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Teachers Network Leadership Institute:
List Archives
Policy Work and How It Is Connected With Student Achievement
January-February 1998

So far we have discussed the role of the university, the role of principals, and the characteristics of effective and ineffective collaboration. What we have not yet discussed is the effect of all this on students. So I pose this question to us for
anecdotes, for answers to the I-want-to-see-the-results-now folks, and for the
celebration of what is working:

So what? What difference does the work we are doing make in our classrooms,
our students, and their achievement?

--Sally Roderick

My work with NTPI influences my work with my students in various ways. I have
a sharper interest in policy issues. For example, in Boston, their are new
learning standards for the bilingual science class. I am encouraged to enter
the debate on standards in order to emphasize the importance of effective
teaching strategies for enabling bilingual students to meet these standards.
In my classroom, when I present these standards to my students, I am
interested in their input as to how they think they can best approach the
learning. Simply stated, because my involvement with educational policy
issues, I listen more carefully to my students' voices.

--Berta Berritz

Your idea about listening more carefully to students' voices because of your policymaking involvement intrigues me greatly. I agree that they are our daily reality checks as we try to move our profession forward. I also have the experience of my students being very interested in what happens in schools. Any ideas--anyone, everyone?--on how to involve them more in our work?

--Sally Roderick

A great question. Unfortunately, one for which there are no easy answers.
As a new teacher I struggle to assess my "effectiveness" each day. I echo
Berta's advice and listen very carefully to my students, but still wonder
whether this is enough? In terms of the curriculum, what matters most? Am I
truly helping my students develop and hone the essential skills and talents
they'll need to succeed--professionally and personally--and to tackle the
increasing challenges of life in the 21st century?

My students seem engaged, they're excited to contribute to the conversation,
they respond to one anothers’ points using evidence and analysis (with
varying levels of finesse and gentle pushing)...But is this enough? How can
I be sure how much they’re learning/remembering/retaining? I don't give tests,
and the alternative high school at which I teach doesn't require me to
"grade" my students, but is my "authentic assessment" really what it ascribes
to be? I encourage a great deal of writing, and am aware of incremental
improvements in quality in some cases, but this is so subjective, and even
the most well-developed rubric doesn't offer me the certainty I seek. Could
I adequately defend my work to conservative critics, providing them with the
convincing quantitative evidence they clamor for? I doubt it. What I CAN
offer is eminently more qualitative--a gleam in the eye, an excitement in the
voice... How could I ever hope to capture and convey this kind of "evidence"
on paper? Still, it offers me some comfort amidst my confusion.

Forgive my fumbling response--I know that this is not the kind of clean,
coherent answer we need, but here are some starter thoughts. I look forward
to hearing from others!

--Sanda Balaban

Personally I think that my involvement with NTPI (and TPI) has made
me a stronger teacher for no other reason(s) than shared visions & time
with colleagues & learning about some of the nuts &bolts of why the system
is the way it is - I say this, as, prior to my involvement with IMPACT II,
I didn't have an outlet for on-going conversation (beyond the frustrated
conversations with one or two colleagues, who are often basking in the same
school). I believe that some school reform starts with teachers being more
"informed" employees of the system in which they work. By that I mean,
able to break through some of the hierarchical bullshit that exists. In other
words, challenge school policies (in a nice way) & put forth ideas (in a
nice way). In my experience, so far, my director is a kiss-ass to the
system (the district) - and this creates stagnation . I've gained a
stronger voice b/c of my involvement. Does anybody out there agree????????
I apologize for the scattered writing, but my brain is short circuiting.

--Lexi McGill

I agree with you that our work has made us more savvy employees at our site.
I'm sure we all are interested to hear what school policies you have been able
to challenge and what new ideas you have been able to put forth and in what
"nice way"!. It's a difficult task. For example, I've been working hard at
my site--along with Ken--to create a collaborative and professional climate of
inquiry. During exam week, however, the administrators checked into all
classes to see who was really giving a two-hour final. That might have been
okay if they had told us, "Gee, we're just not sure this policy is viable
anymore, so we're going to survey the campus as you finish up the semester."
Instead, it left a stinky cloud over the end of the semester.

