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From the Principal…
The most significant learning in my life has often come as a result of discomfort or discontent. As a seventh grade percussionist (drummer), I auditioned for All-Region Band. While listening to some of the other players, I realized just how unprepared I was. I didn’t make All-Region that first year which hurt my pride.
However, my discomfort with the weakness of my performance caused me to practice and seek out players better than me so I could learn from them. I ordered music books and figured out ways to read difficult rhythms from musical notation.
The next year and every year after that, I made All-Region Band and then All-State in high school. Those were great experiences, but if I hadn’t had that early failure and the pain that resulted, I might never have understood the work and new learning required to perform better.
Fast-forward many years, and I’m a school principal in south Arkansas with just a few years of experience. Everyone seemed happy with what we were doing, so I thought things were fine.
Then, I attended the Arkansas Leadership Academy and what would later be called the Principals’ Institute. I was challenged to make big changes in my approach to working with teachers and students. I saw the ineffectiveness of what I had been doing, and it was a painful experience.
That discomfort pushed me to learn better practices as a principal. I’m still trying to improve today, but without that challenging and unpleasant experience, I might have continued for years without making changes to help my teachers and students reach higher levels of performance.
Learning can be a little painful sometimes, but it’s also exciting as we master new skills and knowledge. What both of these challenging learning experiences had in common was that caring and skillful teachers supported me through the process of gaining new skills. It excites me today to see our teachers work with our students in this same way every day as we all continue to grow and learn!
Link to open this month’s newsletter: News Alma Intermediate 0918
What follows is a letter I wrote to my state legislator a few weeks ago. She listened and was positive in her response and for that I’m grateful. We’ve worked hard to make the best of PARCC testing and to make it as doable as possible for teachers and students. I decided to share the following letter more widely after watching our first three days of PARCC testing.
We intend to see this testing through because much has been invested in training and preparation by students and adults. Completing this task is also our job. Hopefully, this is a learning experience that will help us avoid repeating this type of testing again.
I’ll begin with a disclaimer. I am not a statistician or state policy expert. I am a school principal with ten years of teaching experience prior to becoming a principal. My views on the cost of PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) are from the school level, observing teachers and students every day in the classroom.
I apologize for stating the following “qualifications,” but want to make it clear that I take education seriously, expecting accountability from students, teachers, and myself. In 2006, I was selected as a National Distinguished Principal representing the state of Arkansas. I’ve completed Phase III of the Arkansas Leadership Academy’s Principal Institute and have served as president of our state’s elementary principal association and more recently, the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators in 2013-14. We, along with the other schools in our district, received rave reviews from the AdvancEd team site visit last year. We embrace accountability!
I recently wrote a short history of assessment in Arkansas for our parents, trying to frame PARCC in positive terms with hopes that we will see changes. After taking students through the Infrastructure PARCC practice, I am now truly appalled at how we are going to assess students in Arkansas. Implementing the Benchmark Exam was a challenge, but doable, and its use has helped us make great gains in Arkansas. I supported the implementation of more rigorous assessments and became deeply involved in working to improve students’ reading, writing and problem solving skills. I see value in the Common Core State Standards and have supported their implementation in spite of occasional pushback from stakeholders. The implementation of PARCC takes us to a sad place in Arkansas schools.
The cost per student for the PARCC is $23.97 plus a small administrative fee according to the PARCC website. The true costs of PARCC are incalculable and depend on many factors at the local school level.
For several years, school districts have made their best guesses on what technology would be needed for PARCC assessments, and millions of dollars have been wasted in some districts. Information from Pearson to district technology specialists has changed over time, causing false starts and inefficient use of funds as districts tried to anticipate and prepare for future needs.
The PARCC is costing our students immense losses in learning content and quality. Schools are trying to teach students specific technology skills simply so they can take the PARCC. These technology skills are not occurring at developmentally appropriate times for students. Many states have been giving computer-based assessments for several years, but these tests did not require students in the third grade to toggle between multiple pages and passages to answer a question. The PARCC requires keyboarding skills that are not appropriate for 8-12-year-old children.
