School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?

The Brown Center on Education Policy published this report School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant? in September, 2014.  I read the report with great interest, largely because it’s my fervent intent to leave this world some day having made a significant difference with my life. As a school superintendent, my primary and most important responsibilities are to support and improve our educational program.

As a public school system, our central mission, or reason for being, is to educate the 953 children who reside within the Randolph Central School District. Every part of our operation from finance to cafeteria to bus drivers to support staff to teachers and administrators function because we must educate our children. That includes me.

The report looks at administrative data from the states of Florida and North Carolina for the school years 2000-01 to 2009-10. The researchers examine the following questions:

1. What are the observable characteristics
of superintendents, with a focus on their
length of service?
2. Does student achievement improve when
superintendents serve longer?
3. Do school districts improve when they hire
a new superintendent?
4. What is the contribution of superintendents
to student achievement relative to districts,
schools, and teachers?
5. Are there superintendents whose tenure
is associated with exceptional changes in
student achievement?

At Randolph, we have made tremendous gains in student achievement over the past three years. If someone asks me how we did it, I can answer that question with considerable depth. As the leader of our school district, I have a part in that growth for having worked with all constituencies to set the course, the focus, the financial priorities, and the expectations that our school community has embraced. Absolutely indisputably, I KNOW that no one within the system is more important to the growth of a child in school than the teacher who stands with him every day. I also know that a leadership team can make a considerable difference for that child through their actions and the continuous improvement that we expect of ourselves and every other member of our school community.

The authors at the Brown Center found the following:

1. School district superintendent is largely a
short-term job. The typical superintendent
has been in the job for three to four years.
2. Student achievement does not improve
with longevity of superintendent service
within their districts.
3. Hiring a new superintendent is not
associated with higher student
achievement.
4. Superintendents account for a small
fraction of a percent (0.3 percent) of
student differences in achievement. This
effect, while statistically significant, is orders
of magnitude smaller than that associated
with any other major component of the
education system, including: measured
and unmeasured student characteristics;
teachers; schools; and districts.
5. Individual superintendents who have an
exceptional impact on student achievement
cannot be reliably identified.

When I was first considering a superintendency, my mother said, “I don’t care where you go Kimberly, but pick someplace and stay there or you’ll never make the difference you want to make in the world.” She was right. Further, in this decade, on this day, in our school district, I know I’m making a difference in student achievement through my leadership, my relationships with building level administrators, teachers, students and parents. I’m making that difference not because I’m exceptional but because of the focus of my leadership. As superintendents, we have to include the central mission of our systems in our focus, goals and direct involvement in our instructional programs. Many of my colleagues are doing so every day, right here in Western New York.

I don’t dispute the author’s findings for the time period they studied. The traditional role of the superintendent is changing and no longer can the authors’ conclusion be considered  acceptable for our school systems:

Superintendents may well have impacts on factors
we have not addressed in our study, such as the
financial health of the district, parent and student
satisfaction, and how efficiently tax dollars are
spent. And to be certain, they occupy one of the
American school system’s most complex and
demanding positions. But our results make clear
that, in general, school district superintendents have
very little influence on student achievement in the
districts in which they serve. This is true in absolute
terms, with only a fraction of one percent of the
variance in student achievement accounted for by
differences among superintendents. It is also true in
relative terms, with teachers/classrooms, schools/
principals, and districts having an impact that is
orders of magnitude greater than that associated
with superintendents.

It remains our responsibility to fill all of the more traditional roles, like attending to the financial health and capital projects and bargaining agreements. It is also our most important responsibility to positively impact our instructional programs. Our public school systems are under attack from seemingly innumerable sources. Being a school leader means standing up and saying, “the quality of our education, our expectations for ourselves and our children, our ability to make a difference in the lives of the children we serve–this is our focus, our mission, and our duty.”

3 Weeks To Go!

On this Wednesday, August 13, 2014, we have just three short weeks until our students return to us! This summer has been even busier than most as we plan for a possible capital project to present to the voters sometime before Winter Break. A committee of teachers, students, administrators, parents and community members worked throughout the Spring to identify needs for consideration by our School Board. With a project architect and construction manager, we looked at needs within the buildings, educational needs, dreams (a pool!) and athletic fields, among other things.

And so my summer has been filled with the analysis of the financial end of the project including the scope of work possible within the confines of our public school district budget. We’ve focused on what do we need now, what can wait another five years, and what will make us a better facility for our students. And just like projects that we do at home, it comes down to what can we afford to spend.

