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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Students and Learners

I have long promoted a perspective that is apparently a single minded campaign during my educational leadership career. That obsession is to substitute and spread the use of “learner” to describe those who seek to grow and become transformed in our public schools. That’s correct. Replace student with learner. It’s well beyond a subtle distinction in semantics.

The basis for this effort has been derived from the belief that too many people perceive only a nuanced difference in meaning between “student” (one who studies : an attentive and systematic observer – according to the Merriam Webster dictionary) and “learner” (one who gains knowledge or understanding of or skill in through study, instruction, or experience – same source). However, there is a vast discrepancy, most simplistically explained in that student is someone who studies while a learner is someone who learns.  

Additionally, the use of the term student is nearly always associated with those young individuals seated in a chair along a row of desks. That implies that the adults in school (teachers, staff members, faculty,...) are separate and distinct. I employ the word learner because it applies to everyone within the school. I'll paraphrase leadership expert Peter Drucker, who once asked, "How can an organization grow if its people do not?" As such, I have subscribed to a mission - "We will nurture the dreams and sustain the hopes of learners of all ages, at all stages." Isn't that what a learning community is?

Me, I’d rather gain knowledge, understanding and skill than sitting at a seat/desk and simply manifesting behaviors of attentiveness and observation. One seems more active and an extension or application of the other. That is, after attending to and observing an event, experience, phenomena; you eventually expand your reservoir of knowledge and skill. Consider studying a process and learning a product. I can study a subject or issue all I want but it doesn’t ensure that I have necessarily learned anything.

Here’s a quote from actress Natalie Portman that sums it up for me:

I don't love studying. I hate studying. I like learning. Learning is beautiful.”  ― Natalie Portman

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dawn Hochsprung and Moral Courage

I never had the good fortune to really know Dawn Hochsprung, principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, though we all know of her now because she was among the innocent victims of an unimaginably heinous mass shooting yesterday. However, on a different level I feel as I do know her. She was a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at Sage Graduate School in Albany, New York. I completed the program there just a few years ago. So did Dr. Janice White, former superintendent of the Saratoga Springs City School District who was a member of the same cohort. Janice has retired from school leadership and is an adjunct professor at Sage. She was interviewed over the phone last night by CNN’s Anderson Cooper because Janice instructs a class in which Dawn Hochsprung was enrolled. The focal point of that class is moral courage and leadership. I also experienced that class and read the same books and engaged in comparable discussions on values and convictions, meanings and missions.

All of the classes in that Sage leadership program require projects and presentations that demonstrate an understanding and application of concepts and skills. Dawn not only demonstrated what moral courage means, she displayed her commitment by making the ultimate sacrifice while exercising responsibility for those she served.

Yesterday morning, immediately after hearing the “pop, pop, pop” of what proved to be gunfire, Dawn and two colleagues (the assistant principal and the school psychologist) burst from the conference room where they were attending a parent meeting, and ran in the direction of the sounds. The assistant principal crawled back to the room wounded; Dawn and Mary Sherlach were later found dead. Who knows how much time passed between the point at which the shooter saw these two staff members and the time he raised his automatic pistol and proceeded to kill them in cold blood? Perhaps a matter of seconds. But, those seconds proved to be a precious amount of time to others who were scrambling to find refuge from an unknown assailant. One can only conclude that in their attempt to intervene in a crisis, these staff members saved others from a similar fate by giving them more time to react to the threat and hide.

Imagine that you are a parent or teacher and acting as a member of an interview committee at your local school. Your task is to hire the best candidates for a vacant staff position. However, you have to choose between two separate options: either a person devoted to obtaining medals for test scores; or a person dedicated to confront the scores of tests of their mettle. Which one do you pick? I firmly believe that before you can lead improvement in test scores you must be able to prove the test of your mettle. Once you have earned the trust, respect and credibility that form moral leadership and thus develop the political and social capital and integrity required for successful change efforts, then the performance rates will increase, but the reverse placement of those two qualities will not necessarily produce the school climate where I would enroll my son or daughter.   

Now, I’d like to share an essay I wrote that was published in the "Harvard Desktop" about schools and crisis following the tragic consequences of the terrorist acts of 9/11 that I believe is as relevant today as it was eleven years ago.

Opposite Directions

It was perhaps the most conflicted of any week in a career that spans two dozen years as a principal. Never before had I experienced such a wide sweep of the emotional pendulum in such little time. The difference between the beginning and the ending was tragically brief, 94 years separated by a matter of days.

On Saturday, January 5, 2002 I attended the 100th birthday celebration honoring the great grandmother of one of our kindergarten teachers. That was the first time I had ever met a centenarian and she readily qualified as the oldest person I had ever known. Three days later, I was informed that a six-year-old kindergarten student in our school, had died. He was the youngest person I had known who passed away.


The tiny elderly woman bounced around, almost as aimlessly as a pin ball in an arcade game, as she shuffled from person to person and posed for photographs. Her movements had the same effect that directors obtain by conveying speed in films through slow motion. I had seen her several times at school when she came and played an astonishingly active role in assisting her great granddaughter with class parties. She helped shepherd the kindergarten children about the varied activities without a trace of discomfort or inconvenience. It was truly amazing and inspiring.

At the party, a display of mementos highlighted her life. The front page article in the local paper that day called attention to her 100th birthday and chronicled her migration from Hungary, along with other personal accomplishments. It was surrounded by faded and yellowed photographs of the past, various newspaper clippings heralding special occasions associated with her life. There were countless other artifacts. The most interesting piece of the collection was a copy of her driver’s license, which listed her birth date as ’02, predating cars and before anyone imagined the turn of another millennium and the resulting confusion computers would have with another ’02.

