former teacher in an urban school district. That is why I am currently a doctoral candidate studying education at Johns Hopkins University. It’s also one of the reasons I applied for an internship at the U.S. Department of Education.

I taught in a public college prep magnet high school in the District of Columbia for six years. I saw how few role models and mentors of color my students were able to find at school – and I was concerned about the impact that might have on their learning. I also wondered how our young people would gain the confidence and commitment they’d need to become leaders in their communities, when many of their school leaders did not reflect these students’ own experiences and backgrounds.

The administrators at my school were committed to having a diverse faculty, but there were many challenges. There was a small applicant pool of experienced, qualified teachers of color. Additionally, I observed that it was difficult to attract and retain educators of color in my high-needs district.

As I’ve done my doctoral research I’ve come to realize that my experience wasn’t unique. Nationwide, there’s a lack of minority teachers in the workforce, and the problem is particularly acute in urban school districts. I’ve come to realize that significant steps need to be taken to address this issue. Right now, it’s an unfortunate cycle: many promising students of color may not even consider teaching as a viable career choice because they haven’t seen many teachers that look like them.

As my research continues, I plan to focus on finding new ways to address this crisis. Here at the Department of Education, it is an issue that continues to garner the attention of senior leaders.

During a recent installment of “Ask Arne,” Secretary Duncan; David Johns, Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans; and Joiselle Cunningham, 2013 Teaching Ambassador Fellow, discussed the importance of teacher diversity.

Johns recalled his experiences teaching in an urban school, and described the role he was able to play in creating a positive school culture that handled discipline in an unbiased and constructive way, especially for young African-American boys. He noted that it’s not just important for African-American and Hispanic students to have teachers that share their experiences and culture—it is important for all students to learn from a diverse, committed, and passionate group of teachers.

One of America’s greatest strengths is its diversity. We need to do a better job of making sure our teacher workforce embodies those strengths and values.

Kristen Moore is an intern in the Office of the Secretary.

#AskArne: Teaching and Leading

At this year’s National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Teaching and Learning Conference, over 5,000 educators from all 50 states shared in two days of teacher paradise, which included some of the most influential and knowledgeable trailblazers in education. I felt proud to be part of the event and even more proud to witness history in the making.

Watching Secretary Duncan unveil a new initiative titled “Teach to Lead,” I saw heads nodding and smiling. Even though I work at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), hearing that ED is partnering with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to focus on advancing teacher leadership is music to my ears.

But is it really? As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow I have had the opportunity to listen to hundreds of educators the past few months talk about what it means to be a teacher leader. Their responses range from self-initiated teacher leaders, who reach out to help colleagues on a daily basis, to teachers who are excited to take on new roles, but don’t know where to start. Others want to join in but feel they already have too much on their plates.

When I think about the size and scale of an undertaking such as Teach to Lead, it is easy to become cautious, if not skeptical. How we will be able to highlight all of the different types of teacher leadership that occur in schools throughout this country already? How will we even define teacher leadership, given the many forms it may take? How will we involve principals and state and district leaders in a vision of teacher leadership that truly improves education? Will they be willing to share power and rethink structures to create systems for teacher leadership to thrive?

What I am not skeptical about is whether or not teachers will embrace leadership. I have seen firsthand that teacher leadership is alive and well. Monika Johannesen a veteran teacher from Dan Mills Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn., explained that in her 20 years of teaching, not a day has gone by that she hasn’t helped teachers foster their craft. Her ability to collaborate and build relationships within her school has directly impacted the school’s success, and she is viewed by all as a teacher leader.

As the Teach to Lead initiative takes off, I am encouraged that teachers are the ones being called on to help shape it. As Teaching Ambassador Fellows continue to engage with teachers from the field and work with the National Board to engage educators via survey, I am reassured to hear Arne Duncan voice sentiments like these, “Teachers have spoken eloquently about how important it is to have a voice in what happens in their schools and their profession — without leaving the classroom.”

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to ask him how @TeachToLead will work, but more importantly how we will maintain the integrity of teacher leadership, without it being just more thing on our plate. Ultimately, creating an initiative by teachers for teachers can and will lead to historic transformative change that will boost student learning and provide a critical next step for the teaching profession as envisioned in the RESPECT blueprint.

I look forward to next year’s National Board conference to see how far we have come and the milestones we “teacher leaders” have accomplished. The road ahead is not an easy one, but it is one worth taking.

Tweet us your ideas @TeachtoLead using the hashtag #TeachToLead.

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education

Ask Arne: Procuring Privacy

When I think of privacy a few images pop into my head:  a “do not disturb” sign, the settings on my social media accounts, or me locking the bathroom door so that my kids can’t come barging in after me.

