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The Glass Classroom

The question posed on the Scholastic Teachers Facebook page was something like this:  What if your principal scheduled a classroom evaluation and then didn’t show up or showed up and stayed for only 5 minutes?  Readers could comment or they could follow the link to the full article drawn from career questions here.

Here’s what I found interesting:  Out of 15 or so comments from teachers, only one referred to the possibility that she may have missed out on some suggestions that might improve instruction.  And even that person noted that “some people she knew” thought they got some good suggestions, but it didn’t matter much to her.  Of course, we’re looking at a small sample of teachers who check the website for ideas they can use in their classroom, so we might assume they’re already a group committed to continual innovation and improvement.  But what does this say about supervision and evaluation from administration as tools to enhance instruction?  No much, I’d have to say.

Glass classroom Teachers were for the most part pretty generous in excusing their administrators as having full schedules and plenty to do.  One said his administrator had missed his class evaluation twice; another said it would never happen at her school. 

Several teachers said it didn’t matter to them if their administrator was in the room or not; they taught the same way.  While I think that’s basically true, I can say from my own experience that even as a veteran teacher I worried a little when the principal was watching me teach even though I felt confident I knew what I was doing.

But my favorite comment came from a teacher who said she thought all classroom walls should be made of glass.  What a great idea!  Why hasn’t anyone thought of that?  Imagine, for a moment, if your school had clear walls to the hall, the way some college libraries do for their seminar rooms.  Anyone could walk down the hall and observe what was going on – administrators, parents, other teachers.  The principal could do a daily walkaround without disturbing anyone, without opening the door so all eyes swivel to see who’s coming in.  It would be like the old open classrooms except you could actually hear yourself teach.

So here’s the obvious question:  Would it make a difference if classrooms had clear walls?  For many teachers, my guess is no.  They are prepared, connected to kids, and know how to manage a classroom.  But for others … I’m thinking it might matter.  But only if someone took the time to observe.


The Question of Merit Pay

I was an elementary principal, not long into my administrative career when the superintendent of the district announced that he’d like to award merit pay to administrators.  Looking back on the proposal, I think it was a prelude to a similar proposal for merit pay for teachers in the district, an idea that was beginning to gain some traction nationally.

The administrators met as a unit, and the superintendent pitched the proposal, asking us just to listen to his idea.  The more experienced administrators asked a few questions for clarity’s sake.  Then the superintendent left, leaving us to discuss the proposal.

There were about 20 of us, and we were loosely organized as a unit under a state organization that wasn’t Merit pay really a union.  I had far less experience as an administrator than some of the others, but I had been with the district long enough to know who the winners and losers would be under the superintendent’s proposal.  While there would have been more winners than losers, the losers prevailed.  “We can’t let them divide us like this,” the most veteran and least effective principal said.

Divide us?  I thought. Nobody worried when I was paid the same as principals who ran schools half the size of mine. Nobody here had a problem when they cut my assistant.  Nobody cared if I was assigned extra duties district-wide.  Am I missing something?

Here was a chance for some of us to shine, I thought.  If you don’t want to make the effort, that’s your choice.  But if I want to, what’s the problem? 

The proposal went nowhere, mirroring an earlier effort by the state to award merit pay.  The result of that proposal was that all teachers got the merit bump so that it wasn’t “divisive” either.

Well, under the “some things never change” category we can now slide New York City’s pilot program to reward teachers whose students demonstrated achievement on standardized tests.  The program was aimed at teachers in high poverty schools.   Of course, the only way the union would agree to the proposal in the first place is if the entire school was awarded the bonuses, not the individual teachers who actually earned them.

Here’s what I don’t understand about this “divisiveness” argument:  I wasn’t feeling too collegial after being denied a chance at merit pay by people who didn’t want to put in any more effort than they had to.   In New York, schools received $1500 or $3000 for every union member in the school based on the school’s progress.  The principal, the union leader, and two other staff members decided how to divide the money among the staff.  Wonder how collegial the high performing teachers felt under those circumstances.



Too Cold to Go Outside?

How cold does it have to be to keep kids inside for recess?

Depends on where you're from.

Teachers in Florida report that if it’s below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the kids stay indoors.  “Most of them don’t come dressed for cold,” explains one teacher

Snow Kids in International Falls, Minnesota, however, put on their boots and mittens and go outside when it’s 55 degrees colder than in Florida.  Falls Elementary School Principal Jerry Hilfer says, “If it’s 15 below, they go out.”

