Tag Archives: teacher evaluations

What I Learned In School

From 2013-2014, I visited high school English classes across the socioeconomic spectrum in Los Angeles in an attempt to understand what makes a great teacher and what we mean when we say “education.”  This is one of the most important lessons I learned: that we need a new language to talk about poverty.

I recently worked with three groups of 8th and 9th grade students. All of the groups are comprised of students of color from families in poverty, which means they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under a California program whose cutoff is for a family of four is an income of under $30,615 (free), or under $43,568 (reduced-price). Students from families like these who qualify for free and reduced lunch are generally the students we talk about when we talk about children in poverty.

My three student groups all meet this criterion. In addition, they all are highly motivated and academically proficient, with supportive parents who have enrolled them in an after-school college-prep enrichment program. They must all be alike, right?

Wrong. Continue reading What I Learned In School

Lesson 2: Merit Pay Is Unfair to Our Most At-Risk Students

I’m the best teacher in the world. I just spent four days teaching a writing workshop and you would not believe how much those students improved in an incredibly short time. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m awesome. I deserve a giant raise!

No, wait. I’m the worst teacher in the world. Two years ago, I taught a class for an entire year and even after a whole year with me, many of those students demonstrated no growth that could be measured. In fact, most of them didn’t even graduate from high school in four years. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I suck. I should be fired or put on an improvement plan.

Say what?! How could one teacher—me—be so highly effective in one class and so grossly ineffective in another? Continue reading Lesson 2: Merit Pay Is Unfair to Our Most At-Risk Students

Spellbound

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a really terrific teacher in a high-poverty community give a lesson that, if rated on a “College-Ready Promise” evaluation rubric, would have scored about a 1.5 out of 4. Faced with classroom of 35 students, most of them reading and writing below grade level, here’s what this energetic, enthusiastic teacher did not do:

1)   Write a measurable objective on the board and reiterate it frequently

2)   Check frequently among her students to give her a verbal or visual sign to let her know they understood what they were saying

3)   “Chunk” her lesson into short, digestible 10-minute intervals

4)   Have students “pair-share” (answer every question in partners before calling on the class in general) to make sure they all participated

5)   Call unpredictably on random students to keep everyone on their toes

6)   Insist on a response from reluctant students

7)   Demand that students who had gotten an answer wrong go back and give her the correct answer

8)   Use a powerpoint to visually reinforce what she was teaching

9)   Stop intermittently for group work practice of the day’s learning objective

10) Collect an “exit slip” at the end of class so that she could gather data about whether the students had mastered the objective.

That’s right. She did none of those things. Here’s what she did do: Continue reading Spellbound

Education Super-connectors

Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s term “super-connectors,” those people who know everyone and can hook you up with whatever you need?  I’ve just met the education version in L.A.  And I think they may be onto something.

“You’ve got to go deep into the ground and not assume anything about people,” says Ellen Pais, CEO of L.A. Education Partnership, a 30-year old non-profit whose stated mission is to “work as a collaborative partner in high-poverty communities to foster great schools that support the personal and academic success of children.” In other words, they build a network that connects students and families to the resources they need so that kids can stay in school and succeed.

I’m sitting in Ellen’s office at a window overlooking nearby downtown L.A., along with Lara Kain, senior director of their partner schools division, and they’re telling me about a program so utterly unlike the instant-results, test-score-driven, “we don’t have time to wait” philosophy of the Ed Reform world that I’m almost disoriented. A program that’s existed for 30 years? That seems to exist under the radar of almost everyone I know, including people who know a lot about education? That has grown…slowly? Continue reading Education Super-connectors

Good-bye, Tests! Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out!

Sayonara, test score mania!  Well, for two years, anyway.  The state of California has just suspended the calculation of API scores until 2016—an index of performance based on multiple choice state tests in every subject for every grade–in order to give schools time to gear up for the Common Core tests that are still under construction.  As far as I’m concerned, that suspension is cause for celebration.  I know, I know, all over the state, people are freaking out because they believe this suspension of scores will leave schools in low-income communities free to go down the toilet for two full years while corrupt administrators and bad teachers merrily cash paychecks, accountable to no one.  Here’s why I think that logic is wrong—and why I believe this temporary suspension is a great opportunity to create a better system.

First of all, over a decade of API scores doesn’t seem to have done much to stop corrupt administrators and bad teachers.  The schools that were terrible before we started testing are still terrible.  Where schools were declared failing and taken over by the Partnership for L.A. Schools or other charter management systems, results have been underwhelming no matter who is in charge.  I have heard not a single story of a miracle takeover, but have heard many stories of schools that are as bad as before.  In any case, test scores are not the best measure of whether these takeovers have been successful; the first measure is safety, followed by attendance and student attrition rates.  Very high teacher turnover rates or large numbers of long-term subs are also serious red flags.  We don’t need test scores to measure dysfunction.  I wish it were that hard.  Continue reading Good-bye, Tests! Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out!

