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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Management of Education

I have made a conscious effort over the years of this Blog to offer insight into the educational arena and prevent posts from slipping into a series of rants. With that said, I must extend a perception of education that will threaten that vow.

Although there are needs for specific protocol that dictate uniformity (i.e. procedures during safety drills,...) and conformity (i.e. compliance with appropriate regulations) the reach of such practices and expectations has extended itself to the point it begins to permeate the environment of a growing number of school districts. Without getting into the politics and competing perspectives on the Common Core, I would present that collection of learning standards as evidence of contrived compliance through the leverage of federal funds (Race To The Top money) made available as incentives to states (at a time when they are experiencing budget shortfalls in education) that accept the learning standards.

As the federal government has increased their influence over education at the local level (through regulations in special education, Title I, Title IX, the Homeless Children and Youth Act, No Child Left Behind,...) the impact of district influence has decreased in an inverse relationship. The more the federal and state departments of education have seeped into the school buildings, the less impact the locally appointed school leaders can exercise on instruction. Similarly, local decisions are becoming more muted and Boards of Education find themselves complying more with external regulations and creating less in terms of tailoring programs and practices to meet  needs and expectations unique to the local community.

In other words, we are moving closer to the management of education and away from the leadership of education. In sum, as a school leader who has valued innovation and imagination in developing programs and practices, I am glad that I'm nearer to the end of my educational leadership career than the beginning.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Across Four Decades

This September marked the fortieth “opening day” of my career as an educator. (Sadly, I remember when I once considered anyone forty to be old) Much had transpired in public education through those four decades, with far too many changes to count.

However, there are several fairly dramatic changes that have impacted education across those years. Of course, there are the obvious factors, such as federal interventions in the form of special education, title IX, and extending to programs and concomitant regulations like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. We attempt to make the list short by using acronyms (NCLB, RTTT, SPED, AIS, ESL,…) that depict programs with long term implications.

Those broad, sweeping federal mandates/initiatives are common to public school districts throughout the country. Lesser known, because they lack the power of headlines and the effect of simultaneously inflicting pressure on all schools at once, are the varied sources of unwelcome concern that have leaked into school buildings over the years like toxins that neither emit sound or detectable odors and challenge the capacity of schools, heretofore oriented primarily on the 3R’s, to respond.

Among these vexing issues that had previously not inserted themselves into public education on such a scale or depth are: more prominent mental health related issues (growing rates of stress and anxiety, suicide, acts of violence); the tumultuous dynamic of families (increased divorce rate, blended families, grandparent led units, homeless…);  technology aided social platforms (cyber bullying, sexting,…); technology assisted intrusions (hacking school financial accounts or data);  In regards to the last two categories, I certainly do not mean to infer that technology has spawned malice and mischief. There is no question that technology has provided a significant and lasting constructive force in teaching and learning, but it has been accompanied by opportunities of exerting negative influence as well by those with devious intent.

Public schools are contending with non-instructional issues at a level unprecedented in my forty years in education. Most public schools serve both breakfast and lunch. All public schools must accommodate the needs of the homeless through compliance with the federal McKinney-Vento legislation. As much as the school offers a vital safety-net for those traumatized and displaced from their home, the accommodations are unexpected financial burdens on already stressed budgets. Social workers and school psychologists are employed in much higher numbers than they were decades ago. Programs providing valuable and needed services to children suffering varied mental health illnesses have multiplied at a much faster pace than instructional programs. The different issues that plague learners is often a strong distraction that can interfere with instructional achievement. It all adds up to a significant challenge that leaves those obstacles I faced years ago as a pale and distant memory.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

At The End Of The Rope

There's an old expression often used to describe the point at which you approach and acknowledge inevitable defeat. Many public school educators jousting at windmills and toiling at teaching may subscribe to that adage. Public schools, particularly those considered "high need" (low in resources, high in need) are more than disappointed, at least in New York, at the inequitable distribution of state aid as it's constituted in archaic formulas that extend gaps in both opportunity and achievement. The primitive explanation of state aid distribution in New York resembles a card dealer who dispense cards to players in equal fashion. Personally, I've always viewed it in the form of watering plants. If you have a cactus and a tropical plant, two plants with very different needs for water, and insist on supplying each of them with the same amount of water one will die - due to either over-watering or under-watering.

That "end of the rope" expression reminds me of an experience during my first year in education, as an elementary school teacher on an island off the coast of Maine. It was fair to say that the children suffered in some part from the geographical isolation that led to a form of cultural deprivation as it related to assessment of learning designed by test creators operating in far different environments. For example, one question required the children to identify the beginning letter of an object by choosing from among the four selections. The object was a saucer for a tea cup. Suffice it to say that the kids ignored the "S" and were searching for a "P" for "plate because they had no idea what a saucer was, since few if any people were accustomed to serving tea or coffee in that manner.

However, a few months later I came across one of those short "IQ" tests associated with some group like MENSA that appeared in a magazine and quizzed people to discover whether they were super intelligent. Well, one of the questions went like this: "A boat rests alongside the dock by the ocean with a rope ladder descending off the side of the vessel, and each rung of the rope ladder is exactly one foot apart. There are four rungs exposed above the waterline. The tide goes out five feet. How many rungs are now exposed above the water?"

Many respondents would declare that nine rungs would be exposed because there were originally four showing and then the tide went down five feet, with each rung a foot apart so adding them simply produces a sum of 4+5 = 9.

Wrong. As all of the children on the island readily understood, the correct answer is four because the boat remains on the water level no matter how many feet the tide recedes. While this little quiz turned the tables and demonstrated in part the impact of cultural context in test construction and resulting discrimination, it left me reassured that the impoverished children of the island who couldn't identify a saucer were not as limited as the outcome of that national achievement test would indicate.

Reflecting on that experience caused me to continue with the subject of ropes and boats. High Need schools have much shorter ropes that those schools considered Average or Low Need. Imagine two boats identical in size and shape. One boat has a five foot long rope attaching it to the dock, the other has a fifteen foot boat connecting it to the dock. The tide goes out ten feet. The first boat in our example is hanging by its short rope, dangling from the edge of the dock above the water, half submerged in the ocean. Meanwhile, the other boat with the longer rope floats comfortably above the water with several feet of rope to spare.

High Needs schools have suffered from the benign neglect of those decision makers and policy makers who could intervene and support the equitable distribution of financial resources have avoided the discomforting task of doing "what is right" because they appear to be more driven by "who is right," as in those communities that exercise their affluence and connections to the levers of power to sustain a distribution system that maintains the gap and serves as an advantage for their own children and the property values and quality of life of their community.

High Need schools in New York are struggling precariously at the end of their ropes.....