What Happened to Fran?

tornadoFran’s voice rang out like a gunshot amidst a large, crowded room. With the turmoil surrounding Texas math education and the plethora of data I was collecting in this focus group interview with six Algebra 2 teachers, I was suffering from information overload. At this early stage in my data collection process for my doctoral dissertation, every new statement added to the tornado of statistics, facts, and emotions swirling in my neophyte brain.

I was fighting to maintain my professional demeanor; meanwhile, I was giddy as these teachers not only wanted to participate in my study, but they had a lot of great quotes and thoughts about my research concerns. But then, like the turning point in a great thriller, Fran responded, and I sensed the chills scaling my spine as I realized, “This just got real.”

In attempting to discover the professional opinions of Algebra 2 teachers concerning the changing math landscape, my interview questions encompassed the Algebra-for-All movement, college versus workplace preparation, tracking, the 4×4 Recommended High School Plan (RHSP), graduation rates, and the impact on individual teachers’ teaching environments. Concerning the impact on teachers of the policy positions of the state of Texas, I asked about the panel’s desire to continue teaching high school mathematics. Their answers were contemplative but measured with a determination to remain in the profession despite the enormous challenges and silent agreement in spite of the policymakers. Fran dissented, however, as she spoke honestly with piercing, young eyes stopping and starting, “Yes… The things that we’ve talked about have… me wavering on whether I do want to teach… high school math anymore.”

I had already shifted my young research mind from wanting to prove my point as the impetus for getting a doctorate to wanting to truly find out what teachers believed. Now, my purpose shifted again from wanting to discover teachers’ opinions to needing to tell their story. I realized at that point that the voices of the teachers I would come into contact with along the way were significantly unknown, and their yearning to be heard was often emotionally overpowering. Ultimately, at least I heard their voices; my belief is that their professional opinions should matter to policy makers.

 Interacting with ten teachers at two separate high schools in two focus group interviews; ninety-one respondents to a lengthy online questionnaire; and three individuals during in-depth interviews, I discovered that these Algebra 2 teachers were optimistic about the potential impact of Algebra 2 on all students but were pessimistic regarding the realities of Texas’s expectations for all students. The teachers revealed a number of interesting opinions: graduation rates would probably be negatively affected by graduation and math requirements; Algebra for all was unlikely to be successful because students were generally unprepared for Algebra 1, let alone Algebra 2, and this level of mathematics is overwhelming for many students; honest assessment reveals that all students will not be going to college; high schools ought to work harder at developing alternative paths to graduation for children; requirements involving Algebra 2 need to be reevaluated; a one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to fail; the RHSP is not having the expected positive impact on students or education; tracking is valuable and should be expanded for mathematics while being purposefully monitored to emphasize and maximize success; recent changes were not improving student learning or opportunities for postsecondary endeavors: and, lastly,  more than one-third of the participants had a lessened desire to teach math.

In the end, the doctoral study process was powerful and enlightening. I found that consensus on most issues is difficult to achieve, but the Algebra 2 teachers in my study were passionate and informed members of the educational community who felt that their input was seriously undervalued by decision makers. I am hopeful that I am able to get some of their sentiments into the ears of governmental leaders, which may lead to positive social changes. I have received a lot of great feedback so far from those I have communicated my results to, with one explosively loud exception; when I e-mailed the executive summary of my dissertation to Fran early the following school year, the e-mail was returned with a delivery failure indicating she no longer worked in her previous position. I wonder if Fran will be an example or a trend.question mark

Full dissertation (Teachers’ Perceptions of State Decision-Making Processes for Mathematics Curricula by Brett Bothwell, Ed. D.) can be found in online databases or at http://gradworks.umi.com/35/44/3544187.html.


Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Farris-Berg is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots. She is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent education policy strategist. Her Twitter handle is @farrisberg.

If we made it loud and clear, in both policy and practice, that teachers can have autonomy to collectively make the decisions influencing whole school success, would any teachers take advantage?

