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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thinking from the Inside Out

Erstwhile journalists often encounter the following guide (the 5 W's) in their very first class on reporting stories - answer the Who, What, When, Where and Why as you prepare the article. Regardless of whether we ever aspired to become a news reporter, we've probably experienced a teacher who had us recite that phrase, or collection of questions, in the exact same order = Who, What, When. Where and Why.

However, here's an interesting and short video
that explains why that order is not likely to produce great ideas or movements. Instead, Why should be the origin and defining point of our existence. We should answer the Why, How, and What - in that order.

I would echo Simon Sinek's contention and suggest that public school leaders follow a similar conceptual progression if they want, or expect, to distinguish the organization they represent from competitors (private, parochial, Charter, home-schooling,..)  and survive in the midst of the many obstacles in their path.

We must truly understand our purpose if we want others to enlist in our cause or mission. And, our purpose in public education is not merely to sustain our job and security, or perpetuate what we found when we started in our career, or reach high rates of graduation, or achieve lofty standards of performance on state tests, or the many other issues or metrics that are commonly used to measure schools. The answer is much deeper than that. I liken it to reducing fractions to their lowest terms. It's a series of finding the lowest common denominators until you arrive at a point which can longer be subjected to the mathematical process and - 50/100 = 25/50 = 5/10 = 1/2.

Too many public schools have stopped short of reaching the lowest terms in our mathematical example above and settle at 25/50. To further complicate matters and distract attention and valuable resources from leveraging success, schools have become fixated on the What and How. Specifically, the current arguments over the direction and scope of the Common Core learning standards and other policy mandates (like the APPR [Annual Professional Performance Review] in NY) have focused efforts on What and How, at the expense of Why.

Daniel Pink, best-selling author wrote in his most recent book, To Sell Is Human: the surprising truth about moving others, - "In the new world of sales, being able to ask the right questions is more valuable than producing the right answers. Unfortunately, our schools often have the opposite emphasis. They teach us how to answer, but not how to ask,"  (p. 149)

The question we need to ask is Why our schools exist. Until we can arrive at that answer we cannot inspire others in the manner proposed by Simon Sinek in the video referred to earlier in this Blog post.

The Heatly School of Green Island, a small school with BIG ideas, strives to nurture dreams and sustain hope by growing learners of all ages, at all stages, in a positive and supportive learning environment with care and compassion.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Solution in Seach of a Problem

I have attended a few meetings recently with fellow superintendents. As an aside to the theme of the particular meeting, the subject of parent requests for teacher and principal ratings, per the mandated procedures embedded within the APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) arises during breaks in the meeting. An informal count is collected from those in the group. The result will likely shock those who drafted and pushed the required parent access through the statutory process and into mandate.

The answer, after nearly three months of school, is a negligible amount, with no district reporting double digit parent requests for teacher and principal rating information, and most either none or less than a handful. It's important to consider that in the four districts represented by superintendents in one such meeting last week, serving a combined 10,000 learners, the district leaders indicated that less than five requests were submitted, with three of those school systems not registering a single request!

The requirement that parents have access to the teacher and principal ratings - borne of a formula factoring in observations scores, with learner performance on state tests and other approved assessments to determine growth and achievement levels - sparked understandable outrage among educators throughout the state. Every district was compelled by the State Department of Education to publicize the rights of parents to access the ratings data.

The possibility that the requested data could in turn be shared publicly by any parent via social media naturally increased anxiety and fear among educators. There was sufficient opportunity to breed humiliation and embarrassment among educators who were not entirely, or even close to being, capable of addressing the multiple issues and baggage (the effect of poverty, abuse at home, mental health concerns...) that children bring into school each day which impact learning. In other words, educators were being evaluated with little influence over these outside factors that infringe upon performance outcomes. Teaching is heuristic, not algorithm based. That is, the act of teaching is experiential and exploratory, it cannot be readily or accurately reduced to a simple protocol like a recipe for a cake. There are too many intervening and unpredictable variables to account for and attend to on a daily basis. Teaching is not an assembly line in which certain tasks can be programmed and rendered repetitive to insure a standard level of quality among the products. The margin of error in the teaching and learning process prohibits the effective employment of a script without variance, spontaneity, professional discretion, and creativity.

The virtual absence of requests (has the state endeavored to collect information from each district on the number of parent requests???) begs the question - who exactly wanted the release of the rating data, and what was their motive? It certainly was not prompted by parents concerned about the performance levels of the teachers and principals responsible for the education of their children. I was unaware of any parent advocacy group who cried out for this trigger mechanism to be included with any legislation. There were no media reports indicating parent speculation about teacher and principal performance. This was clearly an example of a solution in search of a problem - or an errant belief among policy-makers that the prospect of being humiliated in public would motivate educators to increase achievement standards.

Let's look at what noted educational expert Michael Fullan (and for that matter, nearly any and every psychologist or researcher one would encounter in a freshmen college class in psychology) has to say about fear as a motivator.

Fullan, on pages 60 - 63 of The Six Secrets of Change:

"Moral certitude and raw fear are terrible change agents."

Citing a work by Pfeffer and Sutton, 2000) "One of these barriers (to bridging the knowing-doing gap) is the fact that fear prevents acting on knowledge. They found that organizations that were weak on generating and using knowledge had an atmosphere of fear and distrust" (that might be an apt descriptor of the emotional distance between political policy-makers in Albany and professional educators in the field)

"Negative monitoring does not work."

"Fear causes a focus on the short term."

"When the environment turns nasty, people focus on self-preservation."

