The Reform Reform Agenda

In a letter addressed to Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch and ex-Education Commissioner Dr. John King, Jim Malatras (Director of State Operations and Spokesperson for Governor Cuomo) writes:

“We understand that change is difficult and that there are political realities, but please give your opinion without political filters or consideration of the power of special interests and respond on what you think is best as a pure matter of policy.  Leave the political maneuvers to the legislative process so at least the conversation is informed and the public sees what enlightened policy would do.  So, let’s reframe the Albany dialogue from what is politically acceptable to what is the best education program for our future.  In essence, what is the right thing to do for our students?”

These are powerful words from Mr. Malatras, who writes on the Governor’s behalf.  Who better knows about special interests than politicians that depend on donations from special interest groups?  Assuming that the Governor can be unbiased and neutral from special interest groups (a big assumption and a leap of faith), the Governor recently presented his “enlightened policy” regarding educational reform during his State of the State address.  This enlightened policy includes two controversial items: 1) Increasing overall state aid to schools by 4.8 percent only if ALL of the Governor’s educational reforms are implemented.  Otherwise, the increase will amount to 1.7 percent.  2) Base half of teacher evaluations on student scores on state tests and half on classroom observations.

With regards to the former, the Governor’s office has withheld from providing each school district with the estimated aid it will be receiving the following school year.  An article, “N.Y. Schools Rip Cuomo for Withholding Aid Estimates,” published in the Journal News states that the New York State Educational Conference Board wrote the following in a letter given to the Governor: “School districts should not be held hostage in this process.  The current situation is chaotic and dysfunctional.  The governor should release a state aid proposal and associated aid runs without delay.”  Superintendents and school board members from all over the state have called for the Governor’s Office to release state aid figures to school districts to assist with the budget planning process.  These calls have remained unanswered.

By law, school districts must provide a proposed tax levy to the State Comptroller’s Office by March 1.  However, school districts may not find out their expected state aid until April 1 (when and if a state budget is passed).  School boards must formally adopt a school budget by the end of April.  It is no wonder that different groups have joined to try to convince the Governor to issue expected state aid increases sooner rather than later.  It seems that enlightened educational policy has a negative impact on common sense fiscal policy.

With regards to reforms in teacher evaluations, it is incredulous that the Governor is proposing a system of evaluation that is proven erroneous.  For example, a 17-year highly regarded fourth grade teacher, whose students consistently outperform other students in the state, was rated “ineffective” on the state score portion of the current evaluation system.  This teacher in Great Neck, Long Island received one out of 20 points, making her “ineffective.”  This score was derived from a statistical method called value-added measuring (VAM).  It is a predictive algorithm that compares how a teacher’s students are compared against “similar” theoretical students.  The VAM method of calculating a teacher’s score has been discredited by experts, including the group that represents statisticians, the American Statistical Association.  As quoted in an article in The Washington Post, this Association states the following about VAM:  “VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores and do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes….VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.”  The full report issues by the American Statistical Association can be read here.

Jim Malatras asks an important question: “[W]hat is the right thing to do for our students?”  One policy that should not be implemented is placing even more emphasis on standardized testing.  I have been receiving many inquiries from parents and friends, who ask me why and how did education turn into test-preparation instead of teaching and learning.  Kids get bored, learning becomes stagnant, and the results on an exam are all that matter.  We already know that counting 20 percent of test scores towards a teacher’s evaluation has a deleterious effect on teaching.  Imagine what would happen if this percentage is increased to 50 percent?  Further, most courses do not culminate is a state exam (art, music, physical and health education, business, technology, computer science, and many others).  How will these teachers be rated?  Will state exams be developed for each of these subject areas?  Will taxpayer money be awarded to test-making companies that are already financial contributors of the Governor?  Taking an already flawed system and extending it even further is not right for our students.

Taxpayers already spent millions of dollars on educational policy passed by politicians that included the development of Student Learning Objectives (SLOs).  Time and money was spent providing professional development to administrators and teachers writing SLOs and implementing them in school districts.  With the Governor’s new “reform” proposal, all this money went to waste.  School districts do not have money to squander as programs are being consolidated or reduced.  Millions of dollars could have been used to save some programs instead of developing SLOs that are now discredited by the Governor himself.

