Deeply rooted in the community


“Ultimately, Haskell contends that guys like Bethea—not academics like himself, or Sierra Club activists, or Washington bureaucrats—are best positioned to make good judgments about landscapes and ecosystems. Bethea is a deeply rooted member of this ecological community, as are the neighborhood folks caring for Manhattan’s street trees. They have a mature sense of ecological aesthetics based on belonging, and their ethic will stem from what they view as beautiful and whole.”

David Haskell Speaks for the Trees,” Outside


Give teachers some privacy

By PICOL- PIctorial COmmunication Language ( [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By PICOL- PIctorial COmmunication Language (, via Wikimedia Commons

“…many trucking companies use cameras that automatically record a driver whenever there’s sudden braking, swerving or speeding up. But in one company Bernstein studied, the videos never go to management and are not used in performance reviews (unless the driver is texting-at-the-wheel dangerous). Instead, a team of coaches, whose only job is help drivers improve, receives the videos. Drivers, he says, like and trust that the system is there to help them, because it keeps their mistakes within a trusted circle of people who are not wielding power over their lives.

…In instituting these four forms of privacy—privacy within team boundaries, privacy limits on employee data, privacy in decision-making, and privacy about time—the organizations Bernstein studied refused the temptation to observe (or try to observe) everything. That refusal did not cost them profits or effectiveness. Instead, respect for privacy enhanced their success.”

–David Berreby, “Want People to Behave Better? Give Them More Privacy” on PsychologyToday

Observations of teacher practice have become a rote chore of paperwork to try and please accountability mavens. Those same mavens then get in a huff when they don’t find a whole bunch of teachers rated ineffective.

How about you just let teachers observe one another and give each other feedback, and administrators just sit in on that process every now and then? You might find that to be much more effective than the rigmarole of compliance that teacher evaluations have become.

Monitoring Our Environment May Lead to Self-Control


“stopping may actually be a relatively automatic and effortless process, and, in some sense, a mere by-product of being appropriately mindful of environmental change. Instead of stopping, the central role is occupied by the ability to attend vigilantly to features of the world that might demand changes in behavior.

—Cognitive Neuroscience Society blog, “Children Need to Learn Context to Know When to Stop

This interview is a bit difficult to parse for a layman like myself, but it jibes with my ken.

It makes more sense to train a child to become aware of the physical changes that can occur during emotional stress rather than merely techniques for “stop and think.” You can’t stop and think if you aren’t able to monitor yourself enough to know that you need to stop and think!

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?

How Long Does It Take to Shed the Skin of Society?

colombia 238

“The first six months is like being in a washing machine – everything is painful. Body and mind. You can hear your friends and family in your head. It’s that onion again – peeling away that skin and hardening yourself. You are going through hell in that time. Everything is a challenge. Eventually, the noise stops. Suddenly, you are in harmony with nature. It’s all gone and then it’s not just another day of walking. That is what I am looking for. You live in the present and you are connected. You lose the sense of self. It’s a hard time, but the rewards once you reach that period of harmony, where you understand the immediate terrain around you, are wonderful.”

—Sarah Marquis in an interview with Andrew Mazibrada, “A State of Mind” on Sidetracked

Just need to highlight this: 6 months! And here you were, patting yourself on the back for a 2 day camping trip . . .

Public Debates on Education are Ideological, Rather than Sociological

“Yet it struck me that most of the tensions the struggling school experienced that year were sociological rather than ideological: They concerned the challenge of bringing together people of different races and backgrounds (most of the families were low-income and black whereas most of the teachers were young, white, and middle-class) around a shared vision of what education can and should be. Yet our public debate is centered squarely on the ideological rather than the sociological. We endlessly debate the overall “worth” of various institutions—from “no excuses” charter schools to teachers unions—with a political or ideological framing. But we rarely venture inside, scrutinizing the arguably more important question of how people relate, or fail to relate, within these realms. Venturing inside—at least in a meaningful way—takes time, trust, and an open mind.”

—Sarah Carr, “There Are No Simple Lessons About New Orleans Charter Schools After Katrina. Here’s How I Learned That.” on Slate

The Mirage of a Mirage: On the New TNTP Report on PD


Today I went down to DC* for TNTP’s release of their Mirage report on the (non)impact of professional development on teacher effectiveness. TNTP presented an overview of the findings, then journalist Amanda Ripley facilitated an interesting panel with USED’s John King, teacher Jennifer Corroy Parras, DC’s Kaya Henderson, and AIR researcher Dr. Michael Garet.

The big story is that teacher PD is 1) enormously expensive, yet 2) there’s no silver bullet. In other words, teaching is complex (glad ed reform world is beginning to acknowledge this), so we still are very far from knowing what improves teacher practice at scale, yet we’re investing a lot of time, energy, and money in it willy nilly.

There are a lot of aspects to explore, and the panel touched on a number of them. Ripley provided some nice framing of the systemic issues, such as that most PD (and US system of ed at large) is disjointed and incoherent, and that there is a general lack of clarity around what effective teaching looks like, accompanied by high expectations. She noted that this lack of clarity and high expectations for teachers parallels student experiences in our educational system, with both teachers and students leveling off in performance after an initial 5 years.

