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Why Are Principals Silent about Reform?

Said a local teacher in disgust, “When schools do well, they say it’s the principal.  When they do poorly, they blame it on the teachers.”

I never thought of it that way.  But here’s something I do know from long experience:

Good teachers will continue to be good despite a weak principal.

Poor teachers will be worse with a weak principal.

And here are the corollaries:

Good teachers will do even better with a good principal.

Poor teachers will do better with a good principal.

Let’s look at these ideas.  A strong, knowledgeable principal sets the tone for the building.  She makes her expectations clear regarding academic performance, discipline, professional standards.  She leads by
example, exhibiting fairness with all employees, timeliness, honesty.  She supports her teachers.  In short, she runs a tight ship.

Good teachers thrive under these circumstances.  Their work is supported and appreciated, and they know that any innovative ideas or practices they come up with will be met with enthusiasm.  Poor teachers, on the other hand, know that they won’t be able to slide – that the principal will hold them accountable for the success of their students and will call them on less than professional behavior.  In addition, the strong principal will find ways for weak teachers to improve, not only through supervision, but through specific inservices to address weaknesses.

All in all, the entire school benefits by the presence of a strong, competent principal.

Orchestra-conductorNow let’s look at the weak principal.  Good teachers will survive, although they will not prosper as they might have with new ideas.  They tend to turn inward, to turn to other good teachers in the building for support.  They close their classroom doors and deal with discipline problems by themselves.  In short, they still do a good job – it’s just in their nature – but they aren’t able to develop all the potential they have.

Poor teachers, on the other hand, never have an opportunity to improve.  And knowing they can get by with as little as possible, that’s what they do – as little as possible.  If there is no disciplinary support from the principal, poor teachers don’t just handle it themselves.  Instead, they let it slide or they overreact and make things worse.  Attendance is poor – both the teachers’ and the kids’.  In short, the entire morale of the building suffers.

Knowing all this, I remain baffled by the silence of principals during this period of reform.  The focus has all been on teachers.  Some have even gone so far as to suggest that principals aren’t really needed – that teachers themselves could just share the various duties of ordering supplies, making sure payroll was ready, etc.  As if that’s what the principal’s job is.

Frankly, in my experience, most teachers want strong leadership.  They want everyone to be accountable.  They want competent supervision and they want a shared vision for their school.  I’ve never seen a truly remarkable school without strong leadership.

So until we actually see some leadership from principals – the middle management people who have to make things work on a daily basis – I honestly don’t see how reform is going to take hold.  Instead, it’s going to be thousands of teachers milling about, arguing with legislators, pundits, businesspeople, and others who have no idea what it takes to make a school work well day to day.

The problems in public schools are fixable – school by school, teachers and principals working together.  It’s like a symphony and a conductor.  Beautiful music isn’t made by music critics and donors.

Teachers and Market Reforms

Tingley-021 colorThe Chicago teachers’ strike is over, leaving educational pundits to debate what it all meant and what it might mean for the future.

Writing in the LA Times last Saturday, Sandy Banks offers a reasoned approach to both questions.  While teachers insisted that their strike was about respect for teachers and about kids’ welfare, Banks suggests that it was also about “market reforms” that tie salaries and jobs to how well students perform.  In other words, it was about job security and accountability.

“Market reforms, “ says Banks is “public school lingo” for tying student performance to teacher evaluation.  Of course, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t the only big city supervisor who believes that test scores should be part of teacher evaluation.  As Banks notes, here in LA John Deasy, LA Unified School District superintendent, believes that the school district, as the employer, should be able to design a teacher evaluation system without union approval. 

While many teachers object to including test scores in their evaluations, Banks says that the handwriting is on the wall.  Chicago teachers will, in fact, have test scores as part of their evaluation.  It will be phased in and the total percentage will be less than the mayor wanted (to my mind a good thing), but it will still Chicago_strike_lg be part of how teachers are judged.  And for those who still protest about the fairness of using test scores, Banks asks, “How do we find a way to measure good teaching, reward it, spread it through the ranks?” 

In an article I wrote earlier this year for the NYS ASCD publication, I argued the same thing.  Using test scores as more than 30% of a teacher’s evaluation is problematic given all of the variables that can occur.  Test scores should be just one measure.  How can we design a clear, valid tool that is easy to use and doesn’t contain 25 different categories?  We have the intelligence and the experience in the field to do this.  Teachers and principals know what good teaching looks like.  Why can’t they work together to develop a workable format?

I have to fault state legislatures and other officials for taking an idea with promise and turning it into a thoughtless mandate.  Parents have the right to know how their kids perform on standardized tests and which teachers have a track record of helping kids perform well.  It is not the only measure, but it is an important one.  To all of the folks who complain constantly about reform, let me ask you:  Which teacher do you want your personal child to have?  The one whose students score well on standardized tests or the one whose students are perpetually last? 

As Banks notes, it’s true that kids do better in school when parents are involved, when they feel safe, and when their home life is free from disruption.  But some schools perform well even when conditions are poor.  So we can’t continue to use the excuse of poverty to cover a school’s failure.  If teachers can’t overcome home conditions, why even teach?  Why bother?

Banks says, “It’s time for district leaders to listen – and for teachers to talk about something more than how hard it is to teach urban kids, with their academic shortcomings and chaotic lives..”   Both sides need to abandon their defensive positions and come together to problem solve for the good of their students.





Strikes and Wild Fires

It’s about salary.  It’s about test scores.  It’s about evaluation.  It’s about respect.  It’s about tenure.  It’s about personalities.  It’s about power.

If you followed the news about the Chicago teachers’ strike you know that at some point all of these ideas and more were put forward by each side.  “You have a situation where teachers feel totally and completely disrespected,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.  No hyperbole there.  For his part, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the strike “a strike of choice.”  None there either.

Alex Kotlowitz wrote in the NY Times, “One teacher told me last week that if you asked 30 of his colleagues why they were striking, you’d get 30 different answers.  Their explanations varied:  they Forest_fire[HR]wanted respect, they opposed school reform, they feared the privatization of education, they wanted to teach Mayor Rahm Emanuel a lesson.”  But Kotlowitz believes that the real underlying reason for the strike is this:  Teachers, whether they know it or not, are rebelling against the idea that they alone are responsible for resolving all the issues facing kids. 

Paul Tough, in his new book How Children Succeed says that tenure reform has become “the central policy tool in our national effort to improve the lives of poor children.”  Of course, he says, the truth is much more complex.  Unfortunately, it’s easier and more convenient for both teachers and reformers to pretend that it isn’t.

I’ve spent the last couple of days in Yellowstone National Park.  The scenery, of course, is spectacular, even surreal.  But in 1988 the park experienced an enormous wildfire that decimated thousands of acres of forestland.  For the first time the Park Service made the decision to allow the fire to burn for a while as a natural cycle of forestry.  The Park Service believed that science indicated that that suppression of wild fires stunted new growth by protecting old and diseased trees.  Forest fires were the natural way to remove those trees, promote new growth, and increase natural habitats and food supplies for wildlife.  The decision to let the forests burn led to a public outcry that resulted in Congressional hearings about the Forest Service’s decision.   Today, although the east entrance to the park reveals thousands of charred trees still standing, the last 25 years have proved the decision was the correct one as new growth has come back and wildlife has increased.  Still, it was a painful decision to live through and today the Park Service has specific guidelines regarding suppression of wild fires.

Change is hard.  The Park Service could have avoided or at least diminished the public outcry if it had worked together with lawmakers to study the science and make good judgments involving everyone.  The same is true of teachers and public officials.  Inflammatory rhetoric helps no one; working together does.  The struggle in Chicago isn’t about kids; it’s about power.  The fire for reform burns hot, but so does the desire to suppress it.  The forests will return, they say, in about 100 years.  We don’t have that kind of time.

Judging the Dog and Pony Show

Tingley-021 color webI have had the ill luck to be involved more than once with committees charged with writing a mission statement for their respective organizations.  Writing anything by committee is frustrating enough, but writing a mission statement is a particularly dreadful way to spend an afternoon.  The problem is that people often want to include in the statement grandiose ideas modified by strings of complex clauses covering every aspect of the organization.  A school group I worked with once came up with a mission statement that looked something like this:

The mission of Grand High School is to ensure that all of our students will graduate with competence in every subject and will be model citizens who will improve the world with their insights, concern for others, hard work, and energy which will result in world peace, a cure for hunger, and a World Series win for the Cleveland Indians.

OK, I made up that last part about the Indians.  But here’s the thing:  The simpler, the better when it comes to mission statements:  Our mission is to graduate 95-100% of our students and they will be able to read, write, use mathematics, reason and understand the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy.  The end.  My favorite mission statement ever was that of Jefferson Community College in Watertown, NY:  Teaching and learning.  That’s it.  That’s our mission.

I suspect that the most important part of developing a mission statement is the process itself, forcing Dog-and-pony-show participants to actually think about their work.  And I’m beginning to wonder whether the same will hold true of what Mike Schmoker describes as “those complex, bloated, evaluation templates that are now being dumped on teachers and administrators – templates with multiple sections and subsections written in what is almost a second language.

Schmoker points out that before evaluation takes place, we need to be sure that a solid curriculum is in place.  After that, we want to be sure that teachers are actually implementing it.  Then, in a random visit to the classroom, we can determine if

a)    Kids are engaged.

b)   The purpose of the lesson is clear and kids know what it is.

c)    Instruction is presented in various ways in short segments.

d)   Students have the opportunity to practice what was taught while the teacher monitors progress.

I would add to these criteria that feedback has to be specific and immediate, a conversation between the teacher and the observer.  And most important, supervision must be ongoing, not a planned dog and pony show once a year or maybe even less frequent.

I think that Schmoker is right – that these evaluation systems are too unwieldy to be useful.  In addition, we may have to admit that supervisors may lack the skill, the knowledge, and the commitment to the process necessary for the systems to work.

So it will be interesting to see what happens to these plans within the next five years.  Will they be essentially compromised as they are implemented?  Will they be revised and simplified?  Or will they, like countless mission statements, become meaningless within a few years?







Bad News for School Budgets When Retirees Outnumber Students

Tingley-021 color webTwo years into my first superintendency the school board decided to embark on a building project, the first for the district in many years.  Besides adding elementary classrooms, the project included tearing down the old high school gym and building a new, modern facility with a large stage at one end as well as new locker rooms and weight rooms.  The old gym was over 50 years old and was actually smaller than regulations required to host sectional competitions.

Because I didn’t know any better, I thought the best place to present the project for the first time would be the local senior citizens center after their monthly dinner.  The senior center was packed that evening, and as they were finishing up their coffee and pie, I got my PowerPoint presentation ready to roll.  I was sure that seniors, above all people, would support the project because they understood the value of education in a democracy.  In addition, some of them had grandchildren in the schools.

Ten minutes into the presentation it became clear that it would take more than a little pie to sweeten up this audience.  Some who had attended the local schools as students said that the buildings were good enough for them 50 years ago and they ought to be good enough for kids today.  Others said that they already paid for their own kids’ education and parents today should pay for their kids.  Still others said that they didn’t understand why education cost so much more these days than it used to.  Finally, one old gentleman towards the front summed it all up.   “Listen, girlie,” he said, “a lot of us are on a fixed income and can’t pay any more school taxes.  Enough said.”

Well, besides having to listen to my board members call me “girlie” for the next few months, I had to admit that I learned something, however painful, that evening.  I had seriously misjudged the community’s retirees in terms of their attitudes towards local education. 

VotingEducation Week reports that according to the census, seniors currently outnumber students in more than 900 counties across the United States.  Predictions are that by the middle of this century people 65 and older will outnumber people 17 and under as they currently do in Europe and Japan.  School districts required to put their budgets up for vote in their communities will find that they will have to address the issues and attitudes of this older block of voters just as my district had to.

While seniors, like all citizens, add to the tax base of a community, it turns out that they tend to favor lower taxes and spending on schools, according to professor Deborah Fletcher of Miami University of Ohio.  This development, of course, has prompted many districts to try to increase senior interest and involvement in schools.  In my district, for example, we instituted grandparents’ breakfasts and invited seniors to music program rehearsals.  We recruited seniors as classroom volunteers, and we gave free senior passes to sports activities.  In my budget presentations before the vote, I often spoke about how strong schools increased property values.  Still, as a 2010 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research found, “the higher the proportion of seniors in a community, the lower the support for public school funding, regardless of how deep their roots went in the community.”

The building project referendum didn’t pass the first time around even with almost 90% state aid, but a scaled back version passed the second time.  We learned that we could, in fact, gain some retirees’ support, but we had to show how kids benefitted from school taxes and we had to demonstrate that we knew how to be frugal.  Still, we didn’t convince all senior voters, especially those who were first in line to vote when the polls opened.  As the retiree population increases in school districts, it will create yet another challenge for school funding in states where citizens vote on the school budget.

Seclusion Is No Way to Discipline Kids

Tingley-021 colorI had another topic in mind for today’s blog, and then I read Bill Lichtenstein’s opinion piece in the Sunday NY Times.   “A Terrifying Way to Discipline Children” describes his daughter’s experience of being placed in a “seclusion” or “time out” room when she was in kindergarten in Lexington, Massachusetts six years ago.

You cannot read this story without anguish and anger.  Lichtenstein’s child had been place in a locked broom closet almost daily for three months for up to an hour at a time for offenses that ranged from behavioral issues to not following directions.  The parents were not notified until the final isolation when they were called to come and pick up the little girl.  It was then that they learned that the child had been locked in the close five times that morning alone.  The aftermath included long-term therapy for the child and litigation against the school district.

Lichtenstein cites Department of Education data indicating that nearly 40,000 students were placed in restraining or isolation rooms during the 2009-10 school year.  He adds that the majority of children place in these rooms had learning, behavioral, or developmental needs and that a disproportionate number were African-American or Hispanic students.  However, as I review the DOE survey of states’ guidelines regarding seclusion rooms, it appears to me that the number is probably significantly higher since some states had no guidelines in 2011.  There  are no federal guidelines either, although Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote regarding the survey that there was “no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective.”

New York is one state with fairly specific regulations for the use of such rooms.  Seclusion rooms are to be used only for emergency situations and not as punishment.  Except in emergency situations, use of rooms such as these must be part of the child’s behavioral plan agreed to by the student’s parents.  The room must meet specified standards for size, time is limited, and the child must be supervised at all times.  And even then some schools have been charged with violations of the regs.

I never worked in a school district with a time out room, but I remember a tour through a neighboring high school that contained one.  The district employed an aide to supervise the children sent to the room.  New York State requires that the aide be trained, but I remained unconvinced that despite the state regulations, that this was a procedure that was good for children.  Despite the regs, there is too much opportunity for abuse.

When I think about Lichtenstein’s five-year-old daughter, I have to ask, didn’t anyone intervene?  Didn’t anyone say, hey, this is just a little kid.  We shouldn’t be doing this.  Let’s call the parents.  There must be something else we can do.  This is breaking my heart.   And where was the principal?  You have to wonder about a school culture in which putting a five-year-old girl into a locked broom closet repeatedly is acceptable adult behavior. These folks shouldn’t be allowed to work with any kids.  It’s criminal.


A Plan for First Year Teachers

First year teachers are the largest single group of educators this year according to USA Today.  Some 200,000 new teachers joined the professional ranks this year, up from about 65,000 ten years ago. 

Numerous studies suggest that roughly half of all teachers leave the classroom after five years.  In addition, boomers are retiring, so today slightly more than 50% of all teachers have ten years’ experience or less.

So what does this mean for our kids’ education?  Well, having a large number of rookies in the classroom can be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what plans the school district and administration have to assist new teachers. 

