About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Campbell’s Law

Every year my high school principal and I would meet to look at our state test results.  And every year we’d say the same thing:  What kind of valid and reliable testing waits to see the scores before deciding the cut-off points?  In fact, we mused, each year we look better and better because the cut-off points are a moving target.  And each year the Commissioner trills about the great progress we’re all making under his leadership.

The most interesting tests were those given at eighth grade.  Scores in the elementary school rose steadily ever year.  Then, at eighth grade, they took a nosedive.  Ever year.  But as luck would have it, students recovered enough for a nearly 100% passing rate every single year on the English regents in 11th grade.  It was indeed amazing.

Testing  State and national leadership rarely ask the folks in the trenches how they think things are going, but the fact that New York’s and other states’ testing results are now deemed suspicious will come as no real surprise to teachers and administrators.  When NCLB proclaimed that all students would be proficient by 2014, the only thing to do was to change the definition of “proficient.”  It’s Campbell’s Law:  “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

As Sol Stern points out in “City,” the problem is that states under NCLB developed their own tests and scoring systems.  And students in many states showed improvement on their respective states tests.  But when the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administered tests to a statistically valid sample of students in each state, far fewer students were deemed proficient.

Anyway, New York State’s testing program will now have to submit to an outside audit.  I’m looking forward to seeing the results.  Maybe my principal and I were on to something.





Career Questions: Test Results

Q:  Every year when the state test results come in, our principal calls a faculty meeting and posts everyone’s results on the screen.  Of course, classes aren’t identified by each teacher’s name, but it’s not hard to tell which class is whose.  There’s no opportunity beforehand to see the results individually before they are posted for everyone to see. 

Many of us are resentful that one year’s test results can make any teacher look bad.  And there are lots of reasons for poor test scores – kids that move in a week before the tests, a particularly low achieving group one year, illness – you name it.  We’re not afraid of looking at the data, but this is painful for everyone whether your class has scored well or poorly.

A:  While schools should be looking at data, revealing test results this way is similar to a public shaming.  A faculty meeting like this engenders resentment, not a desire for improvement.  There are better ways of sharing data.

ScarletLetter  I suggest that a small and respected faculty group meet with your principal and suggest that a committee be formed to examine test data, to track it over the last few years, to focus on item analysis, and to make suggestions regarding curriculum changes.  Individual teachers should be given test results to review themselves.  The committee should present school-wide data and trends to the faculty so that you can see the progress you’re making as a school and then set target goals. 

Your experiences illustrates why teachers are often mistrustful of data.  Data is supposed to be helpful feedback for improvement.  When districts use it as a hammer, it ceases to be useful.

Social Networks and the First Amendment

The high school boys thought it would be really funny to set up a MySpace page for one of their teachers.  So after soccer practice they went to one of their houses and got to work.

As it turned out, the teacher was one of their favorites, so the whole thing was silly – a joke rather than critical or even defamatory.  The teacher was amused, but concerned about the intrusion into his privacy as well as the potential the action had for harm to his reputation.  The boys were contrite, their parents were supportive of the teacher, and the incident would have ended there were it not for the teachers’ committee of the National Honor Society who insisted that the boys be ousted.  The administration overruled their decision, opting for 6-months probation instead, so the committee immediately resigned.

What these boys did was nothing compared to what students in other districts have done in terms of disparaging teachers and administrators on various websites.  Profanity laden and vicious, postings by students about their teachers and administrators on social websites make what students did in my high school seem almost quaint.  In some instances students have been suspended, leading to lawsuits over the First Amendment rights of students. 

In an opinion piece in USA Today, Ken Paulson reminds readers of the Tinker vs. Des Moines 1969 Marybethtinker_1decision in which the Supreme Court famously noted that “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Paulson, president of the truly wonderful Newseum (you can spend days there) suggests that the best way to handle “ugly and possibly defamatory” postings by students is to treat them like adults.  “If the content is illegal or threatening, charge them, “ he says.  “If the content is libelous, sue them, as some teacher and principals have done.”  If the content is neither, he adds, “…accept a provocative posting as the free speech that it is.”

