Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Why do we do this to students?

Recently, via twitter @stevenstrogatz, I stumbled across this tweet.

Intrigued, I went to the link and found a math dissertation. I typically don't read math dissertations - for obvious reasons. But I started reading the prologue. The first paragraph starts thusly:

Respected research math is dominated by men of a certain attitude. Even allowing for individual variation, there is still a tendency towards an oppressive atmosphere . . .

The second paragraph starts with this sentence:

I’m unwilling to pretend that all manner of ways of thinking are equally encouraged, or that there aren’t very real issues of lack of diversity.

Clearly this is a bright student. She is, after all, submitting her dissertation at Princeton University in the Department of Mathematics. Yet, in her prologue to her dissertation she voices emotions that those of us in education should find unacceptable. 

Schools, places where we send our children and where we welcome the children of our friends and neighbors, should not be "oppressive" or places where thinking differently is not encouraged.

As I read the prologue I began to wonder what the students in my school district would say about the classrooms in my district. Are my students welcomed? Are my students encouraged to think differently? Do we embrace diversity in people, in thought, in action?

Today I was in an elementary building and I visited five first grade classrooms. In each classroom a math lesson was in progress. In each classroom I saw teachers who encouraged students to explain their thinking, to discuss various approaches to solving problems, and to listen and learn from each other. 

I saw classrooms that made a positive difference.

Those of us who work in schools, who lead schools, who want they best for our children and every child, should take responsibility and ensure that we build the schools that we know our children need.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Recognizing excellence

Today was a big day at Novi Woods Elementary School. Today Novi Woods publicly celebrated their National Blue Ribbon Award. There are over 98,800 public schools in the United States. This year just over 300 were recognized as National Blue Ribbon Schools.

The National Blue Ribbon process is rigorous. The Michigan Department of Education nominated deserving schools. The schools then had to complete a lengthy application, highlighting a variety of criteria including information on class size and demographics and staff development and school improvement plans.

After months of keeping things quiet, today was the day to celebrate. Choirs sang. Classrooms were highlighted. Novi's Mayor brought his congratulatory message. Retired staff returned to join in the festivities. It was a fun morning!

But the best part of the day, for me, happened in Mr. Kenrick's second grade class during read-to-self time. There were people all over the building. People were coming and going, in and out of every classroom. Yet teachers - like Mr. Kenrick - continued to steal any moment they could to teach.

What makes a school a Blue Ribbon School?

It's the people. People make the school. The teachers, the cooks, the secretaries, the parapros, the principal, the students, the parents.

A National Blue Ribbon School is made up of people who are committed to ensuring that students learn and that students know they are cared for.

And that happens every day! It happens at Novi Woods. But it also happens in every other Novi school.

This picture symbolizes for me what goes on in Novi Woods and across our district every day. Students learn. Teachers teach. Students connect in powerful ways to caring and committed adults.

Novi Woods staff and students would agree - it is nice to be recognized. But what is even better is that students in Novi will be taught and cared for tomorrow and the next day and the day after that in equally powerful ways.

It happens at Novi Woods. But it also happens in every other Novi school as well. I have seen it. I have experienced it. It happens because we have great people in every building in our district. 

That's true excellence! That's being a Blue Ribbon School!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Finishing first!

Anyone who's ever played a sport wants to win the final game of the season. If you do it means you're the champion.

Last year Novi High School varsity volleyball lost their final game. They finished second. A great accomplishment, but still heart wrenching.

They learned lessons through losing. They learned about commitment, pressure, bouncing back, tenacity, grit, perseverance, and teamwork. But it still hurt.

Today was a different day. 


Novi High School varsity volleyball is the state champion. 

It is not often a team reaches the state championship two years in a row. It's also not often that a team gets to face the team that beat them the year before. But today Novi faced down that very same team. In winning today Novi showed they learned their lessons well.

Commitment, pressure, bouncing back, tenacity, grit, perseverance, and teamwork. The Wildcats learned their lessons well.

And today they are state champions!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Teachers care - for a very good reason

I visit schools. A lot!

When I visit I see things like this:

and this:

and this:

and this:
Teachers taking time to listen, model, encourage, and teach their students. Teachers taking time to invest in relationships with their students.

Why?

"No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship," said James Comer. Teachers understand that learning increases as they invest time with their students.

But it is not just time. Teachers need to communicate clearly to their students that the students matter. When students know and sense that they are important to their teachers the students invest more in their academic life.

It's hard work. It's messy work. It's fun work.

