I can vividly recall listening to Mike Mattos explain the elements of a Professional Learning Community while participating in Brigham Young University’s Principal’s Academy in early 2009. It made sense…

  • Teachers collaborating to create common, core focused pacing guides.
  • Teachers collaborating to create common formative assessments.
  • Teachers collaborating to discuss student performance on the CFAs…with attention given to provide opportunities to reteach struggling students and enrichment to students who reached mastery.
  • Teachers focusing on data gathered from core focused assessments.

Throughout the day a couple of principals from surrounding schools came to share their stories of success. Each principal outlined their progress towards finding time for teachers to collaborate and create “Core Focused Common Formative Assessments. PowerPoint slides of the school’s progress were inspiring. Conversations with fellow principals all included stories of each school’s focus on the development of CFAs. I had to wonder why so many like minded principals, all of which were asking teachers to collaborate in the isolation of their school buildings…each duplicating the work being done at the school across the street, hadn’t come together to connect and share resources.

I have since personally heard Rick and Becky DuFour, Robert Marzano and others reiterate the importance of the elements Mr. Mattos outlined in his presentation. The recent release of the Common Core State Standards has created greater opportunity for teachers to connect and work collaboratively. This is an exciting and sometimes scary time in the world of education. Exciting because technology is allowing teachers to do things they never dreamed of in the past. Teachers share resources and information with thousands daily via social networks and web 2.0 sites. The web is crawling with ideas and potential solutions for improving education. Scary because education seems to be under attack from those who want to simplify the work teachers do into a set of data points or prepackaged solutions that devalue the role of the teacher. Scary because the web is crawling with ideas and potential solutions that may serve to complicate rather than simplify the role of the teacher.

I am acutely aware of the challenges teachers face every day. I read the polarizing arguments being made on teacher and reformer blogs and find myself overly affected by things outside my control. The pressures I feel as a principal to increase test scores and improve teacher and student performance must be counter-balanced with my core beliefs that schools should not be reduced to arbitrary performance measures and that real solutions can be found in our own schools and classrooms. It is time for teachers to come together to connect and share resources that will truly make a difference.

The methods outlined by Mattos, DeFour and Marzano are solidly grounded in research. Teacher collaboration, a focus on the core, sharing of common assessments and the monitoring of student performance are essential. It is critical that teachers participate in all the elements in order for a community of teachers to be successful. Teachers working in a global community to create and share common assessments around the Common Core State Standards is a critical first step. Providing teachers the ability to monitor student performance around the standards is an essential second step. Having the ability to share real-time results with parents and students…priceless!

When we started the Masteryconnect blog, we decided that we would not just fill our blog with posts talking about our latest feature releases and regurgitated content from the industry (although we do that too)…we wanted to write about our thoughts and even express our opinions and an occasional controversial idea. We see the edtech startup experience as more than just a set of features and product announcements. We see it as a grand endeavor to make things better for teachers and students. Many of us at MasteryConnect have parents, spouses, and siblings that are teachers and our children go to public schools. We are a team with passionate ideals and a deep emotional connection to education that comes with an incredible desire to have real impact on student achievement and a push for getting at the heart of what our kids know and don’t know relative to the core. As the co-founder/CEO of MasteryConnect, it’s often hard to find the time to sit down and share my thoughts in a post, but tonight I wanted to share something that was on my mind. You see, I come from a family of teachers. I grew up with a father, who, in the 1960’s, spent his first two years as a teacher in a small Inuit village in Alaska. He came back to the lower 48 and taught history and social studies with great passion and the desire to inspire kids to do great things in life. That passion of my father translated into my two siblings becoming teachers and ultimately inspired me to channel my software skills to education. I even married a teacher!