The Governor is highly distinguished in creating an “us versus them” climate among educators.  However, an improvement plan needs to be issued when it comes to listening to others, collaboration, respect, and cooperation.  After all, as Albert Camus (a French philosopher said), “Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.”

Finally, Mr. Malatras and the Governor forget that although public education is an individual property right provided by the State, the actual organization and administration of education belongs to local school boards.  Whether one likes it or not, local school boards are responsible for providing education and for personnel matters.  The Governor’s plan erodes the authority of local school boards and transfers the decision-making process from local school districts to the State level.  Public schools represent the constituents they serve.  When parents have an issue they are allowed to voice their concerns to local school board members.  With the Governor’s education agenda, parents can no longer voice their issues with school boards since these entities no longer are responsible for decisions that affect school funding (tax cap levy), personnel matters (teacher evaluation is now defined by the State), curriculum (testing of students is mandatory), and other issues.  As taxpayers of a local school district, parents have a right to engage local elected members and to voice their opinion.  This long-established tradition of local board meetings to address grievances will essentially become obsolete since the locus of power has now been transferred to the State.  Will parents be allowed to address the Governor’s office?  Will the Governor consider the unique circumstances of each community?  Will taxpayers have a voice or does the democratic process become an incidental casualty of the Governor’s reform agenda?  Responsibility for education should remain where it currently exists, local school districts governed by democratically elected school board members.

Emerging Technologies and Schools

Nanotechnology, vertical farming, bio-imprinting: Have you heard of these emerging technologies?  Many of us have not.  However, according to some, these are the technologies of the future that will require workers.  For a quick overview of jobs that will most likely exist in the future, please watch this video:

Jobs that require manual labor or technical knowledge will be replaced with what economists call the “Second Machine Age.”  The types of jobs that are experiencing the most decreases in numbers include telemarketers, secretaries, accountants, technical writers, machinists, and economists.  Robotics, automation, and improvement in software are replacing workers.  You can watch a video about the dawn of the new machine age below:

The advances in technology mean that schools are currently preparing students for jobs that do not exist yet.  For example, in 2013, the top ten in-demand jobs did not exist in 2004.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average worker will have had 10-14 different jobs by the age of 38.  Many typically started and ended their work experience in the same career and even with the same employer.  In the past, schools taught students the skill set needed in this one career.  This will no longer be the norm since the changing pace of technology essentially makes current jobs a thing of the past.  Workers must continually change and adapt to keep pace with the ever-changing technology that has a real effect on the economy.

Thus, a reasonable question to ask is how do schools prepare students for an emerging and yet to be realized economy?  Comparing six different educational frameworks, the following four skill sets are common to all:

  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Creativity and imagination
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving

A secondary set of skills includes:

  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Global and cultural awareness
  • Information literacy
  • Leadership
  • Civic literacy and citizenship
  • Oral and written communication skills
  • Social responsibility and ethics
  • Technology literacy
  • Initiative

How can schools, which are accustomed to testing for mastery of content through mid-terms, unit exams, or finals, prepare students for this new Knowledge Economy?  Obviously, students need to master the content, but the application of content is as, if not more, important.  Application of knowledge through project-based learning and experiential learning is an important educational tool.  The challenge is how to integrate these projects in a curriculum that demands learning content.  Daniel Korentz, a Professor of Education, explains this paradoxical challenge that schools face in this video.

Recognizing this need to include more project-based and hands-on learning, we are looking forward to offering new courses in the near future and revising our current curricula.  For example, we are looking to partner with Syracuse University’s Project Advance program to offer new courses such as Game Development & Animation that would allow students to apply principles of computer programming in creating their own virtual project.  Other existing courses, such as U.S. History Honors and Science Research, will be revised to meet the standards of Project Advance.  These revisions will place more of an emphasis on the application of material as opposed to the acquisition of knowledge.

As the rapid pace of technological development changes the way we do things, schools not only must adapt and change, but also begin to think about the skills that will be constant and always in demand now and in the future.