It's the work that the teachers in my district do every day!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

To the students on Bus #5

I sit in the middle of the bus. Twenty-four girls in front of me.


Twenty boys behind.


It's late. Just after 11:00 PM. We've been on the bus for just over three hours. We have many hours left before we reach our destination - Washington DC.

There's a rumble of voices around me. Some of you play video games on your phone. Some of you are texting friends. Some of you are talking. 

You don't know it yet but you'll remember this trip. The long bus ride. The sites you'll see. 

Arlington National Cemetery. The Lincoln Memorial. The long black wall of the Vietnam Memorial. The majesty of the Capitol. Smithsonian Museums.

The places and the Memorials that you will see remember those who made a difference. People who stood up, took a stand, gave their lives for others.

The world is a confusing place at times. But in times of chaos there have always been people who could see clearly what needed to be done. Washington DC honors people like that. 

Abraham Lincoln. George Washington. FDR. Thomas Jefferson. Martin Luther King. The men and women who served in Vietnam and Korea and WWII.

At some point in your life you will be asked to stand up, take a stand, give a portion of your life for someone else.

You may never have a granite memorial honoring what you have done - most of us won't. But there will be times of chaos where you will need to decide. Do I stand up? 

I have faith that you will. Some of you already have. Some of you have stood beside the one who had no friends. Some of you have volunteered to help someone in need. 

The world needs you to stand up, take a stand, give yourself to something bigger than yourself. Every generation builds on what others have done. Your generation will be no different.  

So let's enjoy Washington DC and be inspired by those who shaped our country.

And remember you have the chance to shape our country as well. Stand up, take a stand, give yourself to something bigger than you.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

My students, my schools are not test scores!

This week, October 27, 2015, the Michigan Department of Education released summary results from the state assessment test that was taken in May.

(While not my focus here, it is important to note that as I write this it is October 29, 2015, and we have still not received district or school summaries for this state assessment. The state required this assessment and yet its relevance and its impact is obviously significantly limited because of the delay in returning results to the districts. But that is a discussion for another time.)

It was bad!

How bad?

The Michigan Department of Education felt compelled to release overall statewide results before allowing individual districts an opportunity to see building or district results. Preparing us and the public for bad news! In releasing these results the Michigan Department of Education press release tried to soften the blow by saying:

“With this all-new and more rigorous test, 
we expected statewide student scores to 
be lower than what we’d seen with the old MEAP tests. . .
In order to prepare our students for the careers of the 21st Century 
and to vault Michigan to become a Top Ten education state in 10 years, 
we need high standards and rigorous assessments
This year’s results set the new baseline from which to build."

Reading between the lines what this says is that we did bad but we expected that.

But it also says to me is that the Michigan Department of Education believes that what teachers and classrooms have been doing for the past several years has not been preparing students for 21st century careers and that our standards have been too low and certainly too easy.

Hogwash!


We need to know if a child is learning. We need to know if a child has the ability to write, think, communicate, explain, and create. We need to make sure that the time spent in our schools and in our classrooms is preparing students for their future.

I do not want a school system that pushes students along without providing them with the skills and talents that they will need to live their lives fully and successfully.

Figuring out if students are learning and if students are prepared for their future is important.

But tests don't reveal everything that we need to know about a student.

There are people and organizations that believe that tests truly reveal everything there is to know about students and schools.

Those people and organizations are wrong!

Tests give us a slice of information. Tests give us one perspective. Test should be included in our conversation.

But there is so much more to our students and to our schools.

I visit classrooms and see teachers sit with students. I visit classrooms and hear the conversations between students and between students and teachers. I listen as students explain to me what they are doing. I watch as students struggle to understand and wrestle with complexity.

I see good things happening in these classrooms. I see dedicated teachers making a difference. I see students engaged in meaningful and important work.

These conversations, these struggles are not captured in a single test score. No matter how many experts with advanced degrees create the tests and how carefully the tests are constructed the tests do not reveal if a child will be successful.

I want meaningful conversations between parents and students to focus on whether or not students are developing passions and purpose, critical thinking skills, and the ability to create, communicate, and collaborate. And, for a minute or two, I would like the teacher and the parent to examine test scores to see what they add to the conversation.

We can and should use test scores to help us examine our practice. But test scores should not be the only piece of information that we deem worthy of examining.

Our Michigan test scores will be revealed to us at some point. There will be gnashing of teeth and wagging of fingers.

