Friday, June 29, 2018

On "Choice" - Who Makes It and Who Pays the Price?

"I often advocate that we look at many sides of an issue. walk in someone else's shoes and identify and reject false choices."  Kamala Harris

I'm hoping the title to this post and the quote above piqued your attention.  If so, good!  Let's begin with a little context to set the stage for

In my seven years as a Director of Special Education/Student Services, one of my least favorite responsibilities was to participate in what I can only describe as the more "turbulent" side of special education.  Highly complex and legal, special education is built upon a mile-thick foundation of intricate laws, rules, regulations, policies and procedures.  At times it can become a virtual maze, where everyone navigating it (parents and educators alike) are unsure which path to take next.  And, as with any formal legal process, there are bound to be occasional disputes over just about anything and everything one can imagine.

One such dispute involved a disagreement between my District and a parent, over what was to be the most appropriate (i.e. "least restrictive") placement for their child with special needs.  I'll not go into all the details, but let's just say it was a difficult, emotional and contentious situation for all involved, with the parent wanting a program and placement our experienced team of educators believed would not help the student and might instead actually cause harm.  The case went to mediation and when that proved unsuccessful, a full-blown hearing.  The hearing lasted several days, with witnesses on the stand for many hours being grilled by attorneys over every imaginable detail.  The District's evidence and testimony were compelling, based on a massive amount of data, research and decades of expertise on the part of the professionals who testified.  But the parent's case was also compelling.  The parent was not an educator, had zero experience in education, no credentials or advanced degrees. Still, this was the parent of the child and the parent believed that even if the placement had a minuscule chance of being successful, it was still worth a try.

That's pretty hard to argue, isn't it?  Even if we could accurately assign odds to the situation, say, a thousand to one, there's that one in a thousand chance the parent's preferred program would work.  Still, the district team felt it had strong evidence to show the parent's choice was most likely to result in the exchange of a short-term benefit for a much more harsh, difficult and costly (to the student and parent) road ahead.

Oral arguments were made, evidence was presented, and the hearing officer ultimately told everyone that a decision would later be sent to the parties.  The hearing wrapped-up and everyone was exhausted - we all just wanted to go home. No one, including me, felt good about any of it.  Regardless of the eventual outcome, in these situation there really are no "winners."

In the parking lot I saw my car was next to the hearing officer's and he was walking toward it.  We exchanged some small talk.  I shared my observation that this had been a really difficult case.  As he got into his car he looked at me and softly said, "A parent has the ultimate right to destroy their own child."

Those words took me by surprise, leaving me speechless and incredibly sad.  I've never forgotten that comment and it has haunted me many times since.  Outside the very rare (and brutally pathological) situations we occasionally hear about in the news, I believe none of us, ever, would want to harm much less "destroy" our children.  It's simply incomprehensible and unthinkable.  Yet in this case I was being told what I've always known as a professional educator but preferred to ignore; we parents, even with the best of intentions, have the power to make educational choices for which our children may flourish, flounder or anything in-between.  These choices have long-term consequences for our children and for us.

This is not, as you may have guessed by now, a post about special education, the maze of complex laws surrounding it or the outcome of a legal dispute.  It is a post about the educational choices we are faced with making on behalf of the children we teach, learn from and love.  "Choice" in education is all the rage these days and as a result, there are now many options made available to us.  Having options is a good thing, right?  Maybe so, or maybe not ... it all depends on what each option can ultimately deliver, our expectations of our children and our accurate understanding of the long-term price tag associated with the options we choose.  As a parent I know there are many seemingly fine "choices" being presented to me through slick advertising, targeted social media campaigns and even personal contacts with others who have made one choice or another for their own children.  As an experienced educator I know that not all choices are what they profess to be and while they may not "destroy" my child, some of these "choices" are the educational equivalent of a payday loan (i.e. instant short-term gratification in exchange for a long-term payback ... with interest).

"So," you may ask, "how do I know which educational 'choice' is best for my child?"

Sadly there is no magic simple answer to that question and a more in-depth exploration (teaser alert!) will have to wait for a future post.  In the meantime, you may want to ponder a quote we've all probably heard before and is apropos to many of the choices we face, including those involving the education of our children ... "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."  The challenge, of course, is recognizing the difference between reality and the false choice hiding behind what sounds too good to be true.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Focus on the Process Rather Than the Result

