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Utopia IS Nowhere to be Found: But Everyone who Works in Public Education is Doing the Best They Can to Create One in their School

December 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Teacher-blogger Steven Singer wrote a thought provoking post a few days ago on his website that is linked to Facebook and found himself in “Facebook Jail” because of it… presumably because their algorithm screened out his content as “Fake News”. In the post, Mr. Singer described an assignment he gave his 7th grade students where he asked them to describe their version of Utopia and offered an overview of their responses. He then reflected on how the assignment mirrored the thinking behind the charter school movement:

The economists, think tank partisans and lobbyists love to denigrate the public school system and pine for an alternative where corporate interests and business people make all the rules.

Sure they have literally billions of dollars behind them and a gallery of famous faces to give them legitimacy.

But they’re really just engaged in a more high stakes version of Moore’s novel or the assignment my kids did this week.

But Mr. Singer might not appreciate that the administrators who manage his school are also engaged in a version of Moore’s novel, albeit a version that has some constraints. 40 years ago I was appointed Principal at a rural HS where there was no student handbook, no faculty handbook, and no course of studies. Using handbooks from the school I worked in previously as a template and working with a small cadre of teachers in the HS I developed a set of handbooks that created a “Utopia”. Initially the staff members expressed universal appreciation for the handbook. But as time went on, I know that some “hard-line” faculty members wished the rules governing student behavior were as ironclad as the ones that charter school leaders like Eva Moskovitz imposes on students. Some “humanistic” faculty members, on the other hand, lamented the fact that some students chose to drop out of school because they did not want to follow rules like taking five classes, leaving their buck-knives at home, going to a study hall when they did not have class, or– worse of all– having a hall pass when they used the lavatory.

I tried hard to get the hard-line teachers to appreciate that public school administrators do not have the luxury of throwing children out of school the way that the nearby private school could. I also tried to get the humanistic teachers to appreciate that some semblance of order is needed to ensure the school operates effectively. And I tried to get everyone to understand that the rules could be changed in the same way their lesson plans, and Mr. Singer’s can be changed. And over the course of my three years as Principal the rules were changed based on input I received from a cadre of staff members the faculty elected: tightened in some areas and loosened in others.

Here’s the bottom line in public schools: everyone who works in public education is doing the best they can. Everyone who works in public education is trying to make life better for the children who attend their school. And everyone who works in public education is challenged by the finger-pointing of the “reformers” who want to impose ironclad rules on students… AND impose ironclad rules on everyone who works in public education.

P.S. In an effort to help Mr. Singer get out of Facebook Jail I posted his essay on my page.

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Former HS Principal Challenges Five “Affirming Myths” About Upward Mobility

October 11, 2017 Leave a comment

An article in Metro USA offers a preview of “When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise”, a book by Linda F. Nathan, former co-headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, to be published later this month. According to the article by Pat King, Ms. Nathan sets out to dispel five “affirming myths” about upward mobility:

Those myths are:

  • “Money doesn’t have to be an obstacle”
  • “Race doesn’t matter”
  • “Just work harder”
  • “Everyone can go to college”
  • “If you believe, your dreams will come true”.

I’ve written several (or maybe countless) posts debunking these myths in an unsystematic fashion over the past six years, but these ideas ARE affirming to those of us who have created our own affirming myths about how hard we had to work to pay for college, how many African Americans attended classes with us in graduate school, and how many people we’ve met in our lifetimes who strived and overcame what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles. Each of these “prove” that the five aphorisms above are not myths but realities. But I think if every white male baby boomer born into the middle class examined their personal affirming myths they would realize that:

  • Paying for college was much easier in the 1960s than it is today
  • Racism is as virulent today as it was before Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s and the passage of the Civil Rights bills in the 1960s.
  • Hard work is easier for someone born into a college educated family where mom and dad work as a team to raise a family
  • Everyone may be able to get into a post-secondary school but everyone doesn’t need a college degree to make their way in the world
  • Believing in agreeable fantasies like the first four myths will not change the realities that those born into poverty face or those born with brown or black skin face… “if you believe” the first four myths, the fifth one must be true.

