Friday, October 2, 2015

Teaching is not like other professions

In most jobs you do not receive an email like this. The subject line said:

Head lice information

Most jobs do not require you to think about or check for head lice.

But teaching is not like other professions.

Teaching, like most jobs, requires technical skill. Teaching, like most jobs, has a set of observable and measurable skills that a person needs to be successful. A teacher needs to know and understand their subject. More importantly, a teacher needs to know how to communicate their knowledge of the subject to an eight and twelve and fifteen year-old who may or may not be interested in learning that subject. There are very specific techniques and approaches that can and do help you teach.

But teaching also requires another set of skills. Teaching requires that a person be willing to look for head lice, break up a fight, listen to a break-up story, stop a bloody nose, and tell students that they are dancing too close to each other. Teaching requires that a person notice when a student is "off" because her dog died or because his girlfriend just dumped him or because he was just cut from a team that he had wanted all of his fourteen years to be a part of. Teaching requires that you understand heartache and heart break.

Teaching requires the very best a person has to offer. Students can spot a person who doesn't really care, who is not all that interested in them, and who is unwillingly to do the dirty work that is required to motivate and encourage and challenge a five or nine or thirteen or eighteen year-old.

Teaching is not like other professions.

Yet our society communicates to teachers that they don't matter, that anyone could do the job, that it is really not that hard. We look for ways to put students in front of computers believing, wrongly, that learning is about knowledge when really it is about relationships.

For those who claim anyone can be a teacher, I'll call you next time we need to check for head lice.   

Monday, September 21, 2015

Zero miles to empty

Zero miles to empty!

That's what my car said. But I kept on driving.

With a message like that one would think that my car stopped immediately - out of gas! Surprisingly, I traveled 23 more miles before I pulled into a gas station to fill up my tank.

Data - even seemingly unambiguous, hard data - has wiggle room. There is always a difference between what is "observed" and what is "true."

In my car there is a difference between what I observed - zero miles to empty - and what was true - I was able to go at least 23 miles more.

The same principle holds true in standardized assessment. The score a child receives on a standardized test is an "observed" score. It is not the "true" score. Test theory holds that one can never know the true score. What we can do is try and create assessments that can get us close to a true score.

But in the end we have to be content with the understanding that any assessment gives us an observed score that might be higher or lower than a person's true ability.

That is why I am so dismayed that the Michigan legislature is considering House Bill (HB) 4822 which would require mandatory retention in 3rd grade for students who do not score at the 3rd grade level on the Michigan state assessment. Specifically it states the following:

If a pupil enrolled in grade 3 in a school district or public school academy is rated one full grade level or more behind in reading, as determined by the department based on the reading portion of the grade 3 state English language arts assessment the Board of the school district of Board of Directors of the public school academy in which the pupil is enrolled shall ensure that the pupil is not enrolled in grade 4 until . . .

This sounds good in theory. We should not promote students until they demonstrate that they have learned. But no assessment gives us a "true" score. Assessments give us an "observed" score. The observed score gives us one indication of a student's ability. But it certainly and clearly does not give us a completely accurate indication of a student's ability.

We asked parents in our district if mandatory retention was a good idea. These parents are not testing experts. They probably could not win a debate that was discussing the merits of testing theory. But they were overwhelmingly dubious of a policy that relied on mandatory retention.

Teachers and principals, those who work with students each and every day, know and understand that students develop differently. Artificially imposing a mandatory score to move on from 3rd grade is bad policy.

Friday, September 11, 2015

I hear voices

I hear voices.

Lots of voices - everyday.

My concern is whose voices am I hearing? Are they adult voices? Are they student voices? Are they voices filled with compassion and questions? Are they voices filled with arrogance and conceit?

Lately I have become more interested in the voices of students. What are they saying? What do I hear when I listen to them?

This week was the first week of school. As I visited schools around my district I heard lots of student voices. They were excited to be back in school, to see friends, to be with each other. Students wanted to talk.

Did we let them?

Or were we so concerned about teaching the curriculum and covering the standards that we did not let them speak?

I know that students come to school to learn. We only have a limited amount of time each day, each week, each month, each school year with our students. Time is precious.

But in our haste to ensure that we do our jobs do we become so concerned with our agenda that we never listen to our students' agendas?

In our haste to be good teachers is the only voice in the classroom our voice or do we make room and make time to listen to the voices of our students?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

What's a parent to do?

I love this picture. It's old. It's beginning to fade. Some of the color has rubbed off.

It is a picture of the boys on Beaufait. Two of my boys are in this picture - Zach, with the big smile, on the right, and Jake, the farthest left.

The boy in the purple shirt is now a PhD in Civil Engineering.

The youngest boy just left for Marine boot camp last Sunday.

