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Do Kids Need to Know What Gunfire Sounds Like?

Cary-Grove High School Principal Jay Sargeant thinks that students should know what gunfire in the hallways sounds like.   So today he and other administrators conducted a “code red” emergency drill that included administrators firing blanks inside the school to precipitate lockdown mode.  The suburban district is outside Chicago.

Just in case some of the students were freaked out, the principal reassured parents that “trained social workers” would be available to speak to students afterwards.  While Sargeant believes that drills like this “help our students and staff to be prepared should a crisis occur,” he admitted that “it may cause some students to have an emotional reaction.”

No word yet on whether social workers were needed, but parent Sharon Miller thought the idea was ridiculous.  “Drills are important, absolutely,” she said.  “The issue I’ve got is running up and down the hallways with a gun.  I think that’s wrong.  During fire drills they’re not running up and down the hallways with flame throwers, are they?”

FlamethrowerThe plan to acquaint kids with the sound of gunfire in their school was concocted by the school resource officer along with the administration.  I guess when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail, but I genuinely cannot understand how recognizing the sound of gunfire is a big help to kids if a shooter appears in the halls.  It’s hard not to pass off this whole idea as an example of gonzo administration.

But it’s easy to get sucked into highly emotional territory when you’re trying to protect kids.  A few years ago it was popular to stage a fake car accident on school grounds right before prom night to vividly demonstrate to kids the dangers of drinking and driving.  I was persuaded by the PTA and the senior class to try the idea at our school.  With the help of the local fire department/rescue squad, a couple of wrecked cars were towed onto the school grounds and set up to look as if they had collided.  Students volunteered to act as if they were seriously injured or even dying.  It was all improvised, and students applied lots of make-up to simulate gashes and blood.   There was a great deal of crying and screaming among the students actors, and even a little among the student observers.  Local police and rescue squads performed their roles as well.  Afterwards everyone went inside to talk about what he or she had seen and what it all meant.

It was ghoulish, but some kids were much more taken with the theatricality of the event and the outlandish acting of their friends than they were with the message.  The PTO and the fire department felt good about doing something spectacular to make kids think about drinking and driving.  I felt I had been part of a weird and creepy charade that not only wasn’t helpful, but also may have unnecessarily disturbed some kids.

So I understand how administrators can get sucked into thinking that kids will greatly benefit from firing starter guns in school.  But seriously?  I would have kept my kid at home today.



The Parent – Teacher Relationship

The parent-teacher relationship is a lot like an arranged marriage.  Neither side gets a lot of say in the match.  Both parties, however, share great responsibility for a child, which can lead to a deeply rewarding partnership or the kind of conflict found in some joint-custody arrangements.

                                                            Sara Mosle, “The Parent-Teacher Trap”

Tingley-021 colorAs we finish the first semester of school, teachers and principals have already had the opportunity to meet some parents under less than ideal circumstances.  These meetings tend to cluster around academic or behavioral problems a child may be experiencing and can be difficult for all concerned.  In her essay in the New York Times, Sara Mosle offers a number of suggestions to parents to help them establish and maintain good working relationships with their child’s teachers.  Some of her ideas seem like simple common sense, but I know as both a parent and a school person that it’s easy for both sides to become defensive, critical, or even angry during a parent-teacher meeting.

One of Mosle’s suggestions to parents is to let the child try to resolve a classroom problem herself before the parent steps in.  Speaking up can be scary, but parents can help prepare the child by practicing what to say to the teacher and how to say it.  If the child is unsuccessful, the parent can then step in and talk to the teacher.  I would add that if the parent does have to step in, the next time the child talks to the teacher, he may have more success.  Teachers who honestly encourage students to resolve conflicts and calmly accept students’ concerns help students become more independent and self-sufficient.

Mosle suggests that parents need to be careful about communicating to their child’s teacher only via email or text.  While the asynchronous nature of this kind of communication is convenient to both parents and teachers, it’s easy for both sides to fire off a text or email when they are annoyed or angry.   In addition, electronic words can convey a negative emotion not necessarily felt by the sender.  Mosle reminds parents not to copy in the principal or anyone else on email unless they really want to annoy the teacher.

