Monday, December 12, 2011

When multiple choice became the only choice

I am taking a break from my series entitled “How to fix it” in order to bring a little perspective to some other aspects of teaching that have been kicking around in my head for a while. I will continue with my three-part series over Christmas break. 

When I first got into teaching, E.D. Hirsch had recently published his book Cultural Literacy:  What every American needs to know.  This book started a maelstrom of controversy about what was taught, not taught and/or not learned by students in American schools.  It fueled the debate – which is still raging today – about why American schools are in decline.

While I respect Mr. Hirsch, and I certainly have a deep appreciation for “cultural literacy,” I believe this very mindset – one steeped in tradition and outdated pedagogy – is crippling our schools today.

There is a palpable disconnect between students and schools because the educational system has failed to evolve beyond the style of teaching that was in place when Mr. Hirsch was a mere lad.  In a world where everyone’s mood, relationship status or what they had for breakfast can be tweeted, blogged or sent via IM around the world in a millisecond, we still expect kids to learn using many of the same tools, resources, and teaching styles that were in place nearly 100 years ago.

Although my curriculum focuses on project-based learning, I do, from time-to-time, require students to read from our state-adopted textbooks and answer questions.  I do it because students are expected to demonstrate comprehension by finding Main Idea, Author’s Purpose, etc. on district and state level assessments.  This type of assessment, based on reading short passages and answering a series of multiple-choice questions, was developed by a Kansas State Normal School professor in 1915.  Sadly, not much has changed since then.   

Recently, I had my students read a six-page passage from their social studies textbook about the early European explorers and answer the questions at the end of the passage.  One of the questions they had to answer was:  What records of their attempt to settle North America did the Vikings leave behind? 

Even with a great deal of background knowledge (we had recently read a book on the Vikings), most of my students did not understand the question.  First, they did not know what a record was.  More important, the wording of the question suggested that the Vikings actively sought – through multiple “attempts” – to colonize North America and deliberately left “records” behind.  Nothing in the book we had read or in the chapter from the textbook suggested that, so I re-phrased the question.  What types of artifacts have been discovered to suggest the Vikings may have visited or even settled in present-day North America? 

Since my students have access to a computer, we googled the phrase, “Viking artifacts in North America.”  In an instant, they saw hundreds of “records” of Viking remains in North America. After allowing them to “explore” a few web sites, I asked them to answer the question again.  Immediately, they wrote down parts of Viking ships, decomposed swords, tools, and bowls.  I showed them a web site that explained how carbon dating was used to figure out how old the artifacts were and another that showed were in North America these sites were located.  A collective light came on. 

To those who defend the use of chapter tests and pop quizzes, I offer this.  When in the real world do we ever expect anyone – a mechanic, a lawyer, an accountant or a doctor – to know all the answers on the spur of the moment?  Most doctors examine patients while typing information and symptoms directly into a laptop computer or iPad.  Lawyers often have a conference room filled with law books, legal reviews, and case studies.  Mechanics look up parts and settings on a computer.

Often students are not allowed the same “access to information”.  They are not allowed to “find” information or use resources to show that they understand concepts.  In short, we don’t teach the same strategies and skills they will need “in the real world” in the classroom. 

Much of the blame for our over reliance on this type of learning and assessments falls on the federal and state mindset that educational achievement can be measured through multiple choice assessments, and the belief that students (and teachers) should be assessed and evaluated based on a single test score.  A pop quiz of our schools.

Politicians will tell you the public wants accountability.  They will tell you that we need to hold teachers to higher standards so our students can achieve, grow and develop to meet the needs and demands of an ever-changing world.  Unfortunately, they do not abide by the same precepts.  They do not allow schools to develop curriculum that meets these needs simply because it cannot be measured. 

What are we really measuring?  That question is as perplexing to some as the one my students had to answer from their textbook.  Perhaps we need to re-phrase the question and take measurement and evaluation “outside the box” or least outside the textbook.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

When we lost what was really important

In one of my recent blogs, I wrote about a teacher whose “intangibles” could not be measured by student test scores or a complex algorithm.  It read: His lesson plans are sketchy – at best. His record keeping leaves a lot to be desired.  He operates under the “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission” mantra most of the time.  But he knows his subject area better than most college professors.  His vocabulary, writing and critical thinking skills are unparalleled.  More important, he knows how to relate to his students – from the nerd who sits alone in the back of the room to the loud-mouthed girl who is taking care of three younger siblings at home.  He makes learning meaningful and relevant, and they remember the life lessons he teaches them – as well as the subject area lessons – long after they leave his classroom.  His effectiveness cannot be measured by a protocol and certainly is not accurately reflected based on how his students perform on one test. 

That “teacher” was actually an amalgam of several teachers I have worked with over the past 20 years.  One of those teachers was Mike Martin.  This past week, Mike passed away.  He was only 66 years old and had just recently retired.  His death has caused me to consider (re-consider) my role as an educator, father and husband. 

Over the years, I have had many opportunities to leave the classroom and pursue other career opportunities.  To be honest, on more than one occasion, I was more than ready to close the book (pun intended) on my teaching career. 

What kept me coming back – and keeps me coming back each year – is the reason why so many teachers enter the profession and stay in it year after year.  It’s not the “cushy retirement” (30 years in the classroom for less than 50% of your top five years).  It’s not the “three months off in the summer” (which is really 11 weeks for kids and 8 weeks for teachers, which is really more like 5 or 6 weeks for dedicated teachers).  It’s not the “no weekend hours” (all teachers spend countless hours working over the weekend – in and out of school). The reason is simple.  For me, for my wife, for the teachers I work with, and for Mike Martin, there is (and only has been) one reason – our desire to share our love for learning with the kids.

Mike Martin’s career spanned 40 years in the classroom.  During those years, Mike witnessed (and endured) countless programs, assessments and educational pedagogies.  Despite working in a profession that was in a constant state of flux, Mike’s primary focus was making learning meaningful for kids.  His classroom was filled with models, magnets, rocks, compasses, fossils, puzzles and an array of “hands on” learning activities.  Mike was never concerned with the X’s and O’s of teaching.  That wasn’t important to him.  Relating material in ways that kids would remember and understand was.  Comments former students have made on Facebook are a living testament to his “old school” approach to teaching and learning.

