Classroom Observation Significantly Influenced by Context

“Despite the intense focus on the use of student test scores to gauge teacher performance, the majority of our nation’s teachers receive annual evaluation ratings based primarily on classroom observations (Steinberg & Donaldson, in press). These observation-based performance measures aim to capture teachers’ instructional practice and their ability to structure and maintain high-functioning classroom environments. However, little is known about the ways that classroom context—the settings in which teachers work and the students that they teach—shapes measures of teacher effectiveness based on classroom observations. Given the widespread adoption of high-stakes evaluation systems that rely heavily on classroom observations, it is critical that we have a clearer understanding of how the composition of teachers’ classrooms influences their observation scores.

. . . We find that teacher performance, based on classroom observation, is significantly influenced by the context in which teachers work. In particular, students’ prior year (i.e., incoming) achievement is positively related to a teacher’s measured performance captured by the FFT.” [Bold added]

—Matthew Steinberg, University of Pennsylvania and Rachel Garrett, American Institutes for Research, “Panel Paper: Classroom Context and Measured Teacher Performance: What Do Teacher Observation Scores Really Measure?

The Gap Starts at the Top

In essence, we have upper-middle class white people who usually live in predominantly affluent, white communities controlling the educational options of millions of disenfranchised black and brown children who usually live in impoverished, racially segregated communities.

Why then are we baffled that, despite our well-intended reforms, there’s such a persistent achievement gap between black and white children?

The gap starts at the top and cascades, not trickles, down.

—Marilyn Rhames, “Black Like Them: Why a ‘Surge’ of Color Could Change the Face of Ed Reform” on Ed Post

Leadership does not happen in a vacuum

“Leadership does not happen in a vacuum; leaders are always acting within a larger organizational and social context. A leader who possesses the “right” competencies has no assurance of success; I’ve seen dozens of leaders who were competency tested to extremes, matched to roles, and failed — social context almost always trumps psychological poo-bah when it comes to leadership success. Leadership is messy, it is relational, and it happens in millions of interactions every day around real work. The lesson for leaders? If you want to be a great leader, the “box ticking” approaches your organization takes to develop you aren’t likely to help. You have to understand the social system you’re working in first.”

–What Separates High-Performing Leaders from Average Ones

Integrating NYC’s Public Schools

By Philip Kanellopoulos, (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Last Monday evening, I attended an interesting event at Brooklyn Law School, “Opportunities and Challenges in Integrating NYC’s Public Schools.”

On the panel were City Council members Ritchie Torres and Brad Lander, who co-wrote an op-ed on the issue, and worked to pass the School Diversity Accountability Act in the City Council earlier this year; Clarence Ellis, a Superintendent in Crown Heights; Jon Rosenberg, a former civil rights lawyer and a charter network CEO; Kevin Young, a PTA President at PS 133; and Todd Sutler, a cofounder of Compass charter school. The panel was facilitated by Arva Rice of NY Urban League (who I later also saw at the Common Core Task Force hearing).

Here’s a quick overview of what I found to be key takeaways:

  • Zoned schools are a barrier to integration
  • Some possible tools are weighted admissions (at a school-level) and controlled choice (at a district level)
  • Diversity is a necessity for quality at a systemic level
  • Lenses for viewing diversity at a school-level can be socioeconomic, racial, language-based, and cognitive
  • Advocacy needs to focus on changing legislation that prevents integration across districts
  • We must be persistent and aggressive in advocacy, recruitment, and admissions
  • Nurturing diversity within a school requires building a common language

Read on for further details.

Lander made the point that magnet schools are one important mechanism for integration, with a hat tip to This American Life episode 2. I agree — though let’s also be brutally honest — quality magnet schools cost money. And even with that money invested, as we can see with Hartford magnet schools, it continues to require a sustained and aggressive effort in recruitment and outreach.

After highlighting the work that PS 133 and 130 have done at a school-level (weighted admissions), and that BK Districts 1 and 13 have done at a district-level (controlled choice), Lander made the great point that we have a real need to “codify the tools” that can be used for achieving integration. The good news is that the School Diversity Act will begin measuring diversity in NYC, so starting this December 31st, we can more accurately begin talking about where and how tools (such as controlled choice and weighted admissions) should be applied.

Rosenberg highlighted the important point that when it comes to integration, “we need to be persistent.” He also highlighted, as did others at the panel throughout the evening, the fact that a major barrier to integration is that elementary schools are zoned.