I was fortunate to be born as a white male into a family of two college educated parents who raised me and my three siblings in neighborhoods or towns where we could attend the best public schools. They encouraged thrift, open-mindedness when it came to race and class distinctions, hard work at home and during the summer, attendance at colleges we could pay for out of our own pockets, and to keep our feet on the ground while we looked to the future. That good fortune contributed more to whatever success I achieved than anything I did…. and it is a “good fortune” that our country should try to provide to as many of its citizens as possible.

The Latest (and Completely Unrealistic) Silver Bullet for High Schools: Starting Later

September 13, 2017 Leave a comment

The NYTimes “Upshot” writer Aaron E. Carroll breathlessly reports on the recent Rand study that claims that starting high school later would result in greater student achievement and, consequently, any additional costs incurred by starting school early would be offset. As a retired Superintendent who worked in five different school districts in four different states over a 29 year time span I can assure readers that anyone who thinks this idea will come to fruition is completely untethered from reality. Here are four reasons:

  1. Extraordinary front-end costs: Both the Rand Corporation and writers who cover this issue acknowledge that the up front costs are daunting. But neither the Rand Corporation nor the education reporters offer any rational explanation on where the funds to acquire new buses will come from. The states? Not with 35 statehouses under GOP control. Local budgets? Not with school spending at a lower level than a decade ago.
  2. Politically untenable implementation impacts of cost avoidance strategies: Assuming a windfall of state or local funds is impossible, there are two ways front-end costs could be diminished: by flipping bus routes, having elementary students start early and high schools start late; or, by combining bus routes so that K-12 children all ride the same bus. Speaking from experience, both of these ideas will result in push-back. When I was superintendent in rural Western ME we DID get K-12 routes put in place, but did so to save money and fuel. We moved the start times to a time somewhere between the high school and elementary school start time. Why? Because we didn’t want to move the end of the high school day too far back because of high school athletic practices… and we didn’t want to move elementary start times too far back because working parents could not find child care coverage.
  3. Unwillingness of politicians and voters to act on “empirical evidence”: The notion that politicians would take action based on “empirical data” is zero given the political response to the clear and unequivocal empirical data on climate change. Moreover, there is no “empirical evidence” that politicians and voters are willing to spend money now to achieve future gains.
  4. Unwillingness to invest in the future: If we wanted to invest in the future we wouldn’t be spending less now on K-12 education than we were spending in 2008-09… and we wouldn’t be spending more three times more on prisons than we are spending on schools.

I wish that we lived in a world where empirical data mattered… but we don’t. We live in a world where we are seeking fast, cheap and easy solutions. Moving school start times is none of the above in the start run and only theoretically beneficial in the long run. Rand Corporation’s spreadsheet mentality, like that of “reformers” who see test scores as a fast, cheap and easy means of “measuring” school performance.

 

How Climate Change Denial Gets Traction

June 9, 2017 Leave a comment

A recent NYTimes article described the skepticism of some students regarding climate change in Wellstone, OH, a skepticism I could appreciate given this recent essay I wrote describing my father’s attitudes toward freon’s impact on the atmosphere:

I Understand Those Who Deny Climate Change

Over the past several weeks I’ve read scores of articles on the appointees President Trump has recommended for cabinet posts, including many “climate change deniers” nominated for key positions that oversee environmental policy. While I am dismayed that some prominent political figures and corporate leaders disregard the findings of scientists, my personal experience helps me understand those who deny climate change. I gained this understanding from debates around the dinner table when I visited my parents in the 1970s.

