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And the Oscar Goes to PS 22

Just in case you didn’t stay up to watch the Oscars last night, here’s a chance to see those great kids from Staten Island PS 22.

A music teacher once informed me emphatically that you can’t teach kids to sing harmony until at least eighth grade.   And like a few other elementary music teachers, she also insisted that pop music wasn’t appropriate to use in chorus.  Tell that to these fifth graders.

Kudos to teacher Gregg Breinberg for recognizing the potential of these kids and for releasing the joy and pride in accomplishment that all kids have.  It makes your heart glad just to see the results of this gifted teacher’s energy and enthusiasm, not to mention his confidence in his students.

Watch the video below, and see more here and here.

Their info on youtube notes that they are an “ever-changing group of 5th graders from a public elementary school in Staten Island, New York.”  And they are quick to point out that they are NOT a school for the arts or a magnet school.  I would love to know what's available for these kids as they move into middle school and high school.  After all, they can already sing harmony.



A Little Discretion, Please

It was a federal holiday, and it had begun to snow hard.  I was waiting to get my hair cut and reading about how I could lose 10 pounds in five days when a couple of teachers, also waiting for their appointments, began to chat about how unfair it was that it snowed on a day that was ALREADY A SCHOOL HOLIDAY.  

“School would have been closed today, “ one of them observed.  “We would have had two days off instead of just one.”

“Or more,” the other one said.

Their attitude didn’t exactly endear them to the stylists in the salon who were cutting hair on Presidents' Day Hair salon (as they did on MLK Day and on most days during the last two weeks of December).  They worked snow or no snow because if they didn’t work they didn’t get paid, and no one was picking up their health insurance and retirement benefits.  Never offend someone with scissors in her hand, I thought as I watched two stylists exchange glances in the mirror.  I pretended to read.

From their conversation I did not think either one of these women taught like her hair was on fire, although if they continued to talk I thought I might get to see what it would look like.  Their hair on fire, that is.

Good school-community relations aren’t just about open houses and family fun nights; attitudes towards teachers and administrators can also be formed in the grocery store, in the doctor’s office, and yes, in the hair salon. With school people currently under fire, we need to remind ourselves that others observe and judge our speech and behavior -- fair or not.  And I don’t for a minute think these two oblivious women represent all the thoughtful, hardworking teachers in my community.  I just wouldn't want anyone else to think they do.












Like, the Buck Stops Here?


I am almost finished with David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, and at almost 1100 pages it’s not a quick read.  But McCullough knows how to tell a story and how to use just enough detail so that the reader can appreciate the cast of characters.  McCullough’s history isn’t a series of dates; it’s a series of events driven by real people  with personalities.  We see the strengths and weaknesses of those who made history and whose legacies still influence our lives today.

If you read history, you understand that our current President isn’t the only one to face what seems to be one Harry-Truman crisis after another.  Truman, after all, became President when Roosevelt died in office.  Truman dealt with the surrender of Germany, the decision to drop the first atomic bombs, the partition of Europe, the establishment of the state of Israel, the Berlin blockade, the Iron Curtain and the threat of communism.  And all of that within his first few years in office.

Much of McCullough’s information comes from letters and diaries that Truman and others around him wrote.   This was a literate generation of leaders who actually wrote to one another in clear, thoughtful prose and sent their letters via the post office. I cannot really imagine Truman, Churchill and Stalin tweeting.

Truman watched the 1948 Democratic convention in Philadelphia on new innovative technology:  a 12” fuzzy black and white TV that was installed in his office for the event. No 24-hour news coverage.  No talking heads, crazy or otherwise.  No instant analysis.  No Facebook page.  When he arrived in person at the convention center at 2 AM to accept the nomination for President, it was 93 degrees at the podium (no air conditioning).  And his speech was riveting, powerful, and inspired.

So my point today is that thoughtful, literate communication still matters although some would have us believe that hey, your first thought is your best thought. Writing clearly and correctly is a point I stress continually with my graduate students in education administration.  Clear writing reflects clear thinking.  Despite what the negative pundits say, fluency and clarity on the page and at the microphone are powerful.  (See The King’s Speech.)

On this President’s Day, I give you a short video of what some consider the state of popular communication today.  See what you think.


In Praise of Teach for America

When I worked as a private independent school administrator, many of our new hires at the secondary level were graduates of good liberal arts colleges. They had no teacher training.  We also hired at the secondary level graduates of various teacher preparation programs.

I know that most public school teachers won’t want to hear this, but the difference between new “trained” teachers and new “untrained” teachers was that the untrained teachers were better prepared in their academic discipline.  Both trained and untrained had initial difficulties with planning and classroom management.  Had the liberal arts graduates received five or six weeks of intensive training in classroom management and teaching strategies, they would probably have been substantially better than the trained teachers from the start.