But the term “privacy” has taken on new meaning in the digital age, and is now accompanied by terms like big data, devices, and the cloud.

As I lead from the classroom, I struggle with one question, “How do I create and innovate while protecting my students’ privacy?”

And I am not the only one asking this question.

Throughout the past few months, I have had the privilege of attending several educational technology events in my capacity as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education and I have heard this question on repeat, along with a few others. What data is collected from students? Who has access to it? How is it used? I recently sat down with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to ask him about student data privacy. Watch the video below:

Personally, I love technology and I love data. I use data every day in my classroom as a method of measuring my effectiveness and my students’ progress. On a typical day, within the first seven minutes of my class, students will enter my room, grab their iPads, sign into our class website, and take a diagnostic survey or poll that builds upon prior knowledge, as well as introduces new concepts for that day’s lesson. These types of formative checks occur roughly five times within one block period and provide real-time data, real-time feedback, and allow me to personalize lessons based on students’ individual needs.  Consequently, the data collected from one class period serves as the foundation for the next class period.

According to the Fordham Institute, 95 percent of districts rely on cloud services for several purposes, such as monitoring student performance, supporting instruction, student guidance, as well as special services such as cafeteria payments and transportation.  While cloud storage is a common practice of school districts, the present concern is that districts are taking appropriate measures for safeguarding this data.

Currently, three keystone federal laws protect student privacy: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.  More recently, the Department of Education announced the Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) to help educators interpret laws and gain access to best practices around student data and privacy. Furthermore, groups like Common Sense Media launched the School Privacy Zone Campaign in an attempt to support connected classrooms that protect and safeguard student privacy.

Today, I feel an even greater pressure to utilize data in rigorous ways that ensure my students are college-and-career-ready. The one way that I know how to meet the diverse needs of every student is to use technology. While I believe in the power of technology and its ability to transform learning, I also know that my students’ safety comes first. My hope is that schools, districts, states, and the federal government will continue working to create the right policies to support the needs of educators so that they may create and innovate in their classrooms, and protect their students.

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Taking the Temperature on School Climate and Discipline

In many schools across America, we begin each day with a morning ritual, the pledge of allegiance. Students stand sleepy-eyed with their hands over their hearts and recite the words that make our country great “with liberty and justice for all.” And though we proclaim it every day, the harder declaration is to live it.

In my classroom, students start off each school year discussing at length what it means to be a citizen of the United States. We debate, we question, and we make reference to our school creed: Be respectful, Be responsible, Be safe and an Active Learner.  Students quickly discover that we cannot begin to learn unless we know how to best support one another throughout the process.

Because self-awareness, self-control and resilience are as important as reading, writing and arithmetic, my students learn to be part of a community of learners, and that learning can only happen when they feel they are appreciated and valued.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice released guiding principles around School Climate and Discipline. While the guidance is comprehensive and multi-faceted, the focus is clear, schools must be both safe and supportive for effective teaching and learning to take place.

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to talk about the importance of school culture and fair discipline, and the need for both educators and students alike to feel safe as they pledge their allegiance each and every day.

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

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

The State of Education

This year’s State of the Union Address was unlike any I had ever experienced before.  I had just sat down in a room full of educators when I heard the word “teacher” come out of the President’s mouth, and to be precise, it was the fifth word. We were astounded. Then when he talked about other education issues–high school redesign, high quality preschool, connecting students to the best technology, making college more affordable and accessible, and high school graduation rates—we cheered, gave each other high-fives and knew that the President was with us.

While each topic resonated on a personal level with at least one educator or another in the room, for me, something bigger stood out…a call for equity.

As the President pointed out, it is 2014 and women are still paid less than their counterparts.  This is hard for me to believe.  I am a woman who happens to be a teacher, and who believes that being an educator is my civic duty and responsibility.  Furthermore, because I believe education and equity are symbiotic, education is the one platform that can help shape, inform and paint the equity landscape.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to discuss his thoughts on the State of the Union, and he told me that during the speech he found himself thinking, “What’s a kid from the Southside of Chicago doing in this situation?”  It appeared that equity was indeed on all of our minds. 

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Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Arne Duncan Answers Teachers’ Questions on the Role of Private Funds and Interests in Education

As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education— a teacher on leave from my school for one year to help bring educator voice to the policy world— I recently had the opportunity to sit down with fellow teacher Lisa Clarke and Secretary Arne Duncan to discuss the role of private interests and public education.

Lisa and I asked Secretary Duncan questions we’ve heard from some teachers in recent roundtable discussions: Is there a corporate agenda at the U.S. Department of Education? Do philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad earn the right to make decisions with their donations to public education? This short video gives us a glimpse into how decisions are made and whose interests are taken into consideration.