Our job now is to present the work of the committee, fine tuned by the BOE facilities committee, to the full Board of Education. We will then return to the larger facility committee to review the items that “made the cut” and why. Explaining the project to our entire school community follows in preparation for a vote. We have worked hard to keep the taxpayers in mind balancing the maintenance of our facilities and grounds for the future with our needs to improve programs for students. That balance means that many of the items that would be nice to have but not necessary won’t advance at this time. Talk of building condition surveys, easements, shared services with the Town of Randolph (Hamlet?), reserve funds, gap elimination adjustments, general municipal laws, condemned bus lifts, inadequate parking and traffic flow have filled my work days.

And so I cannot wait for our students and teachers to return! On any given day I would much rather talk about curriculum, instruction, data analysis, scheduling, the needs of individual students and families, program enhancements, heck—just about anything to do with our students and teachers—than parking lots and boilers and room configurations. As with any job, there are parts to love and parts that are work–looking forward to the return of the parts I love most.  IMG_0414-2

Another Goodbye

image

Could there be a better way to spend my life than in the presence of our students? If there is, it’s for someone besides me. We said goodbye to the class of 2014 on Friday night at graduation, a goodbye I’ve been saying since the Pine Valley Class of 1992 graduated. I gain so much from working with our students—a sense of hope and optimism and fun–and their joy keeps me young. And when I’m very lucky, they keep in touch in some way.  As with every class who’s gone before them, I wish each faith, hope and love.

 

BOE Election

Please remember our Budget vote is this coming Tuesday, May 20, 2014 from 2:00 pm to 8:00 pm. We are presenting for taxpayer approval a budget with a 0% increase to the tax levy for the sixth year in a row. We also have three candidates running for two BOE seats: Incumbent Louise Boutwell, Tom Deacon and Marshall Johnson.

Please note that we cannot legally, nor would we, endorse any candidate. Political signs are the property of the candidate or owner, not the school district. Political campaign signs placed between the sidewalk and the curb are under the rules of the town and are not on school property.

Education Funding in the NYS Budget

Cross Posted in the Salamanca Press, March 26, 2014

I find government and politicians to be extremely frustrating. It sometimes seems they spin everything to meet their purposes and rely on the fact that the general public has little understanding of the details of any given proposal. And yes, I realize that many readers are now thinking, “Well yeah, how did it take her this long to figure that out?”

School finance is a great example. The governor, senate and assembly all play politics with their budget proposals for education. Politicians and their comparisons of each other’s budget proposals don’t help us. Foundation aid to our schools hasn’t changed since the school year in which I became a superintendent, 2008-2009. Consider the increases to the costs of everything from fuel to electric to food in the years since then! Our contractual salary increases and benefits have increased, even with the cost savings measures our unions have agreed to in every contract we’ve negotiated during that time.

I understand that we have well intended, caring and dedicated representatives in Albany. How those people ever get anything done within what seems to be a convoluted system is what I don’t understand.

At Randolph, we WERE a district who weathered the storm of funding freezes better than many districts due to our Board of Education’s decades long and fiscally responsible, yet State disapproved, method of maintaining reserves beyond the 4%. That’s changed for us after five years of maintaining budgets with little to no increase in state aid. After all, in Randolph we can raise less than $50,000 with a 1% increase to the tax levy. We are a district with many poor children who need us and the education, programs and meals that we provide to them. In an $18 million budget, we heavily rely on state aid. We have reached the breaking point. This means that my colleagues in other districts who were following the ridiculously low 4% unappropriated reserve rule have got to be believed  when they say they cannot continue as they are or cut anything more.

Simply put, we cannot continue as things are at 2008-09 foundation aid levels. We need a total elimination of the Gap Elimination Adjustment. That’s the only solution that will help our schools. School districts have managed as well as they could but there is nothing left for many to cut as Governor Cuomo touts a state surplus of millions. The gap elimination adjustment was started to help the State eliminate its budget gap—that gap has clearly been eliminated in the State budget now. Programs to school children must be restored.

Our governor continues to publicize “increases” to aid for schools. What he doesn’t make clear is that communities like Randolph will likely never see much of those monies. I cannot move to full day PreK, as much as I know our Randolph children would benefit, without a guarantee of full reimbursement. We cannot afford it. I have neither the time nor the staffing to go after these “grant” based monies that keep being offered by our governor–genius really, as then it’s a promise of money that most of us can’t obtain. There’s also an education tax credit which is absurd for a district like ours, who on earth do they think we have in Randolph who’s going to be able to afford to give us private donations

The state officials who we elect must restore education funding. That should be the goal of every elected official in NYS. We cannot raise the money on the backs of our taxpayers. We will not. Our students deserve a quality education—just as those in the wealthy districts of NYS continue to provide to their students. We need the representatives of our rural WNY region to continue to fight for full restoration of the GEA.