The Apple versus the Gavel: the “Us” versus “Them” Approach in Education

Recently, a friend of mine told me about a new application (app) she found on iTunes called iAdvocate.  The purpose of this app is “to share and develop specific strategies with parents for working collaboratively with a school team to improve their children’s education.  iAdvocate uses problem-based learning strategies, simulations, and provides contextual access resources to build parental advocacy skills and knowledge.”  As one reviewer pointed out, the app lacks content that offers mediating techniques and instead includes statements and situations that are confrontational.  I wonder if the app makers are suggesting that educators are not advocates of students.

iadvocate

(above-screenshot from the iAdvocate app)

The iAdvocate app is just one example of how the media deals with teachers in an adversarial fashion.  A recent Time magazine cover and article stirred much controversy and response among the K-12 educational community.  The image of a gavel crushing an apple (law versus teacher) is just another example of opposition—an “us” versus “them” approach.  The article insinuates that the educational system is failing students, especially poor and minority students, because of bad teachers instead of the real structural inequities that those living in poverty face on a daily basis.  These socio-economic inequalities are often and conveniently left out of these discussions about effective teaching and student performance.  No profession is without its bad apples; this includes the teaching profession.  However, to insinuate that K-12 educators do not advocate for children, especially those students who are in need, is itself a contentious claim.  The reason why educators respond so strongly to this statement is because most teachers choose this profession not for monetary rewards or benefits, but for other non-material reasons: helping students, working in a community, and providing a social good.  Poll after poll and year after year shows that teachers are motivated by intrinsic factors.  It is no reason that educators react strongly to insidious implications that teachers do not advocate for children or are motivated by pure self-interest.

time

An assistant principal from Virginia responded to the Time magazine article and cover and points out that “75 percent of American parents said they were satisfied with the quality of education their child was receiving in public schools.”  You can read her entire letter here.  The positives of public education are not highlighted by the media.  Instead, like the iAdvocate app, the editors of Time magazine decided to take an “us” versus “them” approach and exclude supportive voices.

This confrontational approach runs counter to the values of our society.  Civics classes used to teach the first words of our social compact, our Constitution.  This foundational document begins with three words that were considered revolutionary at the time: “We the People.”  I say “used to teach” because social studies, as a discipline, is increasingly being removed from elementary classrooms, replaced by mathematics and English preparation.  Removing civics from a course of study also removes a civil discussion about relevant and salient societal issues, such as improving education.  There is no doubt that the education profession must improve in order to respond to the ever-changing ways that students learn.  However, instead of using a gavel, perhaps an intelligent discussion would be more productive.

The loss of civil discourse can be seen in various sectors of our society, such as arguing in government and talk shows.  The loss of civility extends to the media’s treatment of public school education.  Vilifying educators, who do advocate for students, is a consequence of the loss of civil discourse and civility.  As we enter a holiday season, during which many cultures celebrate and gives thanks, let us remember the core values of our foundation: to work together to provide for union.  “We” collaborate as a community to provide the best education that we are able to for our students.  As a school community, we have much for which to be thankful: teachers who encourage students to learn and do their best, parents who listen to our educators and have meaningful dialogue with them, students who want to learn and wish to do their best, support staff who always looks out for the safety and well-being of students, and community members who want to partner with us to provide better programs for our students.

Over the years, we have been able to work together in the best interests of our students, and I am truly thankful to be part of a school community that values collaboration.  Happy Holidays to you and your family.

Anticipating Education’s Future

Before taking off, pilots check all instruments, set their course, and plan a route to their destination.  Along the way, pilots may encounter turbulence, storms, high winds, a rough take off, problems with instruments, and other unexpected issues.  The most important aspect is to reach the final destination, changing the flight pattern as circumstances may arise.  Ultimately, without a destination or purpose, there is no reason for a pilot to fly.

As educators, we need to ask ourselves the same question as pilots.  What is education’s destination?  We are able to evaluate what we have been doing, but it is necessary to anticipate what we will be doing.  Goal setting for the future is a necessity for our students since most jobs for which they will be applying have not even been created yet.  For this reason, I believe that a process, such as the Middle States Association Accreditation for Growth, allows schools like ours to set certain objectives for the future. When Clarkstown North engages in a self-evaluation process of goal-setting, we set goals for seven years into the future.

