Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dear Dr. John King

Dear Dr. John King,

As we head into the third month of this hectic and busy school year, I felt compelled to sit down and write you this letter on behalf of my son, my students, my colleagues, many parents and all of the dedicated and passionate educators throughout the great state of New York (and beyond). I know it has been almost a year and a half since you have taken over as Commissioner of Education in New York State and in that short time, you have brought about many changes and have pushed the world of education back into the spotlight. From implementing the Common Core Standards to revamping the Annual Professional Performance Review, you have brought about a lot of change. As all effective instructional leaders know, bringing about a lot of change also requires stepping back and assessing the affects of the changes being implemented. Are they working? Do we have buy in from all constituent groups? Do people understand what is happening and why? Do people feel supported in navigating these changes and new expectations? Is the best interest of the children at the core of the decisions and ensuing changes being made?

These are just some of the questions I ask myself on a daily basis as a building principal serving approximately 400 children, 100 staff members and the surrounding community. Although all of these questions, and the opportunity to reflect on them is critical, the most important one, in my humble opinion, is whether or not I am making a decision that is in the best interest of my children. That question always has to be at the forefront in my mind because I believe that I am charged with protecting my students; advocating for my students; and ensuring that their needs, on all levels, are being met. I know your job is a consuming one so I am not sure how much quality time you have had to reflect on these questions in relation to the changes you have spearheaded. Furthermore, I don't know how much time you have to spend in classrooms speaking with our children, teachers, building leaders and parents. Just in case you haven't had much of a chance to hear from the people you are so dedicated to serving, I thought you would like to know what is happening in our schools from my humble and limited perspective as a connected educator serving as the lead learner of a K-5 building on Long Island.

First of all, our children are feeling overwhelmed, stressed out and they are starting to doubt their own abilities and it is only October. Why? Maybe it is because they are being subjected to numerous difficult tests and tasks as a result of the expectations of the Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) that have recently been put in place. Don't get me wrong - I know pre and post assessments are critical and that various data points (when properly analyzed) can be a powerful tool for guiding future instruction and personalizing learning; but, when is enough, enough? Do they really need to take a paper and pencil test in the gym in first grade as part of a Physical Education SLO? Or do they need to take the TerraNova in kindergarten as part of a literacy SLO? Or does a second grader need to take an online assessment as part of reading and mathematics SLOs that can go on for hours? Are these types of assessments really developmentally appropriate (especially when considering some of our kindergarten students are still four years old)? Is the data we are gathering actually useful or even accurate? As I heard you recently mention, each district can negotiate their own SLOs so maybe not every first grader is taking a paper and pencil test in the gym but they are taking some type of assessment even though they have barely had a chance to get acclimated to their new teacher, classroom environment and school year. Is this really in the best interest of children? I am not sure but if it is, please let me know how so I can explain it my third grader who shut down during a mathematics SLO and said he was too stupid to finish and refused to take the test (by the way, his teacher wasn't sure whether she should intervene because all she wanted to do was swoop in and take care of this little boy's emotional well being but she worried that it might compromise the integrity of the test). Please understand that I am not questioning the importance of assessment nor the analysis of data to help us better instruct our students but in light of the new APPR and SLO requirements, my question is, are we actually doing what is in the best interest of our children?

Additionally, our teachers are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, discouraged and the morale is being affected in a negative way. Why? Well, I think many educators, from my humble perspective, are feeling that their job is not about teaching and learning but instead, it is focused on assessing and showing growth on various measures. Yes, testing and showing growth are critical but when did they become more important than the art of teaching and the opportunity to construct new understandings? In a interview last year you said your fourth grade teacher, Alan Osterweil, encouraged you through his dynamic and creative teaching techniques, which is so awesome - every child should have at least one Mr. Osterweil in their lifetime. Unfortunately, I am concerned that our children will not have these types of experiences because many educators today are feeling that they have lost the flexibility to be creative because they have to "cover" the Common Core and have to get the children ready for various state tests. I don't think your intention was to stifle the creativity of our teachers but that is happening throughout the state of New York.

Teachers are feeling pressured to use test prep activities because they know they are being evaluated, at least partly, by how much growth their children show from one year to the next on the state and local measures. In recently hearing you speak, I know you mentioned that you are not in favor of a lot of test prep type of work but I don't think that part of your message has spread into the classrooms. I totally agree with you that test prep does not equate to higher test scores but instead sound instruction leads to improved student performance. Unfortunately, teachers are still feeling the pressure to prepare their children for the test - no matter what message is being sent by their principals. As a former classroom teacher who hated devoting any time to test prep workbooks or sheets, I felt compelled to do so just to level the playing field. If most other children were doing test prep then my kids had to do some too so that no one had an advantage over them (think of a catcher in baseball - if all the catchers use the special catcher's mitt, you are not sending your kid out there with an outfielder's glove). All this test prep (great business for various publishing companies) is solely for the purposes of showing growth and getting certain scores on the state tests. But, is this data even reliable? First off, the tests are different from one year to the next so how can we actually compare if a child has grown between 4th and 5th grade? Yes, their score can go up or down but does that mean we can assess their growth, or lack there of, if the current test is different than the one from the year before? Furthermore, when looking at the actual growth scores, one has to wonder if they are statistically significant and thus accurate and relevant. When the scores are analyzed by the qualified people in State Ed are the p-values found to be less .05 and thus statistically significant? I don't know but I hope so because then at least all these numbers being thrown around might have some validity.

Then again, statistical significance isn't the only problem with tying the evaluations of teachers and principals to the state test scores of our children. You recently mentioned that one of the driving forces behind the changes in APPR was to ensure that all teachers are being observed regularly and multiple times throughout the school year because one 40-minute observation would not be a fair and accurate way to evaluate the teachers for an end of the year evaluation (I totally agree). Well, to extend that train of thought, is it fair to evaluate kids and their teachers on a child's performance on one state test that may last about 40 minutes? How are these two ideas different? Is it fair to connect 20% of a teacher's evaluation to a test score based on one given day, in one moment in time? Again, I know assessments and tests are important and necessary components to any learning environment but isn't there a better type of assessment? How does answering between 35 and 70 multiple choice questions show us how much a child knows or understands? Furthermore, what types of careers do multiple choice tests prepare our children for? I know it is important to you, and every educator in NYS, to ensure that our children are college and career ready but are these types of assessments going to tell us if our children are ready for a certain job or four year degree? Please explain that to me because I want to enlighten our teachers and our parents, who have a lot of questions about all these tests. I have a hard time believing that there isn't a better way to assess our kids and what they know! We need a more meaningful, comprehensive and thorough types of assessments. Maybe our children should be creating portfolios so we can look at a collective body of work over the course of a year within a context, as opposed to these "out of context" state tests. Maybe we should give our children a test with only a few questions that forces them to synthesize and apply their knowledge in various contexts so we can assess their critical thinking skills -- wouldn't that be a better indicator of whether or not our children are college and career ready? Maybe I am totally off base with this take on state testing but I can assure you it is driving a lot of what is happening in our classrooms and I don't think that was your intention.

Finally, I need you to know that as a father of a young third grader, I am even more concerned (I am not the complaining educator right now - I am just a dad). From the day my son entered Pre-K he had a love for school and learning and my wife and I used to sit back and watch in awe. Unfortunately, that love for learning is being affected this year. Don't get me wrong - he still loves going to school because he is in an excellent NYC Public School and he has an amazing team of teachers but this goes beyond them as individuals. This is about showing growth, amassing data and making sure that all the children do well on the state tests. My son has to complete HW assignments that serve as test preparation but are not as engaging. I don't fault anyone for this type of assignment and I am sure there is some value to it but what concerns me more, is my son's reaction. This little boy who used to run up the stairs and couldn't wait to jump on the couch to complete his 30 minutes of independent reading HW (by the way, this type of work, in my eyes, is far more valuable than any packet, worksheet or workbook) is having some doubts this year. Yes, I want my son to do well in school and to do well on the state tests (for himself, his teachers and his school) but, I do not want his love for learning to be squashed in our efforts to get him college and career ready (as a result of the current system - even though his amazing teachers are doing their best to limit the affect on the children).

