Welcome to the 2013-14 School Year

Tomorrow morning our students return and it’s one of my favorite days of the year. Everyone returns with enthusiasm in whatever favorite new outfit they’ve chosen. And the best part is that I get to help our littlest ones find their classrooms. I really enjoy seeing our students return and watching the bittersweet goodbyes from parents bringing their child to school for the first time. Parents, please know that we will cherish your babies—that our teachers will love them and expect the best of them. And so will I.

At the same time, we will have high expectations for each child. We want our students, your children, to learn and to grow and to experience a positive yet challenging school year. Attached you can look at the opening day presentation I gave to our entire school family of employees yesterday. Randolph academic success is on the rise and we are working hard so that our students can be successful in every aspect of our programs. We look forward to working with you and we hope that you will also have high expectations for your child.

Why are our expectations for children so important? Here’s a personal example. My parents were clear in their expectations for me as a student—my grades had to be above a C. So that’s what I worked for, to get above a C–B’s worked just fine in my house.

We like to think every generation gets smarter than us, right? Our expectation for our own two kids was that they had to have their grades above a 90 average. That’s a higher expectation than my parents had for me and both of our children met that expectation every ten weeks. I remember quoting, “hey, to he (or she) who much is given, much is expected”—meaning your life is good, your brain is good, get to work! When our son was a senior in high school, he had to write a paper in which he spoke about his strong relationship with his dad for 90% of the paper and then on the last page wrote, “and I’m thankful that my mom had her foot on me through all of school or I never would have done as well as I did.” Not exactly gushing in it’s emotion for his mom, but hey–you get the point. He’s now a senior at St. Bonaventure on an academic scholarship that requires he maintain a 3.0 average. What do you think he maintains?

Please expect more from your children. I’m betting they can get there. We’re doing the same here at RCS and we’re expecting more of ourselves too. I’ve never forgotten something I read at the beginning of my administrative career, written by Todd Whitaker in What Great Principals Do Differently, “Great teachers have high expectations for students but even higher expectations for themselves.” I’ll work on everyone here at RCS having high expectations for themselves–first of all ME–please help us by working on having high expectations for your children at home–in school attendance, academic performance, behavior and treating everyone with respect. Deal?

Parenting Classes

Something happened a week ago and I can’t get it out of my head. That usually means I’ve got to write about it so it’s out here instead of running a track through my mind. During a recent visit to the doctor’s office, I was in the waiting room when a mother and two young boys entered the room. Immediately these two little guys took over the office. They were running around, sitting in the middle of the floor, breaking up some small toy and throwing it around the room.

What was mom doing? That’s the part I can’t get out of my head. She sat passively and looked at a point on the wall without talking to, scolding or acknowledging them. I was quiet as long as I could be, thinking “this is none of my business” but when the older of the two worked feverishly to shove one of the pieces of the toy into his ear, I couldn’t take it any more.

I engaged both in conversation saying, “I bet I can guess what grade you boys are going into!” First and third grades, I got it right. Neither boy made eye contact with me (much like their mom). When I said, “don’t stick that in your ear! That’s going to hurt you!” The mother looked at the boy and then at me and I said in a friendly way, “my niece once stuck a lego up her nose and they had to go to the emergency room!” At least the young man stopped when I told him to do so.

Once in the examination room, this family was placed in a room next to mine and I could hear the chaos continuing until the physician’s assistant walked in and said, “stop that and sit down.”

I’ve been thinking about parenting as a skill set ever since. This woman was completely lacking in any parenting skills with no idea of what to do. We end up with children in a school system who have no idea how to behave because they’ve never been taught. I’m not pointing fingers at her, I’m saying she appeared to have no skills as a parent, much like I have no carpentry skills. Only I can hire a carpenter to build something correctly and in her case, she can’t hire anyone and it’s her children who suffer.

I’ve certainly known over-indulgent parents in my work and personal life, this was something beyond indulgence. Goodness knows we all parent differently. There’s nothing that says my way of parenting is better than someone else’s. But my own mother did a really good job and the proof is in her two productive children who have loving families and pretty good kids too. Somehow along the way my role models figured it out and I parented the way I’d learned from example. What about this woman and the others like her? Who helps her learn what to do?

