Monthly Archives: April 2013

Regarding Preschool Funding, Pay A Little Now or A Lot More Later

It’s disconcerting to read the headlines. State’s Pre-K Program Wins Praise, but Lost Funding and Slots Last Year, Per-student Pre-K Spending Lowest in Decade, Report: Nevada Slipping in Pre-K Program Funding,….. We could go on, but the point has been made. Much of the news stems from the National Institute for Early Education Research’s The State of Preschool 2012 which highlights among other things that nationwide funding for Preschool dropped by $500 million over the past year with enrollments unchanged at 28% (Barnett, Carolan, Fitzgerald, & Squires, 2012). That’s disturbing, particularly against the backdrop of Sean Reardon’s NY Times blog, No Rich Child Left Behind, which paints a worrisome picture of the growing academic gap between children from rich families versus those of poor families.

We know the brain is plastic and malleable, responding to the environment through the growth and expansion of neural networks. And we know the plasticity is especially vigorous during the early years of life. We also know how critical the first few years of life are to vocabulary acquisition and literacy. Hart and Risleys’ Meaningful Differences was a game changer and a must-read for any educator or policy maker. My first read of the seminal study led me to call both researchers pleading for answers on how to make a difference I and my like-minded colleagues so desperately sought when it seemed much of a child’s script for future success was being written before he or she ever entered a school setting. Both researchers gently walked me off the ledge by assuring me we can and must make a difference, particularly through increasing family connections with schools.

Pay a little now, or a lot later. From the 2005 HighScope Perry Preschool Lifetime Effects Through Age 40 study, the costs of not having preschool are alarming (See figures below). Compared with the program group, those students that did not participate in a preschool program were more apt to be arrested, more likely to earn less money at age 40, less likely to do their homework at age 15, more likely to have a higher IQ score at age 5, and so on. Preschool program graduates ultimately save society nearly $200,000 per child through reduced public service costs. There are many, many more studies that demonstrate the cost savings and social-emotional benefits of quality preschool programs on children and society. Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 9.16.56 AM

Experiential deficits the majority of poor students bring to school are extensive, particularly when we wait till they reach kindergarten age to start them in school. Unfortunately, the costs of waiting till kindergarten to remedy the deficits are far greater than those of universal pre-k funding. From Albert Wat (2007), author of Dollars and Sense: A Review of Economic Analyses of Pre-K, “Ultimately, behind the numbers about costs and benefits….., the studies…illustrate what educators and parents have known for years, that children who participate in pre-k do better academically, physically, and socially throughout their lives….In the end, we all live in a safer, more productive, and more educated society.”

It makes no sense to not invest in our future. We know the savings preschool programs offer, and we know the costs when such programs are unavailable. The math is quite simple. Spend a little now to remedy the gaps between the privileged and unprivileged students, or spend a lot more years from now trying to fix the consequences. All children deserve no less than to enter our schools on a level playing field, and to be equally prepared for college and career after graduating high school. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Barnett, W.S., Carolan, M.E., Fitzgerald, J., & Squires, J.H. (2012). The state of preschool 2012: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research.


Data-Driven Instruction and The Stories Data Tell

There is a wonderful video by Hans Rosling that tells a richly informative and entertaining story about global health growth over the past 200 years. The video is so good that I use it as a hook whenever I do a session on data-driven instruction. In his video, Rosling used 100,000 data points to show how lifespans in various countries have changed over time in response to improving economies, industrialization, world wars, pandemics, and other global events. It’s a fascinating four-minute presentation that vividly shows how data can be used to tell a story. That’s right, the data told a story. In Rosling’s case, the story was about global health. But what about the data stories within school systems? Are we using our district, school, or classroom data to tell stories people need to hear?

Data-Driven Instruction is one of Race to the Top’s “Big Three” deliverables in New York State, combining with Teacher and Principal Effectiveness and Common Core State Standards to shape students’ College and Career Readiness. Data-Driven Instruction (DDI) could easily be reworded, Data-Driven Action, for that is what DDI calls us to do: take action based on the data. It seems so simple. Gather data from the district, school or classroom level. Study the data. Talk with others about the data. Ask “Why” and “How” questions from the analyses. Look deeper at the data. Make action plans to address what the data tells us. Have smart and skilled people monitor the action plans. Go back and look at more data after a set amount of time. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Of the three deliverables, DDI has yet to gain traction in New York schools. As one Race to the Top Network Team member told me recently regarding DDI, “Most schools are assessing. Some schools are analyzing. Few schools are acting.” Given the breakneck speed of the Regents Reform Agenda and its concomitant pressures on school districts, educators and administrators have had to prioritize their efforts. Teacher and principal observation protocols, Common Core Standards, creation of Annual Professional Performance Review Plans, and development of Student Learning Objectives have all but consumed people’s time and energy, leaving DDI as the little white elephant in the room waiting for its turn.