The hall was festive and full of people. Most of them were members of a vastly extended family that stretched from New York to Alaska. They were renewing connections that had withered by separations measured in time by calendars. I could see people of all ages, from newborn babies to the 100-year-old honoree. The occasion provided a human landscape that an anthropologist could examine with the same delightful intrigue of a paleontologist investigating fossil-filled rock formations. Mixed in were people like myself who shared interests and acquaintances with the woman somewhere along those 100 years. There was her doctor, the mayor of the small town where she resided, fellow senior citizens, friends, and neighbors.

The diminutive woman, perhaps no more than four feet six inches, hustled about fueled by the adrenaline and excitement of such a special event. She was the center of attention and absorbed the notoriety, transferring it into energy that allowed her to scurry about the room and among her well-wishers. She shook hands, received pecks on the cheek, and posed for countless photographs. Her smile broadened with each flash, her eyes sparkled with every kiss.

It was a remarkable ceremony that left me in awe of everything she must have experienced, from Orville and Wilbur Wright to Neil Armstrong, from World War I to expansive military conflicts too numerous and frequent to assign Roman numerals. The perspective afforded her by virtue of living 100 years is unbelievable and profound.


However, I would soon feel the shocking reminder of the frailty of human life, a life that would only experience six birthdays, six Easters, six July Fourths, six Thanksgiving Days, six Christmas Days, and six New Years Days. 

The phone rang in my office at 7:30 that morning. I recognized the name of the caller as a mother of two children enrolled in our school. Her voice was weary and her words fragmented. She volunteered that she was speaking on behalf of her neighbor and, in a tone that grew noticeably more morose with each breath, she reported that the boy next door had died just hours earlier. The boy’s Down Syndrome condition had fatally exacerbated a viral infection. She explained that she was serving at the request of the parents and alerting the school of the tragic incident.

There have been few surprises in my lengthy administrative career. This was one of them. I spoke without thought and only measured my words after hanging up the phone and attempting to recount what had transpired. Somehow it didn’t seem believable or official, yet it was hardly something to question.

I assembled the office staff who had trickled in while I was on the phone. I closed the office door and explained what had happened. We agreed that our primary focus in replying to this terrible situation was to maintain our composure and pursue a course of action in concert with the values and beliefs that have governed our school culture. We decided to exercise the same constancy of purpose we had enacted following the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington. That approach was articulated in the memo issued September 12 to the staff, and re-created below:

This is a day that will define us – not as educators – but as people. This is a day that we were not prepared for by college, but by our parents, family and friends. This is a day to ignore the scores on a test and concern ourselves with the test of our mettle.

Our school is special because of the people within it. You were each hired because of your care and compassion, commitment and cooperation. If we are determined to pursue a mission borne of fostering hope and feeding dreams, then we must sustain that belief throughout this day and those that follow.

Let us conduct ourselves with dignity and civility, sensitivity and faith. We must serve as purveyors of information, and reservoirs of understanding. Rest anchored to facts, not fiction; objectivity, not opinion.

When the school bell rings, on this day that the nation mourns, we may be judged - not by grades and points, but by hugs and tears. If we are resolved to a future of freedom, then we must remain strong, speak as one, and act for all.


We easily found the church, despite never having been in the tired-looking industrial town that hugged the Hudson River. The bulbous dome that capped the Ukrainian Orthodox Church stood above the run-down brick factory buildings. That dome, plus the lengthy trail of parked cars that flanked the street, beckoned us to the right location.

The word somber does not describe the emotion that blanketed the gathering of people brought to this small, nondescript spot of earth for the expressed purpose of extending a saddened, tearful goodbye to the young boy.

We stumbled past the grief-stricken gauntlet of people who stood motionless on the sidewalk and made our way into the church. The pale and aged exterior of the facility disguised an interior of bright azure walls accentuated by icons splashed with gold. The Russian letters, except for a backward R, were familiar, but the combinations of jumbled consonant and vowel arrangements they made left the words foreign. There were a number of older people who stood along the walls and encircled those seated in the pews.  These parishioners spoke with appropriate accents and followed the prompts of the priests and the choreography of the church rituals.

No matter the age and background of those present, the common denominator among the crowd was the focal point of their eyes. The small casket that was placed on a table at the front of the main aisle was a magnet. Of particular attraction was the size of the coffin. I had never seen a coffin so small. It was a startling reminder of the child’s short life.

The route to my heart was navigated by a sense of sound that was overwhelming. A stooped, older man sitting in the front pew with gaunt cheeks and puffy red eyes distinguished himself as the boy’s grandfather by his weeping as much as by his age. He seemed forlorn, and desperately willing to trade places with the small grandson he had outlived, unlike the expected path of successions of generations. The plaintive wailing of the grieving mother resonated throughout the small church, engulfing those who came to say goodbye to the child. Cantors, although chanting in a foreign tongue, expressed themselves in the universal language of loss and grief, with dirge-like tones and depressing rhythms.

The length of the ceremony was extended by the use of English and Russian languages to convey faith based farewells to the six year old. An hour later the congregation moved from the church to the next phase of the funeral, ushered to the cemetery by state police cars. The tombstones announced rows and rows of eastern European names. The somber, wind-swept cemetery was bereft of color save the green carpet, mimicking grass, that covered the mound of dirt from the excavated site of the grave.

It was soon over, after a few shovels of dirt were ceremoniously tossed upon the casket prior to lowering it to its final resting place.

While newspaper headlines splash plenty of ink across the land with tales of questionable practices and woeful test scores, the events of this week reinforced that schools are in the business of providing care, first and foremost. This essay is not meant to diminish the significance of academics and the responsibility of educators to effectively deliver instruction. Instead, it asserts that the fundamental basis of schooling exists within the following adage –

People don’t care about what you know, until they know that you care.
Dawn Hochsprung really cared.

