COMMENTARY: Advice to the New School Board
By TED WARNER
February 3, 2014
On Wednesday, January 15, I drove back to Northampton County, across the increasingly overpriced Bay Bridge-Tunnel. I drove around Cape Charles, taking in the familiar streets, and eventually made my way to the Northampton County Public Schools Central Office in order to witness the swearing in ceremony of the county’s first elected school board.
For many of us, the ceremony marked the end of a long process which began several years ago.
Several hundred of us sat in the Old Middle School auditorium to express our outrage over the unceremonious dismissal of a popular high school principal. But there were only eight of us a few weeks later, facing that great, inevitable question: “What’s next?”
Over the next few months, we collaborated closely and struggled to develop a message that was respectful of a long litany of complaints about the state of our public schools, but was also forward-thinking, positive, and would ultimately lead to a positive change in the county. We recognized that the county’s public school administrators and School Board were not responding to needs of teachers, parents, and the community at large. For example, the county’s strategic plan addressed the topic of “community outreach” with only the ominously apathetic words “on going.” That, we felt, was not enough. So we began circulating a petition to create an elected (and not appointed) school board. The petition led to a referendum, which was overwhelming approved by the voting public in November 2012. Then we turned our attention to recruiting candidates for the School Board.
For my part, I was adamant that the candidates be subjected to public scrutiny and that they be asked to articulate an unwavering commitment to involving the expertise of teachers in their deliberations. I firmly believe that almost any problem in our schools can be better solved by a group of teachers, working in the classroom day in and day out, than by Central Office personnel or state-level officials in the Department of Education. Although I was there for every step of this story, I hope that this last point — that the teachers should be more respected — was my contribution.
After a series of public forums, of which the most productive was sponsored by the Northampton County Education Association, a professional association of Northampton’s teachers and support professionals, a group of candidates was selected. In November, the people elected their first school board.
When they raised their hands a week ago and took their oath of office, I hope they realized that although a long story had come to a triumphant conclusion, a new story was beginning. And that story begins with that same great, inevitable question: “What’s next?”
It saddens me that I will not be a part of answering that question. Shortly after the election in November, I accepted a position that required me to move out of the school system. My colleagues congratulated me warmly, and I was grateful for their support. As we all must, my decision to move on was responsible to my family obligations and respectful to the resignation process as defined by School Board policy. I certainly wish that Northampton County could have created the circumstances for me to remain.
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That said, when I think about “what’s next,” I want to take this occasion to pass on a few notes to the new School Board. Hopefully, those citizens that now entrust their children’s educations and those teachers who now entrust their livelihood to that Board, and even the Board itself, will find some value in these notes:
Every teacher wants to get better, even — and perhaps especially — good teachers. Because education is constantly evolving, professional development is part of the District’s calendar. However, days of professional development are often squandered. Ideally, administrators should take the time to discover what kinds of professional development teachers have found most rewarding in the past and attempt to cultivate similar programs. Research indicates that the most effective professional development is offered by teachers for teachers, and not, as is so often the case, by non-teaching “experts.” By respecting teachers as professionals, a climate of collaboration can be fostered. By treating teachers as wage-earners or cogs in a machine, a climate of resentment is fostered. I hope that the new School Board will ask building-level administrators to account for calendar days of professional development, and then compare that account to independently solicited feedback from teachers.
Standardized Testing, SOLs
No one in education disputes the value of standardized tests. They provide information about students and schools that is valuable and necessary. Standardized tests, however, have been deeply misunderstood and misutilized. Rather than inform, today they determine almost everything that happens in real practice. Of the nearly 40 SOLs that a student enrolling for the first time today will take in the course of her academic career, only about half are required by the Federal government. The rest are required on a State level. A robust school board, however, is capable of its own advocacy, especially when it communicates with other school boards. Helplessness has been an excuse for too long. I hope that the new School Board will assert itself and communicate to the State its dissatisfaction with the burden that SOLs place on our schools.
Standardized Testing, Benchmarks, and Data
Last year I counted and discovered that just under 20% of the year was consumed with some sort of standardized testing — that is, testing including and in addition to SOLs. One simple rejoinder to any inquiry about the quality of education in any county in the state is: “Well, we only get to teach about 80% of the school year.” Two things make this especially challenging in Northampton County. First, much of this testing is unnecessary. While I’m sure it is valuable to administrators as they prepare their reports, it certainly has no impact in the classroom (except to consume school days). When the results of a test are shared with teachers, it doesn’t translate into changes in instruction. And second, much of the testing is invalid. Northampton has a remarkable habit of switching the means of data collection midyear, often several times in a year, switching from one test to another to another. I hope that the new School Board will take a careful inventory of the standardized tests used in the District, eliminate those that can be eliminated, and make no changes throughout the school year. And of course, that is a conversation that will be enriched by soliciting input from teachers.
