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When Beverly Daniel Tatum recommends a book on institutional racism while speaking at Harvard, you take note. When she puts it in her top 3 recently published books you just go buy it. (Or order it during her talk perhaps….) When it comes to understanding systems of racial oppression, Tatum knows what she’s talking about and Daria Roithmayr’s Reproducing Racism blew my mind. Once I got past my initial desire to throw it across the room, that is.

My desire to throw the book (at a slim 180 pages it would have flown well) was not due to any faults on Roithmayr’s part. Quite the opposite. The book is excellent and Roithmayr’s has a very compelling premise that most of our models of racism are wrong. She claims that instead of thinking about racism as individual actions rooted in hatred and bigotry, racism operates much more like an economic monopoly  that has been able to lock in racial inequalities by coming to the market first and then operating like a cartel in favor of white people.

I wanted to throw the book across the room because Roithmayr’s is incredibly convincing. And hundreds of years of racial economic and educational collusion is a pretty depressing thought for a country that purports to run on meritocracy. It’s easy to say that “racism is a problem that wasn’t created overnight, so we won’t fix it overnight” but when presented with a series of economic, mathematical, and legal examples about why inequalities are locked-in and the country is getting more unequal, it got hard to see a path forward.

Positive feedback loops (If You’re White)
The most poignant, and unexpected, example that Roithmayr uses to illustrate this example of lock-in is Polya’s Urns. Polya’s Urn is a mathematical model that essentially works as follows:

  • You have a single urn and inside are 1 black ball and 1 white ball. (2 total with 1B: 1W)
  • You draw a ball, then replace the ball, adding another ball of the same color.
    e.g. if your first draw is white, you replace the white ball and add another white ball. (3 total with 1B:2W)
  • You draw again, not with double the odds to draw white.
  • You keep drawing and replacing and you arrive at some sort of balance fairly quickly.
  • You can run a bunch of different tests of the model at Wolfram Alpha and you will get different results, but those results will be established within a relatively small number of draws and they become very difficult to alter.

headshotThe connection here for Roithmayr is that the first few draws establish a path and then it continues to be come easier to continue down the path that’s already been established. In terms of structural inequalities, the decisions to favor white people in job markets, schooling, housing, and the law all act like draws in Polya’s Urn because they provide preference for white people (draw) and then enrich white people (adding back another ball) thus creating a feedback loop that makes it easier to keep selecting white people. Chattel slavery in the United States can be seen as two-hundred and fifty years of draws in favor of whites that establishes an environment  that is very difficult to change. (And it’s not like we added a lot of resources back to Black people in 1863 and “forty acres and a mule” is still a relevant metaphor for broken promises. But I digress…)

How does the feedback loop work?
bookJust using the book cover (with a small adjustment in sequence)  as a diagram we can think of it this way:

  • A series of high quality schools and teachers will give you access to good colleges and schools in the United States have high levels of racial inequality.
  • This access to education gives white people access to the best jobs. This is true in terms of skills, behaviors, and social networks.
  • Better jobs make it easier to purchase a house.
  • The job and equity in the house enrich those who can access them.
  • This wealth can then be passed down to future generations.

This could be relatively race-neutral on the face. After all, a person of color would benefit from the same access and the same structures. Sure, theoretically I guess…

We don’t live in a theoretical space and neither does Roithmayr. She looks at policies and practices that excluded people of color from accessing schools (segregated schools), housing (redlining and restrictive covenants), jobs (union membership) and legal status (status as a human beingvoting rights, ability to naturalize and establish citizenship). When these historical and structural factors lay on top of one another we get locked-in systems of inequality where if we just stop discriminating on the basis of race (to paraphrase Chief Justice Roberts) we will still maintain and exacerbate levels of racial inequality.

It’s compelling. It’s also depressing as hell for someone who works on anti-racism in schools.

If racism is so locked in, do we just give up?
I was tempted. For a second. But this is why you finish books.

