Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What do educators have to be thankful for?

The last few years have been difficult for those who work in Michigan's public schools. Laws were passed that forced both administrators and teachers to implement a new evaluation system. A whole series of previously negotiated rights for teachers were classified as "prohibited subjects." Bus drivers, custodians, and food service workers have either been privatized or forced to accept steep concessions in many districts.

School districts have seen a series of "accountability" systems. A top-to-bottom system ranks all districts in the state. A color-coded accountability system was implemented in which over 95% of districts in the state were rated yellow or red. It is safe to assume that yellow and red are not the preferred colors.

So as Thanksgiving rolls around it is fair to ask, what do those of us who work in schools have to be thankful for? Let's make a list.


They challenge us, they frustrate us, they even ignore us. But they also inspire us. They ask of us our very best. Every day they arrive and expect that we will provide a safe place for them. They expect that we will help them be prepared for their world. They expect us to help them understand the complexities of a future that they - not us - will spend most of their lives in.

We can be thankful for our students. We see them grow. Our job is to help them. For that we can and are thankful.


They challenge us, they frustrate us, they even ignore us. But they also inspire us. They ask of us our very best. We share with them our frustrations and our successes. We ask them questions. We answer theirs. We are vulnerable and strong, depending on the day and the student.

We can be thankful for our colleagues. They help us grow. We help each other survive. For that we can and are thankful.


They challenge us, they frustrate us, they even ignore us. But they also inspire us. They ask of us our very best. Every day they trust us to treat their children well. Parents believe that we will help their children prepare for a life to be lived well beyond the walls of our schools. Parents are willing to listen to us because they believe that we, like them, want the best for their children.

We can be thankful for the parents in our district. They support us. They challenge us. They want the best for their children. For that we can and are thankful.

It's Thanksgiving. There is a lot for which to be thankful!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Public schools and the power of mental frames

Simon Singh has an interesting talk on the power of mental frames. His discussion relates to the larger issue of the big bang, something that I am clearly not an expert on, but I think his point is valid in another arena as well.

Singh's point seems to be that sometimes people see and hear things that are not really there. He also suggests that there are those who intentionally try to shape what we see and hear. This is especially true in situations where there seems to be a lot of noise or interference. Because our minds seek meaning we sometimes make connections and fill in the blanks with patterns and organization that is really not there.

In conversations about education there is a lot of noise. There are many conflicting opinions about the state of education - especially public education. There are those who are trying to get us to make connections that I do not believe are there. There are those who are planting ideas in the hopes of convincing us that public education is broken.

But public education is not broken.

Yet, there are those who continue to fill us with the idea that public education is broken. When Governor Snyder took office he started a dashboard to report on what he considered to be key indicators to measure success. One of the measures that he chose to highlight was the ACT college readiness benchmarks. According to this benchmark only 18.1% of Michigan high school graduates are ready for college.

But this is a classic case of what Singh was talking about  - planting ideas in the hope of creating meaning that is not there.

If one looked further one could find on a state of Michigan website evidence that for the graduating class of 2012 (switch the view to percentage) over 60% enrolled in college.

The cynic might suggest, "Yes those students enrolled in college, but how many were actually prepared for college?"

The cynic might believe that only 18% of the graduating class of 2012 was actually prepared for college. After all that is what Governor Snyder and the Michigan education dashboard would have you believe.

But that is not the case. (Switch the view to percentage) Only 17% needed remediation in math, only 11% needed remediation in writing, and less than 10% needed remediation in reading.

Governor Snyder could have highlighted these numbers on the Michigan education dashboard. But he didn't. Instead he chose to highlight a number that he hoped would create and reinforce a mental frame that would have us look at public education as a failure.

But public education is not a failure.

Can public education get better? Absolutely!

But public schools meet the needs of students and prepare students for the next step in their life. Instead of listening to those who want to persuade us that something is wrong, we should instead look at the data and listen to those who will help us see that public schools are doing good work and preparing student to be successful.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Going too far: One parent's confession about helping too much

When my son was in 8th grade he earned a "C" on his first English paper.

