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. ūüėČ

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.

Randolph at the Ralph Tonight!

LET’S GO BOYS! Ready to win some Cardinals Football tonight. Looking forward to seeing our players and coaches do their best in the Section VI Championship! Win or lose, our players know the entire Randolph community loves and supports them, including me. Proud of each and every one of you, as I am all of our athletes.

Let’s GGGGGOOOOO!

Making Good Instructional Decisions

With all of the changes in NYS with teacher and principal accountability, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our Intervention Groups in our Elementary School. In an effort to better meet the needs of all of our students, our Admin team determined last year that teachers on grade level should work together with the remedial teachers to form fluid ability groups. What’s it look like? Three grade level teachers work together with one or two remedial teachers to use the iReady diagnostic data to group all of that grade level’s students for intervention time in Math and ELA, by ability. We’ve called it fluid ability grouping because we want to acknowledge that the groups can change as student learning and progress are monitored throughout the year.

That’s the idea we started with last year. How did we get to that?¬†¬†We identified the problem as “differentiation in our instruction isn’t consistent, it’s very hard to do well, and our results show that we’re not doing enough for our mid to top students”.¬†We talked to teachers, we listened and we made a decision to try to fix the problem—teachers will work together on grade level to analyze data and determine ability groups for Intervention. Teachers will be able to teach with focus to a smaller, similar group. We will be able to better focus on the needs of all of our students. We directed teachers to do this last year and then again this year.

But what really happens when we give a directive like this one? Some teachers listen and take to heart everything that we’ve asked, implementing the “solution”. Some teachers comply with the request, but don’t really make the changes necessary to the instruction to meet the unique needs of the students assigned to them for intervention. And a few may believe more in what they’ve always done than in the initiative being implemented building wide. ¬†Administrators assume what they asked teachers to do is what’s actually happening—with monitoring— BUT it ends up looking differently throughout the building when what we were aiming for is CONSISTENCY ¬†and a way to raise expectations for every child. All teachers are working hard, but in very different ways with varying results.

Here’s what I wish could happen. We identify the same problem—“we aren’t adequately differentiating instruction in our classrooms. Our instruction is largely to the middle of the group, we need higher expectations for all students and we’ve got to do more for our kids at the top.” Teachers work together to determine what works best for their situation, including an analysis of those teaching strategies used last year that got us the greatest student gains. One grade level may determine that they’re going to share the students as indicated in the solution above while another grade level may determine that each teacher can adequately differentiate within the classroom and will do so through targeted centers. ¬†Another grade level may have a blended approach or come up with something completely different that we haven’t even thought of yet.

And most important of all from my perspective? We’re giving iReady as an interim assessment so that we can continually assess our own practices and use data to make informed instructional decisions so let’s not implement anything without constant monitoring and consideration of what’s working best.

With the accountability measures in place this year for every RCS teacher—NYS composite scores—we have to consider what each teacher determines will work best for his or her own students, don’t we? If I’m the classroom teacher and each of my student scores are tied directly to me and my score–I need a BIG SAY in how I’m teaching them for ELA and Math–both regular instruction and in intervention. It’s my responsibility and my composite score that’s on the line. If I have a better idea about what the 20-25 students in my class need and how I can deliver it to them, then I’ve got to speak up and make that happen. ¬†I have to ask questions and suggest solutions—IF I can show a way that will accomplish more for each child.

To excel and be the professionals that we’re expected to be, in the effective to highly effective ranges, ¬† we have to continually analyze and challenge our own thinking. And we have more data than ever before on which to base our instructional decisions—but every teacher has to be self assessing, talking to colleagues, thinking about what works and what works better so that we can all improve, every day.

We’re talking about teacher ownership of the responsibility for the new accountability measures and about equity for students. I’m struggling to balance a district perspective which throws a one size fits all solution at the problem to gain equity for all kids with an individual teacher’s perspective that may or may not own the complexities of teaching to every student. I truly don’t know how to reconcile those two ideas but I’m sure that individualizing the solution by team or teacher after careful consideration while maintaining the minimal expectation of ability grouping is the answer.

