Thursday, January 31, 2019

Feeling like I belong

In our school district we have missed the last two days of school because of cold weather.

Not just cold weather but "oh my gosh, holy cow, can you believe it, freezing everything" cold weather.

And while I am sure our students (and staff) enjoyed the unexpected holiday, I also know that they welcome the opportunity to return.

For school is not just a place where students go to learn and staff go to teach and support students.

School is place that gives people purpose. School is a place that provides opportunity to every person who enters the front door.

Students find adults who are not their parents who care deeply for them and who want the best for them.

Staff have the opportunity to give back to others - whether it is to students or to colleagues.

Schools don't always get it right, but schools create a community where people look out for each other.

So I for one am glad that we get the chance to return to a place that creates so much opportunity and makes me, most of the time, feel like I belong.

Friday, December 14, 2018

A wrong solution for Michigan's schools

"Stacked rankings" are the business equivalent of education's bell curve for grades. A few "A's" and "F's" and a whole lot of "C's".

Microsoft has used stack rankings. Some argue that it led to Microsoft's "lost decade"; a loss of collaboration and creativity. 

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft.
Kurt Eichenwald
Vanity Fair, August 2012

HB 5526 (page 68), recently passed by the Michigan House and forwarded to the Michigan Senate has a "stacked rankings" component. It requires the following when grading schools:
 
THE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE OF THE PUBLIC SCHOOL'S PUPILS ON THE APPLICABLE STATE ASSESSMENT COMPARED TO PUPIL PERFORMANCE ON THE APPLICABLE STATE ASSESSMENT FOR ALL PUBLIC SCHOOLS SERVING A SIMILAR PUPIL POPULATION. THE DEPARTMENT SHALL DETERMINE SIMILAR PUPIL POPULATION USING DEMOGRAPHIC FACTORS THAT THE COMMISSION CONSIDERS TO HAVE A STRONG CORRELATION TO ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT. 

While the language is not clear, the intent is very clear. Similar schools will be grouped and compared to one another. This requires some schools to get an "A" grade and some to get an "F" grade.
 
Stacked ranking - enshrined in state law.

Microsoft thinks so much of it that they have abandoned it. Brustein says that "corporate America has largely lost confidence in management programs that jam employees onto bell curves."

Yet, HB 5526 requires failure.

Why?

The cynical side of me is inclined to believe that it is because those opposed to public schools want to ensure that there will be failures. 

This model refuses to accept that all schools within a class or grouping could be doing well. 

Why not create a real system that honestly evaluates what is occurring without mandating that there be failure? 

Secondly, there is an assumption in this bill that schools can be grouped by similar characteristics. That may be true in general but not in specifics. Any one who has been in schools knows that each school has its own culture, its own unique characteristics that make it different from every other school.  

But HB 5526 requires that within this narrow band of similar schools some schools will fail.

What this means is that a school with high performance could receive a low grade when compared to others within its "class." However, a school with lower performance may receive a high grade when compared to schools within its class.

The bills sponsors say this, and other provisions of the law, are done to give parents clarity on school performance. This bill does nothing of the sort.

Public schools are doing good work. Instead of mandating failure let's create a system that honors the hard work and the success is occurring in public schools.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

When the grade is wrong

The Michigan House passed a bill that will soon pass the Michigan Senate and be sent to Governor Rick Snyder for his signature. It is almost assured that he will sign this legislation. 

Among other things it will require each school to receive a letter grade of A-F not later than September 2019 in the following areas:
  •  Proficiency on state assessments in math and English Language Arts
  • Student growth on state assessments in math and English Language Arts
  •  Growth of English Language Learners
  • Graduation rate of high school students
  • The academic performance of students on state assessments compared to student performance in schools serving a similar population
The legislation also requires that beginning in September 2019 each school shall receive a ranking of significantly above average, above average, average, below average, or significantly below average in each of these categories:
  •  Rate of pupils who are chronically absent
  •  Participation rate on state assessments
  • Pupil subgroup performance (typically these are racial/ethnic categories but also include special education and English Language Learners) on state assessments compared to statewide performance
This advocates for letter grading and these rankings suggest that this will make schools more accountable and will lead to improved performance. 

This is a lie.