With the speed of technological innovation, it is impossible to predict the future.  However, our purpose is not to predict, but anticipate, and there are anticipatory skills that schools need and must teach. I recently attended a conference sponsored by the School Administrators Association of New York State.  The main speakers all had one theme in common: the skills needed for 21st century society are more important than the content that we currently teach.  All presenters posited that the content should be a tool that is utilized towards the application of skills.  One presenter, Bruce Taylor, focused on infusing arts in the curriculum.  Consider, for example, Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks.

nighthawks

Students could research the setting of the painting.  More so, students could make certain generalizations about this painting and also see that there are a few stories taking place.  They could imagine the conversation between the man and the woman or give reasons why the man is sitting by himself. Additionally, students can anticipate what happens after this scene and create their own story.  The skills students use in an activity like this one (comprehend, analyze, apply, evaluate, and create) are the skills needed in a 21st century knowledge economy.  The delivery of content needs to be tempered with and integrated with necessary 21st century skills.  The diagram below provides a good visual description of the relationship between content and skills.

21st-century-logo

It is not enough today for teachers to “stand and deliver” information.  Instead, students must understand information, assess its validity, evaluate positions, formulate their own positions based on sound evidence, and create something new. The careers of the 21st century depend on heuristic knowledge (positions that require creativity and discovery) as opposed to algorithmic knowledge (jobs that require following procedures and formulas).  Daniel Pink in a conversation with Professor Yong Zhao discusses the difference between these two different types of knowledge:

Although we cannot predict where education should go in the future, we can at least prepare our students with the necessary anticipatory skills that are required in this new economy.

RE-INTRODUCING PLAY

During the summer, I came to my office one random day and received a call from the Data Manager at our District Office.  She informed me that the State Education Department (SED) informed the District that North High School was identified as an LAP school.  Educational jargon has been deleted, revised, and added over the past few years as federal policy transitioned from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to Race to the Top (RTTT).   I was a little confused at first, admittedly not knowing the specifics of how a school is deemed to have a Local Assistance Plan.  It was explained to me that one of our sub-groups did not meet AYP.  This acronym stands for Annual Yearly Progress, which is a numerical target that is pre-determined by the State.  Looking deeper into the data, I found out that the SED had counted three students who were not in attendance at North at the time of the administration of the English and Algebra Regents.  Since these students were not here, our school received zeros; thus, we did not meet AYP.  I was allowed one day to prepare an appeal to the state.  Thankfully, the appeal was successful, and North High School is in “good academic standing.”

This incident reminded me that education has lost sight of its original mission, which is to educate students appropriately so that they could learn.  Learning is not a stagnant process, but rather a dynamic, ongoing, and ever-lasting enterprise.  A test does not and should not signal the end of learning.  There is no beginning and end to education. Instead, it is a continuous journey of discovery and reflection that at times involves making mistakes to derive correct responses.

Albert Einstein said, “Play is the greatest research.”  Play is a primary ingredient in school.  Reflecting upon our students’ experience in school since the day they entered kindergarten, I realize that these students have been the most over-tested students that have walked through the hallways of a school.  Thanks to No Child Left Behind (2001) and Race to the Top (2009), these students have been tested in every single grade since 3rd grade.  State assessments in grades 3 through 11 are considered a “normal” part of a student’s educational experience in the 21st century.  Being older and, perhaps, a little wiser, I know that education was not like this.  State assessments were not administered at every grade level.  Instead, there were state assessments in Grade 4, Grade 8, and high school.  My generation did not feel the pressure of tests every year.  Instead, we had the opportunity to have fun and enjoy learning in schools.  Learning was not tied to an examination.  Experimentation and play were important.  Despite what people think, as principal I cannot control the volume of testing and the policy associated with mandated exams; instead, I can set the tone and tell students and staff my expectation of the entire staff and of the student body for the year.

This year, I told students and staff that we must have more fun and enjoy our teaching and learning experience.  In other words, play should be integrated in how we learn and how teachers teach.  David St. Germain said, “Play is one of the most misunderstood concepts anywhere…We do know a few things: We seem to have played a lot in elementary school, some in middle school, a little in high school and very little when we get into life.”  Play is important in education, and as a school, we must encourage you to be enthusiastic about your learning so that you can feel comfortable in trying something new and giving your best attempt.

Students and staff were introduced to the “Fish philosophy” based on Pike’s Place Fish Market in Seattle, Washington.  Imagine working at a fish market 14 hours per day.  Working in a fish market can be smelly, sweaty at times, laborious, and monotonous.  This could be hard and boring work, but the video shows how these workers play, have fun, and enjoy their work.  The video can be seen below.  You might say, “It’s just a fish market.”  The fish is not important.  The atmosphere being created is what is most important.

