I am wondering about federal programs. This is the money the United States Department of Education doles out to states, which then distribute the cash to local schools. Both non-public and public schools are eligible for this funding. Each program is designated for a very specific purpose and has lots of strings attached. Part of my job at the moment is assisting and supporting (read forcing) schools to meet the compliance requirements of federal programs. I have always known how much time and money is spent on this type of requirement, but it is really hitting me in a big way this year. The requirements have become more and more burdensome to individual schools and school districts over the years. When I was the head of school of a non-public school I chose not to participate in federal programs. We could have qualified for a little money, but when I read the fine print regarding reporting and auditing requirements, I determined that our little school would need to hire additional personnel to meet the requirements, negating any positive fiscal advantage to each program.
Now that I am back in the public school world, I am wondering just how much each school and school district spends on compliance for these programs and if it is worth the price. Financially, how much better off (if at all) is a school or school district when it accepts this money? But, perhaps more importantly, how much energy is drained from the school organization to deal with the nonsense that accompanies the money? My principals are tired. Really tired. Nearly every day - no literally every day - someone from a central office contacts them to tell them of a deadline or requirement they must meet. Almost everything revolves around federal programs. People in Arne Duncan’s office would probably reassure us that we were ensuring that kids in poverty get the help they need through these programs; that we are working to level the playing field for them - to which I would say, “Hogwash!” These programs have been in effect for decades now, and despite the increasing compliance regulations, they have nothing to show for them. Our national results have been getting worse during the same time period that we have been making these ridiculous requirements of schools.
If the United States Department of Education really wants better results, it is time to really focus on JUST results. Use the Common Core State Standards as the benchmarks, and focus on developing authentic assessments systems that will do a better job of seeing what our kids can do. And then PLEASE get out of the way of educators who are on the front lines and let them focus on instruction instead of filling out forms.
Parents DO have a voice in their children’s school. If your child is enrolled in a non-public school you of course speak with your checkbook. This is a tremendous way to leverage influence over improving the quality of education. But parents of public school children have a voice too. Every public school that accepts federal funding, which is pretty much every public school, is required to have a group comprised of faculty and parents. Half of the group must be parents. This group might be called a School Advisory Council or a School Leadership Team, or some other name that a state requires. At first glance, it is not usually the place where parents choose to get involved. It doesn’t have the sizzle of Band Boosters or PTA, or other groups where participants raise money or are directly involved with kids. So many parents ignore this opportunity, and administrators have to actively recruit in order to get enough parents. But, this is generally the ONLY parent group in public schools that is tasked with school governance. It is the group responsible for how federal funds such as Title I and Title III are spent at the school.
Unfortunately, this group often functions as a “rubber stamp” to what the school leaders want, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Parents who can band together and make it their business to understand the purpose of these funds can make a tremendous impact. The role of this council is to create an annual plan of school improvement, and to use the federal funds to that end. This School Improvement Plan or Comprehensive Educational Plan, or other names adopted by states, spells out what results the school leaders will be accountable for each year.
The development of the plan follows an annual schedule each year involving the analysis of school data, development of goals, development of an action plan to reach those goals, and the budgeting of funds to contribute to the goals. This document creates the foundation for all school initiatives, and for the development of the individual goals of the school leaders. The federal government created this process so that school leaders would become more accountable for school results to parents. However, school leaders tend to play it safe and only include goals that are not as aggressive as they should be.
Parents can use this process and its leverage to force change in their schools. They don’t have to just be a “rubber stamp.” They can insist on seeing real data and pushing school leaders to demand more and create change in their schools. So, if you don’t think your school is getting the job done, get involved. Find a group of like-minded parents and work together with them on your school’s council to make it happen.
...you should meet some kids. I am so privileged to work with students at some special high schools in New York City. Our “international schools” accept students who have been in the United States for three years or less. These kids enter high school with little or no English skills, and are expected to graduate high school, meeting the same course and test completion standards as all other NYC students in just four years. Some come from regions where war is the norm. Others come from extreme poverty. Many are living in communities here where gangs rule the streets and attempt to keep them from coming to school. Yet, all share the same American dream. The most amazing thing to see is how they help each other. Each international school follows an instructional model designed to promote rapid language development. The kids work in groups of four or five, to solve problems, complete assignments, and encourage each other. There are usually several different languages present in each group, yet somehow they find a way to communicate. Despite all they have endured, and the daily struggles that create the context for their lives, they are optimistic. They will tell you they are lucky to be in a country where anything is possible. They will talk about hopes and dreams and the lives they want to create for their own children and grandchildren. They will tell you what anyone needs to succeed; persistence, hard work, and a good attitude.