Mike’s passing should be a wake up call to those who make policies and laws that affect our schools and children.  Losing Mike should be a reminder that the “old school” approach, one in which children were the primary focus, is dying too. 

We cannot bring Mike back, but it is not too late to bring back some perspective to teaching.  Do we need to assess students?  Sure we do.  Can test scores help us understand our students’ strengths and weaknesses?  Of course they can.  Should we monitor teacher performance and look for ways to improve instruction?  Absolutely.  Have we made student assessments (and now teacher evaluations) far too much of a focus in education?  If you would have asked Mike that question, his response would have been “heck yeah.”
Rest in Peace, Mike.  You will be missed in more ways than one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When standing up for children became "childish" behavior

To those of you who receive my blog posts via email, I apologize for the multiple times I have published this particular post.  In my haste, I had several typos that I wanted to fix.  Here is the most recently edited version.

Over the past few months, I have engaged in series of personal letters with Florida State Representative William Proctor.  Representative Proctor is the Chancellor of Flagler College in St. Augustine and a life-long educator.  Mr. Proctor wrote a letter to me after reading an article (a Guest Column piece) I wrote in the Press Journal newspaper. In his initial letter, he challenged several analogies I made comparing how teachers will be evaluated (under the newly enacted Student Success Act) versus how other professionals are evaluated.  I returned his letter and answered his questions.  I further explained my analogies and presented him with a list of objections I (and other teachers) had with the new evaluation system, one that ties 50% of a teacher's overall job performance to student test scores.  Representative Proctor returned my letter with a second letter.  Sadly, in this letter, rather than present a logical, rational and lucid explanation of  the evaluation system in terms of validity and bias (two primary conditions for any educational assessment), he felt the need to educate me in terms of the state's budgetary shortfalls.  He closed his letter with the following statement, "If you have a parking space, and it is in the shade, consider yourself fortunate."

I have to be honest, I had never heard the expression he used, so I "Google it".  I got no references to the phrase.  I asked others - people I know and respect for their experiences and intellect - and none of them had ever heard the expression either.  They all agreed that it sounded like Representative Proctor was telling me to stop complaining because I had a job.

I took umbrage to several of the statements Representative Proctor made in his letter.  Namely, I was very disappointed that he turned a professional dialogue about issues facing Florida's students and teachers into a rhetorical diatribe.  I responded with a very pointed letter in which I told him how disappointed I was in his response and the condescending tone to his letter.  I told him that I was going to make it him rue the day he decided to question my intellect and integrity.

Well, I got another letter from Representative Proctor this week.  This letter, like the previous letters, was marked - in bold, underlined and capital letters  - PERSONAL.  In order to respect Mr. Proctor's desire to keep the exact contents of his letters "personal", I have resisted the urge (and the ardent request of others) to publish his letters in their entirety on Facebook or by copying them and distributing them to friends and colleagues.  I have published excerpted comments in order to give a context to my responses.  I am going to continue that practice in this post.  In his latest letter, Representative Proctor wrote the following:  "my having presentation of the facts of the state’s current financial position may have been so frustrating as to bring about what I consider to be a childlike response..."  He continued by stating that I had made "idle threats".

My return letter to him was not marked PERSONAL; therefore, I feel no moral or professional obligation not to post my response to him in this blog.  Here is my latest letter to him.  I welcome your feedback.

Dear Representative Proctor:

Again, I am both pleasantly surprised by your willingness to engage in discourse with me and disappointed in some of your tactics.  I was hoping – if you did return my last correspondence – that you would return to a discussion focused on the original topic – SB 736 and the subsequent Student Success Act – and its impact on the education of Florida’s children.  Instead, you regressed to calling me “childish” for chiding you for turning our discussion away from the topic and to one of taxes, funding and budgetary constraints.  I was not “frustrated” by the “facts of the state’s current financial position.”  I was frustrated by your attempt to turn the discussion away from the original conversation.  Since you seem to be focused on the facts, let me present you with the “facts”.

FACT – None of my Guest Column articles in the Press Journal, nor any of the posts on my education blog posts, have been about teacher pay or the new merit pay system in terms of how it will impact me directly.  They have been about how merit pay is not good for students and Florida’s school system because it is an unfunded initiative, and it creates a “competitive” system that unfairly rewards and punishes teachers.

FACT – You voted for legislation that cut funding to education and cut taxes to businesses and property owners.  Last week, it was reported that Florida’s education budget faces another $1.2 billion shortfall.  According to the article, the primary reason for the budget shortfall was a decrease in revenues from property taxes.

FACT – You supported a bill that was/is unfunded (although it calls for districts to “reward” top performing teachers) and is without the proper testing and assessment measures to do what the law now requires.  In other words, it requires school districts to implement a new teacher evaluation system and more student assessments but does not provide the necessary resources to do so.

Recently, a group of teachers from Indian River County Schools met with Representative Debbie Mayfield to discuss the concerns teachers, administrators and parents have with the new teacher evaluation system and the impact it is already having on student instruction.  After listening to our concerns, Representative Mayfield was asked, “Given what you now know about the impact of SB 736, would you still have voted in favor of it?”  Her response was, “Probably not.”

Representative Proctor, I offer two challenges for you to consider:  One, answer the concerns listed by teachers in our district – without digressing into any Republican rhetoric – in terms of how the Student Success Act will improve education in the State of Florida. Two, explain the mathematical algorithm used to calculate the Valued Added Model (VAM) used to evaluate teachers using student test scores.  In fact, have one of the math professors at your university evaluate it and give a logical, mathematical explanation of how it is unbiased, valid and reliable (The list of concerns and the mathematical algorithm are attached.).

If you accept both of these two challenges – in manner listed above – I vow to do the following:  I will cease to write to you.  I will stop publishing Guest Column pieces in the Press Journal.  I will stop writing my blog.  I will remove my Facebook page – Education is about children, not test scores.

If you decline to accept the two challenges I have presented to you, I vow to do the following:  I will increase my letter writing to you and other state legislators.  I will seek additional media outlets to publish my criticism of the Student Success Act.  I will increase the frequency of my blog posts. 

