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Who’s Running the Schoolhouse?

OR Who Should Be Running the Schoolhouse?

In Chapter 6 of my book, Principal’s Passion: A Quest for Quality Public Education, I show how over the past twenty years, the focus of public education has changed dramatically.  Instead of basing instructional decisions on the developmental needs of children and the quality training and development of teachers, the emphasis has shifted to the importance of creating high-stakes standardized tests. Then came a national curriculum to teach to those tests, called the Common Core State Standards.  This was followed by teacher evaluation systems to grade (or degrade) teachers on their effectiveness of students’ achievement of those standards.

Competitive bids had to go out to companies who could develop those tests, resulting in millions of dollars spent on lobbying by those same companies at both the state and federal government levels. Thus, began the national corporate school-reform movement, which has made some corporations and entrepreneurs multi-billionaires while creating distrust in public schools and the people who have the experience and expertise to run them. 

Why aren’t teachers and administrators in public schools making the decisions about how children should be learning? 

Teachers must have at least a bachelor’s degree in education, and many have their master’s degrees and further specialization and have received certification by the states to teach their subject content areas. Teachers who teach preschool and kindergarten must have a separate certification in early childhood education. Teachers who teach special education students must have an added certification in the specific area of special needs they teach. All teachers and administrators must have mandated rigorous training components in strategies for English speakers of other languages (ESOL) students. Administrators must have at least a master’s degree in school leadership or administration and a state and local certified program to advance from teacher-leader to assistant principal to principal. Both newly hired teachers and administrators have teams of highly experienced coaches and mentors who support them during their first year and longer. These certifications and programs signify the many years of study and practical, on-the-job experience these professionals have undertaken to hone their craft.  Do you think they are qualified to make decisions about teaching and learning? 

So then why are legislators and politicians are currently making the decisions on how and what students will learn and how they will be tested on their knowledge and abilities? Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Are legislators’ and politicians’ decisions driven by outside interests that have corporate and political influence with their constituents? 
  • What involvement do these outside interests have with the legislators and politicians in their elections and in their decision-making? 
  • Could the legislators and politicians pass the tests currently mandated for teachers or even for students? 

Testing and evaluation companies that currently write the tests for students in the state of Florida and other states across the country are now multibillion-dollar businesses. 

Pearson Education is the richest of this handful of companies, and they are based in the United Kingdom. The money currently being spent on standardized testing was previously spent on innovative programs, “per-pupil allocations” or dollars given for materials and supplies for students, and teacher salaries.

Teacher salaries in my Florida district in 2007 were $38,500 for a beginning teacher; $45,770 for a teacher with fifteen years of experience; and $70,000 for teachers at the top of the pay scale with twenty-one plus years. In 2017, teacher salaries in my Florida district were $40,724 for a beginning teacher and $46,164 for a teacher with fifteen years of experience. The pay scale currently stops at fifteen years because teachers are no longer paid for years of experience but are paid for “performance” instead.

Teachers can currently make an extra $3,650 per year for a master’s degree or up to $8,000 for a doctorate degree. However, “pay for performance” means the teacher’s salary is determined by the test scores of their students and the rating their administrator gives them on the current evaluation instrument. Those ratings can be “highly effective,” “effective,” or “needs improvement.”  Highly effective and effective ratings earn a 3.5% and 2.5% bonus respectively.

However, teachers who taught students who were not tested on the content area of their teaching (like art, music, or physical education) would be paid based on the performance of the “school scores” for all students and not on the quality of lessons that integrated reading, writing, math, social studies, and science into their area of instructional expertise. Bottom line? These teachers received no bonuses, no raises, and no “highly effective” ratings on their evaluations regardless of my administrative evaluations of the quality of their work. 

Teacher evaluations have always been a part of identifying quality teachers, and I believe they should continue to be a part of constructive feedback, support, and assistance for all teachers. It is not the evaluation process teachers object to, it is the state process and secret formulas used. 

Teacher evaluations are now also written by companies who are for-profit based, and the state formulas for rating teachers (Value- Added Model or VAM) are convoluted and make no sense regarding the actual teaching and learning that takes place in the classroom. One of these profitable companies is Dr. Robert Marzano’s Learning Sciences International based out of West Palm Beach, Florida.

In 2007, Dr. Robert Marzano published a book, The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction, which presents a model for ensuring quality teaching that balances the necessity of research-based data with the equally vital need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of individual students. Along with Classroom Instruction That Works and The Highly Engaged Classroom, Marzano’s books are used by schools across the country to illustrate the evolution of effective teaching practices over time. Five years later in Florida, these valuable resources morphed into the new Marzano’s Standards-Driven Causal Evaluation for teachers, which required administrators to see evidence of sixty specific instructional elements in a thirty to forty-minute period that would result in student achievement in a standards-based classroom.

