Monthly Archives: November 2013

Race To The Top in New York: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

To get in the right mood, think Clint Eastwood as bounty hunter, spaghetti westerns, and the haunting theme music of Ennio Morricone. Think gun slinging outlaws, dusty deserts, tired horses, and poorly lit bars. There we go. Now we’re ready to talk about the biggest modern day reform agenda launched in New York state history, ie. Race to the Top (RTTT). One reminder, however. All significant change events carry with them good, bad and ugly elements, and so it goes with the New York State Board of Regents Reform Agenda-an agenda which has taken more than its fair share of heat. Here’s how I see the breakdown.

  • The good: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.
  • The bad: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.
  • The ugly: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.

Okay, that’s not fair. How can we have all these various RTTT deliverables categorized as good, bad and ugly together? Is there a way to differentiate the best RTTT has to offer from its worst elements? I’m biased, obviously, so I don’t dare venture too deeply down such a path. However, I think it’s fair to venture a little.

Common Core Standards are not good, they are great, and their adoption across the nation brought consistency and rigor to the 45 States in which they now exist. Rigor that was sorely needed to increase our students’ capacities to successfully compete in a flattened world. It’s hard work when a curriculum bar is suddenly raised, particularly when the rigor is two years higher than past curricula. Our students are now being asked to do 5th grade math in 3rd grade. To do 7th grade reading in 5th grade. Etc. Needless to say, there are serious growing pains with such a change in standards.

Data-Driven Instruction is not good, it’s essential. Many schools claim they’ve been doing it for years. Yes, end of year student assessment data have been analyzed and curricula changed in some schools. And yes, primary school teachers regularly use running records and other reading data to inform decisions. However, the widespread, purposeful actions of Assess, Analyze, and Act are done sparingly in our nation’s classrooms. Too much to do, a lack of professional development on how to do DDI, and other reasons compromise a truly data-driven instruction mindset.

Evidence-based observations of teachers AND PRINCIPALS are not good, they are desperately needed in all schools. Perhaps for the first time ever, all teachers and principals are being observed by lead evaluators trained to do such observations. And the observations conducted are based on analytic rubrics proven to be aligned with teaching and leadership standards. That’s fantastic! I remember years ago having observations done sparingly, and with checklists. There were no detailed descriptors built around reputable standards of teaching or leadership. Rather, they were primarily subjective evaluations (think judgments) of what good instruction or leadership looked like. That’s a dangerous proposition, particularly if the evaluator has unsound understandings or values.

There’s so much angst about Race to the Top, so let’s jump to the “ugly” elements. I will admit to being a fan of more rigorous state assessments, but there are obvious flaws in our present model that are blemishing the Regents Reform Agenda. The biggest issue is tying teacher and principal performance to student assessment data while the plane is still being built. Though the vast, vast majority of teachers are placing in the effective or highly effective APPR rankings, it is still exceedingly stressful to have one’s professional performance review partly contingent on how your students do on a new assessment based on new and much more rigorous standards. That’s very scary for many, and that is what adds the ugliness to the equation. Other “ugly” elements are just part of the change landscape. We will always have our “deniers” and “chicken little” types who prefer the comfortable status quo they’ve grown to love. However, most professionals within the field are working their best to make the necessary adjustments, and doing so successfully, though not without the periodic “hiccup” or “crash” such wide scale change brings.


Let’s Celebrate Academic Rigor, Rigor, Rigor…….

Imagine yourself a classroom teacher walking into school to start your day. It’s 7:00AM on a cold November Tuesday, and as usual, your lesson plans tucked in your plan book hold promise for a good day of active learning. After signing in at the main office, you check your mail box, catch up with colleagues on the morning chatter, and then head down the hall to your classroom. After you unlock the door and turn on the lights, you are greeted with the following student scribbled words in big, bold letters across your white board:

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You know that beneath the scrawl lies a hidden message, and that message brings a smile to your face. Your students get it. They know the high expectations you have for them, and they proudly broadcast their cognizance for you to see. Congratulations. You have raised the proverbial bar in them, cultivating an appreciation for rigor which bodes well in their future endeavors.

We have a motto in our SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury school culture class: The Three R’s for quality teaching and learning are Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Whether we are looking at impacts of the New York State Regents Reform Agenda on school culture, evidence-based observations and teaching rubrics, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, or change theory, individual and collective success in education (life for that matter) hinges on Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Good teaching is about the Three R’s.

Our most effective educators maintain high expectations for their students. They work hard on lesson plans to make the learning meaningful, and they structure activities that promote relationship-building. In the process, their students’ natural curiosity and desire for social interaction lead to greater cognition and competencies. These master educators accept the challenges and look beyond the distractions that exist in any significant reform effort, focusing instead on ensuring students are pushed towards greater academic rigor through relevant, relationship-building instruction.