"Using well respected and validated measures of literacy and mathematics achievement for fifteen- year-olds, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, (which monitors the economic and social policies of the thirty-two richest nations in the world) found that the United States ranked twenty-second, compared to Finland, the Netherlands, and Canada, all of which rank in the top five and have non-punitive assessment policies." (I added the boldface for emphasis)

My interpretation for the miniscule percentage of parents who exercised their right to evolves from an interesting study that best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell shared in his book, Blink, (page 40).

Gladwell describes the desire that insurance companies had to gain insight into the factors that are correlated to malpractice claims filed against doctors. Of course, the insurance companies did not want to insure doctors who were likely to induce litigation for malpractice any more than insurance companies want to insure terrible drivers with a history of reckless driving. The first step was to compile a database of doctors and measureable factors such as the college/medical school they attended, their academic rank in college/medical school, their years of experience and so forth. The resulting comparative analysis did not yield any predictors. There were no correlates among the evidence.

That prompted a more intensive investigation. With doctor approval, researchers followed the doctors along the course of their daily interactions with patients. After a closer examination of these doctor and patient engagements, they eventually discovered the leverage point in the decision making process. In short, it amounted to what is commonly referred to as "bedside manners" of the physician. That's right, the critical point rested on whether the attending doctor was condescending, looked at their watch during a conversation with the patient, showed empathy, extended accommodations, sustained eye contact, evidenced a sense of humor and humility, and other social factors - not necessarily medical practices. In fact, Gladwell refers to an incident in which a female patient's lawyer, during the course of a discussion about her desire to sue a doctor for malpractice, explained to her that the mistake was not made by Doctor A who she wanted to sue, but rather Doctor B who had escaped her fury and legal threat. Her response - but Doctor B was nice to me and Doctor A wasn't!

There is no question that parents want academic success for their children. That should be a safe assumption. However, the question is where that desire ranks in the prioritization of factors involved in the complicated equation within the dynamics of teacher/principal engagement with learners. I suspect, following Maslow's extensive work on Hierarchy of Needs that proclaims that safety, security, and acceptance are prerequisites for the later needs associated with achievement, that parents first want to be sure that the teacher consistently displays care and compassion in the classroom.

Such an explanation would reinforce one of my favorite quotations (one that sadly I cannot attribute to anyone despite exhausting searched via internet search engines):

"People don't care about how much you know, until they know how much you care."

After all, was the financial, emotional, political, and psychological cost of this entire process of accountability of educators worth the findings that emerged from even a cursory examination of the outcomes – that an infinitesimally small percentage of educators were identified as ineffective? Did we have to inflict this grueling process on everyone just to find that out?   

Now, the only thing that's left in this vexing issue of publicly exposing teacher and principal performance is finding out how much policy-makers care, and how much they really know.

Perhaps we should have a rubric to measure the performance of policy-makers.

Bombing the Test

This Blog post was created last April 16th but I refrained from posting it due to some reservations I harbored that perhaps the subject would be perceived as exploiting a terrible incident to proclaim my opposition to the manner in which state-wide high stakes testing has been decreed throughout New York simultaneously with a link to teacher evaluation. Upon reflection, I remain as firm in my conviction now as I did when generating this piece. In fact, last Friday as our nation observed the passage of fifty years since the assassination on President Kennedy (referenced later in this entry) I thought it appropriate to present these thoughts.

Let me be clear. I am neither against the purpose and direction of the assessments nor the need to evaluate teachers. However, I am opposed to the way the state education department orchestrated the change process - with all the finesse of a tornado. Imposing both the tests and teacher evaluation protocol in an accelerated roll-out, (particularly testing learners on a curriculum that has not yet been completed or supported with adequate materials) hastily designed to secure federal funds (700 million dollars) during economic stress, has produced a confluence of chaos and conflict that has left countless instructional casualties strewn in its wake. The strict adherence and fidelity to the prescribed dictates governing the assessments in terms of their administration, heightened due to the high stakes nature of the link between teacher and learner performance, is the point of this Blog entry - not the subject of the bombing in Boston.

Invariably, after a test, someone may unfortunately feel they had an awful experience with the assessment and lament that they "bombed" the test. That phrase has a bit different meaning today as hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3-8 across New York state are compelled to encounter the annual spring rite of taking the state mandated assessments in English Language Arts and Math over the next three days. There is a considerable amount of anxiety involving theses tests. For one, they are based on a Common Core curriculum that continues to unfold as you read this Blog entry. Only one state, Kentucky, has experienced tests based on the Common Core and in a well publicized summary the test data revealed a 30% drop in scores compared to previous test programs. Additionally, the results of these tests now factor heavily into the evaluation of teachers per the newly enacted legislation that has spawned the Annual Professional Performance review in our state. Identifying the assessments as an example of high stakes tests does not do justice to their impact.

Today, April 16th, marks the first phase of the test series. There are many, many questions ahead for the test takers. It's likely that the most significant questions may not have anything to do with the ELA or Math and the clear cut answers that follow. Instead, I suspect a lot of the children have questions without immediate or sufficient responses. For example, they may be puzzled by the who, what, when, and why of the horrific bombings in Boston yesterday as innocent people were killed and injured while they watched runners approach the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Three deaths have been attributed to the bombs and over a hundred people continue to receive medical attention for their injuries. The mystery of the incident, since no group or individual has claimed responsibility, adds to the unanswered questions young children may have regarding the tragedy. The fact that one of the fatalities is an eight year old boy, the age of the youngest children sitting at their seats today wrestling with the state assessment, amplifies the concerns and conflict associated with the bombings. Who would do something so senseless and horrible? Where else can it happen if a bombing can occur at a marathon? When will it happen again? Can it happen here? Why did they target innocent people?

These are questions that may linger in the minds of children engaged with the required assessments. The test began early enough this morning that teachers were unable to appropriately address the subject without encroaching on the parameters of the test administration. And, even if time permitted such a conversation, teachers may very well have been unwilling to raise the discussion for fear of sustaining turmoil in the minds of children prior to taking this high stakes test that ultimately can influence the placement of learners in Academic Intervention Service programs and help determine the evaluation status of teachers.

