For the past few years I thought budget cuts and diminishing resources were going to make me want to leave my position as principal. As the years went on, and I became more ingrained in my school community, I worried that testing and accountability were going to send me over the edge...but our staff, students and parents always made me focus on the big picture. Testing was the worst part of the job but it wasn’t the only part. There were far better reasons to stay.
School communities are just that strong. They can make an impact...not just on the students but on those who work with the students. The worst day in a great school community is better than the best day somewhere else.
In Queensbury, NY where I was raised, I thought my teachers were the most important people on earth. There were only two greater people, and they were my parents. I couldn’t help but put my teachers on a pedestal. They were smart, accomplished and respected. Something that isn’t said enough of teachers these days.
Even though I struggled in school (i.e. retention, low grades, barely graduating from high school, etc.), public education was something my family respected. It was the center of our conversations at dinner. It was where people called me “Pete.”
As much as I respect public education, I think schools can be better. We all should focus on continuous improvement. That means different things for different schools. There is no ONE size that fits all. I don’t think beating teachers and principals into submission with test scores are the way to do it. I’d prefer to focus on teaching and learning instead. I’m not a fan of carrot and stick, heavy-handed accountability to make change. I would rather work with others to inspire it.
Which is why I am taking a leave from my position as principal in December to work with schools around North America on John Hattie’s Visible Learning approach.
New Zealand born Dr. John Hattie wrote Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement in 2008 (Routledge). He focuses on what works and what does not work in the classroom. He’s a bit of a controversial myth-buster because he forces us to question practices we hold true. Read a recent blog about him here.
For example, Hattie believes effective feedback has an enormous influence on student learning, as does student autonomy. Formative teacher evaluation, acceleration and direct instruction have a positive impact as well. However he says that ability grouping, grade retention and homework do not, which probably doesn’t surprise many of you.
Hattie delves into every facet of education that you can think of, and even talks about how testing can have a positive impact. Don’t get all excited corporate reformers...
He believes testing is important, and has the data to show that it has a medium standard error. Unfortunately for reformers, he’s not referring to state testing because when we look to state assessments, it is not productive at all.
Hattie says, “This (testing) is only effective if there is feedback from the tests to teachers such that they modify their instruction to attend to the strengths and gaps in student performance” (p. 178). In many states teachers don’t have that benefit so testing really isn’t useful for them or their students.
My mentor Jim Butterworth always asked us if we were going deep enough in our learning. Hattie forces us to go deeper, and I respect that, which is why I am taking a leap of faith.
For more about John Hattie see this video.
In the End
For the last seven years I have been the Principal of Poestenkill Elementary School (PES) in the Averill Park Central School District (outside of Albany, NY). PES is a very special place, as is the rest of Averill Park. It’s kind of like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
Don’t get me wrong, we have seen our share of hardships. From the personal tragedies we sometimes experience in life to the professional tragedies like budget cuts, school consolidations and increased testing and accountability. Even with all of these issues, we may come through it bruised and battered but we are always more together. Averill Park is a strong place.
My staff, students and families are the best in the world. I know many school leaders probably think that about their school community, but PES is a place that has changed my life.
More important to me than anything in my professional world, is lifelong learning and continuous improvement. As a former struggling learner, I guess I now have a thirst for learning because it was dormant in me for so long. I hope the Finding Common Ground blog will grow because of the work that I do, the people that I meet, and the places I see. I always talk about taking risks, and not being afraid of failure...and now I’m walking the talk.
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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.