I’m glad I read to the end and didn’t throw it across the room in frustration because Roithmayr’s pivot to solutions argues that once we shift our thinking about racism from individual acts based on hatred into a model where white people have acted as a racial cartel we can think differently about solutions and Roithmayr has some equally compelling avenues for solutions:

  • Limit Feedback Loops – While she does explain how an institution might reduce the power of white positive feedback loops, Roithmayr quickly dismisses this one because it is politically untenable to reduce white access to power in this way. (It’s an assumption that’s worth investigating, but I tend to agree.)
  • Integrate Feedback Loops – Most obviously, this would show up as integrating classes that provide high school students with better access to college. These could be AP, IB, or honors courses as well as world language and high level math.
  • Develop Parallel Loops – These often show up as affinity groups. HBCUs and the National Pan-Hellenic Council are strong examples of positive feedback loops that provide benefit to people of color in a higher education setting.
  • Change Social Norms – This is a slow process and Roithmayr describes this mostly in terms of switching costs. My own work has focused a lot on this idea by trying to normalize conversations about race and racism in schools. We can’t change the problem if we don’t talk about it and silence on race is a strong social norm in this country.
  • Hire A Critical Mass – The key here is to hire a significant number of people of color in a short period of time. This helps people of color develop community within the organization while also acting as a significant influence.
  • Use Legal Remedies – In schools this would be changes to policy and could show up a developing more objective criteria for school discipline.

There can also be substantial interplay and overlap between these areas of influence. By hiring a critical mass of people of color in an organization, you can shift social norms in powerful ways and policies can help you do that.

I’m still digesting a lot of this, and it’s already shaping my perspective to working toward improving racial equality in schools. I’m curious to see of honing my understanding of how racism works, particularly with neutral-facing policies will make the change process more effective. For the first two-thirds of the book things felt hopeless. After reading I am more hopeful because if Roithmayr is correct in her assessment that inequalities are locked-in and getting worse, and if Martin Luther King Jr. is correct in his assessment that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice then the arc only bends toward justice because of the people who are pushing hard to bend the arc. We need to keep applying pressure and Reproducing Racism helps me target where to apply force.

 

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I had big plans for a long post about Betsy Devos. I was going to watch the full confirmation hearing, take notes all the way through, and then write up a thorough analysis. That’s not happening.

I got about half way through the hearing before I shut it off in frustration so I’m going with what I have. And what I have is a combination of shock and anger. Shock that Devos was so unable (or unwilling) to articulate an actual position on schooling and anger that someone so unfit for this cabinet position was even shortlisted, let alone nominated. The New York Times  drew a similar conclusion to this saying: “in questioning by senators, [Devos] seemed either unaware or unsupportive of the longstanding policies and functions of the department she is in line to lead, from special education rules to the policing of for-profit universities” I am not impressed.

Note: As my personal focus is PreK-12 education and I’m sticking to that. You can read about the litany of problems with Devos’ answers regarding higher education at the Washington Post if you’d like.

Let the States Figure it Out
I was expecting to hear Devos defend charter schools and vouchers. That is, after all, her background and there was some of that, though we heard more about it from Senator Alexander’s introduction than from Devos herself.

Instead of impassioned or reasoned defense of alternatives to traditional public schools, I heard an abdication of federal responsibility for ensuring high quality education. Devos offered weak responses across the board with vague mentions of local control, and creating more opportunities for choice. She didn’t defend any particular position other than states and localities should decide things, which she didn’t actually defend. She just kept repeating that local control is the answer be it for guns in schools, universal preschools, or academic standards. At each turn Devos declined to offer a position saying that those calls are best left to localities.

When giving her opening statement, Devos commented that: “if a school is troubled or unsafe or not a good fit for a child … we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high quality alternative,” and she left it there. Your school isn’t doing well? Go to another one. Absolutely zero discussion about how to support or improve the existing school so that the existing public school can become the first choice for parents.

Devos claimed parents should be able to choose their children’s schools. This seems reasonable at the individual level, and wealthy parents absolutely do this including very intentional decisions about where to purchase a house. But we have to consider scale. Over 50 million students attend U.S. public schools. If Devos actually wants to establish a system in which every family can take advantage of the opportunities that wealthy families take for their children (which she claimed during the hearing) someone would need to undertake an unprecedented level of school construction. If competition is the answer we need to flood the market with other choices that are as accessible geographically as existing public schools. Devos did not argue for massive school construction. Instead she tossed responsibility back to local control.