I asked students and staff to consider their time in school.  Although it may seem forever, the high school experience passes by quickly.  I encouraged students to enjoy their learning. Simultaneously, I asked faculty to integrate activities that involve functional play so that students are interested and positively engaged in learning.  Time in high school is short.  The testing culture is, at times, overbearing and monotonous.  We can change that by, at least, enjoying our educational experience in schools both as students and teachers.

THE VALUE OF FICTION

We are quickly approaching the start of another school year.  As many of you already know, the Common Core Curriculum was implemented last year.  The first administration of the Common Core Algebra Exam was given in June 2014.  This year, students enrolled in Geometry will be taking the first administration of the Common Core Geometry Exam.  Similar to last year, our students will also be offered the Geometry Regents Exam.  The highest of the two grades will be utilized towards their final and course average.

The English Curriculum has also been revised to meet the standards and requirements of the Common Core Curriculum and assessment.  This September, the Board of Regents is expected to consider and adopt  the Common Core Framework in Social Studies.  As soon as that occurs, the Social Studies curriculum will also be in the process of revision.  What I quickly noticed about the English and Social Studies curriculum is how similar the assessments are.   Emphasis is placed on nonfiction, and students are required to read primary source documents and construct an argument using evidence from these sources.  While this is an important skill that all schools must teach, the importance placed on the skill of interpretation and argument leaves certain gaps in student’s thinking and skill development.  First, writing to argue is just one among many types of writing.  Without a doubt, taking a position on an issue, developing an argument, and using evidence to support this position is an important writing skill we all use in real life.  At the same time, there are other types of writing from which students gain other types of experiences and knowledge.  For example, writing in the first person or a poem or a short story is also a worthy endeavor.  The lack of variety required on written portions of the state assessments are concerning since there is no reason to replicate the same written skill on two different exams (English Language Arts and Social Studies).

Second, the ratio of nonfiction to fiction reading required on the Common Core English Exam is 75% to 25%.  Since the Social Studies Framework already requires 100% nonfiction reading, the overemphasis on nonfiction reading in a student’s academic experience is of concern.  Great novels are labeled “great” since they carry and transmit certain themes, values, and messages about a culture.  Fiction allows the exploration of themes in a noncontroversial and less threatening manner.   Aristophanes’ comedies, for instance, contain critical political and social lessons that are written within the lines spoken by various characters.  Although the references are inferred, the parody about Athenian culture does have a real message.  A more recent example, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., takes a critical look at post-war American society.  While these are examples of fiction, the themes and messages are nonfictional and can be applied to real life.  Great fiction does have real-world application, and depending on a student’s learning style, the message delivered through a fictional approach may have more of an impact than the one stated by a nonfictional perspective.  Apparently, there are scientific benefits to reading fiction.  A recent study indicates that reading improves brain functions.  The article can be accessed here.  A video on this same topic can be viewed below:

While I do applaud the inclusion of additional nonfiction work in the English Curriculum, we must not lose sight of what great novels generate in us and our students: wonder, inspiration, creativity, inspiration, sadness, happiness, and many other feelings and emotions.  As a society, we also place value on empathy and sympathy.  Fiction provides us with a certain perspective that nonfiction will never be able to capture.  Hopefully, this overemphasis on nonfiction will be reconsidered and a more appropriate balance between fiction and nonfiction will be restored.

In the meantime, our teachers and staff will do their best in preparing students for the new assessments while providing learning experiences that are meaningful.  I look forward to welcoming students, parents, and staff to the start of another great year.

“O Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Test Scores?”

Recently, I attended the largest educational conference in the world, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference.  Over 14,000 participants (researchers, college and university professors, members of educational foundations, teachers, and administrators) attended the conference.  A major theme of the conference was educational accountability and evaluation, making the conference location, Philadelphia, ironic:  Fifty percent of Philadelphia’s public schools have been closed and re-opened as charter schools.  This means they are taxpayer-funded – yet privately run – and not subject to the rules and testing of most public schools.

