Saturday, January 5, 2013

If I Were Commissioner of Education

As I have been reflecting on my letter to Dr. John King, our esteemed Commissioner of Education here in New York State, I realize that I can no longer wait for a response as it has been over two months since I sent him the letter in the hopes that a conversation can begin about what is best for our students and school. Clearly, either he has not read it (I am hoping that is the case) or he has read it and is choosing not to respond and at least engage in a dialogue with me about the current state of public education. Either way, nothing is changing! So, I am going to take a few minutes to share my thoughts on what the world of public education might look like in New York State if I were Commissioner of Education (and who knows, after completing my doctorate at Penn, that may very well be one of my many goals because I believe in public education and I support the incredible educators who lead our classrooms and schools each day)...

Educators, the ones who are actually in classrooms and in our schools, would have a voice in all state mandates, plans and proposed changes because they are the direct advocates for our children and know what is necessary to support the students' success and their (educators) collective efforts in addressing all student needs!

I would visit as many schools as possible with an emphasis placed on exploring successful schools so that their practices could be analyzed and potentially replicated in all schools throughout the state regardless of race and class and location. Instead of basing the reform efforts on what is not working in our ineffective schools, I will make it a point to try and recreate what is working in our effective schools!

Every school would have two administrators - a Lead Learner (traditionally known as the principal) who would focus on instructional leadership, staff development, contact with children, staff and parents. Then there would be an Educational Administrative Assistant who would support the efforts of the Lead Learner by handling all organizational and administrative issues - scheduling, paper work, meeting mandates, etc. By bifurcating the duties traditionally associated with the principalship, we could put emphasis on the instructional leadership but not lose sight of the "managerial" responsibilities.

Every school would have instructional coaches (at least a literacy and math coach) to provide ongoing professional development for all staff and ensure that all standards are being met - these members of the team are CRITICAL!

Money would be cut from testing initiatives (hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on creating flawed assessments) and put that money back into our schools so that we could hire more staff to reduce class size, especially in the primary years 
(there should be no more than 15 kids in our K & 1 classes); so we could infuse technology into every learning experience and make 1:1 model the norm and not the exception! Technology can no longer be seen as an add-on; instead it must serve as the foundation for learning. Technology will help us on our quest to assist our students in their evolution from consumers of information to creators of information!

The expectation of district leadership would be the personalization of professional development opportunities for all educators - teachers and principals alike! This should not be a "one size" fits all approach; instead, we should find out what our educators need (based on observations, conversations, etc.) and tailor their learning to meet those needs. As Morris, Crowson, Porter-Gehrie and Hurwitz point out in Principals in Action: The Reality of Managing Schools (1981), principals should provide help throughout the year to all teachers on various professional responsibilities including how to personalize instruction, how to assess students, how to communicate with parents and how to implement successful classroom management techniques. By providing support in these areas through modeling and professional development opportunities, the expectations for what qualifies good instruction will be clear and teachers will have an understanding of what is expected each day. Additionally, we should expect the experts within each educational institution to share their knowledge with others - collaboration is the key to success!

The Common Core Standards will serve as the "floor" NOT the "ceiling" - they are not the curriculum but instead a guide for the experiences we want all our children to have while in school.

We will throw away the "cookie cutters" and empower every educator to lead and instruct in the way that is most sound for their student population. We cannot mandate that every teacher uses the same materials at the same time and in the same way - that is not public school - that is a factory! We must encourage creativity, collaboration and critical thinking because that is what it takes to be college and career ready! This is directly connected to the Professional Development piece because we want all educators to be skilled enough to make these sound decisions for their students.

Implement a career path of sorts for all teachers that doesn't necessarily mean that if one is a "good teacher" their only option for growth is becoming an administrator. We should consider implementing a four-level system where teachers could move from the novice level to the experienced level to master teacher level and finally to the teacher coach level and with each step up the ladder, they will receive an increase in salary and the daily expectations will change. Not everyone has to move up this ladder but every teacher, with the proper support from administration, will at least reach the experienced level. 