Update to Hot - Cold

Well,..... I received a call from the state department of education officials charged with the responsibility of reviewing the submission of APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) plans. Everything was fine - except - they wanted me to eliminate a paragraph of narrative describing the process in which we determine target goals for test data related to the school principal.This news was especially irritating because there was a single change they required me to make within that very same narrative (I had mistakenly identified the scoring range as 3-8 when in fact it should be 3-7) that they now wanted me to delete.

"Wait a minute," I exclaimed, exhausted by a process approaching an exercise in futility. "You want me to now delete the entire section which includes the specific change you prescribed during our last review conference? If you intended me to delete the entire section then why on earth did you ask me to change the numbers in the scoring range, only to have it subjected to elimination anyway?"

Any change thereby mandates a certification sign-off sheet attached with the revised submission that includes the signatures of the Board of Education president, the president of the teachers' union (even though the change does not involve teachers at all since it's language within the section devoted to the principal) and the president of the principals union (we don't even have a principals' union). The fact that their latest advisement is cosmetic and not conceptual begs the question why these signatures are necessary. They are a nuisance and inconvenience to the parties since this would be the fourth submission.

My real concern arises from the perception (casually and informally confirmed by the state official I spoke with) that most school districts have elected to submit a one year plan rather than the option of presenting a multiple year plan because of the general expectation that there's no reason to submit a multi-year plan when the state will probably change the process again next year. Such is the credibility attributed to those associated with the decision making process in the state department of education and the stress and uncertainty of those school district leaders feeling as if they are the playing in a continuous game of dodge ball..

For all the time and energy we invest in meeting the exact specifications of preparing and submitting the APPR plan (crossing all t's and dotting all i's) we are losing opportunities and resources that could better be used to actually implement the action and follow the direction of the intent of the APPR. It's like re-painting, washing, and waxing a car that has no engine under the hood. That last image of cleaning a car resembles how I have felt as I have endured and navigated this process - it feels like  you are walking through an automatic car wash, complete with the large machine driven scrubby brushes,  water guns, hot wax, and finally the powerful suction that lifts the water from the car's exterior...

AH!!!! We finally received the long awaited email confirming we have been approved! Of course, there are standard conditions and fine print issued with each approval letter indicating that teacher ratings are expected to mimic the test performance of the learners or we may be subject to review. That is, if the teacher's observations reveal ratings that are noticeably higher or lower (there is no further or specific explanation) than the assessment results of learners on state tests then questions will ensue from the state education department.

Oh well.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What You Are - What You Teach

Think back to all the teachers you've ever had during your years of school from five years of age onwards.
Who was your favorite?
Chances are, the teacher you selected wasn't distinguished in your mind because of the way they taught you the multiplication tables or the periodic table of the elements. it's far more likely that you selected that individual because of the way they interacted with you. Odds are that it was an emotional or psychological imprint they left rather than a memory based on instruction alone. For me it was someone who breathed life into the following words, "People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care." After the teacher has earned your respect, trust, and faith, (your intent) you are more willing to invest your energy and effort in what they have to teach you (their content).
Here's a powerful and profound quote from someone who was involved in working on projects with great influence on children - Jim Henson, of Sesame Street fame:
“[Kids] don't remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” Jim Henson, It's Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider
That statement reminds us, as educators, of the tremendous burden we have when collaborating with learners of all ages and all stages to nurture dreams and sustain hope while creating the future. Although the multitude of state assessments across the country do not test character, moral courage, and ethics, these attributes are collectively critical to our society in the days and years ahead. Our position of influence and responsibility is accompanied by role expectations that often form leverage points as one develops and progresses from Kindergarten through grade twelve. It is inescapable to children, no matter the formal evaluation rubric crafted by educational experts and used to measure instructional expertise, that educators are perhaps less about what they teach in the curriculum and more about what they teach through their actions and interactions. 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow asserts - "What you are thunders so loudly that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary."
The test of our mettle as educators is far more important than a medal for scores on the state tests.
I'm not dismissing the value of performance standards assessing knowledge and skills in the classroom, but rather advocating that one is often the prerequisite of the other. That is, returning to Henson's quote, what you are may resonate with learners more than what you teach. Earn that respect and trust as a person to enhance what you hope to transmit as a teacher. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Hot or Cold?

Have you ever played the child’s game, “Hot or Cold?” Perhaps it goes by different names here and now. Well, I’ve been playing the game with officials at the state department of education for the last several weeks. Let me explain.

“Hot-Cold” was a game we often played during indoor recess at school when inclement weather prevented us from going outside to the playground. The game starts when one child leaves the room while the remaining children pick an object visible in the room. Once the child returns to the classroom he or she must walk around the room looking for the chosen object. The “searcher” is directed by chants from classmates of either “warm” or “cold” indicating whether he or she is in proximity to the mysterious object. If the searcher is a distance from the object he or she is redirected with calls of “cold” or “colder” if they continue to move in the wrong direction. As the person moves in the general direction of the item they are encouraged with shouts of “warmer’ until they are very close to it, at which point the class exclaims, “hot!” Then, the person guesses at the identity of the object.

Of course it would be easier if the class just told the person where the object was and what it is. But, that wouldn’t make for a very interesting game. However, when you are submitting your school district’s state mandated Annual Professional Performance Review plan to beat a state imposed deadline or lose state aid to your school district, it sure would help if the state just told you what they want instead of merely issuing periodic edicts analogous to the game’s directions of “cold, colder, warm, warmer.”

