For Schools, Spelling is Serious Business

As many students were coming back to school after the winter break, communities on the East Coast experienced their first real winter weather of the year. Ice and snow forecasts had students flushing ice cubes down the toilet, parents worried about childcare coverage, and school districts watching weather patterns like tornado hunters.

In Maryland, one student even went to social media to ask for time away from the little red schoolhouse, tweeting the Frederick County Public Schools to “close school tammarow PLEASE.”

Responding with the type of levity we expect to see on Twitter (at least when we aren’t experiencing vitriol), the school district’s social media coordinator tweeted back at the student, ““but then how would you learn how to spell ‘tomorrow’?” So that no one would mistake her humor for snark, she closed the message with a smiley face emoji.

Now, according to The Washington Post, that social media coordinator has been fired. The termination came after the district demanded that she delete all that the district deemed as “inappropriate” tweets and after the system’s communications director issued a public apology to the FCPS student who can’t spell tomorrow.

Overreact much, Frederick County Public Schools?

Now Eduflack gets that the school system as worried about potential backlash. As a former school board chairman, I get that the district feared parents concerned students were being called stupid or were being mocked on social media and that is could become a “thing” at the next school board meeting. But this is Twitter, folks. It is designed for interaction and give and take. A student tweeting at his or her school district is expecting a response.

One has to only look at the tweets from the school district since the incident to understand that, while the system may think it has built a “model for the state” when it comes to social media, it just isn’t the case.

  • “Schedule reminder: schools are closed on Monday, January 23rd.”
  • “All FCPS activities are canceled for Saturday, Jan 14 due to weather forecasts.”
  • “Academic Tournament continues with ‘Human Diseases’ as the special topic.”
  • “Reminder: schools are closed on Monday in observance of Martin Luther King Day.” (one has to wonder if someone is getting suspended for leaving the “Jr.” off that tweet)

Model Twitter feeds are those that happen in real time and generate discussion and sharing. They aren’t automated, nor are they approved weeks in advance on a schedule. If anything, the now former social media coordinator for FCPS provided a little personality to the site, and in doing so, ensured that students across the district were actually checking it out (if only for a little bit). She showed how school district social media feeds can actually interact with the very students they are supposed to be serving.

Unfortunately, the actions in Frederick County will have more districts pulling back that getting into the scrum. Instead of using Twitter to engage and build community, they will use Twitter as a bulletin board, thinking that a single line they post on scheduling will stay top of mind to their entire community for perpetuity. And that’s a crying shame.

If school districts are going to use Twitter, they need to use it for all it is worth. Otherwise, they may just take their messages and chalk them up on the old slate and hang it outside the little red school house. It’ll be just as effective communicating with families.

 

School Board Elections Shouldn’t be MMA

Over at Hechinger Report, I have a new commentary on how our local school board races can often reflect the worst of our national political discourse … and how that can do a true disservice to the kids and communities our school boards are seeking to serve.

While the job of a school board member isn’t necessarily to serve as a rubber stamp for a superintendent, it is a job that requires working with a disparate electorate. It requires finding common ground with everyone from a headstrong superintendent to the most vocal of activist parents.

One simply cannot begin that service through a political campaign of blame, scare tactics, or fear. And it cannot be done by pitting one part of the community against the other in the hopes of cobbling together enough of the community to secure the necessary votes to win.

I hope you’ll give it a read. It becomes an important topic of discussion as more control is returned to the localities.

 

 

BAM! Listen Up!

Over at BAM Education Radio, I’m the guest on two recent shows that look at the intersection between politics, rhetoric, and the classroom.

Most recently, I guested on Jon Harper’s show, My Bad, where we talked about being biased and judgmental, and how we can move beyond that to actually achieve some real progress. I reflected on my time serving on a local school board, and entering discussions with some preconceived notions about some of the constituencies I represented.

I also joined Brad Gustafson and Ben Gilpin on TweetED, where we spoke specifically about how to deal with politics in the classroom, whether that politics is brought in by the teacher, the student, or the parent.

Both are great shows (and are great because of their respective hosts, not because of their poor choice in guests). But give them a listen and a like. You won’t be disappointed.

