Wednesday, September 6, 2017

I swore never to be silent...

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” —Elie Wiesel

This is a busy time in public education as schools are opening their doors to once again be filled with energy and life after the annual summer hiatus. Across the state, and in fact the country, superintendents are welcoming staff back to school with opening day comments designed, hopefully, to inspire and excite. There is a certain energy to the beginning of the school year which administrators seek to tap into in order to build excitement and buy-in to support new initiatives and propel staff forward in a positive start to the year. This is the time to leverage that energy while staff is still fresh and invigorated. As a result, administrators are sometimes reluctant to address big, difficult or potentially challenging issues on these first days as we don’t want to take the chance of dampening enthusiasm or losing that momentum.

However, the current strife and division in our country demands that just such a challenging topic be met head on from day one if we are to uphold our responsibilities as educators. Our country today is facing a cultural challenge as we struggle once again to define our identity and our place on the world stage. To some extent, national identity, cultural values, and norms are always in a state of flux for each generation, as they come of age, shapes the country in which we live. However, it seems that almost daily we are confronted with new examples of the divisions plaguing our nation which have led to a disturbing decline in civil discourse and a rise in fringe elements dominating the national debate.

A democracy is driven by the exchange of ideas and free speech is the bedrock upon which our society is based. However, it is the duty and responsibility of every educator to loudly and with one unified voice state unequivocally that racism, hatred, and bigotry cannot be tolerated and have no place in our national dialogue. Failure to denounce such speech and actions every time we are confronted amounts to tacit approval and that is unacceptable.

As educators we are responsible not only for academics, but also for assisting parents in the growth and social development of their children so that they become responsible caring adults and productive members of our society. Schools have always served this function and never has that function been more important than it is today.

We must ensure that students realize that our words matter and just because an individual disagrees with our point of view does not make them an inherently bad person. Civil discourse has faltered in this country as many adults fail to model this appropriate behavior. Today, more than ever before, it is necessary to teach our children the skills necessary to debate and even disagree with someone in a respectful and productive manner.

What once seemed to be a gradual erosion of civility, in recent times has become a landslide of boorish, vulgar and offensive behavior. What were once social norms for acceptable behavior have paled or in some instances completely disappeared. Hate groups that had been relegated the fringes of society have been emboldened by divisive rhetoric and fear mongering.

There is a very real underlying well of anger in our country as many in the middle class feel disenfranchised with the current political machinery of our government particularly at the federal level. Political elite on both sides of the aisle seem to be fumbling with how to respond and address what for many are very real concerns. The causes for this divide are numerous and the problems not easily resolved. However, a Congress gridlocked by partisan bickering seems incapable of even discussing the issues, let alone resolving the problems.

This is not the first time in our country’s history that we have been torn apart by cultural friction. However, today’s atmosphere, driven by social media and round the clock news coverage, serves to exacerbate and inflame these tensions. It is incumbent upon educators to help students understand and navigate these troubled times. It is time for us to remember that our job is not to teach students what to think, but rather we must teach them how to think so that they can arrive at their own informed decisions. This is a teachable moment for our kids. What they learn from it will depend on us.

We have very little control over the battles being played out on the national stage. However, we can control what happens in our communities, our schools and our classrooms. As adults we can model the behaviors we want our children to exhibit. If we start small it will spread. There will always be a diversity of opinions in our communities and that is the beauty of our system. However, we must never give in to the fear that opens the door for hate, racism and bigotry to intrude. We are not perfect, but we are Americans with all that that stands for and we can be better than we have been in recent times. Remember, our children are watching.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Spinning Our Wheels

When public policy goes one way and the premises of a culture go the other, you’ve got the formula for an unsustainable system of education. – Angus Campbell

There is currently a disconnect between development and implementation of educational policy in the United States. When you speak with educators in the field it is evident that many believe the polices being developed by federal and state governments are not the ones necessary for change and thus are not having the intended impact when they are implemented in our schools. There is an inherent separation involved in the development and implementation of educational policy. Implementers are, of necessity, on location in school districts putting policy into practice in our schools. Often in this current environment however, administrators see their role as mitigating or buffering students and staff against the perceived negative impacts which these overlapping and often competing policies propagate.  

It is often difficult to quantify how educators really feel about these policy decisions, but in 2015 I conducted a study of Massachusetts public school administrators for my doctoral dissertation where I examined their perceptions of the impact of these policies and tried to determine if and where the disconnect occurs between the development and implementation of educational policies. This study sought to elicit Massachusetts’ public school administrators’ perceptions of whether the overall policy environment in the United States is having the desired effect of improving the delivery of educational services to the nation’s children through the creation of high leverage educational policies.

