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Monday, October 31, 2011


A titan of technology and one of the most influential individuals of the last 100 years was lost last week when Apple Computer co-founder, creator, and great thinker Steve Jobs passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. Jobs exerted a tremendous influence throughout the globe with his innovations and design, beginning with his efforts that led to a vital tipping point in democratizing knowledge to the masses through the development of his first personal computer. That computer eventually spawned a new niche and expansive market in an industry that made it possible for people the world over to access computer technology. From that platform, the stage was set for the I-Pod and then the I-Pad and many other ideas and opportunities in between.

His sister just published a moving and poignant essay, a eulogy, in which she offers her perspective on her brother and shares his final words.

Imagine, after a life which many would envy and only dream about, producing accomplishments too long to list and generating profits too much to count, his final thoughts were not on inventions, money, or materials but rather the loving relationship he had with those at his bedside - his wife, children, and sisters. Looking at them one last time and uttering, "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow."

Tomorrow marks the start of another month. November. Thanksgiving will soon approach. How thankful we could each be if we are able to develop and sustain the wonder and beauty of interactions with others that would leave us with those parting words as a grateful good-bye to those that matter most.

My favorite author, Robert Fulghum, whom I have frequently referenced throughout the history of this Blog, crafted a book of thoughtful, compassionate and humorous essays entitled, What On Earth Have I Done?

Fulghum took a phrase that his mother would use as a retort when incredulously confronted by something he had done as a child that confounded logic and rational thought, ("What on earth have you done?") and challenged himself as an older man to reflect on his life and answer that very question. What had he done with his life? Fulghum then encouraged each reader of the book to take stock of what they had in fact done in their life.

How will you be remembered? How will your obituary summarize your life? What will your personal balance sheet reveal? And, in light of the final words of Steve Jobs; What will prompt you to exclaim, "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow."

Now, ask yourself what you plan to do today and tomorrow and in all the tomorrows that follow, to write the "Oh wow" ending to your story. Examine your values and beliefs. Orient your direction and select your path into the future. Ask yourself if you are consistently contributing to making a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others.  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

I Wonder...

"I wonder...," is a statement that should resonate throughout every school. The phrase echoes an oft quoted declaration regarding education being a window rather than a mirror. Teaching and learning should encourage expanded views and perspectives, new vistas and unimagined possibilities.

Yesterday I attended a conference on Inquiry Based Learning held at Hudson Valley Community College. A small contingent of our teachers was invited to deliver a presentation offering an example of this learning strategy. The aim of the approach is to engender active, engaged participation among all class members as they research answers to essential questions formed around a general objective. In this manner, each individual learner is able to pursue a specific area of interest to them rather than join together with their peers and plod along on a path not of their choice. Don't misunderstand; this isn't a "do your own thing" project. Instead, the teacher establishes the parameters of expectations and standards of performance involved with an objective embedded within the curriculum. The difference is that the individuals can elect which path they take toward attaining that goal. That is, the ends of the lesson, or command and direction, are cast by the teacher as leader. Then, the teacher relinquishes control and becomes a resourceful facilitator. The teacher enables the learner to determine how they wish to research the subject and what medium of technology to employ as tool. The key leverage point is that the learner chooses what issue or subject to examine. This decision allows the individual to assert their interests in a certain area and likely raises the motivation and relevance for the task.

The Heatly School was one of several schools featured in sharing their examples of this practice. The three representatives proved to be skilled in coordinating and presenting the project. They were excellent representatives of our district.

The framework of the conference aroused a concern about the bigger picture, if you will. This teaching and learning strategy by itself clearly appears practical and productive. However, like almost any new idea or practice, no matter how well intentioned and supported by research, Inquiry Based Learning is a single element that must adapt and survive along with other ideas in a complex environment in which many elements compete for scarce resources of time, value, space, money, and, most importantly - institutional accommodation.

Let's imagine an individual teacher, well trained in the technique. It's surely possible that the teacher can successfully implement the strategy within his/her own classroom. The extent of assimilation is impacted to varying degrees by whether the overall school environment or culture will host the practice. Let me explain further.

"I wonder...," tends to be the starting point for Inquiry Based Learning." But, even if each and every instructor harbors a deep interest in Inquiry Based Learning, if they themselves exist and work in a school culture in which they are not encouraged to "wonder," then their efforts may be muted and dulled to an extent. Organizational culture, best and most easily defined as, "the way we do things around here" (from Terry Deal in his classic, Corporate Culture) then it may be foolhardy for school leaders to expect teachers to engage in Inquiry when the teachers are not so unfettered and able to indulge in Inquiry as professionals. It would be like the classic disconnect of the days when a college professor would "lecture" to an entire class of fifty would be teachers on the virtues and values of individualized instruction. The irony is not lost on others. Similarly, years ago in response to an invitation from the New York State Department of Education to author an essay on the benefits of Cooperative Learning as an instructional practice, I prepared a paper on the subject that was published in The Possibilities Catalog (1992). In that work I explained the dissonance that emerges when school leaders unilaterally direct a teaching staff to use Cooperative Learning. Telling professionals what to do, absent a dialogue and social-psychological support hardly qualifies itself as an example of cooperation. 

Noted expert on the principalship, Dr. Roland Barth, once cautioned leaders - "Don't lead where you won't go." In other words, leaders have to walk the talk. Don't direct people to cooperate if their work climate is not cooperative. Don't expect Inquiry Based Learning to be used effectively if the school culture does not advocate and support inquiry among the staff - as in inquiring why we do this, or why we do that. The atmosphere of the school has to encourage and allow people to question practices, people, and programs.

