Thursday, December 17, 2015

It is the supreme art of the teacher ...

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.
-          -  Albert Einstein

During my professional career in education, I spent a short time (a year and a half) as an elementary school principal and one of the things I was fascinated by was the joy and enthusiasm with which those children approach learning. Somewhere along their educational journey our system quenches or at least diminishes that light for many of our students.  Our current system rewards compliance and a standardized education for all students ensuring, and even requiring, that all students learn the same things while following the same or very similar paths. Topics and areas that the students themselves care and are passionate about are relegated to secondary roles, if addressed at all, and consequently many students become disenfranchised by the experience. Students are left feeling like what they are learning in school has little application in their lives. Educators recognize the importance of creativity and student engagement, but at each step remain constrained by the system in which we labor.

 President Obama recently signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, replacing No Child Left Behind as the latest version of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. However, once again there is little to awaken joy in creative expression contained in that legislation. I admit that some of the changes scale down some of the most egregious elements of NCLB and Race to the Top providing more flexibility to the states for judging school performance and even give a passing nod to the importance of music and the arts. However, again we have a law that does not CHANGE our educational system to one responsive to the needs of our information age society and its children. It merely tweaks aspects of our outdated industrial model of education.  

It is interesting to note that the 1965 version of this federal law was 32 pages whereas the ESSA is almost 400 pages long. The original legislation provided guidance and support to the states whereas this newest version continues its mission of striving to dictate much of the process. Legislators are clapping each other on the back and lauding the bipartisanship with which this newest iteration of that 1965 law was accomplished.  However, it is time to stop tinkering and begin the difficult process and hard work of truly REFORMING our educational system.

For almost 15 years failed policies have driven “reform” legislation, regulations and initiatives. Rather than assess the performance of those polices and ask educational professionals for their opinions on how to improve the system, policy makers continue to put forth more of the same. Charter schools, privatization, competition driven funding, standardized testing and accountability metrics rather than working to stimulate improvement have generated flat performance. Instead of recognizing that these market driven type reform policies themselves were flawed, policy makers blame schools and teachers for the lack of success. When educators express our concerns, those concerns are labeled as “counter-productive grumbling” implying, or sometimes even directly stating, that if we just tried harder these reforms would be successful.

However, current educational policy initiatives (I refuse to call them reforms), such as ESSA, continue to miss the bigger picture. What is happening in public education is merely a reflection of what is happening in our society at large. As our society experiences a cultural shift, from industrial society to information based and from a nation focused to a global focused world view, the tensions created by that dynamic are straining our ideals, clouding our vision and having the effect of polarizing those responsible for making the decisions.  Just look at the current presidential campaign for an excellent example of how this is playing out on the national stage. Given that fact, I don’t know whether to be concerned or grateful that presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat, have had little, if anything, to say about their vision for public education.

Quite frankly, we’ve lost our way. Although assessment data is essential for making effective and appropriate educational decisions both for schools and individual students, over reliance on data is stripping the soul from our schools.  Catchphrases, and clichés such as “Increasing Rigor” and “Accountability” are getting in the way of deep thought and hard discussions about necessary change. It should be simple or at least straightforward. Teachers are professionals with years of training behind them. They know their craft and are continuously working to refine and improve their practices. Students come to school to learn, some more willingly than others, and teachers strive to impart upon them the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in life. We need to begin the hard work of building a new system that individualizes instruction and assessment for each student leveraging their interests and passions for real learning rather than relegating them to a secondary role. Our country requires an educational system that encourages creativity and engages students in meaningful lessons utilizing authentic assessment strategies to determine growth and achievement.

We know what to do and the work has already begun. Around the country consortiums of schools and districts are forming (New Hampshire and California provide two notable examples), with educators working together to develop new ways to assess students’ progress that are responsive to the needs of today’s schools and provide greater richness and depth of information than what we get from a standardized state test. We need to include higher education professionals in the discussion so that the teachers of tomorrow bring with them the skills necessary to keep the momentum of change going adding their own stamp to the system in the process. We must provide schools with the resources to offer teachers meaningful professional development to stimulate and prepare for this change.

 I conclude with optimism. Public pressure and grass roots lobbying efforts are slowly opening doors once closed and meaningful substantive change is possible. The public must continue to apply the pressure so that educators are afforded the flexibility to begin implementing innovative methods for both delivery of instruction and assessment of progress. Today it is in fashion to use fear to motivate the American people. It is time that rather than give in to those who would motivate us by fear, we listen to a message that encourages us to hope.  Now is the time to dream big and aspire to change our educational system providing our children with the tools necessary to serve both themselves and our society.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

One Trick Pony ...

