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Security Does Not Mean Arming School People

Governor Bob McDonnell (R) of Virginia thinks that a good way to protect children in schools is to provide guns for school people.  In his monthly radio address, the Governor said, “If people were armed, not just a police officer, but other school officials who were trained and chose to have a weapon, certainly there would be an opportunity to stop aggressors trying to come into the school, so I think that’s a reasonable discussion that ought to be had.” 

For those of you unfamiliar with Governor McDonnell, he’s the reasonable guy who thought that women considering ending a pregnancy should be forced to have a trans-vaginal ultrasound.  When the bill that he had supported came to his desk, however, given the severe backlash, he decided not to sign it.  Now McDonnell joins Rick Perry of Texas and Republican legislators in Oklahoma, Nevada, and South Dakota in thinking that arming teachers and principals is one heck of an idea. Gun free

The Governor’s announcement was followed by a bevy of scathing comments online. “Using that same
logic, we can prevent drunk driving with more booze,” said one.   “And prevent cancer by second hand smoke if you light up when someone else does.  Call it self-defense,” said another.  There was also, “That worked out well in Fort Hood.” And “Yeah, that’s what every administrator wants, to run a school and be trained in combat.”  There was also, “So you think that’s a reasonable discussion that ought to be had?  No it is not, you addle-brained nincompoop!”  Well, you can say anything online, but you get the gist of the general response to this idea.

McDonnell’s spokesperson Paul Logan said that the governor was going to create a task force to review safety in Virginia’s schools.  “The key, “ said the governor, “is don’t over-react.”

Call me crazy, but it’s just possible that arming the adults at school could fall under the category “Over-reacting,” especially when you consider that here in Virginia it’s possible to walk into a school and right down to the classrooms without checking with anyone.  Doors are unlocked; children and teachers do not practice what to do in case of emergency other than fire.  So I’m thinking that there may be a number of procedures that could be put in place here before arming the adults in schools.   School safety experts concur that the safety procedures in place and practiced at Sandy Hook probably helped save lives.

And here’s something else you just might want to consider, Governors:  Just like in the general population, not every teacher or administrator should have access to guns.  Having a teaching certificate or an administrative credential doesn’t necessarily mean you also have great judgment, are slow to anger, or never feel stressed or betrayed or discouraged.  And it’s foolish to think that all guns in schools would always be locked up so that no student would ever be able to access them.

Luckily, besides the reasonable Gov. McDonnell, Virginia also has Sen. Mark Warner, who said, “I’ve had a NRA rating of an “A” but, you know, enough is enough.  I think most of us realize that there are ways to get to rational gun control.  There are ways to grapple with the obvious challenges of mental illness.”  Keep talking, Senator.

When I was an elementary principal one of the first things I did was have the custodian remove the huge NRA sticker from my office window put there by my predecessor.  True, just about everyone in the community was a hunter, and some teachers routinely took a personal day on the first day of deer season.  I never had a problem with hunting, and I enjoyed the good venison stew they shared with me.  All fine.  But leave the guns outside of school.

In the Aftermath

Tingley-022 color webBig Bill Bennett, looking like Newt Gingrich’s older, meaner brother, had a solution for avoiding the heartbreak of Sandy Hook:  “Someone in that school should have had a gun,” he said on Sunday’s Meet the Press.   Without guns, the principal and school psychologist merely “lunged” at the gunman, he said.

Probably thanking God that Bill Bennett was no longer Secretary of Education, Randi Weingarten, on the same panel, had the self-discipline not to roll her eyes.  She had already praised the teachers and staff of the school for their heroic actions to protect their students.  Sitting a couple of talking heads away from Bennett, she looked straight ahead and spoke somberly and thoughtfully.   “Bringing guns into schools isn’t the answer,” she said firmly.  Instead, she addressed the importance of easy access to mental health professionals.  Loss of state and federal aid to schools, she pointed out, has resulted in fewer mental health workers – social workers, counselors, and psychologists. 

David Brooks concurred.  “No child is born violent,” he said.  But, he added, we have developed a culture of violence, where violent acts are the norm.