Here’s what I’m most bothered by in the current solution. We’re asking teachers to better differentiate and consider the needs of each individual student and then we’re implementing a single plan for all teachers. Shouldn’t we be differentiating the solution for each teacher too? I want to expect more of every teacher just as we’re asking you to expect more of every student. If you’ve got a better way of doing things, we want to hear about it. And it needs to be for all of the RIGHT reasons, not just because you want to do things the way you’ve always done them. Because frankly, we can’t afford to do that with the new accountability measures. And from my perspective, that’s a good thing that should bring about equity for all students. NOTHING is more important in the education of our children than the teacher who stands in that classroom every day. Please bring your thoughtful analysis, an open mind and your best ideas to your data team meetings this month. ¬†And admin team, stay the course with high expectations for every teacher in the district and for yourself.¬†

 

The Quality of Teaching in Higher Ed

When are we going to expect teachers in our colleges and universities to meet higher standards for teaching? As we continue to work to improve education with our PK-12 teachers, we are driven by the goal of college and career readiness. I write this post not to point fingers at my college level colleagues but to provoke some thinking on the topic. Or maybe this post has just been rattling around in my head for so many years that I’ve got to get it out of my head. And I’m generalizing, I know. I’m sure in every university there are exceptions to what I’m about to write.

My son was home Sunday and Monday on a brief mid-semester break from his junior year in a private university. As we had all day to talk yesterday, I had the opportunity to ask him lots of questions about each of his classes. I frequently “interrogate” him, I’m curious and like lots of information. I realize that having this conversation with him is 50% of the story—that each of his professors would have something to say about the experience too. Having said that, and considering the enormous amount of money that we pay to this university every year, including debt that we are both taking on, I would love the chance to have a conversation with the president of his university.

Here are the questions I want to ask her.

1. As a junior on an academic scholarship in the Honors program, who has taken his requisite amount of courses each semester, why is he still wondering when he’ll get to take the marketing courses that will prepare him to be able to actually succeed in a job in marketing?

2. Why are the instructional methods that he describes so removed from our efforts in local high schools? Our teachers are jumping through continual hoops to use innovative methods, teach with 21st century skills so our students can think well, and to meet each child’s individual needs. This is a good thing. ¬†Are college professors using similar instructional methods? Are they asking their students to engage in meaningful discussions? To analyze and to think and to challenge the thinking of others?

3. Communicating well verbally and in writing is a critical skill in virtually every profession. Are you truly teaching students how to communicate for their future careers? Because if they are still reading over-priced textbooks with the unbelievable amount of information available freely on the web and responding to the textbook chapters—you’ve got to step it up a couple of decades. Seriously.

4. For $38,000 per year to attend, I want professors who truly desire to teach, to help our son learn the necessary skills and content needed to get the very best jobs. Not professors who are teaching there because they are using it as a vehicle to study in this country, or to have time to research and publish. That’s not good enough. Teaching is a complicated, critical profession–not something you do so that you can work on what’s really important to you.

5. When I graduated from a similar local, private university in 1985 we all said that we hadn’t really learned anything to help us on the job–that all companies cared about was that we had that piece of paper with the degree listed. With how hard we’re pushing to improve public education K-12 so that our children come to you better prepared to succeed, I expect more from you too. ¬†What are you doing to change and improve and meet the needs of our children? Because now I’m paying for it and I think that means I have a right to ask those questions. You want students who come to you college ready? Well I want a son who graduates career ready when he leaves you.

And the other thing I keep wondering about? We constantly hear about the increased percentage of children who need remedial courses when they get to college. This is definitely a complicated problem, including the NCLB changes in the schools leading most of our students to think college is the only option and then the whole mess of masses of students with college debt from one or two years at a school with no degree. ¬†It’s also complicated by more and more parents stepping in to solve every minor problem for their children when we need parents who say “Problem Solving 101 Kid, go talk to your teacher (or counselor or principal) tomorrow and figure it out”. BUT I keep wondering if a contributing factor is that we are doing so much to engage our students, to offer assistance when needed, to support our students and families that when they get to college, there simply isn’t enough work on the part of many professors to offer better instruction.

This isn’t about one student’s experience. No college kid EVER has loved his university more than my kid loves his. It’s a great school in a million ways. I just wonder what conversations we’re having about the quality of teaching and the learning in higher education.

Bottom line? College professors should be held to similar standards as we’re holding our K-12 teachers to with expectations for better teaching. I’d really like the opportunity to evaluate college professors using Charlotte Danielson’s 2011 Rubric.¬†Please consider holding your teachers to the Danielson standards. That would be interesting.

 

Balancing What’s New with What’s Also Important

Every now and then I’ve got to get out of my office and visit some classrooms. I’m not talking about my planned visits for evaluation or the feedback visits I try to make to every single classroom during the school year. I’m talking about getting my butt out of the chair, off the NYSED portal, away from the calculator and just paying attention to our students. I needed some “kid” time this morning and I return refreshed.