With that long background, I wanted to share a quick experience. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with an elementary teacher who has been using MasteryConnect for over a year now. We’ll call her Miss Jones for this post. I didn’t know Miss Jones very well, we’d had a few email exchanges and I had been to her classroom once before for a feedback session. After a recent email from Miss Jones, I wanted to get with her personally and gather her feedback and thoughts. More importantly, I wanted to really connect with Miss Jones as a user and as a teacher. As our discussion started, we talked a lot about her experience in rolling out the Common Core this year. It was fascinating to hear her talk about the first two weeks of school and the challenges of managing 30 students while teaching and assessing standards and managing all the new expectations. It’s important to note that Miss Jones is what I would call a “super teacher.” This is the kind of public school teacher that labors night and day researching for lessons and developing formative assessments and going back and spending the time to identify students that don’t understand concepts and reteach them. She’s the kind of teacher that when you have your own kids in public school, you fight tooth and nail to make sure your kid ends up in her class.

Miss Jones shared with me that her school was piloting a new Common Core textbook from one of the major publishers (as with Miss Jones, we’ll keep that name quiet too). I sometimes like to refer to myself as a “Common Core Geek,” so I immediately wanted to see the new text and see what the major publisher had done. I asked her if I could take a look at the new book. As she pulled the shiny, new teachers-edition out of her book bag, she said to me, “Please wipe the table underneath it and please don’t get any of that chocolate cake on it, and please please don’t spill on it.” At first I thought she was being overly cautious about a new book, but she elaborated on why she needed me to be careful. I was shocked to hear that her principal had presented her with a piece of paper from the legal department of the publishing company. The legal document stated that, should anything happen to the book, (be it chocolate cake spills or an accidental coffee slip), she would PERSONALLY be responsible for the $500 cost for the replacement. Given that Miss Jones is a team leader, she was also entrusted with a special set of materials worth about $1,000. I quickly did the math of a teacher’s salary and realized that an accidental slip of my drink or chocolate cake could cost Miss Jones a significant portion of her monthly income.

Now it’s easy for a small company like ours to throw darts and take pot shots at the big Goliath multi-billion dollar publishing companies (that often buy-out many start-ups like ours), and yes, sometimes it’s fun to throw a little mud, but a couple of things struck me at that moment. You see, I was there to get connected with Miss Jones and find out how we could improve what we are doing. I was looking for unfiltered feedback after deep use of what we had built and after she’d bruised and beaten up what we had created. The disconnect I had in my brain was that a start-up education company like ours labors night and day to get usage in the classroom and gain insightful feedback from a teacher, and yet, this publisher has the power to actually strike fear in the heart of this teacher and “threaten” her with a monetary punishment for a product that she was being told she would have to use. She expressed to me that she was afraid to take the book home. Wow, I was dumbfounded…this felt so broken. As a CEO of an edtech startup desiring feedback, my thought was, ‘why wouldn’t you want to make this teacher feel like they could take the product home, pour over it, write her notes in it, highlight it, bend the pages, USE it!, and yes, even possibly spill on it?’ So what if she spilled on it or dropped it? The value of her buying into what you are giving her and the feedback you gain has to be far more valuable than the $20 cost of printing in China. Why wouldn’t you just give it to her? And wouldn’t you want to take a peek at that note-filled, bent-paged, run-over, highlighted copy so you could see how she used it and the feedback she provided and make your product better?

My point here is that teachers are often made to feel less than professional and sometimes even second class citizens in their own profession. It’s difficult enough that we often undervalue them with pay, but we go deeper when we, through these types of situations, imply that they are not trusted as professionals. A few years back, my wife signed a similar agreement with her district-issued laptop. She was forced to sign a document saying she’d replace the full $1,500 cost of the laptop should something happen to it. The school told her that if she didn’t sign the contract saying she’d pay for the laptop, she might even lose her job. This made her go through the same thought process as Miss Jones…‘Why would I take this home if it’s going to cost me my month’s paycheck if I drop it or spill on it?’ When I looked at my wife’s situation through the eyes of a business owner and through the lens of productivity, this baffled me as well. I quickly did the math in my head of the number of extra hours my wife spent at home (outside of contract hours) vs. the value of that laptop. My crude calculation showed that the value of productivity the district gained from the issuance of that laptop equated to a few weeks of work my wife did with the laptop after hours. Wouldn’t it make more sense to set aside money for accidental damage, or even look into some sort of hardware insurance policy rather than making my wife feel second-class, untrusted, and that she’d have to replace the whole laptop with personal money?