 

Support for Common Core Standards Isn’t Sinking Here

As the New York State Teacher’s Union (NYSUT) takes a firm stance against the implementation of common core and Commissioner King, I’m more aware than ever of the need for our students to learn a curriculum aligned to the common core standards. Why? Because I want our students to be active learners and citizens who read the overwhelming amount of information coming at them carefully—learners who are able to discern evidence based facts from hype and opinion and just plain old lies. We need our young people to be students who are engaged and open-minded—but discerning—readers and listeners. The very issue at hand–implementation of the common core standards–has become so convoluted, confused and misused that those very skills are critical.

Every change in education is often labeled “common core”. Just this morning on the radio I heard a report that the “governor is calling for an end to standardized testing of students in grades K-2”. That’s wonderful considering NYS doesn’t have standardized testing of students in grades K-2. In our school district, we extend our iReady diagnostic and interim testing to grade levels K-2 because those grades are critical, integral parts of our K-12 system and that local assessment choice keeps all grade levels focused on a continual K-8 pathway that better prepares our students for grades 9-12 math and ELA. The story is almost always much more complex than the simplicity at which it’s reduced to in a sound bite.

To demonstrate that complexity, consider that as a district leader I support our implementation of the common core standards in our school system and I agree with NYSUT’s stance too. If ALL state and federal involvement disappeared from our schools tomorrow, under the direction of the Randolph Board of Education and the Administrative Team, along WITH our teachers, we would continue to implement the common core standards and to use iReady diagnostic testing, computer based instructional modules and materials to align our curriculum. We would continue to have a focus on continuous school improvement and increasing our academic expectations. We would continue to use the Danielson rubric for teacher evaluation and the MPPR for evaluation of our principals. We would continue to support teacher collaboration in developing curriculum at grade levels, aligned to the common core standards. Our curriculum coordinator and principals would continue to listen to our teachers, to study the common core and materials available, and to use all of the data and information at hand to make good instructional decisions for our students.

And we’d support these requests of the state teachers union:

* completion of all modules, or lessons, aligned with the Common Core and time for educators to review them to ensure they are grade-level appropriate and aligned with classroom practice;

* better engagement with parents, including listening to their concerns about their children’s needs;

* additional tools, professional development and resources for teachers to address the needs of diverse learners, including students with disabilities and English language learners;

* full transparency in state testing, including the release of all test questions, so teachers can use them in improving instruction;

* postponement of Common Core Regents exams as a graduation requirement;

* the funding necessary to ensure all students have an equal opportunity to achieve the Common Core standards. The proposed Executive Budget would leave nearly 70 percent of the state’s school districts with less state aid in 2014-15 than they had in 2009-10; and

*a moratorium, or delay, in the high-stakes consequences for students and teachers from standardized testing to give the State Education Department – and school districts – more time to correctly implement the Common Core.

Support for common core standards is NOT sinking here–every parent I talk to wants as much for his or her child as possible. Our teachers are working hard to figure it all out, modifying curriculum to meet the standards AND to teach the students in front of them, who come with a mix of prior year common core standards attainment and skills. It has been difficult for everyone–especially with the poor timing and sometimes poor ELA module development and delivery. Would we be better off with a slower implementation? In my 25 years in education, I’ve never seen this kind of cooperation in implementing a K-12 curriculum so I’m not so sure. It’s been hard, messy, stressful—just like every other major change I’ve ever experienced in life. And as I’ve said often these last couple of years, we’re figuring it out together–teachers, parents, administrators and BOE members.

Maybe not smooth sailing yet, but certainly not sinking.

What’s With This Homework?

On October 10, 2013, NYS Education Commissioner John King met with parents and teachers in Poughkeepsie, NY to talk with them through a PTA Forum about the Common Core. In watching that session online, I was struck by the comments of one of the parents who spoke about her three young sons and said, “Change is not easy but childhood should not be this difficult.”

I can’t stop thinking about her. She’s right. Childhood isn’t supposed to be difficult. School should be challenging and inspiring and creative and thought provoking. Children should go home tired from a hard day’s work. Then they should play and talk to their friends and have dinner with their families, not spend another one to two hours doing homework.

If you, as parents of K-8 children, are continually frustrated with the homework you see coming home, talk to your child’s teacher. We should not be sending homework that we know will just frustrate our students (and parents). Homework should be a reinforcement of the topics learned and it should be brief. There is NO reason for our K-8 children to spend more than 15-30 minutes on homework. The homework should be reasonable. Please also realize that we may be teaching Math in ways different from the ways in which you learned Math. That doesn’t mean your way was right and this way is wrong. Please don’t tell your child, “I don’t know how to do any of this–it’s ridiculously hard!” as that isn’t going to help your child gain confidence with the material.

