Sunday, May 30, 2010

A word about beating up on teachers

Some time ago I posted a blog on the importance of raising expectations for parents. That engendered an excellent dialog with commenters on whether it was appropriate to demand more of parents, and well, whose fault it is that we don't have more parent involvement. Some people thought that I was trying to "blame parents" for the failing of public schools. Pretty soon, some commenters were beating up on teachers, and one commenter was beating up on me just a bit, because he claimed that the school board doesn't appreciate teachers.

One of the regrettable trends in today's society is that people are more and more demanding that you must align with their point of view exactly: we are living in a "for me or against me" world. I reject the contention that if you don't agree with Education Minnesota 100 percent down the line, then you don't appreciate teachers. I reject the contention that you don't believe in reform unless you constantly beat up on teachers. We have great teachers in District 742. The vast majority of them are hard working, dedicated, highly qualified. We have the best teaching corps around, I believe, and that's based on years of experience with my own children.

Periodically we hear from the labor camp that St. Cloud's board of education doesn't appreciate teachers. To that, I can only say that refusing to bankrupt the school district to pay teachers more than we have is not a slap at teachers. Before I joined the school board, the district had taken a $6 plus million unreserved fund balance and had driven it down into the negative. When I joined the Board, the prior boards had left us with just about the smallest fund balance in the State of Minnesota--a negative $160,000. We were in the hole. I don't think that those Boards, the ones that persistently increased pay more than they received from the State of Minnesota were showing their love for teachers. In fact, if one really believes in public education, its your obligation to say no, when unreasonable demands are made. We still have major financial problems left over from that decade, when past boards decided to pay out in raises money that they didn't have. During that time, our textbook stock was bled down, and its going to take us years to recover from that neglect. We've gradually increased our fund balance, despite hard times, but we are still way behind where we need to be. Trying to balance the budget has nothing to do with your attitude towards the teaching profession.

Here are my thoughts on our professional teachers of District 742.
  • I believe that one of the great tragedies in education in the last decade is the trend towards claiming that the main problem with public education is the quality of teachers. As a result, it has been open season on teachers across the country. At the White House, the Department of Education, on television, in St. Paul, in the newspapers. But I believe that in St. Cloud, and in many school districts, the people who are doing the most for kids who live in poverty, or who are immigrants, or in an minority group, are teachers. They do more than ministers, more than advocacy groups, more than Mayors, councilmen, school board members, Congressmen, and education pundits. There are schools in Chicago, Newark, Washington, D.C. and Texas, that may hire and retain incompetent teachers. And so it has become popular for people like Arnie Duncan in the Obama Administration and the Secretaries of Education under Bush II, who hailed from Texas, to pretend that the entire country is one giant educational wasteland, as if all teachers everywhere are just like the ones in Washington D.C. One of the things that we need to do in our community is to recognize that we are blessed with fantastic teachers, far better than the teachers you and I had decades ago. They are confronting more challenges, and despite those challenges, they are offering much much more to students who care to take advantage of opportunities. Calculus, advanced economics, introduction to engineering, American and European history at the highest level, advanced writing.
  • I'm tired of so-called social justice advocates in this community, and from outside this community, who are constantly berating teachers and principals and blaming them for all of society's problems. There is nobody doing more in our community to give minorities, immigrants and first generation kids opportunity, absolutely nobody, than the teachers in our school district. They do more than ministers, more than advocacy groups, more than Mayors, councilmen, school board members, Congressmen, and more than education pundits. Listen. It's easy, when you've never taught a class, to pretend you are an expert on what teachers should be doing, and what they aren't doing. But when you talk to real teachers about real classes, it is obvious that they are dedicated to kids.
  • I find it ironic, that when students do well, people give credit to the parents, but when they do poorly, they blame teachers. When I talk to folks in St. Cloud, I am constantly telling them that my kids had great teachers, teachers who were better prepared and whose classes were more demanding than the classes I had when I was in school. When I point out that all three of my kids were offered a semester to a full year of college credit at world class Universities, they almost invariably say, "well that's because of the parents." No, its because the parents and the students took advantage of superb teachers. We can't have it both ways in our community. At our two high schools, we have more students taking harder courses, and doing well in those advanced courses, than in all other area schools combined. Our high school teachers graduate hundreds of high school students with advanced placement credit year after year. We send these students to outstanding universities, well prepared for rigor. Its time we give credit where credit is due. Parents are part of the equation. Students are a critical part of the equation. But great teaching is also a part of the equation as well, and we have a lot of it.
During my 30 plus years here in St. Cloud, I've been a consistent supporter of real teachers and the teaching profession. I've advocated that teachers should have more involvement in the planning of staff development. I've advocated that teachers should have career ladders, so that they can be more integrated into the decision making process when it comes to teaching and learning. I've advocated that classroom teachers should be deeply involved in the mentoring of other teachers. I've constantly opposed those who argue that the learning gap is a symptom of bad teaching. For a small segment of the labor movement, however, that's not good enough. My conscience is clear: Education Minnesota doesn't deliver instruction. I will continue to support sustainable budgeting. But at the same time, I reject the movement to blame our great teachers for the failings of society. The fact that Education Minnesota uses its labor power to demand that school boards pay out more money than they have, while true, is not an excuse to beat up on real teachers, doing their job.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Time for Public Schools to Demand More from Parents

This post is about schools demanding more from parents whose children are not succeeding in school. More than likely, if you are reading this post, this post is not about you. This post is not about the parents who are making huge sacrifices for their kids. I can only write about one thing at a time, and today, I'm talking about an increasing number of parents who are sending their kids unprepared to learn. My thesis is that public schools need to stop giving these parents a free pass, and that we need to impose expectations on these parents and, well, make them stick.

