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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/ 8/2009

CHECKING IT OUT: What's a ‘highly skilled’ teacher in D.C.?

By Valerie Strauss

Back in the day at Everglades Elementary School in Miami, I had a fifth-grade teacher named Berry Shaw. She was known as the second toughest--read that, second meanest--teacher in the place, and I quaked on the first day of class.

She was the best teacher I ever had.

Mrs. Shaw brooked nonsense from no one, not even from Hunter, the endearing class clown. Yet she had an inexplicable way of making me want to do well (not all teachers did)--with “doing well” meaning learning new things, not getting straight ‘As.’ I still have the copy of “The Yearling” that she gave me after she read it to the class, a chapter a day. More than 30 years later, Mrs. Shaw sent my family a note when my father died.

We used to call teachers that knew what they were doing in the classroom “good teachers.” Today they are called “highly skilled” and every parent wants their child to have one in every class.

There are many excellent teachers in our schools today, more than you might think from the lamenting of some critics. But there are plenty of teachers who, quite simply, need to improve, and thus helping more teachers become “highly skilled” is one of the big movements in the education world today.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee late last month advanced her administration’s new nearly 200-page framework on teaching and learning that is aimed at creating a better teacher corps. I read much of it, and I started wondering what's going on.

My colleague Bill Turque wrote about the framework, which was presented to D.C. principals in a three-day workshop.

I want Chancellor Rhee to be successful, and I applaud an effort to spell out what good teaching looks like.

There are some practices in the framework that those less gifted in the classroom can use. And though there is a lot of material that is obvious---“Teachers deliver factually correct content” (and “factually correct” is in bold in the document --such an approach doesn’t have to be an insult to professionals.

But some of it sounds like it is.

The framework starts off by telling teachers to plan on developing “annual student achievement goals,” which should be “ambitious” and “measurable.” The next step, it says, is figuring out how to assess--or test--students, and the third step is designing daily lesson plans.

Well, the order is wrong. The first step should be figuring out what you want students to learn, then daily lesson plans are created and only then are tests, er, assessments, devised.

Not a great beginning.

Then I looked at the PowerPoint slides presented to the principals at the start of their workshop. One said:


You may think I am making took much out of this. But any Post official who told a meeting of adult journalists that they had permission to use the toilet whenever they wanted would be shouted off the dais.

How much infantilizing is going on here? I can’t believe teachers really need this information.

I moved on to a section called “Prioritizing Standards,” which included a slide that said:
“Why Do We Prioritize?

*We prioritize to distinguish between the priority standards that can anchor a unit and those standards that can be clustered to support the priority standard.”

Aside from the fact that the explanation is so tortured that it doesn’t really answer the question, one wonders what teacher in any system doesn’t know about prioritizing.
If they don’t, stop training them. Fire them.

There were other disturbing parts of the framework as well, including the fact that so much education jargon.

For example, it says that effective teachers, “create objective-driven daily lessons.”

Why do they do this? Read on:

“Objective-driven daily lessons ensure that all instructional decisions and strategies used in a lesson are chosen to further students’ progress toward mastery of the lesson objectives,” it says.

English translation: Teachers should teach important stuff in a way that kids really learn it.

The use of jargon makes specific sentences tough to comprehend, and more broadly makes it difficult to take seriously what is supposed to be a serious effort to improve a school system.

There’s a lot more to raises concerns. Some of the details about what it takes to be a highly skilled teacher are doozies. (In fact, D.C. schools officials seemed to realize this by saying that some of them may be discarded--leaving one to wonder why they were included in the first place.)

Here’s one I’m expecting not to last long: A great teacher should “never have more than five instances of ‘inappropriate or off-task behavior’ by students” within a 30-minute period of class time.

Never? How can a teacher be sure that that never happens?

If top schools officials infantilize principals, how much do some principals infantilize teachers?

I hope Chancellor Rhee didn’t read every word of her teaching and learning framework. Because if she did, how did she approve it?

Let’s discuss what fine teaching really is.
Tell me about great teachers that you--or your children--have had, and what it was that made them effective.
I’d like to hear from teachers, too, about what they believe are the best ways that school systems can help them improve.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 8, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools, Teachers  | Tags:  D.C. schools, Highly Skilled Teachers, Michelle Rhee, Teachers  
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Next: Valerie & Jay Debate The Speech


Truly informative! Why has the Post been hiding you in the print edition? We love you in the blogosphere!

