About this blog Subscribe to this blog

No Experience Necessary

I was once an administrator in a private school in which teachers did not have to be certified.  Some of them were great natural teachers nonetheless; others were not.  The “nots,” however, sometimes brought other things to the school like coaching skills or academic degrees or tech expertise.  When it became clear that these folks were unprepared for the job they had been hired to do (teach), the headmaster often tried to find ways to keep them on the payroll and hire or reassign someone else to actually do the job.  Sometimes he could make it work, but only if the first hire didn’t interfere with the other person actually doing the job.

As the academic dean, it made me crazy.

I thought about that situation the other day with New York Education Commissioner David Steiner’s
“compromise” that allowed him to wimp out and let Cathleen Black be hired as head of New York City NYC_kids_press_conference schools.  The mayor will just appoint a Number Two guy who actually knows something about education -- Shael Polakow-Suransky, currently New York schools' chief accountability officer. I don’t think I’d want to be that guy.

There are so many disturbing things about the Black appointment.  I mean, seriously, there was no one, no one with some experience in education who could have been considered?  What’s the message to educators there?  You’re OK in the trenches (maybe), but let’s leave the running of the business to the big boys and girls?  And don’t forget, education is first and foremost a business.

And by the way, I was a charter member of the New York State Association of Women in Administration, the main organization that promotes the hiring of women and minorities as school administrators.  So don’t tell me that the problem with Black is that she’s a woman.  The problem with Black is that she knows nothing about education.  And if a woman superintendent fails, we don’t want to hear that it was because she’s a woman.

When military officers left the military and were hired as school superintendents, some of us used to joke about whether the military would put a retired school superintendent in charge of a battalion.  Not likely. We’re talking about our nation’s security and future here.  Not like in education.


What Exactly Are We Grading?

What did that “A” mean on your child’s report card?  That she had mastered the subject matter taught during that instructional period?  Or that she was pleasant and compliant?

Grades have always been a little bit of a game.  Students can be awarded so many points for homework, for attendance, for class participation, for turning assignments in on time.  On the debit side, students who don’t Honor roll do homework, are tardy or absent, and don’t participate may lose points towards their final grade.  I recall how one high school teacher explained her grading system to me:  “If the paper is late, it’s a zero.  If the student doesn’t hand it in at all, it’s a double zero.”  Too polite to tell her that was crazy talk, I simply told her we weren’t going to do that anymore.

So here’s the question:  Are grades supposed to tell us (and the child) about progress in knowledge and skill, or do they tell us about general behavior? 

Lots of teachers and administrators have noted, especially in schools that have regents or other state exams that every year some of their A students perform more poorly than expected while some of their D students (often to their chagrin) perform very well.  Teachers at a middle school in Austin, Minnesota did more than notice the discrepancy; they studied test results for several years.  The annual gap between grades and performance on end-of-year tests was too great to ignore, they thought.  According to Peg Tyre’s article in the New York Times, Katie Berglund, principal of Ellis Middle School, said, “…we began to realize that many teachers had been grading kids for compliance, not for mastering the course material.”  Some of their top students, said Ms. Berglund, were the ones who had learned “to do school the best.”

Some schools issue two kinds of grades:  one for academic performance and one for citizenship.  Still, the issues of homework and class participation can figure into the academic side of the equation.

If you are wondering how teachers arrive at grades in your school, take a look at your honor rolls.  Does the percentage of kids on the honor roll match the percentage of high scores on the year-end exams?  That comparison doesn’t, of course, tell the whole story of academic achievement in your school, but it’s a place to start.

By the way, speaking of evaluation, the superintendent of Central Falls, the school in which all the teachers were fired and then rehired last spring, says that 14 of 81 high school teachers were evaluated as “unsatisfactory” in recent evaluations. I don’t know which is more surprising, that 17% are unsatisfactory or that 83% are satisfactory.  It would be interesting to know what those numbers were before last spring.   









Who Wants a “Guilt Gift” Anyway?


My desk is littered with small gifts that students (and others in education) have given me over the years.  One of my favorites is a “decision maker.” It’s a small wheel with an arrow you can spin to point to various decisions like “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” “see your analyst,” “pass the buck,” and “fire someone.”  When I was a principal I kept it on the table where I sat with students who were sent to me for discipline.  More than one kid asked, “Do you use this?” 

Tower of treats I have books, a carved wooden duck, a small gold whale, a tiny porcelain dish, framed pictures, two small clocks, a Cross pen, and apples brass and glass (some inscribed).  There is a fragile, lovely glass globe from a fragile and lovely foreign exchange student.  One of my favorite gifts came from a crusty old superintendent who was also the mayor of his village.  It’s a gilded spike and weighs about half a pound.  An art teacher gave me a rough crystal pendant, which, she said, could be used as a paperweight.  “It would also make an excellent projectile,” she added.  Probably not as good as the spike.

