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When Field Trips Go Awry

A group of high school students visited the Washington, D.C. Superior Court recently to see the legal system in action.  Students saw not only the courtrooms, but also the holding cells where the accused wait before entering the court.  Students talked to judges and prosecutors, discussed new bullying laws, and finally held mock trials in several of the complex’s courtrooms.   Said one of the students at the end of the day, “I want to study the law.  I want to be an attorney.”  According to the article in The Washington Post, students thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

As the students walked through the holding cell, one student observed, “You’re awaiting your destiny.”   In a bit of embellishment the reporter added, “And the weight of all that fear, from so many people who had been there, seemed palpable in that tiny room.”  Perhaps it appeared that way to the reporter. 

The  idea of taking students through courthouses or jail cells so they can get a glimpse of how the system works has been around for a long time.  Particularly popular a few years back was taking kids on a tour of prisons, thanks to the  documentary “Scared Straight!.”   Produced in 1978, it was the genesis for a number of later programs in which students visited prisons to see what might await potential offenders.  In the documentary, groups of inmates yell, scream, and generally attempt to terrify youngsters (sometimes already youthful offenders) so they would straighten up and avoid prison.  The genre lives on even today in “Beyond Scared Straight” on A&E.

While the idea is well-intentioned and entertaining (even SNL got into the act), there is little hard evidence that programs like this work.  In fact, one group of researchers in 2010 found that “Controlled studies show Courthouse that boot camp and “Scared Straight” interventions are ineffective, and even potentially harmful, for delinquents” (Lilienfeld, et.al.).

As one of those good-intentioned administrators who bought into a milder version of the program, I have to agree with the findings of the researchers.

A few years ago a prison close to my school district offered tours of the prison and presentations with prison guards and inmates to groups of seventh graders.  The idea was for the youngsters to get an inside view of life in prison as a way to deter bad behavior.  It was a state-wide initiative, and most districts, including my own, signed up for the tour.  I decided I had better go to as a chaperone.

The clanging of the doors locking behind each group as they moved through the entrance of the prison certainly got the kids’ attention.  The first meeting was with the prison guards, who seemed intent on showing the kids and adults how tough they were and how they didn’t put up with anything from the inmates.  If they meant to be scary, they succeeded.

Then the inmates came in to talk to the kids about life in prison.  Of course, the guards had chosen model inmates to speak to the kids, and they were well-spoken, thoughtful, even mildly humorous men who seemed appropriately remorseful about their crimes (mostly drug-related) and were looking forward to one day being free.

When the students got back to school, teachers asked them to write about what they had seen and their conclusions.  The results, which I felt compelled to share with the prison warder, were these.  The boys thought the guards were tough, but the prisoners were cool.  The girls wanted to know if they could write to the prisoners.

The program was short-lived.

I think the kids in Washington enjoyed their visit to the courthouse and learned something about the criminal justice system.  I’m not so sure they felt the “weight of all that fear” in the holding cell.  Kids are, after all, kids.  They don’t necessarily think like adults.



The Importance of Having a Family Narrative

Tingley-021 colorWhen I taught eighth grade years ago, I often had my students make time lines or family trees or family crests in conjunction with various pieces of literature we were reading.  These were tasks that kids enjoyed, but as I moved through my teaching career the assignments became more complicated for kids as parents divorced and remarried and families became more blended and less traditional.  Kids became confused regarding whom to include in their family trees and which family to represent in their family crest.  Eventually I abandoned those projects, not wanting to make the whole thing into a problem for kids and not wanting to look as if I were prying too deeply into family issues.

Now a new theory suggests that children who are conversant with family history and are able to tell their family’s story are more resilient than other children when faced with hurdles in their own lives.  Bruce Feiler, writing in the “This Life” column in The New York Times, suggests after years of research that developing a “strong family narrative” may be one of the most important things you can do for your children.

Feiler builds his argument on his own research and on the earlier work of psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University.  The two developed a measure called the “Do You Know” scale, composed of 30 questions they would pose to children.  For example, children were asked, “Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school?  Do you know the story of your birth?  Do you know where your grandparents grew up?

What the psychologists found was that children who knew a great deal about their family history felt they had more control over their lives, had higher self-esteem, and were better able to handle difficult times themselves.  The reason for these children’s resilience, the psychologists concluded, was that children who know their family’s narrative feel part of a larger family, and the idea is sustaining.  The psychologists further pointed out that the most helpful narratives are those that included both successes and failures, especially when the failures are presented as something the family was able to handle or overcome. 

