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To Those Who Bore the Brunt of the Storm

Instead of my usual blog today, I want to take this space to say that our thoughts and our hearts go out to friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens who bore the brunt of the hurricane.  Leaders are rising to the occasion; citizens who withstood unthinkable devastation are already planning to rebuild.  Puts it all into perspective.


A Teacher’s Lament and Taking the Long View

Tingley-021 color webI was reminded again about how national pundits and political reformers misjudge the dedication and competence of most teachers when I read the following remarks posted by Rebecca Wallo Rose, a veteran music teacher in a small city district in upstate New York:

Something that has bothered me for a long time now:  When did we as teachers get so hated and second-guessed in our careers? I am in my 17th year of teaching. I have a Bachelors degree, 2 Master degrees, and I am constantly looking to learn new things to bring back to my classroom. I love what I do, and I am proud of the job I do every day. I start each year wanting to do the best by my students and to give them the life skills they need to be a contributing, productive member of society. From the State Education Department, to the Governor, to the press, I feel that teaching as a profession is always being attacked, and we rarely seem to be trusted to do the job that we are trained to do. Personally, I have 8 years of training for my job, not including the hours of workshops, staff development, and extra classes/courses I pay for myself. A dentist does not get judged by the number of cavities hir patients have.  A doctor does not get judged by how many illnesses her patients contract. Yet I am measured by the students who DO NOT want to learn, even though I WANT to teach. I want to be trusted that I am doing the job that I am trained to do, I am doing that job well, and that we are appreciated -- not vilified.

In addition, I was reminded again abut how national pundits and political reformers misjudge the intelligence and intentions of most educational leaders when I read the remarks of James T. Langlois, President of the New York State Council of School Superintendents at the Fall Leadership Summit last School-teachermonth.  In regard to his role as head of the Council, Dr. Langlois asked how he can best support school leadership.  “Does it mean help you to thoughtfully implement the reform agenda … or does it mean defend you against ill-conceived directives from on high?” he asked the assembled school superintendents.  “Does it mean lead you towards an embrace of challenging national standards, or does it mean support your defense of the historically effective role of local control of schools?”

That is the difficulty school people find themselves in.  While wanting to embrace new ideas that will help them educate students, the job they are committed to, there are large parts of the reform agenda that many see as wrong headed, even damaging to education.  In addition, school people are rankled by the notion that they have become scapegoats for everything that is wrong in our society.

Dr. Langlois responds this way to those concerns:

…we must never lose sight of one of the most important bedrocks of public education – the brilliams\t, mysterious and unquenchable radiance that illuminates each successful encounter between a student and a teacher.  It can’t be quantified or measured or tested.  But it is the beacon that draws us forward.  It is the true source of excellence.

And, says Dr. Lanlois, there is comfort in the long view:

... the current battles are simply the next chapter in the profoundly important work that becomes the American history of education, a history that will continue to be written long after you and I – and the Race to the Top and the Annual Professional Performance Review – have been patted on the head for the last time and been let out to pasture … and the next round of battles – on entirely different topics – has been engaged.

Take heart, Ms. Rose.  The vilification of teachers and other school people will eventually pass, and perhaps politicians and reformers will focus on solutions to the real problems that plague city schools.  At any rate, I’m holding that thought.


Principal as Teacher

A new working paper called “The Value of Bosses” presents the results of a study in a large company of the effects not of CEOs, but of their front-line representatives.  The research is a combined effort of Kathryn Shaw and Edward Lazear of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the University of Utah’s Christopher Stanton.  The results have ramifications for business and maybe even front-line bosses in school districts – namely, principals.

As Matt Yglesias notes in Sunday’s Washington Post, the least surprising result of their research is that indeed good bosses are better than bad bosses.  However, the researchers report that replacing a supervisor from the bottom 10% of the pool with one from the top 10% makes a big difference in worker performance.  In fact, output increases so much that it’s like adding a tenth person to a nine-person team.

Increasing output in finite measures may have more relevance for production than for schools, but a second finding bears consideration by school people.  The researchers found that production increased not because supervisors were more encouraging or better listeners, but because they were better teachers.  In other words, good supervisors were able to teach their workers better, more effective ways of accomplishing the task.

Classroom observationAnother finding was even more interesting.  The best way to maximize the effect of good supervisors was to assign them to good workers.  People who want to do a good job and already have some skills can improve even more with strong leadership.

So what, if anything, does this research mean to school principals?  Clearly districts can’t assign good principals only to good teacher and poor principals to poor teachers.  While the results of the first situation might be great for kids, no one can live with the results of the second.  But let’s focus on the teaching role of the supervisor.  Perhaps the notion of the principal being an instructional specialist wasn’t wrong.  While current expectations appear to be fixated on the job of principal as the rater of teachers, perhaps we need to revisit the importance of the principal’s having curricular and classroom management expertise that he or she can share with faculty. 

So little in the reform movement has considered the role of the principal, especially when it comes to improving teachers through evaluation.  Political “experts” have attempted to reduce teacher evaluation to a numbers game using a 5-point scale, for example, or worse yet, a binary system – either you see it or you don’t.  But principals have always known that a big part of teacher evaluation is subjective, and a lot of improvement of instruction depends on the principal giving thoughtful, specific, and timely feedback.

We can pretend that teacher effectiveness can be explained by numbers and scores, but teachers and principals know that real improvement comes from the dialogue and the recommendations made after a classroom visit.  Teacher evaluation is not a test, but a way to change or improve.  As the study shows, middle managers – the ones who interact with workers on a daily basis – are key to improving performance.  Reformers rarely recognize the impact a strong principal can have on the level of teacher performance.

Why Suspending Kids Does Not Work

Tingley-021 colorAs a school administrator I was never a proponent of frequent or automatic out-of-school suspensions for students.  Of course, some offenses were so egregious that they demanded removal from school and separation from other students.  A couple of times state law with its zero tolerance for some offenses required removing the student from school.  And sometimes out-of-school suspension was the only way to get the parent’s attention and/or cooperation.  Still, for the most part, it was hard to see how removing a kid from school really taught him or her anything or improved the student’s behavior.

In a couple of schools, one of my first changes as head administrator was to establish an in-school suspension room.  This adjustment satisfied teachers who demanded that the student be removed from their room for a period of time while allowing the student to keep up with his or her studies.  For many students, in-school suspension actually served as a means for getting caught up as it provided a little one-on-one tutoring from the suspension room teacher.  The only problem, of course, was the additional expense of another teacher, but I always felt it was a small price to pay for a long-term advantage.

Now some schools are trying another approach to student discipline:  restorative practices.  It appears to me that this idea is a newer iteration of restitution theory, which I have seen used at some schools with good results.  Basically, the idea is that rather than to simply punish a student by suspension, teachers and administrators work with students and parents to decide upon consequences of bad behavior and a plan of action to correct it.  Students have the opportunity to make amends for problems that resulted from poor choices on their part, and they begin to see a cause and effect relationship between their behaviors and the consequences that follow.

Some schools have established student courts to deal with student misconduct.  Students are trained in the process, and students guilty of misconduct may choose either suspension or appearance before the student court.  While some educators claim that student courts have been successful, others, myself included, worry that adults may be seen as abdicating their roles as providing adult guidance and consequences.  In addition, one has to wonder whether kids questioning other kids and coming up with consequences for a peer’s behavior may build resentment on the part of the accused and a sense of superiority on the part of students on the court.

School suspensionsStill, searching for alternatives for out-of-school suspension is a valuable endeavor, especially when you look at some of the statistics for suspensions.  For example, a study released last year by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that half – half, mind you – of students in Texas had been suspended of expelled at least once in grades 7-12.  That’s over a million students.  The study also found that black and Latino students were more likely than white students to be suspended and that suspended students were more likely to drop out of school. 

An analysis of federal education data this fall found that nearly one in six black students were suspended in the 2009-10 academic year, a rate three times that of white students.  For black kids with disabilities the rate was one in four.

What do kids learn when they’re suspended from school?  And what’s our responsibility as educators for all kids?  Restitution theory, restorative practices, counseling, in-school suspension – all are better alternatives than shutting kids out of the very thing that might make a difference in their lives.  It’s still about connecting with kids and making them want to be in school because the connections matter.  When we suspend kids, we’re admitting that we’ve failed at that connection.


Spare the Rod … Please

This week’s Time Magazine carries a story about a 15-year-old girl in Texas who let a classmate copy her homework.  The punishment meted out by a vice principal at her school for this crime was a smack on the girl’s bottom with a wooden paddle.  The problem wasn’t that the punishment didn’t fit the crime or that the severity of the smack blistered the girl’s buttocks or that it’s hard to justify school people hitting kids.  No, the problem was that the vice-principal was male.  It’s OK in Texas to hit a child for what many would consider a garden-variety infraction as long as women hit girls and men hit boys.

Spare-the-rodNineteen states permit corporal punishment, most of them in the South.  But Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas at Austin says, “The more kids are spanked, the more problematic their behavior is.”  Gershoff has conducted the most comprehensive and current studies of corporal punishment and its results according to Time.

The problems with hitting students would appear to be obvious.  USA Today reports that last year Trey Clayton, a fourteen-year-old student in Mississippi, fainted after he was paddled by an assistant principal.  The student collapsed on the floor, breaking his jaw and five teeth.  In Alabama, Carlos Chaverst, an 18-year-old senior, recalls that he and other boys were paddled without parent notification when he was in seventh grade because the teacher couldn’t figure out which boy was being disruptive. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, black students are twice as likely to be paddled as their peers, and in North Carolina, where Native Americans make up 2% of the population, they constitute 35% of those paddled.  The Center for Effective Discipline claims that corporal punishment is not used as a “last resort,” with children of color, but as a first punishment for minor misbehaviors and calls for an end to it in schools.

Numerous studies have pointed to evidence of the deleterious effects of hitting kids. One such study at the University of Manitoba, Canada, found that children who are physically punished as a means of discipline may have an increased risk of problems in adulthood, from anxiety disorders to drug and alcohol abuse.  Southern Methodist University psychologist George W. Holden says that children who are spanked are more likely to become school bullies.  Still, some states continue the practice.

From my vantage point of nearly 25 years as a school administrator, I cannot imagine hitting a kid with a paddle or anything else.  In fact, had it been a requirement of my job, I probably would have chosen another profession.  I remember as a new parent reading a book about discipline.  Never hit your child when you are angry, the author advised.  Instead, wait until you are calm to administer the spanking.  Good lord, I thought.  What do we teach kids when we hit them whether we’re angry or we’re calm?  What does it say about us as role models, as examples of what we want kids to be and do?

It’s not OK to hit kids at school or anywhere else.  We should abandon this idea already as most civilized countries have.




When Good Breakfast Programs Go Bad

Tingley-021 color webWhen the superintendent asked if I would be interested in piloting the new breakfast program at my elementary school 15 years ago, I was thrilled.  At that time I was principal of the largest and poorest elementary school in the area, and most of my students qualified for free or reduced lunch.  So being able to provide a good nutritious breakfast for the kids sounded to me like a great idea.  And it was.

There were, of course, a few bugs to work out before the program ran smoothly.  We served cold cereal most of the time with an occasional breakfast bar as a special treat.  I needed extra people in the cafeteria to help little kids open milk and cereal boxes.  We didn’t have the technology to allow kids to digitally pay for meals by punching in their code, so we had to devise a way that no one would know who qualified for free or reduced breakfast.  Federal guidelines required us to serve every child a half-pint of milk with their cereal, and custodians hauled away oceans of milk that was spilled or thrown away.  Kids dawdled over half-eaten bowls of cereal rather than move along to the classroom.  Still, it was truly wonderful to see little kids getting something to eat so they weren’t hungry all morning and could focus on learning.  I felt good about the whole endeavor and proud that we were chosen to pilot it.  The following year all of the other schools in the district came on board.

That was then.  This is now. 