 Even though the state posted the plan on their web portal in a formatted in a fill-in-the-blank fashion, the parameters they established  left enough room for district’s to expend considerable time and effort (which is really another form of money) trying  to hit a moving target. The local paper published an article in which a state official was quoted as expressing surprise at the wide variety and scope of plans submitted by districts.
Our first submission was rejected and accompanied by a written explanation of those items where we were deficient. In other words, we were “cold.” I returned to the task of correctly creating a document that stretches to reach
The exactness which the state requires in these documents that carry significant legal weight regarding specified responsibilities governing evaluation protocol involving teachers and principals often means several revisions to the original submission. Each revision requires the superintendent, board of education president and teacher and principal union executives to sign off on the plan.
The interpretations appeared to vary among the examiners. Interestingly, one of the requirements in the plan involves “inert-rater reliability.” Here’s the Wikipedia definition of the concept: In statistics, inter-rater reliability, inter-rater agreement, or concordance is the degree of agreement among raters. It gives a score of how much homogeneity, or consensus, there is in the ratings given by judges. It is useful in refining the tools given to human judges, for example by determining if a particular scale is appropriate for measuring a particular variable. If various raters do not agree, either the scale is defective or the raters need to be re-trained.

It is ironic that in the process of having our submission reviewed we experienced differing analyzes. The initial submission was returned with several deficiencies (for example, I listed the state approved assessment as Measures of Academic Progress, when in fact the official name is, measures of Academic Progress for the Primary Grades. It did not matter that the shortened name of the test was on the same line as the designated grade of Kindergarten. Logic would ordinarily prevail and the evaluator could readily assume that since the name of the test, from the same vendor, was on the same line as a primary grade, and conclude that we had the right test but failed to add, the proviso Primary Grades. I could almost understand that. What baffled me however, was the rejection of language in the plan that was extracted verbatim from the plans of district’s that had already been approved by the state and posted on the state education department website as examples. The reviewer expressed empathy and acknowledged that he had heard the same refrain from other superintendents – but, nonetheless, we went on with the review of our plan during a phone conference. I have heard other superintendents share the same experience of having approved language rejected. It wasn’t an issue of context. These were sentences placed in the same boxes of the plan as other districts who had received state approval. It again illustrated how the state lacked inter-rater reliability, but demanded such a protocol from each district. I submitted our second submission after making the necessary adjustments.
Soon thereafter, I was notified by phone by a different state examiner that despite making the required adjustments, our plan remained deficient. This time, two of the four citations were of items that had been approved by the first examiner. I pointed out my concern regarding the apparent lack of inter-rater reliability among various examiners and was again met with an understanding and empathetic tone from the assessor. Aside from that, we discussed the tweaks needed to secure approval. I was frustrated with the process and stated that I did not appreciate that each very small deficiency required subsequent signatures from heads of stakeholder groups in the district. The examiner tried to assuage my apprehension by suggesting that I email him my revisions, outside of an official submission on the portal, and he would check them and let me know whether the changes would be acceptable. I was still “cold,” but likely moving in a ‘warmer” direction to find the educational Holy Grail. Hooray! Later that day I received an email indicating that he had reviewed the revisions and they look good!
Ah, but it was not to be. Despite the informal approval of the second examiner, he phoned me again and explained that his supervisor found some issues that required attention. Again, I expressed my displeasure with the outcome and requested that we reach a point where new examiners are not introduced into the process to discover even one more infinitesimal point to dispute. We arranged another phone call so he could discuss the issues with me. This time he was joined by a supervisor who was patient as I echoed my earlier complaints with the review process. The changes were tiny enough that it proved irritating. Add four words to a statement and delete the reference to the same statement on the rating scales that were included in the submission. It was like moving some coins from your left pocket to your right pocket. It’s very simple, but without any discernibly valid reason other than because the state says so.
Having made the corrections to the pleasure of the officials, I can collect the required signatures AGAIN and re-submit with hopes of an early Christmas present in the form of final approval so we can move forward to the actual implementation of the plan.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Haste and Waste???

I attended a day-long conference designed to refine skills of evaluators in collecting evidence during the teacher observation process and interpreting the data according to the rubric employed for the purpose. First, allow me to back up and express my initial concern regarding the state mandate to implement an evaluation system across the state per the provisions embedded in the federally sponsored competitive grant: Race To The Top. Although I do not disdain the goal, I fear the process.

Rather than spend a year training principals to become adept or enhance instructional leadership skills, including the ability to exercise proper and effective evaluation techniques and then unfolding a new system for evaluating teachers the year following, the state has dictated that they occur simultaneously. So, many principals, certainly those least experienced, are developing evaluation skills at the same time that the state has required a high stakes process that begets an expedited process for dismissing teachers. Oh, and the new evaluation system also links learner performance on state tests to the overall assessment of teachers.

Let me propose a potential problem that may emerge from this dynamic. I'm not sure that all principals understand the relationship between their behaviors as instructional leaders and the instructional behaviors they expect and measure in teachers. For example, one of the chief premises expected of teachers is the genuine belief that all learners can experience success in acquiring the skills and concepts we hold as a platform for productive citizens. In short, all kids can learn what we feel is the most valuable cognitive survival skills. Yet, I have been present in enough conversations during coffee breaks and lunch (a valuable forum at conferences) to learn that many principals do not hold such an opinion regarding teachers. That is, there are many who do not subscribe to - "all teachers can teach."
The proviso of course, is that all kids can learn and all teachers can teach given the necessary support, resources (time, training,...) and conditions.

I believe the primary leverage point rests on principals developing and wielding the same instructional skills we expect of teachers. Are faculty meetings and staff development activities viewed by principals as their classroom, with teachers as their learners, or do they drone on delivering administrivia ad nausea? Do they introduce the objective within a context of meaning, value, and relevance, or do they simply make condescending pronouncements? Do they use an effective questioning strategy that will elicit response from teachers that demonstrate their level of understanding, or do they entirely abandon any attempt to check for understanding? Do they actively engage teachers as participants in the learning, or carelessly treat teachers with indifference? Are principals conscious of the need to promote higher level thinking skills among the teachers, or do they assume everyone will simply process the information as intended? Do the same principals who encourage teachers to differentiate instruction for learners treat all teachers the same in the supervision process, no matter their experience or expertise?

