Student Achievement: Another Excuse For A Flogging

I clearly remember a conversation about education and student achievement that I had with one of my older brothers several years ago.

Steve was a really bright guy and very competitive, who went the private industry route. (Contrasted with myself and my other four brothers, all of whom went into education!) He was valedictorian of his senior class and attended General Motors Institute right out of high school. GMI was basically an engineering school operated by General Motors. It was geared to train engineers to work in the automotive field, in general, and at General Motors specifically. It was also an atypical school in that students attended classes for eight weeks and then worked in a GM factory for eight weeks. This pattern continued for the duration of the schooling. So Steve would be at GMI in Flint, Michigan, for eight weeks and then he’d be home for eight weeks, working full time at the General Motors plant in Massena, NY, about a forty-minute drive from our house.
Steve’s specialty when he graduated with his engineering degree was management of production. He was involved early on in the actual processes and machinery that were needed to produce automobile engine parts. This, as you expect, is a huge industry. There are countless businesses that make automobile engine parts; they contract with General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, etc. to make the parts needed for the auto production. Steve started out at General Motors, but he soon moved into the private businesses and, being an excellent manager, was sought after by such companies. He eventually ended up being a part owner and vice president of production for a business in Michigan that did hundreds of millions of dollars of business with the major automobile companies. He knew his stuff.

Another facet of providing parts to major auto industries, other than cost, of maintaining contracts was quality control. Imagine you are the head of production for Ford, and you’re purchasing many millions of dollars’ worth of water pump housings from a parts company. You need to be sure that every one of the water pumps that you purchase from another company will first fit the specifications required and the housings received and, when installed in the engine compartment, will work properly. You can’t have 10% of the product not fit or not work. You need 100% reliance on the parts, and, thus, on the company. This is the world in which Steve lived, operated, and believed.

So Steve and I were talking and he said that schools’ quality control was deficient. He maintained that, like in private business, society should expect a 100% success rate. He also believed that if we applied certain business models and practices to school operations we could achieve it. I, of course, passionately disagreed.

I think George Bush (the younger) must have had a conversation with him before crafting the No Child Left Behind legislation debacle. You may be familiar with this legislation. If not, it’s another great example of well-intentioned regulations that were unattainable. The key portion was that it required 100% of students to be proficient in math and English Language Arts by a specified date, the designated date is long past, which on its face is laughable. We are not manufacturing water pump housings, we cannot demand that the raw materials sent to us meet all of our specifications, we know that students possess a wide range of learning capabilities due to many factors, most of which are beyond our control. Expecting 100% success in any endeavor is asking for disappointment, and this is so obvious in any setting that involves humans.

Humans are imperfect beings and there is no level of expectation of educational preparedness that can be counted on in 100% of any human population. A sixth grade teacher has sitting in her classroom raw materials that are anything but alike in all specifications. How many of her students won’t be able to focus because they didn’t get sufficient sleep, or because they didn’t have a sufficient breakfast, or are upset because mom is mad at them, or are worried about their dad who they haven’t seen in a week, or feel they’re to blame for their parents’ separation, or believe they can’t do the work, or any of a number of other reasons that inhibit the acquisition of content and skills? Yet my brother, and many other non-educators including legislators and, more obviously our governor, fail to understand this.

I’m not making excuses for those educators who aren’t very effective at their jobs, even though the raw materials we work with are imperfect in many ways. But, our public schools are not failing, far from it. And the number of ineffective teachers is a lot smaller than the press, and our governor, would have you believe. No one should look at kids as perfect specimens who just need to be led in the right direction. I don’t mean that as a putdown, I mean that as an honest assessment. Kids are not perfect raw materials that are perfectly ready for the next step in the process of academic development. Think of your own kids, or nephews/nieces, cousins, etc. Put them in a room together and imagine what it would be like to move them all forward at the same pace so they are all at the same level of achievement at the same point in time…it just doesn’t happen so neatly.
Nope, private business models attending to inanimate materials won’t work with humans. Expecting them to transfer is folly.

And that’s my perspective.

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Pssst, What Do You Think Of…?