Gifts that came with the holiday season were often edible and homemade.  Cookies, fruitcake, zucchini bread, chocolate, nuts, fudge – all were opened and put out on the office counter for anyone – students or adults.   The president of the board of education brought 3 dozen warm bagels in a wicker basket, which he left on the counter. For a few years the wife of another board member brought wonderful homemade Italian cookies, but that stopped when her husband wasn’t elected board president (the bagel guy was re-elected, but not because of the bagels).

I started thinking about all these little gifts thanks to Liana Heitin, who caught the parent question to Dear Prudence and Miss Eyre’s riff on it.  Basically, the parent wanted to know during this “guilt gift season” if she had to buy a gift for her child’s teacher.  If she didn’t, the parent wanted to know, would there be consequences for her child?  Only, says, Miss Eyre, if her teachers’ lives are “so empty and devoid of meaning that they need a Whitman’s Sampler from a twelve-year-old’s parents to make them feel better.”  Prudence recommends a nice note, and I completely agree.  Or nothing, I might add.  A box of chocolates isn’t going to make up for the parent’s suggestion that teachers are basically extortionists.

All the stuff that litters my desk means something.  Not one was a generic holiday gift, but a small, inexpensive memento to remind me of something or someone specific. 

I also have a drawer full of nice notes.  The other ones I pitched.




Nominees for the Seymour Skinner Award

Sometimes a school administrator is faced with the choice of making a big deal out of something or just ignoring it and waiting it out. 

We rarely hear of the principals who choose the latter course because that isn’t the kind of decision that ends up in the news with a court case and quotes from the ACLU.  Those kinds of principals are blessed with common sense and maybe experience, and they know that the best way to encourage kids to do something you don’t want them to is to come out strong against it, maybe suspend the kids to show you mean business, and probably end up making yourself look like Seymour Skinner.

Recently we had the Skinner-esque action against the Mississippi high school football player kicked off the Skinner team for wearing pink cleats to raise breast cancer awareness.  Coy Sheppard’s 82-year-old great-grandmother, a breast cancer survivor, gave the pink cleats to him.  “The more I hear about it [breast cancer awareness], the more I want to help,” the boy said.  “If I could, I’d probably wear an all pink (uniform).”

One might think that pink cleats are an unusual gift, but my guess is that the color of one player’s cleats wouldn’t have affected the outcome of the game.  After Sheppard was suspended from the team, the parents, of course, sued the district.  He was reinstated, but had to sit out the next game because he wasn’t at practice because he was suspended.  Make any sense to you?

Then there are the middle school girls outside of Philadelphia who wore breast cancer awareness bracelets with a common, if not school-approved terms for breasts.  They had worn them for a month without incident, but then school officials discovered them and immediately banned them.  The girls also found themselves banned from school dances. [As a side issue, I happen to agree with Peggy Orenstein’s take on this recent move to make breast cancer “sexy”:  It is not only useless, but may even be harmful as it grossly misrepresents the disease.  “Awareness” makes people “feel good without actually doing anything meaningful,” she writes.]  Anyway, the parents, of course, sued.

Finally, for sheer idiocy and lack of understanding, I nominate the administrators at Silsbee, Texas High School who suspended a cheerleader for refusing to cheer for a basketball player she accused of sexually assaulting her.  The family sued, of course, but the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cheerleader’s silent protest (when he had a foul shot) wasn’t protected speech under the First Amendment.  Selena Roberts in Sports Illustrated, notes, “A school is supposed to be an emotional safe haven for all students, and educators should help, not harass, students in vulnerable positions.”  You have to read the story.

In the meantime, my hat’s off to all you school administrators who didn’t end up on the news as nominees for the Skinner award.  As I always tell aspiring administrators, “They pay you for your good judgment.”



Working with Parents in Japanese

I knew my book, How to Handle Difficult Parents:  A Teacher's Survival Guide, was being translated into Japanese, but when the book arrived today I was thrilled.  Just because I can't read it doesn't mean I can't love it.

Hiroshima University Professor and translator Dr. Shinji Kurihara added a note that said in part:

"In Japan 'difficult parents' are generally called 'monster parents.'   Although I don't think these words are appropriate because they have a nuance that parents are bad, they show how much teachers are suffering. Actually, this problem causes many teachers mental disease or retiring.  I think these suffering teachers will be saved by your book."