The testing window is costing instructional time in an already short school year. The Performance Based Assessments (PBA) window is March 9 – April 9. It will take four weeks if the weather cooperates, for our school to work through the first round of PARCC due to limited number of computer labs and a desire to avoid exhausting students with all-day testing.
The End of Year (EOY) assessment window is April 27-May 22. It will take our school two uninterrupted weeks to complete this assessment with all of our students. Together, testing will occupy six weeks on our campus if there are no unforeseen interruptions. On any given day, rather than students acquiring technology skills needed for their future, computer labs will be occupied by students taking the PARCC. Long testing windows will cause instructional schedules to be in flux during these weeks, complicating lesson planning and the orderly sequence of instruction.
For a high school principal’s view of PARCC with a focus on instructional disruption I recommend the following: Surely You Can’t Be Serious by Mikkel Storaasli
PARCC Costs in terms of positive school environment:
School personnel are being misused because of PARCC. Our school is grades 3-5, so all grade levels are tested. Our assistant principal and literacy intervention teacher have spent countless hours developing a schedule that allows students to complete the PARCC. Our counselor has spent hours preparing for PARCC administration and training teachers to administer the PARCC. Meeting the psychological and emotional needs of students is more challenging because of the divided attention from all of these staff members.
As principal, I assist with test preparations but a larger amount of my time is dedicated to implementing a new statewide teacher evaluation system currently in its first year. During teacher observations and evaluations I have been focused on trying to provide encouragement for students and teachers facing an unreasonably difficult and developmentally inappropriate high-stakes tests.
Charlotte Danielson’s comment in Education Week about these new assessments is revealing: I’m concerned that we may be headed for a train wreck there. The test items I’ve seen that have been released so far are extremely challenging. If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I’m not sure that I would pass it—and I’ve got a bunch of degrees. So I do worry that in some schools we’ll have 80 percent or some large number of students failing. That’s what I mean by train wreck.
Go to the following link for information on the readability levels of PARCC and why most children will “fail” the PARCC.
Other countries we envy are not administering PARCC-like assessments. They are elevating teacher professionalism and pedagogical skills. Below are a couple of excerpts from Linda Darling-Hammond, summarizing differences between education in the United States and Finland, pointing out that our practices are in almost direct contrast. She begins by describing the challenges of diversity in Finland. We usually hear cries that other countries don’t deal with diversity, but Linda Darling-Hammond argues a different view in “What We Can Learn From Finland’s Successful School Reform.”
Although there was a sizable achievement gap among students in the 1970s, strongly correlated to socio-economic status, this gap has been progressively reduced as a result of curriculum reforms started in the 1980s. By 2006, Finland’s between-school variance on the PISA science scale was only 5 percent, whereas the average between-school variance in other OECD nations was about 33 percent. (Large between-school variation is generally related to social inequality.)
The overall variation in achievement among Finnish students is also smaller than that of nearly all the other OECD countries. This is true despite the fact that immigration from nations with lower levels of education has increased sharply in recent years, and there is more linguistic and cultural diversity for schools to contend with. (Sahlberg, 2009)
In the United States, teacher education is somewhat haphazard and lacking in rigor and relevance. Educators in the U.S. are routinely belittled and disrespected, especially in the absence of their voice where educational policies and practices are concerned. The following summary by Darling-Hammond describes the contrast:
Leaders in Finland attribute the gains to their intensive investments in teacher education—all teachers receive three years of high-quality graduate level preparation completely at state expense—plus a major overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system designed to ensure access to a “thinking curriculum” for all students. A recent analysis of the Finnish system summarized its core principles as follows:
- Resources for those who need them most.
- High standards and supports for special needs.
- Qualified teachers.
- Evaluation of education.
- Balancing decentralization and centralization.” (Laukkanen, 2008, p. 319)
We have been the envy of other countries because of our students’ innovation and creativity. If we continue down our present hyper-assessment path, we will lose the qualities that make us competitive on the world economic and political stage. A first step will be to take a long and serious look at how we assess student learning and move quickly to bring balanced approaches to measuring student growth without forcing out creativity and the joy of learning.
