Friday, October 28, 2011

Cross Hairs

As many of us are aware, a new plan for changing the face of the British Columbia Education system was unveiled today.  And while I only was able to spend a few minutes looking at it (and a couple of minutes to watch the video), I am excited about some possibilities of the plan by Minister Abbott.

The paper highlights building on the strengths of our current system in BC such as staying solid on the basics and incorporating more real-world skills.  It outlines the importance of good teaching and the necessity for a flexible and adaptable curriculum and method of delivery.   It hints at ideas for districts in terms of creating school calendars and schedules that best meet the needs of the students in their districts.  It stresses high standards.  And finally, it discusses the importance of technology-empowered learning.

Of course there are many details that need to be filled in.  Of course people will wonder 'where is the money coming for this?', 'will I be inserviced?' or 'where will we find the time?' Of course there will be the general cry of 'what does all of this mean?'.  Of course there will be questions and more questions from that answers to those questions.

But it is a START.  We keep talking about the changes that need to be made to our education system, and I am going into the forthcoming discussions about this new plan for BC Education excited and with a positive attitude.  I want to be involved in how this will roll out in our school, our district and perhaps in our province.  The plan has some potential to move BC Education in a very positive direction.

As students, teachers, parents, administrators, district staff, community members and policy makers that all have a stake in the BC Education System, I hope that we can collectively give the new BC Education Plan some time to be fleshed out.  By approaching something with a positive and proactive approach rather than instantly putting it in the cross hairs, I think the collective experience and wisdom of our partners in BC can turn this plan into the true jumping off point that it seems to have the potential to be.

It's Friday!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Evaluate Me!

Over the past several months, there have been a number of posts and articles about evaluating teachers in K-12 education.  And in just the last few days, the media in British Columbia has been floating the idea of yearly teacher evaluations.  Whether something like this happens or not in BC,  I find that I have many questions when I reflect upon the whole teacher evaluation process:
  • What is the goal of the evaluation? 
  • What makes an effective teacher?  What skills should they have?  
  • Who decides on this skill set?  Teachers? Administrators?  Students? Parents?
  • Do student results have a part in teacher evaluations?
  • What does the evaluation look like? 
  • Who does the evaluation?  If it is the Principal, when will I have time to do this?
  • How often should a teacher be evaluated?
  • What happens before, during and after the evaluation?
  • What happens if the evaluation shows the teacher to be highly effective?  
  • What happens if it shows the teacher to have a number of areas requiring remediation?
Teacher evaluations have many different connotations for people, depending on their particular context or district.  There are some districts that do very few teacher evaluations.  In other places, 'teaching evaluation' has an ominous tone for teachers as they can be triggered by concerns or complaints.  For administrators in areas where there is extensive teacher evaluation, it can be an onerous and time-consuming process that has a 'just finished one cycle of teacher evaluations in time to start another'.

I think performance evaluations can have a great deal of merit.  Four years ago, I had an evaluation of my performance as a Principal by my Assistant Superintendent.  Not only did I have a series of interviews, my staff, students and community members were canvassed about a number of different topics in various leadership domains.  I was excited, curious and yes, a little nervous, about the feedback that I would get from my school community.  I discovered that I the interviewees gave me some excellent and specific feedback on areas that I needed to improve.  Students, staff and parents also brought up a number of positive things that I was doing, some of which I didn't know that anyone had noticed!  I found the process informative and invigorating.

Thirteen years ago, I had a teacher evaluation done by an outstanding administrator in a former school.  It was a 'traditional' style teacher evaluation, with a pre-conference, lesson plan evaluation, lesson presentation, post-conference, and letter written about the qualities that my administrator saw in me with that particular science class.  At the time, I felt that the process was somewhat 'artificial'.   I knew when he was coming. I knew how the class would go.  I had it planned to a tee with an induction activity, an exciting demonstration (I think I synthesized water using hydrogen gas and oxygen to blow up a paint can--very cool, as it sounded like a sonic boom and rocked the entire school) and neat follow up activities before I checked for understanding.  The kids were engaged: they interacted with each other and with me.  In summary, it was the 'perfect' lesson: much like any of us could do given the appropriate amount of time and notice.

But to be perfectly honest, it was not indicative of every day life in Birk's Science class in the least:  that probably would have looked more like a review quiz, some mindless note-taking, a worksheet, maybe a video or a lab or some group work, and some follow-up questions.  Nothing so glamorous as the performance my Principal saw the day he observed me. Much like the high-stakes testing done with kids, I was judged on what I could bring on that particular day.  Fortunately, I had prepared well, and the lesson (and my subsequent evaluation) went off without a hitch.