Because of my experience as a private school administrator, it is hard to convince me that the twentieth Teach for america anniversary of Teach for America is anything other than a cause to celebrate.  And as a former Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m not so sure that a youthful, optimistic two-year commitment to make the world (or a single school) better is not a very good thing.

Of course, criticism of TFA comes from the usual defenders of the status quo.  They act as if we’re doing such a great job in low-income schools that we don’t want tinker with the program.  Randi Weingarten argues that when teachers in TFA leave after two years, they put a school’s “stable environment” at risk.  This argument is self-serving, of course, but she does have a point that millions of dollars are lost each year through teacher attrition.  The only problem is that it’s not because of TFA.   Studies show that as many as 40% of new teachers – certified in teacher prep programs – leave within the first five years citing undisciplined kids, unsupportive administration, and difficult parents. 

At the Teach for America Summit, Arne Duncan recounted how easy it was to work with IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman to simplify the federal financial aid application for college.  It turns out Shulman is a TFA alumnus.  The Peace Corps experience can change a person’s world view forever; TFA can change a person’s concept of public education forever.  There are lots of ways to influence school reform besides being inside the classroom.





What If Teacher Training Were as Rigorous as Sports Training?

The synchronized swim team came to dinner directly from the meet, and they were starved.  Their hair was still pinned up in buns shellacked with Knox gelatin and their water resistant eye makeup was still theatrical.  But make no mistake:  These girls are athletes, not mermaids.  They are full-time students and they practice, Ohio State Coach Linda LIchter-Witter told us, a minimum of 20 hours a week.  “And most of them practice a lot more than that,” she added.  The team has won 26 national collegiate championships and they didn’t do it on just looking good.

There was lasagna, but many of the young women headed directly for the desserts first, then the lasagna.  When they had eaten, their coach asked them to introduce themselves with their name, their hometown, their year in school, and their major.  They were from all over – Ohio, California, Washington, Canada, Spain, Ukraine.  They were well-spoken, confident, and charming.  They were majoring in sports medicine, biology, nutrition, languages, communications, and …. early childhood education.  Five of the twenty planned to teach small children.

Despite all the dire predictions that given current reforms, no one would want to be a teacher, here were five young women who understood hard work, dedication, teamwork, and excellence.  They understood what it takes to win.  They didn’t need education as something to “fall back on” if they failed at their first career choice.  Education was their first choice, and they could choose from literally hundreds and hundreds of majors at The Ohio State University.

My guess is that working with children would be a first choice among many female athletes at many other colleges.  And I am hoping that their academic training is as excellent as their athletic training has been.  I’m hoping that they have someone to coach them, to expect and demand excellence, to make them winners so that they know what winning feels like in the classroom.  I hope that their courses are as rigorous as swim practice and that they take as much pride in earning an “A” as they do in winning a meet.

These young women have the raw material, the drive, and the commitment to be great teachers.  Is their academic program as outstanding as their sports program?  Because like the Big Ten commercial says, there are thousands of college athletes, but only a handful of them will actually make their sport their career.  Want to reform education?  Let’s start at teacher preparation.

And speaking of women in education, here's something I've been wondering about.  Michelle Rhee is young, attractive, smart, innovative, outspoken, and has some experience in education.  Cathleen Black does not have all of these attributes.  Yet some say that Black may be the victim of gender bias. Rhee?  Not so much.  Hmmm.



What Is Lost in School Consolidation

Many local high school bands participate in the parade, but no band is more anticipated by the crowd than the Sentinels.

Band Because of the band’s renown, organizers of the parade always put them towards the end so that the crowd stays around to see them.  The final quarter mile of the parade route starts at the top of a gentle hill and passes in front of the reviewing stand filled with the usual dignitaries.  The band director pauses the band at the top of the slope and marks cadence until a distance of at least a hundred yards opens up between the Sentinels and whoever marches ahead of them.  The result is a dramatic entrance with horns blaring, drums booming, and flags swirling as the band marches with crisp precision down the hill.

It’s a great band from a small high school where more than a third of the students are members.  Among them are student athletes, academic stars, and kids with less than stellar records who tend to be excellent percussionists.  It’s the school melting pot.  Along with the basketball teams, the band is the pride of the community.

But during tough economic times the idea of consolidation with a neighboring larger district began to look appealing.  At the open meeting with the Board of Education, many citizens spoke in favor of the move.  Some cited cost savings (most of those folks didn’t have kids in school); others spoke of a greater array of academic offerings for students (some of those folks did).

Finally it occurred to one of the citizens to ask, “What about the Sentinels?”

“What do you mean?” asked the Board President.

“I mean, would we still have the Sentinels?” he asked.

“Well, kids could still join the band at the other high school.  But it wouldn’t be the Sentinels.”

The audience began to murmur.  “What about the basketball team?” someone asked.

“Same thing, “ the President said.  “The kids could try out at the other school.”

