Growing Your Heart

It is mid-August and you have arrived for the first day of teacher professional development.

You are so excited!

There are only three days until a new class of students enters your classroom for the first time. You look forward to the start of a new school year. You can’t wait to see the kids’ smiles, learn their names and personalities, and guide them through another year of learning and discovery.

You have spent your summer immersed in personal growth: reading books, planning with colleagues, and taking classes to enhance your skills as an educator. You have spent many hours organizing and preparing your classroom. Your bulletin boards are finished, your first week of lessons and learning activities are ready to go, and your room is as clean as a whistle.

You are ready and excited for the first day of school. You think to yourself, “This is going to be a fantastic year. I just know it!”

But then … as you prepare your seating charts for the first day of school, you notice something on your class list.

A name.

In the blink of an eye, the easy spirit of optimism and confidence you felt in your heart just moments ago is replaced by a growing uneasiness in the pit of your stomach.

You have THAT KID.

You know the kid I’m talking about.

He is legendary among his former teachers.

He is that kid who knows exactly which of our buttons to push and seems to take great delight in pushing them!

He is that kid who can seemingly pluck anything from the air and turn it into something. He can take the smallest slight, real or imagined, and turn it into a war.

You have heard his name a hundred names, seen him acting out in the hallways and on the playground, and heard the stories from other teachers in the staff lounge.

You remember consoling your friend when she came to you last April exasperated, with tears in her eyes, and desperation in her voice.

And now he is yours.

THAT KID!

“Why me?” you ask yourself. You are frustrated because your plans for a great year have just been derailed by a ten-year-old.

It’s not fair, right?

Sure, it is. Here’s why.

It’s easy to love the kids who love you back. The ones who hug you when they come to your room, scribble “best teacher ever” on their papers, bring you treats and handwritten cards, and just float through your class following all of the rules and brightening your day with their smile.

It takes a bigger than average heart to love the student who blatantly disrespects you, shows no regard for your rules, and seems to hate your guts.

As teacher Nick Ferroni once wrote: “Children who are loved come to school to learn. Those who aren’t, come to school to be loved.And the reality is the kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.

We know difficult kids are usually masking multiple layers of hurt. They have learned to defend themselves against feeling pain by erecting emotional walls of protection. Because these kids are unable to articulate the source of their angst and discomfort, these children desperately need patient, determined, and affectionate adults with thick skin who refuse to take offensive behavior personally.

We also know that it sometimes just takes one caring adult to make a difference. And this year, that adult might be YOU.

As I wrote a few months ago, the opportunity to positively impact these children’s lives is both an awesome privilege and frightening burden. And hugging porcupines is occasionally the most important part of our job.

THIS kid really does need you.

I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers for addressing children with significant behavior issues. There are no simple solutions.

All I can say is to do your best to grow your heart. Pray for strength and patience and compassion. Seek the assistance of colleagues, your school leaders, and behavior specialists. Work hard to maintain positive communications with the child’s parent or guardian. With the child, be consistently gracious and kind, supportive and encouraging, even during the stormiest days.

Meet him at the door on the first day of school and tell him “I’m going to love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Then prove it to him with your actions.

It won’t be easy, but did anyone ever tell you it would be?

If you are a teacher, bless you for the love and devotion you will give all the children in your classes this year.

You are a difference maker and are helping to make our world a better place. THAT kid may never thank you for all you will do for them this year, but I can.

Thank you! Have a great year!

The Good Old Days?

Do you remember when American public schools were widely regarded as the best in the world?

You know, the golden era of education when academic standards were high, all third graders loved to read, middle school students were motivated and engaged, and children graduated from high school ready for work or college? The good old days when educators were respected and treated as professionals?

Nope? Me neither.

Well, in case you missed it, a prominent magazine has published yet another blistering indictment of public education in America.

“In recent years, parents have cried in dismay that their children could not read out loud, could not spell, could not write clearly,” while “employers have said that mechanics could not read simple directions. Many a college has blamed high schools for passing on students…who could not read adequately to study college subjects; high schools have had to give remedial reading instruction to boys and girls who did not learn to read properly in elementary schools…”

Pretty depressing, isn’t it?