Here we go again. On November 18, 2015, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, attended another rally in support of Governor Baker’s legislation designed to raise the cap on charter schools entitled, "An Act to Improve and Expand Educational Opportunity”.  I find it disturbing that the only educational policy coming out of the Governor’s office on how to reform public education continues to be the need for more charter schools. Governor Baker, Secretary of Education James Peyser, Chairman of the Board of Education Paul Sagan have no vision for public education in the Commonwealth other than to continue advocating for the need to increase the number of charter schools in the State. This is understandable given the fact that the only educational experience these individuals have is in working for, and with, the charter school industry. This proposal by Governor Baker effectively devalues the hard work occurring on a daily basis by our dedicated educators in public schools across the state. The underlying implication and theme of this legislation is that students must be saved from failing public schools and charters are the only way to accomplish that goal.

According to a recent press release, Governor Baker has stated that “Every child in the Commonwealth deserves the opportunity to access high-quality education regardless of their zip code or background, and this bill would help make that a reality”. The Governor went on to state that “We have some of the best charter schools in the nation, and this legislation would allow more families access to them, while opening up new opportunities for district-charter partnerships on behalf of communities with the greatest educational challenges”. It is time for the Governor to realize that charter schools are not the silver bullet that will “fix” what he obviously considers to be a broken public education system. Public education is not “broken”; however it is in need of true reform and his stance is counterproductive to that endeavor.

I agree that all children deserve access to a high quality education. That is expressly the reason we need to begin substantive discussions at the state level on how to truly reform public education in the commonwealth. I would argue that we have some of the best SCHOOLS in the country and that the charter school movement has not lived up to the promise that inspired its creation. The idea being proposed by the Baker administration that this bill would also lead to increased collaboration between public schools and these quasi-private charter schools is pure folly. The environment established by this legislation is one that rewards competition over collaboration as one school model succeeds at the detriment of the other because charter schools drain vital resources from public schools.  In this instance this would dramatically impact those communities which need the funds the most.  If charter schools are such a great model for educational innovation, then allow public schools the same flexibility afforded to charter schools and you will begin to see lasting sustainable change in our educational system.

Charter schools were supposed to serve as a place for innovative practices that could then be shared and replicated in the public schools. As the leader of a public school district I have yet to witness the sharing of any those supposedly innovative practices. On a daily basis, public school systems across the state develop and implement innovative instructional practices and new theories for educational change. We then share those ideas freely with each other in a collaborative environment which provides for and encourages professional and systemic growth. This occurs even while we labor in an educational environment where we are handcuffed by a system that is flooded with state and federal mandates, encourages standardization, and ultimately rewards compliance over innovation. These elements working together have a dramatic chilling effect on that innovation. What is truly remarkable is that public schools continue to work together in this environment to initiate and sustain educational change even within such a bureaucratically burdened system.

Additionally, as originally intended, charter schools were supposed to serve student populations whose needs public schools were unable to effectively address. However, this no longer seems to be the purpose as the Governor and the members of his team hold up charters as being superior educational institutions even before anyone has seen the plans or proposals for those new schools. Thus it appears, in his mind, and the minds of those he has chosen to set the educational policy agenda for his administration, that charter schools are inherently better than what he considers to be failing public schools. The accuracy of that philosophy was even challenged by Attorney General Maura Healey in response to the litigation seeking to raise the cap on charters when she stated that “Not all charter schools in Massachusetts are high-performing, in fact, it is not unusual for the department or the board to impose conditions on existing charter schools, or close them because they do not perform as required.”

Recently, at the Joint Education Committee Hearing, the Governor repeatedly held up the Phoenix Academy Charter Schools, such as those in Springfield and Chelsea, as examples of successful charter schools. It is ironic that the only charter schools he pointed to as an example of successful schools in that testimony were charter schools that served a very specific student population: At-risk students in danger of dropping out. These schools actually serve the purpose for which charters were originally conceived; as a complement to the public schools and filling a gap or serving a student population whose needs the public schools were having trouble satisfying. This is far from his current proposal to seeking to raise the cap on charter schools which are designed to supplant rather than supplement the mission of public schools.

In direct counterpoint to his approach to public education are the Governor’s proposals to fight the opioid epidemic facing the state. Although I do not agree with all of the measures he is proposing to address the problem of opioid abuse, the Governor’s strategies evidence a clear vision and concrete strategies to combat the issue. These proposals have stimulated a productive dialogue that is working to initiate positive and productive change in the system. He has accomplished all of this without implying that hospitals, doctors and other health care professionals have failed and that the people of our state deserve better. It would be refreshing if teachers and public schools were afforded the same courtesy.

