Monthly Archives: August 2013

Teacher Hierarchy, Leadership, and Schools

Social systems and hierarchies are part of nature, and serve their members well. Whether foraging for food, staying safe from predators, or ensuring propagation of the species, hierarchies help establish order allowing the social group to survive and flourish.  Interestingly, schools also have their hierarchies, though the structure is changing rapidly with the growing influence of teacher leadership. In the old days, staff ranking could be broken down by years of experience into rookies (non-tenured), burgeoning stars (tenured), veterans (tenured and sometimes damn good), and senior veterans (tenured, sometimes extraordinary, and have “seen it all”).

For the rookie, rules were simple. Play well with others. Know your content and improve your pedagogy. Manage classroom behavior. Chaperone and make yourself visible everywhere and anywhere there are administrators, students, parents or board members. Be respectful and kind to students, parents and colleagues. If you followed the rules, odds were you’d receive tenure and enter the next level. Fail in any of those areas and there’s a good chance you’d be out of a job. Once tenured, you developed your reputation and craft. Initially, you’d continue to be the recipient of professional development services, but later, you might become the source of information–the “go to person,” the “veteran.” Along the way, your professional network would expand as would your influence within and outside the school community. With the accrual of time, you’d become the senior veteran.There are many more subtleties and complexities to teacher hierarchical structures, but suffice it to say reaching the apex of the hierarchical structure was informal but generally comfortable and reliable.

With the advent of Race to the Top’s Career Teacher Leader Ladder, pathways to the top for educators have changed dramatically and for the better. Teachers are now being asked to formally assume leadership positions within their ranks, something that in the past was discouraged in some schools. With the burden of instructional leadership too great for any one super human principal, teachers are now encouraged (and sometimes pushed) to take on new and challenging roles including conducting peer observations, facilitating data-driven instruction sessions, monitoring action plans, implementing teacher improvement plans, supervising curriculum development projects, and so on. Mind you, these things have been done in some schools for decades informally by the superstars, veterans, and senior veterans. The difference is now schools are honoring and formally recognizing teacher leadership. Finally! How exciting! How necessary! How timely!

As we brace for another interesting year of school reform, let us remember leadership goes far beyond that of the school principal. Let us be sure to honor our teacher leaders, formally or informally, by supporting their efforts and working hard to ensure their success and that of our children. Let us encourage the best among us to pick up the torch and guide us through the next round of school reform. Today we have a leveraged opportunity to nourish and grow teacher leaders in schools across the nation. We’re at a tipping point, and our children (and profession) depend on us to do the right thing.  There is too much at stake to follow the old system of teacher hierarchies and do otherwise. Have a great school year. Peace.


Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation–The Time is Now

Looking back over 50 years of satellite images of Earth, Michael Benson writes, “They seem to make the case that we’re inexplicably intent on engineering our own expulsion from the garden, in a kind of late-breaking, self-inflicted Old Testament dismissal.” In Benson’s August 18, NY Times article, Gorgeous Glimpses of Calamity, satellite images from space document the increasing deleterious impacts humans are having on planet earth. The photographs and eloquent writing make the article a must read and yet another clarion call for action. And if you think things aren’t really that bad, read Peter Brannen’s Headstone of an Apocalypse for a geological look back 200 million years ago at the last time carbon dioxide levels were this high. Are we really willing to let it all slip away, hoping everything will be okay?

This past week my family (siblings, parents, nieces, nephews) vacationed in the Squam Lakes region of New Hampshire. It was our 17th consecutive family vacation together. We kayaked, hiked, jumped off high rocks into crystal blue waters, climbed through caves, sat by the lake, swam, and so on. It was a beautiful, relaxing, decompressing week, and everyone returned to their homes refreshed and reinvigorated. That is what nature does for us. It rejuvenates us, restores the soul, and reconnects mind, body and spirit. How does one enter such benefits in the Gross Domestic Product algorithm? How does nature factor in to the S&P 500 Index? What is the value of nature and its beauty to all life forms, and are we willing to “save” for the wellbeing of our planet and its inhabitants?

My wife and I recently decided we are going to enjoy and experience nature as best we can in the coming years. We are going to swim, kayak, hike, bike, ski, sit, and relax. We’ll visit the coast, alpine meadows, high peaks, exceptional bike and cross country ski trails, and the many lakes and streams that dot this fabulous country. We’re going to spend the majority of our free time in nature. We know the climate is changing, and the environment is suffering. Frankly, we don’t want to miss a thing. We want to hear the frogs sing at the pond, the birds chirp in the forest, and the bees and insects hum in the meadows. We hope to see many more Perseid Meteor showers, clear blue sunny skies with puffy white clouds, winter wonderlands, and foggy August mornings burning off with the rising sun.