Wonderful schools are often tagged with that term as a result of high performance standards on state tests. That's fine and well deserved. But, I believe schools should be "wonderfull" as in full of wonder - a learning environment that promotes inquiry and permits individuals, young and old, to pursue universally and institutionally accepted goals (the curriculum, Common Core Learning Standards, expected achievement levels,...) within established parameters while following a pace and orientation reflective of their ability and interest - like the way Inquiry Based Learning is designed to be exercised in a classroom.

I wonder.... how many school leaders understand, or even care, about the potential obstacle they might place in the path of change and success with the dissonance and philosophical incongruity that arise between what they say and what they do? I'm sure that I've been guilty of violating this credo over the years. I trust that such lapses have been through unknowing omission rather than conscious commission. I expect to be called out for any such infraction because it damages my integrity as a leader and undermines my capacity to lead effectively.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

You're Sitting On Your Ticket!

Robert Fulghum is one of my favorite authors. He has written a number of books, chief among them, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, that offer insightful perspectives on normal experiences. His wry comments prove to be thought provoking and affirming. One such personal essay reflected on an experience Fulghum had while sitting at an airport terminal waiting to board a plane. As he sat there he noticed a young woman slowly grow agitated and distraught while pouring through her purse and other belongings. She suddenly stopped what she was doing and eventually erupted in tears. He went over to her to offer help and discovered that she had misplaced her airline ticket and boarding pass. In between sobs of anguish she exclaimed that she had searched everywhere for no avail. She was hopeless and helpless. Fulghum encouraged her to get up and go get a drink of water to refresh herself and calm down. As she rose from the seat and stood up, Fulghum solved her problem. She had been sitting on her ticket all the while she was crying and rummaging through her purse and carry-on case.

Fulghum used this personal experience to create a "moral to the story." He suggested that too many of us sit and complain about things and about where we're going in life when the solutions to our worries often start with getting up off our backsides and looking where we haven't looked, or thinking about what we haven't already thought.

I will now volunteer an embarrassing admission of similar proportions to the lady at the airport. I have been struggling for a while this evening in search of something worth writing and sharing with others via this Blog. I started down several different paths and soon realized I didn't enjoy the view or wouldn't like where it all ended. I was frustrated. At that point, my wife pointed out that our furnace was apparently not working and the temperature in the house was now 62 degrees. We recently bought a charming but old Dutch colonial house. We have never lived in a house that heats with radiators. I was quickly confounded by all the switches, knobs, and gauges and surrendered to my ignorance lest I make things worse with a miscalculating adjustment. Brenda called the company that services the furnace while I retreated to the office to wrestle with the keyboard with hope of finding an essay or observation to share. That's when I experienced that epiphany of realizing I was virtually sitting on the ticket to my destination and the substance of today's Blog entry.

I reflected on the number of times each day and each week that I encounter information or policies calling out for higher performance levels on newly constructed assessments, and the hue and cry of the new Common Core Learning Standards - both echoing earlier clarions for the "all Regents diploma" and ultimately designed to elevate achievement and graduation rates. One of the rebuttals to these pleas for universally raising the bar has come from those who question why everyone must take all Regents classes and exams and subsequently attend college and beyond. Is this really considered necessary if you desire to follow a parent's footsteps in a business, like a young man wishing to sustain his father's farming business or auto body shop? Must you acquire a Regents diploma if you have long wanted to assume a full time role in the family bakery or landscaping company?

Here I am, sitting comfortably in my chair typing in my home office where the diploma I received for my doctorate hangs on the wall next to me, and I am awaiting the arrival of a well trained and experienced furnace repairman, who likely has not received a college education, to arrive and solve our problem before the house becomes even colder. His service charge will not pale in comparison to bills many college graduates would tender for work they performed in their field of employment. That reminded me of the expert mechanics who fix and maintain my car, the skilled painters, the efficient plumbers, and the many other occupations and trades that are vital to sustain our daily life and do not require a college diploma.

I'm not indicting or devaluing a college education at all. I just question the need for a swelling and sweeping call to arms in the form of requiring everyone to accept the challenge of attaining a particular and ordained level of higher education. It seems like an awkward imposition of values and beliefs foisted upon the populace. Certainly, a high school diploma should represent a minimum and realistic benchmark in our society, but there are many interesting and attractive occupations that provide more than adequate compensation for people who have acquired specific skill sets and experience without earning a college diploma.
I am returning to the keyboard after our rescue by the repairman. Now that I have received the bill for the furnace repair, I can unequivocally assert that the position of furnace repairman is well rewarded despite the absence of a need for a college diploma.

There, I discovered something to write about when I got up off my seat!

40 Years On a School Board

Yesterday's Blog entry shared a news article expressing concern about the infusion of over $600,000 in a city-wide school board election campaign in Denver, Colorado. The story cast a bright light on the hidden potential for outside interest groups to forcefully and dramatically intervene in a local forum, distorting issues and overwhelming people who actually live and vote in the district. Today's Blog offers a far different perspective. It focuses on the dedication of an individual pledged to make a viable and lasting difference in his community by respecting and reflecting the interests and principles collectively embodied in the populace.  And he was repeatedly elected to his post without any advertisement or fanfare, without any campaign funds, but rather on the basis and promise of his reassuring smile, warm handshake, and disarming personality.

Forty years serving as an elected official on a school board of education. Sounds like a sentence in prison, doesn't it? This is especially impressive when you consider all of the meetings, all of the workshops, and all of the public forums were attended without any financial compensation.  More accurately it reveals a tremendous dedication to a community and a willingness to contribute energy and effort in the best interests of others.

