Monthly Archives: June 2012

High School Graduation and a Job Change

Sorry for the gap in my blog. To say it was busy these past three weeks would be an understatement. Our one and only daughter graduated this June (I never realized how much work a graduation party is), and I am changing jobs. I’ve taken the SUNY Plattsburgh Branch Campus Dean position, and I officially start on Monday, July 2. My blog will continue to be based around Race to the Top, school reform, teacher and principal practices and evaluation, and student achievement, but I do hope to add an Institute of Higher Education layer. My plan is to continue attending RttT Network Team Institutes (we have a five-day institute coming up in a week), and to push Race to the Top elements into our teacher preparation programs. I hope my entries are as rich as the new opportunities I anticipate in my new role as Dean.

My lovely niece in New York’s mid-Hudson region had her graduation party three weeks ago, and it was a great time. Christine literally beamed the entire afternoon and evening as she soaked in the celebratory event with her friends and family on a  picture perfect mid-June day. There was good food, drink  and conversations to fill the day, along with some late afternoon volleyball and dips in the pool. During one of the volleyball games with my daughter face to face across the net from me, I was struck by how fast the 13 years from Kindergarten to 12th grade had passed not just for Christine, but for my daughter as well. Both Maggie and Christine are but four months apart in age, and both are graduates of the 2012 class. Thankfully, they are much like sisters with similar interests and common life events. However, I couldn’t help but wonder as the volleyball sailed across the net if they were equally prepared for the next chapter in their lives. In the words of Common Core, were they “College and Career Ready.”

Maggie’s graduation party was last week, and our family members again convened to celebrate yet another high school graduation. Only this time, they traveled to the Adirondack Mountains where we live to do the celebrating. Hillbilly horseshoes replaced volleyball and swimming, but everything else about the parties was the same–smiling graduates, laughter, and a sense of accomplishment. Besides location, there are other differences between the two graduates. Maggie will graduate from a small rural school district of nearly 800 students. Christine graduates from a larger district of 2,200 students. Maggie’s district has been hit hard by budget cuts, Christine’s district has also seen its share of cuts, but has managed to maintain International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement Programs. Warrensburg lacks the resources to offer IB, but has managed to preserve a small handful of Advanced Placement classes. I could go on, but what’s the point. We know all schools are not created equal, and that the wealth of a community oftentimes dictates the quality of its public (and private) schools.

Fortunately for Maggie, little ole Warrensburg is one of the highest performing rural schools in the state, and has been recognized more than once in the past ten years for its academic accomplishments. The district has a committed faculty and staff, and consistency in its administrators has allowed the district to pursue and complete long-term initiatives with laser-like focus. Yes, Maggie will do just fine in college, as will Christine. Still, I do wish the district had a track or cross-country team; and offering a few IB classes wouldn’t hurt either. In any event, this past week graduation rates were published in our local paper, and the Burgers did pretty good with an 85% grad rate. Pretty good is relative of course. What I’d like to see is a graduation rate closer to 100%, but that is a topic for another day. Meanwhile, we’re going to enjoy Maggie’s last summer before college as we all anticipate the exciting and challenging next chapter in our daughter’s life.

Evidence-based Leadership and Putting the “D” in the Tales

A few years ago when I was working as a building principal and district curriculum director, I dropped into a third grade classroom taught by my friend, author, and fishing buddy, David Diamond. Dave was handing students back their rough drafts of a short research paper with his penned feedback, and when all papers had been passed out, told his students,  “Be sure to put the ‘D’ in the tales”. There was no need for further discussion. They got it. His students had heard that advice from him before, and they went about making revisions to their papers. His focus on evidence was noteworthy, and the gains in his students’ reading and writing skills exemplary. When you think about it, we all should remember to put the “D in the Tales”. To be specific and back it up with evidence. In our information-overloaded world, it’s so tempting to be efficient and skip some of the time-consuming details. However, for New York teachers and principals, putting the “D in the tales” is especially important given the high stakes nature of teacher and principal evaluation.

I was thinking about Dave and his “D in the tales” statement while working with my colleagues during this week’s Race to the Top Network Team Institute (with 30 days of NTI sessions in the bag, I’ve decided I’ve become a RttT NTI Groupie). More specifically, I thought about Dave when Cambridge Education showed the following slide during their session on principal evaluation.

Let’s face it, the quality of evidence between bad and best are strikingly different, and yet it’s easy to miss the important details regarding one’s observation. Bad and better are basically “tales” lacking the “D”. There are lots of reasons none of the teachers might not be teaching, and to infer why runs counter to evidence-based evaluations. However, we see details within the “Best” description to take action on without having to infer anything. My point is when evaluating teachers or principals, let’s not tell tales but use details to identify actionable items to improve teacher and principal performance. The stakes are too high for our students and educational system to circumvent quality evidence-based feedback for efficiency. Yes, it takes more time, but the results are worth the effort.

Evaluating School Principals from Afar?

How does one evaluate the performance of a building principal? Who does the evaluation? What is evaluated, and what does the evaluator do when a principal’s performance is sub par? Oh, and sub par to what? Traditionally, school principals have fallen beneath the broader radar of teacher evaluations. Teachers are the most direct link to student achievement, after all, and there are many more teachers than principals populating a school. However, research has proven time and again the critically important role of building principals in student achievement. In fact, a principal’s impact on student achievement is second only to that of a teacher’s impact. Hmmmm.  Perhaps that is why Race to the Top has moved the spotlight of accountability to cover both teachers and principals. Though most principals have had some form of evaluation done by their supervisors, the variability in rigor and process is extensive. If we hope to see the fruits of our RttT efforts, principal evaluation protocols need to change.

Last week 20 superintendents participated in a full-day Race to the Top Principal Evaluation Session. Our focus was on the ISLLC Standards, New York State Education Department Approved Principal Evaluation Rubrics aligned to the ISLLC Standards, and evidence-based decision making. In one activity, we posed the statement: Superintendents should shadow principals during the complete teacher observation process (Pre-conference, observation, post-conference) to evaluate principal effectiveness. We then directed superintendents to go to the back of the room if they agreed with the statement, the front of the room if they disagreed, or in the middle if unsure. After some hesitation and looking around to see what others were doing, the group migrated to the three areas and the ensuing discussion was rich and rewarding.

When all was said and done, we reached general agreement that a superintendent who wishes to evaluate the quality of a principal’s observation process must be present to collect objective evidence (or have the entire process videotaped for the superintendent to access and review at a later time). Superintendents who engage fully in the process will better measure how well the principal understands the purpose of the lesson and the strategies used to ensure learning objectives are realized. Such superintendents will observe first hand the principal’s skills in gathering objective evidence within the classroom that is robust and tagged properly to a rubric’s elements or indicators. Lastly, superintendents who observe the post conference will best evaluate how well the principal positively promotes a two-way conversation with a teacher to discuss strengths of the lesson, areas for improvement, and actionable items to grow teacher performance.

How the principal conducts the pre-conference, gathers evidence of instruction during the observation, and follows-up with a summative session are best evaluated in person. Given the diagnostic opportunities classroom observations offer, superintendents can do some of their best work by shadowing their principals once or twice a year. Oh, and what a powerful message for all district staff members to see their CEO out and about participating in the important matters of teacher and principal evaluations.