The Importance Of Support

It’s the proverbial family cliché; a child doesn’t like what mom has told him so he goes and asks dad. It is the nature of (some) humans and certainly seen in children.  I’m sure that parents are well aware of this tactic and, in families that teach a consistent message to their kids, mom and dad agree on the responses.  They know each other well, you see, so it doesn’t even matter if they discussed the particular question ahead of time, they know the answer.  They can be queried independently and the child will receive a consistent response.

The same approach is seen in school settings, I have personally experienced it often over the years, and it involves parents. Let’s say a parent has a question about something that transpired with his/her child’s teacher, Ms. Doe.  (all identities are fictitious, of course)  The parent contacts the teacher and discusses the situation.  This particular parent doesn’t like what they were told, or disagrees with any resolution that was offered, if one was.  In effect, the parent didn’t hear what they wanted to hear.

Many parents would stop here, realizing that the teacher runs the class, works fairly with all children, and that what was asked of the child and how the issue that arose were both within the teacher’s discretion, and that there were valid reasons for the outcome.

But you know where this is going, that is not how all parents react. No, unfortunately, many parents next call will be to the hall principal to express their discontent.  This is usually presented in some form related to the teacher being unfair to their child.  There could be other reasons as well, but the majority of complaints always seem to focus on equity.  Specifically, their child is not being treated fairly.

This is where an administrative cohesiveness is crucial to good schools. My hall principals are good listeners, but they’re also on the same page, with each other and with me.  We do not second-guess what teachers do.  Teachers need to be shown that we trust them, that we put faith in them, and that we know they work hard to provide a fair classroom experience for all students.  We will not substitute our judgment for theirs because we are not the ones running the class, they are.  We respect that truism and respect their responsibility and competence to make decisions that won’t be upended just because a parent complains.  If one of the hall principals has a question as a result of the parent discussion, it will be raised with the teacher after the fact as a consideration for down the road.

Let me be clear, if an obvious mistake has been made it will be corrected. Hopefully this would be recognized by the teacher and corrected there, but if not, the hall principal would discuss it with the teacher and allow the teacher to address it.  This does not happen often; teachers making mistakes that need to be corrected is rare.

Again, many parents would stop here, realizing that they have heard the same message twice now, once from the teacher and the other from the teacher’s “boss.” It would seem the smart thing to do.  But, no, I wouldn’t be writing about it if that were the case.  Every now and then I am contacted.  Usually I have a heads up from the hall principal that a parent wasn’t satisfied with their discussion.  I have trouble with this approach.  Really?  Do parents seriously think that calling me will bring their hoped-for resolution?  I can’t fathom the mindset that you just keep calling people, hoping that eventually someone will agree with you and disagree with everyone else they have already talked to! My philosophical approach is such that I’m not going to say that both the teacher and the hall principal were wrong, partly because it would be poor practice to do so but more so because I trust our teachers and my hall principals.  In these conversations, I usually refer the parents back to what they were already told, reinforcing the message.

Can you imagine what kind of school we would have if hall principals second-guessed teachers, or I second-guessed teachers AND hall principals simply because a parent complained? My phone would never stop ringing and I would constantly be over-turning classroom decisions…and I would quickly be working in a school where everyone was looking over their shoulders, no one felt supported, no one would make decisions as they would all be deferred to me, and no one would trust anyone.  Wouldn’t that be a terrible environment to work and learn in?

Teachers know what they’re doing. Hall principals know what they’re doing.  It’s my job to help them do it.  And that’s my perspective.

Posted in Administrative Experiences, Communication in Schools, School Climate | 1 Comment

Homework Helper

What would a teacher do if a student showed up in her room one morning and said that he, the student, had trouble with last night’s homework assignment? I’m thinking that the teacher would say, “Ok, let’s take a look at it,” and then proceed to help the student work through some problems. I would also think that the student would do most of the heavy lifting on the work; the teacher would point out some reminders, have the student relook at an obvious (to the teacher) mistake, ensure that the student was following correct steps and in effect, assist.

Teachers are pretty good at assisting students with their work.   Our mindset as educators is to help students understand and internalize how to complete problems, or an essay, or question responses, an experiment, or any other typical school assignment. We want the students to do the work, but we understand that sometimes they struggle and need some extra guidance. So we provide guidance, we assist the student in doing the work.

So, why is that concept difficult for some parents to grasp? Why do teachers always have to be alert to reviewing, grading, correcting, etc. work that is not the students’? What is it with the parents who feel they should do the work for their kid, not merely assist their child?