As a school system I would love to reach out to that mom and others like her. Not to say “I’m an expert and this is what you must do” but to say, “I know parenting is hard, I’ve got some experience and some ideas that worked with my kids—can I help you learn what to do with yours?” No parent EVER has done her child a favor by NOT teaching him or her how to behave in this world. Parenting is positively the most important job any of us has to do.

How do we reach those parents who are the neediest? How do they admit to someone like me what they don’t know? Do they even know what they’re doing isn’t working? Does it take Child Protective Services or the county getting involved? And even when the school gets involved, we walk carefully on that line of helping vs. telling parents what to do. I know our elementary counselor is wonderful at supporting our children and families but more often than not parents end up angry and feeling like we’re meddling in their home life.

To further complicate my thinking on this is my strong belief that I want the freedom to make my own decisions and choices without “big brother” telling me how much soda I can drink or which guns I can own or dictating exactly what education must look like at RCS. Does my desire to help that mom who looked so lost and alone and helpless equate to government’s desire to dictate everything to us?

I’d love to hear your thinking on this one! If we offered parenting classes in the evening, I don’t know who would even come–how would we get this mother to attend without insulting her?

Does Our Academic Rank Matter?

It matters to me. Always has, especially when I hear colleagues discuss why it shouldn’t. I don’t know why I wouldn’t want our school district to be as good as or better than similar schools around us? As a community Randolph is clear that we want to be the best in athletics and to celebrate our students’ success. Why wouldn’t we want that same excellence  academically that we enjoy athletically?

I’ve written about academic school improvement here many times before and as the superintendent, it’s my number one mission—to provide the very best education we can to each and every student while being fair to our taxpayers. We do so many things well here, with outstanding teachers, administrators and students, why did we sit in the bottom third of all 97 WNY school districts for so long?

As the superintendent, I research what our colleagues are doing who are more successful than we are just like a good coach studies game film. I also research what’s expected from NYSED and what’s working in the field. While I’ve made some mistakes in my career—I never fully believed in curriculum mapping as a real change measure and yet implemented it in Gowanda—I do believe our efforts at Randolph are paying off in terms of higher expectations for ourselves and for learning for our students. Our teachers have always worked incredibly hard  and this year they’ve been focused on data team meetings to further individualize their instruction for all children during intervention and classroom instruction. We’re also working together on our curriculum and raising our expectations at every grade level so that our students may achieve more as they move through our system. I’m so proud of our team and of our students for meeting the challenge!

Business First ranks all of the elementary, middle and high schools, and districts based on the past four years of NYS test results and Regents exams. Here’s a link to how the ranks are determined. No mystery, no magic. Just the facts on how our students fare on tests over the past four years. And I believe we’re good enough to get from the bottom third of the 97 school districts to the top third. So does our School Board and Administrative Team. And here’s the proof that we’re getting there after a decade of little to no movement in these rankings.

Our elementary school ranked 174 out of 281 which is up 28 spots from last year’s rank of 202. Our middle school results rank us 123 out of 208, up 22 spots from last year’s rank of 145. Our high school rank is 68 of 135, up 14 spots from last year’s 82. And even though we saw improvements from 2011-2012 in middle and high school, our district rank was stuck at 74 of 97. This year I’m delighted to say that we are ranked 59 of 97 WNY Districts, up 15 spots from 74 the last two years.

We are focused on the right things, we are taking what State Ed mandates and making it reasonable where we can and making it work for us. Our students will graduate having the same excellent education they’ve always gotten, but with even higher expectations and achievement. Thanks to everyone for getting us here!

As our BOE President, Dave Adams, said, “congratulations to you all as you all had an impact on this achievement. Continue the hard work and support all of your fellow teachers and administrators to make this a total team effort and we are confident that you can move RCS to even higher rankings in the years to come!”


May Mayhem

What a mixed-up month May is in the world of school! It’s budget time so I’m immersed in budget documents, procedures, the public hearing, ‘Meet the Candidates’ night and the public vote/election. At the same time, it’s beautiful outside (at long last!) and I’m yearning to get outside in my gardens but have no time to do so. As we look to next year we are interviewing and hiring for our 2013-14 openings and we haven’t even allowed 2012-13 to come to a close.