As a building principal, I’m told a lot of things.  While most administrators talk about having an “open door” approach to their jobs, I really do.  I would estimate that over the course of any week, my door might get shut for a private conversation once.  I don’t even close my door when I leave for the night.  My door is always open and, as a planned result, I often have a steady stream of people stopping by to talk about one thing or another.  I also make it a point to wander throughout the school, talking to colleagues when and where appropriate, but also maintaining a high level of visibility.  People, especially relationships and interactions with them, constitute the greatest component of the vast majority of my responsibilities.  So, as I started out, I’m told a lot of things, a great deal of information is shared with me.

And, since my days are consumed by interactions with people, I hear a lot about people.  I am told all kinds of things, most, as you would expect, directly related to this school and one or more facets of it, but a good deal of information that is shared with me has a tenuous connection to our work.  It borders on, sometimes falls right into the middle of, gossip.

I believe I’m a good listener, my colleagues are quite comfortable sharing with me.  And, as a principal who wants and needs interactions with people to be most effective at what I need to do, I do not stifle conversations.  I don’t encourage gossip, but I also don’t openly discourage it.  People are sharing information with me for a reason, and often I’m not sure what that reason is.  It’s what I do with the information that’s important anyway…and I am not one to spread gossip to others.  It’s kind of like people can tell me what they want but if the information has nothing to do with our jobs or the workplace it goes nowhere.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  We, meaning building principals in particular, but actually encompassing everyone, needs to remember that we are talked about too.  Yup, you can be sure that you are the subject of conversation at one time or another.  Don’t you think that any teacher at one time or another is the subject of conversation around a family’s diner table?  As a building principal who is involved in most things that take place in this building, and who also usually has some part in decisions that are made, I realize that I am talked about more often than most other people in this building.  I am sure that I am the subject of discussions regularly.  And, not being negative but instead having what I call a realistic perspective on myself, my job, and people in general, the conversations most likely are centered on a disagreement with me in one way or another.

Sticking to my realistic way of viewing things, sometimes the disagreement could be personal in nature, other times it’s about a decision, a program, something I did or didn’t do, an interaction, you name it.  I am the subject of discussion, sometimes gossip…and it is not a rare occurrence by any means to be the subject of conversation.

We all talk about our bosses, I mean they are an obvious focus for discussion.  So being a lot of people’s boss, I know that for many things which occur, I am the most likely focus.  I realize that and, over the years, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even think about it.  I know it happens, I know it happens fairly regularly, and I cannot worry about it.  Doing so is counterproductive, at the least, and unhealthy at the most.  But I’ve been doing this a long time, and I can say that when I first realized that people talked about me fairly often it bothered me.  It took a while to get to the mental place where I just didn’t expend energy worrying about it.  I had to work to take to heart the adage that “the only way to counter negative gossip is to live your life so that no one believes it.”

Any beginning administrator, or even a future administrator who is completing an internship and, thus, viewed by some as a quasi-administrator and a good target, needs to realize early on that they are the subject of talk, some good but a lot not so good.  You cannot operate effectively day-to-day if you are “looking over your shoulder”, making decisions based on whether or not people will speak well of you.  Again, live your life, i.e. do your job, so that colleagues can see how you make decisions and realize you were coming from a solid perspective.  Some will disagree with your decision anyway, but regardless it will be a sound decision.  And you can’t listen to imaginary voices that could sway you away from the right decision.

And that’s my perspective.

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Private vs. Public

During my many years as principal at Shaker JH, I’ve had more than a few conversations with parents about this school  compared to a private/parochial school for their child(ren).  Parents who have asked me about this invariably have their oldest child at the age for entering 7th grade.  They have questions, based on things they’ve heard or assumed about us, and typically they are considering a move from private school to the public arena.  I have had discussions with some couples who have a child in public school but are wondering if keeping him/her in public school during the young adolescent years is the better option or not.

Often as well, one parent is a public school product and the other has a private school background.  This situation is always interesting; you have one parent leaning public, the other leaning private.  I’m kind of the deciding vote.

