Thursday, November 20, 2014

We must, indeed, all hang together..

We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately - Benjamin Franklin

These words spoken by Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 resonate to this very day. This was a turbulent time in our nation’s history where political ideologies clashed and remarkable individuals with often disparate backgrounds and beliefs came together and compromised for the common good. At that time there was no “United” States, but rather only the dream of something greater. Something that could stand up to the might and oppression of the British Empire. Prior to this declaration, there had been rising sentiment in this country for a break with England and a move towards independence. Many local groups in different states began advocating loudly for this course of action, however it was not until the decision was made to act in unison that ultimate progress was made.

Although the situation in which we now find ourselves is not as dramatic as the founding of a new nation, the outcome of the educational debate in this country will truly establish what type of country we will be and what type of future we will provide for our children. Right now our power and voice are divided and often the groups pushing back against the state and federal “reform” initiatives are as busy arguing with each other as they are with our policy makers. It is time for us to find common ground and “hang together” to advocate for positive change.

Parent and community groups, teachers unions, administrators are all advocating for change and pushing back against the deluge of mandates coming down from the state and federal government. The problem is the lack of coordination between these groups. The consequence of that is that although the noise is increasing, legislators are not hearing a clear unified message. In order for true lasting change to occur we must move our legislature from their chosen course of action. In order to do that we need to make it clear that it is in their best interest to listen.

The problem with crafting a unified message is that there has historically been friction between the groups currently advocating for change. Unions and administrators sit on opposite sides of the bargaining table and often find themselves at odds over employment issues. Parents at times find themselves in conflict with administrators and/or teachers over differing opinions with regard to a course of action for their children. However, there are tensions inherent in any relationship and the situation we are faced with is important enough that we must work together to overcome these challenges.

Those responsible for propagating the current “reform” initiatives have money, power and influence. We have the numbers and the votes. Regardless of the influence the money plays in our political system today, we are still a democracy and in the end it is the votes and the electorate that have the final say in our future. We can find common ground and we can’t let the fact that we do not agree with all proposed strategies of a group stop us from being willing to engage them in discussion around those areas upon which we do agree.

One example of this for me is the strategy of advocating for parents to “opt-out” their children from taking standardized tests. While I respect the impetus behind this approach, I don’t believe this is a beneficial strategy because, if successful, it will have a detrimental impact on a district’s scores thus opening the door for negative consequences from the state. The risk is too great and the endorsement of this strategy by public action groups often causes administrators to shy away from participation in those groups. Although I do not endorse this as a strategy, I will still participate in the discussions with groups that do and work to find those areas where we can agree on both the substance of proposed changes as well as strategies for working to advocate for those changes with our policymakers.

There is no danger in discussion, debate and the open exchange of ideas. The danger comes when people stop having those conversations and only listen to themselves or those that share their beliefs. Speaking in such an echo chamber does not accomplish the goal of reaching those we need to influence. I encourage you to reach out to members of other groups working towards the common goal of advocating for change in this standardized, centralized, top-down mandate driven school reform environment. While you may not agree with all their priorities or tactics, finding areas where we can work together are essential to promoting a message for change. Right now that unity is lacking and thus we are weak. Be involved in the discussion. Tonight I am participating in a forum at Westfield State University to meet with individuals concerned about the status of education in our country. I am sure I will not agree with everything that is said at that gathering, but I am certain of a several things. I am certain that all who participate care about children and education. I am certain that all who participate believe that the overemphasis on standardized testing to judge students, teachers and schools is inhibiting necessary effective change in our educational system. And finally I am certain that I will be part of the discussion. Will You?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

By the pricking of my thumbs another mandate this ways comes…

Today’s “Education Reform” environment is beginning to bear a definite resemblance to a Shakespearean tragedy. Antagonists and protagonists square off each with their own agendas and motivations. Backroom deals are made and bargains struck with extreme hubris and certitude of righteousness displayed on the part of those in power. The opinions and concerns of those in the trenches are disregarded as the power elite propagate their own agenda. That agenda with its focus on standardized, centralized, top-down mandate driven school reform and accountability driven by high stakes tests is ripping our public education system apart with an ever growing number of people involved in talking at, rather than to, each other. Every time we think that maybe, just maybe, those in charge of making state and federal policy are beginning to listen, something happens that disabuses us of that notion. This most recent proposed “initiative” is no different.  

Recent events have seen educators, parents and communities expressing their concern with the extreme emphasis on high stakes standardized tests as the primary metric to determine student achievement and teacher effectiveness. One might wonder how the policy makers have responded to those concerns. The following is one example. On October 20, 2014 the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released “a set of Design Principles for a re-imagined licensure system.” In the spirit of transparency and collaboration the department scheduled several regional “Town Hall” forums the first being on October 21, 2014. However, even if we were aware of the forum that was held here in Western Mass, those of us here in the Springfield area had less than 24 hours to arrange our schedule to attend.  This “re-imagined” system seeks to tie teacher evaluations and licensure directly to students’ test scores. This initiative demonstrates how those creating educational policy in our country are completely disconnected from those of us forced to implement those policies. Not only did they not listen to the concerns expressed by stakeholders, they are seeking to INCREASE the high stakes nature of those very tests.