Rosenberg delineated between a “blunt” method of integration: rezoning, and a softer method, which is either to create “something new” and to be “unburdened by history” (such as charter or magnet schools) to avoid battles such as those that playing out in Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, and to work to protect those few, “fragile” existing schools and areas that are already integrated. However, Rosenberg later presented a challenge that charter operators face, in that even when they wish to work to diversify, they are confined by state zoning legislation, and end up perpetuating segregation. He presented the example of a school in district 2 in Manhattan unable to integrate students and families from district 4 in East Harlem (or vice versa) due to this legislation.

Torres grounded the panel in the more dire reality of the Bronx, pointing out that in districts heavily poor and segregated, there is little opportunity nor will to integrate, either socio-economically or racially. He pointed out that there is a palpable lack of political will in our country and city to integrate, and that segregation has been a public policy choice and mindset (Rosenberg also echoed this sentiment as well — and why his reminder to “be persistent” is important to bear in mind).

I appreciate Torres’ directness in evaluating the situation — he called out Mayor De Blasio and Chancellor Farina’s deliberate inaction on this issue as “disheartening.” He had what I thought was the money quote for the evening when he pointed out that while you can have quality schools without diversity, the reality is that “if you want quality at a systemic level — then you need diversity.”

Young brought some interesting within-school perspective on integration, pointing out that it can be a challenge at first, and that a common language must be built. But this also, as he suggested, provides an opportunity for students and staff to look at what is the same in our human experience, rather than focusing on differences and deficits. He then threw some oblique shade on Success Academy when he suggested that we can better attract diversity at schools that are “progressive,” rather than “test factories,” like the “charters in the news.”

Sutler brought in another aspect of “diversity” that is rarely discussed but I agree is important to mention alongside socio-economic and racial diversity: cognitive diversity — and that this work to include and integrate is the work of our schools and classrooms. This is an issue close to my own heart, as I work in the field of special education, and inclusion is a fundamental principle for me. Sutler urged the audience to push our legislators on this issue, and he also highlighted the critical need for a school to conduct outreach to achieve better integration.

Sutler later made the case that in terms of increasing diversity in the teaching profession, we need to 1) raise the bar for education graduate programs, 2) elevate the craft and profession of teaching, and 3) make aggressive recruitment efforts to attract people of color.

I’m leaving out a lot of other key points made, but these were the ones that most stuck out for me.

A few of my posts on integration:

Common Core Task Force Hearing

I went to Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force hearing yesterday evening at La Guardia Community College to share my views on the Common Core Standards. This is the first public hearing I’ve attended, and I hadn’t even thought what I would say until I was traveling down from the Bronx. I jotted down my thoughts in my journal, and here’s essentially what I said (though not quite so coherently):

We need to acknowledge the challenges that have arisen in the implementation and adoption of these standards, much of which have come as a result of hasty efforts to tie teacher evaluation and student testing to the standards before educators and parents were provided an adequate opportunity to fully understand and work with them.

But let’s not lose sight of the opportunity that they have provided us.

The new, higher standards provide an opportunity for all students to engage in a productive struggle with rigorous and meaningful concepts, skills, and texts.

This focus on a higher bar for all students has shifted our focus of instruction to “how can we provide access to all learners to this challenging, essential content–and this is pivotal for students historically denied access to college and career ready skills and knowledge.

Having a more coherent set of standards has furthermore provided an opportunity for all teachers to engage in developing aligned curriculum, materials, and resources not only across classrooms and grades within a school, but furthermore across districts and states. I have been fortunate to work with teachers across our nation in developing aligned materials and curriculum, as well as across my city. And I have seen how the standards have provided opportunities at my school to vertically align content and skills across the grades and across subjects within a grade.

As we move forward, let’s not lose sight of these opportunities as we review the standards within New York State.

I stayed for the entire hearing so I could listen to the other speaker’s testimonies, and found all of them interesting. I especially liked Council member Dromm’s opening testimony — he’s a former educator, and he gets it. There was some of the typical anti-Common Core rhetoric. Many speakers were united in their condemnation of the current form of NY State tests. However, Arva Rice of the NY Urban League offered what I thought to be an important defense of testing for the purpose of surfacing inequity. One MORE caucus retired teacher wove history into his testimony, referring back to Ocean-Hill Brownsville to make the case for a culturally relevant curriculum. There was a solid base of testimony from teachers on how the higher standards have provided benefit to the students they serve, including one educator who has witnessed the positive impact higher standards has had on students most in danger in dropping out of school. There was also a common thread on how there is a real need to empower teachers to collaborate and provide them the time to do so around the standards. A UFT representative made several great points about concerns with the standards, especially in regards to the need to continue to teach literature in ELA (a point I strongly agree with). And there was one guy wearing a gold hard hat who eloquently provided an out-of-this-world sermon on the need to teach our children respect (not sure what the link was to Common Core, but kudos to him for his gold sneakers and for coming out to expound).

