Message to the Class of 2018

Class of 2018!  You’ve made it!  From the moment you arrived in September 2014 when you heard rumors about Freshmen Friday to this day – the commencement exercises of 2018, you have been a fantastic class-a class of which I am proud. Your teachers and counselors have used the following adjectives to describe you:  nice, good, kind, compassionate, creative, fun, polite, hard-working, and amazing.  You have all been a pleasure, and I am such a fortunate person to be your school principal for the past four years.

If you recall earlier this year in September, I asked you to become stewards of the student body and to be role models for our 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students.  You far exceeded my expectations, and all subsequent classes have some large shoes to fill when you leave the school.  In September, I also told you about the lesson I learned hiking 214 miles from Portugal to northwestern Spain to reach Santiago de Compostela:  “If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go further, go together.”  I witnessed this African proverb come to life daily on the Camino as I saw a young girl without arms and legs being carried by two volunteers on a specially-constructed stretcher with wheels.  An older woman, probably in her eighties, was peddling a cycle using her arms to help her complete the Camino de Santiago.  When going uphill, a volunteer gently pushed her from the rear to offer some assistance.  A young adult had limited use of his right side and required a crutch.  A volunteer walked with him along the Camino, helping him during difficult paths along the road.  People worked together either physically or emotionally, encouraging one another to go onwards.

This type of teamwork and encouragement was indicative of your class as you worked together to raise supplies for hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico and bring social awareness to the issue of gun violence after Parkland, Florida.  You planned together, organized together, celebrated together, and had fun together.  Indeed, John Donne’s words that “No man is an island entire of itself…because I am involved in mankind” rings true.

But now what?  Soon you will be graduates of Clarkstown North.  This old African proverb of going further together may not apply since many of you are leaving the safe and comfortable confines of your home and school and are starting out anew and often alone.  It may feel like you are an island entirely of itself for the first few weeks or months.  So what lesson can I offer?

 

I was struggling for the past few days to think of a meaningful message to tell you before you leave here tonight and go your separate ways.  While trying to overcome my writer’s block yesterday afternoon, I saw that I received a friend request from someone I had not heard from for a while, Michael Stief.  I met Michael in Santiago after I completed the Camino.  Michael is from Germany, and he went on the Camino to think about what he wanted to do next since after so many years in the corporate world left him wondering about what is truly meaningful.  After re-reading his last email from August last evening, I quickly discovered what I wanted to tell you.  It’s the word that Michael used to conclude his email to me, “Ultreia.”

Translated from a Latin dialect, this word has certain meanings, among which is “Onwards.” However, this word was not used by itself.  Instead, the ancient pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago would greet each other with the following phrase: “Ultreia e Suseia.”  Put together, this phrase means: “Onwards and Upward.”

As you commence on your own journey from your home to your next destination, travel with an eye set on the destination, but don’t obey established criteria.  Your way is made by walking your own path, not looking things up in a book or on Google.  Start walking and connect one step to the next, one stage with the next, always moving forward, persevering, growing.  Ultreia y Suseia – Go onwards and upwards.  May you advance and grow and, more importantly, grow as you move forward with each step you take.

To the Class of 2018, I do not have much to leave, but only three words.  Words that have been used for over a century by thousands to encourage others:  “Ultreia e Suseia.”  “Go onwards and Upward.”

“That Information Isn’t Available from U.S. News”

Last week, I saw the list of “Best High Schools” as reported by U.S. News and World Report.   Once again, U.S. News dubiously listed BASIS Charter Schools in Arizona as the best high schools in our nation.  In fact, six of the ten “best high schools” were BASIS charter schools.  Criticism over the identification of these highly selective charter schools as the “best high schools” continues.  Some educational experts claim that these selective charter schools purposely manipulate which students they admit into these charter schools and which exams to offer in order to make the U.S. News “best high schools” list.

Once a reader begins moving beyond the top 10 or top 25 high schools, he/she will notice that there are non-charter public high schools on the list.  So, why isn’t Clarkstown North one of these schools?  If you read the manual (see page 5), “Identifying Top-Performing Public High Schools for the ‘Best High Schools’ Rankings,” you will find the four step process used by U.S. News to determine the “best high schools.”  Every high school must pass step one before moving onto the next. U.S. News informed us that we did not meet all the criteria for step one.  Clarkstown North missed the performance expectation index for economically disadvantaged students.  For Clarkstown North to advance to the next step, we would have to have had a performance index above 140 to qualify.  U.S. News calculated the performance index for economically disadvantaged students for Clarkstown North as 139.2 (see graph above).

For the past two days, I have attempted to discover how U.S. News obtained a performance index of 139.2 for economically disadvantaged students.  Pages 10-11 of the manual explain how the performance index is calculated.  Then, I looked through the manual to find what state assessments were included to determine the reading and mathematics score.  According to page A-3, Regents examinations were used to calculate performance indexes.  However, which Regents exams were included in these calculations are not listed in this documentation.  Were results from the two required Regents for graduation used (i.e. Algebra I and English Language Arts) or were all Regents results included (English Language Arts, Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, and Algebra II non-Common Core)?  I ran a variety of calculations for the economically disadvantaged group of students, and I was never able to derive a performance index of 139.2 as U.S. News reported.  Which exact state assessments were used is still not clear.

