Monday, January 27, 2014

Do I Need to be a Connected Educator?

“I’m convinced that we as educators have an obligation to initiate new learning, become skillful in the use of new tools that accelerate and advance our learning work, and share with others what we are learning.”  - Pam Moran, Superintendent Albermarle County Public Schools

Educators have worked extremely hard over the past years to shift away from a paradigm of isolation and closed doors to one of inclusion and support.  School districts have developed and established professional learning communities to further the practice of connecting with colleagues and eliminate the practice of isolation.  Through this intentional work, school leaders and educators have learned from each other, supported one another through new learning, and become reliant on a small team of colleagues for support and encouragement.  They have become “connected” and see the potential in continuing the work.

Being connected to others is exciting.  As educators it is powerful to know that we can share ideas and learn from one another.  We now have the opportunity to stretch our thinking and create a network for learning.  Too often though, this network is limited to just our school walls.  To be a truly “connected educator”, we need to expand our network beyond the walls of the school and engage and participate in the global connectedness we live in.

To do this we must look beyond the traditional meaning of connectedness.  Defining it is not as simple as participating in a professional learning community at your school, belonging to the science team in your district, or knowing your colleagues and staff.  Many people instantly assume that in order to become a connected educator we need to embrace technology as the vehicle for this.  Technology can play a critical role, but being connected is much more than just using technology.  It is about the interactions and conversations we have with people.  It’s about connecting with people who inspire, support, and enrich your learning.  It’s about creating conversations that have purpose and meaning to your work.  It’s about becoming a connected learner and increasing your expertise.  In order to do this, an educator must be willing to:
   Seek out and connect with other educators through any means, technology or otherwise.
   Explore, create, share, and contribute something meaningful to the group.
   Become digitally literate through the use of Twitter, reading of blogs, and the development of a Personal Learning Network (PLN).
   Share with colleagues what you have learned through connecting with other educators.
   Be transparent in thinking and reflect on the conversations you take part in.
   Talk about how being connected has affected your work.

For me the answer about needing to be a connected educator is clearly yes.  Being an active participant in the connected world with which we live, has had a profound impact on my work as a school leader.  The connections I have created through using technology and otherwise, has allowed me to break down the isolation I feel as a solo building administrator.  I have a network of wisdom that I can turn to when I need information or want to learn something new.  Knowing that I can reach out and receive thoughtful, intelligent, and honest feedback is comforting.  The more conversations I have, the more I realize there is no way I could effectively do my job without being a connected educator.

Here are a few ways that our school and I have benefitted by becoming connected with others:
   Fifth grade students participating in an “Identity Day” project where they create a display that shows what they are passionate about in their life.  This idea came from Chris Wejr, Principal at James Hill Elementary in Langley, British Columbia.  This project has become an integral part of our end of school year reflection.
   Participating in the World Read Aloud Day with multiple classes in our school.  Through the power of Skype we read books aloud to other classrooms across the world.  Reading with a class of students in the country of Jordan was a highlight for all.
   Participation in a local network of local school administrators to examine and reflect on the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system. 
   Learning how to become more effective in my work as an instructional leader by participating in educational chats (edchats) on Twitter.
   Developing a collaborative writing project between our school and an elementary school in Missouri.

This list is by now ways exhaustive, but I hope it provides you with a small glimpse on how being connected has made the work that happens in our school meaningful.

We live in a connected world and the students that walk through our doors each day are connected.  They want and need educators that are connected, not just through technology, but also with each other.  Being connected to others is exciting and I hope you find being connected as enriching to your practice as I have in mine.

Scott Friedman, Principal
Nine Mile Falls Elementary
Nine Mile Falls School District

Monday, January 13, 2014

Why does it seem like everything in education is changing? And, is there a way to think about the work that could make the work more manageable?