Suddenly consolidation didn’t seem like such a great idea.  No one mentioned that the district’s graduation rate was 30 points higher than the state average and 10 points higher than the larger district.  No one mentioned the smaller district’s test scores were among the highest in the county.  What mattered to folks in general were the band and sports.

But it turns out that they had reason to be concerned.  A study released this month by Ohio University notes that typically consolidation does not yield the efficiencies that some would expect, particularly in terms of transportation.  In addition, consolidation may not result in a higher quality education for students and may reduce the numbers of students involved in extracurricular activities like band and sports, the very activities that often connect kids to school.

According to researchers Craig Howley, Jerry Johnson, and Jennifer Petrie, “impoverished regions in particular often benefit from smaller schools and districts and they can suffer irreversible damage if consolidation occurs.” 

In small schools, teachers and kids know one another.  Kids are less likely to slip through the cracks.  It’s not just about the opportunities to march in the band or join a team; it’s about somebody encouraging a student to do it and the whole town coming out to watch. 

The study advises that districts considering school consolidation proceed with extreme care and that the decision should be made on a case by case basis, not by the state.  Bigger isn’t always better.


When Reporters Run Amok

A local school district wouldn't allow a television reporter to view tapes of a school bus ride, much to her on-camera chagrin.  The reporter was working hard to provoke outrage at the district after a parent contacted the station claiming her daughter had been injured on the ride.  The district, of course, cited confidentiality concerns regarding releasing the tape to the media -- claims which were obviously bogus according to the reporter's dismissive tone and angry demeanor.  

There used to be a difference between straight news reporting and editorials.  Straight news was supposed to simply recount what happened in as fair, objective, and accurate a way as possible.  Editorials provided a place for opinion.  Reporters were just that -- reporters.  They reported the news.  They didn't make it and they weren't supposed to try to influence how you thought about it.

That distinction has long been lost, of course.  But even by today's confused standards, my local news channel is the poster station for newspeople who want to manufacture news rather than report it.  These folks could be a Saturday Night Live skit. 

Channel 10 is "On Your Side," a catch phrase the news people repeat over and over. Why I need a group of people on the 6:00 news to be on my side or on anyone else's side was puzzling until I realized that they actually believe that if it weren't for them, crime would run rampant and undetected.  This attitude was either annoying or amusing  until I saw the story below about an alleged incident on the bus in a local school district.  Then I realized that the phrase should be, "We're on the side we pick.  Too bad if it's not yours."

In my 25 years as a school administrator, I've dealt with more than a few issues like this one on the bus.  Some parents who are unhappy with the school for one reason or another prefer to play out their unhappiness in the local media.  I was fortunate during my tenure that no local station every took the ball and ran with it quite like these folks do.

Notice the reporter's tone -- outrage!  But pay careful attention to the "additional information" she shares at the end of the story and the "takeaway."  I think there's a truthiness issue here, Ms. Reporter. 


Fight over school bus video ends: wavy.com



This Teacher Brought to You by Your Local PTA

The article in this week’s Time Magazine would be funny if it weren’t so obtuse.  It’s called, “PTA Wars” and the intro line is, “In public schools across the country, parent groups are fighting for the right to fill in budget gaps.” 

Really?  Really?  This is news?

Pta Wonders Julian Weissglass, professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “But what happens to schools in poorer areas, where parents can’t afford to do this?  It’s very troubling,” he concludes.

Yes, I’d call it “troubling.”  It’s very troubling that some communities can pay for a better education for their kids than other communities.  Perhaps Professor Weissglass is unfamiliar with school districts in many states that must put their budgets up for a popular vote every year.  He might be interested to know that in New York State, for example, the per-pupil expenditure can be roughly twice as much in some wealthy districts as it is in poorer districts.  And that’s without the contributions of sports booster clubs, band parents, and yes, the PTA.  Perhaps it’s time to review Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities yet again.

What concerns some schools, however, where the PTA is underwriting the salaries of a specific teacher or two, is how much control parents will expect over hiring and firing.  Schools, understandably, would like to avoid the U Conn situation in which a $3 million dollar donor asked for his money back when his opinion wasn’t sought in hiring the new football coach.

School personnel also worry that salaries supported by the PTA may not be sustainable, given turnover in parent leadership.  This argument is valid, as anyone who has ever instituted programs with grant monies can tell you.  When the grant runs out, can the general operational budget supplant grant monies?  Something to think about before the programs are implemented.

PTAs in some California communities (and elsewhere) are raising big bucks, not the kind of money you get from collecting box tops or sponsoring craft fairs.  And it’s likely that folks who underwrite salaries will want to have some say in who is drawing them.  But this isn’t really the problem.

Wealthy communities can offer more educational opportunities to their children than poor communities can.  That’s the bottom line and it isn’t news.  Core standards are great; everyone can rally around shared academic goals.  It makes for positive press.  But equitable funding for schools?  Not really as catchy.












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