I am privileged to have a friend who has devoted himself to building the future of thousands of people over his forty plus years as a school board member, first at the school district level and later (and currently) at the regional level at a BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services). There is no better definition of a public servant than what this man has demonstrated in his capacity as a school board member.

Last evening my wife and I attended a reunion of sorts involving an expansive group of people who had participated in a long-running cultural exchange program between schools representing a small town in upstate New York and a similarly sized village in Bavaria, Germany. We were pleased to renew our friendship and accept an offer to be his guest for dinner. As always, he demonstrated a cordial and accommodating attitude and extended care and compassion in his words and deeds.

Throughout his tenure on the two different boards of education he has been fully vested in forging pathways to success for learners of all ages and all stages. There were difficult decisions over the years where interests of various parties competed for scarce resources and conflicted over values and beliefs - but there were also significant advances in collaborating with diverse constituent groups toward common goals. There were financial constraints that limited possibilities and brought people and programs to the depths of despair - but there were also opportunities and possibilities born of hard work and sweat. There were both tragedies and triumphs. The full spectrum of emotions and experiences were evidenced through the years, and he could be counted on as a dependable and reliant stalwart of the public good no matter the circumstances.

After working with a number of different school boards over my many years as a school leader I remain in awe of this person. He has distinguished himself through his resilience and conviction, his sacrifice and success. He has been committed to making a difference in the lives of others - for over forty years. His legacy is assured and it will be extended and enriched by the benefits realized by those impacted by the many decisions he made as a school board member.

Too many communities show too little understanding and appreciation for the contributions of their fellow residents who willingly assume the responsibilities of acting voluntarily as stewards of the welfare and future of the community. Our society needs more people who will step up and serve others by making a difference and sustaining hope for the future - not for fame and money, but for altruistic reasons and noble purposes.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A $600,000 School Board Election (Not Here In Green Island)

What elected office can be more low key than a seat on the local school board? After all, there's no need for a robust and expensive campaign chock full of pricey ads in all forms of the media. No lengthy political campaigns and debates. And, if you win - there are long hours of work, sleepless nights spent worrying about how to balance the needs of learners and the interests of taxpayers during economic decline, little appreciation for your efforts, and countless meetings, phone calls, and emails - all for no pay!.

Then why are more than $600,000 dollars involved in a school board race in Denver, Colorado. Okay, it's a big city, but still... In a twist of the oft quoted "Think globally, act locally," this school board race is a clear example of national interests and the motives of profit oriented businesses from outside of the Denver and the state of Colorado jumping in with mountains of money to influence a city school board election with the intent of advancing their own causes.

Read on -

After I read this I found myself thinking about some of the strands of concerns expressed by those people involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests. Among the many issues associated with this movement appears to be a contention that corporations are exerting a disproportionately high amount of influence in social and political policy and receiving inordinate benefits as a result. I don't really know, nor do I have the facts. But, operating on the premise that perception is one's reality, it does seem like this contentious school board race in Denver (see article above) has reached well beyond the limits of the local community.

School boards are among the last bastions of local control, a forum where residents can discuss matters of importance to their community and its future. The long reach of both state and federal department's of education grows each year and approaches a level of suffocation, particularly when the local school districts must contend with unfunded mandates that may not be philosophically consistent with the value and beliefs of a community and beyond the capacity of the district to financially support the mandates. This slow form of strangulation is exacerbated when corporations, outside lobbyists, and political groups external to the district enter the fray because school board candidates, at least in Colorado, do not have to operate under a cap on campaign donations like those donating to political office.

This article presents a scary view of the future unless policies are developed and enacted that seek to limit outside interests from swallowing up the "conversation and discussions" of local residents with personal and financial investments in their school district.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Running From The Bear

It seems that two friends were out camping up in the Adirondacks. One morning as they sat and relaxed over their first cup of coffee they heard a great commotion in the brush not far from their campsite. They were startled, having just been aroused from sleep and not yet fully dressed. It soon became obvious that the noise that shattered their peaceful morning was a bear approaching them with a quickening pace. As one man was overcome by anxiety and fear he noticed his friend calmly putting his shoes on. He couldn't believe the lack of fear and response from his camping partner. "Why are you wasting your time putting your shoes on? You're not going to outrun that bear!" he exclaimed. At that point the other man casually informed him, "I don't have to outrun the bear," he said as he looked at his barefoot colleague, "I just have to outrun you."

Morbid humor? Perhaps. However, this story came to mind as I thought of our future school budget. It might surprise you that so soon after we began the school year we're already developing a framework for financial projections on a budget that will be in place for July 1, 2012 and end on June 30, 2013 - a full year and a half from now!

The impending and imposing tax LEVY cap (not the often mentioned misnomer of a 2% tax cap) sets some rather firm parameters for planning a budget. Given the expected costs of utilities, materials and supplies, and the calculated expenditures for people and programs, at a time when the national, state, and regional economy is still gripped by restraint and uncertainty, public schools are in a vise that grows tighter each month. With limits on the ability to generate revenue from taxes, reductions in financial aid from the state, more and more unfunded state mandates, and increases in costs, it's only a matter of time until a school district becomes bankrupt. It's more a case of when, not if.

Small school districts like Green Island suffer more from the impact of the variables noted in the preceding paragraph than their counterparts in the suburbs. Oh sure, all schools will experience cuts and each one will be painful. But, it's a matter of degrees of pain and tolerance. For instance, Syosset (in Suffolk County on Long Island) had to make dramatic decreases in programming due to the loss of state aid. Yes, they actually had to reduce the number of foreign languages they offer in kindergarten!!

Here's a New York Times article contrasting the effect of state aid cuts on two very different school districts, the aforementioned Syosset and Ilion (in the Mohawk Valley). Check for yourself on the lack of equity in this scenario.

