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No Need for a Soda as Big as Your Head

Being free to do something doesn’t just mean being legally permitted to do it.  It also means having a reasonable prospect of being able to do it.  Parents don’t want their children to become obese, or to suffer the grave consequences of diet-induced diabetes.  Yet our current social environment encourages heavy consumption of sugary soft drinks, making such outcomes much more likely.  So that environment clearly limits parents’ freedom to achieve an eminently laudable goal.

                                                                                         ~Robert H. Frank, Business Day, NY Times

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to prohibit the sale of 32-ounce cups of soda is seen by some as an infringement of individual rights.  Others, like Robert Frank, see it as an attempt to help parents raise healthy children. 

Personally, I don’t understand why your average person would need to drink a quart of soda in one sitting unless he or she had just finished putting on a roof or tearing down a building in 90 degree heat.  Even then water would be a better alternative.  When I see kids with a 32-ounce cup of soda, it’s usually at a rest stop on the highway or at the movie theater.  So it makes me wonder if Frank is right:  Outlawing 32-ounce cups of soda would help parents say no to wheedling kids.  Parents without the gumption to say, “Because I said so” can now say, “Because it’s against the law.”

Ironically, a similar soda controversy played out in public schools not so long ago, but schools were on the side of letting kids drink what they wanted.  Soft drink companies contracted with schools for “pouring rights,” stocking the schools with vending machines that would carry only the company’s products.  In return for exclusive rights to their students, schools received a hefty percentage of the sales.  In addition, Big-Gulp-300x225some schools received a chunk of cash that some applied to building or refurbishing sports complexes.   If the soda tended to fatten kids up, they could work out the extra calories on state-of-the-art fields.  At least some kids could.

Eventually, however, most schools began to see that being an accomplice to childhood obesity maybe wasn’t the role of public education.  Sugared drinks were replaced with diet drinks, flavored water, and juices.  When the contracts expired, many schools replaced the soda machines with milk machines, thinking they were helping kids make healthier choices.  Kids, however, tended to choose high calorie flavored milks until those milk vending machines disappeared as well.

Now that kids are feeling the effects of adults’ fecklessness about nutrition, the federal government has taken an aggressive role in setting guidelines for calories, choices, and serving sizes.  Many schools still run snack bars because they are moneymakers and can help support the cafeteria program, but choices are limited and kids are often not allowed to make a lunch of snacks.  Fast food franchises are fading out as school lunch programs as well.

So I guess I don’t have a problem limiting 32-ounce sodas for adults who don’t know better than to set that kind of example for kids or to allow their kids to buy them themselves.  There’s precedent for these kinds of guidelines.  Kids need help in making good choices, and some parents don’t like to say no.  At the movies I’ve sat near kids with sodas as big as their heads; they spend most of the time scooting out of the aisles on their way to the bathroom, parent behind them. 

So go for it, Mr. Mayor.  Appeal the court’s recent rejection of your ban on Big Gulps – and while you’re at it, go ahead and hide the cigarettes.



Teaching Is about the Heart

The recently retired teacher was holding forth at lunch the other day about how kids aren’t half as good as they used to be.  They’re rude, they’re disinterested, they’re disrespectful, they’re disengaged.  You can’t teach them anything.   “I don’t know what’s going to happen to this country with kids like this,” she concluded.  Well, not “concluded.”  “Stopped for air” is more like it.

As one of the luncheon group, I kept my head down and focused on my salad, grateful that this woman never worked for me and thinking she should have retired a long time ago.  For the most part I spent my career with teachers who were competent, dedicated, responsible, and enthusiastic about their profession.  They genuinely liked kids.  They didn’t look for excuses, badmouth their students, or spend a lot of time talking about how hard their jobs were.  They kept their sense of humor.  After a couple of attempts to change the subject, I sat quietly waiting for the check.  I didn’t order this big glass of whine.

