Educators: Hold the line on voice, autonomy, and trust

Can we hold the line in the face of challenging circumstances?

This week I was thrilled to welcome Professor Pasi Sahlberg to my Western Australian school to talk to our leaders—from coaches and team leaders to Heads of Faculty, senior leadership and the Executive—about school leadership and what high performing education systems do. Pasi’s list covers things about which many of us leading in schools, and researching and writing about education, are concerned: collaboration, learning and wellbeing, trust-based responsibility, continuous improvement, and equity. They are also guiding principles for teachers in classrooms, who use what Pasi calls ‘small data’ every day. In my PhD, which was based around effective school change and transformational professional learning, these were also themes that emerged; in particular, my research surfaced trust, professional collaboration, and continuous improvement through a range of educator-centred experiences.

I am reminded of the chapter I have co-authored in the upcoming Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto book. In it, Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson, and I, cite Sahlberg’s concept of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and its destructive influence on teacher voice, power, and agency. We argue for a re-professionalising and re-humanising of teaching and education.

I am reminded, too, of my speech to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders conference last year about trusting and supporting teachers. In his new book, FinnishED Leadership: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education, Sahlberg supports the autonomy of teachers and schools. He writes:

Strengthen collective autonomy of schools by giving teachers more independence from bureaucracy and simultaneously investing in teamwork in your school. This enhances social capital that is proved to be a critical aspect of building trust within education and enhancing student learning. (p.43)

He notes that the Finnish government spends 30 times more funds on the professional learning and development of educators than on accountability procedures, such as tests and surveys.

We live in a time of compliance and performativity. Australian schools are like tin cans being crushed from the outside-in by a focus on the results external testing (NAPLAN, HSC, WACE, VCE, PIRLS, TIMMS, PISA, the upcoming Phonics Check) and on publicly published league tables and competition-based publications such as the myschool website.

When Pasi spoke to leaders at my school, robust discussion ensued. He challenged us to ask what is within our control, what it is that we can change, what we would do if we could enact our dream for the best way of serving our students, starting tomorrow. He challenged us to question the systemic and regulatory parameters within which we operate, and to hold the line on those things we know will make a difference to our students.

Sahlberg’s work is supported by that of others, such as Michael Fullan’s on the wrong drivers for education reform, and Fullan’s work with Andy Hargreaves on professional capital in their book, Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school, and in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. The Flip the System movement, too, beginning with Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber’s book Flip the System, brings together and champions the voices of teachers, academics and education experts in order to reclaim the space of education discourse for those working within schools.

So, what can we do in our own contexts? How might we reshape the narrative of education, or advocate for the following?

Less testing

More collaboration

Less accountability

More equity

Less competition

More trust

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Performance pay: Don’t do it, Australia

Today the Australian media has reported that the Federal government is going to spend an extra $1.2 billion on education between 2018-2020, but that part of this money will go towards linking teacher pay to performance.

I am writing to urge Australia not to spend precious education budget money on teacher performance pay.

Performance pay initiatives have been experimented with around the world, including in Nashville, New York City, Dallas, North Carolina, Michigan, Israel, England, Kenya and India. See Leigh’s (2013) “The economics and politics of teacher merit pay,” which argues that merit pay negatively impacts teacher collegiality. Hattie, in his 2015 papers on what works and what doesn’t work in education, says that performance pay results in teachers working fewer hours with more stress and less enthusiasm. I agree with his warnings against trying to fix people and systems, and his suggestions that instead that the focus be on growth and collaboration.