I don't know about saved, but it's a humorous book with specific serious tips about working with parents.  I hope the humor translated.


             Japanese Book front IMG              Japanese book backIMG

Principals Need to Be Good Managers

Nearly every course leading to certification as a school administrator refers to the building principal as an important instructional leader.  Working principals often bemoan the fact that personnel issues, budget issues, disciplinary issues, etc. keep them from fulfilling the job of instructional leader.  As the instructional leader, the principal takes on responsibility for student learning in her building.

Principal However, new research published in this month’s Phi Delta Kappan reveals that perhaps we have defined the role of instructional leader too narrowly or perhaps too personally for principals.  Researchers Eileen Horng and Susanna Loeb have found that good organizational management has a stronger effect on student achievement than the individual principal’s observations of instruction and personal contributions. 

In other words, principals influence student outcomes by hiring effective teachers and providing a supportive and orderly environment in which they can do their jobs.  Their own personal suggestions to classroom teachers are far less important.

When you think about it, why would a principal, just by being appointed to the job, be automatically imbued with the knowledge and ability to help individual teachers improve classroom strategies and techniques?  I remember some of my first principals and assistant principals when I was teaching.  None had taught English, my particular subject, and none had been remembered as particularly outstanding teachers themselves.  And none that I remember, by the way, ever gave me any useful suggestions for improvement.  Still, I was fortunate enough that these guys (and they were all guys) knew how to run a safe, orderly, well-managed school so I could do what I knew how to do – teach.

So when I became a principal myself, I wondered what I was supposed to tell the band director or the physical education instructor or the physics teacher about how to improve delivery of content.  I could certainly help with classroom management and organization tips, but my better contribution was to find the money for staff development taught by people who knew more about delivery of specific content than I did.

The philosophy of a superintendent I once knew was this:  “My job is to remove obstacles in the way of good teaching.  I hire good people, find the money to make them even better, and get out of the way.”  Maybe he was on to something.







Is It Professional Development If It Does Not Improve Teaching?

Once upon a time in New York and in other states a teacher needed 30 graduate hours past the bachelor’s degree to be permanently certified.  It didn’t matter what courses you took; they could be in education, English, or bass fishing.  Some teachers chose to take the 30 hours in a master’s degree program, but it wasn’t required.

A few school districts even paid for your graduate hours, and most districts increased your salary for every 6-9 hours you completed.  If you finished the master’s degree, you got an extra bump.  Districts paid additional money for hours beyond the master’s degree up to the doctorate.

Bass fishing Eventually it occurred to the folks at the State Education Department that those additional graduate hours needed to be in education or related academic subjects, and maybe they needed to be pre-approved by an administrator.  The 30-hour option disappeared in favor of the master’s degree.  Still, you got the graduate hours’ salary bump, then the advanced degree bump, and all of it figured into your base salary used for yearly percentage increases.

That was when people believed that any advanced degree improved teaching.  Now we know that outside of math and science, additional course work doesn’t necessarily improve teacher effectiveness.  That idea seems counterintuitive until I remember that the professional development plan in my district was to send every rookie teacher to Effective Teaching I and II, ten-week courses that taught them how to actually manage their classrooms and plan their instruction since they usually came to us without those requisite skills whether they had a master’s degree or not.

So the new debate, according to a special report in Ed Week, is whether you can consider the monies spent on graduate hours as “professional development.”   This seems like a no-brainer to me, unless you agree with districts spending thousands and thousands of dollars with no specific plans and no measurable outcomes.  Your local graduate school then is, in effect, in charge of your teachers’ professional development, not the district.

A second debate, to me much more important, is whether teachers’ salaries should be structured to reflect graduate hours or to reflect effectiveness.  Moving away from pay for graduate hours would mean that teachers’ starting salaries would have to be significantly higher, high enough to attract the kind of quality teacher I’d want my own personal child to have.  Count me as a big “yes” to that.

The third debate, of course, is whether undergraduate and graduate schools of education prepare the kinds of teachers we need or whether it’s just more of the same stuff we were getting when we could take anything and be paid for it.  It’s not as if we don’t know what teachers need to know and do to be effective, but we don’t seem to have found the right combination of theory and practice to produce enough good ones.



Pushback to Tolerance Guidelines

"We've got to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, or an inevitable part of growing up. It's not," said the President.

“Of course, we’re all against bullying, “ said the Montana pastor.  “But the Bible says very clearly that homosexuality is wrong, and Christians don’t want the schools to teach subjects that are repulsive to their values.”