I reassured my son that was OK. He could review the comments from the teacher, make the necessary corrections, and do better next time.

I will never forget his response.

"That won't happen Dad," he said. "Whatever you get on the first paper you get the rest of the year."

I was stunned. How could that be? That's not fair I thought to myself. It also obviously cannot be true I reasoned. A teacher would never do that to a child.

So I did something that I am not proud of. I wrote my son's next paper.

I rationalized that I was doing it to prove a point. I was going to show my son that he was wrong. A teacher would not take the easy way out and give grades based on the first assignment of the year.

Now, with the wisdom that time instills, I realize I went too far.

Why didn't I just call the teacher and relay what I had been told?

If I was worried about the teacher's reaction I could have gone to the principal and shared what my son had said.

I also could have reviewed the paper he wrote to see if it was a "C" paper. Perhaps I could have helped him see how the teacher was right and he could improve his writing.

No, instead of doing those proactive and positive things, I determined the right thing to do was show my son that he was wrong.

My son could have learned lessons about review and revision. Lessons about working hard, reflecting on current performance to improve future performance, and taking the time to do your best were lessons that I short-circuited for my son.

Immediately after he took the paper to school I realized how foolish I had been. He was supposed to learn in 8th grade. He did not need me to write his papers.

Let's say that he was right. Let's say that teacher really did base the entire year's assessment on the quality of the first assignment.

Instead of writing the paper I could have taught my son to advocate for himself with the teacher. I could have helped him learn how to discuss his writing and talk with the teacher about how he had improved.

Instead, I took the easy way out. I decided I would write the paper and show him that he was wrong or at least ill-informed about this teacher.

He let me, of course. Why would an 8th grader reject a father's offer to write the next English paper?

Technically I was the adult in that situation. I should have known better. I could have taught my son lessons that would prepare him as he grew about taking ownership for his work, advocating for himself, and standing up to those who were being unfair.

But, I didn't.

Parents make mistakes. This was one of mine. Thankfully I never wrote another paper for my son. It was a lesson I needed to learn.

By the way, I earned a "C" on the paper I wrote as well.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Lessons learned from middle school students

Well, it's almost over!

Not the world or the Lions Super Bowl jinx.

No, the Novi Middle School 8th grade Washington DC trip is almost over.

We left the Novi Middle School parking lot last Wednesday night on seven buses. It's now late Saturday night (or is it early Sunday morning) and the seven buses are headed back. We have six hours - more or less - to go.

In the last 72 plus hours we've seen national monuments, museums, and statues. We've seen places and scenes from history that broke our nation's heart. We've seen how men and women sacrificed for others and for something bigger than themselves.

We've also seen middle school drama. To middle school students the drama was real. There were real tears and real emotion.

To the adults, who years ago lived through middle school, the drama did not approach the drama that adult life has to offer. But the adults recognized that our job was to offer counsel and help these young people live through the drama so that they could look back one day and laugh at middle school drama.

What did I learn on this trip?

I learned lessons that I already knew.

I learned once again that Novi Middle School has an incredible staff and the city of Novi has an incredible police chief.

I learned that the world is full of adults that care about kids.

I learned that Novi Middle School has some amazing kids. They were polite and respectful.  They laughed. They (occasionally) said please and thank you. They listened - most of the time.

Yes, these middle school students had their faults. They never could walk on the right side of the sidewalk. However wide the sidewalk was they would fill the whole space. Their hotel rooms after twelve hours looked like a clothes bomb had gone off. They occasionally had a hard time focusing in museums. They griped - just a little - about walking over seven miles on day one and five miles on day two.

But these middle school students from Novi made me proud. They learned a little history. They learned a little about themselves.

Not a bad way to spend three days.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bus #3: Lessons learned with middle school students

I don't really fit on Bus #3. The other 45 people on board - 24 middle school boys, 18 middle school girls, and three adult chaperones - all attend Novi Middle School. The chaperones are teachers. The boys and girls are students.

Boys are in the front. Girls are in the back. Chaperones sit in the middle - the demilitarized zone if you will.

I'm the Superintendent and, on this bus, a bit of an outsider.