If choice requires creating alternatives Devos’ non-answer of Senator Murray’s question about privatization becomes critically important. Devos did not clearly reject private sources, instead saying that she is: “hopeful that we can work together to find common ground.” That’s not an answer to a question where Senator Murray wanted to know if Devos could commit to: “not privatize or cut a single penny.”

Devos couldn’t even commit to support for universal pre-kindergarten and she again pushed responsibility to local governments. That could have been an easy one.

We currently have zero evidence that President Trump is planning to grow the Department of Education. In President Trump’s massive infrastructure plans schools are noticeably absent. To my knowledge building schools has never been on the Republican Party’s national platform. Without growing the Department, the high quality alternatives Devos refers to will have to come from outside the federal government and I don’t see state or local governments covering this cost. Higher income communities are already developing their public schools and poverty impacted communities simply do not have the tax base or funds on hand to create more schools. So the funds have to come from outside those communities. This leaves only private sources be they for-profit or not-for-profit.

Either way the math is the same: Devos is positioning for reduced federal oversight of education with a rise in privately funded options at the local level. If everything is for local control, then the Department of Education (and the Secretary of Education) needs no plan for improving existing schools.

Our Students and our Country Need Better
The stakes for our 50 million children in schools are too high for this kind of nonsense. The Secretary of Education should be thought of as the highest teacher in the land the same way we think about the Surgeon General and the Attorney General acting as the first doctor and first lawyer. To even nominate Devos, who has zero educational experience beyond mentoring students, and arguing for school choice, is an insult to our entire education system. This insult was confirmed by Senator Lieberman’s statement that the fact that she doesn’t come from “the education establishment,” is “one of the most important qualifications [she] can have.”

We would never put someone without legal experience in the Attorney General seat. We would never put someone without medical experience in the Surgeon General seat. The fact that Devos is even nominated is a glaring example of how little respect the republican party has for our education system.

With education we create our future and a key feature (and challenge) of public schools is that they accept all students. The future that Devos, and by extension the Trump administration, is proposing is a future of increasing inequality.  A future of struggling public schools left to wither an die when we could offer them support instead. A future where the most challenging students get kicked out of the “high quality alternatives” and back to those struggling public schools thus ensuring continued inequality.

I simply can’t imagine putting a secretary of education in place who has no plans for actually improving the schools attended by the overwhelming majority of our country’s children. Yet that is what we have to look forward to. If Devos is confirmed and her plans move forward with Congress’ blessing, local communities will need to commit incredible sums to ensure the continued viability of their public schools. I can’t see the federal government providing much help for the next few years.

 

Everybody’s Talking About Equity, but Nobody Knows the Meaning of the Word.

A title aptly pulled, by Dr. Ronald Ferguson, from lyrics to Mose Allison’s Everybody’s Crying Mercy.

This particular talk was structured as three mini-talks followed by some panel discussion all linked to a convening of graduates from Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program. Each of the speakers is a graduate of the program and a current urban superintendent. A full video of the talk can be found on the Harvard Askwith Forum website.

The speakers included Dr. Jennifer Cheatham from Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, Dr. Joseph Davis from Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri, and Dr. Steven Zrike the receiver for Holyoke Public Schools in Massachusetts. Each superintendent in turn outlined their perspective on equity and a description of the work they’re doing to improve equitable experiences for each and every student in their respective districts. The three then convened as a panel to address audience questions.

Madison Metropolitan:
Superintendent Cheatham began by directly linking equity to excellence. Cheatham presented a claim that in order to understand equity we must first develop a common understanding of academic excellence for students, educators, schools, and administration. Once  we define that standard of excellence, equity work then becomes the task of ensuring that each and every person in the system receives what they need to attain excellence. When framed this way, equity can be focused on ensuring success in a tangible way.

In Madison, Cheatham is particularly focused on leveraging discipline disparities by limiting punitive measures and establishing a system of restorative justice in their place. This is a strong example of one way that central administration can lead through explicit policies and her initial results appear very promising.

I resonated strongly with Cheatham’s emphasis on setting a clear focus for equity work based on a foundation of shared vision. Too often I’ve experienced equity work being displaced or put on a back burner because the work is hard or abstract. By establishing a very clear shared vision of the work, participants are increasingly able to engage. Additionally, Cheatham emphasized the importance of a sustained focus citing that work for educational equity requires dedication and it can’t simply be one of a laundry list of initiatives. Everything that schools do must attack disparities in order to make movement.

