Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Unfunded and Unfair

The nation’s lingering economic malaise has led to reductions in property tax revenues, cuts in state education funding, and increases in tax certiorari claims. School districts are struggling to maintain the quality of their academic programs in the face of dwindling resources.  State governments have exacerbated this challenging situation by imposing numerous mandates on school districts without providing the funding necessary to implement these mandates. Schools have been forced to cut valuable academic programs to fund mandates that are unnecessary, inefficient and outdated.

To alleviate the financial burden on our schools and protect our educational programs, state education departments should

·      Refrain from imposing new mandates on school districts;

·      Revisit current mandates – with input from local superintendents – to determine which ones can be eliminated;

·      Provide funding for mandates that the state deems essential.

To compete in the increasingly complex global economy, our children require a superior education. At a time when technological innovation and higher academic standards require increased investment in instructional materials, we cannot afford to divert funds to outdated, superfluous and inefficient mandates.  

Friday, October 12, 2012

New Year, New Tests

At the end of the 2011-12 school year, I expressed my displeasure with the three-week test-taking marathon students endured in my school district. Now I’m going to kick off the 2012-13 school year by griping about a fresh crop of tests that reach a new level of ridiculous:

Pre-tests – These tests are administered at the beginning of the school year to assess a student’s knowledge about a subject before the student takes the course in the subject. Apparently, the scores on these tests compared with the scores on the year-end tests are supposed to gauge the teacher’s success. I’m astonished that this seriously flawed plan was implemented because it offers nothing but disruption and frustration at a critical juncture in the school year. Testing a student on a subject before the student learns the material is pointless. In addition, standardized tests are not a valid measure of a student’s skills or knowledge, so they are certainly not a valid indicator of a teacher’s performance.  

Field Tests – These are pilot tests that student guinea pigs are forced to take to help education officials and testing companies determine which questions are appropriate for the actual test. These tests are an egregious waste of the student’s valuable time.

Art Tests - A standardized, multiple-choice test in art is counterintuitive. Art is about creativity and self-expression, not conformity. An artist’s skills cannot be evaluated by a written test. It’s debatable whether an artist’s skills can be evaluated at all, since art is highly subjective.

Physical Education Tests – A written test in physical education is also counterintuitive. Physical education is by definition physical. Students should be engaging in physical activity and benefiting from exercise in this class, not sitting and taking a test. To determine whether a student has learned the skills involved in a game or sport, or understands the rules, ask them to participate in the activity, not take a test about it.

Standardized tests divert time and money from meaningful educational activities, and they are not a valid measure of a student’s knowledge or skills. Yet education officials continue to think up new ways to impose them on our teachers, students and schools.

What’s next – a test about lunch?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Test Obsessed

My kids have spent the last three weeks trapped in a stifling cage lined with bubble sheets and number two pencils. 

Week one, they had three days of state English/language arts assessment tests.

Week two, they had three days of state math assessment tests.

Week three, they had two days of another standardized test that is similar to the state assessments.

The worst part is, they’re not complaining.  They’ve just accepted insipid, monotonous test taking as a necessary part of life, like death and taxes.  So they stoically and obediently head off to school for another joyless day of boring and useless tests because the bureaucrats in Washington think this is a grand idea.

But I’m not taking it as well.  So to vent my frustration, I’ve compiled a list of reasons why I oppose the recent test-taking marathon:

1. Standardized tests waste time. Education experts agree that standardized multiple-choice tests are not a valid measure of a student’s knowledge or skills. They are certainly not indicative of a teacher’s abilities or a school’s success. Even if standardized tests accurately reflected a student’s competency, they are still not a valid measure of teacher quality because many other factors affect student performance.

2. Standardized tests divert time from meaningful and enriching educational activities.  For example, middle school students in my school district missed out on a dynamic program that teaches American history through experiential learning methods because testing dominated the spring calendar. The spring book fair was also cancelled.