So Greg Michie’s blog post, “Salvador’s Last Day” was just the antidote I needed when I got home.  Michie, who teaches in the Chicago public schools, tells the story of 13-year-old Salvador, a “sweet kid” who informs him one day that his family is moving soon.  Salvador seems to like Michie’s class and often hangs around afterwards to help straighten up.  Michie has noticed that Salvador has to squint to see the board, and the teacher makes a mental note to check on getting him glasses.

But Salvador doesn’t leave, and after a while Michie begins to wonder if the boy is really moving or whether it’s just a story to draw some attention to himself.  Michie adds, “Or maybe he just didn’t want to vanish from our school unnoticed, which isn’t uncommon in city schools.  Living in poverty doesn’t always afford parents the luxury of planning ahead, and I remember occasions when, out of nowhere, the intercom buzzed, a kid was called down to the office, and that was it.  Gone.”

One day the boy is fooling around in class and Michie yells at him to sit down and get to work. Chastened and silent, Salvador doesn’t stick around at the end of class, but he comes in after school.  He wants to say goodbye; it is, finally, his last day.  Michie is dumbfounded, berating himself for yelling at the boy on his last day and for not having the foresight to prepare a little farewell – or to check on those glasses.  “It’s Sayinggoodbye not that I wanted to make a big production of it,” Michie writes.  “But if creating a welcoming and affirming classroom environment is part of a teacher’s job, isn’t it also our responsibility to say a decent goodbye?” In the end, “Value added formulas for teacher evaluation don’t account for how one says goodbye to a kid,” he adds.

“Like so much of teaching, how we respond to the loss of a student – whether to violence, a terminal disease, or a family’s relocation – is not a science, not something that can be neatly quantified.  It’s another reminder that teaching is about the heart as much as the head,” he concludes.

I’ve had those kids who disappear one day, sometimes leaving a desk full of papers and books.  I’ve known kids who were enrolled in three or four elementary schools before fifth grade, all within a 50-mile radius.  Often their schooling was interrupted for a few weeks while the family got organized.  It is, as Michie says, one of the side effects of poverty.

So let me remind my retired colleague that kids are kids and have always been so, but that some of them today have to deal with many more issues than kids did 30 years ago.  If anything, they need even more care and understanding than kids did in earlier times.  Criticizing them doesn’t help; recognizing a child’s needs – including saying a decent goodbye – does.




Making the Hard Decisions

Tingley-021 colorAt my annual physical, my doctor asked me if I had tried an over-the-counter medication she had suggested the last time she saw me.  I told her I had.

“Really?” she said.  She sounded surprised.

“Well, yes,” I said.  “You recommended it, right?”

She laughed.  “Yes, I did,” she said.  “But most of my patients pay no attention to what I tell them.  So I’m surprised when somebody actually follows through.”

I had a similar conversation once with my eye doctor.  And with my accountant.  Both expressed surprise that I had followed a piece of advice they had given in their area of expertise.

I admit I’m old school.  When I pay for someone’s expert opinion, I tend to take his or her advice seriously.  I think that someone who’s spent his or her life studying and working in the field probably knows more about the topic at hand than I do  -- which is why I typically don’t give a rat’s about “trending tweets” or opinions emailed to news shows. 

That said, you’ll understand why I sympathize with a beleaguered school superintendent who is a friend of mine.  His district is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the cuts the board will have to make will be devastating.  But here’s the thing:  the district’s financial situation didn’t happen overnight.  It wasn’t solvent yesterday and bankrupt today.  The superintendent and the business office had seen it coming for years and had warned the board.  But like patients who ignore their doctor’s advice, they did so at their own peril.

Despite the impending financial dilemma, the board repeatedly refused to make the hard decisions to ensure the district’s solvency.  For years they insisted on no increase in taxes, a popular decision with the voters, but a road to disaster.  As expenses rose, the board closed the gap with the fund balance until it School+budget+vote was completely depleted.  Now they’re looking at severe cuts in program and personnel AND a huge tax increase.