That’s an interesting question, one with no easy answers, and one that has been around forever. We all probably have our own stories about this, and mine is that as a kid I never asked my parents for help on my homework. Part of the reason was that I was a pretty good student and didn’t need help very often. Another piece was that I didn’t want to ask, I wanted to be able to figure things out on my own. Asking for help was giving up, the same as saying I wasn’t smart enough to get it. The last part was that I knew what the response would be: “Work at it, you’ll figure it out.” Or, if they were in a more helpful mode, it would be “Ask your teacher in the morning.”

I just read an interesting article, “Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework” by Dana Goldstein in the March 14 edition of The Atlantic. Ms. Goldstein discusses research completed on parents involving themselves in many different ways in their children’s education; one way in particular is by “helping” with homework. Quoting data from the study, she writes that reviewing your child’s homework every night “…won’t help her score higher on standardized tests. Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down…”

That’s not really surprising, is it? Parents reviewing kids’ homework can easily lead a student to taking less care with completing the work, knowing that mom and/or dad will be checking it anyway. From there it’s a short step to not putting their best effort into the homework in the first place, again due to the reliance on mom/dad correcting the work anyway. This can quickly lead to students not working to learn content and concepts as is expected in classes because kids see that they don’t have to… “I can fix it later” when mom and dad review the work.

And then there is, of course, what actually constitutes “reviewing” homework anyway. As an educator, reviewing a student’s work would be to scan it and point out some areas, problems, wording, etc. that merits extra attention. A parent, however, may consider reviewing homework as something completely different. A parent, not wanting their child to not do well, may “review” by correcting work for the child, or pointing out specific errors that need to be fixed. A parent’s review is most likely very different than the review by an educator who is working to help the child find and correct errors on his/her own.

Parents would do well to not help, to point kids toward their teachers for this. We have a built-in time after dismissal every day, 43 minutes that teachers are required to be here and available to work with students. A student who tends to struggle with homework should do the same; build this extra help time into his/her daily schedule.

If parents want to assist, it needs to be minimal and should reflect what an educator would do; point out areas that need work, maybe work through a problem similar to one the student is struggling with, discuss concepts/skills, not specific problems, that are included on the homework with the child, in general, be general about homework.

We all want kids to do well, but often parents’ interpretation of how to help crosses well over the line and, ultimately, hurts the child’s learning. And no one wants that. At least that’s my perspective

Posted in Administrative Experiences, Communication in Schools, Student Characteristics | 1 Comment

Learning To Be A Principal: Lesson #4

Anyone who decides to go into administration should keep a journal. The journal should be used to record events, happenings, conversations, etc. that take place in the person’s new position.  Not only will these recollections provide fodder for a future blog or book, but they are interesting to look back on in later years.  I wish I had kept a more thorough journal for my own pondering.  I find these early experiences evidence of how and why I developed as a principal.  I can see how decisions made, actions taken or not taken, discussions held, and other events from my professional life influenced, sometimes subtly, other times directly, my future thinking and approaches.  Probably intuitively you realize that making a specific decision helps define who you are and how you think, but that’s not the thought usually present in your mind at the time.  It takes time and distance to really see the impact.

We applied for Blue Ribbon School status the first time in the fall of 1992, during my fifth year as principal of Shaker JHS. The Blue ribbon recognition program was a federal Department of Education initiative which required you first to apply to NY SED for their approval of your application.  If the NY SED agreed that you met the standards required, they would recommend your school to the federal DOE for consideration; if not, you were done.  And the application was a bear.  The narrative and data to support the narrative required were extensive.  Our initial application ran to more than 60 pages.  A big share of the credit goes to the late Joy Horsmann, our Director of Libraries for the district.  She was an excellent grant writer and her skills were needed for this endeavor!

Shaker JHS had applied previously, prior to my joining the school, and never made it past the State level. But since my becoming principal we had instituted many new programs and initiatives that spoke to our commitment to change for the better.  Included were common, formal department mid-year exams, a 7th grade advisory program, interim progress reports for all students, common department final exams, and several other quality programs.  (Yes, the old guard fought every one!  But the rational professionals on the staff were becoming independent and, thus, were instrumental in moving our school forward!)  We were very pleased to be supported by NYS and to be selected for recognition in the spring of 1993 by the US DOE!