3. Standardized tests are administered inefficiently. Why are students forced to take two tests covering the same subject? Why do they have to endure three days of tests on the same subject? If we have to give students standardized tests, can’t we eliminate the redundancies and limit the time involved?

4. Standardized tests are used improperly. Standardized tests should not be used in student placement decisions since they are not an accurate reflection of a student’s abilities or aptitude. They should not be used to evaluate teachers and schools.  I will concede that standardized tests could potentially provide value if they were used to identify possible gaps in student learning. But to accomplish this goal, three things would have to happen:

a. Tests for each grade level must be developed with input from teachers to ensure they cover concepts taught at that grade level.

b. Test developers must ask clear, straightforward questions instead of attempting to confuse and trick test-takers. Anyone who experienced “Pineapple-gate” in New York knows what I’m talking about.

c. Most importantly, teachers should be allowed to give students their tests back after they are graded so the students can learn from their mistakes. This is the most egregious error in the government’s approach to testing. Students never see their tests after they are graded and, therefore, miss out on an opportunity to learn.

5. Standardized tests divert funding from educational programs. The only beneficiaries of the focus on testing are the companies that develop and sell standardized tests. Shamefully, funds that are sorely needed for educational programs and instructional materials are being spent on testing.

If you are also frustrated by the federal and state governments’ unjustified obsession with standardized tests, consider supporting educators, parents and concerned citizens in New York State and nationwide who are voicing their opposition.  For more information on this initiative, visit the following website

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The How Not-To Guide To Parent-Teacher Partnerships

When Richard Gray was elected president of the Malliford Elementary PTO, he aspired to forge a constructive relationship with the school’s principal, Ms. Rutherford, although he disliked her approach and policies. But during his stint as PTO president, his chilly relationship with Ms. Rutherford rapidly deteriorated into intense hostility, with bitter consequences for the school community, as well as his marriage, his son, his reputation and his life.

Although Richard Gray and the other inhabitants of Malliford Elementary are fictional characters in the novel Chain Gang Elementary (Thornbriar Press), by Jonathan Grant, many of the characters’ missteps are all too real.

While the book is not autobiographical, Grant is a former PTA co-president. He initially intended to write a non-fiction guide for parent leaders. But he ultimately decided he could make a bigger impact on readers with a cautionary tale. He considers the book a “how not-to guide” for parents and administrators.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Grant and asked what advice he would give to parents who want to avoid Richard's fate.

Play Nice

The advice that you received on the playground still applies today. The dominant message in Chain Gang Elementary is that parents (particularly parent leaders) and administrators have to get along. Parents should check their animosity at the door and keep their conversations with administrators and teachers positive and productive.

For example, if your child is upset about an incident that occurred at school, ask the teacher about the situation rather than accusing them of wrong-doing.

“Parents need to stow their anger and remember their child may be part of the problem,” Grant says. “Don’t assume that your six-year-old child, who has their emotions and fears at stake, is going to tell you objectively what happened.”

Similarly, administrators should take a step back and listen to parents instead of constantly pushing their own agendas. Parents often bring valuable insight to the table. For example, when a parent expresses a concern, the administrator should address the cause of the issue instead of appeasing the individual parent.

“School systems I’ve seen are more interested in fixing 100 squeaky wheels than in going back to the assembly line and making adjustments on the assembly line that prevent the squeaky wheels from being produced,” Grant says.

He speaks from experience. When Grant had an issue with a school policy, the school responded by making his child exempt from the policy, rather than re-evaluating its merit.

PTOs and PTAs should advocate for parents to ensure administrators take their concerns seriously. “Schools really marginalize any complaint if an individual parent brings it in,” Grant says.

Meanwhile, principals should publish their policies to ensure fairness to all students and parents. And when rules and policies are established, principals should adhere to them. “Nothing makes parents crazier than loopholes,” Grant says.

A PTO/PTA president who has tried to communicate with the school principal but faces an impasse should invite a third party in to facilitate the discussion, such as a district administrator, Grant suggests.

Shun Teacher Shopping

The practice of teacher shopping – when a parent demands a specific teacher for their child – is rampant at Malliford and has serious consequences.