Prior to the panel, David Gregory had interviewed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an advocate of gun control.  The Mayor attributes the steady decrease in violent crime in the city to stricter gun laws and scoffed at the notion that the Founding Fathers somehow would have intended the Second Amendment to include assault rifles. Bloomberg also believes that the NRA is less powerful than it used to be and is no longer a lobby to be feared.  If the tragedy at Sandy Hook doesn’t provoke action, he said, nothing will.

Bennett fatuously volunteered himself to serve on any national committee the President might convene to begin a “national conversation” about gun legislation, but “after the tears dry.”   His comment echoed the thoughts of other conservatives in the last few days.  “This isn’t the time to discuss gun laws,” they say.

But for many the tears for the children and adults at Sandy Hook will never dry.  The families and the community and the school will try, as the stricken teachers said afterwards on the lawn of their school, to find a way to move forward.  And they will in some fashion after some time.  But we will not get over what happened there, just as we haven’t gotten over Columbine more than a decade ago.

Bloomberg admits that gun control will not ensure that these kinds of dreadful killings will never happen again and he’s right.  As a school person I know you can neither predict nor control what might happen – but you can take all reasonable and necessary precautions.  The staff at Sandy Hook had practiced the drills – what to do if there’s a bomb threat, what to do if there’s a fire, what to do if there’s a shooter.  School doors were locked and visitors had to present on camera and be buzzed in.  Despite their best plans, however, no one could have predicted that the gunman would shoot out the glass in the doors to gain entrance.  No one could have predicted any of the terrible events that followed.

Diane Feinstein (D-CA), another member of the Meet the Press panel, said that she would introduce a bill to ban assault weapons the first day Congress reconvenes in January.  Feinstein introduced the 1994 legislation banning the weapons; the bill expired in 2004. The senator feels confident that the bill would have the support of both houses.  “You know,” says the Senator, “all of the things that society regulates … but we can’t touch guns?  That’s wrong.”

Gun legislation isn’t the final answer.  But, dear Lord, it is a start.



Internships Make Better Administrators

Tingley-021 colorIt is probably too early for me to be optimistic, but it’s in my nature as a school person and I can’t seem to shake it.  I’m beginning to think it’s possible that policymakers are going to refocus their efforts on reforming and restoring K-12 public education and recognize the folly of abandoning it for vouchers and charters and onlines.  It may be dawning on them that while alternate initiatives may (or may not) be effective for some students, they are not panaceas for the great majority of students.

We’re seeing some positive signs that some are beginning to recognize (or remember) the key role good principals have in improving schools.  For example, some principals are being trained in Common Core ideas (in case that initiative ever actually gets off the ground).  More important, some universities are requiring that people being trained as school administrators spend time doing an internship in real schools before being certified.  

To be honest, I am surprised that some universities are just now requiring an internship given my experience with the State University of New York as an adjunct professor in ed admin.  Internships have been required for more than 30 years in the program, and I often supervised students during their practicums and seminars.  The entire ed admin program pairs college professors with practitioners so that students get both theory and practice. Nearly all students feel that the internship experience represents the culmination of their two years of study.

So it’s good news that other programs are getting on board and partnering with school districts to grow their own leaders in a school-based setting.   The difficulty, of course, is funding.

Teachers who enroll in programs to become administrators typically continue to teach and take courses at night.  But a full-time unpaid internship presents a financial challenge for many who cannot afford to quit their day job.  Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, provides a great model by partnering with Principalthe Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district to “grow their own” administrators.   Paid internships are
provided with a grant from the Wallace Foundation.  Whether the program will continue if or when funding dries up will be the question.  At this juncture few school districts can afford to pay an intern as an additional administrator.  If there is a genuine opening that the intern can fill, sometimes a school district can offer the intern the job while paying him or her less than they would for a certified administrator.  Sometimes that situation works out; sometimes it doesn’t.  Funding internships continues to be a chronic problem with developing strong administrators.

Still, it’s essential for aspiring administrators to have on-the-job experience with the mentorship of a good practicing administrator.  Teachers want and deserve good daily leadership, and schools cannot improve without it.