So what do you do? Encourage your child to try all of the problems–without the cell phone or TV or iPod on–without distraction. If you’re telling us that it takes your child 60 minutes to do homework but 50 minutes are wasted on distracted thinking, then it’s really not 60 minutes of work. I’ve heard the building principals tell teachers repeatedly that homework cannot be graded punitively. Some of our children have no one to help them at home either, we know this. Homework is about practice, just like getting better at a sport takes practice. But we can’t kick kids off the team with bad grades for poor performance in practice. This doesn’t mean our students don’t need to do homework, just that it needs to be intentional, meaningful, and brief–and our students need to complete it then. On their own. Don’t let your kids train you to do their homework. If your kids are asking you for help without attempting it first themselves, then you’re working harder than they are and it’s not YOU who needs the practice.

And if there’s stress on you and your family because of what you’re reading on Twitter or Facebook or in the news? PLEASE do not let what you read about other districts color your perception of how we’re handling change here. We are listening. To our teachers, our students, and our parents. No one performs better under stress, least of all our children. I’m exhausted at the end of the work day as I’m sure many of you are too. It’s our job as parents to expect the best of our children, to demand that they work hard and be the best little people that they can be. It’s not necessary to turn every night at the dinner table into a battle over school and homework. It’s not good for you and it’s not good for your kids. Enjoy them. Talk about something other than what they’re working on in class. Listen to them and instill confidence in them that they can do it. Read a story to them for fun or go for a walk outside or whatever else helps you find joy at the end of a long day.

And for our teachers and administrators–this message is for you too: I’m an adult who needs time to STOP THINKING when I’m home in the evenings. I need to read magazines and think about fashion and home decorating and how I want to rearrange my furniture. I need to talk with my mom and my daughter, hope my son will call from college (even though he never does, but hey, I hope), make dinner for my husband (most days), get a pedicure with my friends, exercise and RELAX. If I have an evening that requires a couple of hours of work, I do NOT return to school the next day my best self.

For your mental health and well being, we need you to have that same time in the evening, with your families. Many of you aren’t getting it right now because you’re cramming to learn module lessons but remember that what you did last year worked well. We showed strong gains. Fall back on those things that you know you’ve done well, study the modules and do the best you can. All of the change doesn’t have to happen at once. We’ve got this–our very best teachers are the same teachers who are running themselves ragged to improve. I appreciate your hard work AND I want you to have a balance in your life too, just like our students.

Why Do We Need to Change At All?

Why do we need to change what we’re teaching our children? Most people have been pretty happy with Randolph Central, right? Just let my kids be happy, I don’t care if they learn as much math as possible in each grade–provided they’re learning and getting good grades. Here’s the trouble with that idea–as the superintendent I get to see the whole PK-12 continuum. I know our students can do more than we’ve expected of them in the past.

How do I know? Because for 25 years in education I’ve maintained relationships with graduates from Randolph, Gowanda, and Pine Valley. Think about this honestly now. How often has an 18 or 19 year old said to you, “Wow! I really worked hard in school! I was totally prepared for college, these professors are nothing compared to my high school teachers. Or, my employer is so happy with the way I can pick up a project and run with it. He wishes I could teach the other employees my basic math skills and how to communicate well in writing.”

I’ll tell you how often-NEVER. And that’s just not okay. We’re not here to hang out for 12 years, these are the most critical and accessible years of learning our children have and my personal and professional mission is to make them the most advantageous they can be for every RCS student. And that means every student is going to be expected to do his or her best–the same things I expected of my own two children and continue to expect to this day.

And here’s something else, our administrators are visiting classrooms and seeing our students meet the challenges. In listening to our teachers, I hear them saying that our students are accomplishing more than they thought possible. I have lots of thoughts about how this happened, about how we reached the point in education when not enough is expected of our students, but I will reserve that thinking for another time. I will only say that we are failing our brightest students as over the past several decades we expected too little of them which led them to expect too little of themselves. We see it every year as our juniors and seniors drop courses like Chemistry and Physics and Calculus for an easier route out of high school. Easier doesn’t make any of us better. And through the 1990’s when worrying about every child “winning” and their self esteem more than about challenging them was “de rigueur” didn’t help much either.