The superintendent knew that it’s generally unwise to present a zero-increase budget several years in a row unless your fund balance is well over the limit.  A more palatable scenario, if possible, is to raise taxes a very small amount each year to offset increases in expenses beyond the district’s control – fuel prices, insurance, materials and supplies, new unfunded mandates, etc.  Furthermore, as prices have increased, state and federal aid has decreased.  It’s not rocket science.  By proposing small yearly increases, districts that have to have voter approval for the budget keep the increase level and small enough for voters to handle.  The “feast or famine” routine doesn’t work over the long haul.  Eventually the board will have to ask the voters to approve a whopping budget increase of 10-15%, a proposition ripe for defeat.

The balance between a superintendent and the board is always a delicate one, and I definitely don’t think that the board should be a rubber stamp for the superintendent.  But being a board member means making the hard decisions when they have to be made.  And ignoring the administration’s advice year after year makes me wonder what they pay them for.



Common Core: The New York State of Mind

Most states have now implemented teacher evaluation systems that include student test scores.  At the same time, schools are in the process of implementing Common Core, which, of course, comes with a new set of tests.  The New York State Education Department officials admit that the tests are more difficult than before and to expect a drop in test scores.  Anyone see a problem here?

Well, the New York State United Teachers do.  The association, the largest teachers’ union in the state, is pushing back against what its leaders call “obsessive” standardized testing.  The tests, in grades three through eight math and English language arts, are scheduled for mid-April.

Teachers say they haven’t really had time to implement the new curriculum and it’s unfair to include scores in teachers’ evaluations.  The Department of Education says it’s no big deal because teachers will be measured against all the other teachers in the state who are in the same situation.  Teachers would like another year to get ready.

Currently the union is running ads in newspapers and conducting forums around the state.  The forums, called “Tell It Like It Is,” are attempts to encourage teachers to speak out against the new testing.  In addition, the union is pressing for local school boards to pass a resolution calling on state and federal officials to end excessive testing and find alternate evaluation methods.

But the State Board of Regents so far is standing by its decision to test on material some teachers say they haven’t had a chance to implement and need more time to implement.  Merryl H. Tisch, chairperson of the New York State Board of Regents, isn’t buying it.  She says the timeline for implementation was made clear Test taking two years ago and that school districts would have to have been “living under a rock” to protest now. 

In addition, New York’s contract with its testing companies contains the provision that all materials would be free of licensing restrictions, allowing them to post on their website free curriculum materials.  The State Education Department touts the ready availability of materials; NYSUT officials say that materials have been posted, taken down, revised, and reposted.  My experience with the State Education Department regarding other posted information for state exams suggests that NYSUT probably has a point.

It appears at the moment that Common Core implementation has seen uneven acceptance and implementation throughout the state.  It remains to be seen if pressuring teachers to produce good test scores will work to the benefit of kids.  It’s test time in New York, and let’s see who the real winners are in this latest skirmish.


Will Common Core Change Anything?

Ken Kay and Bob Lenz, writing in Education Week, wonder which path Common Core will take as it meanders through various states’ education systems.  Key is chief executive of EdLeader21, a network of education leaders in Tucson, and Lenz is CEO of Envision Education, a nonprofit charter management organization in Oakland.  One path for Common Core, they say, is that the curriculum will be absorbed or subsumed into the existing curriculum in many schools with very little actual change.  The second, more Change-1 arduous path is that the curriculum will become the vehicle for a “transformational opportunity for our nation’s teaching and learning systems.”  I suspect most schools will follow Path #1.

Kay and Lenz call for Common Core standards to be the “floor” and not the “ceiling” of achievement.  Calling for schools to adopt a “Common Core and more” approach, they see the standards as a way to bring higher level thinking skills into the classroom – skills like analysis, inquiry, and research.   Common Core would be the jumping off point to transform teaching so that students could acquire the skills they need for college and/or career. 