One of the first classrooms I visited was a fourth grade class with one of our new teachers, Molly Wallschlaeger, at the helm. It took me by surprise when Mrs. Wallschlaeger asked her fourth grade friends if they knew who I was. . . and then I felt pretty good about myself as all of the students nodded “yes!” I realized that our newest teacher may not come to us with an expectation that the superintendent visits the classrooms or that the students know who I am. But hey, these fourth graders are my “peeps”! After all, we started here at RCS together. When they were in Kindergarten, I started my first year here as superintendent. I’m thinking I’ll retire when they graduate and we can move on to other things together. ¬†ūüėČ

Seems like not much to brag about right? So the students and I know each other. But I’m bragging because like our teachers who are caught up in the maze of paperwork that is the new pre-assessment/SLOs (Student Learning Objectives) challenge–I can easily get caught up in reports and salary schedules and paperwork. For just a moment, I was just not enjoying the work yesterday. NOT like me at all! With deliberation, I planned a morning to bring me back to the reason we’re here, the moments that matter, our relationships with our students.

And the plus side of the SLO Challenge? I have to say that the student work I saw being completed was more rigorous than years past. Maybe we did need a bit of a wake up to expect more of our kids and ourselves? Thanks to the RCS students and teachers who reminded me of how good we already are and showed me a glimpse of how much better we’re getting!

A Kindergarten Teacher Influences a Superintendent

This is an incredible week for me. Not only do I have access to Joanne Picone-Zocchia and Giselle Martin-Kniep who are willing to conference with me individually answering my questions and helping to guide my work, but there’s a wonderful group of educators here too. My work with them is making me a better leader. Why? Because we’re having rich conversations about the changes in our field and their honest insights¬† help me to see other points of view.

Jane and Kathy, both retired educators and continuing to work in the field, bring a thoughtful, caring and professional view to the work that we share with experiences in the ARCS and protocols of Communities for Learning that have helped me understand the structures of this community. The entire East Syracuse Minoa team has helped me with examples of best practice, ideas for communicating vision, wonderful peer review from Kathy, and Donna, a superintendent whom I wish I had worked with at some point in my career.

And then there’s Alex, a caring, creative, vibrant Kindergarten teacher who reminds me so much of our own RCS Kindergarten teachers that she could seamlessly fit in at RCS tomorrow. She’s been the teacher voice in my head all week. The clearly hard working, dedicated, caring professional who is saying, “okay, I’ll follow all of the mandates, I’ll teach new things in new ways but I’m really wondering what’s happening to our children?” I KNOW that we have teachers feeling that same way and so the power of what Alex is saying is that it reminds me that teaching and learning and this business of school is incredibly complex and there are a million important skills and things that we’ve always done that are still important for their development that must continue. I won’t forget that, I promise.

But I want it all. And I know we have the faculty, administrators and staff to get there. I want all of the fun, creative, developmentally appropriate activities and learning that have taken place all along right next to better student achievement in Math and ELA. I still want to dress up and participate in the PARP plays (maybe without the goose get-up next year please) and go on field trips and read stories for pleasure and play outside and do Science experiments and eat foods from foreign places in our SS studies units. I just want our Math and ELA curriculum aligned and rigorous at the same time. And our teachers are fantastic, so why can’t we have that? I know if anyone else can do it, then we certainly can. Why do I know this? Because our teachers—-YOU—-are incredibly gifted, dedicated, caring and capable and I trust you to figure it out with us.

Is it Just About Test Scores?

Remember the telephone game from when you were a kid? Someone whispers a sentence into the first kid’s ear and it gets repeated through a group of students with the final student stating out loud what he heard. Remember how the final sentence was never the same as the first?

So it’s not just about test scores but I’m aware that it’s how I may sound at times.

I’m thinking a lot about our focus on the common core standards and improving academic success PK-12. We’ve focused on school improvement with our many changes last year and we will continue to focus on what our students are learning again this year. And we rocked it in MANY GRADE LEVELS! It’s important that we remember that paying attention to what we teach our students in Math at each grade level is MOST about making sure that all kids have access to the same content and high expectations as they move to each subsequent grade—so that by the time they’re in 7th grade, we don’t have a 7th grade Math teacher finding so many students who can’t do fractions or who can’t multiply in their heads. Why is that important? Because if they can’t manage the basic skills quickly and easily, they struggle to tackle more complex mathematics. Then they’re at a disadvantage and that’s the last thing we want. It’s also about making sure our students are prepared as well as or better than students in neighboring school districts and across NYS with whom they will be competing for college entrance or jobs. I want our Randolph students to come out on top in college and career readiness.

