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The Gingrich Career Plan for Minority Students

Tingley-021 color-1“It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid,” opined Newt Gingrich last week in a speech at the Harvard Business School.   “Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor, and pay local students to take care of the school.  The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”

Well, most bloggers and columnists made scorched toast of Mr. Gingrich for those comments, and the Huffington Post even ran a series of photos of kids doing other union jobs  (pilot, teacher, construction worker) that would save money and engage them in the “process of rising.”  Gingrich eventually backtracked, saying he really didn’t want to revamp child labor laws, but that kids could easily work 20 hours a week while going to school, ignoring studies that show that the more students work, the lower their grades and the more likely they are to drop out of school.  I can validate that point from my own experience of 25 years working in secondary schools.

I once worked in a private school that required scholarship students not to do janitorial work, but to work in the cafeteria cleaning up and serving lunch to everyone else.  The headmaster’s original idea was that all students would serve a brief time working in the cafeteria, but the pushback from parents who were paying full tuition was too strong.  As one parent succinctly put it, “I’m not paying thousands of dollars a year for my kid to be a waiter.”  So only our scholarship students had the opportunity to begin the “process of rising.”  The other students had ostensibly already risen.

Black studentsBefore scholarship kids were singled out as workers serving their peers, nobody knew who paid what.  Afterwards, it was very clear.  The whole idea resulted in scholarship kids feeling embarrassed and resentful and contributed to the sense of class distinction in the school.  It’s not a stretch to suggest that this outcome could exacerbate a national class distinction already felt.

Schools in which students should work as janitorial help, according to the candidate, would be “failing schools,” which, of course, turn out to be predominantly poor with a minority population.  Take a 6.5 school day and tack on four additional hours for janitorial work and you have a 52.5 hour week at school, not counting dinner hour.  And something else you can’t count is participation in sports or other extracurricular activities.

We hear a lot of candidates say a lot of silly things during campaigns.   This bit of nonsense, however, is simply repugnant, suggesting that instead of fixing failing schools, we should put kids to work cleaning them.  Let them pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Their best hope isn’t education, but manual labor.

And by the way, kids would be cleaners, not janitors or the more appropriate title, "custodians."  if Gingrich thinks custodial work can be done by children, he doesn’t know much about how schools work.  But I already said that.











Where You Get Your News Matters

Tingley-021 color-1Illinois first-year teacher Rhett Felix was suspended with pay in November for showing clips from a couple of episodes of the Daily Show to his government and law class.  He showed a third episode, “How a Bill Doesn’t Become a Law” in its entirety.  Some parents were predictably outraged, feeling perhaps that we shouldn’t make fun of the democratic process typified by our Congress.  Others felt that equating Congress with inaction was redundant.  Still others objected to the language and sexual context of the  snippets, one dealing with sexual misconduct charges against Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain and another depicting an unusually jocular Rick Perry at the podium.  Still, some students and their parents defended Felix, noting that he made kids think and that a few of them (students and parents) watch Jon Stewart on their own time anyway.

But in an ironic educational coincidence, shortly after Felix was suspended, Farleigh Dickenson University released the latest results from its PulbicMind Poll.  According to the data, where people get their news determines how much accurate information people have in their heads about current events.  For example, according to the poll results, people who watch Fox News are less likely to know about current events than those who watch no news at all.  And the best informed, according to the survey were those who watched or listened to Sunday morning talk shows, NPR, and … Jon Stewart! 

How_bill_becomes_lawThe Farleigh Dickinson University poll surveyed 612 New Jerseyans by telephone (both cell and landline) and in general the results have to be somewhat dispiriting to all news sources given the time and money spent on providing coverage.  For example, one of the questions revealed that only 53% of respondents knew that Egyptians were successful in overthrowing their government while 21% said they were unsuccessful.  About a quarter of respondents had no idea what happened in Egypt.  Still, the results show, according to Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at FD, that after controlling for other news sources, partisanship, education and other demographic factors, “viewers pick up more information from a calm discussion than from other formats.”

