Really, Commissioner?

The NYS Commissioner of Education, John B. King, Jr., recently posted a letter on a NY public access web site regarding the 2014 NYS assessment results, released in late August. Included in his letter are two scatterplots of all the New York State results by school, one graph for ELA and the other for math. Each school is displayed based on their 2014 percent proficient and their reported percentage of economically disadvantaged students. In other words, the scatterplots, which can be viewed along with King’s entire letter at and which are reproduced here, show the relationship between academic achievement, as measured by the NYS assessments, and poverty:

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 10.22.20 AM

The relationship is fairly clear to see in both scatterplots; as schools’ poverty levels increase their achievement results decrease. This is not a universal surety, as there are always exceptions to any rule, but the trend is obvious.   And this trend is not shocking or contrary to historical data. Indeed, there is a clear correlation heavily supported by research between poverty and achievement. Students of poverty perform worse, in general, on all measures of academic achievement. I want to stress that there are exceptions to what research clearly indicates. There are, of course, economically disadvantaged students who do very well academically, in fact, some who do as well as typical wealthier students.

Commissioner King writes, however,

“These results make clear that those who claim that demography is destiny and that we cannot improve teaching and learning until we have first fixed poverty are simply mistaken. In New York, there are many examples of higher poverty/higher performance schools…this is not to imply that poverty is an unimportant factor – it is extremely important, for all of us. But the idea that poverty or family circumstances outside of school are insurmountable obstacles for teaching and learning is a fallacy.”

When considered only on the surface, his statement is meant to empower, to reinforce that poverty does not mandate poor performance for every student but instead that any student has the capability to rise above his/her poverty and succeed. Indeed, while accurate, his statement tends to remove poverty from the equation, which is misleading and even disingenuous. I encourage Commissioner King to read Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol, in which the plight of East St. Louis schools is detailed. Kozol would agree that even in the poorest of schools there are individual students who rise above their poverty and succeed academically, but he would stress the obvious: that doing so is highly improbable.

And that’s where King’s message is misleading. Academic achievement is strongest where opportunities are richest. Where do opportunities abound? Not in poor districts, but in the wealthier ones. Money is needed to provide opportunities for students, to provide facilities that put students in a proper environment, to provide top quality teachers, to provide programs that allow students to stretch, to provide, well, to provide all that the students in wealthy districts have.   You cannot provide equal opportunities for students until you address the inequity of wealth between districts. Until you do that, students in poverty will not have anywhere the same opportunities and the trends seen in the scatterplots above will continue, if not worsen.

Commissioner King, let’s be honest. Your pep talk is empty until there is equitable funding for schools. You can attempt to encourage all you want but there will only continue to be the exceptions you mention in your letter. You cannot will away the link between poverty and achievement.

And that is my perspective.

Posted in Communication Clarity in Schools, Education Legislation, SED Regulations | Leave a comment

How’s Your Hometown Fit In?

Every summer my hometown of Lisbon holds “Old Home Week” over the course of a weekend in August. It’s a great example of small town Americana…there are town-wide garage/lawn sales, a parade Saturday morning featuring a lot of neighboring towns’ fire trucks and local old cars, a chicken BBQ at the fire hall, a school Hall of Fame induction takes place, an ice cream social at the White Church (yup, we actually have a church called the white Church!), and a lot of other little things taking place. And there are a lot of people. That’s the main idea, to get as many Lisbon natives as possible to visit their hometown. And a lot do. While I don’t attend “Old Home Week” every year, I do most years. Not for all the goings-on, although I do enjoy the parade, but to run into people I haven’t seen in a while. I can count on seeing old friends every year, some years more than others, of course.

I like seeing old friends, although I don’t have much in common anymore with most, and you can only talk about the “good ol’ days” so much. More importantly to me, Old Home Week provides an opportunity to get back to my roots, to remember the people and the events that played roles in shaping my development. I had a good time growing up in Lisbon, my memories are mostly positive, and even the not so positive ones have been tempered by time. I also feel that I owe my upbringing a lot and, while that is centered on my family and friends, my town and all that it encompasses was part of it. In all honesty I wouldn’t want to live there, but I have an allegiance to my town and my school and I appreciate all that my experiences shaped me. School was a major facet of my development. I especially feel an obligation to my teachers, who I don’t see too often at all, many are deceased now, but regardless, I feel I owe them a debt of gratitude. Having spent my career as an educator I appreciate so much what they provided to me.