The vibe from the Common Core Task Force members who were there, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and educator Kishayna Hazelwood, was that they already had a few of their own biases, but that they were interested in learning more. They seemed interested especially (unsurprisingly) in how they could change testing. There was a very strange and tense moment where Assemblywoman Nolan first verbally accused a teacher of showing disrespect during the parent’s testimony (for “smiling”), and when the teacher denied that she had done this, Nolan physically got up from behind the table and stepped right up to the teacher to say menacingly, “I saw you smile.”

First of all, I spoke with this teacher, a 20 year veteran teacher in the Bronx, and she informed me that she had not been smiling derisively, but had rather been making an unrelated connection in her mind between something said earlier. Second of all, even if she HAD been smirking, the parent testifying did not see this, and Ms. Nolan’s response was unnecessarily aggressive. I’m sure she was trying to make the point that she valued all perspectives and would stand up to ensure they were heard, which is great, but the manner in which she did this was inappropriate.

But I appreciated both Nolan’s and Hazlewood’s engaged questioning of various speakers, as it showed they were interested in learning more and valued the testimony of different perspectives and that people had given their time to come to the hearing. I hope they continue to hear from across the state on how the higher standards have provided greater opportunities for teachers and students to engage in meaningful content, while also hearing that teachers need more time to engage with the standards.

Here’s a couple of other accounts of the event:

Grim Reminder of Thresholds Crossed

By Philip Sclater (The Book of Antelopes) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A grim reminder that we never know when invisible ecological thresholds may be crossed: more than half of an endangered antelope species in Central Asia died off within a month.

We are entering an era of increasing turbulence due to factors related to climate change, of which the saiga antelope is one casualty.

Check out this post for more on the concept of thresholds.

The Cognitive Impact of Fresh Air


A consistent argument I’ve made here is that the physical environment of a school alone can have a significant impact.

So here’s a really interesting study that demonstrated that healthier air quality (in the form of low CO2 levels) can double cognitive scores.

“The results are striking,” lead researcher Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard, told Ars. Researchers knew that air quality would likely affect cognitive function and work performance, but earlier studies included few people and reported subjective data. We didn’t expect to see that high quality air could double cognitive scores, Allen said.

Can you imagine if any school ever posted results where they doubled cognitive scores—or doubled any score, for that matter? To say that the “results are striking” would be an understatement.

In this study, the researchers looked specifically at office workers. But most workers in offices at least work in buildings where there is no mold growing on the ceiling, where there is no water that will run down the chalkboard whenever it rains, and where there is no thick black-green “dust” that will coat your desks on a daily basis.

Whereas we find it somehow OK to send off thousands of our nations children each day to schools where this is the everyday norm.

So if ventilating the air can DOUBLE the cognitive scores of office workers — imagine, just imagine, what it could do for the long-term well-being and academic performance of students. . .

Access to fresh air, greenery, and natural light should be a right, not a luxury, for all of our children.

Is Education Really About Improving Outcomes for All Students?

“Is it honest to expect educators to collaborate to build better outcomes for all students, if the system forces us to constantly compete against one another?”

—Marilyn Rhames, “When It Comes to Education, Whose Kids Are We Really Talking About? Yours or Mine?” on Education Post

The Impact of Rosenwald School Design


NPR has an interesting piece up about one-room schoolhouses in the segregated South, called Rosenwald Schools after the man who funded them. An economist, Dan Aaronson, conducted a study on their impact:

“He and other economists used this data to compare communities that had a Rosenwald school with communities that didn’t. It turns out these schools had a big impact on kids in the area.

“First and foremost, they got more education,” says Aaronson. But that’s only the beginning. Students who went to Rosenwald schools had higher IQ scores than kids who didn’t. They made more money later in life. They were more likely to travel to the North as part of the Great Migration. They lived a little bit longer. The women delayed marriage and had fewer kids. And crime rates in the area of the schools went down.”

There are no doubt multiple reasons for this significant impact, but there’s a clue that stood out to me as very relevant here:

These so-called Rosenwald Schools had the best architectural designs of the time, with big windows to maximize sunlight — there was no electricity — good sanitation and good ventilation.”

Could it be that the physical design of Rosenwald schools played a role in the significant long-term positive outcomes associated with these schools?

Don’t Quit on Me: The importance of relationships in graduation

We talk a lot about the importance of relationships in education on this blog.

Here’s a great report from the Center for Promise on the importance of relationships in graduation outcomes, based on the perspectives of the youth themselves. Concrete resources and advice for educators is provided:


Release Date: