Is the NYC School System Idling in Neutral?

Have you ever coached a kid sports team? a dance group? a band or orchestra?  Kids vary widely in talent and the effort they put into getting better. As a coach, you try and hone your coaching skills; maybe you use the camera on your phone to show the kids their footwork or instrument fingering.  You may take a coaching course; what are the most effective exercises for the kids to practice?   I coached soccer and took a US Soccer Federation Coaching License course; each session was 1.5 hours in the classroom with film and 1.5 hours in the gym or on a field, it was rigorous; and only for the “D” license.

We played in the Metropolitan Soccer League; we were the only “American” team, the only non-ethnic team. We probably got cursed at in many, many different languages; our kids played hard, they were pretty good. Some kids went on to play in high school and college, for most it was just fun, and, our parents weren’t as passionate as the Gottchee, Greek Americans, Gjoa or the Brooklyn Italian parents.

God, in her wisdom didn’t distribute talent equally, to kids, or, coaches.

Some kids weren’t the most gifted but they made up for it in effort; conversely other kids with “natural” talent never responded to coaching.

On the other hand I didn’t go beyond the “D” license, I’d like to think my coaching skills would have improved.

As teachers we know that our effectiveness varies from period to period from day to day, we’re constantly shuffling through that tool kit trying to find that right tool, that right motivation to connect with our kids.

If you’re at the top of the pyramid you look for that big “idea” that will jumpstart education across the nation, you’re a big R reformer.

No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, Charters, Choice, VAM, the list goes on and on, and as the big R Reforms run out of gas we’re pretty much where we started; and, the new guy/gal at the apex begins again.

School districts are no different and tend to be para-military organizations, the leader issues an order, a regulation, and down the ranks the troops, the teachers, salute, close their doors and continue to do  what they’ve been doing; whether effective or not.

I’m a small r reformer. School district leaders belong in school buildings, not necessarily to observe teachers; they belong in schools to talk to teachers, to ask them questions, to relate, to motivate the staff, to include the staff in the decision-making process, to create a district-wide culture, and to foster a community.

How many teachers get to talk with the superintendent? How many superintendents are regular presences in schools? How many run faculty conferences in schools?

At a faculty conference a teacher complained to the superintendent about the Frameworks used to assess teacher performance. The superintendent challenged the staff  “Design your own ‘Principals of Effective Teaching,’ vote on it and I’ll adopt it as the teacher assessment instrument for your school.” I was impressed: I asked whether he would adopt it for the entire district?  “No, what I’m happy about is a staff spending months deeply engaged in discussing the key question: what constitutes effective teaching?”

In New York City the current “innovation” is to add another layer of leadership, executive superintendents, pushing the leadership a layer away from classrooms.

Aside from the Affinity District (Read description here) the remainder of New York City is 32 geographic preK – 8 districts and high school districts, about forty superintendents, a team of executive superintendents and chancellor’s staff: A classic model

The top-down structure has rarely worked well; schools are not Starbucks or McDonalds; they are separate franchises with distinctly different cultures.

For example the formula by which funds are allocated to schools, created in 2007 is called Fair Student Funding, a classic example of an oxymoron; the formula is far from fair.  Schools that serve “truly disadvantaged” students should receive greater, targeted funding. Yes, class size matters, significantly reducing class size in early childhood grades would allow teachers to work closely with the “truly disadvantaged” students. The “A Better Picture of Poverty” report from the Center for NYC Affairs has a more nuanced and targeted formula.

A classic example of how large urban school districts react is the current Edustats Plan, hailed by the mayor in his State of the City speech and the chancellor,

Kids in low achieving schools take a diagnostic-prescriptive test with quick turnaround time, identify kids’ deficiencies and re-teach the particular skill. Of course we’ve been doing that for decades.

If you want to change outputs you have to change inputs.

If a kid fails to master a skill and you teach the skill over again why would you think the kid would master the skill the second time around?

A devastating article in Education Week;

Question: What activity is done by most teachers in the United States, but has almost no evidence of effectiveness in raising student test scores?

 Answer: Analyzing student assessment data.

This practice arose from a simple logic: To improve student outcomes, teachers should study students’ prior test performance, learn what students struggle with, and then adjust the curriculum or offer students remediation where necessary. By addressing the weaknesses revealed by the test results, overall student achievement would improve.

“My own recent experiences visiting schools imply this trend continues.”

 Yet understanding students’ weaknesses is only useful if it changes practice. And, to date, evidence suggests that it does not change practice—or student outcomes. Focusing on the problem has likely distracted us from focusing on the solution.

New York City is spending countless millions on a practice which evidence shows us has “almost no evidence of effectiveness.”

So, if the best path is changing practice why don’t we initiate professional development to encourage changing practice?

Unfortunately the “solution” is to pay a provider to provide professional development.

How many hundreds of hours have you spent sitting in professional development sessions? Were you a passive listener? Did it make you into a better teacher?  a better principal? How do you know it?

Were you ever asked? “What kind of professional development would like us to provide?”

Principals are repeatedly pulled out of school for training, for professional development, and,  a recent study by the highly regarded agency paints a depressing picture,

The study showed the program, “encouraged principals to conduct frequent classroom observations and document what teachers and students did and said in the classroom using a nonjudgmental, fact-based approach.” According to the report, observations and feedback were a major part of the program.

Herein lies part of the problem. Instructional leadership is more than just observations and feedback. 

Is It Time to Expand the Meaning of Instructional Leadership?

So often it seems as though people believe instructional leadership is about one-sided monologue where principals walk into classrooms and tell teachers what they need to improve upon when it comes to instruction. That is a very narrow and misguided focus. 

When looking at the research behind instructional leadership,, “The more leaders focus their influence, their learning, and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their likely influence on student outcomes.” 

Instructional leadership is about how those in a leadership position focus on learning with teachers and students.

However, that focus on learning is not one-sided. The observations and feedback that take place are a small part of a much larger picture that should not be one-sided, and we need a more holistic approach. Instructional leadership is about creating dialogue between parties of leaders and teachers where they learn from one another.

 Most professional development is a one-time session. The literature on effective PD is clear, tradition

* Traditional PD treats teachers as passive learners

* Traditional PD is a mile wide and an inch deep

*Traditional PD involves no ongoing support from an instructional expert

* Traditional PD isn’t tailored to individual problems of practice

* Traditional PD doesn’t create space for teachers to reflect on their practice.

If the “solutions” are widely known, why hasn’t New York City adopted them: it’s a question of culture.

Generals like polishing their stars, not mixing with the privates.

One response to “Is the NYC School System Idling in Neutral?

  1. idling in neutral would be a welcome change from the Cromagnian approach taken by this Mayor and his sorry excuse of a Chancellor. BTW, when you have something that works, don’t you want to make more rather then devalue what you have. I couldn’t believe my ears when I hear that Seattle and several other northwest cities are abandoning Talented and Gifted Education, because they find it embarrassing that pupil attendance is virtually non inclusive of children of color. I mean, it was always my belief that unless proven otherwise, all our children are talented and gifted, and its up to teachers and Principals who have the vision and the know how to model their instructional delivery in such a way so as to enrich all of our children’s learning experience. In Seattle, it begs the question, what kind of teaching is going on in their public schools?


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