The results were rather powerful with regard to the unanimity of the message conveyed by administrators. Particularly of note was the finding that, of the 309 Massachusetts public school administrators (226 principals and 83 superintendents) who participated in this study, over 89% reported that the number and pace of the creation of educational policies overwhelm administrators and inhibit effective implementation. Furthermore, 93% of participants reported that they are not given enough resources to effectively implement these policies. These results are not shocking in and of themselves, but rather the consistency in the responses of the participants add strength to the message.

This problem of legislative and/or regulatory overload is exacerbated by the fact that educators today feel that they are rarely given the flexibility to adapt those policies to the specific school community in which they are to be implemented.  This was readily apparent in the findings that 88.4% of administrators felt that educational policy efforts did not effectively anticipate potential difficulties that administrators might encounter in implementing policies and 80.9% believed that they weren’t given enough flexibility to react to unanticipated difficulties or challenges when implementing policies in their district or school. In the end only 17.4% of the Massachusetts administrators who participated in the study agreed that current educational policy efforts effectively promote positive systemic change.

It is apparent that policy makers are often overly focused on the perceived benefits of the proposed policies and dismiss the challenges that might be experienced during implementation. However, in order to be effective, policies must fit the reality of the world they seek to influence and the very act of implementation itself by local administrators has a dramatic impact on the end result.

An effective approach to policy implementation is one that incorporates appropriate pressure to focus local implementers’ attention with resources to support and facilitate execution. This will maximize the chance for success. Merely passing a piece of legislation and mandating a course of action will not ensure attainment of the stated goals. The current political environment in which educators work has policymakers applying more than enough pressure.  What is lacking is the support.

Right now we have a system that is burdened both with overlapping and competing policy initiatives and stress from punitive compliance measures. Although this can compel outward superficial compliance, it does not effectuate meaningful, lasting, and systemic change. In order for a policy to be truly effective, those implementing it at the local level must believe in its efficacy.

For the past twenty-five years, national and state legislatures have become increasingly involved in the development of educational policy, yet the prevailing narrative continues to be that schools are failing.  That is because rather than truly support change and innovation they try to create policies that “fit” within the current framework and system. This leads to the situation where policy makers continue making changes that merely add additional layers of bureaucracy to an already overburdened system.

This is a different world today than it was when the structures which support our educational system were created. Our system, its teachers, administrators and most importantly its students, cries out for new and truly innovative policies that will support the construction of a new framework to inspire change in our educational system. It cries out for freedom from the forces which drive us towards standardization of both content delivery and assessment of skills and achievement. It cries out for flexibility to create an adaptable system that conforms to the needs of today’s students and today’s society. It is time to change our current educational policy framework which has failed to demonstrate the results intended. Change is most definitely needed. Policy can and should drive change, but those policies must be current and responsive to the needs of today’s students, schools and communities.

Click below for the full study:

Gazda, T. H. (2015). Massachusetts public school administrators' perceptions of the development and implementation of educational policy

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Money is not the only answer...

Money is not the only answer, but it makes a difference. - Barack Obama


Today I had the opportunity to present oral testimony to a joint session of the Massachusetts House and Senate Committee on Ways and Means with regard to educational funding and the FY'18 budget. The following is a full copy of the written testimony presented to the committee. 


March 29, 2017

The Honorable Brian S. Dempsey, House Chair
The Honorable Karen E. Spilka, Senate Chair
The Honorable Stephen Kulik, House Vice Chair
The Honorable Sal N. DiDomenico, Senate Vice Chair
The Honorable Elizabeth A. Malia, House Assistant Vice Chair
The Honorable Patricia Jehlen, Senate Assistant Vice Chair
The Honorable Todd M. Smola, Ranking House Minority Member
The Honorable Viriato M. deMacedo, Ranking Senate Minority Member
Joint Committee on Ways and Means

Dear Representative Dempsey, Senator Spilka, and Distinguished Members of the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means:

My name is Dr. Todd H. Gazda and I am the Superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools. Additionally, I am also an Executive Committee member for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and it is in that capacity that I am before you today. We are at a pivotal juncture in this country with respect to public education. Our public schools find themselves under a microscope and pulled by competing forces like never before. It is a system in flux as it strives to institute necessary change in order to effectively meet the demands of today’s students and society.

Change never comes without cost: be that time, money, resources or personnel. These elements are intricately tied together and essential for productive organizations to function effectively. The number and pace of regulations to which we as educators and schools must respond continues to increase at an alarming rate. The problem is that State and federal revenue has not kept pace with the burdens created by these demands.