So I struggle when I encounter people who forget about their early influences. I believe all of us need to remember those who helped us along the way. We are not forever indebted to them, but we shouldn’t forget about them either, and we certainly shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist. I recently had an experience that reinforced for me the need to keep people from my past in mind.

A graduate of my current district now plays baseball in the major leagues. I recently had the opportunity to see his team play two games in two different cities, Chicago and Detroit. In anticipation of this, via colleagues I was able to text him about a month ahead of time and let him know the two games I would be attending. I also said I wouldn’t bug him about it, but would love to see him before one of the games if he could work it out. I’ve been to many games and seeing ball players spending time with friends before games is commonplace. I didn’t receive a response to my initial text so about a week before the first game I texted him again with the details. The colleague who had supplied me with his contact info also contacted him on my behalf. Again, nothing. The first game came, I was interacting with some of his teammates before the game, but not him. The second game, the same story. To say the least, I was disappointed.

I know, he’s a major leaguer, he has obligations, he’s working to stay on the big team…I get all that. But really, two games within four days of each other in two distant cities? How many people from his hometown even do that? I believe that major leaguers owe something to their fans, especially the young ones. I mentioned in my texts to him that my girlfriend’s three young boys, ages 6, 9, and 11, would be with me. They would be thrilled to meet and speak with a major leaguer. What an opportunity for role modeling! He would be an excellent example for these kids that if you want something bad enough, you can achieve it. I was able to, you can also.   Wow, powerful stuff!

Even if I consider only the hometown angle, he failed. I don’t want to say he owed it to me, because he doesn’t owe me, specifically, anything. But he owes his upbringing something. I know that he had many educators who encouraged him, assisted him, pushed him to pursue his goals, and who helped him in his formative years understand that legitimate goals need to be worked for. Taking five minutes out of his day to acknowledge his background is little to give.

He needs to remember where he came from and that he makes what he does because of fan support.

And that is my perspective.

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SED’s Continuing Confusing Decisions

It’s mid-September, which means that the NYS Education Department (SED) has only recently publicized the results of the NYS assessments in mathematics and English Language Arts…that were administered in April! We can now analyze how individual students fared with the content and skills that are deemed crucial for appropriate academic development. We can also evaluate our school programs, comparing ourselves to how well we performed last year. Also as a helpful gauge we can compare our school to similar schools in the area. While I completely disagree with publishing all schools’ results in the newspaper (which leads to all readers drawing inaccurate and even unfair comparisons), seeing how similar schools did compared to our students is a validation of sorts. If only you could make such comparisons.

The issue is related to SED securing a state assessment waiver for 7th and 8th grade students who successfully complete an accelerated math class. A full discussion of this topic is too lengthy for this article but can be found in my blog ( In short, for example, schools had the option of waiving the 8th grade state assessment for those 8th graders who are enrolled in Algebra I (a high school credit-bearing course) which eliminated “double testing” for those students. And that sounds pretty good… if only there wasn’t a catch.

Using 8th grade as my continued example (since that is the grade level where students are typically accelerated) when considering last year’s (2013) math assessment results, my school had 55% of 8th graders earn scores at the Proficient Level (Levels III or IV). For comparison purposes, School A and School B, two area schools which are very similar to us and to which we are usually compared, had 51% and 45%, respectively, of their students earn Proficient Level scores.

Now consider the same performance level using this year’s (2014) scores. Shaker JHS had 65% of 8th graders earn Proficient Level scores. School A had 39% and School B had 38% of their 8th graders earn the same Proficient Level scores. Someone not aware of the waiver possibility, which could be a solid majority of these very good schools’ community members, would think that their middle school had a major issue with their 8th grade math programs this year. They could also conclude that the teaching staff did not do their jobs very well. The truth is, however, that both schools waived the 8th grade assessment requirement, as they’re allowed to do, for their 8th graders enrolled in Algebra I while we did not. The data provided by SED does not indicate this exclusion in any way. So not only can you no longer compare yourself to similar schools, the numbers may not provide an accurate assessment of a school’s math program.

The only fair way to do so is for SED to account for these accelerated students in some manner in a school’s assessment totals. Surely if an 8th grader earns a passing score on the Algebra I Regents exam then that student should be considered “Proficient” on the 8th grade assessment. After all, such a student has successfully completed the next year’s Regents level math course! I suggested a fair way to do so earlier this year: a Regents Exam score of 65-85% should count as a Level III score and a Regents Exam score of 86-100% should count as a Level IV score. If done so, all students would be accounted for and reflected in the school’s assessment performance index and an accurate picture of the school’s math program would be produced and publicized. SED has all of the data needed to do this, but so far they have not indicated any interest in addressing the issue. There’s always next year.