Performance pay alienates teachers and is unsupported by evidence. There are those such as Hargreaves and Fullan (in their 2012 Professional capital) who criticise performance pay as demeaning, commodifiying and oversimplifying teaching and education. Until now I have been relieved that Australia has not gone the route of many North American states with teacher evaluation models that score teachers and schools. (I voiced my despair at the New York APPR reforms when they were announced.) Fullan and Quinn (in their 2016 Coherence) note that a policy focus on punitive accountability measures is crude, demotivating and has no chance of working. Wiliam (in his 2014 paper “The formative evaluation of teaching performance”) sees measures of teacher effectiveness as unreliable, noting that when teacher performance measures are linked to job or financial decisions, teachers are unlikely to innovate, tending instead to performance-teach to the evaluation. Also importantly, as Kemmis notes (in his 2010 chapter “What is professional practice?”), the quality of teaching and of teachers is not measurable by tests. So performance pay pits teachers against each other around questionable metrics.

These views are consistent with work around motivation, such as that by Dan Pink, David Rock and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Punishments and rewards don’t improve practice.

Negative drivers of change are ineffective in driving positive transformation. What Australia doesn’t need is to cultivate cultures of fear, competition and compliance in our schools. We need to invest in teachers and in education (a thousand times, yes!), but performance pay which alienates the profession and is ineffective in improving it, is not the way to go. We need collaboration, not compliance and competition. We need initiatives that trust and encourage teachers and principals to grow their practices and their schools. Australian educators need voice, agency and support to improve, not punitive sticks and accountability carrots.

Please, Australia, say ‘no’ to performance pay.

___________________________________

Update: Since publishing this blog post I have written this piece on performance pay for teachers for The Conversation. I was also interviewed on Sydney radio station 2SER about this issue. You can listen here.

On the day I wrote this post, other grass roots education commentators have also reacted to today’s education funding announcements. Here is a list …

Joel Alexander: Merit pay in primary school is about as bad as it gets

Jon Andrews: Cruel optimism – Pay, performance and promises

Greg Ashman: How should Labor respond to the Australian government’s education proposals?

TER podcast with Cameron Malcher and Corinne Campbell: School funding special

On teacher evaluation & the New York APPR reforms: a view from Down Under

There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder. ~ Ronald Reagan

NYC skyline, by @debsnet

As part of the Education Transformation Act of 2015, New York State is reforming its Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) and Teacher Effectiveness rating system.

Grant Wiggins in his open letter to Governor Cuomo calls the APPR reforms a “step backward” which disempowers teachers.

NY Middle School Principal Lisa Meade voiced her concerns here and put out the call out to New York educators to respond to the proposed teacher evaluation reforms. Educator Christina Luce added to the conversation in her post, asserting that, while she supports an annual professional reflection and review, the proposed reforms are narrow, punitive and make “an already horrendous evaluation system even worse”.

While I am not a New York educator, I felt compelled to offer a perspective from a different system. My visits with schools and educators last October helped me to learn about how teacher evaluation is approached in New York. While some of the challenges faced were global, shared with Australian schools, some were surprising to me. I wrote various posts documenting my reflections in New York including:

  • My visit to a school in Westchester which opened my eyes to the constraints on New York schools in teacher evaluation;
  • My visit to a school on the Upper East side which reminded me about the need for schools to find teacher evaluation and growth processes appropriate to their context;
  • Meeting Ellie Drago-Serverson at Columbia University to discuss the best environments and practices to facilitate adult learning;
  • Meeting with Charlotte Danielson and Cindy Tocci around effective applications of the Framework for Teaching for teacher growth and evaluation; and
  • Meeting with New York City professional development provider Teaching Matters, an organisation which bases its work in a belief about the capacity of teachers to be leaders and for schools to be vibrant places of distributed leadership.

slice of harlem, by @debsnet

The proposed APPR reforms seem to make an already limited system of scoring even narrower, based on data that I imagine does little to reflect a holistic picture of a teacher, their teaching, and their students’ learning. While the use of these kinds of data for measuring teacher effectiveness have been questioned (see for instance this post and this post by Grant Wiggins), I have instead focused on how these reforms sit with my own beliefs about teacher learning.