This is not a criticism of my Principal--he was simply using the tool that he had been given by his district.  I felt completely supported through the process, and I also received some helpful feedback that changed my practice.  However, I think a process such as the one used in my class thirteen years ago is flawed.  Now I am sure that there are many jurisdictions that have excellent teaching evaluation mechanisms, and as a system, we need to look very closely at different models should we ever wish to look at more formalized evaluation in education.

Recently, I had a conversation with Greg Hall, a Vice-Principal here in School District 73.  Greg came to our district from Western Australia, where he was a teacher and then department head. He put me on to an interesting document that is used there for teacher evaluations.  The Department of Education and Training for the Government of Western Australia created a document called a Competency Framework for Teachers that has influenced my thinking about evaluations for teachers, administrators, and students.  And while there have been a number of other competency documents created in Canada and the US, I found the framework from Western Australia to be very appealing.

At first glance, there were a few things that I liked about the process outlined in this document;
  • it utilizes competencies and skills that are collaboratively developed by different partner groups, including those being evaluated
  • it strives to take into account different learning contexts and experiences
  • it has an emphasis on personal growth, reflection, and self-actualization
  • it allows for a personalized approach for presenting artifacts in each of the skill domains
  • it can enable a rich and meaningful dialogue between the person being evaluated and the evaluator
In talking to Greg more about this, he indicated that as a teacher, he would collect authentic pieces of evidence from his classes and his experiences in these different domains.  Subsequently, he would present the things that he felt best reflected these competencies to his administrator in a collegial and collaborative dialogue.  He would also present areas that he felt were a priority for his own personal growth, and the Principal and he would look to see how those areas could be supported through Professional Development.

A self-reflective model in which I get to present the evidence that I feel best reflects my growth in certain areas is one that has a great deal of appeal to me.  As a result, I am using the BCPVPA Leadership Standards document to help me develop a reflective and interactive tool in which I can store and describe different forms of evidence according to the standards of good practice that my peers have developed.  Once this tool is completed, I hope:

  • to find and prioritize areas that I need to focus on for improvement
  • to clarify areas in which I am more proficient
  • to get feedback from my school community partner groups and my PLN on my areas for growth
  • to have learned a number of new web technologies through the development of this tool
  • to share the tool with other administrators so that they may be able to use/adapt/improve the template for their own reflection
I expect that the development of this self-evaluation tool will take me some time.  Right now, I am looking at blogs and e-portfolios as possible jumping-off points/repositories where I can keep artifacts that describe my progress in certain areas.  I envision a site that anyone could click into and get the landscape of my educational values and beliefs on educational issues through the authentic pieces that are stored there.  I picture a site that, when it came time for my evaluation as a Principal, a set of evaluators could go to and give me specific and meaningful feedback on my strengths and areas for growth.

An evaluation based in collectively developed competencies that emphasizes self-reflection is something that interests me.  Such a process, in concert with a flexible method of presentation, would allow me to take ownership over my own evaluation and then direct a plan for my own professional development. 

I think this personalized philosophy to evaluation is something that could work very well not only for educators, but for students.  The more involved we have the person being evaluated in the process, the more meaningful the evaluation (and the feedback) becomes.

It would make me say "Evaluate me!".

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

In Position

I recently read a thought-provoking post by my colleague and author Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) called "Tired of Being the Nation's Punching Bag" in his excellent blog "The Tempered Radical".  In his post, Bill discusses The Global Achievement Gap, a book by Harvard Education Professor Tony Wagner. Having seen Tony Wagner as a guest speaker at the Connecting Leaders Conference in Vancouver in October of last year,  I was eager to hear Bill's take on Wagner's book.  From the conference, I remembered that Wagner was quite scathing in his views of the current state of K-12 education, and I guessed (correctly) that Bill would have some great points and counterpoints about The Global Achievement Gap.

One excerpt from Bill's blog really resonated with me:

Wagner writes: “Finally, I have observed that the longer our children are in school, the less curious they become” (Kindle location 323).

Bill's response: Tony’s right, y’all: Kids really DO lose their natural curiosity after spending years in our school system. 

How sickening is that?  And to be perfectly honest, I don’t know a ton of teachers who do a great job encouraging natural curiosity in their daily lessons.  There’s no point, really.  You see, curiosity isn’t measured by the standardized tests that our nation have embraced as tools for holding students accountable.