It is time for the Governor to display the same leadership and vision with regard to public education that he has exhibited in his proposals to address the opioid crisis. Rather than attacking public schools and devaluing the hard work of educators it is time for him to present some ideas for true education reform that engage educators in the process rather than alienate them by seeking to supplant their schools with private charter schools paid for by our public funds. Rather than funnel more money away from public schools into new charter schools, we need to dedicate those funds to improving education for ALL our students, not just a segment of our population as the Governor’s legislation would do. It is time for our executive branch to rally in support of all our kids and schools rather than merely be a cheerleader for the charter school movement. It is time for our Governor to prove he is more than a one trick pony with regard to educational innovation and reform.

Monday, November 2, 2015

I Have a Dream...

Dr. Martin Luther King gave the "I have a dream" speech, not the "I have a plan" speech. - Simon Sinek

I recently heard this quote and it immediately resonated with me as I continue to work through, in my own mind, the direction public education in this country is headed and the concept of educational reform. In 1837 when Horace Mann was appointed as Secretary of the newly formed Board of Education in Massachusetts I am confident that he had a plan to reform public education in the Commonwealth.  However, more important than that, he had a vision of a public education system that both satisfied the needs of a new society, marked by a transition from agricultural to industrial economy, as well as the needs of those children that system would serve.  If Horace Mann had only had a plan, it is unlikely our educational system would have undergone major change at that time. It was his vision, relentless drive, dedication and dream of a new educational system that prompted systemic change and ushered in a new era of public education in America.

The United States, and the world, finds itself in a situation similar to that confronting Horace Mann in 1837. We are in the midst of a cultural shift the likes of which we haven’t seen since the world transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. As we seek to navigate this transition from the industrial to the information age our educational system is lagging behind. Sadly current educational reform initiatives have forsaken this idea of visionary change as they merely continue to impose additional outdated industrial model standardization and accountability provisions on our already overburdened system. It is time to recognize the folly of our path which has failed to demonstrate the results intended. It is time to work together to develop a truly new and transformational approach to how we educate our children, rather than remain stuck in the industrial world of the 19th and 20th century. It is time for Massachusetts to once again assume a leadership role in the development of that system, rather than continue to follow the crowd.

I am not Horace Mann or Dr. Martin Luther King, but I HAVE A DREAM:

I HAVE A DREAM that rather than a focus on standardizing education for all students we will develop a system that personalizes the educational experience for each student. Our students are not standardized and the education they receive should not be either.

I HAVE A DREAM that policy makers will begin to listen to the educational experts at all levels rather than lobbyists and special interest groups. We have the experience, training, and passion for our profession that is necessary to create a vision for change. It is time that we are seen as equals in this process rather than obstacles.

I HAVE A DREAM that educators in k-12 and Higher Ed will work together to dramatically change the way we train our teachers in order to create an educational system that honors the individuality of our children and the information age in which we live. We need to train teachers in student centered methods of instruction providing them with the skills and training necessary so that they are more comfortable giving up control in their classrooms. This will allow us to break out of the “Sage on the Stage” mentality to one where teachers guide rather than direct student learning.

I HAVE A DREAM of an educational system that reduces the reliance on standardized testing as the primary metric whereby we judge student achievement and teacher/school performance. It is time to reallocate the billions of dollars spent on testing to develop and sustain alternate authentic forms of assessment as a means to judge student achievement/growth and school performance.

I HAVE A DREAM of an educational system that values creativity and innovation more than accountability and compliance. Policy makers give lip service to the need for innovative practices without the time, money and resources to make those practices a reality. Rather than come up with the next best test, let’s come up with the next best way to teach our students using authentic assessment to judge progress.

I HAVE A DREAM of a country that appreciates and supports its teachers rather than one which blames, devalues them and tries to tear them down. We are experiencing a time where fewer people want to enter into the teaching profession and where those that do often leave within the first five years because they do not feel valued and supported in what is a very difficult job. It is time to reverse that trend and afford teachers the respect they deserve more often than once a year during teacher appreciation week.

I HAVE A DREAM of a day when professional development for teachers involves more than training them to ensure compliance with the newest mandate or on how to upload evidence to prove they are doing their jobs. It is time to provide the resources so that schools can work with teachers to develop meaningful professional development that assists teachers in growing as professionals and changing their practices to meet the needs of today’s students. 