Accepting critical, even hurtful postings from kids isn’t easy, but Paulson is theoretically right.  Still, it will be interesting to see if these students' future employers would agree that an employee's ugly and critical rant on Facebook is simply an exercise in free speech or a request to be fired.



Superintendent Salary Caps

“It’s a new day for superintendent pay,” said New Jersey Governor Chris Christie last week.  Christie is proposing capping superintendent’s salaries and establishing a sliding pay scale based on the size of the district.  Superintendents would no longer individually negotiate their own contracts, but would be eligible for a 15% merit pay that would not be considered in pension earnings.

According to a press release from the Governor’s office, superintendent salaries are “out of proportion with the private sector, current economic realities, and district demands.”  Local school boards may not exceed the proposed cap. 

Currently 70% of NJ superintendents are above the Governor’s scale.

Christie thinks his “new” idea will start a trend throughout the country.

Caps for sale 2  Of course, it’s not a new idea.  For example, several years ago district superintendents’ salaries were capped in New York.  District superintendents in New York State don’t head up individual school districts, but oversee groups of districts in particular geographic regions.  There are slightly fewer than 50 DSs.

At the time, the major alarm from the field was that capping the DS salaries would mean that fewer people of real ability would consider the job.  What actually happened was that fewer MEN of real ability applied, opening the doors to greater numbers of WOMEN of real ability.  As a result, the number of women DSs (2 or 3 before the cap) multiplied.

So the plus side of capping superintendents’ salaries is that the move may offer opportunities to more women and maybe minorities.  On the other hand, capping salaries for small school superintendents will likely guarantee continuous turnover.  It’s true that some small school superintendents’ salaries seem to be out of line with the marketplace.  A major reason is that boards of education, happy with their superintendent, will raise his or her salary in hopes that he or she won’t leave.  Otherwise, the board can be looking for leadership every two or three years, an occurrence that is costly for both taxpayers and for students.

So we’ll see how the Governor’s great new idea plays out.  Capping doesn’t often turn out exactly as people think it will.

Career Questions: Outside Employment

Q:  I teach second grade and plan to be married next year.  My fiancé and I have both taken second jobs so we can save for a down payment for a house.  I was working at a department store for minimum wage, but recently I started working as a bartender in a local bar, where I can make a lot more money.  My work doesn’t interfere with my teaching at all; however, my principal found out and called me into his office.  He didn’t like my working as a bartender and said it didn’t fit the image of an elementary teacher.  He said he couldn’t make me quit, but just wanted me to think about it.  I think what I do on my own time is my business, but now I’m worried about my teaching job.

A:  Lots of teachers have part-time jobs, especially in the summer.  Some teach summer school, some paint houses, some sell real estate, some are wait staff – the list is probably endless.  No one raises an eyebrow.

What you do on your own time is, for the most part, your own business, but not entirely when you are paid with public funds.  Also, some jobs might be seen as “unbecoming” to your role as a teacher and might compromise your credibility as someone who works with  young children.  Pole dancing, for example, or telemarketing might fit into that category.  Bartender1  

Tending bar is not the same as dancing on it.  Still, there could be some awkward moments if you end up serving parents of your students, especially if they overindulge and become less than charming.  Also, a lot depends on the establishment.  Is it a quiet corner pub or a restaurant or is it a place where a brawl might break out at any minute and you may find yourself testifying in court?

You get my drift.  Your principal doesn’t have a right to fire you based on your bartending (in most states), but use discretion. It might be a perfectly fine part-time job or it might tarnish your reputation with parents.  Fair?  Probably not.  Realistic?  Most likely.




She had gone to the national conference for her own professional development.  She paid for her own flight, her own hotel, and her own registration since her school had cut staff development from the budget.  She had to make arrangements for child care.  But she was looking forward to the kind of intellectual stimulation and interchange she hadn’t really had since college.

Braveheart  And for the most part, it was worth it.  In fact, some of the presentations were exactly what she had hoped – thoughtful, invigorating, and new.  Of course, no conference is without its duds – the presentation on innovative teaching methods that was straight lecture, for example.  Still, it was all pretty good until she got to the presentation on ethics.