In my book, How to Handle Difficult Parents, I work the other side of the equation – teachers and their ways of communicating with parents.  Regarding emails, I would add that parents can be tempted to email or text every day over small things because it’s so easy.  Teachers should not feel obligated to respond to serial emailers on a daily basis; instead they can wait a few days and handle all concerns in one brief response.

Parent-teacher-conferenceMosle brings up the concern parents often express that if they complain about a teacher, the teacher will retaliate by targeting their child.  I almost never see this situation develop in the classroom.  What is more likely is that the teacher will become more circumspect and less spontaneous when working with the child so as not to draw the parents’ attention again.   This distance between the teacher and the student makes it difficult to establish a strong learning connection.

Finally, Mosle, a sixth grade teacher, reminds her colleagues to build on a student’s strengths when talking to his or her parents.  Here I heartily concur.  No parent wants to hear a lengthy complaint about everything the child can’t or won’t do.  In fact, it’s a good practice to insist that teachers begin parent conferences with some positive feedback about the child.  One of the reasons I like to have older children at conferences is that they can hear about the good things they’ve been doing as well as participate in plans for improvement.

Perhaps the parent-teacher relationship is like an arranged marriage – at least the analogy suggests an equal partnership.  The bottom line is that kids have the greatest chance of success when the home and school work together.  A partnership is definitely better than joint custody.

Please Be Seated in Classroom Comfort

When we opened a new computer lab in a school I worked in, the business teacher wanted padded office-type chairs with wheels for his students.  It seemed like a good idea at the time and I had a little extra cash on hand (a very rare occurrence), so I approved his order.   After a couple of weeks he was ready to tear his hair out as students zipped over to one another to chat, pushed off their desks to see how far they could go, and raced one another across the tile floors.  They weren’t being bad kids; they just couldn’t help themselves.  The following year we carpeted the room and that slowed everyone down.

In most schools I’ve worked in (and in most schools in New York State), the workhorse of student chairs is Model 114, known as the “super stacker.”  It weighs 15 or so pounds depending on size, and is made of steel, sawdust, and resin that comes in 22 colors and one design.   As Ali Salehi, senior vice president for Chair engineering and operations for Columbia Manufacturing, the chair company, says, “They don’t die.”

Well, they usually don’t, but they get wounded and they linger for a while before being interred in some basement storeroom.  But their natural life span is very very long.  The biggest recurring problem I found is that the gliders on the legs would come off and disappear, leaving the chairs uneven and quick to mark up floor tile.  Considering that chairs are necessary school equipment, they’re relatively cheap at $45 to $70 depending on the size according to a spokesman at the New York Education Department. 

Now, according to the New York Times, a small group of school people is thinking that students perhaps deserve better – chairs that are more ergonomic.  Wes Bradley, the principal of Thomas Nelson High School in Bardstown, Kentucky, purchased 1000 new ergonomic chairs for his schools 40 classrooms last August.  The chairs allow students to face front or back or use a handle to move them across the classroom.  Bradley says they come in “energizing colors.”  In Albuquerque, Michael P. Stanton furnished his progressive academy with similar seats.  They’re “popular,” he says.  I bet they are.  With students.  No word from the teachers. 

Says David W. Orr, an environmental studies professor at Oberlin College, the old-style stacking seats are “maintained by profit-seeking school suppliers and unimaginative administrators who see no other possible arrangement of the body, or bodies, or any possible downside to the lower back from six hours of enforced sitting.”  Ouch.

First of all, no students should be forced to sit in any chair, traditional OR ergonomic, for six hours.  Secondly, Dr. Orr, most schools can’t afford the kind of equipment we’d like to have.  And finally, it’s easy to talk when you only have to design the chairs and not teach the 25 students rolling about or looking backward as you explain quadratic equations.  Still, there’s probably something in-between the super-stacker and the rolling ergonomic chair and it’s probably time to design it.