The researchers note that family traditions, even the hokiest, and family stories help kids feel comfortable and safe.  I immediately thought of a conversation I had the other day with my daughter who with her husband and one-year-old recently moved into a new house.  Her husband wondered whether he should Storybook1throw away his collection of Star Wars figures, including a couple of unopened kits of aircraft not yet put together.  She advised him to hang on to the kits because they were something he and their daughter could one day put together. Then she said to me, “Remember when Dad and I put together that radio when I was in first grade?”  I had totally forgotten about that project.  She had not.

Still, I have to wonder whether it’s knowing a positive family history or having a positive family history that influences a child’s resilience and self-esteem.  Feiler concludes,  “If you want a happier family, create, refine, and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from difficult ones.”   That theory may work for middle and upper class kids.  For lots of our nation’s kids living in poverty or even homeless, however, that’s easier said than done.  I probably abandoned those projects at the right time.

Climate, Culture and Test Scores

What happens to climate and culture in a school building when principals are evaluated by student test results? 

Gail Connelly and JoAnne Bartoletti,, heads of the NAESP and NASSP, respectively, late last year presented a framework for principal evaluation.  Thirty-four  states now require student test scores to be a part of a principal’s evaluation, a move the two leaders call “absurd.”  Instead, they say, student progress should be just one part of a 6-part evaluation.  The other five areas for evaluation should be professional growth and learning, school planning and progress, stakeholder support and engagement, professional qualities and practices, and school culture.  Principal evaluation, they say, should be based on “valid, fair, and reliable measurements and used as a collaborative improvement tool and not for punishment.” 

Of course, leaders of teachers’ associations made the same argument against using test scores as a significant part of teacher evaluation – to no avail.  Race to the Top and waivers for No Child Left Behind require that test scores be part of both teachers’ and principals’ evaluations.  But many of the new principal evaluations look at school climate surveys as well.  So the question is, if a principal’s or teacher’s evaluation (and maybe job) depends on improvement of test scores, will those climate surveys negatively reflect that additional pressure on both principals and teachers?

Clyde A. Cole, the executive director of content and curriculum for New Leaders, a New York City nonprofit, says that school climate and culture are key elements of school success.  Still, he admits,  a principal who finds herself under pressure to improve test scores may pay less attention to classroom discipline or teacher collaboration.  

So now we have a yet another educational initiative:  Training principals to develop a positive school climate and culture. (as if it has nothing to do with evaluation).  According to various training agencies, universities just haven’t done a good enough job of helping aspiring principals figure out that climate and culture are important. 

Frankly, I find that hard to believe.

I can’t shake the feeling that all of this is a classic case of “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”  School climate and culture matter.  In my experience, nothing good can happen in a school
Beatings will continueunless faculty and administration are on the same page.  I have always believed that everyone wants to be a part of a successful school, and as a principal I used to tell my faculty, “I want this school to be so good that other teachers in the area will say, ‘I wish there were an opening there.  I would love to work there.’”  Teachers who feel valued, appreciated, and protected by their principal are more likely to go the extra mile for kids and to see themselves as professionals.  Good test scores are a result of a good school climate and culture; it’s not the other way around.  That’s why the idea of positive school climate and culture permeated the entire program in education administration at the State University of New York, where I taught.  And I believe climate and culture are an integral component of many other preparation programs as well.

Building a positive school climate and educational culture doesn’t happen overnight.  It will be interesting to see if principals will be able to keep test scores in perspective given their big part in their evaluation.






Theory X, Theory Y and Teachers

I always spend a good deal of time talking to my graduate students in education administration about ancient history – McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y.

Douglas McGregor, as you may remember was a pioneer of management theory.  He was a social psychologist who became the president of Antioch College and later worked as a professor of management at MIT.  He is best remembered for his 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise, in which he presented his now-famous Theory X and Theory Y.

McGregor claimed that managers tend to accept one of two competing theories about the nature of human beings.  Theory X suggests that people are generally lazy, dislike change, want to be told what to do, and will only do it under the threat of punishment.  The Theory X approach places management in total control.  Theory Y, on the other hand, maintains that people want to grow and want to be responsible and that they respond best to encouragement and praise.  Theory X is an authoritarian management style; Theory Y is a participative management style.

Treating employees well still seems to pay off, according to John Waggoner, writing in USA Today’s “Money” section.  There is plenty of evidence, he says, that companies that treat their employees well see their stocks prosper.  This is not to say that companies that treat their employees poorly tank, but employees who are engaged in their work are likely to do a better job.  In addition, companies who treat their employees well tend to see less turnover, costing the company less in job training.  Waggoner points out that the companies on Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For have an average turnover of professionals of 11.3% vs. 24.7% nationwide.

While McGregor first proposed X and Y theories for business management, his ideas quickly spread to social agencies and to schools.  In my early years of teaching, all my principals (like most administrators at the time) were Theory X guys.  There were no “shared decision making committees” or "principal’s cabinet.”  There were no peer reviews or teacher satisfaction surveys.  The principal made all the decisions and rarely if ever asked for input.

