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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Reminder for Educators

The recent passage of the anniversary of the Tragedy of Terrorism of September 11th prompted my memories of that day. Here's a brief message I shared with our staff as we assembled the next morning before school in an effort to get back on our feet and regain our composure: (I happen to believe that the theme of the speech is one which teachers should subscribe to as a matter of course on a regular basis - which is also why I am sharing these thoughts)

"This is a day that will define us – not as educators – but as people. This is a day that we were not prepared for by college, but by our parents, family and friends. This is a day to ignore the scores on a test and concern ourselves with the test of our mettle.

Our school is special because of the people within it. You were each hired because of your care and compassion, commitment and cooperation. If we are determined to pursue a mission borne of fostering hope and feeding dreams, then we must sustain that belief throughout this day and those that follow.
Let us conduct ourselves with dignity and civility, sensitivity and faith. We must serve as purveyors of information, and reservoirs of understanding. Rest anchored to facts, not fiction; objectivity, not opinion.
When the school bell rings, on this day that the nation mourns, we may be judged - not by grades and points, but by hugs and tears. If we are resolved to a future of freedom, then we must remain strong, speak as one, and act for all.
Remember, people don't care about how much you know, until they know about how much you care."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Back and Forth in Education

When the school bell rings to introduce the start of another day, does it arouse the feeling a boxer experiences when he hears the bell announcing the first round of a championship prize fight? Do you find your palms beginning to sweat? stomach tightening? anxiety building up? tension rising? adrenaline surging?

     If the features within the school are not enough to stimulate nervousness, fatigue, or self-doubt, then the reforms sweeping the nation in the guise of teacher competency tests, learning standards, merit pay, mandated curricula, high stakes state-wide exams and the funding crisis spawning lay-offs and budget freezes, certainly will.

     It's easy to feel pressured and cornered. Teaching is a demanding profession but there is no need to spring from the corner each morning with clenched fists like a boxer. Although stress can't be eliminated from teaching we can reduce the influence of a self imposed element that contributes to stress. We may be guilty of convincing ourselves that things are bad and getting worse by comparing education today with a nostalgic, fuzzy look back at past events and issues clouded by selective retention. Erasing the notion of the "good old days" by which the present is measured and found to be bad will alleviate much of our concerns. Think about it, today may very well be the good old days of future reference.

     You don’t need to travel very far back in time in search of these good old days, 15 or 20 years are sufficient if you are equipped with an objective memory. However, we will journey back all the way to 1882. Armed with an actual article from the New York Times of October 2, 1882, and a textbook on teaching published that same year, we will look at teaching from the perspective of a teacher of the present who found himself in a classroom of 1882. The tale begins...


     I will now seek to recount the events which unfolded and provided me with a strange experience late one evening.

     It all began when I became involved with a fascinating book of Mark Twain's, "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." My interest prevented me from focusing on an assignment I had for a graduate class in education.

     The tale that Twain spun related to the "transposition of epochs and bodies" in which a gentleman from Connecticut, Hank Morgan, was struck on the head one day in 1879 and found himself regaining consciousness in the year 513. A member of King Arthur’s Round Table confronted him as soon as he regained consciousness. The story continues by explaining Hank's experiences from his introduction to his captor, Sir Kay of Seneschal, through his ascent in influence with the King. All the while Hank interacts with the sixth century society from a nineteenth century point of reference.

     I became so involved in the book that I was very reluctant to put it aside and return to my assignment. Time was the convincing factor. It was nearly midnight and the paper had to be on the professor’s desk in eight hours.

     The subject of the report, an examination of practices of educational administration as expressed in an 1882 textbook by Dr. Albert Raub of the State Normal School of Lock Haven, Pa., was not thwarting my growing sleepiness. I struggled to keep my eyelids from closing. My fingers were awkwardly grappling with the keyboard in a frenzied hunt and peck fashion, but I labored onward.

     With one eye maintaining a vigil on the clock as the other guided me along the keyboard the frequency of errors increased dramatically. I was exhausted. My head seemed like it weighed a hundred pounds. My eyelids were nearly shut. I could no longer…


     "Wake up young man! Surely you don't expect the children to see you catching some shut eye on your first day of teaching." The man's barking surprised me as much as if a voice had beckoned me from heaven. "Sir! Is it your wish to engage in insolent behavior on your initial assignment in this revered profession?" the voice bellowed again. "If so, your first day of teaching and your last day will be one and the same. I can assure you that the esteemed Board of Education of the fine schools of Schenectady, New York will not tolerate this laziness."

     The sense of authority that delivered those words prompted me to respond with the alertness of an army recruit at reveille.