--Sally Roderick

Okay, it's gotten really QUIET out there. It may be that 

a) we are not sure of our work's impact on students, as Sanda's response
b) it is indirectly affecting the classroom, such as Lexi's response suggests
c) it's being ignored, as Leo's response suggests. 

The trouble is that the public and funding organizations, are clamoring for
results NOW, and it's a hard question to answer.

For us in LA, the network work we are trying to do is primarily at the
District/Union level, and there is a huge maze of bureaucracy to convince
before we can even offer networks as a viable staff development to classroom
teachers. That activity is fired with the hope that we will eventually be
making a positive impact on classrooms based on what we know about networks
and how beneficial they are. But to tell the truth, we are a long way from
being able to point to our work and its possible policy shift as a
contributing factor to more powerful teaching and learning for kids.

Individually, we are making some progress, but not without bumps in the road.
Ken and I are revising the process we started at our school for sharing stuff
that we do in our classrooms and the ensuing student results. The faculty was
not willing to say that we could just improve instruction, and then we'd all
live happily ever after. They saw a whole bunch of other non-classroom
factors that impacted students, and they wanted to talk about those too. 

Today our staff looked at all of the factors they could think of that
negatively affect students' performance, decided which ones they thought they
had control over, brainstormed what they could do to address those factors and
what might get in the way, and then decided what things they could try right
now. From there they will commit to another go-round of trying stuff in their
classrooms. This worked better than last time because the sharing had more
focus and seemed more tangible to most folks than last time. 

Anyway, the idea of this report is to urge you to share with us what is
happening relative to the classroom with your work--tiny steps, large
movements, or dismal failures--or what other ideas you have for connecting
what we do to the classroom. I can't think of a better group of people on
whom to try out new ideas, and from whom I might get better advice.

--Sally Roderick

Sometimes I think that our network work has an indirect and hard to define
link to my every day life with children in my classroom. However, this link
is not unimportant to my students' achievement. I bring the joy and
enrichment I receive from talking to and working with other teachers into my
classroom every day. When I am fulfilled and feel good about my profession, I
am a better teacher for my students. 

Other times I can see clear linkages to the classroom--at the most simple
level, when I get curriculum ideas from colleagues that spark the interest and
curiosity of my children, or when I get advice on how to handle certain
situations with my kids or their families. Always, it is helpful to talk
about and find different views to what is happening in our classrooms, and
hearing differing points of view can have a strong impact on what we do and
how our students respond. I think that through my networking I have become a
better, more prepared, and especially, more thoughtful and reflective teacher.
Wouldn't even the most uninvolved lay person see the link between better
teachers and their impact on student learning?

--Judi Fenton

I too am a better teacher when I get to discuss/hash over/try out new stuff
with my colleagues. And you would think that it would be obvious to any
lay person that fostering better teaching would have a positive impact on
students. But the strangest stuff comes out of government offices. Here's a
couple from the governor of CA:

1) Teachers should not be paid for the six minutes' passing period in high
school because "the kids are just running around and the teachers aren't
teaching during that time". (He took a LOT of flak for that one...)
2) Staff development time should be at the beginning of the year or the end
of the year with no days in between. (Forget the periodic reflection,
revision, etc. that we now engage in. You can pour in the knowledge and go to

--Sally Roderick

As I see it in high school, the impact of reform in Boston is 
creating a lot of waves with kids who have become very educationally 
complacent. Standards have been in jeopardy for many years with 
watered down curriculum in many cases. An individual teacher with high 
standards has had to compromise or fail kids who consistently come 
unprepared never mind with a lack of content, but the necessary 
skills (i.e. reading and writing to perform on a high school level). I see 
panic in their little faces as they realize that they must be accountable.

We as teachers must help them through this transition. I personally 
feel that I am doing this all the time because students (juniors and 
seniors) will say, "Ms. Hoyt you are really making us work hard." Now 
that the pressure is on to produce, the individual teacher is no 
longer alone, but must still stem the tide of despair as these kids en 
masse face up to their part in the learning process. We have to 
cajole students away from apathy and make learning stand for 
something that is real to them. They must believe that education is 
both a right and a responsibility.