As we know all too well, we play and perform at the level of our competition, or in the case of school, at the level set by standards and educators. To my School Culture student who shared this picture with me, “Congratulations! You are making a difference with your students.”

A Reading Conference and Things You Can Do to Battle Climate Change

In four hours I’ll be speaking with nearly 100 educators about climate change at the annual Iroquois Reading Council Conference held at the SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury Branch Campus. I’m excited and thankful for the opportunity and hope the content resonates in each and every participant. The Climate Reality Project material is top-notch and, frankly, paints a disturbing picture of our changing climate and the implications for the biosphere. Mindful of the draconian message and urgent need for action, I’ve compiled a “Top Five” list of things people can do to offset climate change (See below). It’s not perfect, but it is something tangible people can take with them.

The part I’m most interested in will follow my presentation when five SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury education students present fiction and non-fiction texts that align with the climate reality theme. Showing teachers how to embed relevant issues into classroom instruction is extremely important and relevant in this era of common core standards. The students will be doing a poster session to illustrate the connections, and I’ll update you on their efforts in my next blog entry.


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Testosterone Fishing Weekends and Halloween Prove, “We Are What We Eat”

Deep fried Twinkie burger anyone? Head to Philadelphia’s PYT Restaurant if you’re craving pork and beef patties topped with bacon and cheese and sandwiched between two deep-fried Twinkie buns. Wow.

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I jest, given that my annual striper fishing trip with brother and brothers in law took place this past Halloween weekend. And though we didn’t have access to the Twinkie burger, the four of us did manage to consume five different half-gallon flavors of ice cream, potato chips, corn chips, pita chips, strawberry licorice, mammoth egg sandwiches with sausage, pizza, fast food muffins, beef, pork, and high carb beverages. Add late night movies and football games with early morning departures for eight hours fishing at the beach, and you have the makings of a typical testosterone three-day weekend (which was fine when we were in our 30s and 40s). Fishing is hard work, but it was the lack of sleep and the food consumption that really did us in.

When I taught my late afternoon graduate classes the following Monday, I was really fatigued. I wasn’t thinking so clearly either. Thankfully, my students are wonderful, bright, and full of positive energy, which made my job as “guide on the side” relatively easy. On my ride home later that evening, I checked in with one of my brother in-laws to see how he was doing. My sister, a teaching assistant, answered and immediately commented on the crazy behavior of her kindergarten students that day who were “bouncing off the walls.” Mark it up to all that Halloween candy they ate over the weekend we both agreed. HMMM. My brother-in-law texted me later in the week saying he was still totally exhausted, but the weekend was worth it. I chuckled.

In all seriousness, diet, sleep, and excercise tremendously impact our capacity to think, work, socialize, and simply function. Compromise any one of the three, and you will have problems. I try to “Sharpen the Saw” weekly with my Covey Planner, and after a weekend of bad food, lack of exercise, and limited sleep, I’m reminded what a difference it makes to my mental and physical well-being. Obviously, the same rules apply to all of us, particularly children. I can’t tell you how many parents have come to me when I worked as an elementary principal to declare their child had ADD or ADHD. These were parents of 5, 6, 7, and 8 year olds. Parents who were diagnosing their child’s hyperactive behavior, lack of focus, and oft-times lethargy as a functional impairment of the brain. Whenever we had such discussions, I’d first ask about the child’s diet. Did they drink soda? Fruit juice? Fast food? Candy? Fruit? Veggies? etc….  The next question would be regarding exercise. Did they run and play games with friends? Ride bicycles? Swim? Sled? Play sports? Play video games? etc.  Lastly, did they get 9-11 hours of sleep? My objective was to help them think about environmental factors they controlled that could contribute to their children’s ADD/ADHD-like behavior.

We are what we eat. We do better when we sleep well, and we function stronger when we exercise regularly. Simple as that. Dr. Gomez-Pinilla sums it up beautifully in his Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function:

Diet, exercise and other aspects of our daily interaction with the environment have the potential to alter our brain health and mental function. We now know that particular nutrients influence cognition by acting on molecular systems or cellular processes that are vital for maintaining cognitive function…. Emerging research indicates that the effects of diet on the brain are integrated with the actions of other lifestyle modalities, such as exercise and sleep. 

With that in mind, I think next year the boys and I will ease off the ice cream and other goodies and move on to more healthful items. We’ll also get to bed earlier and sleep a little later. We’ll cut out the bad movies, drink more water, and work in a documentary or two. Maybe we’ll even go for a long walk each day on the beach. On the other hand, it is just one weekend in the year:).