Another school year is almost done. In this last school year we've seen the beginnings of a number of reforms that seek to improve the delivery of instruction. One of those reforms is the launch of Skyward, an online communications system for teachers and parents. Another involves significant improvement in the collection of data about student performance and the use of that data to intervene earlier when students are not succeeding. In tandem with those reforms have come new approaches to instruction that seek to attack student weaknesses with prompt interventions. Finally, the district has installed a new accountability system that seeks to monitor with data how our teachers, schools, and the district as a whole is doing. The idea behind these strategies is to make a significant improvement in the performance of the students who are not realizing their full potential. It is a strategy that combines just-in-time-data about student performance with significantly increased demands on teachers that ask them to accommodate what they do in the classroom to the individual needs of the students that come to them.

Another piece of these reforms is a new emphasis on administrative observation of teachers. This year, principals and the superintendent made a commitment radically to increase the number of times that principals visit classrooms and observe what teachers are doing. If you don't observe what is happening in the classroom, how can you provide the professional support necessary to improve that instruction, and, how can you credibly implement accountability.

All of these things are good, but increasingly I have come to believe as a result of seven years of experience on the Board of Education that these reforms cannot succeed, unless they are done in tandem with a major change in the way that we hold parents and guardians responsible for their support of the learning process and the efforts of teachers. If you are reading this blog--if you have gotten this far--probably you are not a parent that I have in mind. You may be a parent, present or past, who made every sacrifice for your children's education. Reading to your children. Making sure that they had the social skills and good behavior so that they were ready to be good citizens in school. You did the things that made our teachers jobs easier. And so it may be hard for you to focus on what I am writing about here. Maybe you are a parent who was disappointed in some way with how a school or teacher met your child's needs, and from your perspective, schools and teachers need to do way more for students to help them succeed. So, I'm not writing about you today. One of the key components of a continuous improvement strategy for schools, is that they must listen to parents like you, and continually do better to provide quality teaching.

But today, I'm focusing on another group of parents, not you, who are sitting back and leaving the education of their children entirely to teachers. If their students don't succeed, then there is something wrong with "the system." I can't prove that there are more parents like this than there were when I was going to school. All I know, for sure, is that today, the state and federal government are both demanding that public schools educate all children to a level of excellence never before envisioned. I am saying that we can observe teachers, we can use just-in -time data, we can try new practices, or bring back some old ones, and we are never going to achieve these objectives, if we continue to give these parents a free pass. We can beat up on teachers all we want to; we can humiliate so-called failing schools; we can demand more, as we should, of teachers and public school systems, but we are never going to reach the goals set by politicians in Washington and St. Paul if we don't demand more of the families themselves.

It is time, if we are going to demand that all students succeed at a high level, that we begin to get more aggressive in imposing demands on parents and students from families that are not doing their part to make teachers jobs easier. The truth of the matter is that succeeding in school requires lots of hard work. It requires work at home. It requires persistence and dedication, habits that come primarily from adult mentoring, supervision and discipline in the home. When we don't communicate this to parents and to the community, we are setting ourselves up for failure. This idea that merely putting better teachers in the classroom, can reach our national educational excellence goals is bunk.

The fact is that these days, more and more teachers are spending more of their time focusing on motivating kids who aren't getting motivated at home. We are bringing in college student mentors; we are developing summer school programs, and a whole range of motivational devices designed to give kids a vision of the path to success. We need to do all of these things, and more. But when are we going to put our foot down and make it clear that the path to success requires sacrifice and success at home.

The other day I attended an event in which a speaker asserted that schools don't understand that in some cultures students study with the television blasting nearby. To this, I say, this is apologizing for families who refuse to make sacrifices for their children's' education. It doesn't cost a dime to turn off the television and announce that this is quite time for the children to study. Teachers and schools have a right to demand that parents create the conditions for success in the home. Increasingly public charter schools are doing this. They are making demands of all of their parents. They are saying, if you want the quality of education that we provide, we have some expectations of you, as parents.

On several occasions I have quoted from the parent contract for Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). I'm going to quote it at the bottom of this blog again. When I advance this idea to public education leaders, they say, Jerry, we can't do this, because we are public schools: we educate everyone. To that I say, no, we merely pretend to educate everyone, when we don't impose demands on families. We are trying to do the job with one hand tied behind our back, the hand of support from parents, guardians, or the extended family who are responsible for our students at home.