"The best competition I have is against myself to become better."  John Wooden

I am fortunate to have attended UCLA during Coach John Wooden's final years as perhaps the greatest basketball coach of all time and some might argue, the greatest coach ever.  Coach Wooden and his amazingly talented team of athletes won an astounding ten NCAA titles between 1963 and 1975, competing against equally amazing and talented athletes from every corner of our country.  Competitive as Coach Wooden's teams were, including their complete seven-year dominance of the NCAA between 1967 and 1973, the final score was not John Wooden's focus.  In fact, he wrote,
"Competitiveness must be focused exclusively on the process of what you are doing rather than the result of that effort (the so-called winning or losing).  Otherwise you may lose self-control and become tight emotionally, mentally and physically.  I think someone who is too competitive as an individual is overly worried about the final score.  Therefore, I never mentioned winning or victory to my players.  I never referred to "beating" an opponent.  Instead, I constantly urged for them to strive for the self-satisfaction that always comes from knowing you did the best you could to become the best of which you are capable.  That's what I wanted: the total effort.  That was the measurement I used, never the final score." (1997, p. 88)
Going after "the total effort" as opposed to the final score, is wise beyond words.  It applies equally well to the process of teaching and learning as it does to playing basketball, perhaps even more so.

In education these days, I think it is easy for us to focus more on the final score than the total effort.  Listen carefully here ... I am not suggesting in any way, shape or form that summative assessments shouldn't matter ... they very much do.  But FOCUSING primarily on them misses the forest for the trees.

Dr. John Hattie (Professor and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne) asserts that our focus for every student should always be to achieve one year of growth for one year of time.  In other words, if we focus our total effort on the process of maximizing impact in the classroom, every student, no matter where he or she starts from, has the potential to achieve one year of growth in one academic year.

So, you might wonder, what factors have impact?  Great question.  It's a little complicated but to understand impact we need to understand something called "effect size" a quantitative measure of the magnitude of a phenomenon.  In Hattie's 2008 book, Visible Learning," he determines that an effect size of 0.4 is the statistical magnitude equivalent to one year of growth in one year of time.  If numbers and stats are not your hobby or profession, no worries ... just remember that 0.4 or greater is the effect size we want.  Effect sizes greater than 0.4 are golden nuggets and those below 0.15 are basically, according to some pretty extensive research, not worth the effort.  The chart below gives you a sense of how effect sizes work in regard to the various influences on student achievement.   

Now that we understand effect size, let's look at what influences educational outcomes the most and the least.  According to Hattie's exhaustive analysis of education research, here are a few of the items that have significant impact.  Remember 0.4 equals one year of growth for one year of time ...
  • Teacher estimates of student achievement (i.e. expectations) = 1.29 (desired effect)
  • Strategies that integrate students' prior knowledge = 0.93 (desired effect)
  • Transfer strategies (i.e. meta-cognition) = 0.86 (desired effect)
  • Teacher Clarity = 0.75 (desired effect)
And here is a sampling of items having the least impact according to educational research ...
  • Open vs. traditional classrooms = 0.01 (what students could achieve without schooling)
  • Students' control over teaching = 0.02 (what students could achieve without schooling)
  • Multi-age classrooms = 0.04 (what students could achieve without schooling)
  • Charter schools = 0.09 (what students could achieve without schooling)
Each year the list of influences identified in Hattie's research is published.  The effect sizes above are taken from the November 2017 edition of 250+ influences on student achievement.

What does it mean to be a learner in the Ross Valley School District?  It means our total effort must be focused on those known influences that provide the greatest impact, in pursuit of at least one year of growth for one year's time.  That is my expectation as Superintendent and why we ignore those influences that are known to be inefficient, ineffective and therefore not part of the genuine education we deliver at Brookside, Hidden Valley, Manor, Wade Thomas and White Hill.

I share Coach Wooden's enthusiasm for placing focus on the process, because that is what leads to real growth for every student ... the final score takes care of itself.

  • Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. routledge.
  • Wooden, J. R., & Jamison, S. (1997). Wooden: A lifetime of observations and reflections on and off the court. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

On Bullying - Then and Now

You have enemies?  Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”  Winston Churchill

When I was a kid I was bullied, a lot.  In third grade I was placed in a special education program for blind and visually impaired students.  The program was housed in a public elementary school located several miles from my home and my neighborhood friends. This meant they attended our local neighborhood school, while I was bused along with other students with various disabilities, to a neighborhood I did not know and where the kids did not know me.

Yes, I rode what some now refer to as “the short bus,” but that wasn’t what kids called it back then.  In those days they called it “the retard bus” and I rode it to and from school, every day, for six long years.

My memory of riding that bus is that it felt like the elementary school equivalent of having leprosy.  It didn't matter who you were, what talents you had, what clothes you wore or what kind of house you lived in ... the minute a kid stepped off that “special” bus in the morning, he/she became instantly labeled an inferior being, who deserved relentless mocking, teasing and harassment.  Like now, this treatment was often referred to as “bullying,” but adults dealt with it differently back then. They told me I needed to ignore it, that such treatment was part of growing up and “besides,” they’d say, “everyone gets bullied sooner or later."  The few times one of my tormentors was caught in the act by an adult and disciplined for his/her behavior, I'd be teased twice as much the next day. As a result, I learned it was best to deal with things myself and keep my mouth shut.