But my students, my teachers, and my schools are not test scores! 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A remarkable life

Al Coleman, my father-in-law, passed away on October 19th. He was 96.

Born in 1919 he was one of 12 brothers and sisters. He never graduated from high school.

He joined the Air Force during World War Two and was sent to North Africa to repair bombers. 



He was part of the generation that defined our nation.

One of the most remarkable parts of his life was earning his GED in his 40's. Even though he was earning a living, raising a family, and active in the community, he understood that he needed more. So he found the time and made the space in his life to study and pass the GED. 

He did it for his family. He did it for himself.

I met him many years after he had earned his GED. His life showed me that education opens doors.

It's a lesson I remember every day.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Time well wasted

Last week I visited a school and the whole school walked outside. It was not a fire drill or an emergency. It was an intentional act.

On this particular day this school participated in the annual Walk to School Day. This school, which has a number of students live too far away to walk to school, has for years walked through the neighborhood on Walk to School Day.


No tests. No curriculum maps. No assignments.

Everyone - students, teachers, parents, and even the Superintendent - went for a walk.

Later that afternoon I visited another school. It was Fun Run Day! Classrooms of students made their way to the field to participate in running and skipping and walking. This was accompanied by laughing and talking. Clearly students, staff, and parents were enjoying themselves.


Again, no tests. No curriculum maps. No assignments.

School is important. Students come to school to learn. Schools - teachers and administrators - have a responsibility to ensure that students learn the knowledge and develop the skills they need to be successful in the 21st century.

But every minute of every day cannot and should not be spent in a classroom with a book or listening to a teacher or taking a test. Those of us responsible for schools need to create space for students to waste time well.

This is not a call for unlimited free time or an excuse for teachers not to teach.

No, instead, this is a call for all of us to recognize that there is a social component to schools that should not be forgotten. Schools are places that students need to see adults laughing and talking and interacting in a positive way with their students. Schools are places where students need to laugh and talk and interact in a positive way with adults.

Our test-crazy accountability system tends to discourage thoughts of wasting time. But if we are to truly serve the students who attend our schools and who are in our care every day, then we have to make time to waste time well.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Teaching is not like other professions

In most jobs you do not receive an email like this. The subject line said:

Head lice information

Most jobs do not require you to think about or check for head lice.

But teaching is not like other professions.

Teaching, like most jobs, requires technical skill. Teaching, like most jobs, has a set of observable and measurable skills that a person needs to be successful. A teacher needs to know and understand their subject. More importantly, a teacher needs to know how to communicate their knowledge of the subject to an eight and twelve and fifteen year-old who may or may not be interested in learning that subject. There are very specific techniques and approaches that can and do help you teach.

But teaching also requires another set of skills. Teaching requires that a person be willing to look for head lice, break up a fight, listen to a break-up story, stop a bloody nose, and tell students that they are dancing too close to each other. Teaching requires that a person notice when a student is "off" because her dog died or because his girlfriend just dumped him or because he was just cut from a team that he had wanted all of his fourteen years to be a part of. Teaching requires that you understand heartache and heart break.

Teaching requires the very best a person has to offer. Students can spot a person who doesn't really care, who is not all that interested in them, and who is unwillingly to do the dirty work that is required to motivate and encourage and challenge a five or nine or thirteen or eighteen year-old.

Teaching is not like other professions.

Yet our society communicates to teachers that they don't matter, that anyone could do the job, that it is really not that hard. We look for ways to put students in front of computers believing, wrongly, that learning is about knowledge when really it is about relationships.

For those who claim anyone can be a teacher, I'll call you next time we need to check for head lice.   

Monday, September 21, 2015

Zero miles to empty

Zero miles to empty!

That's what my car said. But I kept on driving.

With a message like that one would think that my car stopped immediately - out of gas! Surprisingly, I traveled 23 more miles before I pulled into a gas station to fill up my tank.

Data - even seemingly unambiguous, hard data - has wiggle room. There is always a difference between what is "observed" and what is "true."

In my car there is a difference between what I observed - zero miles to empty - and what was true - I was able to go at least 23 miles more.

The same principle holds true in standardized assessment. The score a child receives on a standardized test is an "observed" score. It is not the "true" score. Test theory holds that one can never know the true score. What we can do is try and create assessments that can get us close to a true score.

But in the end we have to be content with the understanding that any assessment gives us an observed score that might be higher or lower than a person's true ability.

