A Network Connecting School Leaders From Around The Globe
As I have been reflecting on my letter to Dr. John King, our esteemed Commissioner of Education here in New York State, I realize that I can no longer wait for a response as it has been over two months since I sent him the letter in the hopes that a conversation can begin about what is best for our students and school. Clearly, either he has not read it (I am hoping that is the case) or he has read it and is choosing not to respond and at least engage in a dialogue with me about the current state of public education. Either way, nothing is changing! So, I am going to take a few minutes to share my thoughts on what the world of public education might look like in New York State if I were Commissioner of Education (and who knows, after completing my doctorate at Penn, that may very well be one of my many goals because I believe in public education and I support the incredible educators who lead our classrooms and schools each day)...
Educators, the ones who are actually in classrooms and in our schools, would have a voice in all state mandates, plans and proposed changes because they are the direct advocates for our children and know what is necessary to support the students' success and their (educators) collective efforts in addressing all student needs!
I would visit as many schools as possible with an emphasis placed on exploring successful schools so that their practices could be analyzed and potentially replicated in all schools throughout the state regardless of race and class and location. Instead of basing the reform efforts on what is not working in our ineffective schools, I will make it a point to try and recreate what is working in our effective schools!
Every school would have two administrators - a Lead Learner (traditionally known as the principal) who would focus on instructional leadership, staff development, contact with children, staff and parents. Then there would be an Educational Administrative Assistant who would support the efforts of the Lead Learner by handling all organizational and administrative issues - scheduling, paper work, meeting mandates, etc. By bifurcating the duties traditionally associated with the principalship, we could put emphasis on the instructional leadership but not lose sight of the "managerial" responsibilities.
Every school would have instructional coaches (at least a literacy and math coach) to provide ongoing professional development for all staff and ensure that all standards are being met - these members of the team are CRITICAL!
Money would be cut from testing initiatives (hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on creating flawed assessments) and put that money back into our schools so that we could hire more staff to reduce class size, especially in the primary years (there should be no more than 15 kids in our K & 1 classes); so we could infuse technology into every learning experience and make 1:1 model the norm and not the exception! Technology can no longer be seen as an add-on; instead it must serve as the foundation for learning. Technology will help us on our quest to assist our students in their evolution from consumers of information to creators of information!
The expectation of district leadership would be the personalization of professional development opportunities for all educators - teachers and principals alike! This should not be a "one size" fits all approach; instead, we should find out what our educators need (based on observations, conversations, etc.) and tailor their learning to meet those needs. As Morris, Crowson, Porter-Gehrie and Hurwitz point out in Principals in Action: The Reality of Managing Schools (1981), principals should provide help throughout the year to all teachers on various professional responsibilities including how to personalize instruction, how to assess students, how to communicate with parents and how to implement successful classroom management techniques. By providing support in these areas through modeling and professional development opportunities, the expectations for what qualifies good instruction will be clear and teachers will have an understanding of what is expected each day. Additionally, we should expect the experts within each educational institution to share their knowledge with others - collaboration is the key to success!
The Common Core Standards will serve as the "floor" NOT the "ceiling" - they are not the curriculum but instead a guide for the experiences we want all our children to have while in school.
We will throw away the "cookie cutters" and empower every educator to lead and instruct in the way that is most sound for their student population. We cannot mandate that every teacher uses the same materials at the same time and in the same way - that is not public school - that is a factory! We must encourage creativity, collaboration and critical thinking because that is what it takes to be college and career ready! This is directly connected to the Professional Development piece because we want all educators to be skilled enough to make these sound decisions for their students.
Implement a career path of sorts for all teachers that doesn't necessarily mean that if one is a "good teacher" their only option for growth is becoming an administrator. We should consider implementing a four-level system where teachers could move from the novice level to the experienced level to master teacher level and finally to the teacher coach level and with each step up the ladder, they will receive an increase in salary and the daily expectations will change. Not everyone has to move up this ladder but every teacher, with the proper support from administration, will at least reach the experienced level.
In regards to state testing and the current APPR Plan, I offer the following thoughts...
If I had the ability to scrap the current principal and teacher evaluation plans in New York State, the first thing I would do is eliminate the connection between students’ performance on various standardized and local assessments to the evaluation ratings of educators. This connection does not provide a complete picture of a student’s performance or an educators’ effectiveness. These assessments just capture a moment in time and do not necessarily provide children with an opportunity to show what they know and understand in a comprehensive way. Furthermore, the tests do not look the same from one year to the next and thus comparing a student’s growth over a two-year period doesn’t necessarily provide a fair and accurate comparison. Another problem that stems from using assessments as part of the educator evaluation system is that nothing can be done with the data. First off, the groups of students determining an educator’s evaluation are from the year before and so the assessment is purely summative, which does not help inform instruction. Along the same vein is the idea that the data does not explain WHY a student answered a question incorrectly, which should be our emphasis when analyzing data. Yes, data analysis can pinpoint WHAT a student answered correctly or incorrectly, but it cannot provide insight as to WHY they answered a certain way. Finally, evaluating an educator based on how much a student has grown on a snapshot assessment does not reflect the collective growth or progress of that specific child in the various content areas nor the child’s social and emotional development.
Now, if the powers that be in New York State are not willing to scrap the current principal and teacher evaluation plans, I would like to suggest some revisions that would satisfy the reformists and maintain a high level of staff morale while promoting effective instructional practices. First and foremost, lets change the standardized tests. No test that places emphasis on multiple-choice questions can possibly capture the data we are looking for to evaluate educators and assess student understandings. This is a simple fix because there are portions of the current New York State assessments that give children a platform to exhibit their understandings and communicate their thinking. Whether it is the short answers or extended responses on the ELA assessment or the challenge to explain one’s thinking on the Math assessment, the current assessment tools already contain some opportunities to more thoroughly assess a student’s understandings. With that in mind, let’s shift the focus from the unreliable multiple-choice experience to a more concrete evaluation of a student’s ability to synthesize and apply their understandings to any situation. Then, lets shorten the assessment experience – lets ensure that this is a test of skills and not one of stamina alone. Children should not be sitting for three days in a row, for over an hour each day, to show what they know on a test that relies on multiple-choice questions and answers. We already have an abundance of research and information about child development and we know that children, especially in their primary years, are more successful when they work for shorter periods of time to capitalize on their limited attention spans. Finally, lets use multiple data points to assess an educator’s effectiveness instead of looking at the growth over a one-year period using the value added model. For example, we could begin by tracking an educator’s data over a three-year period using the same assessment tools. By examining similar types of data over a period of time, we could identify specific trends that speak to the educator’s instructional/leadership techniques instead of solely looking at the students’ performance on one test. This way we could triangulate data and create a comprehensive image of an educator’s performance over a period of time that would help to more accurately qualify them as ineffective or effective.
These are just some of the things that I would consider attempting if I were the Commissioner of Education in New York State. I realize there are a million other ideas that haven't even crossed my mind that I missed above but rest assured, I would not make any of these decisions in isolation; instead, I would consult different constituent groups and consider their perspectives and insights in my attempt to do what is best for children. You see, my main motivation is my son, who is eight years old and is currently in third grade. I want to create the ideal public school educational experience for him because that is what he (and all our children) deserves. I am hopeful that this post might start a state-wide, even nation-wide, exchange among educators about what we would do if we were in the position of Commissioners of Education... please leave comments because we need to share the many amazing ideas that are out there (especially from those on the "front lines" - our teachers, teacher aides, principals, parents etc.) about how we can improve the public school experience for our children - we must unite because there is power in numbers and our efforts must be coordinated and united if we are to bring about any change!