This made me reflect on the skills that we value in education (or rather the skills we SAY we value) versus the ones we demonstrate that we value through our actions as educators and policymakers.   At our Grade Assemblies a few weeks ago, I talked with our students about the importance of the "7 C's" of 21st Century Learning--communication, collaboration, creativity, cultural understanding, career knowledge and computing skills.  I gave a brief description of these skills to our students, and challenged them to find ways to 'sail the 7C's' during their career at our school because these skills were the important skills to learn.

But bearing Bill's comment about standardized tests and their inability to evaluate valued skills in mind, I began to think that as educators, we should 'be careful what we wish for' when we talk so freely about these skills for our students.  In my own learning situation, I need to examine my own practice to see whether I am truly prepared for the movement towards the personalized, 21st Century Learning movement.  I need to determine whether I am well-positioned to be a 21st century leader, educator, and learner for our staff and our students.

Several years ago, the province of British Columbia introduced the concept of the Graduation Portfolio as an authentic 'exit product' for high school graduates in BC.  Students were to put different artifacts of their learning from their high school years into a physical or digital binder that they would display to a panel prior to their graduation.  Students were asked to provide evidence of their learning in focus areas such as the arts, humanities, science, business, and fitness.  Evidence could be written, web-based, video, projects that they had done, or whatever the student thought best represented their learning in that particular focus area.  Even the method of presentation was up to the student.  The student could be creative demonstrate their ability to communicate with a panel of educators and community members. They would think critically about their presentation and reflect on the evidence that showcased their learning. They would demonstrate many of the skills that we value, that we now say we want them to demonstrate here in the 21st century.

But the Graduation Portfolio concept fell apart.  Among the variety of reasons for its demise, it failed because it was cumbersome.  It was difficult to 'store' at schools in terms of student artifacts.  It was challenging to evaluate.  It was hard to get a panel of community members and educators to see the portfolios of 300 graduates (to use our school as an example).  The evaluation process was seen as a huge amount of time to invest.  It was criticized because it was 'pass or fail' rather than having a grade associated with it.  The product was seen as separate from the content areas.  And as a result, for many (most?) students, the Graduation Portfolio was seen as another 'hoop to jump through' when the important tasks such as government exams were at hand.  In a relatively short couple of years after its inception, Graduation Portfolio was replaced with a truncated and abbreviated Graduation Transition Plan that is viewed by many as much more manageable, but viewed by most students in much the same way--another hoop to jump through that has little relevance to them.

This post is not meant to champion the aforementioned Graduation Portfolio. However, the demise of a vehicle such as Grad Portfolio that allowed students to demonstrate many of the qualities and skills that we want for our graduates indicates that we need to be better positioned to support personalized, 21st Century Learning.  There are many questions that I need to consider in terms of  'the 7C's'.
  • How do we demonstrate that we value the skills of a 21st Century learner?  Are they an integral part of our curriculum and instruction?
  • Are we well-versed in these skills at every level?  In what they are?  In how to give feedback to a student on something like creativity?  In how to determine progress in a skill like collaboration?  And if not, what resources (professional development, resources, technology) do we need to provide to make sure we are prepared to work with this set of skills?
  • Do we know how to evaluate these skills in our students?  And perhaps more importantly, are we able to help students to become reflective learners who can self-evaluate and determine their own progress in these areas and how to apply these skills to their own learning situation? 
  • If we value these skills, how are we emphasizing this value to students, parents, and the community?  How are we going to report out so that a parent knows how their child is progressing in terms of something like critical thinking?  What does a 'report card' look like?
  • Looking through a post-secondary lens, are these going to be valued at the next level of education for our students?  Are the admission requirements for colleges, technical schools and universities going to reflect the need for these skills?
  • Currently, BC Ministry of Education Scholarships are completely based upon scores on mandatory, standardized government exams.  Will this continue, or will the criteria for these financial awards be indicative of what we say we value in education?
I am sure there are other factors that I am not considering in preparing ourselves for personalized, 21st century learning that I will only be able to understand through conversations with students, staff members, and community members.  Other factors such as what is valued by the community, what is meaningful for students, and what is needed for our teachers to meet the needs of our learners.
However, one thing is certain, as an educational system we need to put ourselves in a position that allows us to practically and logistically value those skills that we say we value.  In the coming months, I will be seeking answers to the questions above from experts around the world in our PLN and input from our partners in the community so that as a school, we too are in position to continue to provide a personalized, 21st century learning experience for each of our students.