And in Northwest Ontario, the Kenora director of education for Catholic schools, says a temperature of minus 27 C (-17 F) “with or without chill factor” is used to determine if kids can go outside for playtime.  It’s a question of being safe from frostbite.

It’s a regional thing, of course.  Schools in the South don’t let kids go out for recess if the temperature is below 40.  In some Northern cities, 40 degrees in January means grilling outside in your shirtsleeves.

For me, the concern was always the wind and consequently the wind chill factor. Some kids in my low-income rural area never seemed to be dressed for winter.  No hats, no mittens or gloves, no boots.  The little kids’ sneakers would get wet in the snow while they were waiting for the bus and they’d sit in class with wet shoes and socks most of the day.  And, of course, no matter how cold it was, some of the high school kids still came to school in shorts and hoodies.

Every time I closed school early because of snow or the wind chill factor, I couldn’t help but notice the number of kids who were playing outside on the snow banks or sliding down the hills as I made my way home.  They were having a great time, hardly noticing the cold.

One of the best posts on Proteacher.net about winter weather and kids came from this New Jersey teacher:

A few years ago I had an ESOL class – all students from South America, Puerto Rico, etc.  One of them glanced up and saw snow and it was absolute pandemonium.  None of them had ever seen it before.  They all ran out the door -- there was no containing them -- and stood on the front step with their hands reaching for the sky trying to catch those snowflakes.  One of those moments you never forget.

So we’re nearly at the end of January.  Just one more hard month to go.  Or maybe one and a half.  I’m sticking with that.






What College Kids Are Learning: Not Much

A new study reports that during their first two years in college, half of American students learn virtually nothing. 

Richard Arum, lead author of Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses, finds the research results “shocking.”  Parents who have shelled out thousands and thousands of dollars probably have other words for this news.

Not to worry.  The report also indicates that students earned on average a 3.2 GPA.  Even though the students report only 16% of their time is spent attending classes and studying, they still “average” a little better than B for their efforts. 

Blogger Eric Gorski notes, “The study, an unusually large-scale effort to track student learning over time, College grads comes as the federal government, reformers and others argue that the U.S. must produce more college graduates to remain competitive globally. But if students aren't learning much, that calls into question whether boosting graduation rates will provide that edge.”

In an interview Arum said, “You can’t just get it through osmosis at these institutions.”  But with a 3.2 average GPA one has to wonder.

On the one hand, some blame the colleges for focusing on research rather than teaching and on not requiring much from students.  “I wouldn’t want to create the impression that schools are blind to this,” says Charles Blaich, director of the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium.  I think that’s good to know, despite the fact that the study indicates that even after four years of college students have improved their knowledge and thinking skills only slightly.

On the other hand, you have to wonder if students apply the same effort to the first two years of college that they did to their senior year in high school.  I’m reminded of Jean Twenge’s work Generation Me in which she notes that American students vastly overrate their natural ability to learn even as they flunk out of college.

Some worry that the troubling results of this research will help encourage government legislation similar to NCLB for colleges.  Given the questionable effects of that legislation on our nation’s school children, one can only hope that it isn’t extended to grade 16.

What I would love to see is a similar study done at community colleges.  I would be surprised if the results would be the same, but in the unlikely event that they are, the cost of learning virtually nothing would be far less.



Waiting for Middle Management

So I finally got to see Waiting for Superman in a 35-seat screening room near the college campus.  All 35 seats were filled with what appeared to be retired teachers and college professors.  Hardly anyone was under 40, and I’m hoping that demographic doesn’t represent who is actually seeing this film.

Even so, most of us identified with the young and/or hip (Rhee and Canada and all the kids) as opposed to the union types.  The journalists and academics featured in the documentary are neither young nor hip, but sincere.  Yeah, I loved the movie, hated the ending.

1935flysuit But here’s the question that I keep thinking about:  Where are the principals, the middle managers, the men and women who are supposed to make schools work on a daily basis?  Where are the people who are supposed to be supervising teachers, disciplining kids, working with parents?  In nearly everything I read and see about school reform, it’s about superintendents and teachers and union leadership.  Middle management will be the ones to implement reforms, so why is it not represented?  It’s almost as if reform will be agreed upon by the superintendent and the union chief and the union chief will be the one to see that teachers implement change.