I have been evaluating teacher performance most of my educational career; so, the chance to learn new developments and best practices was a great one.  I decided to spend my few days at the AERA conference attending workshops on teacher evaluation.  The themes and topics discussed were all very similar: 1) Can teacher performance be quantified? 2) To what extent does student performance on tests demonstrate the amount of teacher effectiveness? 3) Are there other socio-economic factors that influence student test scores and teacher effectiveness?  4) How does a teacher’s “value” add to increased student performance?  These researchers presented their evidence in the form of quantifiable evidence, correlational statistics, and regression analytics.

Researchers talked and presented lots of “evidence,” but they never questioned the idea of measuring teachers and assigning a numerical value to their performance.   This unreflecting acquiescence to a dominant ideology that now includes the vocabulary of technocratic efficiency (i.e. targets, performance measures, enhanced growth scores, value-added, student learning objectives, and so on) has silently allowed the reduction of education to hyper test preparation and over testing.  As our school leader, I want our kids to do their very best.  I am proud when they succeed and always want to find new ways to support them when they are challenged.  Some form of testing is a part of life, be it at school, home, or at work.  It is a valuable tool that instills values beyond subject matter.  Students develop time management skills and responsibility.  This is what I hope educational leaders mean when they reference “college and career readiness.”  Of course, we need great teachers, and I need some way of evaluating their ability and measuring success.  However, I am hard-pressed to see how canned tests created by multi-national corporations are going to translate into better academic, personal, and professional lives for our kids.

Recently, our English teachers introduced and taught Romeo and Juliet to our ninth graders.  Some teachers decided to fully adopt the State Education Department’s unit plan (also called a “module”) on Romeo and Juliet.  Other teachers decided to adapt this module, while some teachers ignored the module all together.  In those classes that adopted the module, I noticed that students seemed disinterested and less engaged.  The same teaching strategy was utilized lesson after lesson, day after day (as the module instructed).  The teacher read certain pre-determined passages.   Students answered questions from worksheets on their own and, then, discussed responses with other students.  We can debate whether Romeo and Juliet is a good play for kids – that is open for discussion.  The important and shocking part about the State Education Department’s module is that students did not have to read the entire play.  Whole scenes were skipped.  By the end of the unit, students were reasonably confused about why characters did certain things.

The students’ reaction to the module was insightful.  They wondered why they were not able to read from the play or act certain scenes in class.  The most interesting debate occurred in a class whose teacher decided to ignore the module and whose students read the entire play.   The teacher asked whether students felt sorry for Romeo.  One student stated that he felt sorry for Paris.  Paris was Juliet’s fiancé and he loved her; then, along came Romeo, and she abandoned Paris, who was heartbroken.  An impromptu discussion ensued in class as to whether Paris or Romeo was the more tragic character.  This debate could not occur in a class that followed the state module since Paris was only rudimentarily covered.

As an observer, how do I measure which teacher or teaching techniques were more effective?  How can I quantify the degree of student growth from one class to the other?  Did the unsolicited discussion about Romeo and Paris meet any performance target as described by the module?  Probably not, but this conversation required an understanding of difficult language and themes.  It inspired philosophical and ethical debate, and more than a little bit of empathy.  After all, Romeo and Juliet is often taught at this grade level because the lead characters are the same age as the students.

Students must know certain basics and must be able to perform tasks that will help them participate in a world that requires literacy and numeracy on many levels.  At the same time, what always made U.S. education unique was focus on the creative and the imaginative.  This is the reason why high performing nations in the world (e.g. Finland, China, and Canada) utilize U.S. classroom strategies.  While our departments of state education have abandoned tested, tried, and effective methods, the rest of the world is catching up with where we used to be.

Alfred North Whitehead, a noted physicist and philosopher, observed that “nothing is more curious than the self- satisfied dogmatism with which mankind at each period of its history cherishes the delusion of the finality of its existing modes of knowledge.”  In education and teaching, the disastrous consequence of such a tendency is to reduce the eagerness of inquiry to the dull acquisition of inert ideas and the passive tolerance of disconnected bits of information.   Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk addresses how schools curtail creativity:

At a time when future jobs have not even been invented yet, a central purpose of education is to prepare students for the unknown.  Sometimes, they will need to choose the “least worst answer” as standardized test tutors often suggest.  More often, they will need creative problem-solving skills.  They will need imagination.  They will need strong ethics and the ability and social skills to work effectively with others.  As a school leader, I take this responsibility seriously, as do most teachers I have ever known.