If one examines all of the factors in play today, the intersection of high stakes tests with the need to address the questions spawned by the terrible tragedy in Boston, then you may conclude that we "bombed" the test of our values. Yes, I realize that life moves on and we have to endure. I recall how my own elementary teacher continued on with her lesson plan after the principal came in the classroom and whispered to her that President Kennedy had been assassinated, leaving us to be shocked by the news later via the bus radio on our way home from school. Yes, teachers can lead a discussion of the bombing after the testing is complete today, but the fact that it follows the test reflects that the test was considered a more important priority - and I don't agree with that ranking.

Helicopters Have No Training Wheels

I have posted three different articles this morning that focus on the issue of raising children. Together, they reinforce the message expressed in one of my favorite quotes - "Prepare the child for the path, don't prepare the path for the child."

As I reflect on an educational career that spans over three decades, one of the biggest changes I have witnessed during that time is the manner in which children are generally raised in our culture.

"Helicopter" parents (those parents who hover over their child to "protect" them from any and all potential threats - emotional, psychological - to preserve their self-esteem) were absent from the childhood of people in my generation. Somehow, we developed without bike helmets, car seats/seat belts, childproof caps, warning labels and signs on nearly everything that doesn't move,...

Please don't misunderstand me. The safety measures I referred to above are all essential and I certainly followed them while raising my son and daughter. However, it seems like we have taken things too far in terms of how much "support" we provide for our children. Perhaps the best analogy I can use to explain the role of a parent is to recall how I taught my own children to ride a bike. A tricycle is a great starting point to enable the child to gain some sense of independence and confidence in riding something. Next, they graduated to a two wheeler with training wheels, offering them a little less support and more of an opportunity to experience enough risk to understand the importance of being focused and aware of their surroundings. Then, after a while I took off the training wheels and walked alongside them as they worked to gain balance and direction. I was there at any point they wavered or wobbled so I could reach out and prevent them from falling. Again, the degree of fear they had was raised by the absence of training wheels and the potential for them to fall. Eventually, as they acquired more skill and confidence I retreated a bit more from them and jogged along with them as they navigated the bike. Yes, they may have fallen but I was there to react promptly, reach out and offer support. A small scrape or little bump was the price of becoming more skilled and more independent. When the child acquired more skill, it was enough to simply stand in the area of an empty parking lot and watch them as they rode around and mastered safe riding techniques. Before you know it, they’re asking for the car keys!

No, my kids weren’t perfect, and I made mistakes as a parent. They stumbled and fumbled their way through adolescence and entered adulthood with a bruised ego here and there as they experienced difficulties and failures and the consequences of their choices and the risks inherent in any quest for success and excellence. But, they were prepared for whatever path they chose for the years ahead. As Bill Gates said at the top of his list for advice – “Life is not fair.” Nor can parents be with their children at every turn in the path or fork in the path. All we can do is prepare them for the path by raising them with a healthy balance of reality and support.

Please read all three articles.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

What We Say, What We Actually Do

I am nearly through a very interesting book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, written by Chip and Dan Heath. Their previous two books, Made to Stick, and Switch, proved to be extremely resourceful so I was anxious to indulge their latest effort.

Earlier in the week I attended a training session designed to promote evaluation skills attendant to the state mandated APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) process. It was a small and intimate gathering of four superintendents and a couple of trainers that allowed for an earnest discussion on issues related to our responsibilities. It was a casual environment that produced constructive exchanges. It was the type of professional interaction that I enjoy because there is a lot gained by through the informal conversations that feature sharing experiences and examining ideas.

I subscribe to the tenets serving as a foundation for the APPR. That is, there should be annual evaluations with a protocol borne of research based pedagogical practices operating in a mutually respectful clinical supervision model. However, by pairing this process with outcomes intended to discriminate among specific ability levels of teachers and principals, I believe that the positive effect of the carefully crafted evaluation process is discounted by the manner in which the linkage tenders anxieties and stress that can undermine progress.

Rather than continue on with my opinion of the APPR, I want to focus on a connection between the book I'm reading and that experience in the training session. On page 187, within the chapter entitled "Honor Your Core Priorities," the Heath brothers write:

       "In one series of interviews led by William F. Pounds
       of MIT, managers were asked to share the important
       problems they were facing in their organizations. Most  
       managers mentioned five to eight problems. Later in the
       interview, they were asked to describe their activities
       from the previous week. Pounds shared the punch line
       that 'no manager reported any activity which could be
      directly associated with the problems he had described.'
      They'd done no work on their core priorities. Urgencies
      had crowded out priorities."

and later on the same page, they continue

       "Our calendars are the ultimate scoreboard for
       our priorities. If forensic analysts confiscated your
       calendar and email records and Web browsing history 
       for the past six months, what would they conclude
      are your priorities?"

Now, back to the training session. Our small group focused on the rigors of the evaluation tasks, and the APPR in general. I found myself reflecting on the quote above while listening to my colleagues. I was aware, through the media, that each one of them had recently had their calendars held hostage by urgent issues that occurred within their districts. These were pressing concerns that would expand legally and become distorted politically if not addressed with the full force of energy, effort and considerable time on the part of the superintendent.

One school was faced with a group of fans allegedly shouting racist chants at the opposing team in a football game. Another district was contending with a handful of students who had uploaded a video on the social media platform You Tube that was a prime example of bullying. The video clip identified individual classmates and linked them with inappropriate acts and statements. The third school system was wrestling with the fallout of a decision made at a Board of Education meeting to not rehire a varsity basketball coach. The discord was rumbling divisively through the community and impacting the entire program and causing people to question the credibility of those on either side of the issue.