“It was totally disorganized,” she explained afterwards.  “There were two presenters and they weren’t coordinated with one another.  In fact, they acted like they hardly knew one another.  You couldn’t even figure out what the point was.  They seemed to be talking to themselves.”

After thirty minutes or so, an originally respectful audience took out magazines and newspapers and began chatting with one another, checking their email, and texting about how they were stuck for the next couple of hours in conference hell.  The presenters, oblivious to the audience’s response, dithered on.  It’s a situation we’ve all found ourselves in at one point or another.  Typically, we ride it out.

But she had already spent a ton of her own money on this conference and she expected  better.  So she raised her hand and interrupted the presenters.  “Excuse me,” she said respectfully, “but could you please tell me what the objectives of this presentation are?  I’m a little confused.”

The presenters looked surprised, like they had never thought of objectives.  "I mean, " she continued, still respectful, "It's hard to tell what the point of this presentation is."

The audience stopped reading their newspapers and texting.  The presenters became defensive.  "Well," said one, "we're not here to give you all the answers."

"I don't need all the answers," she said evenly.  "I just need the objectives."

The presentation didn't significantly improve, but the presenters were put on public notice:  We expect and deserve better.  Don't waste our time.  Do the work the situation demands.  We know when the emperor has no clothes.

Afterwards, she said, people in the audience treated her like a folk hero.  “I really admire how brave you are,” one woman said.

Me too.  I used to think that only in education do we accept mediocrity as competence (see results of state testing).  That’s probably not true, but the ramifications of this acceptance reverberate throughout the system.  We need to be braver.

When Children Move

In the poor rural areas of upstate New York where I worked as a superintendent, it was not uncommon for a child to have moved several times during his elementary schooling.  Typically the moves were within a 50-mile radius.  Children of poverty were more likely to be transient. Parents lost jobs or separated and moved in with family members.  Sometimes families were evicted; other times the move was a response to pressure from the school or other social agencies regarding the welfare of the child.

Suitcase  Evidence that moving frequently has a negative effect on a child’s progress is plentiful.  Although schools throughout the area are generally aligned in terms of curriculum, children are sometimes withdrawn from one school and not re-enrolled until weeks later in another.  Support services are lost or delayed.  Relationships with adults and peers are tentative.  After all, if a child has moved 3 times before fifth grade, she is less likely to commit fully to her present situation.

Now a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that the negative effects of frequent mobility can endure well past elementary school.  The study followed over 7,000 adults for 10 years and found that the more children moved, the lower their well-being as adults even including higher rates of mortality.  Lead researcher Shigehiro Oishi, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, notes that the negative effects of mobility are particularly hard on introverts; extroverts seem to fare better. 

Frederick Medway, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, cites other factors that can determine how difficult a move is for a child.  For example, if a move is the result of divorce or foreclosure, adult unhappiness can add to the child’s discomfort.

These findings will not come as a surprise to teachers and administrators who have observed the phenomenon in school performance.  Children who frequently move are often assigned outsider status by their peers in the early grades because they lack a common history with their classmates. 

Children from military families are less likely to encounter difficulties with moves, according to Professor Medway, because the military helps ease the transition.  If the child is enrolled in a military school, he has company. 

Given this information, shouldn’t we consider what we do to help transient children become integrated into our schools?  Besides making sure they have a desk and materials, is anyone keeping special watch over them so that they don’t become invisible?  After all, the negative effects of transition can last a (shortened) lifetime.


Career Questions

Q:  As an activity advisor I feel as if I spend half my time fundraising.  My particular activity is yearbook, and we’re already selling advertising and the books themselves.  The position of the school district is that the yearbook has to be self-supportive, but if the staff doesn’t  fundraise, the book would be priced well beyond what most students could pay.

I’m not the only advisor who has to fundraise.  It seems as if we’re always selling something.  Other advisors have expressed the same concern:  we signed on to advise the activity, not to raise money for it.  It’s not only the effort involved; it’s the time.  I agreed to teach students how to put together a yearbook.  Instead I’m chaperoning dances and selling potted plants – all to defray the cost of the book.