Anyone working in education today knows this is a busy year. On top of local initiatives that were already underway in many districts, externally-imposed initiatives – such as the new teacher and principal evaluation systems, adoption and implementation of evaluation frameworks, student growth measures, Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and the new state assessment, Smarter Balanced (SB) – are also in full swing. So why does it seem like everything is changing? Because it is! In a nutshell, we are re-tooling almost everything in public education related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Why so much change? Our work is changing because the purpose of American public education has changed. In 1993, we switched from a norm-referenced system of education to a criterion-referenced, or standards-based, system with the passage of HB 1209. The goal of the education system over the last 20 years has been to graduate students who were high school competent. Although the system is still standards-based, those standards have changed. Since August, 2013, the new goal is to get all students, not merely high school competent, but college and career ready.

Because our previous standards aimed only at high school competency and not college and career readiness, the CCSS are being implemented to provide a better path to college and career readiness. When the goal of education changed, the standards needed to change. Likewise, once the standards changed, the assessment used to measure the standards needed to change.

Although it is a lot of work to learn the new standards (CCSS) and to align to the new assessments (SB), it may be comforting to remember we have been doing this kind of work for two decades. These changes in curriculum and assessment, although numerous, are mostly just a “search and replace” of the work we have been doing and know how to do. On the other hand, instruction is likely to be the most overwhelming area of change because it has been the most neglected in previous reform efforts.

For 20 years, we have set curriculum standards (EALRs) and aligned to them (GLEs). We also established assessments (WASL/MSP/HSPE) and aligned to those (test specifications). During this time period, however, there was not much talk about instruction. Some of the state teacher evaluation criteria related to instruction, but no state or national initiative gave much attention to improving instruction. The theory of change for the last 20 years was essentially: Set standards and assess students; re-set standards and re-assess students; re-re-set standards and re-re-assess students. When students did not perform to the level of expectations, the standards were revised. The solution to improved student learning appeared to be solely in an aligned curriculum.

The next two decades, however, promise to look a bit different. Because college and career readiness has raised the standard on what students must achieve before exiting high school, students must learn more information, faster, and earlier than they have in the past. This being the case, if 70% of the students in a district were meeting the criterion standard when the goal was high school competency, then one might expect that percentage to go down now that there are more rigorous standards aimed at college and career readiness.

Just because we set new (higher) standards does not mean students will meet those standards unless we consider the role instruction has to play in learning. Research around cognitive science and learning theory indicates students can learn if they are taught in a way that helps them learn. The challenge over the next two decades will be moving our mindset from teaching content to facilitating learning.

The new emphasis on evaluation systems and frameworks reflects an intentional, purposeful effort to define effective instruction and to hold educators accountable for delivering it. Effective instruction will play a (perhaps the) key role in helping students succeed at more rigorous work, earlier in school. This is why there is so much emphasis on instruction now: Because we have never supported it systemically before, and we have some catching up to do. The theory of change for the next two decades is more likely to be characterized by the following:

Can we think about this work in a more manageable way? People are more likely to do something if it is doable. Therefore, how do we make sense of this work and keep it simple? First, try to think about all the changes as being under one initiative related to College and Career Readiness. Second, although CCSS and SB present new information, they are essentially the same kinds of work we have been doing for years. Third, beyond CCSS and SB, most of the other initiatives have to do with our new focus on instruction. Although the professional development that an educator attends might be titled TPEP, GLAD, AVID, GRR, STEM, STAR, Learning Walks, Lesson Study, Danielson, Marzano, 5 D+, Calibration, etc., they all have one thing in common – instruction. I believe helping educators understand why all the changes are happening and how they can make sense under one or two initiative umbrellas is the key to avoiding reform fatigue.


Duane Baker is the founder and president of Baker Evaluation, Research, and Consulting, Inc (The BERC Group). Dr. Baker has a broad spectrum of public school educational and program experience, including serving as a high school classroom teacher, high school assistant principal, middle school principal, executive director for curriculum and instruction, and assistant superintendent. Dr. Baker can be reached at