Each of the superintendents responded effectively to the challenges embedded with the examples I illustrated in the previous paragraph. They were successful in resolving the problems and reorient their respective districts back on track. But what happened to the momentum and direction district's educational goals and instructional strategies during the period of time it took for leaders to ameliorate the issues? How about all of the mandates and deadlines that must be completed for compliance? What of the impact on the plans and designs that were interrupted?

I'm not suggesting that the concerns (claims of racism; bullying; and disputed personnel appointments) were not important. In fact, I'm pointing to the opposite and claiming that the urgent matters had to be addressed in order to avoid further displacement of priorities, distraction of staff, and depletion of valuable resources.

Many days take on the image of a superintendent playing the carnival game, "Whac-A-Mole." Here's how the editors of Wikipedia describe the game:

               "A typical Whac-A-Mole machine consists of a large,
                 waist-level cabinet with five holes in its top and a
                 large, soft, black mallet. Each hole contains a single
                plastic mole and the machinery necessary to move
                it up and down. Once the game starts, the moles will
               begin to pop up from their holes at random. The object
               of the game is to force the individual moles back into
               their holes by hitting them directly on the head with the
               mallet, thereby adding to the player's score. The quicker
               this is done the higher the final score will be."

This is the daily triage that must be performed as superintendents, and principals, and teachers juggle urgency with priority while engaging with the intense, stressful mandates developed by policymakers who lack an understanding of the challenges and realities of public school educators. Those politicians who raise the banner in state capitals proclaiming "No Excuses" as a simple and inexpensive elixir for the inadequate outcomes they often attribute to ineffective educators whining about inequitable funding, the impact of poverty, declining state aid, ... gloss over the multiplicity of factors that intrude on well intended plans of educators attempting to meet the unrealistic accountability measures adopted in legislative chambers (and back rooms crowded with lobbyists and textbook and test publishers) far removed from the classrooms.

Unlike the Whac-A-Mole game, the quicker this triage is done does not necessarily translate into the higher score on state assessments.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Waves of Poverty and Homework

This week provided a number of interesting opportunities for professional enrichment. Three different organizations in the area hosted conferences on the impact of poverty on learners. It was my good fortune to listen to Beth Lindsay Templeton on Tuesday (supported by the New York Chapter of the ASCD), Ruby Payne on Wednesday (hosted by the Schenectady Foundation), and Jonathan Kozol on Thursday (sponsored by the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy). These presentations were insightful and offered considerable resources that could be used as leverage in supporting children of poverty.
It was a thought provoking experience in both a reflective and introspective manner. I grew up in an impoverished environment headed by parents who left school after tenth grade to start their family. The burden of seven children supported by adults who lacked the education to secure adequate resources was shared through welfare services and free lunch at school. It was a childhood bereft of dreams and burgeoning with nightmares.
During the conferences I was able to read about, and listen to, information on the gripping influence poverty has on children from the perspective and distance in time of an adult, albeit one with vivid memories of the stark reality of poverty. Additionally, I was in a position to examine the relationship of poverty and schooling through the filter of someone with considerable experience as an educator working in schools constricted by poverty. I felt that I was looking at the issue from inside out and upside down. It was a lot like watching clothes tumble in the dryer.
As I learned more about contending with poverty as an educator I found myself also thinking of the ever-present issue of assessments and learning standards. I was struck by the juxtaposition of the controversial implementation of the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) that subjects teachers to a strenuous and twisted relationship between assessments and teacher evaluation, and the demands schools inadvertently place on children suffering from poverty. What bothered me was the thought of teachers in schools across the country who complain, rightfully so, about the unrealistic mandates and compressed time demands of state initiated requirements, but then continue to thrust significant amounts of homework on learners wrestling with poverty and the many factors that inhibit the ability of the learners to successfully complete homework assignments. That is,  referencing my own personal experiences - cramped, noisy, distracting living quarters; parents who were absent or unable or unwilling to help with homework; the responsibility of caring for younger siblings; the need to work a part-time job to help support the family,... There are some learners who pass their classroom based responsibilities, but fail a class because of the impact of their absence of homework and the subsequent zeroes that follow.
How do these teachers not see that they are inflicting a similar type of burdensome, counterproductive measures upon their learners as the state department of education is invoking upon them? These actions border on being punitive and result in poor children being perceived as poor learners, which may reinforce an often stereotypical belief.
Homework alone, if it's generated in an attempt to encourage and allow impoverished learners to "catch up" is unlikely to be a factor - even if it is completed. This indirect form of instruction, performed in the absence of teachers, is not the difference maker needed to close achievement gaps between learners from fortunate environments/conditions and those far less fortunate. If homework is assigned to extend opportunities then it appears to be a belief founded on the "more and harder" concept of improving performance.  As in, if these students only worked more and tried harder, they would be better.  Let's not confuse quantity with quality regarding extensions of learning. More direct instruction, with engaging and challenging tasks are needed to stimulate improvement. Extended school calendars, in hours and days, together with quality instruction and appropriate support are desired to provoke increases in academic outcomes. 
Similarly, simply mandating APPR by the state education department will not ensure an increase in the quality of instruction among teachers. Nor will longer days and an expanded school year. Ultimately, productive staff development, the ability to appropriately wield professional discretion in response to instructional needs, a collaborative work culture, sufficient material and technological support - a systematic instructional infrastructure - are among the many factors that must prevail if we expect to reach our potential as learners and teachers.
How easy it would be if we could just issue a decree such as APPR or more homework and instantly improve instruction. However, that tactic will prove as futile as the efforts of the ancient Danish King, Canute, who attempted to demonstrate his power by going to the shore front and commanding the waves to stop.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Commissioner as Teacher

The recent forums developed by the New York State Education Department and designed to explain the Common Core curriculum, assessments and sundry related topics proved to be a fiasco. The remaining town hall style events were summarily dismissed and cancelled. Chaotic exchanges and claims that "special interest groups" disrupted the dialogue sprouted throughout the media channels.