Some background: My father worked for DuPont for over thirty years. After earning a Mechanical Engineering degree and serving briefly in the Navy at the end of World War II, he was hired by DuPont and began working up the organization ladder. His initial assignment was in the field, cleaning storage tanks for DuPont’s customers in a sales territory that ranged from Montreal to West Virginia and included Western Pennsylvania and Western New York. He then worked in petro-chemical sales in Utah and Oklahoma, in the sales and management training offices in Wilmington Delaware. After a short stint selling chemical products in Michigan, he returned to DuPont headquarters in Wilmington in the early 1970s where he became a district manager for a division that sold one of DuPont’s signature products: Freon.

Those familiar with environmental issues of that time recall that there was a difference of opinion between atmospheric scientists and chemical corporations like DuPont who manufactured chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—like Freon. In 1973 a team of scientists determined that there was a hole in the ozone layer surrounding the earth, postulated that the hole was expanding, and contended the cause of the hole was the emission of CFCs. When these findings were initially reported, the nascent environmental movement championed the cause of banning CFCs. In response, the chemical corporations issued studies that contradicted these independent scientific studies. Among those corporations skeptical of the environmentalists findings was DuPont, whose Board Chairman characterized ozone depletion theory as “a science fiction tale…a load of rubbish…utter nonsense.” My father, who was loyal to his company, concurred with that line of thinking and believed any government regulations or limitations on the sale of CFCs were unnecessary. I believed the scientists and thought regulations were needed. We debated the issue for a few years but eventually agreed to disagree.

Ultimately, years after my father retired, a scientific and political consensus emerged: CFCs did contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer and our government and corporations signed international agreements to limit their use. By 1993 DuPont stopped the production of Freon entirely.

Apart from his adherence to DuPont’s “company line” regarding CFCs, my father was a bright, open-minded, and scientifically inclined individual. And while it may seem that his unwillingness to accept scientific findings was due to blind loyalty or greed, I think another factor might have come into play— a factor that underlies climate denial today: a fear of change. I believe that deep down my father feared that if DuPont abandoned the manufacture of CFCs he might end with a new assignment in a different part of the country, and possibly in a lower paying job. It was also possible the value of his DuPont stocks might plummet, or his pension or benefits might be compromised. Moreover, if it WAS true that CFCs were creating a potentially devastating impact on the climate, he realized on some level that he might be complicit in the destruction of the eco-system. Those unarticulated deep-seated fears caused him to reject the science that proved that one of the products his division was marketing was damaging to humankind.

I understand his denial because I find that I have the same visceral feelings about the science surrounding climate change as my father had toward the science of CFCs: I want to wish it away! Given the scientific evidence linking the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of the planet and my behavior as a consumer, it is clear I need to make some changes… and I am fearful of how those changes I need to make will make my life less convenient, less comfortable, and more costly.

My wife and I live in a three-bedroom house in the country. We have two cars. We burn wood and use fuel oil to heat our house. The energy source of the electricity we use is fossil fuel. We enjoy travelling, especially this time of year when we typically spend a few weeks in the Southwest to get away from mud season. While we’ve adopted a plan-based diet, there are other changes we’d need to make to address our contribution to man-made climate change. We’d need to get a smaller, energy efficient and solar powered home closer to town. We’d need to give up one of our cars, ideally the 4-wheel drive SUV that is roomier but far less fuel-efficient than our small sedan. We’d have to forego airline travel entirely. Alternatively, if we want to stay in the house where we are now and continue our current levels of energy consumption we would need to install expensive solar panels in our backyard and be willing to pay a carbon tax for the fossil fuel we consume driving and travelling. It is likely that the result of these additional costs for energy would mean fewer meals in restaurants, smaller gifts for grandchildren on their birthdays and holidays, less money available for movies and theater performances, three-day weekends, or vacations much closer to home. We would need to sacrifice some comforts and pleasures.

On some level, everyone in the country realizes that reducing their carbon footprint requires the kinds of sacrifices I listed above… and if those kinds of changes occurred across an entire country, the entire economy would change. It would rely on more local products and activities, rely less on consumption, and, as a result, in all probability grow at a slower rate than we are accustomed to. And on some level, I expect that anyone who senses that we will have to make sacrifices feels a sense of foreboding. And because we are making these sacrifices based on the “scientific fact“ that WE are contributing to global warming, we might be inclined to challenge the “scientific fact”.

And now, as I plan for my annual trip to the Southwest to get away from the endless winter, I understand those who deny climate change. Like them I, too, want to wish away the scientific evidence and not make any changes.

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The Administrator Behind the Metal Detector Accepts The Necessity of His Role

April 30, 2017 Leave a comment

“The Man Behind the Metal Detector”, a NYTimes op ed article by Boston public school administrator Adam Stumacher, describes Mr. Stumacher’s conflicts about his role as the school’s gatekeeper and inspector of book-bags and knapsacks. These paragraphs describe his unsettling thoughts as he performs his daily task, comparing his students’ experiences to those he had growing up in rural New Hampshire:

The reality for my students is different. They have been followed through stores, had people roll up their car windows or cross the street when they approach. So perhaps they are unsurprised by the metal detectors.

I try to tell myself none of this is within my control. I think of our school’s work to design courses around diverse texts, hire teachers who reflect our students’ cultures and connect kids with opportunities like internships — how we welcome all students with the promise that we will not rest until they achieve their potential.

But I see how their body language shifts when they walk through metal detectors, some wrapping their arms around themselves and others throwing their heads back in defiance. I see how they fixate on their phone screens or scarves, anything to avoid meeting my gaze. In that moment, there is no denying I am part of the machine.

As one who taught in urban public schools and worked as an administrator in a blue collar suburban district just outside of a city, I am not surprised that Mr. Stumacher is conflicted about his role. Indeed, I imagine anyone who, like me, grew up in a small college town where most of my associations were with churched classmates whose parents expected them to go to college, is often conflicted when they are forced into the role of “enforcer”. Most teachers are drawn to professions in public education because they believe they can make a difference in the lives of children through connections, not because they want to impose their will. So Mr. Stumacher’s conflicts about serving as a de facto policeman are not surprising. What would have been more interesting is to read about the process the administrative team went through to make the decision to put the metal detectors in school to start with, a decision that they had to realize would change the entire dynamic of entry to school each and every day and change Mr. Shumacher’s role. The article offers this as an explanation:

There are metal detectors at the entrance of nearly every public high school in Boston — I imagine it’s the same in most major cities. Last year, when I started working at this school as part of a new administration, we were determined not to use them. We made it until October, when a student brought a knife to school. He was a gentle kid, a ninth grader, and he said he’d brought the knife only because some guys in his neighborhood were harassing him on the way to school and he needed to protect himself. But our first job is to keep the school safe, and so we asked the district for metal detectors, which arrived before 7 the next morning. I had never seen anything arrive so promptly from the district. Textbook orders take months.

This brought to mind my first year as an administrator in 1975 when I heard through the student grapevine that a student had a knife rolled up in a towel in his gym bag. Like the student in Mr. Shumacher’s essay, he was “a gentle kid” who didn’t stemlike the kind of student who would be prone to violence. Nevertheless, I called the student to the office where I confronted him. When he denied the allegation, I asked if I could accompany him to his locker to retrieve his gym bag so he could show me it’s contents. When I asked him to unroll his towel, he looked at me guiltily, and slowly unrolled the towel where there was a large knife. Like the student in Mr. Shumacher’s essay, he said he’d brought the knife only because some guys in his neighborhood were harassing him on the way to school and he needed to protect himself. We called his parents in for a conference, suspended him from school for three days for possession of a weapon (the notion of In School Suspension had not been introduced at that time), and alerted the police and local community leaders of the sense of threat the student felt. The idea of metal detectors was not on our radar in 1975 because in that era one could freely walk through airports, freely enter the US House and Senate Building, and freely enter any public space without having to walk through a metal detector or screening device monitored by a uniformed guard.