A.  Many teachers have expressed the same concerns that you have about fundraising.  Some believe that if the activity isn’t included in the school’s budget, it should be dropped from extracurricular options.  Others feel that kids who participate should pay the cost of participation, but that approach limits opportunities to kids whose parents have more discretionary money than other parents.

Yearbook_pg_145  It seems unlikely in this economy that schools are going to be able to pony up more money for extracurricular activities, especially if advisors are paid.  One approach that has gotten some traction is to involve parents in the fundraising activities.  Schools have always had sports boosters and band boosters, and some schools have established activity booster clubs.  This approach is more successful when all activities join together to fundraise rather than having myriad small competing groups.  Advisors agree before the year begins on how the raised funds will be divided.  Some parents say that one of the main benefits of an activity booster club is that they can concentrate on several big fundraisers per year rather than having to buy dozens of items they may not want as the year progresses.

PS:  Paper yearbooks may soon be a thing of the past as those memories are preserved on CDs.

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Last week was moving week, which turns out to be more stressful than I had imagined and a lot more time-consuming.  I need a modicum of order in my life, and I’m a lot happier now that I have my office unpacked and set up.  Time to turn my mind away from bubble wrap and towards what’s happening in the rest of the world (although for relieving stress popping bubble wrap is a highly effective therapy).

Anyway, adding to the moving stress was LeBron James’ decision to sign with the Miami Heat.  I grew up in Cleveland and have been a sports fan for years.  The last time the Tribe won the World Series was 1954, so being an Indians fan requires enduring unreasonable optimism.  On the other hand, it was easy to be optimistic about my hometown’s basketball chances as long as LeBron was throwing the talc in the air for the Cavs.

Like all Cleveland fans, I’m unhappy and disappointed.  Yes, he’s got a right to go wherever he wants, but as sports writer Zach Baker notes, James had to do it by “stringing long-suffering Cleveland fans along for a national TV humiliation.”

Michael Wilbon in The Washington Post agrees that the ESPN spectacle was cheesy, but ponders the question of being a leader on a team or being part of a powerful ensemble. As he puts it, “Should you hook up with your rivals or try to beat their brains out?” 

Lebron_james_witness  We’ve been teaching kids for the last 10 years or so that it’s all about working together, working as a team.  When kids do a project, we grade them both on the product and the process, which comes down to whether the students worked cooperatively as a team member.  Except for sports, we in schools often discourage competition in favor of cooperation.  Remember the opening of Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”?  The year was 2081 and everyone was finally equal.

Wilbon makes a valid, thoughtful point:  James would have been “the guy” in Cleveland.   Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith says he thought James was “more of a competitor” and was surprised at his choice.  Winning with other winners is apparently more important to James than leadership.  That’s something for us to think about over the summer.




Summer  A lot of people think that school administrators have the same schedule as teachers.  I am always sort of amused by people who say, “So what are you going to do this summer?  Any special plans?”  Their assumption, I guess, is that you lock up the school on the last day in June and then reopen it a couple of days before the kids come back in the fall.

In fact, there is plenty to do in the summer with closing out the old year and preparing for the new.  The paperwork alone is substantial, even without the grant writing.  Summer is prime time for building projects if you have one; if you don’t, the general cleaning, painting, and repair take a good deal of supervision. 

If you’re running a summer school, supervision continues.  There will be workshops or curriculum planning.  There are meetings and conferences.  Books and supplies will trickle in over the summer and you have to be sure the invoices are checked and the materials get to their appropriate classroom.  Typically a big part of the summer is spent interviewing new candidates.  This summer will probably be the exception.

What else?  Meeting with new parents and making sure their kids are scheduled or tested.  Talking on or off the record with teachers and staff who may drop in when they think you’re not quite as busy as you are during the school year.   The board of education continues to meet.  And there is planning, planning, planning.

Take time to refresh yourself.   Summer can be deceptive for a school administrator:  You can get a lot more done in a day that school isn’t in session.  No kids, no teachers – you can work for hours uninterrupted.  But it’s still work, and you still need to be recharged for the coming year. 

Yesterday I already saw “Back to School” ads.  Yikes!  So do what people think you do anyway – lock your office door and leave for a week or two (or more if you can).  Come back with fresh eyes and new solutions to old problems.





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