Ferguson-Florissant:
Superintendent Davis from Ferguson-Florissant School District began by naming what everyone was wondering. He sought out the Ferguson-Florissant superintendency specifically because of the political issues that arose after Michael Brown was killed. Davis focused largely on his transition out of his previous district and into Ferguson-Florissant making sure to note the importance of smooth transition to ensure continuity.

Davis emphasized the importance of taking time to listen to a wide range of stakeholders in an effort to understand the existing issues before making sweeping change. That being said, Davis made clear the importance of taking action and his office is focusing on adjusting policies that create roadblocks to equity and growing leadership capacity for tackling issues of equity.

Davis’ definition of equity was very clear and concise saying that it is: “about where we put our resources, [how we] identify needs, and provide to those in need.”

Holyoke:
Dr. Zrike is in a somewhat different situation given that he is a state receiver of a “Level 5” turnaround school district. As such Zrike has the opportunity to move very quickly with a unique degree of freedom. Despite this unique freedom, Zrike also mentioned the importance of listening to the community and cautioned against moving to quickly.

In his remarks Zrike agreed that equity and excellence are inextricably linked to one another, yet he emphasized that it is impossible to fire your way to excellence. As such he is taking responsibility for the current staff and the community with the explicit goal of making Holyoke’s schools the first choice for all members of the community.

As an example of the institutional inequities, Zrike cited that while the district is 80% Latino and 20% white, preparations are already underway (in October) for the St. Patrick’s day parade, while there are no systematic preparations for Latino heritage month.

Like the other two superintendents, Zrike has a clear vision that equity means something specific. In this case he defined it as “all kids engaged in cognitively challenging work,” and it is the school district’s responsibility to ensure that the cognitively challenging work is taking place.

Conclusion:
There was a consistent message across all three superintendents that the work of equity is extremely challenging because it involves a distribution of resources and in order to sustain the work strong, courageous, and confident leadership is required. That being said, all three superintendents also cited that in order to effectively address issues of race and racism, school districts need to bring in experts. Davis was the most direct saying that while he has a set of life experiences as a black man, that does not necessarily make him an expert on dismantling racist institutions. He needs additional expertise for that and the other two superintendents immediately echoed his thoughts.

Additionally, each of them expressed a sense of urgency to the work citing local and national issues and the importance of taking direct action. Many districts talk in bold, yet vague, terms about pushing for educational equity and it was encouraging to see three superintendents cite specific examples of work they are doing in order to bring more equity to their respective districts. Cheatham cited the implementation of new restorative justice processes, Davis discussed moving high quality teachers to the neediest schools, and Zrike described programming to re-engage students who have dropped out of schools. Each of these items represents a specific action directly focused on developing a more equitable student experience. Each superintendent is relatively new to their position and I look forward to seeing their progress and sustained focus over time.

In the world of education new state and federal guidelines are typically met with large helpings of skepticism, resistance, and resentment. This has been the case with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, and a majority of other policy roll outs in recent years. With this pattern in mind, I was understandably wary when the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced new state standards for mentoring and induction that will go live for the 2015-16 school year.

The new guidelines were finalized in April and now that I’ve had a chance to review them in detail, I’m happy to say that I’m excited for the potential impacts. DESE put together a strong set of program guidelines that move Massachusetts closer to standards of best practice that the New Teacher Center supports, without creating an unreasonable financial burden for school districts. The new guidelines primarily improve alignment to educator evaluation standards, increase support for mentors and beginning educators, and require districts to report their program details to DESE. Within each of these categories are meaningful program minimums that still allow for substantial local control when it comes to program specifics. This has the potential to ensure a broad and substantial level of beginning educator support without being overly restrictive.

Improved Alignment to Evaluation Standards:

The previous mentoring and induction guidelines were created before Massachusetts’ switch to new methods of evaluating teachers and the revised mentoring standards bring mentoring in line with evaluation. There are numerous changes in the 2015 guidelines that make explicit connections to the new evaluation standards, improving clarity all around. These alignments focus on the role of mentoring in educator preparation, evaluation, and ongoing professional development.