According to a 2003 publication by the California Department of Education, bullying is defined as,

"... a variety of hostile acts that are carried out repeatedly over time.  The acts involve a real or perceived imbalance of power, with the more powerful child or group attacking those who are less powerful."  

Bullying may be physical, verbal or psychological and in my case I suffered all three. The bullies would call me names, push, punch and kick me, take my things, make threats, band together with other bullies to intimidate me, and so forth.  The playground during recess and lunch was where the bulk of the bullying took place and though I developed numerous close friendships with others at school, these classmates were not much protection or defense from the regular and random targeting we all received from these ruthless rulers of the schoolyard. 

I more or less learned to live with the bullying I experienced, finding ways to compartmentalize it.  I did my best to ignore this dreaded behavior and in some cases that worked because the bully couldn't get a rise out of me.  In other cases I'd use humor to deflect or act like I didn't care. I learned to never let them see me sweat and whenever possible I'd avoid places and/or situations where I might get caught alone in a bully's path.

But something happened as time went by .... I grew bigger, stronger and ever-more determined to find a way to stop being a victim.

One day in seventh grade, two boys cornered me on the way to gym class, demanding the bag I carried containing my brand new gym clothes.  They circled around me, called me names and told me that if I didn't give them my gym clothes they would beat me up.  Other kids saw what was happening and started gathering around.  A circle formed, with everyone watching to see what would happen next.  A couple friends in the growing crowd shouted to the boys to leave me alone, but they ignored my friends' pleas.  I just stood there, saying and doing nothing.  One of the boys suddenly reached out and tried to grab my bag. I instinctively pulled it out of his reach and with my free hand, pushed the boy back.  I pushed him hard and he lost his balance, falling to the ground on his rear end and landing in a puddle. The crowd started to laugh and the next thing I knew, I was standing over the boy, fists clenched.  The other boy could have jumped me then and there, but for some reason he didn't move.  I wasn't paying attention to him anyway.  Instead, I just stood over the boy in the puddle and glared at him while he looked at me in total disbelief. To my great surprise, he got up and quickly walked away.  Even more surprising, his friend followed him!

I learned something about bullies that day.  I learned they do not like it when someone stands up to them.  Now, as a grown adult, I know standing-up to bullies diminishes their power and that's what bullies fear the most.  At twelve, all I knew was these two bullies backed down and left me alone.  I don't condone pushing someone and I'm not proud of the fact that, even at twelve, I couldn't come up with a better solution ... but I am proud of standing my ground for the very first time and not letting bullies take advantage of me.

Why am I sharing all of this and who cares about an ancient story that hasn't seen the light of day in decades?  Here's the thing.  

Eventually we all grow up and while some childhood bullies do stop their malicious and destructive behavior, others do not.  Childhood bullies who become adult bullies, continue trying to exert their power over others in selfish, mean, destructive and hurtful ways.  

As Superintendent of the Ross Valley School District (RVSD), I can speak of this adult bullying from personal, first-hand experience.  Our district has been the recipient victim of long-standing adult bullying that makes anything I experienced growing up pale by comparison.  If you know our community, you are very familiar with what I'm talking about.  If you are new to Ross Valley, check out this list of articles our local paper printed since 3/30/17 about our tiny, high performing district.  The point is, adult bullying of our Board of Trustees, me, our colleagues and those who came before us, is purposefully designed and intended to silence our community's voice, diminish our families' choice and disrupt our students' educational experience.  

This is why, today, just as I did when I was twelve years old, I choose not to play the bullies' game. A vast majority of our community feels the same way.  We are no longer quietly tolerating threats, name-calling, social injustices, unreasonable demands, personal attacks, hollow promises, revisionist history, newspaper hit pieces, smear blogs and phony pledges.  The bullies hate this and like all bullies who have lost their power, they aggressively lash out to obfuscate, rationalize, shift blame and endlessly play the “victim.”  Their goal is to win the minds and hearts of those who do not see them for who they really are, thereby regaining the power they poorly deserved but richly enjoyed.  

Child or adult, standing up to bullies is hard.  It takes patience, determination, grit, courage and a very thick skin.  But not allowing bullies to continue taking advantage of us, our children and future children, is worth every bit of the effort.  I’ve been standing up to bullies all my life, even when the odds were strongly in their favor.  It’s what I do and likely one of the reasons my path led to RVSD, where I'm so proud our community is speaking out, voting their confidence in genuine education and re-balancing the power in support of our truly public schools.