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What Do Polls Tell Us?

The thing about quotes on the internet is that you cannot confirm their validity.

                                                                                              --Abraham Lincoln

I mentioned last week that a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll indicates that Americans are proud of their local schools but less proud of our education system in general.  How proud of our local schools are we?  Well, a recent Harris poll finds that if parents had to grade their local school, 35% would give it an A, 44% would give it a B, 15% would give it a C, 5% would give it a D, and only 1% would give it an F.  Almost 80% of parents K-12 would give their child’s school an A or a B! 

How do we solve the conundrum in which a solid majority of parents thinks their local schools are great but Chocolate2scoopicecreamcone1 also believes that American education in general isn’t anything to write home about? I’m confused.  Local pride is one thing, but don’t parents in one school district ever talk to parents in another?  Don’t they read the local papers?  Don’t they attend interscholastic sports events?  What we have here is the unusual situation of the whole  being WAY less than the sum of its parts!

And even though our fellow citizens take a dim view of K-12 education in general, two-thirds of them (again according to a recent Harris poll) say that public colleges, both community and four-year schools, do an excellent or very good job of educating their students.  You have to wonder how the colleges manage to do so well with graduates of such a lackluster educational system.

I suspect the chronic reports of how poorly our students do when compared with students from other countries impacts people’s perceptions of American education in general, even though it’s often hard to pin down exactly what we’re comparing.  And, of course, someone in the media is always talking about the latest “crisis” in education and the need for change and/or reform.  It occurs to me that we have never fully understood nor accepted the idea that education, by its very nature, is always a work in progress.  We are always searching for better ways to teach, better programs for kids, better training for teachers and administrators.  It’s the way education works. 

I do not believe that during my years in education we simply ricocheted from one crisis to another, like a silver ball in a pinball machine.  Instead, we tried, we failed, we adjusted, we improved.  So I tend to take most polls with a grain of salt.

But still, they’re interesting.  Did you know that nearly half of parents say their kids watch more TV and play more video games in the summer?  Didn’t you think they would spend more time outside playing?  Oh yeah – and with 32 ice cream flavors to choose from at your local Baskin-Robbins, polls show that people’s favorite flavor is chocolate, followed by vanilla. 





Local Schools, Local Decisions

Tingley-021 color-1 In theory a supermajority is sometimes deemed necessary to decide particularly weighty matters that may seriously impact the minority.  By definition a supermajority is a majority greater than a simple majority (2/3 or 3/5 for example).  In Congress, it takes a supermajority to convict in an impeachment, expel a senator or representative, override a Presidential veto, ratify a treaty, or pass a Constitutional amendment.  In short, a supermajority is used to decide serious business.

As a former school superintendent, I can attest that passing a school budget in New York State has always been serious business in every district.  Now, however, it has become even MORE serious since the state legislature adopted a budget cap of 2% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.  A supermajority of 60% is now necessary to pass a budget with greater increases.

Massachusetts has a similar, but less draconian law that requires only a simple majority to exceed the cap. In New York, the legislation had been in the works for years, although few thought it would be adopted under a Democratic governor.

Some see the new legislation as yet another salvo against schools by state legislatures.  New York’s Governor State-Capitol-Building-Albany-NY Cuomo, like New Jersey’s Governor Christie, has complained about salaries that superintendents receive and has moved to cap them too.  On the other hand, the budget cap coupled with reduced state aid may finally force mandate relief, which, I must say again as a former superintendent, New York schools needed years ago and still do.

Something’s got to give.  Pension contributions for schools have soared to 11%.  Schools can cut back on some expenditures, but they can’t control the cost of heat, fuel, health and other insurances, repairs, books, materials, and supplies. 

So I can’t quite shake the feeling that the requirement now for a supermajority to pass a budget that exceeds the cap is kind of an insult, both to the school people who build the budget and to the citizens that vote on it.  Superintendents and boards of education have always needed to weigh the needs of the school against what the community could afford.  If they judged wrong, the voters would let them know.  Apparently the legislature thinks it knows better than the local people regarding what they want and what they can afford.