Finally, I HAVE A DREAM of a time when dreams are more important than plans. Where we stop tinkering with failed reform ideas and work together for wholesale transformative change. No one can argue against the importance of planning if we are to initiate large-scale, sustainable, systemic change. However, we are mired in a bureaucratic system that rewards beautiful plans more than a comprehensive holistic view of change. It is time to do what is hard and not what is easy or expedient. If we are to create a modern educational system that is responsive to the current needs of our children and society, we need to dream big and create a vision for change rather than maintain a rigid focus on accountability and compliance.

I HAVE A DREAM…will you share it with me?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

In Defense of PUBLIC Schools…

It seems that the debate over charter schools is once again heating up in Massachusetts. Proposed legislation by Governor Baker, a lawsuit by students, and an upcoming ballot question all seek to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. This is a matter on which I have remained silent until now as Ludlow thankfully does not have a charter school in town and we lose few students (19) to charter schools in surrounding communities. However, given the tenor of the debate surrounding this topic and its importance to my colleagues in other communities I felt it was time to explore this issue.

Recently I had the opportunity to listen to Massachusetts Secretary of Education Peyser speak to a group of superintendents in Western Mass. He took advantage of this meeting to outline his philosophy regarding the necessary steps that he believed should be taken to strengthen public education in our State. I am forced to admit that I came away from that meeting impressed with the Secretary as an individual. It is easy to see why he was a successful businessman and politician. He is personable, articulate and most importantly appears to be a man of integrity. He is firm in his beliefs and does not shy away from or change his message even when speaking to a group of educators, many of whom he knows do not agree with his educational philosophy. Furthermore, there were portions of his philosophy, such as a focus on the “school” as the primary unit to concentrate educational reform efforts, with which I actually agree. However, his support and emphasis on the idea of “choice” and charter schools as a primary vehicle for positive change in public schools is, in my estimation, flawed.

The Secretary and charter school advocates in general claim that the creation of more charter schools will help close the achievement gap. However, a look at the student achievement data, demonstrates that this assertion is not accurate.  When taken in the aggregate charter schools do not show an appreciable difference in student performance as compared to traditional public schools.  Additionally, by the very nature of the fact that parents have to take the action of enrolling their children in a charter school, those parents demonstrate an additional level of participation in their children’s education. Research has consistently demonstrated that parental involvement has a dramatic impact on student achievement. Consequently, an increase in the number of charter schools will see a further decrease in those types of students and families in traditional public schools and a reduction in the number of high achieving positive role model students. This can only serve to weaken the public school system in the affected community.

Moreover, Secretary Peyser conceded at that recent meeting that Charter schools are often too small and lack the resources to effectively service students with special needs. Therefore those students must stay in the public schools. Consequently, as currently organized, we are setting up a tiered educational system in our commonwealth where those students whose parents are actively involved in their education can avail themselves of this idea for “choice” leaving the rest, along with students with substantial special needs, in the public schools.

Policy makers who are charter school advocates espouse the idea that competition and a partnership between traditional public schools and charter schools will strengthen both entities. However, once again that idea is flawed. Educators know that healthy collaboration leads to greater improvement for teachers and schools. However, the only thing worse for a public school system than a charter school moving into the community is for more than one to move into the surrounding area. The fiscal impact on a school system can be dramatic. Take a relatively small district such as Ludlow with a student population of about 2,800 students. The Ludlow Public Schools are lucky in that we do not have a charter school in our town and lose few students (19) to charter schools in surrounding communities. However, even that small number of students has a big financial impact on our fiscal resources. In FY’16 the state has assessed Ludlow $434,878 to pay local charter schools. We are reimbursed $122,467 according to the state formula leaving a total cost to the Town of Ludlow of $312,411 for charter school students. This is a large amount for a district such as ours and those funds could have a dramatic impact on improving educational services for ALL students rather than funneling that money into quasi-private schools. The public schools in a community are answerable to a school committee of elected representatives who are directly accountable to those by whom they were elected. Charters are not accountable to the community in which they reside and yet that community MUST hand over funds to support those schools. Where is the equity in that system?

The majority of charter schools are non-union entities and this is lauded by supporters as one of the benefits. However, when they are engaged in the process of change, unions are not an impediment to educational reform. The greatest impediment to true educational reform is the plethora of ill-advised educational policies currently being created. Unions can and should be included in the change process rather than being seen as an obstacle. When this is done in a district the results can be powerful. After all, unions are made up of teachers. These are the professionals who have the knowledge training and drive to change our schools. If we engage them in the process of change, afford them the flexibility to try new approaches and give them the resources to accomplish this task then we will not need to funnel money into a quasi-private schools to the detriment the public schools in our communities. The only thing this will surely accomplish is the establishment of a tiered educational system that will eventually collapse under its own weight. Some would argue that this is what the charter school movement is truly attempting to accomplish having determined that public schools aren’t worth saving and that they must be torn down and rebuilt in this new charter model. Our public schools may not be perfect and change is most definitely needed. However, public schools are the bedrock upon which our democratic society rests and thus I believe they are worth the effort to save. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road...