Some educational leaders see the promise in Common Core, Kay and Lenz say.  Others see it as just another “compliance exercise.”   The final result, I think, will be something in-between.  The school curriculum will change, but the change will be neither systemic nor revolutionary.

School districts move with glacial slowness to adopt and implement innovative practices.  Entrenched practices tend to rub the sharp angles off new initiatives until they settle more comfortably into established routines.  Take, for example, the new teacher evaluation systems adopted in many states.  In Florida, 97%
of teachers were recently judged effective or highly effective.  In Michigan, 98% of teachers were found to be effective or better.  In Tennessee, 98% of teachers were “at expectations.”

Observes Jenny Anderson, writing in the New York Times, “Even the part of the [teacher’s] grade that was intended to be objective, how students perform on standardized tests, has proved squishy.  In part, this is because tests have changed so much in recent years – and are changing still, because of the new Common Core … administrators have been unwilling to set the test-score bar too high for teachers.”

Teachers and administrators say that constantly changing standards and tests make it nearly impossible to know exactly what students need to know to perform well on the new tests.  Others find the high scores of teacher performance unsettling particularly after all the money and time that has been poured into Common Core.  Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality says. “It is too soon to say that we’re where we started and it’s all been for nothing.  But there are some alarm bells going off.”

One of the reasons that new school initiatives fail to make systemic changes is that with rare exception, 90% of money and effort is spent on initial training and implementation; 10% of money and effort is spent on maintenance.  The exception occurs when training occurs in waves over several years and maintenance is consequently ongoing.  It remains to be seen whether administrators are committed to full implementation of Common Core so that teacher training is ongoing and evaluation is strongly connected to the standards.  Otherwise, it will remain business as usual in Common Core schools.






Please, Ms. Weingarten: No Excuses for the Cheating Scandal

Randi Weingarten missed an opportunity to come down squarely for integrity and to place the blame for the Atlanta cheating scandal where it belongs    -- on the administrators and teachers who allegedly participated in inflating kids’ scores.  Instead she diverted a good part of the blame to the usual suspects – obsession with standardized tests and lack of “resources and tools” teachers need.

To be fair, the statement released by Weingarten and Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers started out right. “We do not condone cheating under any circumstances.  Academic achievement can never be separated from academic integrity …, “ the statement read.  Unfortunately, from there it meandered into other reasons for the scandal besides personal greed and dishonesty.  Instead, No-cheating-480 cheating turns out to be the “unintended consequences” of frequent and high stakes testing and lack of training.  The only excuse that didn’t appear was that lucrative incentives for improved test scores might compromise basic honesty.

I understand the role of the union when members run amok.  Even when personally repulsed or angered by members’ behaviors, the union chief is required to protect each member’s rights.  That’s why members pay their dues.  That’s how the system works.

But here was an opportunity to raise the status of the teaching profession with a no-excuses stand.  Yes, we know that currently testing seems to be the most important thing that happens in schools.  Yes, we understand that test prep isn’t the same as teaching.  Of course we recognize that the money spent on testing could have been better spent on training and materials.  But – in the end, our profession doesn’t tolerate cheaters. 

There is little question that the situation in Atlanta (and in Washington, D.C.) encouraged cheating.  And as I noted last week, these are not the only two school districts in the nation in which cheating occurs.  But whatever the circumstances, it’s a personal choice to cheat or not to cheat.  Towards the end of the news release Weingarten does finally note that “the vast majority of teachers do everything they can to help kids and never succumb to cheating.”  A little hyperbole there, but the point is that the most teachers and administrators don’t do what the Atlanta folks allegedly did.  That’s the story.  Atlanta isn’t the norm; it’s the aberration.  And that’s how Weingarten should have presented it – that teaching is an honorable profession that would never ever countenance that kind of behavior whatever the circumstances.  Instead, while insisting that the union doesn’t tolerate cheaters, she also noted that it wasn’t, after all, entirely their fault.  You can’t have it both ways.  The profession deserved better.