As part of the recognition, we were allowed to send three school representatives to Washington, DC, in the fall for the recognition ceremonies and festivities. Three!  We would somehow have to choose only three from our staff of 85 people for this honor…this could be interesting.

I discussed how to select representatives with Pete McManus, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum. He said that I would be one of the three, no question on that, as I was the one person who represented the junior high at all events. He suggested I discuss selecting the other two at a faculty meeting, and to  be clear that I was one of the three and ask faculty who were interested in being one of the other two representatives of the school to indicate so, put all their names in a hat, and draw two.  Very fair, everyone who’s interested has an equal chance.

I did so at the next faculty meeting. Before we could put names in a hat a veteran faculty member, let’s call him Ned, asked to share his idea.  His idea was pretty clear:  “I think the previous principal should be one of the representatives, after all, he’s really responsible for a lot that we do.”

I commented that doing so would only allow for one teacher representative, since I was going. His response was that we should allow two teachers to represent us.

As you can imagine, the room got quiet, eyes were riveted on me to see how I would react. I hadn’t expected this, to be honest…it was a rather bold statement and a public slap to my face.

I took a calculated gamble, trusting the professionalism of the majority of the staff. So I stated that I was attending as one of the representatives, that as the building principal I was the main representative for our school.  I stated just that – didn’t go into any reasoning.  And I asked, by a show of hands, how many people supported “Ned’s” suggestion.  There were a couple of hands raised.  I asked, again by a show of hands, who wanted me and two teachers to represent our school.  Most of the hands went in the air.

I believe that event turned out to be one of the final nails in the coffin of the veteran domination of our faculty. It wasn’t so much a statement about me as it was a statement about our staff.  It was a clear message, a message not lost on me, about professionals.  Give professionals the right environment, the needed level of support, the trust they deserve, and they will do the responsible and professional thing.

My skirmishes weren’t over, but the war was moving in the right direction. At least that’s my perspective.

Posted in Administrative Experiences, Communication Clarity in Schools, Communication in Schools, School Climate, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

SED Still Can’t Get It Right

If you’ve followed by blog at all, actually, if you’ve read two specific previous posts, you will know what this is about. If you haven’t read the two blogs, Double Testing and Double Testing Revisited, this concerns NYS math assessments.

Specifically, NYS has been granted a waiver regarding 7th/8th grade students who take a math Regents and the NYS Common Core math assessment. The idea was that if (in our case) an 8th grade student is enrolled in Regents Algebra, he/she does not have to also take the NYS grade 8 Common Core math assessment. The thought behind this is that Algebra is an accelerated course, so students successfully completing it certainly have the math skills addressed on the grade 8 math assessment. That makes sense.

For a thorough explanation, refer to my blogs, but my concern was that these students would no longer be counted in our school accountability data, which would significantly alter our results and affect teacher’s APPR scores. As an example, if this waiver had been in place last year, our Algebra kids’ assessment scores, they all received a Level IV score, would not have been included in our building’s statistics. This would have dropped our percentage of students earning Level III/IV scores from 55% to 34%! We no longer look like we have the top quality math program that we do, and the apparent strength of our math program is inaccurate.

There’s an easy solution: convert Regents exam scores to equivalent assessment scores. Since this is an accelerated course, Regents scores should translate to proficient scores, for example, a Regents exam score of 65-84 should equal a Level III score and a Regents score of 85-100 should translate to a Level IV score.

The NYSED sent a memo this past February to clarify the scoring. (I swear they read my blog, and my article on the same concern published in the NYS School Boards Association Journal On Board) What they wrote, however, became fodder for my second blog. Their “clarification” was that any student passing a Regents math exam could be exempted from the Common Core assessment and receive “full credit” for the assessment. Well, that would be good if they had defined what “full credit” meant. Of course they did not. So I wrote again about the folly of SED’s thinking and actions.

So now we have yet another clarification from SED, this one in a recently received April memo. We now know what “full credit” means! Yes, they have defined it!! Shouldn’t we all be happy? I know what you’re thinking; if I’m blogging about it again there must be a problem…how right you are!!

So let’s review. The students we’re talking about are taking a Regents exam in an accelerated, high school credit bearing course. The Algebra Regents exam addresses more complex thinking, content and skills than does the grade 8 assessment. A question for you then: let’s say a student aces the Regents, earns a score of 100. Wouldn’t a rational person think that would translate to a Level IV assessment score, the top score on that assessment? I mean, top score on the Algebra Regents, a grade 9 course, should equate to the top score on the grade 8 assessment, shouldn’t it?