This is not an attack on principals. I value the thirty-three years I invested in that very same role, at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels. It was a truly rewarding experience. But I feel that we would all be better served if we staged the roll out of this evaluation system differently and equipped principals with the necessary training and support prior to expecting them to implement the evaluation process. As a result of the current mechanisms, principals are adjusting to new evaluation platforms governing their own performance while at the same time learning how to evaluate teachers within a new system. We are perpetrating a disservice upon people who serve a crucial role in the educational equation. Haste in implementing this evaluation system to gain $700,000,000 in the competitive federal grant make very well lead to some waste.

I’m not merely voicing a concern about technique, but also perception and attitude. I get the impression after attending these conferences that some principals unconsciously suffer from the Longfellow Syndrome. As in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous quote, "What you do thunders so loudly I cannot hear what you say." The cognitive dissonance between what we say and what we do undermines one's credibility. I suspect many former college students majoring in education have experienced the irony of professors who lecture on the value of individualized instruction rather than seeking to practice it in their own instructional delivery style. Likewise teachers may be urged to become empowered by educational leaders who callously use the possessive (and paternalistic) term "my teachers" when referring to the instructors they supervise. I recall when the state education department directed all public schools in the early 1990's to adopt shared decision making. Imagine that, mandating cooperation and collaboration, particularly at a time when many schools were operated in a manner that may not have fostered or embodied much of a degree of cooperation among the adults. Mandating shared decision making. Isn't that some odd form of a conceptual oxymoron? And, on that note - conceptual oxymoron’s - I'll end this Blog entry.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Choice and Change

Education in Transition

I suspect that anything as broad as the field of education is always changing at some point in time and some degree of alteration. As the French author, Fran├žois de la Rochefoucauld, once stated, “The only thing that is constant is change.” With that observation, I’d like to suggest that perhaps the direction and rate of change in education is happening at levels without precedent.

The advent of technology in the form of computers and the Internet has expanded and increased the democratization of education by enabling an incredible amount of knowledge to be stored, accessed and retrieved with lightning like speed. That’s an obvious outcome of computer technology (and the contributions of a long list of related equipment, like Smartboards, tablets,…). However, the growth of opportunities and possibilities emerging from the expanse of technological applications in the daily life of people has created an environment in which one can stay at home and communicate with people the world over as well as point and click to order products and services from down the street to across oceans. This is merely a logical next step from sitting on the couch and clicking away as you surf channels, or scanning you car radio for a desired station.

In short, we are moving from a “brick and mortar” education delivered in a conventional format of teacher directed learning experiences, to a “click and order” form of personalized education where learning menus are extended to individuals from a teacher who facilitates and guides instruction based on data specific to the individuals. Technology has provided unprecedented means of democratizing education through the ability to collect, store, retrieve, and extrapolate information for the masses. Knowledge has perhaps never been so accessible to so many. We can no longer afford to maintain past practices that were borne of the industrialized manner of delivering instruction to the masses. That may have worked for many people before, but it’s not likely to be successful with people accustomed to both choice and change during a time when expectations have risen and opportunities have expanded.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks

There are times during the challenges we face on a daily basis, when we may lose faith and confidence and question exactly what we have to be thankful for. The following quote puts everything in perspective:

"The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of Thanksgiving." H.U. Westermayer

The true test for all of us is whether we merely acknowledge and confine the values and beliefs of Thanksgiving to a single day, or we extend them across the calendar. Here's a quote from former President, John F. Kennedy:

"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them." John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Door to Door

Setting aside political affiliations and philosophy, and sifting through the white noise of pundits scrambling to spin the results so there are somehow no losers whatsoever, what can we learn from the recent presidential elections that could benefit leaders in education?

Over a billion dollars was spent by the two major political parties on campaign advertisements during the past election cycle. But, if we simply take the round number of $300,000,000 dollars that one political operative was said to have wielded as head of a Super Pac, and examine the return on investment for those funds, it reveals that the party he supported had a miniscule net gain of one seat in congress after the ballots were counted. So, for all of the bluster and relentless campaign ads that were communicated over telephones, television, radio, and the internet, it would appear that the money evidently had little impact on altering the political landscape and power. Instead, several political scientists have advanced the perception that the difference may have been attributed to what has been referred to as, “grass roots advocacy” and efforts to get the vote out. Perhaps the most simplistic explanation is that “going door to door” leveraged more of a difference than saturating communication channels with messages that were conveyed with a blunt force similar to hammering a nail in wood.

School districts may be guilty of the same strategy when presenting their annual operating budgets to the public. Leaders cannot adopt the pattern that American tourists abroad may exercise when experiencing difficulty conversing with foreigners unable to speak English. Speaking slower and louder, or adding a vowel to each English word, will not make the message any clearer or more easily understood. No matter how you dress up the data, how large the font, how fancy the graphs,… there remains a key variable often absent in this time worn equation. That is, the personal and individual exchange of information.

Exchange is a critical word here. Budget newsletters are scattered throughout the district and assumed to be sufficient to explain the financial status of the school system. But, such a plan lacks the opportunity for people to respond. Yes, I realize that every school district in the state conducts a required budget hearing, during which the public can review the data and ask questions or raise issues. That said, how many people actually attend these budget hearings? I once worked in a school district with a budget exceeding a quarter of a billion dollars and there were fewer than two dozen members of the public in attendance. Sadly, that is not an unusual ratio of members of the public to dollars in the budget. Yet, many, many more people subsequently cast votes in the budget referendum that soon follows. It’s no longer enough to just mail out the budget newsletter, present data at the budget hearing, and assume people will do “the right thing” and support the district’s budget because it helps kids.  The current fiscal constraints have changed the reality of many people, and, as a result, their priorities.