Today some twelve million kids eat breakfast at school, and it’s not just cereal and milk.  Now it’s eggs,
sausage, toast, cinnamon buns and French toast sticks.  Some kids eat breakfast at home and have a second one at school.  Now, some claim that federally funded breakfasts are a leading contributor to childhood obesity.  According to USA Today, a University of Michigan study in 2010 found that students who regularly ate school breakfasts were 29% more likely to be overweight.  The study also found that eating school lunches was the single strongest indicator of childhood obesity.  Another good idea gone bad.

The USA article was written by libertarian author James Bovard, author of Attention Deficit Democracy. Bovard, who frequently criticizes what he sees as waste or corruption in government, cites other studies Breakfastthat indicate that breakfast at school doesn’t change kids’ eating habits, doesn’t encourage kids who regularly skip breakfast to eat breakfast, and doesn’t improve kids’ academic performance.  Bovard’s takeaway is that any attempt to expand the school breakfast program is misguided, and that schools, in fact, should stop giving away free food.

Well, if kids are eating French toast and cinnamon buns every morning at school (or at home for that matter), then he’s probably right.  Nobody needs two breakfasts.  But the original idea of offering breakfast at school – a simple, healthy breakfast – has been perverted.  What was once a way to give kids a good start to the day has become a cholesterol festival each morning. 

Schools are partly to blame by offering food cafeteria managers thought kids would eat – the kind of food kids eat at home or at the fast food restaurants preferred by their families.  Here’s my suggestion:  Instead of completely abandoning the idea of breakfast, offer only healthy choices.  If kids want to eat, they will; if they don’t, fine.  Same with lunches.  We know kids are protesting the new federal guidelines for lunch – some high schoolers even claim they’re “starving” on the 850 calories allotted to lunch.  For most, “starving” is a concept they really don’t get.

In this era of politicizing everything, even school breakfast and lunch become topics for one side or the other.  But cafeteria managers and administrators need to remember the original purpose of breakfast and lunch at school was to enhance kids’ health and academic performance, not to fatten kids up like the witch in Hansel and Gretel.  Breakfast at school remains a good idea if it’s done right.


Prescribing Drugs for Kids for Better Academic Results

When I first read the article, I had to check to see if it had originally been published in The Onion.  Except it wasn’t really funny.

I’m talking about the NY Times article that appeared in Tuesday’s Health section.  The title is, “Attention Disorder or Not, Pills to Help in School.”

Prescription_bottleThe gist of the story is that some physicians who work with children in low wealth schools believe that they can offset school problems associated with poverty by prescribing medicines usually for attention deficit disorder whether the children actually have the condition or not.  Drugging the kids helps them focus, and makes them less aggressive the doctors say, allowing them to settle down in school, stay out of trouble, and get better grades.

Says Michael Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Georgia’s Cherokee County, “I don’t have a whole lot of choice.  “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment.  So we have to modify the kid.”  It was that comment towards the beginning of the article that made me wonder if this whole story was a joke.  But it turns out that Dr. Anderson is serious.  He believes that ADHD is “made up,” but it serves as an “excuse” to prescribe drugs like Adderall to improve poor academic performance.  He believes he’s a “social justice thinker” who is giving kids an even chance despite their poor school environment.  Some parents think the whole idea is just great.

I am horrified.

I’ve written about ADD and ADHD before from the standpoint that school people, especially teachers, are often too quick to encourage parents to get their kids labeled with a form of attention deficit disorder so they are less disruptive in class and more focused on their work.  For some kids, the drugs seem to work.  For others, it’s a disaster.  Of course, it’s easier to drug kids than it is to work with them, to modify the learning environment, to focus on each child’s individual needs.   In addition, there are side effects to some of these medications; one child treated by Dr. Anderson began hallucinating and admitted to feeling suicidal.  The doctor switched his medication.

The article drew nearly 600 comments, many of which were from people who were aghast at the idea of changing the kid rather than the school environment.  Some raised the point about long-term effects of attention deficit drugs.  Still others questioned the professional ethics of doctors who routinely prescribe for behaviors that fall into the broad range we call normal.  Dr. William Graf, a pediatrician in New Haven, doesn’t have a problem with a physician prescribing drugs for non-ADHD kids if the side effects are closely monitored, but points out that the increased used of stimulants can threaten “the authenticity of development.”

