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Ask the Experts

  • Robert G. Smith,Assessment and Accountability

    Robert G. Smith

    Assessment and Accountability

  • Jerry W. Roy,Teacher Recruitment and School Finance

    Jerry W. Roy

    Teacher Recruitment and School Finance

  • Marc Johnson,Professional Development

    Marc Johnson

    Professional Development

  • Doug Otto,School Board Relations and School Technology

    Doug Otto

    School Board Relations and School Technology

Latest Q&A

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How do you retain and recruit widely needed professionals?

In light of the difficulty in recruiting teachers who meet the federal definition of highly qualified, particularly in fields like special-education and English as a Second Language, what incentives or strategies do you recommend school district employ for retaining and recruiting widely needed professionals to their school systems?
Jerry W. Roy
The primary strategy employed by districts has been to pay a shortage stipend and recruit entry level teachers from universities and other districts, but this strategy does not actually increase the number of highly qualified teachers available. Generally, when one district adds or increases shortage stipends other neighboring districts follow suit. The net result is increased payroll costs but no real increase in supply. Many districts have recognized the futility of chasing stipends and have initiated grow your own programs. This approach, a more long-term solution, is based upon the belief that there are talented people in the district that can fill the shortage areas. They need to be identified and supported. This support can be scholarships for graduating high school seniors who want to teach, but are not financially able to attend college; release time with pay for para-professionals who would like to obtain a degree and teaching certificate; and incentives for current teachers to add additional endorsements or certifications. There are other fairly simple strategies. Some districts have enhanced employee benefits to entice teachers to join their ranks. Districts that provide onsite day care centers for teachers and liberal transfer policies for teachers' children will improve both recruitment and retention results. And, don't forget to work closely with the teacher education departments of local colleges and universities. They need to steer students into high demand areas.

How can schools leverage social media to improve student achievement?

How can school districts embrace the use of expanded social media technologies in classrooms and can these newer technologies actually help to improve student achievement?
Doug Otto
A necessary first step in leveraging the use of social media technologies in classrooms is a district-wide set of acceptable use guidelines and expectations. This framework provides campus leaders with the building block upon which they can individualize a set of expectations unique to their students, teachers and parents. It is vitally important that each campus be given some latitude as to how they manage their students' learning via these newer technologies. Social media encompasses a broad range of technology resources, and while Facebook or Twitter access may not be appropriate for school use, the concept of collaborative sharing of digital resources among friends ("learners" in the school sense) is a perfectly legitimate use of school time. It is incumbent upon school system leaders to find ways in which students can enhance their learning process by incorporating tools and strategies that are effective knowledge and communications mediums for them. Actually, connecting to social media is easy. Creating guidelines can be accomplished. However, simply connecting students via Skype, a blog, a wiki, a cell phone response activity, or even a back channel is not, by itself, innovative classroom practice. The more important question is; what are these social media connections doing to promote increased student achievement, active student engagement, reflection on different perspectives, and student-directed learning? For example, in the area of reading we have found that the use of book clubs within classrooms, supported by digital bulletin board areas, not only has encouraged students to read more, but it provides them an opportunity to have their views about the content they've read reviewed by peers both in and out of their own classrooms. This use of social media has resulted in improved achievement and comprehension of these students as they taught each other how components of a story can be understood via different perspectives. A second positive consequence is the improvement of writing as students reconsider their initial interpretations and desire to clearly communicate their ideas to their peers. In fact, much of the writing on the classroom discussion boards displays fewer errors and shows greater depth of thinking than the typical classroom assignment. In math classrooms, the use of virtual collaborative workspaces such as Scribblar, provides students the opportunity to continue to work on problem sets throughout the school day, and even outside of school, with each contributing to the knowledge and understanding being built by the entire team. Video and images are integral parts of social media and providing opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning in this manner can often provide for more student reflection by allowing them the ability to more clearly illustrate their understanding of concepts. The use of infographics to visualize meaning has become second nature to our students, and social media allows the creation of these very visual interpretations of complex relationships by students to occur in collaborative and just-in-time modes. Appropriate use of cell phones within the classroom is supported by tools such as Poll Everywhere, TodaysMeet and Socrative, where students from elementary school through high school are using their personal handheld devices to respond to questions related to their understanding of concepts, with immediate feedback available to the entire class, enabling instruction to adapt in real-time. The key to successful use of social media technologies starts with a set of clear expectations for students and teachers, continues with learning opportunities crafted to take advantage of the collaboration, feedback, and flexibility built into these tools, and finishes with students being more engaged in their learning, reflecting upon different perspectives more often, and contributing to the overall understanding of the class using tools and strategies that they prefer for their out of school learning time as well.