For educator preparation the guidelines define the relationship between a student teacher and their supervising practitioner to be similar to mentor/mentee relationship. This sets some implicit (and explicit) guidelines for the kind of support a student teacher should expect from their supervising practitioner. This is helpful because at the moment the support a student teacher receives is dependent on their paired practitioner and the guidelines established by their specific teacher preparation program, leading to very different results from person to person. The new mentoring guidelines also establish protocols for performance assessments for pre-service teachers based on the standards they will experience in their first years of teaching. This is an important step to increasing the reliability and validity of pre-service assessments and districts hiring beginning teachers should not have a clearer picture of their incoming staff.

In terms of evaluation and professional development, the new mentoring guidelines make a brief, but important mention that a teacher’s professional development should be linked to areas identified in their evaluation. Additionally the guidelines define mentoring as a form of ongoing professional development thereby creating a formal link between mentoring and goals for improving an educator’s effectiveness. This is a powerful statement that was missing from previous versions of the guidelines and it should serve to further validate the mentor’s work.

Increased Support for Mentors and Educators:

The biggest change here for districts are the requirements that mentors receive ongoing training and support for mentoring as well as a requirement that both new educators and mentors receive release time in order to conduct observations and other core mentoring work.

The requirement for ongoing training and support for mentors is crucial. I know that in my own experience as a mentor I needed to develop a very new skillset for working with adults. Many of my teaching skills carried over to mentoring, but there are unique skills and competencies that one needs to work with adults in a mentoring capacity. I remember a time when describing my work as a mentor and a colleague said, “that sounds great, you just tell people what to do all day!” That could not be further from the truth. I would have been a terrible mentor with that attitude. A strong mentor needs to be seen as a collaborative partner in the beginning teacher’s development. Since the mentor holds no evaluative authority, the work must be done with both parties’ consent. The mentor does not have the same authority with their beginning teacher as a teacher does with their students. Therefore a mentor needs to cultivate a new mindset for how to approach their work. This takes dedicated time and practice. It is encouraging to see the guidelines recognize this need.

The release time for both parties is equally critical. One of the most powerful ways for a mentor to support a new teacher is through observing the teacher’s practice and debriefing the experience. This cannot be accomplished when the mentor works full time in another capacity. The mentoring will always take a back seat to the mentor’s primary job. Additionally it is critical to a new teacher’s development that they are able to observe other teachers and broaden their set of experiences. Both of these activities require that the mentoring experience be given dedicated time. The mentor must have the flexibility to work with a teacher’s highly restrictive schedule and the new teacher needs time to put aside other priorities and focus on their own development. Without that sacred time the work will always be supplanted by other responsibilities like teaching, lesson planning, or grading.

It is important to note that while the new mentoring guidelines specify release time, they do not specify the nature or amount of that time. This is a key area where districts could invest heavily in their mentoring programs to ensure robust support for their beginning educators. A superficial amount of release time could technically fulfill the requirement without significantly improving the level of support a mentor or educator receives. I am hopeful that districts see this as an opportunity to make meaningful improvements to their mentoring programs.

Mandated Reporting:

In reality the component for mandatory reporting is quite small. The report itself is fairly superficial and only asks districts to submit basic statistics on their programs such as the number of teachers served, the number of mentors, who receives mentoring, and similar numerical or yes/no data. The reporting is interesting, however, when situated in the New Teacher Center’s model for evaluating a mentoring program’s impact. The data that DESE is asking for now fall squarely in the “Counting” category but those data provide the foundation for accessing the more detailed information on program quality and teacher retention in the future. I hypothesize that after a few years of requiring this counting data, DESE will expand their reporting requirements to include measures of program quality and teacher retention. This is a very positive change from the current situation where no reporting is required and districts typically do not evaluate their mentoring and induction programs.

DESE also added a bit of accountability to the reporting by providing the option for DESE to delay review for a district’s Title II Part A application until DESE receives the district’s mentoring report. This is a strong sign of support for the value of mentoring. Title II Part A typically represents a large portion of a district’s funding for professional learning and improvements in teacher quality. In Washington State, my mentor department was funded largely by Title II Part A funds. These funds are generally critical to a district’s professional development plan, and by linking them to the mentoring report, DESE is further strengthening the link between mentoring and professional development. This may be a bit of a rude awakening for some districts that are not in the habit of collecting these data, but the report is by no means onerous and the data should be fairly straightforward to collect.

