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Allison Gaines Pell

Allison Gaines Pell

is the founding principal of the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts & Letters and a public school parent. Read Allison's posts in Principal's Perspective.

I have learned in my job as principal to be humble about the things I think I know for sure, but I am pretty sure about one thing:  It will not be the hedge fund managers or the politicians who improve American education. It will be the teachers. Lest we forget: they are the ones teaching the children. So, how does change happen? Is it through restructuring, firing, incentives, closing, evaluation?

Last week, I sat with a teacher, and during our hour together to begin our year of professional dialogue (a practice we use to enhance the traditional observation process), we spoke about small changes in the lesson to maximize the number of minutes her students were thinking about their shared learning goals. How can the share out portion of the lesson maximize thinking? What activities will prompt this type of wondering, processing, and internalizing? With another teacher, I emailed about the purpose of notetaking during a lesson about the founding of Jamestown. With still another, I observed her rethinking the way she asked students to compare observations of various kinds of bones. Within days, in these classrooms, the tweaks that I suggested, or that they just constructed on their own, changed the classrooms, and moved our students closer to their learning goals.

And it is truly this simple: When you have the right people in place, and when teachers have a profound curiousity about and commitment to their students, they continue to work on their lessons, the night before and even on the spot, and then our students learn more. And this is how -- lesson by lesson, conversation by conversation, teacher by teacher -- we improve public education.

Fall is one of my favorite times of the year, not only because of the leaves, but also because of our weekly tours.

Each week, 35 or so people come for our weekly tour, and I get to talk about my school! I have to admit, I'm so proud of what we have accomplished in our school, and since education is my favorite topic, I am always excited to meet more families and tell them about our special little corner of the world.

But I know this is not as fun for families, and each week I look into their faces and know how nerve-wracking the choice process can be. They have grown comfortable with their elementary schools but now must consider where to send their children for possibly the three most difficult years of childhood. During the middle school years, students need to learn a great deal about friendships, conflict, and the habits they'll need to be successful in high school and college.  During this time, their brains will change just as much as they did from age 0 to age 3!

When parents ask me questions about our school, I think they want me to tell them all the reasons that we are the right school for them. But year after year I become more convinced that we cannot do that for parents. As a kindergarten parent myself, I had to experience a bunch of schools, and when I found the right one, it was a match because of who I am, who my children are, and the aspirations I have for them as learners and people. I have had prospective parents say that they had a really good feeling for our school, but friends were going elsewhere, or the other school was closer to home. These are important considerations, but your choice for your child's education is an expression of what you care about most. They will make friends wherever they go -- they are much more resilient than we are.

So 5th grade parents, please ask us all lots of questions and expect us to have answers to both the hard and the easy ones. Then go home, discuss your options, and make the best decision for you and your child.

But p.s., make sure you can live with all the choices you put on that list!

The documentary "Waiting for Superman" makes a powerful argument that that many of our schools are not working, and that something must be done. It is thought (and emotion)-provoking, and my feeling is that people should see it and join the conversation.

Many schools are failing our children and education reform is urgent.  However, the answers are not as simple as abolishing unions and opening charters,  or relying on the supermen that the movie glorifies, but insists it is not waiting for.

We already know the answers. The answers lie in old truths: successful organizations, including schools, are run by strong leaders, who lead by supporting committed and talented individuals who see their careers as gratifying, intellectual, and meaningful pursuits. Good organizations see powerful results when they support their people, ask them to solve problems that have a major impact on their core work, create a positive culture, and never stop reflecting, changing and improving based on their results.  We see this in our public schools around the country as well as in Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's ZoneKIPP,  and some charter schools.

I know I am not alone in seeing this as a people problem. We need to be honest: some teachers are extraordinary, some are good and getting to be great, some are mediocre, and there are also those who are damaging to students. (This is true of principals as well.) We need to find a way to differentiate between teachers' success, not only by looking at test scores, but also through their relationships, their perseverance, innovation, curiosity, and commitment to school success.

If, as President Obama reminded us, we are the ones we have been waiting for, then we have to push past this black-and-white conversation to a more nuanced one about teacher effectiveness, professional learning, and accountability.  We need to rethink how young men and women (and their parents) see teaching and school leadership as a profession. And ask how schools and school systems (and yes, unions) can support teachers and school leaders to maintain their hunger and commitment to ongoing learning.

