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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.