Saturday, July 30, 2011

My a nutshell

I've written several brief treatments on important issues before the Tacoma schools.  This list is a quick reference guide to those positions.

Let's commit--in common--to the Common Core

Washington has joined over 40 other states in adopting the so-called common coreThis common core can be a good and useful thing, if done right.  But we need to be realistic about its benefits and wary of its pitfalls.  Let me explain.
Reasoning and evidence argue for the common core’s enhancement of student achievement.  If nothing else, it would help mitigate the difficulties of a student uprooted mid-term from one school and transplanted in another where the lessons may not even be minimally related to what the student had been doing.  Such students, of course, often experience corollary causes and consequences of struggling in school, so minimizing the educational impact on them would be useful.  
The common core curriculum would also strengthen equality of education opportunity for students.  We already do some of this in Tacoma, of course.  The Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs have a common core type of element in them, and we have made these higher level programs the cornerstone of our emphasis on college readiness in our high schools.
On the negative side, common core does look and sound like another top-down mandate that interferes with the local control of schools.  Thoughtful implementation of the core will minimize this, but it will take commitment and energy for administrative leaders to make sure that  implementation allows for specific situations at different schools, and in different class rooms.  
Again, this requires a degree of trust of the professional staff in each of the schools.  The common core does NOT have to interfere with instructional freedom and independence, but it could do so, if we’re not careful.

Another potential concern to guard against is the politicization of the content of the core.  At this point, the core addresses Language Arts and Mathematics, and focuses primarily on skill targets.  (In Language Arts for instance, a student in a particular grade level should be able to do this or that task to a certain degree of depth.  The specific topics and the directions they go are not part of the expectation.)  
We need to stay attentive, however, to keep mandates about content from creeping in, especially if social studies gets added to the program.
Finally, we need to be sure that this common core is a good one, that we can commit to it for the long haul.  If it simply becomes another in a long line of shifting and changing guidelines, it will be ignored--out of necessity, for lack of time and resources--and discounted.
We have a chance to actually make education services more effective and efficient by streamlining and reducing the bureaucratic bloat (after the initial start up time) by committing to the common core.  Let’s get to work on making sure that happens.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

TV Tacoma Forum

TV Tacoma taped several panel discussions for the election season.
If you click this link, you get to the page at which you can watch all the panels.  If you'd like to see the School Board Director #3 discussion, click the second "Watch Now" button, and go about 27 minutes in.

The Arts

I was walking while my 3-year-old was riding his bike, and we went right past the performance hall at my 16-year-old's high school (which would be Woodrow Wilson).  I got to thinking that a substantial portion of his school 'experience' is bound up with that building.  He's performed in several plays, danced in several Scintillation show choir events, played percussion with the school band, and performed with his garage band on that stage...and he still has two more years of the same.

Got me to thinking that I surely appreciate the arts programs that have been available to him.  And though these programs are not part of the 'core curriculum,' their benefits are not merely ancillary.  The self-discipline required to manage one's time so as to participate in these activities and maintain good performance with the rest of the school demands is an essential life skill.  And that's just the beginning.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Where Voters/Taxpayers and Teachers Meet

In these tough economic times, we all know schools must learn to do more with less.  This makes budget writing difficult, but it also forces all of us to evaluate our priorities, and that's a good thing.  Taxpayers and teachers share a significant priority—they want the schools to be effective. For voters/taxpayers, this means schools that deliver quality instruction, engage students, and enrich the life of the community...preferably at the lowest cost possible.    

For teachers, schools that work well have effective curricula, useful administrative support, and adequate preparation and planning opportunities so that staffs can deliver high quality instruction to students.

Where taxpaying voters and teachers meet--or, more to the point, where they share common ground--is in the desire to clear out the schools' organizational elements that don't really contribute much to instruction, engagement, or enrichment...or to cost-savings.

According to documents on the school district web site, Tacoma's spending on central administration, as a percentage of the budget, grew from 2006-7 to 2008-9.  Tacoma was the only district (in that report) to experience administrative growth in this period.  (All others either dropped or remained flat.)

While Tacoma did not return to its all-time high percentage, it did climb back into the #2 position behind Seattle.

If this portends a return of more bureaucracy, it's the wrong direction.  Take, for example, the bureaucracy and culture of 'assessment.'  Assessment is necessary and helpful, but only to the point to which it sharpens instruction.  There is now, however, so much assessment that it can crowd out instruction time and therefore actually cut into learning time.  Obviously, there comes a point at which more assessment doesn't add much value--informationally or instructionally, so to do more beyond this point of diminishing marginal returns is to actually undermine education.  It's hard to say where this threshold lies, as it differs for different students, but that threshold is out there somewhere!

Unfortunately, the culture of assessment imbibes the idea that more assessment--because it generates more information about a student--is better.  That's why the list of possible assessments a student could undergo is as long as it is.

As a Tacoma School Board Director, I would work to refine and reduce the number of assessments students must undergo each year.  In so doing, we can save some money and increase available instructional time...and education would get a little bit better.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Stimulating Conversations

I met with another group of Tacomans last night....Good conversation.