Please know that I am not questioning your efforts to help improve our schools. I am not even questioning your attempts to update an antiquated educational system. I am only hoping that you will take the time to step back, observe, reflect and potentially tweak the initiatives being pushed with one question guiding your process - are we doing what is in the best interest of children? We have an opportunity to change the landscape of public education but lets not do it at the expense of our successful educational institutions, our dedicated teachers and leaders and most importantly, at the expense of our children's love for learning.

Tony Sinanis
Father and Educator            

Monday, October 15, 2012

Edscape: My Choice; My PD

On Saturday I had the opportunity to attend the Edscape 2012 Conference at New Milford High School in New Jersey. The annual conference was hosted by Eric Sheninger (you can follow him on Twitter @NMHS_Principal and read his blog to learn SO MUCH every single day) at his beautiful school. The event was sponsored by Teq, who offered some great workshops too.

I had the great fortune of starting my day with the live #satchat hosted by my friends Scott Rocco (@ScottRRocco), Brad Currie (@bcurrie5) and Bill Krakower (@wkrakower) - even though Saturday was the first time I met these gentleman in person, they have been my friends and active members of my PLN for months on Twitter, which once again shows the power of SM. The live #satchat revolved around Global Leadership and how we can move our schools, students and communities forward in this day and age when being a citizen is no longer restricted to one's physical environment; instead we are all digital citizens and citizens of the world. The chat, as it does every Saturday morning at 7:30am EST & PST, was inspiring, motivating and extremely positive.

As if that wasn't enough to get the juices flowing, we then had the great privilege and honor of hearing our Keynote Speaker, Ms. Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher). Vicki is the author of the book Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds and she maintains one of the richest and most engaging blogs I have ever encountered. This was my first time hearing Vicki speak (and I got to meet her, which was pretty cool) and throughout her keynote speech, I found myself shaking my head in agreement with everything she was saying. Her passion and dedication to her students and craft were infectious and inspiring. She reminded me about the fact that the only person I could control and change was ME! I couldn't worry about those people down the road who didn't want to change or grow or try something new - NO, I had to focus on ME! I had to focus on MY growth; MY evolution; MY exploration; MY passion because a healthy and fulfilled ME can have a tremendous impact on those around ME! Here are some of the nuggets that Vicki left with me and I think are worth sharing...

  • In our schools, there are transmitters and transformers. We should all avoid being transmitters of negativity and instead focus on transforming the situation!

  • As an educational leader who strives to support those he serves, it is my responsibility to help remove the obstacles - not become an obstacle! (this one really resonated with me)

  • Even when we are feeling overwhelmed and stressed because another thing has been added to the load of expectations, we must say the following to ourselves, "I can't do everything but I can do something!" YES - we can all do a little something each and everyday!

  • Instead of blocking things out of our schools, lets focus on the things that are worth letting in to affect our community in a positive way!

  • We must involve our students in the creation of everything! If YOU build it alone, they will NOT come; if we build it together and engage our students, give them voice and empower them, they will come!

  • As educational leaders we must be knowledgeable, trustworthy and generous with our time - YES! These are critical elements to being a successful servant leader!

  • We must teach our community that online behavior has offline consequences!

  • And the one that really stuck out in my mind... our children are NOT numbers; we must love them and show them that they are important because in our schools we aren't making copies, we are making originals! BOOM!

Although my little post does Vicki's keynote speech no justice, I think people get the idea about her overarching message... I can only control ME and I must never forget that my students deserve love, respect and support while in our school! THANK YOU VICKI!

