Monday, November 18, 2013

Lead or get out of the way!

A recent Editorial in the Boston Globe has caused me to consider what it means to be a leader. Obviously, this isn't the first time I've considered this topic, but in light of the comments made by Commissioner of Education, Mitchell Chester, I examined once again my thoughts on leadership. The Globe article began with a reflection on the fact that once again Massachusetts scored 1st in the country in reading and math in grades 4 and 8 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It then went on to point out however that the grades for Massachusetts 4th graders fell by 5 points over that time.

According to the article, Commissioner Chester “suspects that the downturn in reading scores relates directly to the loss of elementary school reading specialists over the past few years” due to budget challenges. The article then goes on to state that “[w]hat worries Chester most, however, is that he is starting to hear counterproductive grumbling from school superintendents . They are telling him that requirements to implement new teacher evaluations and incorporate the new Common Core standards are “too much, too soon.” Interesting take on this topic by the individual supposed to be the educational leader in our state.

The current educational environment in which we now operate is unlike any other in history. The schools have seen an unprecedented number of mandates from both the State and Federal governments. Our government is more involved in the daily processes of our schools than ever before to the point where local initiatives are forced to the wayside in order to implement legislative mandates. Just this year schools in Massachusetts will have to implement the Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners (RETELL) initiative, a new Teacher Evaluation System, pilot new PARCC testing to replace MCAS, transition to Common Core State Standards, federal fingerprint checks of all employees, along with other smaller, but no less intrusive top-down mandates that affect our schools. At this point it is truly immaterial whether these initiatives are actually beneficial. When you try to do too much at once it is impossible to do anything well. When superintendents take the time to express their concern about our ability to effectively implement such a large number of initiatives all at once, this is seen as “unproductive grumbling” by the Commissioner of Education. He would rather we simply sit back and do what we are told.

When Massachusetts' superintendents attempted to open a respectful dialogue where they expressed their concerns about the overwhelming number and pace of the mandates coming down from the State and Federal governments, this was taken simply as complaining by the Commissioner. It did not cause him to question the course of action taken to assess whether or not it made sense and was working. Although he has been the Commissioner since 2008 when the NAEP tests were last given, he did not take any ownership or responsibility for the decline in scores. He did not point out that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education repeatedly missed deadlines it had established for the Department to put forth the resources and supports necessary for schools to effectively implement these initiatives. Rather, he said it is our fault.

As the leader of our educational community I take full responsibility if our schools do not make the improvements that we are striving to achieve. If the course we have chosen is not working, I do not blame the principals and teachers, for failing to do the work. Rather I reassess the actions we have taken and determine whether changes need to be made. We then work together to shape those changes so that our schools reflect our common vision. Unfortunately, in this current educational environment I see a large part of my job as buffering my teachers from the impact of these overwhelming mandates.  Working with teachers to determine which initiatives will be the most beneficial for OUR district and then finding out what the minimum compliance level is for those we do not believe in for our community. This is our only chance to effectively move our schools forward with the time and resources available to us.  

The article ends by stating “It might be tempting for Massachusetts educators to ignore the results. After all, the state still ranks at the top for overall performance on the exams. But Massachusetts' fourth graders need their attention.” To that I respond, “Mr. Commissioner, we are well aware of our duty to our students and work daily to give them the attention and services they need. I ask of you, where is your leadership? Where is your advocacy for the resources we need to move our schools forward? Where is your advocacy to work together to change our teaching practices to meet the needs of today’s students? Where is your advocacy to bring together the supports necessary for low income and at risk populations to be able to be successful? Where is your leadership to open a dialogue with educators that can lead to productive change? These are the areas I and my fellow superintendents work to lead our districts in evaluating on a daily basis. In the words of my colleague Brad Jackson, Superintendent of the Holliston Public Schools “Massachusetts Superintendents are ready to join forces and partner with you to work together on real solutions to resolving the performance gap.  Either lead or get out of the way.” 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Message to Teachers

This is an interesting, challenging, rewarding and frustrating time to be an educator. Times of transition always are and, like it or not, education and our society in general are changing. Technology is transforming the way we interact with each other and the world around us. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, glasses that superimpose the digital over the physical world, watches that notify us of incoming calls, emails or texts; how can educators keep up with the advances constantly being made that impact our lives? Furthermore, the previous list is merely one of hardware devices. What about the internet, blogs, wikis, social media, twitter, apps, Android vs. Windows vs. Apple.  As if that’s not enough, throw in a new teacher evaluation system, RETELL, the Common Core Standards, a constant stream of media stories about how education is failing today’s youth and it’s enough to make your head spin and become very discouraging at the same time. 