Nothing I have written or said should be construed by you or anyone to be an “idle threat.”  The word threat – in this political environment – is a poor choice of words on your part.  I have far too much respect for authority to “threaten” anyone.  It is, however, my constitutional right – and I feel my patriotic duty – to question and challenge laws that are not in the best interest of me, my family, my community or the children of the State of Florida.  Franklin, Adams and Jefferson were called traitors for challenging the laws and oppressive rule of the British monarchy.  They are now revered as patriots.  I will not allow you or any elected official to deny me of that right by calling me childish.


Paul Mucci

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When "reform" became the answer and teachers became the problem

Former education secretary William Bennett knows exactly what’s wrong with America’s schools.  In response to a report College Board published about an unexpected drop in SAT scores across the nation in 2010, Mr. Bennett jumped right to the source of all of educations problems – teachers and their evil, money grabbing unions.

According to the report published by College Board – the company responsible for developing and scoring the SAT – the drop in SAT scores from 508 (the level recorded six years ago) to 497 on the reading component is due in part to “the record size and diversity of the pool of test-takers.”

In his 15-paragraph article posted on, Mr. Bennett devoted three paragraphs to how much money is spent on education in the US, six paragraphs on teacher contracts, teacher pay and unions and one paragraph, the last one, recapping College Board’s assessment of the problem (there is a two-paragraph introduction as well).  Like most education “pundits”, Mr. Bennett ignored the reason stated in the report by College Board (which has no political stake in presenting its findings) and went right to what he knew was the obvious cause – teachers and unions.  And why not?  Teacher bashing and demonizing unions has become the cause celebre among conservatives and other “reform-minded” citizens. 

Are there bad teachers in American schools?  Of course there are.  Just as there are bad mechanics, bad doctors, bad accountants, and bad financial planners.  Are some of the examples Mr. Bennett cited in his article legitimate causes for concern among parents and administrators and in need of reform?  Again, the answer is yes.  However, rather than examine the causal theory supported by College Board, Mr. Bennett saw this as another opportunity to push an agenda bent on dismantling the system by blaming the easiest and least defensible target.  Furthermore, he fails to make even one direct correlation (no studies, no data, no programs, no anecdotal records – NOTHING) between a one-year decline in scores and the performance of ALL teachers.  More important, Mr. Bennett failed to give relevance to any of the following factors that may (or may not) have attributed to the decline in SAT scores:

a)      The overemphasis on high-stakes testing at the expense of authentic learning experiences.  The pressure on students and teachers to raise standardized test scores has created a “teach to the test” mentality across this nation.  Its origin can be traced to the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act and has continued into the Obama administration’s Race To the Top education program.

b)      The lack of focus (and resources) on our “top performing” students due to an overemphasis on our “lower performing” students.  Please understand I am not advocating that we ignore our struggling students so we can increase SAT scores.  I am saying that over the past 10 years, there has been a deliberate shift in instruction that has been geared toward struggling students at the expense of others.

c)      The deterioration of American families and their focus on education.  Many families have heard the “blame the teachers” cry from politicians so often over the past few years, that they have adopted a similar mantra.  Many have an “It’s not my child’s fault…it’s the teachers fault” approach to every issue and circumstance involving their children.

d)     The deterioration of the economic support system for our schools and our students.  More of our school-age kids are living in poverty than in any time since the Great Depression.  More and more kids are helping their parents raise younger brothers and sisters. More and more kids are escaping the pressures of home life via video games and other non-academic endeavors.

e)      Last but not least, absolutely no “blame” was placed on administrators, district and/or state officials who have allowed some of the deplorable situations Mr. Bennett described in his article to continue. 

During this past legislative session, Florida enacted sweeping education reform similar to what Mr. Bennett proposed.  Senate Bill 736 (and its accompanying House Bill) is currently being implemented.  Its purpose – claim its supporters – is to remove “bad teachers” by eliminating tenure and reward “good teachers” by creating a performance-based pay system.  Sounds great, right, Mr. Bennett?  Here’s what education reformers are not telling you.  Under the new system, it takes three years to fire a “bad teacher” when it took only 90 days under the old system.  As for rewarding good teachers with bonuses based on student performance, these savvy reformers forgot two key elements – funding and providing a valid instrument in which to assess all students.  The result?  Already financially-strapped school districts will have to redistribute funds to pay for the program as well as create assessments (and administer and score them and calculate whose students have shown learning gains) with ZERO funds given to achieve this wonderful reform.

My advice to Mr. Bennett is this:  Let those who work most closely with students decide how to reform the system.  My guess is Mr. Bennett is “gambling” that the public won’t know any better and will continue to buy into the “Let’s bully the teachers”approach he and like-minded folks have already begun.

If you’d like to read Mr. Bennett’s article, you can find it at:

Friday, September 9, 2011

When Evaluations and Test Scores Don’t Bring “Satisfaction”

It was Friday, the day before the three-day Labor Day weekend.  When I finally pulled out of the teachers’ parking lot, it was 5:10 – an hour and twenty-five minutes after my contract hours and almost two hours after students were dismissed from school.  What is unusual and notable about this is not that I was at school that late, or that it was a Friday before a three-day weekend.  What is notable – if not extraordinary – is that there were ten teachers (out of a staff of 36 teachers), one administrator and the school secretary who still had not left school. 

This was not a rare occasion or a beginning of the school year phenomenon.  On any given day, over a third of our faculty and staff arrive well before contract hours, and the vast majority leaves well after contract hours.  Some are “repeat offenders”.  They get to work early each day and leave late each day. 

I recently wrote a letter to one of our state representatives.  The letter was in response to one he wrote to me after reading a Guest Column piece I had written for our local newspaper.  In his letter, the representative challenged my opposition to the new teacher evaluation system – a system which uses student test scores to determine 50% of a teacher’s overall evaluation.  At the end of his letter, he asked the following question, “Do you think 97% of all teachers are ‘satisfactory’?”

My immediate response was, “Yes”, but his question struck a chord with me, and I began to think about all the teachers I have worked with over the past 21 years.  I have worked at four different schools with approximately 250 teachers (I rounded down to make the math easier).  Of those 250 teachers, I could only think of a few – less than a handful – who were “unsatisfactory” in their performance year in and year out.