Collective teacher autonomy isn’t for everyone. It is a working arrangement that some teachers long for, but others never imagine for themselves. Teachers who are now calling the shots in more than 50 district and chartered schools around the country describe themselves as pioneers both in the professionalization of teaching and in the modernization of schools and schooling.

Pioneering is intense and difficult work, they say, especially in an education culture that values…

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Interesting: opportunities for teachers to run the schools!

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Can we trust teachers with authority to manage whole schools? Would teachers even want the opportunity to manage schools? And, when they are in the position to manage schools, will it make any difference in student achievement? Kim Farris-Berg explores these questions in this three-part guest blog .

 Farris-Berg is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent education policy strategist. Her Twitter handle is @farrisberg.

Everyone knows that many K-12 public schools are not producing desired results. The big question is: how will we improve them? The dominant assertion today is that if we can just get better at telling teachers what to do, and how to do it, then improvement will follow. In this climate, “getting tough” with teachers appears to be the only solution. Fortunately for those of us not fond of one-bet strategies,   other assertions are…

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Potential Research

So, now that I have secured my Ed.D., I may have an opportunity to reach out into the world and do a little research. I can certainly say that I have many topics of interest, however. Which of the following do you see as being more interesting or having more potential for development through research?

Classroom management.


Elementary math education.

High school math.

Algebra 2.

Mathematics teacher preparation.

Teacher preparation.

Classroom assessments.

State assessments.

Educational policy.

Charter schools.

Education finance.


Mathematical games.

Curriculum development.

Math curriculum development (secondary and/or elementary).

I am sure I have more, but these popped into my head as I was writing this.

Student Performance Determines Teacher Success – Fair or Not?

The primary difficulty I have with student performance determining teacher performance is that natural ability seems to play a role in this phenomenon. My experience as a teacher for sixteen years has shown me a few things.

  • I taught 8th graders in an affluent district with kids who had always been successful on our state tests. Parents ran the school with an administration that let kids get away with almost anything for fear of parent interference, the principal was fired (actually promoted to the district offices), and the students did not seem to learn as well as I would have liked. I worked hard that year trying to get 8th grade math into their brains, but did not feel as successful as I had in the past or in the future with that endeavor. In the end, almost all of my students passed the state test that year.
  • I taught Pre-AP Algebra 2 students for four years. I had virtually 100% pass the state tests year after year.
  • I have taught in a dropout recovery program for the last six years. The state test has become easier, and I have become better at working with the students over the years. While there are years when there are great successes and times when things do not go as well, we are still able to get about 80% of the students to eventually pass the state tests. These are mostly kids who would have skipped the state tests at their home campus or failed, some with a record of failing the state math test every single year since they started taking the tests (usually third grade). My feeling is that every kid that passes should be a celebration, but if I happen to run into a semester with a 50% failing rate (which will eventually become 80% or so), that could be devastating to my performance review.

The second issue I have stems from the preceding information. Why would I want to work with the most challenging students to find some success when I could simply work with the best kids in the best districts and cruise through state testing results regardless of how much education was going on? Teachers will fight for the best kids in the best districts. Teachers will fight to get rid of kids on their rosters who have shown a lack of success over the years. Teachers will lie, cheat, and steal to give the appearance of student learning through a state test, especially in lower grades where science and social studies are not tested, for example. How does the fifth grade teacher who is responsible for kids passing a science test for the first time deal with the fact that the third and fourth grade teachers did not teach science to focus on math, which was being tested? Why would I share my teaching strategies that have shown success with my peers (competitors) because my successes will improve my chances of getting the better classes and not helping the other teachers will help weed them out? Why would I help a new teacher who is essentially trying to get my job when I have a track record of success with the GT kids?

Ultimately the only fair way to assess teachers’ effectiveness through student learning is to be able to determine exactly what each student has learned in the past, determine exactly what knowledge and skills have been added purely from that teacher’s efforts, and compare each students potential to the realization of that potential each year. I am pretty sure none of that is possible, let alone through a mostly multiple choice state test given on one day of the year.