Someone mentioned that the last forum could be a teachable moment. Maybe Dr. King can learn from the experience and return with a different approach and attitude. Time will tell, since he has announced that the attempt to clarify and promote the Common Core will shortly be resurrected, in an altered format.

I believe the reactions obscured a key point. I am surprised that the state teachers' association did not assess the performance of the commissioner with respect to the same instructional framework that has dominated the educational landscape in New York since the inception of the Annual Professional Performance Review.

How did the Commissioner's presentation rank in terms of the many domains that govern the outcomes of an observation of a teacher? How would his contribution to, and leadership of, the meeting be examined through the prism of Danielson's model of best practices? Where would he be on the HEDI scale - Ineffective? Developing? Effective? or Highly Effective?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Distance Between Two Points

I attended a conference yesterday involving area superintendents and the education faculty at a large university in the region. The goal of the meeting focused on opportunities to form a conceptual partnership among the two groups.

I thought of the distance that separated the parties from the perspective of time and educational engagement. I recall reading an article written several years ago by Tom Guskey of the University of Kentucky. After realizing the rather significant amount of time that separated the education professors from their own personal experience as a public school teacher (if my memory serves me correctly it averaged 17 years) Guskey took a sabbatical and taught 1st grade for a year. I believe in most cases, as you reflect on this same observation regarding professors you’ve interacted with in your own experience, you will discover that it’s been a while since they were actually teaching and/or administering  in the school classroom/school – the same environment for which they prepare aspiring teachers/principals. Whether it is seventeen years or seven years, that’s a long time given the breadth and rate of changes confronting teachers and principals now.

On the other hand, here in the state of New York teachers are required to obtain their masters degree in an education related field within five years of beginning their career in order to maintain certification. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say a freshly minted teacher graduates from college at age twenty-two. That teacher has five years, until they are all of twenty-seven, to receive their appropriate graduate degree. For many, that degree is a terminal degree. Few choose to advance beyond their first graduate degree. Following this line of thought leaves one with the understanding that the formal and systematic learning for teachers stops fairly early in their career.

I know, I know – professors visit classrooms/schools to observe student teachers and perform research and other activities. I also realize that teachers experience a steady diet of professional development. I don’t dispute that these opportunities enrich the learning of members of both groups. The distance between experienced professors and veteran teachers is not the fault of either party. However, it makes you wonder about the expanded gap between professors who have long ago left the daily routine and demands of public school teaching and the teachers who have not sat in a college classroom in a long time.

Among my proposals during the conference was a simply job swap between the groups every once in a while. Let the classroom teacher speak to prospective teachers on college campuses on teaching methods and the reality of the classroom, while professors step into the public school classroom and assume the opportunity to implement theory into practice. This would be a rather simple and low (or no) cost for participants.

I don’t doubt the ability of either group to benefit those they would serve in this swap. And, I believe very strongly that the experiences would leave both sides of this equation with a more vivid view of the other’s roles and responsibilities. In that sense, the challenge would be worth the commitment.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Measuring Education - What a Noble Nobel Thought

Discussions on public school education are far more likely to focus on statistics now than such a dialogue would have twenty years ago. At some point amid the conversations of facts and figures one may hear a faint, cautionary reference to DRIP – Data Rich, Information Poor. One of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote the following in his best seller, Blink:

The key to decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.”

I am not averse to developing metrics to gauge progress toward stated goals. But, the tremendous amount of data collected by countless people and organizations in their quest to measure the status of public school education does not necessarily translate into practical information that can leverage success. The mere existence of a mountain of data does not move us ahead in our efforts, and perhaps confuses and constricts our direction. It is information and understanding that we desire, not inert data fueling swirling rhetoric wielded by those not charged with applying strategies designed to improve performance levels.

I wonder if we have charged forward without a clear understanding of what our objective is. We can probably all agree that we want better schools and there is no lack of critics of public schools, but the disagreement begins at the definition of what “better” means. Is it high school graduations rates? College acceptance rates? Overall grade point averages? Scores of state assessments? Is it better when everyone succeeds at pre-determined standards of performance (albeit within a society that subscribes to the bell shape curve to define/discriminate?)

What is “better”? More importantly, who decides the meaning of “better”?

The results of the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) scores in math and science are typically employed to demonstrate that the US lags behind their industrialized nations in educational output. That is but one measure, but certainly one shared by those decrying the current state of public school education in our country. If that is the measure of “better” then we must re-direct our focus and subsequent strategies. And, to a large extent we have, with No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top and the myriad assessments and accountability measures (as much as one can glean from a fill-in-the-bubble test format) that have emerged in their wake.

But, what if we reframed the way we measure “better”? What if we opted for an impartially determined form of measurement rather than one that may evolve from a political or philosophical or financial basis? One that wasn’t designed to affirm someone’s prefixed values or interests.

What if instead of using the TIMMS we used another world-wide measure of excellence? One that speaks to our viability as a nation to sustain progress and contend with future social, economic, technological, and political challenges?

What if we examined and valued contributions made each year in the best interests of mankind and used that guideline as a yardstick of our expansive educational system involving all stages and ages– from public, private, parochial, and home-schooled enterprises; from pre-K through PhD? For example, what if we identified the following areas:   

"the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics;

the most important chemical discovery or improvement;

the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine;

the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction;

the most important breakthrough in economics

and, finally, the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace;"

What would you say about that form of measurement to assess overall educational outputs?