My questions to those who see metal detectors as the only option is this: we built “the machine” that Mr. Shumacher is a part of. Why can’t we take it apart and build it a different way? Why can’t we begin with the premise that our money is better spent building cohesive neighborhoods than  building and staffing metal protectors? Why aren’t we operating out of a caring attitude instead of a fearful one?

David Leonardt “Discovers” that Principals Make a Difference. Where was he in the 1980s?

March 12, 2017 Leave a comment

David Leonardt’s op ed article that will appear in today’s paper is titled “Want to Fix Schools? Go the the Principal’s Office”. In the article he describes his recent finding that principals can make a big difference in public schools and writes that after being left out of the debates on school reform “they’re starting to get more attention.” My immediate reaction to this was astonishment, for three decades ago I gave several speeches and presentations on the importance of school-based leadership.

As a Superintendent who led public school districts in New Hampshire and Maryland in the early 1980s  through late 1990s this column brought back memories of the Effective Schools movement that swept a large swath of the country at that time. Ron Edmonds, a Michigan State professor and researcher identified five elements that existed in an effective public school… and number one on that list was strong administrative leadership  at the SCHOOL level, for Ron Edmonds believed that the SCHOOL was where change needed to occur. Mr. Edmonds also promoted the notion that ALL children can learn given sufficient time and appropriate instruction, a notion that flew in the face of some of the research findings from a decade earlier. This idea displaced the more pessimistic findings of the Coleman report and Christopher Jenks’ research, despite the pushback I often received from parents, members of the public, and, alas, teachers who held fast to the notion that intelligence was fixed .

Edmonds had one idea that never caught on, though: equity… the notion that public schools serving children raised in poverty should have the same array of services and courses as schools serving middle class children. Wikipedia synthesized Edmonds’ perspective on this issue:

Edmonds stated…”by equity I mean a simple sense of fairness in the distribution of the primary goods and services that characterize our social order.” Also, “equitable public schooling begins by teaching poor children what their parents want them to know and ends by teaching poor children at least as well as it teaches middle class children.”[7]

The idea that equity was lined with redistribution of resources crossed the line into politics for some policy makers to the extent that one of the elements of effective schools that Edmonds initially listed was dropped entirely. That element was the “Capacity to divert school energy and resources from other activities to advance the school’s basic purpose”. As a Superintendent who promoted Edmonds’ thinking, I could argue that this need to prioritize “energy and resources” did not need to be on the list of components of an effective school because it was a necessary by-product of implementing the other five elements which were:

  1. Strong administrative leadership.
  2. High expectations.
  3. An orderly atmosphere.
  4. Basic skills acquisition as the school’s primary purpose.
  5. Frequent monitoring of pupil progress.

The fourth element of the list required Principals and their school improvement teams to examine how they used time during the day and what resources they needed to assure that each student mastered the basic skills we were in the process of developing as part of our “Essential Curriculum”.

My “research” during the 15 years I worked with Effective Schools and during my 29 years as a Superintendent reinforces what Leonardt “discovered”: a good principal makes a big difference and an outstanding principal makes a HUGE difference.

 

Alternative Facts and He Said/She Said Reporting Erode Confidence in Public Institutions

March 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday that discussed a NY Daily News op ed piece by Gleb Tsibursky titled “Trump is Getting What He Wants Out of Coverage of his Unfounded Accusations”. Citing research on how we process information, Mr. Tsibursky asserts that most readers only absorb the headline and initial paragraphs or headers that accompany the headline. Since this is the case, how an issue is framed in crucially important. He suggests that headlines like the one the AP used that read

“Trump Accuses Obama of Tapping His Phones, Cites No Evidence” 

reinforce the notion that Mr. Trump’s accusations are true, especially when the accompanying article cites “both sides” of the issue. He suggests that a headline that read

Trump Delivers Another Accusation Without Evidence, This Time Against Obama” 

would emphasize the President’s tendency to make up stories (or, to put it more accurately, LIE), especially if the story was buried on the middle pages of the newspaper and had no rebuttal since there was no evidence offered to support the assertion.