That is until you consider that there are not many educators alive today who were in the classroom back when this devastating critique of our education system was written.

It was published in Life Magazine on May 24, 1954, over 63 years ago. The title of the article was “Why Can’t My Child Read?

In his eleven-page feature, journalist John Hersey provides a summary of findings from the Citizens School Study Council, a committee assembled by citizens of Fairfield, Connecticut. The group was commissioned to study the challenges associated with teaching children to read three generations ago. It is posted HERE on Google books.

It is an interesting jaunt down memory lane.

I was intrigued to discover that even in 1954, adults were growing increasingly concerned with children’s preoccupation with the “cult of entertainment,” though back then it revolved around children’s growing access to comic books, “picture” books, “slick magazines,” and, of course, TELEVISION, which Hersey refers to “the enemy!

That didn’t realize how good they had it. Today, we’re dealing with the fact that many students carry the equivalent of a television in their hands, 24/7!

Hersey also delves into some of the same debates about teaching and learning we are still engaged in today: whole child education, the role of standard textbooks (often unrelated to children’s real world experiences), sight-reading vs. phonetics, the respective roles of teachers and parents, and the challenges of teaching across ability levels.

Of course, the narrative about failing schools is one teachers continue to hear as it echoes from one generation to the next.

In 1957, after the successful launch of a Soviet spacecraft into Earth’s orbit, we had our first “Sputnik moment.” The term Sputnik moment is now defined as the moment when a country or a society realizes that it needs to catch up with apparent technological and scientific developments made by some other country, in other words a “wake up” call of significant urgency.

Yet, a generation after Sputnik, American schools were ostensibly still playing catch-up.

In 1983, The Reagan administration’s ominously titled “A Nation at Risk” reported to Americans that our schools were getting worse, test scores were falling, millions of Americans were illiterate, and our teachers weren’t educated enough or paid enough. In fact, education in America was so awful that the reports author’s compared it to being attacked by an enemy power.

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. … We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

Then, in 1994, President Bill Clinton used the narrative of substandard schools to push for his Goals 2000 – Educate America Act, to “provide resources to states and communities to ensure that all students reach their full potential.”

In 2001, President George W. Bush took aim on America’s schools and sought to bring his “Texas miracle” on education to Washington as the “education president.”  Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy famously got together and enacted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, laying the groundwork for federal testing and accountability which still dominates the educational scene today.

A few years later, after the release of international tests scores of 15-year-olds in 2009, highlighting the so-called poor performance of American students, President Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan hearkened back to 1957, calling the PISA report our generation’s “Sputnik moment” and a “serious wake-up call.

And, of course, the performance of American public schools in 2017 continues to be lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut. Just ask our current President and his education secretary.

So, how do we defend such an argument when people have been saying exactly the same things about America’s dysfunctional education system since before most of us were born, before the Civil Rights movement, before computers, before space travel, and before cell phones, the Internet, and social media?

For over sixty years now, pundits and policy makers have been throwing up their hands about schools on the decline, about students who could barely read and write, about how we’re now being beaten by China and Estonia and whoever else. It all leads to an obvious question.

When exactly were the “good old days” when it comes to public education in America?

Was it during the long, disgraceful era of segregated schools when children of color were provided a “separate but equal” education that was far from equal? Was it back in 1960 when only 40% of white adults and 23% of black adults had a high school diploma and only 3% of black Americans had a college degree? Was it during the time we pulled children with special needs out of regular schools and educated them in classrooms or portable buildings on the other side of the school, or in a different building altogether, or not at all? Was it when we held children back regardless of their age or life experiences. When we refused to provide specialized programs to educate children who didn’t speak English as a first language? Was it when wealthy communities exploited the system to appropriate significantly more resources and funding for their schools than those communities and students on the other side of the tracks?

Here’s the truth. If you are looking to find the golden age of public education in America – one that strives to serve all children equitably – you’re looking at it.

It is far from perfect, but public education is better than it has ever been.

We live in a time when all children regardless of race, national origin, religion, gender, income level, sexual orientation, or disability are promised a free and appropriate public education. When a large number of children from poverty are offered a seat in the same classroom as their affluent peers. When children from struggling families are afforded at least two decent meals each day and often provided clothing, health and dental care, free eye glasses, and counseling services. When children with special needs are provided an education tailored to meet their individual needs, including life skills training, specialized communication supports, occupational therapy, and inclusion with same-age peers.