If you accept that education is ultimately based on the dynamic interaction between teachers and learners then you can recognize the value of relationships. This view should extend between the school and members of the community. Therefore, while mass distribution of budget newsletters offer concrete data for the decision making process among voters, door-to-door personal visits by school administration officials and board of education members are more likely to solicit the faith and confidence of voters. That method enabled one political party to harvest gains in the just concluded election. That method allowed us to increase the odds of our passage of a 12.47% tax levy increase last May and sustain our progress and viability as a school system reaching for the future.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bubbles and Numbers

Bubbles and Numbers

Warning: This is not a political statement.

Set aside your political philosophy for a moment and consider the following with an unbiased view and a chance to apply a different view to the arena of public school education. Regardless of your party affiliation, this message applies to any organization, particularly one that is heavily invested in working with people and for people, such as public schools.

Just as autopsies are conducted to determine how someone died and forensics seek answers to criminal or legal mysteries, audits reveal important trends about an organization. Most people think of finances when they think of audits but there are other types of audits that are equally revealing in producing data that can be converted into useful information. For instance, schools examine data to “listen” to what the numbers say about programs and practices – are we meeting the needs of each and every sub-group of the learner population – by race, gender, economic level, intellectual level,…?

The conclusion of the recent election cycle has provided both parties with fresh data that shows whether and to what degree they connected with the hopes and aspirations of those they sought to attract as supporters. Please temporarily discard ideology before reading any further. Again, this writing isn’t intended to be political or cast aspersions on any party, but merely designed to look at how a group can review data in an organizational audit of services and practices in an effort to develop strategies for improvement in the future.

Many Republican leaders at the national level have analyzed the disaggregated data from the election, much like we break down the data stream from tests to discrete parts that allow us to search for pivotal leverage points to (“look for a difference that makes a difference”) to improve the teaching and learning dynamic. The pundits and analysts have now painted a picture of a party that was “living in a bubble” based on the spectrum of various groups of people supporting their party. That is, it is believed by reflective Republicans that their platform did not mirror the changing fabric of society and thereby appealed to a narrower slice of the population than that of the Democrats. Bear with me. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article by Michael D. Shear that was published on November 7th.

The demographic changes in the American electorate have come with striking speed and have left many Republicans, who have not won as many electoral votes as Mr. Obama did on Tuesday in 24 years, concerned about their future. The Republicans’ Southern strategy, of appealing mostly to white voters, appears to have run into a demographic wall.
“Before, we thought it was an important issue, improving demographically,” said Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union. “Now, we know it’s an essential issue. You have to ignore reality not to deal with this issue.”
The central problem for Republicans is that the Democrats’ biggest constituencies are growing. Asian-Americans, for example, made up 3 percent of the electorate, up from 2 percent in 2008, and went for Mr. Obama by about 47 percentage points. Republicans increasingly rely on older white voters. And contrary to much conventional wisdom, voters do not necessarily grow more conservative as they age; until the last decade, a majority of both younger and older voters both tended to go to the winner of the presidential election.
This year, Mr. Obama managed to win a second term despite winning only 39 percent of white voters and 44 percent of voters older than 65, according to exit polls not yet finalized conducted by Edison Research. White men made up only about one-quarter of Mr. Obama’s voters. In the House of Representatives next year, for the first time, white men will make up less than half of the Democratic caucus.
The Republican Party “needs messages and policies that appeal to a broader audience,” said Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for George W. Bush. “This election proved that trying to expand a shrinking base ain’t going to cut it. It’s time to put some compassion back in conservatism. The party needs more tolerance, more diversity and a deeper appreciation for the concerns of the middle class.”

The author goes on to add:

But the immediate question for Republicans, people in the party say, is how to improve their image with voters they are already losing in large numbers. “You don’t have to sell out on the issues and suddenly take on the Democratic position on taxes to win the black vote or the Latino vote or the women vote,” said Corey Stewart, a Republican who is chairman of the Board of County Supervisors in Prince William. “But you do have to modulate your tone.”
What does all of this mean for public schools? Let me be clear, I am not comparing public school education with the Republican Party. However, a case can be made that public schools are facing a similar challenge – successfully meeting changes in society and the marketplace of ideas by clearly defining our purpose and scope while expanding our ability to accommodate more followers.
The nature and direction of our society has changed drastically over the last few decades. Not only have the needs, interests, and backgrounds of children walking through public school doors changed, so has the market, and so has technology. Charter Schools are growing in number and increasing their reach. According to statistics from the U.S Department of Education, Home Schooling is actually the fastest growing source of alternatives to public school education. Add in private and parochial schools (and the potential for virtual, on-line schools) and one can readily see how competitive the educational market has become.

Are we, as public school advocates, prepared to objectively analyze the social/political/cultural/financial landscape and gain a realistic orientation? Can we redefine the central tenets of our purpose and clearly differentiate ourselves from the host of competitors that are continually encroaching on a market that was nearly monopolized by public schools two generations ago? Are we clinging to a past that has grown more distant each year? Are we denying the reality of our situation.
What do you think public school education will look like five years from now?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hospitals and Schools

I am sitting beside the hospital bed of my daughter and investing some time in generating this Blog entry while she takes a medication induced nap. I'm supporting her as she undergoes some tests and observations along the road to recovery. Her body reacted unexpectedly to minor surgery and she's been admitted for a week.

Earlier this morning a nurse came in, used a hand held device and scanned her medical identification bracelet. This process authenticated her identity and ensured that she would be matched with the appropriate medications and procedures.

