Courageous conversations

Three years ago people in New London set out on a journey to have courageous conversations about improving student achievement and young people's potential for succeeding as adults by improving the quality of instruction in the classrooms of the New London Public Schools.

A group of professionals came together to create a new teacher evaluation plan founded on what we know about effective teaching and improving student achievement. We knew that we had to have those conversations about improving teaching because we all agreed with Gayle Hooker, Connecticut Education Association representative in southeastern Connecticut. She often says, "We have to have a sense of urgency about improving the education we are offering young people in the New London Public Schools."

That group was composed of teachers and administrators committed to building a common language to describe what effective teaching looked like in the classroom. We knew that it was not enough use standards from the Connecticut Common Core of Teaching because they are too vague. For example, one standard is "Demonstrating understanding of how to use content area numeracy and analytical skills to enable students to problem solve, interpret and use data and numerical representations."

We had to describe what this standard would like in the classroom, for example, "Provid(ing) problem solving activities to develop analytical thinking across content areas (such as science and social studies)." There had to be classroom demonstrations of what such problem solving activities developing analytical thinking skills looked like in the classroom. One classroom demonstration would be solving a science word problem about time and distance involving how long it takes a train to go from one station to the next.

Leading the efforts were Dr. Christine Carver, the former assistant superintendent, and Joyce Annunziata, long-time expert in professional standards formerly of the Miami-Dade Public Schools. We knew that it would take three to five years of training of principals and teachers to assure that all had a firm foundation of common understanding of what needed to be observed and evaluated in the classroom.

In New London, administrators working in cooperation with the NLEA (New London Education Association) formed the "New London Project" two years ago to offer a forum for cooperative problem solving built around our new teacher evaluation system as described in "A Guide to Teacher Evaluation and Professional Development." We all know that implementing a new teacher evaluation plan creates tensions among all involved. We meet monthly to discuss problems of clarity, consistency and fairness. The NLEA, in collaboration with New London administrators and staff, has created a peer support program to assist teachers who face challenges in meeting performance standards. Our plan has led to individuals dramatically improving their practice in the classroom. It has also led to some people leaving the New London Public Schools and the profession of teaching.

In New London we do not believe in the "gotcha" approach to evaluation. We believe that it is unfair to assume that people automatically know what effective teaching looks like. We do believe that teachers who want the privilege of teaching our young people have to be willing to improve the quality of their practice in the classroom. Dave Iler, who teaches English/Language Arts at New London's Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, is one of the teachers who took full advantage of the opportunity to improve his quality of teaching.

In the April 10 Day article, "Evaluation plan imposes professional standards on New London teachers," Mr. Iler stated: "I didn't have the skill set ... to really know how to make my students as successful as they could be. Not knowing how to do what I needed to do, it almost killed me" (Iler had a heart attack). The article then noted, "Iler is praising the system's two-year-old teacher evaluation and professional development system…Through intensive, almost daily, support from the school district's literacy coaches, Iler has made a '180-degree shift' in his teaching."

The New London Project embodies a collaborative, realistic approach to assuring that all young people receive a world-class education. Student achievement levels in New London make it clear that there is no choice. As Gayle Hooker says, "We must have those courageous conversations to make sure that we improve student achievement." The young people of New London are entitled to no less.

Dr. Nicholas Fischer is the superintendent of New London Public Schools.

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