We live in a time when the goal of public education is to provide EVERY child with the skills, knowledge, and support necessary to overcome the burdens of his or her life and find their unique purpose in the world.

Again, I am not naive. We have many significant challenges in public education today. Yet, I have never worked in a school where the bulk of my fellow educators were not consistently focused on getting better and improving the outcomes for children.

In America, we will always have children who excel in school and those who struggle, and a whole bunch of other kids in the middle. We will always have great schools, a few under-performing ones, and a whole bunch in between. We will always have some parents who are full partners in their children’s education, a few who are completely detached, and a large majority in the middle. And, yes, we will always have some teachers who are absolute rock stars, a few that are not so great, and a whole bunch of good ones in the middle.

And we will hopefully work together and strive to do the very best we can. Because kids are worth it.

I will close by sharing one last paragraph from Hersey’s 1954 article that is as accurate today as it was then:

“Our public schools have done a heroic job during a period of enormous expansion and in the face of ever-tightening budgets, to maintain standards in teaching. The seriousness of purpose, the selflessness, and the integrity of public school teachers are manifest.”

Nostalgia’s a funny thing.

It’s fun to remember the past. But we need to remember it as it really was. Not the way some wish it had been.

Those Kids…

As educators we can sometimes get so wrapped up in the day-to-day challenges of school that we forget to take the time to think about and appreciate “those kids.”

You know the ones I’m talking about. You’ll likely have one or two in your classroom this year. These children are rarely absent and their daily presence will make an indelible mark on our classrooms.

They will be the kids you remember decades from now when you retire, who innocently and unknowingly etch their names on your heart and spirit forever.

They are not always the smartest kids in our class, or the most popular, the coolest, or the most advantaged. They don’t wear the newest clothes and don’t constantly seek our approval or attention. They are often quiet and unassuming.

Yes, those kids.

These kids are the ones whose smiles come easy and always seem to be 100% genuine. The ones whose possess unbounded joy, whose only worry seems to be what’s for lunch that day.

These are the kids who try their best on everything, and do it sincerely, who sometimes get it, sometimes don’t, but are doing everything in earnest. The ones who are never afraid to ask a silly question or make a mistake because that’s what learning is all about.

These kids are the ones who listen to our stories intently, nodding and smiling and reacting even when they’re a little bored, because they know we appreciate it. They have learned that this small thing makes us more animated and confident. They like to see us smile.

These are the ones who help without being asked to. Who pick up trash from the floor at the end of class and stack books that other students neglected to put up. The ones who jump into action when they see something wrong happening or when there is a friend in need.

The children who are quick to crack a (bad) joke when they see someone who’s sad. The ones who look for the other child sitting alone in the cafeteria. The ones who picks up another student’s dropped book or pencil without hesitation. The ones who intervene when they observe another child being bullied, even a kid they don’t know, by simply grabbing them by the hand and leading them to safety.

The ones who make it a point to talk and listen to their disabled peers, never condescendingly, always as equals – making eye contact, smiling, and giving gentle hugs.

Those kids.

These children are the ones who will spend a few hours drawing you a picture or creating a craft representing one of their favorite things as a holiday gift, because they genuinely want to share their soul and interests with you, knowing material things are quickly forgotten.

These kids are the ones who bring a favorite stuffed animal to give to a classmate as a loving gesture to help the other child through a difficult time. The ones who will buy an extra popcorn on Friday to quietly slip to another child they know doesn’t have the money.

These children are the ones who don’t seem to belong to any cliques or ally with any particular group of friends. They are at ease with everyone. The ones who avoid gossip and speak positively about everyone else. The ones who will tell a peer, “I’m so sorry,” when they’re hurt and really mean it.

The ones who hug you and other classmates without asking and the ones you have to teach, “Hey, not everyone is comfortable getting a hug. You have to ask them first.” Then they hug YOU again.

Those kids.