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Take The Bus!

My topic is obvious from the title. Why do so many parents drive their kids to school instead of having them ride the school bus? Good question, few good answers.

I never rode a school bus growing up so I never experienced the good, the bad, or the ugly of having to do so. I lived just down the street from school, maybe a couple tenths of a mile, so I and my siblings walked. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, however, there’s no way I or any of my siblings would have asked our parents to give us a ride. We just knew not to bother, it would have been a waste of time to ask. It didn’t matter what the weather was, if we had to carry books (backpacks didn’t exist then), a trumpet for band rehearsal, a duffle bag for sports togs, plus anything else, or if we had sprained our ankle the day before and were hobbling. I know, today people would scream abuse, but it wasn’t. Getting to and from school was our responsibility.

I know that’s a rare perspective today. I also know that today I know I have parents who live a couple of blocks away giving their kids rides to school daily. We also have a serious number of parents whose kids walk to school unless it’s raining, or snowing, or it’s cold, or you name it. I guess you would call these kids fair weather walkers. While a case could possibly be made that my parents were a tad on the extreme side, a much stronger case can be made that today’s typical parent treats their kids like they’re made out of sugar, or some other fragile composition.

I get the response that some parents are concerned with safety, that kids who are within the walk zones (and not eligible for busing) often have to walk on the sides of residential streets, walk areas that have little room to spare with car/truck traffic. This concern is magnified in the winter when snow banks on the sides of roads make the passageway even narrower. This issue makes some sense. But I have a real peeve with parents whose kids are eligible for busing yet who drive them to school anyway.
Research has clearly shown that the safest method of getting kids to school is to take the school bus. Statistics indicate that kids are more likely to be involved in an accident when being driven to school in a parent’s car than when riding the bus. Accidents that do occur with school buses tend to be less serious for kids also, as the buses are constructed much more sturdily and for the safety of the passengers than are the typical passenger vehicles.

So why don’t parents have their kids ride the bus? I don’t know. The reasons, excuses, are most likely numerous. In some cases it could be that the child is overbearing and the parent doesn’t want to deal with it. Maybe he/she doesn’t want to ride on a bus for 25 minutes when mom/dad could drive to school in 10. It could be that kids don’t want to stand outside at the bus stop for 5-10 minutes. Perhaps kids are able to sleep in a bit longer if they are driven to school than if they have to get ready to be outside for their appointed pick-up time. Perhaps the bus pick-up time is early, too early for the kid to get ready to go, earlier than is necessary if mom or dad drives. It could be that driving the child to school provides the parent with “alone time” with the child. Maybe a parent drops the child off at school on his/her way to work, rather than have the child wait at home. It is hard to list all of the possible reasons.
None of them, in my mind, are legitimate reasons. I realize I don’t know everyone’s personal situation, and there could be some instances where it does make good sense to drive the child to school. But I believe that those legitimate reasons are few and far between. I am glad that junior high kids don’t drive, as that would add yet another reason why kids don’t take the bus, along with a thick layer of driving and parking problems to our campus.

Really, parents, have your kids take the bus. It is there for their use, our tax payers are funding it, let’s use it, for the benefit of all of us. And that’s my perspective.

Posted in Administrative Experiences, School Climate | 2 Comments

GSA Revisited: Then And Now

I’ve written previously about the successful efforts undertaken at Shaker JHS to develop a much needed Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). We began last November where the club grew out of a faculty panel discussion conducted on a workshop day. We held our first meeting in January and it continued from there. We are looking forward to continuing this supportive group in the new school year and providing leadership for area middle schools that realize the need is there.

A pleasant surprise took place just last week. Dr. Ray Werking is the host of a weekly radio show entitled Homo Radio, centered on LGBTQ issues, which can be heard on WRPI, (the radio station for RPI). Dr. Ray wanted to celebrate his 66th birthday by discussing our GSA on air. Needless to say he was proud of our efforts and of what we have accomplished. He has a connection to us as well as he also taught at Shaker JH! His tenure was just prior to my beginning at the school. He left his English teaching position to teach at the University at Albany, eventually serving as the department chair at the school.

