Skip to content
Aurora Institute

The Teacher Association Perspective on Performance-Based Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

Heather O’Brien

This article is the fourteenth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Heather O’Brien started at D51 as a student and has now entered her second year as President of Mesa Valley Education Association. She is aware of the demands of supporting MVEA in making the shift from a traditional union to professional association within a district going through a tremendous transformation. She is also humbled by these demands.

O’Brien explained that the educators at D51 value their professionalism and want to further expand upon it. “We use the language of association, not union,” she said. “We want to shift into a professional association. We don’t serve customers the same way other labor unions do. We have relationships with students and their families. Our focus and the focus of district leadership is on student success, not a bottom line of profit.” She explained that when educators think of themselves as teacher leaders, an association will provide more opportunity. She noted that the Colorado Education Association is also making this shift to a professional association.

On top of that, all 1,325 teachers in the district are beginning to learn about a new educational paradigm. “The most exciting part is that both P-BL and the changes at MVEA are about empowering teachers,” O’Brien said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for our educators.”

She herself is very enthusiastic about this shift to performance-based learning. “This is a pedagogy and a philosophy I’ve been trying to create in my own classroom for the last ten years,” she said. “Performance-based learning is right for kids and it’s right for teachers. But you can’t do it alone. You have to have the full system, the gradebooks, and a collaborative effort among teachers. P-BL is what I’ve been searching for as a teacher.” At the same time, she’s also cautious about how others are approaching the change. “I’m a phoenix. I need change. I like to go in totally new directions. But other people don’t. So I need to pay attention to how other people are experiencing the process of introducing P-BL. I need to always be open to authentic concerns.”

Responding to Authentic Concerns

O’Brien sits on the district’s Coordinating Committee and is learning the new processes of holacracy (see Holacracy: Organizing for Change at D51). Using the metaphor of a tightrope, she explained that the entire district is balancing moving forward with urgency with the sense of managed chaos that can develop as a result. She is busy checking in with educators to understand their experiences and concerns.

We discussed some of the concerns that are raised by teachers. Of course there is the concern (or hope) that P-BL is the flavor of the month and will disappear like the other change initiatives. Some concerns are rooted in the distrust that has bubbled up from experiences when the district or principals have been reactive, developed weak plans, or relied on poor communication. Some are concerns over what P-BL will mean to their jobs and, specifically, teacher evaluation.

She worries about whether there are enough resources, not only in terms of dollars but in terms of expertise, to carry the P-BL initiative through. “How will we possibly have enough professional development to shift the paradigm of 1,325 teachers?” she wondered. “Only two people in the district have ever taught in this model. As we move forward, teachers are going to have be learning from each other within and across schools.”

Of course, she also thinks about the impact on teachers. She recounted comments made by Darren Cook (previous association president and a middle school history teacher) in a presentation by teachers in demonstration schools. “Darren was brutally honest,” she said. “He described it as the hardest year of his professional life because even though he was good at direct instruction, he realized that some students were disengaging. They were slipping through the cracks. He said, ‘I can no longer ignore the kids who used to ignore me.’ He said that he was both invigorated and exhausted.”

O’Brien also worries about what this means for teachers – both the emotional process of coming to terms that the understanding of good teaching is changing and the sense of responsibility that comes with the expectation of knowing where students are and helping them progress, as well as the effort it will take for teachers to build new skills. She emphasized, “This is pivotal in making this work take hold. If you have been doing one thing for twenty years, it is likely you are going to feel incompetent when you start down the path to P-BL. We have to have personalized, performance-based learning for adults in order for this to succeed.”

She does think the district is moving in the right direction. She remarked, “The School Support Team has radically flipped professional development. There is voice and choice within an overall strategy. They have well-designed inservices. Instead of the district driving inservice, they start with a survey of the teachers. The sessions are taught by other teachers. This revolutionized our professional development – voice, choice, and relevance.” Another change is that there is no attendance taken at the inservices. O’Brien explained, “Inservice used to be a requirement. Now if a teacher isn’t there, the assumption is that their needs are not being met. So the question becomes, how do we give them what they need? That’s building trust. The School Support Team are building the trust capital that will allow for taking risks in the future.” And I couldn’t help thinking, that’s building accountability.

O’Brien also mentioned the tightrope walk between responding to teachers who are feeling anxious. Some want to be told what to do, while others take a wait-and-see attitude. The inservices are helping, as teachers are beginning to understand the new expectations when a growth mindset is used rather than a fixed mindset (with the focus on whether students are learning rather than the curriculum pacing guide). “Teachers are already beginning to build confidence in the new practices used in P-BL,” enthused O’Brien.

Aligning Evaluation and Professional Development

O’Brien warmly commented, “When teachers take risks pedagogically they have to feel secure that they won’t be dinged. Paul Jebe, Director of Educator Effectiveness, is always thinking about how to make evaluation real and meaningful. The man never sleeps.”

A joint committee on evaluation (district and association) has been established to shape a new teacher evaluation. They will have to decide whether they want to use the model being developed by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) or create their own. During interviews, several people mentioned that the CDE version has so many items it is essentially a checklist (CDE is supposedly reducing the 300+ items to 200+). What they don’t know is whether CDE will be mandating the use of their teacher evaluation tool and, if so, can D51 be ready in time to create their own.

O’Brien sees this as a powerful opportunity to align professional development and evaluations. But the timing of the phased implementation, especially to reach every school, presents a challenge. The principals and assistant principals have been responsible for doing the evaluations. If D51 creates their own evaluation based on expectations for teachers in P-BL, the school leadership will need to understand the model. To hold true to the principles that one should not be evaluated on things they have not had the opportunity to learn, the evaluation will have to be designed to reflect the personalized professional development strategies.

Going Forward

O’Brien is thinking ahead about how momentum might build within D51 for P-BL. “Students may be our biggest advocates,” she said. “As they become exposed to other ways of learning and other ways of demonstrating learning, they are going to want it in all of their classrooms. Kids may provide the encouragement to teachers who are more cautious about the changes. Just think about the ripple effect when a cohort of students start moving through the system bringing the ideas of P-BL with them.”

Read the Entire Series:

Post #1 – Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51

Post #2 – Building Consensus for Change at D51

Post #3 – The Vision of Performance-Based Education at D51

Post #4 – Holacracy: Organizing for Change at D51

Post #5 – Growing into the Framework: D51’s Implementation Strategy

Post #6 – Laying the Foundation with Culture and Climate

Post #7 – Supporting Teachers at D51: A Conversation with the Professional Learning Facilitators

Post #8 – Creating a Transparent Performance-Based System at D51

Post # 9 – New Emerson: Learning the Effective Practices of the Learner-Centered Classroom

Post #10 – Transparency and Trust

Post #11 – Lincoln Orchard Mesa: What Did You Notice?

Post #12 – Performance-Based Learning in a Dual Immersion School

Post #13 – R5 High School: Abuzz with Learning