The children who make us smile at the end of a hard day. The ones we miss when they are not at school for some reason, knowing the day will be a little less bright. The ones we pray will never move and the ones we’ll miss when they move on to the next school.

The ones who unknowingly feed our passion as educators. The ones who give us a reason to get up and go to work everyday. The ones who motivate us and cause us look forward to the start of a new school year, just for the privilege of getting to teach these children one more year.

The children who make it so difficult and heart wrenching for many when it comes time to retire and the frequent justification to give it “one more year.”

The reason we can’t think of anything we would rather do with our life than be a teacher, because we know that nurturing and teaching children is one of the greatest blessings anyone could have.

Yes, THOSE kids!

(p.s. In case you missed it, for a school-wide project last year, teachers at Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Missouri, were challenged to tell students how important and appreciated they are, and record it on video. The result was published on YouTube on October 4, 2016. Watch the children’s faces as the teachers speak. If this doesn’t move you emotionally, you need to get a heart, Tin Man. It’s also a strong reminder to all of us to be generous with our appreciations and to value the power of positive words. THESE kids need to know how important they are to us.

 

A New Approach for Teacher Evaluation?

By now, we have become keenly aware of the President’s novel approach for providing performance feedback to his subordinates via Twitter. Rather than engaging in uncomfortable face-to-face meetings in private, President Trump prefers to simply tweet out excoriating and humiliating barbs about his trusted advisors to millions of followers on social media.

It seems to be working splendidly.

Just this week, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus were both compelled to resign after being publicly lambasted by the President and his new communications director, Anthony Scaramuchi (a.k.a. “The Mooch”). To illustrate the level of rancor, Scaramuchi – in a bizarre nighttime phone interview with a reporter from The New Yorker magazine – referred to his White House colleague as a “*!@king paranoid schizophrenic.”

Talk about getting thrown under the Priebus. (sorry, I couldn’t resist)

Former US Senator and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s earliest supporters, has also now found himself in the President’s Twitter crosshairs, due to what most experts consider to be Sessions’s legally responsible decision to recuse himself from the investigation over possible Russian election meddling.

In a series of tweets over the past few days, President Trump has engaged in a one-sided battle against his attorney general, criticizing his inaction in investigating former rival, Hillary Clinton, and referring to the AG as “very weak” and “beleaguered.”

It’s Trump Leadership 101, right? Everyone knows the surest way to build trust and grow and inspire your people is through humiliation and threats.

So, the whole thing got me thinking. Would the Trump approach work in education?

One of the chief complaints about our new teacher evaluation systems is the inordinate time required to complete all of the observations and evaluation forms, schedule one-on-one meetings with dozens of teachers, develop individual goal setting plans, and manage personal development plans to help support struggling teachers.

Let’s be honest – who’s got that kind of time?

Instead of this laborious, inefficient system, why not follow the Trump model?

It’s so simple it makes you wonder why it hasn’t been tried before.

We will simply require each school leader to open a Twitter or Instagram account to provide timely feedback to his or her teachers anytime. Why wait until a twice-a-year evaluation meeting to give meaningful feedback to staff when you can simply blast out actionable critiques in 140 characters or less, 24/7?

If I wake up at 3:00 a.m. upset about something I observed in a teacher’s classroom, I can tweet it out right then – even while sitting on the toilet. There’s no need to wait. When the teacher wakes up and checks her Twitter feed the next morning, she will see that I am upset and immediately focus on being a better teacher that day. And that’s just good for kids.

Other teachers in the building will benefit from reading the harsh criticism of others and work harder to avoid being targeted themselves. If they also don’t like a particular teacher, they can “like” the post and add their own biting comments and retweet it to all their followers. Before you know it, we will have a highly effective approach for shaming our under-performers and coercing improved performance and greater loyalty from the rest.

Hopefully, the end result will be that the ostracized teachers resign on their own accord, saving school administrators hundreds of hours counseling poor teachers out the door and school districts tens of thousands of dollars in possible legal fees and unemployment claims.

It’s genius, don’t you think?

I whipped up a few examples to illustrate how effective this approach might be.

What do you think? In only about five minutes, Principal Jones was able to provide feedback to a half-dozen teachers without ever having to look at their face or listen to their whining.