Another question I had is how the statistical expectation of 140.0 (i.e. the line of best fit through a multiple regression analysis) was determined for Clarkstown North.  According to the New York State Report Card, Clarkstown North’s performance indexes for economically disadvantaged students was 173 in English Language Arts and 159 for Mathematics, which surpassed the statistical expectation of each (150 and 134, respectively).

When U.S. News was contacted about which state assessments were used and how the performance index for economically disadvantaged students was calculated, Robert Morse (Chief Data Strategist for U.S. News and World Report) responded: “Your question is = will usnews provide you and/or others excel sheets or some other format of the raw ranking data we used to compile NY state. The answer is that isn’t available from USNEWS.”

Carol Burris, John Murphy, and Sean Feeney pointed out a few years ago that U.S. News used the wrong data in its calculations.  Could this have been repeated again?

To know what assessments were used and how the performance index was calculated is a reasonable and simple inquiry.  The inability to respond to this request is disappointing, especially when U.S. News announces through a media blitz about its “Best High Schools” list that becomes either a source of pride or a source of disappointment among local communities.  The inability to answer a simple question is highly troublesome, and the “Best High Schools” list is highly suspect.  Is the U.S. News list any better than that of Niche.com, which rates Clarkstown North as an A+ high school (64th in New York State)?  We may never know the answer to this question.

 

“Ultreia!” Onwards!

This summer I walked the Camino de Santiago from Portugal to Spain.  Medieval pilgrims would greet each other with the word “Ultreia!” encouraging each other to move onwards to their final destination in Santiago de Compostela.  Each day I moved onwards to my next destination, gradually getting closer to my goal.  Along the way to completing the 200 mile walk/hike, I met many people from different countries with a common goal: to reach Santiago de Compostela.

At one segment of my hike, I met a large group of people wearing white t-shirts with a yellow arrow (which is commonly used as a way marker for those hiking the Camino). This great ensemble of individuals included people with physical disabilities.  One young girl had no arms and no legs.  Yet, two volunteers were carrying her on a specially-constructed stretcher with wheels.  An older woman, probably in her eighties, was peddling a cycle using her arms to help her complete the Camino de Santiago.  When going uphill, a volunteer gently pushed her from the rear to offer some assistance.  A young adult had limited use of his right side and required a crutch.  A volunteer walked with him along the Camino, helping him during difficult paths along the road.  People worked together either physically or emotionally, encouraging one another to go onwards.   I found the following video on TEDx talks, which reminded me of what I witnessed:

The episodes of people working together along my hike to reach a common destination by a certain time frame were numerous.  All the “pilgrims” I met along the way arrived at Santiago on the same day, and we cheered and hugged each other as each of us arrived to the Cathedral in Santiago.  This display of teamwork, unity, and care was an awesome display of what people can achieve to accomplish a common goal.

When I returned to school, I witnessed a similar type of collaboration as various contractors worked on our campus to make sure that the school is ready to open in time for the 2017-2018 school year.  For the past five months Clarkstown North has seen unparalleled infrastructure upgrades.  Coordinating all the varying moving pieces required much organization and effort.  Synchronizing all the various subcontractors to function simultaneously is difficult enough.  Ensuring that these projects are all completed on time is nothing short of amazing.  Just like an orchestra requires a conductor to ensure that various instruments of an orchestra play together to produce harmonious music, individuals are required to ensure that North’s infrastructure project was completed on time for the school to open.  I would like to acknowledge and thank our “conductors” Mr. John LaNave, Assistant Superintendent, and Mr. Anthony Valenti, Director of Facilities, for ensuring that the construction projects occurred in an organized and timely manner. I appreciate their help and level of communication throughout this entire process.  Mr. Jimmy Rohe, North’s Head Custodian, and his staff should also be recognized for making certain that the school is safe, clean, and operational just in time for us to open.

The campus itself might not look that much different as you walk the building; however, what lies above the ceiling tiles and below the floors is definitely not the same.  Above the ceiling, with the exception of North’s newest addition, the X-Wing Building (2005), new roofing was placed.  Old tiles were replaced with new tiles in certain parts of the building.  Faster and more robust WiFi routers were also installed.  New roof drainage was installed on the second floor of the Main Building.  Beneath the floors, much needed new electrical wiring was laid down and two new electrical transformers were installed.  These electrical upgrades will provide us with the necessary requirements needed to power our modern technology.  The old boiler in the Main Building, which was as old as the Old Tappan Zee Bridge, was replaced with a newer, slimmer, and more energy efficient one.

“Ulteria!” Onwards we go as another school year begins.  While the Class of 2018 will be spending their last year with us at Clarkstown North, we are looking forward to getting to know our newest students, the Class of 2021!