     "I hope" he went on, "that you will do a better job than your predecessor Mrs. Johnson. She was fired because she became pregnant! It's up to you to pick up where she left off so the children do not lose what they learned in the first four weeks of school."

     Well, I thought, there is some relief amid this confusion. I sure didn’t have any intention of becoming pregnant. I cleared my eyes and scanned my new found environment. It looked like a classroom. The room was a pale, institutional gray. It was supplied with several hardwood desks which were attached to the chairs and secured to the floor. These desks were in pairs to accommodate two kids at once. The blackboard appeared omnipresent. It seemed to stretch from floor to ceiling and occupy an entire side of the room. And there was a ... calendar.

     But wait a minute, October 2, 1882! This must be someone's idea of a joke. John Campsoni! Yeah, this is John's style. He always played pranks on people back in college. He's the guy who took apart my VW bug and reassembled it in my apartment while I was out of town during Spring break. I have to give him credit, this room certainly seems authentic.

     "And another thing,” the gentleman stated loudly, “your decorum is much too deviant. Following today’s lesson you will be required to meet with me and discuss your apparel. Here, study this list of qualifications so you will herein be advised of the governing principles of this system," he said as he shoved a number of papers before me.

     As this unknown man spoke I looked down at my outfit; a pair of khakis, short sleeve sport shirt sans tie, and casual shoes. Hardly what you would call inappropriate for teaching but a sharp contrast to this man's starched long sleeve white shirt, bow tie, and smartly pressed wool suit.

     My attention was riveted to this man. His stern eyes glared down at me from behind the spectacles that rested on the nose sitting above his handlebar moustache. My suspicion of John Campsoni waned as the man before me gave an impression of an all too real fixture rather than an accomplice to one of John's pranks.

     This strange event was frightening yet I mustered the courage to attempt an explanation of my appearance here.

     "Well" I began, "ah, I really don't know what I'm doing here." The words crept out slowly from my mouth. They were not very well received. My presentation was met with a sharp retort.

     "Do you wish to engage me in repartee? I think not or your career will be as short as the sleeves on your scruffy shirt. I did not become superintendent of schools by allowing some wet behind the ears Normal School graduate to speak back to me. Young man, teaching is a demanding profession. It requires strong men, individuals with sound physical, intellectual, professional, and moral constitution. As such these strict expectations create tremendous responsibility and therefore nervousness and anxiety among neophytes is typical. Now straighten yourself up in that chair and present yourself accordingly, the little ones will arrive in an hour."

     With that stated, he left, striding briskly by the reading charts, numerical frames, and geographical boards that lined the wall. I could hear him muttering to himself as he departed, "These poor products that the schools send us are getting worse each year." Once he vanished I sat there, resigning myself to the situation, with the beat of my heart piercing the silence of the room. So much for teacher in-service I thought. This is different than the interactions I've have had with superintendents back in 2010. The time difference hung mysteriously over my head.

     I walked to the window to examine my surroundings and put this twilight zone experience in perspective. Sure enough, the streets were void of the  multicolored cars of 2010. The clothing of the people walking along the streets indicated that it was a different time, a different era. Somehow I was standing here 71 years before I was actually born.

     There's nothing to do now but make the best of a confusing situation. With that in mind I looked upon my "classroom" with scrutiny. The desk before me was unlike the Round Table that Hank referred to in Twain's classic story. It was sparsely furnished - only some papers in addition to the list my new boss provided me. One of the sheets contained the inventory of the room.

     Might as well get acquainted with the classroom of 1882. There was a set of weights and measures designed to accustom the students with the "practical part of Denominate numbers." The metric system was accounted for by a set of weights and measures. The listing included a variety of cones, cylinders, spheres, etc... to enable one to have the resources to instruct geometric forms. Geography was represented by the presence of outline maps, globes, and geographical boards on the inventory. The globe hardly resembles that which my students of 2015 would recognize. With the exception of textbooks and library books, that was it insofar as instructional support systems. No cell phones, tablets or computers, learning kits, scientific calculators, microscopes, interactive whiteboards, distance learning portals, electronic based learning centers or a multiplicity of manipulatives that could be discovered in a classroom of the 2015.

     The school library, according to the packet of information, listed "cyclopedias" and a variety of historical works treating children to the history of Greece, Rome, France, Germany, and the like. These volumes were followed by the masterpieces of British and American poets, and the prose of Irving, Hawthorne, Scott, Carlyle, and more. The last note on the library... "A taste should thus be created for the elegant in both prose and poetry, while the vitiated taste created by the cheap, flashy literature of the day might be anticipated and supplanted."