A couple of weeks ago schools were reminded by the federal Department of Education that bullying is a violation of a student’s civil rights, including those that protect sexual orientation.  Some, according to the NY Times, see the attempts of schools to educate students about tolerance of others’ life styles as driven by a “homosexual agenda.”

In an earnest attempt to get ahead of the curve the Helena, Montana school district last summer revealed its Acorn_lg new elementary guidelines for teaching about sexuality and tolerance.  The guidelines included teaching first graders that people can love other people of the same or different genders.  The fifth grade guidelines included explaining that sexual intercourse can be accomplished in at least three specific ways.  Not surprisingly, members of the community, including several pastors, rose to the bully pulpit.

To be honest, while I applaud the school district for its attempts to address the problem, I’m sure many will wonder what school officials were thinking when they proposed some of these guidelines.  (However, I know from my own experience with the Day of Silence how an earnest attempt to reduce discrimination can end up increasing it.)  In the end the district revised much of the explicit language in the curriculum, settling for more vague notions about diversity.  Even then, some parents said they would remove their children from the classroom during these lessons.

Next year the White House and the Department of Education will host a conference to raise awareness about bullying and harassment and to “spark a dialogue” about how the community can “come together” to address these issues.   It’s a worthy endeavor, but a heavy lift.



Maybe All Public Schools Should Be Independently Accredited

A friend of mine was recently appointed principal of a large Catholic high school, and in a stroke of great good luck, she found that the school was in the midst of the Middle States accreditation process.  While it is a long and arduous exercise, the self-study focused the faculty on the school’s needs before the new principal even arrived, and it gave the school a direction in which to move. 

AC 2009 Logo1 “Because it was a self-study and a validation process, “ my friend said, “the goals for improvement will come from the teachers.”  So as a new appointee, her job will be to facilitate the process rather than tell the teachers what to do, greatly enhancing her chances for early success.

I’ve been involved with the Middle States accreditation process several times myself.  In one K-12 school, I was the head of the self-study team.  Shortly after that experience, I was invited to be a member of the visiting committee at a high school several hours away.   At a later date I represented the board of trustees at the college on the self-study team and also participated in the interim reports.  In every case the accreditation process was a useful and rewarding experience for the participants and for the school.

If you’re not familiar with the process, here it is in a nutshell.  A faculty committee usually surveys the staff and writes a report that follows a specific format and essentially identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the school.  Later a team of experienced teachers and administrators visits the school for up to three days, observing and interviewing individuals to validate the self-study.  Before they leave, the team presents their general findings to the school and the formal written report arrives later.  That report validates good practices, makes recommendations for improvement, and awards or denies accreditation. (Remember, this is the nutshell version.)

But here’s the really important piece – self evaluation and improvement are ongoing because the school has to file a report every few years to describe how it is meeting the recommendations of the visiting committee if it wants to keep its accreditation.  So unlike a great many school improvement models, this process isn’t a one-shot deal.  It becomes part of the culture.

Private schools need to be accredited for academic credibility and consequently enrollment.  Public schools are assumed to be accredited if they’re part of the state system.  No self-study, no visiting team, no recommendations, no follow up.  If public schools were required to be accredited by an independent agency, nobody would have to have their test scores published in the paper.  Lack of accreditation says it all.




Sending a Message

I stood in line yesterday with lots of crabby, humorless people muttering to one another that they were sending a message.  I’m not sure exactly what the message was, and I’m not sure that any of them could articulate it. Still, they nodded crabbily to one another and stood crabbily in line to mark their ballots.  I couldn’t help but feel that my vote wasn’t going to count very much in the midst of all this general crabbiness.

Rally I thought they were all upset about Congress, but the woman ahead of me insisted that everyone was here to vote down a local initiative to raise money for storm sewers and other infrastructure issues.  “It’s just more taxes, “ she said in her New York accent.  Believe me, she should know from taxes.  Hope she enjoys the backed-up water in the streets during hurricane season.

We tend to take ourselves pretty seriously these days, and the result has been a decided lack of  humor, with the possible exception of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.  Still, not everyone got a kick out of that (see Gail Shister, The Philly Post), although even the terminally crabby had to appreciate some of the signs.

Anyway, speaking of signs and messages, I visited a large elementary school last week.  It’s brand-new – just opened.  The local taxpayers have to be congratulated for building it.

The enormous parking lot is freshly-lined.  And to thank the taxpayers for choosing education and footing the bill, all the prime parking spaces closest to the building are reserved for the administration and their assistants.   Now that’s a message.  And the mother who parked at the end of the row certainly thought about it as she trudged past all of the reserved spaces with her baby in one arm and Halloween treats for a party in the other.  It could have made her a little crabby.


















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