President Obama writes to GA middle school principal

President Obama writes to GA middle school principal

I love to see when our educators have so much pride in their schools and their kids. And even better when people of importance take notice. Brian Suits, principal at Dalton Middle School completed an application for GA Principal of the year – and he won for 2015-2016. He applied because he wanted to promote the success his school has had such as improving tests scores and overcoming a bad economy that had put many of his students into poverty. When he won, he believed that he would be going to Washington DC, as each winner had in the years prior. This year, GA sent only one representative and it was the GA High School Principal of the Year.

Suits was upset because he had told he his students he was going to go to Washington DC. Instead of disappointing them, he wrote letters to express his thoughts – to Governor Deal, to the National Association of Secondary Principals, GA state superintendent and President Obama. He didn’t mail them at first, and as he edited them they became less about his opportunity to go to Washington and more about the successes his school had accomplished. Over the summer, he decided to mail the letters, after yet another school tragedy.

While the White House receives over 20,000 letters per day, Suits letter made it in the daily 10 letter pile to the President.  And the President wrote back.

suits_and_letterr

Suits letter mentioned just some of the things happening at his school:

He wrote about Luis Orozco, now a freshman at Dalton High, who picked up garbage after his wrestling match so the custodians wouldn’t have to stay late.

He wrote about a receptionist they tutored so she could get her U.S. citizenship.

He wrote about a student who asked if Suits could be “sort of be like his dad” since he was living with a single mother.

He wrote about climbing tests scores and becoming the first Literacy Collaborative middle school in the United States.

Suits also mentioned Dalton Middle School’s groundbreaking sensory room (there are only around 10-12 of these rooms in schools around the nation) — a room designed to calm and sooth autistic children when they have an outburst.

Suits talks about the response to the President’s letter:

On Sept. 11, Suits was going through his mail when he came to a large envelope from the White House. As Suits read the letter, he realized it wasn’t just a form letter. Obama himself had actually read his letter.

“He mentioned kids’ names and things I said in the letter,” Suits said.  “I’m shocked he even read it.”

Suits told the teachers and students who had designed the sensory room that the president had mentioned their work in his letter. “They got very emotional. One teacher teared up,” said Suits.

Both Robertson and Ross said they called their parents to tell that their work had been mentioned by the president of the United States. “Out of millions of people, he knows us,” said Ross.

“It’s crazy because the president knows about me. He knows what I did at school and knows about my work,” Robertson said.

Suits also made a trip to Dalton High to show Orozco the letter.

“When I got to the part where his name is, his eyes teared up. He said, ‘He knows my name,’” said Suits.

An excellent quote from Suits letter applies to all schools: “Our kids are underestimated at every turn, but they have so, so much to teach us. We just need to value their voices, and listen.”

Over-exaggeration from TRAGIC

Over-exaggeration from TRAGIC

Last week the group TRAGIC –Teachers Rally Against Georgia Insurance Changes shared their thoughts with Governor Deal’s Education Reform Commission on potential changes to teacher pay models. 

TRAGIC

I have a few qualms with some of their statements:

These are the teachers whose voices have been silenced for the most part on the work of the Education Reform Commission by the direct exclusion of professional education organizations from the commission. I speak for all of these educators today, since lawmakers are not asking professional educators who are currently in classrooms, nor the parents of children who are attending public schools for any suggestions on how to improve education.

I thought there might be a case to say that educators weren’t being included in the commission. Granted, maybe unofficial teacher associations weren’t included but that doesn’t mean that educators aren’t on the commission. Maybe there aren’t individuals with TRAGIC’s specific point of view, but you can’t say that “lawmakers are not asking professional educators who are currently in classrooms.”

K-12 Educator related commission members:

Robert Avossa Superintendent Fulton County Schools
Kent Edwards Superintendent Carrolton City Schools
Hannah Heck Attorney, Vice Chair and Founding Board Member Westside Atlanta Charter School
Kylie Holley Principal/Superintendent Pataula Charter Academy
Noris Price Superintendent Baldwin County Schools
Elizabeth Rhodes Retired Teacher Educators First
Will Schofield Superintendent Hall County Schools
Anthony Townsend Principal Locust Grove Middle School, Henry County
Alvin Wilbanks Superintendent Gwinnett County Schools
Pam Williams 2011 Georgia Teacher of the Year Appling County High School

Could you have more teachers on the list? Sure. But its incorrect to state that educators aren’t represented.

Any pay scale that fails to incentivize experience and education can only be construed as an attempt to drive teachers out of the profession before they reach retirement.  While the state budget might benefit from paying fewer retirement benefits and lower health-care costs from fewer retirees, the children of Georgia will certainly not benefit from a revolving door of teachers.