There are elements of the new Teacher Evaluation Instrument in Massachusetts that I find beneficial to formulating strong instructional practices in our schools. While, like many of the current reform initiatives, there is an over reliance on bureaucratic paperwork and reporting requirements, many of the changes created by this initiative have had a positive impact in our schools. The reduction of the need for formal observations commonly referred to by many educators as the “dog and pony show” has led to more authentic observations and feedback. Increased emphasis on engaging in a professional dialogue, goal setting and meaningful professional development facilitated by the evaluation process will lead to stronger teaching in our schools. However, those positive changes are now in danger as teachers must worry that their evaluations and the standardized test scores of their students will determine whether they keep their professional license. This will have a chilling effect on discourse around professional improvement and lead once again to teacher evaluation being viewed as adversarial rather than a collaborative process for professional growth.

Furthermore, as I articulated in a previous post, our students’ performance on standardized tests directly correlates to the poverty level of those schools. Were this system to be put into place it would be even more difficult to get qualified teachers to serve our poorer communities. Why would they risk losing their license? They would be safer working in a more affluent community. This proposal also penalizes teachers who work with struggling learners, be they special needs or English Language Learners. Working with those students who traditionally demonstrate less growth and lower achievement will also place those teachers’’ licenses at greater risk. The end result will be a further narrowing of the curriculum to focus on the test as teachers take every action possible to ensure that they do not lose their license.

It is time to stand up and be heard. I urge you to contact the Massachusetts Department of Education and weigh in on these new proposals. The time to speak up is now before a final decision is made and new mandates imposed upon us.  I have attached the notice from the DESE regarding this initiative following this post. Education Secretary Arne Duncan himself called the U.S. performance on the 2012 PISA tests “a picture of educational stagnation.” The scores of our students have not changed appreciably from the time of that test’s inception in 2000.  So, that being the case, why are we busy implementing more of the same policies that have led to that very stagnation? We can only hope that this time the hubris involved in this initiative will cause the downfall of this movement and allow for productive conversations of all stakeholders to propagate lasting, necessary, productive change. 

MA Licensure Policy Options Packet

Monday, September 22, 2014

America was not built on fear...

America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand. - Harry S. Truman

According to state and federal policy makers, our schools are failing and continue to fail. Rather than reevaluate the failed policies under which educators’ labor, those responsible for the development of the policies by which educators are governed have essentially doubled down. With the election of President Obama in 2008, educators felt hopeful of change. Those hopes were crushed, however, as rather than roll back the failed policies of the No Child Left Behind legislation, his administration pushed those mandates even further with Race to the Top. Federal policies advocating an even greater reliance on test scores, accountability, national standards and flawed valued added measures to tie test scores to teacher evaluations have further polarized the educational debate and alienated many educational professionals. 

As humans we are often governed by our emotions and the primary motivation in the public school system today is fear. Essentially, I posit that one of the greatest obstacles confronting meaningful change in education is that schools are afraid to fail. Fear is the primary motivation that is currently driving public education in our country. Ever since the release of the Nation at Risk report in 1983, we have been creating policy at an increasingly frantic pace driven by fear. "Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. Policy makers fear falling behind other countries and losing our competitive edge on the global stage." (A Nation At Risk - April 1983). 

REACT! REACT! REACT! Our national preeminence and even the security of our nation is at risk. If there is a problem with education, then it must be our teachers who are to blame. They must be held accountable. This report has driven the development of educational policy in this country for the last 40 years. However, the very policies created to address this perceived problem are merely adding to it, as they have a chilling effect on the creative, innovative and radical ideas that have led our country to that very preeminence that is now being questioned. On the surface these policies seem to make sense, yet standardization in education is the siren’s call leading us to destruction on the rocks of mediocrity. Our children are not standardized, our educational system should not be either.

After 10 years of this type of thinking policy makers have a new fear to add to the fear of America's perceived loss of status; they fear admitting that they were wrong. Even in the face of a growing body of research evidence to the contrary and growing public sentiment in opposition to this accountability standardized test driven reform effort they continue to place more and more measures in place to devalue educators and treat them as technicians rather than professionals.

Fear pervades the public education system in this country today. The consequences from the state for any decline in scores are so great that administrators and teachers are afraid to be truly innovative, because when you push the boundaries you risk failure. Principals and teachers fired, schools taken over by the state and given to companies to run, greater and greater intrusions by state regulatory agencies into the way that teachers teach and buildings are run. We must break this cycle.

We have resources available to us that the educators of prior generations only dreamed about, but it takes time and training for teachers to effectively incorporate those resources into their practice.  The problem is that professional development in schools today often consists of teachers learning how to fill out the appropriate forms to prove what they are already doing rather than learning how to do something new.     

So where does that leave us? It leaves us analyzing page after page of data so that we can assess what we are doing. Major changes in the way we practice involve risk and our system does not reward risk. The consequences for failure are too great. We cannot truly reform the educational system in this country unless we break ourselves free of the bonds tying us to the past and try new, creative and innovative ways to educate our students. It is the teacher’s job to guide students down a new path, however we must grant them the freedom to explore along the way.

I have and will continue to encourage my teachers to push the pedagogical envelope and challenge themselves and their students. We may fail from time to time and our test scores may rise and fall year to year, but test scores are only part of the picture. It is our duty to prepare students to succeed in the world in which they will live, not merely to meet success on a test. My favorite quote on education is from John Dewey “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” The world has changed and education must change with it or we will truly leave our children behind. If we are going to change as a system, it must start with our teachers. Will it be you? I AM DONE BEING AFRAID.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Oh Captain! My Captain!

It is the start of a new school year and our buildings are like persons waking from a slumber. Throughout the summer our custodians and maintenance workers repaired and refreshed our schools making them ready for another year. Teachers arrived and our schools opened their eyes, rolled over, looked at the alarm, and promptly hit the snooze button waiting for the real day to begin. With the entrance of our students the schools reach complete wakefulness, full of life, energy and vitality.