Moreover, parents cannot abdicate their role in this partnership. 
It's a contract that has many signers, the student being the most 
important investor. 

--Maggie Hoyt

This came from Maggie today, mirroring a lot of what is happening in LA as we
are moving to end social promotion, make the middle school years count for
high school GPA, and enforce rigorous local and state standards for student

How about the rest of the country? Does Maggie's experience sound like yours?

--Sally Roderick

There seems to be an telling silence over Sally's question. To what extent
do our professional development networking activities (such as our
involvement with IMPACT II) affect student achievement? Our responses thus
far have been sparse and thin. Yet the answer to this question is vitally
important to me, as it touches on the heart of LA's own model which
postulates that all professional development, if it is to be considered
authentic, should reflect directly and positively on the classroom
(remember the Mickey Mouse graphic from our paper and presentation?). So,
perhaps I can expand on the issue somewhat so as to reframe the question
into a more accessible form.

Ellen Dempsey has in the past said something that goes like this, "We at
IMPACT II work under the assumption that if we can make better teachers
then students will learn better" (a rough paraphrase---Ellen, can you
paraphrase yourself better for us?). It seems to me that Sally's question
is in an attempt to get us to examine the two hidden assumptions in Ellen's
common sense: that our network activities are indeed making us "better" in
our practice and that by simply putting better teachers into the classroom
students will learn and achieve more.

There are detractors who speak against both these assumptions. Letting
teachers collaborate isn't "training" them for anything substantial; in
fact, such activities might be harmful because they serve to spread and
perpetuate ineffective educational practices. Perhaps Sanda's
"conservative colleagues" would point out that even the best teacher cannot
hope to compete with other important learning influences such as student
socio-economic level, family literacy, lack of technology or basic supplies
in the classroom, classroom size, gangs and drugs, schooling systems
designed to track and segregate, administrative systems focused on
management rather than instruction.

In answer to the first assumption, we know there is a growing body of
research (by the likes of Lieberman, McLaughlin, Darling-Hammond, etc.)
that does support the proposition that teacher networks can be effective
mechanisms for teacher development. We also know from our own experiences
that the one-shot workshop approach is no longer considered an effective
method. This is a reality that we are beginning to accept in our time, but
I feel it would be useful here to briefly consider professional development
in an historical perspective. Should teacher networks have been introduced
eighty or one hundred years ago into our professional development systems?
I would argue not, and that understanding why might help us better address
Sally's question (and defend Ellen's statement).

But first, a helpful construct. In the new science of Chaos, there is a
geometric structure known as a fractal. I'm certain that you have all seen
pictures of fractals; some of the more common are computer generated images
of ferns or trees. What is unique to fractals is that they have a scaling
quality of self-similarity at any magnification. This means that if you
take just a small corner of the fern picture and magnify it, the resulting
picture will look just the same as the original. You can take a single dot
on the picture and enlarge it, and you will see the original fern again.
At any scale or level of magnification, the image is the same.

This notion of scaling self-similarity also exists within our society,
schools and classrooms. One hundred years ago, hierarchical social
structures were necessary because they were the most efficient methods of
information transfer. This was because the ratio of educated to
non-educated workers was very low. In addition, modern conveniences of
information transfer---telephone, television, radio, Internet, etc.--- were
either non-existent or not widely distributed within the population. Thus,
there were few individuals (managers) who were generally more knowledgeable
about the nature of their business, and knowledge was best passed
hierarchically. A similar structure also scaled into the schools.
Remember that teachers in those days were little more than high school
graduates themselves (even today, not all teachers are college grads!).
Administrators, who were better educated or more experienced, passed
information hierarchically just as their counterparts in the business
arenas did. What's important here is that teachers also passed information
hierarchically on to their own students, a further scaling down of the same
structure. We now call these scaling structures the Factory Model School.

