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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Equity and Excellence

Equity and excellence are often viewed as two competing concepts that are mutually exclusive, much like the perceived contrasts between cooperation and competition. Here's an interesting article that may make you squirm a bit with cognitive dissonance and perhaps even moral discomfort - but, it's worth reading. Equity and excellence should not be separated by an "either/or"dichotomy but juxtaposed with an "and/both."

The People Skills Test

Education is ultimately a people oriented business. Despite the expanded influence and use of technology and virtual classes and even virtual schools, the essence of the teaching and learning equation involves human dynamics.

Here's an article that demonstrates and reaffirms the value and need for "people skills." The report focuses on the medical field and the significant role that interpersonal communication represents in leveraging the process of doctors applying knowledge and skill. For an additional perspective on the value of this factor, read Malcom Gladwell's best selling book, Blink (see page 40).

Learners of All Ages and All Stages

How can a school become a vibrant and sustaining learning environment if the resources and the mission are solely based on the learners between the ages of five and eighteen? How can we, living at a time of accelerated changes socially, politically, financially, instructionally, and technologically seek to advance if we isolate our efforts on the needs of young learners? How can we expect to promote progress if we remain focused on children alone?

Many are the districts that preach commitment to developing the "whole child" or a focus on "all learners succeeding" as a means to explain that all aspects of an individual are addressed and nurtured. A brief conversation with the leaders of such schools with the aforementioned slogans would reveal that the "all learners" or "whole child" are euphemisms for the children in the school, not the adults. Truly though, an educational enterprise that seeks to optimize learning experiences must accept and respect that there are multiple stages and ages of learning among the greater school population that inhabits the building. That is, beyond the spectrum (or stages) of learning abilities among those we teach, are the different experience levels (ages) of those we serve. What are we doing, and how are we doing, in terms of developing the potential for our adult learners at school?

Four full days of professional staff development, together with one hour faculty meeting held after long, tiresome days of teaching are hardly sufficient to enhance instructional strategies and offer collaborative opportunities for curriculum integration or extend professional dialogue during common times for people who otherwise spend their work days operating apart from each other in classrooms that form an archipelago of islands.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to providing venues for teachers to cooperate and learn together is the perception by all too many outside of education that teachers only "work" when they are standing in a classroom before rows of children. This view is so firmly embedded in the general public since most of them have experienced days, months, and years as former learners in such an atmosphere of teacher working with kids that it's difficult to change that mental picture enough to support the need for more staff development promoting teacher growth.

That's as arcane a notion as assuming that lawyers only work when they are arguing a case before a filled courtroom, or doctors only work when applying their knowledge and skill at an operating table. Where is the chance to engage in meaningful exchange of ideas and exploration of possibilities designed to enrich the learning experience for children? Where is our investment in improving the prospects of teachers regarding their interaction with children, their understanding of freshly born research in their field, their expertise in the ever expanding promise of technological instruments and applications?

Until we wrestle with this complex issue and comprehend how vital the outcome is to furthering our need to improve learning experiences for all, we will continue to struggle with our achievement levels. Our governor has publicized his call for a bar exam for future teachers that rivals the standard entry level benchmark of the legal profession. But surely, it does not or should not stop there. After all, who would want to obtain the services of a lawyer who was able to pass the gate-keeping bar exam, but has not maintained knowledge or enriched skills since passing the bar exam? How can you be certain that the doctor who received his/her medical degree, has kept up with changes in their field of expertise? A bar exam for teachers is not enough. We must invest in the opportunity for our teachers to be recognized as learners at all ages and stages as well by offering time during the school day to collaborate and engage in professional learning activities.