Perhaps age and a sense of kindness and generosity to my current and former colleagues had clouded my memory, so I doubled that number to eight.  Over the past 21 years, I have worked with eight unsatisfactory teachers – teachers who were unprepared, unprofessional, and incompetent and/or whose classrooms resembled a circus rather than a learning environment.  That left 242 out of 250 teachers, or exactly 96.8%, who were “satisfactory”.  They did their job.  They came to school prepared to teach.  They worked with students.  They supported students.  They encouraged students.  They graded papers.  They turned in grades.  They filled out IEP’s, AIP’s, 504 plans, IPDP’s, etc.  They met with administrators.  They attended workshops.  Yes, 97% were satisfactory.

Anyone who has ever had children (or spent any time around a school in the last 30 years), knows that teaching is about much more than being satisfactory, or effective, or highly effective or even exemplary (or innovating the term used in the new measurement system), and it’s about more than one man or one woman’s ability to get a group of 22 to 25 students to “show learning gains” on one test.  Teaching is about understanding and tending to the needs of children – their academic, developmental and social needs.

The new evaluation system has sixty teaching characteristics or elements.  They are all “observable behaviors” of an effective or “satisfactory” teacher.  They include descriptors such as “provides clear learning goals” and “establishes classroom routines” and “demonstrate value and respect for low expectancy students.”  All these characteristics can be measured on a scale or evaluated with a protocol, but do they truly measure the characteristics of a good teacher?

How do we measure dedication – coming to work early and staying late?  Where is the rubric to evaluate a teacher who spends an hour and a half of her own time each night (if not more) – away from her own children – to find “just the right” story, book or lesson to spark interest in that one disconnected child?  What score do you give to a teacher who stays after school to listen to a child sob because her parents are divorcing, and she doesn’t know where she is going to live?  How do you evaluate the “with-it-ness” of a teacher whose students could care less about “world cultures” when their own culture consists of gang violence, teenage suicide, bankruptcy or foreclosure?

One of the least effective teachers I know – in terms of “observable behaviors” –  is also one of the most effective teachers I know – in terms of “with-it-ness” and “meeting the needs of students”.   His lesson plans are sketchy – at best.  His record keeping leaves a lot to be desired.  He operates under the “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission” mantra most of the time.  But he knows his subject area better than most college professors.  His vocabulary, writing and critical thinking skills are unparalleled.  More important, he knows how to relate to his students – from the nerd who sits alone in the back of the room to the loud-mouthed girl who is taking care of three younger siblings at home.  He makes learning meaningful and relevant, and they remember the life lessons he teaches them – as well as the subject area lessons – long after they leave his classroom.  His effectiveness cannot be measured by a protocol and certainly is not accurately reflected based on how his students perform on one test. 

The question is not “Are 97% of all teachers ‘satisfactory’?”  The better question is “How do you measure learning gains when learning is about more than questions on a test and teaching is about more than documenting observable behaviors?”

Saturday, August 27, 2011

When teaching became a measurable act and not a meaningful experience

Last week was the first week of school for most students throughout the State of Florida.  For the past several weeks, teachers and administrators have been “gearing up” for the return of school and a new group of kids.  This is the time of year that most everyone remembers fondly – new clothes, new shoes, new school supplies and the eager anticipation that comes with wondering who your teacher will be and whether or not your best friends will be in your class.  It is a time of excitement, anticipation and wonder.  It’s a fresh start – a new year, a new beginning.

Looking back on my first day as a teacher – 22 years ago – I recall feeling excited and nervous.  I, too, had new clothes, new shoes, and new supplies.  My students’ desks were clustered in groups of four.  Fresh posters adorned my walls.  My lesson plans were typed using my new Apple Macintosh computer.  I was nervous, but I was ready.  As the first bell rang, I remembered what one of my professors told me, “When that door closes, it’s just you and those kids that matter.  Your job is to do everything you can to help make learning a meaningful experience for them – regardless of what is going on in the world around them.”

Today, however, much of that anticipation and excitement has changed for administrators, teachers and – more important – for students.  While most students still experience the nervous anxiety of new classrooms, new teachers and new friends, and teachers still approach a new school year as a clean slate and a new opportunity to guide and help young people, a new fear – a different kind of anxious anticipation – has gripped our schools.   Gone is the sage advice of a trusted professor – “your job is to make learning a meaningful experience…”  That philosophy has been replaced with a new mantra, “Your job hinges on your ability to raise test scores.”  For students, it is an even more ominous proclamation, “You won’t graduate if you don’t pass this test.”

This week, I had a dozen teachers in my classroom.  It wasn’t their enthusiasm, excitement or nervous anticipation that brought them there.  They weren’t in my room to share stories about the bright, new faces in their classrooms, like they would have years ago.  They were in my room with a new sense of nervousness and anticipation.  They were there to ask me to explain how, when and where they should be writing and posting their “learning goals”.  They were there to ask me how they should structure their “scales” so that they could show the administrators – who were observing them during the first week of school – that they were “taking the temperature” of student learning and understanding.  They were there to ask me to explain how they could be “scored” as “Beginning” for a skill that they were not using when they were evaluated.

Likewise, the nervousness normally exhibited by students has changed over the years.  No longer do students ask questions at the beginning of the year like, “Are we going to make a volcano this year?”, or “Can I bring in my new puppy to school for sharing?”, or “What projects are we going to do in class this year?”  These queries have been replaced with, “When is FCAT this year?”  and “If we don’t pass the Reading FCAT is it true we have to take two reading classes in middle school?”  and, “Why did our school get a B last year?”  Our teachers’ focus has shifted from “making learning meaningful” to making teaching observable – measurable.  Our students’ focus has shifted from “what are we going to do and discover?” to “when is our next assessment?” and “I hope I pass it.”

While the recent changes in teacher evaluation system and the implementation of End of Course exams for middle school and high school students (along with the ever present emphasis on FCAT testing) is much to blame, this “paradigm shift” did not occur over night.  It is rooted in the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind act and the mantle has been passed on through the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education plan.  It has been fueled by a numbers-driven political atmosphere in which politicians (and the voting populace) feel the need to analyze every dollar spent and to justify every program.