That is why I am so dismayed that the Michigan legislature is considering House Bill (HB) 4822 which would require mandatory retention in 3rd grade for students who do not score at the 3rd grade level on the Michigan state assessment. Specifically it states the following:

If a pupil enrolled in grade 3 in a school district or public school academy is rated one full grade level or more behind in reading, as determined by the department based on the reading portion of the grade 3 state English language arts assessment the Board of the school district of Board of Directors of the public school academy in which the pupil is enrolled shall ensure that the pupil is not enrolled in grade 4 until . . .

This sounds good in theory. We should not promote students until they demonstrate that they have learned. But no assessment gives us a "true" score. Assessments give us an "observed" score. The observed score gives us one indication of a student's ability. But it certainly and clearly does not give us a completely accurate indication of a student's ability.

We asked parents in our district if mandatory retention was a good idea. These parents are not testing experts. They probably could not win a debate that was discussing the merits of testing theory. But they were overwhelmingly dubious of a policy that relied on mandatory retention.

Teachers and principals, those who work with students each and every day, know and understand that students develop differently. Artificially imposing a mandatory score to move on from 3rd grade is bad policy.

Friday, September 11, 2015

I hear voices

I hear voices.

Lots of voices - everyday.

My concern is whose voices am I hearing? Are they adult voices? Are they student voices? Are they voices filled with compassion and questions? Are they voices filled with arrogance and conceit?

Lately I have become more interested in the voices of students. What are they saying? What do I hear when I listen to them?

This week was the first week of school. As I visited schools around my district I heard lots of student voices. They were excited to be back in school, to see friends, to be with each other. Students wanted to talk.

Did we let them?

Or were we so concerned about teaching the curriculum and covering the standards that we did not let them speak?

I know that students come to school to learn. We only have a limited amount of time each day, each week, each month, each school year with our students. Time is precious.

But in our haste to ensure that we do our jobs do we become so concerned with our agenda that we never listen to our students' agendas?


In our haste to be good teachers is the only voice in the classroom our voice or do we make room and make time to listen to the voices of our students?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

What's a parent to do?

I love this picture. It's old. It's beginning to fade. Some of the color has rubbed off.

It is a picture of the boys on Beaufait. Two of my boys are in this picture - Zach, with the big smile, on the right, and Jake, the farthest left.



The boy in the purple shirt is now a PhD in Civil Engineering.

The youngest boy just left for Marine boot camp last Sunday.

Jake has studied graphic and web design and is looking for a job. Zach works full-time and goes to school.

Many years have passed since this picture was taken. Yet when I see this picture and know who these children have become I can't help but think of Mrs. Fraser, Mrs. Reith, Mr. (now Dr.) Dib, Mrs. Gawel, Mr. Hunwick, Mr. Bens, Mr. Cooper, Mr. Quinn, Mr. Stackpoole, Ms. McGuire, and many other teachers who influenced my children in positive and profound ways.

No longer do I have young children to get ready for the start of school. While I anticipate and look forward to the start of school it is because I am the Superintendent not because I have children who are anticipating that first day of school. 

As a parent I wanted each school year to be perfect.

It never was.

But our family survived and my boys survived. How? Here are lessons I learned as my boys went through school. They may, or may not, be helpful as you prepare for another new school year.

Establish a good routine. My wife and I established a bed time and a time to get up in the morning for our children. We learned this lesson the hard way. There were too many nights and too many mornings that did not go well because we were rushing. A routine helped us manage more successfully.

There will be times to vary, but a routine helps establish other things. If everyone knows when bedtime is then it is easier to know when to start homework and when to start baths and when to start bedtime reading. It also made it easier in the morning when one child took a long time to wake up and one child could get ready in an instant.

Read to your children. Everyday! My wife and I would take turns reading. We read to our boys up through middle school.

Reading has many positive academic benefits - increased fluency, increased vocabulary, increased sense of language. But it also has many social-emotional connections. My sons and I cried reading Bridge to Terabithia. We had wonderful discussions reading Jurassic Park.

There is no right way to read. My oldest kept very still while we read, right beside me in the bed. My youngest couldn't sit still and played with toys and moved around the whole time. Just read - that's the most important thing!

My experience taught me that teachers, principals, bus drivers, school secretaries, and food service workers cared for my children. They probably didn't care as much as I did - but they cared a lot! Teachers and principals did their jobs because they wanted what was best for my children. They invested themselves everyday to help my children find success.

Sometimes success was elusive. Sometimes things don't go well. But it was not because the people who worked in schools didn't like my kids, didn't know what to do, or didn't care.

