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How a School Reflects the Adults in Charge

I spend a lot of time talking to my graduate students in education administration about school climate – specifically, what makes a school feel comfortable and welcoming to both students and their families.  We talk about open doors, displays of kids’ work, simple courtesy, and yes, even signage.

So I went to pick up the preschooler the other day at the elementary school that has a dozen or so signs reserving all the prime parking spaces for the principal and everyone else with an official title.  Physically it is a beautiful brand new school, but it is Exhibit A when it comes to what to avoid if you want a school that’s inviting.

Unwelcome-mat Only one of the several doors in the main entrance is unlocked, and since it’s not marked, your first annoyance is having to try several doors before finding the right one.  (This is a ridiculous policy that many schools have adopted.  Please tell me how only having one door unlocked makes kids safer.)  The signs on the doors say, “Visitors must report to the main office,” not “Guests should please sign in at the main office.” 

The glass walls of the main office are smoked, so you only make out dim figures within.  The overhead lights are off, and the only light is a lamp on the secretary’s desk. The office has all the charm of the viewing room at your local funeral home and all the warmth of the waiting room when your Lexus is being serviced.  All sounds are muffled, and if you didn’t know it, you’d never guess that on the other side of the smoked glass are hundreds of little kids.  But inside the glass there is no sound, no light, no kids’ art, no kids period.

So I look for the book to sign in, and the secretary directs me to a huge screen on the counter.  “Just touch the screen and follow the directions,” she says.  I’m about to say, “Are you kidding me?  Could you think of one more way to show you don’t want to know the families in this school?”  But instead I turn to the screen and try to navigate my way through myriad questions.   When I am finally finished, the secretary instructs me to line up in front of the camera.  Obediently I line up and touch the screen.  The camera flashes.  “You can take it again if you don’t like the picture,” the secretary says.  I check to see if she is joking.  She is not.

I can’t resist asking, “How much does this system cost?”  She smiles like it’s not the first time someone has asked this question.  “Nothing yet,” she says.  “It’s a trial period.”

The machine spits out a nametag with my picture on it.  “Now you can go to the preschool office and sign in, “ the secretary says.  As I leave the office, I look back.  There are four moms waiting to go through the same procedure.  Their arms are loaded with what looks like stuff for a class party. 

I’ve been to the school several times.  I’ve never seen the principal.  I’ve never seen the assistant principal.  The halls are silent, the classroom doors are closed, and there are no children’s papers or artwork in the halls.  It is clean, efficient, and joyless. 

The preschooler will go to kindergarten at a different elementary school.




Understanding the Needs of Gifted Kids

Tingley-021 color Harry Maloney is a teacher of the gifted in a small West Virginia school district.  “Actually, I’m more of a facilitator,” he says.  "It’s a pull-out program.  I tried working with teacher and kids in the classroom, “ he says, “but I didn’t get a lot of cooperation."  Another problem, Maloney says, is that his students don't have ready access to technology.

Maloney is employed half-time. He travels from school to school in his district, but he’s feeling that the program is becoming fragmented and uneven.  He meets a couple hours a week with students in grades two to eight.  “What happens to these kids when they get to high school?” he asks.  “They just turn into regular students?”

He was here at the conference on gifted education because he was frustrated.  “I need to recharge my batteries,” he explained.

He came to the right place.  The Center for Gifted Education at Williams and Mary has earned a solid reputation for leadership and innovation in the field.  Today’s session was led by Tracy Cross, executive director of the Center, and his topic was the emotional and social development of gifted students today.

“No matter how educated or experienced you are, “ Cross says, “you can’t really know what it is to be a child today.”

Cross spent a good part of the time debunking common myths about gifted kids.  They are not more prone to emotional problems than other kids, for example, but they are not necessarily more stable and mature. (I was reminded of a gifted class in one of the schools in which I worked.  The teacher left the room for about 15 minutes assuming that the kids would just continue to work quietly.  Instead, they did what lots of kids do when the teacher leaves the room for an extended period.  Before long you could hear them laughing and shouting from several rooms away.  When the teacher got back to the classroom, she snapped in disgust, “And you people are supposed to be GIFTED!”)

Gifted kids don’t necessarily enjoy being pointed to as examples for other children; in fact, some work hard to conceal their giftedness so as not to be seen as “different.”  And they are not all necessarily high achievers with high motivation to excel in school. 

While some teachers and administrators have a tendency to lump all high IQ kids into the same “gifted” category, Cross says that gifted students are the most heterogeneous group to study because they can vary the most on the most variables. 