Students may be the life blood of any school, but teachers are its soul. Their enthusiasm imbues the building with a sense of purpose challenging young minds to achieve their potential; to look beyond the obvious and question the world around them. 

The recent death of Robin Williams caused me to reflect upon his amazing career and the myriad of spectacular roles he played: Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam, Peter Pan, Mrs. Doubtfire, and probably my favorite one of his roles, Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society.  A recent article by Sarah Ruddell Beach in the Huffington Post (the full text of which is attached) entitled, What Dead Poets Society Taught Me as a Teacher, explores the impact, which that singular role, by this talented man had on her teaching career.

I would like to say that as a college student in 1989 when the movie was released the character of Mr. Keating inspired me to go into teaching, but that is a decision it would take many more years and an intervening career for me to make. However, upon becoming a teacher and re-watching the movie, Robin Williams did serve as inspiration for the type of teacher I wanted to become.  Those who are familiar with the movie will recognize the Walt Whitman quote that captions this post and remember how it was used by Keating to inspire and challenge his students. He dared them to sever traditional norms and formal structures breaking free of their comfort zone by referring to him not as Mr. Keating, but as My Captain.

I took many of the same ideas away from that movie which Ms. Beach mentions in her article. Education, like many aspects of our lives, is all about relationships. More than anything students want a teacher who is enthusiastic about their subject, that cares about them as an individual, allows them the freedom to explore and develop their passions while setting boundaries and guiding their personal growth.  Content is often irrelevant to students and for teachers it is merely the framework we utilize to prepare our students for life. That is our ultimate role. Curriculum and academic pursuits are important. We must ensure appropriate rigor in our classes and identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in our students in order to support them as learners. However, at the fundamental level, education and schools are about nurturing students’ potential and preparing them for life in our world.

How we accomplish that mission depends greatly upon who we are as individuals and educators. We do not all need to be a flamboyant and extroverted as Mr. Keating to reach our students. We do not have to encourage our students to stand on their desks to alter their point of view (and the lawyer I was in a past career cringes at the thought). It is enough to afford them the freedom to question the world around them, ignite their passions, and engage them in the process of learning. Caring is often evidenced through the kind word, the simple gesture, or gentle nudge in the right direction at a time of indecision. As teachers we must stay true to who we are and not try to be something we are not. Kids can see through such a fa├žade in a heartbeat.    

I think that when it comes down to it, one major area where current education reform initiatives fall short are their lack of heart and compassion for the individual student. Standardized testing, accountability measures, teacher evaluation, and data-driven decision making all try and distill teaching and learning down to data points to be analyzed and interpreted. Our children are more and deserve more than that. It’s important to remember, as Ms. Beach points out in her article, it’s all about the kids!

SO as the school year commences I challenge all teachers to find your inner Mr. Keating. Ignore the distractions, focus on your students, engage their passions and light the fire of knowledge within them. We all start strong; it is how we finish that defines us. The school year is a marathon not a sprint. We must support each other, husband our strength and never lose sight of the reason we entered this profession.

As always, thank you for all you do and have a great school year!!

Click on the link below for the Article by Sarah Ruddell Beach

Friday, June 13, 2014

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again...

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
- Albert Einstein

This quote seems to pop up quite often these days. For over a decade we have been in the grasp of this top-down mandate, accountability driven education “reform” movement and yet we are consistently told we need more oversight, control, standardization and testing because we are still failing. At what point do we truly begin the discussions about the direction we are headed. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so please take a look at the picture below:

2012-2013 Massachusetts Math Growth Model Data

This graph is taken from Edwin Analytics the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Educations Data collection resource for school systems. It depicts growth model data, in math, for every school district in the state of Massachusetts for Spring 2013 (last year). After over a decade of this current “reform” movement, the overwhelming trend remains that school districts with higher poverty show lower achievement and growth than those with lower poverty. The outliers to that trend tend to be some small charter schools that have the ability to cherry pick their student populations skewing the data, but that is a discussion for another day. Even in the face of data like that displayed above, the assertion remains that schools are still failing our society. I would assert that it is rather our society that is failing our schools.

There is currently a decision facing school districts in Massachusetts; that being whether to stay with the MCAS test for another year or transitions to PARCC. This discussion is creating a controversy in many districts as people advocate for one side or another. After meeting recently with a group of teachers in our district one of them pointed out to me that “I can’t believe that they managed to get me to argue FOR MCAS testing”. The point is a good one as it illustrates that much of the energy of advocates for change is focused narrowly around PARCC and the Common Core. The discussion is, and should be, bigger than that narrow focus.

It is not a matter of which standardized test we are subjected to, but rather the overemphasis on the results of those tests as the primary metric whereby we judge student achievement and teacher effectiveness in our schools. This leads to an atmosphere where valuable instructional time is lost to excessive testing. I am more than willing to concede that scores from standardized testing can be A piece of the overall picture of how a school is doing. However, the amount of time we spend on state mandated testing is detrimental to the overall mission of creating successful schools and students.