When things went wrong - as they inevitably did - I learned that I needed to take the time to talk to the people directly involved. I learned to approach them with the belief that they cared for my children - because they did.

We worked together. We tried to find solutions. Sometimes we didn't go in the direction that I thought we should. When that happened I sometimes thought that the end would be catastrophe. It never was. Things sorted themselves out. 

When things didn't work out like I thought they should it was not because the teacher or administrator was trying to be mean or didn't care. The teacher or administrator or coach was making what they considered to be the best decision possible.

I also learned that my boys sometimes did stupid things. When they did it was best to help my boys see that it was stupid and accept the consequences instead of trying to get them out of it. My hope is that they learned that I loved them and that they also learned a lesson.

There are lots of things that I learned raising three boys. What I learned most of all is that schools were great places for my boys to learn and grow and mature into great adults!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Does it really all come down to this?

Am I willing to determine the effectiveness of a teacher based on this chart?













It is a good chart. It provides me with a lot of data. It measures a student's growth from the beginning of the year to the end of the year - an important and worthwhile bit of information.

This specific chart shows the math achievement of a group of first graders. The overwhelming majority of these first grade students ended up in the high achievement/high growth quadrant.

Awesome!

A couple were in the low achievement/high growth quadrant.

Again - very good! While achievement is not quite where it needs to be these students did show growth over the course of the year.

Two students were in the high achievement/low growth section of this chart.

That is the mixed-bag area. Clearly these students perform above grade level but they did not make the desired growth.

Does that mean this teacher failed these students?

I can create a chart like this for every teacher in my district for math and reading achievement. The question is - does it really tell me all I need to know about a teacher?

I don't think it does.

Student achievement is important. Parents send their sons and daughters to the schools in my district because they expect that students will learn.

I need to be able to determine if students are learning.

A chart like this gives me information.

But is it the right and only information?

The simple answer is no! This is not the right and only information that I need to determine a teacher's effectiveness.

But some would argue that I am wrong. Some would argue that this is indeed all I need to know about a teacher.

Did the students learn?

Did they make progress?

If I have the answers to those questions, some would argue, I have all the information I need to determine if the teacher is worth keeping.

I don't believe that!

Clearly I need some information on whether students are learning.

But I need lots of other information on a teacher.

I need to know if a teacher can engage students in meaningful learning.

I need to know if a teacher can inspire students.

I need to know if a teacher can tell when a student is upset and if that teacher takes the time to reach out to that student.

I need to know if a teacher uses instructional strategies that make learning interesting.

I need to know if a teacher knows how to give one kid a push forward and another student more time.

I need to know if a teacher reaches out to parents in meaningful ways to create a great partnership between school and home.

I need to know if a teacher is a good colleague, willing to work with others and find solutions to problems.

I need to know if a teacher works within the rules, following rules when needed, challenging rules when it is called for. 

Being an effective teacher is not just about getting every student to have a high test score.

Being an effective teacher is not just about making sure the end-of-the-year test results show everyone in the high achievement/high growth quadrant.

Being an effective teacher doesn't all come down to one chart at the end of year.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Scorecards: What's right for education?

ProPublica recently unveiled a new Surgeon Scorecard website.

On this website you can look up a score for over 17,000 surgeons for surgeries performed in eight common elective surgeries.

For surgeons who performed at least 50 operations each, 750 did not record a single complication in the five years covered by the analysis. Another 1423 had only one reported complication.

Knowing a surgeon's track record is fairly important. It could literally be a matter of life and death.

But do the numbers really show what they suggest they show? ProPublica provided some reviews and comments on their findings. As you might imagine some believed this scorecard was a positive development, others believed it was "not valid."

And there my friends is, in a nutshell, the crux of the debate about school and teacher scorecards. Parents want to know if a school or if a teacher is effective. People like me want to know if schools and teachers are effective.

Bridge, a website from The Center for Michigan, published their Academic State Champs report which encouraged parents to compare schools and districts. My district fell in the "exceeding expectations" category but was not declared a "state champ."

The Mackinac Center publishes a Michigan High School Context and Performance Report Card. This scorecard purports to take into account not only test scores but also socioeconomic factors.

Heck, the state of Michigan even publishes a Top-to-Bottom Ranking.

What's a parent to do?

What's a school administrator to do?

What's a teacher to do?

Education is important. Trying to determine if a school and the teachers and administrators in the school are educating the students entrusted to their care is, I would argue, very important. Knowing if our schools, teachers, and administrators are doing their job is worth finding out.

But that is where the trouble starts.