This change played right into the hands of the standards-based FCAT test and the test-focused learning environment that had become the new normal in public schools. The Marzano Framework for Effective Instruction was never designed to be used as an evaluation tool; it was designed to be a developmental learning tool for teachers to improve effective teaching practices over time. As an evaluation instrument, it does not allow a principal to use other criteria to determine a highly effective rating. For example, if a teacher is a district trainer in their content area, works with other teachers at the district and state levels to coach or model best practices, or has achieved a Teacher of the Year ranking at the district or state levels, there is no place on the teacher evaluation instrument to give credit for those achievements. It is strictly confined to the thirty- to forty-minute classroom observations. 

My question is, “Who is benefiting from these companies and the tests and evaluations they are paid to create?”

In 2013, I decided to retire a bit earlier than I originally planned because my answer to this question was not “students” or “teachers” or the “learning organization” I had dedicated my life’s work to achieve as the standard of quality. I could no longer be expected to grade or degrade teachers whose innovative lessons authentically engaged students in learning by picking apart sixty elements I may not have observed or deemed appropriate for that lesson. I personally had highly effective teachers who were leaders of other teachers in and beyond the schoolhouse, but that did not count toward my thirty to forty-minute observation. It also did not account for a teacher’s “pay for performance” ranking from the state, which was determined by the school’s student scores in tested grades only, whether the teacher taught those students or that grade or not.

That went against the very fiber of my being and my convictions of what was developmentally right for children and morally right for adults. 

This week, an article posted by Teacher Voice shows the  latest in the ongoing saga of teacher evaluations by the Florida State Board of Education. And we wonder why we have a teacher shortage! in a new tab)

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Should Federal Education Funds Be Spent on Purchasing Guns?

Should Federal Funds Be Spent on Purchasing Guns to Arm Teachers in Schools?

Should Federal Education Funds Be Spent on Purchasing Guns?

Eight months ago, today, on February 14, 2018, the unimaginable happened. A local high school in Parkland, Florida experienced a massacre of 17 student and teacher fatalities by a mentally unstable teenager with an AR-15. Another 17 students were injured, and over 3,000 students, staff and their families would never be the same again. Neither would the greater Broward County, Florida community, the state, or the nation. A senseless tragedy on Valentine’s Day – a day of love.

I am a retired principal whose elementary school was a feeder school into Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. One of my students who I knew from kindergarten through fifth grade was killed and his younger brother was injured. How much can a family endure? I, myself, was shaken to the core.

This past Friday, October 12, I attended an annual breakfast for our public-school district’s education foundation. It was a celebration of six distinguished alumni who had contributed amazing success to education and community achievement. In lieu of the grand award for lifetime achievement, a special tribute was held to honor the “Marjorie Stoneman Douglas 17 Fallen Eagles” – the students and teachers who lost their lives on that fateful day.

Meanwhile, in our nation’s capital, just two weeks prior, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions met in a full committee hearing to address the implementation and 18-billion-dollar funding of the bipartisan “Every Student Succeeds Act “(ESSA) which was passed in December 2015 and replaces the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. The “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA) gives more autonomy and decision-making power to the states and local school districts on how student performance will be assessed, for example using multiple measures instead of only one state test. It also gives teachers a seat at the table to discuss teacher evaluations and along with parents and communities, the design of innovative programs to increase student achievement for all students.

However, one of the issues discussed during this hearing was the growing number of deadly school shootings. ( Specifically, Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, believes districts have the flexibility to arm teachers using federal funds provided under ESSA. This potential loophole in the education law falls under the $1.165 billion flexible Title IV Part A block grant funds called Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants. This portion authorizes 1) providing students with a well-rounded education, such as STEM, arts, civics and advanced placement classes, 2) supporting safe and healthy students with comprehensive school mental health, drug and violence prevention, health and physical education, and 3) supporting the effective use of technology backed by professional development, blended learning and educational technology devices.

It is under provision 2, “violence prevention,” that some states are pursuing the possibility of purchasing guns and paying for teacher training to use them. A school safety bill passed by Congress earlier this year prohibits the use of federal funds for guns, but the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants fall outside the law. The spirit of the flexibility in the Title IV Part A portion of the ESSA education law was not to arm teachers, but to focus on creating positive climates where students feel welcome, safe and ready to learn.

So, what do you think?