Costa and Garmston in this paper talk about safety, but not comfort, being a prerequisite for learning, pointing out that the brain works in such a way that if we do not feel safe, we cannot think and learn. They note that sensory signals entering the brain travel first to the thalamus, then to the amygdala or threat detector, and then to the neocortex where thinking happens. “If threat, fear, pain even in the most minute portions are perceived, neurological and chemical processes occur which prepare the system for survival, not reflection.” While learning often happens in a space of what they call ‘disequilibrium’, or what I call the discomfort zone, there needs to be safety and trust for thinking, reflection and growth to occur. The New York teacher effectiveness system does not seem to allow for a safe environment of learning and growth, but rather opens up the potential for fear and a fight-or-flight response.

This notion of safety-but-disequilibrium is supported by Ellie Drago-Severson’s concept of high-support high-challenge ‘holding environments’ as the optimal environments for adult learning. By Dan Pink’s work on motivation which he notes is extinguished by punitive approaches. By David Rock’s work which shows that carrot-and-stick approaches result in resistance. In reflections by Robert Evans that teachers resist externally imposed change. By the Adaptive Schools foundational concepts of trust and of honouring both the individual and the system.

Upper East Side, NYC, by @debsnet

In light of how the brain works and how thinking and motivation are ignited, the New York teacher evaluation system, current and proposed, doesn’t make sense to me. It is a punitive deficit model which assumes that teachers are underperforming, unprofessional and in need of external measures to bring them up to scratch. In a recent paper, Dylan Wiliam points out that “each teacher has a better idea of what will improve the learning of their students, in their classroom, in the context of what they are teaching them, than anyone else.” Teachers should be trusted to be professionals and given the support, and challenge, to grown on their professional journeys.

My school’s teacher growth model is based on a belief in the capacity of teachers. It is based in a belief that everyone is coachable. That is, that teachers want the best for their students and that they are fully capable, with support, of setting goals, analysing data and improving their practice in ways which most benefit their students.

Wiggins is right when he says these reforms disempower teachers. Surely if we want teachers to get better, it isn’t scoring them we should be primarily concerned with, but growing them. Teachers should receive ongoing support to refine their practice and focus on becoming increasingly better at serving their students’ pastoral and learning needs. I absolutely agree with regular performance check-ins and goal setting work, but I also believe in teachers.

My hope for any school system would be that teachers are given opportunities for growth born out of a belief in their capacities and in their important work with our children, rather than public scorecards based on questionable measures.

New York, I’m thinking of you, your teachers, your school leaders and your students.

NYC, by @debsnet

Teacher Growth: Helping teachers open their gates from the inside

This post on my Australian school’s teacher growth model was originally written as a guest post for Starr Sackstein, acclaimed educator, author and bloggess extraordinaire. It was inspired by a #sunchat Twitter chat moderated by Starr, which challenged me to talk more specifically about the professional learning and culture model I keep going on about …

~ ~ ~

No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or emotional appeal. ~ Marilyn Ferguson

open your gate from the inside

How do you help someone open their gate from the inside?

The global education community tends to agree that better teaching equals better student achievement. Schools, districts and nations have taken this notion and used it in attempts to improve the quality of teachers through professional development and teacher evaluation systems.

There is a long continuum of possibilities for developing teachers and teaching, but it seems that many systems sit solidly at the teacher-evaluation-for-improvement end. When I visited the USA I was surprised at the quantitative, and at times punitive, approaches being used to score and evaluate teachers. Eric Saibel’s recent post questions whether all the work and time put into teacher evaluation has made a difference to teaching or student learning. In this thoughtful video conversation Eric talks with Starr Sackstein about ideas for meaningful teacher feedback and growth.

As a teacher, school leader, researcher and parent, teacher growth and evaluation are areas of immersion and passion for me. My own ideas are based on my:

  • Experiences as a classroom teacher in Australia and the UK;
  • Experiences as Head of Faculty in Australian schools;
  • Recent visits to New York schools, researchers and edu-experts;
  • Current PhD research on what makes transformative professional learning and leadership; and
  • In-school strategic work on researching, piloting and developing a teacher growth model for my Australian school. We are at full implementation phase this calendar year.