Does Bribing Kids Work?

Tingley-021 color webLast weekend we took the grandkids to see “Parental Guidance,” a movie I would never have chosen for myself except that we were watching the kids while their parents were out of town.  It turned out that the entire theater was filled with grandparents and grandkids (were all of their parents out of town?).   The fact that the movie was called “Parental Guidance” and was in fact rated PG was pretty amusing to the nine-year-old.  “Get it?” she asked.  Not sure I did, but whatever.  It had Bette Midler and Billie Crystal, so maybe it wouldn’t be just two hours of my life I could never get back.

Actually, outside of the teens texting and grandparents talking during the movie (aren’t you supposed to be showing them how to act?), it wasn’t the worst movie I’ve seen lately (no, that would be “The Master” with all those great actors and no discernable story.  That’s three hours of my life I’ll never get back).  Anyway, there were some genuine laughs in Parental Guidance for both the kids and the adults, as well as plenty of commentary on modern parenting.  Modern parenting is all about distracting kids from bad behavior, reasoning with small children, speaking in modulated tones, and assuring kids that they are special and they are loved no matter what they do, according to the movie.  When an exasperated Crystal finally grabs the kindergartner running around at a concert and announces that the one thing parents have never taught the kids is the meaning of “No,” he got applause from the audience on the screen and the audience in the movie theater.

One frequent ploy Crystal uses in the movie to get cooperation from one of the kids  is bribery, what Bruce Feiler in The New York Times calls “one of the more nagging challenges of being a parent.”   Bribing, Feiler notes, has little to recommend it long-term, but parents often use it for short-term relief.  He points to the book Drive, in which author Daniel Pink reviews 40 years of research regarding the effects of bribing people and concludes that it can cause “long-term damage.”  People become motivated only by the rewards and lose interest in any intrinsic value a behavior might have. 

Parentalguidance5So if you want to eschew bribery, experts suggest other kinds of ways to manipulate kids.  Edward Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, recommends that you reason with kids, sympathize with their point of view, and communicate in a non-controlling way so that you don’t look like “a big person trying to push around a little person.”  Good luck with that.

Alan Kazdin, the director of the Yale Parenting Center suggests that instead of bribing kids, you can get them to do what you want by making it a game.  Also, kids need to have a “feeling of choice” even if it’s not really a choice.  I have a problem with the basic dishonesty of that ploy, and I’m not so sure that he hasn’t underestimated kids’ ability to detect fakery.

Daniel Pink suggests that instead of bribing kids beforehand, you can simply reward them when they’ve done what you want without your telling them.  For example, “You cleaned your room! Let’s go get a milkshake,” he suggests.  Pink says these rewards should be used sparingly.  Good luck with that one too.  Once you’ve done it, kids don’t forget.  (“I cleaned my room.  Why can’t I have a milkshake?  We did that the last time.  It’s not fair!”)  It’s kind of a pre-bribe.

Finally, Feiler cites Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, who says that there’s nothing wrong with using specific praise when a child behaves well although she doesn’t rule out bribery in some circumstances.  Bribing a kid for good behavior on a plane is better than threatening him if he doesn’t stop screaming and kicking the seat in front of him.  The penalty for that behavior will come later when you’re on the ground.

Personally, I prefer specific praise as a reward followed by consequences for bad behavior.  I also prefer honesty with kids as opposed to games because the truth is, sometimes kids don’t really have a choice (just like sometimes adults don’t either).  Not doing your homework isn’t an option.  Neither is not keeping your hands to yourself.  Or copying your friend’s test.   Any experienced teacher will tell you that some things are not negotiable.  It’s not big people pushing around small people.  It’s the adult’s responsibility as the person in charge. 

Of course, all ends well in “Parental Guidance,” and it turns out that the grandparents made some mistakes with their daughter too.  All is resolved, and both kids and adults come out of the movie singing a happy tune.  And because the grandkids were so good during the moving, we went out for ice cream.