I know that for my teachers, these past few weeks have been difficult. Instead of feeling supported as excellent teachers, many feel belittled by the national conversation. How do we put their expertise at the center of the conversation, so we can show how exciting, intellectually enriching, rewarding, and fascinating the profession can be? That way we could ensure that we recruit and keep the best teachers our nation has to offer for all of our students.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010 06:04

Principal's Perspective: Making time to think

A large part of the job of principal -- and indeed of all leaders --  is figuring out what to pay attention to, what to delegate, and what to put on the back burner. (Unfortunately, as a principal, you can't ignore much.) With many questions and issues competing for our time and attention at the beginning of the school year --progress reports, test scores, charter schools, Race to the Top, teacher evaluation, facilities opening -- we are trying to push out the "white noise" and focus on maximizing thinking minutes for every student in our school.

Let me explain. If we believe that "learning is a consequence of thinking," which we heard from an incredible consultant at last week's professional development session with our faculty, then we have to make sure that every student thinks -- on task-- for as many minutes of the day as possible.

At Arts & Letters, we are in an urgent  search for routines and activities that will help us maximize those minutes. Our students -- yes, even on the first day when everyone said nothing would happen-- spent time learning not only where to put their homework, but also how to think together in structured ways, using "thinking routines."

This is exciting stuff for those of us who have devoted our lives to this work, pioneered by the folks at Harvard's Project Zero. This means that students process new information in "rounds" where they speak for timed amounts of time. Or,  they "zoom in" on a picture, asking probing questions about what they see and their hunches about the historical time period. Or, they sort ideas or words on specific topic (algebra, historical change, or possible scientific experiments) and justify their choices to one another.

Cognitive researchers tell us that learning is social, and requires making connections in the human brain. We also know that the brain grows according to the demands put on it (the more thinking it does, the more thinking it can do). So, if we want our students to learn and their brains to grow, we must demand that they think, all the time, about the topics that we are exploring. Our hunch is that this focus will result in big learning gains for them as measured by their work products, reading assessments, and yes, even test scores.

For me, the biggest hope for the year is that I can maximize my minutes with my teachers in order to realize our big ambitions for our students. And, that I can minimize the distractions that can keep us all from doing that most important work.

Last week was extremely hard for all principals and teachers, as we faced a free fall in our "proficiency" percentages on the 2010 state tests, the most important indicator of success of the city’s accountability measures. And, it will become even harder when parents and students learn of the new scores and find out that many have moved from proficient (Level 3) to not proficient overnight. Mulling this over, and talking to colleagues in the week since the test scores were released, I have come  to two conclusions about the results and an important question about the future.

Conclusion 1: For years, educators I know have noticed that a Level 3 is not truly proficient. We have a Reading Lab in our school for struggling readers who were not succeeding in our middle school because of lagging reading skills. “But,” their parents would say, “my child has a level 3!”  These children were really struggling, but the tests were saying something different.

While as a principal, I was quite happy for the vast majority of our students to be testing at proficiency,  I think we all shared a nagging feeling that something was not quite right. And so, the new scores are a better reflection of where our students actually are.

Conclusion 2: In the long run, it is always better for kids when they know where they stand. New York State was bold in raising the bar, and in so doing, saying that mediocre (or worse) isn’t enough for New York’s young people;  it isn't acceptable that many high school graduates are failing when they reach college.  I agree. This readjustment lends a great deal of urgency to our work because no one should be satisfied with the percentages of proficiency we are facing. Despite disappearing gains that make us all look and feel bad, we need to circle up and make a game plan for how to push our students higher.

My question: Where do we go from here? For several years, we have been building a staff of educators who are interested in project-based learning that is tied to specific, measurable skills. We have been concentrating on maximizing the number of thinking minutes that take place in every classroom. We have consciously chosen NOT to follow a test-preparation curriculum, but rather a test-inclusive curriculum. Of course we want all students to become fluent readers and develop the necessary math skills  but we want much, much more as well.

Educators and parents want their children to develop scientific curiosity, to learn about the history of the world, to discover the arts, enjoy physical health and education, and do independent research.  I think the state wants this for its children, which is why the tests are becoming broader and less predictable.