I’m extremely hopeful for next year as we draw the 2012/2013 school year to a close. We’ve had many bumps along the road. Tears have been shed, and fear mongering and politicking have at times exacerbated the legitimate struggles of school reform. However, next year will be different. We now know how to (and how not to) write Student Learning Objectives. We’ve learned how to conduct more objective, evidence-based observations. We understand better what the common core instructional shifts look like, and we’re rewriting assessments to better measure student progress in our brave new world. Next year will be better. Best of all, we will have the time and skills to look deeply at our data and tell the stories we all need to hear for the longterm success of our children and communities. People do better when they know better, and so it goes with Data-Driven Instruction.

Success Means Knowing Who is Responsible for What and Owning the Outcomes

About ten years ago, the men at my church were put in charge of a Mother’s Day Brunch scheduled to follow Sunday morning mass. Okay, “put in charge” is a stretch. Basically, each guy got a “Things to do” list from Phyllis, the church school director, when they arrived at church. Phyllis was really the boss, and we were given the tasks to carry forth the event. The list wasn’t long, maybe ten tasks in all. My list had Set butter dishes on tables highlighted in yellow. There were other tasks on the list such as Prepare pancake batter, Pour cups of orange juice and set on tables, Make coffee, Cook sausages and bacon, and more. No problem.  We had 15 minutes to get things ready–not much time, but I could easily set butter dishes on tables in that period of time.

Screen shot 2013-04-20 at 8.40.31 AMImmediately after mass, the men left for the hall to begin prepping. When I got in, I found all the butter dishes on the tables. Hmmm. “Interesting,” I thought. Well, since my task was completed, I decided to sit down. As other guys entered, they too scanned the room before joining me at the table. In short order there were ten of us talking baseball, weather, and golf. After a few minutes of light banter, I started wondering what are these guys doing sitting? Don’t they have tasks to do? I noticed some of the other guys were also thinking the same thing, at which point we compared lists. It was comical to find we all had the same item highlighted: Set butter dishes on tables. Oh, oh. At that very moment, Phyllis walked in to find all of us sitting and the only thing done being the butter dishes SHE HAD SET ON THE TABLE earlier in the morning!  With a look of disbelief, she asked, “What are you guys doing??? Don’t you know the mothers will be here in two minutes!” We tried to explain that we all thought our task was to Set butter dishes on tables, but she just shook her head and laughed.

Truly that is one of the funniest things I can remember about life and ownership for outcomes. Reflecting back, none of the men took on any responsibility other than the task each thought was his alone. We each had assumed that the highlighted item on the list was our sole responsibility, and since we found the task completed when we entered the church hall, we contributed no more to the effort other than light conversation about sports and weather. Hilarious! Funny thing is, that’s how reform efforts stall. When people in organizations leave the hard work for others, fail to ask for clarity of tasks, or do little more than the minimum, nothing substantial gets done. Fortunately, effective leaders and educators know better.

Clarity of vision and mission, robust action plans, accountability, and shared ownership are essential to successful organizations. In terms of quality professional development, Graczewski, Knudson, & Holtzman (2009), state, “When a principal was able to articulate clear goals and strategies for the improvement of instruction, when the goals were understood and supported by the majority of teachers, and when the strategies for professional learning were consistent with each other, there was more likely to be coherent and relevant professional development” (p. 91).  In the Wallace Foundation’s Report, Education Leadership: A bridge to school reform, Devita, Colvin, Darling-Hammond, and Haycock (2007) write, “The leaders in high performing schools or districts don’t leave much of anything about teaching and learning to chance” (p. 30). Lastly, Tupa and McFadden (2009) found that in the highly successful Brownsville Independent School District, staff accept personal responsibility for the learning of all students. There are many, many examples of success when a vision is clearly laid out and all stakeholders own and assume responsibility for specific task outcomes. Whether it’s setting butter dishes on tables or disaggregating interim assessment data and action planning, people do better when they share in leadership and own the results of their efforts.