To develop my school’s teacher growth model we have used a Schooling by Design backwards design approach to planning and implementation. This has allowed us to align our vision, purpose, evidence and action. This has centred us around our own context and our goals of improving the learning of our students and developing the professional culture of our school.

Our change management philosophies of ‘go slow to go fast’ and ‘evolution not revolution’ have given us permission and time to tailor the model to our context and nurture teacher buy-in. Adaptive Schools, which I have written about here, has influenced our work by providing us with models of collaborative strategically-aligned change.

Our model itself is based in a belief that schools are relational places where trust is key to risk taking, growth, willingness to be vulnerable, deprivatising classrooms and learning from, with and alongside each other. It involves teachers-trained-as-coaches (and, every few years, administrators) who help teachers to use non-judgemental lesson data (written scripting, video, audio) as the basis for reflection against the Danielson Framework for Teaching and teachers’ own goals. The Danielson Framework was chosen for its research-basis and specificity. We like that ‘distinguished’ teaching is all about what the students are doing.

As well as meeting with Charlotte Danielson in Melbourne and Princeton (where we spoke about the nature of coaching and my school’s use of her Framework), I heard her speak at the 2014 Australian Council for Educational Leaders Conference in which she explained the importance of a trust environment of challenge and support for teachers, and teaching frameworks as conduits for the thinking of the teacher, rather than telling by the administrator. Ellie Drago-Severson agrees that adult learning needs an environment of support and challenge. Her work on ‘holding environments’ and adult learning is based in trusting the capacity of adult learners. I spoke with her in October about her work with schools and the importance of starting slow and building momentum. We are similarly focused on self-directed teacher growth with a belief in the capacity of teachers to reflect, learn and grow.

As the cornerstone of our conversations, Cognitive Coaching places our emphasis heavily on the coach as non-threatening facilitator of teacher thinking, rather than feedback-giver and scorer. The coach focuses on facilitating the teacher’s thinking, not giving advice or solving problems. This approach is partly based on research like this which shows that what actually gets our brains to be open and changeable is compassionate, positive conversation which sparks our own thinking.

The opening quote by Marilyn Ferguson reflects my thinking on teacher growth and evaluation: teachers need to be supported in opening their own gates from the inside. If, as David Rock and Dan Pink have explained, rewards and punishments don’t motivate, change behaviour or facilitate creativity, how can we encourage students and teachers to be intrinsically motivated, passion-driven, continuous learners who seek improvement through curiosity, reflection, collaboration and risk tasking?

Does your teacher growth or evaluation model encourage self-directed growth and a culture of professional learning? How might you build trust, apply a belief in the capacity of teachers, or develop collaboration in your own context?

it's all about the growth

it’s all about the growth

Powerful & unforseen consequences: our butterfly impacts

#leaningenvironments - evolution of a new edu-revolution?

#leaningenvironments – evolution of a new edu-revolution?

 A cloud from a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland—a small disturbance in the complex mechanism of life on the Earth—can bring to a standstill the aerial traffic over an entire continent. ~ Slavoj Žižek

With the start of the Australian school year almost here – a year in which I am working to implement the teacher-growth model on which I have been working for two and a half years – I have been thinking about what it is that makes a trusting, impassioned, vibrant community of continuous learners.

Ok, as both the subject of my work and of my PhD research, I have been doing more than thinking about this. I have read close to 300 references and written about 85,000 words around effective school change, what makes effective leadership and what kinds of learning teachers find transformational. I have blogged briefly about some key ideas to anchor school change, about the importance of embracing discomfort for growth and about my own learning environments.

Tonight I was participating in the #aussieED Twitter chat when Australian educator Adriano Di Prato tweeted that ‘developing a leaning environment that is welcoming, warm and safe is a fundamental aim of every classroom.’ Now, I knew that Adriano meant ‘learning environment’ when he typed ‘leaning environment’ in a fast-paced Twitter chat, but it got me thinking: How are schools ‘leaning environments’?