I was clear with our state legislators that I was opposed to this legislation for several reasons. First, it was not needed. The Michigan School Data website already provides parents with a dashboard of information. This dashboard provides relevant information on every school in Michigan in easy to understand charts and graphs. 

No letter grades are provided on the Michigan School Data website because they are not needed. The information is clear. Letter grades would not add any appreciable information or clarity that is not already available.

Second, letter grades and rankings cannot summarize a school’s character and performance. Even dashboards do not reveal the culture, climate, individuality, or resources of a school. Letter grades certainly do not do provide that information.  

The letter grade bill does not provide a parent or community member with any of the following information:
  • Class sizes
  • Available Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes
  • Available advanced classes at all levels
  • Available extra-curricular activities
  • Available curriculum in science, social studies, art, music, physical education, library/media
  • Instructional support available in math and reading
  • Dedicated space for art, music, library
  • Teacher turnover rates
  • Availability of extra experiences in science, technology, engineering, and math
  • Available technology in the schools
There are many other factors that this letter grade bill does not provide information on that are relevant and important to parents as they consider whether a school is a school to which they would want to send their children. But this bill ignores those factors because it is a bad bill.

But now it is law. And schools will suffer. The law does nothing to improve schools. In fact it will lead schools to focus on these factors at the exclusion of providing students with other experiences that are meaningful and important. 
  • Why promote science when the school will not receive a grade in that subject?
  • Why promote social studies when the school will not receive a grade in that subject?
  • Why have Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or a rich and deep curriculum then the school will not be graded or rated in those areas?
  • Why promote the arts when schools will not receive a grade in that subject?
  • Why create Maker Space classrooms and provide those experiences when schools will not receive a grade in those experiences?
  • Why provide a dedicated media specialist and a dedicated media center when schools will not receive a grade for that?
The legislation requires "similar schools" to be compared and graded against one another. Some may argue that is fair. But the circumstances and context of an individual school are not taken into consideration. Only the performance in reading and math will be considered. What will result is a school that pays attention to student mental health or provides great after school activities or provides reading and math support will be graded low in their "similar school" ranking even though they score higher in reading and math than the majority of schools in the state.

This bill will not improve schools. It has the real possibility to make things worse as schools, in an effort to improve a grade, narrow curriculum and reduce opportunities for students. 

Chasing a grade has never proved to be a good strategy to learn deeply. 

This letter grade legislation will not improve schools in Michigan. In fact, it will make things worse.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

It’s not even December!

With Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror, it is now time to turn our attention to the more important things in life. What’s more important than than taking time to reflect on our blessings and give thanks?

Nothing really. Being grateful, for things large and small, can be a wonderfully, powerfully positive part of life.

Unless you’re a student. Then the most important thing in the world is wondering when the first snow day will come. And that all depends on whether or not your Superintendent has a heart.

For Superintendents snow days are “no win” days. Whatever you do, someone will criticize the decision.

As a Superintendent, we obviously believe that being in school is important. Learning. Building relationships. Stoking curiosity. Laying strong foundations. Providing opportunities. All those things happen at school. And it’s all important.

But Superintendents also recognize that student and staff safety are important as well. Getting safely to and from school is not something on which to take chances.

Well, as fate would have, tonight I am worried about the weather. And it’s only November 25th.

So tonight I will talk with other Superintendents and a weatherman about what will happen in the next few hours. Then I will arise at 4:00 AM to see what has happened and wonder about what will happen.

And then I will make a decision.

But really . . . it’s not even December!

Friday, November 9, 2018

How much is time worth?

We can invest our time in many ways.

For the last several days, thirty-one Novi Community School District staff members and I have invested about 90 hours in, with, and for 367 Novi Middle School students on their trip to Washington DC. We left at 5:00 AM on a rainy Tuesday morning and will return home around midnight Friday night.

We’ve seen a lot.

Museums.
Memorials.
Art galleries.

But was the time worth it?

The thirty-one Novi staff members think so. As do I.

But why exactly?

The answer is complicated.

If the goal was to ensure that our students learned history and civics and the importance of informed citizens participating in their democracy, we probably failed.

That’s not to say that what we did had no impact on their knowledge of our country or our government. But those of us who are much older are still trying to figure out how democracy and debate and civic participation work.

And they are in 8th grade.