People often comment that the beauty of something is not fully appreciated until it is lost. Well, we are losing  so much as we ponder what to do. Fortunately, it’s not too late to adapt to our changing world. It may be too late to go back to the way things were before the advent of the gasoline combustion engine, coal-fired power plants, and a burgeoning world population. However, we can and must mitigate the effects of climate change for future generations, preserving the expansive beauties our planet still offers. Back to this past weeks New Hampshire vacation, I was struck by the new families that shared the week with us. Young couples with their small children playing in the sand, fishing from row boats, and wading in the shallow waters of the lake. It reminded me of our time 17 years ago when our children first learned to fish, first learned to swim, and first learned to sculpt fairy villages out of piles of sand. It’s up to us to decide if we’re willing to be good stewards for our generation and those yet to come. If we are willing to rethink how we impact the earth, and if we all make subtle changes in how we live, we can adapt and mitigate climate change impacts. We can make a difference. As Margaret Mead says, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Game-Changing Common Core Aligned State Assessments

Years ago I was an avid softball player, particularly in Norfolk, Virginia where I played nearly 80 games per season on a Class B team in the Men’s Slowpitch ASA Tidewater League. Division games were on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but it was the weekend tournaments which were especially fun. We played in at least one tournament a month, and for the first half of the season, solely at the Class B level. However, our coach would put us in more challenging Class A tournaments in the latter half of summer to improve our game. We had a great coach and consistently vied for first place each season within our Class B league. I remember the first one or two tournaments at class A level to be extremely humbling, but after a thorough thrashing or two, we all began to elevate our fielding, hitting, and concentration. We played better and with more confidence, and though we never took one of the Class A tourneys, we managed to consistently compete for first place within our Class B Division.

When the state released the 3-8 test results earlier this week, I immediately thought back to my old softball team and our first Class A tournament of the summer. Just as in the softball analogy, the level of rigor increased suddenly, and student performance took a hit. It’s not as if the students had lost skills and knowledge, rather, the measures had become much more rigorous. The common core state standards are the Class A version of standards, and our students are now participating (I don’t dare say playing) at a much higher level than before. That is not a bad thing. As we know, people rise up to the level of their competition. In the case of education, the bar has been raised and with that we can expect our principals, teachers, students and communities to diligently meet the new challenges.

Some highlights of the statewide 3-8 exam results in EngageNY’s Interpreting 3-8 ELA & Mathematics Tests, Results, & Score Reports included the following:

  • 31.1% of grade 3-8 students across the State met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard; 31% met or exceeded the math proficiency standard
  • The ELA proficiency results for race/ethnicity groups across grades 3-8 reveal the persistence of the achievement gap: only 16.1% of African-American students and 17.7% of Hispanic students met or exceeded the proficiency standard
  • 3.2% of English Language Learners (ELLs) in grades 3-8 met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard; 9.8% of ELLs met or exceeded the math proficiency standard
  • 5% of students with disabilities met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard; 7% of students with disabilities met or exceeded the math proficiency standard 

Across the Big 5 city school districts, a smaller percentage of students met or exceeded the ELA and math proficiency standards than the rest of the state (although NYC’s performance is much closer to the statewide performance)

Ouch. It’s easy to claim foul, dismiss the data, or pine for the old Class B Standards, but we know our students can and must do better in today’s global community. Since our commissioner of education, John King, has stated the results were expected to be lower and that there won’t be any punitive effects on districts, schools, principals, or teacher ratings, this is indeed an opportunity to analyze, reflect, and proactively respond to the data. With nearly four weeks till the start of school, there is ample time for some analysis and action planning by educators and instructional leaders. EngageNY has just released a tool to help with the state assessment analyses. As illustrated in the figure below, schools can immediately use the data to identify strengths and areas of need.

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With data in hand, it is possible to answer the questions, “Which questions were especially difficult or easy for students?” “What subgroups of students fared the worse?” “How did students do by grade level?” “Are there particularly challenging standards within a classroom, school, or district?” And most importantly, “What can we do about it?”

Paul Bambrick Santoyo has done extensive professional development for the New York State Education Department in state-wide Network Team Institute meetings over the past couple of years, and I recall his constant emphasis on follow-through after the assessment and analyses have been completed. Taking action is oftentimes the missing part in data analysis. It’s great to know what is and is not working, but the effort is for naught without purposeful action and monitoring. Going back to the softball analogy, our coach had high expectations for his team. He challenged us to do better, and was meticulous in his collection of player statistics. His practices nearly always included specific drills based on prior performance. Now our public schools have been challenged by the new common core-embedded state assessments, and with that challenge comes an opportunity to hit a grand slam by diligently determining what worked, what didn’t work, and what to do next.

Climate Change and Why We Need Common Core State Standards

Why do we need the Common Core Standards for Literacy? Simple. Because our global community requires citizens who will be able to make decisions based on research and data, not on sound bites and opinions from various special interest groups and political circles. Pulling from the Common Core Instructional Shifts, we desperately need to develop students’ capacity to write from various sources and use text-based evidence to support opinions. In particular, our students must be able to use evidence to take and defend important positions. Whether that position is political, societal, economic, or environmental, we must demand thinkers who adopt a mindset based on data, not here say–not an easy thing to do given the abundance of information and opinions circulating on the Internet.