All Education Is Local

What to make of the results of the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll regarding attitudes towards public schools?  Here are some of the highlights:

•Teaching is still a career we’d like our kids to choose.

•Even though about half of us think teacher unions are hurting public education, we’re more likely to support teachers’ unions than bully governors.

•We value the principal’s opinion regarding teacher evaluation and which teachers should be laid off first.

•Teacher quality is more important than class size.

•We support charter schools, but not vouchers.

•Lack of money is the biggest problem facing our schools, not discipline or drugs.

•We are proud of our local schools, but we’re less confident about American education in general.

So despite all the national bashing of teachers, we still think that teaching is an honorable career, and we still respect teachers and principals.  We like our local schools, and we support them.  (This is not a surprise to me, because in the 15 years I worked as a superintendent in upstate New York, I never had a budget voted down – a claim that most other superintendents in the state could make as well).  And I do not agree with Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, who says that parents’ support of their local public schools is guilt-driven, making them unable to say that their child’s school isn’t satisfactory.  Nonsense.  It’s just possible that the local public school is doing just fine and parents understand that it’s best for their child’s progress if home and school work together.

School and parent So if people in general support their local school, where does the idea come from that American education in general is sub-par?  After all, most parents have no idea what’s happening in schools one city over, let alone across the country.  Well, there are those ubiquitous reports that our kids do poorly in comparison with students in other nations, although I have to admit I don’t even know what that means, exactly.  (The gap between white and black students, on the other hand, is supported by evidence and is cause for genuine concern.) Then there are the folks who have made a living bad-mouthing American education in print and in other media (no need to name names).  And we need to remember that our standards are high and our public schools admit everyone, an idea that is part of our greatness as a nation.

So I have to admit to feeling pretty good that folks in general support their local schools and teachers.  Despite everything.  If it’s a pretty good year in every local school, wouldn’t it be pretty good year nationally? Maybe even better since the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.





Are Your Reading Lists Friendly to Boys?

Tingley-021 color-1 Sara Mosle’s review of Steven Brill’s new book, Class Warfare is featured on the front of Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, but the more interesting essay can be found on the back page.

Mosle covers the points of Brill’s book already discussed ad nauseam in the tussle between reformers and those who would prefer not to be reformed.  The usual suspects are depicted playing their usual roles (Rhee, Ravitch, Canada, Weingarten, etc.).  Keep moving, folks; nothing to see here.

In contract, the back page features Robert Lipsyte’s “The Lost Boys,” an essay that asks, “Why aren’t boys reading the good books being published?”  Why, with the plethora of strong young adult fiction not available to the last generation, do boys still not pick up a book?  Here is a topic that actually impacts education in every classroom throughout the country.

Lipsyte explores some of the prevalent theories, many of which may play a part in boys’ unwillingness to read. Boys prefer nonfiction, and schools prefer fiction.  Boys aren’t comfortable exploring their emotions.  Boys don’t see reading as “manly,” since it’s an occupation preferred by their mainly female teachers. Children’s author Bruce Coville suggested this idea in a talk to my school’s faculty several years ago, and while it was a surprise to the female faculty, the male faculty concurred. 

When my children were in elementary school, I had to point out to their school librarian that her habit of introducing new books to kids by saying, “Here’s a book you girls will like, and here’s a book you boys will like” was unfair to both genders.  Still, studies show that girls not only read more, but they read more widely than boys.  And over the past 30 years, girls have consistently outscored boys in reading.  In the end, of course, this disparity is a problem for both genders.

“Today’s books for boys often seem like cynical appeals to the lowest common denominator,” Lipsyte writes, adding that “boys prefer video games and ESPN to book versions of them.”  The lack of books that appeal to boys is also, he says, a business decision.  After all, if girls are the readers, that’s where the market is.

But roughly half of all kids in school are boys, and it’s our responsibility as school people to teach all of the kids, not just the ones who like to read.  It might be a good idea as this new school year starts to review your K-12 reading lists.  Are there choices?  Is there plenty of nonfiction?  Are there books that would appeal to boys and the men they want to grow up to be? You’ll find some suggestions at www.guysread.com and, of course, at the American Library Association’s site www.ala.org.