Now that I think of it, there’s only two reasons I can think of why we shouldn’t give the Trump method of performance feedback a try.

First, because it is abhorrent, repulsive, unprofessional, and undignified. And secondly, because it would also destroy trust and respect between educators and obliterate school culture.

Other than that, I think the Trump Model is a great approach.

No Room for Mr. Wonderful

If you don’t know Mr. Wonderful, allow me to introduce him to you.

This is Kevin O’Leary – a self-made Canadian billionaire who is one of the five deep-pocketed judges on the mega-hit television show Shark Tank.  For those unfamiliar with the premise of the showup-and-coming entrepreneurs pitch deals to the judges—hoping to raise desperately needed capital for their fledgling companies.

Naturally, both the sharks and entrepreneurs alike try to get the best deal they can.  Each is trying to get the most out of their investment.  Occasionally the sharks will compete vigorously amongst themselves when the entrepreneur has developed something ‘special’—an extraordinary product or service that the sharks’ sense will have extraordinary potential in the marketplace.

O’Leary is the Great White Shark of the group. He is brutally honest, aggressive, unrelenting, overly brash and insolent. His interrogations are relentless. He undercuts the other sharks. He tries to give “aggressive” deals to the hopeful people who appear on the show. He’ll be the first to tell you if he thinks your idea is stupid, or if he thinks your business decisions are stupid, or even if he thinks the other sharks are being stupid.

Following in the tradition of former American Idol judge, Simon Cowell, and Hell’s Kitchen’s ill-mannered Gordan Ramsey, Mr. Wonderful has figured out that rude and obnoxious behavior can improve one’s celebrity status.

It also makes for good TV and higher ratings.

“You’re dead to me” is a common retort O’Leary gives to entrepreneurs who decline his offers. Here is a short clip of Mr. Wonderful, well … being wonderful.

So, why how did O’Leary earn the nickname ‘Mr. Wonderful’ when he clearly is not.  The title originated from an off-handed, sarcastic comment born out of disgust from a fellow-shark who despised O’Leary’s approach.  The title, one of derision, was one O’Leary liked, so it stuck.

His reputation hasn’t helped Mr. Wonderful make too many deals in the past seven years. As of last season, O’Leary had closed fewer deals than any of the other sharks and invested only $5.4 million in new companies.

I suppose Mr. Wonderful’s reputation for humiliating and embarrassing well-intentioned, novice entrepreneurs on national television doesn’t engender a lot of trust or mutual respect.

It doesn’t work in the school building either.

Here’s my question for everyone who teaches, everyone who coaches, everyone who stands before another person in the name of mentoring or guiding or instructing them in any way: Are you occasionally a Mr. Wonderful?

Do you ever behave in ways that are more about you than about your students (or employees)? Do you overdo it, put on a big show, humiliate students for the sake of proving who’s in charge (and who’s not)? Because it builds your rep and makes students fear you? Because, in a sense, it makes for good TV?

Have you ever…

  • yelled at a student in a demeaning manner or called them a name (jerk, punk, or worse)?
  • openly compared a student to a sibling or another student for the purpose of embarrassment?
  • called a student’s question stupid?
  • used sarcasm to ridicule a student?
  • read a student’s paper out loud to a class to illustrate a mistake (anonymously or not), and maybe gone too far in making fun of it?
  • cracked a joke about a student’s appearance?
  • revealed some aspect of a student’s personal life for the sake of humor?
  • torn a student’s paper or thrown it into the trash in front of them or other students?
  • thrown a marker, a book, or anything else across the room to get students’ attention?
  • assigned a punishment that would publicly embarrass a student, like wearing something silly or standing in front of peers to single them out?

I am sad to say that as a young educator, I was guilty of some of the things on this list. Sometimes I was unaware that I was being rude or inconsiderate when I made biting comments in class. I didn’t fully understand the damage I was causing to individual children, the overall class climate, and the level of trust students had for me. I was wrong.

If you have never committed any of the actions on the list, that’s fantastic. It means you are extremely patient, compassionate, and hold your students in high regard. You are also an outlier.

I suspect most educators can relate to something on this list or have, at a minimum, tacitly condoned these behaviors in others.