Regarding the Daily show, Cassino says, “Jon Stewart has not spent a lot of time [on some issues.]  But the results show that when he does talk about something, his viewers pick up a lot more information than they would from other news sources.”

So it turns out that the rookie enthusiasm and inexperience that led Felix to believe that students would relate to the Daily Show and learn something were not misplaced.  He just misjudged his local political environment.  Given the results of the FD survey, however, Felix should be glad he didn’t pick Fox News snippets for his students to watch, especially if there’s a test at the end that might determine whether he keeps his job at all.  


The Teacher-Principal Alliance

Tingley-021 color-1Some would characterize the push to change how teachers are evaluated as a controversy generating far more heat than light.  I know I would.

But last week the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute released a report entitled “Rethinking Teacher Evaluation in Chicago:  Lessons Learned from Classroom Observations, Principal-Teacher Conferences, and District Implementation.”  The report is clearly written, supported by both statistical and anecdotal evidence, and altogether a bright ray of sunshine.  It should be required reading for districts attempting to change or improve the way in which teachers are evaluated.

Prior to 2008, 93% of Chicago teachers were rated as either Superior or Excellent while 66% of Chicago schools failed to meet state standards.  In the face of similar disconnects in other cities, the result has been a public shaming of teachers by publishing their test scores.  Chicago schools, however, showed better sense by instead focusing on how teachers were evaluated, how they could be given helpful feedback, and how they could acquire skills to improve instruction.  Chicago’s Excellence in Teaching Pilot used Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching to provide the rubrics for sound instruction, and both teachers and principals were trained in the new methodology.

Among the most important findings are these:

•Students of teachers who rated high on the Danielson framework scored the best on tests; students of teachers who rated low scored the poorest.

•The results of classroom observations were reliable; that is,trained principals and other observers who watched the same lesson ranked the teacher the same.

•Teachers and principals who were trained and comfortable with the framework reported that the post-evaluation conferences were candid and helpful.

In other words, teacher observations went from being summative (assigning a number based on a checklist) to being formative (a live discussion of what went well and what needed improvement based on agreed upon criteria).  The Danielson framework is relatively new, of course, but the concepts are vintage Madeline Hunter. And that's a good thing.

Meetings-countThe report indicates that indeed there are identifiable and observable skills that constitute good teaching, and teachers and principals can agree upon them.  In addition, the report shows again that teachers want (and deserve) feedback, and they want to have a conversation about what they are doing in the classroom.  And by the way, that union canard about principals being biased – no evidence in the study.

The reports also suggests, however, that principals need training in what to look for and how to conduct a post-observation conference.  Just because a person is a principal doesn’t mean he or she is an expert on best practices in the classroom, nor does it mean he or she is skilled in giving feedback.  The report indicates that about half the principals in the pilot program were completely engaged in the new program.  Some were ambivalent, and others were flatly against the new system.  A major complaint was the time it takes to conference with teachers.  To those principals I say, what are you doing that’s more important?  Teaching is the heart of the school.  If your time is taken up with other things like disciplinary issues, better teaching will improve the situation.  It’s about ordering your priorities.

Over a year ago I asked in this blog why principals were not major players in the debate about teachers’ classroom performance.   Chicago seems to have (re)discovered how important the teacher-principal alliance is in improving instruction. Working together teachers and principals can change a school.




Allowing Home Schoolers to Play Team Sports

Tingley-021 color-1Twenty-four states allow home schooled students to participate in interscholastic sports as members of their local school district’s teams.  Last week the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) voted to make it 25.  One other state, Vermont, allows students to participate not in team sports, but in individual sports like golf or cross-country.

Supporters of equal access note that families of home-schooled kids pay school taxes like everyone else.  They believe that kids who are home  schooled should still have the opportunity to avail themselves of the opportunities provided in their local public school, including sports.  NJSIAA director Steven Timko says, “In all the meetings that I’ve attended on a national level, it really has not been as big of a deal as you might think.”

Well, it depends on where you sit.  If you’re the parent of an enrolled student athlete who is now sitting the bench while a home schooled student plays, you may not feel as generous.  If you’re the principal of a public school defending to that parent the home schooled student’s right to play, I can assure you that it is a big deal.