Today of course, the overall level of education in our population is much
higher, our information transfer capabilities are mind-boggingly greater,
and our society is adjusting to these facts (Ann Lieberman spoke to this in
Snowbird). Human information networks have been popping up everywhere: in
businesses, in governments, in communities, and now in schools. Teachers
are not only highly educated, but many are as or more educated than the
administrators and resource experts they work "under." Hierarchical
information flow, as represented by one-shot workshops, is now less
effective than collaborative teacher networks.

But here's my key point which addresses the second assumption above (and I
know that you were all wondering when I'd actually get around to it). We
must recognize that this same way of human interaction and behavior must
also scale into the classroom, and our way of thinking about student
achievement must also change accordingly. Our current methods of assessing
student achievement, such as tests and grades and standardized evaluations,
are also artifacts of hierarchical systems and no longer adequate for
assessing the kinds of complex thinking and performance we expect students
in the next century to be able to do. Nor are our current methods of
teaching or the way we move kids through school.

Perhaps what we should be looking for then is how we are able to scale our
newly learned communication age behaviors down to our classrooms and kids,
both instructionally and in assessment.

What would this look like? I can only offer some simple examples from my
own experience. My classrooms have become increasingly collaborative and
student centered each year. Sally and I have both worked toward teaching
the facilitation skills we've found so professionally productive to our
students with some success. Even prior to reporting to Snowbird, I
introduced a policy paper component to the research project I require of my
seniors each year, with encouraging results. Yet, these examples are
simple and simplistic; they represent only small fringe changes to a system
which is incapable of translating them into entrenched notions about
student "achievement."

Of course, none of this will satisfy Sanda's conservative colleagues. Do
my students score higher on standardized tests? I don't know...yet. I
won't know for a year, or two, or three. As you all know, this is a normal
state of affairs in education; there is a tremendous delay between action
and results. Unfortunately, the tolerance delay that exists in the
political world is vastly shorter. This is the reason it is so vitally
important for us to continue to document our work carefully, and to not
ignore the student achievement side of things. So in considering the
effect of professional development on student achievement---both the
definitions thereof coming from Sanda's pals or my own progressive
one---don't limit yourselves to what you are currently engaged in. Try to
think back a year or two or three, and evaluate how your activities then
have and are affecting student performance now.

--Ken Barker

You get at the heart of what we've been dealing with for years at
IMPACT II. But does it raise reading scores? The line you are referring to
is our attempt to confront that head on. It appears prominently on our
brochure--"When teachers teach better, students learn more." It's only the
short answer. It's exciting to hear how you and Sally and others are
struggling with the long answer. Our concern is that if we don't make the
connection of policy to classroom practice loud and clear to policymakers we
won't get our message across--the teachers' role in policymaking--nor have
your recommendations heard. Thanks for wrestling with this. I hope others
chime in as well. 

--Ellen Meyers

Wow, with teachers as terrific as Sally and Ken, L.A. is starting to look
pretty good to me (and I'm not just saying that because I slipped and
slithered home through hateful hail earlier this evening...) Thank you,
Sally, for raising such important questions, and complicating them so
compellingly. Thank you, Ken, for providing an extremely useful historical
and political backdrop. This importance of this context is too often
overlooked and/or undervalued, and yet absolutely necessary in understanding
the issues we are addressing today, and in attempting to overcome the current

I am increasingly convinced that our "conservatives colleagues"--the
syncophants of scores-- *can't* be convinced--or that we shouldn't over-expend
our energy in the attempt to do so, since it would require us to shift our
focus from our central concern: our students and supporting them in their
learning. I'm not sure that all the accountability-devotees in fact *want*
to be convinced--as we've learned, education is an incredibly political
issue, fraught with all sorts of variables that are impossible to account
for. We will always have cynics and critics who will want "proof" that we
cannot possibly provide.

I do not mean to be dismissive of these very real concerns, which are put
forth by allies and adversaries alike. I write this not to release us from
our responsibility to really think hard and good about how our work is
affecting students, merely to refocus our attention on what matters most.
Self-evaluation is far more personally-pertinent than succeeding on
standardized tests to me. I know that I can "achieve" on such exams without
really understanding or analyzing anything at all, and suspect the same is
true for many students. I need alternative indicators to ascertain
success--for myself and my students--and am working to figure out which
factors provide the most worthy and representative evidence of where my
students are (in relationship to where they once were and where I would like
them to be).