     Nowhere on this list of library books could one find Judy Blume type books on the problems confronting adolescents, or the 'Children's Book of Divorce', or 'Never Say Yes to Strangers,' and other works reflecting the changing society one experiences in the in 2010. Perhaps to a teacher of the far off future who interacts with children of a society beset by drug abuse, child pornography, children of broken homes, and missing children, etc... this period of time might seem as mythical as that visited by Hank Morgan when meeting the knights of Camelot.

     Lest anyone forget, these children of the 1880's faced perils of their own. Child labor laws 
were not protecting children from long hours sweatshops or other means of employment in unsafe conditions. The street alongside the school provided proof of this as small I listened to youngsters hawking dry goods.

    One can assume from the list of names on my class roster that many of these pupils are among the wave of European immigrants that traveled to the industrial areas of the U.S., like Schenectady, with the clothes on their back and a dream for the future. No, these children were not welcomed with the support of a host of social service related school programs directed by guidance counselors, social workers, or psychologists. Nor were they greeted with the open arms of bilingual programs in Italian, Russian, German, and the many languages representative of the surnames of the kids on the roster. The school is monolingual - English. The students would become ingredients to that well flavored soup in the 'melting pot.' Sink or swim. Survival of the fittest.

     My history of education professor would be proud of me for remembering that the problem of assimilation, along with an absence of child labor laws and other acts protecting the interests of children, like special education PL 94-142, integration measures, native language instruction... was a contributing factor in the tremendous drop out rate that was characteristic of this period. Hence, only the brightest and those who did not have to leave school to work and help the family economy sustained their school attendance. No room for the slow learners, learning disabled, attention deficit disorder...

     Finally, at the end of the inventory was mention of a procedure for securing teacher apparatus. The instructor was first advised to create a need by "addressing the citizens of the district, showing how much better the work of teaching may be done with the apparatus than without." Another avenue available to the instructor includes "an entertainment by the school children that will usually secure the attendance of parents and friends, and when it is known that the proceeds are to be devoted to the purchase of apparatus, the patrons will attend all the more willingly." Does this fundraising need and technique sound familiar to educators in the financially pressed 2010's?

     Rummaging through the desk produced additional information on memorandums. The schools of the 21st century apparently do not have the market cornered when it comes to bureaucracy. A glance at the clock indicated that I had enough time to read on. "School Ethics - Duties of the Teacher" read the page held before me. Of particular interest to me as I pursued the data, was the section entitled 'Duties to the Pupils'. In regard to moral wants it explained, "It has been argued against education that it makes men rogues, but this cannot be said of the education that gives culture to the child's moral as well as his intellectual nature."

     This section was followed by the physical wants of pupils that included a note of caution that "care must be taken also that intellectual tasks not be permitted to break down the child's nervous organization." "WOW!" I exclaimed to myself, "my kids back in the future would certainly plead their cases that homework is dangerous to the nervous system."

     I continued my examination with interest. The next part of the outline involved itself with the teacher's duties to the teaching profession. I was enlightened by the following remarks; "No man whose teachings cannot be strictly followed or whose character and habits cannot be profitably imitated, should be permitted to enter the schoolroom as a teacher. Great care must be taken that teachers do not become egotistic, and thus bring disgrace and disrepute on their calling."

     And now for the document handed me by my 'instructional leader.' The information contained much advice on the "do's and don'ts" of teaching.

"The Teacher Must;

1. Take sufficient exercise in the open air, that his blood may be pure and life sustaining.

2. Preserve an even temper, that the noise and worry of the school may not cause undue nervous excitement and exhaustion.

3. Give proper attention to bathing, that the skin may be kept in a healthy condition.

Although the list related many other words of advice one may obtain the flavor of the theme by the information above. Staff development had clearly not reached the technical level it would evidence over a century later. The use of the term 'he' also lends insight into the profession.

The proximity of a corner store I had observed in my view out of the window and the time I had before the students would arrive allowed me to run out and purchase a paper and gain more knowledge about my new era. The New York Times. "Well" I stated in the manner of a discoverer, "at least I know that today is October 2, 1882."

     The paper had a great many amusing articles and advertisements that seemed so distant in prices and conveniences to that which one would find in a newspaper of 2010. One article in particular aroused my curiosity. On page 6, column 1, "Advances in Education." This would certainly provide me with a perspective on the teaching profession of 1882.