As a group of teachers and I waited for our last bus to arrive at the end of the third day of school – a bus that transports six students from the north part of our county to the south part of our county because we are a choice school – I made the comment, “This is the type of thing that the general public never sees – kids who spend an hour and a half on a bus twice a day simply because someone thought it was a good idea.”   One of my colleagues turned to me and said, “To the general public, these kids are nothing more than numbers.”  We all looked at each other and sighed in agreement.

Albert Einstein once said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”  Alfie Kohn, a prominent educator in this country, summed it up even better when he said, “We are so busy weighing the elephant that we are forgetting to feed it.”

I long for the days when I could close my door, and it was just me and my students.  My only concern was how to make what I was teaching meaningful.  I long for the days when pacing guides did not exist and student interest and inquiry drove the curriculum.  I long for the days when a “basal reader” was a resource, not a required text.  I long for the days when – while gauging the temperature of student learning and interest – I could go off on a tangent and use that “teachable moment” to give my students what they wanted and needed – regardless of what my posted learning goal was. 

Sadly, those days are gone.  They are gone until someone has the courage to say kids are more than just a test score, and teachers are more than just a tool to generate those scores.  As Americans, we have to determine what can be counted and what should be counted.

Monday, July 25, 2011

When "jargon" became more important than kids

Every profession has its share of jargon that only those in the profession fully understand (or care to understand).  Acronyms, abbreviations and Greek and Latin terms are normally used to either expedite communication or to clarify (or in many cases specify) exactly what process, test, or procedure is needed.  In education, however, acronyms have an entirely different purpose – accountability.  Think you understand education jargon?  See how well you do understanding this scenario:
 Pablo is a 10-year old ESOL student, who recently enrolled in a new school.  The AP at his new school reviews his CUM folder and SIF folder and enters his name into TERMS.  She discovers that Pablo has an active IEP.  Originally, he had a 504-Plan, but after extensive class time spent in an RtI group, which was established in response to NCLB, he was referred for additional testing.  Using a Connors (to make sure he is not ADHD), an IQ test and other ESE testing instruments, it was determined that Pablo was SLD.   The 504-Plan was closed and an IEP was written because students cannot have both designations.   Due to the ADA of 1990, Pablo was placed in his least restrictive environment – a regular education class.  The AP notes that Pablo’s IEP minutes will be met through pull-out services.  Pablo’s most recent FCAT scores show that he is a Level 1 reader and a Level 1 math student.   He attended a six-week Summer Reading Camp at the end of third grade and scored at the 51st percentile on the SAT 10.  The AP makes a notation that Pablo’s new teacher and the Reading Strategies Coach will need to continue to provide both Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction and that Pablo’s progress in reading will be monitored using bi-weekly ORF and MAZE assessments and quarterly using FAIR.  These scores will be entered into AIMS and printouts of his scores will be kept in his SIF folder.  During math instruction, Pablo will be pulled out of his regular education class and placed in a Tier 3 or  “triple I” group with other ESE students.  His ORF, MAZE, FAIR and FASTT Math scores, along with scores on his Reading and Math Benchmark Assessments, will be entered by the school district into Performance Matters.  Pablo’s classroom teacher will print these scores and keep them in a Data Monitoring notebook. Data Monitoring notebooks will be reviewed twice a quarter to ensure that Pablo’s classroom teacher, ESE teacher and the Reading Coach are recording data, analyzing Pablo’s strengths and weaknesses and differentiating instruction to meet Pablo’s needs.  Pablo’s classroom teacher will also document in his lesson plans all the SSS and Access Points that are covered in each lesson, not to mention the ESOL strategies.  Finally, the AP then sends an email to Pablo’s new teacher suggesting that he write his IPDP based on how well Pablo (and the other ESE and ESOL students in his class) do on FCAT Reading this year.  She notes that if these students do well,  the school might achieve AYP.
Some will argue that these programs, student designations and assessment measures were needed to make teachers, administrators and school districts more accountable for student learning.  Others will tell you that quality instruction, teacher-driven assessment, cooperative learning and critical thinking, have been sacrificed as a result of a numbers-driven mentality.  Norm-referenced assessments, like those accumulated in the most recent NAEP report, show that students in Florida – and across America – have made little gains in reading, math and science over the past 25 years despite these measures. 
How do we fix this problem?  There is no panacea.  We can do a few simple things, though.  We can start by eliminating high-stakes testing.  One test is not an accurate reflection of student learning.   Secondly, we need to stop the ridiculous practice of “categorical funding” that separate facilities and operations money.   Finally, and most important, we need to move educational decision-making away from the federal and state levels and return it to the local level.  Who knows better what students in our schools need than the teachers and administrators who work with them every day? 
The students I taught 20 plus years ago are now the doctors, lawyers, and teachers you see today. Apparently, we didn’t do too bad of a job before all the jargon.