Both John King and Kaya Henderson pointed out that an oft missing link in PD is a focus on curriculum, a point on which I strongly concur. Curriculum provides the frame, the backbone, the structure that daily guides student and teacher experiences in the classroom. Without that structure and purpose, we are left with the incoherent gloop that Ripley first referred to.

TNTP’s report is incredibly insightful and useful–if enervating–material. I feel like it’s also important to define the kind of PD which the report mainly seems to abide by. I’ll admit that I haven’t yet dived too deep into the report, but from an initial scan of the survey questions and findings, I obtained the distinct impression that they mostly mean “PD” as in a specific dosage or frequency of a prescribed intervention that results in a change in an individual’s teacher practice within the classroom (and which should then ideally translate into improved student outcomes).

When I think of PD, I think of teachers sitting together around a table and collaborating to design common assessments, curriculum, resources, and examining student work and data. This was a component of TNTP’s teacher survey (noted as informal & formal collaboration, and peer time), but the report notes that an equal amount of such time was dedicated to this in both “improvers” and “non-improvers.” But I think there’s one key aspect of such collaborative time that we need to delineate, and which I believe could distinguish between those two populations: how teacher collaboration and planning time connects to a school-wide system.

Let me give some specific examples of what I mean to make this tangible:

  • A bi-weekly 8th grade-level team meeting working to horizontally (within the grade) align curriculum and assessments and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills
  • A weekly ELA department team meeting working to vertically align curriculum and assessments (and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills)
  • A PBIS system of agreed upon (developed both school-wide and via grade-level teams) infractions, consequences, and rewards
  • An established vision for utilizing advisory time to provide social-psychological interventions, accompanied by planning time to design these interventions, and time to analyze and assess their impact

You could go into both an effective and ineffective school and witness such use of collaborative time–but the key is how that teacher collaboration ties into a coherent, school-wide system.**

Admittedly, though, this all goes back to the great complexity not only of teaching, but of working in a school. There are so many variables behind what goes into anything remotely approximating either “PD” or “teacher practice” that it is difficult to define what we’re looking for, and even more difficult to do well consistently and to replicate and scale across different contexts.

I came back to NYC with three takeaways that best summarize my thoughts from the TNTP report . We would do well to consider the following in education reform:

  1. Coherency (in curriculum & assessment, first and foremost)
  2. Clarity (in expectations, feedback, and roles for teachers and students)
  3. Hard work (and more hard work)

*Thanks to Educators 4 Excellence for this opportunity

**I think this is what may have contributed to the differences between the charter and district schools in this study. The charter network was more effective in supporting their teachers effectiveness and growth over time. Charter schools often have much tighter and coherent school-wide structures and systems tied to assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.

Complexity and Community: Beyond Control

By Davidlohr Bueso from Santiago, Chile (police special forces) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
In facing complexity, institutions that seek to represent some form of authority can no longer count on simple mechanisms of control, nor can they claim to hold the sole, proprietary keys to critical information. The information most critical to their success lies within the minds of those they would seek to influence.

Knowledge from the community, as we’ve discussed here before, is critical information to the flourishing of successful enterprises, whether a business, school, government, or—as recent statements by NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton and FBI Director James Comey have made clear—a police force.

In “Another Bratton revolution for the New York City police” by Kevin Cullen in the Boston Globe, Bratton addresses the significant tension between the police and the communities they work most within: “The biggest challenge. . . is that the neighborhoods where our approval is the lowest are the same neighborhoods most plagued by violent crime.”

To address the great rift that lies between the perception of the communities they serve and the police officers, Bratton wants to tap into the expertise of veteran cops by pairing them with rookies. This apprenticeship model gives cops an opportunity to learn from those who have long served the communities they work within:

Basically, it’s getting back to the beat cop paradigm, freeing them from the tyranny of responding to radio calls. Cops will learn, from the community itself, who the troublemakers are, reducing the need for the random stops and frisks that engender so much resentment.

“For years,” Bratton said, “we’ve been asking our officers to engage with the community, but we’ve never given them the time to do it.” [bold added]

There’s parallels to teaching here. Most teachers are thrown into any school they can find employment at, with little apprenticeship, and little induction into the community their school serves. Teachers are left stranded in an isolated classroom, struggling to support students whose everyday lives may be so foreign to that of their teachers that may be little opportunity to connect new academic learning to prior knowledge or social aspects of students’ lives.

When you add racial and socio-economic differences into this mix, situations can become toxic. Though everyone talks about high expectations in the education sector, at the ground level, in that isolated classroom, who is to say that this teacher is equipped with the context and understanding to work positively with students that may look, talk, and live in a manner completely foreign to her own experience? What kind of training and support has she received to prepare her for the specific social, cultural, linguistic, and emotional reality of the students who sit before her?

The FBI Director, James Comey, also addressed the deep tension that can lie between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. In “F.B.I. Director Speaks Out on Race and Police Bias” by Michael Schmidt in the New York Times, Comey refers to the “significant research showing that all people have unconscious racial biases.”

