Friday, May 15, 2015

Beating dragons!

I have never seen a real dragon.

But I have seen Smaug from The Hobbit and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon.

I have most assuredly felt the power of dragons.

Dragons bring chaos and threaten ruin.

There are weeks when it feels like all I do is defend myself and those I love from dragons.

It is at those times that it is wise to remember the words of Neil Gaiman.


Friday, May 8, 2015

The good Dr. Webber and lessons about learning!

My friend and colleague RJ Webber graduated today - again.

He is now Dr. RJ Webber!

Dr. Webber looks happy and he should be. It is a wonderful accomplishment.

Dr. Webber is a wonderful mentor to me. He has a passion and a love for learning!

Dr. Webber has helped me understand that education is not about getting a grade or passing a class. Grades and passing a class have their place.

But the true value in education is understanding.

Understanding more about ideas.

Understanding more about how things work.

Understanding more about yourself.

Dr. Webber helps me see that my life's task is not about making sure that students get good grades or high test scores - although those things have their place. 

No - my life's task is about seeing that students learn to value learning.

Dr. Webber has helped me see that what is important in my life is making sure that the students who I have a chance to impact are willing to struggle and stretch and work hard to understand the lessons that they need to learn.

Dr. Webber has helped me see that what is important in my life is making sure that I am willing to struggle and stretch and work hard to understand the lessons that I need to learn.

Congratulations Dr. Webber. You have learned and you have taught your lessons well!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Appreciation for a job well done!

What do you remember about school?

It's probably not the problems you did in math or the essays that you wrote in English class. It's not the times that you had to find countries on a map or stand up in front of class to give a speech.

When I reflect back on my school experience, what I remember most are the people.

It's not that the people were by themselves memorable. It's what they did that sticks with me. The ones I remember most are the ones that made me feel special, important, like I was worth the effort.

Working in a school is not easy. There is a lot going on. Students are trying to figure our who and what they are going to be. Parents are focused on making sure their children get the attention they deserve. The state creates demands that at times seem unreasonable.

Through it all there are people who take time for students, who make students feel like they are important. The teachers, secretaries, food service workers, and principals who make a difference focus not on "school" but on kids.

The staff I remember most were people like this:

The staff I remember treated me like a real person. Whether it was with humor or a hello or a "Hey Steve, can I talk to you for a minute," these staff communicated that I mattered.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week.

In Novi, we extend it to Staff Appreciation Week, in recognition that everyone in our district contributes to our success and to the success of our students.

I would encourage you to take time this week to thank those people who work in the Novi Community School District.

They make a tremendous difference in the lives of every student.

Monday, April 27, 2015

What makes school significant (It's not the M-STEP)

We are in the middle of M-STEP, Michigan's state mandated assessment for students in grades 3-8 and 11.

This assessment, while it is not intended to do so, will determine our worth.

After the assessment we will receive in weeks (or months) our scores. These scores will be reported in the newspaper. These scores will be used to rank school districts. Academic champions will be crowned based on these scores.

But in the end, the test scores don't matter.

I reached this epiphany while reading Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. The book is about the conversations doctors and the medical professionals have with patients who because of age or life-threatening illnesses are facing the end of life.

The book is wonderfully difficult. It made me think about what is truly important in life.

But it also made me think about school. Gawande says the following when discussing the medical field: 

The problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all. Medicine's focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet - and this is the painful paradox - we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days. For more than a half century now, we have treated the trials of sickness, aging, and mortality as medical concerns. It's been an experiment in social engineering, putting our fates in the hands of people valued more for their technical prowess than for their understanding of human needs.

As I read those words it made me think of schools and education. Schools should not be defined by test scores. Schools should not be defined by many of the various metrics that appear on state reports or in the paper.

The problem with education and the institutions it has spawned to care for students is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all.

What makes school significant for students?

People, relationships, passion, discovering ideas, talking about ideas, learning who you are and what you care about.

State legislators and newspapers seem to think that the most important part of school are test scores and graduation rates and daily attendance. Those are important. But the schools that have high test scores and good graduation rates and high daily attendance are schools that don't focus on those things.

We can tell ourselves that high test scores are important. We can spend all of our time in school prepping students to take a test.

But in the end, those things do not matter.

I believe that schools that measure well on the new metrics of education do so because they focus on making school relevant and meaningful. Schools that focus on relationships and help students develop a passion for learning, those are the schools that understand what is truly important about education.

Medicine focuses on repairing health when the real discussion should be about what is significant in life.

Often the discussion in schools is about test scores when the real discussion should be about sustenance of the soul.

While I completely agree that schools need to ensure that students learn, that students have the skills they need to pursue their dreams, the more important discussions are about what students are passionate about. The more important discussions are how what we are learning applies to life outside of the school.  The more important discussions are about how school makes it possible for a student to follow their passion and make a difference.

We give the M-STEP because we have to.

What I want our schools to find are ways to sustain the souls of our students so that they can make powerful contributions to their family, their friends, and to society.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Measuring progress

First, I want to state that I believe in accountability.

Parents send their children to school because there is an expectation that students will learn.

A community supports schools because there is an expectation that schools will help students learn.

