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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 10/23/2010

Building teacher accountability from the ground up

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by educator Anthony Cody. After 18 years as a science teacher in inner-city Oakland, he now works with a team of experienced science teacher-coaches who support the many novice teachers in his school district. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. This appeared on his Teachers Magazine blog, Living in Dialogue.

By Anthony Cody
I am in my 24th year working in a medium-sized urban school district, and I have experienced school reform first-hand. Most often it takes the form of top-down programs that attempt to involve everyone in the District in a process that the superintendent (or state-appointed administrator) has decided will transform us from chronically under-performing to excellent in the coming year.

Sadly, sweeping programs like these rarely make much difference, and leave teachers feeling as if they are not respected as professionals. This is not to say District level efforts are always worthless -- many of our elementary schools have greatly improved as a result of creative and intensive work by dedicated staff.

If systemic change is going to come, it must come from within. It must draw on the capacity of our own teachers to grapple with the challenges they face.

We hear a lot about "bad teachers" and "good teachers," but much less about the processes and practices that help teachers become better. The single greatest thing we could do to improve schools, without huge expense, would be to support processes that engage teachers in working together to examine their practice and their students' work, to reflect on what is working, and inquire into ways to improve.

What does this look like? Here are some examples of practices that work well.

National Board Take One!:
The National Board certification process has been shown to improve student learning by helping teachers reflect on what really matters in their practice. Take One! is a process that allows teachers to submit a single video portfolio entry for scoring. This entry can be used if the teacher decides to continue and complete the remaining portfolio entries for full National Board certification. Some schools or departments within schools have taken on Take One! as a collaborative professional growth experience, working together to improve their practice. Take One! costs just $395 for each participating teacher.

Collaborative Teacher Research:
Teachers work together to develop questions about their teaching practice which can be probed through a research process. Often teachers implement an innovative practice, and then reflect on how student learning changes as a result. When these lessons are shared at a school site, effective practices can be spread and move the entire community move forward. In Minneapolis, union leaders worked with the District to create an innovative pay structure that rewards teachers for engaging in this process, in a way that connects professional growth to the evaluation process.

Critical Friends Group:
The Critical Friends Group is described by the National School Reform Faculty as "a professional learning community consisting of approximately 8-12 educators who come together voluntarily at least once a month for about two hours. Group members are committed to improving their practice through collaborative learning." The National School Reform Faculty web site offers an extensive bank of resources, including discussion protocols for looking at student work and exploring equity issues.

Lesson Study:
Originally developed in Japan, Lesson Study is now being practiced at many schools across the US. I have done some work with Dr. Catherine Lewis, a proponent of this method, whose web site describes the process thusly:

In Lesson Study teachers:

* Think about the long-term goals of education - such as love of learning and respect for others;

* Carefully consider the goals of a particular subject area, unit or lesson (for example, why science is taught, what is important about levers, how to introduce levers);

* Plan classroom "research lessons" that bring to life both specific subject matter goals and long term goals for students; and

* Carefully study how students respond to these lessons - including their learning, engagement, and treatment of each other.

In my experience, Lesson Study offers teachers a valuable structure for delving into how our teaching intersects with student thinking and learning. Schools need to be prepared, however, to make a sustained commitment of time to the process, because the value comes from the careful planning of the lesson, and the rich discussions that follow.

All of these process share a common set of essential elements:

* They build community and collegiality among participants.

* They make our teaching practices public, in that we are sharing what is actually happening, good and bad, in our classrooms.

* They are focused on evidence of student learning.

* They are active inquiries into our teaching and how it can be improved.

To this list I would add another, equally important element. Teachers must be allowed to choose the model of professional development they will pursue.

I believe the four models I shared are all excellent and have the potential to yield good results, but if one imposes any of these models on a school, without actively involving teachers in the decision, the results will be disappointing. I think teachers should be empowered to choose from any model that combines the essential elements above, or even invent their own model for collective reflection and improvement.

Each of these processes works when it creates a sense of agency among the participants. Teachers conducting action research must select their question and design their own investigation. Lesson Study requires that teachers discuss what is important for the students to learn, and choose critical concepts as the focus of their investigation into learning. Critical Friends guide their groups to productive conversations focused on real issues members face.

Those doing Take One! must create their own portfolio entries. This agency is critical to the enthusiasm and engagement teachers will feel, and this is the true root of accountability, which depends on our ownership of the work. If leaders adopt a top-down approach by mandating a particular model, or micromanaging the processes, by directing teachers to focus on particular research questions or follow particular protocols, teachers are likely to disengage, and actually feel LESS accountable for the processes, since they do not own them.

