Open Thread: Square Pegs

Aside from serving as one of two Assistant Principals in my high school, I am also lucky enough to supervise three departments, one of which is Special Education.  I do not manage IEPs, conduct testing, or get involved in the legalities of Special Education.  I merely manage the day to day happenings with the Special Education staff, work with the scheduling and budgets, and assist the Director of Special Services and Child Study Team.  I wish I had time to do more.

I have worked in three school districts in the last eight years.  I am embarrassed to say that the Special Education programs have all been rather disappointing.  I’ve seen watered down curriculum where handouts and worksheets are the standard of classroom practice.  I’ve had conversations with Special Education teachers and heard some sad educational philosophies regarding Special Education students.  I’ve seen and heard some unethical things in the highest offices of public school districts – things that would cost people their careers.

On the flip side, I’ve met (and currently work with) some of the best people for Special Education students; they are supportive, encouraging, and serve as life coaches and mentors for their students.  They desire to be the best teachers they can for their kids.  I’ve also been blessed to have strong school leadership role models in my life who keep me hopeful and guide me through the rough waters of Special Education law, practices, and education. 

Since this is my last post for Dr. McLeod, I thought it would be helpful and intriguing for all of us if we left an open thread (a la Beyond School’s popular one).  Open threads seems to me to be chock full of good advice, insight, and some remarkable stories.

So here it goes…

What practices have you seen in your experiences with Special Education?  You can discuss a Special Education program that is worthy of publicity, or a teaching practice that deserves attention.  If you are tempted to expose the troubles of Special Education, you may – but I would like this post to be helpful, not critical.  So please, with a criticism, offer a potential solution.

It’s been an honor to share with all of you. Mike Parent, Guest Blogger

No Need for “Brown Eyes”

Thus far, I have posted about educational conspiracy, challenging the competitive nature of schools, and assessing assessments.  What follows is a topic near and dear to everyone's career and workplace.  This is a post I have been looking forward to sharing with all of you.  It's a bit lighthearted, but a serious topic for school leadership.

Let me begin with a disclaimer.  A tantalizing and possibly offensive word will be used throughout this post.  The word is not common to the professional language of Dr. McLeod or his readers.  However, since I will be using the word in the context of a theory, it should be understood that I am not trying to be edgy or shocking.  I am merely using the word for purpose of clarity.

The day before Christmas break I am browsing through a book store looking for a good gift for my principal.  In the management section I spot a small book with an intriguing title – The No Asshole Rule.  I first think this must be some kind of gag gift.  But a ten-minute perusing of the book tells me something else.  The author, Robert Sutton, is a well known and respected writer.  He's not joking here.  He is only using the lay terminology for "difficult people", "hardened hearts", or "combative individuals".  I bought The No Asshole Rule (TNAR) for my principal, and a copy for myself.  Now we're both equipped to handle this obnoxious faculty member.

TNAR is a much needed common language leadership book.  I know many of as are fans of many different education leadership authors (Fullan, Heifetz, Wheatley, and Gardner) .  These books are chock full of ideas, principles, and theories that are sound, sensible, and applicable.  But Sutton is onto something different here.  His deliberate use of the word "asshole" to describe those – well, assholes – that we work with, sit through meetings with, receive directives from, and must collaborate with every day, is refreshing.

Though TNAR is written mainly for those employed in the private sector (where hiring and firing is fast and furious – unlike public education), it does have some practical applications for schools.

For instance, how many administrators, teachers, or staff members have you worked with or encountered that have indulged in Dr. Sutton's "Dirty Dozen" list of actions that assholes use?

  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one's personal territory
  3. Uninvited personal contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non-verbal
  5. Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult-delivery systems
  6. Withering e-mail flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or status-degradation rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible.

Check out Dr. Sutton for yourself.

A few things anyone can take from this book are Sutton's suggestions on dealing with assholes you can't get rid of:

  1. Deal with their asshole behavior immediately and make it known that you did.  Don't let asshole behavior go on.  Even if it hurts to confront an asshole, do it for the greater good of the organization.  People are watching to see how you react to the known asshole.
  2. Marginalize them.  Make them irrelevant and their influence minimal.
  3. Don't be confrontational with assholes, but don't be a doormat either. 

His final word of advice is one that we should all take to heart.  Don't hire assholes.  Those of us in positions of authority to hire faculty, administrators, and staff must seriously consider candidate's personality as much as we consider their knowledge and ability.  I'll remember that as we begin our annual hiring carnival this Spring and Summer.

Lastly, Sutton's book will give you some great tips on how to deal with those pesky, pernicious, parents whom we lovingly call (in the copy room) "assholes".

PS- Just for fun: take the asshole quiz.