One Community

Schools all over the nation have been struggling with how to address this year’s election cycle, especially the presidential election.  The adult-only language as well as the vitriol has left educators befuddled on how to address the candidates’ message and decorum with students.  All too often, when controversy exists, educators tend to avoid addressing issues, especially those that are highly politicized and charged with emotions.

So, where does that leave us, as a school community?  Some of you may recall my first blog of this school year that introduced my readers to the “Balloon Lady.”  Since then, Patty and I have been communicating on a weekly basis sharing what our schools are doing, how North’s athletic teams are progressing, and how we celebrate holidays differently between two states (New York and Connecticut).  We also communicate about how difficult it has been to teach about the presidential election to students, especially in her elementary school.  Recently, she sent me a poem, “One Today,” by Richard Blanco.  He read this poem at President’s Obama Second Inauguration Ceremony in January 2013.  I watched the You Tube video of Blanco’s recitation of his poem and was struck by the opening and final words.

“One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,

Peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces

Of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth

Across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.

One light, waking up the rooftops, under each one, a story

Told by our silent gestures moving behind windows…

 

We head home…

Always under one sky, our sky.  And always one moon

Like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop

And every window, of one country—all of us—

Facing the stars

Hope—a new constellation

Waiting for us to map it,

Waiting for us to name it—together.”

 

By sending me this poem, Patty reminded me of what really should be our focus: together, we can accomplish many things.  The founders of this nation recognized the diversity and multiplicity of our nation’s early settlers, whether they were religious refugees, indentured servants, profiteers, or slaves.  The concept of “e pluribus unum” has real meaning even 250 years.  “Out of many one” nation exists.  Blanco reminds us of this concept in his poem, using such words as “one sun,” “one light,” “one ground,” “one wind,” “one sky,” “one moon,” and “one country.”

Perhaps this is the message that we as educators need to impart to our students, who are the future of this great nation.  The message “out of many one” rang true at our most foundational level and chimes even louder today.  No matter a person’s political ideology, religion, race, education, culture, gender, or economic background, we as one people are in this enterprise of hope, trying to make the world a better place by creating “a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it—together.”

I am thankful that Patty, the “Balloon Lady,” reminded me of what is truly important.  I am also thankful for the entire North community (students, staff, and parents) who I know will come together as one to address any adversity or controversy.

May you and your families celebrate a Happy Thanksgiving.

 

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It Feels Like Our School

On Saturday, September 17th, the Class of 1966 celebrated its 50th High School Reunion.  For me, this was the beginning of Homecoming week.  I met about 35 graduates from the Class of 1966 in front of the Main entrance and took them to the auditorium to give them a brief synopsis of what happened to the school and the District since they graduated.  The graduates of Clarkstown High School had many questions for me: class size, world languages that we teach, what happened to some of their teachers, the plans of seniors after they graduate, and programs that we offer.  After our meeting in the auditorium, I took these graduates on a tour of the Main gymnasium where they quickly recognized that the bleachers were the same ones they sat on five decades ago, cheering for the home team during basketball games.  They informed me that the classrooms in the Main Building were relatively unchanged except for the desks, chairs, and technology.  We looped through the cafeteria and X-Wing (which was not there in 1966), and made our way to the Annex.  The graduates of this class informed me that they were the first students to have attended 7th through 12th grades on this campus.  After taking some photos in front of the Mansion, we departed ways.

A few days later, I received a lovely letter from one of the graduates of this class.  In it, Dorothy Milianta writes: “It was so heartwarming for us to find that even though it has been more than 50 years after our high school graduation, and in spite of the changes to the school and to its name, the high school still feels like our school.”

Our Homecoming week this year had the same sentiment: the school “felt like our school.”  Hallways were decorated and windows were painted in school colors.  Students dressed according to various theme days.  The bonfire was brought back by the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA).  It had been almost seven years since the last bonfire.  Parents and students worked together to organize this event, which was a celebration of North and its students.  After the bonfire was lit on a perfect early fall Thursday evening, seniors participated in various field day activities.  Students planned the activities, organized the order of events, and refereed the games.  Students, their siblings, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members attended the bonfire.  There was that feeling again; it “felt like our school.”

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The following day on Friday, we had a pep rally for the entire North community.  The North Marching Band performed the National Anthem, followed by performances by the Dance Team, the Taiko Drum Club, the Hip Hop Culture Club, and the Cheerleading Team.  We recognized and celebrated our fall season sports and athletes.  Again, there was that feeling; it “felt like our own school.”

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Although the Homecoming Dance was not well attended this year, the students that did attend wanted to be there and took ownership of their school.  Our 9th graders learned how to get to the Main Cafeteria from the rear of the Main Gymnasium that night.  They took photos with their classmates at the photo booth.  After the Homecoming Dance, North High School “felt” like their school for our 9th grade students, feeling the same sentiment as the Class of 1966 did when they entered North High School many years ago.