     The government presses had just turned out the report of the Commissioner of Education for 1880. Among the facts listed was data on the pay of teachers. I quote Commissioner Gen. John Eaton, of Tennessee, "It must be admitted that with all the defects in training and in modes of appointment, the teachers are better than their wages." The article stated that "California and two or three other states provide by law that no distinction be made in the pay of teachers in regard to sex, but this has not resulted in increasing the pay of women to any great extent." And a final note to female teachers everywhere, " appears that more than half the teachers, not only of public but private schools, and in advanced as well as elementary grades, are women. The commissioner questions whether a continuance of this excess will not involve a sacrifice of some of the conditions essential to the development of strong, self reliant characteristics, and the early knowledge of affairs which is especially important in the case of boys."

     As I finished the article I noticed that the time was rapidly approaching when the students would visit me. I put the paper away and leaned back in my chair, mulling over the significant differences that exist between the teacher of 1882 and the teacher of 2010.

     Just then I was shocked by the sudden sound of bells. My whole body shook in response to this burst of noise. I sprang to attention and sat right up in the chair. Instinctively I reached and picked up the phone beside me.

    "Michael", the voice sounded familiar. "Michael" he continued, "don't forget that you're supposed to pick me up on the way to class today. Do you have your paper ready?" It was a classmate of mine in a summer graduate course I was taking at Texas Tech. In fact, I remember that I was working on the project for the class when I ... when I ... when I don't know what happened. I looked down at my hand which was clutching some papers. In order that I might make some sense of this weird feeling that had come over me I slowly raised the papers and began reading.
     The first article was a recipe for making the surface of chalkboards black. However the second paper certainly stood the test of time much better. It was a word of caution to teachers written in 1882 by Dr. Albert Raub of The State Normal School of Lock Haven, Pa. The message remains appropriate.

     "Few are so repulsive to child nature as those who are gloomy. The teacher who is stiff and pedantic, who is sullen and morose, who is gloomy and dejected, is out of place in the school room... The teacher will find many things to try his patience, many things to vex and cross him; many things that will discourage and irritate him; but through it all let him keep a cheerful countenance. Let him join in hearty laughter whenever there is an opportunity. No one needs more to look on the bright side of life... Let your entrance into the school room be such as to convince your pupils that you are both good humored and good natured.

     Despite the advances in theories and technology that are now reflected in education, the fads and the buzz words, the issues and events, some things have not changed. Stress and burnout may be the source of concern now (as evidenced in the many workshops devoted to the subject) but one can see that it is an element that has shadowed practitioners for many years. Although this does not prevent stress from taxing toady’s teachers, it does point to the fact that stress existed even in the "good old days." Let's be careful and avoid adding to our problems by comparing these 'hard times' with the past and thereby multiplying our troubles.
     Let the school bell toll the arrival of a fresh, new day instead of another prize fight.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Thinking Outside the Bubble

Thinking outside the Box Bubble

We've all heard the phrase, "out of the box" thinking. Wikipedia describes the concept as,

"Thinking outside the box is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. This phrase often refers to novel or creative thinking. The term is thought to derive from management consultants in the 1970s and 1980s challenging their clients to solve the "nine dots" puzzle, whose solution requires some lateral thinking. The catchphrase, or cliché, has become widely used in business environments, especially by management consultants and executive coaches, and has been referenced in a number of advertising slogans. To think outside the box is to look farther and to try not thinking of the obvious things, but to try thinking of the things beyond them."

However our schools, in large part as a result of an increased accountability movement based on what can be scored more efficiently (i.e. electronically scanned answer sheets as opposed to essays and written responses) have confined thinking to responses on high stakes tests that can be answered by filling in a bubble.

Assessing the higher order thinking skills that are necessary to address the complex issues we encounter requires us to move "outside the bubble."

Friday, June 12, 2015

When is Enough, Enough?

This post entry is an endorsement of a book with a meaningful message that can be summed up in one excerpt that follows:
"At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informed his pal and fellow author, Joseph Heller … that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel (Catch-22) over its whole history.
Heller responds … Yes, but I have something he will never have …


Source: John Bogle, Enough. The Measures of Money, Business, and Life (Bogle is founder of the Vanguard Mutual Fund Group)

A review of the chapter titles of Bogle's book (see below) is "enough" to make you wonder about values and priorities of too many people today. What do you think?
“Too Much Cost, Not Enough Value”
“Too Much Speculation, Not Enough Investment”
“Too Much Complexity, Not Enough Simplicity”
“Too Much Counting, Not Enough Trust”
“Too Much Business Conduct, Not Enough Professional Conduct”
“Too Much Salesmanship, Not Enough Stewardship”
“Too Much Focus on Things, Not Enough Focus on Commitment”
“Too Many Twenty-first Century Values, Not Enough Eighteenth-Century Values”
“Too Much ‘Success,’ Not Enough Character”
Source: Chapter titles from Jack Bogle, Enough.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

An Eruption of Corruption

At what point do the public schools of New York redirect some of the valuable resources of instructional time, materials and curriculum currently expended in preparing learners for fill-in-the-bubble assessments (doing things right), and reallocate a portion to developing a moral compass of ethics and integrity (doing the right thing) for our learners?