Public charter schools are public schools. They have no greater powers over parents than do we. If we fail to make these demands of our parents, then we are operating at a competitive disadvantage that we cannot overcome. As a board member, I feel that its time for us to take decisive action. If we are providing extra summer school help; if we are using grant money to provide opportunities for students to catch up, if we are implementing strategies to help first generation students to succeed, we need to demand something in return from the families who are benefiting from these programs. I'm not asking that parents do what they cannot do. I'm asking that we stop giving alibis for people who won't lift a finger to help us do our job.


Parents’/Guardians’ Commitment
We fully commit to KIPP in the following ways:
  • We will make sure our child arrives at KIPP by 7:25 am (Monday-Friday) or boards a KIPP bus at the scheduled time.
  • We will make arrangements so our child can remain at KIPP until 5:00 pm (Monday - Thursday) and 4:00 pm on Friday.
  • We will make arrangements for our child to come to KIPP on appropriate Saturdays at 9:15 am and remain until 1:05 pm.
  • We will ensure that our child attends KIPP summer school.
  • We will always help our child in the best way we know how and we will do whatever it takes for him/her to learn. This also means that we will check our child’s homework every night, let him/her call the teacher if there is a problem with the
    homework, and try to read with him/her every night
  • .We will always make ourselves available to our children and the school, and address any concerns they might have. This also means that if our child is going to miss school, we will notify the teacher as soon as possible, and we will carefully read any and all papers that the school sends home to us.
  • We will allow our child to go on KIPP field trips.
  • We will make sure our child follows the KIPP dress code.
  • We understand that our child must follow the KIPP rules so as to protect the safety, interests, and rights of all individuals in the classroom. We, not the school, are responsible for the behavior and actions of our child.
  • Failure to adhere to these commitments can cause my child to lose various KIPP privileges and can lead to my child returning to his/her home school.







Sunday, May 23, 2010

Moral and Legal Obligation to Prevent Student on Student Harassment Part II

Yesterday, I wrote that one of the moral, professional, or legal obligations of school boards is to implement policies and programs which seek to protect students from harassment based on race, color, national origin, and gender. I said that harassment occurs among young people as an expression of insecurity, in part. Young people who feel stressed by the social challenges of growing up, and who worry about whether they are, well, going to be ok, sometimes think that pushing other kids around is a way of proving that they are somebody important. Harassment occurs among young people as an expression of the prejudices that they hear at home, or amongst their close peers, or on television and today on the Internet. Usually the target of harassment will be children who we perceive as being vulnerable. That is, children who lack the prestige or power to protect themselves. That's why often the target of harassment will be students who are otherwise socially unpopular, or minority students, or immigrants, or students with different sexual orientations.

One of the major definitive guiding documents for school districts is a publication titled “Protecting Students from Harassment and Hate Crime, a Guide for Schools. It is a ten-year old publication of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Education and the National Association of Attorneys General. It’s endorsed by the National School Board’s Association. It was authored when Richard Riley was the Secretary of Education . These are guidelines, of course. The law does not require that a school district adopt or implement any of these in particularized format. But the guide provides an excellent sense of best practices which can be utilized to identify possible areas for improvement.

The Guide says that school districts can address these issues best by:

• developing a comprehensive written anti-harassment policy;
• identifying and responding effectively to harassment;
• establishing formal reporting and complaint procedures;
• creating a safe and supportive school climate;
• responding to hate-motivated violence through cooperation and partnerships between school and law enforcement officials; and
• developing crisis intervention plans to avoid disruption of the educational process.

These are positive things that school districts can do, but in order to do them well, it requires a long-term commitment and collaborative involvement by stakeholders in the community: parents, advocacy groups, the media, political and civic leaders. Creating a welcoming community environment is an ongoing never ending task. One cannot accomplish perfection overnight. But the OCR guide represents a blueprint for action, and ideally, the community would focus on each of these points, on a regular basis, to determine which bullet points are working and which need more work. This approach requires an ongoing positive collaborative effort based on a continuous progress philosophy.

That brings me to an important point. Advocates can focus on trying to prove that educational institutions are not meeting their responsibilities, or they can focus on trying to engage in teamwork, but at times it can really be hard to do both at the same time. When an advocacy organization decides to lower the boom on an school district by filing an OCR complaint, the organization is locking itself into the contention that the district is willfully indifferent to student on student harassment. It becomes committed to proving that high standard and part of the proof involves trying to show that the board, the superintendent, administrators and faculty, well, just don't seem to care about students. Once an advocacy group becomes committed to proving that, it virtually forces the organization to hyperbolize, to vilify, and to create an environment that fulfills the contention first made.