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The Balloon Lady

In late July, I received a padded envelope addressed to the school.  In it were a deflated balloon, a letter, and two photos.  The letter was dated July 18, and the author began the letter as follows: “I hope I have found my way back home.  Purple is a great color and the ram is the perfect mascot for a balloon to have travelled so far away.”  The author went onto say that she is an elementary school music teacher and that she found the balloon on her lawn in Woodstock, Connecticut.  She even enclosed of photo of herself with the deflated Clarkstown North balloon as proof.  I determined that it took 19 days for the balloon to travel approximately 150 miles (an average of 7.8 miles per day).  She continued to write in the letter: “I gather the balloon is from graduation, but only you would know for sure….My greatest wish is to have the person who opened this package contact me to let me know if, in fact, the balloon arrived back to the correct high school.”  This teacher from Woodstock Elementary School included a pencil in the package that had the school’s mascot (a frog) imprinted on it. She signed the letter, “Sing-cerely, Patricia L…”

Patricia Langer

 

I wrote back to Patricia and included a purple t-shirt with a Ram on it (thanks to the PTSA) and a purple Clarkstown North lanyard.  I wrote her a note stating that the balloon was, indeed, from our graduation ceremony, which was held at Rockland Community College.  I thanked her for taking the time to communicate with me, sending a pencil, and doing something very important that often gets lost in today’s age of educational standardization, i.e. teaching music to elementary school students.  I expressed my gratitude that her school still offered arts to elementary school students and wished her a good start to the school year.

A few weeks later, I received another letter from Patricia in my mailbox.  Patricia thanked me for the t-shirt and matching lanyard, and she said that she would share this story with her students.  She continued in her letter to explain that her school had suffered some roof damage as a result of a storm and that there was a flood right in front of the music room.  But then she transitioned and began the next part of the letter as follows: “On the bright side, the kids will have 3 days of school followed by a 4 day weekend…”  Students had the Friday before Labor Day off.  Patricia thanked me for applauding the arts and told me that her Superintendent was once a music teacher and that his wife is currently a music teacher in another district.  She continued: “Thank you for bringing such amazing joy to my summer…If you ever have a terrible, horrible, no good day just take this letter out and think about how happy you made a teacher in Woodtsock, CT.  Sing-cerely, Patty (aka the balloon lady).”

In preparing for the opening of the school year, I was reflecting on the message and theme for the 2016-2017 school year.  One of Sir Ken Robinson’s video struck a chord with me:

Then, I was reading some excerpts from George Couros’ book, The Innovator’s Mindset.  Here is a video summarizing his perspective on transformative, digital education:

After reading articles and viewing articles, I came to the realization that all educators, Sir Ken Robinson, George Couros, and even Patty the “Balloon Lady” all have one thing in common: they are all purveyors of hope.  Education is one of the very few professions whose main driver is hope.  Teaching is a unique profession where hope is at the core of the job itself.  Teachers, teaching assistants, and administrators joined the profession with the express purpose of helping students and improving lives.  We, as educators, not only guide students in finding themselves, their attributes and strengths, but we also help pave a path for students to explore what they could become.  We partner with students on this gradual journey towards growth and self-actualization.  Sadly, not enough research has been done in studying what role “hope” plays in the role of students’ and educators’ lives.  During 9th Grade Orientation, I saw 9th graders and student mentors full of energy and enthusiasm.  A slide show from 9th Grade Orientation can be seen here.  I met with the faculty on September 1.  They too are full of energy and ready to begin the new school year.

Just like Patty ensured the well-travelled balloon found its way home from Woodstock to New City, educators help students find their way as they gradually become young adults.  Proudly, our profession is one where hope is front and center, where we can dream about bigger things, imagine a better tomorrow, and provide amazement in so many different ways.  Coincidentally, the following quote from Albert Einstein adorns our library:  “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

I leave you with these final words from the “Balloon Lady”: “Let’s hope our symphony of sound surrounds many…Keep a song in your heart and a beat in your feet as the new school year begins.”

I hope that students, parents, and teachers have an awesome and amazing 2016-2017 school year.

Courageous Conversations

While working at my dad’s coffee shop in the 1980s, one of our customers was Steve Van Zandt, a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band. “Little Steven” would come in, order breakfast, and begin reading the New York Times . One day, I remember Little Steven shaking his head back and forth with a concerned look on his face.  I asked him what he read that was so troubling to him.  This one initial conversation led to many subsequent conversations about apartheid in South Africa and the injustice resulting from years of racism. I learned about Stephen Biko and Nelson Mandela. Van Zandt was involved in the anti-apartheid movement, which culminated in a protest song that he wrote and produced.  The song was called Sun City, and Van Zandt led a boycott of this wealthy, white-only exclusive resort.  The video of Sun City can be seen below:

Eventually, the unpopular reaction of de Klerk’s National Party to anti-apartheid protests as well as international pressure for the elimination of the apartheid system, led to the abolition of apartheid by the mid 1990s. Nelson Mandela came to power, and it seemed like justice prevailed in South Africa.