Part of my responsibility is to be able to demonstrate that children learn in the classrooms in my school district.

Today, in Michigan, we begin our M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress) testing window.

I understand the need for an external evaluation - an unbiased look at the performance of my students. 

But, is this really the way?

Last week I was baking cookies. Suddenly this ad showed up on my TV.


Pearson, a company whose mission is to "help people make more of their lives through learning", is recruiting college graduates to become temporary M-STEP test scorers. (Here is the job description listed on their website.)

I would receive a 10% pay differential for the evening shift!

As I said, I believe in accountability. Students, parents, and community members need to know if students are learning.

Those who teach and those of us responsible for schools need to know if what we are doing is making a difference.

But do I really want the effort of my teachers and the performance of my students to hinge on the ability of temp workers hired by a multinational educational conglomerate who have been trained for a few days to determine if my students demonstrate proficiency on the standard?

I would much rather trust the judgment of my teachers. I would much rather include in any assessment of the performance of my students a judgment rendered by someone who has spent time with these students, who has seen the growth in these students, who has evidence gathered over the course of the school year about the progress these students have made.

Instead, my state of Michigan following the direction of the federal Department of Education, has chosen to measure the progress of my students using only one measure - the M-STEP. My state and the federal government have also chosen to rank and evaluate my schools and my teachers based on this one measure.

I want to see the results of the M-STEP.

But I also want to be able to include for everyone to see the evidence my teachers have gathered over the course of the year about the progress of my students. This gives me a better picture of the growth of my students. It shows me how far each student has come over the course of the year.

But that requires that we trust a teacher's judgment.

It also requires that we understand the complex nature of performance.

I trust my teacher's judgment.

I also believe that my students and their parents deserve more than a score on a test to determine if schools are doing a good job.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The joke could be on us!

Today is April 1st.

April Fool's Day!

We celebrate pranks, jokes, and fun today.

Yet the story in the Detroit Free Press today about Proposal One is not a joke. If the vote were held today Proposal One would be defeated.

But the vote is not today. the vote will be on May 5th. My hope is that Michigan voters will recognize that this proposal will do two things:

  1. Dedicate money to fix Michigan roads
  2. Provide dedicated funds to Michigan K-12 education and community colleges
The proposal provides Michigan with an opportunity. Proposal One will:
  • Ensure that all state fuel taxes go to treansportation
  • Increase the state sales tax from 6% to 7% (except on food and prescription drugs)
    • $1.2 billion annually will go to roads and bridges
    • Additional sales tax dollars will go to:
      • School Aid fund ($300 million)
      • Local governments ($94 million)
      • Earned Income Tax Credit ($260 million)
      • Rail/Mass Transit ($112 million)
I would encourage Michigan voters to learn about Proposal One. I believe that it would benefit Michigan. I will vote yes on Proposal One.

Without a yes vote on Proposal One our Michigan roads will continue to crumble and Michigan schools will continue to suffer.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

How to kill a profession

So you want to kill a profession.

It's easy.

First you demonize the profession. To do this you will need a well-organized, broad-based public relations campaign that casts everyone associated with the profession as incompetent and doing harm.  As an example, a well-orchestrated public relations campaign could get the front cover of a historically influential magazine to invoke an image that those associated with the profession are "rotten apples."

Then you remove revenue control from the budget responsibilities of those at the local level. Then you tell the organization to run like a business which they clearly cannot do because they no longer have control of the revenue. As an example, you could create a system that places the control for revenue in the hands of the state legislature instead of with the local school board or local community.

Then you provide revenue that gives a local agency two choices: Give raises and go into deficit or don't give raises so that you can maintain a fund balance but in the process demoralize employees. As an example, in Michigan there are school districts that have little to no fund balance who have continued to give raises to employees and you have school districts that have relatively healthy fund balances that have not given employees raises for several years.

Then have the state tell the local agency that it must tighten its belt to balance revenue and expenses. The underlying, unspoken assumption being that the employees will take up the slack and pay for needed supplies out of their own pockets. 

Additionally , introduce "independent" charters so that "competition" and "market-forces" will "drive" the industry. However, many of these charters, when examined, give the illusion of a better environment but when examined show no improvement in service. The charters also offer no comprehensive benefits or significantly fewer benefits for employees. So the charters offer no better quality for "customers" and no security for employees but they ravage the local environment.

Then create a state-mandated evaluation system in an effort to improve quality. Require the system to use a value-added measure (or VAM) that may or may not be equipped to do what its advocates say it can do. The American Statistical Association states:

Under some conditions, VAM scores and rankings can change substantially when a different model or test is used, and a thorough analysis should be undertaken to evaluate the sensitivity of estimates to different models.

Then make high stakes employment decisions based on the VAM.

Then you create an accountability system that purports to evaluate the quality of organizations. Then, using this system, rate over 80% of organizations as average or below average, furthering diminishing the respect of the profession.

It's easy to kill a profession.

All of these things have happened to public schools in Michigan. While I don't want to believe it, the argument could be made that some people are trying to kill the profession of public school educator in Michigan.

Some might argue that what I should focus on is the students. Student needs are the most important.

I agree.

But unless you create a meaningful, respected profession - who will teach the students?