The early 1990’s saw a major change to the delivery of educational services we provided to the children in this state.  When talking about education, policy makers often like to point out that the development of Massachusetts statewide standards for teaching and learning coupled with assessment of those standards through a standardized state test propelled our Commonwealth on an upward trajectory from a good educational system to a great one that leads the country and is competitively ranked among the best in the world. However, what those same individuals often overlook, or at best downplay, is the massive infusion of state money and resources that accompanied that change in practice.

We now find ourselves in a similar situation as faced our Commonwealth in the early 1990’s with the Foundation Budget Review Commission finding that schools in Massachusetts are underfunded by billions of dollars. In the 1993 case of McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the education clause of our Commonwealth’s Constitution is not “merely aspirational or hortatory, but also imposes on the Commonwealth an enforceable duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools.”  We can only hope that it won’t take a looming court case like McDuffy to spur necessary action now.

This year the governor’s budget proposes an increase of $20/student in Chapter 70 funding. Although, this comes to millions of dollars at the state level and sounds impressive when considered in the aggregate, when parsed out and distributed across the state it is woefully inadequate to the task we are being asked to accomplish.  Take Ludlow for example, this proposed increase would garner us approximately $52,000.

To put that in perspective, the amount our budget here in Ludlow (~2600 students/total proposed FY’18 budget of $33,674,143) would need to increase just to maintain level services next year is $877,834. Furthermore, that figure does not calculate in the increase in health insurance rates which would push that amount even higher. Consequently, M.A.S.S. is asking that this year, at a minimum, the legislature increase Chapter 70 funding by $100.00/ student for FY’18. Although this won’t get us to where we truly need to be, it is a step in the right direction.

It costs money to change a system and currently the flaws in the state funding formula, coupled with insufficient financial support at the state level merely shifts the burden to adequately fund our schools from the state to local municipalities.

What is the practical impact of that problem for us? It means that flaws in the Foundation Budget formula result in an ever increasing gap between what the state says is the minimum amount required to operate a school system (Net School Spending Requirement) and what it actually takes to run a district. Many factors are exacerbating that discrepancy and these problems are clearly outlined in the foundation budget review commission report. I would like to highlight just a few of the major issues that are creating major problems for districts across the state.

  1. Insufficient state financial support is creating, once again a disparity and equity problem between those more affluent communities that can support additional funds above the Net School Spending Requirement and those that are in weaker financial positions. This is one of the very issues the McDuffy case was based upon. 
  1. This equity issue is a multi-faceted problem as the disparity is driven by different factors depending upon the communities involved. In our rural areas where there are little if any commercial interests, the primary source of local funding comes from residential property taxes. This dynamic is causing those taxes to increase dramatically while seriously curtailing local towns and schools ability to appropriate needed funds due to the shortfall in state support. A declining student population in many of the rural areas of the state is adding to the financial challenges faced in these localities.
In our urban centers, the challenges of school districts being forced to fill the gaps left by underfunded social service agencies is straining the available resources in those communities. Adding an additional financial burden in a number of these urban centers are the recent changes in the funding formula for economically disadvantaged students. The change in the way these students are accounted for by the formula has led to a situation where the number of these students in several districts being dramatically under calculated resulting in the loss of substantial funds. This problem has been recognized by state regulatory authorities and yet a remedy to this problem has yet to be developed. 

  1. As the gap widens between the Net School Spending Requirement and Actual Costs, those of us advocating for our schools at the local level are facing an increasingly uphill battle. As we advocate for support of our local budget we experience understandable resistance in our communities as we argue for budgets that are millions of dollars above the Net School Spending Requirement. This leads to the inaccurate perception that we are not managing our funds effectively and, while we can explain that the formula is flawed, that explanation has difficulty resonating when held up against the millions of dollars many towns are spending above the Net School Spending Requirement. Each year as that gap widens, that challenge increases.

  1. Consequently, M.A.S.S. strongly supports the approval and implementation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s findings.  The face of public education is dramatically changing. Undervaluation by the current formula of the cost of health insurance, special education, education for English Language Learners, transportation reimbursement, among other areas are problems of which you are aware.

a.      Health insurance and benefits actual expenses exceed the allowance in the foundation budget by $1.2 billion.
    1.     Special Education actual expenses exceed the assumed allowances in the foundation budget by over $1 billion.