Now, how do we not only survive this barrage, but use it to our advantage to both excel as professionals and ensure that our students learn the necessary skills to succeed when they leave our halls? We do this by providing support for our colleagues in order to help them weather the bad day or week and by remembering why we became teachers in the first place. We do this through finding what works for us and our students, then sharing that with our colleagues. We do this by realizing that we cannot do it all alone. We need to work together as school and district teams to determine the direction we feel is right for us to head and what tools, skills and training we need to reach our goals.

I have made a commitment to increase the level of access to educational technology in our district. We have worked hard over the last year building our infrastructure and increasing our wireless access, while at the same time getting more devices into the hands of teachers and students. This is merely a first step. We will continue adding to those resources and begin working to provide training in the use of those devices. We will work together to change our instructional practices and shift to meet our students in the digital world where they live much of their lives. This will not be a quick and easy transition. It will be difficult, challenging and frustrating. Most things that matter are not easy obtained or accomplished. We will fail at times, but pick ourselves up and try again. However, the end result will be an educational system designed to meet the needs of our students here in Ludlow.

Those of you who have read some of my previous posts may have garnered that I am not a fan of the current “Comprehensive School Reform Movement” in our country. I believe that it is neither comprehensive nor reformational. Old ideas are repackaged in new wrappers and lauded as the groundbreaking. Large foundations and businesses are driving change with minimal input from the professionals with knowledge to inform them of the challenges that the implementation of those procedures present. We are not afforded the time to effectively implement one initiative before another mandated initiative is thrown at us. In today’s educational environment it is like trying to teach while someone constantly hurls tennis balls at your head. Regardless of current legislative trends it is my belief that the narrow focus on accountability and standardized testing will not promote the educational changes or intellectual flexibility necessary to respond to the needs of today’s students.

The question remains, how do we shape these State and Federal mandates such that they work for us and not against the goals we have set? Some may argue that we have no true say in the matter, however, implementers of policy (and that is what we are) always have a say through a determination of which aspects of the myriad of policies confronting us that we choose to focus on and those with which we choose merely to comply.  

It is time for policy makers to recognize that true innovation will come not from bashing educators over the head with “accountability” or through the insistence on a scripted set of standards and procedures for obtaining anticipated outcomes. True success in public education will only come from engaging educators in a discussion and treating them as professionals who entered the profession to make a difference in the lives of our youth. We are all accountable in one way or another. We do not need to be continually reminded of that fact. We need to focus on inspiring our teachers to remember why they entered the profession, recognize excellence, reward innovation and create a climate where education and the schools are a valued part of the community. This is my focus and commitment to you, our schools and the Town of Ludlow. Thank you for a successful beginning to the school year. I look forward to continuing the work we have started. I look forward to continuing to push the instructional boundaries, challenge our students and ourselves to embrace change and find success.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Welcome Back for the 2013-2014 School Year

Well, it is the last weekend before teachers and students head back to school. I can’t believe how fast the summer has gone. It seems like just days ago that we were wishing the kids a good summer and watching them walk out the door. New school years always bring opportunities and challenges. Students make new friends, get used to the expectation of new teachers and adjust to the learning environments in new grades or schools.

Summers are an especially busy time for the custodial and maintenance staff in our buildings and I want to take this opportunity to recognize them for their hard work and dedication. With the departure of the students and staff our custodians finally have the time and flexibility for a deep cleaning of our buildings. Floors shined, walls and railings painted, our buildings have been given a fresh face for the school year. Yesterday I took a walk around through our buildings and I just want to say “THANK YOU” to our custodial staff for a job well done. The buildings look excellent and it matters to the staff, students and community.

As we look forward to what the 2013-2014 school year will bring I am excited about the opportunities I see before us here in Ludlow. All our schools now have wireless internet access and the purchase of over 700 Chromebooks for the district will give us access to the digital world like never before. We have reached the point in education that we must embrace the use of technology in the classroom. Students are used to interacting with the digital world and we cannot expect them to unplug when they enter our doors. Just like an electrical device, if we unplug students they will shut down. What we need to do is expand their thinking. Expose students to new concepts and ideas. Engage and nurture their passions and sense of wonder at the world around them. If we do that then we will foster creative thinkers ready to face the world outside our doors.

The greatest threat to creation of successful schools is mediocrity.  There is a natural tendency to trend towards the familiar; to continuing doing things the way they have always been done.  This road leads to mediocrity and it is an easy, alluring and dangerous path for educators. We must strive to reach the students who sit before us today. We must discover what motivates them as individuals and use this to stimulate their interest in the subject we teach. It is not enough to teach facts and concepts in isolation. As educators we must concentrate on higher order questioning, forcing students to develop and utilize problem solving skills to apply those facts to the world around them.

Over the course of the last year we have made significant progress in rebuilding and strengthening the relationships between staff and administration, as well as between the schools and the community here in Ludlow. I look forward to continuing our work over the course of this year. I am confident this will be a year of continued growth and I am looking forward to continuing our work together.