I am in favor of reaching a compromise and cutting back on the amount of testing required by the state. If we tested students with a 1 hour session of Math and a 1 hour session of ELA each year rather than the multiple sessions with which we are currently faced, we would be provided with useful data while minimizing lost instructional time. A schedule could then be worked out to test Science and Social Studies as well. We could then involve educators in the discussion of other metrics that would be useful to examine in order to determine the overall success of a school. This would lead to a more collaborative environment where all parties were engaged in the discussion to move us forward and break the trend illustrated by the graph featured above. (The graph for ELA is essentially the same)

It is time to stop and rethink the direction we are headed. We need to stop believing that more of the same will elicit a different result. Imagine an educational system where the billions of dollars pumped into Testing and Evaluation were rather infused into professional development to facilitate necessary change in our instructional practices to meet the needs of today’s students. Imagine professional development for teachers that involved learning new strategies for reaching struggling or disengaged learners rather than merely being trained in how to fill out the appropriate forms or upload the necessary evidence to prove you are doing your job. Currently we do not have either the time or money to realize that dream. The results could be powerful and actually work for positive change in our schools. And don’t get me wrong, change is most definitely needed. The problem is we keep getting handed more of the same. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

All change is not growth...

All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward.
- Ellen Glasgow

As the end of another school year approaches I find myself optimistic about the future of our schools. This is the time of year when teachers are tired, trying to squeeze in that last bit of knowledge and keep students engaged as the weather turns nicer and the mercury rises. This has been a challenging year with the implementation of many new regulations and more are on the horizon. My optimism arises from a number of sources. I am proud of the work we have accomplished this year in our schools. I am proud of the work our administrators and teachers have done together to minimize any potential negative impact of all the initiatives and mandates to which we have been forced to respond. I am proud of the fact that our staff has refused to be distracted by external factors and remained focused on our duty of providing a quality education for our students.   

Today I am particularly proud of the action taken by the members of the Ludlow School Committee. The committee members are the elected representatives of our community and thus represent the community's interests and concerns. Today the Ludlow School Committee voted with one voice to support the students of the Ludlow Public Schools. The following is a letter to our legislative representatives which I drafted, and which each of the members have signed, to express their concern about the current educational environment and its effects on our schools. 

May 27, 2014

The Honorable Richard E. Neal     The Honorable Gale D. Candaras       The Honorable Thomas M. Petrolati  
300 State Street, Suite 200            State House, Room 309                      State House, Room 171
Springfield, MA 01105                    Boston, MA 02133                             Boston, MA 02133

Dear Congressman Neal, Senator Candaras and Representative Petrolati:

As school officials whose duty it is to provide for the education of the children in our community, the Ludlow School Committee and the Superintendent of Schools felt compelled to write you this letter to ensure that you are aware of the impact the current educational policy environment is having here in Ludlow.  We would like to thank you for your past and continued support of our schools and hope this information will prove useful in your continued advocacy for the children of Ludlow.  

The current educational policy environment is unlike any we have experienced in the past. To state it quite simply, we are drowning in initiatives, regulations and mandates. Although well intentioned, even if each of them was a good idea, there is no way we could effectively implement them all. This environment is creating a situation where these mandates are getting in the way of each other and working to inhibit necessary change and progress. The number and pace of regulations to which we must respond and comply is increasing at an alarming rate. 

The following information is taken from the testimony of Tom Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, presented to the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Education Committee on June 27, 2013.  An examination of the regulations and documents requiring action by local districts on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website demonstrates that from the years 1996 -2008 (13 years) there were 4,055  (average of 312 each year) documents requiring action of local districts in response to regulations. The same examination conducted on the four year period of 2009-2013 reveals that there were 5,382 (an average of 1077 each year) multiple page documents requiring action by local school districts. How are we effectively supposed to implement local initiatives and meet the needs of our students when we are continually compelled to respond to these excessive bureaucratic requirements?

In addition to the long list of mandates to which schools were already compelled to comply, the past two years have seen the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requiring schools to implement the following:

  • Align our curriculum with the Common Core State Standards
  • Implement the new regulations for educator evaluation
  • Field test the new PARCC exam
  • Develop District Determined Measures (DDM’s) for every subject at every grade in order to assess student progress as part of the new educator evaluation regulations 
  • New English language learner requirements that mandate both intensive teacher training courses and new mode of assessment
  • Implement new Student Discipline Regulations
The deluge of federal and state mandates costs money, takes time to execute, and is working to inhibit effective progress in our schools.  We have no time to implement local initiatives or respond to local concerns. The vast majority of our professional development time is allocated for trainings in order to comply with these mandates. Valuable and necessary professional development important for the growth of our teachers and schools is being pushed aside. Important initiatives such as learning to effectively integrate technology into instructional practices, individualizing instruction to meet the needs of today’s students, and addressing other areas identified by teachers as essential, lack the time necessary for appropriate training. 

Legislative bodies, whether the Congress, the state legislature, or a local School Committee, are responsible to their constituencies, and their decisions reflect the will of the people they represent and to whom they must answer.  We are seeing a disconcerting trend develop, however, where legislators are relinquishing increasing levels of control to bureaucratic agencies that are not responsible to the citizens. These agencies propagate regulations to which local districts must comply with little oversight or constraint. The Ludlow School Committee and Superintendent find this to be unacceptable.  

Concern regarding these issues seems to fall on deaf ears with regard to the Commissioner and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education here in Massachusetts.  Consequently, it is our hope that awareness of these problems will aid you in your advocacy for our children. Rather than continue to propagate top-down mandates compelling compliance, it is time to open a constructive dialogue regarding the direction of public education in the commonwealth. Furthermore, it is time to include educators in the discussion of education reform. They are the ones in the trenches who truly understand the impact these mandates are having on the learning environment in our schools and on our children. 

Thank you for your time and consideration of these important issues. We look forward to hearing your response and hope you will add your voice to the growing concerns about the educational policy environment in this country. 