When I became a principal myself, however, after 10 years of teaching, I was decidedly a Theory Y type.  The Theory X guys went the way of the dinosaurs (in fact, we new principals often referred to them that way), and shared decision-making became literally the law of the land (at least in New York State).  Today, teacher participation is part of the culture of most school districts across the country.

Today schools seem to be caught in a conflict between X and Y theories.  Some politicians and education reformers believe that schools will not improve unless you threaten to fire teachers and principals and close schools.  Most school people, on the other hand, believe school improvement is a question of more training and working together with kids and families. 

There is plenty of evidence regarding which theory produces the best results.  Not that policy makers rely on research.


Survey: Teachers Do Not Want to Be Armed

For the past several months people like NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre and others (including some gun manufacturers) have been urging the public to arm teachers in the classroom.  Finally someone had the bright idea to ask teachers how they felt about the idea, and guess what?  Nearly three out of four educators say, “No thanks.”

In an online survey conducted by the School Improvement Network, a teacher training company based in Utah, the great majority of educators said they would be unlikely to bring a gun to school if allowed to do so.  In fact, even among teachers who were gun owners themselves, two out of three said they wouldn’t bring it to school.  Almost 11,000 educators responded to the survey, representing all 50 states.  The survey was conducted in January, only a month after the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Nearly 70% of respondents said that their schools have taken steps to improve safety since the shootings at Sandy Hook.  These steps include new door locking systems, security cameras, new lockdown procedures, and more safety drills.   Less than 5% of respondents indicated that their schools have added full-time armed police officers.

The majority of teachers, however, believe that an armed police officer would make their school safer.  While most teachers said they felt their schools were generally safe, 31% said their schools were not safe from gun violence.  Thirty-eight percent of superintendents said the same. Police officers

Some of the schools in my area were able to have resource officers on campus because of grant monies. 
When the money disappeared, so did the officers.  The officers were only hired at the secondary level, and educators reported that the officers worked hard to integrate themselves into the school community, talking with kids and being present at school activities.  Still, the cost of installing an officer in every school in the district was prohibitive, and few schools could afford the investment.  If the school had enough money to hire more personnel, would it hire another first grade teacher to reduce class size or a resource officer?  What would teachers want?  What would parents want?

I wonder if voters would support resource officers in their local schools if the initiative were brought before the public as an individual initiative on the school budget.   Would voters agree to pay more school taxes so that they could have armed officers in their schools?  Or would they support the initiative only if the fiscal responsibility fell to state and federal governments?

The most common new safety measure in schools after Sandy Hook, according to the survey, is locking doors or keeping fewer doors open during the day.  The researchers conclude, “The majority of educators feel an armed guard would increase school safety, though they do not desire to be an armed presence in schools themselves.”  It seems to me unlikely that the safety plans of most schools will include arming officers or anyone else.



New Teacher Effectiveness and Tenure

Tingley-021 colorA new report on teacher effectiveness may support the traditional three-year probation period before teachers are awarded tenure.

Researchers tracked 7600 new teachers of math and English/language arts in New York City from 2000-2006.  All of them taught 4th or 5th grade during that time.  Cutting to the chase, researchers found that beginning teachers who were rated in the bottom 20% from the outset remained in the bottom 20% after five years based on value-added measures.  Teachers who were high performing at the beginning remained high performing after five years.  The research took into account student demographics like gender, ethnicity, poverty, and attendance.

The work was conducted by Allison Atteberry, a research associate at the University of Virginia; Susanna Loeb, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at  Stanford University; and James H. Wyckoff, an education professor at the University of Virginia.  The researchers presented their findings at the CALDER (The National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research) conference in February.

Tim R. Sass, an economics and public policy research professor at Georgia State University, says in Education Week that if schools let the lowest performers go after the first two or three years, “Even if you’re not going to make lots of mistakes, you will make some.”  However, says Sass, based on the new research findings, a school could get rid of 30% of teachers who are rated least effective five years out while retaining all of the teachers rated in the top 10%.

The data is new, and researchers are not encouraging principals to let struggling teachers go after a couple of years.  Still, researchers insist, the results are compelling.

In New York State, where the research was conducted, teachers generally are awarded tenure after three years.  As a superintendent, I nearly always made the decision to let new teachers go after two years if I Teacher-evaluationdidn’t see real growth.  Some may say I was too quick, but my experience led me to believe if I wasn’t seeing improvement after two years, I probably wouldn’t see it after five or ten or twenty.  In addition, teachers who are denied tenure after three years have a hard time finding another teaching job.  Perhaps my judgment was incorrect, but maybe some teachers I dismissed would find more success in another environment, I thought.