Approximately thirty years ago an ivy league university accepted the realization that they were producing financial geniuses who graduated and then embraced insider trading schemes on Wall Street; and they were sending off aspiring legal scholars who chased the money and represented very questionable clients in very questionable practices; and they were preparing outstanding doctors who entered the profession without any sense of personal orientation on controversial issues like euthanasia, for instance.

In other words, they were not providing the conditions for these graduates to have or value a moral compass. I'm not advocating any particular side of an issue and neither was the university, but rather there is a need for individuals to have the wherewithal to develop and articulate their opinions and have a stance on important issues related to their profession, regardless of what side of a debate they represent. The university did not promote a particular orientation, but instead provided the means and conditions that would enable each individual to arrive at their own reference point.Those who pay for and receive services from their stock broker, lawyer, or doctor, for example, should understand the philosophy of their representative as a determining factor in selecting service providers.

As a result, the university reviewed their curricula and inserted classes on ethics to supplement their course of studies in the respective departments.

Here in the shadows of our state capital, Albany, we have been bombarded by the media with stories revealing a rampant crisis in ethics, or the lack thereof. The democratic leader of the state assembly and the republican leader of the state senate have both been separately charged in examples of a breach of ethics that is considered criminal. This is particularly noteworthy given that the state has largely been governed (at least in creating a state budget that drives the operation of the state) by what has routinely been referred to as "the three men in a room," of the Governor, the Assembly leader, and the Senate leader.

As a result, our state-wide politicians talk about ethics reform, but it's largely just boastful rhetoric that will likely end up being more cosmetic than transformational.

When do our political representatives (the same ones shaping education "reform") take a high stakes fill-in-the-bubble test on ethics to determine whether they are learning, and to what standard (ineffective, developing, effective, highly effective)? Will the results be published and available to the public? Will they have an improvement plan designed to assist their progress? Will they lose their position if they are ineffective for two years in a row?

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Question of Neutrality ???

A neutral position, at least in terms of driving a vehicle with a manual transmission, results in getting nowhere. Well, you don't go backwards, but you also don't go forward either. That can leave you in a fairly comfortable position. However, we live in a world where change is the only constant. The world around us is continually evolving.

Public schools generally reside in a relatively small comfort zone limited by neutrality (think Switzerland). There are several issues confining public schools, some restrictions are imposed externally (i.e. schools can't use public funds to advocate for a position - no money can be expended to promote people to vote in favor of the budget or adopt a stance on political elections) and others are manufactured internally (i.e. "keep the boat steady so we don't make waves among competing constituent groups on a political or social level"). As such, public schools are much more reactive than they are proactive. Typically, public schools change positions on social issues when forced to do so by legislation (civil rights of individuals in the broadest sense of race, religion, gender,..) rather than their own initiative. You might say that public schools represent an institution that clearly follows society instead of assuming any desire to lead society.

Now, I've never been to Switzerland. From all the images I've seen and everything I've read, it's a beautiful and prosperous country. I am not disparaging this fine nation, but merely using one of it's distinguishing characteristics to explain the point of this Blog. The neutrality of the Swiss is a hallmark of their recent history. That view serves to define the country as impartial and fair (although recent issues in the banking world have tarnished that perception). That neutral position allowed them to avoid the destruction that ravaged countries all around them during World War II. There's clearly something to be said about that form of isolation. They haven't lost a war.

On the other hand, they've never won a war either. Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating conflicts and the immeasurable suffering and casualties that are left it the wake of war, but the world around us is constantly contending with conflict on a far lesser scale that wreaks havoc, produces casualties of a different nature, and requires adaptations accompanied by stress and discomfort. Review British politician Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy prior to the German onslaught across Europe as an example of what can happen when one makes concessions to avoid conflict. (I don't mean this to be a history lesson)

We may be safe, and our borders on maps remain steadfast, but our boundaries are permeable and shrinking. For example, economic decline, political strife, technological impact, social pressures, are but a few of the daily influences on us all that cross any type of border and threaten our boundaries on a moral, social, political, financial fashion.

Public schools are no different. These institutions are buffeted by winds of change on the same fronts - financial, political, technological, and social. Change is the only constant in an evolving world that has rapidly expanded through the Internet, 24/7 television channels, and countless social media platforms. Almost anyone can share their opinions (i.e. this Blog) and instantly broadcast their views to all four corners of the world.