If our school system went broke I suspect that someone in Albany would simply dismiss it with a call to merge with another adjacent district. What's one less school district when there are approximately 700 in the state? Besides, it's a tiny district.

Sadly ( and a bit morbid as well) our best hope (and I'm sure we're not alone in this reasoning) may be to acknowledge that we can't outrun the bear (the state aids cuts from above) but we may survive by outrunning other schools who fall victim to the cuts and declare an equivalent form of bankruptcy. Maybe then the state will do something - like enact the court approved equitable distribution of funds that resulted from the successful litigation by the group, Campaign For Fiscal Equity CFE sued on behalf of children throughout the state who were not receiving the free and fair education accorded to them by virtue of the state constitution. The lawsuit stemmed from the New York Adequacy Study
I am supportive of the effort of the CFE, not only because I represent a district that would truly benefit if financial aid from the state was distributed equitably according to need and ability to pay, but also because I was among the small group of educators who assisted in examining the determination of what constitutes equity in school funding formulas.

I wouldn't want any school district to "go out of business" for lack of funding the necessities and meeting state mandates, but I'm afraid it will take a dramatic outcome like that to provoke decision makers to comply with the court ruling and help schools in need.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Spoiler alert! A commonly held myth is exposed in an article found on the front page of the Albany Times Union last Sunday.

You don't have to look very far for a newspaper or website splashing the latest criticism of schools and their poor performance. Everyone knows that our public schools are inadequate. Oops! Here's an interesting article (click on the link below) highlighting the rather significant progress made in Kindergarten education over the last couple of decades. How can that be? How can we simultaneously publicize that present day Kindergarten learners routinely leave their first year of schooling with the ability to read books while also holding onto contentions that schools are not preparing learners for success. Huh???

While we're talking about Kindergarten (I must admit a bias - I am married to a long time Kindergarten teacher) let's look at a recent article from the New York Times for a research based perspective on the tremendous value of early intervention programs designed to close the achievement gap that is typically discovered in later years within schools that lack the resources and supportive programs (click on the link below)


Maybe we need to think again about that old adage - "An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


The ever-tightening economy has provoked changes of necessity in the educational arena regarding programs, practices, and personnel. It feels like what I would imagine a victim of a boa constrictor experiences - a slow, gripping suffocation. This fiscal crisis has caused many problems. Yet, the mess has prompted me to coin a new word. It's a word of the times. I want to debut the word "moreless." Sometime in the far off future this word will pass inspection of spell check after it enters the lexicon through inclusion in the dictionary.

Moreless has a dual definition. It combines two words that are often used in the same sentence when people announce another economic downsizing of staff, as in "We have to find a way to do more with less." Hence the compound word, moreless. Also, this new word can describe the feeling people usually have when their department or organization is victimized by a downsizing that leaves fewer people shouldering larger burdens. That is, moreless joins the vocabulary associated with hopeless and helpless.

Expecting someone to do more with less is as futile as the clarion to work harder and longer. On the contrary, I believe the challenge is working differently. The need is to work more creatively. People are generally encouraged to work smarter in the face of adversity. Think about that for a moment. It implies that the person wasn't working very smart to begin with. That's a bit condescending.

Rather, consider working with more imagination. I'll retrieve two of my favorite and oft cited quotes. First, from Alan Kay, formerly of Apple Computer: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." Second, from John Sculley, also a former Apple employee: "The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious."

Examine the risk for a hidden opportunity. Instead of adopting a vision up close through a microscope or in the great distance via a telescope, we must look at everything through a kaleidoscope of ever-changing patterns and possibilities. That's a better descriptor of the world we live in now. Conquering our pressing problems likely requires solutions that have not yet been discovered. This task will test our ability to step outside of the conventional and rational and welcome untested ideas on faith and conviction. That's how discoveries have been made throughout our history.

Let's go imagine our future possibilities...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

We've all heard that Verizon commercial over and over. Instant communication virtually anywhere in the world is widespread among cell phone and Internet access computer users. I could even phone my son in Mongolia (serving in the Peace Corps) right now.

The clutter and "noise" of so many far reaching forms of communication makes it difficult to get your message across if you are a business. (Heatly is a business. All schools are. Schools are often the largest employer in many towns, with the biggest budget...) I've read that between innumerable radio stations, hundreds of television stations, myriad print periodicals, and an unlimited amount of news oriented websites, businesses are compelled to expand the breadth and increase the frequency of their commercials/messages far more than they had been accustomed to in years past. Schools are no different.

Long gone is the school that relies solely on printed newsletters stuffed in backpacks to share news and information between school and home. Schools not only need to adopt more and different streams of communication to insure that they reach the desired audience, but the audience has understandably widened as well. Roughly 1/4 of all of the adults in a community have children attending public schools. Either they do not have children, have children who aren't school age, or send their children to private or parochial schools (or home school them). That means that the majority of people who are eligible to vote on a school budget are not directly affiliated with the school. If schools expect these people to exercise informed choices during the budget vote then it is imperative that schools reach out to the whole community.

We offer a traditional print newsletter that is sent out four times each school year. This allows us to convey information through a hard copy. We often supplement these quarterly notices with additional printed notes whenever necessary to inform the community.

We maintain a district sponsored website that is user friendly and accessible, with many links to important resources. In fact, we are continually adding articles on school finance issues and information related to the new cap on TAX APPROVED LEVY (not tax rate!!!). You can find all sorts of interesting stories and reports about our school district. There are links to a variety of other sources you may find interesting.