Just look at the standard required for proof of a federal civil rights violation:

In describing the proof necessary to satisfy the deliberate indifference standard, the Supreme Court stated that a plaintiff may demonstrate defendant's deliberate indifference to discrimination "only where the recipient's response to the harassment or lack thereof is clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances." The recipient is not required to "remedy" [racial discrimination] nor ensure that students conform their conduct to certain rules, but rather, "the recipient must merely respond to known peer harassment in a manner that is not clearly unreasonable." The deliberate indifference standard "does not mean that recipients can avoid liability only by purging their schools of actionable peer harassment or that administrators must engage in particular disciplinary action." The standard does not mean that recipients must expel every student accused of misconduct. Victims do not have a right to particular remedial demands. See id. Furthermore, courts should not second guess the disciplinary decisions that school administrators make. See id. Vance v. Spencer County Pub. Sch. Dist., 231 F.3d 253 (6th Cir. Ky. 2000).


As I have said, when an advocacy group decides to make an OCR complaint against a school district, in order to overcome the high hurdle found in the law, they are compelled to assert that the school district is "deliberately indifferent to harassment." Having made this contention, the advocacy group now must now prove its contention by minimizing any efforts the district has made, by treating leadership as insensitive pariahs, and even by undermining efforts to collaborate. The OCR complaint is a blunt instrument.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Moral and Legal Obligation to Prevent Student on Student Harassment

One of the moral, professional, or legal obligations of school boards is to implement policies and programs which seek to protect students from harassment based on race, color, national origin, and gender. Harassment occurs among young people as an expression of insecurity, in part. Young people who feel stressed by the social challenges of growing up, and who worry about whether they are, well, going to be ok, sometimes think that pushing other kids around is a way of proving that they are somebody important. Harassment occurs among young people as an expression of the prejudices that they hear at home, or amongst their close peers, or on television and today on the internet. Usually the target of harassment will be children who we perceive as being vulnerable. That is, children who lack the prestige or power to protect themselves. That's why often the target of harassment will be students who are otherwise socially unpopular, or minority students, or immigrants, or students with different sexual orientations.

Federal anti-discrimination laws require school districts to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment of certain protected classes of students, because we are recipients of federal funds. But educational institutions want to take steps to prevent harassment of students whether they are in a protected class or not, because we want students to come to school in an environment that is humane and that promotes an accepting learning environment. In this post I want to describe some of the federal legal obligations that we have as school board members, but as I do that, I don't want to imply that we work on these issues simply because the law requires us to do so: when you invite someone into your home, you aren't nice to them because the law makes you. You do it because your religious and ethical code demands it of you, and well, because your mother raised you with good manners.

The basis of the federal legal obligation in the harassment area is found in Title VI, which protects the right to be free from discrimination under a program that receives federal funding. 42 U.S.C. § 2000d. Title VI provides in part that "no person . . . shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." Id. Section 601 prohibits intentional discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in covered programs and activities. Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001).

Notice that in harassment cases in the school, the school isn't directly doing the harassment. We are talking about student on student harassment here. So the legal question is when should a school district be legally responsible for what one student does to another.

In the 1999 case, Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Educ., the Supreme Court held that "recipients of federal funding may be liable for gender discrimination for 'subjecting' their students to discrimination where the recipient is deliberately indifferent to known acts of student-on-student harassment and the harasser is under the school's disciplinary authority." This standard has been applied to racial harassment cases as well.

In law, we start with looking at whether there is a prima-facie case of discrimination. A prima facie case exists when the complaining party can get to “first base” as it were. You get to first base when it can be shown that there is a body of credible evidence which, if believed, would establish the violation. To establish a prima facie case of student-on-student racial harassment, Plaintiffs must demonstrate each of the following elements.:

(1) the [racial harassment] was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it could be said to deprive the plaintiff of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school,

(2) the funding recipient (school district) had actual knowledge of the harassment, and

(3) the funding recipient (school district)was deliberately indifferent to the harassment.

As with every "prima facie" case, just about anyone can allege facts and get someone to hear them. So I don't want to create the impression that the legal standard is easily satisfied. But when a complaining person puts forward a prima facie case, it means that the school district has to convince that the evidence is wrong, that the harassment did not occur, that it wasn’t severe, or that the District was not deliberately indifferent. Remember also that we are dealing with the legal standard here. As a community of moral people, we should not be motivated primarily by the desire to avoid legal trouble. We don't drive carefully to keep our insurance rates down--we drive carefully because we don't want to run over a pedestrian or cause some terrible harm to a real live person.

An example of the application of these principles is found in the Oklahoma Bryant case. There, the students, and possibly the teachers, acted in a racially discriminatory way towards other students. The principal was aware of racial slurs, graffiti inscribed in school furniture, and notes placed in students' lockers and notebooks. White males were allowed to wear T-shirts adorned with the confederate flag, swastikas, KKK symbols, and hangman nooses on their person and their cars. The students and parents complained to the principal about the racist environment, but the principal took no action to remedy the situation. The 10th Circuit held the school administrators' lack of response constituted intentional action which could subject them to liability under Title VI. Bryant v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. I-38, 334 F.3d 928 (10th Cir. Okla. 2003)

Notice that the harassment was severe, pervasive and objectively offensive. The principal was aware of ongoing practices. Complaints were lodged, but the principal took no action, and so liability was found warranted.