Perception Gap Between Teachers and Principals?

It’s not unusual for individual teachers and administrators to disagree regarding school discipline or school climate, but survey results released last week by Education Week reveal serious gaps between teachers and administrators as groups of people.  In fact, the discrepancies are large enough to make one wonder whether there is a problem with the survey design or whether administrators and teachers ever talk to one another.

Questions on the survey had to do with school climate, discipline, and safety.  The survey was conducted online, and respondents, some 1,300 teachers and administrators, were registered users of edweek.org.  While the group of respondents was diverse, the publication notes that it was not statistically representative of all public school educators.  Of course, the fact that respondents had to be registered users of edweek.org already indicates that it was not a random sample.  Still, the results are so divergent that one has to wonder what, if anything, they mean.

Both teachers and administrators agreed that teaching quality was far and away the most important factor in student achievement.  In fact, 98 % of administrators chose teacher quality compared with 90% of teachers (I do wonder what the other 10% of teachers picked as most important).  School climate was Survey_1second in influencing student achievement, with 83% of administrators and 72% of teachers agreeing.  Teachers and administrators were closest in their perception of the importance of school safety – 61% of administrators and 64% of teachers.    But here’s where a difference of opinion can become a point of potential conflict between the two groups:  Only 22% of administrators believe that family background is a factor in student achievement while 42% of teachers believe it is.  Perceptions diverge even more strongly after that.

In terms of school climate, 81% of administrators say students and staff feel safe; 62% of teachers agree.  Sixty percent of administrators say kids are well behaved; 28% of teachers agree.  Administrators say they support teachers (74%); teachers say they aren’t supported (29%).   Only about half of each group thinks teachers support one another.  And when it comes to parents – 28% of administrators say parents are supportive versus 12% of teachers.

Edweek says these results offer “important insights into the attitudes and opinions of the educators providing responses to the survey.”  I’m not so sure.   Like anyone with years of experience in education, I’ve known principals who were clueless.  I’ve also known teachers who always thought discipline should be swift and harsh.  Those folks were a very small minority.  The problem with this survey, I think, is that it compares apples and oranges.  Respondents come from all over; teachers and administrators are not sharing their perceptions of the same school.  If they were, we would have something to think about (which is why every year I checked perceptions by asking teachers in my building to fill out an anonymous survey about school climate, discipline, and safety).

So, yes, the survey shows that there are gaps between teachers and administrators who responded to the survey, but the information isn’t really useful in coming to any general conclusions.  Interesting, but not particularly informative.





Scholastic donates 1 million books to the New York and New Jersey schools and libraries hit by Sandy. Now that's making a difference for kids, as Brian Williams pointed out last night on NBC Nightly News.


Common Core Reality

Tingley-021 color“So what do you think about Common Core?” I asked my niece, a young teacher with about 5 years’ experience teaching secondary English in an Ohio suburban school.

“It’s not that much different from what we’re doing,” she shrugged.  “Nobody’s said much about it.  It’s sort of business as usual.”

“Are you having kids read more nonfiction?” I asked.

“Some,” she said.  “We had nonfiction in the curriculum already.  Kids pretty much don’t like it.”  So much for Common Core.

Look, I don’t think Common Core is a bad idea.  Like most educators, I’m an optimist by nature.   While there seems to be a small eager audience for the Eeyores of education like Ravitch and Rhee, I doubt if many of them actually work with kids every day.  It seems unlikely that my niece or members of her faculty actually care that StudentsFirst (whoever they are) say the school policy in every state deserves a failing grade.  What those folks think has nothing to do with them.

If you’ve actually worked in schools for any length of time, you know that the hardest part about change isn’t coming up with a bright idea.  It’s implementing it.  Implementation is costly and time consuming, and it requires constant monitoring to guard against slippage.  Implementation takes a huge commitment by the school’s administration to make it a priority over all the other programs and activities that are vying for time, money, and other resources.