Posted by: bethesda3 | September 8, 2009 6:56 AM | Report abuse

"Teachers deliver factually correct content"

This is quite an ironic statement since we also know teachers are often told to teach subjects they weren't trained to teach. I'm surprised they aren't all candidates for Jeopardy.

Posted by: doglover6 | September 8, 2009 9:03 AM | Report abuse

Apparently you are not familiar with the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe-- Understanding by Design. Yes, you should decide first what it is you want your students to know, how you will assess that knowledge, and then plan activities that will support that.

It's surprising to me that an education writer has no familiarity with the idea of "backwards design". It's not exactly a new idea.

Posted by: lizae | September 8, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

I generally enjoy your column, but as a "highly qualified" DC charter school teacher, I couldn't agree more with lizae's post. Backwards planning is a proven, and sensible, way of designing curriculum. You need to know what you want kids to be able to do or know, then how they will show mastery to you. Then, and only then, is it your job to figure out how to scaffold and teach so that students will be able to accomplish that goal. You need a destination before you can figure out the best route to get there. This is considered best practices in most successful schools (especially schools that are bringing our most struggling students up to grade level).
On that same note, any experienced teacher will tell you that a well-planned lesson is the best classroom management tool out there. Therefore, I think it's reasonable for the DC manual to say that if you have 5 moments in a class when students are "off-task" or acting inappropriately, you need to think more about your transitions and how you've planned your activities. It doesn't mean you "never" have one of these moments--but 5 in a half hour is a concern and there are specific strategies for preventing such moments.

I'm sure DC's training plan isn't perfect, but please do your research before disparaging what seems to be a solid effort to train DC's teachers in widely-acknowledged best-practices. There are excellent teachers using these practices with great success all over DC.

Posted by: laurajkra | September 8, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

I must take issue with what seems to be blind support of "backwards planning" or "backwards design" or whatever you would like to call the the framework set out in Understanding by Desisgn. Both Lizae and Laurajkra seem to present this idea as if it is accepted as the best practice for curriculum design, neither logically or practically. In practice you will be hard pressed to find a high performing school (e.g., avg. performance of students on tests, SAT, college attendance) where UBD is implemented. More importantly the logic of UBD necessarily narrows the definition of learning to those things that can be measured via assessments. Assessments are important, however, their limits in scope should not in turn be used to constrain a curriculum.

An aside...Laurajkra, I believe the blogger was indicating an issue with the directive that a "highly skilled" teacher should NEVER experience 5 instances of disruption in an hour. As in, a fight goes on before school where a student seriously hurt. Students then come into their class with said "highly skilled" teacher and there are 5 moments in the first half-hour of class where students are off task as their emotions are running high and attention low. Do you really think these "off task" behaviors are an indication of the teachers skill??? Really?

Posted by: wilsonmg_2000 | September 8, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Thank you! More articles, please, on the furious incompetence that calls itself "teacher education" and "school administration". Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

It's hard to believe that we have such pompous dunces running what is unquestionably THE most important institution in our society.

Posted by: DupontJay | September 8, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

The Answer Sheet does actually understand "backwards curriculum design." and sees some sense in it. Reader wilsonms2000, above, explained the problem better than The Sheet: This kind of design does indeed narrow the definition of learning to things that are easy to measure on tests. Kids learning from curriculum designed in this fashion alone are missing a lot.

Posted by: straussv | September 8, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

A correction to my earlier post. When I said high performing schools, I should have said the highest performing schools.

Posted by: wilsonmg_2000 | September 8, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

"Well, the order is wrong. The first step should be figuring out what you want students to learn, then daily lesson plans are created and only then are tests, er, assessments, devised."

Oh, God, my pet peeve - someone who has NO training in education (this blogger)telling teachers how they ought to be teaching. Sorry, any highly skilled teacher is going to assess before designing lesson plans. Otherwise, you might design lessons that are either too difficult or too easy for the students.

And I love the hubris. She doesn't say, "Hmmm, my first impression as a lay person is that assessing before instructing doesn't make sense." She just flat out says that it is wrong. LOVE it.

Posted by: heatherdc1980 | September 8, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

heatherdc1980, I would not consider myself a "layperson" and I can assure you that not all effective teachers feel that the method described in UBD is THE way to plan. Just because you learned something in your ed school or your teacher training does not mean it is the only way or even the agreed upon "right" way.