Friday, May 27, 2011

When it became fashionable to push rather than pull

A friend of mine recently made a very interesting comment.  She said, “There are two types of leaders – those who lead by pushing others along and forcing them to do what they want them to do, and those who lead by pulling others to join them and lead by their passion and commitment.” 
Over the past 20 years, I have worked for nine different principals.  Some of these men and women were leaders who pushed, and some were leaders who pulled.  While all nine were effective and possessed their own unique strengths, two of them have stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Why?  They were pullers.  They lead their faculty and staff by example, passion and commitment.  They were not content with the status quo.  They sought innovative  teaching concepts.  They educated themselves to the point of expertise.  They encouraged teachers to do the same.  They were risk takers.  More important, they got others – those in their charge – to believe in them, to devote themselves to the same concepts and to follow – willfully and joyfully. 
The first “puller” was my first principal, Clyde Folsom.  Mr. Folsom was a dominant, physical presence.  He was well over six feet tall and well over 250 pounds.  He spoke with a loud, booming Tennessee accent.  There wasn’t a challenge he didn’t like or take head on.  One of my fondest recollections of Mr. Folsom involved a parent who came into the front office of our school, screaming, “You people in here have your heads up your asses!” Upon hearing her,  Mr. Folsom came running out of his office, first grabbing his head, then his rear end.  He looked at the parent and calmly stated, “No, Ma’am.  My head is right here on my shoulders.  Now, if you’d like to discuss something with me and can do so without screaming or using profanity, I’d be happy to talk to you in my office.”
 Like most principals in Marion County at that time, Clyde Folsom was an ex-basketball coach, but the coach-turned-administrator stereotype stopped there.  Clyde Folsom was an innovator, who wasn’t afraid of ruffling a few feathers.  He was a fearless leader in curriculum development and a stickler for discipline. 
After a fairly long and distinguished career as a high school principal, Mr. Folsom was “punished” by district staff because he had the audacity to suspend a group of kids for actions committed after a football game (but off campus).   His punishment was to oversee the worst school in the district.  A school that “folks” in the area – thirty years after segregation – still called, “the black school.”  It was a school in physical, academic and emotional disrepair.  To Clyde Folsom, it was a clean palate. 
Clyde Folsom took his new palate and created a masterpiece.  He started by overseeing a $5.5 million renovation, which resulted in a near complete physical reconstruction.  It wasn’t unusual to see him cutting the grass (using his own riding mower), or watering flowers, or cutting tree branches.  He wrote grants to get new fencing and a full-time resource officer on campus.  Howard Middle School went from a worn out, broken down group of buildings that kids used to break into by cutting out the cinder blocks to a diamond in the rough. 
In addition to an old and worn out group of buildings, Clyde had inherited an old and worn out faculty – one that had “seen it all” and who knew how to teach “these kinds of kids.”  Clyde Folsom knew better.  He began by implementing a curriculum that utilized true “team teaching” – four teachers: one math, one science, one social studies and one language arts teacher, who taught the same group of students.  There were no bells to mark the change of classes.  If the math teacher needed more time, she simply put her head through the doorway to the science teacher’s room and said, “I need 10 more minutes.  Is that O.K.?”  He implemented a 98-minute block schedule.  He then hired consultants to teach teachers how to plan curriculum, integrate instruction and manage student behaviors.  If a student was unruly, disrespectful or off task, he had no business being in a classroom, according to Mr. Folsom.  The Time Out room became a place kids did not want to visit on his watch.
At first, teachers balked at all the changes, but when they saw the dedication, the passion, the drive and how Clyde Folsom was right there with them every step of the way – in every workshop, in every classroom, in every parent meeting – they wanted to follow, they wanted to change, they wanted to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.  The three years I spent at Howard Middle School were three of the best years of my career.  Had I not worked for Clyde Folsom, I doubt I would still be teaching today.
Pat Donovan – the other great “puller” – was in many ways the antithesis of Clyde Folsom and in many ways his Doppelganger.  She was (is) a tall, gregarious, athletic “Jersey Girl” who was equally at home cheering kids to do their best at a track event as she was growing orchids at her house on the beach.  Like Clyde, Pat’s voice (usually her laugh) often preceded her physical appearance. 
Pat was part innovator, part cheerleader, part teacher, part student and part parent to both teachers and faculty and the students at her school.  She, too, never met a challenge she did not like, and if there was a way to do something better, smarter and in a way that both challenged and encouraged kids, she was behind it 100% of the way. 
One of my fondest recollections of Pat Donovan was the time she walked through the New Orleans airport wearing a bright orange wig, made out of two-inch thick ribbon.  She charged through that airport wearing her wig and toting two suitcases full of books, training manuals, beads other goodies she had stored up on the trip to share with her teachers.  Close on her heels were the three teachers who attended the trip with her.  I was fortunate to be one of them.  That was the same way she lead teachers at her school.  She led the charge, toting the ideas, the books and materials while her staff followed closely at her heels.
Pat introduced teaching ideas and concepts to Indian River County that no other principal or school had even heard of, and she encouraged her teachers to be creative and innovative.  Pat and her staff implemented programs like Responsive Classroom (a program brought to her attention by my wife), handheld computing (she was known as the “technology queen” of Indian River County), and the FISH philosophy (Be There, Play, Make Their Day, Choose Your Attitude).  With every new idea, Pat’s teachers and staff were right there with her, and she was right there with them.
What distinguished Pat Donovan and Clyde Folsom from other leaders was that they never did anything with the precept of how good – or bad – it might make them look.  Pat walked through the airport with a ridiculous wig on her head not so people would look at her.  She didn’t care what people thought of her.  Her only concern was whether or not what she was doing would ultimately motivate teachers and, in turn, help kids.  Clyde Folsom didn’t cut the grass so that he could get his picture in the newspaper (although Teacher magazine did get a shot of him on his mower for an article); he did it because the grass needed to be cut.
Too many leaders today – principals, administrators, lawmakers and wannabe politicians – are pushers.  They push their ideas on others.  They impose their will on people.  They threaten, belittle and chide, and if anyone gets in their way, look out.  Their only concerns are who is going to see me, how am I going to look, and what can I get out of this?  They are content with the status quo, as long as it keeps them looking good.  They scorn new ideas because they might not produce “the numbers” needed to be viewed as a success.  In short, they are not risk takers because risk portends the potential to fail.  While they might be expert tacticians or masters in their fields, they fail to recognize one simple truth – the horse has a much easier time pulling the wagon than he does pushing it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

When the "product" becomes more important than the "customer"