 

The Trump-ization of Local Edu-Politics

When Eduflack first ran for local school board six years ago, I remember questioning my own sanity. I spent countless hours knocking on doors, wanting to talk education policy with voters who just weren’t looking for such deep dives. Instead, they just wanted the promise that our schools would stay as strong as they had been, that taxes wouldn’t grow astronomically, and that their kids would continue to have the same opportunities that students before them did. They wanted soundbite politics, like they got in other political campaigns.

As a member of the Falls Church (VA) Public Schools Board, I served as both vice chair and chairman. I spent almost as much time working with the public and the schools as I did in my day job. Much of that time was spent talking with families about their own experiences and challenges. And much of it was informing the community of the limited role of a local school board – to approve an annual budget, to hire a superintendent (if necessary), and to review the performance of said superintendent each year. Many failed to realize that a good school board member was one who let the superintendent, the administrators, the principals, and the teachers do their respective jobs. It was to provide the resources to those entrusted with our kids; it wasn’t to micromanage every action, every decision, and every thought that occurred in the district.

I was reminded of this last week in seeing the horrible actions coming out of Bridgeport, CT, where an exemplary superintendent by just about all measures resigned from a challenging urban district. There, the supe didn’t resign because she received a better job elsewhere, or because she struggled managing the budget, or even because of test scores or student behavior issues. No, she resigned because of the school board. One particular board member, actually. There, a member of the board of education dramatically overstepped her role, and  allegedly made it her mission to regularly harass and malign a superintendent who was doing a strong job. Playing the role of the bully, the school board member has now dealt a painful blow to every child and every teacher in that district.

I’d like to chalk it up to a once-in-a-blue-moon experience, but I hear too many stories of school board members who fail to understand their roles, seeing the board as an opportunity to stick it to a supe they disagree with or dislike, or general seeing board service as a stepping stone to world domination. In many of these instances, we see local school board races now taking on the tone, tenor, and vitriol of a Donald Trump presidential campaign, with those seeking a school board seat hurling insults, falsehoods, and blame, all in the hope of securing a job that pays nothing and demands long, thankless hours.

In fact, I’m seeing such a Trump-istation of local edu-politics in my own local school district in New Jersey. Earlier this year, Eduflack wrote about the growing discord in my community on the future of our highly rated public schools. That community infighting has now spilled into next month’s school board election, with some candidates doing their very best to “make WW-P schools great again.”

Most communities would celebrate being a high-ranking school district, particularly in a competitive state like New Jersey. According to the most recent high school ratings in NJ Monthly, our community’s two high schools are ranked number 2 and number 9 in the state. Yet we have two candidates, running as a ticket for school board, condemning the current district leadership for “lowered educational standards and learning.” As an “example” of such mismanagement, they note that “High School South was always ranked in the top 10 high schools in NJ. Now South is ranked 35.”

It’s a terrific soundbite for two candidates seeking to run as change agents and against the system. It’s also a soundbite that warrants four Pinocchios by any political fact checker. That 35th-ranked high school is actually the ninth best high school in the state. But we shouldn’t let the facts get in the way, should we?

This Trumpian duo is also quick to attack “teacher resignations,” noting that educators leaving the job are a reflection that “teachers are unhappy, and leaving in droves.” Of course, these highly educated individuals don’t note how many of those teacher resignations are actually retirements, earned by teachers after decades of service. And they certainly don’t note that many teachers postponed retirement after the collapse of markets (and retirement plans) in 2008, and that we just happen to see the markets now back up to pre-2008 levels. Such distinctions just muddy a good “damn the establishment” talking point.

Sadly, the campaign has also taken on the tenor of a Trump rally, as the two look to scapegoat and blame others for perceived wrongs. The superintendent is to blame for focusing on social-emotional learning and the whole child, and is regularly attacked because he — <shudder> — actually hires administrators to help manage a complex district. The state is to blame for taking away “final exams,” (yes, they are actually campaigning to “restore final exams.”) Technology is blamed for many of our ills, with the added wrinkle of the candidates wanting to “focus on children as individual learners,” but failing to note the very reason technology is used as part of a strong personalized learning program in a district like ours.

The most egregious of the attacks and scapegoating is directed at supposed bleeding heart parents who are concerned about the mental health and general well being of their kids and of students throughout the district. These candidates and those who stand up for him actually have attacked the notion AP classes should be available to all those who wish to do the work. Instead, they say it should just be for the elite of the elite.  The candidates accuse misguided parents for watering down the AP program and costing kids like theirs a chance to get into Harvard or Princeton. The candidates allege that our community has so destroyed the value of AP classes that’s 80 percent of the district’s students are in honors language arts classes, when the actual number is half that (just 40 percent). I guess it is just far easier to attack “those kids” who are devaluing honors classes and denying “our kids” what is rightfully theirs.