Using SSI to Fund Early Education

Tingley-021 colorMore than a little disconcerting is Nicholas D. Kristof’s article in Sunday’s New York Times.  “Profiting from a Child’s Illiteracy” opens with the story of parents in Jackson, Kentucky who pull their kids out of literacy classes so that they don’t learn to read and thus don’t jeopardize their monthly SSI payments for intellectual disabilities.

The $698 per child per month is an incentive that’s hard to ignore says the head of the county literacy program.  Likewise, women with children receive more money per month than they would if they married the father of their children.  And, says Kristof, some young people don’t join the military as a traditional escape from their impoverished circumstances because they’ve already learned to rely on food stamps and disability payments to get by.

Kristoff is careful not to jump to conclusions about the people of Jackson nor about poverty programs in general.  Still, in the 1970s, only about 1% of poor children received SSI, and they were children with severe disabilities – physical handicaps or mental retardation – that made it difficult for parents to work outside the home.  Today, 8% of low-income children receive SSI – a total of 1.2 million kids across the country.  Today some 55% of children receiving SSI qualify for the program under a broad range of intellectual disabilities.

We don’t like to think about poverty in the United States, particularly when it impacts children.  Yet working in Jackson is Save the Children, an organization that most of us associate with TV commercials about kids in underdeveloped countries.  In Jackson the organization works with parents of young children Jackson KY to encourage literacy.  The elementary school principal in Jackson notes that kids who have the benefit of the early literacy program can be quickly spotted when they enter school.  “They’re ready to go,” says Ron Combs.  But, he adds, “By second or third grade you have a pretty good idea of who’s going to drop out.”

As an elementary principal I worked in one of the poorest schools in the state, where some families had been and continued to be on public assistance for generations.  The only way out was and still is education (and to some extent the military).  We know that not every early childhood intervention has been successful; Head Start is a case in point.  It worked well in my area but not so well in others depending upon staff and program.  Still, early education is the best hope we have for breaking the tradition of poverty for children.  And it’s cheaper to educate kids than it is to incarcerate adults as Kristof and others have pointed out.

Kristof writes that he hopes that during the current budget negotiations in Washington money will be diverted from SSI and applied to the development of early childhood education programs.   No more incentives to keep kids at home, dependent on federal support.   Instead, the money might provide a way out of poverty for a new generation.

We all know that Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has plenty to say about cutting entitlements.  It would be interesting to know if he’s visited his constituents in Jackson lately.  Of course, kids don’t vote, but they still count.  Maybe there’s a way to restructure SSI so that it’s not an incentive to keep them from learning.  The trick would be convincing the Senator that helping all kids realize their potential isn’t just the right thing to do; it will eventually save money.

Work Longer or Work Smarter?

After a bad ice storm one year in upstate New York, a number of schools ended up using all of their allotted “snow” days and then some, and it was only March.  (For those of you unfamiliar with the weather in Upstate, it’s not unusual to see snow in April or even May.)  The commissioner was unwilling to forgive any of those days, so in order to adhere to the regulations for 180 school days, schools cancelled spring vacations and/or remaining staff development days.  Some schools extended the school year in June for a few days, a complete waste of time as far as I was concerned since most kids (and staff) mentally check out once the weather turns warm and state final exams are done. Students

One enterprising superintendent thought he had a creative solution to the problem:  He would make up the hours lost by tacking a few minutes onto each school day for the rest of the year.  This idea did comply with the letter of the law, but it  revealed a cynical disregard for the spirit.   The extra minutes were added to every student’s last period whether it was English, physical education, or study hall. 

The whole experience made me stop and think about whether the actual time spent in school matters. 
Every time I hear that some state is planning to increase class time, I’m always a little skeptical regarding how effective the change will be -- because it’s not just about time; it’s about how the time is used.  As a veteran school person, I am convinced that we need to work smarter before we work longer. 

This week Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that five states will add at least 300 hours to the school calendar in a 3-year pilot program beginning next fall.  Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee compose the group of states.  The initiative will be paid for with federal, state, and local monies, but the proportions remain unclear.  Schools received waivers to divert some federal funding already received to the new effort.  The effort will affect some 20,000 students.  Individual districts will decide whether to add time to the school day or extend the school year.

