About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Beware the Ideas of March

March is the worst month of the school calendar.  It goes on forever, there are no federal holidays, and it’s still winter.  Basketball season is probably over unless your team is going to the state tournament. 

March is a good time for the school musical because it’s in between sports seasons.  If the musical goes well, it could be the one bright spot in a long, dreary month.  If it doesn’t, it’s just one more thing for people to complain about.Idesofmarch  

Teachers who were optimistic about working with kids in the fall are wondering whether some of them have made any progress at all.  Referrals for psychological testing rise dramatically.  School psychologists are overwhelmed from now until the end of the year.  Elementary teachers begin lobbying for retention.  You’re only a couple months away from state testing season, and some are already looking for reasons or excuses.

Budget season is in full swing, and things aren’t looking good.  School aid will be cut, and reducing or eliminating equipment and supplies from your budget isn’t going to cover the loss.  In the end, it will be about program and personnel. 

Everybody’s tired of winter.  The teachers are weary, the kids are squirrelly, the bus drivers are crabby.  You stare at your clothes in the morning and can’t remember if you wore that suit yesterday.  It seems like you’ve worn it a thousand times since school began on that warm sunny day last fall eons ago.  You should go to the gym after work, but the thought of finding a place to park and walking through the slush is too discouraging.

Even if you never smoked, you’re thinking of going out for a pack of cigarettes and never coming back.  And then … a kid stops you in the hall and tells you, guess what, he’s passing English.  You drop into a classroom and see a brilliant lesson with kids engaged and excited.  A parent calls and thanks you for interceding on behalf of her child.  The musical turns out to be well cast, lighthearted and funny.  You suddenly notice that it’s still light outside when you leave the building at the end of the day.  The snow is actually receding from the edges of the parking lot.  The air smells good.

We’ll make it through this bleak month.  It’s almost April.  After spring break it’s a race to the finish line. There’s a rightness to this dreary lull.







It's Not Rocket Science

“Can good teaching be learned?” asks Elizabeth Green in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

I sure hope so.  Maybe not great teaching, but good, competent teaching.

The Times article explores lots of complex macro issues but also focuses on the work of Doug Lemov, who believes that teachers can actually learn to manage their classes.  Until they can do that, nothing else matters.

Rocket science  Actually, managing a classroom is not rocket science, but you might think it is if you observed the range of student behavior in classes across the country, especially those run by new teachers.  What teachers do not learn in their teacher training classes at their college is how to get kids to listen and how to get them to follow directions.  They may pick up some of these skills from watching their cooperating teacher during their student teaching days, but it’s rare that these skills are actually delineated and explained.  Yet they do exist.

What many teachers do not inherently know are things like this:  How do I get kids to stop talking? How do I get them not to shout out in class?  How do I get them to prepare for class?  How do I get them to pay attention?

By watching what competent teachers do and cataloging their behaviors, Lemov has put together 49 specific techniques in a teaching taxonomy.  Video clips show teachers using various techniques that others can actually imitate.

The reason I know this is not rocket science is that every year, even in tough budget times, I horded money for specific training in these very techniques for first and second year teachers or for veterans who were losing their touch.  (Lemov is not the first one to come up with the idea of identifying specific teacher behaviors to control a class.)  The training lasted 3-5 days with follow-up visits by the trainers, in this case APL Associates.  The seminars covered the basics of classroom management:  how to call on kids, how to give assignments, how to engage students and keep their attention, how to keep behavior on track, how to introduce the lesson, how to bring closure.  In short, teachers learned all the basic managements skills they hadn’t learned in college, and in nearly every case, they improved their skills.  And they were grateful for the instruction.

Can basic student management classes teach enthusiasm, warmth, or  humor?  No, but the possibility of a teacher’s developing those characteristics is greatly enhanced if he or she isn’t fighting for control of the classroom.

So, yes, good teaching can be learned.  But apparently not in college.





Every Cloud Has One

File this report under “Clouds, silver lining.”  New York State is considering reducing the number of state high school exams to save money.  Maybe other states will follow suit.