I cannot get my mind around prescribing drugs as a study aid for kids who don’t conform to established ideas of behavior or accomplishment.  I worry that with the constant pressure for kids to do well in school, to test well particularly, that we are losing the concept of kids developing at a rate that is normal for them.  With increased stress on teachers to produce good test scores or lose their jobs, will we see teachers and administrators encouraging more parents to give kids prescription drugs to increase their performance?  Will an ever increasing percentage of kids – especially young boys – diagnosed with ADD or ADHD be another unintended consequence of  the  national testing mania? 






Grassroots Response to Excessive Testing

Tingley-021 color webNew York State principal Don Sternberg reports that his letter to parents, featured in my blog last week, has received an enormously positive response from parents and colleagues, generating over 65,000 hits as of last week alone.  Now he’s encouraging a grassroots movement in which everyone who agrees with the ideas set forth in the letter write or email the Governor, the NYS Board of Regents or the NYS Commissioner of Education to protest excessive testing and the misuse of results.

Along those lines, the Niagara Regional PTA prepared a resolution to submit to the state PTA convention this fall.  The resolution calls for a moratorium on high stakes testing in the state as well as the elimination of the requirement that 40% of teacher evaluation be based on tests.  In addition, the resolution calls for NYS to end its contract with Pearson as the developer of state tests and return to the practice of using teachers, administrators, and the college community to develop them instead.

The rationale for the resolution includes research that indicates that flawed tests developed by Pearson have rendered them “virtually useless at measuring the effects of classroom instruction” according to the New York Times (July 28, 2012).   “Why would we spend millions of dollars and subject children to another year of emotional distress when it has been determined that these high stakes test yield no useful information?” the document asks.  The entire resolution can be accessed here.

Up to this point politicians have generally ignored the protests of teachers regarding excessive testing and the use of test scores in teacher evaluation, citing self-interest on the teachers’ part.  In some ways unions have played into that situation by looking for reasons that kids might perform poorly on tests – home Grassroots-Movement-2 situations, poverty, etc. – instead of focusing on the price kids are paying for all this testing in terms of stress, loss of instructional time, labeling, and self esteem.  The focus should have been on the unreliability of the tests and the millions and millions of dollars that Pearson and other testing companies have made at the expense of our children.  Instead of pouring that money into school improvement, politicians have chosen to turn it over to those who stand to profit from keeping the testing mania alive.

“The principals, teachers’ unions, and the superintendents of our state have all tried, in vain, to present a logical and reasonable resistance to the statistical analysis process that is now driving educational reform in our state,” writes Sternberg.  “The only recourse left and our last resort is a direct letter campaign to the bureaucratic heads of the state and the SED [State Education Department].”

We will be watching to see if a grassroots movement takes off.

A New York State Principal Speaks Out about Testing

Last week I asked why principals have been silent about reform.  It turns out that not all of them have been.

Don Sternberg, principal of Wantagh Elementary School in New York State, opened the school year with a letter to parents that was anything but traditional.  The first couple of paragraphs welcome everyone back, introduce new staff and programs – you know, the usual.  Then we get to the heart of the matter:

“One significant issue as we move into this new school year,” writes Dr. Sternberg, “is that we will, at times, find it difficult if not impossible to teach authentic application of concepts and skills with an eye towards relevancy. What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers; a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking – a skill set that is necessary at the college level and beyond. This will inevitably conflict with authentic educational practice – true teaching.”

Standardized-testsOne can imagine parents suddenly sitting up and paying attention.  Sternberg continues:  “Unfortunately, if educators want to survive in the new, Albany-created bureaucratic mess that is standardized assessments to
measure teacher performance … we must focus on getting kids ready for the state assessments. This is what happens when non-educators like our governor and state legislators, textbook publishing companies (who create the assessments for our state and reap millions of our tax dollars by doing so), our NYS Board of Regents, and a state teachers' union president get involved in creating what they perceive as desirable educational outcomes and decide how to achieve and measure them. Where were the opinions of teachers, principals, and superintendents? None were asked to participate in the establishment of our new state assessment parameters. Today, statisticians are making educational decisions in New York State that will impact your children for years to come.”