Any pay scale that ONLY considers experience and education can only be construed as an attempt to play the role of employment agency to potentially ineffective teachers – which take valuable learning days away from students everyday when they provide ineffective instruction.

The teaching crisis that is just now being seen in Georgia is a result of fewer teachers entering the profession, and is also a result of more teachers leaving Georgia’s schools.  You must have a mix of new and experienced teachers in every school.  New teachers bring energy, vitality, and new ideas to education, while veteran teachers bring wisdom, experience, and knowledge gained through years of interacting with children.

Maybe fewer teachers are entering the profession because the “veteran” teachers who we can’t confirm are even effective, are holding up all the jobs. There are hundreds of thousands of education professionals who can’t get a job because of nepotism and no open positions. I believe most new teachers are interested in learning from effective veteran teachers, but I can’t say I know many veteran teachers who are willing to learn about the new ideas and strategies the new teachers are bringing in.

 

How do we get to a fair funding formula?

Jarod Apperson recently wrote a response to one of Maureen Downey’s articles about the new proposed teacher salary model. He is a graduate of NYU in both finance and accounting, Apperson is pursing a doctorate in economics at Georgia State University, focusing on education data analysis. He writes the Grading Atlanta blog and serves on the board of the public, non-profit charter Kindezi Schools.

Having a focus on education data analysis and Ph.D. in economics I would ask Jarod what he thinks would be an acceptable new funding formula. Maybe he has made a recommendation and I have missed it?

Maureen agrees with Jarod in this synopsis of his comments:

It makes no sense to rely on the Legislature for a deep-dive reform of education. Lawmakers have neither the expertise to address what are complex questions nor the ability to respond with agility and accuracy to the fast-changing education landscape, witnessed by the fact the funding formula they’re attempting to revise goes back three decades.

Jarod describes the current formula this way:

Our current funding system, introduced in 1985, is complicated but the crux of it can be boiled down to this:  about 63 percent of the money earned is based on needs of the students served while 37 percent of the money is driven by characteristics of the teachers employed, incentivizing schools to hire teachers who fit certain profiles that the state deems more valuable.

A state-level incentive structure makes sense if legislatures are incentivizing schools to do things that lead to greater achievement, but it is inefficient if the state is incentivizing things that don’t work.

The evidence suggests that Georgia’s Legislature is not very good at prescribing education approaches, and the current incentive structure implemented by the state does not align with what we know about the relative value of training and experience.

His demonstration of the legislature incentivizing things that do not lead to greater student achievement is how the pay scale jumps greatly for advanced degrees, but takes a teacher with a bachelor’s degree 14 years to make the same as a teacher with an advanced degree and no teaching experience. He recommends that we reward years of experience over the advanced degree also in an effort to retain our teachers.

For example, there is clear evidence teacher experience matters, and year-to-year improvements are particularly dramatic early in a teacher’s career. A fifth-year teacher is substantially more effective than a rookie.

If the state’s incentive structure were strategic, it would give teachers large raises in the first five years. Instead, Georgia teacher earnings grow a paltry $2,036 over that period, or about 1.5 percent a year. That’s measly compared to the early-career salary growth seen in other skilled professions like technology, accounting or engineering.

Rather than paying teachers substantially more as they gain valuable early-career experience, the state offers huge incentives for something that does not lead to greater student achievement: advanced degrees.

In Georgia, it takes 14 years for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree to reach the starting salary of someone with zero experience and a specialist degree.  This emphasis on advanced degrees over experience is not strategic. It doesn’t benefit students and doesn’t make teaching a more attractive profession. Instead, the only real winners from this scheme are the degree-granting institutions that collect tuition from Georgia’s teachers.

Funding formulas are a problem all over the country. Some legislatures, like in Massachusetts, don’t want to admit that they haven’t met their own benchmark for funding schools because of the automatic infusion of cash required to fix it. So they make little tweaks to get by, but won’t commit to really fully funding schools.

The one thing I will say for Massachusetts that I don’t believe Georgia does, is MA adjusts its state contribution based on a formula of what the LEA can pay. In Worcester, the state paid ~75% of the total LEA budget. But in other LEA’s where the city could pay more of their share, the state paid a smaller % (and because the communities were affluent the cities contributed funds over the budgeted amount). It appears that in DeKalb County, the state contributes closer to 30% of the costs to run the school system and the county has to make up the remaining 70%.

It also sounds like the state is in a catch 22 where I assume the legislators want to see progress before they contribute more funding, but the schools are trying to say they need more funding to demonstrate progress.

 

 

Having the right principal in place is as important as retention

Maureen Downey wrote this article this week about whether we are focusing enough on principal quality. The references she makes refer to who to retain principals and how busy the job is.