In other words, teachers should be treated in the same manner that many other workers are. For example, if General Electric or General Motors want to introduce a new technology, provide new knowledge, or improve the specific
skills of employees they perform those services during the work day for as many days as necessary in order to equip the workers with the competitive edge to surpass the output and performance of others in their market. They do not conduct such activities during over-time outside of the normal work day. Likewise, schools should be able to invest the money and time to elevate the work of teachers and staff in the school.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tools of the Trade

Microscopes, Telescopes, and Kaleidoscopes

     Selecting the right instrument for any task is important. A microscope is too often employed in the analysis of reports and statistics. Robert J. Kriegel, writing in his book, If it ain’t broke… BREAK IT!, refers to a puzzle that demonstrates how we often apply sophisticated problem solving templates on challenges that are relatively simple, thus confusing efforts. He uses the test below to illustrate his point.(Kriegel, 136)

     Which of the following letters is most out of place?

The two most common answers are either the “c”, because it lacks a stem, or the “p”, because it

doesn’t follow the alphabetical pattern. However, the correct answer is the large “t” formed to divide

the four letters that it dwarfs. A trick? No, just a hasty application of preconceived solutions.
Some results are very difficult to understand from up close under a microscope. Immersion can obscure an investigation. Instead we could benefit by exploring distant possibilities and forecasting future opportunities with a telescope. Once we have our target in sight we can view the data through a kaleidoscope that offers ever-changing patterns and perspectives. Rowan refers to the practice of kaleidoscopic thinking as, “The ability to see new patterns in old phenomena by taking the existing fragments, twisting them, and coming up with an exciting new view.”(Rowan, 175) The intention, as Waterman advises, is to seek “a difference that makes a difference.”(Waterman, 124)


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Here's an Idea. Now I Need Feedback.

I am seeking your feedback on a proposed book (approximately 2,100 words, entitled: from ONCE THERE WAS A SCHOOL, to A SCHOOL WAS ONCE THERE) It was inspired by Shel Siverstein's The Giving Tree. It attempts to depict the feelings of anxiety and vulnerability within districts facing budget problems and potential school closings. The gaps between verses represent blank pages where an artist will render illustrations with the same type of simple drawings that characterized Silverstein's works. Please note that the font becomes smaller as the dollars become scarcer in the plight of the school.
If the text holds enough promise, then it will be illustrated and subsequently self-published.
Please let me know what you think (email = Candid opinions are welcome.

Once There Was A School
A School Was Once There

Dr. Michael Mugits, Superintendent
Green Island Union Free School District

Once there was a school.
 where learners of all ages,
and learners at all stages,
could advance toward their dreams*
through multidisciplinary themes,
of teacher imagination*
and learner cooperation,
encountering success*
with the potential they possess.

* I wanted to make a reference to one of my favorite quotes, from Henry David Thoreau, because it should be a guide for all schools: If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” It contains three essential terms – dreams, imagined, and success – fundamental to successful schools.
In that school (Longshore Elementary) -
Eyes grew wide during Reading.
Thoughts focused on succeeding.
Learning was the guiding rule.
Pride filled the entire school.
Laughter echoed through the halls.
Smiles lined the classroom walls.
Then, in 2001

Came a sermon from the mount,*
“All schools to be held account.”**
Learners would be inspected,
and selected.***

* NCLB = No Child Left Behind (produced by legislative act of the federal government); or, as I see it, FPLA = Few Politicians Looking Ahead
** This is a great opportunity to share a maxim often attributed to Albert Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
*** An ode to Arlo Guthrie’s classic song, Alice’s Restaurant (seems as appropriate a reference as anything else)
State Education declared
no public school would be spared
from the list of new mandates.
We will beat all other states!
To the top we will all race,
No matter the issues we face!