Is technology the answer to educational woes?

Who does not love a new piece of technology in their hands? This is true especially when that technology is specifically designed to improve that persons life by simplifying a dreaded task: calculators, word processors, apps, GPS, etc. The question becomes for education, does or will technology improve education and most importantly the learning of students?

I recently read Larry Cuban’s post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/the-technology-mistake-confusing-access-to-information-with-becoming-educated/2012/06/17/gJQAt8PFkV_blog.html

This really got me thinking about technology as a teacher in a 1-1 school, where all students have a laptop computer in their hands every day in every class. As a math teacher, also, I have experienced the calculator revolution: https://rootingformatheducation.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/do-calculators-make-us-smart-or-dumb/

Technology absolutely has the potential to improve learning. However, as Cuban pointed out, technology is often poorly implemented in classrooms. My experience has shown that teachers are less willing to integrate technology into new modes of learning than as tools to do the same “learning” a different way. Schools and districts prefer to use technology as ways around learning in the classroom, with less effective strategies as credit recovery or original coursework learned through self-taught information and video explorations similar to online classes in colleges. These opportunities often are misused, provide too-easy possibilities for cheating, or do not match the learning styles of the students.

My primary question about technology concerns purpose: Are we pushing technology into the classroom because of its effectiveness in improving learning or is it being pushed as a money making opportunity? Next, I wonder why educational technology infusion has not become more standardized nationwide. Are teachers the specific roadblock? Is there so little educational technology support and software that everyone is just standing around waiting for the next big thing? Do students dislike technology as a tool for learning? Should education recruit the Halo team to create a Algebra 2 based video game, for example, featuring conic sections and three-variable systems of equations?

Ultimately, why has technology not been fully integrated into learning like cell phones in society or television into households? What are the specific challenges to merging the worlds of education and technology?

Bad teachers

We have all had good teachers and bad teachers. Most people clearly remember the horrible teachers and the fantastic teachers; there is a strange, easily identifiable, innate sense that these teachers are super or terrible. So why is it so difficult to determine where on the scale of terrible to fantastic teachers fall?

There is a current dilemma facing the world of education that is affecting teacher preparation programs, unions, and the upstart charter school programs: Bad teachers are keeping their jobs and not being forced to improve. One problem I have identified with this situation is, What exactly defines a bad teacher? It is certainly a far cry from the evaluation of students or parents, as my career experience has taught me that passing students are generally happy students (same for parents) (often, the same for administrators).

Which of these do you think defines a bad teacher?

  • When a teacher breaks local, state, or federal laws?
  • When a teacher is unprepared to educate students (no or virtually useless lesson plans, for example)?
  • When a teacher is unable to accurately assess student achievement?
  • When a teacher is not a master of the content and/or actively working to master the content that s/he is teaching?
  • When a teacher is incapable of managing the discipline in a classroom?
  • When a teacher does not love children?
Of those you choose from above, which are forgivable, in that the teacher should be offered professional development and mentorship to improve in that area and which are grounds for immediate termination? Furthermore, what amount of assistance should be offered and for how long should s/he be allowed to continue teaching?

A few additional questions worth pondering for this situation:

  • Who should determine which are the good/bad teachers? (Who should determine that those people are doing their jobs correctly?)
  • Is it better to assume teachers are good or bad until a preponderance of evidence might lead to their termination?
  • What responsibility do administrators hold in placing teachers in situations that lead to their failing to be successful, such as forcing a teacher that is good with K-2 kids to work in 4th grade because there is a greater need in that grade?
  • If there is little or no administrative support at the school or district level, how much responsibility can be placed on the teacher?

Please do not be so naive to think that just signing up to be a teacher means you can teach all kids all subjects (and all sub-subjects, such as Economics is a subset of Social Studies) at all levels under almost any circumstances at almost any time.

There are bad teachers and there are good teachers. What suggestions do you have for identifying them correctly and responding to their identification?