From my experience in DeKalb County, it’s been less about how to keep good principals and more about what to do about the really awful ones? No one seems to fire teachers….not sure what that is about. Last year there was a great uproar over the Principal at Southwest DeKalb HS. She was simply transferred to another school (so she can torment another whole set of parents, students and staff?). Avondale Elementary School had an awful principal for almost 10 years. That principal was the reason the Museum Charter School was created. That principal finally left at the end of 2013-2014 school year. The new principal is fantastic, and I am not concerned about him staying because he is building great roots in the community.

I’m concerned about the lack of principal accountability by regional superintendents and the shuffling of principals to other schools when they probably should be fired. Why can’t we fire principals? For a non union state, sure seems like those protections are in place – that or extreme nepotism!

I know that DeKalb Schools recently received grant money to support training and accountability for regional superintendents who supervise our principals. Looks like I’ll need to check in on that and see what progress has been made.

Another issue that Maureen doesn’t bring up regarding the role of principals and turnover is the being principal is an administrator role vs an educator role. It’s more commonly accepted that principals spend time teaching before they become a principal. While that experience is truly helpful in understanding the teaching side of the school business, it does not really assist with the business side of the school. Managing staff, outside relationships, parents, all the administrative work, budgeting – the business side of the job is often more difficult for principals who haven’t had a great deal of complementary experience.

Three of the World’s smartest teens from Georgia

Three of the World’s smartest teens from Georgia

This FB post came across my newsfeed and I had to read it.

teen triple majors at Morehouse

It’s amazing that a teenager can get three majors at Morehouse College and graduate from Medical School by the age of 22. And his picture looks so young! I’m impressed – and from Georgia! We spend a great deal of time talking about how we often aren’t meeting our kids educational needs, it’s good to see our successes. Here is Stephen R. Stafford II’s story from the World’s 50 Smartest Teens from 2013:

You will find Stephen R. Stafford II’s Facebook page fascinating enough. While many teens his age are skimping homework for Facebook time, Stephen is earning credits toward his triple major — pre-med, computer science, and mathematics — at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Stephen started at Morehouse College at 11 years of age because his mother, who was homeschooling him, could not keep up with his potential. The college student is also a talented classical pianist; he began to play the piano at the age of two.

When asked about his exceptional abilities, the teen replies: “I’m just like any other kid. I just learn very, very quickly.”

Due to a Georgia law which requires a student to be 16 to graduate from high school, Stephen will receive his high school diploma one year before he receives his college degrees. The talented teen intends to go on to Morehouse’s School of Medicine, specializing in obstetrics and infertility.

He should graduate from medical school when he is 22.

Here are two more stories of awesome GA students:

Sitan “Stan” Chen, 17, Georgia, USA

In 2011, Sitan Chen won third prize, a modest $40,000, in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology for research that advanced studies in mathematical graphs and how computers multi-task data.

The 2011 win followed Sitan’s win in 2010 at the same competition. Sitan managed a team which shared the $20,000 prize for solving a math challenge which reportedly stumped mathematicians for 70 years. His double win set a record for Sitan as the first student in the 13-year history of the event to receive back-to-back Siemens Competition national awards.

He is also a talented violinist and pianist; he performed at Carnegie Hall not once, but six times. Sitan said he sees music as “a form of problem solving.” He adds: “It’s a chance to tackle challenges related to technique, structure, and interpretation using creativity and intellectual rigor, and at the same time, it’s a way to communicate what words cannot.”

Sitan is currently a freshman at Harvard studying economics and math. He’s a member of the Harvard Glee Club and an analyst in the Harvard College Consulting Group, providing consulting services for businesses, non-profit organizations, and student groups.

Sitan wants to become a university professor.

Erin King, 19, Georgia, USA

When Erin King, then a senior at Columbus High School, received her early acceptance letter to MIT, the college issued a challenge to the class of 2016: Try to “hack” your admission letters. However, they advised the future freshmen not to break into any of MIT’s secure networks, even though most of the newly accepted students probably knew how or could figure out how to do it.

Erin explained: “At MIT, hacking is basically performing a prank or just doing something really cool and unexpected.”

Erin had been active for years in her high school’s balloon launch research club. She is also a seasoned ham, or amateur, radio person and knew she could relay the balloon’s coordinates from a vehicle below. She had a “hacking” strategy: Send her acceptance letter into space or close as possible to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere.

Her “hack” worked. Erin’s capsule containing the acceptance letter was fully loaded with a camera and tracking devices and touched down safely near her intended landing site, after reaching a maximum altitude of 91,000 feet (~17.2 miles). She had fun celebrating her admission and, Erin stated: “The project ended up getting a lot more publicity than I anticipated.”

Erin is definitely a ham: She has achieved the level of Extra, the highest distinction in ham radio operation and named the 2012 Amateur Radio Newsline‘s Young Ham of the Year.

Oh, yeah, Erin is also a robotics enthusiast, a cat lover, and a certified scuba diver.