Afterwards, I had the chance to attend four different workshops and each one presented me with some great ideas and resources that I am ready to put into play over the next few weeks. First up, I took a workshop called Evernote, Edmodo, LiveBinders and QR Codes with Elissa Malespina and Melissa Butler from South Orange Middle School. I learned so many things in that hour with Elissa and Melissa. First off, I learned how to use delivr.com to create my own QR Codes, which can be used in so many ways. The are a wonderful way to amass a bunch of different resources, links, photos, etc. in one little spot that someone could access with the snap of a picture on their phone or iPad - POWERFUL STUFF! I have seen the QR Codes for years and wanted so badly to learn how to create one and within minutes, Elissa had walked us all through how to create an account and create our own QR Codes. It is so easy and extremely user friendly - I have already started thinking about the QR Code I want to create to embed as part of my email signature - oh man, the possibilities are endless! They also showed us how to create a Livebinder (can't wait to do this so I can throw out all those gigantic three-ring binders taking up space on my bookshelves). The LiveBinder is a wonderful way to digitize all those things we have sitting in binders all over our buildings and they are so easy to create, modify and share! We also discussed how to use Evernote, which I am already a huge fan of and use both for personal and professional purposes. Evernote could literally change the way we do things as educators - we can collaborate on notes, keep running records on our students and embed handwritten notes that can be searched - awesome stuff! Check out this blog post I wrote about using Evernote with Balanced Literacy. Finally, they introduced us to Edmodo, which is a great resource and social media tool for teachers (like Facebook for school) that I have not fully wrapped my head around yet! You can access their whole presentation here - it is definitely worth checking out!

Then I had the chance to spend an hour with Beth Holland and learn about powerful 1:1 iPad integration in schools. What I loved most about Beth's presentation was that it was not all about the different apps we should download and let our kids use. Instead, she talked a lot about using the iPads to empower the students - she repeated that it is not about what the iPads can do, it is about what the STUDENTS can do with the iPad. This is so important because although our school hasn't even considered a 1:1 iPad implementation, if we ever do, this will be at the root of our philosophical approach - WHAT CAN THE STUDENTS DO??? Additionally, Beth spoke a lot about apps and how we must not mistake just using an app for being creative especially when many content area apps are just another form of drill and kill - this is so true! I hadn't thought about it but that is exactly what we should want to avoid if our kids do have access to iPads in school - let them create not just practice something they can do with pen and paper! Beth also shared that every iPad based project should go through four phases...

COLLECT - web links, videos, audio files, etc.

RELATE - make connections - your own, with other peers, with the world, etc.

CREATE - use the technology to create make something new (like using Animoto or the Book Creator app to create digital book guides)

DONATE - after our students are done with their projects they should give them back to the world- share them online or through SM!

After this workshop and a delicious lunch (thanks Jersey Boys Grill) I had the chance to attend the Home & School 2.0 workshop hosted by my friend Joe Mazza, lead learner at Knapp Elementary and a must follow on Twitter, and Gwen Pescatore (Home/School President) - check out their presentation. They talked about taking that home and school connection beyond the school walls in an effort to connect with as many families as possible. Joe has always spoken about the importance of meeting parents where they are an empowering them to be involved in whatever ways work for them. To that end, he hosts a weekly Parent/Teacher Chat (#ptchat) on Twitter on Wednesday nights at 9PM EST - everyone has a voice in this chat and it is definitely worth checking out! They also stressed the idea of turning the solid walls in our classrooms into glass walls so that parents can see in and feel connected to everything their children are experiencing - SO IMPORTANT! I left that space with so many ideas that I want to try with our PTA in our school. Finally, during their presentation, they also discussed some key points we should always remember when schools and homes successfully work together...