Analysis:

I see these new guidelines as overwhelmingly positive for improving support to beginning teachers. Some of the changes are small, however, the guidelines move Massachusetts closer to the New Teacher Center’s standards for high quality induction and they show a thoughtful approach by allowing for a large degree of local discretion.

Personally I wish the guidelines went even further to require more robust new teacher support, but I respect that many districts may not be able to financially implement the kinds of changes it would take to hire and support full time mentors in their district. The current guidelines strike a reasonable balance while moving the program minimums in the proper direction. This is an encouraging move from DESE and perhaps in a few years DESE will be in a position to move the guidelines even closer to the New Teacher Center Standards.

I hope that with these new guidelines requiring mentor training, release time, and annual reporting, that districts will find ways to invest more heavily in their mentoring programs. The guidelines bring Massachusetts quite close to the New Teacher Center’s model of full-time mentors with a 1:15 mentor:mentee ratio and this seems like an excellent opportunity to make the additional investments to get there in full. Many districts will already be making significant investment to bring their programs in line with the new guidelines and with a little more investment they could offer a truly robust level of support for their beginning educators. Hopefully these new mentoring and induction guidelines will also lead to greater new teacher quality and retention across the state.

Austin Texas in March is essentially dominated by the growing suite of South by Southwest conferences: Education, Interactive, Film, and Music. The Education conference (SxSWEdu) serves as the appetizer course, covering four days with roughly two thousand attendants as opposed to the thirty thousand attendants for interactive. The sheer size of the conference creates a fractured atmosphere. There is an attempt to mitigate that by collecting sessions into themes, but there are twenty different themes. This is further exacerbated by the massive number of sessions at each time slot. It is simply impossible to get more than a tiny sliver of the available content, therefore my experience is entirely colored by my selections, and another attendant could come away with a completely different experience.

In selecting sessions I attempted to bridge my interests in equitable access to education, teacher development, and education policy. This diverse set of interests allowed me to see a range of sessions that included multiple panels, research presentations, and an extended workshop. There was some overlap in these sessions, such as using video in teacher evaluation, however for the majority of the sessions, they stuck within a single theme.

Equity and Opportunity:
The two presentations related to improving educational opportunity that I attended, while not explicitly related, had extremely strong synergy. These were titled “Saving America’s Black Boys” and “Understanding Literature Through Hip Hop.” The first was focused on leveraging STEM education and entrepreneurship with young black men as a way to build their engagement in school, close the opportunity gap, and improve the economic viability of disadvantaged communities. The session on Literature through Hip Hop presented a systematic approach to close reads of difficult figurative text while using hip hop as an example of how culturally relevant curriculum improves student engagement and lowers the opportunity gap in poverty impacted urban schools.

In both of these sessions the speakers spoke honestly and directly about issues of equity in public education and steps by which those inequities can be remedied through inclusive economic competitiveness and culturally relevant, high rigor, humanities education. These two sessions combine to create an important, pincer attack on the racial and economic opportunity gap in public education. John Holifield, Mike Green, and Rhea Williams-Bishop are taking a STEM and economics focused approach to including more black youth in economic development, while Sage Salvo operates from a humanities-centered approach linking high level figurative analysis of literature with hip hop. Both groups of presenters operate from providing traditionally disadvantaged students with extremely high level and high quality curriculum as opposed to remediation. They are honoring the spirit of John Adams’ claim that what is best for the wisest in our community is best for all members of the community.

The two sessions provided significant evidence that their methods work, and by combining inclusive STEM and economics with a culturally inclusive, and academically rigorous approach to humanities we could make very substantial progress in closing the opportunity gap. However, before we can make positive change, we need a system that is willing to unpack its racial baggage and actively and intentionally work against institutionalized racism with compassion and respect for human dignity. As was a theme with all of the sessions offering solutions, we need to address the problem from many angles. It will take a multifaceted approach to achieve the kind of changes we need to see. As John Holifield said it very succinctly during the session on inclusive competitiveness: “there is no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot.” As a system, we need to be willing to use a lot of buckshot in order to solve our issues.