The most damaging myth about gifted kids, Cross notes, is that they’re so smart they don’t need any help and can do it on their own.  Yet, Cross says, we see large numbers of gifted kids who are mentally, socially, and emotionally alone among the regular education population.

Gifted educators point to the enormous discrepancies in programs and money devoted to gifted education versus special education.  “Someday,” says Cross, “there will be a moral code for school administrators that will reference the needs of gifted kids.”

At the end of the day, Harry was feeling a little “recharged.”  And we had 3 days to go.

Gifted ed










7000 School Administrators Have a Voice (Continued)

Today we’re continuing the interview with Kevin Casey, the executive director of the 7000-member School Administrators Association of New York State (SAANYS).  

The first topic today deals with tenure for teachers and administrators.  Closely related to tenure is supervision and evaluation, especially given the current suggestion that effectiveness, not seniority, should determine who is laid off if budgets cutbacks demand a reduction in force.  Here’s what Casey had to say:

ST:  There is a lot of debate about doing away with tenure for teachers.  While superintendents are the ones who recommend tenure to the board, they do it on the recommendation of principals or other administrators who supervise teachers.  Do principals still support teacher tenure or do they believe that they can improve instruction if it were abolished? 

KC:  At the outset, I am not certain I would agree that the premise of the question is correct.  Superintendents are the ones who recommend tenure to the board, and in theory, they do it on the recommendation of principals.  We find that the reality differs significantly from place to place.  Sometimes a principal’s recommendation is not sought; other times it is ignored (but there are also many places where it is sought and given thoughtful consideration).  That being said, I believe that most principals recognize that teacher tenure allows teachers the freedom to make decisions in the best interests of children.  In the absence of such protection, the motivation for decision-making [regarding lay-offs] may not be so pure. 

Undoubtedly there are some principals who believe that they could improve instruction if they could readily remove those they saw as ineffective or obstructionists.  Such an environment might result in a “be careful what you ask for” situation in which solid pedagogy would no longer be a primary motivation behind teachers’ day-to-day decisions. 

ST:  While teacher tenure has seen a lot of discussion in the news, the issue of administrator tenure has been absent.  (I’m not sure a lot of people are aware that administrators are considered for tenure.)  Is administrative tenure an important issue for school administrators?  If so, do they see that as a separate issue from teacher tenure? 

KC:  Clearly administrative tenure is an important issue for an overwhelming majority of administrators.  I suspect most administrators would recognize a substantial overlap between the need for administrative and teaching tenure, but I also believe there is a strong argument that tenure is even more important for the principals than for the teachers because the principals have a higher political profile, and are in more of a middle position with respect to dealing with the variety of stakeholder groups whose interests often conflict. 

ST:  Common wisdom is that the principal is the instructional leader of his/her building.  Do principals see themselves as instructional leaders or have other management issues overtaken their responsibilities? 

KC:  I do believe that principals see themselves as instructional leaders of their buildings, and a majority of individuals who pursue the principalship do so to be instructional leaders, so I would answer yes to the first half of your question, but also yes to the second half of your question.  Other management issues have made it increasingly difficult to be an effective instructional leader.  This relentless “workload creep” is seen by many principals as reducing the time and attention directed toward instructional leadership, and a disincentive to those who would otherwise aspire to the principalship. 

ST:  Do most principals see themselves as competent supervisors and evaluators of teachers?  How important are these roles for the principal?

KC:  Most principals see themselves as competent supervisors and evaluators of teachers, with emphasis on the word competent.  There is concern with the extent of the preparation of principals with respect to this particular function.  I also think you would generally find a lack of ongoing professional development relative to evaluation. It is only fair to those being evaluated and to the children that they serve, that those evaluations be meaningful and of high quality. 

 ST:  Waiting for Superman focuses for the most part on big city districts.  The national debate about the quality of education in the United States tends to focus on big city districts.  Yet, we know that schools are different in city, suburban, and rural districts.  Is there any way for school people to respond to this general criticism of public education without being divisive? 

KC:  As educators that it is important to be thoughtful and factually accurate.  Most of the public debate is superficial and occurs in sound bites.  It is also important to recognize weaknesses without being defensive.  A lot of money and a lot of brain power is dedicated to improving results.  It is safe to assume that if fixes were easy they would have been implemented already. 

Despite the differences in types of districts around the state, the debate needs to be brought down to the local level, where those that are engaged may participate in it through the prism of their local environment.  I still believe that there are thoughtful people involved with the education process that think beyond sound bites and are willing to engage in substantive debate.


I am grateful to Kevin for his thoughtful and considered responses that improve the quality of the debate.