But of course not, this is SED we ‘re talking about. Here’s how SED sees the grade conversions:

Regents exam score of 0-64: no credit (they got that piece right!)

Regents exam score of 65-79: Level II

Regents exam score of 80 or higher: Level III score

Are you kidding me? A student who passes the accelerated Algebra Regents exam with a score of 70 earns a failing score on the grade 8 math assessment? Better yet, a student who scores a 92, 96, or even 100 on the accelerated Algebra Regents exam earns a Level III score? In other words, a student taking an accelerated Algebra Regents exam cannot in any way earn a top Level IV score on an assessment based on 8th grade content? Is that rational? Does that make sense? Am I the only one seeing this?

Wow….SED never ceases to amaze, befuddle, disappoint…and that’s not just my perspective.

Posted in Education Legislation, SED Regulations | Leave a comment

GSA Revisited

I recently read an interesting article in the March 26, 2014, issue of Education Week. The item was about Carver Middle School, in Florida, and an attempt to develop a GSA in that school. It seems that in Florida, at least at Carver MS and the Lake County School District, the idea of having a GSA or of the need to have a GSA as a support group for students is seriously lacking. To date they have not been allowed by the school or district to form a GSA. Why are people so opposed to providing needed support to students?

It does the heart good to see the inroads that are being made on normalizing people’s views, attitudes, and actions toward humans who have different perspectives than us. Yet, old ideas and beliefs die hard, and it will continue to take persistence and determination to establish a modern world in backwards locales, like the ‘’south.” Of course there are still government officials in some southern states that believe the confederate flag is a national symbol. It’s easy to just shake your head and say that some people just can’t be taught, but that won’t change the beliefs.

I remember a conversation I had with my mom several years ago. My mom has always been an accepting sort, strong religious upbringing and faith, but not one to criticize others. Al Sharpton had said something outrageous; but, that’s the style of anything he utters. My mom commented on how he was divisive, that he shouldn’t be allowed to have such a forum to spread his dogma. I responded that the world needs the Al Sharptons, that it’s the Al Sharptons of the world that help us to clarify our own thoughts. I further said that he gives us ideas to consider, and most likely reject, but ideas we would probably never have on our own. Differences of thought are necessary and can lead to changes in behavior. It would be a dull and dangerous world if we all thought alike. Of course my mom disagreed.

But my point is that when we hear statements or see actions that cause us to flinch, it should galvanize us to solidify our own thoughts and, as appropriate, take appropriate action to counter the misguided Philistines we’ve been exposed to.

At Carver MS, students attempted to form a GSA and were told by school and/or district officials that they couldn’t. That wasn’t an acceptable response, assumedly, and the students countered by filing a lawsuit to be allowed to do so. The article indicated that a Florida Appeals Court had just denied a motion by the District that sought to quash the students’ lawsuit…and this was the second court decision denying the district’s attempts to get the lawsuit tossed! The judge did not go so far as to issue an immediate injunction that would have allowed the GSA to form and meet, but it was a victory nonetheless for the students.

Indeed, these kids, with most likely some very able adult support, are working hard to not let the uninformed prevail. They are taking action to counter the backwards, Neanderthal ideas of ignorant ultraconservatives. They are not accepting what is being preached to them as what has to be. Good for them, and may they be successful quickly! And that’s not just my perspective.


Posted in Administrative Experiences, Gay/Straight Alliances in Schools, School Climate | Leave a comment

The Melting Pot Luck

I like to eat. Actually… it’s more than that; I love to eat!  I’m a big fan of church dinners, bring a dish to share feasts, Thanksgiving get-togethers where each family brings their favorite food, you name it, if there’s food, I like it.  And I’m not the least picky about the types of food either.  I love Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Tex-Mex, Creole, again, you name it, I’ll enjoy it!

I also believe it’s essential for families to be involved, in some way, with their child(ren)’s school. To have a true home-school connection there have to be opportunities for families, at least for mom and dad, to take part in school events.  This could be watching their daughter perform in our school musical, or attending a science fair to see their son’s project presented, or participate in PTA activities, or chaperone school programs.  As involvement needs to be done for students, good schools provide numerous opportunities for parents to establish a level of involvement with their school as well.

Last Monday evening we had an event that combined these two worlds perfectly. Our foreign language department organized and held their annual International Pot Luck Dinner, a perfect blend of food and parent involvement!  An added bonus, from several different perspectives, was that both our Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction were present!