If the goal was to inspire our students by exposing them to the American spirit as seen in the Museum of American History or the Air and Space Museum or the Museum of African American History and Culture, we probably failed. These students saw a lot on their visit but measuring the impact of seeing the Spirit of St. Louis airplane or the flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner is difficult.

And they are in 8th grade.

Still, at times one could sense that these students were trying to figure things out.

When we saw the name of a former Novi resident on the Vietnam War Memorial or the names of fallen police officers at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, these students were amazingly reflective.

When we stood inside the US Capitol Rotunda, these students were filled with awe.

When our guide shared the story of September 11, 2001, at the Pentagon Memorial and we stood over the youngest victim’s marker, I had a sense they were really trying to sort out the world in which we live.

This trip is about those things. But it is about other things as well.

One of the most important parts of this trip is for these 367 students to see that there are adults who care deeply for them. Not because of their grades or their looks or their families.

No. These adults care for these 367 students because each one is unique and challenging and funny and young. And these adults want them to have a chance in this world.

And that is why these adults invest almost 90 hours of their lives. So that these young adults can have a foundation on which to build their lives. These adults invest so that these young students can have memories that they may use to continue to build our world.

Time well invested.


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

To the parents of Bus #5

November 6th is Election Day.

Please vote.

November 6th is also the day that I board a bus bound for Washington DC.

I might add that also with me on this bus - Bus #5 - will be 3 teachers and 47 8th grade students. 

Please send good thoughts our way.

We are part of the Novi Middle School 8th grade trip.
  • 8 buses
  • 27 teachers
  • 1 Assistant Principal
  • 1 school police liaison officer
  • 1 Board of Education member
  • 1 school nurse
  • And me - the Novi Community School District Superintendent. 
We board buses at 5:00 AM Tuesday, November 6th, and return home by midnight on Friday, November 10th. Over 350 8th graders and their chaperones on a four-day journey to Washington DC and back.

I have been on this trip five previous times. On my first trip in 2012, a norovirus swept through our merry band of travelers. Let me just say it was not pretty.

I am sure it will not happen again.

Why do we do this?

To learn history, of course. To see the US Constitution displayed in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building. To see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. To think and reflect on Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War Memorial.

Your sons and daughters can at times be very reflective, understand the enormity of a moment, see with clarity how what they are studying about history in Novi, Michigan, connects with the larger world they live in.

But, at times, we are reminded that they are 8th graders. 

On one trip, as we sat in Ford's Theater, a student listened to the guide and asked earnestly, "Wasn't President Lincoln shot in a theater?" The answer, of course, was "Yes. Yes President Lincoln was shot in a theater. In fact, he was shot in this very theater."

So, at times, the lessons of history are not as clear as we think them to be.

And that is when I am reminded that there are other purposes for this trip.

The Washington DC trip is educational.

But it is also about other things.

It is about 8th grade students learning to navigate social situations on a bus for ten to twelve hours. It is about 8th grade students keeping track of their own suitcase. It is about 8th grade students listening to adults who are not their parents. It is about 8th grade students problem solving how to charge a phone. It is about 8th grade students being with friends.

I am glad that our students - your sons and daughters - have this chance, can experience this trip in this way.

It will provide lasting memories.

And, if we are lucky, it will reinforce that we are fortunate to have each other.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Wishes can come true

Every year . . .

People come from all over town to adorn me with
scraps of paper, tags, bits of fabric, snippets of yarn,
and the occasional gym sock.
Each offering represents a dream, a desire, a longing. . .

They're all hopes for something better.
Wishtree
Katherine Applegate

In the Novi Community School District, we have wishes. For our students. for our colleagues. For ourselves. 

In August, at the beginning of our school year, we started our school year thinking about what our wishes for the school year would be. I asked our staff to write down their wishes. 


 
But now, eight weeks into the school year it is sometimes hard to remember what we wished for in August. Early mornings, late nights, grading papers, walking the dog, dropping off and picking up children, remembering to do the laundry, trying to remember everyone's name.

Life takes a toll.

So today, October 23rd, was our first Novi WishTree Day of the year. It was a day for the Novi Community School District staff to remember and reflect on our wishes for the school year and to recommit to working to make them come true.

Bob Marley (yes that Bob Marley) is reported to have once said, "The people who are trying to make this world worse off aren't taking a day off. How can I?"

In that spirit, our Novi WishTree Day was a chance for our Novi staff to wish again on this school year.