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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.