Echoing Bratton’s comments on beat policing, Comey suggestions the following:

“Law enforcement officers, he said, need ‘to design systems and processes to overcome that very human part of us all.

Although the research may be unsettling, what we do next is what matters most,” Mr. Comey said. . . .

Mr. Comey said tensions could be eased if the police got to know those they were charged to protect.

“It’s hard to hate up close,” he said. [bold added]

It’s a constant refrain in education these days for a reason: getting to know our students and build positive relationships with them is critical. Furthermore, knowing their families and community is critical. Without this knowledge and understanding, unconscious biases and assumptions have free reign. And while that may have worked just fine for schools and law enforcement agencies in the past, it’s no longer tenable in a day and age where individuals are equipped with advanced communications technology (smartphones).

We live in a time in which anyone with a phone can nearly instantaneously post a blog or a video and influence many others within their networks. This has changed the game for those who work for institutions that represent “authority,” and who seek to influence the constituents they serve.

This recognition has also been made by the military. In “A refocus of military influence” by Vaughan Bell on Mind Hacks, Bell investigates the birth of the 77th Brigade, a new arm of the British military that “has been prompted by a growing realisation that the success of security strategy depends as much on influencing populations at home and abroad as it does through military force.”

The formation of the 77th Brigade is a mostly reflection of a wider refiguring of global conflict that puts cognition and behaviour at the centre of political objectives.

It is simultaneously more and less democratic that [sic] ‘hard power’. It makes the battle of ideas, rather than the use of force, central to determining political outcome but attempts to shape the information environment so some ideas become more equal than others. [bold added]

In schools, we have long shed disciplinary mechanisms of paddling and rapping knuckles with rulers. Yet we still cling to vestiges of this mentality, suspending kids right and left, rather than seeking to get to the heart of the psychological perceptions and emotional and social experiences that drive that behavior. But this, too, is changing, as concepts of “restorative justice,” rather than suspension, become more widely propagated. Restorative justice sounds like a hippie thing. But when you consider that the method strategically taps into the perceptions and emotional experiences and social networks of those involved, it becomes more evident as a tactic for better coping with complexity by harnessing the knowledge of those who hold the most critical information.

All of this talk of police work as embedded within the community it serves brings to mind David Simon’s “The Wire” series. One of the moments that most stood out to me from that show was when a police major, Colvin, laments the “warfare” mentality engendered by the “war on drugs,” and recalls the “real police work” of the beat officer walking the streets of the community she serves.

Here’s a short clip of his monologue [Warning: strong language use]:

An Elegant Chaos: Ecology and Education

By Picnic25 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
A central tenet of viewing schools as ecosystems is the acknowledgement of the complexity of education, whether at the level of an individual classroom, a school, a district, a state, or beyond. This complexity relates well to the natural world, particularly ecology, hence the analogy of an ecosystem. Ecosystems are rich with interdependencies and relationships that are ever evolving, just as a school is teeming with social, emotional, and intellectual interconnections.

In an editorial on Nature,  the inherent complexity of ecology is analyzed, with the argument that due to its complexity, grand unifying theories are impossible. As the author puts it, “It is doubtful that the generalities that underlie the complex patterns of nature will ever be phrased succinctly enough to fit on a T-shirt.”

We’ve explored the concept that in the face of such complexity, prediction becomes a quixotic effort, and that we would do better to focus on what is more immediately and tangibly before us.

Similarly, Nature argues that ecological predictions based on disassociated “universal laws” must to be put aside in favor of field-based knowledge and understanding based on context.

Useful practical predictions need not stem from universal laws. They may come instead from a deep knowledge of the unique workings of each eco­system — knowledge gained from observation and analysis. Proposing sweeping theories is exciting, but if ecologists want to produce work useful to conservation, they might do better to spend their days sitting quietly in eco­systems with waterproof notebooks and hand lenses, writing everything down.

Indeed. And if you want to understand a school, you’ve got to go into that school and observe and listen. In the face of chaos and complexity, this time-honored method remains the best way to learn and understand.

Measuring by Observation

By Menschensindanders CC-BY-SA-3.0

Daniel Willingham has a post up explaining how the current measures states use to assess preschool quality are inaccurate.

He suggests that the cause of this may be that “Measuring things like years of experience and parental partnership is inexpensive and easy, and that’s nice. Someone at the school can submit this sort of data online. “

The data that states are using are isolated, easily gathered data points that someone sitting outside of that school thinks can demonstrate something inside of the school.

“Classroom measures, in contrast, are expensive. Someone with training has to actually observe what’s going on. That’s part of what goes into the “environment” measure, and it does look like that measure showed the most promise.”

I’ve talked about this problem before. A bunch of people that look at disaggregated data somewhere in a conference room far from a school think that they know what the quality of that school or teacher or student population is like. But you don’t know anything until you walk into a school, and you witness and listen to the interactions between the adults and other adults, the adults and the students, and the students and other students. Only then do you begin to get an idea.
So unsurprisingly, the same principle applies in preschool. Look at context. Look at what’s actually happening in the interactions in the classroom.
Lesson here to reform leaders: stop pretending that you can run a school without stepping foot in that school. Period.