Further, you probably should understand that the issue VS is taking is not with simply assessing to determine student strengths and needs, rather, it is with the idea that a curriculum should be developed and teachers should teach only those skills that are measurable through assessments...particularly standardized assessments.

Posted by: wilsonmg_2000 | September 8, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

I said before that any highly skilled teacher would know to assess before planning lessons. I'd like to amend that statement. Any person who has taught for even a MONTH knows to assess before instruction. Why? The first time you teach a lesson in squares only to find that the bulk of the students learned exponents in a summer program, and your entire lesson was a waste of your time and theirs, you will be sure to assess prior to instruction next time.

Additionally, both my practice AND my training have taught me that all assessments, including formative and summative assessments, really need to be created before instruction begins. And experienced teachers know that "assessment" is not synonomous with "test." An assessment could be a project, a task, or even an informal observation.

Posted by: heatherdc1980 | September 8, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

heatherdc1980, I really think you are misunderstanding the point. What you are talking about is classroom practice. For that purpose, yes, teachers should assess the knowledge of students prior to teaching. What I am discussing is curriculum development, which is a much broader issue. Thus, again, the point is that curriculum designed from assessments rather than from what we want kids to learn can arbitrarily constrain teaching and learning.

Posted by: wilsonmg_2000 | September 8, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

There is also an interesting discussion about this here:

The 200 page TLF does seem to "dumb it down" quite a lot. But if one assumes that the distribution of DCPS teacher is:
5% "Great" (200 out of 4000)
15% "Good" (600 out of 4000)
40% "Fair" (1600 out of 4000), and
40% "Bad" (1600 out of 4000 "ineffective")

then one can begin to see what Ms. Rhee and Mr. Moody think of the teacher core and to what the TLF had to be addressed to.

If one assumes many more "Good" teachers in the system, then the TLF, in it's present form, is pretty much an insult to their training and intelligence.

The best one can say is that it gives an easy metric for presumably identifying the worst teachers. It does not really give any good measures for identifying great and really good teachers who regularly do many things above and beyond what's presented in the TLF.

Posted by: interested8 | September 8, 2009 7:23 PM | Report abuse

"This kind of design does indeed narrow the definition of learning to things that are easy to measure on tests. Kids learning from curriculum designed in this fashion alone are missing a lot."

Sorry, but this is nonsense. First, an assessment does not equal "test." A test can be a useful assessment, certainly, but as any teacher surely understands, it's only one type of assessment tool.

Second, what, exactly, are these students missing? Using a backwards design technique allows teachers to critically analyze the relevance of an activity in their classroom. Why not plan lessons that are both engaging, and yes, have an actual goal in mind, rather than meandering around a topic and hoping students glean something meaningful from it?

BTW, in my school we do not have standardized testing in the subject area I teach, so using UBD has absolutely nothing to do with teaching with standardized testing in my classroom. This is my 10th year teaching and I use it because it works, not because it's some snazzy idea I learned in teacher's college.

Posted by: lizae | September 8, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse

"the point is that curriculum designed from assessments rather than from what we want kids to learn can arbitrarily constrain teaching and learning."

You misunderstand UBD. The first step IS determining what we want kids to learn. The second step is designing assessments that support those goals. Finally, the lesson planning /activity stage supports steps one and two.

Posted by: lizae | September 8, 2009 7:58 PM | Report abuse

Valerie, please stop comparing DCPS teachers to your favorite teachers. My kid's DCPS teachers can be very good, but the ones that aren't good, the ones who have already been fired, were no better than DMV employees. Dead-eyed non-readers who spoke and wrote ungrammatically. I met a teacher who spoke about teenage PCP use.

There is a major conceit that reveals any author's naivete on the DCPS issue and that's the false presumption that DCPS teachers are of the same quality as the teachers we had in the 1970s.

In fact, if you're old enough to remember the large gold hoop earring teenagers who cracked gum on the subway and smoked pot at Celebrity Hall when they were there to see Little Benny and the Masters wearing their Minnie and Mickey Good to Go sweatshirts and shoplifting from Nobody Beats the Wiz, those teenage criminals are the DCPS teachers today. The 40 year old woman teaching kindergarten lost a boyfriend to Rayful Edmunds during the crack war and WTTG Channel 5's City Under Seige.

This article was written from an ignorant perspective and an apology is in order.

Posted by: bbcrock | September 9, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

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