We all know that sometimes budget cuts can present opportunities to reduce or eliminate programs that we suspected simply don’t work or at least don’t produce the kinds of results they should for the money.  As educators we’d like to be able to provide kids with a wide variety of choices, but we have to admit that some choices are better than others.  A tight budget can sometimes allow us to funnel more money into programs that work by eliminating those that don’t.Silver-lining  

Besides costing millions of dollars every year, regents exams tack about 2 additional weeks on to the school year, which now ends somewhere around the third week in June.  During those weeks high school teachers proctor and grade exams, record their grades, and file the state paperwork.  Two weeks.  While some courses of study have only one exam (English, for example), others have one at the end of every year (earth science, chemistry, physics, and math, however it’s currently organized.)  Social Studies has one exam covering both 9th and 10th grades, and another one covering 11th grade.  Go figure.

New York newspapers report that the Board of Regents is considering dropping all exams except for math, English, and science.  Teachers immediately protested that dropping any exams would be “lowering the standards.”  I’m not sure why standards would be different whether there’s a state test in June or not.  Doesn’t the classroom teacher as well as the local school system have control over standards for their students?

At any rate, it will be interesting to see if the Board of Regents has the courage to take this bold move.  Even more interesting will be whether dropping the exams really makes any difference in a student’s education.

Here’s what I’d like to see:  Drop the state exams.  Use those last two weeks for mandatory teacher training.  And develop national tests in English, math, social studies and science to be given whenever the student is ready.




The Modified Athlete

Research supports that there is a positive relationship between sports and healthy life styles.  Girls who play sports have lower pregnancy rates, higher self-esteem, and better grades according to Tara Parker-Pope in a New York Times article.  But until this point, no one knew whether sports were responsible for these positive effects or whether girls with high self-esteem and good grades chose to participate in sports.

Now two separate studies indicate that participating in team sports can have lasting effects in terms of Softball player  education, work, and health.  Betsey Stevenson, and economist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, studied the effects of Title IX using a complex analysis.  Stevenson found that the improved opportunities for girls set in motion by Title IX in 1972 explains the 20% increase in women’s education and a 40% rise in employment for 25 to 34-year-old women. 

“…Sports help people do better in life,” Stevenson says.  “While I only show this for girls, it’s reasonable to believe it’s true for boys as well.”

Robert Kaestner, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, compared rates of obesity and physical activity of women who were in high school in the 70’s after Title IX with similar women from earlier years.  Again, using complex analysis, Kaestner found a 7% decrease in obesity 25-30 years later in women who had participated in sports.

About 1 in 3 high school girls play sports compared with about 50% of boys, so there’s room for improvement for both.  In a small school with a no-cut policy, kids can practice with the team even if they don’t get a lot of playing time.  In a big school, a kid’s sports career can be over at 7th grade when he’s cut from the modified team.  If we’re sincere about reducing childhood obesity and its attendant risks, we need to take a look at what we offer kids who don’t make the team or who would like to play under less competitive conditions.

Kids who aren’t natural athletes still deserve to reap the benefits of participating in sports.  Finding time, space, and coaches will be a real challenge for the school administrator and will require a genuine paradigm shift in thinking about kids and sports.  Rather than focusing our efforts and money on interscholastic competition, we will need to consider how to increase general participation in sports activities.  But it we’re committed to improving kids’ futures, we need to begin the process.

Uncork New York

Sometimes it’s sort of fun to imagine the conversation that must have preceded a particularly foolish decision.  For example, a week or so ago I tried to guess how it happened that a school district thought it was a great idea to surreptitiously activate webcams on laptops given to students.  “Hey, I know how we can trace the laptops!” someone must have said.  “The kids won’t even know they’re being watched!”

Well, here’s another of those situations. Rick Karlin reported last week in Capitol Confidential that the leadership of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the United Federation of Teachers Wine  decided to send a letter to all New York State Legislators in support of allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores.  They were joined in this initiative by the Alliance for Quality Education and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.You may wonder why New York’s teachers would have an interest in where wine is sold.  Here’s how their letter explains it:

“In addition to over $300 million in new revenue for New York, wine in grocery stores will lead to the creation of 2,000 net new jobs as well as new economic opportunities for New York’s farmers and wine producers.  We view this is [sic] a win for New York’s taxpayers, farmers, and consumers.”