As an added bonus, here are Robert Patterson and Rick Riodan discussing what we can do to help boys access good reading.





The View from the Trenches?

So school begins again after a tumultuous summer that included a semi-successful recall of Wisconsin lawmakers who voted to curtail collective bargaining rights and benefits.  Ohio votes in November, not on individual lawmakers but on the legislation that limits collective bargaining in that state.  Governor Rick Perry of Texas (the state where 60% of  students in grades 7-12 have been suspended or expelled) insists that every state should be free to do its own education thing without federal monies or interference, making you wonder who’s advocating for the kids in Texas.  The core standards are plodding along with the usual glacial speed of those kinds of initiatives.  And on NPR Claudio Sanchez notes that teachers are feeling “beat down” as the school year starts.

But while reformers and union leaders continue throwing bricks at one another in the stratosphere, at the ground level (and in the trenches), teachers are decorating their rooms and kids are buying bright new First day of school3
backpacks and boxes of 48 breathtakingly beautiful new crayons.  Parents in many states took advantage of no tax weekends to purchase clothes and school supplies.  On the supply list for new kindergartners here were 12 glue sticks.  Twelve!  “Maybe we eat them, “ the kindergartner suggested.

The question I have is, how will things at the national level affect the local classroom?  And I mean really, not rhetorically.  All the bloviating this past year from lawmakers and union types surely affected the air quality and the heat index.  But really, how are things at ground level?  Are classes really bigger?  Did good teachers get laid off?  Will evaluation be different?  Are teachers in general really angry, as the media suggest?  Or will the great majority of them greet their new students, close the door, and do what they do best – make a difference in kids’ lives (maybe even though they’re angry)?

I would love to hear what’s happening at your school as the year begins (and I’m thinking others in the trenches would too).  Is anything different ?  Are you feeling overwhelmed, underpaid and angry?  Or do you operate under that radar?  Do you have the resources you need to make this a good year for kids?  Are you feeling anxious or just eager to start anew?

The opening of school is always such an exciting and hopeful time for both school people and kids.  Is it still the same?






Discipline Is a Process, Not an Event

Tingley-021 color-1 When I wrote about the importance of keeping kids in school rather than suspending or expelling them, I’m sure some readers thought, “So what are you supposed to do with kids who are disruptive, disrespectful, or even threatening?  You can’t just put them right back into the classroom.”

And you are right.  When a student has been seriously disruptive, a slap on the wrist and a return to the same class won’t work.  Nothing has changed except that now the teacher (and maybe the other students) is even more frustrated and disheartened.  And everyone is asking himself, “OK, who’s in charge?”

First of all, school discipline is a process, not an event.  The discipline of a school lies in its culture, not in the hands of a single individual principal or vice principal, although those people can help set the tone for the school.  “Most schools cope by separating challenging children from the classroom,” writes Katherine Bradley Washington, president of CityBridge Foundation.  “Referrals to social workers, special education placements, and suspensions are the core tools used to get by.”

Another tool, Washington suggests, is lowering demands on kids, a move, she says, that seems compassionate, but is in the end harmful.  Lowering demands, of course, is also a tool to avoid confrontation.  Instead, Washington recommends bringing in services to train and mobilize adults in the school to deliver a “whole school culture of health, safety, and learning … a model that seeks to heal the school – not ‘refer out’ the problems.”

No academic progress can be made in a school without a strong culture of school discipline, and by “school discipline” I don’t mean punishment.  I mean clear, high expectations that everyone – teachers, parents, and students – understands and a safe and orderly environment.  Teachers should be trained in classroom management skills so that they feel confident in handling the garden variety discipline issues inside their own classrooms.  They can learn how to keep a volatile situation from escalating and how to avoid hard confrontation. They can meet with parents whenever possible and with the student as well.  They can plan together a behavior plan.  They can assure the student that they care about what happens to him.  They can build trust.  And they can offer a curriculum that is challenging and interesting.

None of this happens overnight.  But it’s part of our mission.  And when a kid is suspended or expelled, he’s failed and we’ve failed.