"No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, you can always turn back" - Unknown

On Thursday, June 11, 2015 there is a Joint Education Committee Meeting scheduled at which a number of education bills will be discussed. Two of those bills H340 and S294 call for a moratorium on state testing and an evaluation of our current state assessment practices. As educators, I feel it is our duty to speak up and share our expertise with policy makers so that they have the ability to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, I am unable to attend this hearing, but I have asked several of my teachers to attend to represent our district. The following is my testimony on this topic which one of them will share with the committee, along with availing themselves of the opportunity to share their own opinions.

Dear Madame Chairs and Members of the Joint Education Committee:

Let me begin by thanking you for the opportunity to present this testimony in support of H.340 and S294. I apologize that I am unable to be there in person, but I am proud to have one of my Ludlow teachers present this testimony on my behalf. My name is Dr. Todd H. Gazda and during my 14 years in education I have been a middle and high school teacher; a middle and elementary school principal and I am finishing up my third year as the Superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools.

There is currently a decision being debated in our Commonwealth; that being whether to stay with the MCAS assessment or transition to PARCC. In my mind however, the discussion is, and should be, larger than that narrow focus. It is not a matter of which standardized test we use, but rather we need to ask ourselves, is it time to reevaluate how we are using standardized tests and is that use having the desired effect of improving our educational system? I would assert, and the data seems to support, that the answer to that question is “no”. In reality, the reliance upon standardized test scores as the primary metric whereby we judge student achievement and teacher effectiveness in our schools has had a detrimental impact on our schools in that it is working to inhibit true reform.

For over 15 years now educators have labored under this accountability driven reform effort. One would imagine that we would have seen substantial changes in the performance levels of our students as a result of the billions of dollars invested into these efforts. Well, data driven decision making is the quintessential catch phrase of this accountability movement, so let’s review the “DATA” to see how successful these reform efforts have been in improving the performance of our students.

Attached to this testimony (see Appendix) are graphs depicting achievement and growth model data, in ELA and Math, for every school district in the state of Massachusetts for Spring 2014. These graphs were generated using Edwin Analytics, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's data collection resource for school systems. It is evident that 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. Is this really a surprise?

If the results remain consistent after over 15 years of these reforms why are we not hearing policy makers such as yourselves loudly demanding change? Why does the discussion from those with the power to mandate change merely revolve around changing the tests and accountability measures we are using? What these tests seem to truly measure is the relative affluence of the communities in which these schools reside. There are easier ways to measure poverty levels than by taking time away from instruction to give standardized state assessments. Data like that displayed in the attached graphs are often used to support the assertion that schools are still failing our society. I would assert that it is rather our society that is failing our schools.

Our current system rewards compliance rather than creativity. It inhibits creative professionals from taking appropriate risks with their lessons and practice because failure comes with severe consequences for both the individual and the school. No one ever achieved greatness merely by having someone look constantly 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. We will not achieve true reform in our educational system until we break free of these bonds that are driving us towards mediocrity. The “stick” approach to education is not getting us the gains we need so it is time to find the carrot.

I therefore implore you to stop and rethink the direction we are headed. We need to stop believing that more of the same will elicit a different result. I challenge you to imagine an educational system where the billions of dollars pumped into Testing and Evaluation were rather directed into professional development and educational supports to facilitate necessary change in our instructional practices. I challenge you to 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 we are doing our jobs. I challenge you to imagine K-12 and higher education professionals working together to change the way we train our teachers so that they have the skills necessary to ready our students for the world they will face. Currently we do not have either the time or available resources to realize these dreams.

Before you today are two bills H.340 and S.294 calling for a moratorium on state testing and an evaluation of our current state assessment practices. I am proud to be a Massachusetts educator. Our commonwealth has always been a leader when it comes to educational innovation. However, to some extent we have now relinquished that position and are following the herd allowing others to dictate our course. It is time for us regain that leadership role. It is time for us to demonstrate the power of policy makers, educators and communities coming together to change the system to best meet the needs of our kids. Given the right political will-power and courage, the results would be powerful and work to facilitate 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. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Todd H. Gazda, Ed.D., JD
Superintendent, LPS


2014 MCAS Statewide Achievement and Growth by District - English Language Arts

2014 MCAS Statewide Achievement and Growth by District – Math

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A good teacher is like a candle...