One Court has described the standard as follows:

In describing the proof necessary to satisfy the deliberate indifference standard, the Supreme Court stated that a plaintiff may demonstrate defendant's deliberate indifference to discrimination "only where the recipient's response to the harassment or lack thereof is clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances." The recipient is not required to "remedy" [racial discrimination] nor ensure that students conform their conduct to certain rules, but rather, "the recipient must merely respond to known peer harassment in a manner that is not clearly unreasonable." The deliberate indifference standard "does not mean that recipients can avoid liability only by purging their schools of actionable peer harassment or that administrators must engage in particular disciplinary action." The standard does not mean that recipients must expel every student accused of misconduct. Victims do not have a right to particular remedial demands. See id. Furthermore, courts should not second guess the disciplinary decisions that school administrators make. See id. Vance v. Spencer County Pub. Sch. Dist., 231 F.3d 253 (6th Cir. Ky. 2000).

The Office of Civil Rights, Department of Education says: "Harassment of students due to race, color, and national origin is a disturbing phenomenon in elementary and secondary education as well as at colleges and universities as shown by the growing number of complaints the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) receives on this issue. This trend is a major concern because of the profound educational, emotional and physical consequences for the targeted students."

A racially hostile environment may be created, the OCR explains “by oral, written, graphic or physical conduct related to an individual's race, color, or national origin that is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the recipient's programs or activities.”

What are school districts doing to address these concerns. There are a number of strategies that can make a tremendous positive difference in school environments. School Board members have an obligation to take these issues seriously and to become informed about the strategies that work and to monitor the strategies that are being utilized within their own district. These issues are not simply a matter of adopting the right policy--they represent major policy challenges for school districts today. But none of these strategies can have their maximum impact, unless the larger community, from religious leaders, political leaders, law enforcement, service clubs, and just plain citizens make an effort to create a community environment that promotes a welcoming environment, what I would call a community with good manners. I'll post a bit more on the things that school districts are doing, or can do, to comply with the legal and moral obligations to create a welcoming environment to all students.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

AVID program focuses on "Individual Determination"

Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of parental support for education in realizing our vision of graduating all students to excellence. I argued that public education needs to have higher expectations for parents. A free public education is an important pillar of our society, but that we shouldn't be giving it away for free. By that I mean, we should be imposing non-negotiable expectations on all parents, guardians and their children. We will graduate you to excellence, but you have to agree to do your part.

I argued that no matter what the barriers, parents and guardians must be expected to make a contribution. In fact, it is the act of making sacrifices for your children's education that send the most powerful message: "my parents really care about this." My purpose in writing was not to beat up on that group of parents that are not meeting their responsibility. My purpose was to begin a discussion on what our school district can do to expect more from parents. There are a number of successful programs emerging across the country that begin with the recognition that "closing the achievement gap," or advancing the students "in the middle" begins with student and parent commitments to invest in education through hard work, regular attendance, and self-discipline.

Another program, and one I would like to mention, is AVID. AVID is a fourth- through twelfth-grade system to prepare students in the academic middle for four-year college eligibility. AVID claims "a proven track record in bringing out the best in students, and in closing the achievement gap". AVID stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination. The name puts the focus where the focus belongs. The idea behind AVID is that you advance in life through making an individual commitment to success. AVID targets students in the academic middle - B, C, and even D students - who have the desire to go to college and the willingness to work hard. The program explains:

These are students who are capable of completing rigorous curriculum but are falling short of their potential. Typically, they will be the first in their families to attend college, and many are from low-income or minority families. AVID pulls these students out of their unchallenging courses and puts them on the college track: acceleration instead of remediation.


"AVID is at work in nearly 4,500 schools in 45 states as well as the District of Columbia and 16 countries/territories. Large urban schools, tiny rural schools, resource-rich suburban schools, struggling schools - they all find that AVID meets the needs of their students in the middle." A number of Minnesota Districts have begun AVID programs.including Roseville, Hopkins, and Lakeville, for example.

Like KIPP (Knowledge is Power), AVID begins with the realization that good teachers cannot help children who are not determined to learn and families who fail to recognize that success requires persistent dedication to learning in the home. This concept permeates every successful program to advance students who are not realizing their potential. And it follows that we in public education must invest way more effort in engaging parents in students in a commitment to success.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Unlock the potential of parents and individual student initiative

Good teaching is one key to the vision of graduating all students to excellence. But increasingly, I have become convinced that we must emphasize the role of parents and individual student initiative if we are to realize the vision of graduating all of our students to excellence. For a number of years, I've been disappointed with the ability of public education generally, and here in our own school district, to establish clear, coherent expectations for parents. Much of the comment on public education and the so-called education gap has focused on curriculum and teachers. And that's fine. Teachers represent one of the important legs of the stool upon which a strong educational program must rest. And yet, there seems to be a tremendous amount of evidence that the individual student initiative and parental support are important keys to success.

At varying times, I've argued that public schools need to think about imposing expectations on parents to do more to support teachers and schools. We get great support from most of our parents, but here I'm talking about the students who aren't making it as they should. When I have this conversation with public school people, often they supply a variety of excuses for the parents that aren't stepping up to the plate and doing their part to make sure that their kids are prepared.