So before you make up your mind about immigration, be sure to meet the kids who are our newest Americans. It will remind you why we are so lucky to live here, and why we should help and encourage others who have found their way to the American dream.
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This afternoon I was delighted to find a photo album posted online by one of my nieces. The album contains many wonderful photos of my grandparents over the years - from their childhood all the way until the end when they were in their 90’s. What struck me was how they absolutely embodied the American dream. They lived their life surrounded by a loving family, in a house in the suburbs that they owned. My “Pop Pop” proudly served as a Merchant Marine during WWII while my “Mom Mom” held down the fort at home, caring for two little ones on her own. She worked outside the home helping with the war effort, and then went back to being a full-time mom when Pop Pop returned. They both volunteered in their community and taught all of us to do the same. Our lives were (and still are) full of fun and laughter, caring and tears, and a strong commitment to each other. Through hard work and careful planning, Mom Mom and Pop Pop were able to do everything they dreamed of doing. They traveled to many places, including their beloved Hawaii. They had a house at the Jersey Shore, and eventually a condo in Florida. There were many wonderful adventures throughout their many years. They had enough resources to spoil all six of us grandkids just a little bit. When our children, their great grandchildren, were growing up, they established a small college fund for each one. It wasn’t much in terms of dollars, but it spoke volumes of their commitment to their family and their understanding of the importance of education.
So, as I continue to hear all of the debate about schools, I can only think. We all just want the American dream for our kids. We want them to enjoy the rich, full life that my grandparents had. A good education makes the American dream possible - and I don’t think that’s too much to ask!
The medical profession has used this technique for decades...rounds. It has taken educators quite a while to get on board, but they are now starting to use this very powerful strategy to improve their practice. The instructional rounds process involves a group of educators visiting multiple classrooms in a particular school to better understand how learning is taking place. Through a planned protocol, and very targeted observations, the group discovers what is happening in a school in the context of a predefined “problem of practice.” It has the potential for swift, powerful adjustments in a school that can have dramatic results for kids.
Last week I had the privilege of visiting a middle school to participate in instructional rounds. The school had identified students’ difficulty with critical thinking as its problem of practice. It is a wonderful school with very high student expectations, and a very structured, happy learning environment. Every teacher is skilled in delivering instruction according to a consistent structure that includes independent work, class discussion, and lots of small group learning. As our team of three educators visited each classroom, we divided the observation tasks. One person described on paper what students were doing, another looked at what the teachers were doing, and the third person looked at the content of the lessons. This allowed each of us to really focus and write down lots of details. After we visited each classroom we debriefed in a small conference room. This process was repeated through six classrooms. Then, we looked at the patterns across all of the classrooms.
We discovered that all of the higher level student questioning, which might lead to critical thinking, was contained in the quick, independent work that occurred at the beginning of each lesson. Kids did not have ample time to process these deep questions or to interact with their peers. Later, when kids worked collaboratively in groups, the tasks focused on lower level questions that simply involved listing or describing. This was truly an amazing discovery. The teachers would just need to flip the tasks in order to improve the development of critical thinking skills. Let the kids do independent warm ups with lower level questioning, and then allow the bulk of time, devoted to collaborative group work, focus on critical thinking tasks. The teachers at this school have been struggling for almost a year with this issue to determine what is preventing the kids from becoming stronger in critical thinking. In just a couple of hours, through the instructional rounds process, they were able to figure out what was wrong and fix it.
Teaching has traditionally been a very isolated profession. If you talk to career educators, they tend to say that they just want to close their classroom doors and be left alone. It is time to open the doors and allow teachers to learn from each other in a safe, meaningful way. They must make the rounds to improve learning.
To learn more about this process, click here
I am tired of being a bureaucrat. I am not sure exactly when it happened, but these days I find myself spending the majority of my time assisting school leaders to be compliance leaders. Today was particularly difficult, because there were several deadlines to meet. Supposedly, my job is to help principals improve student achievement, in a school district that supposedly values that. But, the city, and the state, and federal government all seem to insist that if principals complete certain forms, check off certain boxes, enter data into certain systems, and comply with absolutely endless regulations, then our kids will do better. This is complete nonsense. I have been at this game for over 26 years, and have never seen one of these things result in better learning. What ensures better learning has nothing to do with compliance. What makes better learning is collaboration among students, parents, educators, and the community. What makes better learning is encouraging kids to follow their passions and continue the intellectual curiosity that comes so naturally when they are young, and gets beaten out of them as they experience “the system.” What makes better learning is the dedication of inspirational educators who are given the freedom to do what they do best.