We have spring concerts and events, awards dinners, spring sports and planning for next year already. And our Seniors! They are their own crazy mix of emotions. One day they can’t wait to get out of here and the next they are miserable to think there are only about ten school days left. They are sick and tired of each other one minute, already missing each other the next. We’ve been talking a lot about appreciating every day and savoring the moment. On some days I think they’re even listening to me!

May also brings the end of the year meetings on tenure decisions, development of class lists for next year and new–the dreaded portfolio reviews. Our local Marina is open in Onoville and we’re starting to think summer.  Prom is in May, with all of its pomp and excitement–and the Randolph After-Prom event which is completely organized and run by our parents–by far one of the best events of a high school student’s life.

If you’re the parents of a high school student, especially Seniors, hold them a little tighter as they struggle to break free for the next phase of life. The summer before our own son left for college wasn’t my favorite. He was stretching his wings at the same time that I hated to see him go; his departure for college brought that “empty nest” to our home. Hang in there Mom and Dad–this too shall pass!

What’s the Single Greatest Action to Influence the Instructional Process?

As superintendent of a school district, what do you think is the single greatest action you can take to have a positive influence on the instructional process and its impact on children?

This question is worded in an interesting way, notice they ask what is the single greatest action. That phrase changed my answer. On first reading I thought, courage. This is a leadership position that absolutely requires courage in a million different ways and decisions. But courage isn’t an action.

The single greatest action to have a positive influence on the instructional process? Hire the right people. That means hiring teachers who are outstanding, who have high expectations for students and higher expectations for themselves. It means assembling the right administrative team, administrators who share in our goals of the absolute best instructional program for every student, with high achievement and learning for all. It means helping those employees who don’t have high expectations for themselves realize this isn’t the place for them.  All of it takes courage, yes, and hiring and retention decisions are the key actions.

New Starting Point?

So in this video, linked on our school website to the State Ed’s website with resources for parents, Commissioner King and Associate Commissioner Slentz talk about the common core standards and the new 3-8 assessments.

Mr. Slentz says emphatically that everyone must understand that we expect the results to be lower and that we will have a new starting point. If it’s a new starting point, with new standards and new assessments, then how can they be compared to the results we’ve gotten in the past on different assessments? How can we compare the growth of our students against two different measures? And we’re doing so in high stakes ways that result in evaluation scores for teachers and principals?

Let’s also remember that the tests our students are taking this week are completely aligned with the common core curriculum, something that’s at best been introduced in most NYS school districts. I wonder how Business First, who historically looks at four years of test results, will handle this new starting point in their comparative studies. (Read sarcasm.)

As a district leader, I’m paid to handle the change, to make decisions, to educate the entire school community on these changes and to lead the district to greater academic success. We’ve been ahead of this game all along, implementing iReady diagnostic tools and the new teacher/principal evaluation tools last year. We’ve been closely analyzing and implementing the common core curriculum guides as they become available. But all is not in place yet, in any district or from the state. And now we evaluate our children on a curriculum they haven’t fully learned and certainly haven’t come through the system with yet.

Having said all of that I do believe we are as equipped to handle the changes as any district can be. I remain optimistic and RCS community members, including teachers and parents, should too. At the end of the day, we’ve done all that we could do to prepare, to learn with rigor, to help one another. Make sure our children know that too! These are interesting days in public education.

Real Advocacy for Change or Feel Good Measures?

I have to admit something here. There are times when I just don’t get it. I don’t really understand all the “activism” on Facebook and Twitter. When people change their profile pics or link a picture that indicates a stance, what difference is that really making? I guess it raises awareness, right? I’m all about thinking for ourselves, taking a stand, working to make a difference. But sometimes we go about this in ways that are convenient or make us feel good but aren’t really going to change a darned thing. We need to be thoughtful about what actions we can take that will really influence the people with the power to change things.

Take “opting out” of State tests for example. If you haven’t heard about this, it’s been talked about for a couple of years. I’ve been reading about it on Twitter and in the news, WIVB did a story on it recently and we had one parent inquiry about it here at school. I understand that it’s about parents trying to send the message that we have too much focus on testing in our schools, that our children aren’t just a number, that the testing is all about corporate reform and making more money for Pearson and other vendors.