Mike Parent – guest blogger


Assessing Assessments

This is not an advertisement for The Education Trust, nor is it an endorsement of all that The Education Trust stands for.  This post is merely my commentary on one aspect of The Education Trust’s practices – assessing standards in practice.

In 2003, I was working at a semi-urban high school near Paterson, NJ.  Our school was seeing a major transition in demographics; more ELL students, Hispanic students, and first generation Muslim-Americans were enrolling.  It was a regional high school, so we did not have a handle on the K-8 curriculum.  Basically, what we were sent, we had to deal with.  Literacy rates were suffering and our students were in need of more basic reading and math skills.  In short, we were aware of the achievement gap that was present in our building; the honors courses and AP courses were completely Caucasian and the general level classes were nearly all minority.  We weren’t ready for this.  We had no plan other than to offer the mundane BSI courses.  But a crafty Assistant Principal, Jim Jencarelli (who is now the Superintendent of a NJ high school) had the novel idea of bringing in The Education Trust to help us with our achievement gap problem, curriculum redesign, and shifting of paradigms.

One of the first things The Ed Trust does when they come in to your school/district is to meet with the teachers and administration to discuss their Standards In Practice protocol.  I can remember the meeting very vividly – teachers were appalled at the presenters statement that one reason an achievement gap exists is due to the pity parties that teachers have for minority students and students who have less than stable home lives.  In essence, teachers and schools do no students favors when they lower the expectations based on the perceived inabilities or emotional concerns that teachers and schools have for struggling students.  What the Ed Trust ultimately condones is the practice of teaching every child as if they were college preparatory material. 

Standards In Practice consists of the following (you can view Ed Trust’s presentation below):

  1. Creating teams of teachers to review, analyze, and critique assignments
  2. Having these teams honestly look at the standards (usually state standards) and see if their assignments reach the expectation, or fall short.  (NOTE: you would be surprised how many tests and quizzes are comprised of recall and rote questions.)
  3. A rubric is followed whereby the assessment is measured.  If need be, the assessment must be redesigned to meet the standards.
  4. The teams meet regularly and each team member is on the "hot seat" – no one is immune from the clinical exercise.

What I found most intriguing about Standards In Practice was not the protocol.  Of course I learned a lot from the exercise (I disappointingly found that my assessments were far too "dumbed down") and gained insight into how to construct rigorous assessments, which, in turn, forced me to redesign my approach to students, lessons, and teaching.  No, what intrigued me most was the philosophy of the Education Trust.

Ed Trust is committed to narrowing the great divide between minority students and others.  I can’t tell you angry I get when I see school leadership revel in the glory of "beating" other schools at high stakes testing.  I take no pride in the following facts:

  • 32% of White adults (ages 16-65) read at the Basic or Below Basic proficiency in Prose literacy. (2003)
  • 67% of Black adults (ages 16-65) read at the basic or Below Basic proficiency in Prose literacy. (2003)
  • 53% of Hispanic adults (ages 16-65) read at the basic or Below Basic proficiency in Prose literacy. (2003)

Notes: Prose literacy refers to the knowledge and skills needed to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts. Source: NCES Table 379.

What I have come to understand is that while we scurry to find new ways to meet AYP, get our students over the hump, and keep our schools out of the editorial pages, there is a quiet epidemic of illiteracy spreading in our urban schools.  The Education Trust (while not completely perfect) is trying to address the issue through their programs and protocols.  They seek to shift the paradigm of teachers and schools, not throw money at the urban schools and hope that a miracle happens. 

For my part, I can say that The Education Trust shifted my paradigm.  I now see the problem and a potential means of addressing the problem.

Whatever happened to that high school I worked at in 2003 where we brought in the Education Trust?  The Principal and Superintendent though it was too expensive and unnecessary.  Jim and I left for brighter futures and more open minds.  Yet, we are both committed to bridging the achievement gap… however, I now know that the achievement gap is a symptom of nothing more than institutional racism.  When any school thinks that a curriculum must be watered down in order to help the minority student, simply because that student comes from a family or neighborhood that is less desirable, then that school is acting in a nearly criminal manner.

Please examine your state’s literacy rates.  Is there a widening literacy deficit?  Are you in a school or district that seems to have more than a fair share of minority students either classified as LD or stuck in Basic Skills?  Once you have that answer, ask yourself if your school or district assesses students to the standard set forth by your state or county?  How much rote and recall do you see in your classrooms?

Mike Parent – guest blogger

It’s About Quality, Not Victory

What follows is an actual conversation between me and a dear friend who is also an administrative colleague. His name has not been changed, since he is guilty and cannot be protected like the innocent.