Lisa Coluccio, guidance counselor and one of the co-advisors of our GSA, was in the studio for the show. CJ Theiss, health teacher and other co-advisor, was on her way back to the area from Syracuse so was “on the phone” for the show. I, returning from Burlington, was, like CJ, “on the phone” for the show. I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Ray the evening before the broadcast and several questions he asked me then were again posed during the live show. One of the questions we discussed was especially thought provoking.

Dr. Ray asked me what I thought would have occurred if I had attempted to create a GSA at Shaker JH in 1988 when I started at the school. It was a good question in that it required me to comparatively evaluate people and, more importantly, climates from two different eras when it comes to LGBTQ issues.

To be honest, the world, especially Shaker JH, was a different place in 1988 than it is today. I don’t remember there ever being an instance of a concern shared with me way back then related to a student struggling with questions of sexuality. Given my expanded knowledge base of today, however, I realize that there were students at that time who were questioning their sexuality, it just wasn’t demonstrated in public. I also realize that most likely a majority of the faculty would not have been comfortable openly airing or discussing the idea of student sexuality issues. The climate that existed at that time reminds me of the much publicized military approach of today: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Developing a GSA was not an obvious need at the time, and had I tried to initiate a discussion about doing so, the reaction would have been quite negative to say the least.

I contrast that climate with what exists today. First and foremost society is very different, which translates directly to differences in faculty members. Shaker JH faculty and staff are knowledgeable of the issues students face, have a broader understanding of adolescent gay and transgender questions, have students who have two moms, are (for the most part) comfortable discussing these issues, and easily work with gay colleagues. I also can’t imagine having candidates for positions who are not aware of LGBTQ issues, who do not have friends, family members, acquaintances, etc. who are gay. The staff members at Shaker JH today are aware of the issues and that many of our adolescents are questioning who they are in many ways, including their sexuality.

Given the differences in society and in our faculty, developing a GSA was a natural continuation of meeting our responsibility to put in place support programs for (all of) our students.

You can listen to last Sunday’s radio show via the following link:

HomoRadio2014.08.24DrRay66Bday – YourListen

Our portion begins at around the 2 hour point and lasts about one hour.

Many thanks to Dr. Ray Werking for thinking of us, for realizing that we are one of the few middle schools that has a GSA, and for promoting our efforts! And, as always, thanks to Lisa and CJ for their terrific work with our GSA and for their willingness to promote it in any and all forums! We plan to provide guidance to other middle schools that understand the need to develop a GSA at this year’s NYS Middle Schools Association annual conference, scheduled for October 9 & 10 in Verona, New York! We hope that we have a packed house to hear our ideas.

And this is my perspective…







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Icing The Ice Bucket Challenge

C’mon, you’re like me. With all the hoopla surrounding the ice bucket challenge for ALS you were just waiting for someone to challenge you. Also like me you were probably concerned that so much time has passed and you weren’t challenged! Why not? Nobody thinks of me? I’m not someone who is considered for this challenge, when everyone else and their brother is? What’s wrong with my friends? What’s wrong with me?

I have to admit that when the challenge first arose it was unique, and seemed like a great idea…and it was both of those. I also was just “challenged”, so I’m warm and fuzzy that someone finally thought of me. But as the cause has become a fad, my thinking has undergone a change as well.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a great marketing idea. It highlighted a truly terrible disease and was quite effective at raising money for the cause. Congrats to whoever was responsible for the idea and for initiating one of the most effective fund raising efforts ever! I have nothing against the ALS Association or raising money to help find a cure for one of the more tragic diseases the can befall someone. I have real sympathy for anyone affected by ALS, either directly or via a friend or loved one. But, I’m not going to participate in the challenge.

You should read Mike Rowe’s Facebook post “Not Throwing Cold Water on a Cause.” He explains his rationale for not participating quite well. I get his point and agree with it, and I want to piggyback off what he wrote with some additional thoughts.

Rowe points out that charitable giving is a rather limited pool. While the total given any year is not static, you can’t expect givers to suddenly double their annual giving. So money given to cause A is, in all likelihood, going to negatively affect charitable giving to cause B, or cause C. He writes that “According to experts, 50% to 70% of all the money collected as a result of the Ice Bucket Challenge will directly impact future contributions to other charities in an equal and opposite way.” (the italics are mine) So if the ALS Association collects $80 million, other charities working to raise needed funds could see their collective results diminished by roughly $40 to $56 million.

That’s a serious cash flow problem, especially so if you consider the diseases that have the highest mortality rates. I know, every death is tragic, whether it be a death from ALS or from cancer, but when considering the grand scheme of diseases, my head says to put the most money into the research that will benefit the most people. According to statistics from the CDC, heart disease claimed just short of 600,000 lives in 2011; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease claimed 143,000; diabetes another 74,000, breast cancer 41,000. ALS was responsible for just short of 7,000 deaths.