We provide a quick broadcast of significant news through our School News Notifier system that instantly sends information on school closings and other timely and urgent matters to the email addresses and cell phones of those who have signed up for the free service.

We now have a Facebook account featuring the school district. This site is frequently updated and provides pictures of different school related events.

In addition, I have started a twitter account that enables me to volunteer quick and short messages and updates.

Finally, I try to write an entry post on this Blog on a regular basis throughout the school year. This opportunity gives me a chance to extend information, opinions, and observations in greater depth than normal communication pieces.

This all adds up to the question posed in the title of this Blog entry -

Can you hear me now?

Thursday, October 13, 2011


If you can decipher the first four acronyms across the title of this Blog entry you are either an educator or you have too much time on your hands and you need to discover a new hobby. If you can decode the fifth acronym then you need to immediately contact your local school board member, legislative representative, and U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to let them in on its meaning.

I'll begin by explaining the meaning of the first four, and conclude by emphasizing the last acronym.

According to Wikipedia, AYP or Adequate Yearly Progress, "is a measurement defined by the United States federal No Child Left Behind act that allows the U.S. Department of Education to determine how every public school and school district in the country is performing academically according to results on standardized tests."

The New York State United Teachers organization refers to the state education law when it describes APPR: "Section 100.2 of the Commissioner’s Regulations regarding the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) requires school districts and BOCES to annually evaluate the performance of probationary and tenured teachers providing instructional and pupil personnel services. The procedures for evaluating teachers are a mandatory subject of collective bargaining. This bulletin includes amendments to Section 100.2 of the Regulations to conform with Chapter 57 of the Laws of 2007 (CR 100.2(o)(2)(iii)2(b)(vi))."

The U.S. Department of Education explains the program they have sponsored - RTTT:
"Race To The Top is designed to advance reforms around four specific areas:
Awards in Race to the Top will go to states (New York was declared a recipient of this award last year) that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform. Race to the Top winners will help trail-blaze effective reforms and provide examples for States and local school districts throughout the country to follow as they too are hard at work on reforms that can transform our schools for decades to come."

Those programs and their acronyms are well thought out and research based with the best of intentions. We will accommodate the state and federal regulations and mandates that drive these imposed changes. But, let's not lose sight of the most important program, BWRCATK. I'll provide the meaning of his acronym.

But What Really Counts Are The Kids

Success starts and ends with the dynamic relationship between and among the people within a school. The people, big and tall, young and old, that live there. Relationships matter, so do hopes and dreams. Regardless of the programs and acronyms, the foundation of sustainable achievement rests upon trust, communication, mutual respect, care and compassion. It's difficult to imagine anyone focusing on success until they feel safe and treated with dignity.

While we may be overwhelmed by forced changes and surrounded by programs and acronyms, it's critical that we not lose sight of what really matters.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


The federal initiative, NCLB: No Child Left Behind was cast upon public schools across the nation in 2001 with great fanfare and good reason. The intent of the legislation was to ensure that every child at least become proficient at competency levels considered at the minimum standard necessary to be a successful and productive citizen. The goal was that 100% of children would reach these standards of performance by 2014. It was designed to provoke reform and improvement in public school education.

Complicating this equation of increasing achievement levels was the brutal impact of an economic recession that deprived public schools of significant amounts of revenue they had historically received from their respective state departments of education through taxes. The reality of a constricting economy choking schools of resources at a time they were facing ever increasing expectations and outcomes throttled the efforts of many a school district. Yet, we advance stridently in spite of the impending obstacle.

The pinch between doing far more with far less has prompted me to suggest that schools develop legislation in response. The initiative would be referred to as FPLA: Few Politicians Looking Ahead. This act would expose the shortsighted vision of politicians who imagine that we can move forward as a nation while repeatedly reducing the funding available to schools. In New York, this means revealing the hypocrisy of politicians who clamor for more and more cuts in state aid to public schools while simultaneously maintaining tax loopholes for millionaires. The revenue that could be gained by repealing the clause protecting millionaires from paying their fair share of taxes actually exceeds the amount of money schools were deprived of in state aid last year. People and programs have been eliminated from schools across the state. Reserve accounts of schools have been drastically decreased to thwart additional lay-offs. For most school districts, there are no more areas to cut without negatively impacting instruction at dangerous levels at exactly the same time that policy makers have increased the expectations and performance standards of educators and learners.

Education has long been viewed as an economic engine in this country. Our nation's future is dependent on the ability of schools to generate the creative and productive human capital. Our knowledge based economy requires progressive technology and stimulating innovations to sustain our competitive edge in the world arena. How can we nurture the intellectual growth when we have been starved for resources?

Maybe it's time we raise expectations and standards of our politicians? How about developing a report card on politicians that would publicly record their performance? How about firing them if they don't meet these increased standards? I submit that the overwhelming rate of re-election of office incumbents, a virtual absence of campaign finance laws, a growing body of lobbyists exerting too much influence, and political gerrymandering, combine to make a mockery of the notion that "we can vote them out" if they're not effective. As a result, many of the politicians who loudly decry tenure in effect enjoy similar job protection. Maybe it's time we demand cuts among the staff members supporting our legislators and require them to do more with less. Have the salaries and benefits of our legislators been reduced? Have their pensions been decreased? Are they experiencing the pain that their legislation (or, in some cases inaction caused by partisan fueled gridlock) has inflicted on so many? How and when did politicians secure immunity from the excruciating economic wounds so many people are enduring? Earlier this year, Governor Cuomo criticized schools for having what he called bloated levels of administration yet I suspect that if you examine the number of staff members supporting the Governor of New York in 2011 with the number of staff members who supported the Governor of New York in 1951, or 1961, or 1971... you would discover significant growth over the years - likely for the same reasons that the ranks of school leaders have grown during that same time frame - increased regulations, requirements, expectations, responsibilities...