I have included the M.A.S. S. talking points regarding the School Finance Task Force Report with this written testimony. That document outlines our organization’s review of that study along with our major concerns and some potential solutions regarding school finance. We are more than willing to lend our energies and educational expertise to working with you to figure out remedies to the problems facing our system.

In 1993 the Massachusetts State Legislature showed great fortitude and foresight in developing a seven year plan to bring state funding up to appropriate levels. It is time for that again. It is time that we fund education to the amounts indicated by the Foundation Budget Review Commission established by the state to research this very topic. It is time that we live up to the obligations we have already made, such as fully funding special education circuit breaker accounts, regional transportation, and charter school reimbursement, prior to creating additional requirements further necessitating the commitment of financial resources.

As I said at the beginning of this testimony, change never comes without a cost. We have an educational system that must be transformed to meet the needs of today’s student and our global 21st century society. Yet, the funding we are receiving from the state makes it challenging to maintain the status quo, let alone change the system. There is only so much we can do at the local level to redistribute, reallocate and repurpose scarce resources. We need your help.

As superintendents responsible for the management of resources in our districts we understanding the political and fiscal realities confronting us. We understand the problems of a scarcity of current resources, funding streams available and the realities of our current political environment both locally and at the federal level. Massachusetts continues to be a leader in public education and the model to which the country looks for guidance. It is time that we demonstrate once again the political willpower to live up to the duty clearly articulated in our state constitution, reinforced by McDuffy, that our state must “provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools.”  

Thank you for your time today. We truly appreciate all that you have done, and will do, for our children and our schools. We recognize the dilemma facing this body and the legislature as a whole and M.AS.S. is committed to working with you in this process.

Sincerely,


Todd H. Gazda, Ed.D., JD
Superintendent, Ludlow Public Schools
Executive Committee Member, M.A.S.S.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Grizzly bears are the LEAST of our problems now...

I usually stay away from any broad political commentary in my posts and focus on educational policy considerations rather than the actions or in this case qualifications of one individual. However, with the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education I am compelled to violate that self-imposed rule. Our country has become so divided that political dialogue now frequently degenerates into personal attacks rather than an examination of the merits of any position or in this case a true examination of the fitness of an individual for the post to which they have been nominated. It is the duty of the United States Senate to hold hearings to give "advice and consent" to the president's appointment of individuals to lead the various departments of the executive branch in order to ensure they are qualified for the position they seek to hold. This week, the Senate failed in that duty in a most spectacular fashion.

Sadly, I have come to expect little from the United States Congress. They are so caught up in rigid partisan bickering and gridlock that nothing substantive can be accomplished unless the majority party at any given time can ram it down the minority party’s throat. However, this shameful act of blatantly putting Party before Country truly hits a new low even for that body. I cannot see Republican Senators honestly asserting that Mrs. DeVos is qualified for the position to which she was appointed. This leaves two, equally deplorable, possible reasons for their approval: 1. They feel beholden to her for the millions of dollars her family has donated to them or 2. They are blindly following their president. In doing so they are abrogating their responsibility as Senators to ensure that those who are appointed to run executive departments are qualified to do so.

I have not been a fan of the last couple of educational secretaries. They had a tendency to a bureaucratic mindset and to propagate policies that added layers of bureaucracy to an already overburdened system. Rather support the truly transformational changes needed in our educational system these Secretaries of Education merely continued to repackage the failed test and punish policies of the last 20 years. HOWEVER, even so, I will agree that these individuals had the qualifications which made them fit for the position even if I disagreed with their policies. That is most definitely NOT the case with Betsy DeVos.

I understand and support the principal that Presidents have the right to appoint members of their team who they believe will be able to implement their policy agenda. There are actually a couple of these current cabinet appointees that I feel will do a good job in the positions to which they have been appointed. Others I have serious reservations about and have major concerns about their ethical conflicts, political ideologies and policy beliefs, yet concede they are “qualified” through experience and/or education for the posts they now hold. Once again however, this is most definitely NOT the case with Betsy DeVos. 

Ms. DeVos has never been an educator nor has she been involved in public education. Her only “experience” in this realm has been take any action, support any initiative or fund any campaign that seeks to undermine and pull money from public education and funnel it into private education or charters. She has demonstrated through her record that she does not intend to support public education, but rather her intent is to destroy that institution that is and has always been the bedrock of our democracy.  One need only look to her home state of Michigan and the mess poorly regulated charters have made of the educational system in Detroit to see how those ideas have played out. Do we really want our whole country to head to the path Betsy would take us?