Typically, Eduflack chooses to stay out of such local education politics, wanting to keep my views to myself. It’s a tough job serving on a local school board. Those who choose to pursue such public service have to do it eyes wide open, for the right reasons. They have to do so seeking to speak for the community and do whatever is necessary to support a superintendent and all of those who work for the school district. And they have to do so fully not understanding what is — and what is not — the appropriate role for a school board member.

So it is unfortunate when one sees the negativity, blame, and vitriol playing out on the national presidential campaign stage seep into the local edu-politics in a community that would be the envy of most cities and towns across the United States. It is sad to see candidates put forward incomplete stories, whispered innuendo, and downright falsehoods to try to justify a narrative of a school system in crisis. And it is disheartening to see individuals try to heighten an “us versus them” thinking in a community where all should be focused on our kids, what we do well, and how we can do it even better TOGETHER.

Hopefully, such political shenanigans are an anomaly. Hopefully, we see that positivity trumps negativity and that a “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy beats out “they are out to deny us what is ours” approach. Hopefully, we put the interests of kids above the personal grievances and petty politics of the adults in the room. Hopefully.

But the recent actions in Bridgeport tell us that “hopefully” isn’t a synonym for likely. Sadly, we may soon see many more Donald Trumps in waiting using local school boards to practice the politics of blame, negativity, hatred, and lies to forward their own personal agendas. And it will be great superintendents, exemplary educators, and our own kids who will ultimately pay the price.

With Schools, It All Comes Down to Local Politics

When Eduflack moved to New Jersey, he promised himself that he would never, ever get involved in local edu-politics. After serving as CEO of a state-based education reform organization in Connecticut and as a school board chairman for one of the nation’s top K-12 districts in Virginia, I had had more than my fair share of politics as it relates to local schools.

Sure, a few times I slipped off the wagon. At the beginning of the year, I felt compelled to weigh in on our local battle, which made its way to The New York Times, on parents that were pushing for more tests and higher stakes in our community. And I just can’t resist wading into Facebook discussion with parents who completely bastardize Common Core and meaningful accountability measures as they try to bully other parents into joining the opt-out movement.

But today, I completely fell off the wagon. As I watch a contingent within our local community savage our schools superintendent, going after him for anything and everything. A few months ago, he was attacked because one of our high schools didn’t have enough toilet paper. Last week, it was because nine teachers (in a school district of 10,000 students) have announced they won’t be returning for the 2016-17 academic year. And then last night, the superintendent was gutted for issuing a thorough and responsive report on lead testing in all of our schools.

Following the issues in Flint, MI (and then in Newark, NJ), our local schools acted. Last night, the superintendent reported back to the community. You can see his message here. As a parent, I felt at ease and as a citizen I felt we had the right folks at the helm of this school district.

Then the hatred started coming, with the typical accusations being thrown out without having any meaning rooted in truth. The lead report was further proof the district was being run like a business. That we have 30 central office staff (in a district with 10k kids). That we constructed a new central office (so that must be wasteful, no?). That it is clearly the end of the world as we know it, and we shouldn’t feel fine about it.

So against my better judgment (and against the wishes of the edu-wife), I again strapped on the local edu-politics helmet, and waded into the social media morass. Following is my first post:

So you want better quality toilet paper for school bathrooms, and now you want to replace all the piping in our schools (even though most kids bring their own water bottles to class). Please let me know when we are going to focus on teaching and learning in our community. That’s what I care about. 

And BTW, schools are businesses, albeit non-profit ones. They have to balance their budgets, and need to do so when nearly 90 percent of their total budgets go to people costs (salaries, healthcare, retirement, etc.). As a former school board chairman, I can tell you it is easy to attack school spending when you don’t understand it. But try to address 30% increases in health insurance as you give all teachers a step increase to keep them from leaving from other districts, while ensuring no cuts affect the classroom.

These attacks on TP and lead are downright silly. We have great schools, exemplary teachers, and our kids get one of the best public educations around. Let’s not lose sight of what is most important – our kids and the teaching they receive and the learning they accumulate.