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This is only the start of the discussion. Keep the conversation going in the comment section below and by using #AskArne on Twitter. To be continued.

Joiselle Cunningham is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education for the 2013-14 school year.

Secretary Duncan Answers Question from Teachers

Joiselle Cunningham, one of ED’s 2013-14 Teaching Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department of Education (a teacher on leave from her school for a year to help bring educator voice to the policy world), recently had the opportunity to sit down to talk with Secretary Duncan during the latest installment of Ask Arne, a regular video series where Duncan answers questions from social media, teachers and traditional mail.

During Secretary Duncan’s back-to-school bus tour through the Southwest, the Teaching Ambassador Fellows spoke with hundreds of teachers and compiled questions that reflect the teachers’ aspirations, angst, successes and frustrations.

In the first video, Duncan talks about funding professional development and teacher evaluations, and in the second video he addresses the opportunity gap and dual-language education. Watch the videos below:

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

Teachers, keep the conversation going on Twitter by sending your questions for Secretary Duncan using the hashtag #askarne.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education

Ask Arne: Connecting All Schools to High Speed Internet

“In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools?” –President Obama, June 6, 2013

Last month, President Obama and Secretary Duncan traveled to Mooresville, North Carolina to announced ConnectED, an initiative to connect almost all schools to high-speed Internet. Following the announcement, Secretary Duncan spells out the vision in a blog post titled “Empowering Learners in the 21st Century.”

It’s a major move that doesn’t require Congress. Over 50 national education organizations have co-signed this letter of support for the ConnectED vision.

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to pick his brain on ConnectED and his ideas about digital learning. (Spoiler alert: He likes Mooresville’s plan for phasing out buying physical textbooks, and reallocating those resources for technology-related investments.)

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Dan Brown is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education for the 2012-13 school year. 

Ask Arne: Talking Teacher Prep

Teacher prep needs to be better in this country. An overwhelming share of teachers don’t feel prepared to be an effective teacher on day one— and, as a member of the New York City Teaching Fellows in 2003, I was one of them.

However, a great teacher prep program also saved my career. Five years after my painful trial-by-fire initiation into teaching, I earned a degree in teaching through a traditional M.A. program at Teachers College, Columbia University, and that experience— anchored in rich, lengthy student-teaching experiences under the tutelage of great mentors— set me up for success in the classroom.

In the video interview embedded below, I asked Sec. Duncan about his views on teacher prep—a topic that has suddenly become a lot hotter with the recent release of an incendiary report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit organization.

Is teacher prep a major headline issue for Secretary Duncan? (Spoiler alert: Yes.) What does he see as exemplars in the traditional and alternative models? How can we attract, support, and retain people who will become excellent teachers? Check it out.

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More information on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program can be found here: http://studentaid.ed.gov/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/charts/public-service

Your comments and questions for future segments of #AskArne are most welcome. Feel free to add them in the comments section here, on Facebook, or on Twitter at #AskArne.

Dan Brown is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education for the 2012-13 school year. He is a National Board Certified Teacher at The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C.

Ask Arne: Elevating the Teaching Profession

As a teacher, I have an axe to grind with how teachers are perceived by many folks outside the education system. Too often we are caricatured as either saviors or deadbeats, and both outsized images impoverish the discourse on how to improve education for all students.

As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education— a teacher on release from my school for a year to help bring educator voice to the policy world— I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Secretary Duncan to pick his brain on perceptions of teachers and how he thinks we can improve them.

His answers, seen in the video below, touch in part on the recently released RESPECT Blueprint, a framework for elevating the teaching profession, developed over the past two years through discussions with thousands of educators.

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Your comments and questions for future segments of #AskArne are most welcome. Feel free to add them in the comments section here, on Facebook, or on Twitter at #AskArne.

Dan Brown is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education for the 2012-13 school year. He is a National Board Certified Teacher at The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C

ED Mailbag: Arne Answers Your Questions

Secretary Arne Duncan sat down recently to answer questions he received from social media, email and regular mail.

Duncan responded to Dillon’s question about the future of charter schools, saying that “good charter schools are part of the solution, bad charter schools are part of the problem.” Arne noted that there needs to be more successful coordination between charters and school districts. ED recently announced new grants to help foster this coordination.

Ethan asked the Secretary how we can make our schools more competitive on a global scale. Duncan noted that 46 states have voluntarily adopted higher college- and career-ready standards, which will help put American students on a level playing field, and he noted that we have to look at high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore for new ideas on what works.

Duncan also received a question from Brett who asked about the importance of collaboration. Arne says that he can’t overstate the importance of collaboration on “multiple fronts.”

Watch the video and join the conversation in the comments below:

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