The more schools were regulated,
the more fear resonated.
The testing became excess
and proved a logistical mess.
It created lots of stress,
and didn’t measure success.
Teachers got new learning standards
and wore them like heavy lanyards.
Because of added teaching chores
in the form of new Common Cores,*
principals under duress
cancelled playground recess
to maximize learning time
in hope that test scores would climb.
* “The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative was a joint effort by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in partnership with Achieve, ACT, and the College Board. Through this initiative, Governors and state commissioners of education from across the country committed to joining a state-led process to develop a common core of state standards in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics for grades K-12.”
Here’s the familiar greeting
at many a staff meeting:
     “According to NCLB* and RTTT* we must make AYP*, no matter our SES,* our CWR,* or any IEP* from the CSE,* or we will be a SINI* or a DINI.”*
       said the S.O.B* for B.S.*
* NCLB = congressional act of 2001 – No Child Left Behind
* RTTT = Race To The Top: (federally funded competitive grants incentive designed to stimulate improvement (and compliance)
* AYP = Annual Yearly Progress
* SES = Socio-Economic Status (usually measured by the percentage of learners who qualify for the federally funded free and   reduced lunch program)
* CWR = Combined Wealth Ratio, (which is a formula in New York that combines personal income and property wealth to measure the ability of communities to generate revenue through taxes).
* IEP = Individualized Education Plan; (an instructional plan to support learners identified with special needs) developed by the CSE* = Committee on Special Education
* SINI = School In Need of Improvement: * DINI = District In Need of Improvement
* SOB for BS = Supervisor of Basics for Better Schools: (I made this one up for some levity! The rest are all too real and true.)

Parents choose where kids can attend.
School districts had to contend
with Charter,* Private** or home-schooling***
now competing and dueling
for potential scholars****
and taxpayer dollars.*****
* according to statistics compiled by the U. S. Department of Education, 1.6 million learners attend Charter schools, a significant increase from the .3 million in attendance at Charter schools in 2000. There are 5,714 Charter schools in America.
**meanwhile the U. S. Department of education reports that the number of learners attending private and parochial schools has declined sharply in the same decade of comparison, 2000 – 2010. There are 6.3 million (12.7% less than in 2000) attending 28,220 private schools and 2.2 million (19% less than in 2000) attending 7,400 Catholic schools.
*** The U. S. Department of Education reveals that the fastest growing alternative to public school education is home-schooling, where 1.5 million learners receive instruction at home, nearly doubling the .85 million who were home-schooled in 2000.
**** In the state of New York, public schools are required to provide textbooks and transportation to resident children who opt to attend private schools within a certain distance from the school.
***** Charter school tuition must be paid by the public schools in which the child resides. In Green Island that’s over $12,000 per learner. 
Then, in 2007

The economy stumbled,
job markets really tumbled,
and the housing bubble burst.
School budgets slipped to their worst!
As houses went in foreclosure,
revealing in budget disclosure
that the school district’s tax base
won't maintain its former pace.

The public wanted “belts tightened.”
Learners and staff felt frightened,
by the program decreases
and the class size increases.
The Governor commanded
what taxpayers demanded!
Budget decisions were tough.
Tax crusaders claimed there was fluff
and schools were top heavy,
so the state capped the tax levy,
of no more than two percent*
to control what schools have spent.

* after approved allowances are made for court judgments, payments in lieu of taxes, and local capital expenses, schools use a complex formula developed by the state to determine an allowable tax levy limit of the lesser of the rate of inflation (consumer price index) or two percent and publicize the outcome to local taxpayers.

The scarcity of resources
reduced many class courses,
and left more classrooms bare,
with empty teacher’s desk and chair.