Very Truly Yours,

Dr. Michael J. Kelliher                                                        Mr. Todd H. Gazda
Chairman, Ludlow School Committee                               Superintendent of Schools

Mrs. Patricia A. Gregoire                                                   Mr. Charles Mullin
Vice-Chairman                                                                   Secretary

Mr. Jacob R. Oliveira                                                        Mr. James "Chip" Harrington
Member                                                                              Member

The groundswell of opposition continues to grow as more people get informed and become engaged with the discussion around education policy and "reform". The voices are getting louder and unifying into a message that our current course of action is not acceptable. I encourage everyone to contact their representatives at the State and Federal levels to let them know of our dissatisfaction and concern. This is not some fringe element and the more people who contact those in charge of making policy the more likely it is that change will happen. For a legislator, one person contacting them is an anomaly, five is a concern, 25 is a protest, and 50+ is a movement. It is time to create a movement to change the future of education for our students. They deserve it.  

Links to contact our Local Representatives

Representative Thomas M. Petrolati

Senator Gale Candaras

U.S. Congressman Richard Neal
Click here to contact Congressman Neal

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren
Click here to contact Senator Warren

U.S. Senator Edward Markey
Click here to contact Senator Markey

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

With appreciation to the brilliant teachers...

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.
- Carl Jung

We can all remember that great teacher; the person who inspired our imagination and lit the fire of learning. Who challenged us to question the world around us and nurtured our creative impulses. Who pushed us to excel, to go beyond that which we thought we were capable, and succeed where we didn't think it was possible. Often-times the actual content that these teachers taught us was irrelevant and had little to do with the impact they had in our lives. They were caring professionals who let us know we were valued, particularly at those times when we were uncertain.

Teachers teach much more than math, English, music, computers or any other specific content area. Teachers teach life and work to imbue students with the skills necessary to grow into successful adults. Educational reform today focuses much of its attention on standards, tests and holding people accountable, but often absent from the discussion is the heart, compassion and nurturing aspect of our job. Where is the concern for the struggling child trying to find themselves or their place in this world?  A teacher is often that individual who guides the student through that journey. Who smooths out the bumps, provides support, advice and guidance. A teacher is often the person who is there when students stumble and help them up when they fall. This is an essential part of the teachers’ role not captured by standardized assessments.

This week is teacher appreciation week. At least for this week, policy makers will refrain from telling us how teachers and our schools are failing. They will applaud teachers for their dedication and hard work. They will recognize excellence in the profession and hold up examples of teachers’ who have dramatically impacted students’ lives. My question to you is why do we only do this for a week? For the most part, teachers labor in the obscurity of their classrooms neither seeking nor receiving recognition for their efforts.

Teachers enter this profession for a love of children and learning. By and large they are caring professionals who get up each morning to make a difference in the lives of our children. Teaching is not a job for most, but rather a passion and a calling. The art and practice of teaching is one of the most difficult and challenging of professions. Anyone who doubts this should try and keep the attention and focus of a group of 8th graders on a hot afternoon in May or maybe you would like to try your hand at teaching 3rd graders the Friday before Christmas break. How about trying to grab the attention of seniors this time of year with one foot out the door?  

During the day teachers get little down time and are constantly fielding a barrage of questions on topics ranging from academic content to relationship advice.  They return home at the end of the day exhausted, yet with papers still to grade and lessons still to plan. They do not get to choose the students they teach, but must educate all who come through their doors. Each student is an individual who comes to them with their own set of experiences, strengths and weakness. Some come from affluent socially connected families and others from broken homes. Yet teachers teach and care for them all trying to help them learn, find their passions and engage their imaginations.

So to you teachers, I want to say thank you for all you do. Thank you for your caring and understanding. Thank you for your zeal and excellence. Thank you for igniting passions, instilling a love of learning and working to create young adults ready to participate in our society. I am inspired by your example and count myself blessed to consider you colleagues and friends.

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down...

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.     - G.K. Chesterton

In my last several posts I have highlighted concerns I have with the current reform environment in our country. However, it is easy to point the finger without offering any solutions. The following are some ideas for ways we could approach the situation in a different, and at least in my mind, more productive manner. This list is not meant to be a comprehensive or in depth analysis. That would be the suitable topic for a book. These are merely intended as ideas to stimulate discussion and maybe, just maybe, begin the process for productive reforms.

The process of change is never easy and compromise can often be a bitter pill to swallow. The larger the organization or system the more difficult it is to institute comprehensive meaningful change. When you are talking about changing public education in the United States you are looking at a monumental undertaking. There is no silver bullet. This is not a process that can be effectively navigated though top-down, mandate driven reform where that change is simply imposed upon educators with minimal input from them on the substance and process by which that change occurs.  Educators are professionals and should be treated as such by those developing the policies and regulations by which our professional activities are governed. Change through coercion, threat or fear will not be effective and we must engage with teachers to develop meaningful strategies for comprehensive reform.

1. First and foremost we need to treat our teachers with respect and value their professionalism, experience and opinions. We need to stop viewing teachers and unions as adversaries that must be controlled, but rather treat them the professionals that they are and engage them in the process of change. All educators recognize that we need to change our instructional practices to meet the needs of today’s students. We must stop expecting students to learn the way we teach, but rather we must work together to develop strategies to teach the way they learn. Our country is now well into the Information Age and this access to an often-overwhelming amount of information is creating a cultural shift the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Industrial Revolution.  Our schools are lagging behind in this transition, but the current accountability driven landscape is not conducive towards moving us in the right direction as we are too busy trying to comply with the latest mandate to come down the road.