Public schools are certainly not quiet. Witness the public schools gradual use of emerging social media platforms to extend the reach of various formal and traditional communication channels. But these forums are predominately employed for the purpose of sharing news on school programs and events within an academic or athletic reference point. These communication vehicles are designed to be informative. They are utilized to maintain and sustain a flow of information that is intended to enlist support of taxpayers and convince community members of the value of their investment in public school education.

But what, one may ask, is the public school's view or position on sensitive subjects and/or emerging issues that regularly arrive on our doorstep without answers or owner's manuals included? The longstanding position of neutrality and political correctness confine public schools through the manner in which they were founded and funded. They are institutions founded by a clarion to embrace everyone and therefore offend no one; and funded by, a) public funds generated by a constituency of myriad political persuasions and beliefs - and b) federal funds that are bundled with constricting regulations and restrictions. You might say that it is, and has been, the nature of the beast. Let's wait for the winds of legislation or litigation to determine our course before we raise the sails of our boat.

National Hockey League scoring champion, Wayne Gretzky, once explained it this way: "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." Maybe if we remain entrenched in neutrality, like Switzerland, we will never miss a shot, but Switzerland never makes a shot either. Then why play the game (especially a game in which we have no choice but to participate) if the best outcome is a tie?

Monday, May 11, 2015

It's in the Fine Print

2 billion (with a "B") dollars (that's $2,000,000,000) for schools in the state of New York to allow them to upgrade technology and also address needs of pre-kindergarten programs and facilities.

Wow! Who could be opposed to that opportunity? Especially since it was entitled the Smart Schools Bond Act? Who wants anything less than smart schools? And, our school district would be eligible to receive $257,106 dollars for the following four areas: equipment; Internet connectivity; high-tech security; and/or facility renovations for prekindergarten programs.

I was not in favor of the proposal.

I voted against this bond act when it appeared on the ballot last November. I felt there was insufficient substance supporting the initiative beyond the catchy title (everything made public as an explanation is contained in the second paragraph of this blog post), and worried about bonding money for technology that could be obsolete years before the taxpayers repay the money. However, a majority of the voting public approved the proposal.

It appeared to be another case of the public making decisions on bumper-sticker explanations of important issues. That is, the reduction of a complex issue to a phrase or identity that could either fit on a bumper-sticker or a media headline. Perhaps the interest/attention span of the general populations has "twitterized" to the point that everything must fit in a minimum number of characters.

At any rate, the proposal was overwhelmingly approved months ago - 62% yes, 38% no. The idea originated in the Governor's office as opposed to the State department of education. As a result, superintendents, leaders of school districts and stewards of the public funds, only recently received some general parameters of the Smart Schools Bond Act.

Chief among the stipulations that have emerged to govern the access and use of the funds is the requirement that the school districts purchase the products/services and then seek reimbursement from the state. While that may not seem much of an obstacle on the surface, you must understand that public school districts are limited in their budget by another state initiative that restricts increases in the district budget to no more than 2% of the tax levy or the actual computed limit derived from a mandated formula to determine the limit. Exceeding the threshold amount of increase would require a 60% majority of voters affirming the budget.

So, since our identified tax levy limit for the upcoming 2015-16 school year, per the state formula, is 0.48% (or approximately $15,000 dollars) if we wanted to replace outdated technology the only way we could add more than $15,000 to the general budget and avoid exceeding our tax levy cap, would be to reduce the budget in other accounts, with the subsequent decrease matching the amount above the $15,000. That is extremely difficult considering our school system, like other public schools throughout the state, has experienced several consecutive years of declining state aid and tax levy caps that restrict growth.

Two billion dollars certainly sounds impressive, but it remains out of reach,

A New View

Anthropology Professor Colin Turnbull of Columbia University studied the members of a rainforest tribe years ago. Members of the tribe lived in a jungle of densely populated trees and vegetation that surrounded their habitat. The plant life was so lush that the absence of any large swath of cleared land reduced the inhabitants view to a very limited range. This meant that the tribal members were accustomed to a fairly restricted vision of their world, a community covered by a roof of sprawling tree branches and leaves, and walls of tall trees and incredible jungle growth.

Turnbull developed a particularly good working relationship with a native named Kengee. One day he and Kengee trekked a great distance through the jungle to the edge of the rainforest and looked out from the top of a hill down to the relatively barren land below. They spied several water buffalo standing in the field below. "Insects" cried Kengee. As they gradually walked down to the field below and the distance between them and the animals decreased with each step, the 'insects' became larger and larger. "Magic!" exclaimed Kengee, “You turned those insects into large animals.”