This research, of course, supports what I already thought, and quick acceptance of it, while reaffirming, is dangerous.  But granting tenure to mediocre teachers is even more dangerous.  If you haven’t seen a quality job after three years, it’s not likely that you will after 5 or 10, let alone 20.

The Perils of Playing with Your Food

At the end of February,  the American Academy of Pediatrics, a group that represents 60,000 primary care pediatricians, specialists and pediatric surgeons issued a policy statement regarding school suspensions.

Automatic suspension is an “increasingly questionable response” to misbehavior, says the organization.  In addition, zero-tolerance policies regarding drugs or weapons at school are a “drastic response” that keeps schools from dealing effectively with a child’s issues.

Who cares what they think? said officials at an Anne Arundel County (MD) school a week later as they suspended for a couple of days a second grade boy for chewing his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun.  The 7-year-old then pointed the pastry either at the ceiling or at a classmate (observers had conflicting testimonies) and said, “bang bang.”  School officials, according to the child’s family, described the pastry as a threat to other students.

Said the boy's dad, “I don’t care who he pointed it at.  It was a danish.

School officials posted a letter on the school’s web site, saying that although no one was harmed (except the suspended 7-year-old), if other children were upset by the incident, “a school counselor will be on hand to assist this week.”  Parents were urged to help children “share their feelings.”  One has to wonder whether the most traumatizing part of the whole incident is that kids now know how easily you can be suspended for playing with your food.

The National Association of School Psychologists says that suspensions can be a “fast-acting interventions that send a clear, consistent message that certain behaviors are not acceptable.”  However, the association Danishadds, zero-tolerance policies are “ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences.”  Higher dropout rates are one of those consequences.

It is, of course, far too early to know whether the pastry-eating child will be affected in any way by his suspension.  However, it’s clear to me that his school administrators really need to start eating breakfast or lunch in the school cafeteria with the kids --  not to keep them from making pastries into guns or tater tots into projectiles, but to see how inventive kids in general can interact with their food (“Mom! Doesn’t this cookie look like Sponge Bob?”)  Perhaps they can show them how to beat their mozzarella sticks into plowshares.

In the meantime, the American Academy of Pediatrics must be shaking its collective head.  Anne Arundel Schools aptly demonstrated exactly what the doctors were talking about.

Job Satisfaction for Principals Sinks

Tingley-021 color webLast week I talked about some of the findings of the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher released last week.  This year principals were surveyed too.  The survey study notes at the outset that research has established an “empirical link” between school leadership and student achievement, so principals’ attitudes towards their job is important.  Here’s what principals had to say.

Almost three-quarters of principals in all kinds of schools, regardless of demographics, say that their job has become too complex.  Nearly the same number say their responsibilities have changed over the past five years.

Ten years ago, the MetLife survey asked principals and teachers what they thought were the most important aspects of a principal’s job.  Nine in 10 principals and eight in 10 teachers agreed that the following skills were the most important for a principal:

            To make sure the school is safe;

            To encourage teachers and students to do their best;

            To help teachers do their jobs well.

Today, principals and teachers no longer agree on the most important skills a principal should have.  Here is the principals’ list of top skills:

            To know how to use data about student performance to improve instruction;

            To lead the development of strong teaching capacity across the school;

            To evaluate teacher effectiveness using multiple measures.

Here is the teachers’ list:

            To have experience as a classroom teacher;

            To lead the development of strong teaching capacity across the school;

            To demonstrate strong management skills (budget, schedules, etc.).

I’m struck with the management  (vs. leadership) aspect of both lists.  That teachers now want their principal to have had classroom experience suggests to me that teachers believe it’s easy to be critical of the job they’re doing if you’ve never done it.  In addition, without classroom experience of your own, you’re less likely to understand how test scores can be skewed by a number of variables.  Yet despite the claims of some teachers’ unions that principals can’t always be trusted to evaluate teachers fairly, 85% of teachers give positive ratings to the job their principal is doing.

While the majority of both principals and teachers believes that the principal is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in his or her school (principals even more so), their individual control over various Principal signaspects of a school varies.  For example, only 22% say they have control over the financial aspects of the school, and fewer than half say they have control over curriculum and instruction or removing teachers.  About half of principals say they feel stressed several days a week.

Like teachers, principals report that their job satisfaction has declined and is now at its lowest point since 2001.  One-third say they’re likely to leave the job in five years, but the study points out that about the same percentage of principals said they would leave in 2004-05, when job satisfaction was at its highest. 

When you look at the survey results from both teachers and principals and you compare results over the past ten years, you’re struck by how our school people soldier on despite the changing political and educational environment.  Both principals and teachers are at the lowest point in job satisfaction in several years, but I am optimistic (as school people are) that as the economy improves and schools have the money to do the work they are charged to do, satisfaction will improve.  Teachers and principals have met challenges before, and they will again.




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