Well, you might say we already have those parameters in place. In fact, except for economics which was added as a prize in 1968, the world has already attached a fair amount of significance to these very same standards and criteria in the form of the Nobel Prize awards.

Here’s the text of the will of Alfred Nobel that served in 1901 as the foundation of these prestigious honors that are sources of national pride and financial windfalls of the recipients.

"The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Now, let’s look at how the US ranks in these vital areas of critical importance to our future.

Nobel Prizes by Country (we’ll examine several large European/Asian nations)

France                                   65

Germany                            101

United Kingdom               119

Russia                                   27

China                                      8

India                                       7

South Korea                          1

Japan                                    20

Total                                   348

Wow!!! That’s a lot of Nobel Prize awards!!

In fact, that collective amount from several of the largest nations in the world is only ten more than what the US has earned alone by its distinguished citizens and graduates.

USA                                     338
I wonder how the recipients of these outstanding awards think of the rigid and frequent fill-in-the-bubble assessments that our politicians promote and our children must endure to prove their competence. I wonder what the 1921 Nobel Prize winner in Physics would think –
Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Alfred Einstein, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1921


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Once There Was A School

Green Island Union Free School District superintendent Dr. Michael Mugits has invested 36 years of his life into public school administration.
During that time, he has served as a principal at the elementary, junior high, and high school levels in rural, suburban, and urban environments. This resume makes him qualified to assess some of the major changes facing public education today.
Dr. Mugits recently wrote a book entitled From Once There Was a School: To A School Was Once There detailing some of the numerous challenges facing school districts across the state including the Common Core Learning Standards, APPR, the tax cap and equitable funding. The book is written in the style of a children’s book, with creative words in rhyme with detailed illustrations.

“I just wanted to express myself,” Mugits said. “I wanted to take the experiences, ideas and feelings I’ve had and reflect on them in a venue now that’s compressed in time, money and ever-increasing expectations."

The book is available on Amazon. Click here for more.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Value of an Education

 On the first day of the school year, we spoke to learners in grades 5-12 about the last day of their Heatly career – graduation. We want every learner to make the choices and the commitment necessary to walk across... the stage and receive a high school diploma.
As parents, we want the best for our children. I’m sure that all of the learners have heard their parents, teachers, and other adults encourage them to acquire an education that at least includes a high school diploma. However, I’m not so sure how much of that message they retain weeks and months later. The focus on the day to day activities at times can interfere with the ability of a fifth or sixth grader to project into the future, several years ahead of their current grade. In addition, the more times they hear a phrase the more likely it may suffer from overload and be casually cast aside.

 With that in mind, we wanted to provide a visual cue that might have a lasting impact on our learners as they start the school year. In September of last year Jason Breslow prepared a news article for the Public Broadcasting Service’s Frontline reports entitled, By the Numbers: Dropping Out of High School. The article shared statistics related to some of the challenges faced by those who have dropped out of school. The most notable figure for me was the difference in the average annual incomes of people with a high school diploma and people who dropped out of school. According to the data, those without a high school diploma generally earn, on the average, $10,386 less each year than someone who received their high school diploma.

Now, assuming that two people, one with a high school diploma and one without a high school diploma, entered the workforce at age eighteen and worked until they retired at age fifty-five, that yearly gap of $10,386 multiplied by thirty-seven years now becomes a difference of $384,282. Wow!!

So, after discussing a bit of reality by way of the classified section of the newspaper - few jobs available at a time of economic decline, the cost of apartments, transportation, food…, - and reminding them that reality is not an app on their cell phones, a cart was wheeled into the gymnasium loaded with $384,282 neatly wrapped in transparent plastic bags. That money represents what they may potentially be losing during the course of their working career if they do not earn their high school diploma.

 One drop-out is too much. We are committed to supporting all learners in their quest to successfully complete high school.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tests and Measurements

 Years ago my family was involved in an exchange program through the school district with people in Germany. My daughter was very young, in elementary school, when we traveled to Germany. She realized that the language was different and she couldn’t understand the written words, but at least the numbers used in the US and Germany were the same so that made her feel a little ...more comfortable. She was very excited about renewing our relationship with the German family we had hosted in our home the year before.

We landed in Munich and had to then travel by bus to Schwandorf. My daughter was anxious to see our friends but grew very disappointed when she saw the road sign along the autobahn that indicated that Schwandorf was 161 km away. She assumed that km was the German abbreviation for miles and reluctantly prepared for a longer trip than she expected. I explained that the Germans used the metric system to measure so the distance was actually 100 miles, not 161 because one of our miles was the same as the German’s 1.6 kilometers. That smaller number made her feel much better, even though the distance wasn’t different, just the form of measurement. One hundred miles seemed so much closer to her than 161 kilometers.

A similar misunderstanding can arise from conversions involving Fahrenheit and Celsius measurements of temperature. And, confusion can also occur when learners are measured by two different tests that have very different forms of measurements.

That’s how I would explain the results from the recent state assessments to parents of children in our district. The performance may not have been any different among learners from last year to this year, but the form of measurement was. Unfortunately, we haven’t been told of the exact conversion method, just the results. The state elevated standards (and lowered expectations when our Commissioner of Education forewarned people of the potential for a significant drop in scores based on the results in Kentucky when that state also changed to the same test) and it appeared that learners were very deficient. They essentially recalibrated the measurement and that prompted a steep decline in outcomes. It's like they went from kilometers to miles and it seems like a big drop in performance.

When you recognize that the test was based on Common Core Learning Standards that have not yet been fully provided to teachers, nor have teachers in the state received supportive instructional materials or textbooks aligned with the Common Core, you can understand the ensuing chaos. As you may have noted in media reports, all schools experienced significant decreases in test scores (most had proficiency rates of less than 50% - including the schools traditionally at the top of performance levels on state tests last year with 80 - 90% proficiency levels).