And then I needed to follow up with:

 I’m not sure what you ask when you ask would I allow. I think our supe should be praised for how he handled the lead issue, yes. He proactively (as there were no specific issues found in our schools) conducted a comprehensive investigation, then reported it back so we all know which faucets, by room number, may have had an off result. And we saw that there was no issue for concern.

If I were on the board, would I have supported a new central office? Yes to that too. For prospective educators in our district, that is the first building they see in our community. It should reflect our commitment to teaching and learning. And for a district offering a world-class education to all kids, we should have facilities for ALL employees that reflect that. In the long run, amortized over the years, that building will be a strong investment. Otherwise, we’d be making regular, ongoing repairs to old buildings that will never be up to snuff.

Investments in physical plant are always hard. You are spending taxpayer dollars to do so. Those decisions are made very carefully, and should never be made at the expense of the classroom. And I don’t believe they have.

I speak from experience. Serving on a school board is a tough, thankless job. Those who do it well do it for the right reasons. Constructive criticism is valuable, but misguided and unfounded attacks just aren’t. We have a great district, excellent teachers, and one of the top superintendents in the country. We need a board – and a community – that supports them all.

The edu-wife cringes. I’ve now wasted two hours of my life I’m not getting back. But hopefully, based on some of the responses, it is showing the silent majority of parents they are not alone in their thinking.

 

 

The New PDK Survey Is Here, The New PDK Survey Is Here

In the immortal words of Steve Martin from the movie, The Jerk, “The new phone books are here! The new phone books are here!” Only instead of talking the latest white and yellow pages, where the inclusion of our name shows we are somebody, we are talking about this year’s PDK/Gallup Poll, which validates all we’ve been thinking, hearing, and saying these past 12 months on the shifts in public education.

What do this year’s results tell us? A quick sampling:

  • Overall, only slightly more than a quarter surveyed (27%) give President Obama a grade of “A” or “B” for his performance in support of public schools. That’s down nearly 15 points from three years ago.
  • We have more fait in our local school systems. Half gave their local schools an “A” or a “B.” But when asked about our nation’s schools as a whole, only 17% give similar grades to ‘Merica.
  • As we hear more about the “federal role” in education, the public is starting to absorb it. More than half (56%) said their local school board should have the greatest influence on what is being taught (a big surprise to this former school board chairman who found that the vast majority wanted the school board out of such decisions, and to just focus on the basics like funding). Only 15% though the federal government should have the most influence (and we would ask who actually thinks the feds have much influence at all, let alone the most, on what happens in our local schools.)
  • More than half (54%) do not think standardized tests are helpful to teachers (though I am guessing they are talking about high-stakes, summative tests, and not the formative or interim assessments that even teachers say they want).
  • On the controversial issue of Common Core State Standards, 81% of those surveyed have heard of CCSS, up from about two-thirds last year. And six in 10 say they oppose CCSS. The biggest reason? Standards limit the flexibility of teachers ot teach what they think is best (not the testing issue we hear so much about).
  • And in those further depressing stats, only 30% were familiar with PISA. Only half believe that American students perform below the level of other students around the globe.

What do we take away from all of this? To be kind, we don’t know what we don’t know. Public school performance and President Obama’s education positions have been relatively unchanged in recent years, yet we see huge swings in what we think of both of those today. At a time when most school board meetings go unattended and few can even name who sits on their local board of ed, we now place the greatest trust (and presumed power) in the hands of those unsung officials. We lack an understanding of assessment literacy, and are now equating everything we’ve heard about “high-stakes testing” to anything that bears the name “test.”

And let’s not forget that, while we may have these positions, they still aren’t strong enough for us to act on them. Education policy remains one of those issues that we are all concerned with, until it is time to head into the voting places. We may believe our nation’s schools are headed into the crapper, but we still elect the same federal, state, and local policymakers to oversee those schools. And while we may be concerned about teachers not being able to teach what they think is best under CCSS, other surveys show we are enthusiastic in taking away their tenure and job protections, the very things that may allow them the power to actually do what they think is best in the classroom.

Yet the PDK poll is an important measure for understanding the populace’s temperature on these issues. While we are unlikely to act on them, we are seeing a steady shift that shows we are more cynical when it comes to public education in the United States. We are lest trusting. We remain fairly uninformed. And we seem content in carrying on as is.

Sigh …