Maybe I’m way off base, but I’m interested in knowing how principals see their role in the national debate about reform, value added, supervision and evaluation, tenure, seniority, and all the other hot topics currently of interest.  Are principals thinking about these issues, involved in the debate, or just working hard to keep their heads above water during tough economic times?  Are they included in discussions between labor and management, or are they just waiting to see what trickles down from the central office?

If you are a principal, I’d love to get your point of view on what you think your role is during these interesting times of reform.  I don’t see how any lasting change in education can happen without principals and other middle management buying into it.






The College Essay

I’ve helped a lot of kids with their college essays.

Let me be clear:  I didn’t edit them or rewrite them or even correct their spelling. 

I read them and then sat down with the student and asked a few questions.  What do you think this essay says about you as a problem solver?  What do you think you learned from the experience you’re writing about?  Did it really happen this way?  What other ways could you begin this story?  What do you think makes this experience stand out?  If you were reading this, would you want to continue reading after your opening sentence?  What exactly is the topic you’re addressing?

What I tried to do was help a student focus on one or two important aspects of the essay, to sharpen the point of view to reveal something essential about the kid.  And I always recommended that the student talk to others about his essay – his English teacher, the school librarian, his guidance counselor, his parents perhaps.  By the time the essay was ready to go, lots of adults had looked at it and offered advice.  And that’s not a bad thing.

But with all this adult assistance, I always thought, how important could the personal essay be in the admissions process?  I knew for sure Harvard that the help I gave was nothing compared to the help some students may have gotten in other academic settings far different from my upstate rural school.  My five years as the academic dean in a private independent school assured me I wasn’t mistaken in that regard.

But – I’m wrong.  Trip Gabriel writes about his experience with the dreaded college tour that parents take when their kids are high school juniors.  According to Gabriel, most of the college admissions people he met saw the personal essay as an important part of the college application.  The essay, according to admissions people, is “the one element where a student’s own voice can be heard through the fog of quantitative data.” 

Gabriel says that according to a 2009 survey of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 26% of admissions offices considered the essay of “considerable importance” in deciding who gets a place in their freshman class.  Are you kidding me?  As important as a 4-year track record in academics, school and community service, test scores, sports and clubs, special interests and abilities?

Gabriel’s take is that the essay requirement is unfair because kids aren’t prepared in high school to write from the first-person point of view.  My take is that if admissions people believe that the personal essay accurately reflects either the student’s capacity for reflection or his writing ability, they are deluded.  The essay, after all, is a group snapshot, not a personal documentary.

Of course, the data can end up being fairly similar.  And the personal essays are a lot more interesting to read.  But unless all applicants are put in a room, given the topic, and allowed the same amount of time to write by themselves, it’s not exactly fair competition.





Supervision, Evaluation, and All That Jazz

The jazz trio Saturday night was piano, bass, drums.  They had been playing together for years and could read one another with a quick look, a nod.  The melodies weaved in and out, disappeared, only to reappear surprisingly when you weren’t looking.  Intricate, understated, exuberant, regretful, joyful in stages.  Even a tune the trio had played together maybe a hundred times still sounded fresh, even to them.  Improv within certain defined guidelines so each musician could solo but work with the group.

Ornette_Coleman_3 Isn’t good teaching like this?  Singular expertise, mastery of the basics and beyond, confidence in presentation, joy in the work.  A little humor.  Smooth integration with the rest of the group.  Improv within certain defined guidelines.  You know it works because it works.

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking as I listened.  I’ve been working on a video presentation for Magna Publications about supervision and evaluation for live broadcast in March, so the topic is in the back of my mind most of the time, sort of like when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail. And I’m a great believer in Don Murray’s observation that you don’t know what you think until you write it, as I’m rediscovering again with this project.  Sometimes your brain is working on ideas when you’re distracted with something else as it surreptitiously looks for connections, for similarities, for assonance.

After over twenty years of supervising and evaluating teachers, I’m thinking about the inherent conflict between those two activities.  Supervision is about trust, about teacher and supervisor working together to improve instruction.  But when the supervisor is also the evaluator (often the principal is both), how do you build trust between the observed and the observer?  Why would a teacher reveal a weakness or ask for help from someone who has power over the teacher’s continued employment?