TV Doctor Explains ADHD Increase: Schools Unchanging for 150 Years

Tingley-021 colorDr. Nancy Snyderman, chief medical correspondent for NBC news, responded last week on the Today show to the New York Times report that diagnoses of ADHD is on the rise.  Now nearly 11% of school-aged children – one in five high school boys – have received the medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity diagnosis according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Snyderman said that she believed that the rapid increase of the diagnosis could be attributed in part to under-diagnosing in earlier years.  She also said that if techniques to diagnose ADHD are carefully implemented by doctors and school people, the diagnosis is generally accurate. 

Then the interviewer asked her if it was possible that some of the kids diagnosed were really just typically active boys in school that teachers didn’t want to deal with.  Snyderman responded,  “I’m one of those parents.  I’ve been down this road. We have a school system that hasn’t changed in 150 years.  We don’t have recess. There’s no experiential learning; it’s ‘sit down in your seats and learn.’” 

Excuse me?  I admit that some teachers, particularly in the elementary grades, require students to conform to arbitrary rules that often don’t recognize that kids need a certain amount of physical activity.  Also, increasing numbers of parents have basically abdicated the role of the boundary-setting adult when it comes to instilling a modicum of self-discipline in their kids.  Still, neither of these issues entirely explains the startling rise in ADHD diagnoses.

Today an estimated 6.4 million children aged 4-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD at some point.  That’s an increase of 16% since 2007 and a 53% increase in the past ten years.  Two-thirds of these children take some kind of prescription drug for the condition – usually Adderall or Ritalin. 

Historically, 3-7% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD.   Snyderman insists that the tests are accurate if done correctly, but the process is subjective and includes observations of the child and ADHD_meds_1interviews with parents and teachers.  The incidence of ADHD varies widely by states.  Several southern states indicate that about 23% of school-aged boys have received an ADHD diagnosis.  Rates in Nevada and Colorado were less than 10%.  Is the difference rigorous testing, more tolerant teachers, better parenting, or the drinking water?

Snyderman says she supports “Big Pharma” when it comes to prescribing drugs for ADHD.  Others say that advertising for ADHD drugs encourages parents to look for the diagnosis as a way to help their child in school.  Last October I wrote about physicians who work with children in low-wealth schools and regularly prescribe Adderall or other drugs in a misguided attempt to make kids less aggressive in school so they can stay out of trouble and get better grades.  One physician in Georgia’s Cherokee County said he believes that ADHD is “made up,” but as a “social justice thinker” he prescribes Adderall to improve poor academic performance.  CDC data indicates that children covered by Medicaid have the highest rate of ADHD diagnosis, roughly one-third higher than the general population.

All of this leaves me wishing that Snyderman had been more judicious in her comments.  Instead, she presented her opinions about kids, schools, and the unsettling rise of the ADHD diagnosis as if they were fact.  Sometimes, with TV doctors, the average viewer can’t tell the difference.




Same-Sex Marriage and Our Students

Tingley-021 colorThe Board of Education decided to interview candidates for an unexpected opening on the board.  The person appointed eventually would have to run for the seat, but since he or she would have the advantage of being an incumbent, the board wanted to be careful to make a good decision.

Among the applicants was a woman known for her strong personality and opinions.  Her interview with the board went quite well, however, and she answered all the prepared questions satisfactorily.   At the end of the interview, the board president asked her if she had anything else she would like to say to the board.  I’m paraphrasing here, but she said something like this: “I want to be a board member so I can make sure we don’t have any of that rainbow stuff here.”  Rainbow?  “That gay and lesbian stuff, “ she explained.  “I don’t want my kids exposed to that.” 

I used to fantasize that as soon as a candidate revealed a fatal flaw in an interview, I could press a button underneath my desk and the candidate would rocket into space. It was cartoonish, of course, and immature, but it allowed me to have a pleasant expression on my face until the interview was over.  I wondered how the board would react to her closing statement.