We Need to Keep Kids in School

Tingley-021 color-1 School discipline isn’t something administrators do to kids; instead, it’s a generally accepted code of conduct, a school culture if you will.  A school discipline plan is a lot more than just a list of “if - thens” – if you do this, then you get that.  If you swear at a teacher, then you are suspended for three days.  If you hit another student, then you are expelled.  School discipline needs to be a general plan to conduct daily business, not a way to get rid of kids who break the rules.

Despite my many years of experience in public schools, I must confess that I’m at a loss to explain why some educators still embrace a “zero tolerance” approach to discipline – as if all infractions are equal.  We’ve seen this foolishness over the years when one kid was suspended for bringing a spork to school (possible weapon) or when another kid was suspended for wearing a hat with a tiny plastic soldier carrying a gun pinned to it.  Likewise, a kid with a prescription allergy medication in her purse is treated the same way as a kid with marijuana.  School people nearly always look ridiculous when they stick to the letter of the law and enforce zero tolerance plans. 

So you have to wonder what’s up with Texas, where 60% of students were suspended at least once or expelled Jail between seventh and twelfth grade according to a recently released study by the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments.   Only 3% of these disciplinary actions were required by state law in response to specified misconduct; the rest occurred at the discretion of local administrators.  Of interest here is that schools with similar demographics varied greatly in how frequently kids were removed from school, leaving us to wonder about the attitudes of the adults in charge.

Suspensions and expulsions were meted out far more frequently to African-Americans, Hispanics, and students with special needs, prompting Attorney General Eric Holder to call the report a “wake-up call.”  No kidding.  And Texas isn’t alone in removing kids from school as a cure for disruption; currently Maryland and Virginia are reviewing their schools’ disciplinary choices.  And a recent study also found that New York students with disabilities, particularly those with emotional disturbance, were particularly vulnerable to being removed from school.

The United States currently has the highest rate of incarceration for its population, and the number of juveniles in jail has increased over the last decade.  In our country more black men ages 18-24 are in prison than in college.  And studies show that suspension and expulsion facilitates the “school-to-prison pipeline”.  And yet we persist in treating kids in ways we know have been shown to be ineffective – and even harmful.

Not long ago I served on a grand jury.  One youngster – maybe about 15 – admitted that he carried a gun in a robbery “in one of those bags that kids use for gym.”  Other kids, he meant.  Not him.  He hadn’t been in school for a year or so.  Where do school administrators think kids go when they’re suspended or expelled?  What do they do?  Not all of them hold up stores, of course, but neither do they get jobs and work their way up to management.  Suspending and expelling kids kicks the can down the road.  We can do better than this.







Little Girls Are Not Little Women

Tingley-021 color-1 When my kids were small, some of the toys that were given to them by friends or family members were things I myself would never have chosen for them. 

When we lived in a tiny apartment, the hall was a parking lot for riding toys that had to be carried up and down three flights of stairs.  A friend once gave the kids 26 tiny blocks that opened to reveal 26 tiny toys (an apple inside the A block or a bear inside the B block, for example).  Besides the choking hazard, stepping on that cute little apple with bare feet at night was excruciating.  Years later I was still finding the tiny moose for M or the tiny zebra for Z under furniture cushions. 

One year the kids’ grandparents (on my husband’s side) gave them each a yellow helmet with a revolving red light on top and a siren.  They thought the kids could use them when we skied. 

But the most disgusting toy of all was the baby doll that ingested food and then filled her diaper.  What crazy person came up with that? I fumed.  Like I didn’t have enough to do with real babies!  This thoughtful gift was provided by the grandparents on my side of the family.  My husband immediately dubbed the doll “Baby Crapalot.”

Well, time marches on, and there has been no end to inappropriate, useless, or disgusting toys, which I still can’t believe are bought by the child’s actual parents.  But I have to say that currently, at the top of the toys I hate, is the doll that nurses.

The doll is just being introduced into the United States, and I watched the bright, glib TV psychologist explain how this new doll will help little girls feel good about their bodies and breast feeding years from now.  I’m not a psychologist, but watching the commercial for this doll gives me the same queasy feeling I get when I catch a glimpse of little girl beauty pageants. 