Sydney J. Harris declared that, "The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows." I understand that perspective. You want learners to expand their vision and their boundaries as they acquire more knowledge and gain new ideas. However, the education of a politician might be better served by reversing that quote. Perhaps our representatives should stop looking out of windows and take a close look in the mirror.

No Child Left Behind - or - Few Politician Looking Ahead? Which way are we going?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

VHS Rewind - Virtual High School Revisited

Our school has now experienced one month of Virtual High School learning opportunities. Today, the local newspaper, The Troy Record, presented a print article featuring the program.

Thirteen high school learners have been able to access previously unavailable courses and exercise their interest to expand learning possibilities. These classes assist each learner in creating a more robust transcript as they prepare to pursue a seat in the college of their choice and the first step in seeking a preferred career. The courses range from anatomy and physiology to computer assisted drafting and design, from oceanography to a sophisticated math and computer class and Advanced Placement Economics: micro and macro.

Beyond the obvious goal of delivering a broader menu of instructional choices for learners with the appetite to enrich their background and project their future, is the secondary goal of stretching the boundaries of our learners. Green Island is a very small school district in a very small community. While the demographics of the village have slowly changed over the last decade, the local community does not reflect the population at large. Many of these thirteen learners are engaged in classes with other high school learners from a variety of states, and even a few different countries. That experience can become an opportunity for growth on a social level.

One of our teachers is also teaching an on-line class with our service vendor, Virtual High School. His class roster is dotted with four Chinese learners who attend a private boarding school in Connecticut as well as a learner from America who attends school in Seoul, Korea. That certainly affords the teacher with both a challenge and a new experience.

I will provide periodic updates on our progress with the VHS on-line program. We will soon be hosting our benefactor for lunch and the chance to visit with participating learners who will share their perceptions on the on-line class experience. We are grateful for the generosity of the individual who funded the opportunity. The sponsor does not live in Green Island. His motive was to invest in ideas that plant seeds for future success. His action reflects the work of an educational venture capitalist supporting a school that seeks to be a "small school with BIG ideas."

I trust that our efforts will reinforce his decision to invest in our learning community. I am confident that our learners are growing from the opportunity.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Growing With NWEA

We have decided to engage the services of the non-profit organization, Northwest Evaluation Association, to provide assessments that measure the growth in achievement among individual learners. The three tests that will be administered (fall, winter, and spring) will afford us with specific data that we will be able to convert into informed decisions that drive subsequent instruction. These tests are simply referred to as growth models in that they measure and monitor progress from point to point.

Let me explain the primary difference between these tests and the state mandated exams that learners across New York State encounter each spring - as it relates to the teacher evaluation component of the Annual Professional Performance Review. The state tests produce an outcome in the form of a static reference point. For example, each child receives a score from 1-4 (3 and 4 are required for mastery) on the basis of a scaled score rendered by the number of correct answers. For purposes of evaluating the teacher, the teacher is thus measured by the percentage of learners reaching a 3 or 4 on the test.

However, this format does not measure the full impact of the teacher. Let's take a very bright learner who arrives in 4th grade with the capability of taking the test on the first day of school and receiving a 3 or 4 on the exam. They are already at the desired level but sit through the class acquiring seat time until the tests arrive and they pass it. According to the child's 3 or 4 on the test the teacher is perceived as effective - and if enough learners receive a 3 or 4 then the teacher may be considered highly effective. Yet, the teacher really didn't necessarily influence the performance level of that particular very bright child.

On the other hand, let's look at a another 4th grade teacher who welcomes someone into the class who is an underperforming learner - someone who receive a 1 on that same test if it was given on the first day of school. The teacher consistently exercises strategic instructional practices that leverage success and at the end of the year when the state tests are administered, the child receives a 3 or 4 on the test.

Are these two teachers, who produced the same performance outcomes on the same assessment instrument, equal in the impact they had on the learners cited in our example? This example raises at least one criticism of the manner in which the state tests are employed in making important decision on evaluating teachers.

The growth model of tests determines the starting point for each individual upon taking their first test (in the fall) and uses that as a baseline for instruction. Specific data is generated for each learner and demonstrates where they are on a continuum of skills, with instructional prescriptions emerging from the results in the form of what skills must be addressed next to mitigate deficiencies. This process is repeated at the next testing interval (in the winter), providing the teacher with meaningful and relevant information on progress. Finally, the third test, given in the spring, will yield data that can then be measured against the individual's original starting point to determine the extent of growth evidenced by the learner and orchestrated by the teacher. That comparison more accurately reveals the degree and impact of the teacher's intervention techniques than the use of a single data point arrived at from an end of year test that lacks any baseline but the score from the year before (which is difficult when the state changes cut scores that differentiate between 3's and 4's).

We feel that both learner and teacher will likely benefit more from the use of the growth model test pattern because it uses three different data collection points and allows the teacher to utilize the information produced in this year long progress monitoring cycle to inform instructional decisions.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Lottery Winners and Losers - The Perfect Storm

Who hasn't dreamed of becoming rich? I'm sure that most of us have spent time imagining what we'd do if we ever became rich? College savings for the kids (or paying off their college loans), a new house, new cars, new wardrobe, vacations, travel,...

It happens - like the phrase made famous by the New York State lottery advertisements - "You never know!" That's true. You never know. There are a lot of things you never know. Take, for instance, the impact that a small fortune of lottery winnings might have on your local school district in New York. It produces the "perfect storm" in Green Island - a very small school district with a resident winning a very large amount of lottery money.