What can districts do to prepare for the new assessments that will be linked to the Common Core Standards?

Robert G. Smith
I believe the most appropriate stance for local school districts to assume in relation to the assessments currently under development to measure student progress against the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a considered and informed “wait and see”. It is important, however, that superintendents become familiar with the CCSS and their relation to their district’s curricula, the work on the assessments now underway, and the current outlook of their state education agency and/or legislature in relation to both the standards and the inchoate assessments.

It is equally important not to upset local apple carts, students, parents, teachers and principals by undertaking major reorganization of curricula and assessments before a clear direction has been established. Doing so risks causing distracting stress and incurring major financial and opportunity costs, with the additional prospect of needing to redo the changes after the completion of development work at the national and state levels.  There is much room for change between now and the time that the assessments will be in use, and all of us who have worked with state assessments recognize that the statements of standards and the assessments of those standards do not necessarily represent a close match by reference to focus, breadth of content or level of challenge.

It appears that the CCSS for mathematics and English/language arts will likely be with us for some time, now that all but six states have adopted both of them, according to the web site of the Common Core State Standards Initiative of the Chief State School Officers (CSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) (see It seems clear, as well, that the assessment of CCSS will result in considerable change, given that the 50 greatly varied state standards and assessments could be replaced by only one set of standards and two sets of national assessments. (Those interested in the variability of current state standards and assessments in relation to the CCSS. as well as a way to analyze and measure the variability, may want to read a piece titled “Common Core Standards: The New U.S. Intended Curriculum” by Andrew Porter, Jennifer McMaken, Jun Hwang, and Rui Yang that appeared in the April 2011 issue of Educational Researcher, DOI: 10.3102/0013189X11405038.) 

If the state in which a district sits has adopted the standards, but has not initiated a process of realignment of state curricula or a process of involving local districts in analyzing differences between current curricula and the standards, then it would be prudent to spend some time and effort determining locally what the differences are between the standards and the current district curricula. Given major differences, and with agreement that the differences are important to the local district, plans might then be made to make adjustments over a period of a few years. In a state that has not adopted the standards (Alaska, Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia), it would be important to know the degree to which the state intends to make changes in its own standards before launching a local effort.

Meanwhile, two multi-state consortia, with combined funding of $330M from the federal Department of Education, are currently engaged in assessment development. The SMARTER Balanced Assessment Coalition (SBAC) (see, representing 29 states, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) (see, representing 24 states (seven states are members of both consortia), are engaged in somewhat similar development processes. It may be worthwhile to have relevant staff follow the work of the consortium (a) to which one’s state belongs as test development proceeds. Both groups intend to have tests in use by the 2014-15 school year.  End of year assessments would be joined by formative assessments and instructional support materials.

PARCC, for example, has announced a timeline that involves development work this school year, pilot and field testing and data collection and research in the succeeding two years (2012-13 and 2013-14), followed by full implementation of testing in 2014-15 and the setting of achievement levels in the summer of 2015. That would suggest that the earliest the assessments would represent high stakes for students, teachers and schools would be the 2015-16 school year.