There are seven buses all told. Over 300 students and 27 chaperones. We are bound for Washington DC. The 8th grade trip.

It's late. After midnight. We left Novi at 8:00 PM and will drive all night. We will get to our nation's Capitol in time for breakfast. We will spend three days in a whirlwind of activity.

But right now it's quiet. Everyone has settled down nicely.

Two rows ahead of me a young man squirms trying to get comfortable. Behind me two girls whisper and giggle.

Middle school students can be a handful. All hormones and emotion. Decision making is not a strength.

Yet tonight, as I sit on this bus and look at the students who surround me, I can see their innocence. They have so much to learn about the world.

Oh, I know, they probably know more than I do about the world. Yet, they lack perspective. These young men and women can teach me a lot. Yet, they need me as well.

The world they live in is sometimes rough and cruel. They are confronted by rudeness and inappropriateness every day. Adults model behaviors for these young people that, as the Superintendent, I cringe at.

Yet, tonight on a bus somewhere in Pennsylvania on the way to Washington DC, I realize that these young people need our best effort. They need adults who care. They need adults who will lead. They need adults who will help them learn. These young people need adults who see the potential in each and every one of them.

The world moves fast. These young people need adults who will help them find their voice so that they can keep up.

I'm glad I'm on this bus. I'm glad I get a chance to interact with these young people. I hope I can help them find their way.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Who knows what's best for students who struggle?

The Michigan State House has introduced legislation (HB 5111 - here is a summary) that would prohibit Michigan school districts from promoting 3rd grade students to 4th grade if they did not pass the 3rd grade MEAP reading assessment.

As a former reading teacher I understand the value of reading. Reading is central to learning. Students who struggle to read are going to struggle to learn.

Yet this bill does not make sense.

The 3rd grade MEAP is given in October. School promotion decisions are made the following spring. Are we really going to retain a student based on an assessment that is eight months old?

In my district we have very few students at the 3rd grade who do not pass the MEAP assessment. Of those who did not pass the 2012 MEAP assessment in 3rd grade 72% of them were identified as ESL or Special Education students. Is it appropriate to use one assessment to determine if they should be promoted or retained?

The MEAP does not measure growth. Shouldn't the growth that occurs between October, when the MEAP is given, and the following June, when decisions about promotion or retention are made, be factored into decisions about promotion or retention?

Finally, students who struggle need support. In our district we attempt to create a variety of supports for students who struggle. This bill suggests that the only thing that students who struggle need is to be retained. Yet I believe that what students who struggle need is support. Will there be a companion bill that identifies how the state will support these struggling learners?

This bill attempts to fit a simple solution to a complex issue. In doing so it takes away from local school districts - who work with students every day, who communicate with parents on a routine basis, and who understand issues related to motivation, student background, and interest - the ability to determine what is right for a student.

This bill suggests that the state legislature knows what is best for struggling students in every district in the state.

I would disagree.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Building a community of learners

This week in my school school district I saw one principal doing this:
I saw another principal doing this:
I saw a whole staff doing this:
You might ask why?

Mr. Ascher, the man in the trash can, was participating in his school's Halloween Parade. Mr. Brickey, the Michigan Wolverine, was cooking hamburgers and hot dogs for his staff to celebrate the Michigan-Michigan State football game. The Village Oaks staff was dressed up for Halloween in their bootcamp theme.

You might ask is this the most important thing a principal or a staff can do?

I would say yes - with a caveat.

Students learn best in schools where they have a connection. Connections are created when we, the adults in the building, communicate that they care. These staff members went out of their way to communicate to the students in their building that they care. This fosters relationships, which in turn can foster an environment for learning.

If this was the only thing that happened in these schools I would be upset. But it is not. I have walked the hallways and sat in the classrooms in these buildings. I see students who are engaged. I see teachers and administrators who set high expectations. The message is clearly sent that our schools are places where students learn.

But the foundation for these students is built upon the quality relationships that are built when principals dress up as trash cans and when principals cook lunch for their staff and when staff show their students a different side of their personality. These acts help to build relationships.

And relationships matter in education.