In New York State, where I spent by administrative career, home schoolers’ access to their local public school’s extracurricular activities is a local board decision.  Some districts allow limited access; some allow virtually no access.  My district, at my urging, allowed home schooled students to participate in college guidance, for example, and to use the school library.  Home schoolers could attend special programs and assemblies with guest speakers.  They could participate in the school musical, an after school activity, but not in the band, which was a credit-bearing course.  They did not participate in sports.

Basketball-High-SchoolNew Jersey insists that home schoolers who wish to play sports must meet the same requirements as enrolled students.  This idea is reasonable on the surface, but like most aspects of home schooling, it is impossible to monitor.  In some schools, for example, enrolled students need to be in school for the entire day and must have a passing grade in all of their courses to be eligible for interscholastic sports.  There is no way to accurately monitor the home schooler’s daily progress, and I speak from experience.  In New York State the local school superintendent has to sign off on the home instruction plans and then review the quarterly reports.  In my experience in the poor rural area where I worked, some parents who home school are absolutely wonderful.  They themselves are educated and they offer their children a solid learning program enhanced with myriad field trips and self discovery.  Other parents can barely read themselves, yet feel they are capable of teaching reading to their primary-aged children.  Both kinds of parents manage to hand in acceptable plans and reports with assistance from home school groups.

So a part of me praises the New Jersey decision – the part that believes in offering what’s best for individual kids.  But a part of me knows that there are problems with allowing access to team sports.  Like so many things in education, there are no easy answers.  Also, like so many things in education, decisions are made by those who don’t have to enforce them.












Mandated Reporting

Tingley-021 color-1The school policy was that if a teacher suspected child abuse, she was to report it to the principal, who would then decide whether to hotline the report.  Twice the teacher had gone to the principal with her concerns, and both times he had rejected them as baseless.

“I know this child’s father,” the principal explained.  “He’s a professional.  He would never hit a child.”  And so no call was made.

But the third time the child came to school with bruises, the teacher decided she had a moral obligation to contact Child Protective Services.  If she got into trouble at school, so be it.  It turned out that this professional man, well-respected in the community, had been abusing his child – and his wife – for years.

The principal, a colleague in the New York State district where I was working at the time, was astonished, but
not ready to accept responsibility.  He noted that he served with the father on the board of a local bank and that both of them belonged to one of the local service organizations.  “How would anyone know?” was his basic defense.

As a principal myself, I took a more pragmatic view:  If you suspect abuse, I told teachers and staff, hotline it and let me know.  We’ll let Child Protective Services, the people trained to make judgments, decide whether our suspicion warrants investigation.  I knew I wasn’t qualified to make the decision and frankly, I didn’t want to be responsible for making the decision. 

So we made the calls and sometimes we were wrong.  Sometimes Child Protective told us our suspicions were unfounded.  Sometimes parents were very angry with us for calling in the authorities.  Sometimes teachers mistook a lack of middle class values for abuse.

But sometimes we were right.

Mandated reportingAt the time I was a principal, state law identified “school officials” as mandated reporters.  Most interpreted
“school officials” to mean administrators.  In 2007 the law was changed to clarify that school officials are anyone who has a license or certificate to work with kids – teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, social workers, and nurses, among others.  The law also states that school districts cannot retaliate against an employee who makes a child abuse report.  In addition, principals and supervisors cannot make prior approval a necessity before a teacher or other employee files a report.

Currently in Pennsylvania, as we all know by now, teachers or coaches are only mandated to report incidents of child abuse to their superiors.   Once they’ve done that, they’ve fulfilled their legal obligation.  There is talk now of changing the law to make all school personnel mandated reporters.  

The change is necessary.  One might think that ethics or a sense of morality would kick in when you report an incident and nothing is done, but not everyone has the courage to do what’s right as that teacher did in my former district.  All school people need to be mandated reporters; protecting kids is everyone’s responsibility.




