Keep in mind that I don’t recruit kids.  We have plenty already, it won’t matter one way or the other if the parents of Child A decide to have their child join us or not.  Annually we have a large number of very good students, a large number of average to good students, and a relatively small number of students who struggle.  One more joining any of those three groupings won’t affect us.  Even if the child is an outlier, their presence will have no noticeable effect on us.  It’s not that I don’t care about kids, or that I don’t want (especially) to see good students joining our ranks, it’s just that joining us or not will not alter who we are or what we offer and accomplish.  And I don’t want to be the deciding vote for a decision that clearly rests on the parents and the child.

I will clarify who we are, what we expect, what we provide, etc. to parents.  There is often a prevailing belief that parents have, a belief that is promulgated and circulated by those who run private and parochial schools, that students will receive a better education if they go the private route.  I clearly and quickly disencumber parents of that thought.  7th and 8th grade students will not receive a better education at any middle school in this area, public or private, than they will receive at Shaker JH.  I will discuss programs, practices, instruction, share statistics, give examples of student opportunities, you name it.  Parents will not leave my office with any misconceptions about quality of education.

I will also answer reasonable questions about our students.  Parents are, of course, concerned about the influences their child will encounter and perhaps succumb to.  I can only discuss the quality of our student body, which again will match up favorably with any other middle school’s in this area.  I also point to the extra-curricular opportunities that we provide, the chances that students are provided to explore an area of interest or to sample different experiences to see if they have a possible interest in a previously unexplored area.  The scope of our extra-curricular offerings will, again, compare favorably with any.

In short, there are no educational or developmental advantages inherent in a private or parochial school that we don’t attend to better.  The only characteristic that private or parochial schools possess that we do not is the specific environment of the school.  If you want your child to be exposed to religious teaching with an emphasis on church thought, you won’t find that here.  If you want a quasi-military climate that will teach your child to operate like a mini-soldier, we won’t provide that.  If you want your child encapsulated in an environment with kids “like him”, i.e. from families that resemble theirs, don’t come here.  Our school prepares students for the real world, we reflect society, and we help kids learn how to manage and succeed in a diverse setting.  We help kids realize that they can prosper in a class that has kids of different races, cultural backgrounds, levels of economic support, sexuality, or religious upbringing.  We don’t insulate, we include and use that inclusion as a constant teachable moment.  And our kids benefit.

Yup, whether you bring your daughter or son to Shaker JH is totally up to you, I don’t have an opinion on that, but if you don’t, be honest with yourself and make sure your reasons for doing so are based on real, not imagined, preferences.

And that’s my perspective.

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Cuomo Continues His Assault

Much has been written about the fiscal mess that Governor Cuomo is causing for local governments and school districts.  He has refused to release school aid “runs”, which are reports on the state aid that school districts will receive.  Imagine trying to construct a budget, which have to be adopted by Boards of Education by early April, when you don’t know a large part of your revenue sources.  In addition, he is offering no increases to schools unless his “reform package” is adopted in its entirety.   He’s using schools to further his own personal/political agenda and holding a financial gun to their collective heads to advance himself.  It’s bad enough in a good suburban school district like the one I work in to not know what state aid increase is in the works; it’s criminal when you consider the typical rural district which may rely on state aid for up to 75% of its revenue!

If the financial part of Cuomo’s dictatorial approach isn’t enough, you should read his solutions to educator evaluation.  He’s already screwed it up with what we currently have in place, again a great example of Cuomo putting his national sights ahead of what’s effective and relevant for schools, and now he wants to force the legislature to screw it up some more.

Following is a letter to parents from the teachers PS 321 in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.  Follow the link to read their appeal to parents, and read their take on the effects Cuomo’s “reforms” will have on their school.

Some will dismiss their comments as being more worried about themselves than they are of students…but read carefully.  They are expressing legitimate concerns based upon the negative effects they see this proposed legislation having on classrooms.  And they are asking parents to share their concern and let their voices be heard.

You should do the same.

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Opportunities Vs. Limitations

When I started as principal of Shaker Junior High School, it is safe to say that my beliefs, philosophies, objectives were not completely formed.  After all, my previous experience had been limited to one school, so I did not have any exposure to different district climates and expectations.  I was inheriting many existing programs and was in no position to analyze the effectiveness of those programs or even the need for any of them.  Thus, I felt an obligation to maintain them, which, given my lack of knowledge of alternatives, was rational and appropriate.