You know what opting out does? It just counts your child as absent. There’s a lot of misinformation out there right now, but I’m telling you, our guidance from the New York State Education Department indicates it counts as an absent. If we as a school district fall below a 95% participation rate, it becomes a factor in determining if we’re a school district in good standing.

Look. Everyone is frustrated with the amount of testing right now. It’s a complicated issue which requires a real look at the APPR plan and all that it entails. I just don’t think that telling our youngest students, our grades 3-8 children, that they are going to opt out of testing is the way for us, as adults, to get it done. Especially in the elementary grades, our children want to please their teachers, to do well in school, to achieve. What a hard thing it must be for the little fourth grade girl who has to look at her teacher and say, “I’m refusing to take the test Mrs. Smith.” It feels to me like we’re using our children as pawns to fight an adult fight, to join an adult conversation.

Kids take tests throughout their entire school careers. We did too; don’t you remember those reports coming home to your parents? I never remember it being a big deal. Our students have taken the 3-8 tests (formerly the 4th and 8th tests) for decades. We want our students to do well on the assessments because we want them to learn as much as possible throughout their 13 years with us so that they really are college and career ready. And even if parents “opt out” from testing for their children, the curriculum is still there—students are all learning the content that prepares them for the state assessments. Why not take the tests?

Now, all these pre and post assessments for the Student Learning Objectives in EVERY subject? That’s another story. But I have to believe that the increased attention to the state testing (that we’ve had for a long time) is intensified because this is really a story about teacher accountability—and all of the new provisions for the APPR. Let’s not use our kids in ways they don’t understand to make a difference that won’t change anything at the State level.

Message from Commissioner King

Dear Colleagues,

Three years ago, in the fall of 2009 and early winter 2010, the Board of Regents launched an educational sea change in New York State. The goal of the Regents Reform Agenda is very straightforward: all students should graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college and careers. One of the key pillars of that agenda is the shift to the Common Core Standards.

As I visit classrooms around the State, I am continually impressed by the work teachers and administrators are doing to implement the Common Core. From an evidence-based conversation about Esperanza Rising in a 5th grade classroom in North Collins to the application of mathematics to engineering in Project Lead the Way classrooms across the State, from a thoughtful discussion in student teams of real-word ratio problems in Pioneer to a close reading and careful analysis of a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Bronx, I am continually encouraged by seeing the Common Core in action. In a few weeks, after three years of work on implementation by teachers and administrators supported by Race to the Top-funded Network Teams, the ever growing collection of resources on EngageNY.org, district and school-level professional development, and the work of Teacher Centers and professional organizations, students in grades 3-8 will for the first time take assessments that reflect the Common Core. Next year, in 2013-14, the Regents exams will also begin to reflect the Common Core.

Of course, any major change initiative comes with anxiety and challenges. Some have even called for delaying the alignment of curriculum, instruction, professional development, classroom feedback, and assessment to the higher standards required for college and career success in the 21st century. But in point of fact, our students are already accountable for the Common Core. They do not have time to wait. Every time a college freshman takes a placement exam that first month on campus, he or she is being tested against the very expectations in the Common Core. Every time a high school graduate faces a daunting task on a challenging job (from the welder applying knowledge of fractions to the electrician reading the National Electrical Code), he or she is being tested against the Common Core. And quite frankly, our students are not doing well enough on those real world tests. Only about 35 percent of our students graduate with the skills and knowledge necessary to be called college- and career-ready. That’s why the Regents moved forward so decisively in 2009. They understand that going slow means denying thousands of students the opportunity to be successful.

So, what do Common Core assessments really mean? Here are five key points – emphasized in a recent field memo from Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Education Slentz – that should help address some frequently asked questions about the transition to the Common Core.

