Distinguished Ideas 2015
June 1, 2015
William S. McKersie, Ph.D.
Last year to the day, I started what I hope will be an annual June tradition: raising up for all to see special essays written by our newest Distinguished Teachers. Each year, the Greenwich Public Schools honor six new Distinguished Teachers, selected by a committee of parents, administrators, teachers and past Distinguished Teachers from a pool of nominees put forward by parents and students. Well known now, the six Distinguished Teachers for 2015 are Cathy Byrne (Hamilton Avenue), Richard Crawford (Western), Luz Desrouilleres (Western), Maryann Franchella (GHS), Maryann Jagodzinski (North Street), and Diana Willie (Western).
The new Distinguished Teachers have the option to pursue being named by the Superintendent as the Greenwich Public School Nominee for Connecticut Teacher of the Year. The process of selecting the GPS nominee includes a classroom observation, review of a personal essay, and culminating interview. Four of this year’s six Distinguished Teachers are seeking the nomination and each has submitted the required essay.
The four Distinguished Teachers who submitted essays evidenced extra diligence at a time of the school year when every hour is hotly contested with obligations. As with last year, the pieces deserve a wider audience than the Superintendent. Each of the four teachers responded to the charge of writing about “current issues and trends in education,” but in just two pages. Robert Walsh, one of last year’s Distinguished Teachers, compared the task to “trying to recreate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a piece of chalk.” This year’s teachers mastered the challenge: their four essays present a set of Distinguished Ideas about excellence and compassion—the watchwords for all of us in the Greenwich Public Schools.
Parents as Partners for Students Success –
“In a world where there are so many negative influences on our students, we need our parents, more than ever, to support and nurture our students as they develop their potential. When we make parents realize how important they are to their child’s education we can begin to tackle the other problems facing us. Together, schools and families can overcome the often harmful impacts of poverty, lack of funding, and modern society.”
So writes Cathy Byrne in contending that education’s greatest challenges are best addressed by families and schools working arm-in-arm. Unfortunately, as Byrne notes with research to back her up, too few families are engaged deeply in their children’s school or with their studies at home. Byrne goes beyond lamenting; reaching into two decades of experience at Hamilton Avenue, she offers a series of ideas for promoting parent engagement, stressing that “it is the responsibility of schools to try to involve parents who seem hesitant and reluctant to be a part of their child’s education.”
Byrne argues that schools “must first understand the reasons parents are not involved,” which could include “scheduling conflicts, lack of transportation, language barriers, previous negative experience with schools, and cultural differences.” Byrne suggests that schools must increase parent involvement opportunities by “connecting families with those who can make them feel more comfortable.” She credits the PTA as a “powerful tool for reaching out to parents and educating them about the importance of being part of their child’s education.” Byrne underscores that outreach is particularly important in schools with a large number of minority students, families living in poverty, and those who do not speak English. Key for Byrne is having members of the least active groups serve as the lead recruiters, mentors and liaisons. Other approaches that matter: translation services; family events, both during the school day and in the evening; technology, especially Internet access, to provide parents easy information about their child’s attendance, grades, behavior, and upcoming school events; and direct instruction for families on how to talk to their child about school and what they are learning.
Ultimately, schools and families working together can ensure that all students have the opportunity to achieve Byrne’s vision: “Every child is a unique individual who has the potential to bring something exceptional to the world.”
A New Model for Education Funding –
According to Richard Crawford, “A major issue facing public education today is the ability of school districts to adequately fund their school buildings so that they can most effectively improve student outcomes.” Greenwich, as Crawford notes, has a wide range of student outcomes and a large mix of socio-economic backgrounds—with Free-and-Reduced lunch rates ranging from four percent in one middle school to 35 percent in another. The challenge Crawford finds is that “similar to national trends, schools in Greenwich with higher rates of socio-economically disadvantaged students tend to lag behind schools with lower rates.”
Drawing on his background in business and finance, Crawford suggests that one solution is to employ a “costfunction analysis model for distribution of funding,” which would help “identify and adequately fund initiatives that are most needed in each of our school buildings.” A cost-function analysis would base funding on adequacy rather than equity. Crawford explains cost-function analysis as using a statistical analysis of extensive student descriptive data (free and reduced lunch rates, English language learner rates, etc.) to correlate student performance with the funding required to meet specific growth goals.