Two decades later, when a colleague of mine, Dr. Arnold Dodge, offered me an opportunity to travel to South Africa, I jumped at the offer.  I had wanted to see for myself what happened after apartheid ended and political freedom was granted to all people.  The main purpose of my trip was to visit schools in South Africa, partner with one high school, conduct research, and write about our findings. Our group consisted of principals, college professors, and curriculum directors, and our task included visiting and critically examining the educational system in South Africa. Departing from JFK airport, we embarked on a 24 journey with Stellenbosch as our final destination. Our host and driver met us at the airport in Cape Town. During our one-hour ride from Cape Town to Stellenbosch our driver stated that the socioeconomic conditions were as unequal as ever even though apartheid had been legally eradicated.   Our driver began explaining some of the changes in post-apartheid South Africa. In fact, the chronology of this nation is divided between two epochs: apartheid and post-apartheid. He explained that during apartheid, there were four racial categories: white, Indian, colored (a person of mixed European and African or Asian ancestry), and black. In post-apartheid South Africa, four was reduced to three. The “Indian” distinction has now been removed. This type of re-categorization of racial classes shows the concept of race is very much a human-made, social construct.

When we visited our first school, Lynedoch Primary School, there were no white students. Keeping in mind the distinction between two categories “colored” and “black,” I asked the principal how he was able to tell the difference between colored and black students. He asked me for my pen. Then, he ran the pen through the center of his scalp from back to front. Midway, the pen stopped and was stuck in his hair. He looked up at me and asked, “Do you see this? The pen is stuck in my hair. My hair is kinky. This means black.” I was shocked that racial distinctions are so arbitrarily made. The difference between “colored” and “black” does matter since neighborhoods and schools are segregated. Often, the racial distinction defines and determines a student’s future and status in society.  Below is a photo of the principal and staff of Lynedoch Primary School.

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After this episode, I began to notice who lived in the dilapidated shantytowns. Students from our sister high school in South Africa, Hector Peterson School, guided us through their neighborhood, which was composed of homes and stores built from aluminum, wood, cardboard, and plywood. We were escorted through some of the poorest and most unsanitary living conditions I have ever encountered. Indoor plumbing was nonexistent; meat was cooked on twigs and newspapers that were lit on fire; toilets were public and located outside without any privacy slabs or doors; electricity was “borrowed” from the street poles that held electrical wiring, and; litter was scattered all over the sidewalks.  Below is a photo of homes that was part of the landscape in these shantytowns.

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The building conditions at Hector Peterson High School were indicative of the neighborhood in which it was located. Housed in a building that was originally constructed for 800 students, the high school is now home to 1300 students.  Most of the teachers are black with one or two “colored” teachers among the staff. The student to teacher ratio is 35 to 1.  Large class sizes, a library with scarce resources, poor lighting and ventilation, and lack of technology were quite apparent and alarming. Yet, students studied for and took their final exams, which would be scheduled over a one-month period.  Below is a photo of the mural outside the main entrance of this high school.  Hector Peterson was a 13-year-old student shot by police during the Soweto uprising and demonstrations in 1976.  The day of his death, June 16, is now honored as National Youth Day, when the the nation honors its youth and brings attention to their needs.

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The poster below illustrates the inadequate resources of school libraries in South Africa.

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My guide stated that education was important for him since it represented a way out of the shantytown and a possible path for him to fulfill his goal, which was to open up a business and travel. Though he had no hope of being accepted into one of the “better” colleges, he was still planning to go to college to obtain a degree in business.  Below is a photo of my student guide, looking through art work that Clarkstown North students exchanged with Hector Peterson High School.  Thanks to North’s Art Department, art students at North participated in an art project called “WE ARE.”  Students took photos of an art project that represented them and wrote about themselves on the reverse side of the photo.  I delivered a binder full of North student projects when I visited Hector Peterson High School.

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A few hours later we traveled to another high school about half an hour away. Leaving the poor conditions of the shantytowns, the environment began to change. We drove through farms, and, ultimately, drove through a main road with many high-end shops. Along the way, we saw beautifully landscaped homes in a well-developed neighborhood. We came to unplanned stop at one of the local high schools, Hoerskool Paarl Gymnasium. The school had a beautiful front entrance, tennis courts, swimming pools, and playing fields that are more reminiscent of a private, elite preparatory school in the northeastern part of the U.S. At first, I thought this was a private school only to find out that it was a public school; however, the parents were able to pay extra money that funded more teachers (and thus smaller class sizes); sports (this school had a rugby team that was a feeder for South Africa’s National Rugby Team, i.e. the Springboks); music and art programs; and other amenities. I asked the school’s Community Relations Director about the racial composition of its student body. He proudly stated that the school was 80 percent white and 20 percent colored, and he also noted that there were a few black students among a student body of 1,080. The school employed 110 teachers resulting in a 10:1 student to teacher ration.  In the apartheid era, colored and black students would not have been allowed to enroll in this school.  Below is a photo of the entrance of this high school.

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Our group visited seven more schools in a period of three days.  At one school, Parkdene Primary School, the principal was concerned about break-ins.  A microwave and a refrigerator had been stolen.  He was able to allocate funds for a security system and also to build a wall on order to separate the school from the kids in the neighborhood. It seems that drop outs would interfere with students during recess time and when students assembled in the courtyard.  Below is a photo of the wall that was built to secure part of the school’s perimeter.