Like everybody, these folks want good schools for all the students of Tacoma, in all the neighborhoods of the city.  They also understand that teachers and school staffs are essential to the delivery of quality education.  Education bureaucracy does not teach.  Forums and panels do not teach.  People teach, and they do better at teaching when they have effective and trusting relationships to those they're teaching.

That's why one of my primary goals as a board member will be to create opportunities for school staffs to have some more contact--outside of school time--with the families of their schools' neighborhoods.  When people work together, that is, undertake tasks together, things get done and relationships get stronger.  And better relationships allow for the undertaking of even more work together.

I'm not saying that one Saturday morning work party at the school is going to raise this year's MSP scores at a school.  But a consistent commitment to working together--expressed in actual work undertaken--will stimulate involvement and engagement, and these will help academic performance for more kids.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hiring a School Superintendent

Last night, I had a very good conversation with several parents and teachers, and it set me to thinking more specifically about the next superintendent.  My conversation partners all agreed that we ought to undertake the search for the new superintendent with a real mind to considering a local candidate...someone of the community, who knows the community.

It makes good sense, to at least look seriously--even intentionally--for a 'local.'  The last several candidates from outside the local community have not always made the necessary connections to the people and issues here.

Moreover, in the current climate the stakes are high for a new superintendent, but all too often in the wrong way.  Say we do an extensive and expensive search--through a search firm, no doubt--and get a high-flying education visionary.  Upon arrival, this new superintendent will likely feel the need to show results, and fast.  The impulse to change will be strong, and will push down from the top.  Test scores and other standardized and objective measures will tend to get elevated above other less quantifiable goals.  The ability to patiently determine what already works might be overridden by the desire to show 'improvement' quickly.  Community engagement could become more difficult through all this.

This is not to say that a local candidate would necessarily overcome or transcend all these problems.  This is to say that I think these problems are more likely with an outsider coming in.   Recent superintendents seem to have to arrived partly with the purpose of proving their visionary status as much or more than serving the needs of Tacoma students.

Let's at least consider our own history when hiring a new superintendent.  And let's look for someone who knows that building relationships in community engagement creates a climate conducive to improving schools.  Community engagement is not a parallel or adjunct process in the drive to improve schools.

Friday, July 8, 2011

My Principles on Principals

Students and teachers alike know how important a school principal is.  The principal sets the tone of the school by establishing the climate and culture of the community that “lives” in the building.  

A good principal will shape school goals for student performance by setting good--high but reasonable, useful and challenging--academic and social expectations.  A good principal then knows when and how to challenge, guide, encourage, coach and mentor staff members to support students in meeting these goals.

A good principal establishes a culture of rigor and success, and sets an example of hard work.  This creates a climate conducive to the work--by both staff and students-- necessary for students to thrive.

In short, a good principal is a servant leader to the staff, supporting them to be servant leaders to students and their families.

Tacoma schools need great principals.  

As a board member, I would support a thorough and rigorous process to find the best principals possible.  I would also support the success of current principals by maintaining the highest level of on-going training, evaluation and support. 

Principals, school staff, the community, students and families working together will make Tacoma schools great.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Teacher Accountability

Teachers, by and large, are not opposed to creating measures of accountability for teacher performance.  Teachers do tend to be anxious about just how the measurements will be taken.  The new law requiring that teacher evaluation include some aspect of student performance will be taking effect within a couple years.  

That's why we need to get to work crafting effective teacher evaluation measures.

Teacher evaluation instruments need to be clear and useful.  Year on year comparison of state standardized test scores do not show teacher effectiveness with a specific student or set of students, and do not account for differences in student performance that arise across different groups of students from one year to the next.  Such year on year comparisons don't really tell all that much about how a specific teacher is doing.

We need, therefore, to develop inexpensive measurements of teacher performance that specifically determine students' growth from September to June.

Teacher evaluations need to be created with some understanding that individual teachers can be in very different stages of professional development.  I am a substantially different teacher today--5 years after starting--than I was during my first year in the class room.  

We need, therefore, evaluation processes that support the development of really effective teachers through consistent work on the part of the individual teachers and the supporting school leadership.

Teacher evaluation processes need to be supple.  We need measurement instruments that take account of factors beyond the schools' control.  Student absenteeism, health or itinerancy, for instance, can adversely affect a student's performance, irrespective of what the school or teacher does to address the situation.

We need, therefore, to develop measurements of student performance that account for important unusual circumstances in some students' school year.

Teacher evaluations need to have a human element.  There are a wide variety of styles, dispositions and personalities that can all be effective in the class room.  It takes discernment by school leaders to understand these nuances.

We need, therefore, to create a reliable teacher evaluation process that enables the students, parents, staff and leadership to talk productively about each child's education and how teachers can best maximize that student's performance.

Teacher accountability can stimulate better, more effective long as the measurements of accountability are clear, thorough and useful for parents, teachers and school leaders.