“In my experience as an educator at a school with a wide range of student achievement and socio-economic backgrounds,” Crawford states, “cost-function analysis can be an extremely precise model for targeting funds.” He continues, “The model involves stakeholders at all levels and allows for opportunities to develop intervention strategies based on specific school-level needs. The ability to understand the entire student population and then focus funding where it is needed most offers the opportunity to test the success or failure of the funding. Once specific student populations have been identified, appropriate programs should be funded, implemented and tracked to see if growth has occurred.”
Regardless of the source of funding, Crawford concludes, it is critical that school districts are spending money thoughtfully so that improved outcomes can be achieved.
Decoupling the Common Core, High Stakes Testing and Teacher Evaluation –
Not mincing words, Maryann Franchella argues that “the interdependency of Common Core Standards, high stakes testing and teacher evaluation...negatively impacts the focus of classrooms today and therefore negatively impacts the students’ academic and social-emotional learning.” As a math teacher, Franchella believes that the Common Core Standards “are a valuable set of foci toward which the country should appropriately direct our attention.” She considers the mathematical practice standards a “useful way in which mathematics teachers nationwide can direct our classroom instruction...When we connect these Mathematical practices and those of English Language Arts and Literacy to the associated content in instruction, we are addressing our content using the creative and critical thinking that is necessary for success in the world today.”
Franchella’s concern is with the high stakes testing that has been developed to monitor student success with the Common Core Standards. She writes, “This one test is weighted too heavily for both the student’s promotion and the teacher’s evaluation.” The consequence will be “classrooms filled with test preparation [that] essentially replace the stimulating classroom environments where creative and critical thinking is promoted and flourishes. There will be no time available for the development of the processes that are required for all forms of thinking, the very thinking that the Common Core Standards promote.”
Franchella recommends: “In the immediate future, the links between testing and student promotion and between testing and teacher evaluation be discontinued until the current tests can be modified based on pilot administrations of the tests. New tests should be created that will monitor success on the Common Core Standards and give all students a fair chance to succeed. These tests should be created by groups of teachers and evaluated by groups of teachers so that the tests used can appropriately measure content, creativity and critical thinking in the ways we would like to teach it in our classrooms. When the final forms of the test are decided upon, the weight of the tests for student promotion and teacher evaluation should be decreased from their current levels.”
Francella concludes, “The newly created standardized tests will successfully measure student content knowledge and their creativity and critical thinking skills that were nurtured in the new classrooms, and students will exit our schools ready to succeed in today’s world.”
Finding a Better Balance between Academic Rigor and SEL –
Maryann Jagodzinski argues that we need “to achieve balance between social and emotional learning (SEL) and rigorous academics in the classroom.” She writes, “Youth of today are faced with numerous obstacles to overcome, all of which require not only intellect, but also emotional stability. Consideration must be given to social and emotional learning to prepare students to take on the growing demands of society. SEL promotes a nurturing and positive environment that is conducive to learning.”
Jagodzinski contends that, “with increasing pressure on performance on standardized tests tied to teacher evaluations, coupled with the weight of rigorous academic standards…the social and emotional component of student life is taking a direct strike.” Jagodzinski fears that key life skills will not be nurtured. Too much time is going to the preparation for and taking of tests, which is “hurting more than helping students in the long run.”
Jagodzinski writes, “It is important to consider what test scores do not tell you about students. They do not inform about the child who consistently comes to the assistance of a friend in need. Test scores do not inform of the many acts of kindness and thoughtfulness children do daily. They do not explain how a child’s laughter and personality brighten many students’ days. Nor do they reflect how well students are able to collaborate with one another and are great team members. Are students showing respect and empathy reflected in test scores? Although these characteristics and values are essential life skills, they are not echoed in test scores. Students need to be recognized for their social and emotional development as well as academic achievement.”
Jagodzinski closes her essay by quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build the youth for our future.” “[President Roosevelt’s vision] can only be accomplished,” Jagodzinski concludes, “if we prepare students for life success by providing them with an education that promotes the mastery of rigorous academic skills coupled with social and emotional learning that guides them to be respectful, responsible and empathetic members of society.”
Once again, our Distinguished Teachers have demonstrated that their expertise and dedication carry well beyond their daily teaching. The Distinguished Ideas conveyed in this year’s four essays cover a range of subjects, but are unified by critical inquiry and professional reflection. Written by exemplary teachers, the essays evidence a deep commitment to encouraging excellence and fostering compassion in all GPS students. Kudos to essayists Cathy, Richard, Maryann and Maryann (as well as to Diana and Luz, who I know share the devotion evidenced in the four essays).