In regards to state testing and the current APPR Plan, I offer the following thoughts...

If I had the ability to scrap the current principal and teacher evaluation plans in New York State, the first thing I would do is eliminate the connection between students’ performance on various standardized and local assessments to the evaluation ratings of educators. This connection does not provide a complete picture of a student’s performance or an educators’ effectiveness. These assessments just capture a moment in time and do not necessarily provide children with an opportunity to show what they know and understand in a comprehensive way. Furthermore, the tests do not look the same from one year to the next and thus comparing a student’s growth over a two-year period doesn’t necessarily provide a fair and accurate comparison. Another problem that stems from using assessments as part of the educator evaluation system is that nothing can be done with the data. First off, the groups of students determining an educator’s evaluation are from the year before and so the assessment is purely summative, which does not help inform instruction. Along the same vein is the idea that the data does not explain WHY a student answered a question incorrectly, which should be our emphasis when analyzing data. Yes, data analysis can pinpoint WHAT a student answered correctly or incorrectly, but it cannot provide insight as to WHY they answered a certain way. Finally, evaluating an educator based on how much a student has grown on a snapshot assessment does not reflect the collective growth or progress of that specific child in the various content areas nor the child’s social and emotional development.    

Now, if the powers that be in New York State are not willing to scrap the current principal and teacher evaluation plans, I would like to suggest some revisions that would satisfy the reformists and maintain a high level of staff morale while promoting effective instructional practices. First and foremost, lets change the standardized tests. No test that places emphasis on multiple-choice questions can possibly capture the data we are looking for to evaluate educators and assess student understandings. This is a simple fix because there are portions of the current New York State assessments that give children a platform to exhibit their understandings and communicate their thinking. Whether it is the short answers or extended responses on the ELA assessment or the challenge to explain one’s thinking on the Math assessment, the current assessment tools already contain some opportunities to more thoroughly assess a student’s understandings. With that in mind, let’s shift the focus from the unreliable multiple-choice experience to a more concrete evaluation of a student’s ability to synthesize and apply their understandings to any situation. Then, lets shorten the assessment experience – lets ensure that this is a test of skills and not one of stamina alone. Children should not be sitting for three days in a row, for over an hour each day, to show what they know on a test that relies on multiple-choice questions and answers. We already have an abundance of research and information about child development and we know that children, especially in their primary years, are more successful when they work for shorter periods of time to capitalize on their limited attention spans. Finally, lets use multiple data points to assess an educator’s effectiveness instead of looking at the growth over a one-year period using the value added model.  For example, we could begin by tracking an educator’s data over a three-year period using the same assessment tools. By examining similar types of data over a period of time, we could identify specific trends that speak to the educator’s instructional/leadership techniques instead of solely looking at the students’ performance on one test. This way we could triangulate data and create a comprehensive image of an educator’s performance over a period of time that would help to more accurately qualify them as ineffective or effective.      

These are just some of the things that I would consider attempting if I were the Commissioner of Education in New York State. I realize there are a million other ideas that haven't even crossed my mind that I missed above but rest assured, I would not make any of these decisions in isolation; instead, I would consult different constituent groups and consider their perspectives and insights in my attempt to do what is best for children.
You see, my main motivation is my son, who is eight years old and is currently in third grade. I want to create the ideal public school educational experience for him because that is what he (and all our children) deserves. I am hopeful that this post might start a state-wide, even nation-wide, exchange among educators about what we would do if we were in the position of Commissioners of Education... please leave comments because we need to share the many amazing ideas that are out there (especially from those on the "front lines" - our teachers, teacher aides, principals, parents etc.) about how we can improve the public school experience for our children - we must unite because there is power in numbers and our efforts must be coordinated and united if we are to bring about any change! 


  1. Tony,
    Your blog is insightful and motivating! I have shared it on all of my accounts because I believe in your ideas. From working with you for years, I KNOW that the children are your primary focus. I hope we can help bring about change. As both a parent and educator I share your concerns. What happened to the joy in learning and teaching? My daughter comes home from school drained and full of complaints. Fridays are celebrated because she doesn't have to go to school for two days. What happened to students being excited about school? What is learned from test prep? What is learned in an over crowded classroom? Veteran teachers need opportunities to learn and to grow and to share.Thank you for being strong enough to put your ideas out here for the world to read. I support you and I am hopeful that this will ignite change!