Career Questions: Stragglers

Q:  I teach upper elementary in a K-8 school where we share students for various subjects.  I teach reading and language arts; a colleague teaches math and science.  This arrangement works well except for one thing:  my colleague isn’t conscientious about time.  At least twice a week he keeps students several minutes beyond his class time.  Sometimes he keeps the whole class; other times it’s a handful of students who then straggle into my classroom one or two at a time. I like to start my class on time, but it’s impossible with the distraction of students entering late.  I brought the problem to his attention and he promised to do better, but the stragglers persist.  He insists that kids just get really involved in his class and forget the time.  I say it’s not the kids; it’s him (well, I say it to myself).  I don’t want any bad feelings between us, but I’m getting pretty frustrated.

A:  You are right – the problem isn’t the kids, but his failure to plan.  Consequently, it’s important not to put the kids in the middle of a problem they have no control over.

Kids in hallStarting class right on time is an excellent teaching tool, as studies show that the first minutes of class are prime teaching time, setting the tone for the rest of the instruction period. 

Here’s what you can do.  Talk to your colleague again after school and explain calmly that you like to start your class on time and that last week (for example) you lost 6 -10 minutes of prime instruction time.  Multiply that time over 40 weeks’ instruction, and you’re looking at a significant loss of time.  Suggest that he get himself a timer and set it to go off 5 minutes before the end of class.  Be a broken record.  Whatever excuse he gives, say calmly and politely, “I need to have my students on time for my class.  I need to have my students on time for class.”  He may be a recalcitrant learner, but you’ll need to keep him accountable every time your students are late.  And next year, see if you can have your class scheduled before his.




Career Questions: Casual for a Cause

Tingley-021 color-1Q:  On Fridays in my school, teachers can wear jeans if they make a contribution to charity.  There is usually a jar on the counter in the main office with a sign denoting the week’s charity and people contribute whatever amount they want to – usually someplace between $1 and $5.  The charity for each week is determined by the office staff and approved by the principal.  Up to this point we’ve never had a problem and it’s been a win-win:  Teachers get to dress down and the United Way or the SPCA, for example, gets a moderate donation.

Here’s the problem:  Currently the small group of people deciding on the target charity have very strong views about which charities deserve our support and which don’t.  A couple of weeks’ donations even went to a church a few of them attend.  Some of us teachers have protested to the principal, and his response is to threaten to do away completely with what we call “casual for a cause” Fridays because he says it’s now become political. It’s discouraging that something so positive has turned into a controversy generating bad feelings between the teachers and the office staff.  Any ideas?

A:  It looks as if your school has become a microcosm of our national scene with everyone insisting on their own beliefs and no one willing to compromise for the good of the whole.  Here’s my suggestion:  a small group of teachers (just 2 or 3) should talk to the principal about setting up a list of charities for the remainder of the year that are neither religious nor overtly political.  I say “overtly” because these days some people can find something to object to in just about anything (see Bert and Ernie, for example).  It seems to me a case could be made that the teachers decide on the charities (with the principal’s assent) since they, not the office staff, contribute the bulk of the money.  You need to include the principal because he may have to defend your choice or even the whole idea of “casual for a cause” someday.  The list doesn’t have to be extensive; you can choose 5-10 charities, for example, and rotate through the list.  You can include some school activities if you wish (the band boosters or the French club or sixth grade step dancing classes if it doesn’t become another contentious issue). 

If the principal doesn’t agree with your suggestion, then you may have to scratch the whole idea, return to professional attire 5 days a week (a case could be made for that anyway), and make your own charitable donations to whatever charity you wish.  But it would be a sad commentary on our times if you can’t come to some reasonable solution to this problem.

On a brighter note, just to start your week off right and remind you of how great kids and teaching are, check out the brief video below:



Career Questions: Teaching Middle School after Teaching High School

Q:  This year with reductions in staff I’ve been assigned to teach 6th grade at the middle school after several years at the high school.  As a high school teacher, my classroom management problems were minimal.  Now I feel like a first year teacher all over again.  I like my students (although not as much as I did at the beginning of the year), and I think they like me.  But they ignore my directions, they talk when I’m talking, and they can’t seem to remember to raise their hands instead of shouting out answers.  I’m at my wit’s end.  I don’t want to talk to my principal because I don’t want her to think I can’t manage my classroom.  But I’m not having a lot of fun and I’m not sure how effective I am with my students.