So as we continue to focus on school improvement, know that it isn’t just about test scores. It’s about our curriculum and how we make sure we’re all teaching what’s expected at our grade level with high expectations for all students, so that every child can maximize her success in the subsequent year because last year’s teacher made sure she learned all she needed to succeed. We’ve prepared our kids so well in a zillion other ways for many, many years—which we will continue to do—and now we’re maximizing learning in those common core areas as well.

Keeping our eye on that continuum of aligned curriculum and self reflecting about what each of us can do better.

 

Alignment, Representation, Culture, Sustainability

We are talking about the ARCS framework, Alignment, Representation, Culture and Sustainability in a school system. And as you would expect, I’m making lots of connections to what we do at Randolph Central. The ARCS framework is embedded in the MPPR, or principal evaluation rubric, and it will help us to think about our own leadership as administrators but is also making me think a lot this week about distributed leadership.

The idea I’m learning and thinking so much about is this idea of a community that lasts. How do we strengthen our teacher leaders, our teachers and ultimately our students so that the changes we’re implementing in school improvement are aligned and sustained well after a single leader leaves? As I analyze this, I realize that if I was hit by a bus tomorrow, our BOE and Admin teams could clearly articulate our school improvement efforts and plans to my replacement. I don’t think our teachers and students could do so as clearly and I know it would be different depending upon who’s having the conversation. Room for improvement for me and my leadership? Check. Working on it.

The ARCS framework described above will give us a common language for developing and discussing a common vision and shared leadership. This conference is helping me improve my own leadership and will help me to strengthen our leadership teams as well. Bet you all can’t wait for me to return? ūüėČ

Communities for Learning, C4L

As I’ve been writing on this blog since 2006 (wow!), I’ve used the space for several purposes. Originally, it was primarily a space for me to get my thinking about all of the issues in my principalship out of my head. I could process my ideas and best of all, solicit the thinking of others. Since that time, I’ve used the blog to share my thinking, listen to others, disseminate information, celebrate success, think out loud about family and life situations, and communicate with our school community.

This week, I’m in Connecticut at Communities for Learning, where I’ve taken on a fellowship. My goals are ambitious and in service to our school district. I’m hoping to study my own leadership, our team leadership and our school improvement efforts. I’m planning to do precisely what we’re asking our teachers to do: to create an intentional plan for school improvement in the same way that they have to intentionally plan their curricular units and instruction around the common core curriculum. We saw significant improvement and success in some areas this past year—I want to know how to help teachers identify why. I also have a publishing requirement with the fellowship. Why does that matter? Because when we get to where we’re going, from #202 as an elementary school to #102, it will be helpful to the field of education if we’ve documented how we got there. Too often we can’t pinpoint what programs or changes made the difference–I’m setting out to write about and document our efforts.

Why do I need to come to Connecticut to do this work? Because within this Communities for Learning fellowship, I am working with colleagues from across the State who come with a variety of expertise—teachers, principals and other administrators, along with Giselle Martin-Kniep, Joanne Picone-Zocchia and Jennifer Borgioli¬† from LCI. Also, I’m here with other fellows who will share their own ideas about school improvement, who will listen to our RCS plans and initiatives, and who will then give guidance and feedback about our development of an intentional and cohesive plan for school improvement.

What do I most hope to learn over this week and then continued work with the Community throughout my fellowship this school year? How do I have meaningful conversations with our administrators and teachers in which we can examine our past practices, determine what’s made a significant difference in our student learning and achievement, and replicate those efforts throughout our system? How do I help teachers continue and improve their work in data inquiry and sharing best practices? How do I help them to do so without judgment and without jumping to conclusions about why they or others saw greater success this past year? How do I make connections so that every member of our school community sees their inter connectedness and how valuable is their role in the bigger system? And how do I best lead so that everyone feels valued and understands the importance of aligning curriculum and instruction so that OUR STUDENTS have a consistent, rigorous path through our system in which all students maximize their learning and therefore, their academic success?

And Communities for Learning—Giselle and Joanne who I mentioned earlier? That’s also the organization who developed the MPPR, our rubric for evaluating our principals—so another goal of my fellowship is to learn how to use the MPPR to increase the capacity of our entire administrative team. If we improve our leadership, everyone benefits.

So you may or may not be interested in my writing this week. . . but I’ll be back to using this space to get my thinking out of my head, to solicit your feedback, and to learn how to be a better leader for our school district. Please chime in if you read something here that gets you thinking about something you want me to think about too!