Education Policy:
I was not able to go as deep into education policy as I’d hoped at SxSWEdu. There were simply too many scheduling conflicts between sessions, an issue I repeatedly ran into throughout the conference. Despite the limited number of policy sessions I attended, I was able to gain some important affirmations for ideas that I’ve been working with. Most importantly: education policy is extremely complex, yet it is  routinely discussed in oversimplified terms. This is not unique to education. One need only look at political discussions of healthcare or foreign policy. The distinction with education, however, is that a significant portion of the electorate has a self-perception that they are experts because of their experience with public education either as a student, a parent, or through contact with teachers. Compounding this issue is the fact that educating children is a very high stakes endeavor so there are strong emotions wrapped up in the discussion. Lastly, education is a highly diverse special interest. “What’s best for children,” is an extremely vague position to take and is open to a high degree of interpretation. There is no obvious answer, and there are no positions that are as clear as “end the death penalty.” This weakens education as a political platform.

This political weakness is even more extreme at the national level. There was consensus from a few panelists that the Bush and Obama administrations deserve credit for making education a national issue, however there is little for either party to grab onto as a political discussion point and as such there are no clear positions for major parties to argue for. (There was much prediction that this may change with the introduction of Common Core Standards.) This means that education policy easily stalls at the national level, and to a lesser extent at the state level. This political stagnation has the most negative impact for the equity agenda. Our record on improving educational equity occurs almost entirely at the national level because it takes significant federal dollars to put forth the kind of change required and those changes are usually precipitated by the national courts.

I also attended a session evaluating the teacher accountability agenda. The panel did not disagree as much as I would have liked, however they raised valuable points about the complexity of evaluating teacher impact. There is no single measure that will allow us to understand how much impact a teacher has on a student with any sort of reliability. This was confirmed in another session by a data team from the Austin Integrated School District that spent time presenting their evaluation of multiple measures of teacher evaluation, finding all of their measures to be inadequate in isolation. This highlights the importance of understanding the complexity of education at a deep level as opposed to understanding surface level simplifications. If we only understand the evidence gathered from inaccurate, reductive, measures, we will have no way to determine if we are making appropriate changes.

There are an incredible number of variables that impact a student’s ability to learn from their diet, to prior experience, to what happened to them in the five minutes before they walked into class. There are currently no good measures that can completely isolate how a teacher impacts student education, and there was consensus that standardized tests are particularly limited. As such the recommendation is to include a wide variety of measures from student surveys, to peer observation, to administrator evaluation. Each panelist was very keen to emphasize the need for multiple measures, with Randi Weingarten regularly referring to a dashboard of information, yet each was unwilling to nail down specifics of how much each component should impact a teacher’s evaluation. I agree that teacher evaluation is extremely important, however, evaluation and data collection are not ends in themselves, The information we gain from evaluation is most valuable when it use it to improve our teachers through high quality continuing education.

Teacher Development:
This theme is most directly tied to my current work as an instructional mentor, and as such it is not surprising that in these sessions I found the greatest number of practical links. These are the best practices and concepts that I will be immediately bringing back to my district and my day to day work. In particular I attended valuable sessions on using video in teacher evaluation, improving professional development through problem based learning.

The session on using video in teacher evaluation was essentially a presentation of preliminary findings for the Best Foot Forward (BFF, an intentionally referential acronym) Project by Miriam Greenberg of the Harvard Center for Education Policy. The short version of the story is that video is excellent when used properly. Replacing traditional live observations with video (or adding video to the process) can provide solutions for reliability, time usage, feedback quality, and reflective accuracy. All of these benefits are fairly straightforward and Greenberg cited significant evidence for these results. One can easily have multiple observers to increase reliability, watch the video at an advantageous time to improve time usage, improve feedback by recording voice overs or John Madden style diagrams, and reflective accuracy is increased because all the evidence is preserved and there is no need to rely on memory. None of these issues are perfectly solved (remember silver buckshot, not a bullet) but they are definitely eased. It is easier to reflect accurately with accurate evidence, but a teacher still needs to develop the skill of meaningful reflection. While an administrator could watch a video of a class at any time, they still need to make a choice about finding and preserving adequate time to provide meaningful feedback and maintain fidelity in the entire observation process.