Cartoon principal









7000 School Administrators Have a Voice

Tingley-021 color We’ve heard a lot these days from politicians, teachers’ union presidents, school district leaders, business leaders, pundits, professors, and bloggers about what schools need to do to improve.  Lost in the cacophony are school administrators – principals, assistant supervisors, department chairs, directors – the people who make things work on a day-to- day basis and who will eventually be responsible for implementing changes on the ground and in the trenches.

So I asked Kevin Casey, the executive director of the 7000-member School Administrators Association of New York State (SAANYS) to give us an idea of what is front and center the minds of middle management during these changing times.  Here are some of his thoughts:

ST:  Do you think principals and other middle managers have a voice in the national debate about school reform?  If they do, what are they saying?  If they don’t, should they?

KC:  They do have a voice in the national debate, although not one that is as loud as certain other stakeholder groups.  The teachers have the power of numbers, the superintendents and the school boards have the power of independent authority, and the principals find themselves without either.  Nevertheless, the most common message is a concern over helter-skelter fast-track change in a number of areas.  To borrow a phrase from Casey Richard Rothstein, it is the principal often tasked with implementing the “reforms du jour.” While they don’t want to be seen as obstructionists, the considered thoughtful concerns of those on the ground level are appropriate to be raised, but are often not appreciated.

ST:  What would you say are the two or three major issues that concern principals?

KC:  I believe the majority of the principals would agree that the impact of budgetary problems on programming is a significant concern.  There is widespread concern that schools will not be able to provide services to those who need them in the face of state aid cuts and the possibility of a tax cap. 

On a macro scale, there is concern with the demonization of educators in public discourse.  Many administrators find the discourse to be superficial or ill-informed, and worry that the fact that their profession has been reduced to a political football will ultimately be harmful to the long-term quality of education. 

ST:  Are the concerns of principals from big city school districts different from the concerns in rural/suburban districts, and if so, how?

KC:  There isn’t a great difference in the concerns of principals in big city districts from those in suburban and rural districts.  Administrators, regardless of the type of district they represent, are subject to a variety of pressures and almost uniformly want their students to be successful.  Big city administrators may be more sensitive to the greater needs presented by the larger and typically more diverse population that they serve, but a greater differentiation exists between affluent districts, however one might define such a district, and those that are not.  Those that are not may see certain goals as less obtainable than their counterparts in better funded districts, regardless of what type of environment those districts may be located in.

ST:  As I noted in my blog, after seeing Waiting for Superman, I was struck by the absence of principals and other middle management administrators who have to make things work on a daily basis.  As a result, little attention was give to how challenging a principal’s job can be in dealing with student discipline, unsupportive parents, and uncooperative or even incompetent teachers.  Presenting a principals job, I think, would have given a more balanced picture of the challenges of big city schools.  What do you think? 

KC:  I think that entirely depends upon how the principals were portrayed.  Public schools were portrayed as largely failing, well beyond what the reality is, and charter schools were portrayed as largely successful, well beyond what the reality is.  I think that the portrayal of principals could have been balanced, or presented in a manner designed to cause the audience to form a particular opinion with respect to the usefulness and effectiveness of the principal. 


WEDNESDAY:  Casey talks about tenure for principals and their role in supervision and evaluation.


Implementing the Madison Decision

I wrapped up my work and we headed down to the Old Fashioned restaurant, a stone’s throw from the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.  A handful of protesters sat on the capitol steps, and another small group walked slowly by holding a few signs.

Still, it’s business as usual at the Old Fashioned – which means it’s packed with college kids, professors, visitors Madison_Wisconsin-Capital_building1024 and locals. The restaurant features all things Wisconsin --local bratwurst, pork roast sandwiches, cheese curd (fried), and dozens and dozens of local beers on tap. I never miss the opportunity to go there when I’m in Madison.

Restaurant and storefront windows are still plastered with signs in support of union workers.  Spray painted on the occasional brick wall is the work, “STRIKE.” But it’s all over except for the recall effort and the television commercials calling for defeat of the budget.

But here’s the question:  How will the unions’ loss of bargaining rights actually play out in each school district?  School boards and superintendents CAN change the terms of employment, but will they?

Sean Cavanagh in his Ed Week blog raises this very good question.  District administrators and school boards “work in close quarters with teachers and other employees who are often their neighbors and sometimes their friends.”  It’s one thing to make a decision affecting the livelihood of people you don’t know personally and probably never will.  It’s an entirely different thing to work with them side-by-side every day, maybe even attend the same social functions.  They’re neighbors, not voters to the superintendent and the folks on the school board.