A:  I can sympathize.  I had a similar move when I was teaching.  I went from teaching high school juniors and seniors to teaching eighth graders.  It’s an entirely different world!

I can give you a few suggestions.  First of all, give one direction at a time, not a series of directions, and stand still when you are giving Middle-school-students-450
directions.  Never talk over the class.  Start class as soon as the bell rings, and don’t let kids get comfortable just socializing for the first
few minutes.  Put students on the clock:  For example, you can say, “You have 15 seconds to get out your books and a clean sheet of paper.”  Check frequently for understanding:  “Class, open your books to page 29.  What page should you be on, John?  Right, 29.”  I strongly recommend that you don’t do any group work until you are comfortable that you can bring kids back to attention within 20 seconds.  Finally, if you don’t want to seek your principal’s help, ask a successful veteran teacher if you can observe her class or ask her to observe yours. 

Managing a middle school classroom requires a different set of skills from managing a high school classroom, so in some ways it is like being a first-year teacher all over again.   Middle schoolers are highly energetic, enthusiastic, and easily distracted by all the personal and social changes they are going through.  They can be challenging, but they can also be a lot of fun and pretty delightful because they’re still excited about learning and school.  Talk to a trusted colleague so you and your students can enjoy the rest of the year.  I ended up teaching middle school (and loving it) for almost 10 years!


Career Questions: Personal Contact from Parents

Tingley-021 color-1Q:  At Open House in September, I gave parents my personal cell phone number as well as my personal email and encouraged them to contact me with any questions or concerns they might have.  I wanted to show parents that I am committed to helping their kids succeed.  Unfortunately, some parents have taken advantage of my offer.  My inbox nearly always has messages from parents (often the same ones) and every evening brings a barrage of phone calls about homework assignments.  Some parents contact me late in the evening and on weekends about little things that could wait until Monday. I feel like I have no life of my own anymore but I don’t know how to get out of this situation I created for myself.

A:  A cynic might say that no good deed goes unpunished, but teachers are not cynics! So instead I will say while it’s laudable that you are so committed to your students’ progress, you do have to find a way to separate your professional and your personal life.  No one should be on call 24/7; even doctors hire services to deal with emergencies outside of office hours.

You may not be able to completely extricate yourself from the situation this year, but you can take some actions that will mitigate the frequency of after-school contacts.

1) If your school has a website that allows teachers and parents to communicate with one another, ask parents to check the site before No-cell-phone-sign contacting you directly. Post assignments daily so that students and parents can check the site to see if the homework assignment is all the odd problems or all the even ones. Check your messages on the school site daily, but at your convenience.

2) Send parents an email and/or send a note home with students addressing parent contact tactfully but in a straightforward manner.  Here’s an example: 

Dear Parents/Guardians,

I am always happy to answer your questions or concerns, but I would appreciate your contacting me during school hours or before 9 PM on weekdays only.  If I am not available when you call, please leave a message and I will get back to you as soon as I can.  If you would like to meet with me for a conference about your child, please call the school at (phone number) and I will contact you as soon as possible.

Reasonable parents will get the message.  See #3 for unreasonable parents.

3) Do not answer calls or texts after 9 PM (or whatever time you decide is appropriate).  Let parent calls go to voice mail; you can decide when (but not if) you want to return the call.

4) Keep in mind that you need to answer parent calls, texts, or emails in a timely manner, but not necessarily immediately. 

These suggestions should reduce the number of parent contacts you’ll get personally, but a few parents may continue to call or email directly anyway.  Unfortunately, you will have to handle these contacts for a while.  Next year … use your school mail or website and do not give out personal contact information.  And by the way, if you think that you’d like to use Facebook to contact students and parents, check first with your principal about school policy.





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