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Social issues, such as poverty, racism, and concentration of wealth affect schools in South Africa in the same manner, but perhaps to a different degree, as in the U.S.  I remember my conversations with the Chancellor of Education, Meryl Tisch, who stated to me that “poverty is an excuse” for why students do not do well in school.  After witnessing traveling conditions in South Africa and teaching in some poor areas of New York City, poverty is not an excuse, it is reality for students.  To think that unsanitary living conditions, crime, substandard housing, poor drinking water, lack of health care, and other conditions found in poor neighborhoods will not have an effect on student readiness for schooling is irrational and/or disingenuous.

After we returned from South Africa, our group was discussing what next steps we should take.  Dr. Dodge, in collaboration with Dr. Berte van Wyk from the University of Stellenbosch, has already published a chapter on this exchange with South Africa in a book.  Besides writing about these very important issues, we are discussing how to expand the Courageous Conversations project.  Richard Roder, a principal in Queens, has nicely summarized the project on his web page, courageous conversations.

My goal is to have students visit schools in Stellenbosch while also studying about these issues at the University, which is one the premiere learning institutions in South Africa.  Learning about these important socioeconomic factors and studying their impact on society will have a greater effect when students witness and experience conditions first-hand.  Such an exchange program will require planning and funding.  It will be a worthwhile experience and given North’s designation as an I.B. World School, our mission to take into account a global perspective can be realized with such an exchange project.

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Feedback on the Common Core

Recently, New York State’s Education Commissioner, Dr. Mary Ellen Elia, launched a survey, seeking the public’s input with regards to the Common Core State Standards.  The survey can be accessed here.

The implementation of the Common Core State Standards in New York State cannot be described as smooth.  Critics of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) lodge complaints ranging from political to pedagogical concerns.

Adding on to these concerns is the recent change in direction by the Federal and State Education Departments that claim over-testing is occurring in schools.  Outgoing U.S. Education Secretary, Arnie Duncan, suggest placing a cap on testing not to exceed more than two percent of instructional time during the academic year.  An article on this issue can be read here.

During the past five years, I have witnessed a confusing proliferation of mandates from the State and Federal level, watching teachers spending time rigorously rewriting curriculum to meet CCSS.  In order to gauge whether students are meeting these standards, a whole cadre of tests and student learning objectives (SLOs) have been developed.  This has led to the expansion of a testing industry.  At one point, even Randi Weingarten, a Clarkstown North graduate and current president of the American Federation of Teachers, gave her support for the CCSS and the corresponding exams (which were linked to teacher ratings) stating that New York’s performance appraisal of teachers was the best system in the nation.  Interestingly, even Ms. Weingarten has reversed course, applauding the recent reversal of federal policy regarding over-testing of students.

Political criticism of the CCSS stems from those who decry the loss of local control over the curriculum.  These opponents of the CCSS claim that the federal government is sticking its nose where it does not belong, i.e. local school districts.   The U.S. has had an educational tradition wherein what is taught and how it’s delivered to students remain within the auspices of the local schools.  These critics argue that the CCSS represents a move away from localism to national control; thus, eroding a time honored tradition of education that is locally controlled.  Senator Rand Paul (also a Presidential candidate) takes this position (see below).

Other concerns stem from parents who believe that there is too much testing and that the CCSS place too much stress on students (particularly at the elementary level).  These parents point to multiple day exams in English and Mathematics.  These exams also last for hours each day.  Additionally, students with special needs experience an added burden as they will need much more time to complete these exams.  A news clip reports on the opt-out movement.

Finally, other concerns are more pedagogical in nature.  These concerns emanate from tests being age-inappropriate and developmentally unaligned to the maturity level of the student.  On the high school level, parents and students experience lower grades as the New York State Education Department keeps on resetting passing and mastery rates.  Well-respected administrators and educators have voiced their concerns regarding the CCSS and the corresponding exams.  These educators claim that the recent reforms are essentially damaging to public education in New York and the nation.  Dr. Carol Burris, retired principal of Southside High School in Rockville Centre, Long Island, highlights her pedagogical concerns with the Common Core in this video.

Then, there are others that defend the CCSS for attempting to prepare students for career and college readiness.  The supporters of the CCSS decry that public schools do not prepare students for advanced college studies and that our students are falling behind their international counterparts in China, Singapore, Japan, and Finland.  Some of the supporters of the CCSS can be heard advocating their position (see below).

As parents, you have your own unique experience with your child’s testing experience.  As you know, schools have already rolled out the Common Core exam in Algebra and Geometry. This year, the English Regents exam will be fully Common Core aligned.  If the Algebra exam is an indicator, we are being informed to expect lower student scores on the new CCSS English Regents compared to previous years.  The lower scores bring their own set of frustrations and concerns.

Given the hotly contested issues and experiences with the CCSS and the associated tests, New York State Education Commissioner, Dr. Mary Ellen Elia, has asked for the public’s input.  I do encourage parents to participate and fill out the survey.  The survey can be accessed here.