A couple of days ago I wrote about a labor relation specialist I often called on when I needed advice.  I noted that his advice was always good, but I usually had to modify and soften it.  He wasn’t wrong, but he didn’t have to work directly with the people I did every day.  I had developed over the years a good working relationship with the unionized faculty, and neither they nor I wanted to risk that relationship.  So I moved slowly and cautiously, making sure I had the majority on board before change was instituted. 

So it’s not really over.  Like so many things in education, the decision is one thing; the implementation is another thing entirely.  Individual school district leadership will have to decide for themselves:  What’s the real price of this law?







Madison Aftermath

Tingley-021 color A labor relations specialist I once knew was recognized as a hard-core negotiator. When I was a principal and part of the administrators’ association, I found myself on the other side of the table from him and I remember feeling that our side was outmatched.  Later, as a superintendent, I often turned to him for advice in negotiations within my own school district.  He was still hard-core, and I usually had to modify his advice to fit the culture of my district, but he knew how to work successfully with labor. 

In the many years I worked with him, he gave me two pieces of advice that I never forgot.  First, he said, if you have to choose between being respected and being liked, you have to choose being respected.  Second, in terms of negotiating a contract, you need to keep in mind that the other side has to look like they’ve accomplished something for their membership.  They have to save face.  And if you’re lucky, he added, the other side understands that it works both ways:  you have to be able to take something good back to your board.

Keeping in mind the need for each side to respect the other, we were able to negotiate a number of contracts over the years that left faculty feeling that the board of education appreciated their work and would do the best it could for them given our limited resources.  For their part, faculty used restraint and good judgment in presenting their requests.  Preserving the cooperative culture of the district was important to both sides.

Wisconsin-Protests So here I am in Madison, Wisconsin where in an ugly parody of the democratic process teachers’ rights to bargain have been rescinded by the Republican legislature. I’m here working with Magna Publications to record some educational videos, which are advertised and sold nation-wide, not just in Wisconsin.  But I have to wonder how Wisconsin teachers are feeling today and how eager they’re going to be to work hard to improve instruction through extra hours of staff development. 

Wisconsin Republican politicians, of course, ignored the basic tenets of negotiation, if you can call it that.  In fact, some suggest the legislators are little more than bullies.  At any rate, Republican legislators in Wisconsin don’t have to worry about being liked or being respected.  Among educators in Wisconsin, they are neither.


How Much Is Testing Worth?

Budget season for schools today is year-round with a particular stressful emphasis in the spring as schools try to align expenses and revenues for the next year.  It’s a particularly difficult process in some states because revenue in terms of state aid (and maybe federal aid too thanks to the House) is unknown at this time.  Still, savvy superintendents and business officers are looking for ways to cut expenditures under worse case scenarios.

There’s only so much you can cut in terms of materials and supplies, so before you know it you’re down to program and personnel.  An interesting twist in New York State, however, is the proposal for the state to save $15 million by reducing regents exams to English language arts and mathematics.

Currently students can take regents exams in foreign languages, U.S. History and government, global history and geography, earth science, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and English/language arts.  Testing in English Test and math are federal requirements, so all of the others may find themselves on the chopping block.

One “solution” is to have school districts pay for the exams themselves – another unfunded mandate.  Not only would state aid be reduced, but state charges would be increased. 

If the cost of exams came out of the school’s operating budget, one has to wonder what the impact would be in terms of students being encouraged to take courses for regents credit.  Could a student take the course and simply take a local exam?  Would schools return to the old bifurcated system of regents and non-regents courses of study?  Would wealthy school districts be able to offer regents exams for all courses while poorer districts would be limited to two or three, exacerbating the already existing gulf between them?  Would schools be required to provide all exams or would each district have a choice?  Could districts pass the charge on to students?  What if a students’ family doesn’t have the means to pay for them?  Would not taking regents exams in courses other than English and math matter in terms of college or life in general?

Some note that offering regents exams in only English and math would free up almost two full weeks at the end of the school year for instruction.  The governor’s rhetoric centers on poor results for the money spent on schools, noting that New York is first in expenditures and 34th in terms of the number of people over 29 with a high school diploma. 

As budget season continues in all its splendor, New York won’t be the only state to consider whether expediency will finally curtail the push to test everything.  We’ve been doing that for several years now, and we have to ask, are kids smarter, more accomplished, and better prepared for post-high school life than they were before?

Perhaps the great testing debate will come down to the bottom line:  We can’t afford it.