  2. As a retired teacher with 36 years of service to education, I can't agree more with your assertions of the loss to our children by the present rush to "evaluate" our professionals. As an elementary teacher who would have cause to be in the high school quite often due to my union position, I was stopped frequently by former students who shared with me their favorite memories of time spent in my classroom. They did not talk about test prep or the use of multiple workbooks. They spoke in glowing terms of the "Colonial Museum", the "Twenty Years Reunion" or the various newspaper or books we "published" All of these required hours of efforts and arduous research time on the part of my Fourth Grade students. The finished prooduct was a multi-paragraph essay written for a specific audience. To be published, it had to meet certain had to be perfect...and every child accomplished this feat. These students were prepared and had met all of the "Common Core" requirements of today in LA by the end of the year but were they prepared for a test like those today? Would they all achieve a 4? I doubt it. Do they remember these lessons with relish? Yes! I speak with my 4th grade colleagues today and hear the frustration and anguish in their voices. Their professional judgements no longer just in question, have been entirely removed and in their place is the Book of Standards as written by the Department of Ed...when was the last time any of these Educational leaders (I use the term loosely)were in a classroom? So,Tony, I agree that it is the students of our great state that are losing in this war on education and educators. Let's put education back in the hands of eductors where it rightly belongs.

  3. As a parent, I want my child to get the best education she can get. I wish the State testing and assessments were not such a big focus. Yes, testing is important and has it's place but in NY state children are in school for 180 days a school year. I want all 180 days to have a purpose and meaning and not just learning for a test or assessment that take place for a few days in the year. Years from now will her test results mean anything? Not that I can forsee. What matters to me is that my child like her school and LOVE learning.

  4. As a parents of a child who struggles in certain areas, what struck me most is the accurate insight that we don't know WHY a student gets something wrong, we only know WHAT the student gets wrong. Without the "why", there is no meaningful remediation, thus growth on the part of the student. As an (aspiring) educator, I would welcome the idea of being a novice teacher working under the tutelage of more experienced educators than myself. I can tell you from first hand experience that many, if not most, first year teachers are petrified of doing more harm than good, so to speak, and would welcome the idea of being able to work their way up. Thank you for an informative and apropos piece.

  5. Thank you, Tony. I was brought up in Asia and that was the way of life for students ....test after test to determine how well we know our material but that's only what we can stuff in our heads not how well we can apply the knowledge. I am afraid to see that happening to our children. Thank you for your in depth insight of the system as a whole. :)

  6. A couple of thoughts:

    If NY is similar to CT with respect to Commissioners, don't expect any response - ever. The Commissioners are overburdened with mandates from all directions; your very good letter can't compete. The Commissioners' staffs have two BIG problems: too few staff members due to budget issues and too many TSEs within those staffs (TSE: Typical State Employee - believe it's their duty to do everything in their power NOT to help you, with helping you as the last resort if everything else fails).

    The other point I was to suggest when you become Commissioner (weed out the TSEs by planting drugs in their desks or something) is to especially visit the poor / failing schools! You need to observe and talk with them about main issues - why are they poor / failing, NOT why well-intentioned people SAY they are failing. I'm a strong proponent of what I call LOCAL Education Communities: cross sections of citizens motivated to identify and understand local issues - and then to identify, implement, assess, and refine BETTER ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS (in the model of the ate Stephen Covey.