Testing Season

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a full-day workshop at Teachers College at Columbia University.  Diane Ravitch delivered the key note address in front of a packed audience of educators at the Riverside Church.  Ravitch dispelled certain misconceptions about public education.  One of the myths perpetuated by reformers and policy-makers is that our schools are failing.  Ravitch points out in her most recent book, Reign of Error that students, on the whole, are actually performing better than ever before:

“NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] data show beyond question that test scores in reading and math have improved for almost every group of students over the past two decades; slowly and steadily in the case of reading, dramatically in the case of mathematics.  Students know more and can do more in these two basic skills subjects now than they could twenty or forty years ago… So the next time you hear someone say that the system is ‘broken,’ that American students aren’t as well educated as they used to be, that our schools are failing, tell that person the facts.”

Student performance on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) has been used by federal, state, and local policy-makers as the central concern for “reforming” education since our students must compete in a global economy and workforce.  Average or low student performance is seen as a reason to be concerned by these reformers.  However, when one considers the effect of poverty on test scores, a different reality is presented.  Poverty in U.S. public schools is measured by the free and reduced lunch rate.  Those schools in the U.S. with a free and reduced lunch rate of less than 10 percent are the top performing schools in the world.  In fact, when the school free and reduced lunch rate is less than 25 percent, only one nation’s schools perform better than the U.S.—Finland.  On the other hand, those schools in the U.S. with a free and reduced lunch rate of more than 50 percent are some of the worst performing schools on the PISA assessment.

PERFORMANCE ON PISA AND POVERTY PERCENTAGE (BY NATION)

pisa and poverty

Obviously, there is work to be done, and improvements must be made, especially for our poorest children.  The U.S. not only has the most inequitable rate of wealth and income distribution among western developed nations, but the U.S. also has the highest child poverty rate of those nations participating in the PISA assessment.  In New York State, the child poverty rate is 23 percent.  We must do better.  Policies must be enacted that address and meet this social problem of childhood poverty and poor educational opportunities for our poorest students.  Unfortunately, the path policymakers have decided to follow is the panacea called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Somehow, the CCSS will improve U.S. student performance on standardized assessments as the PISA and NAPE.  Without any research demonstrating actual improved educational outcomes, 45 states adopted the CCSS.  The stimulus money offered by the federal government to the states (Race to the Top) persuaded cash-strapped states to take the federal money in return for adopting the CCSS, along with standardized testing in grades 3-12.

So, as public schools throughout the nation begin a period of testing (first for elementary and middle schools students and after for high school students), I researched what testing is presently occurring in Finland, which is one of the top performing nations on the PISA assessment.  Recently, Pasi Sahlberg, former director general at the Finland’s Ministry of Education, described Finland’s exams in a Washington Post article.  He states that: “Students are regularly asked to show their ability to cope with issues related to evolution, losing a job, dieting, political issues, violence, war, ethics in sports, junk food, sex, drugs, and popular music. Such issues span across subject areas and often require multi-disciplinary knowledge and skills.”  Some sample essay topics include:

  • “Some politicians, athletes and other celebrities have publicly regretted and apologized for what they have said or done. Discuss the meaning of the apology and accepting it as a social and personal act.”
  • “Has your body become your hobby?”
  • “Media is competing for audiences – what are the consequences?”
  • “Choose three world religions and compare the role and use of a holy image within them.”

The National Matriculation Exam is the only exam required for students in Finland to graduate high school and enter college.  That’s it.  There is no 3-12 school-wide testing.  There are no multiple choice questions.  This exam stands in stark contrast to the type of multiple-choice, machine-scorable exams that are not even written by educators here in the U.S.  A film about the Finnish educational, a film about the Finnish educational, The Finland Phenomenon, describes in detail the highlights of this educational system.  Below is trailer to this film:

The entire film can be viewed below:

The Finnish and U.S. system of examinations are at polar opposites with the former relying on one matriculation exam with separate open-ended questions, while the latter relies on examinations largely composed of closed-ended questions in every grade level from 3-12.  The decisions about how to test, who to test, and what to test vary nation by nation as seen in this example.  Ultimately, the question that must be asked and answered is if the recent educational reform that places more emphasis on outputs and results rather than on processes will improve educational opportunities for all of our students.