Some organizations unwittingly limit their own views and visions through unwritten practices/policies that form the basis of their work culture. In their classic text, Corporate Culture, authors Deal and Kennedy simply defined organizational culture as, “the way we do things around here.” The inexact nature of unwritten practices and policies that have hardened and form the bedrock of an organization can make the workplace an unwelcoming, inhospitable, and unforgiving environment for leaders who are “foreigners” that have entered the organization from the outside, as opposed to growing up through the ranks of the organization.

It can pose the same dangers that one would experience when required to walk through an open field laden with landmines. The people who planted the explosives, or watched as others navigated the field, know how to avoid them and where to tread accordingly. As time passes by the locations of the landmines are imprinted in their minds and memories. This becomes such a routine that they no longer know a world other than that.
Among the leader’s most important contributions to sustaining an organization is the ability to create and convey a vision of a desirable future state that engenders hope for those in the group. This requires crafting a credible, realistic image of what the organization can become. This essential element challenges the leader to encourage others to see beyond their current or historical perceptions and construct of reality, like Turnbull did for Kengee when he showed him the effect of distance and perspective on his otherwise restricted view of the world. Marcel Proust, the famous French novelist and essayist, describes the process of discovery as "seeing with new eyes" as opposed to seeing new things.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Warning Labels

Public school districts throughout New York recently were confronted by another state regulation that requires additional staffing, program development, and professional training. Like many of its legislated predecessors, it is a well-intentioned and educationally appropriate service for schools to implement. I am not identifying it because the issue isn’t the program, but rather the blunt speed and force of the process of its introduction and implementation. Most importantly, it represents yet another unfunded state mandate delivered at a time when schools continue to contend with fiscal constraints that have seen staff layoffs, and program reductions over the last five years.

On Thursday afternoon our regional group of superintendents met with the Deputy Commissioner of Education and had the opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns. Much of the discussion focused on this new requirement. After overcoming some initial reticence, I expressed my summative opinion on the many perspectives rendered on the subject by my colleagues by drawing an analogy to a non-educational concept.

I reminded those present of the frequent late night television advertisements promoting various drug medicines. Nearly half of the commercial itself is devoted to the purpose and value of the drug as a solution to what ails people, while the other half of the ad is used to warn people of the many potential side-effects of the medicine. For example, nausea, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, thoughts of suicide and several other possible problems. The medical term is iatrogenic, according to, iatrogenic means “Due to the activity of a physician or therapy. For example, an iatrogenic illness is an illness that is caused by a medication or physician.” In more simplistic, non-medical terms, it refers to a solution to one issue or problem producing another, different issue or problem, like the medicine addressing your high cholesterol causing joint pain, blistering skin, loss of appetite, darkened urine…  

An example outside of medicine would be the development of the Aswan Dam in Egypt, which used the Nile River to produce hydroelectric power and meet an energy need for millions of people. However, the Aswan Dam prevented the river from flooding, which resulted in the loss of nutrients within the floodwaters that usually fertilized the farm-fields that flanked the river and benefitted from the annual floods. That prompted a significant decrease in agricultural produce and a consequent rise in hunger. So, the solution to one problem inadvertently created another problem.

I concluded my remark by suggesting that the State Education Department should list the potential side-effects of every program or requirement they introduce as a mandate to public schools. I went further and echoed the concerns shared by my colleagues as a suitable identification of such a list and proceeded to voice a mock example based on the piece of legislation we had been examining at the meeting. With the luxury of time since the meeting I will offer a written proposal of more substance and merit than the one spontaneously generated and verbalized at the meeting.

The New York State Department of Education has now mandated the _______________ program. It is designed to advance instructional opportunities and leverage future success for all learners serviced by the new program (although there are no funds available from the state to implement the program and sufficiently train staff members).

Potential side-effects may include:

1.     The need for additional staff at a time of sustained fiscal retrenchment that may likely cause a commensurate staff reduction elsewhere in the district;

2.     The subsequent lack of funding will certainly alienate other stakeholders and further threaten already vulnerable, and valuable, non-mandated instructional programs;

3.     This strangulation of non-mandated programs (see above) will further diminish the role and impact of the local control exercised by the community through policies developed by their elected representatives on the school board by leaving the school with little more than a state based curriculum;

4.     The need for specifically certified staff at a time when there are already insufficient numbers of available teachers in the certification area for the present program loads and number of learners;

5.     The stress on the supply and demand imbalance mentioned above will prompt competitive and  inflated market sensitive salaries which will cause additional financial problems for schools;

6.     An expanded erosion of credibility for the State Department of Education through an even wider rift separating the ideals of the state agency and the realities of the public schools;

7.     Finally, it should be noted that a possible side-effect facing school superintendents is a heightened level of anxiety, increased nausea, and a sense of political impotence that may lead to early retirement and the loss of many experienced school district leaders across New York.

