Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wolfe Family Night 2012

There was standing room only at Wolfe Street Academy's "Family Night" on November 27, 2012. Eighty adults and 56 as well as after-school students.

The event featured amazing performances by students in Wolfe Street Academy's After-School Program. The program is supported by a $127 grant from the Family League of Baltimore City, which was awarded to the Baltimore Curriculum Project in June 2012.

"I have never had a Family Night this large," said Director of Extended Student Services Kathy Stroup.

"The performances were wonderful. I owe this especially to the After-School staff who each had duties and responsibilities for the evening and went above and beyond to make Family Night a special evening."

Guest included Baltimore Curriculum Project Board Chair George Hess, as well as representatives from the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association, The Family League of Baltimore City, Mosaic Makers, and student volunteers from the Park School.

Thank you to Hyacinth Facey for creating this video.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Evaluating Teachers

By Jon McGill, Director of Academic Affairs, Baltimore Curriculum Project

In their 2009 book, The Fourth Way, Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves describe the case of a primary (elementary) school in London that, ten years earlier, had been described as “one of the worst schools in Britain”.  The solution to the school’s woes was to take the very best teachers, train them in test preparation techniques and set them loose on the children in Year 6, the group with the lowest scores, for three years. By ignoring test stage one, Year 2, and focusing exclusively on Year 6, the lower grades results got much worse while the older students results were much better.  Hence the academic gap between year 2 and year six widened dramatically but the “improvement” in year six was huge, earning the school the tile of “one of the most improved schools in the United Kingdom”.

This Alice in Wonderland approach to educational reform, what Pasi Sahlberg in his book Finnish Lessons refers to as GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) is not new but now it seems ready to expand to the evaluation of teachers, as we prepare for the onslaught of rating teacher effectiveness by looking in large part at student test scores.  In the United States, state after state, in a mad dash to tap into “Race To The Top” funds, has promised to evaluate teachers by reference to student results.  While for some states the language is couched in terms of “measures of achievement”, seeming to open the door for authentic assessments via portfolios and growth assessments, in reality, the bottom line will be measuring teacher effectiveness through the prism of standardized test scores for at least 50% of the teacher’s final evaluation.

Finding the right way to evaluate a teacher has long been the Fountain of Youth, the Holy Grail of public education.  Few, if any, countries have found successful and sustainable methods of rating teachers and measuring their capabilities.  One reason for this is that the role of a teacher in the modern world has become increasingly complex and challenging.  Ironically, at least in the U.S., this complexity is now accompanied by simplistic measures and bromides as to how to assess a teacher.  The teacher role has been reduced to “test giver” and “test preparer”.  That is the message behind the recent moves to use student test scores as a measure of performance for teachers.  Justifications for this mind-numbingly absurd evaluation tactic comes in the form of analogies to the health system or to the legal profession: measurement by outcome.  Unfortunately for the technocrats, such measurements ignore the complex context of teaching and learning completely.  It is not a matter of input and output or of a formulaic “do this and that will happen” kind of thinking.  Teaching and learning are two sides of a coin and the factors that motivate success are many and varied.  Rating teachers by means of their test results will, minimally, produce the following ill effects while having no perceivable positive impact other than making it easier to dismiss those who don’t make the grade (or whose students don’t make the grade):

  1. Teachers will flock to the areas where test scores are highest, i.e. areas in which family income is high, socioeconomic indicators are positive and student behavioral issues are lowest. This will exacerbate an already growing problem for American urban districts, that of recruitment and retention of the highest quality teachers.
  2. Teachers will teach to the most successful students and try to factor out in any way possible those students with learning difficulties.  This will be a disaster for special needs.
  3. Teachers can have great test scores but in every other way be inadequate role models for children: they can be cruel, disrespectful, uncaring about children and families but if their scores are good, they will thrive.
  4. The focus on scores will decimate professional development programs: why train yourself in any area other than test prep?
  5. Schools in high poverty areas will increasingly be staffed by neophytes: Teach For America educational missionaries and alternative certification graduates, many of whom will leave anyway after two years, will be the major source of staffing. We will see an increase in alternative certification programs, designed to circumvent both the colleges of education and the value of experience.
  6. The curriculum, already narrowed to the point where we cannot compete with other industrialized nations, will be squeezed even more.  Art, music, drama, sports, and all the other valuable aspects of adolescent needs, will be dinosaurs seen only in the private sector.

