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Answer Sheet
Posted at 03:00 AM ET, 06/30/2011

Experience counts for something

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This was written by Randy Ross, who was a principal and teacher for over 43 years both in New York City and Great Neck, LI, as well as an assistant superintendent, professor at CCNY’s School of Education and director of instruction and curriculum at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck. Half of his career was in urban schools, half in suburban, and the last three years have been in private schools and higher education.

By Randy Ross

During the last 43 years, I have been a principal at one of the largest high schools in New York City, serving students who ive in housing projects and come from all over the world and I’ve been a principal at one of the highest performing high schools in the country, serving students who live in beautiful homes on Long Island’s Gold Coast. I have run programs for pre-schoolers and college graduates, middle-school tweens and kindergarteners. I’ve experienced public, private, parochial, and university school systems. I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot about school reform and what really works … and, listening to the current discourse from politicians, policy makers, and the latest and greatest in educational leadership, I feel we need to stop and take a breath.

I knew things had become desperate the day my mayor, New York’s Michael Bloomberg, decided virtually unilaterally to designate Cathie Black, a non-educator with no experience with schools, as public school chancellor. I was waiting for my phone call from Mr. Bloomberg asking me to become his next fire commissioner; I know as much about running the fire department as Ms. Black knew about running a school system. I realized that with Black's appointment, an educator’s credentials, experience, track records, and life-long commitments to children didn’t count for a lot in the minds of our policy makers. We, the education establishment, had lost our credibility.

Maybe it was our own fault. For so many years, certainly since the 1983 report of “A Nation at Risk,” we haven’t been able to demonstrate in any measurable way that American children are staying in school longer, are better prepared for college and careers, and are smarter. With No Child Left Behind they took the matter out of our hands and told us to raise test scores or else.

In recent years, with still no evidence of success, we are scrambling for answers that are more experimental and less respectful of what has always worked. New ways of evaluating and selecting principals and teachers, assessing children, designing schools, training educators, and funding schools are all over the map. It’s like throwing spaghetti against the wall and hoping some of it sticks.

There’s been a lot of conversation recently about how we rate and retain our teachers. I have found that what works best is to sit down at the start of each school year with each person I supervised and set goals that we could agree upon as reasonable. Some of the goals had to be measurable by data, some would be measured anecdotally. Each set of goals aligned with the overall aims of the school and also took into account the individual professional needs of the teacher.

These would be written up by the principal and would serve as the basis for mid-year and end-of-year face-to-face conversations, eventually leading to a final written evaluation. These write-ups were placed in the teacher’s file and provided an ongoing account over time of each teacher’s personal growth and contribution to the school. Those who couldn’t meet their goals or at least show promise toward achieving them were let go before a tenure deadline was imminent. In the aggregate, these reports summarized the impact of the principal on moving his school forward and a developing a more effective faculty.

In 2011, we have lost the faith of those in charge to carry out this kind of evaluation paradigm. We are now directed to use formulas involving test scores (often from exams that are erratically and poorly designed) to be entered on standardized evaluation forms. We are to minimize context and individuality when rating our staffs. And because teachers’ and principals’ jobs are dependent on these ratings, they drive our instructional priorities and turn us too often into test-preparers and tutors, not teachers. They also heighten the suspicions of the higher-ups that teachers and principals might fudge scores and they issue grading guidelines that in the end will just hurt kids.

In New York, principals don’t even have the right to review State Regents exam papers without going through a gauntlet of approvals. You see, they don’t trust us… we, the principals, have lost the faith of the public policy makers. The saddest outcome of all this is that by treating all schools and their leaders with the same lowest common denominator approach, we will be doing just the opposite of what we want for our children, e.g. creating schools that meet individual needs and aspirations.

Some of us have been helping all kinds of children to grow and all kinds of teachers to become better at what they do. Some of us know how to move a school forward incrementally without resorting to flashy or faulty statistics or abandoning the joys of learning.

Some of us have experience that’s worth sharing and worth the attention of those who make education policy. But because we don’t fit the marketplace model or the flavor of the day or because we are in an America that just doesn’t know what to do about its apathy and frustration toward education, few of us are being asked. What a waste.

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By  |  03:00 AM ET, 06/30/2011

 
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