LOL in Education

Tingley-021 color It turns out that difficult and demanding parents still exist, so my new publisher has asked me to revise and expand my book for release some time next year.  This time my editor would like me to include a chapter on working with parents of children in special education.

The book is a humorous take on working with parents, and it’s filled with real-life examples of the kinds of unreasonable demands that parents sometimes make along with practical tips on how to work cooperatively to defuse potentially explosive situations.  At the time I wrote it, I thought about including sports parents and special education parents, but the former might require a whole book in themselves and the latter didn’t lend themselves to fun poking without the risk of making the author look like an insensitive clod.

Humor in education is a rare and tricky business as anyone who saw Diane Ravitch on The Daily Show can attest.  Stewart essentially did stand-up alone, riffing on Wisconsin while his guest sat there stone faced.  It was like playing tennis against a wall.

But a friend of mine sent me the video below that focuses on the relationship between parents of special education students and school people.  It’s sympathetic to the parent’s perspective and it’s very, very funny.  School people will recognize the situation and how it plays out in some schools (hopefully not in yours).  We have to be able to laugh at ourselves, folks, so enjoy.


Workers or Professionals?

At a meeting of upstate school superintendents, one school leader bemoaned the fact that superintendents downstate made a lot more money than we did.  “It’s just not fair, “ he complained.  “We’re doing the same job.”

Doctors-march I had heard that argument before from teachers regarding the disparity between upstate and downstate pay.  “It’s about retirement,” said one.  “Downstate teachers have higher salaries and so they have higher retirement income for life.  It’s really not fair.”

Well, I thought, I don’t think it’s about fairness.  You’re free to move downstate and look for a job there where the cost of living is significantly higher as well.  Salaries here are about as high as the local taxpayers can bear, and as it is we’re among the highest paid people in the area. 

Make no mistake:  I believe our work in education is essential to the welfare of the nation.  But I’m wondering if we’ve reached a tipping point regarding the ability (or the willingness) of the private sector to support the public sector.

Justin Baeder has an interesting take on the current move in Wisconsin and other Northern states to curtail public employees’ rights to bargain.  Baeder argues that as long as teachers consider themselves “workers,” they will be treated as such.  Instead, he says, they should act like professionals – like doctors, for instance – and create their own working conditions, sort of like individual contractors.  It’s a gutsy point of view for a young educator, and it’s one I proposed to my graduate students several years ago with the same knee-jerk response Baeder received.

Comparing teachers and doctors is seductive, but not really valid, of course.  Doctors are far better trained and their training takes a lot longer and costs a lot more. Doctors learn their arts and skills through lengthy internships. Doctors don’t have summers and holidays off.  Doctors rarely come from the lower third of their high school class.  Doctors don’t have to worry about finding a job; there aren’t more of them than we need. There’s no Doctor for America program that allows new college graduates to operate after five weeks of training. And, of course, doctors aren’t paid with tax dollars.  Directly, that is.

Baeder is correct in that historically collective bargaining has been a right won by workers rather than Wisconsin professionals.  However, it’s naïve to think that unhappy teachers could just pack up their books and materials and “take their talents” to a more appreciative school given the glut of teachers in some academic areas as well as districts’ unwillingness to pay for experience.   It's not just in Wisconsin that non-government workers are beginning to object to paying for their own health care and retirement AND paying for the same or better benefits for public employees. 

Still, the situation in Wisconsin reeks of self-serving posturing among legislators and the governor.  Add his foolish and revealing remarks to a prank phone caller and his “take no prisoners” attitude, and you’ve significantly raised the stink factor.  And what exactly does the right to collective bargaining have to do with reducing the budget?  It’s called “bargaining” after all – both sides have to agree to the contract.

But teachers are posturing too.  During the past year I moved from a state with strong teachers’ unions to a state in which teachers have no bargaining rights.  I’m not seeing all the dreadful conditions for kids that organized labor predicts. In fact, it looks a lot like the state I left.

The move for school reform isn’t going away anytime soon.  Joe Klein in his thoughtful piece in Time this week recognizes that Scott Walker would be trying to bust public employees’ unions even if Wisconsin had a budget surplus.  But Klein speaks to our ambivalence in wanting to support teachers’ rights but recognizing that things can’t continues the way they are.  “The existing arrangements between government and its employees clearly need a profound overhaul,” he writes, “but the idea that American can return to the mythic stability and prosperity of 40 years ago without a well-paid middle class, including public employees, seems a very dangerous experiment to undertake.”

In the meantime, you have to wonder what Wisconsin voters thought they were getting when they elected some of these guys.








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