Jake has studied graphic and web design and is looking for a job. Zach works full-time and goes to school.

Many years have passed since this picture was taken. Yet when I see this picture and know who these children have become I can't help but think of Mrs. Fraser, Mrs. Reith, Mr. (now Dr.) Dib, Mrs. Gawel, Mr. Hunwick, Mr. Bens, Mr. Cooper, Mr. Quinn, Mr. Stackpoole, Ms. McGuire, and many other teachers who influenced my children in positive and profound ways.

No longer do I have young children to get ready for the start of school. While I anticipate and look forward to the start of school it is because I am the Superintendent not because I have children who are anticipating that first day of school. 

As a parent I wanted each school year to be perfect.

It never was.

But our family survived and my boys survived. How? Here are lessons I learned as my boys went through school. They may, or may not, be helpful as you prepare for another new school year.

Establish a good routine. My wife and I established a bed time and a time to get up in the morning for our children. We learned this lesson the hard way. There were too many nights and too many mornings that did not go well because we were rushing. A routine helped us manage more successfully.

There will be times to vary, but a routine helps establish other things. If everyone knows when bedtime is then it is easier to know when to start homework and when to start baths and when to start bedtime reading. It also made it easier in the morning when one child took a long time to wake up and one child could get ready in an instant.

Read to your children. Everyday! My wife and I would take turns reading. We read to our boys up through middle school.

Reading has many positive academic benefits - increased fluency, increased vocabulary, increased sense of language. But it also has many social-emotional connections. My sons and I cried reading Bridge to Terabithia. We had wonderful discussions reading Jurassic Park.

There is no right way to read. My oldest kept very still while we read, right beside me in the bed. My youngest couldn't sit still and played with toys and moved around the whole time. Just read - that's the most important thing!

My experience taught me that teachers, principals, bus drivers, school secretaries, and food service workers cared for my children. They probably didn't care as much as I did - but they cared a lot! Teachers and principals did their jobs because they wanted what was best for my children. They invested themselves everyday to help my children find success.

Sometimes success was elusive. Sometimes things don't go well. But it was not because the people who worked in schools didn't like my kids, didn't know what to do, or didn't care.

When things went wrong - as they inevitably did - I learned that I needed to take the time to talk to the people directly involved. I learned to approach them with the belief that they cared for my children - because they did.

We worked together. We tried to find solutions. Sometimes we didn't go in the direction that I thought we should. When that happened I sometimes thought that the end would be catastrophe. It never was. Things sorted themselves out. 

When things didn't work out like I thought they should it was not because the teacher or administrator was trying to be mean or didn't care. The teacher or administrator or coach was making what they considered to be the best decision possible.

I also learned that my boys sometimes did stupid things. When they did it was best to help my boys see that it was stupid and accept the consequences instead of trying to get them out of it. My hope is that they learned that I loved them and that they also learned a lesson.

There are lots of things that I learned raising three boys. What I learned most of all is that schools were great places for my boys to learn and grow and mature into great adults!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Does it really all come down to this?

Am I willing to determine the effectiveness of a teacher based on this chart?

It is a good chart. It provides me with a lot of data. It measures a student's growth from the beginning of the year to the end of the year - an important and worthwhile bit of information.

This specific chart shows the math achievement of a group of first graders. The overwhelming majority of these first grade students ended up in the high achievement/high growth quadrant.


A couple were in the low achievement/high growth quadrant.

Again - very good! While achievement is not quite where it needs to be these students did show growth over the course of the year.

Two students were in the high achievement/low growth section of this chart.

That is the mixed-bag area. Clearly these students perform above grade level but they did not make the desired growth.

Does that mean this teacher failed these students?

I can create a chart like this for every teacher in my district for math and reading achievement. The question is - does it really tell me all I need to know about a teacher?

I don't think it does.

Student achievement is important. Parents send their sons and daughters to the schools in my district because they expect that students will learn.

I need to be able to determine if students are learning.

A chart like this gives me information.

But is it the right and only information?

The simple answer is no! This is not the right and only information that I need to determine a teacher's effectiveness.

But some would argue that I am wrong. Some would argue that this is indeed all I need to know about a teacher.

Did the students learn?

Did they make progress?

If I have the answers to those questions, some would argue, I have all the information I need to determine if the teacher is worth keeping.

I don't believe that!

Clearly I need some information on whether students are learning.

But I need lots of other information on a teacher.

I need to know if a teacher can engage students in meaningful learning.

I need to know if a teacher can inspire students.

I need to know if a teacher can tell when a student is upset and if that teacher takes the time to reach out to that student.

I need to know if a teacher uses instructional strategies that make learning interesting.

I need to know if a teacher knows how to give one kid a push forward and another student more time.