The other day I heard that many of our parents these days don't have enough income to buy children's books so that their children can read at home. Look. I have a great respect for the difficulties that families face when they are struggling on very limited budgets. But I'm not buying the alibi that we can't expect every family to have books in the home. Putting eduction first, above everything else, is one of the common things we hear from kids who "beat the odds" and do well despite tremendous economic disadvantages at home. They tell us that the very fact that their parents faced challenges, but made sacrifices for education was exactly the message that set them on the right path. Most every family can find a way to bring home books for their children. I The local imagination library program provides free books to any area child from birth to age six:

Imagination Library is a partnership between United Way of Central Minnesota Success By 6 and the Dollywood Foundation. Children from birth to their fifth birthday can be enrolled in the program as long as their parent/guardian lives in the United Way of Central Minnesota service area. After registering (the first book takes about eight to ten weeks to arrive at your home) the child will receive a new, age-appropriate book sent to them at their home each month until their fifth birthday. The program is offered to families at no cost.


So poverty is no excuse. When we give parents the poverty alibi for not taking care of their children s crying need to have age appropriate books in the home, we are apologizing for a form of child-abuse--the abuse that destroys a child's opportunity to make reading a lifelong part of her life. When we say that disadvantaged families cannot find a place and time for study, we are enabling and facilitating parental laziness and irresponsibility. We can be sympathetic to families in crisis, to mom's or dads who are pulling down two jobs. Nobody is suggesting that some parents don't have a tough time holding things together. All I am saying is that let's be understanding, sure, but if young people are going to succeed and graduate to excellence, we need to stop giving families a free pass from responsibility.

We can do more as a school district and as a community to set the tone for high expectations to families. The vast majority of parents want their children to do well. But we need to send a consistent message that students do well when parents create the home conditions necessary for success.

One of the programs that is gaining a nationwide reputation for success is KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program. Its one of those successful programs that is predicated on high expectations for students, parents and teachers, and those high expectations are imposed without exception. Parents and guardians sign the following document when their students are enrolled in KIPP. When I raise this concept, I'm constantly opposed by folks who say, well we can't do this in our schools, because we're open to everyone. I agree we're open to everyone, but we also need to have high expectations for everyone. Its time that public education gets a spine, I believe, and stop using poverty or other factors as an alibi for parents. High expectations begets success. In my next post, I'm going write further about this idea that excellence comes from personal commitment to success and what public schools can do, indeed must do, to convey this fundamental idea that you can't make it in school without a personal commitment to persistence, hard work and discipline. I'll be writing about the AVID program to graduate students to excellence using a philosophy of "Advancement via Individual Determination."

Parents’/Guardians’ Commitment
We fully commit to KIPP in the following ways:
  • We will make sure our child arrives at KIPP by 7:25 am (Monday-Friday) or boards a KIPP bus at the scheduled time.
  • We will make arrangements so our child can remain at KIPP until 5:00 pm (Monday - Thursday) and 4:00 pm on Friday.
  • We will make arrangements for our child to come to KIPP on appropriate Saturdays at 9:15 am and remain until 1:05 pm.
  • We will ensure that our child attends KIPP summer school.
  • We will always help our child in the best way we know how and we will do whatever it takes for him/her to learn. This also means that we will check our child’s homework every night, let him/her call the teacher if there is a problem with the
    homework, and try to read with him/her every night
  • .We will always make ourselves available to our children and the school, and address any concerns they might have. This also means that if our child is going to miss school, we will notify the teacher as soon as possible, and we will carefully read any and all papers that the school sends home to us.
  • We will allow our child to go on KIPP field trips.
  • We will make sure our child follows the KIPP dress code.
  • We understand that our child must follow the KIPP rules so as to protect the safety, interests, and rights of all individuals in the classroom. We, not the school, are responsible for the behavior and actions of our child.
  • Failure to adhere to these commitments can cause my child to lose various KIPP privileges and can lead to my child returning to his/her home school.




Saturday, May 15, 2010

Superintendent Contract Negotiations

For those of you who are St. Cloud area residents, the work we are doing to complete a new contract with our former superintendent will be of local interest. For two or three folks who read this blog from elsewhere, perhaps what will be of interest is the process by which we seek to arrive at that contract. For some time now, our board of education has attempted to finalize superintendent contracts through a transparent process. Some time ago, the Minnesota State Auditor criticized school districts for failing to make all of the compensation components of a superintendent's contract transparent. We have done our best to take that advice to heart.

The cost of hiring a superintendent is driven by many factors. We are working with two realities. One reality is that there are folks who think that anything we pay a superintendent is too much. In fact, one of the reasons that many boards try to avoid discussing the cost of compensation is that they want to avoid criticism from that segment of the public who get angry at school boards when they hear the cost of compensation, even if the compensation is competitively driven.