All legislation should be accompanied by warning labels.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cells, Bells and Cockle Shells

Cells, Bells and Cockle Shells

Too many of our public schools resemble cells, bells and cockle shells. Classrooms have generally remained as organized and restrictive as cells in a prison, with a single guard and two dozen inmates in each cell or enlarged cubicle. Bells determine movement from room to room and/or subject to subject with uniform intervals of time separating the segments. These class periods are usually the same length of time that they were forty or fifty years ago, no matter the growth within the knowledge of a discipline And the culture of schools are as tightly closed as cockle shell clams, those small edible saltwater clams that live in sandy, sheltered beaches, similar to the preferred environment of public schools.

How coincidental can it be - That the size and shape of most classrooms are identical to those that were built a hundred years ago? That the lessons are governed by the same 40-50 minute time frames as decades ago? (block scheduling produces the same number of total minutes over the course of a semester/year) That the organizational culture is altered only slightly from earlier constructs? All of this despite the introduction of advanced technology, the growth of neuroscience research findings, and the countless opportunities to re-design learning environments.

Some degree of the stagnation or lack of creativity may be attributed to the firm grip of a nostalgic population comprised of people (including legislators) who apply their thirteen years of personal experience in public schools (thus qualifying too many of them as “experts”) to shape and confine their vision of what a public school is and can be. During a time of accelerated change in society and many institutions, public schools offer a safe harbor to people who are overwhelmed and threatened by change. It’s a lingering vestige to the “good old days” that elude reality.  

However, perhaps the most significant culprit in the current state of public schools are those who govern schooling at the federal and state levels. The mountain of accountability measures introduced and mandated through legislation over the last dozen years (albeit in the form of reform – No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top) have promoted assessments that have borne a dependence on paper and paper, fill-in-the-bubble answers. These types of tests diminish the importance of writing and the creative process because such responses cannot be evaluated through electronic scanning or cost too much in time and money for human analysis.

The emphasis on assessment outcomes has unfortunately prompted schools to eliminate recess periods at the elementary level and electives at the secondary level in an effort to increase “instructional time” in the face of an economic climate that prevents districts from negotiating longer school days. These responses are likely a “cut their nose off to spite their face” reply to the pressure of increasing performance on high stakes tests. Recess periods provide a potentially healthy opportunity for children as well as a chance to engage in socialization. Both of these benefits are important, but shouldn’t we consider the need for a respite in the day for children subjected to the stress of heightened expectations? The decrease in electives at the secondary level rob learners of creative outlets and exposure to subjects that are often associated with increasing creativity and expression. Together, these changes to the instructional landscape result in a prioritization process that reduces classes to be categorized as either core or non-core.

The economic constraints over the last several years have compelled districts to reduce staff and programs, so this toxic combination often makes the decisions easier when budgets must be decreased. What does such a ranking convey to those teachers and learners involved in the “non-core” classes?

Elementary teachers are faced with a crucial decision, especially when tests results are directly related to teacher evaluation, in allocating time for subjects. Do I shave some minutes off of those subjects that are not tested by the state (in New York, creative writing, social studies and science) and devote that time to the pursuit of improved performance in those subjects that are tested by the state?

What are the long term outcomes?

That’s the lingering question that begs a response from those imposing these mandates:

What are the long term outcomes?

Most of us recall the word cockle shells from the children’s poem, Mary, Mary Quite Contrary. Here’s an updated version of another famous rhyme involving a different Mary. Mary had a Little Lamb. This poem is entitled, Mary the First Year Teacher.

Mary Had a Little Lamb                Mary was a First Year Teacher

Mary had a little lamb,                    Mary was a first year teacher,

his fleece was white as snow,               her teaching was a show

And everywhere that Mary went,       And every day the kids in class

the lamb was sure to go.                      were sure to learn and grow.

He followed her to school one day,    Her supervisor said one day,

which was against the rule,                she taught against the rule.

It made the children laugh and play   The children couldn’t laugh or play,

to see a lamb at school.                        just tests mattered in school

 And so the teacher turned it out,     Despite Mary being much in doubt,
but still it lingered near,                   losing her job was a fear.

And waited patiently about,            But, she wanted to shout about,

till Mary did appear.                       the loss of what was dear.

"Why does the lamb love Mary so?"     “Why does teacher hate teaching so?”

the eager children cry.                              the sad children did cry.

"Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know."  “I hate the new mandates, you know”

The teacher did reply.                                The teacher did reply.