This past week, teachers were given an overview of the new Teacher Evaluation system.  Without getting into specifics, the new system evaluates teachers using a 50 – 50 formula.  Fifty percent of a teacher’s performance will be based on the same type of “accomplished practices” and teacher performance measurements that have been in place for the past 20 years.  These practices include:  establishing classroom routines, identifying critical information, engaging students in “cognitively complex tasks” and my favorite – demonstrating “with-it-ness”.  What is different about the “new” evaluation, and what has received mention in this blog and in other media outlets, is the other 50 percent - student performance.
To many, this “overhaul” in the teacher evaluation process is both long overdue and a step in the right direction.  My brother, a lawyer and business owner, is one of those.  He posits that teachers, like other professionals, should be evaluated based on “job performance” and since student performance is the most tangible piece of data, it makes sense to use it when evaluating teacher performance. 
It’s a valid argument.  He’s a good lawyer.  His approach, however, is flawed.  While student performance can be influenced by good (or bad) teacher performance, there are so many other “tangible” and intangible factors at play.  Furthermore, the idea that “other professionals” (a phrase that has been bandied about a lot in the media – and cited in this blog) are paid based on the tangible results they produced is even more fundamentally flawed.  Humor me, while I apply the “tangible” results model to other professions.
I will start with the health care field.  More specifically, I’ll apply the tangible results theorem to dentists.  Are dentists paid based on the number of cavities their patients don’t get?  No.  Why not?  Because the amount of time patients spend brushing and flossing is a factor.  The number of times a patient see a dentist is a factor.  More important, the amount of emphasis parents place (and impart on their children) to care for their teeth is a factor.
How about personal trainers, dieticians, or weight loss counselors?  Are they paid based on the amount of weight their clients lose or how much muscle mass they gain?  Of course they aren’t.  Why not?  Because these professionals cannot control whether or not their clients follow the prescribed diets.  They cannot control whether or not their clients workout or exercise at home, and they cannot control the role genetics or body type play in weight gain and retention.
For the sake of time and space (and for dramatic effect), I will cut out some of the verbiage.  Are ministers paid based on the number of souls they save?  Are accountants paid base on the amount of money their clients save?  Are drug counselors and social workers paid based on the number of drug addicts who kick the habit?  The answer in each scenario is a resounding, “NO”!
Even if you examine those professionals who are paid based on client or personal performance, you’ll discover that their pay is based more on quality and value than quantity or actual performance.  Real estate agents aren’t paid on the number of houses they sell but on the value of the houses they sell.  Lawyers aren’t paid based on the number of cases they win (Most are paid regardless of whether or not their clients win their cases.).  Lawyers are paid more when their clients win, and they are paid even more when the case involves a lot of money – quality and value.
If Congress were to enact laws resulting in a “pay for performance” model for all professions, I’d dare say we’d see a sudden and dramatic decrease in both performance and the number of people willing to work these jobs.  How many lawyers would we have if all lawyers had to argue every case brought to them?  How many oncologists would there be if they were paid based on the number of patients whose cancer they cured?  Better yet, how many reality stars-turned-politicians would we have if they were paid based on the following:  shrinking the national debt, having a balanced budget, raising personal income, cutting unemployment, reducing crime and improving our military?
The pay for performance scenarios I’ve presented would seem ludicrous to lawyers, doctors, accountants and real estate agents.  The current system that bases 50% of a teacher’s job performance on one aspect of teaching, and in many cases one test, is equally ludicrous to teachers and administrators.
In the city in which I live, there is a doughnut shop.  I hate going there.  The service is slow, the employees are rude and the store is often out of certain products.  (I once jokingly asked, “Do you have doughnuts today?” after I was told, “We’re out of that” three times).  Despite its poor service and lack of proper management, this store always has a line at the drive-through, and there are customers in the store at all hours of the day.  How is that possible?  The answer is simple:  It’s the only doughnut and bagel place in town. From a financial perspective, it is a success.  From a customer perspective, it’s a complete failure.  We cannot apply the same business model to our schools.  We cannot allow the “product” to become more important than the “customers”. 
Allow me to drive my point home by describing two schools – one that focuses on the customer and the other that focuses (or doesn’t) on the product.
The first school has highly-motivated teachers and staff.  The principal has researched and implemented new, more advanced teaching techniques.  He has applied for grants to bring more technology to his school.  He offers “incentives” to students who have good attendance and who perform well on local assessments.  He brings parents and local businesses together to fundraise, conduct “family nights” and to create a positive, safe and nurturing environment.  At the end of the school year, when state test scores are released, the school earns a C.  Student test scores in math and reading – although dramatically improved from the previous year – did not meet the state and federal achievement levels, especially for its minority students and its lower socio-economic “sub groups” which make up 65% of the student population. 
Our second school has an older, more traditional teaching staff.  Most of the faculty does not attend a teacher workshop unless forced to do so.  The principal is in his last year of DROP and is counting down the days until retirement.  Technology at the school is outdated.  The curriculum used is the same one that the parents of the kids at this school used nearly 20 years ago. At the end of the school year, when state test scores are released, the school earns an A.  Student scores in math and reading – while no better than the previous four or five years – are above the local and state averages.  Since the school is in a predominately white, affluent part of town, the school does not have any “sub groups” and therefore its test scores are based on the performance students from a mid to high socio-economic group or more than 95% of the students.
Which schools’ administrators, faculty and staff worked harder?  Which group of teachers deserves recognition?  Which staff deserves more pay?  Which group of students worked harder or achieved more?  Which group had more learning gains?  Sadly, we will soon find out.

Friday, May 13, 2011

When others think they can do what we do - only better

When others think they can do what we do – only better

I recently sent my blog posts to an editor of our local newspaper.  Here are some of his comments:  “It’s overwritten…tighten up the verbiage…write it less like you talk…less cliches…”

His comments, in my opinion, were accurate and constructive.  He’s right.  I do tend to write like I talk, which at times borders on stream of consciousness.  Not in the James Joyce sense – more like Howie Mandel.  He wrapped up his comments with a nice compliment, “the content is novel” but then – near the end – he did the unimaginable.  He dropped the W-Bomb.  “Some might call parts of it WHINING.”  

Accusing a teacher, or any government employee for that matter, of whining is tantamount to a child telling his mother she’s LAZY because she won’t wash his favorite shirt at 11:00 at night so he can wear to school the next day!  Telling a teacher he/she is whining falls into the modern day category of, “Oh, no you didn’t!”

It was the second time in the past two months that someone used the W-word to describe something I had written.  After thinking about it for a couple of days, it dawned on me why people feel that way about teachers (and other government employees) when they speak out about the fate of their profession.  