Graczewski, C., Knudson, J., & Holtzman, D. J. (2009, January/February 1). Instructional leadership in practice: What does it look like, and what influence does it have? Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 14(1), 72-96. doi:10.1080/ 10824660802715460

Tupa, M., & McFadden, L. (2009). ‘Excellence is never an accident’. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(8), 554-556. Retrieved from


A Repost: When Planning for Academic Success, Know Thy Students Well


How we observe and interact with our environment varies greatly from one person to the next, and the implications for learning are huge.


One individual may view a spider’s web with horror while another sees beauty in its elaborate structure. One sees a day on the ocean as an opportunity for rest and relaxation while another shutters at the queezie thought of sea sickness. One person salivates at the idea of liver and onions (okay, maybe not), while another loses their appetite. When you get right down to it, our past experiences have a tremendous and nearly unyielding impact on how we see and respond to things, particularly when it comes to school and learning.

Background knowledge, prior learning, and schema are what help shape a student’s readiness to learn, and if you think all children start on an equal footing, visit a kindergarten class sometime in the early fall…

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Teaching Elementary Science Well

“We must teach our science students to do something in science class, not to memorize facts.” So said Dr. Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of Science and former two-term President of the National Academy of Sciences, in a press release announcing publication of the next generation science standards. No question about it, learning science is much more than science lectures and readings. It’s about satisfying one’s innate curiosity to understand their environment through analysis, inquiry and design. Learning science comes from doing science, and as an added benefit, allows effective teachers to adeptly and seamlessly work in literacy, math and the arts.

If you look at the New York State Education Science Core Curriculum, you will find seven standards in the core, of which standards 1, 2, 6, and 7 relate directly to a “student-centered, problem-solving approach to science (On page four you will find a list of inquiry process skills students should be developing). However, it is standard 4, the content standard, that garners the majority of teachers’ attention when planning and teaching science lessons. Sadly for both student and teacher, in classrooms wholly reliant on a science textbook, lessons rarely stray outside of standard 4. However, it doesn’t have to be that way, particularly now with the release of the Next Generation Science Standards which emphasize depth over breadth.

Earlier this week, I taught a class on how to teach elementary science for my MST students. We, dare I use the word, “covered” a number of science pedagogy-related topics in class including the obligatory hook on the worrisome state of student results on international and national measures (PISA and NAEP) followed by a hip video (My robot is better than your robot) featuring modern-day entertainers. We also reviewed the New York State Education Elementary Science Core Curriculum, Next Generation Science Standards, Inquiry-Based Science Methods, Resources for Elementary Science Lessons, Science Pre-Assessment Probes, and Science Kits. However, we delved deeply through discussion what it means to analyze, inquire, and design, particularly at the student level. Our students like to play on swing sets, but why do the swings stop moving if the person stops pumping? Does the length of the swing matter? What about size of the person? And what about the early spring shoots of green grass and other plants along buildings? Is there a particular side of the building (north, south, east, or west) that sees growth sooner, or does direction not matter?

If we allow the time, our students could fill a book of interesting questions through their analyses. Hence the “Analysis” portion of analysis, inquiry and design. From Elementary Science Core Curriculum Standard 1, Key Idea 1 (Scientific Inquiry), The central purpose of scientific inquiry is to develop explanations of natural phenomena in a continuing, creative process.  Key Idea 1 includes language about asking “why” questions, looking for similarities and differences, and more. Once our students are asking “Why” questions, they will willingly come up with ways to find answers, which is the essence of Key Idea 2.  Beyond the use of reasoning and consensus, scientific inquiry involves the testing of proposed explanations involving the use of conventional techniques and procedures and usually requiring considerable ingenuity. The process of scientific inquiry described in the core curriculum ends with the analysis of results, revision of conceptual understandings, and dissemination of findings. The observations made while testing proposed explanations, when analyzed using conventional and invented methods, provide new insights into phenomena.