Grant has witnessed the negative effects of teacher shopping and says it’s “damaging to the whole system.” He advises parents to avoid teacher shopping and suggests principals disallow it.

Sometimes teachers will receive a reputation that’s undeserved, so parents need to keep an open mind, Grant adds.

Volunteer for the Right Reasons

Volunteer to lead the PTA because you want to help and support the school community, not because you want special treatment for your child.

“If you approach being PTA president as a humbling experience, that’s a good thing,” Grant says. “Try very hard to put yourself in other people’s shoes.”

As a former PTA co-president, Grant offered up three ways PTAs can improve their schools:

1.) Facilitate Volunteerism: Organize work days on weekends to give parents who don’t normally volunteer a chance to be involved.

2.) Encourage Reading: Grant’s PTA invited a local librarian to an “open house” to accept library card applications from parents. “Children emulate their parents. They need to see parents reading,” Grant says.

3.) Discourage Electronics: Organize a “No Electronics Week,” during which students must pledge to avoid TV, videogames, iPods and other electronic devices. The goal is to promote an appreciation for reading and other activities that foster a child’s growth and development.

For more information on Chain Gang Elementary, visit

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fostering Your Child's Writing Skills

by Dan Gilbert

Children are curious creatures and they want to understand everything -- from why clouds appear in the sky to how the television works. They are also intrigued by what grown-ups are doing when they have a pen or pencil in their hand. When a child first gets hold of a crayon or marker and starts scribbling in zigs, zags or loops, they are making an effort to emulate you when you're writing.

“Children watch adults as they write notes, checks, and stories, and they are eager to begin writing themselves. Early writing is oftentimes labeled ‘scribble writing’ and is considered a legitimate form of emergent writing,” says Dr. Mary Zurn, vice president of education, Primrose Schools. Children are going to attempt to write long before embarking on their preschool education. These first attempts are going to look nothing like real words or pictures, but should be celebrated nonetheless. Your child is trying to learn how to write, and that is something very special.

Observe your child, and see what exactly they are trying to do with that crayon. “The first conscious attempts a child makes to write a letter are usually the first letter of his or her name. To an adult, the attempts may only vaguely resemble the letter, but these are moments to cherish and celebrate,” says Dr. Zurn. The important part is that they are writing, and not their penmanship or personal style.

The key to helping your child develop their writing abilities is teaching them that writing is a method of conveying language, so they don't worry if their letters are malformed. The more you focus on precision, the less they are going to enjoy writing. Writing is different from penmanship. As your child develops a love of writing, you can slowly fix how their letters look and teach them the proper way to hold their writing implement.

Make sure to keep everything they need to enjoy writing nearby. Keep a cool head as they begin. Soon you are going to have a child who is ready to face school and beyond because you have fostered in them good writing habits.

• Have them explain to you what they are writing. Make suggestions about how to make their work better, but never chastise them.

• The more you read with your child, the more they are going to understand that the words you are saying are the words on the page.

• Never turn them away when they are asking about writing-related tasks. If you are making a grocery list, let them see the list, and perhaps even ask them to help by adding something to the list. Always praise them for having done the job, and you will see them do it even better next time.

• Writing on the computer is still writing. Don't be surprised if your child figures out aspects of writing with a computer before they do with paper. The ease of seeing the letters on the keyboard move to the screen might help them more than trying to form the letters on paper and being frustrated that they aren't precisely the same.

Dan Gilbert is Marketing Support Coordinator at Primrose Schools, which operates early childhood education centers nationwide.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

184 Tips for Teachers

On Shellee Hendricks’ first day of tenth grade, her teacher shook each student’s hand.

“It’s customary to shake hands when starting work with someone,” says Hendricks in her new book, Notes on Teaching: A Short Guide to an Essential Skill. “I realized that I was being invited into a partnership; I quickly understood that my teacher respected me, held me responsible, and wanted to work with me toward a shared goal.”