It’s Time to Self-Study

When you look at a tree, you see a tree in relation to its location.  You may see the tree as part of an ecosystem that includes birds, insects, vegetation, water supply, and other elements.  Our society, however, takes the approach of deconstructing the tree to its bare elements: branches, leaves, roots, flowers, fruit, and so on.  This scientific approach removes the tree from its surroundings and breaks it into little parts.  If we do not analyze a tree in its original and natural condition as part of an ecosystem, then we are missing the bigger picture.  The difference between mechanistic and systemic thinking was discussed in the film Mindwalk, directed by Bernt Capra.  Below is an excerpt from this film.

The same scientific approach is now being applied to education, where certain economists and statisticians are studying the value-added measures of teachers on individual student performance.  The claim is that a student’s performance is linked to a teacher’s performance.  For example, if Student X received a 70 on the Grade 4 Math Assessment, and a 75 on the Grade 5 assessment, then Student X is expected to increase his/her score on the Grade 6 assessment.  The increase or decrease of point value on the Grade 6 assessment is the “value-added” measure of the teacher.  If Student X does not perform as predicted, then this reflects on the teacher’s performance.  Currently, we are parsing education into smaller units, the same way a scientist divides a tree into small parts.  However, in doing so, we do not see the forest for the trees, the entire class for the individual student.

Other systems of education do not take this mechanistic approach to evaluation; instead, their approach is systemic and holistic. For example, in Japan, individual schools typically review and evaluate one subject area or discipline every year.  When I visited Japan, the school I observed was conducting a self-study about its physical education program.  The entire teaching and administrative staff observed physical education lessons and assessed their relevance in promoting physical fitness for life.  If the curriculum was current, few changes were made.  If the curriculum needed revising, the staff made suggestions on how to improve it.

A similar approach is taken by one of the top performing educational systems in the world, Finland.  In Finland, every school evaluates its results and methodological practices at the conclusion of the academic year.  At that point, the school administration and faculty diagnose what went well and what they need to improve upon for the following year.  The Finnish model of school evaluation uses both assessment data and anecdotal evidence from classroom instruction to construct a plan for improvement.

The U.S. model of evaluation uses a more mechanistic and individualistic approach where each teacher’s and principal’s final score is based on a formula that yields an individual specific numerical grade.   Whether this system of teacher and principal accountability will improve instruction and make significant gains remains to be seen.  Here at Clarkstown North, however, we also follow the model of an actual school self-study.  The protocol used emanates from the Middle School Association (MSA).  This organization has identified twelve standards that are the basis of a successful school, and these standards can be viewed here.

This year, Clarkstown North is engaged in its self-study processes, which will enable us to assess if we met our goals over the past seven years and help us identify where we want to be five years from now.  Setting goals, planning targeted actions to meet these goals, identifying demographic and community trends, and analyzing data are all part of the self-study process.  We will be engaging teachers, administrators, community members, parents, board members, and students to collaborate on a systemic approach to evaluate what we have done well as a school and where we could use improvement.  More importantly, the process will help us develop goals for the short-term future of the school.

Compared to any evaluation process, I find the systemic analysis of an institution the most helpful, since the parts and individual components are assessed to determine whether they function together to advance the goals of the school.  The current individualistic evaluation system may provide a snapshot of a teacher’s performance, but fails to connect how a teacher is part of a school community that helps advance the school’s mission and goals.

The Middle States Association re-accreditation process provides a valuable tool that will help us discuss and evaluate the school in its natural configuration as an institution that promotes teaching and learning.  Taking this holistic approach allows us to examine the school through various lenses in order to make improvements, revise our mission, and set goals for the future.  An approach that is organic, as opposed to legally imposed, often yields better results and more authentic outcomes.  I look forward to our self-study, and hope to advance the school’s mission and goals for the betterment of our staff and students.

Tests Are the Measure

Thinkers have long been discussing the meaning of human beings.  One such thinker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the essence of people in this manner. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  Others, such as author J.K. Rowling, adds that the true measure of a person is how he/she treats not his/her equals, but rather his/her inferiors.

Governor Cuomo recently added his own twist on measuring a teacher.  A teacher is not to be judged by how he/she encourages a struggling learner to work to his/her potential.  A teacher is not to be judged by how he/she tells a bully to stop undesired behavior.  A teacher is not to be judged by how well he/she conciliates conflicts between students.  With the impending rollout of a revised teacher evaluation system, the ultimate measure of a teacher is a number derived from student performance on a test.  The net effect is that even more emphasis will be placed on the acquisition of skills called “gaming the test” while the art of learning and a more humanistic enterprise of transmitting the norms and values of our society will fall by the wayside.  The Governor’s proposed system of evaluating teachers heavily depends on student performance, which is solely measured by how well students perform on state approved exams and Regents exams.  Since a teacher will now face disciplinary charges if his/her students do not demonstrate “growth” on these exams, teachers are faced with the unpopular and ill-conceived practice of “teaching to the test.”  Equating teacher effectiveness with test performance is the centerpiece of this State-imposed policy on every local school district.  If I am exaggerating or misreading the law, then just consider what cannot be considered when evaluating a teacher: evidence of student development/performance derived from lesson plans, artifacts of teacher practice, student portfolios (except for portfolios measured by a state-approved rubric), use of an instrument for parent or student feedback, use of professional goal setting as evidence of principal or teacher effectiveness, and any district or regionally-developed assessment that is not approved by the State Education Department.