I’ve written before about the sexualization of little girls and advertising that targets very young children.  Of interest is an article in yesterday’s NY Times entitled, “Daughter Leads, Mom Follows in Fashion Sync.”   The article notes that “fashion industry observers say many ordinary mothers are following their daughters’ style lead these days.”  Says Joanne Arbuckle, dean of the School of Art and Design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, “The lines are all blurred today.  It’s not about,‘You’re this age, and this is what you do.’” 

I must respectfully disagree with Dean Arbuckle.  Little girls are not adults.  Adults are not little girls.  Each should have her own age-appropriate clothes – and toys.


Career Questions: Opening Day

Q:  I work with a team of teachers at the same grade level.  We have put together a discipline plan that works well and is easy for kids and their parents to understand.  Every year my team agrees to spend a lot of time on the first day going over the rules and regulations with the kids.  I’ve gone along with this plan for the last couple of years, but I can’t help feeling that this really isn’t how I want to start off a new year.  Rules are important, but so is feeling excited about school!  Also, when my new students go home at the end of the first day, I’d like them to have something interesting and fun to tell their parents.  I want to be a team player, but I also want to excite kids about their new year.  Any thoughts?

A:  Actually, you’ve hit on one of my pet peeves – using the beginning of a brand-new year to talk AT kids
about rules instead of talking WITH them about all the great new things they’re going to do and learn – and maybe trying some of those things right away!

First day of school2 My usual routine as a principal on opening day was to visit every classroom in the building for a few minutes.  I was always dismayed by the number of teachers who wasted those precious opening minutes to distribute books, talk about schedules, and list all the rules.  You could see some of the kids already slumped at their desks looking longingly out the window.

Rules and schedules and books are important, of course, but if you want kids to be excited about the new year, give them something to be excited about – a story, a project, a picture, a play, a little teamwork – the list is endless.  You can always talk about the rules tomorrow, or maybe ask them what they think a good rule is.  The best teachers I’ve ever known always understood that those first moments in a new school year are to be cherished and used for something to light up kids’ faces and engage their minds.

Talk to your team about your exciting plans for opening day.  Explain how you only have one opening day and you need to make it count. Remind them that kids are generally well behaved on opening day anyway and don’t need a crash course in discipline.  Besides, your team’s rules will hardly be anything the kids don’t already expect.  You might be surprised to find a colleague or two that shares your views.  Have a great start to a great year! 


Career Questions: The Endless Faculty Meeting

Tingley-021 color-1 Q:  Once a month (or more) our principal calls a general faculty meeting. I understand that it’s sometimes helpful to get everyone together to talk about things.  But here’s the problem:  The principal does all the talking!  There’s no discussion about anything; the principal sets the agenda (which we don’t see) and then moves through all the items himself.  I should add that most, if not all, of the items on his agenda could have been handled in an email.  It’s a waste of time, and when I look around the room, some teachers are grading papers, some are checking their email or texting, and some are doing crossword puzzles.  It’s making me crazy.  Any suggestions?


 A:  I can hear your frustration!  Time is a precious commodity for teachers, and no one likes to be held captive after a long school day when they could be getting ready for the next day or spending time with their family.

Someone – maybe you – needs to have a chat with your principal.  Maybe he holds the meetings out of habit or Crossword_answers_2 maybe he’s just not comfortable using email.  Or maybe he has control issues.  Whatever the reason behind these meetings, somebody needs to sit with the principal and give him some honest feedback. 

For starters, every faculty meeting should have a shared agenda. An agenda focuses discussion and serves as a tool for keeping everyone on track. When an agenda is distributed, information items that could be handled via email become obvious.  The last item on the agenda should be “From the floor,” so that those at the meeting have an opportunity to bring up issues themselves.

A faculty meeting is a good time to share ideas, suggestions, or solutions to common problems.  It’s an opportunity to get input from the group.  It’s a time for team building.  It’s not a time to simply sit and listen to one person speak (after all, it’s a meeting, not a lecture).  If your school has a faculty council or recognized faculty leaders, maybe someone from those groups could talk to the principal privately about how to use faculty meetings more effectively.  Calling him to task in front of a group of people is a good way to ensure that nothing changes.








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