The other driver of compensation is what other districts are paying. In our area, three new superintendents have just been hired. The base-pay for the superintendent at Sartell, which serves a student population about 1/3 of ours, and who has no prior superintendent experience, is just about the same as our current superintendent is making. When we are hiring and recruiting leaders, it is really hard to look them in the eye and say, look, you have to run a district three times the size of a neighboring district for less pay. And even if one could pull off that miracle, what happens next, our experience shows, is that if your superintendent is successful, he or she begins to get head hunted at the end of his contract by other school districts who offer far more. So we have to keep our own financial resources in mind, but we also have to look at what the competition is paying.

One of the things that has been driving superintendent up, frankly, is the Minnesota law that limits superintendent contracts to three years. I'm not against this law, at all. But formerly, a superintendent had tenure, just like teachers. When the new law went into place, superintendent candidates knew that their careers could be upset by by political or other winds, that caused a board to refuse to renew the contract in a very public way. The best candidates began to seek economic protection against that possibility, and that began to drive up the competitive cost of superintendencies.

This week, both the personnel committee and finance committees reviewed the progress of financial discussions with Bruce Watkins which would lead to a one year superintendent's contract beginning on July 1. Those discussions have occurred on an exploratory basis, because the Board authorized negotiations, but did not establish, or approve, the financial terms of a contract. The meetings were each publicly noticed and open. A reporter for the Times attended the finance committee meeting. The personnel committee recommended that the proposed financial terms be presented to the Board of Education at its televised public meeting, next Thursday. If the Board finds that the terms are acceptable, then we would authorize a letter of intent which would be signed by the District and Watkins. That would lead to the drafting of a final contract to be submitted for approval at the next board meeting.

As is our practice, the financial terms will be publicly costed. The basic outlines of the contract that the board will review, but which it has not yet approved, would be as follows. Watkins would step into the last year of Superintendent Jordahl's contract, but with modifications. He would not have the right to earn performance pay. He would not have the right to cash out unused sick or vacation pay. We would remove standard provisions of the superintendent's contracts used by most districts that provide for 90 days of disability pay if the superintendent becomes disabled while employed and we would remove provisions allowing emergency leave with pay. The net result of all of this would be considerable reductions in cost to the district as compared to the anticipated third year cost of Superintendent Jordahl's contract. The contract is not an "interim" contract, because it is for a fixed term with a starting and ending date and of course, we are hiring a person who has already served as our superintendent for a full contract term.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Light a Candle: Happy Mother's Day

One of my mother's favorite sayings was "it is better to light one candle, than to curse the darkness." My mother, Jane, lived this creed better than most, and better than I ever could. Most sources attribute the origin of the proverb to the ancient Chinese. The Bible, Romans 13, says, " The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light." The saying became the motto of the American Christopher Society, and gained further currency when John Kennedy said in his Presidential nomination acceptance speech in 1960, "We are not here to curse the darkness; we are here to light a candle." Then in 1962, Adlai Stevenson gave the phrase new fame, when he said of Eleanor Roosevelt in a speech the the United Nations, She would rather light candles than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.

But I still think of this as my mom's saying, and when I get angry and ready to criticize or find fault, but hold back despite myself, its my mom saying to me still, "don't curse the darkness, Jerry." I like to think of my mom as an image of that candle, burning inside, passing its flame to her children, and lighting new candles whenever it can. Hate, anger, fear, skepticism, greed, can consume us for a while, my mom believed, but that candle keeps on burning, passing its flame one to another. We cannot see our way out of darkness with even the most powerful anger and fear, yet a small candle can bring the light.

Happy Mother's Day.


Candle

Saturday, May 8, 2010

We love our teachers....They make our dreams come true!

This morning's St. Cloud Daily Times carries an article about a Somali Cultural night at Apollo High School. The students gave out awards signifying their gratitude for their teachers and others who have made special contributions to their success. The Times reports: "Student Liban Abdi, who was one of the organizers, spoke on behalf of the Somali students after the awards.“We love our teachers. We love our community. We love our teachers so much. They make our dreams come true."

Why are the students doing this, you ask? I think there are several reasons. First, they have come to a great country and find themselves at a school that is offering them a wonderful education. They miss their homeland, just like my German grandparents missed theirs, but they are thrilled that they are here in a country that gives them opportunities that they did not get in war torn Somalia. Second, they have witnessed a series of stories in the newspaper that portrays a few Somalis wrongly portraying their school as unfriendly and unwelcoming. They wanted, I believe, to set the record straight, and they chose this way of sending a different message. They know that there are a few problems which need to be corrected. Yes, we need to do a much better job throughout our community and in our schools of promoting understanding, but the the predominant them in our schools is learning in a supportive environment. Third, they believe, as I believe, that sharing and communicating about their culture will lead to a better understanding here in St. Cloud.

Listen. There are going to be Somalis who complain. When they complain, they are manifesting another component of America for which they, and we, should be grateful--that this is a country where any can complain and advocate for change. Our German ancestors, Irish ancestors, Chinese and Japanese ancestors came here and found aspects of our society about which they complained. When they arrived, they formed clubs, self improvement organizations, newspapers, and advocacy groups in order to make sure that they were understood, that their rights were protected, and that they could be more readily accepted into their new country. Many of those organizations still exists today, and some of you may even be members of them.