Unfortunately, a number of social agencies do not see this as a win for children.  Among those agencies is The Council on Addictions in New York State.  Citing the cost of underage drinking in the state ($1.2 billion in medical costs and work lost, not to mention the heartache), the Council notes that allowing grocery stores to sell wine will also allow corner stores and bodegas to sell it too.  That, the Council says, is where the problem will lie when underage youth attempt to purchase wine.

Whatever the situation, it’s just plain weird for the teachers’ union to lobby for selling wine anywhere.  So how did that initial conversation go among union leaders?  “Hey,” one of them must have said.  “I have a great idea about how we can help close the budget gap so we can get more money for schools:  Tell the legislature to approve wine in grocery stores!” 

Then someone else must have said, “Awesome!  Let’s write a letter!”


Cheat Sheet

The State of Georgia is auditing some of its state tests because of unusually high numbers of erased and changed answers.  The suspicion is that, concerned with making adequate yearly progress under NCLB, some teachers resorted to helping their students find the right answers on the tests.

A few years ago while I was observing the progress of a regents exam, I couldn’t help noticing that students only wanted assistance from one particular proctor, not from any of the others.  Suspicious, I confronted another proctor after the test to ask why kids only wanted help from one particular teacher.  The proctor squirmed uncomfortably for a few minutes, and then finally admitted that he thought the teacher gave kids the right answers and kids were aware that he would help them. 

I was dumbfounded.  “Why didn’t anyone say anything?” I asked.  “You and all the other proctors had to sign off on this exam agreeing that everything was handled according to protocols set by the state.”

The proctor said bluntly, “That teacher’s been doing it for years.  We figured the administration knew.”

Good lord.Hand    Which was worse, that everyone knew there was cheating going on and didn’t say anything or that they thought we knew it and condoned it?  Well, the aftermath of this incident convinced everyone that yes, indeed, we DID care and that we would take every measure to make sure it didn’t happen again.

So why did the teacher help kids on the exam?  Two reasons.  First, he genuinely wanted kids to pass.  He was very popular with kids and that popularity was important to him.  Second, he thoroughly enjoyed the praise that would come from administration when test scores were posted and his results were among the best.

So much depends on the results of “high stakes testing” these days, not only for the kids themselves, but for individual teachers and the system in general.  Any teacher knows that the higher the stakes on a test, the greater the chance that kids will cheat, whether it’s high tech cell phone use or low tech answers written on a hand.  High stakes will also tempt adults to cheat, and some of them do.

My guess is that Georgia isn’t the only state in which there might be a problem with accurate test scores.   It’s just the first state with the courage to investigate and bear the consequences.

A Modern Modest Proposal

You have to wonder what education will look like from now until June at the Central Falls School District in Rhode Island.  The district fired all of its teachers and administrators last week and has the option to hire back for the fall no more than 50% of those fired.

The smallest, poorest, and most underperforming district in the state, Central Falls has a 4-year graduation rate of 52%.  Seven percent of its 11th graders tested proficient in math; 33% were proficient in writing.  Slightly more than half were proficient in reading.  The drop out rate is 30%.

The superintendent reports that teachers rejected her attempts to extend the school day or to require teachers to be retrained, demanding more pay for their time.  Teachers point to the poverty, the transience, and the primarily Spanish speaking homes the students come from as obstacles impossible to overcome.  Kids are confused, worried, and in some cases, heartbroken.Graduation-1  

If you’ve ever been in a building in which disciplinary action was taken against a veteran teacher or a popular teacher was denied tenure, you know that these are polarizing events both in the school and in the community.  Firing everybody, however, suggests that the firees will unite against the firers.  Of course, how groups align will depend to some extent on when teachers who may be rehired will be told and whether they accept the conditions under which they would be rehired.  If some are rehired and others are not, the school culture can devolve into an even more unfortunate climate for kids.

 In the meantime, the district will limp along from now until the end of the year.  What happens to lesson planning, classroom management, and attendance (both students and teachers) is anybody’s guess.  Cynics might say given the statistics, it couldn’t be worse.  But it could.