Scorecards and rankings can create algorithms based on test scores and socioeconomic factors. Scorecards and rankings can slice and dice the reported results in a hundred different ways.

But the scorecards and rankings don't tell you what goes on in those schools.

Are students happy?
Do teachers treat students well?
Are administrators supporting teachers and working with parents in meaningful and productive ways?
Is there joy inside the walls of that school, inside the walls of a classroom?

Scorecards and rankings can measure whether students are doing well on tests.

What they can't measure is the spirit of those who attend and those who work in the school.

I understand that the most important part of a school is not whether students are happy or valued or joyful.

But those things are important.

And a true measure of a school will take those things into account.

Scorecards and rankings don't show whether or not students like school or if teachers care about students.

I have mixed emotions about scorecards and rankings. It is important to know whether or not a surgeon or a teacher is good at their job.

The question is what do we measure to figure that out?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Will we close our eyes?

Yesterday in Charleston South Carolina, nine people who gathered in a church for a bible study were gunned down by a man who did not know them but who hated them because they were black.

I can't fathom hate like that.

Intellectually I know it exists.

Emotionally it is beyond what I can comprehend.

In Novi our work rests on two pillars. All of what we do - our work in curriculum, assessment, evaluation, instruction, and student growth is built on helping our students learn to write and to understand social justice.

Writing is an easy pillar to explain. If students can write, and write well, it means that they can think, that they can examine ideas, that they can reason, that they can communicate. Writing supports students as they learn math and science and social studies. Being a writer prepares students to enter into the conversations that they will have in the board room and the break room and the shop floor and the family room. Writing makes sense for a school district.

Social justice. This pillar is harder to explain to people. People push back against social justice. People suggest to me that this is not what the district needs to focus on. Social justice is too political they say. Social justice draws attention away from the important work that we must do in helping students learn the curriculum. Social justice is not a priority.

I disagree.

I don't care how smart a person is if that person cannot understand another person's point of view.

I don't care how smart a person is if that person is unwilling to reflect on the social and economic inequities that our country faces.

I don't care how smart a person is if that person does not want to hear another person's voice.

Smart is not the most important attribute we give our kids.

It is important - don't get me wrong.

And our district does a very good job of helping our students learn. Our district goals focus on our ability to move students forward, to prepare them intellectually for that next step in their life.

But "smart" is not the only thing that matters.

Compassion, understanding, the ability to see another person for who they are. The willingness to listen. The desire to work with, be with, live with, build with other people.

These attributes are just as important as "smart."

These are social justice attributes.

And in Novi I am committed to helping our students learn these lessons as well.

I want our students to learn these lessons so that we will not continue to close our eyes to the hatred that exists around us. I want our students to learn the lessons of social justice so that we can open our eyes and the eyes of others to the beauty of each and every life.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The end is near!

Tomorrow is the last day of school for students in Novi.


And, truth be told, my emotions are mixed.

The school year is taxing. Every day during the school year I feel responsible for the 6,400 students who attend schools in Novi.

I want every day to be meaningful. I want every day to have a purpose. I recognize that each day is precious. We are only given a limited number of days and the thought of wasting one fills me with sadness.

During the school year . . .

I worry about bus rides and lunches.

I worry about recess and passing time in the hallways.

I worry about athletic coaches and class/club sponsors and their interaction with our students..

I worry about how we protect our students and staff while they are at school.

I worry about our budget.

I worry about our profession.

I worry about the curriculum.

I worry about state assessments.

I worry about how accurately we are reporting information and insights to our students and our parents about achievement. 

I worry about what students are learning from the adults in the building.

There is a lot that I worry about.

However, the school year also provides me with great joy.

I find joy in the interactions that I see in classrooms.

I find joy in watching our amazing students as they perform on the stage and athletic fields.

I find joy as I see our students commit themselves to improving in our classrooms and practice halls.

I find joy as I see students play on the playground.

I find joy as I watch students eat lunch together.

I find joy as I watch bus drivers and food service workers talk to and joke with our students. 

I find joy as I see teachers collaborate and talk and learn from each other.

I find joy as we plan and build.

I find joy as I watch our parents fill with pride as they watch and listen to their own children.

The school year brings me a tremendous amount of joy.

So I am torn when the end of the school arrives. I know the worries of the school year will fade away over the summer. But I also know that I will miss the joy that comes with watching and learning from and interacting with students and staff.

The end of another school year has come. It is a time to celebrate what we have done. It is a time to prepare for what lies ahead.