Yes, Randolph Central is a good school system already. But good isn’t enough for our teachers and students. If any District can collectively figure out how to successfully improve our school system, we can. Just like the teachers, I’m making good, thoughtful decisions every day, along with our entire leadership team. I’m listening, I’m considering and I’m adapting where needed. We aren’t mindlessly implementing the common core modules. We’re making the best local decisions we can and following the requirements of NYSED in purposeful ways. Just as we’ve always done. We’re also improving, expecting more of ourselves and our students, and striving to meet the highest standards possible.

Randolph has been #1 on the athletic fields and courts for many years. It’s time we step up and become #1 academically as well. That will, in fact, serve our students well in the long run as all will need good jobs some day and few, if any, will become professional athletes.

How Randolph Is Implementing the Common Core Standards

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been meeting with our PK-8 teachers at grade level meetings (content area meetings with 7-8 Math and ELA) with two purposes in mind. One, I wanted to listen. Our teachers are not alone in their implementation of new curriculum–they are supported by our curriculum coordinator and building principals and teacher leaders. I needed them to know that they have my support too, that I’m listening to them on how common core implementation is going, and that we as a leadership team are not working in isolation of the realities of the classroom. Two, I wanted to check my own thinking and know if what we planned to do this year is working in the classroom–if our leadership expectations are realistic and if so, are they clear to our teachers?  As every district has made different local decisions and I know many of our teachers have friends and family in other districts, I wanted to make sure our teachers understand what we’re doing at RCS with the common core standards and the common core modules as developed by NYS (yes, they’re two different things).  Today, I begin a series of posts to share our expectations with our larger school community.

I’ve been talking about making good instructional decisions for some time–it was the main idea of my opening day session with teachers both last year and this year. In some districts, the common core modules ( instructional units developed by NYS) are being implemented fully, page by page. In other districts, teachers and administrators began a couple of years ago to develop their own curriculum aligned to the common core standards. In Randolph, we have a combination of the two approaches.

Listen, no matter what the State intended K-8 curriculum may be, our teachers must make good instructional decisions for the students seated in front of them every day. If it’s a teacher at grades 7-12, those instructional decisions may be different for the period 2 Biology class to the period 11 Biology class. Our teachers are not teaching the common core modules, as developed by NYS, without consideration of 100 other factors on any given day. Most important is careful consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the 20-25 students seated in front of them–what background knowledge do those students have, what curriculum were they taught in prior years and what learning did they retain? What are the interests and skills of the students? All factors that great teachers have considered in planning lessons for decades.

And since the beginning of time, including when I started teaching, we have had to consider the NYS standards in our subject area and where I taught, it was a local decision that all teachers meet the Career Development and Occupational Studies standards too.  We’ve had textbook materials to factor into our decisions, state tests to consider, and if we were lucky, a curriculum left by the teacher we replaced. How do the common core modules and standards come in to play now? Well, those NYS standards were pretty darn vague. Most of us complained about them and as administrators thought, “a teacher could plan any lesson she likes and simply type in a NYS standard to make it fit.” We complained that the standards needed to be a more substantial curriculum that teachers and administrators could follow. For years I have included in my leadership a goal to have a more consistent curriculum grades K-8 so that our students would have a strong, common experience not just learn something due to the luck of the draw or whatever teacher he gets that year. So now we have these curriculum modules, but we don’t know yet if they are reliable since they’re very new and are relatively untested.

So our teachers, our experts in the field,  are evaluating the NYS common core modules as they align to the common core standards and as they align to our other instructional materials including iReady and Ready, our reading series materials and our data on students through formative and state test results. We don’t wish to abandon, disregard, or relegate to an “if I have time” status any of those good things we’ve been doing the past few years that have helped our students meet with greater success. We realize our mathematics K-8 curriculum has not had the emphasis needed to prepare our students for Math in high school. We began addressing that problem two years ago and have made great gains–luckily in many grade levels the modules are enhancing what we’re doing. And when we find that they’re not, or a teacher has a better way to teach something, or our students aren’t ready for a module lesson–we’re modifying and adapting. But we are aligning to a more rigorous set of standards than what we’ve had in the past (more about that tomorrow).

The analysis and study of the modules is being done largely on the fly by hard working, dedicated teachers who didn’t have the opportunity to do this in advance of the school year in any detail because the modules are still coming out from NYSED. New modules come out from the State weekly. We are using the common core modules as a curriculum resource to help us raise our standards as our students are ready. Teachers are expected to study the modules and to make good instructional decisions for their students as we continue to align our taught curriculum to the stated common core curriculum. This will take time. We are doing the best that we can in an imperfect implementation system—but always with the best interest of our students in mind. If it doesn’t feel that way in your home–please talk to your child’s teacher. In Thursday’s post, I’ll write more about homework.

Tomorrow: Why Do We Need to Change At All?