Our results were disappointing but we should not be alarmed about the performance of our learners. Their progress should not be compared on two separate tests, this year’s and last year’s, which are very different in their construction and standards. We will maintain our course of action and exercise the strategy we have developed, despite the test results. With additional training and the expectation of learning materials becoming available and the curriculum to be completed at the state level, we expect that our learners will progress.

Please be patient and understanding as we sort through the tangled policies and practices imposed on public schools throughout New York. We remain committed to nurturing the dreams and sustaining the hopes of our learners as they invent their futures in a small school with BIG ideas.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Enough Said

Singer Tony Bennett swooned over leaving his heart in San Francisco but Tony Bennett, the former State Commissioner of Education in Florida, crooned a different tune when it was revealed that he left his grading scandal in Indiana. As a result, Tony Bennett the former head of education in the sunshine state leaves his post with a dark cloud over his head, and, as a consequence, the bevy of people and policy makers who trumpet the need to use high stakes tests as accountability measures to assign grades to schools and teachers.

Here’s an article from the Tampa Bay Times for the specifics:

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Distinct or Extinct?

Distinct or Extinct?

One of my favorite authors is Tom Peters. His work has had an enduring and powerful influence on me as a leader of learners. I am indebted to people like Tom Peters, Jim Collins, Peter Drucker, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, Chip and Dan Heath, and Warren Bennis (members of my personal Business Authors Hall of Fame) for their great ideas and thought provoking concepts. The title of this Blog entry originated with a thought provoking phrase I extracted from a series of power-point slides in a presentation Tom Peters supplied on-line
Sit down tonight and review what you’ve experienced during the day. Focus on the choices you made. Not just the critical decisions, but all of the selections you made throughout the day. For instance, what you wear, what you chose for breakfast, what channel to watch or listen to, what Internet sites to visit… You will soon enough discover that there isn’t enough time to list everything. And, certainly there is not sufficient time to identify all of the options available to you at each juncture of decision making. Furthermore, the Internet sites are nearly inexhaustible, television channels extend beyond 100, and most of the opportunities we casually evaluate before casting a choice include a wide range of selections. For instance, ordering a cup of coffee anymore is a five minute process involving countless options - What flavor coffee? Decaf or regular? Large, medium or small? Cream and sugar?

We live in an environment that grows more personalized or customized each day. From shopping on-line and designing the merchandise of our desire (selecting color, specific size…) to confronting targeted advertisements generated on the basis of what we choose to view on the Internet (i.e. ebay or Amazon recommendations evolving from prior shopping experiences) to the food establishment that encourages to make your own salad or sundae, we exist in a differentiated market of ideas, services and products.
Advertisers speak about the clutter of “noise” they must penetrate in order for their message to receive notice from consumers. With so many different mediums in a fiercely competitive marketplace, attracting attention is difficult. Long gone are the days of television programming confined to the three major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS). So too, are the morning and/or afternoon editions of the local newspaper. And, we can now add education to that list reflecting the bygone days when public schools enjoyed a near monopoly on the provision of learning experiences for children between the ages of 5 and 18, and brick and mortar colleges were the lone avenue to explore for those seeking higher education.
Charter schools and home-schooling (the fastest growing alternative to public schools according to data from the federal department of education) continue to contribute, along with private and parochial schools, to a decrease in enrollment in public schools across the country. Virtual schools providing a menu of learning experiences on-line have attracted learners at the secondary level and even more dramatically in the area of higher education.

What can public schools do to thwart further enrollement erosion and avoid becoming extinct, while soliciting support of taxpayers for sustainability? Start by asking constituent members to identify three words that describe the school. Then, analyze the accumulated list of responses and discover which words are mentioned most frequently. that will reveal the perceptions of those associated with the school. Now, ask yourself, does the list of the three most commonly used words to describe the school match your perceptions? If not, there are mixed signals, or the school's trying to do too much or be everything to all people.

Think of advertising techniques. Think of a product or service (i.e. cadillac, Apple...) and observe their advertising to see how they emphasize a few certain qualities or characteristics. The company is attempting to direct your attention and asscoiation with their "brand."

They can seek to differenitate themselves from competitors through clarity (manage meaning and focus on purpose) marketing (articulate the mission in a concise and precise fashion)

Here are excerpts several books that I have found to serve as valuable resources regarding differentiation and developing and sustaining a company’s brand, points that address the distinct or extinct issue.
From Leading People by Robert Rosen
When thinking about accomplishing a goal or fulfilling a mission, go back to these four issues to clear away the clutter: need, credibility, unique contribution, and member interest.

From Good to Great by Jim Collins
The good-to-great leaders were able to strip away so much noise and clutter and just focus on the few things that would have the greatest impact. See through complexity and discern underlying patterns – focus on what is essential and ignore the rest.

From Kellogg on Branding by the Marketing Faculty of the Kellogg School of Management
CLUTTER: To stand out, brands need to be focused and unique; great brands mean something distinct for customers. Customers are bombarded every day by hundreds of advertisements and promotions. This is why brand positioning is so important. Almost every great brand has a clear set of associations.
A brand’s positioning articulates the goal that a consumer will achieve by using the brand and explains why it is superior to other means of accomplishing this goal.
Brand Positioning
1.         target customers - in terms of some type of identifying characteristics, such as demographics and psychographics (activities, interests, opinions).
2.         develop a frame of reference – a statement of the target’s goal that will be served by consuming the brand. There are two general categories – frames depicted in terms of product features and frames that are represented by more abstract consumer’s goals.
3.         create a point of difference – assert why the brand is superior to alternatives in the frame of reference. Attributes, image, or attitude information provides a reason for believing the functional or emotional benefit. Emotional benefits shift the emphasis from the brand and its functions to the user and the feelings to be gained by using the brand. These benefits are related to enduring, basic human needs and desires.
4.         provide reasons to believe - supporting evidence for claims related to the frame of reference and point of difference. This is more important when the claims are relatively abstract (credence claims) versus concrete (verifiable) because concrete claims often are their own reason to believe.