Will Federal Funds be added to the coffers of the National Rifle Association?

Will our schools become prisons with wardens replacing teachers and a focus on fear replacing the joy of learning?

Did our forefathers envision children and schools when they wrote “a well regulated Militia,” and the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms” in the Second Amendment of our United States Constitution?

Will voters go to the polls in November and elect officials that will legislate “common sense gun reform?”

Meanwhile, the faces of the fallen remain fresh in my mind and in those of the families and friends of the “MSD 17 Fallen Eagles” and all others across our nation that have been victims of deadly and senseless gun violence…

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The Missing “R” in Schools: Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic, “Relationships”

The Missing “R” in Schools: Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic, “Relationships”

“Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals that can go it alone.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                — Dr. Margaret J. Wheatley

 With all the emphasis on the importance of “THE TEST” to determine a student’s success in school over the past twenty or more years, the importance of building relationships has become the missing “R” in schools. Teaching children is not just about scores and numbers, it is about making a human connection between the teacher and the student. It is about teaching the “Total Child” socially, emotionally, developmentally, as well as academically. It is about creating a safe, risk-free environment where teachers can teach, and students can learn.

One second-grade teacher at an elementary school in Aberdeen, Maryland, said, “in schools, relationships are treated as luxuries. Relationship is a necessity for learning. We can’t afford not to do it.” Setting expectations, enforcing classroom rules positively, consistently learning who they are outside of school, individualizing instruction, and using supportive language in class will show how much you care.


  • The Teacher-Student Relationship

Research shows relationships make a difference in the way students perform in school. In John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning, A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analysis Relating to Achievement, he determines what indicators make the greatest impact on student achievement. An effect size of d=1.0 indicates an increase of one standard deviation. A one standard deviation increase is typically associated with advancing a student’s achievement by 2 to 3 years or improving the rate of learning by 50%.

One of the most effective indicators to focus on is Teacher-Student Relationships which ranked d = 0.72. The relationship teachers have with their students dictates the impact they will have on their students’ achievement.


  • The Student–Student Relationship

Rather than bubbling-in answer sheets, students should be learning to work together cooperatively to solve problems. Cooperative learning is a learning process of its own that prepares students for the real world of work. Students should be actively engaged in their learning, both hands-on and “minds-on.” The work should be genuine and authentic to the student’s current world of interests and importance; so important that students persist and derive satisfaction from their work and their work product. Teachers facilitate this process and design the work tasks that cause the students to use critical and creative thinking and manipulate objects or information sources to create their work product.

  • The Teacher–Parent Relationship

The parent is the child’s first teacher; hence parents know their children best. Teachers should listen to the parent’s knowledge of the child without judgment, noting the similarities and differences they see in the classroom. Teachers are professionals with training in both subject-area knowledge and knowledge of the developmental ages and stages of children. Parents should listen to the teacher’s expectations of learning content and social/emotional behavior in the classroom. Respect from both sides is essential in this relationship, the parents from the home and the teacher from the school. Both the parent and teacher are there for the same reason—the best interest of the child.

  • The School–Parent Relationship

Parents and guardians should play an active role in their child’s education. They should be invited to take part in activities for learning and learn strategies to use at home with their children. Parents often feel uncomfortable in the school setting because of their own past experiences. It is important for the school to present a welcoming, customer-focused environment to break down any preconceived barriers. Schools should do everything possible to create a collaborative atmosphere, asking questions about the student and asking for suggestions from the parent, before saying what should be done and how. Again, parents should know that school staff are professionals and have experience with how students learn, so they also need to be open to suggestions from the teachers and staff.

  • The School–Community Relationship

The most successful partnerships between schools and local business are those that have a personal stake in the school families and community. Supporting small businesses and families contribute to and promote the local economy, available services, and scores priceless publicity for the schools. Knowing and inviting local and state government officials to your school for innovative student activities and community events provide good visibility for everyone involved. However, inviting them to observe quality teaching and learning in your classrooms as well as the challenges you face, can result in their having firsthand experiences when making decisions on critical educational issues.

We all know the old cliché, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I believe in the power of relationships and in all of us – students, teachers, parents, and community members – working together to build a sense of community and to support our schools. Together we can refocus the priorities of our education systems to include the importance of relationships for our students and for all of us. What do you think?

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What Putting Teachers in Charge of Personalized Learning Can Look Like

What Putting Teachers in Charge of Personalized Learning Can Look Like

As I was searching for a topic in this past week’s educational news that caught my eye and resonated with my thinking, I came across this article from Mindshift, one of my regular sources for innovation in education. In my book, Principal’s Passion, I talk a lot about returning decision-making to the experts, the teachers in the classroom who have the professional expertise to personalize learning for their students.