May all of us have a wonderful summer!

Friday, May 29, 2015

To the class of 2015

We started together.

Four short years ago you were freshmen in high school.

I was the brand new Superintendent of the Novi Community School District.

For four years you and I have been learning lessons. We have grown. We have struggled. We have lost our way at times.

I have sat in my office with a few of you.

That's usually not a good thing. For students I am the office of last resort. When you get sent to my office it means that you have exhausted all of your chances. I was you last hope.

But I believed that you needed to be in school. So I gave some of you a chance.

And now here you are - about to graduate from high school.

I hope you learned from that experience that you shouldn't give up on people - and that means you shouldn't give up on yourself either.

All of us hit rough patches. Giving up shouldn't be an option. Finding the will to change directions is hard. But it is also worth it.

I watched many of you do marvelous things over the last four years.

You sang.

You marched in the band.

You played the baritone or the cello or the piccolo or the viola.

You threw a football.

You sank a basket.

You ran like the wind.

Some of you made robots.

Others competed against the very best entrepreneurs and marketers in competitions like DECA and came out winners.

You were National Merit Finalists and had perfect ACT scores.

You took AP and IB exams and have earned hours of college credit already!

Truthfully you are marvelous. So skilled and confident and capable. It has been a pleasure watching you grow.

Some of you I watched as you walked with heads down through the hallways. You looked sad or discouraged or upset.

I would say hello and get a shrug back.

You appeared to me to be like I was in high school. I was unsure of myself. I was not an athlete. I was not in the band. I went to school and came home. I had no voice, no presence, no sense of who I was or who I wanted to be.

What you should know is that high school is not the best part of your life. High school is a beginning. It prepares you but doesn't define you.

I went away to college and found my voice. My guess is that you can as well.

Most of you I will see one more time. At commencement as you walk across the stage I will shake your hand and wish you good luck.

I believe that you are ready. I have confidence that all of you will find your voice and grow into who you want to be.

Thank you for four great years.

Your Superintendent,

Dr. Matthews

Friday, May 15, 2015

Beating dragons!

I have never seen a real dragon.

But I have seen Smaug from The Hobbit and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon.

I have most assuredly felt the power of dragons.

Dragons bring chaos and threaten ruin.

There are weeks when it feels like all I do is defend myself and those I love from dragons.

It is at those times that it is wise to remember the words of Neil Gaiman.

neil-gaiman-quote

Friday, May 8, 2015

The good Dr. Webber and lessons about learning!

My friend and colleague RJ Webber graduated today - again.

He is now Dr. RJ Webber!

Dr. Webber looks happy and he should be. It is a wonderful accomplishment.

Dr. Webber is a wonderful mentor to me. He has a passion and a love for learning!

Dr. Webber has helped me understand that education is not about getting a grade or passing a class. Grades and passing a class have their place.

But the true value in education is understanding.

Understanding more about ideas.

Understanding more about how things work.

Understanding more about yourself.

Dr. Webber helps me see that my life's task is not about making sure that students get good grades or high test scores - although those things have their place. 

No - my life's task is about seeing that students learn to value learning.

Dr. Webber has helped me see that what is important in my life is making sure that the students who I have a chance to impact are willing to struggle and stretch and work hard to understand the lessons that they need to learn.

Dr. Webber has helped me see that what is important in my life is making sure that I am willing to struggle and stretch and work hard to understand the lessons that I need to learn.

Congratulations Dr. Webber. You have learned and you have taught your lessons well!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Appreciation for a job well done!

What do you remember about school?

It's probably not the problems you did in math or the essays that you wrote in English class. It's not the times that you had to find countries on a map or stand up in front of class to give a speech.

When I reflect back on my school experience, what I remember most are the people.

It's not that the people were by themselves memorable. It's what they did that sticks with me. The ones I remember most are the ones that made me feel special, important, like I was worth the effort.

Working in a school is not easy. There is a lot going on. Students are trying to figure our who and what they are going to be. Parents are focused on making sure their children get the attention they deserve. The state creates demands that at times seem unreasonable.

Through it all there are people who take time for students, who make students feel like they are important. The teachers, secretaries, food service workers, and principals who make a difference focus not on "school" but on kids.

The staff I remember most were people like this:


The staff I remember treated me like a real person. Whether it was with humor or a hello or a "Hey Steve, can I talk to you for a minute," these staff communicated that I mattered.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week.

In Novi, we extend it to Staff Appreciation Week, in recognition that everyone in our district contributes to our success and to the success of our students.