Common core 6So how much will it cost to implement Common Core?  The conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which, by the way, authorizes charter schools in Ohio, estimates the cost at $1.2 billion for states for training, testing, and materials.  In December a state audit in Kansas found that it seemed likely that the Core could be implemented in the state for just $30 million over the next two years, still a huge amount of money given today’s economy.  And let me point out again, implementation is ongoing.  You can’t tie a bow on it after two years and call it done.  Already at least one state, Indiana, is rethinking its commitment. 

Unless curriculum review and implementation are ongoing and local, they have very little chance of being embraced by the rank and file.  Yes, what gets measured gets done, as the old adage says.  Teachers can be forced or intimidated to include items that will probably appear on the test; this is nothing new.  But so far Common Core looks like a lot of time and money for what’s going to result in … not much.  “Business as usual,” as my niece says, is a long way from, “It’s the district’s top priority.”  And still we refuse to focus on educational improvement one school at a time. 





Happy Not to Get an A from Rhee

Why anyone would care how Michele Rhee and StudentsFirst rate their states is beyond me, but the political organization managed to get itself in the news again.

The so-called “report card” makes me wonder if these folks ever speak to individuals who are actually tasked with educating our kids on a daily basis.  The “report card” underscores how out of touch some educational “reformers” are.

“The most powerful way to improve student achievement from outside the classroom is to shape policy and implement laws at the state level,” says Rhee.

The key words, here, of course, are “outside the classroom.”

So let’s look at how successful “outside the classroom” legislation has been so far in improving education for kids on a daily basis.  All those new and complicated evaluation systems, additional weeks of testing,
Failing-Report-Cardincreased costs to states, union bashing, growth of charters, and yes, Common Core  -- have we seen any
evidence that student achievement has improved?   Oh wait -- Rhee’s “report card” on state education doesn’t include student achievement.  It’s all about how well states hew to the StudentsFirst political agenda.

Given the rubric, it’s even more surprising that anyone would care about the report card results, but the good news is that most states received dismal grades, and 11 of them, including New York, actually failed, which makes me kind of proud.  Louisiana and Florida, class brownies, received the highest grade, B-.
California received an F too, and Richard Zeiger, the state’s chief deputy superintendent called the rating a “badge of honor,” adding that StudentsFirst “makes its living by asserting that schools are failing.”

“I’m rubber, you’re glue, everything you say sticks back on you, “ said Rhee in response.  OK, what she actually said was more like, “Does he consider it a badge of honor that California’s education policies rank 41st in the nation?”  Says who? I wonder, but Zeiger showed more maturity by not responding.

Rhee’s political views about education are just that – her political views, and we have no proof that they result in good things for kids or their schools.  I suspect that the “report card” is a way to allay Rhee’s fears that she and her organization will become irrelevant with the passage of time.  I hope so anyway.






Charters and Student Expulsions

Tingley-021 colorWashington D.C.’s charter schools expel students at a much higher rate than D.C.’s public schools according to a report in The Washington Post yesterday.  School data reveal that the city’s public schools expelled 24 students over the last three years.  The city’s charter schools expelled 676.  Charter schools enroll 41% of the city’s student population.

Unlike public schools, charters are able to set their own disciplinary rules and consequences and are not legally bound to educate all students.  Public schools in Washington may expel a student only for egregious or illegal misbehavior – bringing guns or drugs to school, assault, or arson, for example.  Charters may remove students for non-violent reasons like poor attendance or failure to meet academic standards.  Public schools, it should be noted, use long-term suspensions (more than 10 days) at nearly twice the rate of charters and may involuntarily transfer a disruptive student to another school.

So what do these numbers actually mean?  If you are a parent of a child in a charter school (see video below), it’s probably fine with you that disruptive kids are removed from your child’s classroom.  In fact, it’s better than fine.  Being able to remove disruptive kids is a powerful tool for any school – charter, public, or private.  