To finish off the story, Miss Jones sent me an email today. She writes in the email, “I want you to know that one of the things I have loved about working with MasteryConnect is that I feel valued as a professional. Whenever I visit with one of you, I feel like you get that teachers work hard, care about kids and are invested in their success.” With all the hard work and pain of an edtech startup, just reading her email seemed to make it all worthwhile.

Now, I don’t share that quote to toot my own horn or say that MasteryConnect is perfect, it’s to illustrate the point of what it takes to value our teachers as professionals. Ultimately, we’ve all seen that there is often a giant gap between educators and “solutions providers”. I’ve seen many an engineer come into this market having “the answer.” As many non-educators come into the market trying to solve problems in education, it’s easy to take an attitude of “we know how to solve your problem” without taking the time to really listen and connect with teachers with the spirit and understanding that these are professionals that care about kids and know a lot about solving these problems and doing their jobs. We need to find more ways to bridge the gap of the solutions that we can provide to improve student achievement and what happens on the ground at the classroom level. When we first started MasteryConnect, we worked with a 17-year veteran educator (Trenton, who you see writing on this blog) and we immediately found a gap between his understanding of what was possible technologically and our understanding of the real-world classroom. It has been a great journey as we’ve worked and continue to work to bridge that gap.

My hope is that we as solutions providers (especially my colleagues in the start-up world) remember that we have a deeper calling because we work in this industry of education. Ours is to seek to understand the difficulty of the task that teachers have, and to make sure that teachers feel like esteemed professionals as we go about serving them and the students we are all trying to educate. As teachers head back to the classroom this month, I’d like to express my deep appreciation and humble gratitude for the dedicated and selfless work of all teachers. I’d also like to express my sincere gratitude for teachers like my father, my sisters, and those like Miss Jones, whom we work to support.

I always send a link of my latest blog to a few respected colleagues and eagerly await their critique. This last week I received a very thoughtful response from a good friend that, part of which, I believe warrants a response. He said:

“Finally, if your goal is to persuade others toward your line of thinking, I think you’d do better to blog under a different identity than MasteryConnect… Having participated in online discussions about education for many years now (and having been regularly approached by technology vendors on a near-daily basis for the last several years), I’ve likely become more skeptical of the advice offered by people – when it’s also tied to a product – than the typical educator might be. In a nutshell, why should I trust what you’ve written as MasteryConnect, when you’re clearly motivated – at least in that space – by commercial gain? (How are your actions there any different than the actions of Pearson here? http://goo.gl/078cI )

I definitely understand where he is coming from and agree that blogging for and promoting a company creates a potential conflict of interest. However, MasteryConnect did not hire me to promote their products or entice me to peddle their wares. Rather, MasteryConnect is the culmination of my life’s work in education. It is the outcome of one of those moments where you find yourself sitting around the dinner table sketching out some ideas on the back of a napkin. It is the result of having the right people, people much more talented than myself, present to act upon a set of deeply held beliefs; where a conversation full of “what if” statements turns into a two and a half year call to action. I am deeply proud of the work that is being done at MasteryConnect and the passion and energy every member of our team brings to our products.

Over the last few weeks I have made an effort to outline our core beliefs. We began with the idea that we could make a difference for teachers, students and parents and have worked to that end each day. We have created the most comprehensive and downloaded Common Core State Standards app and provided it to teachers for free. We continue to upgrade the app and respond to teacher requests for improvement…for free. We have provided teachers access to a community that allows them to connect and share CCSS focused formative assessments…for free. Both of these products were created by world class developers who did so at great expense of personal time and money. Prior to MasteryConnect I had no idea how much time, talent and skill it would take to turn an idea into an elegant web 2.0 application. The challenges and commitment required are immense.