College, College, College, College

Don’t be fooled by the radiance, confidence and bubbly warmth of Azanni, Symone, Jada and Immani, four seniors at View Park High School in South Los Angeles, an ICEF charter school.  They are stressed.  Imani and Azanni applied to 22 colleges each, Jada to 20, Symone to 11.  “I wanted to have options!” Jada tells me and the girls all laugh, agreeing.  We’re sitting at a picnic table on the quad at View Park, where they’ve taken time from their classes to give me a tour of the school, talking over each other in their enthusiasm as they tell me the various places they’ve applied, ranging from Brown and Penn, their dream schools, through UCLA, Berkeley, USC, Spelman, the Claremont schools, several Cal States and many others. Continue reading College, College, College, College

About This Blog

This blog, Gatsby In L.A., is my record of my sabbatical from teaching during the 2013-14 school year, during which I visited high school English classrooms across the socioeconomic spectrum in order to answer two questions:

  1. What’s a great teacher?

2. What do we mean when we say “a good education?”

Before writing this blog, I taught English and electives at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.  I embarked on this journey at my own personal expense.  Along the way, I talked to dozens of teachers, administrators and parents, sat in many, many classrooms, and connected with readers in Los Angeles and beyond.  Several of my posts went viral, picked up by other, larger blogs and shared by teachers on social media.  My most popular post, “Why Do Teachers Obsess that They’re Not Good Enough?” was viewed millions of times.

Even now, two years after I stopped posting, teachers continue to seek out this site, sometimes very late in the night. I don’t have easy answers to anything, but I hope that these posts, and my search here, can provide comfort.

If you are one of those teachers, this blog is dedicated to you, out of respect for your choice to give so much every day when our educational system does not honor, respect or prepare you for the essential work that you do.  Though your work is hard and sometimes isolating, you are not alone.  I hope that this blog can introduce you to other teachers who have also given everything they have to the dream that every child has an equal right to an education, and every teacher deserves to work in professional conditions that honor the young lives in the room.

Thank you for all that you do every day for the next generation.

Why the ‘Great Teacher’ Myth Doesn’t Help Kids

“Here’s the problem with the whole ‘great teacher’ idea,” Roxanna Elden tells me.  We’re about halfway through a free-wheeling conversation that has covered everything from TFA to teacher evaluations.  I became a groupie after reading her book, See Me After Class, which she explains is “not Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul” but more like “Hard Liquor for the Teacher’s Soul” because that’s what she believes new teachers need: a shot of real-world, practical advice that’s grounded in common sense and years of classroom experience.

Roxanna serves her advice for brand-new teachers straight up, for example: “After a long, unrewarding day of teaching, suggestions like “Let them know you care’ or ‘Try making it fun’ from people who’ve never taught will make you want to rip off your head—or theirs—and roll it down the street like a bowling ball” or my favorite observation, “I am still waiting to see an ‘inspiring teacher’ movie in which the teacher grades papers.” Continue reading Why the ‘Great Teacher’ Myth Doesn’t Help Kids

Are You a Bad Teacher?

I once had a student who was on crack.  It was a nightmare.  Before he’d spun out into addiction, Jorge had been one of the most talented students I’d ever had in my Drama class, with the inspired, all-out brilliance and timing of a comedic pro.  But crack turned him nasty and out of control.  He’d bounce into my class hopped up, sweaty, eyes glinting with rage; we, his teachers, sent each other frantic emails about him.  We did an intervention.  We called in his weeping, desperate mother, who begged him to get help.  Nothing worked.  Jorge, a kid who’d once loved my class so much that on facebook during winter break he’d counted down the days till Drama class, now stared me down every day with simmering, unsettling animosity.  He took to harassing other students and one day, after calling me a bitch, he lobbed the n-bomb at one of the girls

I lost it.  I actually only dimly recall what happened next.  I’m sure I didn’t actually drag him by the collar into the hall, but that’s what I remember.  All I know for sure is that a friend of mine who taught several doors down said that she could hear me yelling at him even with her door shut.  When finished, I was shaking.  He wouldn’t make eye contact and walked out of school, disappearing for the rest of the day.

All I could think was: I am a terrible teacher.  Continue reading Are You a Bad Teacher?

What’s Effective Teaching?

I demand an effective teacher in every classroom!  Don’t you?  Earlier this year in Los Angeles, students in the Vergara v. California case testified in court about horrible, uncaring, sometimes verbally abusive or demeaning teachers who truly damaged them.  Those teachers should leave.

They need to be replaced by effective teachers.

But wait…

What do I even mean by an “effective teacher?”

Right now in this country, we are all about “effective” teachers.  The Vergara v. California lawsuit hinges on students’ constitutional right to an effective teacher.  The students’ stories on the stand were genuinely heartbreaking and horrifying.  Scientists, meanwhile, testified to the enormous virtues of an effective teacher and how much better students fare when they have one.  They whipped out charts demonstrating the truth of this statement.

Here’s what they didn’t do: define what they meant by “effective teachers.” Continue reading What’s Effective Teaching?