My intent here is not to fully describe the development process, but to suggest the length of the timeline for completing the tests and the room for change. The nature of the assessments, including their foci, breadth of content and challenge, could change considerably during development. Such alterations could easily be engendered by research results, the experiences in pilot and field testing, the impact of rising costs, adjustments or transformations in political perspectives or the political system, or some combination of any of these factors. The likelihood of change between now and 2015 argues that school districts should approach CCSS thoughtfully and cautiously.

“But ye gotta know where ye’re just going to rush in. Ye canne just rush in anywhere. It looks bad, havin’to rush oout again straight awa’.”
---Terry Pratchett

Given both teacher and principal turnover, what advice do you have for how superintendents can sustain professional learning communities in their district over time?

Marc Johnson
The last several years have been especially challenging for public education across our nation as the economic downturn the we have all faced have resulted in dramatic reduction in funding for our work. A year ago as we were developing our budget for the next fiscal year and responding to the third straight year of budget reductions here in California, our Middle School principal, Jon Yost, and I were discussing our situation and concerns about the impact further reductions would have. At one point in our discussion Jon said Marc, do what you need to do, the culture that we have built here through our work as a professional learning community will sustain us and we will be fine.

Our journey to becoming a Professional Learning Community is somewhat unique. In the spring of 2005, after having identified by our State Department of education as a Program Improvement District, our Deputy Superintendent Rich Smith and I heard Rick and Becky DuFour present the PLC concept for the first time. We both recognized that this was exactly the structure that we had been looking for to carry our work forward and guarantee that learning for all became a way of life in our district. Our journey is unusual in that we did not return and say now we will reform some schools using this model or we will do this at our schools with the greatest needs or challenges, we said we are now a PLC district and we will do this in every school because it is the work our children need us to do. We came back to start the 2005-2006 school year and began the PLC journey as a district and we “learned by doing”. Our focus as a district became that of a PLC, a focus on learning, a focus on results and developing a collaborative culture. Our daily work was driven by answering the four key questions of a PLC, what do we want our student to learn, how will we know they have learned it, how will we respond when learning has not occurred and how do we respond when learning has already occurred.

We developed collaborative teams who worked together to seek to answer these four question for “our kids” rather than my kids at every site in the district. We embraced Rick DuFour’s definition of team, “A group of people who work together interdependently to achieve a common goal while holding one another mutually accountable” , and realized that not only were we seeing student learning increase, but adult learning was occurring at the same rate. We moved quickly from doing PLC’S to being PLC’s. Today six years later the journey continues, but as a district we are in a very different place than we have ever been before. Jon was right, the culture that has developed because we are a Professional Learning Community continues to sustain us in a very challenging time!

How do we sustain this as Superintendent?
First we must understand that it is our job to lead this transition, we must be the voice of belief in our districts and we must invest ourselves in the continuing development of practice, shaping the culture over time to bring our districts to the point of “being” a professional learning community. Effective implementation of PLC’s requires effective leadership and that begins with us, the superintendants, we must know the work! We then need to develop the capacity of those who lead the work at all levels, from our cabinet and District Office team, to site principals, and teacher leaders in the PLC’s themselves. We must recognize that simply setting an expectation of our leaders is not enough, there is a obligation of reciprocal accountability, if I have an expectation of you, I have an obligation to equip you with what you need to be successful, to build your capacity to lead. We have invested in developing the knowledge base and skill set of our leaders, principals and teacher leaders alike and that has had dramatic impact. A starting point is to make sure that throughout your organization you have developed a common mission, (why do we exist?), vision, (what must we become to accomplish our purpose?), values, (how must we behave to achieve our vision?) and goals, (how will we mark our progress?).

These foundational understandings in our organization support the development of a common intent and common purpose that further impacts our organizational culture.

PLC practice builds leadership
PLC supports teachers in transition

When we invest ourselves as superintendents in development, the outcome is the development of a world that is self sustaining!