Yes, MasteryConnect’s full version is a product that aims for commercial success. The people (and their families) who have given so much of their lives to creating it are counting on teachers to see the value of the work they have done. Teachers go to work every day in the hopes of making a difference in the lives of their students…but they expect to be paid for their efforts. The expectation of getting paid is not an act of greed on the part of teachers; it is the expectation of compensation for services provided, years of study in college, countless hours of practice and professional development and a desire to have the means to continue doing the work they love. Our team goes to work every day with the same hopes of making a difference in the lives of teachers and students. We are absolutely committed to this end.

In response to my friend and colleague…yes, I am “clearly motivated by commercial gain”…our survival as a company depends on it. We continue to work toward improving our product in response to the feedback we receive from appreciative teachers across the country. Odds are we won’t become the multi-national conglomerate with a market cap the size of a Pearson, but we will always be a passionate team listening to and focusing on the needs of teachers. We are committed to making a difference and I will continue to blog for MasteryConnect in hopes that my voice supporting our cause just may….”persuade others toward your/our line of thinking”.

More on Teacher Autonomy

August 2nd, 2011

I would like to continue discussing teacher autonomy/responsibility this week and hopefully provoke others to share their thoughts on this subject. My summer months have been filled with professional development surrounding the Common Core State Standards. This has resulted in a collection of name badges, cheap book bags filled with hand-outs, schedules and free pens. Those hand-outs have included massive bound copies of the core, detailed pacing guides and links to online resources. It is clear that State and District officials have been hard at work providing teachers with everything they need to hit the ground running.

Reviewing the pacing guides I am impressed by their comprehensiveness. Teach this standard this day…assess the standard on that day using this formative assessment. Education’s version of plug-and-play. It is clear that an amazing amount of work has gone into the planning of these guides and assessments. These are well intentioned “experts” working hard to help teachers save time and improve their effectiveness. Why then do I feel so unappreciative of this work? Why do I feel like their intentions have more to do with control than benevolence?

The answer comes down to teacher responsibility and autonomy. If the State and/or District want to develop suggested pacing guides…great! If the State and/or District want to develop benchmark and formative assessments…great! I believe the line is crossed when those time-lines and tools become mandates. Certainly teachers have the responsibility to maintain proper core aligned pacing guides while using formative assessments to monitor their student’s progress. However, I believe teachers have the responsibility to determine their pacing, based on individual teaching-style and the students they serve relative to student performance on a multitude of formative assessments. To deny teachers the autonomy to address these responsibilities is maddening.

I believe the practice of using prescriptive curriculum maps, pacing guides and time-lines with cookie-cutter assessments undermines the true art of teaching. Teachers must balance the art and science of instructional practice and this is impossible with the remotely created, inflexible and unrealistic pacing guides, time-lines and assessments. I have watched teachers diligently work to stay on course, only to fall behind when a difficult concept demands more explanation and certain remediation. The appreciation for the pacing guides quickly gets replaced with frustration and feelings of failure.

I have heard high-level education officials question teachers’ capacity and ability to create quality formative assessments. This same lack of faith applies when they mandate prescriptive curriculum pacing guides. The underlying message being broadcast to our teachers is that they are not competent to do the most fundamental aspects of their job. Why bother asking teachers to subject themselves to the rigors of college and teacher preparation if we begin with the premise that they are incapable of actually doing the job for which they have earned a college degree? The growing belief that teachers lack the substance and skill required to meet the complex needs of their students without a carefully crafted script is insulting. It is also demoralizing to those who seek to modify their instruction based on the needs of the students in front of them…regardless of what the pacing guides might require.

At MasteryConnect we believe in teachers! We believe that teacher created formative assessments are best and that teachers should be given the opportunity to share their assessments with others. A community of teachers working together to build and share quality assessments will ultimately create a body of work that will be unmatched anywhere. We believe teachers should be given the tools they need to monitor student performance relative to the core, collaborate with teachers all over the world, share assessments and effectively communicate student progress. Fundamentally, we believe teachers are professionals and they have earned the right to be granted the autonomy necessary to do their job.