Some of these behaviors are harsher than others, but all of them have one thing in common: They are motivated by our desire to communicate something about ourselves, to build our own reputation—a reputation for being witty, for being smart, for being “real,” for being someone not to be messed with.

Does it work? Sometimes. It gets your point across. It stops undesirable behavior, at least in the short-term. It most definitely teaches a certain type of lesson. And if you’re trying to prepare your students for an even meaner world, well, you’re no doubt accomplishing that.

But it doesn’t produce meaningful learning.

In fact, it changes the subject altogether. If you humiliate someone, their focus moves away from the matter at hand. Instead of thinking about the long-term repercussions of not doing their work, or not paying attention to directions, or not socializing at certain times, or not engaging in silly, attention-getting behavior, that student is now focused on how much they can’t stand you.

Humiliation is usually rooted in power and the desire to make another person embarrassed, scared or isolated. So it is hard to see how it can play a part in mutually respectful relationships.

Now sometimes you get a student who you think deserves to be taken down a couple of pegs, to be put in their place, and public humiliation might really teach them a lesson. Ask yourself this question: Does being humiliated by your boss, colleague, or spouse work to improve your behavior? How does it make you feel long-term?

Ultimately, our role as educators is to help children learn positive behaviors that will make them better, more responsible, more productive, more compassionate people.

Shouldn’t we model the behavior we want to see?

Do we want our well-intentioned students to fear making mistakes because it means risking public ridicule? Do we want the students with challenging behaviors to experience yet another poor role-model, leaving our classrooms angry, and contemplating new ways they can beat us at our game.

Yes, I have had my Mr. Wonderful moments as a teacher and principal and I am not proud of it. I’m pretty sure my actions came at a cost to children and myself, whether I knew it or not.

Children deserve high expectations, rigorous and meaningful learning activities, and a well-structured, positive learning environment. It is also important for us to provide them with appropriate, timely, sometimes direct feedback when they fall short of the goal. But humiliation has no place in a teacher’s classroom management tool box, or a school leader’s leadership style for that matter.

So the next time you’re about to make that big gesture, throw that marker, shut a student up with one of your signature put-downs, or embarrass a student in public, ask yourself whether you’re doing it for the student or for yourself.

And, if you recognize a bit of Mr. Wonderful in you, maybe it’s time to tell your inner Mr. Wonderful he’s now dead to you.

Your students won’t miss him.

Sometimes They’re Right

If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know I am an unabashed advocate for public education in America.

And, as you may have gathered from my last post, I get angered when individuals or entities use falsehoods and erroneous generalizations to perpetuate an inaccurate narrative of failing schools for political or economic gain.

Contrary to what some policymakers and pundits have said, American public schools are not failing. They are among the best in the world.

To begin with, public education is an absolute right for every child in America, not just the privileged. No other school system anywhere in the world exceeds the United States in providing free access to education for everyone. And that, alone, makes us exceptional.

Our nation has made a commitment to providing a free and appropriate education for every child, regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, school meals, or even if they have a home. We even provide education to children who are here without proper immigration status.

We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In many countries, students with severe physical, emotional, and cognitive impairments are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the few countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year.

Even more, the education provided in many of our schools is some of the highest quality you can find in the world. We teach more subjects, provide robust extracurricular opportunities, provide safe and secure learning environments, and produce more high level university scholars than almost any other nation.

Over the past century, the children from the American public education system have changed the world in every area imaginable – from technology to medicine to the military and more.

And yet we are likely the most criticized education system in the world.

And sometimes our critics are right.

When they say our schools are conspicuously segregated by race and class, sometimes they are right.

When they say many children are trapped in sub-par schools with inequitable resources, sometimes they are right.

When they say we don’t do enough to rid our ranks of mediocre teachers and school leaders, sometimes they are right.

When they say we inflate grades rather than hold students accountable for learning, sometimes they are right.

When they say schools disproportionately target students of color for suspensions and other severe discipline, sometimes they are right

When they say districts fail to assign our best and most experienced teachers to our most challenging students and schools, sometimes they are right.

When they say we lower our academic standards to teach to the middle of the class, sometimes they are right.

When they say we don’t provide enough academic rigor in our classrooms, sometimes they are right.