Today, Erin is a sophomore at MIT where she studies computer science and electrical engineering. She is happy that she was able to bring Maui, her cat, along with her, since MIT has a few cat-friendly dorms.

The one other thought that comes to my mind is that, maybe I could have had a chance to be one of these great students. Or, if I had even half the encouragement, or half to counseling from my counselor – maybe I could have been farther than I am now. It reminds me that there is so much more to accomplish. And that every child deserves the opportunity to have the encouragement and resources to reach their full potential. It’s why I work in school counseling.

Here’s a great note to end the list of the 50 smartest teens:

If you are under 21, you still have a chance to make this list or one like it, one day. Here are a few suggestions to bring out your genius and inspire you to greatness:

  • Mensa International, http://www.mensa.com: Try out some of the tests on their website to see how you compare to others

  • Get involved with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) activities at your high school; join a local math or science team to participate in science fairs, tournaments, and olympiads

  • Seek out advanced placement (AP) courses and other ways of challenging your mind and natural abilities

  • Do you have a specific passion, hobby, or talent? Look for ways to stretch your interests, develop your skills, and compete with talented people

Changes to school wide performance grading

I’m not sure where the healthy medium is between adjusting grading measures to be as far and accurate as possible and when we have made so many grading changes that no one can tell what level any schools are performing at.

AJC writer Ty Tagami reports that the Georgia Board of Education voted unanimously Friday to amend the “weights” used in calculating school performance, downplaying raw test achievement in favor of “growth” in the state’s report card for schools and school districts.

By basing the schoolwide grades on growth vs actual test scores (as much) it should help some schools that dont have high scores but are making progress. Odd thing is that this might actually decrease some scores for higher performing schools because they don’t have as much growth to report (because they already have so many high performing students.) One day we may figure this out!

But the new changes in the school report card are expected to reshuffle rankings for other reasons: Schools with large numbers of low-income students, since they tend to score lower on achievement tests, will likely move up while traditionally high-achieving schools will probably take a hit. That’s because achievement, which counted for 60 percent of CCRPI until now, will count for 50 percent next time. Meanwhile, “progress” — a complicated measure of where each student performed relative to academically similar peers, will count for 40 percent. Until now, that measure, often referred to as growth, was only a quarter of the report card.

The new scoring system also downplays the importance of closing the achievement gap for at-risk groups, dropping the weight in that category from 15 percent to 10 percent.

These new changes are the latest sign of the diminishing influence of raw test scores on schools’ perceived performance. In the recent past, achievement counted for 70 percent of the CCRPI measure.

This will readjust the scores that are being used to determine which schools would be eligible for the opportunity school district which will be on the ballot for voters in 2016 – if not taken down with lawsuits first.

Unsupported comments on OSD

Unsupported comments on OSD

This week I attended a launch meeting of the Delta Teacher Efficacy Campaign, a collaboration aimed at enhancing student academic achievement by focusing on helping educators. I ended up arriving half way through, but made it in time for the Q & A session. The panelists were Valarie Wilson, head of GA School Board Association; Tyler Barr – head of GA PTA, and Dr. Beasley who is a DeKalb Schools administrator.

Interestingly, the Opportunity School District legislation was a hot topic. It was the first question asked of the panelists.

©Depositphotos.com/Margaret Paynich

©Depositphotos.com/Margaret Paynich

Valarie Wilson stated on behalf of the GA School Board Association that they oppose OSD in part because it doesn’t state how they are going to help the schools get better and its all about money and procedure.

They asked how many people knew about OSD and only a few hands raised. They kept encouraging folks to read the legislation.

She spoke about how they were working to get schools of the OSD eligibility list. I keep asking “Why did we need to have this proposed legislation to start working on things those schools needed to be done?” and now I am thinking, are we going to stop helping those schools get better after they “get off the list”?

She said that the schools aren’t really failing and its just a scare tactic for shock value to push the legislation. Hmm, that’s a first one I’ve heard. What would you consider failing Ms. Wilson? I think the district clearly has enough problems that failing might be the right way to characterize. Besides, when you don’t admit to what’s wrong with the schools, we also aren’t fixing them.

At the end of the forum I asked two questions: Why now, to help those schools “get off the list,” and if you are such an advocate of equity of school funding – why are you against OSD?

Valarie claims that the work was being done already and that this is just a formal way of recognizing it. She didn’t answer my equity question but did go on to talk about how more affluent communities should be more accepting of funds flowing from their communities to the more at risk communities. However, using school funds to give to state determined failing schools to make them better isn’t the exact same thing???

Beasley said that the Governor doesn’t have any interest in helping our schools and they we, the community and school department have the ability to help our schools. So….WHY haven’t you been doing it??

I have yet to find a legitimate reason not to go forward with the OSD.