Setting: About four o’clock on a wintry afternoon in Vice-Principal Jim’s office in NJ.  The office’s aged, mint green walls are adorned with motivational quotes from great NFL, NBA, and MLB coaches.

ME: "So Jim, what do you think the Superintendent is going to say about the proposed change to the school’s grade scale?"

JIM: "You know what, whatever gets the kids working harder.  I just think the weighting of AP and Honors courses is going to throw off the ranking system."

ME: "Good.  The ranking thing should go.  We’re not about competition – we’re about learning.  If it were up to me, I’d do away with grades, scales, ranking… all that."

JIM: "You’re nuts!  We have to keep ranks and grades.  How else do we know who is doing better or well in a subject?  And we rank to see who is the best in the class.  Besides, competition is good for kids.  They have to compete to get into college."

ME: "So you’re saying that it’s okay to have a number one student?  That means, Jim, that to have a number one, there must be a number two, then a three, and so on.  You’re saying it’s okay to have kids at number 100?  We shouldn’t have them compete, we should have them collaborate and learn.  The weak helped by the strong.  Competition is for the field, not the classroom."

JIM: "That’s why I’ll never work for you at a school you run."

I love Jim.  He’s an honest man, a good father, a great mentor for lost adolescents.  But he’s dead wrong about competition in the schoolhouse.   To make him upset and aggravated,  I sometimes use facts and ideas from Alfie Kohn to combat his arguments.  Jim listens, but thinks I am  too rebellious for my own good.

One article from Mr. Kohn that I use frequently to argue my point about the need to eliminate competition from the schoolhouse is entitled "Against “Competitiveness”: Why Good Teachers Aren’t Thinking About the Global
.  It appeared in the September 19, 2007 edition of Education Week.

Janet Swenson at Michigan State University points out that
  “we’ll all benefit from the best education we can provide to every child on
  the face of this planet.  Do you care if it’s a child in Africa who finds a
  cure for cancer rather than a child in your country?” she asks.

Bravo Ms. Swenson.  When NCLB was proudly announced as the law of the land, schoolhouses became battlegrounds; each school district against another, each factor grouping against another, each state against another – which really only translates into each child against the other.  NCLB may have "raised the bar" (whatever that means), but it also made schools places of gaming, not learning. 

And now for my close-to-home moment.  Try not to gag or vomit on your keyboard when you read the comments of one Dr. Larrie Reynolds, Superintendent of NJ’s Pequannock Schools.  Dr. Reynolds is a newly hired Superintendent from the great state of Texas (known for its educational leadership, of course).  Mr. Reynolds was featured in the February 18 Bergen Record.  The title of the story: "Pequannock Goes For Gold".  Here are some excerpts.

The Gold Academy will be the most rigorous and selective program the
high school has to offer. It’s more selective than honors classes,
which require only a teacher’s recommendation.

It was designed to address concerns that some of the best students leave the district after middle school for private schools.

"That is why our high school scores are not very good, or not as good as they should be,” Reynolds said.

Wait, there’s more…

He heard that 22 eighth-graders were considering leaving the
district in the next school year. In the last four years, 64 students,
10 percent of the high school enrollment, left for private schools.

"If those 64 students were still in our high school, how would our high school have been different?” Reynolds said.

suspect we would have had better achievement results, higher SAT
scores, we’d have better results in the classrooms,” he said. "We
would have had a better school.”

He ends his unbelievable comments with this:

"If we can celebrate and recognize and honor talent on the athletic
field, then public schools had better be willing to do the same thing
on the academic field,” Reynolds said. "In many ways, it’s more

Rumor has it that if you call Pequannock Schools, you will be greeted by the salutation "Pequannock Schools, striving to be number one…".  Apparently, this is what anyone who answers a phone in Pequannock is ordered, by Dr. Reynolds, to say. 

So what do we do about ranking and competition in classrooms, in schools, in districts, in states, in our country?  Do we just ignore it and accept it?  Apparently so.  Not many states have given back the ransom cash Washington D.C. ponied up to get us to buy into NCLB.  Not many schools have stopped the practice of ranking students.  Monthly and weekly publications still sell out copies of the issues that rank colleges, universities, and high schools (NJ is famous for its yearly ranking magazine articles).  I think we like it.  We are Americans; we are supposed to thrive on competition.  The problem is, I don’t see where the competition is taking us. Or maybe I do – and that’s what I can’t tolerate.

As you embark on your journey to school today, I ask you one question.  Did you eat your Wheaties?

~ Mike Parent – guest blogger

What Have We Become?

One could hardly call me a conspiracy theorist;  I don’t put much stock in Area 51 theories, alternate possibilities of the JFK assassination, or any such popular underground thoughts.  But I do believe that American Public Education has been usurped.