When they say we give up on some kids, sometimes they are right.

When they say homework and other assignments are nothing more than busy work, sometimes they are right.

When they say our teachers don’t collaborate enough, causing significant gaps from one class to another, sometimes they are right.

When they say we love our rules more than we love our kids, sometimes they are right.

When they say children graduate from high school lacking important job skills, sometimes they are right.

When they say our grading practices are unfair and don’t accurately assess student learning to academic standards, sometimes they are right.

When they say our curriculum and pedagogy is outdated, sometimes they are right.

When they say we don’t use research and data effectively to improve teaching and learning, sometimes they are right.

When they say school is boring and lacks meaning for many children, sometimes they are right.

When they say we try to avoid accountability for things within our control, sometimes they are right.

When they say we don’t do enough to communicate and form positive connections with our parents and school community, sometimes they are right.

When they say we are too defensive and averse to change, sometimes they are right.

When they say we could do more to improve education in America, sometimes they are right.

So, yes, we must continue to advocate for our students, teachers, and schools. We have much for which to be proud.

Yet, to serve the children in our schools and communities well, those of us who work in schools must be harder on ourselves than anyone outside of our schools.

As professionals, we must ascribe to the theory that there is no limit for better and pursue excellence in all we do.

We must be more accountable to the families and communities who entrust us with their children.

We must be reflective and critical of how we and our colleagues think, act, and behave. Self respect without self-awareness is useless.

Here’s the bottom line.

The best counter to those who disparage and criticize public schools to promote school choice in America is to ensure our schools are the unequivocal BEST choice for America’s children.

Are you ready to roll up your sleeves to make that happen?

The Box of Shame

In case you didn’t know, dog shaming has become a thing.

Dog shaming is the practice of uploading pictures or video clips of our canine friends, typically with some sort of sign describing a recent negative behavior – perhaps chewing up our favorite pair of shoes, humping your house guest’s leg, getting into the trashcan, pooping on the bed pillows, or snagging a steak from the counter.

Apparently this poor fellow on the left engages in multiple activities worthy of public shame, hence the “fill in the blank” notice on his personal “box of shame.”

There are actual websites devoted to this endeavor (www.dogshaming.com); a few books have been written, and special youtube channels are devoted to cataloging these often hilarious images of dogs expressing either shame or indifference to their acts of destruction.

All in good fun, right?

Welcome to the club, Fido.

For many in public education, the box of shame is all too familiar.

For the past few decades, the practice of public school shaming by policymakers, education reformers, and pro-school choice advocates has evolved to an art form through the use of hyperbole, extreme over-generalization, artful rhetoric and cherry-picking of school data.  These entities use shaming to perpetuate their narrative that public education is systemically broken and that educators are primarily self-serving and dispassionate to the plight of children.

The latest edition of public school shaming is an article from the real estate site, NeighborhoodScout, an online database of U.S. neighborhood analytics created in 2002 by geographer and demographics specialist Dr. Andrew Schiller.

Using the highly charged headline, “Top 100 Worst Public Schools,” Dr. Schiller essentially employs an unproven and unsubstantiated statistical algorithm to rank American public schools based on (what else?) … student test scores in math and reading.

This article recently made waves in Oklahoma due to the fact that ten of the schools making Schiller’s “Top 100 Worst” are in our state – five in Tulsa: Central Junior High, McLain High School for Science and Technology, Project Accept (an alternative school for elementary school students), and Whitman and McClure elementary schools.

Neighborhood Watch claims to have created a patent-pending, first-of-its-kind “nationally comparable” method for rating public schools.

Since states use different academic standards and assessments to measure student progress and comply with federal accountability guidelines, the use of testing results to rank schools nationally has been illusive.

Well, that is until Dr. Schiller came up with his magic formula.

Schiller uses a comparison of state passing rates on selected assessments to disassociated passage rates of a small group of randomly chosen Oklahoma children on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to compute a factor which he then uses to align the results from every public school in America.

So simple, right?