  1. In 2013, New York State, for the first time, will be reporting 3rd through 8th grade student grade-level expectations against a trajectory of college- and career-readiness as measured by tests fully reflective of the Common Core. As a result, the number of students who score at or above grade level expectations will likely decrease.
  2. As mentioned above, we expect the assessment scores will decline. But we also expect that decline will have little or no impact on principals’ and teachers’ State-provided growth scores. Based on New York’s approach to measuring growth relative to demographically similar students, similar proportions of educators will earn each rating category (Highly Effective, Effective, Developing, and Ineffective) in 2012-13 compared to 2011-12.
  3. The number of students meeting or exceeding Common Core grade-level expectations should not be interpreted as a decline in student learning or a decline in educator performance. The results from these new assessments will give educators, parents, policymakers, and the public a more realistic picture of where students are on their path to being well-prepared for the world that awaits them after they graduate from high school.
  4. No new districts will be identified as Focus Districts and no new schools will be identified as Priority Schools based on 2012-13 assessment results.
  5. Local policies and practices should balance the need for increased rigor against legitimate student expectations for access to educational programs, including local promotion and admission policies.

There’s much more information about the Common Core and the new assessments below and on EngageNY.org. Take a moment to check out what’s posted there.

Again, I understand how stressful change can be, especially when you’re asking students to read more challenging texts, to better support their arguments with evidence drawn from text, to write from sources, to achieve deep conceptual understanding of the most important math concepts of each grade, and to apply their math skills to real-world problems. But we owe it to our students to move forward; opportunity awaits them and it’s our responsibility to make sure they’re equipped to seize that opportunity.

Thank you for your dedication and perseverance over these last three years and now as we continue to move forward to implement the Regents Reform Agenda. Our students, schools, communities, and state are all the better for the work you do every day.

Dr. John B. King, Jr.

Testing and Stress

I continue to applaud everyone in the District on our efforts to improve our academic performance. As I’ve written many times in the past, I know that our RCS students can do better on our Math and ELA measures, as well as many of our Regents exams. When we look at similar school districts, with students much like our own, they are achieving more. We said this long before all of the new accountability measures came out from the New York State Education Department.

Improving our academic performance is important. Why? So that our students can have an edge over all of the other students in NYS with whom they will compete for college entrance and careers. Isn’t it important to make the most of the time we have with our students? To have high expectations for ourselves and for our students? Simply put, YES. And we’re going to get there.

However, we must remember that academic performance is NOT the full measure of every child. Teachers and parents and administrators and worst of all, STUDENTS, are overly stressed about the results on our local achievement measure, iReady. Listen to me. The common core curriculum in Math and ELA, grades K-8, is MUCH MORE RIGOROUS than our prior NYS Learning Standards. If your child isn’t achieving as well as you’d like, it doesn’t mean your kid is stupid. We cannot allow our students to walk away with that idea. We must be encouraging and say, “Wow! This is harder than what I’ve seen in the past, more than your older sister was expected to do at this grade level. I’m proud of you for trying so hard. It will get easier.”

It will. And we’ll take care of our students in grades 5-8 who are most caught in the middle of a huge shift in expectations for learning. And we’ll weather whatever storm comes next from NYSED, together. Teachers can’t perform if they are terrified they’ll lose their jobs, students can’t do their best if their self confidence is shot, and we cannot become a school that is solely about testing.

It’s up to each of us to keep it all in perspective. Realize we’ll figure it out together, we aren’t going to suddenly fire teachers over test scores. Stop stressing out the students. Why? Because your highest achieving students are freaking out and your lowest achieving students will give up. Neither works.

Continue to create a comfortable, encouraging classroom environment in which you hold our students to high expectations while helping each to thrive. Teach the common core curriculum, utilize your class time to advantage, work hard. Love our students. Sound familiar? That’s because I’ve been saying it all year. Just another reminder that we started this accountability journey as a great school district. We’re just working to be better.

There’s Always Dubai

Our daughter is in her third year of teaching–her tenure year–in a neighboring elementary school. For her first two years, she taught fourth grade and this year she’s teaching ELA to fifth and sixth grade students. As I reflect on the almost daily conversations that I have with her about teaching, I’m left thinking about our profession and our expectations for teachers and students.

1. Curriculum

I pieced together my curriculum from the textbooks I found in the classroom and from my college notes, from talking with my colleagues, and from contacting a neighboring school district who I heard had developed a curriculum (which was basically a list of topics and vocabulary), and old Regents exams. She is piecing hers together from the common core guides, EngageNY, the textbook left in the room from the previous teacher, the assessment program on the NYSED approved list that her district purchased, assessment data on her current students, conversations with colleagues and BOCES staff development experts, and the NYS exams.