At that time we had one section of an enriched 7th grade math class that we called “Math Lab”.  This class was for the top level math students.  It was more demanding and would better meet the math instructional needs of these kids than would our regular math 7 program.  As would be expected, there were criteria that had to be met by students for them being considered for inclusion into this class.  Students who successfully completed Math 7 Lab, which was all of them given the rigorous selection criteria, would then take Algebra, an accelerated 9th grade Regents class, as 8th graders.  I, of course, believed that my task was to make sure that only those students who qualified for the class were included in it.  We didn’t want to “water down” the intensity or the expectations of the program and we didn’t want to include students who would be in over their heads.

Inevitably, I was contacted by a parent of a student who didn’t meet our established our criteria.  In my discussions with the parent, I made it clear what our criteria were for inclusion, pointing out where his son fell short.  He countered that his son was a very good math student, received top grades in 6th grade and wasn’t a particularly good test-taker, hence his failure to meet one or two of our entrance criteria.  I didn’t disagree at all, as his son appeared to be a very good math student, but the criteria were established for specific reasons and I would not allow his son into the program.  Part of my reasoning was that once you did so for a student, you could not say “no” to others.  If this was allowed to happen, you would quickly lose the Math Lab and would have a program that didn’t even closely resemble it…and, we would have students in an enriched program who struggled, who were better served being in the regular math program.

The father was not persuaded, believing that his son would be up to the task, and he asked me who he could call to appeal my decision.  I told him he should contact our superintendent.

I remember my resulting conversation with the superintendent very clearly.  It was short.  He asked me my reasoning for denying the boy enrollment in Math Lab.  I explained my perspective.  While he clearly understood where I was coming from, he asked me whose interests were being served by adhering so tightly to the criteria.  I told him we were working to protect the integrity of the program.  He wondered why?  I countered with including students who may not be able to handle the pace, the content, and the homework expectations.  He asked why I was concerned about that when the parent was not, when all other characteristics displayed by the boy in his previous years indicated he was a very good student?  I didn’t have a good answer to that.

He said that our job, especially at the junior high level, was to open up doors for students, not shut them.  We should be pushing kids to take advantage of realistic opportunities, not discouraging them from reaching.  He also said to enroll the boy.

The conversation turned out to be pivotal for me.  He was right, not because of his position, because he could have just told me to enroll the boy and not bothered with the discussion.  His reasoning, and philosophy for educating adolescents, reflected what we should be providing for students.  I took his comments to heart, thought a lot about them, especially given that initially I did not feel that I was being supported.  I discussed my developing thoughts with colleagues.  Most understood and agreed.  The math department did not.  They saw my thinking as the beginning of the end for our enriched and accelerated programs.

I quickly came to believe, no, to understand, that our responsibility is to put students into positions where they are challenged appropriately.  We should indeed provide students with opportunities to grow, not to limit them to only those programs that we know they can be successful in.  Specifically, in math this translated into giving more incoming 7th grade students the opportunity to take the more challenging math course of study.

On my end, I began to broaden our enriched and, thus, accelerated programs.  As I wrote, when I began at SJHS there was one Math 7 Lab section; consequently there was only one accelerated 8th grade algebra class.  That meant that only about 30 students, or 6-7% of our grade level enrollments, had the opportunity to earn a high school credit in algebra in 8th grade.  A similar situation existed in science, with only one section of accelerated Regents level earth science provided in grade 8.

Today, the climate couldn’t be more different.  We now enroll 30-33% of our incoming 7th graders in our enriched math 7 classes.  Some students realize that they are not quite ready for the work load so there’s expected drop-off, but we have between 25-30% of our 8th graders taking accelerated Regents level algebra.  In science, we enroll approximately 25% of 7th graders in our enriched 7th grade science program and have between 20-25% enrolled in Regents earth science in grade 8.  We also offer acceleration opportunities in studio art, foreign language and pre-engineering.  Our philosophy is one of inclusion not exclusion.  And we are a much better school because of it.

And that’s my perspective.