Here is how Schiller explains it on the web page:

To make each state’s No Child Left Behind test scores for each district and school comparable to other schools and districts in different states, we subtracted the percentage of students in the state who scored proficient or better from the state-NCLB test from the percentage of students in that state who passed the NAEP, and used this difference (or gap) to align each school and district test scores across the nation. Then we ranked the school districts, and Viola! A curve that brings all districts (and schools) to a nationally comparable rating based on the all-important NCLB tests! This is a first time this has ever been done and it is patent pending! It is really fascinating, and it is exclusive to NeighborhoodScout!

Yes, Dr. Schiller, a highly educated man with a PhD in demographic research, actually used the noun Viola, a stringed instrument, to describe the magic of his formula instead of the word I assume he meant to use: Voila` (pronounced Wah-lah), which means “to call attention, to express satisfaction or approval, or to suggest an appearance as if by magic.”

Maybe he should have just gone with Ta-Da!

To label this exercise of ranking schools nationally using an unproven, overly simplistic, ignorant-of-context mathematical formula as simply irresponsible doesn’t go far enough.

It is reckless. It is immoral and unethical. It is wicked.

Let me be clear. I am not a statistician or professional researcher. I will leave a comprehensive review of Schiller’s methodology, results, and conclusions to those far more adept and schooled in this area than I am.

At the same time, I do possess a high level of healthy skepticism and am reluctant to accept broad conclusions extrapolated from minimal data that lack full vetting from the research community.

In other words, my BS meter is generally pretty accurate.

Grab a shovel.

Do you find it puzzling that 35% of the schools in Schiller’s Worst Schools list are from one Midwest city with a population of only 688,000: Detroit, Michigan. I know there are struggling schools there, but 1/3 of the worst 100? I’m guessing Dr. Schiller doesn’t own any property in Michigan.

It also seems odd that 82 of the top 100 are from only four states: Michigan (52), Ohio (11), Oklahoma (10), and Pennsylvania (9). There’s not a single school from 41 states in America, including Mississippi or the District of Columbia?

How about this? Of the five most populated states: California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois – only one school in Porterville, California made the list. So, zero schools in Los Angeles, New York City or Chicago? Really?!

Let me set aside Schiller’s questionable statistical methodology and conclusions for a larger point. What is the purpose of this study?

Let’s remember this is a real estate website, operated by individuals who have ZERO experience or credibility in assessing school quality.

Schiller has made no effort to factor out any of the contextual factors which affect school and student performance – critical considerations such as generational poverty, unsafe crime-ridden communities, unemployment, lack of community support, absence of adequate health services, and inadequate school funding – just to name a few.

These findings also give zero credit to these schools for the positive aspects they contribute to children – music, arts, and athletics; food, clothing, and health care; positive role models in a safe, secure environment; access to technology and academic enrichment, and daily exposure to dedicated, loving, compassionate adults.

Instead, they profess to have created a magic formula which will produce an accurate ranking of schools based solely on a suspect comparison of school testing data.

For that they want a patent?

It is nothing more than a SHAM.

The sole purpose of false school shaming reports like this one is to discourage families from purchasing homes or property in any of the cities or school districts represented by a “worst 100” school and encourage them to buy elsewhere.

That’s it.

It won’t prompt federal, state or local leaders to increase funding or support of these schools.

It doesn’t provide any instructive feedback to help these schools improve other than “raise your test scores.”

It will make it more challenging to staff these schools with high quality educators since the premise of working at one of America’s “worst schools” is hardly inspiring.

Moreover, it will undercut the morale and spirit of the hard-working teachers and school leaders already working at these schools. It is a slap in the face.

Trust me, the folks who work at all of these schools know better than anyone the areas in which they are struggling. They are working hard every day to help children overcome the challenges of their lives and find success.  They don’t need to be shamed into working harder.

And, what about THOSE kids? Those kids who are almost exclusively poor, non-white, and often neglected and under-served by society. Children growing up in shattered, tenuous homes located in broken neighborhoods and communities.

What about them?

Many of these children are struggling with unfair labels and judgments as it is.  How does the “knowledge” that they attend one of the worst schools in America make these children feel about their own life experience, about learning in general, about their future potential, and about society’s support of children like them?

I can tell you this. The last thing any child needs is to be put in a box of shame with a sign, “I’m stupid.”

Come to think of it – even dogs deserve better than this.