Reclaiming the Conversation on Education

Matt Damon, whose mother was a teacher, recently questioned why teachers are often excluded from educational policy: “I’ve always believed that they [policymakers] have to invite teachers into the discussion to help design policy.  We would never let business men design warheads, why would you cut out educators when you’re designing education policy?”

Coincidentally, about a week later, I was invited to a meeting called “Reclaiming the Conversation on Education” that focused on the same issue.  In attendance were superintendents, university and college professors, school administrators, teachers, community activists, and parents.  Despite our varied backgrounds, the one unifying element that brought us all together is the one-dimensional focus on high stakes exam.  Elementary school teachers spoke about the pressures they faced to cover a curriculum that was still “under construction.”  Parents were concerned about their son’s/daughter’s well-being.  One parent described to me how her son pulls out his hair when faced with a three-hour standardized exam.

We also knew that recent discussion about pausing the roll out of the Common Core Curriculum as evidenced by headlines in the press (“New York to Slow Down Common Core Implementation”) is a sham.  There is no slow down.  Students must still pass Common Core aligned exams in all grades.  The curriculum will still be rolled out as planned, and teacher/principal evaluation will still be tied to tests.  Twice Principal of the Year, Carol Burris, explains why there is no pulling back here.

It also occurred to me to ask the question, “From whom are we reclaiming the conversation about education?”  By looking around this conference room at Barnard College, it was evident that the policymakers and architects of the Common Core Curriculum were absent from the room.  Those closest to the educational process (administrators, teachers, parents, and students) have been left out from the Common Core agenda since its inception.  One justification used for the Common Core is to make U.S. education more globally competitive.  It is ironic, then, that politicians have conveniently disregarded a basic principle that is found in other successful educational systems, i.e. to work collaboratively with those closest to the classroom.  Instead, policymakers set out on a conscious effort to exclude those most familiar with and expert in teaching and learning, educators themselves.

The Finnish educational model that is often cited by policymakers and private benefactors (such as, President Obama, Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, New York State Education Commissioner Dr. King, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, and others) as a paradigm of success, invites teachers and principals to collaborate with politicians to write educational policy together.  Perhaps, if policymakers collaborated with those in the educational process, New York State would not be debating what the Common Core is, whether this curriculum can ever be effective, and how to implement it.  Instead of extending an invitation, policymakers in this state have closed the door on an entire profession.  That’s why meetings to reclaim the conversation are important.

The Common Core debate is just beginning in New York.  Hopefully, those crafting educational policy will learn that adversarial approaches do not work and only policy that has been developed after a healthy and knowledgeable debate will work.  To that end, Matt Damon’s 2011 speech at a Save Our Schools rally may provide a starting point to fashion future discussion.

Scheduling Courses

At the beginning of the school year, I showed students this video.

After the video, I offered the following advice to students: never give up, persevere, and challenge oneself during his/her high school years in order to progress from what one is to what one could become based on his/her potential.

We are lucky enough to offer a variety of programs and electives here at Clarkstown North High School.  In particular, our school has been nationally recognized for graduating students that are college and career ready.  This success is largely due to the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and college partnership programs.  Our newly revised course catalogue lists courses that are available for students to enroll.  The catalogue can be found here.

During the month of February, school counselors will be meeting with your son/daughter to review course offerings towards developing a program of study for next year.  Thankfully, our school offers many opportunities to extend beyond and to learn on a higher level.  With the exception of a few courses that depend on skills acquisition, all our courses are free from grade point requirements and prerequisites.  This open enrollment allows students to enroll in courses in which they are interested.  I encourage students to take one college-level course since we offer so many from which to choose.  These courses provide another way of thinking and learning about the world around us.

Although these courses may be challenging, they provide  real-life experiences for what students will be facing in college and later on in the workplace: independent thought, critical thinking, and project based learning.  Challenging oneself to perform on a higher level is something that we all do in life.  At least in the comfort of the high school environment, students who do decide to take a more challenging course will find themselves in the company of caring and supportive teachers and staff.

I hope that you find our new electronic course offerings guide useful.  We will be updating this guide periodically by adding more useful links and information.  In the meantime, please consider your son’s/daughter’s schedule for next year carefully, and if you have any questions please do contact your son’s/daughter’s school counselor.