As I’m working on this project, I continue to read Dan Goldhaber’s thoughtful and restrained blog (can he do this regularly?). His calm discussion of the inflammatory topic of value added reminded me once again that a teacher’s poor test scores are a symptom of poor supervision and evaluation.  With all the focus on teachers’ effectiveness, it’s remarkable that the responsibility of administrators for poor test results has received so little attention. 

There are lots of excuses for poor supervision – lack of time, contractual issues, poor preparation, too many responsibilities, even lack of courage.  But teachers don’t do the job in a vacuum, and the main responsibility of the school administrator is instruction.

So maybe your school plan isn’t perfect.  I’m reminded of Ornette Coleman’s advice to his musicians:  “Forget about changes in key and just play within the range of the idea.”






If Seniority Did Not Matter

The second graders were all over the place, talking and laughing as they worked at their various centers.  The teacher moved from group to group, listening and assisting.

After a while, the teacher moved to the center of the center of the room, and she said quietly, “If you can hear my voice, snap your fingers.”  Two-thirds of the children stopped what they were doing and snapped.

Snapping_fingers The teacher paused and said again, “If you can hear my voice, snap your fingers.”  Snap! Snap! All 25 kids, sitting or standing quietly, waited to hear what the teacher would say.

Wow, I thought.  That is classroom management

“Boys and girls,” the teacher said, “Please put the things away at each center and return to your desks.”  It was done in less than a minute.

Here’s what the teacher didn’t say:  “I like the way Melody cleared her desk.  I like the way Sam is sitting.  I like the way Susan has her hands folded and is listening.”

This teacher knows it’s not about compliance and it’s not about creepily singling kids out as goody goodies.  It’s about building trust with kids so they know that when the teacher speaks, she has something to say they’ll want to hear.

I watch her teach for another half hour or so, as she deftly guides students through reading.  I’m glad that a child I love is in this classroom. 

But this teacher is on the low end of seniority, having fewer than 5 years in the system, and would be “on the bubble” in a reduction in force based on seniority.

Which brings me to Dan Goldhaber’s blog about seniority based layoffs.   Based on a study he did for the Center for Education Data and Research (CEDR), the post synthesizes the data regarding the impact of RIFS based on seniority.  Here is an important conclusion:

Student achievement in affected classrooms is estimated to be on the order of magnitude of 2.5 to 3.5 months of student learning better under a system that considers teacher effectiveness than one that is driven by seniority.

Of course, seniority and effectiveness are not mutually exclusive.  If teachers continued to learn and grow and increase their skills, the seniority issue would be a moot point.



Back to Business

The holidays are over and the first semester is almost over.  By the end of this month teachers, administrators, and students will have already burned through half the school year.  This is a great time to pull those yearly goals out of your desk drawer and analyze your progress towards meeting them. 

When you think about it, you actually have less than a full semester to accomplish what you hoped to when you wrote down your goals late last summer.  There will be days off, planned (like spring break) or unplanned (like snow days).  There will be instructional days lost to testing and some lost surreptitiously to prepping for those tests. There will be assemblies, educational and pep.  There will be spring. Goal_1

When teachers in my district first started setting goals, the principals met with them individually and briefly during September to review their goals.  Then, in June, the principals met with teachers again to see what they had accomplished.  It turned out that a lot of teachers had forgotten their goals, couldn’t find them, or discovered that they were unrealistic.  And some of them were too broad to begin with, like “improving reading instruction.”

So we went to a more strategic plan, asking teachers to set no more than 3 specific goals and describe how they planned to accomplish them and what they would need to do so.  Then principals met with teachers in January to check on progress.  It turned out that teachers found the exercise more than a little helpful.  Some goals, they found, proved to be unrealistic and needed to be modified or even abandoned.  And some were spot on, and the teacher was making steady progress. 

Principals and teachers met again in June for a final review, and results were much better and much more satisfying for teachers.  Later we made that late spring (or even early summer) meeting a time to also identify goals for the following year, building on what had already been accomplished.

Yes, it takes time.  But goal setting keeps the focus on instruction and growth.  And each teacher has control over what he or she chooses to work on.

Anyway, January is a great time for mid-course corrections.  Below is a wonderful short video that will engage your intellect and your senses in a thoughtful educational exercise to start the second half of the year.  It’s way better than a UPS commercial.






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