Let me explain that the revenue generated by lottery sales does benefit public school education - however, the state subsequently reduced state aid to school districts at nearly the same amount as they provided in lottery funds, so it basically became a wash financially.

Now, let me explain in simplistic terms some of the major factors used by the state to determine the amount of financial aid to distribute to individual school districts across New York. This formula uses the aggregate income of a school district (extracted from data reported when you file your state income taxes and list the school district identifying code) and the wealth of the same district (as measured in aggregate property value) to arrive at a CWR rating for the school district. There are other nuances that enter into the equation (weighted student values based on needs) but these two elements are the primary leverage points. The state computes the CWR: Combined Wealth Ratio of each school district. The average for the state is 1.0. Green Island's most recent CWR is .62, which indicates we are below average in wealth. Some school districts downstate in Westchester County and parts of Long Island have CWR's above 5.0 (five times higher than the average!!) The actual computation performed by the state is very complex (see italicized paragraph below for the definition right out of the glossary of the New York State Education Department)

The Combined Wealth Ratio (CWR) compares district wealth to the State average wealth, which is defined as 1.0. A district with a CWR of less than 1.0 has wealth below the State average. Conversely, a district with a CWR of more than 1.0 has wealth above the State average. The CWR is calculated as follows: (0.5 multiplied by the Pupil Wealth Ratio) + (0.5 multiplied by the Alternate Pupil Wealth Ratio). The Pupil Wealth Ratio is equal to Selected Full Value of property divided by a weighted pupil count. The Selected Full Value of property is the lesser of (1) 1994 full value of property or (2) 117 percent of the average of the 1993 and 1994 full values. The Alternate Pupil Wealth Ratio is equal to the 1994 Adjusted Gross Income of a district divided by a weighted pupil count. The weighted pupil count is based on the adjusted average daily attendance of K-12 pupils resident in the district plus weightings for pupils with special educational needs, pupils with disabilities, and secondary school pupils; half-day kindergarten pupils are weighted at 0.5.

Had enough? Does that paragraph read like a test question on the Scholastic Aptitude Test?

I'm not presenting this information to bore you (now you have a sliver of insight into the exciting world of school superintendents). I hope that you have read this far and not moved on because this Blog entry has a potentially significant point for the taxpayers of Green Island. Check the tremendous news expressed in an excerpt of a news article announcing the winners of the Mega Millions Jackpot last March.

Seven state employee Mega Million winners of $319 million jackpot to be announced
Lottery officials will unveil on Thursday the seven state workers who won the Mega Millions jackpot worth $319 million.
They work for the New York State Homes and Community Renewal information services division, a source told the Daily News. They haven't reported for work since winning Friday night, but they haven't resigned either, another source said.

One of those winners is a resident of Green Island. I'm happy for the lucky person.

That means his income for the year (the winners all decided to accept a lump sum payment rather than having the prize money spread out over the years in the form of annuities) was astronomical by standards of you and I. The last data I reviewed regarding the aggregate income for residents of the small village of Green Island, New York revealed a total of approximately 42,000,000 dollars. The pay-out for the lottery winner from Green Island represents a significant percentage of that total before taxes were taken out from his winnings. That means that his winnings will eventually, when the state computes a later edition of the CWR formula, greatly distort the wealth of the village. That is, when lumped in with the incomes of everyone else, his winnings will raise the average income for Green Island many times over even though the incomes for all other residents have not likely grown beyond inflation. We currently have 43% of our learners eligible by federal standards to receive free or reduced lunches and we expect that even after the lottery winnings we will have the same 43% qualify free/reduced lunch. The winner's fortune does not change the demographics of our village. In other words, the vast increase in wealth of the district for one year will likely place our CWR far above the current .62 level. This will place our community on the levels of affluent suburbs (where less than 10% of children are eligible for free and reduced lunch). We are worlds apart from these schools but will be considered, for one year at least, their equal financially. That comparison does not begin to address the differences between our district and affluent districts but it could alter our state aid, thereby reducing our funding from the state and adding even more pressure on the community to generate the revenue necessary to adequately support the school system.

Families in wealthy districts are more likely to afford the support (tutors, materials and technology, enrichment programs out of school, educationally related travel [museums, historical venues, new experiences with customs and cultures,...] and other means of assisting the overall education of a child than families in districts with below average Combined Wealth Ratio indicators under 1.0, like Green Island.

I have contacted our local representatives in the Senate and the Assembly, as well as raising the concern with members of the finance department with the New York State Education Department. The impact will probably not be felt in the immediate future due to lag time in calculating state aid formulas. Also, the fact that state aid to education has been frozen may mitigate the impact to a degree. 

You never know...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

APPR May Lead Some Superintendents To AARP

The relentless demands and challenges of the state mandated APPR: Annual Professional Performance Review, has prompted some superintendents to think about the benefits of AARP: American Association of Retired People. Why might so many of the superintendents who sported puzzled and frustrated expressions at a conference examining APPR possibly indulge in flights of fantasy involving retirement?

I recently attended the Fall Conference of the New York State Council of School Superintendents held in Saratoga Springs, NY. It was an enriching experience for me and an opportunity to gain valuable information and insight on the many complex issues that confront school system leaders. Among the topics that attracted large audiences were sessions devoted to the work-in-progress referred to as APPR.

Let me start with a declaration. I am very supportive of the intent and direction of the APPR. The planned product is noteworthy in many respects. While I understand and applaud certain elements of the decree, I am uncomfortable with the manner in which it has unfolded. It's the process leading to implementation that is disturbing. In fact, due to the intervention of the New York State United Teachers' organization in the form of an injunction, and the subsequent threat of an appeal by the New York State Education Department, the process governing the implementation of the APPR is not entirely clear at this point in time. The state department of education may appeal the ruling and thereby subject the APPR to additional twists and turns.