As an example, today I came across two separate climate change articles. One was printed in the Huffington Post, the other in Yahoo News. In the Post’s article, Global Warming ‘More of a Religion Than A Science,’  the author writes, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) dismissed the concern over global warming, labeling it a “religion” and claiming efforts to address climate change are useless.“It is not proven, it’s not science,” King said Tuesday, according to The Messenger of Fort Dodge, Iowa. “It’s more of a religion than a science.” The congressman spoke at a Fort Dodge event sponsored by the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. King said he thought environmentalists should focus on the positive aspects of the earth heating up due to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, instead of harping on the negatives. “Everything that might result from a warmer planet is always bad in [environmentalists’] analysis,” King said. “There will be more photosynthesis going on if the earth gets warmer. And if sea levels go up four or six inches, I don’t know if we’d know that.”

In the Yahoo News article, New Reports Reveal the Dire Picture Humanity is Painting for Earth’s Climate there is a passage from the American Geophysical Union which states, Human activities are changing Earth’s climate. At the global level, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases have increased sharply since the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuel burning dominates this increase. Human-caused increases in greenhouse gases are responsible for most of the observed global average surface warming of roughly 0.8°C (1.5°F) over the past 140 years. Because natural processes cannot quickly remove some of these gases (notably carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere, our past, present, and future emissions will influence the climate system for millennia.

Wow, who do you believe, Rep King or the American Geophysical Union, and how do you take a position? According to the Common Core Instructional Shifts, you look for the evidence to support whichever position you prefer to take. In the two articles quoted above, one could argue there isn’t enough information to make a position, and that’s a lukewarm, possibly fair statement. However, when applying the Common Core Instructional Shifts to the climate change scenario, students would be required to go beyond the news to the data. They’d need to access unbiased, valid, and reliable studies that present the facts and not the opinions so often expressed through the media. As many people know, in the case of climate change, there is unequivocal evidence that the earth’s climate is warming up, and primarily due to anthropogenic forces. In fact, just yesterday NOAA released their State of the Climate in 2012 report which details how rapidly our climate is changing. Regardless of one’s own opinion, we must have individuals who regularly use facts to support their points.

There’s so much to hope for in developing students’ metacognitive skills and thoughtful consideration of important issues through the Common Core Instructional Shifts. The Common Core State Standards are solid, and the value placed on informed use of evidence to communicate and argue various positions is a welcome focus to education. The standards and instructional shifts ask educators to develop students’ capacity to think deeply and thoughtfully, and to do so with evidence in mind. Perhaps with these changes we’ll see a more thoughtful public that consumes information more critically. A public that is not swayed by special interest or political groups but by the data behind the issue. A public that does what’s best for today’s generation and those that follow. In terms of climate change, too much is at risk to do otherwise.

Ignorance is Bliss, For Awhile

If you were around in the 60s or 70s, then you’ll remember Sergeant Schultz from television’s Hogan’s Heroes. Whenever the plotting group of American prisoners in the German Prisoner of War camp had some scheme up their sleeves, to keep peace in the camp, Schultz would say, “I know nothing,” “I hear nothing,” and “I see nothing.” He didn’t want trouble. Don’t we all want to avoid trouble? Don’t we all want to go with the flow and not make ripples? Don’t we all want to be happy with no worries? Yes, and no.

To make a difference, be it as a school teacher, administrator, or engaged citizen, one must be willing to confront the facts. In public education, the facts are as varied as there are school children. However, teacher and principal observations are two excellent sources of information for evaluating effectiveness. When either a teacher or principal fails to meet the standards of practice, be they the New York State Teaching Standards or the ISLLC Standards for school leadership, steps can be taken to rectify the problem. Targeted professional development, mentoring, collegial support, or other efforts can make a difference in a struggling individual’s performance. However, if schools fail to seek out and use data to figure out how things are going, then they’re pulling a Schultz–knowing nothing, hearing nothing, and seeing nothing. Worst of all, the problems continue and worsen.

Paying attention to the environment is another example of using information to confront controversial issues. Granted, it is blissful to ignore the warning signs. Yet, to disregard the record-breaking droughts, rising sea level, severe storms, or ocean acidification is to put our health and those of our future generations at risk. Much like Schultz didn’t want to deal with the consequences, when we ignore the omnipresent warning signs on this fragile planet, we allow bad things to continue happening. For those of you who follow this blog, you know I’ve been leaning a little more into the environmental realm in recent weeks. You’ll also know that I completed my Climate Reality Leadership training this week–WOW. What a training!

The parallels I am finding behind climate change and those of school reform are striking. We know public education has its good and bad points, and we know it’s time to make lasting, important changes to our nation’s schools. Similarly, we know the weather is getting weirder by the day, and that the models call for much greater consequences if we fail to address climate change. We also know that in both education and government, things proceed very, very slowly and at times with seemingly little regard to the data. Lastly, we know how critically important education and a healthy climate are to our children’s future. Tragically, unlike education where reform is gaining traction, climate change remains a battle between acceptors and deniers. We must have a broader conversation about climate change, and we really should do it now. After all, we are seeing, hearing, and knowing that things are changing.

Check out Climate Reality for a better idea about climate change. Better yet, find a Climate Reality Leader to come and do an informational session on the topic in your region.