And so it goes with inquiry-based elementary science instruction. To model the process and drive the point home for my students, we did a fun “Bubble Gum” lab in which they were asked to predict if and how the mass of sugar-sweetened gum chewed for a set period of time might change. Each student deliberated and came up with a hypothesis. I then asked them to design the procedures to test their hypotheses, after which they carried out their experiments. We had a simple elementary gram cube balance to measure the original mass. After chewing the gum for ten minutes, my students remassed the gum and summarized their findings and conclusions. Since science is a wonderful tool for embedding literacy, I asked them to describe how they could use the fiction or non-fiction reading material about matter they were assigned to bring to class in this bubble gum lab. From there we spoke about ways to differentiate the lesson by varying the level of support (scaffolding) to students and by challenging others with more complex math connections and extensions. Some students might require a template to enter their hypothesis, procedures, data and conclusions. Others might need extension problems such as predicting what might happen if we used sugarless gum instead of sugar gum. The possibilities with inquiry-based science are endless. Our lesson concluded with some excellent Science Assessment Probes from the National Science Teachers Association.

When I reflect back to my days as a science teacher and K-12 Science Director, I chuckle remembering that I believed nothing mattered more than science. Science was THE SUBJECT area and all else paled in comparison. Well, obviously, students don’t learn science if they can’t read. And if they struggle with math fluency and concepts, or fail to see the connections of science in other subject areas, then science loses its luster quickly. 25 years into my career, I see things more clearly. Science is not the center of our public education universe, but it can be the hub that drives all subject areas forward. Science is a fascinating area for students, particularly boys who don’t always enjoy reading or writing. Science is all around us, and the discrepant event opportunities allow for inquisitiveness and joy of learning. In this era of high stakes everything, make time for you and your students to go beyond memorization of facts and get knee-deep into inquiry based learning. You will not be disappointed with the outcomes.

Disruptive Students Don’t Conspire to Make Our Days Miserable

“Mr. Danna is a Cook!” So said the message scrawled in one of the wooden desks in my high school 9th grade science classroom. Actually, the message had been altered by one letter to form the word, “Cook,” making the original word much less complimentary. A colleague had found the unedited message during her use of the classroom earlier in the day, and thoughtfully extended the “c” to make an “o”. I thanked her and then promptly moved the desk out to storage after school. Though I taught track three science classes in that room (yes, sadly we tracked students back then), my students were bright and capable enough of inferring the true message behind, “Mr. Danna is a cook.” And we knew it had nothing to do with food.

Despite that the incident took place early in my teaching career, it provided an important lesson about knowing your students, particularly the most challenging ones. No one likes to be called names, and I took it personally. After all, I invested many hours during my evenings and weekends preparing for my classes, and I loved my work and the students I taught. Granted, there were a few students that pulled at my patience, and yes, there was one in particular who in my mind made a point of getting under my nerves. In fact, I was convinced the student came to school with no other reason than to make my life miserable. Mutterings under his breath when I gave out assignments or directions for a lab. Notes written and passed to a friend when he thought I wasn’t looking. Talking back when I asked him to pay attention. And worst of all, disregarding my high standards for classroom rules and behavior. No doubt about it, this student was a teacher’s nightmare.

Punishment seemed the best option. Frequent detentions with me after school were my first line of defense. Unfortunately, he blew them off as he did my standards and expectations for him. Calls home were the second wave. Sadly, the phone rang and rang with each call, and when someone did finally answer, they immediately hung up when I introduced myself. Out of desperation, I began sending him to the office at the slightest provocation. The problem worsened and after more than a few visits to the office, the assistant principal called a meeting with me and the boy’s guidance counselor to discuss the matter. I was eager for the meeting to share my frustration and disappointment and to figure out a solution. I was in a for a surprise.

I considered myself a flexible, caring, understanding teacher who’d “been there” when it comes to finding trouble in high school. I had my share of detentions and calls home, and my mom was on a first name basis with many in the high school principal’s office. I wasn’t a bad kid, just one who had difficulty focusing, getting assignments done, and sometimes, making it to school. You could say I was an at-risk student teetering on the edge. I got it. I understood what at-risk meant, and was more than prepared to offer cogent solutions for my problem 9th grade student who was a constant source of trouble in my class and who I knew wrote the disappointing message in the desk. The student simply needed to change his attitude.

What I didn’t know before our morning meeting was the boy’s history and home life. I should have done my homework long before this meeting and gotten to know more about the boy, but hadn’t (There’s a reason New York State Standard One is Knowledge of Students and Student Learning). A mistake I wouldn’t make again. What I learned was two years earlier, the problem student’s father had left his family and they hadn’t seen him since. His mother now worked two jobs while trying to raise two adolescent boys, the youngest of which was in my class. My problem student had gone from being a solid B middle school student with few behavioral problems to a multiple failure student threatening to drop out when he turned 16. He didn’t like himself, his family, his school, or his teachers. He was a mess. Regrettably, I had taken his behaviors and his message inscribed in the desk personally.