2. Please give educators room to breath. Even assuming that all the initiatives we are required to implement are good ideas it is impossible to effectively implement them all at once. The volume and pace of these mandates are inhibiting our ability to make effective process. We need to slow down the rate of this transition in order to have time for a productive dialogue. Systemic change can not be accomplished overnight and we need time to implement initiatives in a thoughtful manner so as to adequately assess their effectiveness. 

3. Common Core: Massachusetts has always been considered a leader in the standards based education movement. The previous Massachusetts State Standards were created by teachers working in conjunction with the Department of Education. These teachers were both experts in their content areas and experienced in teaching students at the appropriate grade levels. This insured that the standards covered the necessary content while at the same time being developmentally appropriate for the grade level at which they were taught. It also lent credibility to both the process and the product that was created. The use of those standards by our schools made Massachusetts a world leader in the field of education.
I am not against the Common Core State Standards, but would like to see us utilize them as a model upon which to base our own state standards. The very name implies such a process.There is much about those standards that I feel is beneficial and works to create a positive instructional shift in our classroom practices. The problem with the  2011 Massachusetts State Standards for English Language Arts and math is that the implementation has been a disaster. We moved too quickly to full implementation without taking the time to engage all stakeholders in the discussion. This has led to our current situation where misinformation abounds and levels of distrust are rising. Additionally, teachers have not had the time and training nor been given the necessary resources to effectively implement the new standards. I would encourage those at the Department of Education to restore the Standards Committees and review the 2011 Massachusetts State Standards for English Language Arts and math. This will once again engage educators in the development of our standards creating an open and transparent process to lend credibility to the final product thereby creating ownership while addressing the concerns expressed by many teachers.

4. Standardized Testing: We must end this unproductive fixation upon standardized testing as the primary metric whereby we assess the success or failure of our students, teachers and schools. Research consistently demonstrates that test scores as they are currently being utilized are not effective at determining true student ability or teacher performance. Policy makers give lip service to educating the whole child while creating a situation that forces us to narrow our curricular offerings, particularly in this time of fiscal uncertainty.
            Rather than focus on improving our students’ ability to score well on standardized tests, let us focus once again on producing students who have the broad range of skills necessary to be productive participants in our modern society. Innovation and creativity are the hallmarks of our nation and have led to the United States being a world leader. These characteristics should be encouraged through a broad curriculum that allows students to find what they are passionate about and inspires them to achieve. As Leonardo Da Vinci recognized well before the advent of standardized tests,  “Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” 

5. It is time for policy makers to put adequate resources aside to make the necessary changes to education. Additionally, this competition driven market approach to education is unproductive. Competition by its very nature necessitates that there be a winner and a loser. None of our children should be allowed to fall into the later category. Education is based upon the concept of collaboration. We must bring that back into the discussion and support the programs necessary to achieve sustainable change and the long-term success of our students and our schools.

6. Schools are increasingly called upon to serve a social service role in our society. We provide programs for behaviorally challenged students, offer counseling services, advise families and provide meals along with a myriad of other services often without having appropriate training or resources. One of the best decisions our district has made to improve the quality and climate of our schools was the addition of licensed clinical social workers to work with our staff, students and parents. This has had a dramatic impact on the overall school climate as well as aiding teachers with appropriate strategies to utilize in working with disruptive or troubled students. The problem is that these individuals are overwhelmed by the need for their services.
            One idea to help in providing necessary services to children and families would be to embed workers from the State Department of Children and Families in each school district. Schools and educators have the most information on those families that are struggling and in need of support. However, often due to poor communication or lack of follow through our concerns go unheeded. Placing DCF workers in the districts would bring them to where the difficulties truly manifest themselves and work to strengthen the relationships between two organizations (schools and DCF) that provide vital services for our children. This solution would involve a financial commitment by the State, but in the end the results could potentially be dramatic.

7. We cannot truly change our educational practices or reform our schools until we work to update how we train our teachers. It is time for High Education and K-12 to stop pointing fingers at each other and work together to develop new strategies for training teachers. This is not something either entity should try and accomplish on it’s own. We need to bring together representative practitioners from each level to work together with state policy makers to create a system that prepares teachers for the realities of a modern classroom. If we are to strengthen the abilities of our teachers, we must work together to strengthen the processes by which they are created.
            We must then continue that partnership to provide relevant training opportunities for our current teachers so that they are afforded the opportunity to learn and grow as professionals. We must work to ensure that such professional development opportunities are not what administrators or policy makers think they need, but are responsive to what teachers feel they need to improve their craft. If we listen to those concerns, we will go a long way to reforming our instructional practices to address our current situation. 

As I stated at the beginning of this post this list is not meant to be a comprehensive or in-depth analysis. This is merely a starting point for the discussion. Learning should be inspirational and fun. Young children recognize this and are eager to absorb and understand the world around them. We need to stop our arguing with each other long enough to figure out how to maintain that level of enthusiasm throughout their educational career. For all the stress, frustrations and the headaches, I love my job. Every day I get to go to work with people who care about children and want to prepare them for life. It is time that as a country we stop spinning our wheels, end the bickering, and work together for lasting positive change in our schools. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

WE the People of the United States...