A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others.                                                                ~Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, translated from Turkish

I came across this quote the other day and was struck by the simple truth of the statement. Educators come into the profession burning brightly, full of passion, enthusiasm and energy. They give completely and selflessly of themselves so that children might grow and learn in a creative and engaging environment, Day after day they light the fire of learning, each time giving up a part of themselves, so that a child might gain new insights into the world around them. Is there any more noble profession or purpose in life?

I recently completed my doctorate and I lead a school system. I am proud of these accomplishments and deeply appreciate the heartfelt congratulations received from my family, friends and colleagues. However, the recognition that meant the most upon completion of my doctorate was from a former student of mine who commented “One of the best teachers I've had!” Of all the titles and positions I've held, that is the one that means the most to me: Teacher. It is also the one I miss the most. I became an administrator, not for the money, recognition or authority, but because I came to understand that I could have the maximum impact on the greatest number of students by doing so, while working with teachers to help those students succeed. This was a hard decision and remains so for me. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss being in the classroom on some level.

Today, more than ever before, it is difficult to be a teacher. Teachers suffer a constant and ever increasing barrage of mandates, initiatives and requirements handed down by policy makers in the state and federal governments well removed from the daily realities of life in our schools. Teachers are continually being told that they are failing in their duty of educating our children, that they must be held accountable, and that we must increase test scores to prove progress. We are losing good teachers at an ever increasing rate through burnout from the stressful environment in which we labor. More and more we are failing to attract new, energetic and qualified teachers to the profession. This is a problem. In my mind, those that remain in this field demonstrate their professionalism and dedication on a daily basis by weathering this storm and holding fast to their principles.

This week is teacher appreciation week and you will hear politicians praise the hard work and dedication of our teachers. They will commend their professionalism, devotion and enthusiasm. They will point out teachers who they had as children and young adults that influenced the course of their lives. Then, next week, they will go back to describing the problems of our failing schools and the NECESSARY steps that must be taken NOW to hold teachers and schools accountable for that failure. It is time to appreciate teachers for more than one week out of every year.

In response to your commitment to our kids, I want my teachers to know that I appreciate and am proud of the work you do EVERY day. Your enthusiasm, creativity and dedication to our students inspires me. It is for you that I advocate for change. It is for you that I will speak out, push back, run interference and take whatever steps possible to ensure that you have the resources, freedom and flexibility to do your jobs. So that you can arouse the passion of our youth through exposure to new ideas and prepare them for life. So that you can give of yourself for the good of your students, for that is what it means to be a teacher.

Thank you for all you do.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Everybody is a genius...

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.― Albert Einstein

There is a great deal of discussion happening around the country right now regarding testing and assessment in education. Both nationally and at the state level there is a fixation with standardized testing as the primary metric whereby we judge the success or failure of our students, our teachers and our schools. One can understand the allure. It is attractive, straightforward and easy to look at a test score to see if it goes up or down and then judge whether progress is made. Unfortunately, or in my mind fortunately, understanding a child is rarely that simple. Let's face it, kids can be messy in every sense of that word. For me that is part of the wonder of education and the primary reason I became an educator. Children are unique individuals whose background, upbringing and home-life dramatically impact how they learn. Yet we take them all as they come to us, care for them, and try our best to give them the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. That is what it truly means to be an educator. 

In much of the dialogue proliferating around the country today, testing and assessment have become, for many, dirty words. That is unfortunate because assessing student progress is what a good teacher does on a daily basis. It is how we determine both what a student has learned or mastered as well as how successful the teacher was in teaching the lesson. As a teacher, assessments often told me that the way I had taught a lesson was not successful in reaching my students, so therefor I needed to reteach and do so differently. Teaching is a process and assessment is a vital necessary piece of that process.

I would like to highlight here an assignment done by some of the 8th grade students and teachers at Paul R. Baird Middle School here in Ludlow. I do so in order to recognize the courage of our teachers in taking a risk to tackle such an ambitious project, to recognize the students for the excellence displayed in the end product, and demonstrate the power of a well crafted activity with an authentic assessment. 

The following is an explanation of the lesson from one of the teachers involved followed by the video created by one of the student groups:

It was a six-week, interdisciplinary project that was a collaborative effort between Michelle D'Amore (ELA), Beth Jarzabek (who teaches one ELA class), Diane Ogorzalek (Student Support), Jordan Funke (Library Media Specialist), and Laura O'Keefe (Grade 8 Social Studies). The students worked in groups of 1, 2, or 3 (per contest rules). The theme of this year's contest (it varies slightly from year to year) was “The Three Branches and You:"Tell a story that demonstrates how a policy, law, or action by either the executive, legislative, or judicial branch has affected you or your community. 