There are more negative effects (see, for example, EPI Briefing Paper, August 29, 2010 “Problems WithThe Use of Test Scores To Evaluate Teachers”, Baker, Barton,, all of which indicate that evaluating teachers by student test scores is a harebrained idea concocted and supported by folks with little or no real education backgrounds.  Ironically, those teachers whose test scores “measure up” will be the first to realize how incomplete and inaccurate their ratings will be.

The race to measure teaching effectiveness was spurred, in 2009, by the Gates Foundation’s research and given the acronym MET. (Measures of Effective Teaching).* The basis for this study, and for much of our current perspective on school reform, is that teachers are the most important element in education, that poor school performance is a given in American public education and, therefore, poor teaching is rampant and we should develop new evaluation techniques, mainly to winnow the incompetent from the professional ranks.  This reasoning is fallacious. There are undoubtedly poor teachers in our profession and certainly that contributes to our educational malaise.  However, we already have many processes in place by which we can effectively move inept teachers out of the job.  Of course, doing so requires documentation, a clearly agreed-upon process and a period of time, not least to allow a teacher to improve.  Many reformers know this but what they are really aiming for is faster, less-process oriented ways to dismiss teachers, thereby also dismantling union protections.  If we were really interested in fair, professional and meaningful teacher evaluation, we would be less mesmerized by test scores and much more focused on some of the following established ways to measure teacher effectiveness:
  1. Develop annual teacher portfolios, containing samples of lessons, examples of student work, evidence of professional development throughout the year and perhaps even surveys of student perspectives on lessons and work “products”;
  2. Create peer observation programs, based on established criteria and easily-analyzed checklists;
  3. Provide appropriate time for principals to complete accurate and thorough observations, including time to write exhaustively about what they know about each teacher’s performance.
  4. Create a national assessment team, modeled perhaps on the system in place in the United Kingdom, by which teachers can be evaluated on an annual basis.
  5. Ensure that every evaluation process includes ample written self-evaluation and professional development planning.
  6. Promote video- taping of classes as a component of assessments.
  7. Include age appropriate student surveys in evaluative process.

This kind of process would obviate the need for measuring teachers by test scores and standardized test results. However, it obviously takes the kind of components that historically the nation has not been willing to provide, i.e., funding and time. It would also place evaluation on site, in the schools, and in the hands of education professionals.
Evaluating teachers is getting a great deal of attention in the context of educational reform, movements and this is as it should be.  Will teacher quality issues and teacher evaluation be a vehicle for teacher improvement, for professional development and for a much needed national awareness of the complexity inherent in developing fine teachers?  Or will evaluation be another stick with which to beat the profession?  The answer will depend to a large extent on teacher activism in the face of clumsy and ineffective evaluation schemes.  It will also depend on the ways in which competing definitions of reform hold sway and on, in a time of economic hardship, how much genuine investment in teachers the nation is willing to support.

*For more information on the MET Project, developed in 2010, go to

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Roots&Shoots Makes Baltimore Better

By Jesenia Zavala, Student, Wolfe Street Academy

The Wolfe Street Academy Roots&Shoots Green Team is doing great projects.  The team is fourth grade students in the after school program.  The projects are about making the Earth better, helping people and helping our school.  We are glad to be volunteering.  We have been working really hard.

This month we are making food for the poor and for soldiers.  This will help people. We also made posters so people will recycle more.  We put the posters all over the school, and we make sure the classes have recycle boxes.  We hope we can plant trees in the spring.  Our school will be better because of the plants. We will do projects all year.