The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments. – Senator William H. Borah (1865-1940)

There is an apparent disconnect between the development and implementation of educational policy in the United States. Since the very inception of our country, public education has fallen under the purview of the states through the application of the 10th amendment which reserves all powers to the states that are not expressly granted to the Federal Government by the Constitution. This was not an oversight by the founding fathers. It was yet another expression of a young nation’s healthy suspicion of an overly powerful central government and the colonial tradition of a locally controlled educational system responsive to local needs and identity. In recent years, the educational system in the United States has received a substantial amount of negative attention and, as it currently functions, has been deemed a problem. Consequently, a great deal of political attention and energy has been dedicated to the creation of policies designed as a reaction to this perceived crisis. The fact that education is now considered a national problem, in what has traditionally been a state and locally controlled area, exacerbates the tensions inherent in a federal system.

As I have stated before, education is an inherently local pursuit. Each community has its own distinct culture and climate. As Americans we revel in and celebrate our differences while remaining committed to the larger concept of our Nation. Uniformity of expectations, particularly when imposed with little substantive input from those who must implement them, leads not to exceptionalism, but rather drives us towards mediocrity. I understand that this statement seems almost counter intuitive. If we are all held to a high standard then we should all excel. Right? However if, as an implementer of educational policy, my beliefs, values, opinions and expertise are not contained in those expectations then I will not value them. If I do not value them, then I will merely comply with the mandates I have no choice but to carry out. I will not be inspired to go beyond what is required. I will resist, most likely passively, and try to squeeze in those practices that align with my beliefs and local established priorities.

The Federal Government has no direct authority over the field of education. It exercises its will upon the states in this arena through the application of the Federal Government’s spending power. It is not mandatory for states to implement federal initiatives such as Race to the Top. Nevertheless, failure to do so means they will forgo any federal funds for education allocated through this program. There is no doubt that Race to the Top, although it is coercive, is a permissible use of Congress’ spending power. The Federal Government has the right to set conditions for the receipt of those funds available under this initiative (see South Dakota v. Dole). However, in this time of fiscal austerity, I find such coercive use of the Federal Government’s authority to be unconscionable. How can they fail to fully fund long-term bedrock federal education programs such as Head Start and IDEA while creating competitive politically motivated initiatives designed to nationalize our educational system?

As educators we are ultimately responsible for the implementation of any new policy and with that responsibility comes the power to determine just how it will be implemented in our individual districts, schools and classrooms.. How do we navigate this crowded mandate driven landscape? The answer is simple. When a new initiative is handed down from above (state or federal) local educators need to work together to determine if this initiative is one we feel will positively impact learning in our district. If it will not, then we need to determine what the minimum compliance level is for that mandate so as not to risk penalties imposed by the State or Federal government. Initiatives we believe in are the ones we put our time, resources and effort behind, along with our own locally established priorities. A problem remains however, as you can only stretch resources so far and the numbers of mandates are crushing us so that even this approach is becoming challenging.

This leads to the situation in which we now find ourselves where local initiatives are crowded out by State and Federal mandates. Locally elected officials no longer have the ability to align available resources with the priorities of their communities as much of those resources must be allocated to cover legislative requirements. At the state level, the intentions of federal educational policies often fall apart when they run into local realities. This phenomenon is also seen as unintended consequences occur when state policies are implemented at the school and district level, creating unforeseen costs or new challenges to be overcome. This tension is present in all aspects of the management of governmental affairs, but the fact that education affects children adds an emotional component to the discussion.

Legislation alone is not enough to compel sustainable effective change in a school environment. Implementation of externally defined accountability standards such as those imposed by the Federal Government on states and which the states then pass on to the schools often meet with resistance. Policies that affect a school environment must be flexible and adaptable to the individual needs of the specific school community in which they are to be implemented. Educators, parents and the community must be engaged in the process of change, and their input valued in order for implementation of a new policy to be successful because they are the individuals who should ultimately have control over educational systems.

Policies are not static and the changing political climate in the United States often alters the direction of the public’s will as expressed through the laws passed by its legislators. It is time for us to remove all doubt and make our will known. We have had over a decade of the top down mandate driven reform effort and yet our policy makers insist our educational system is still failing. It is time to try a different approach. Rather than pushing educators aside or viewing them as opponents in the debate, engage them in the discussion. Utilize their knowledge and experience to make lasting substantive changes that will allow our educational system the freedom to strive for excellence.

It is evident from the growing discontent from educators and parents that they do not feel their voices have been heard in the educational policy debate occurring in this country. These are the groups that must be engaged and whose views should be given the most weight in the final determination of the direction we should take. I encourage you to contact your state and federal representatives. Make your voices heard. It is my hope that the voices are beginning to speak loudly and with enough of a common message that policy makers will soon be forced to listen.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rage, Rage against the dying of the light

These words by Dylan Thomas have always resonated for me particularly in time of adversity.  The current educational environment definitely qualifies as such a time for educators.  I have had the privilege during my career in education to serve in either an administrative or teaching capacity at all levels of the public education system (Prek-12). When children enter our system they are full of the light of curiosity and wonder. Each day brings new discoveries and teachers have the opportunity to guide that journey. Slowly, as the years progress, our educational system as currently configured seems to drive out that sense of curiosity and wonder in favor of conformity, accountability and rigor.  Teachers along the way struggle to keep students engaged and yet the volume of what they have to cover in a given year works against them.