I couldn't help but wonder how soon public schools will equip all learners with similar ID bracelets that will be scanned as they enter the classroom. We are fast approaching such an accounting process in New York as we link every learner with each and every teacher they interact with for the purpose of correlating instructor and assessment data used to by the state to measure the "value added" impact of teachers.

The unusual time available to me on what would otherwise be a hectic and full staff development day allows me to reflect on other studies or articles I've digested that involve medical practices/procedures that could benefit education.

1. When patients are informed, prior to their surgery, of the expected after-effects of the operation, their recovery time is generally 1/3 less than patients who are less aware of the pain, discomfort, and symptoms that often result from surgery. (How much do we share regarding expectations and outcomes and the experiences and sacrifices learners are expected to expend and endure?)
2. In Blink, (page 40) author Malcolm Gladwell (one of my favorite authors) relates studies performed by insurance companies of the dynamic relationship between doctor and patient that reveal that the "bedside manners" exhibited by physicians (eye contact, appropriate and clear communication as opposed to condescending speech patterns, humor, non-verbal cues, empathy and care) largely determine the patient's perception of the quality of care they receive, and, hence, the likelihood of subsequent litigation against the doctor if there are problems. (How is this any different than the relationship between school employees and those we serve - learners and parents?)
3. Research showed that a disproportionate amount of medical mistakes arise from the communication patterns (transference of data and narrative) that occur when nurses transition during shift exchanges. Communication lacking clarity between speaker and listener as one leaves work and another arrives, contributes to misunderstandings that could produce negative consequences for patients. (Think of the many service providers that work with individual learners during the course of a school day or school year and examine the process used to traffic the attendant information between classes and grade levels as the learner progresses through school).

There are many more ideas that could be extracted from medical research that could be adapted and applied toward increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of educational practioners. In fact, many of the most pivotal leverage points and difference makers I've exercised in a lengthy career in educational leadership have emerged from engaging with resources outside of the educational arena.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Small Businesses and Small School Districts

I met an old friend this weekend as I was shopping for some supplies to help my daughter prepare for the upcoming storm expected to strike the Northeast on Monday. He owns a small hardware store up in Washington County that features materials for farmers in that area. He has owned the store for many years. However, the future viability of his business is being threatened by the simultaneous challenge of contending with a weak economy and competing with a large national franchise store that recently located within a couple of miles of his shop and offers similar items for sale.

We talked about the issues we face - his small independent hardware store and my role as superintendent of a small public school district. Our competitors extend a broader array of products and services that are often more cost effective on a larger scale, which in turn means consumers can have greater choice at a reduced cost. That's a particular bonus during a weary economy. Neither of our operations are sustainable on cost alone.

That prompts us both to examine how we can differentiate our businesses from our competitors and add value to the customer. Ultimately, we have both invested in relationship management as the platform for survival. While the Big Box stores offer more choices at lower prices, the products and services are often pitched by inexperienced, part-time workers who are generalists in what they sell instead of specialists. Ever shop for a washing machine at a Big Box store and discover that the sales clerk is young enough that their only true experience with a washing machine is relying on mom to use it to wash their clothes? That doesn't necessarily instill confidence in what the clerk tells you about the washing machine when you are about to spend several hundred dollars on a purchase. Most times, they turn to a manual to explain the appliance.

In contrast, I noted that John knew the names of each customer who entered his store. These shoppers weren't buying something from a part-time employee who was fulfilling a job. Instead, they were buying something from John, a long-time acquaintance who they could count on for support through a relationship borne of trust, honesty, and reliability. He personally stands behind each transaction with his credibility as a guarantee. He takes time to engage customers in casual conversations that extend and enhance the relationship.

Another point of distinction that separates John from the Big Box store is his personal and sincere involvement in the community. He has served as a member of the Board of Education either with the local public school district or the regional BOCES, for over forty consecutive years. He cares about his neighbors and demonstrates his concern for the greater good of the community. He has been a long time sponsor of various not-for-profit youth groups. He is very aware of the needs and interests of the community and responds in a constructive manner whenever and wherever possible.

He's a determined man who has reduced his profit margin in the wake of the recession. He has ensured that his employees recognize the value of customer service relationships to fend off the presence of a giant competitor. Most of all, he is a man of integrity who is committed to doing what is right for others.

I suspect that he will continue to remain in business in the shadow of the Big Box store because of his personal qualities and because he has carved out a sustainable niche by nurturing relationships with each and every customer.

Our school district is not much different. We are too small to offer the breadth of curriculum and classes available at the much larger high schools in the area. But, we offer a depth of relationships between adults and learners that is extremely difficult for those larger schools to match. We believe that ultimately, relationships matter in education. The nature of interaction in a human service organization prioritizes care, compassion, and understanding as critical attributes and leverage points of differentiation between our small district and those much larger. Relationships are a prerequisite for creating success in learning.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Achievement AND Growth

A Comment on the Business First Ranking of Area Schools:

Monday afternoon a reporter from News Channel 13 visited our school to interview me about the Business First ranking of 84 area schools. The ratings of schools are based strictly on three different achievement factors: 10% of the ranking is based on the graduation rate over the last 4 years; 50% of the ranking is based on state regents exa
m scores over the last 4 years; and 40% is based on the Math and ELA scores in grades 4-8 over the last 4 years. Heatly was ranked 80th of the 84 school districts.

The level of performance portrayed in the ranking is unacceptable. However, 4 years ago (when Business First began collecting data for this report) our school system was identified by the state as a “school in need of improvement.” Since then, the combination of learners, parents, and staff members working together have lifted the school above the standards to the point we have been designated a “school in good standing.” Our improvement is not reflected in this ranking.

It’s interesting that Business First published their findings based on achievement measures alone, because the State Education Department and the governing Board of Regents have determined that the new evaluation system for public schools and teachers across the state is based on growth as well as achievement. Last year was the first year using this "growth" format in grades 4-8.