It reminded me of psychologist and professor Ellie Drago-Severson’s notion of ‘holding environments’ (which I wrote a bit about here) in which she asserts the importance of teachers feeling ‘held’ by their learning and working environments, especially if positive change is to take place.

It reminded me of Costa and Garmston’s notion of ‘holonomy’ (explained in the Cognitive Coaching course material) in which the parts (individuals) and whole (organisation) are interdependent.

It reminded me of this great moment last year when a group of commuters on an Australian train platform used their leaning-together momentum to tilt a train and free a man trapped between the train and the platform.

So I tweeted back about ‘leaning environments’, and all of a sudden we were back-and-forthing about how the word ‘lean’ might apply to school environments. Would it be about individuals ‘leaning in’ to the community, to opportunities, towards each other? Could it be about students, teachers, parents and leaders ‘leaning on’ or ‘leaning alongside’ or ‘leaning with’ each other? Might it be ‘leaning out’, away from those things which should matter less but sometimes drive schooling (high stakes testing, grades, league tables)?

the power of a Tweeted typo

the power of a Tweeted typo

Fellow edu-Tweeter Melissa Daniels noticed the banter and asked whether this could be “the education revolution that started with a typo?” leading to another discussion about innovation, revolution and the evolution of ideas, all in 140 character bites.

Tweet @debsnet @DiPrato @PensiveM

This was an invigorating discussion for me, not because I thought it was to be the next big thing in education, but because of the thrill of the unsurprising serendipitous connections, conversations, ideas, thinking and challenges that come out of conversations and connections with like-minded like-passioned others. Here was a vibrant online environment of trusting, holding, leaning (in, out, on, with, alongside), impassioned, creative, continuous learners.

It also reminded me of our unforseen impacts. We never know the impact of a conversation, a word, a decision, or a typo.

I have noticed this in my self, in conversations or moments which stay with me until an idea bubbles to the surface. I have noticed it in my work with teachers and students, who often take some time to realise what moments or relationships have shaped them. I have noticed it in my PhD research participants, many of whom told me that the very act of being interviewed for my research changed something for them, opened something up, surfaced a reflection or became a moment of learning.

So, don’t ignore life’s typos. Even the seemingly tiniest things can have powerful & unforseen consequences.

You never know when you might uncover the next revolution.

Small shifts in your thinking, and small changes in your energy, can lead to massive alterations of your end result. ~ Kevin Michel

Montenegro by @debsnet

Reflections on ACEL 2014: learning, leading, teaching

Effective change is a matter of both will and skill. People have to want to do it, and they have to know how to do it. ~ Levin

Passion & Purpose at ACEL conference Melbourne by @debsnet https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/

2014 ACEL Conference lanyard on the Southbank boardwalk: passion & purpose

I have spent this week in Melbourne at the 2014 Australian Council for Educational Leadership Conference, including presenting a breakout session with colleagues about our school’s story so far: of building a professional growth model, based on our own context, vision and beliefs about learning, teaching and leading.

It was affirming to hear the keynote speakers’ key messages reflect the real work that we are doing at my school. Some of those keynote takeaways, as aligned with my school’s work around professional growth and culture were …

We know that teaching is complex

Noel Pearson highlighted for the over 1000 delegates that effective instruction is at the heart of education.

Charlotte Danielson reminded the audience of over 1000 delegates that “teaching is so hard it can never be perfect” and that the complex, demanding cognitive work of teaching required educators’ ongoing quest to improve teaching practice, in order to improve students’ learning. She joked that, while doctors’ work is complex, they get to see one patient at a time; “I would call that tutoring.”