During my five years as a private school administrator, being able to pick and choose the school population made running a safe and productive school a comparatively easy task.  In addition, knowing that their child could be removed from school with impunity catches the attention and cooperation of private school parents.  I suspect most D.C. parents of charter school students are similarly cooperative.

But public school parents and their children should have reasonable expectations that their schools should be safe and productive as well.  Instead, D.C. schools may be developing a bifurcated system in which those who can find a place in a charter school have a much better chance of success than those children who remain in the public schools.   And what happens to students who are expelled from charters?  According to Jeffrey Noel, director of data management for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, about a third of expelled students enroll in public schools.  One-fifth enrolled in another charter school, and there is no record of the remaining students enrolling anywhere.  It’s that last group that some fear eventually enroll in the criminal justice system.

Abandoning public schools in favor of publicly funded charters has created a quandary for parents, students, and educators alike.  Many parents feel that their child actually has a chance for success in the charters, and you can’t blame them for wanting the best for their child.  But who will be left in the public schools?  Kids with behavior problems, kids with disabilities, kids with a history of violence, kids who missed out on the lottery, and kids whose parents weren’t savvy enough for whatever reason to get them into a charter. 

Some charter school proponents say that  charter schools should work together to develop their own alternative school for students who have been expelled.  That would be an interesting development. Because when charter schools have to accept and work with the same school population as public schools, we’ll have a better idea of what really makes the difference in achievement.


Good Guys and Bad Guys

Tingley-021 colorI’ll admit that I have used the word “humorless” in the past to describe AFT president Randi Weingarten, but after reading her interview with Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post Magazine’sBelow the Beltway,” I can see I was wrong.   Gene Weingarten says that he had heard that Randi is a “tougher across-the-table adversary than Vladimir Putin,” but he was hoping to convince her to help him become the most famous Weingarten in the world.  Presently, he is a distant second to Randi in Google searches.  The conversation reveals that in fact Randi Weingarten has a great sense of humor, which she’s probably needed to survive and will serve her well (if privately) in the future.

Of course, much of what Randi Weingarten has had to deal with hasn’t been particularly funny, and the New Year will bring another serious assignment as teacher spokesperson against guns in schools.  I watched the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre as he vigorously defended his views against a hard-charging David Gregory on Meet the Press a couple of Sundays ago, and my money and my hopes are on Randi.  It’s probably a cheap shot, but it was hard not to be distracted by the spittle at the side of LaPierre’s mouth when he said that if it’s crazy to want to arm school people, “Call me crazy.”  OK, no problem.

While these serious issues are circling schools at 30,000 feet, on the ground most schools reopen today after a couple of weeks off to start the serious work that comes between January and April, the academic interlude before state testing season begins.  These winter months in the trenches are when everyone earns his or her pay in the classroom or in the administrative offices.

Teachers realize that the first semester will be over by the end of the month – half the year is nearly gone.  Time to check how far we’ve gotten in the curriculum.  Time to re-evaluate whether Michael is just itchy, or whether he should be evaluated.  Time to determine whether Sasha will be able to catch up or whether School bus she needs extra help now.  Time to figure out what Raul is really going to need to graduate.  Time to worry about what to do next year if there’s still no money for materials and supplies.

Principals will take a hard look at their new hires, both teachers and staff.  Time to sit down with them in a supportive, mentoring way.  How’s it going?  What are you feeling good about?  Where do you need help?  What can I do? 

Budgeting is a year-round process today, but administrators are now looking seriously at funding projections and at staffing.  What will federal monies look like?  Will the community support yet another tax hike?  Will we have the funds to pay our current staff for another year?

People who have no experience in schools do not understand the daily issues – the challenges and the wonderful successes.  And they truly do not understand that issues that occur when working with kids and adults rarely present black and white choices.  Good guys and bad guys?  Education today is not a 1950s Saturday matinee.

So hang in there, all you folks who do the job of educating our kids on a daily basis.  Hang in there, Randi.  Another year to fight the good fight for our kids and our future.




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