This is a short interview and song from two great thinkers. I first learned of Parker Palmer during one of my first experiences with the Arkansas Leadership Academy. His book, Courage to Teach, was available to us that week. I found myself underlining like crazy and identifying with many of Dr. Palmer’s struggles in teaching. I’ve come to think of Palmer as a minister of sorts because he challenges me to be congruent in my thinking and actions. He also challenges me to be more understanding of others, their stories, and their struggles.
I can’t remember how I learned of Carrie Newcomer’s music but suspect her name was mentioned during a talk Parker Palmer gave at a conference I attended several years ago. Carrie Newcomer writes songs that draw out the significance of everyday events. She is a minister of music for me because her lyrics instruct and sometimes have a healing effect.
Sometimes what you know can hurt you. During a wilderness first aid course I recently completed, the instructors spent a fair amount of class time debunking ineffective first aid actions and replacing them with evidence based actions and protocols. Many of my assumptions about first aid were wrong and I had a lot of unlearning to do.
The trainers had a habit of saying, “The body counts are in and that’s no longer the right way to treat that emergency.” In other words, new evidence suggests new practices. Will we learn from the evidence and change our practice or continue to do what has been shown not to work? Will the victim of an emergency be helped by our involvement or will we make things worse?
My first session in the Leadership Academy Principals’ Institute was all about unlearning. I’d entered the principalship with some misconceptions about what was important in school leadership. I was overwhelmed when faced with all that I needed to unlearn! This was a painful and sometimes embarrassing process. I describe the leader I was back then by saying, “He looked and acted like a principal. Folks liked him and he cared about the kids but he wasn’t anywhere close to being what the teachers and students needed.” This was hard to admit, but that admission was necessary before growth and new learning could occur.
In last month’s AAEA newsletter, Dr. Abernathy challenged us to think outside of the box and apply for waivers to enable us to implement new and different approaches to helping our students. He challenged us to look at barriers to innovation and apply to have those barriers removed.
As I began to work with teachers on this I found that I needed to unlearn ways of thinking that have become automatic over the last few years. We’ve always said, “We can’t consider looping classes from fourth to fifth grade because of certification issues.” But now the question to ask is, “Why not?” It took effort to suspend judgment long enough to let an idea float for a moment without moving immediately to constraints of present rules, time, or money. As we worked together, we found several innovations that didn’t even require waivers. Thinking in terms of “what if” and “why not” allowed those ideas to present themselves and we look forward to continuing this process.
A great educational leader speaking to our staff a couple of years ago said, “You would be appalled to learn how some children are treated right here in our own state.” Part of what he meant was that some adults who should care the most about children are harsh and cruel in their interactions. He was also referring to poor treatment in the form of ineffective instruction. Evidence has shown that certain teaching methods are ineffective yet we often see these practices continuing. Being stuck in a classroom under an ineffective teacher is the ultimate in cruelty. If the “body counts” are in and the evidence shows that a practice is ineffective, it’s time to make a change!
Changing what we do with students at the point of delivery in the classroom is difficult. Changing teaching practices requires a willingness to unlearn and a deliberate effort to do something in a new way. There will be costs in time, money, and emotions, but the rewards for persistence are great.
When we’re moving toward more effective practices and feel pushback, we must be relentless and keep plugging away. We can work with early adopters and the big middle of our staff to move forward, giving resistors limited attention. If we provide the conditions for change and allow teachers to gain the necessary learning, we’ll reach a tipping point and see acceleration in positive change.
During classroom walkthroughs recently, I enjoyed seeing the results of a challenging change we made in teaching practices over the last four years. If I tried to take teachers back to their previous ways of instruction in this area, they’d run me out of the building, and rightly so. I realized that the change was real and now part of how we do things. Making this change was hard but seeing the benefits to children and adults is rewarding.
When we feel resistance to change, we must ensure that we’re doing the work needed to support that change but, we must not fall into the trap of believing all change must be slow and incremental. Sometimes we must have the courage to say, “ENOUGH! The body counts are in. We’re stopping this practice and beginning to do that practice instead. It’s time to unlearn, relearn, and change!”
Written for the April issue of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators newsletter