Mrs. DeVos clearly demonstrated in her Senate hearing that she lacks even a basic understanding of such educational principals as “achievement versus growth” and is unfamiliar with even the basics of the IDEA. Her answers with regard to specifics regarding education were vague and superficial at best. This is completely understandable given her level of experience. Then there is the now bizarre viral quote that gun policy should be determined at the local level because schools might need guns to protect them from grizzlies. Seriously, who says that? All these things clearly demonstrate that the travesty of this appointment of such a monumentally unqualified individual.


This is a sad and shameful decision made by our United States Senators. My outrage and indignation is truly non-partisan in nature. I would be just as appalled if Democrats had pushed through such and obviously unqualified individual. I applaud the two Republican Senators (Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine) who put country before partisan politics and voted against this confirmation. They put the interests of the children of our country over kowtowing to presidential power. They are to be commended for that stance. This is a sad day for public education in the United States and I guess we now know just how much it costs to buy a cabinet secretary position in our federal government. The attack upon public education now continues unabated and has a new leader who will push the privatization agenda as never before. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Education is the passport to the future...

Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today. –   Malcom X

The past 25 years have seen dramatic changes in our culture and society. Twenty-five years ago the internet was in its infancy and we considered our country invulnerable as our Twin Towers still stood and the spate of school shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook had not yet stolen our safety and innocence. Globalization, 911, the internet, the Great Recession and the ever increasing pace of technological advances make this a much different world than it was in 1992, yet our public schools are still very much mired in the policies of the past. The current concept of “education reform” has not evolved and is not designed to truly transform public education; it merely continues to add additional levels of bureaucracy to an already overburdened system, thus inhibiting necessary change in our public schools.

In reflecting upon the changes occurring in our society it often appears that education continues to lag behind. Our country is in the midst of a cultural shift the likes of which we haven’t experienced since the industrial revolution. The organization, structures and practices prevalent in our public school system today are largely an outgrowth of and a response to the needs of an industrialized society. The problem is that society has now changed and our educational system has not kept pace.

Public K-12 schools struggle with making the necessary transformation inhibited in that process by the very policies designed by our legislators to address this challenge. These policies and practices are often mired in the industrial past and not designed to support the development and incorporation of the new skills necessary to succeed in our information driven, 21st century, digital world.

The challenges being experienced are not limited to K-12 education. The most straightforward and dramatic way to speed this necessary transition in public education would be to change the way we train our teachers. If you walk into most higher education classrooms it’s like taking a trip back in time to 1992. There is often little technology available for professors and even less incorporated into the learning environment. Similar to the K-12 policy environment,  in higher education many of the alleged “reform” strategies often focus on more and better accountability provisions than they do on transforming practice. In order to change this trend resources must be allocated to support the goal of providing access to technology and professional development for professors to support the transition to a more digital learning environment. I say this not to criticize, but to point out the need to train our teachers with the most up to date, cutting edge tools and instructional strategies possible. This change is essential if we are to advance necessary transformation of the practices in our schools.

New teachers bring with them to their schools a wealth of energy and enthusiasm for their profession which often helps to invigorate the educators they work with. Every school community needs a balance of energetic new staff along with veteran teachers whose experience and knowledge can support and provide direction to younger colleagues. Those new teachers, trained in the most cutting edge practices with the ability to leverage the power of technology by incorporating daily digital supports into their instructional practices have the potential, through the positive examples they set, to work as change agents to transform the educational environment in a school. However, first they must come to the profession with the tools, skills and knowledge to make such an impact. It is incumbent upon higher education institutions and teacher training programs to take the appropriate steps ensure their graduates have access to vital resources in order to acquire those essential skills.

The student of today demands an educational environment where the skills and passion they bring to the classroom community are recognized and incorporated into the teachers' instructional practices. If we are to adequately prepare our students for life in a 21st century global society, education must weave digital and traditional instructional strategies together into a comprehensive approach to teaching and learning. As we move into the 21st century we must build within our students the skills necessary to achieve in this rapidly changing global environment. We must encourage collaboration and the development of critical thinking skills. Rote memorization is not enough. As Einstein once stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” We must work to inspire creativity and innovation, training our students to apply what they know to novel situations.

In order to accomplish those goals outlined above we must have teachers trained in the most appropriate skills to support that transition. We need to stop pointing fingers and assigning blame, but rather work together to move our educational system forward. Access to technology and incorporation of digital learning skills into higher education programs that train and prepare our new teachers is an essential part of this process. It is time for the practice of training new teachers to evolve and adapt to this new reality. Through this endeavor, K-12 and higher education working together can transform our system to one that is reflective of the needs of today’s students and world.