Although I am excited about the recent media events drawing attention to the plight of children, I am worried. Worried that this new cry from the public will result in even more forms, more boxes, more data systems, and more regulations.
PLEASE....get out of our way. Let us educate children in the way that makes the most sense.
Educators have had great big targets on their backs for years. So it is no wonder that the media frenzy this week has many teachers up in arms. As a society, we want to blame someone for our ills. Many of my friends in the education establishment were offended by Oprah’s shows this week. They know how hard they work and that they are doing the very best they can in sometimes incredibly difficult situations. They see some disastrous charter schools in their own communities and can’t understand how charter schools are seen as “the answer” by many. They care tremendously for their kids and never feel like what they are doing is good enough. Most of all, they have become disheartened by a system that focuses solely on testing to judge the worth of their students and them.
My experience as an educator for the past 26 years is different from most of my friends. I spent 10 years as a special education teacher in traditional schools. Then I worked for a national non-profit operating small, publicly funded schools for delinquent teens. After that, I founded and ran a private school that accepts state vouchers for disabled and low income students. Now I work for the largest public school system in the country as a central office administrator charged with improving achievement. Additionally, I spent some time teaching undergrad education students about curriculum and instruction and wrote a parenting book in an effort to assist parents understand more about student motivation and performance. So, I see this education debate from a variety of perspectives.
What I know to be true is that there are amazing, wonderful teachers throughout all of our public school systems whose contributions will never be understood, because what they do cannot be captured on standardized tests. However, I also know that many teachers do the bare minimum and are not held accountable for the failings of their students. I know first-hand the frustrations of dealing with parents who simply won’t do the most basic things like feeding their children and getting them to school on time. However, I also know countless families who have fought mightily for a quality education for their children, and have been chastised and beaten down by administrators who enjoy exerting power. I have seen schools that function beautifully despite having very little resources, and every day I see schools that waste millions of dollars yet still complain there is not enough money.
Now it seems that we are caught in a cycle of blame. Teachers blame parents. The media blames teachers. Schools blame the laws and regs. We are all just pointing at each other. At the center of all this madness sit the children, who just want to go to school and learn. It is time that we all become educated consumers of education. What is good education? Is it just performance on tests, or is it more than that, or something different all together? How do we know our kids are moving in the right direction toward their learning goals? What strategies really work and what is the best use of our education dollars? What makes a good teacher? How should we prepare, evaluate and reward teachers? How much money is enough to operate a quality school? What things that are currently in our system are actually barriers to learning? These are the questions we should be asking. Stop the blaming of teachers and parents. Cease the endless comparisons of charters versus traditional public. Start really thinking, and then perhaps improvement will be possible.
So earlier week Oprah donated $6 million to charter schools. This week it is being reported that Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, will donate $100 million to the beleaguered Newark Public School System. I LOVE that the mega-wealthy are getting involved in fixing our schools. BUT, I am very concerned. We know from history that money alone will not solve our problems. We have been throwing money at this problem for decades with little or no results. There are also examples of places that have instituted true reform without large infusions of cash.
What is the answer? To really reform our schools, we need bold leaders, informed community members who will work with them, and teachers who will enthusiastically participate in the change process. I sure hope Newark will be brave enough to use this money wisely and give its youngest citizens what they deserve.blog post. Click here and start typing, or drag in elements from the top bar.
An interesting result of the unionization of our teaching force is the reduction in leadership skills of school managers. A school district’s collective bargaining agreement sets very clear guidelines on the requirements for a teaching position along with a payment schedule based on length of experience and level of education. It also dictates how a school or district must hire or reduce the number of teachers. I happened to be a teacher in the mid 1980’s when New Jersey passed a minimum salary for teachers. Being part of the union at that time made me very proud and happy. After all, the union was very much responsible for bringing about that change. I went from a mom who was eligible for the free government rice, milk, and cheese (I wish I were kidding) to someone who could actually make ends meet - overnight.
But now, as I work to assist principals improve results in their schools, I find that collective bargaining agreements have eroded the leadership skills of the people who run our schools. Educators have difficulty understanding how to treat candidates who are applying for positions, and how to effectively lure the best candidates to their schools. They know how to follow the rules, but don’t understand how to reward an employee for a job well done. When it is clear that a teacher really should not be in the classroom, they struggle to provide feedback and to engage in challenging conversations. Any organization’s greatest asset is its people. There is no place where that is more apparent than in schools. If we really want to reform education, we need to help lead educators become true leaders.