In other words, the sum of a teacher’s worth is defined by how well his/her students perform on an exam. The other elements that go into teaching (e.g. planning and preparation, rapport with students, professionalism, other student produced work besides test scores, goals and action plans, working with struggling learners, teaching students other skills besides test-taking skills, and others) are removed from the evaluation process.

Supporters of this revised evaluation system will counter that teachers will also be evaluated using a State-approved teacher performance rubric.  In fact, 50 percent of a teacher’s rating will be compromised of classroom observations.  This makes sense until any thinking person realizes how bizarre the actual implementation of this piece of the teacher evaluation system will become.  Under the proposed policy, a principal’s observation of a teacher in his/her school only counts for 15 percent of the score.  An “independent” evaluator will determine the other 35 percent.  Placing the insulting insinuation aside that principals cannot be “independent” observers of their own teachers, who will be these “independent” evaluators?  When school superintendents, school board members, and school business officials objected to yet another unfunded state mandate, the Governor’s office stated that “independent” evaluators could be administrators within the school district, but not within the same school building.  At its most basic level, a policy passes initial muster if the rubber can actually meet the road.  Most school districts in the State are configured to have a few elementary schools, perhaps a middle school and a high school.  Other districts have elementary schools and one secondary school comprised of grades 7-12.  The Governor’s wacky proposal encourages observation of teachers by administrators within a district, but not within a school.  This means that in some school districts the high school principal will be evaluating a kindergarten teacher, and an elementary school principal will be evaluating a physics teacher.  The last time I officially observed a kindergarten teacher was in 2003.  Even though I am a certified evaluator of teachers, I do not think elementary school teachers would want me to evaluate them and provide feedback about literacy and numeracy at the most elementary level.  Similarly, it is highly improbable that a physics teacher would gain useful feedback from an elementary specialist.  The one element of the current teacher evaluation system that I did support is observing all of my teachers perform in the classroom every year.  Watching the complicated art of teaching and learning in action is such a rich and fruitful enterprise.  The discussions I have with teachers on how to improve and what else we could do to make learning experiences more meaningful are incredible.  Teachers and school administrators do a lot of brainstorming together, and I do believe that instruction has improved as a result.  However, this new policy places a halt on these discussions since my own observations of teachers in my schools are not even half as important as an outside “external” evaluator.

There are other troubling elements with this proposal.  Administrators will be taken out of their building to observe teachers in another building.  While I do appreciate the opportunity to observe other teaching professionals, if I am needed in my own school building, I will be unable to respond.  School districts are not configured like Albany where staffers from the Governor’s office can walk over to the legislative building.

Ultimately, teachers will be measured by different categories: Highly Effective (H), Effective (E), Developing (D), and Ineffective (I).  Final ratings will be based on a combination of scores as outlined below.HEDI

One would think that the scoring bands to determine HEDI ratings would be based on research or some sort of faux-scientific statistical formula.  At least the Governor is honest and tells us that these ratings are not determined through reason or logic, but rather will be determined in a capricious manner by the Education Commissioner and the State Education Department.  Then, after two consecutive ineffective ratings, a teacher will be brought up on disciplinary charges.  If the teacher wants to appeal his/her dismissal, the burden falls on the teacher to demonstrate fraud.  The ultimate irony here is the fraudulent premise that this teacher evaluation system accurately distinguishes effective and ineffective teachers.  Factors such as poverty and parental educational background (that are demonstrated to have a real impact on student performance) are not considered.  Other external impacts, such as the assistance of a private tutor are also not factored into this evaluation system.  If anyone would like to read the entire bill, please click here.  It is no wonder that the editorial board of The Journal News declared that SED and the Board of Regents need to pause and press the reset button on this proposal.  The editorial can be read here.

People, both in the past and present, tried to define the meaning of humans.  I remember that in an episode from the first season of Breaking Bad, the protagonist, Walt (a chemistry teacher), attempts to measure the chemical composition of the human body.  After much study, Walt concludes that elements account for 99.89 percent.  What is the remaining 0.11 percent?  Is the remainder the soul, as religious thinkers have suggested?  Is it a person’s consciousness as psychologists have written?  Is it the mind, as philosophers have pondered?

It does not really matter.  The new evaluation policy teachers reduces teachers to non-conscious, soulless, and mindless workers that must teach to tests and are measured by such.  I am lucky to know and work with principals all across this great State that have offered their help, expertise, and time to develop an evaluation system that makes sense and can be implemented without much cost to taxpayers.  Our calls have fallen on deaf ears.  If government officials are still listening, I know that we, as professionals and well-intentioned people, are willing to assist.