We all share a sense of urgency about improving our schools, so our students are better able to succeed, and fewer of them drop out. We must hurry deliberately, however, and not rush past the critical steps that engage and activate teachers in doing the hard, and ultimately very personal work of reflecting on and improving our teaching.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 23, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Teacher assessment, Teachers  | Tags:  accountability, anthony cody, national certified teacher, school reform, teacher assessment, teacher magazine, teachers  
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I wonder if the power brokers in education would ever listen to Anthony Cody? Probably not.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 23, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

What an excellent and refreshing article after reading and listening for months about the marvelous transformations in education that will take place simply by replacing teachers whose effectiveness number, base somewhere in the 30% to 50% range on value-added evaluations of students," is below some minimum number. It is interesting that the author is a science teacher and he talks about accountability without once mentioning "value-added." He is following that important adage of good science, "Don't report values or numbers with an accuracy or in a manner not supported by the data." There is nothing wrong with the statements that Sally is a great teacher, Joe is average, and Jill needs some improvement. These statements are good science especially as compared with the Rhee administrations, the former D.C. school leaders, non-scientific contention that a 174 is an ineffective teacher, but a 175 is a marginally effective teacher!
Based on the idea of the "Critical Friends Group," would there be some value in forming Critical Interested-Party Groups of 8-12 members of the local community who had some scientific interest or knowledge?

Posted by: bpeterson1931 | October 23, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Cody, what you propose makes too much sense for most edu-bureaucrats. As much as the current environment may hate to hear this, schools and teachers must be freed from the standardized testing onslaught to make these practices workable. Unions must be flexible about teachers working 'off the clock' so as to collaborate as needed. What's right is often not expedient; more frustrating is how so many education 'leaders' fail to listen to those closest to the issues, i.e. teachers. Top-down management ruined the steel industry, the auto industry (in this country), and every other enterprise; here goes public education replicating what's FAILED vs. what works.
"Saints preserve us!"

Posted by: pdexiii | October 23, 2010 6:15 PM | Report abuse

Rather than worrying too much about whether education "power brokers" will like Mr. Cody's interesting ideas: would the WTU "allow" or support these ideas to be implemented? Would individual DCPS teachers submit to these processes, or, would they be one more set of evaluation and management procedures to be resisted?

Posted by: axolotl | October 23, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

ax: You really have a total disregard and disdain for DCPS teachers. You also, like Rhee, seem to think we're all lazy and incompetent and don't want to be evaluated. I don't know how you came to formulate these misguided and misinformed opinions.

I would welcome the above evaluation procedures. The problem with IMPACT is that it's designed to dismiss teachers, NOT to improve instruction. It was also never properly vetted. There is also no data to support that it actually is a valid instrument, i.e., that it can distinguish between and ineffective and an effective teacher. There's no evidence that it's reliable. In fact, quite the contrary. There have been instances where ME's and principals have observed virtually the same lesson and came up with two vastly different scores.

I'm interested in improving my instruction and becoming a better teacher. IMPACT does NOT support that. I also want to try new things with my students. I can't. I can't take the risk of teaching a lesson with which I'm not familiar in the event someone may "pop in" on me to do an observation. Now I only teach what I know well.

IMPACT has forced teachers to be rigid and narrow in our instruction. It has successfully stifled creativity and innovation among teachers. In short, it has been a disaster.

We are not creating professional learning communities. We are creating test factories, making learning dull, making teachers robots and boring students to death. Great reforms!!

Posted by: UrbanDweller | October 23, 2010 7:04 PM | Report abuse

UD - I agree with much of your comment above. Don't speak in generalizaitons, though. You gotta be way up there in terms of effectiveness. I am afraid quite a few of your colleagues -- many of them tagged out by other teachers -- are not as skillful or as committed as you are. And they display an instant pushback against any evaluation whatsoever. Those are the ones who especially need to be evaluated, but all should be, by the best system that can be created. But the parents and other citizens of the District will not wait years for this. Teacher resistance (see Saunders platform) seeking to disregard the recently overwhelmingly approved contract only damages The Children, who are consistently ignored in all the pushback demonstrated by many of your colleagues.