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Learning To Be A Principal: Lesson #7

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’ve only experienced seven lessons in my years long development as a principal.  Far from it!  It sounds like a cliché, but you learn from people and experiences on a very regular basis.  And many more of the learning experiences are based on positive actions of people rather than negative.  But, there are a few experiences in my career, just like in anyone’s, that stand out, events that provided a learning experience beyond the typical.  I’ve shared six such experiences in my blog to date, here’s another.

If you’ve read my previous posts, especially the six entitled “Learning To Be A Principal,” you know that when I was hired as principal here at Shaker JHS there was a small group of experienced teachers who were, to say the least, not interested in me messing with the status quo.  In fact, they openly battled against any initiatives or changes in practice that interfered with their visions of how our school should operate.  They were difficult and I was able to sustain our efforts despite theirs given the support I received from some other faculty members, my two hall principals, and my assistant superintendent.

The ringleader of the outlaws was a science teacher I’ll call Bert, changing his name for some reason I don’t think is any longer necessary.  Bert had taught the same courses for his entire 20+ year teaching career at SJHS.  He was the most vocal of the antis and he was the one who most often tried to intimidate me with threats of grievances, plans to have the staff evaluate me, chiming in with his opinions on most thing raised at faculty meetings, and negatively influencing his more timid colleagues into not embracing needed changes.

It was about my fifth year as principal and I had a science opening at the grade level not taught by Bert.  My immediate choice was to move Bert to the opening, knowing that he would not want to do it, that he would fight being moved and that I was pretty much doing this to get him back for the problems he had caused me.  But, I believed the move was solid instructionally and, more than just getting even with Bert, I would be sending a clear message to the rest of his group and to the entire faculty.  That message was that despite the problems these teachers had created, they would not prevail, they would not be the ones determining the directions our building was pursuing.  Order would be restored in everyone’s minds.  My assistant superintendent agreed with me, and supported my approach.

Being thoughtful, I sent a note to the science department members asking if anyone was interested in moving to the open position.  Surprise, no one wanted to move.  So, instead of waiting to see who we hired, I informed Bert that he would be moved to the opening, leaving his comfortable surroundings for the first time in his career at our school.  He was not happy and he immediately filed a grievance.  The grievance procedure followed its mandated contractual steps, including a meeting with me and a subsequent meeting with the superintendent.  At both of these meetings the grievance was denied, with both myself and the superintendent citing as reasons the district’s right to assign staff as deemed appropriate and the educational benefits of moving a veteran staff member into this position.

The next step in the grievance process was an appeal to the Board of Education, which was made.  The meeting was held and the BOE supported the decision to move Bert, denying the grievance.  During the appeal hearing, unfortunately, colleagues of Bert lied about the process followed.  One, Fred, even said that he was interested in moving, he had just never been asked.

Well, imagine Fred’s dismay when the district’s attorney pulled out the note I sent to the teachers asking for volunteers!  Fred was forced to admit that he was “mistaken”, he had been asked and had not responded.  I believe the BOE was going to deny the grievance anyway, but the deliberate lie sealed the deal.  And it certainly hurt the credibility of the teachers involved and the teachers association.

The last step, yes, grievances can go on for a long time, was appealing the decision to binding arbitration.  You’d think the teachers association would have seen the writing on the wall, but they moved blindly ahead.  We received the decision shortly after filing our response to the appeal.  We were upheld.  Districts have the right to assign teachers as deemed necessary, seniority is not the determining factor, at least per our teachers’ contract language.  Bert now had to finally accept my decision.

It was a drawn-out process that was observed by all.  But we had stuck to our objectives, not being deterred by the association’s efforts.  Bert was changing job assignments, the outlaw posse was put in its place, my authority had been validated, it was clear to all that I had the support of the district, and our school moved forward.  The negatives became a lot less vocal and visible and the situation was soon forgotten by most.

And that’s my perspective.