Some suggest there is still time to bring everyone to the table to work out a compromise.  One thing is certain:  Education will never be the same at Central Falls.  And everyone is watching.



Skipping Senior Year

It isn’t hard for a diligent and determined student to bypass the senior year in high school.  Even students who are modestly diligent and determined sometimes have trouble filling up all the periods in the day with classes they have to take or even want to take.

By the time senior year begins, many students have amassed more than ¾ of the credits they need to graduate.  Some receive credit for high school math or foreign language courses taken in eighth grade. Others go to summer school for health or technology just to “get it out of the way.”  As a result, finding things for seniors to do to keep them out of trouble becomes a real preoccupation for high school administrators.  Bored, with extra time on their hands, anxious and itchy, seniors can turn their last year into what writer Walter Kirn calls “an adolescent Mardi Gras.”Glitter-ball  

So when a Utah legislator proposed doing away with 12th grade entirely as a cost saving measure, you might have thought the idea would have gotten some support.  Not so.  The idea was met with such hostility from teachers and even students that the legislator was forced to modify his idea to making the senior year “optional,” which, frankly, it sort of is already for kids who “double up” their courses to graduate early.  Or for kids who drop out.

Now the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plans to underwrite a project developed by the National Center on Education and the Economy to help students who can pass a battery of tests to move from 10th grade directly to community colleges.  Kentucky’s commissioner of education calls the program “move on when ready.”

Clearly, not all kids will be ready.  Some will need that senior year (or more) to collect enough credits to graduate.  But others, stuck in the holding pattern that is senior year, could be encouraged to continue to grow academically at the community college while still staying close to home as their social maturity and confidence builds.  In addition, a student who then transfers to a 4-year college will eventually graduate with far less debt.

Of course, the usual objections will be raised to moving kids along.  Skimming off the cream of the crop will leave only the reluctant scholars behind.  High school jobs will be in danger.  State aid will shift to community colleges.  Kids will miss the prom.

But education has to be about choice, about options. Moving kids methodically, a year at a time, from kindergarten through the senior year, is a convenient and traditional way to organize time.  But it doesn’t meet our kids’ needs anymore (if it ever did).  Exploring options for high schoolers is a step in the right direction.



A Vote for Social Promotion

Another city has banned social promotion.  This time it’s Detroit, where Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb issued an executive order forbidding teachers to pass kids to the next grade level if they haven’t demonstrated proficiency at their current level.   Board members, engaged in battle with Bobb over control of the district, consider the action political gamesmanship.  If so, Bobb’s move will most likely find support among the general public.

Banning social promotion resonates with a lot of people.  After all, if a kid can’t do the work, it stands to reason that he shouldn’t move on to the next level.  This is how we get high school graduates who can’t read and can’t do simple math.  This is how people end up on welfare.  And some kids may just learn a hard lesson that if you don’t study, you don’t pass.

It makes a lot of sense to some people.  But me, I’m voting for social promotion.Failure  

If the only two choices for kids who are failing are retention or social promotion, then moving kids along is the lesser of two evils.  Retaining a kid who isn’t proficient at his grade level punishes the kid for the system’s failure. What, after all, is the school’s job? 

Retention or social promotion should not be the only two options a school can offer kids for whom learning is a struggle, especially when we can bet that the student’s problems are likely to center around reading and to a lesser extent, math.  It isn’t difficult to determine the academic problem.  So it’s unlikely that the solution to the problem is to run the child through the exact same program that didn’t work the first time.  It’s like the doctor telling you, “Well, this prescription didn’t work, so let’s just try it again. Maybe this time you can try harder.”

We know how to teach kids to read.  We know the best time for intervention is in the primary grades.  We know that research indicates that retaining a child even once greatly increases his chance of dropping out of school and students who are retained twice are unlikely to graduate.  We know that retention costs money that could be spent on programs proven to be effective.  We know that there is little research to suggest that retention is effective, particularly in upper elementary and middle school.

And yet, rather than pursue alternate ways to support kids’ learning – small groups, individual learning plans, reading or math support, early intervention, just to name a few – we limit ourselves to two draconian choices.  Retention or social promotion?  The results are the same.  Except with social promotion, the kid can at least fail with his friends.












Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.