Extending the school day is not without its problems.  Cost, of course, is significant, and school officials must consider what will happen if the initial funding is cut. There may be changes or additions to bus schedules.  Sports practices and schedules may be affected.  Students have jobs or babysitting responsibilities or music lessons after school.  So if the school day is going to be extended, it had better be worth it.

There is, after all, nothing magical or even scientific about 6-7 hours per day for 180 school days.  It’s what we do with the time that counts.  Educators need to examine what happens within the hours presently allotted to schooling.  How much time is spent on direct instruction or practice?  How much time is wasted on reviewing information students already know or skills they already have?  How much time is spent on classroom management or interruptions from the office?  Duncan hopes that the additional time can be used to reinstitute the arts or to provide extra help, both worthy causes.  But every moment in school counts, and frankly, for the most part, schools don’t run efficiently.  Adding more time without careful examination of what we already do with the time we have will not produce the results we hope for.

Why Pay Online Schools to Recruit?

Tingley-021 color webIf you have any life experience at all, you may recall a few ideas or behaviors that were once completely acceptable but today are considered foolish, harmful, or just plain wrong.  Forcing left-handed kids to write with their right hand, for example.  Separate classrooms for kids with special needs.  Segregation.  Smoking.  Tanning.  Unprotected sex.  The Bachleor.

Today when we look back, we shake our heads and ask ourselves, “What were we thinking?”

On occasion I amuse myself by trying to guess what behaviors or ideas current today will fall into that “what were we thinking” category in the future.  For example, I’m pretty sure that today’s testing mania will qualify (“Pearson got how much for making up tests?”).  Using test scores to evaluate teachers could qualify for WWWT too (“Really?  50% of a teacher’s evaluation was test scores?”)  And it’s very possible that funding for K-12 online charter schools may get a WWWT nod as well.

Don’t get me wrong – I think online courses are a great alternate way for kids to learn.  They are cost efficient, they expand the curriculum, and they help kids become independent learners.  For some high school kids who have been, for whatever reason, unsuccessful in the traditional public school, online courses may be a practical alternative to suspension or dismissal.

Online-education-masters-programThat said, online schools cannot take the place of public schools, the backbone of an educated democracy.  First of all, not all kids have the self-discipline or the adult guidance to work independently.  Secondly, online schools remain, for the most part, unregulated, and the quality varies tremendously.  Thirdly, general results from online schools are not better than those of public schools.  Finally, an important part of traditional schooling is the social, cultural, and civic education that helps children become integrated and productive citizens in society.

Today full-time online students number about 275,000 according to the Evergreen Education Group, a Colorado consulting firm.  That number is growing, a result at least in part of aggressive ad campaigns by for-profit online schools.  USA Today reports that 10 of the largest for-profit online schools have spent about $94.4 million on ads since 2007.  The largest school, K12 based in Virginia, has spent about $21.5 million in the first eight months of this year alone.  In an attempt to market directly to kids, the ads appear on Nickelodeon, The Cartoon Network, MeetMe.com, and even VampireFreaks.com. 

Not only are these for-profits targeting youngsters; they’re doing it with taxpayer money.  K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski explains, “We try our best to ensure that all families know that these options exist.  It’s all about parents’ choice – they’re the ones that make the decision about what school or program is the best fit for their child.”

Excuse me, Jeff, but it’s all about profit.  Mattel and Fisher-Price learned long ago that marketing to kids is more successful than marketing to their parents.  As a public school supporter and Virginia resident, I’d rather see that  $21.5 million applied to the state’s poorest schools rather than on advertising for recruitment to online schools.

An NPR report written in conjunction with the Cleveland Plain Dealer examined the huge growth of charter schools in Ohio.  The report found that online schools spend about $3600 per student.  Ohio pays online charter schools about $6,300 per student.  Where does the rest of the money go?  The bulk of it to advertising.  K12 also operates one of Ohio’s largest online schools. 

What’s wrong with this picture?  Without hard evidence that online schools do a better job of educating kids, we pay for them anyway.   In addition, we pay for them to recruit students while we cut teachers and programs in the public schools.  Frankly, we’ve been sold a bill of goods by politicians looking for a quick fix instead of focusing on the hard work of improving the public schools that most kids – especially poor kids -- attend.  Really -- what were we thinking?





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