I would encourage you to take time this week to thank those people who work in the Novi Community School District.

They make a tremendous difference in the lives of every student.

Monday, April 27, 2015

What makes school significant (It's not the M-STEP)


We are in the middle of M-STEP, Michigan's state mandated assessment for students in grades 3-8 and 11.

This assessment, while it is not intended to do so, will determine our worth.

After the assessment we will receive in weeks (or months) our scores. These scores will be reported in the newspaper. These scores will be used to rank school districts. Academic champions will be crowned based on these scores.

But in the end, the test scores don't matter.

I reached this epiphany while reading Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. The book is about the conversations doctors and the medical professionals have with patients who because of age or life-threatening illnesses are facing the end of life.

The book is wonderfully difficult. It made me think about what is truly important in life.

But it also made me think about school. Gawande says the following when discussing the medical field: 

The problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all. Medicine's focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet - and this is the painful paradox - we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days. For more than a half century now, we have treated the trials of sickness, aging, and mortality as medical concerns. It's been an experiment in social engineering, putting our fates in the hands of people valued more for their technical prowess than for their understanding of human needs.

As I read those words it made me think of schools and education. Schools should not be defined by test scores. Schools should not be defined by many of the various metrics that appear on state reports or in the paper.

The problem with education and the institutions it has spawned to care for students is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all.

What makes school significant for students?

People, relationships, passion, discovering ideas, talking about ideas, learning who you are and what you care about.

State legislators and newspapers seem to think that the most important part of school are test scores and graduation rates and daily attendance. Those are important. But the schools that have high test scores and good graduation rates and high daily attendance are schools that don't focus on those things.

We can tell ourselves that high test scores are important. We can spend all of our time in school prepping students to take a test.

But in the end, those things do not matter.

I believe that schools that measure well on the new metrics of education do so because they focus on making school relevant and meaningful. Schools that focus on relationships and help students develop a passion for learning, those are the schools that understand what is truly important about education.

Medicine focuses on repairing health when the real discussion should be about what is significant in life.

Often the discussion in schools is about test scores when the real discussion should be about sustenance of the soul.

While I completely agree that schools need to ensure that students learn, that students have the skills they need to pursue their dreams, the more important discussions are about what students are passionate about. The more important discussions are how what we are learning applies to life outside of the school.  The more important discussions are about how school makes it possible for a student to follow their passion and make a difference.

We give the M-STEP because we have to.

What I want our schools to find are ways to sustain the souls of our students so that they can make powerful contributions to their family, their friends, and to society.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Measuring progress

First, I want to state that I believe in accountability.

Parents send their children to school because there is an expectation that students will learn.

A community supports schools because there is an expectation that schools will help students learn.

Part of my responsibility is to be able to demonstrate that children learn in the classrooms in my school district.

Today, in Michigan, we begin our M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress) testing window.

I understand the need for an external evaluation - an unbiased look at the performance of my students. 

But, is this really the way?

Last week I was baking cookies. Suddenly this ad showed up on my TV.


Pearson, a company whose mission is to "help people make more of their lives through learning", is recruiting college graduates to become temporary M-STEP test scorers. (Here is the job description listed on their website.)

I would receive a 10% pay differential for the evening shift!

As I said, I believe in accountability. Students, parents, and community members need to know if students are learning.

Those who teach and those of us responsible for schools need to know if what we are doing is making a difference.

But do I really want the effort of my teachers and the performance of my students to hinge on the ability of temp workers hired by a multinational educational conglomerate who have been trained for a few days to determine if my students demonstrate proficiency on the standard?

I would much rather trust the judgment of my teachers. I would much rather include in any assessment of the performance of my students a judgment rendered by someone who has spent time with these students, who has seen the growth in these students, who has evidence gathered over the course of the school year about the progress these students have made.

Instead, my state of Michigan following the direction of the federal Department of Education, has chosen to measure the progress of my students using only one measure - the M-STEP. My state and the federal government have also chosen to rank and evaluate my schools and my teachers based on this one measure.

I want to see the results of the M-STEP.

But I also want to be able to include for everyone to see the evidence my teachers have gathered over the course of the year about the progress of my students. This gives me a better picture of the growth of my students. It shows me how far each student has come over the course of the year.

But that requires that we trust a teacher's judgment.

It also requires that we understand the complex nature of performance.

I trust my teacher's judgment.

I also believe that my students and their parents deserve more than a score on a test to determine if schools are doing a good job.