Last year, Sternberg notes, NYS fourth graders sat for over 11 hours of testing.  This year students from kindergarten through fifth grade were pretested in September and will be tested again in January and later in April.  Students will be assigned “level” rankings of 1-4 based on achievement.  Besides the obvious concerns of labeling kids as they are developing and what those labels might mean to kids themselves, there are also less obvious concerns of what those labels will mean to teachers who will be judged by their test scores.  “Guess what, “ says Sternberg.  “Some children will be more desirable than others to have in class.” 

“The balance must now be struck between maintaining the special nature of an elementary school setting and the cold and calculating final analysis rendered by statistics,” concludes Sternberg. “The use of assessment data to drive instruction is a tenet of good educational practices. The use of assessment data to render a yearly prognostication of teacher competency is ridiculous.” 

Sternberg presents an argument that is both eloquent and bold.  He has been a principal for 31 years, and he and his school have received numerous awards, so his words carry the authenticity of some one who has actually done the job and been successful at it – unlike the majority of those who make the rules about whom to test, how often, and what to do with the test scores.  Find the entire text of Dr. Sternberg’s letter here.


Next:  Where do we go from here?


Ranch Dressing with a Little Salad on the Side

Tingley-021 colorI was eating lunch in what I called “the executive dining room,” a butcher block table in the kitchen of the high school, when the cafeteria manager hoisted up on the table an industrial - sized jar of ranch dressing.  “You would not believe how many jars of this we go through in a week,” she said.

We had recently added a salad bar to encourage more healthy lunch choices for our students.  “Must be their favorite dressing,” I said.

“Oh, it’s their favorite all right,” she said.  “But they don’t just put it on salads.  They put it on everything – hot dogs, pizza, fish sandwiches, you name it.  If I put glasses out there, they’d drink it.”  I looked at the label.  One hundred eighty calories per two tablespoon serving, one hundred seventy of them from fat.

We removed all the vats of dressings from the salad bar, and students had to pick up a small cup of their choice on the line when they paid for their salad.   Still, many were happy to pay extra for a second cup or even a third.

Federal guidelines this year reduce the number of calories allowed for school lunches and require schools to serve a wider variety of fruits and vegetable in an effort to combat childhood obesity.  The guidelines also limit the amounts of grains and proteins served over the course of a week.

Kids have taken to these new guidelines with the annoyance of New York City consumers who are no longer able to purchase sugared soft drinks in cups the size of their heads.  But a third of our youngsters are overweight or obese and that percentage continues to edge up.  Studies show that kids consume a third to a
half of their calories at school.

Of course, many kids (and some parents and teachers) are outraged at the reduced portions their children are now being served, despite the fact that kids can have as many servings of fruits and vegetables as they Wall-e-captain-action-figure want.  Kids insist they are “starving,” despite throwing away enough food every day to feed a small nation.  And schools are scrambling to present appealing menus to kids whose palates have been desensitized by Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, which, at some schools, were part of the daily offerings kids could choose.

Some schools report a drop in the numbers of students buying lunch.  Others say students are eschewing school lunches and spending their money on snack foods.  A smaller number has actually decided to brown bag it for a while.

What nearly everyone agrees on (or at least gives lip service to) is that as a nation we have to take some positive action to reduce childhood obesity by limiting access to junk food and increasing physical activity.  Exacerbating the situation, of course, is that some schools have cut physical education, recess or sports either to reduce their budgets or to make time for more test prep.

Helping kids make healthy choices – including food --  is part of our responsibilities as educators. For those who complain that the new school guidelines are a reflection of the “nanny” state we’ve become, I suggest that you roll yourself into your local mall, find a seat (or two), and watch the passing crowds of people. Better yet, head to the food court and check out the lines at the pizza places that regularly include ranch dressing as a pizza dipping sauce.  





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