For me, I know that the stimulation I receive through working with caring,
compassionate colleagues--online and in-person--and collaboratively engaging
with challenging issues, invigorates me and allows me to enter the classroom
with renewed inspiration each day. I can't help but believe this benefits my

--Sanda Balaban

Your last posting really struck a nerve with me. What I see happening is
that both nationally, and most especially in my state, the political
pressure of accountability is trickling down to the classroom and
affecting even those of us who believe in teaching depth not breadth and
using "authentic" assessments to determine student learning in not only
more meaningful ways, but often much more enjoyable ways, ways which are
in themselves learning experiences.... not exercises in....ugh....regurgitation.

Accountability, however, means, when you talk about state or national
testing, how well are your students doing on standardized exams. The
dilemma, it seems to me, is that if I teach and assess the way I believe
is best I will not have prepared my students for the tests that they
will have to take and upon which my and my school's performance will be

There is nothing quite so daunting for an educational institution than
having its test scores to be published in the paper for the public to
make school to school comparisons, if not classroom (and thus teacher)
to classroom comparisons.

I am very troubled by this drift, and the accountability train has yet
to even leave the station. How long will it take for teachers to feel
compelled "to teach to the test?" Perhaps I'm just paranoid, or perhaps
I just don't yet grasp how to reconcile creative teaching, in-depth
learning, and alternative assessments with the pressured need to have
students perform well on THE TESTS!

Anyone have some insight to share with me on this?

--Jerry Swanitz

Sally, you are right about our governor. He's on this "politically
correct" instructional minutes kick! I think he sees this passing
period idea as a way of wringing more free work out of teachers and
making himself look good. The staff development issue is just more
political expediency. The public loves to hear that the "education"
governor is going to put teachers back in classroom and make them teach
instead of engaging in this staff development nonsense. More time for
students in the classroom sounds good to most people, and parents love
it because staff development days and SIP days are an inconvenience to
them. Where has the thinking gone that was behind SB 1882? At that point
the state seemed to value staff development. Realistically, how many
staff development days are there going to be outside the contract year?
Your notion that staff development needs to be imbedded, have continuity
and meaning and meaningless one shot in-service days is right on.
Creating the time and the model to make it happen is the challenge.

--Jerry Swanitz

Jerry, I can understand your dilemma very well. I'm at an elementary
math/science magnet and authentic assessment is a part of our curriculum.
Unfortunately, the Stanford Nine assessment is scaring a lot of the teachers
and we are leaning back towards "drill and kill." Also, the back to basics
movement in Calif.'s math standards is putting a lot of pressure on the
teachers who have been advocating math reform practices. Many of us are angry
with the Calif. Board of Ed for overriding the recommendations of the state
commission on the Math Standards. Now, we're worried about the science
standards because the same thing can happen, back to basics science which is
back to drill and kill science. Because I have a strong interest in science
education, I am trying to keep up with the State Commission meetings on the
Science Standards. I can attend one meeting up in Sacramento but it is really
difficult to take time away from my classroom. So, my question is: How do we
educate policymakers (who have no clue) about the value of authentic
assessment practices? 

--Diana Taga

We all seem to have a lot to say about our questions regarding the effect of
our work on student achievement. Questions are a good thing, as Martha would
say, and they may lead us to new horizons. Let's get them out. I hear that
more discussion is being generated around this topic at the site directors'
meeting in April, so let's give them plenty of things to talk about. 

Ken's ideas about the need to look differently at how we interact with
students in classrooms and how we view assessment also allow us bigger
parameters in which to think about and evaluate our work. (Eat your heart
out, guys! I work with this brain every day!). Carol's current project of
using GT teaching techniques in regular classrooms goes to the heart of the
"those kids" arguments. As Ken says, "it is so vitally important for us to
continue to document our work carefully, and to not to ignore the student
achievement side of things."

We may be feeling our way through the fog, but I believe the sunshine is near.

Any more voices to help us find the way?

--Sally Roderick


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