“Shake hands” is note number 20. Hendricks and co-author Russell Reich offer 183 other insightful and inspiring recommendations in Notes on Teaching (RCR Creative Press, 2011), a comprehensive yet concise guide to perfecting the craft of teaching.

In an elegant and user-friendly format, Notes on Teaching covers all bases in sixteen sections, including Planning and Preparation, First Class Meeting, Setting Expectations, Classroom Staging, Leading a Class, Talking to Students, and Talking to Parents.

Below are ten of my favorite insights from Notes on Teaching:

25. Say why (First Class Meeting)

“Students face many compulsory subjects and deserve to know why they must study algebra if they have no interest in becoming financiers, physicists, or engineers.”

26. Dive into the subject (First Class Meeting)

“Start with housekeeping only if you want to signal pending tedium and forfeit the opportunity to, well, teach something. Reviewing your lateness policy line by line will demoralize everyone.”

31. Involve them in setting goals (Setting Expectations)

“Ask: ‘What do you want out of this class?’ Have students write down their answers. If you set all goals, they won’t be invested.”

33. Don’t tell them they’ve achieved what they haven’t (Setting Expectations)

“Don’t deny students a good education in the name of self-esteem. Deceive people about their own progress to make them feel good, or lead them to believe they’ve mastered something they have not, and you will quickly and rightly lose their trust.”

35. Champion failure (Setting Expectations)

“Foster a sea change in education by explicitly introducing ‘failure’ as a worthy goal, not a taboo. Failure is not a signal to give up or a cause for dejection or humiliation. It’s a healthy sign of working at the frontier of one’s ability or understanding.”

71. Be an emotional leader as well as an intellectual one (Leading a Class)

“Enthusiasm is contagious. So is its lack.”

114. Notice what they want you to notice (Talking to Students)

“Students drop hints: repeated references to basketball in their writing, or a tendency to break into song upon leaving class. Comment on their point of pride. Let them know you’re paying attention.”

130. Know the student, and show you know (Talking to Parents)

“Be specific. Your familiarity with each student gives your observations, suggestions, and warnings credibility.”

131. Deliver good news first and last (Talking to Parents)

“When parents see your interest in discovering the positive in their child, they absorb subsequent criticisms and warnings more willingly.”

140. Do not grade everything (Giving Feedback)

“Offering feedback without a grade sends a message to your students: Their practice and improvement are more important than where their work falls on some supposedly objective scale.”

For more information, visit

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Let’s Invest In Learning, Not Testing

When I read the news last week that the New York State Education Department recently signed a $32 million contract with a new test developer, I started thinking about how $32 million could be used to foster learning, particularly in low-income school districts. Let’s forget for a minute that these tests may be useless—many education experts say standardized tests are not a valid measure of a student’s knowledge or skills. Let’s say standardized tests actually provided valuable information about student learning. It seems wasteful and illogical to spend money on assessing student learning without first investing in the resources students need to learn, like the following:

* Instructional Materials

Schools in low-income districts often don’t have enough books, desks and other resources students and teachers need. Students often lack basic school supplies, such as notebooks and pencils.

* Healthy Food

Even if students have the appropriate school supplies, they will not be ready to learn if they don’t eat properly. Many students rely on the meals they receive at school. We should be offering fresh, nutritious menu options, not processed foods that are high in salt, fat and chemical preservatives.

* Professional Development

About half of new teachers leave the professional after five years. Many new teachers feel overwhelmed and underprepared. Perhaps innovative, valuable professional development workshops would embolden new teachers.

* Parent Involvement

It’s clear that parent involvement has a positive impact on student achievement. We need to make it easier for parents to be involved, despite language barriers, time constraints and transportation issues. I recently met a teacher whose school organizes home visits for parent-teacher conferences. Some schools and community organizations are making an effort to provide translators so teachers can communicate with parents who don’t speak English.

Sadly, all of these overlooked areas will continue to languish until policymakers acknowledge the real weaknesses in our education system. I don’t think the solution is better tests.