All students are invited to attend, and of course to include their entire family, and to provide a food item to share that represents their cultural/ethnic heritage. We had over 200 attendees, so I would assume that you can easily imagine what that translates to regarding parent involvement, ethnic/cultural backgrounds, and, ultimately, the food!  We had over 20 different ethnic backgrounds represented and the tables were arranged so that food items from a specific ethnic group were situated together.

Did I mention that I love food? I had foods from India, Pakistan, Spain, Mexico, Italy, China, Korea, and a couple of other countries, unfortunately sometimes I was so focused on the food that I didn’t notice the country of origin.  It was a top notch meal and I received comments from several of the parents indicating their pleasure with the dinner.

This was an event that involved about 250 of our community and staff, with the vast majority from the community, and that involved families as an integral part of the evening. Everyone enjoyed themselves, saw friends and neighbors, made new friends, had an excellent meal, had a chance to chat with teachers, principals, central office administrators, and participated in what can only be categorized as a positive program, and accomplished all of this at school!  At my age I remember having athletic banquets, science fairs, spaghetti (fund raising) dinners, etc. at school.  Being from a small town, the school was the center of most community events that took place.  And being the location used for most community activities, school was looked at a little differently than it seems to be today.  Today there’s often an almost deliberate separation of school and community; a “we’ll do our job, please don’t interfere” mentality, which is unfortunate.

Monday night is an example of an event that bridges our school and our community, a positive program that brought us together, if only for an hour or two. But, we’ll all remember it…and that’s my perspective.

Posted in Administrative Experiences, Communication in Schools, School Climate | Leave a comment

Opting Out Supported By NYSUT?

I just read in the April 7th issue of The Albany Times Union an article about the recent NYSUT elections.  It seems that there was some discontent with the just defeated president of that organization, Dick Iannuzzi.  He’d been president since 2005 it says and it hints that he was making quite a salary; it doesn’t say exactly how much, but I’ve read before that it’s well north of $200K, close to $300K.  His salary aside, the article indicates that there was an uprising of members who thought he hadn’t gone far enough working to defeat the implementation of the Common Core standards and, most importantly I would think, the recently adopted teacher evaluation system, APPR.

The upstart who defeated him, one Karen Magee from Harrison, NY, was running on a platform with the catchy slogan “Revive NYSUT.” It appears that a majority of the members must have felt that NYSUT needed to be revived.

I can only quote from the article, I have no official documents from the association, but it provides a recap regarding an action that the NYSUT Assembly (the voting body for the group) adopted and that caused great concern for me. The article states that the Assembly “…supported the rights of parents and guardians to opt their children out of high-stakes tests.” What?!?

An organization that says it supports education, often using the catchphrase “doing what is best for children” is now stating that parents don’t have to let their kids take the state assessments? They support parents opting their kids out of these tests?  That doesn’t make sense; it seems directly contrary to what educators do support, namely teaching and assessing.  Tests are part of who we are and how we assess teaching and learning, now they’re saying kids don’t have to take assessments if their parents don’t want them to?  How would any teacher member of NYSUT feel if they were contacted by a parent who requested their child be opted out of that teacher’s tests?  Testing, even state required testing, is part of education, has always been, and will continue to be.  Isn’t NYSUT’s support of this action going to serve to spur the opting out movement on, to give it a boost?  Can it be that’s what they want?

Oh wait, I get it. This isn’t about what’s best for kids at all, it’s about what’s best for teachers.  The evaluation (which is tied to state assessments) is the issue.  My first thought was that NYSUT was taking a stand on a practice that was in kids’ best interests?  Shame on me!

It makes sense that NYSUT would support parents opting their kids out of the state testing because that way the testing has a chance of being undermined and, ergo, the results can’t be used for teacher evaluations. The tests will become a joke, they’ll be invalid and unreliable, and thus unusable.

Instead of addressing the issue head on, which Iannuzzi and NYSUT attempted to do but lost, the new leadership wants to use kids (and parents) to get their way. It’s like the new leaders are saying that if we can’t get it through legal channels, we’ll sneak around the issue and erode the base.  This is how NYSUT wants to be “revived?”  Amazing!  What’s next, endorsing parents opting their kids out of Regents exams?  What’s the difference?  What I do know… this is just my perspective.

Posted in Administrative Experiences, Communication in Schools, Education Legislation, School Climate | Leave a comment