A few people want to complain that as part of their cultural celebration the Somalis sang for us their national anthem. Give me a break. They weren't singing it because they aren't grateful to be here. They were singing it for us because they wanted to share for us a part of their past. The message they delivered is, we are proud of who we are, we remember with mixed emotions the country we came from, but "We love our community. We love our teachers so much. They make our dreams come true."

And it is going to be true, also, that the few Somalis who complain are going to get way more press than the majority of Somalis who are saying, we love our community.....,it is making our dreams come true. In fact, there are a few people in our community who are doing everything they can to step on that message of hope. These few, prefer to focus on what divides us, instead of focusing on what unites us and brings us together. This is a part of our history--it is an ongoing cycle.

In part, the ability to complain and defend ourselves against injustice is what makes us strong. At the same time, the young Somalis who sponsored last night's event are doing what my German ancestors did, when they arrived here. Despite our complaints we said: We love our community. We love our teachers so much. They make our dreams come true." America and the American idea of freedom, justice and opportunity is stronger than anything that can divide us, stronger than the people who live for, and feed on, divisiveness, hate and anger.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mixed Charter Results Warns of Difficulty in Transforming Education

A recent article in the New York Times cries out:

Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools Is Mixed

This is one of a series of recent news articles and scholarly reports which raise troubling questions about whether the charter experiment launched in Minnesota and now replicated in many other states, an experiment which has been the darling of both the Bush and Obama administrations, is really paying off. The Times article writes:

But for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. Last year one of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were “significantly worse.”

Now the theory behind the charter experiment is that by removing some of the constraints and by fostering competition, charters would transform public education and make significant inroads on the achievement gap. A recent auditor's report here in Minnesota authored by the Minnesota legislative auditor found that:

As a group, charter students posted lower test scores and their schools were more likely to wind up on a watch list dictated by No Child Left Behind goals. Half of active charter schools failed to make adequate yearly progress and were subject to federal sanctions,compared with 32 percent of district-run schools. (Minneapolis Tribune, June 30, 2008.


My purpose in citing these sources is not to launch an attack on charter schools. Rather, I want to make the point that making significant inroads on transforming education for all students is way more difficult, way more challenging, than pundits, presidents and most educators are willing to admit. What we are discovering is that there is no magic bullet, no quick fix. The problem is that when the same kids, from the same families, with the same work habits move from one school to another, you haven't solved the problem by calling the new school a charter, a magnet, or anything else. Teachers in charter schools are largely trained by the same teacher training schools and they largely use the same curriculum, as the traditional publics. We are discovering that our education system rests on a fundamental pillar, the ability of the family, and of course the student, actively to participate in education by providing the language tools and work habits to succeed. When students come to us without those tools and work habits, if we want them to succeed, we need to make up for that huge deficit with new strategies, and those new strategies are not all that easy to implement.

If we want to transform public education, we need to something far more radical and purposeful than the quick fixes proposed by pundits. Not changing the compensation system, not creating more charters, not race to the top, is going to do the job. Listen. The fact is that public schools are providing an outstanding education for a huge block of children--the ones who come to school ready to learn, the ones whose parents read to them and prepare them with the coping skills they need to learn. The intractable problem, the one that we are called upon to address, is to graduate all students to excellence, and that job is way more difficult than most people imagine.

What, then must we do? The answer is that there is not one thing, or two things, or even a dozen things alone that can meet the national goal of leaving no child left behind. It will take changes in teaching techniques. It will take better and smarter use of testing. It will take demanding oversight from school boards and a new vision of educational leadership. But most of all, it will take strategies that inspire students and families to get on board with the hard work and persistence that education requires. We are just beginning to make the changes here in St. Cloud that need to be made. In our recent forum with disadvantaged students, that is exactly what they told us. They praised the teachers that encouraged them--pushed them--to succeed.

And we do have great teachers here. We have the richest curriculum, the broadest and most demanding courses, the best opportunities for students that can be found in the area. The transformation that I speak of would not be required if we were satisfied with the old paradigm that provides superb education for some students, average education for others, but leaves others behind. My kids received here in St. Cloud not just an ordinary education, but a world class education. They had every opportunity. Any child who is ready to learn, who comes to school prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that are provided, can do very well. The crisis in public education is how to educate the students that in decades past we would have cast aside because they lacked the language tools, work habits, and persistence to overcome obstacles placed in their way.

The transformation that is required is not going to happen overnight. Some of the charter experiments have implemented really good ideas. We need to seize on those good ideas and use also the good ideas that are permeating regular public schools as well. One key is the organized, intentional, deliberate use of testing data to intervene at the earliest possible time to make sure that students who are behind are getting appropriate instruction. Another key is to impose rigorous demands and high expectations on all students and their families. These are two of the core ideas behind the new strategic direction adopted here in St. Cloud. But adopting a strategic vision is the easy part. Let's talk some more about the things that need to be done next time.