John Taylor Gatto‘s "Some Lessons From The Underground History of American Education" appeared in the 2002 edition of Everything You Know Is Wrong (EYNIW).  The EYNIW synopsis outlines the original intent of education and the historical (widely secret) events that have shaped what we now consider education’s purpose to be.  Educational institutions began as places where intellectual curiosity, worldliness, and spirituality were explored, fed, and cultivated.  Yes, they were bastions for the elite and public schools originally were established to counter the elitists.  But something went very wrong in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Gatto writes that public education had become the vehicle for social management and the premiere institution for societal construction where the commoner was to be kept common.  Since Reconstruction, public education has become merely an extension of both private industry and government.  Gatto utilizes the words of famed educators like Ellwood P. Cubberely, Edward Thorndike, and Benjamin Bloom and others to make his case.  To maximize his point that public education was forged into a social engineering tool for the commoners, Gatto provides some startling quotes:

"Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata,careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow, the prescribed custom.  This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual." ~ William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education 1889-1906

"…We shall not try to make these people [the lower and middle classes] or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science.  We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets, or men of letters.  We shall not search for the embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply.  The task we set before ourselves is very simple… we will organize children… and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way." Rockefeller’s General Education Board, Occasional Letter Number One, 1906.

These men, their publications, and the reform movements birthed from their ideas has essentially taken education to a place that centers on creating good common citizens, productive workers, and contributors to the status quo.  If you think otherwise, just read your district’s – or any public school district’s – mission statement.  Is the phrase "productive citizen" or the word "citizen" present? These are the remnants of said philosophies.

Gatto’s work (available online) resonates with me and many others who have a deep sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the aim of our public education system.  Those of us who reject the idea that schools are to first and foremost produce good citizens and skilled workers are increasingly being marginalized by the "great machine" –  a term I use for the seemingly unstoppable train of political movements, think tanks, boards of education, and state organizations who seek to hold schools accountable (particularly high schools) as training grounds and indoctrination camps.  A close-to-home case in point:

The New Jersey High School Redesign Steering Committee is "…composed of the
leadership of New Jersey’s major education organizations, is working to
build public awareness and support for a more rigorous high school
experience, one that allows students to succeed in the workforce or in
pursuing higher education.
.. The Steering Committee grew out of the New Jersey Education Summit on
High Schools convened in 2005 and supports the work begun at the
National Education Summit on High Schools held in Washington, DC in
February of that year. The Steering Committee
is co-chaired by New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine, Prudential
Financial Chairman and CEO Arthur F. Ryan,
and Montclair State
University President Susan A. Cole and is composed of the leadership of
New Jersey’s major education organizations."

The Committee was formed a few years ago to address the perceived inadequacies of NJ high schools as preparatory institutions for the workplace.  The Committee claims that though NJ high schools may be graduating over 90% of their students, have  "good" SAT scores, and have a high number of students going on to  post-secondary education, we are not producing good workers.    They tell the public (at their numerous public meetings) that NJ businesses are facing certain outsourcing of jobs – not because of the economic realities of the "flat world" – but because our students are not skilled enough.  The Committee’s aim is to hold high schools to a higher industrial standard; produce better workers, produce a better middle class, produce better earners.  The Committee has a plan – to institute Regents-style exit exams in math, science, and language arts and to have students partake in workplace readiness activities in high school. 

As a high school administrator in NJ, this is my new professional reality.  This is what my government says my new mission as an educator is to be.  I should not think of creativity, of cultivating a love of learning and life for my students, of offering my students opportunities for personal and spiritual growth.  I am to make good workers of them.  I am to foster a stronger middle class.  I am to produce producers – not inspire or lead students to self actualization… not unless the leading leads to a good job.

Public education has been hijacked.  Not in this generation, but many moons ago when compulsory education was legislated.  The public scorn for mandatory education was so strong, Bruce Curtis, in his book Building The Education State 1836-1871, notes that:

schools were burned to the ground and teachers run out of town by angry
mobs. When students were kept after school,  parents often broke into
school to free them. At Saltfleet Township in 1859 a teacher was locked
in the schoolhouse by students who "threw mud and mire into his face
and over his clothes,"  according to the school records—while parents
egged them on."

As a result of generations of social engineering, it is no wonder the homeschooling movement has become so popular.  Many parents have rejected the government’s means to and end and the end to those means.  Private schooling, too, is an alternative for the disenchanted – though, admittedly, many private schools are also guilty of the same sins of public education.

As and education leader, I face a dilemma.  How do I swim in the current of the public school agenda while holding true to my deepest convictions about children, learning, and the point of learning?  How do you?

– Mike Parent, guest blogger