To make matters even worse,
as if it was an evil curse,
the state raised the performance bar
 mandating the A.P.P.R.*
This unfunded regulation
caused more budget strangulation.
* Annual Professional Performance Review: To qualify for federal Race to the Top funding and state education aid, all school districts in New York must adopt and receive state approval of APPR plans for teachers and principals. All teachers and principals in grades K-12 will earn a rating of either: highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective. Ratings are based on a 100-point scale. A score between 0-64 is “ineffective.” A rating of 65-74 points is “developing,” and 75 to 90 points is “effective.” A rating from 91-100 is “highly effective.” The final score is derived from three areas: 60 percent will be based on observations of teachers in the classroom; 20 to 25 percent will come from student growth based on either state tests or progress made toward meeting student-learning targets (Student Learning Objectives or SLOs); and the remaining 15 to 20 percent is determined on measures of student achievement that are created within each school district. 
Unemployment data features
a loss of 10,000 teachers,*
from public schools across our state
with little worry of the fate,
and the impact on student learning
or the effect on their future earning.*
* NYSUT (New York State United Teachers) the largest teachers’ union in the state has reported that there has been a loss of over 10,000 teaching positions in recent years.
** Research studies point to education as an economic engine, claiming that effective educational systems produce a skilled workforce that can attract businesses and sustain job creation and retention, thus resulting in community benefits through increased tax revenues.
Anxious people inquired
if schools don’t meet required
regulations and payroll,
can a financial black hole
cause schools to become bankrupt*
and communities to erupt?
* There is a debate about the term bankrupt from two different views: mandates and instruction. The State Education Department asserts that schools are not insolvent as long as they continue to provide programs that are not mandated by the state, such as sports, many instructional electives, Advanced Placement classes, or Kindergarten. This perception is in contrast with those who insist that a school should be considered “bankrupt” when they can no longer provide an enriched, broad based curriculum necessary to produce graduates prepared to compete for college admission and career opportunities. In either case, there appears to be no precedent of a school “going out of business” although Dr. Rick Timbs of the Statewide School Finance Consortium has analyzed school district budget and warns that over 100 school systems will have exhausted their fund balance (like a savings account) and may not survive after the 2013-14 school year without fiscal intervention by the state. Apparently, only time will tell how this issue unfolds.
Debates arise over the funds
needed to educate our sons
and daughters in the public schools
amid the state’s financial rules.
Equality has been our creed,
while equity is based on need.*
* In 2006, after a 13 year long legal challenge, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity was victorious in the court system of New York State with their claim that the existing formula exercised by the state to distribute funds in support of public school education did not meet the constitutional requirement that “the state offer all children the opportunity for a "sound basic education," defined as a meaningful high school education that prepares students for competitive employment and civic participation.” (Campaign for Fiscal Equity Inc. v. State, 86 N.Y.2d 306 (1995). Political debates and the economic recession combined to stall efforts to sustain the implementation of a funding formula that addresses the need to distribute funds to public schools in an equitable manner.
This is an issue that many states have confronted, most recently in Vermont where Act 60 became law in 1997 in response to claims that towns with higher real estate values had an unfair advantage over those lacking such a tax base. “Act 60, also known as the Equal Educational Opportunity Act, was signed into law in June 1997. The Legislature drafted the law in response to a Vermont Supreme Court decision that said Vermont's existing educational funding system was unconstitutional. The court, in Brigham v. State of Vermont, concluded that the state must provide "substantially equal access" to education for all Vermont students, regardless of where they reside.” (
Money distress prompts the urge
to consolidate or merge.
School districts A and B
combine to form district C.
That’s more difficult than easy,
leaving communities queasy
over their identity loss
and i’s to dot and t’s to cross.

After deliberations
and much consideration
by the Board of Education,
(shaken to their foundation)
the only viable option
was an unwelcome adoption.
Reluctantly they propose,
an elementary school must close.
The district was stricken with grief,
people were shocked beyond belief.
The budget was placated,
the building was vacated.
It seemed like in short order,
the building had a new boarder.
The transfer of the keys went
from school board president,
to top level management
for senior citizen resident.

Ten years later

One bright and sunny spring day
as April was near to May,
I walked rather slow
with nostalgia in tow,
through the old neighborhood.
From the spot where I stood,
without missing a beat,
I pointed across the street
at the red brick edifice.
I was incredulous.
Years ago as a boy,
I recall with great joy

everything I had learned
and the future I had yearned.
All of the hopes and the dreams,
teachers, classmates and teams.
I looked at the building and lawn.
The playground was long gone.
So were the echoes of laughter,
gone for ever after.
The big sign above the front door
read Senior Center of Longshore.
I muttered in despair….