From A Crash Course in Marketing by David Bangs and Andi Axman

How do you take what appears to be a commodity and transform it into a specialty product or service? You start by knowing what makes your product or service different from other similar ones on the market - your  USP = Unique Selling Proposition.

See how you stack up against the competition when it comes to the following: the target market you serve, price, packaging, location, follow-up service, convenience, guarantees, benefits you advertise, and so on.
“We’re not in the education business. We’re in the transformation business. We expect everyone who participates in a program – whether it’s for three days or two years – to be transformed by the experience.” John A. Quelch, Dean – London School of Business.

Your business’ mission statement should answer these questions: Who are your most important customers? What are your products or services? What is your market area? What values are important to your business? What is your business really good at? What are your special concerns for your employees?

What problems does the service/product help solve? People buy solutions to problems.
Another way to understand your product/service is in terms of customer needs it fulfills. These needs fall into two broad categories: unmet needs and perceived needs. It is easy to sell aspirin to someone who has a headache. It’s somewhat more difficult to sell life insurance to a twenty two year old bachelor.

If you can describe your product or service in terms that reveal a need your customer can identify as important, your chances of making a sale go way up.
Perceived needs are more useful to you than any possible feature because perceived needs are what people buy. Or why they buy.

Recognize that people don’t buy products and services. They buy solutions to their problems, satisfactions of their wants and needs.

In differentiating your product/service from the competition – tout the benefits of your product/service – not its features.

You don’t buy coal/oil/natural gas – you buy heat;
You don’t buy circus tickets – you buy thrills;
You don’t buy paper – you buy the news;
You don't buy glasses - you buy vision.

Our school aspires to be perceived and valued as a small school with BIG ideas. As such, we seek to accentuate what branding experts and marketers describe as a “unique selling proposition.” That is, we try to capitalize on our small size to leverage relationships as a foundation that supports our meaning and purpose. Operating on that platform, we then generate growth in programs, people and practice - despite the threat posed by the economy or increased state standards and acocuntability measures. This requires creativity, new perspectives, and determined goal orietnation and commitment. We pursue opportunities to expand possibilities for our learners, equipping them with the means and assistance to invent their futures in spite of uncertain times, follow their dreams while contending with reality, and sustain their hopes while confronting obstacles. To that degree, we recently announced some new opportunities (see copy of the latest newsletter below in italics) designed to ensure that we will be more distinct and less likely to become extinct (as in educationally or financially insolvent, or subjected to an unwanted merger or consolidation, or a decline in our customer base...) These programs are routinely listed in the instructional menus of larger schools that function on a diffeent scale of economy, but for an impoverished K-12 school of 320 learners (approximately 60% are eligible for free or reduced meals), it's a struggle to extend these same opportunities to disctinguish us from other school districts, especially small school districts, serving similar clients.

It may be summer but we are still busy at school, already preparing for the upcoming 2013-14 school year. We are excited about the expanded opportunities available for our high school learners. Despite the continued economic problems we face, we exercised creativity in scheduling and developed a partnership with Hudson Valley Community College to increase possibilities for our learners without burdening the budget. We are committed to remain a small school with BIG ideas.
High school schedules will be available for pick-up from Tuesday August 27th through Friday August 30th between 8:00 and 2:30 in the Guidance Counselor’s office. This will allow learners time to review their schedules and make any adjustments in classes.
First, Hudson Valley Community College has approved several different semester long classes that will be offered at Heatly for college credit. This high school and college partnership allows learners at Heatly to acquire college credit while also meeting graduation requirements. Learners eligible for the free or reduced lunch program will not have to pay for the credits. Those learners who are not eligible for the free or reduced lunch program will pay $50.00 per credit for each class. That’s a bargain compared to what currently enrolled learners at HVCC pay per credit. There is no fee required for learners who want to take these classes without receiving college credit – in other words, like any other traditional class.
Second, our Virtual High School program continues for a third year of operation. This program began with a generous donation from a benefactor of public school education when I began working here. He provided the district with a check and encouraged me to “plant seeds of learning in Green Island.” After evaluating our needs it was determined that we needed to grow opportunities at the secondary level in an effective and cost efficient manner. There are over 150 different courses to choose from on a vast instructional menu offered on-line. Each class is taught on-line by a certified teacher. In addition, our own staff are made available to supervise the program and supply assistance to the learners taking VHS classes. This year we will have learners taking Meteorology, Anatomy and Physiology, and many more classes. This is a great opportunity for our learners to experience classes that are otherwise not provided by small high schools due to financial and staffing restrictions.
Third, we will be introducing a School-to-Work program that prepares learners for the world of work through classes involving resume development, creation of cover letters, completing applications, interview techniques, and much more. In addition, there will be internships that seek to match the interests of learners with appropriate work places in the area.
Fourth, we are introducing a new course at the secondary level that involves elements of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The course is called STEM Fuse. It is a semester long class that engages learners with project based learning experiences leading to developing working games.
Fifth, this will be our second year of providing Math instruction at the elementary grade level for those learners who qualify for Academic Intervention Services on the basis of their performance on state tests in Math. Prior to last year we lacked the capacity to provide direct instruction to those in need of supplemental support in Math in the elementary grades.
Future programming plans involve exploring the possibility of providing universal pre-kindergarten beginning with the 2014-15 school year. Such a proposal is dependent on our ability to secure funding through grants and the availability of sufficient space. 
We’re working on it.