The first step was research, which included mini lessons on reliable sources and note-taking. The kids needed to choose a topic and then gather enough research so that they could not only define their issue and how it affects our community, but the various perspectives on it as well. (Another requirement was that they understand and illustrate diverse points of view). Once they completed the research phase, the students needed to find potential interviewees--people who were knowledgeable about or had experience with their topics, and who were willing to be interviewed. While the students reached most of their potential interviewees by email, some were contacted over the phone, or personally if the interviewee was someone the student already knew. The kids had to send the interviewees a list of questions in advance, and arrange the time of the interview (teacher guidance as needed). Mini-lessons on interview etiquette, recording equipment, and filming techniques were included. In the end, the kids interviewed education experts (teachers, school committee members, MTA president, superintendent, curriculum director, director of school food services), doctors, nurses, ACLU representatives, a public defender, a small business owner, police officers, two police chiefs, a cancer survivor and author, a graduate student, a professor, an anti-nuclear energy activist, and a member of the NRA, among others.

Another requirement was to find additional C-SPAN footage that supported their documentary in some way. Having head phones in the library for this part of the project was essential--kids spent days poring over news footage in order to find relevant supporting evidence. They also needed supplementary photographs, B roll, charts, diagrams, and other visuals that would help their viewers understand their message. Finally, they created story maps to help guide in the layout and editing of their documentary, a process that was much longer than we anticipated. While we experienced frustration along the way (students and teachers alike)!, overall the students practiced and gained so many invaluable skills--from conducting research and using technology to letter-writing and interview etiquette. 

 The project web site in case anyone else would like to replicate:

And I am happy to report that we placed!! We are so proud of all of them.

Click on the link below to view the results on one group's report on the Common Core:

At the conclusion of this project students reported being frustrated, challenged and discouraged at times. However, they pushed through those barriers and also reported being engaged, interested and excited about both the topic and the project. That is what education is about; not smoothing out the bumps for students, but teaching them to persevere in spite of difficulty and affording them the opportunity to learn in an engaging classroom environment. This lesson covered social studies, ELA and technology standards. Furthermore, students learned appropriate etiquette for contacting individuals for interviews, as well as scheduling and  performing those interviews. This is a lesson students will always remember and they built skills that they can use throughout the rest of their educational career and beyond.  This is a powerful example of an interdisciplinary collaborative lesson culminating in an authentic assessment to determine student mastery of the standards covered.

This lesson afforded students the opportunity to shine. However, a lesson like this takes time and time is one thing that is a premium for educators these days as they are forced to implement each subsequent new initiative that catches the eyes of our policy makers to "fix" public education. The end results of this project and assessment are difficult to reduce to a data point that will fit neatly into a chart. Yet the environment it created in the classroom was powerful, dynamic and energizing for students and staff.  Individualized instruction and assessment is hard, yet necessary, if we are going to give our children the skills necessary to succeed. As a nation, we need to break our fixation with measuring and proving what we are doing as educators, focusing instead on professional development and growth in order to improve our practice and create an educational environment that stimulates, challenges and engages the creative energies of today's student. After all, isn't THAT what we are truly striving to accomplish with our educational system? 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Coming together is a beginning...

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.
           - Henry Ford

In my last post I advocated the position that, if we are to truly change the direction of this top-down mandate, accountability driven education “reform” movement, it is essential that the various groups advocating for change put aside their differences and find common ground where we can speak with one voice. Slowly progress is being made. Union leadership, administrators, teachers, school committees and parents often disagree over the direction public education in this country should take. However, there are areas where agreement is possible; where the problems are such that groups with often diverse beliefs and visions can agree on areas necessary for change. At those times the voices coalesce into a common tune building in strength until its message and power is inescapable. Such a phenomenon is beginning to occur as evidenced by the following statement.

Western MA Education Leaders Coalition (WMELC)

In July, 2014, educational leaders representing ten local school districts met in the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District to discuss their common responses to and concerns with recent federal and state initiatives that are shaping public education in Massachusetts.   

The initial meeting has led to the establishment of the Western MA Education Leaders Coalition (WMELC).  To date, the Coalition has brought together 9 Superintendents and 12 School Committee members representing 10 western Massachusetts’ school districts.  The Executive Directors of 2 Educational Collaboratives have also participated.  The Coalition provides member Districts with an opportunity to share their concerns with the implementation of new curriculum standards, new forms of standardized testing, and a wide-range of federal and state mandates.