Community and Family
There has been a longstanding assumption that the quality of a community determines the quality of its schools. Rich counties certainly tend to have better schools. But there are plenty of examples to the contrary. Northampton was one such example in the not-too-distant past. In fact, compelling research now suggests that the quality of a school has more of an impact on the community than vice versa. Likewise, when it comes to the individual student, research suggests that there is an almost perfect correlation to long-term academic success and “family involvement,” however vague a term that might be. To this end, Northampton needs to commit itself to involving families and communities. This is not a simple task. It requires leadership, charisma, vision, and dedication. Partnerships with local civic groups, businesses, and churches should be cultivated. Teachers should be supported when they attempt to sponsor after-school programs. School Board members and Central Office administrators should conduct themselves as civic leaders. I hope that the new School Board will recognize this important issue and take the lead with concrete plans.
There’s an old joke: “I’ve been a teacher now for eight years. So, hopefully, if everything goes well, next year, maybe, I’ll be able to buy a bookcase.” Everyone knows that teachers don’t earn anywhere near what they deserve. This is not the occasion to bemoan that fact. But Northampton does need to realize that many of its teachers have had to wait until payday to get their power turned back on, have had their water turned off, have to rent rooms at discounted rates from friends, have to carpool, and cannot afford the common luxuries of new shoes. Northampton County offers a strange geographic isolation which many people cherish, but also places further economic demands on teachers who have come to Northampton to teach. Moreover, Northampton County’s cost of living is high. (Small example: my heating bill was pushing $130 in Northampton, and is now down around $25.) I hope that the new School Board will take an interest in the real lives of their teachers and advocate to the Board of Supervisors on their behalf.
School Discipline and Dress Code
These were important issues in recent years in Northampton. It seemed that students were being treated inconsistently, and dangerous behaviors were going unpunished. Partly, this is an interpretation based on low confidence in administration. Moreover, both the Student Code of Conduct and the Dress Code in Northampton are painfully complex, lengthy documents. It is ultimately naive to imagine that every possible behavior or variation of dress can be anticipated in writing. These documents should be drafted in terms of principles which rely upon judgment and reason, rather than eliminate the place of considered decisions and common sense conclusions about student conduct. I hope that the new School Board will draft and support new documents and have the courage to support teachers and administrators in implementing them.
Online Learning and Summer Programs
Virtual Virginia is a means by which students can earn high school credits by taking online classes. Its stated purpose suggests that these online classes exist when there is a lack of availability, as in the case of an AP Art History course, or scheduling conflicts. However, many divisions use Online Learning as a substitute for traditional classrooms for students with challenging behavior or low performance. Thus, an individual student who struggles with math can choose to be disruptive until he or she is allowed to leave the classroom on a permanent basis and merely take the course online. This undermines discipline. It also does not help students learn math. Students enrolled in Virtual Virginia almost never take classes in the presence of a teacher expert in the subject at hand. Also, there is considerable research that suggests that online programs like Virtual Virginia are more costly than paying teachers for their instruction. This suggests that there is something to the suspicion that Virtual Virginia is really about diverting money away from localities and towards large, for-profit education companies. Moreover, Virtual Virginia does not contain any pacing requirements, meaning that a student can do almost no work online for months without anyone noticing. Virtual Virginia is a way that Northampton can hand out cheap, unearned credits to students in a cynical attempt to improve graduation numbers. Northampton’s summer school is similarly motivated. I hope the new School Board will take steps to eliminate the use of Virtual Virginia and similar online programs, and institute a broad repurposing and redesign of summer school.
One of the most important functions of a school is to provide a safe place for students after school hours. Many students don’t have a place to go. At present, some teachers stay behind, without pay, because they care and because they value a few extra hours with students. These hours, however, are poorly managed and poorly organized, primarily because no administrator is singularly responsible for these hours. To me, this is a quick fix. I hope that the new School Board will investigate and invest in a strong after-hours program.
To the Heart of the Matter
In 2011, when I was looking for a teaching position in Virginia, I asked each of the principals with whom I interviewed a simple question. I asked: “What’s your theory of leadership?” One principal responded, “I’m sure you’re an experienced teacher, but my job is to show you the problems in your practice and I expect you to be receptive to my leadership.” I politely declined that offer of employment. When Jimmy Conrow answered, “My job is to support you in any way I can,” I happily accepted. It’s fitting to invoke Mr. Conrow’s name; he is, after all, a part of the story. I mention it because his theory of leadership is exactly correct. Leaders often feel that their performance is measured by the absence of guilt, and so they are quick to point out the shortcomings of their employees. Remember, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. At the end of the day, these leaders feel that they are off the hook if there are others they can accuse. Teachers can tell disturbing stories about being called into meetings in order to be told what they’re doing wrong and not how to do it right and to sign demeaning letters of reprimand. This, I would argue, is the defining character of the climate in Northampton. It’s a climate that discourages participation, innovation, communication, and accomplishment. “What can I do to improve this school?” has been replaced with “I hope I don’t get fired.” Mr. Conrow’s theory of leadership is exactly the opposite. It supposes that teachers are hard-working, expert professionals. It places the relationship between the teacher and the student at the center of the educational system. Orbiting around that relationship, supporting and improving that relationship, are administrators and bureaucracy. I hope that the new School Board will recognize that this is the only way that education can work.
There is nothing left to say — except, “what’s next?”
Ted Warner until last November was a teacher at Northampton High School and president of Northampton County Education Association.
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