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Measles: A Good Opportunity For Thought

In New York State, which is probably similar to other states, parents must demonstrate that their children have received certain required inoculations for enrollment in school.  The proof is provided typically by the children’s doctors who will provide a record of the inoculations received.  This requirement, that kids be inoculated against several childhood diseases, was put in place years ago as a matter of public health.  What better way to insure that children are vaccinated then placing the burden on schools.  All kids have to attend school, so schools are the best place to build in a check system to monitor that kids are indeed being inoculated.  If a parent attempts to enroll a child and the records are not available, or are incomplete, or show that the child has not received all required inoculations, the school then takes on the mission of ensuring that it’s done.  The child will quickly receive the needed vaccinations and good public health is maintained.

I’ve been around a while and I well remember the inoculations I received as a child.  I can’t say I remember them all, but I remember many of them.  I can even remember one time where all of us kids were inoculated in school.  We were all taken to the gym where we were all given a shot for something, what it was I cannot remember.  I was a kid so I wasn’t involved in adult discussions about these preventative measures, but I don’t remember having any classmates who did not receive the inoculations.  We all got them.  Because of the serious effects of diseases such as chicken pox, diphtheria, measles, pertussis, and others, our national and state health organizations realized that the only way to lessen or eliminate certain childhood diseases was via a program of required inoculations.  If all kids are inoculated against a specific disease, like measles, eventually the disease will no longer surface, and in effect it will be eradicated.  The idea was, and continues to be, solid, rational, and certainly beneficial to the entire population.  The conscious move to eliminate specific childhood diseases was successful…until now.

The recent outbreak of measles, which began at Disney World in California but has since spread to 13 states, should serve as a reminder to us all why required inoculations are needed.  I don’t think you’d find any dissent from the medical field; probably to a person they believe that good public health demands it.  No, where the problem lies, and where it typically lies, is at the feet of legislators.  I’ve written before about legislators meddling in fields, particularly education, in which they have certainly no expertise and even less knowledge.  But, legislators have allowed this public health priority to become something a lot less, to the degree that we now have an outbreak of a childhood disease that was once considered to be eradicated…and you can bet that it won’t be the last.

How have legislators done this, you ask?  By allowing parents to opt their children out of these required immunizations.  I know, you’re incredulous, you’re wondering why they would ever do such a thing.  And to that question I can only respond, because they don’t possess the moral fiber to take a stand, to tell individuals that their personal beliefs need to take a back seat to the public good.  Because they don’t want to be accused of not respecting individuals’ rights, doing so could cost them votes.  Because there wasn’t a problem, so what was the harm?  Guess you could call that a lack of foresight, another common affliction of law makers.  (There’s an idea…if only there were immunizations for legislators that prevented them from acquiring the common legislative maladies of no spine, no insight, thinking they know more than experts, the list goes on…)

A few years back I received a request from a parent of a new entrant requesting an exemption from the required immunizations.  The loophole that legislators created allows parents to request an exemption based on their own “personally held religious beliefs.”  The materials presented to me by the parent included nothing from an organized “religion” or church, or recognized theory of religion that I could discern.  I denied the request, fully realizing that a principal in a previous school had consented to the same request.  The parent appealed my denial to the (then, since retired) superintendent.  We met to discuss the request and my reasons for denying it.  The parent quoted several verses from the Bible that she believed supported her view.  I asked her if she ate pork.  She looked at me with a questioning look and said that, of course, she did.  I asked her if she realized that in the Bible it specifically states that pork should not be eaten.  (Not the same wording, the Bible discusses meat from beasts with cloven hooves.)  I also noted that she had a short haircut, and the Old Testament clearly forbids women from cutting their hair.  I pointed out that the Bible includes many things that are no longer relevant because of changes in health practices today, that taking an isolated quote out of context from a passage does not a mandate make.  I made my point; unfortunately the past superintendent chose not to fight the battle.  The exemption was granted.

Really?  We’re allowing a potential health risk out of deference to someone’s personal thoughts on the subject?  There are people who believe that a link exists between inoculations and autism, despite very clear science that affirms there is no such link.  So now someone only has to say that their opposition to immunizations is based on a personal religious belief, quote a couple of Bible verses, and they get their exemption, and expose their un-inoculated child to the general population (including medically fragile children who are unable to get vaccinations and are at the greatest risk).  And our state legislators are ok with this?

And that’s not just my perspective…

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