The original accord that produced the APPR may very likely have been propelled by a desire (and dire need) for the state to attract the federal funds that were offered as the prize for those states competing in the Race To The Top tourney. New York was ultimately selected for a share of the jackpot money on the basis of a point system that rewarded those states that met criteria which included, among other components, higher standards and more meaningful evaluation systems for teachers and principals. The bounty was in the form of $700,000,000. Half of this money now funds much of the state education department efforts in curriculum and training, while the remaining portion was distributed to school districts across the state - principally the "Big 5" districts of Yonkers, New York City, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. Green Island will receive about $3,800 each year for four years.

While the expectations shaping the intent of the APPR may be appropriate, the rate of change is suspect and has seemingly outstripped the capacity and practicality of school districts to successfully assimilate the education law. For example, how does one account for a teacher who is absent for an extended period of time during the year for a maternity leave? Do you deduct the percentage of time absent from teaching from the performance of the learners or do you extract the individual scores on test items that were taught during her absence? You can't very well attribute the impact of a substitute toward the evaluation of the teacher when the potential consequences are so significant. What about elective classes and the many other subjects that presently lack a state generated assessment or any comparable exam? What assurances are there that the state will manufacture an assessment that reflects growth and attempts to create associations between teacher influence on individual learners as opposed to current achievement tests that measure endpoint performance levels without respect to the level at which the learner was performing at the first day of school? There are some learners who are capable of taking a state Regents exam after one month of school and passing the test. So, they acquire seat time and endure the remaining part of the year and pass the exam when administered in June and that teacher is considered a success. Conversely, there are teachers who manifest Herculean efforts and engage a child in active learning and stimulate more than a year's academic growth but, because the child began the year well below grade level their final exam score still falls short of grade level and the teacher is considered less than effective. (Note: a future Blog will explain our adoption of the Northwest Evaluation Association's growth model of assessments this year in Heatly to employ data to better inform our instructional decisions and design) What teachers will lunge at the chance to teach the neediest, underperforming learners if the price they pay for their valor is the threat of being labeled as underperforming teachers?

There is also a requirement for training the administrators who will be responsible for evaluating teachers. They must be certified in this endeavor beyond the professional certification they already posses as a precondition for the administrative job they currently have. Training costs both time and money. In addition, several of the state approved evaluation instruments designed to assess teachers and principals have price tags that accompany their adoption by districts. There may also be a fee for training staff members above the cost for the assessment tool. These are financial obligations borne by districts at a time when budgets have been reduced for the last few years. The APPR is another unfunded state mandate that burdens local school districts.

On top of all this, many of the elements that comprise the APPR are subject to bargaining between the school districts and their respective teacher and principal unions. This process is not one that can be effectively conducted in short order. Nor does it appear that districts and unions have demonstrated expediency in resolving the matter. Lingering in the minds of parties to this process may a sense trepidation or "wait and see" - the question of whether there will be more changes forthcoming that will alter the APPR and undermine what's been done.

I'm not calling for the elimination of APPR or promoting a stalling tactic either. I do believe that the major thrust of the law is well intended. However, if it is as crucial as the proponents of the law claim, then let's take a step back and make sure we have the conditions and support necessary for successful implementation. Better a little late but right, than quick and discordant.  

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ruthless Bully Pulpits and Anti-Bullying Month

Politicians tossing scorching sound bites like lethal darts on the national stage and talk show hosts shouting caustic vitriol into microphones take note - today is the first day of National Anti-Bullying Month for schools across the country.

Think about that conceptual juxtaposition for a moment.

This morning the Green Island learning community acknowledged the arrival of National Anti-Bullying Month by assembling in a sea of blue with clothing of that color signifying support for awareness programs preventing intimidation and harassment. Mayor Ellen McNulty-Ryan, and executive assistant and Albany County legislator Sean Ward, joined us in the ceremony and reinforced efforts to eliminate bullying.

Later, once I settled in at home and perused the several news sources that serve to inform me each day, I found it difficult to scan the pages without discovering some reference to blatantly polarizing and blasphemous barbs exchanged between politicians on either side of the aisle anxious to grab the attention and vote of the public. With so many different types of news sources in the 24/7 world we live in now it has become so difficult for one to be "heard" amid all the "noise and clutter" that those seeking voter support stretch to outrageous levels to distinguish themselves from competitors. Then there are the talk show hosts/political entertainers who sink to such ever lower and increasingly uncivil depths that their relentless shock has come to desensitize the audience and serve more to sell merchandise and slogans than ideas. Theirs is a quest for fame and self-promotion. The name-calling and bullying - shouting over each other and using increasingly toxic language - hardly represent appropriate role models for our children. Sadly, the advent of National Anti-Bullying Month did not render even a pause in the verbal wars that fill the airwaves, the newsprint, and Internet sites even though perhaps all of the aforementioned politicians/talk show hosts have subscribed to and supported legislation outlawing bullying (apparently in schools - not government buildings or the television or radio studio).

But in Green Island and countless other schools throughout the country we were resolute in encouraging and teaching children to exercise respectful choices, agreeing to disagree, and working together to create and sustain a safe and orderly environment. Sometimes I think a good old fashioned Kindergarten teacher needs to seize the microphone at the next congressional debate/political talk show and admonish the adults for forcing a lose-lose gridlock in Washington by bullying each other without compromise and acting like unsupervised kids quarreling on the playground. They all need to flip their cards and stay after school!