I escorted her out and closed the door.  There was a moment of silence, and then the board president said, “Absolutely not.”  The others nodded their agreement.   No need to rocket anyone into space.

Currently the Supreme Court is debating Hollingsworth V. Perry to decide whether a California law prohibiting same-sex marriage violates the equal-protection clause of the Constitution.  In a second case, the court will decide whether the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA) is constitutional.  DOMA defines marriage (and consequently the benefits thereof) as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”

Critics say that if same-sex marriage is constitutional, it will have great effects on our public schools, requiring schools to teach children that same-sex marriage is the same as traditional marriage.  In fact, the decision of the court will require nothing of the sort.   Of course, anyone who has spent time working in Same-sex-marriage.previewthe public schools knows that we have always had gay students, gay parents (married or not), gay teachers, and gay administrators.  Likewise, we have always had (and will probably continue to have) parents who don’t want any “rainbow stuff” in their schools and school people who are biased.  None of this is anything new.

Schools are required, however, to teach tolerance for diversity, and, as the NEA points out, respect for all students, including those who are gay and lesbian.  Census Bureau data reveals that nearly 1.3 million Americans are part of a same-sex couple.  About one-fifth of them are raising children under 18 – some 220,000 children.  These families are already part of our schools, and will continue to be.  So we need to be particularly vigilant that all of our kids feel safe in school, and all of our families feel welcome – irrespective of the court’s decision and any school person’s individual issue with gay or lesbian families.  “That rainbow stuff” is part of our charge to respect diversity, lead by example, and assure all kids an educational experience free from harassment or bullying for any reason.  That’s our responsibility as school people.



The Hosing of Atlanta

Tingley-021 colorQ.  What’s the quickest way to get great test results for kids? 

A.  Cheat.

Q:  What’s the best way to encourage cheating among school people?

 A.  Pay them bonuses for improved test scores.

Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 other school people were indicted last week on charges that they conspired to cheat on federally mandated standardized tests from 2005 to 2010.  The grand jury charged that Hall, several top aides, principals, and teachers benefited financially from tampering with test results. 

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, employees in schools that met 70% of their annual test targets received bonuses from a few hundred dollars to $1000.  The superintendent herself received bonuses of $225,000 for those years and a total of $580,000 over the past ten years.

In districts the size of Atlanta, conspiracy demands a secrecy that quite frankly is pretty impressive give the number of people involved.  In addition, he grand jury pointed to numerous instances in which the administration refused to investigate charges of cheating or simply ignored directives from the state education department.  If convicted, Hall could spend the rest of her life in jail and would be the highest- Bags of money
profile school leader convicted for cheating.  Last year former El Paso superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pleaded guilty to multiple counts including test fraud.  Garcia was sentenced to three years in prison.

While the mere scope of the scandal is impressive, I find it hard to believe that Atlanta stands alone in falsifying test scores in the face of high personal stakes.  On the one hand, there are bonuses if kids do well.  On the other hand, some people may lose their jobs if kids do poorly.  This is not, I must say, a situation that breeds honesty.

Manipulating test scores on a scale as large as the Atlanta school district is impressive for the sheer size of the operation.  But how hard is it to manipulate test scores in a small school district or a single school?  If the personal stakes are high – bonuses or job loss – suddenly the unthinkable situation becomes The Winter of our Discontent.

Awarding superintendents (or anyone else) bonuses for improved test scores is just plain wrong.  This isn’t the NCAA (where incentives for winning have produced similar instances of wrongdoing).  Superintendents, principals, teachers – their job is to help kids learn the best they can.  That’s the job.  Handing out cash suggests that they won’t do their job unless they get another cash incentive, but guess what?  The Atlanta people didn’t do their job because they got a cash incentive.  Likewise, firing people because their test scores aren’t good enough becomes not an incentive to teach better, but an incentive to cheat.

This is where obsessive testing gets us:  Kids pay the price and adults walk away with cash.





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