Creativity and innovation take time. Time to conduct activities necessary to nurture those qualities. Time for teachers to plan those activities required for stimulating and engaging students’ imaginations. Unfortunately, time is something of a premium in today’s schools. Educators struggle to implement and respond to all the initiatives promulgated by the State and Federal government. Professional development days are often dedicated to attempting to insure compliance with mandates rather than being responsive to what teachers feel are the areas important for them to hone their craft and improve instruction in their classroom. Furthermore, when it seems that there just might be some breathing room, and that happens very infrequently these days, we are hit with another mandate to “improve” our schools. Educators are fatigued. There is no other way to describe it. Teachers entered this profession to inspire students to explore the world around them to discover and follow their passions. Watching students shut down at an earlier and earlier age tears at the core of their professionalism.

Now that we are bringing supposed "rigor" down to lower grade levels and many children are beginning to struggle with the material, those same teachers are being attacked for questioning whether it is developmentally appropriate. The guiding force behind this movement accuses them or at the very least implies that they are lazy or soft and don't support a rigorous curriculum. That is far from the truth and I ask you: Who has the professional expertise to make the determination of what constitutes appropriate rigor? Why have teachers largely been left out of this discussion?

The light of creativity and student engagement are the greatest casualties of the education reform movement. Teachers recognize this and express frustration, but their concerns are disregarded or minimized. We will not achieve greatness in our educational system until we break free of the bonds that are driving us towards mediocrity. We have had over a decade of minimal growth under our current reform efforts and yet the response is that we have to increase those same types of mandates. At what point do we realize our error and open the discussion to find an alternative? Some productive middle ground where we hold educators accountable while recognizing their professionalism and work with them to develop a system that functions without being oppressive. 

No one ever achieved greatness merely by having someone constantly look over their shoulder. Greatness occurs when remarkable people are inspired to push beyond the ordinary. It occurs when we have time to reflect on our current practices to create curriculum, units and lessons that engage students and ignite their passions. The “stick” approach to education is not getting us the gains we need so it is time to find the carrot. It is time to shift our thinking from focusing on the delivery of content to a focus on the questions that our content is designed to answer. We must develop an educational system where students are inspired to explore, question and push themselves to discover their world. Finally, educators we need to make our voices heard; do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Enough is Enough!

We are at a pivotal juncture in this country with respect to education. Over the past decade, we have seen a dramatic escalation in the involvement of the Federal Government in education. There seems to be the belief in Washington that the alleged problems in public education in the U.S. can be corrected through national standards, increased regulations, standardized testing, and mandates regarding what and how our children should be taught. It seems that government at both the State and Federal levels want to take control of education away from locally elected officials and place that control in the hands of bureaucrats in the various state capitals and Washington.  Nowhere is that practice more evident than here in Massachusetts

We are drowning in initiatives. Even if they were all good ideas, there is no way we could effectively implement them all. They are getting in the way of each other and working to inhibit necessary change and progress. The number and pace of regulations to which we must respond and comply is increasing at an alarming rate. The following information is taken from the testimony of Tom Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, presented to the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Education Committee on June 27, 2013.  An examination of the regulations and documents requiring action by local districts on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website demonstrates that from the years 1996 -2008 (13 years) there were 4,055  (average of 312 each year) documents requiring action of local districts in response to regulations. The same examination conducted on the four year period of 2009-2013 reveals that there were 5,382 (an average of 1077 each year) multiple page documents requiring action by local school districts. How are we effectively supposed to implement local initiatives and meet the needs of our students when we are mired in this bureaucratic nightmare of a system?

Education is an inherently local pursuit. To view it otherwise is misguided and detrimental to the mission of educating our children. In order for schools to be effective they must be responsive to the culture of the community in which they reside. The culture of those individual communities differ greatly and mandates which dictate uniformity for schools across the state, and now even the nation, are in direct contravention to that reality.  Educational historian, David Tyack, stated that "The search for the one best system has ill served the pluralistic character of American Society. Bureaucracy has often perpetuated positions and outworn practices rather than serving the clients, the children to be taught."

Current education reform is not designed to truly change education it merely adds additional levels of bureaucracy to an already overburdened system. The extreme emphasis on standardized testing is an unproductive exercise in bureaucratic compliance. As educators, however, if we speak out against the standardized testing movement and the amount of time it takes away from instruction then we are not for accountability. If we point out that many of the standardized test questions are not developmentally appropriate for the age of the students to whom they are being given, then we are not for rigor.  

Assessments are an essential part of education. They serve as diagnostic tools that afford teachers the opportunity to determine areas where students need extra assistance or demonstrate when a topic needs to be re-taught. However, standardized tests whose scores take months to arrive, often after the student has moved on to another teacher, have a limited utility for shaping the educational environment. I am concerned that we are creating students who will excel in taking multiple choice tests. Unfortunately, life is not a multiple choice test. Enough is enough!

It is time for educators to push back against the standardized, centralized, top-down mandate driven school reform environment.  I agree with the need for standards, but those standards need to be broadly written. Local communities, school boards, administrators and teachers should then be afforded the flexibility to demonstrate how they have worked to creatively to implement local initiatives in order to meet those broadly construed standards.  The problem is that it is difficult to boil down creativity to a data point and that makes bureaucrats uncomfortable to say the least.

Well, where does that leave us? Education in the United States is constantly being compared to the systems in countries around the world. One important characteristic of education in those countries, which is consistently linked to the success of their students, is the esteem with which they hold their educators. It is time to treat our teachers with respect. It is time that we involve teachers in the discussion to set the direction for education in this country.  They are the ones with the training and expertise. They are on the front lines in this battle.  It is time that as educators we let our representatives at the state and federal levels know that we are headed in the wrong direction. It is time that, rather than be influenced by special interests, we focus on the students and the skills they need to be successful in our modern society. I will do my part. Will You?