What are the keys to a successful teacher evaluation system?

Marc Johnson
I can still recall my experiences with the evaluation process as a teacher. My boss would let me know some time in the fall that I would be evaluated that year. We would look at the calendar and decide when that would work best for both of us and then we would forget about it for a while. As we drew closer to the chosen date, we would meet again, this time to discuss what he would see me doing on the appointed day. By that time of course I had reviewed my best, high interest lessons and selected the one that I knew would go well during his visit. The appointed day arrived and my boss would arrive in my room at the agreed upon time.

My students, being forewarned of the importance of this lesson, were on their best behavior and the “dog and pony show” went off as planned. My boss, seated in the back of the room with his clipboard, took notes for 30 minutes or so and then left the room. Later in the day we discussed the best time for an evaluation conference. At that meeting, we reviewed his notes and the evaluation form, which had been completed with the appropriate boxes being checked and some comments added. We both signed the form and I left the meeting with my NCR copy of the form secure in the knowledge that I would not have to repeat the process for another two years since all the right boxes had been checked.

Unfortunately, my experience with evaluation as a teacher has been the norm rather the exception in a process that is all too often simply a compliance ritual rather than an effort to actually achieve the intended goal; guiding the improvement of employee performance.

Today, with the dramatically changed role of leadership in public education, everything that we do must support the mission of student learning. The evaluation process must be one of those supports. The evaluation must be a coaching tool that is the culmination of a series of ongoing conversations focused on the work.

An essential component of a successful evaluation system must be grounded in reflective conversations about what was seen during multiple classroom visits. We expect each of our site administrators to visit every classroom at least twice a week with some form of feedback provided regarding the visit. Feedback must be focused on specific areas of emphasis. Often the site leadership team has previously agreed that for a period of time the focus of observations will be on a specific element of instruction that is a school wide area of emphasis; such as student engagement or checking for understanding.

A formal observation process that is specifically tied to individual teachers instructional goals for the year complements this system of regular ongoing informal observation and feedback. At least twice each academic year, teachers in that year’s evaluation cycle are formally observed by their site administrator. A pre-conference is held to discuss specifics of the lesson to be observed and a post-conference is held to review the effectiveness of the lesson delivery focused on evidence of student learning.

Post-conference feedback is a two-way reflective conversation and are intended to define areas of focus and feedback for future observations. This system of ongoing conversations and feedback tied to regular classroom observations, both formal and informal, results in the final evaluation document provided to the employee. This document is a summary of the cumulative year’s work and provides specific information regarding strengths and areas of future focus.

While not perfect, this process is much improved from the model that I grew up in the profession with and is built around what I would suggest are the essential elements of a successful evaluation system. It guides the improvement of employee performance through the use of regular, focused, and timely feedback about both the elements of effective instruction and the outcome of that instruction; student learning. The process involves ongoing reflective coaching conversations over time tied to observed evidence of effectiveness. As the result of the feedback loop in the process, there are no surprises for the teacher; the evaluation itself is the summary of the collaborative work of the site instructional leadership and instructional team member over time.


Click on the link to see Previous Ethics Cases.

The Ethical Educator column presents a real dilemma in school leadership. The current panelists are Shelley Berman, superintendent, Eugene, Ore.; Roy Dexheimer, retired BOCES superintendent, Ithaca, N.Y.; Mark Hyatt, former president, Character Education Partnership, Washington, D.C.; and Sarah Mackenzie, associate professor at University of Maine, Orono, Maine, and author of Now What? Confronting and Resolving Ethical Issues. Abbreviated answers are published in School Administrator magazine. Past Ethical Educator panelists were: Karl Kertz, AASA past president, Thiensville, Wis.; Joan McRobbie, senior associate, National School Reform at Community Training and Assistance Center, San Francisco, Calif.; and Paula Mirk, former director of education, Institute for Global Ethics, Rockport, Maine.