I need to know if a teacher reaches out to parents in meaningful ways to create a great partnership between school and home.

I need to know if a teacher is a good colleague, willing to work with others and find solutions to problems.

I need to know if a teacher works within the rules, following rules when needed, challenging rules when it is called for. 

Being an effective teacher is not just about getting every student to have a high test score.

Being an effective teacher is not just about making sure the end-of-the-year test results show everyone in the high achievement/high growth quadrant.

Being an effective teacher doesn't all come down to one chart at the end of year.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Scorecards: What's right for education?

ProPublica recently unveiled a new Surgeon Scorecard website.

On this website you can look up a score for over 17,000 surgeons for surgeries performed in eight common elective surgeries.

For surgeons who performed at least 50 operations each, 750 did not record a single complication in the five years covered by the analysis. Another 1423 had only one reported complication.

Knowing a surgeon's track record is fairly important. It could literally be a matter of life and death.

But do the numbers really show what they suggest they show? ProPublica provided some reviews and comments on their findings. As you might imagine some believed this scorecard was a positive development, others believed it was "not valid."

And there my friends is, in a nutshell, the crux of the debate about school and teacher scorecards. Parents want to know if a school or if a teacher is effective. People like me want to know if schools and teachers are effective.

Bridge, a website from The Center for Michigan, published their Academic State Champs report which encouraged parents to compare schools and districts. My district fell in the "exceeding expectations" category but was not declared a "state champ."

The Mackinac Center publishes a Michigan High School Context and Performance Report Card. This scorecard purports to take into account not only test scores but also socioeconomic factors.

Heck, the state of Michigan even publishes a Top-to-Bottom Ranking.

What's a parent to do?

What's a school administrator to do?

What's a teacher to do?

Education is important. Trying to determine if a school and the teachers and administrators in the school are educating the students entrusted to their care is, I would argue, very important. Knowing if our schools, teachers, and administrators are doing their job is worth finding out.

But that is where the trouble starts.

Scorecards and rankings can create algorithms based on test scores and socioeconomic factors. Scorecards and rankings can slice and dice the reported results in a hundred different ways.

But the scorecards and rankings don't tell you what goes on in those schools.

Are students happy?
Do teachers treat students well?
Are administrators supporting teachers and working with parents in meaningful and productive ways?
Is there joy inside the walls of that school, inside the walls of a classroom?

Scorecards and rankings can measure whether students are doing well on tests.

What they can't measure is the spirit of those who attend and those who work in the school.

I understand that the most important part of a school is not whether students are happy or valued or joyful.

But those things are important.

And a true measure of a school will take those things into account.

Scorecards and rankings don't show whether or not students like school or if teachers care about students.

I have mixed emotions about scorecards and rankings. It is important to know whether or not a surgeon or a teacher is good at their job.

The question is what do we measure to figure that out?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Will we close our eyes?

Yesterday in Charleston South Carolina, nine people who gathered in a church for a bible study were gunned down by a man who did not know them but who hated them because they were black.

I can't fathom hate like that.

Intellectually I know it exists.

Emotionally it is beyond what I can comprehend.

In Novi our work rests on two pillars. All of what we do - our work in curriculum, assessment, evaluation, instruction, and student growth is built on helping our students learn to write and to understand social justice.

Writing is an easy pillar to explain. If students can write, and write well, it means that they can think, that they can examine ideas, that they can reason, that they can communicate. Writing supports students as they learn math and science and social studies. Being a writer prepares students to enter into the conversations that they will have in the board room and the break room and the shop floor and the family room. Writing makes sense for a school district.

Social justice. This pillar is harder to explain to people. People push back against social justice. People suggest to me that this is not what the district needs to focus on. Social justice is too political they say. Social justice draws attention away from the important work that we must do in helping students learn the curriculum. Social justice is not a priority.

I disagree.

I don't care how smart a person is if that person cannot understand another person's point of view.

I don't care how smart a person is if that person is unwilling to reflect on the social and economic inequities that our country faces.

I don't care how smart a person is if that person does not want to hear another person's voice.

Smart is not the most important attribute we give our kids.

It is important - don't get me wrong.

And our district does a very good job of helping our students learn. Our district goals focus on our ability to move students forward, to prepare them intellectually for that next step in their life.

But "smart" is not the only thing that matters.

Compassion, understanding, the ability to see another person for who they are. The willingness to listen. The desire to work with, be with, live with, build with other people.

These attributes are just as important as "smart."

These are social justice attributes.

And in Novi I am committed to helping our students learn these lessons as well.

I want our students to learn these lessons so that we will not continue to close our eyes to the hatred that exists around us. I want our students to learn the lessons of social justice so that we can open our eyes and the eyes of others to the beauty of each and every life.