Relational Trust
Implemented With - there must be a partnership between families and the school
Finally, I attended a workshop that spotlighted various apps and resources that could be used to enhance the learning experience. The presenters, from Teq, gave us some very hands-on experiences and showed us how to use things like Scribble Press, where kids can make their own digital books, and TagPad, which I am still learning how to use!
Overall, it was an amazing experience and I left at the end of the day feeling inspired, reinvigorated and motivated to try a bunch of different things. I think those are all the markers of a successful conference. I learned more on Saturday in one day than I had in attending various 2 or 3 day workshops. Bravo to Eric, Teq and their whole team for orchestrating this powerful learning experience - it was the best $35 I had spent in a long time!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

SLO: Squashed Learning Opportunities

New York State has recently required school districts to submit updated Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) plans, which are directly connected to the end of year evaluations for all teachers and building administrators. The plans, as described on the EngageNY site, are quite comprehensive and are intended to ensure that there is an effective teacher in every classroom and effective leader in every school. WOW - that sounds great to me - I'm all for effective educators in our schools working with our children... but wait, lets dig a little deeper into this whole plan.

As part of the submitted APPR plans, districts had to incorporate various Student Learning Objectives (known in these parts as SLOs) as tools to measure growth in student achievement for teachers that are not covered by state provided growth measures (i.e. - the New York State standardized ELA and Math tests in Grades 3-8). For example, every Kindergarten teacher and Physical Education teacher and Foreign Language teacher is expected to develop an SLO, implement it at the beginning of the year to establish a baseline and then administer it again at the end of the year to assess student growth. So, what exactly is the purpose of the SLO experience? To help enhance our student learning experiences? To help educators learn more about our kids in an effort to target and personalize instruction? NO - we are administering SLOs as a way to hold educators accountable for student growth - not the daily student growth that may not be as black and white as a test score - just the growth on these meaningless, disconnected and mind numbing tests!

In the few short weeks since the start of the school year, it has become crystal clear to me that SLOs do not actually stand for meaningful Student Learning Objectives, like NYS claims; instead, SLOs really stand for Squashed Learning Opportunities. Why, you ask? Well, let me share some informal data that I have gathered over the first month of school. Over a two week period, many of our children, including our precious little kindergarteners who are a mere four years old and are excited about coming to school, have sat through over 200 minutes (almost an entire school day) of testing as part of establishing the baseline related to our wonderful SLOs. While the SLOs were being administered in our school, I watched kids cry, have break downs and completely shut down because their self-esteem was devastated by the fact that they couldn't answer certain questions connected to the SLOs. Personally, I don't understand how a policy that is intended to ensure that our children are working with effective teachers can work when we aren't allowing our teachers to TEACH because all they have time to do is test, score tests and prepare for the end of year tests that the state will use to judge their effectiveness. Does that sound like LEARNING, which the "L" in SLOs supposedly stands for? NO! In fact, it sounds like testing - pure and simple TORTUROUS TESTING - NOT learning anything meaningful and important that can be synthesized and applied during real life situations - no - just TESTING!

How much testing do our children have to be subjected to until we realize that tying any educators' evaluation (which will eventually become public information) to the scores of these tests is MEANINGLESS, USELESS and INEFFECTIVE? Haven't we learned anything from the cheating scandals that have rocked public schools in Washington DC and Atlanta (and many other school districts)? Haven't we all realized that tying test scores to teacher evaluations does not work?

We are single handily squashing learning opportunities for our children because we have become consumed by this movement to hold ineffective teachers accountable based on student growth using different types of tests. Well, I am all for getting ineffective teachers out of the classroom and away from our kids but that cannot come at the expense of our kids' love for learning or at the expense of the tireless efforts of our effective teachers! I believe that the time has come for us to start a revolution - parents, educators, administrators and the entire community must come together and advocate for the rights of our children. We must fight the policies being implemented that are promoting more standardized testing and erasing the creative learning experiences for our children that foster and nurture critical thinking skills.

This plea is not about protecting teachers or principals. This plea is not about letting schools off the hook for their levels of effectiveness. This plea is not even about shying away from the challenges of enhancing and improving our public schools. NO - this is about PROTECTING OUR CHILDREN'S RIGHT TO LEARN! We must stop SQUASHING LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES and empower our educational institutions to implement instructional strategies and techniques that will foster student learning and allow our teachers to teach for the sake of learning not for getting a high score on a test! From my perspective, we cannot wait another minute to start our revolution - OUR KIDS NEED US NOW!