2. Evaluation

My principal came in and observed me once or twice per year using a simple district created evaluation document. I prepared as I did any other lesson, she observed, she wrote it up and gave it to me. The principal taught the same subject that I did and offered  good suggestions. My daughter spent hours preparing a nine page pre-observation report, discussed it with her principal yesterday, will be observed using the Danielson rubric today, will receive the evaluation and will discuss it with her principal. As it’s her tenure year, I’m guessing this will happen three times this year, I know it will be at least two to meet the ‘multiple’ evaluation rule. She’ll also prepare a portfolio for review and scoring at the end of the year on Domains 1 & 4 of the Danielson rubric–Planning & Preparation and Professional Responsibilities.

3. Accountability

That evaluation was pretty much it for me, along with my interactions with the principal and/or superintendent and my colleagues, and if there was any parent feedback, which I doubt. Now, my kid will have a state growth score based on how much her students grow on the NYS ELA 5th and 6th grade assessments and a score for how many students achieve a 3 or a 4. Those will be combined with her evaluation scores for an overall composite score that will be shared with parents in her District. The quality of her teaching will be judged on this score—and I wonder how much the parents will understand what goes into that score and also important, what doesn’t.

4. Mindset About the Job

I loved my job from day #1, so did she. I worked hard all day, used my preparation periods to their fullest (I had kids at home), and advised everything from the junior/senior classes to the yearbook to the Spanish club with trips abroad. Then I went home and focused on my life outside of school, my family and friends, being a mom. From the contact I’ve maintained with many of those students taught during my ten years at Pine Valley, I know that what they remember most is how I treated them not how well they did on my Regents exam.

Our daughter works hard all day and then never stops. She thinks about/plans for/works on her lessons and her students just about 24/7. Our conversations focus on how to do more for every student, especially those at the top. She obsesses over whether or not she’s doing enough for the little girl who’s at a reading level well beyond her grade level and the little boy who can’t handle the reading level expected by NYS in the common core. Like so many of her colleagues, she tries to maintain joy in her classroom while pushing her students with high expectations. She talks, she asks questions, she worries about so many things that I didn’t have to think about— getting a differentiated curriculum right so that each of her students excels on the NYS assessments, what her school community will think of her if she doesn’t show enough of a gain with every student, and squeezing every inch of learning out of every child–that differentiation is the most important and biggest challenge of our profession. She worries about gaining tenure and preparing her students for the following year, raising her school’s achievement levels for 5th and 6th grade ELA, and if she’ll still have a job at the end of it all.

Are we better as a profession with all of the change? She’s a much better teacher than I was—in part because of who she is and in part because of the demands on her as a teacher in NYS in 2012. But I must honestly say that I sometimes worry that we’ll forget that we are talking about children–who come to us as tiny little people with complicated problems and emotions and needs and dreams–we cannot suck all of the joy out of the school day for the children we serve or for the adults that care for them.

I keep talking to our daughter about balance and perspective and the big, beautiful life that she has–how her life cannot be solely focused on student achievement, SLOs, growth scores, composite scores, curriculum, APPR, and tenure. Not for her and not for her students. And to help keep that balance and perspective and focus on all of the good things in her life–I remind her that there’s always Dubai. Like all of our teachers, she’s got to reconcile herself to “what’s the worst thing that could happen? I don’t get tenure or I land on a teacher improvement plan?” To diffuse the worry I hear in our conversations I now remind her that she can always do something else, she can always get a job teaching in Dubai. 😉

Sound silly? Maybe. But I know how hard she and so many of our best teachers are working and I know that their lives need to be about more than just the work. I’m a bit of an overachiever myself, so I get it. But the thing that keeps me fresh and ready to do my best every day no matter what’s come the day before is my ability to turn off school in my head when I get home. Home is when and where we re-energize, where we clear our minds so that we can bring it all again the next day. Let’s keep that perspective and continue to enjoy our work and our lives outside of school too. We’ll all be better for having done so. I promise.