For example, does your district have a mentoring program for new teachers, pairing each rookie with a competent veteran?  If so, is it a formalized program with planned meeting times and opportunities for the veteran to observe the rookie’s classroom and give feedback?  Or is it an informal, and therefore, ineffectual arrangement?

Does the principal plan to provide steady but unthreatening supervision for new teachers?  Will he make it a priority to do a walk-through of classrooms every day?  Will he be visible in the halls?  Will he be available to provide assistance and answer questions?  Will he be a support for the classroom management issues facing nearly all new teachers?  Will the principal or his designee help new teachers learn how to work with parents and not be intimidated? 

And what about extra duties?  Will the principal protect the new teacher’s time so that he can spend the first year learning and practicing the art and science of his profession or will the principal pile on additional duties like coaching or advising major activities?  Will the principal give the new teacher time to grow?  Will she give the new teacher honest feedback that isn’t punitive?

New teachers can bring enthusiasm, excitement, and fresh ideas to a school.  But without strong administrative support and collegial mentoring, the new job can be overwhelming.  We know that teacher preparation programs rarely offer enough practice before a new teacher has a classroom of her own.  On the job training continues to be an important aspect of teacher effectiveness.

So whether these 200,000 new teachers learn the job and are still around after five years really depends on the school district, the administrators, and the district plan.  Administrators need to commit time and energy to helping new teachers become successful.  We owe it to our kids to make every teacher’s first year a strongly supported professional growth experience. 





Eastwooding in Virginia

Tingley-021 color webIt wasn’t Dirty Harry telling those questionable jokes at the GOP convention last week.  It was disgruntled Walt Kowalski from Gran Torino looking like a stand-up wannabe who still orders kids to get off his lawn.  All in all, a cringe-worthy talk-to-the-chair moment. 

Internet jokesters responded with images of lots of different folks (and animals) talking to various empty chairs.  Even Jenna Wolfe on Saturday’s Today show joked about the empty chair next to her, and Stephen Colbert introduced an empty chair as a guest. 

Imaginary conversations with other people aren’t unusual, although most people converse silently in their heads without pretending the person is sitting next to them.  Sometimes it’s about things you wish you would have said to someone; sometimes it’s practice for a conversation you know you’re about to have.  Sometimes it’s a conversation you know you’ll never have, but wish you could.  We’ve probably all done that.

In that last category I would put my own imaginary conversation with Patricia Wright, Superintendent of Public Instruction for Virginia.  Let’s pretend she’s sitting in a chair next to me in my office:

Wright_on_panel-582x400Me:  As a former school superintendent in another state, I understand that the NCLB goal of having 100% of public school students proficient in English and math by 2014 – in just two years – is unrealistic.   So it makes sense to extend the time frame.  But help me understand why it’s acceptable to you and the state school board to set different achievement goals based on race or economic status for Virginia’s public school students.

Dr. Wright:

Me:  I understand that Virginia has agreed to revise its new goals for student achievement under the NCLB waiver, making the timetable more aggressive.  But you’re sticking with the lower goals for Hispanic and black students, claiming that those goals are more realistic.  What message do you think that sends to Hispanic and black school children?

Dr. Wright:

Me:  Did you consider setting the same goals for all groups and intensifying and diversifying instruction for underachievers?

Dr. Wright:

Me:  I know that Virginia isn’t the only state that is setting goals based on race and economic level.  In fact, 27 of 33 states receiving waivers have done the same.   That doesn’t make it right, of course.  How do you respond to black leaders who object to the low expectations for children of color?

Dr. Wright:

Me:  Would you be willing to talk to an integrated group of Virginia students and explain to them why you expect less from some and more from others?

Dr. Wright:

And there you have it, folks.  Virginia has agreed to set new, more aggressive goals to shorten the education gap in six years.  Six years.  Not, mind you, to close the gap between minorities, but to halve it.  In the meantime, the push for charters and vouchers continues.  If lowering academic expectations based on ethnicity is part of Virginia’s public school ethos, poor and minority children may be better off in other settings.













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