In one of my earlier blogs, I made the assertion that the general public had a “love-hate” relationship with teachers, fueled by images and depictions of teachers in movies and the media.  I’ve even speculated that the current economic conditions and the fact that the teaching profession has not been as heavily hit by job cuts might have something to do with the negative perception of teachers, too.  Now I realize neither one of those is the primary factor.  Before the “big reveal” I am going to go all Ryan Secrest and prolong the suspense with a little rhetorical Q&A.  “Let’s dim the lights…”
  • When military generals testify in front of members of Congress that troops need more training and newer weapons, are they whining?
  • When a police chief asks city council members for more officers to fight crime, are they whining?
  • When doctors – working in a free clinic – report that government regulations and tedious paperwork hamper their ability to give patients top medical care, are they whining?
Here’s the rub.  All “civil servants” –  military, police, fire fighters, teachers, city clerks, social workers, etc. – make their living off the tax dollars of “others”.   Government employees are often criticized  because  “others” think they can do what we do – only better – and they accuse us of whining when we speak out.  

For the most part, military, police and firefighters get a free pass because these brave men and women risk their lives. Doctors aren’t whiners because they have a skill and level of educational achievement that most will never obtain nor can even fathom.  But teachers, city clerks, and other government workers are viewed differently because most people think they can do what we do – only better.

There is a sign in front of the desk of the clerk who handles the water bill payments in our town.  The sign reads something like:  I understand you may be upset, but if you yell at me, swear at me, pound on my desk or make any type of threat, a sheriff’s deputy will be called

People often treat school secretaries, attendance clerks, cafeteria workers and teachers aides who supervise children before and after school with the same anger, frustration and disdain. They don't value the important role these people have in the lives of hundreds of children.  They don't see the love, patience, kindness and understanding displayed toward kids every day, despite what "others" do or say about them. 

Perhaps people treat government employees with such contempt and disrespect because of another unfortunate adjective.  Many view us as civil servants – with an emphasis on the word “servant”.  Our sole purpose is to serve them, and we better serve them when, where and how they want to be served.  After all, their taxes pay my bills. But that is another blog for another time.

If whining is caring about children and their future, then I am a whiner.  If whining is wanting the best tools and resources to teach an increasingly diverse population, then I am a whiner.  If whining is not wanting to have to continue to make do with less and less resources, then I am a whiner.  If whining is informing the general public that teachers and other government employees are feeling the financial pinch, too, then I am a whiner.

Jimmy Buffet once said, "We need more fruit cakes in this world..." people who aren't afraid to stand out in a crowd.  I think we need more whiners in education.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

When generals don't understand the battles

When generals don’t understand the battles their own troops are fighting
It is Monday afternoon.  It is forty-five minutes after students have left for the day and twenty-five minutes after my contract hours have ended, and I have just read a “letter of appreciation” from our school district superintendent.  After reading the nine-sentence, four-paragraph “appreciation letter” one resounding thought struck me:  the Head Honcho, the Big Kahuna, the Grand Marshall of the parade, our five-star general – our leader – has about as much “appreciation” as he does “understanding” of what his troops – his teachers in the classroom – are facing every day.
In the nine sentences he wrote to express his appreciation for teachers, who for the last five years have continued to raise the level of achievement among students in our district, our Commander in Chief failed to make ONE specific reference to the efforts teachers make on a daily basis.  Oh, sure, he used phrases like, “it is through your hard work…” and “I commend you for rising up to the task…” but there is not one specific or direct mention of what teachers do.  He did, however, manage to reference the tough economic conditions district personnel are facing not once, not twice, not three times but FOUR times – four times in nine sentences.  In essence, he really isn’t recognizing what teachers have done or accomplished; he is recognizing and appreciating what HE and his staff have accomplished - financially.
In this blog, I have made the statement that teachers don’t do what they do for the money.  Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear.  Teachers – like all professionals – want to make a fair wage.  They want to be recognized – personally and financially – for what they do.  They have mortgages.  They have college tuitions to pay.  They have day care bills, auto loans, and medical bills, too. 
What the “generals”  - both local and state officials – are failing to understand (or maybe just failing to acknowledge) is that teachers – the soldiers on the front line  - are struggling and experiencing low morale, not because of their pay check.  Teaching has become infinitely more difficult over the past three or four years and morale is so low because despite everything that is going on around us financially, we are doing it with less support on a moral and professional level.
In a recent New York Times article, an analogy between teaching and the military was made rather effectively.  In that article, the author made the assertion that when U.S. troops are struggling or facing an increasingly insurmountable foe, we don’t blame the troops.  We look for different ways to support our troops.  More often than not that support comes from letters of support from the home front.  It comes from words of thanks and encouragement from legislators.  It comes in the form of better training, more personnel, more reconnaissance and more cooperation among the factions involved in the fight.
What has happened in education is the exact opposite.  Not only are teachers facing a more vocal, mobile and aggressive foe, at the same time, the support from our leaders, our generals, our legislators has evaporated.  It has been replaced by a condescending, underhanded and adversarial attitude.  Teachers are now seen as the enemy and not the dedicated soldier in need of moral support.
Since our field general is obviously out of touch, I decided to write my own teacher appreciation letter.  Like the commercials that urge Americans to simply say “thank you” to a U.S. soldier, my appreciation letter is going to be a simple list of “thank you’s” to all teachers, staff and administrators:
ü  Thank you for coming to work early and staying late.
ü  Thank you for working nights and weekends.
ü  Thank you for coming to baseball games, track events, car washes, bake sales, school plays, open house and parent conferences
ü  Thank you for tutoring students before school and after school.
ü  Thank you for taking time away from your own families to support other families’ children.
ü  Thank you for being patient with that child who has exhausted the patience of so many other adults in his/her life.
ü  Thank you for taking on one more student, who just could not get along in his last class.
ü  Thank you for engaging in all the mindless state and district “accountability” efforts , like writing standards in your grade/lesson book even though you could probably recite them from memory.
ü  Thank you for re-inventing the wheel each and every year so that you might find a new way to make learning exciting and engaging for a generation of students raised on television and video games.
ü  Thank you for listening to – and not arguing with – irate parents who want to blame you for their child’s failures rather than taking a more critical look at themselves.
ü  Thank you for enduring “workshops” and faculty meetings on such “important” topics like how to comply with even more mindless “mandates”.
ü  Thank you for making your grades and lesson plans public so that parents can review them and/or criticize them when their children either don’t do the assignments or claim, “He never told us about that.”
ü  And thank you for caring about the future of our county, our state and our country in your efforts to teach more than just your subject area, but teaching young people how to be loving, caring and responsible citizens.
Have a great week, and know that you are honored, respected and loved.