The attached statement was developed by the Coalition at its meeting on December 4, 2014. Superintendents and School Committee members of the districts involved in crafting the statement are listed after the signatories.  The Superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools, the Ludlow School Committee, and the Executive Board of the Ludlow Education Association have all voted and unanimously approved the Coalition’s position regarding the areas of concern articulated in the letter. It is the Coalition’s intention to gather endorsements from other Superintendents, School Committees and local Teachers’ Associations.

The next meeting of the WMELC is scheduled for January 28, 2015

Western MA Education Leaders Coalition (WMELC)
Position Statement
December 3, 2014

The WMELC has met to discuss the reform agenda and framework of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).   WMELC members are collectively concerned with the impact of the following on their Districts: 

1.      Amount, Pace and Cost of Unfunded Mandates:  The WMEDLC is extremely concerned with the amount, unrealistic pace and unmanageable cost of a variety of required state and federal initiatives.  To an already long list of mandates, the DESE has, in the past two years alone, added the following:  requirements to implement Common Core State Standards (CCSS),   a new framework for educator evaluation, a new set of assessments called District Determined Measures (DDMs), a new high stakes standardized test created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). State and federal revenue has not kept pace with the demands created by these new initiatives.   Stark evidence of the alarming number and pace of state and federal initiatives comes from the testimony of Tom Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (M.A.S.S), to the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Education Committee on June 27, 2013.  In preparation for his testimony, Scott and the M.A.S.S. conducted an examination of Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) regulations requiring action by local districts.  Scott testified that information gathered from the DESE website demonstrates that from the years 1996 -2008, 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.

2.      Validity, reliability and implementation of PARCC exam.  This Coalition’s position is that the PARCC exam represents a costly departure from MCAS that is being implemented without adequate funding and technology; without enough involvement from Massachusetts educators, and ahead of Districts’ capacity to implement new curriculum standards.   The Coalition is not convinced that the new exam’s questions are appropriately constructed and properly aligned with new standards.   Finally, the Coalition is asking the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to share information regarding the results of the 2013-2014 pilot PARCC tests that school districts across the state were required to administer.  It is reasonable to expect this information,  given that the PARCC test could have a major impact on public schools across the state and given that reporting the required data, preparing students and classrooms for the new assessment experience and administering the pilot involved significant time and resources.

3.      Amount, Frequency and Cost of Standardized Testing:  The WMELC believes that, while standardized testing provides an important measurement of district, school and individual student achievement and growth, DESE’s reform framework places too much emphasis on standardized testing.   The time and resources devoted to standardized testing are excessive.  Valuable teaching and learning time is lost to standardized testing requirements. Currently, Massachusetts requires the administration of 23 different standardized tests.  Between grades 3 and 10 a child will sit for at least 39 test sessions.   In addition to disrupting teaching and learning at each tested school for 4-5 days, affected administrators spend the equivalent of at least 10 days per school year in scheduling and administering MCAS.   In a report titled “Strength in Numbers: State Spending on K-12 Assessment Systems,” the Brookings Institute has estimated that Massachusetts spends about $35 million per year on MCAS assessment.  The same study reports that Massachusetts’ contract with Measured Progress costs taxpayers $64 per child. 

This statement was crafted following significant deliberation and discussion by WMELC representatives.  Our expectation is that Massachusetts’ policy makers and the MA DESE will thoughtfully consider this statement and will develop education policy that is reflective of the important concerns we have expressed.  We also ask that you send a formal response to:

c/o Superintendent Marty O’Shea
Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District
621 Main Street
Wilbraham,  MA 01095

Thank you for your kind attention to this important letter.


Michael J. Kelliher, Chairman
On behalf of the Ludlow School Committee

Todd H. Gazda
Superintendent of Schools

Brian Bylicki
On behalf of the Ludlow Education Association

Western MA Education Leaders Coalition (WMELC)
Member Districts and Educational Collaboratives

Agawam Public Schools
Collaborative for Educational Services
East Longmeadow Public Schools
Hadley Public Schools
Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District
Longmeadow Public Schools
Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative
Ludlow Public Schools
Monson Public Schools
Palmer Public Schools
Southwick Tolland Granville Regional School District
West Springfield Public Schools

After adopting this statement the Ludlow Schools forwarded it to the following individuals: The Governor of Massachusetts, our local state Senator and Representative, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, the Chairs of the Massachusetts House and Senate Education Committees, the Commissioner of Education, the members of the Massachusetts Board of Education, the Commissioner of Higher Education and the United States Secretary of Education.  I call on those of you reading this to help the message spread from West to East increasing in volume until our policy makers in Boston are compelled to listen.  Share this with your school committee members and Superintendents encouraging them to lend their support to this statement and keep building the momentum for positive change. Individually we are weak, but together we can effectuate meaningful change.