Over the past two or more decades, decisions about what and how students learn are being made by those in the “education business” of powerful corporations and lobbyists. These outside interests have padded their pockets by creating educational standards and the state and national tests that assess them, and then convincing government officials that this is “education reform.”

Let’s see what the article says about what putting teachers in charge of personalized learning can look like.

 The idea was never to disregard the individual student.

Yet, over the past 25 years the official quest for educational progress has tightly molded itself around measurable content standards and achievement goals, making testing the single most powerful legacy of education reform in America.

That measurement mania has dominated what being in school feels like for students (and teachers), as well as what counts and what gets discussed. It glosses over the herky-jerky reality of learning and the nuanced practice of teaching. Which is what stirred teachers at Orchard Lake Elementary School in Minnesota back in 2011.

In what now looks prescient – years before the “personalized learning” craze ignited a new national interest in tailoring schooling with the student at its center – a group of teachers saw trouble with the lockstep approach to progress.

In most schools, “It is, ‘OK you are nine years old, you sit here for nine months and then you get to the next box’, “said Julene Oxton, one of the Lakeville Area Public School teachers who were bothered by the system. Test scores were fine, said Oxton, “but what was really happening down in the trenches was that not every kid was getting their needs met.”

Even though federal law since No Child Left Behind had required tracking student performance in ways that encouraged teachers to notice each child, the top-down system – curriculum, schedule, student groupings – ignored individual differences. (Some say the system also shut down earlier stabs at student-centered innovation.)

That got teachers gathering on Sundays in Oxton’s living room. With 106 years of classroom leadership among them, seven educators over the next two years grappled with a key question: Could you keep the same 6 ½-hour school day, and the same school personnel, but design a radically different learning experience for students?

In other words, could you innovate within the rigid confines of a traditional public school?

What the teachers created was a handmade forerunner of what good educational software does now: Find students’ granular learning level and customize instruction. (Physically, it did require knocking down walls to make fluid learning spaces.)

Each student was assigned to a K-5, multi-age “community.” Teachers arranged the schedule so that all students had reading and math simultaneously. They chunked the curriculum into “strands,” with assessments so students could progress at their own pace.

During reading and math blocks, students got their “right fit” group. A fourth grader could tackle fifth-grade math topics, then speed up or slow down. If a student was spatially inclined and “got geometry,” he or she zipped ahead. If, say, algebra was confounding, the same student could slow down. As a result, students are constantly “moving up and down the ladder,” said Oxton.

The approach has worked, she said, because when students are in lessons, “the learning is relevant to them, it is do-able.” Even those who need more time, she said, “are like, ‘Wow, I can do this.’ That breeds a success mindset.”

The teachers called it Impact Academy and piloted it in the fall of 2013 within Orchard Lake Elementary. In 2016-2017, it was expanded to the entire school, where it continues. Oxton, who served two years as the district’s Innovation Coordinator, said so many educators came to observe the model that she has gathered them into a network, a move supported by the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation.

Now three elementary schools in Minnesota – two charters and one district – are using the approach this year for math. This fall, Oxton will also be working with EdVisions, a St. Paul nonprofit that has focused on charters, to build innovations in district schools.

Lars Edsal, executive director of Education Evolving, a Minnesota nonprofit advocating teacher-driven, student-centered learning, sees an exploding conversation around personalized learning that is focused on the power of teacher innovation.

“There is a middle ground between the top-down scripted approach and the teacher as the lone wolf in the classroom,” he said. “We are designers, we are entrepreneurs.”

Teachers understand the subtle needs of their students, said Oxton. She is not opposed to technology but believes that just because tech has gotten good at presenting 3-D, does not mean every math concept should be taught on a screen. Especially in elementary school, she said, “there is nothing like picking up base-10 blocks or money – and feeling it.”

This story about personalized learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

So, what do you think?

From my personal experience, I know that teachers are designers and creators of high- quality work for all students – just not on the same day in the same way for all students. I have been a part of two entrepreneurial schools of teachers who have experienced similar scenarios and created innovative programs recognized as models for the school district.

I also know the importance of being a leader who creates a risk-free environment for both teachers and students, so that making a mistake is valued as a learning experience and the power of leadership is reflected in the empowerment of others.

Please let me know your thoughts and stories on empowering teachers to personalize learning for their students.

In the meantime, I will personalize my Grande Caramel Macchiato and ponder the thought of innovation transforming all public schools.