Greenberg also made a compelling argument for having teachers self select which lessons to have observed. She countered the “what if teachers put on a dog and pony show for the camera” concern by reframing the dog and pony show, as a positive practice. If a teacher is concerned with making sure they submit the best lesson possible they will continue to rehearse how to provide the best instruction. If anything teachers leverage high quality techniques more often. Additionally, but self-selecting lessons for observation, teachers are essentially inviting the administrator in as a feedback source and collaborator, making it easier for the administrator to act in the role of instructional leader. This was all supported with data from a study in Hillsborough Florida that compared drop in observation with teacher-selected observation, finding that the two methods showed negligible differences in how teachers were evaluated, while self-selection had substantially higher positive reception from teachers. The evidence that Greenberg presented was extremely positive, and I am interested in leveraging more video in my non-evaluative role as the concerns she presented were all linked to the evaluative aspect and high stakes personnel decisions.

The other practical heavy hitter was a workshop on transformative professional development facilitated by members of the Columbia University Teachers College Center for Technology and School Change (CTSC_TC). I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this session as the description, while interesting, was decidedly vague. It boiled down to using problem based learning as a framework for professional development and continuing education. As soon as I made the PBL connection the obviousness of the benefits slapped me in the face and I spent the entire session wishing I’d thought of it first. Simply put, all the research-backed benefits of PBL for young students are equally viable for adult students in professional learning environments. This means authentic problems and meaningful tasks that are relevant beyond the session will increase learning and engagement, and to top it all off the team from CTSC_TC modeled their theory the entire time.

Throughout the two hour session the presenters set up an authentic problem around developing PBL based, interdisciplinary STEAM curriculum in a middle school. We were tasked, as outside consultants, with making a one-minute pitch to the superintendent to bring him on board with the changes the school was making. Throughout the session the presenters alternated presenting their information with time for each table group to spend time exploring and designing solutions to the problem of bringing the superintendent on board. After learning the theory, we immediately switched into application mode. At the end of the session each group had to create the one minute pitch and either present it or record it.  Our group recorded it and my unscripted work is captured below. I’ve never been that deeply engaged in a traditionally formatted professional learning session. I was able to create deep new learning as well as leverage my prior schema. I will absolutely be using what I learned in this session for the next session of professional development that I design.

Closing:
This only partially covers my experience at SxSWEdu. I also attended sessions evaluating teacher preparation programs and building classroom community in graduate education. While there was some inconsistency in sessions, I was able to glean valuable learning from each, even if it was a bit of a lesson in how not to present. The conference has a huge amount of content to offer, and I was able to get into many strong sessions. Despite my personal success at the conference, I am concerned that the SxSWEdu, in its extremely fast growth, has suffered from bloat and loss of direction. There was no sense of overall vision to the conference and as such I found a lack of consistency. I only see this becoming exacerbated if the conference continues to grow.

Despite the inconsistency in actual presentations there was an incredibly consistent desire to improve education that was immediately obvious from everyone involved. There was also an understanding that education is a singularly complex endeavor. I was incredibly impressed by the humility of people like Randi Weingarten and Peter Cunningham, in their admission about how much is unknown with regard to what impacts student learning. There were a lot of good intentions, and there was a lot of discussion about the problems in education.

In general I want more solutions. There is very strong evidence about problems in education. We can point to data about writing ability, unequal educational opportunity, the bloated testing environment, and issues of class size. We can discuss the need to balance national standardization and local control of standards and curricula. It’s time to put in the work to solve some of these problems. The presentations by CTSC_TC and Miriam Greenberg were particularly compelling because they put forth possible solutions. Likewise Sage Salvo, Holifield, Green, and Williams-Bishop added their silver buckshot to the collection of possible solutions. I want to add even more. Education is extremely high stakes and there are very limited resources. This is a deadly combination for political stagnation, and a fear of failure. We solve nothing by maintaining the status quo. High level outcomes require high level inputs. We need to commit to funding possible solutions, try them with fidelity, drop the ones that fail, and keep the ones that work.