Again, I’m not saying one death is more important than another, but I am saying that money for research to combat serious diseases should be allocated relative to the potential for saving lives.

Shame on the American Heart Association for not thinking of an ice bucket challenge of their own!
So, I’m not taking part in the challenge, knowing that I will most likely insult my secretary, Lisa, who nominated me. I depend on her daily so I hope she doesn’t hold a grudge. While serving a good cause, public challenges are not the way to seek donations. People donate because they believe in a cause and want to do their part to help out. I donate to a lot of causes, ALS is not one of them, and like what was written in Rowe’s post, if I donate to ALS then I most likely would not donate to some other one. I also am not one to get caught up in fads, and the ice bucket challenge has become just that. Like me, you’re insulted if not challenged…it’s being challenged that’s important, not the cause. That’s not me.
So be thoughtful about your giving, know why you’re giving to a specific cause, and know what your giving really means in the big picture. And if you don’t give to ALS, give to a different charity, just be sure to give.

And that’s my perspective.

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And I Want It Now…

So I received this phone call one day in late May, about five weeks before the end of the school year. It was a parent whose family was moving to our area and they were looking at schools. Buying a house in a district that best meets their children’s educational needs was of importance to them, and the mother wanted to learn about our school; she had looked at the information that’s available online but was interested in learning more about us.

I understand parents wanting to research schools and relocate to a district that will provide a strong education for their kids, that makes a lot of sense to me. And I think school district quality should be a main consideration for any family relocating for that matter. The intro to our conversation which, of course, led to a request was not of concern at all.

She told me that she had already spoken to a person in our Guidance Office and had requested a tour during the day to observe our school “in action.” The response she received was that we do not conduct tours during the day. (That is an accurate response. People can have a tour of our school after hours when the student presence is minimal. Either time they will see the same building.)

Well, Ms. K was not satisfied with that, and she was hoping I would bend the rules and allow her to tour when school was in full swing. She was interested in seeing “the kids we have, the demographics and how they interact.”

If you’ve read my previous blogs then you already know my response. I told her that, just like she was told by the guidance office secretary, we do not allow tours during the school day. I added that we are consistent with this approach and that all potential visitors are given the same message.

I’m sure you know that she was disappointed with my response, and she said that what I was telling her was not what she had experienced with other area schools. (Subsequently she revealed that she had actually only contacted one neighboring school, which had allowed a day tour.) I didn’t respond, but instead asked her if she was interested in visiting after school some other day. She thought that might work, she was going to be in the area in the near future, perhaps the following Monday. I said that would be fine, please call the guidance office ahead of time to confirm and to arrange for the tour. The conversation ended amicably enough, I put it out of my mind.

So, that Monday I got back to school from a district meeting around 2:15 and was preparing for a rehearsal with our orchestra for a concert that evening. (I was playing bass on a number, something this director asks me to do annually.) At about 2:30 my secretary (An aside, secretaries really do run the place…they have to, I couldn’t do what my secretary does!) said that a woman was here for our 2:30 meeting. I was surprised, I said, as I didn’t have a 2:30 meeting scheduled. She said it was a Mrs. K…no recollection on my part.

I walked out, carrying by bass guitar, music, and lead chord and introduced myself. Ms. K said that we had talked on the phone last week about her visiting…ah, yes, Ms. K who wanted to see our school!

I told her I remembered our conversation well, but that she had not called back to confirm that she was going to visit like I had asked her to do. I also reminded her that any tours would be arranged via our guidance office, that we did not have a meeting scheduled, and that I had a rehearsal that I had to get to.

She said she would have to “check her notes” from our conversation (Really? Who does that?), perhaps we had a miscommunication. I responded that I had been quite clear, that if she wanted a tour after hours, she should arrange it through our guidance office. I told her that she could still do so.

Her response? As a family they were considering several school districts in the area, and I had probably helped them with their decision-making. I said “Good luck with your relocation. I need to get to rehearsal.”

She’s really better off going elsewhere. We educate who resides in our district; we do not recruit students; I have no real interest in whether a person moving to this area settles in our district or somewhere else. And if whether or not you get your way is a determining factor for relocating to our district, please, go elsewhere. And that is my perspective…

Posted in Administrative Experiences, Communication in Schools, School Climate | 3 Comments