Posted by: axolotl | October 23, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

What a great start towards focusing on curriculum and instruction, the heart of educating but strangely never mentioned by "reformers"! I am so glad to hear Anthony talk about the success of National Board. I think its success could be a real answer to the whole merit pay business which from my experience injects competition in to a community that needs to be very cooperative to be successful. Florida has done merit pay for National board teachers, tying part of it to mentoring NBCT peers and it has been a successful program for improving teacher quality in a way the school communities accept and appreciate from the base up. The bonuses are done by choice and are earned through a rigorous process of reflection and learning. Many of these teachers have gone on to participate in professional development and to work at the state and district levels on committees to provide leadership from the classroom. As one of those teachers I have gone on to get my masters, to help write new standards and to provide professional development for my district and other counties in technology and science instruction. It has really been a win win for the teachers and their schools. The other suggestion Anthony made that we are just embarking on is Lesson Study. I am on the team that is helping to develop it in my school as a mandate from the state as part of our RTTT grant requirements. Unfortunately this process, which demands a lot of collaborative time, will have to be done with in an environment where planning time has been cut to the bone to save money. We are weaving it into the little time we have and I hope it will be done in a way that actually benefits the teachers. Any suggestions from Anthony or others who have been the through the process would be welcomed.

Posted by: kmlisle | October 23, 2010 9:30 PM | Report abuse

Nice to see Valerie has engaged a pragmatic thinking teacher into her cohort of authors, theorists, and BS artists. Tony Cody has some useful suggestions here to build upon and direct teachers toward success.

You go, Anthony.

Posted by: phoss1 | October 24, 2010 7:01 AM | Report abuse

Absolutely agree that continuous questioning by teachers of their own and peers' practice is essential. However, on a practical level I can't see having four models of this going on in any particular school. And it's also important to make sure that teachers don't constantly try to re-invent the wheel. When I read that science teachers (I assume the author meant K-6 classroom teachers, including possibly some who specialize in science) need to discuss why science is taught, or what is important about levers, my immediate thought was that this should have been covered in pre-service training or possibly during student teaching.

Posted by: jane100000 | October 24, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

First of all, to respond to kmlisle, it is true that any of these processes takes a significant commitment of time, and that means there must be some administrative support. The open-ended processes require an investment of trust in teachers in order to work.

To respond to jane1000000, I would agree that implementing all four of these at a school would be impossible. What I am suggesting it that teachers at a school select from these, or from other models that have been found effective, and really dive in to investigate their practice. As to your suggestion that these things should have been covered in pre-service training, I think this is not so. Not because pre-service training is particularly poor, but simply because the growth we are seeking is much greater than a pre-service teacher could absorb in a year or two. As a teacher with 18 years experience, I still have a great deal to learn about how to teach my subject, and how to reach my students. The very best way to learn this is in collaboration with my colleagues, looking at our students' work, using one of the processes I described.

Posted by: anthony_cody | October 24, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

"Unions must be flexible about teachers working 'off the clock' so as to collaborate as needed"

You are so right and yet so misinformed.

I am a "retread". I worked in industry for many years before teaching. In other professions, planning & working collaboratively, professional development, keeping up to date in my field, etc are all legitimate activities that I am expected to schedule within my "workday".

In education, you are scheduled (no autonomy here- you are told your schedule and it is "down to the minute")to work with children for about 7 hours every day, including before school help, after school help, lunchtime help. Oh, and you do have a 42 minute "planning period" when you might be able to sneak in a potty break.

In teaching you are expected to do all these other things beyond your work day.

Your "off the clock" comment hits the heart of the problem. Teachers are actually in a special group that gets dumped on either way. Are teachers professionals who have autonomy over their scheduling to complete their duties or are they hourly workers? Analyze this carefully because hourly workers cannot work "off the clock" and may be entitled to overtime. And a work day that starts at 7:00 am and goes straight through to 3:00 pm with only a 43 minute break is probably illegal.

Posted by: altaego60 | October 24, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

One tires of these articles concerning teacher accountability.

The supposedly best and effective teachers in the world are not going to overcome the obstacles that large number of children in poverty public schools have in learning.

The reality is that an average teachers which is the best that one can expect will be effective in middle class public schools while these same teachers will not be able to remove the obstacles that large number of children in poverty public schools have in learning.

Teacher accountability is simply the latest attempt to totally avoid the problems in the poverty public schools and find scapegoats for these problems.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 24, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse


I just loved it when I read this: "Don't speak in generalizaitons, though." It is the cruelest irony alive that you cannot see, feel or even understand the boundless extent of your own hypocrisy.

I fully agree with UrbanDweller. From my experience reading your posts, you hold a global disdain for anyone who does not agree with you.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 24, 2010 11:34 PM | Report abuse

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