A school was once there.

The End
 * Or is it? We’ll see if our legislature and Governor have the political will to collaborate and provide a system of funding that is equitable and fair in time to avoid more school closures and loss of learning opportunities.

Friday, March 8, 2013

We Are "How" We Read

Last week, on my way home, I listened to an interview on the local National Public Radio station. A book reviewer was chatting with an author of a book (Gary D. Schmidt: Okay for Now) intended for middle school readers. The author was describing the plot of the book and fleshing out the attributes of its main character, a fourteen year old boy. As I listened I was struck by how the boy perceived a picture of an Arctic Tern in a book he was reading in a manner that few others would interpret. The perspective was based on his particular station or condition in life at that point in time.
I came to the conclusion that we are not "what" we read, but rather we are "how" we read. Here's an excerpt from the radio interview, courtesy of NPR.

"Fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. He has just moved to a new town, where he doesn't have any friends, and where his teachers — and the police — think of him as nothing more than a "skinny thug."
So it's easy to understand why Doug, the protagonist of our latest book for
NPR's Backseat Book Club, Okay for Now, is anything but a happy-go-lucky kid.
"He has a beat-up situation, a beat-up family, a beat-up house," author Gary D. Schmidt explains to NPR's Michele Norris. "And he comes to a new town, trying to find a new way to start. But he brings all of his beat-upedness with him."
Eventually, Doug finds his way to the local library, where he discovers a beautiful edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America. When he notices that nine of the pages with plates of birds have been cut out with a razor blade, he resolves to track them down.
"Doug, who is so beat-up, wants one thing in his life, just one thing in his life, that's whole," says Schmidt. "He has no resources, no way to do it, but he's determined to try and get all nine of those plates back. So this is a novel about this kid trying to do that, surrounded by people who come to love and cherish him."
One particular bird in the Audubon book, an Arctic tern, makes a profound impression on Doug:
The "Arctic Tern" from John James Audobon's Birds of America makes a profound impression on Doug, the protagonist of Okay for Now.

The "Arctic Tern" from John James Audobon's Birds of America makes a profound impression on Doug, the protagonist of Okay for Now.

Courtesy The Audobon Society
He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold, green sea. His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he was trying to turn but couldn't. His eyes were round and bright and afraid. And his beak was opened a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water. The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in. This bird was falling, and there wasn't a single thing in the world that cared at all.
Of course, Doug's hopeless interpretation is about much more than just the bird. It's a communion, of sorts.
"He looks at that picture and he sees his own life," says Schmidt. "He sees a bird or a living thing that's so beautiful falling out of the sky with nothing to support him at all. And in reality, the bird isn't falling out of the sky. He's going down to get something to eat. But Doug's perception is that he is alone and in trouble."

I found myself reminiscing of my favorite books as a learner and gregarious reader in middle school. The first two immediately popped up as an almost reflexive action without thinking. Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, and Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell. A moment later I realized the parallels between the two books. Each focused on someone being stranded on an island and enduring challenges to their survival.

At that juncture of my life, on the threshold of adolescence and mired in the confines of an impoverished family of nine, I felt that I was on an uncharted, isolated island of sorts fighting for survival. I certainly don't recall consciously being drawn to the books for that reason.

I did eventually persist and escape the deserted island of my childhood and enjoyed new vistas and expanded opportunities. Now, I have collected countless memories of serving others in a lengthy career centered on making a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others through my efforts as an educator. 

Interestingly, that career arc began on a small island off the coast of Maine (teaching fifth grade in Stonington, a small village on Deer Isle) and will end on a small "island" in upstate New York (as superintendent of the school district in Green Island). In between, I worked as a principal in Amarillo, Texas, a veritable island of 200,000 people in the Panhandle of Texas surrounded by the vast and empty plains without another town of over 20,000 people within a hundred mile radius.

In a way, unlike Robinson Crusoe and Karana, I have chosen to remain and flourish on these islands.