    Just thought of another key point to change as commissioner: FIND A WAY TO INVOLVE VOLUNTEERS WITH COMPETENCE IN THE EFFORTS - really bad policy (and, yes, I'm experiencing this first hand. :-(

  7. Thank you for sharing your insightful comments. I have been teaching for 21 years and have seen the increased importance of national and state assessments. Students should be held accountable for what is learned in class, but maybe a comprehensive/open-ended assessment at the end of the school year would suffice. Do we even need state/national assessments? Teacher-created "exit" exams could be used to evaluate student success. Students would be required to be successful in the class/course throughout the school year as well as pass the exit exam. However, if a student has not successfully completed the class/course and fails the exit exam, that student should NOT be promoted from that class/course. The "No Child Left Behind" law is doing an inservice to students. Principals are evaluated on the number of students promoted/retained. Those principals then limit the number of retained students to keep their promoted number up, thereby making them look good. Passing students on who are not ready to move on is the true cause of the "dumbing down" of America. Students must be held accountable for their school-work and their behavior. Parents must trust in the educators and question their children instead of questioning the integrity of the educators. Also, if parents were monitarily penalized for their failing students, maybe that would increase some students' motivation. I just see too many students who don't care. They don't care because they know they will just get promoted or placed in the next grade level. There is a complete lack of effort in daily work. There are no consequences. This hurts our entire nation. What kind of employees will these children make? I wouldn't hire them.
    Thanks again, and more power to you!

  8. well said. Please persist in your goal of improving the system with common sense suggestions.

  9. Tony, It's no wonder you are our leader! You are such an inspiration to everyone. You are one who views education, as your colleagues in Cantiague do, in such a way that we want to motivate our students to love learning. I love coming to work everyday, looking into the bright eyes of our future, and wonder how I can make a difference in their lives during my short time with them. Over the years it has become more challenging, but our school continues to inspire our students in such a positive way. Keep pursuing your dream and others will follow. Let's just hope more are listening! Carolyn

  10. Thank you for always standing up for what is right in education, Tony. Alex and I frequently reminisce about the days when there was more time for projects, plays, and celebrations. We would set the pace for our class depending on the needs of our students. Things sure have changed. My son is currently in a class that is moving through the math curriculum at a warped speed. He informed me the other day that he “used to be good at math but not anymore”. That made me so sad. Elementary school should be a place where children learn to love school and to love learning. With strong leadership, teachers and students will thrive. It is inevitable. I am hopeful that we will soon start to see positive changes in the current state of public education. -Rosanna

  11. Tony....everything you say makes so much sense, it's hard to imagine politicos thinking the same. You ALWAYS put the needs of the students first.
    The way we are living now is the new normal, but things can change. Students still walk/run in off the buses in the morning Smiling!
    And so do we! There are always challenges, and it makes me sad that there are some young teachers that don't know any other way for education to be.
    We are truly a community and seeing you every day doing what you do raises the bar for all of us.
    Today Cantiague tomorrow the State!

  12. Tony, Thanks for such a thought-provoking post. Regardless of the Commissioner's busy schedule or election to respond/not respond, I hear you loud and clear and I'm sure many, many others did as well. More importantly, we're inspired and motivated! I recently came across an interesting piece of literature related to your idea of having two administrators in each building (Lead Learner & Educational Administrative Assistant). The School Administration Manager Project (SAM's) is a national project aimed at helping principals devote more time to instructional responsibilities (as opposed to managerial tasks). Recent research on student achievement trends in SAM's schools (as compared to non-participating schools) showed "statistically significant" increases in achievement over a two year period. Here is some additional info:

    Again, thanks for the great post!

  13. As a teacher who received a poor score when almost all of my students received a 3 or 4 on their state exams, I feel like the scoring system is punishing me for being creative, making lessons interdisciplinary, trying to create a platform for students to think for themselves, and not using test prep as a means to educate. We are supposed to help children develop 21st Century skills and think outside of the box, but without the workbooks that are put out by those who create the test, we somehow put our students at a disadvantage. My spirit has been crushed and now I often find myself doubting what I'm doing and wondering if I should just use the workbooks, instead. This post helps me remember why I became a teacher, and why I will not succumb to the pressure of a score. It is through authentic experiences, and open-ended learning opportunities that children learn to think for themselves, form opinions, scrutinize...and it is with these skills that they will be able to develop into 21st Century Thinkers and tackle endeavors that we don't even know exist yet. Filling in a bubble sheet just won't cut it.