It takes time to undo the damage one brings to a student-teacher relationship, but fortunately for my problem student and me, we had six more months together. With help from the assistant principal and guidance counselor, we brainstormed strategies to bring the student around. We certainly couldn’t change his home life, but we could find ways to bring some success and happiness into his school life, or at least into his earth science class. First and foremost, I stopped taking his disruptive behavior personally. When I saw him pass a note, rather than cast a spotlight on him and reprimand the behavior in front of the class, I’d just nonverbally look at him and subtly shake my head. I ignored the mutterings and complaints. His classmates were not bothered by them, so why make a mountain out of a mole hill. I also stopped calling home. Instead, I wrote bi-weekly update letters that were heavy on the praise and light on the criticism. Mom was overwhelmed as it was, and she too needed letters that brought hope.

Changes in the boy’s behavior were subtle, but they were there. He caught himself when beginning to mutter, and by spring, he didn’t mutter at all. His grades rose some, and he was scraping by with 70s at year’s end. Not bad. Best of all, on the rare occasion I did call home, now someone picked up to talk with me. He had a lot on his plate, and I had made it a point not to add to that plate. I don’t know what became of him after classes had ended. He wasn’t in our school the following year, so many things may have happened. I like to think he and his family landed on their feet somewhere in a new district and new setting. I hope and pray he found a good career, a loving family, and a sense of satisfaction in his life. As for the young teacher with a flair for culinary arts, I became more empathic and mindful of each and every student’s background, interests, and needs.

Rethinking Student State Assessments as Measures of Teacher/Principal Effectiveness

I don’t think you’ll find many opposing high accountability for teachers and principals. Public school education is just too important for our nation’s future to do otherwise. However, the devil is in the details. How does one go about finding valid and reliable measures that are fool-proof? Evidence based observations of teachers and principals by calibrated evaluators are important components to a robust Annual Professional Performance Review process, but can we say the same about student achievement on state measures? Depends on who you speak with, but for a small but growing group of parents, the answer may be a resounding “No.”

The notion of parents choosing to opt out of state tests hit the press in our region of New York recently, and regardless of the legality of such actions, the movement has raised some interesting points. Some parents complain their children are stressed out by tests used to rate teachers as highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective, and a few are threatening to move their children to private schools. Others cite the lost instructional time and resources to prepare, conduct, and grade the assessments, and would rather have their children learning during those days. It’s all so very complicated and makes one wonder if there exists a better way to keep standards high for our educators and administrators while maximizing the quality of instruction and programs for students.

Here’s a thought. What if instead of using student test scores to evaluate teacher and principal effectiveness, we were to use teacher and principal test scores and evidence binders? In so doing, we’d relieve the at times intense focus and pressure on students for success on state assessments. Think of the savings in time and resources. There would be more time for quality instruction, and more monies for student intervention programs, professional development, curriculum work, data-driven instruction systems, and the necessary staff to support such efforts. Rather than test students, we’d ask teachers and principals every five years to take a rigorous test and submit evidence that they remain effective and viable in the classroom or building they work in. No more isolated cheating scandals. No more confounding elements of behavioral responses to Value-Added high stakes testing (See footnote 1).  We’d still keep evidence-based observation systems going in our schools because we know they work, but we’d take out the pressure laden focus on student achievement tied to the Annual Professional Performance Review. There still would be a need for rigorous common-core aligned summative assessments, but with a much different focus (The old model tied student achievement to school success).

Basically, what we’re talking about is renewable tenure. Tenure is a time-honored recognition by school boards of teacher and principal competency and professionalism, and is earned through hard work, perseverance, and demonstration of knowledge and skills. It is essentially a life-time contract between institution and individual. Having a system that honors tenure while ensuring every professional maintains their knowledge and skills over time through rigorous assessments would do much for the profession. Perhaps more so than tying professional performance to student tests. By asking educators and principals to maintain their tenure through five-year testing and evidence-based artifacts, we take the burden of proof off students and place it on the backs of our adult professionals. If a teacher has demonstrated strong content knowledge, literacy skills, and awareness of student development and various learning needs, and if that teacher has been consistently deemed effective in the classroom by a calibrated evaluator, than what more evidence is necessary to assure everyone that the teacher has the skills and understandings to teach? The same rules and logic would apply to principals. Who knows? It just might work. At the very least, it takes the pressure off students.