Ms. Ravitch’s post and the accompanying comments brought to light the media coverage public schools received during the 29 years I led school districts. When I started my career as a Superintendent in Western Maine, one of the school board members was the owner, publisher, and writer for the weekly newspaper. A man of integrity, he limited his reporting to a recounting of the votes on the key agenda topics and a listing of the board members who failed to attend the meeting. He studiously avoided editorializing to the point of limiting adjectives in his articles. In his coverage of a debate on whether to replace a 1900 vintage school, he did not report on the descriptions of the facility offered by some board members (e.g. the board member who described it as a firetrap) and describing it as a three story wooden structure built in 1900. At the same time, the stringer for the regional newspaper only reported on stories that had a narrative fraught with conflict: a decision to eliminate football, for example, or a debate over consolidating bussing routes. If one read only the regional newspaper they would conclude that the district was in constant turmoil because the only articles they read about it were ones dealing with disputatious issues.

As I advanced in my career and worked in larger districts I observed the same phenomenon. The newspapers seldom covered meetings where we debated policies and reached consensus on potentially contentious issues. They loved covering incidents involving the firing of teachers for misconduct, budget conflicts where the board was divided over priorities, protracted disputes over union contracts, and splits on the board over the renewal of the Superintendent’s contract. I also observed that regional newspapers felt compelled to offer both “sides” equal coverage, even if one “side” was a lone dissenting vote against a sizable majority. This gave the dissenting voter— who in most cases was one individual board member, much more power than the bloc of board members who, invariably, were reported as “supporting the administration” or “supporting the teachers”. This kind of “he said/she said” reporting invariably deepened any splits that existed on the board and gave equal credence to the dissenting voices even if the dissenters had no evidence to support their assertions. I am certain I am not the only superintendent who found himself having to explain to voters that contrary to what they read in the newspaper there was no rampant “waste, fraud, and abuse” in the budget nor was there any “fat” in the administrative budget.

By far the worst “reporting” done by the media was in their publishing of letters to the editor, where anyone could offer their opinion on how the school district should operate even if they had no knowledge whatsoever about the district. A letter to the editor in my first year as Superintendent in a Western Maine district of 1400 students exemplifies the kind of misinformation that appeared on the letters-to-the-editor page. A fiscal conservative who thought that the “new Superintendent” spent too much money suggested that he look at making cuts to the central office where “everyone knew” there was a lot of fat. I read this aloud to my full time administrative assistant, part-time bookkeeper, and half-time special education administrator and suggested that the writer must have been referring to our weight because I couldn’t figure out how to make any more cuts to our central office staff.

My response to this letter was to write a rebuttal letter full of facts about how our staffing levels compared to those of comparable sized districts. One of the Board members who thought it was a well written letter suggested it wouldn’t make any difference. He knew what Mr. Tsibursky reported in his article: readers will “focus on information with emotional overtones, regardless of whether it is factual”. The original letter writer, a native of the area, who described me as the “new Superintendent” was using that term to convey to readers that I was a “fancy-talking flat-lander” who should be looked at with suspicion…. and while my facts were unassailable they were ultimately immaterial because of the prevailing wisdom that too much money was spent on administrators.

I think the counsel offered by that school board member might be applicable to those of us who support public schools. We can throw around facts and figures, but the only way to change the narrative about public education is to change what “everyone knows” about it. We need to encourage school districts to do everything possible to avoid the public conflicts that reinforce the notion that public education is dysfunctional and to make an effort to share the many successes we experience day in and day out. Finally, and most importantly, teachers, administrators, and school board members need to heed the advice of Albert Shanker who once said: “Teachers call the school boards idiots, and school boards call the teachers lazy, and the public believes both of them”.