In his panel response to Charlotte’s keynote, Phillip Heath, Head of Sydney’s Barker College, emphasised the importance of focusing on celebrating the full, highly cerebral, in-the-moment and sacred nature of teaching, rather than on exposing and shaming failures, or ticking boxes.

Our school’s model of professional growth and culture is focused on a default position of meaningful teacher-owned growth.

Building minds, inspiring learners

Charlotte Danielson also reminded the audience about the constructivist nature of learning for students and teachers; that learning is done by the learner in an active intellectual process. Danielson pointed to conversations in which an observer or leader advises a teacher after a classroom observation, and in which the teacher passively endures the feedback. “Who is doing the work?” she asked. The Danielson Framework for Teaching, or as she pointed out, any framework for teaching, is a conduit for teacher learning which allows teachers to do the thinking for themselves.

Tim Flannery encouraged educators to encourage exploring, imagining and being open to organismic change.

John Medina shared his knowledge around increasing the brain’s executive function, the part of the brain (responsible for openness to cognitive and behavioural change) that we are attempting to access in our teachers by applying a Cognitive Coaching approach to professional conversation and reflection.

Richard Gerver talked passionately about the need for developing self-managing people and systems. Our model’s key aim is the development of teacher-driven, teacher-owned self-managing, self-monitoring and self-modifying teachers-as-learners.

Leading with clarity, coherence and collaboration

Richard Gerver highlighted the importance of the clarity and coherence in educational leadership.

Tim Flannery encouraged collective wisdom over individual genius, the harnessing of the informed community rather than the singular expert.

Linda Darling-Hammond reminded us that “teaching is a team sport” and that the greatest achievement gains are from those schools in which educators work together with a coherent approach. Beware ‘popcorn reform’, she said, with which we might innovate our way to edu-failure. What we need is to learn from each other’s successes and failures; teachers, schools, districts and nations.

Both Linda Darling-Hammond and Noel Pearson underlined the importance of backward design: having students’ learning outcomes and futures in mind when designing their education. For Pearson, this future was “giving people the capabilities to choose lives they have reason to value.” In particular, he advocates for Indigenous Australians to realise the potential, talent and creativity which afford them real choice and the mobility to orbit between external worlds and their indigenous homes, cultures, languages, traditions and peoples.

Charlotte Danielson reminded us about distributed leadership; it is not the principal but all teachers who are responsible for leading learning in schools. Leading and learning are about collaborative growth, not punitive measures. “We’re not going to fire our way to Finland,” she said. “We need to learn our way there instead,” by  coming together as communities of teachers which use a common framework as a scaffold to provide common definitions of good teaching, a common language with which to talk about teaching and shared understandings about what good teaching is and how teachers might enact it. This, Danielson says, helps to avoid conversations in which teachers and leaders use the same words but mean different things.

John Hattie challenged educators to “change the narrative” of education by building the profession and taking pride in teachers, rather than in buildings, resources, websites or canteen menus.

Yesterday, when presenting at the conference, my colleague described our school’s continuing journey as an “evolution not a revolution”, an ongoing, organic and iterative process which is based in our own context and the needs of our teachers and staff.

We have been taking the approach of ‘go slow to go fast’, deliberately unfurling a new initiative by allowing it to bubble up out of the school’s strategic vision and then be piloted, driven and owned by teachers. We have been attempting to distribute leadership in a project which is connected by clear, coherent, school-wide organisation-aligned threads of vision and practice.

Safety and challenge for growth

Charlotte Danielson talked about getting the balance right between support and challenge for teachers; schools need to provide an environment of trust in which it is safe to take risks in the spirit of ongoing professional inquiry.

This need for balance – between safety in which teachers feel supported and trusting, and enough discomfort to challenge practice and change thinking and behaviour – has been a cornerstone for us in providing the setting for transformation of classroom teaching, professional conversation and collaborative culture.

Thank you, ACEL for an affirming experience of layered, interlocking ideas.

Champagne at Crown Melbourne by @debsnet https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/

champagne view from Crown Casino, Melbourne