Instead of a focus on achievement as a singular gauge of performance of teachers and learners, the state has adopted a sophisticated program of evaluation that identifies how much each individual has grown during the course of a school year. This system recognizes that all learners do not arrive at the starting line (Kindergarten, or the first day of school each year) with the same learning experiences, opportunities, or resources. Instead, the new evaluation system uses a specific testing format designed to measure the progress of each individual as they advance year to year. It’s no longer enough to simply identify where the learner is at the end of the year, but to examine how much they have grown over the course of the year.

The New York State Education Department reviewed test data from every public school with grades 4-8 and determined that Heatly received the ranking of “effective” for the rate of growth demonstrated by the learners. This is the second highest rating a school can receive. So, as you can see, achievement tells a very different story than growth because it does not reveal the impact a particular teacher (or school) has on the learners in their class (or school).

This notice is not meant as an excuse, but rather, an explanation. We have been involved in efforts to improve our achievement levels and overall effectiveness. We have increased our efficiency by coordinating professional growth activities with the state curriculum and assessments. Our staff is focused on providing opportunities for all learners. Our rating by the state this year as an "effective" school is proof of our progress and growth.

Dr. Mugits

Monday, October 22, 2012

Superintendent 3.0

The last school year began with flood that sent water seeping into the building, and ended with the community approving a 12.47% tax levy increase and the state department of education according our school district the status of an "effective school district" rating three years after the school system was identified as a "school in need of improvement."

It was certainly a year of benchmarks and experiences.

That brings us to another new school year. This is my third year as the superintendent of the Green Island Union Free School District. Today is October 22, 2012 and I have struggled to produce Blog entries on a regular basis, after posting daily during the previous two years.

There may be several reasons for the dearth of Blog posts. Among the explanations: the well is running dry - after over 300 postings it becomes more difficult to offer fresh perspectives; time is a limited commodity that is rapidly consumed by other needs and challenges. However, the chief obstacle likely causing the reduction is the increasing frustration I have encountered while contending with the breadth and depth of state change initiatives mandates imposed on public school districts across the state of New York. Not only are these requirements draining in terms of energy, they are exhausting my reservoir of resiliency in terms of logic and context.

First, let me express my support for the intent of the changes. These measures, such as the Annual Professional Performance Review (and all the acronyms encumbered within the APPR), are aimed in the proper direction to precipitate improvement in public school achievement levels, and, in the case of the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), promote a sensitive response to the need to develop and sustain a safe and accommodating climate in school buildings. But, my lament is derived from my opinion that there are too many changes at the same time. It is overwhelming. It has prompted anxiety levels among educators that approaches the point that provokes a counterproductive response among those charged with implementing the policies and practices.

I would hope that there is no opposition to the Dignity for All Students Act ( And, because I believe that learners will be more productive when they are assured treatment with dignity and respect by those sharing the school environment, it would be appropriate to present this significant policy mandate first and with full attention. There is a great deal of awareness and training of staff and learners expected for DASA to become an integral part of the school culture. Additionally, because offenses are reportable to the state, there is a considerable amount of paperwork and administration involved in the process.

Only after DASA is successfully enacted in all schools for an entire school year, should the state embark on the next critical piece of legislation, that being the APPR ( Unfortunately, the compelling and simultaneous mandates compete for the vital resources of time and training - both elements requiring money at a time of economic scarcity across the state. Research on the subject of organizational/institutional change would reveal that competing major change initiatives are apt to dilute success rates regarding implementation.

Who can argue against improving achievement levels in our schools since education represents such a tremendous investemnt in the future of our society? I clearly support well designed proposals seeking to leverage increased success rates in public schools. Yet, tomorrow I will attend my third conference and training session associated with APPR in the last four days of school! Similarly, for all the testing that is invoked on our learnners, there is a cost in instructional time - a resource that has not expanded in years. I was recently in texas for a funeral and during the brief visit I interacted with former colleagues who are presently exposed to the same demands for more frequent tests that we are in New York. One person summed matters up with the following assertion: "All of the weighing of the hog doesn't change the quality of the bacon."

I feel my energy is depleted at a physical, emotional, and psychological level. I wouldn't be surprised if the end of this school year finds a higher percentage of superintendents retiring than the average number over the last few years. I wrote an essay last year titled, APPR leads superintendents to AARP (American Association for Retired Persons).

Perhaps, after wrestling with the puzzling nuances of the state required APPR format in a race to submit a plan for approval to avoid a threatened loss of state aid, and incorporating the requirements for DASA, (and completing the detailed BEDS - Basic Education Data - i.e. how many computers are in the school?, how many books in the library?...) I will be able to resurrect a stronger sense of purpose and meaning and regain my writing voice with more frequent Blog entries.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Vote for Reason

What do the two events outlined in the next paragraph say about our society?

The immense public outcry and media attention that followed the mistaken decision of replacement referees at a recent National Football League game obscured far more important events. If someone woke from a coma and read/listened to the news this week they would likely rate the football officiating debacle as more significant than the upcoming presidential election. Both candidates for president apparently felt they had to render comments on the issue to remind the electorate of their presence amid the headlines that otherwise swallowed up campaign news.Similarly, many people waited hours and even days in line for the release and sale of the latest version of the Apple I-phone 5, though one wonders how many people would be wiling to wait more than a few minutes in a line at the voting booth in November.

There has been an expansive amount of television time consumed by political advertisements. Both parties boast of their allegiance to the U.S. constitution, and there is no relief from people sporting signs with various proclamations supporting rights and freedoms ensured by our constitution, yet the percentage of people in America who actually vote is regularly among the lowest among industrialized nations in the world.

I am not advocating for who one should vote for. I am merely exhorting people to exercise their right and cast a vote on election day.