And, because we know that schools will teach what is tested, I hope that the state and city will pursue assessment programs that are more reflective of what I know New York State’s citizenry wants for its next generation of artists, journalists, scientists, researchers, baseball players, bankers, historians, parents, good samaritans, doctors, and friends.

In other words, we need to flip the formula. While we clearly must push ourselves and our students in areas of basic proficiency, we also must pursue, with undiminished ambition, our larger goal of well-rounded – not test driven—standards for the education of our children. The assessments, then, will need to catch up with us.

Recently, it seems the only conversation about education that anyone seems to be having is whether charter schools are better or worse than "regular" public schools. For me, this discussion has grown very old, and it is entirely missing the point. In order to improve education for all schools, we need to be talking about the classroom: what is happening between our teachers and our students as they engage around content and skills?

This is a much more difficult conversation than one about charter schools vs. district schools, and is not nearly as newsworthy. But it is one that many of the best schools in the city have every day even as the “white noise” of the news about budget cuts, test scores, and union negotiations attempt to distract us from our mission of educating every child.This Thursday is a Chancellor’s Day, one of two days each year when teachers get to work together for a whole day.

If you want to find out about what your school values, ask what your teachers will be doing on Thursday.At Arts & Letters, we will be conducting “Teacher Roundtables.” Each semester we ask our students to discuss their work with community members and teachers, and to answer questions about what they are learning in every subject. We realized that we cannot ask our students to do something that we are not doing ourselves, so we decided to do Roundtables for educators too. To prepare, each teacher has crafted a teaching question such as:

  • How can I create projects that allow all kinds of learners to engage and meet or exceed my expectations?
  • How can I ensure that students’ science notebooks demonstrate their thinking?
  • How do I inspire the uninspired artist?

The activity requires genuine curiosity about teaching and learning; all teachers bring a question and examples of their work and student work to look at. Teachers take turns critiquing one another’s work, using the question as their guide. Sometimes it will be celebratory, and sometimes, it will bring to light areas in which a teacher is struggling. It makes teachers visible, accountable to colleagues, and so much less isolated.

If we are serious about all schools becoming great, we must expect teachers to be the ultimate professionals, which means we need to make the conversation engaging, intellectual, and practical. And, we need to help the public understand that as long as the conversation remains mostly about how schools are structured and paid for, we are, at best, avoiding the hard work, and at worst, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

I am sure I was not the only principal huddled around a computer, trying to listen "between the lines" during the Chancellor's address about the budget last week. Unfortunately, there was no more clarity about what to expect in the loss of funds, but it was extremely clear that we are facing incredibly difficult times, requiring very hard choices about staffing and layoffs. I do not envy these decisions; there is so much at stake.

When I started Arts & Letters four years ago, it was soon after the initiative to end forced hiring. The ability to hire my own staff, carefully and alongside respected colleagues and school planners, was the most essential ingredient in creating this school.

Today I was interviewed for a video highlighting the inquiry work that our teachers do here at Arts & Letters. This video was funded by the Department of Education to celebrate "innovation" in our schools. This kind of innovation is ONLY possible because I chose my teachers, one by one, and cultivated a culture of curiosity, inquiry and innovation. In fact, I never would have become a principal without the ability to do this. I cannot imagine being accountable for the success of my students without control over the most important factor in their learning: hiring and developing highly effective teachers, committed to our school's vision and to continuously improving their practices.

With these layoffs, the "last in, first out" rules, and the possibility of "bumping," we risk losing this most essential ingredient. While I listened last week, I thought of the newer teachers who work here, some of the most effective I've seen, who could be lost with no attention paid to their success, or to the effectiveness of their more senior colleagues. While many of my experienced teachers are extremely strong, I would not say that number of years is the only measure of their impact on student learning. And in fact, I believe that every one of my teachers would want to be recognized for their teaching skills, not only for the number of years "in the system."

I understand that the situation is complex and political, and that the budget woes are extreme. But for me, this is personal too. I believe -- as a NYC public school parent and principal -- that we should expect the best from our public schools, and that a public school education should be well-rounded, meaningful, rigorous, and joyful.

In a time of much difficulty, I sincerely hope that the DOE administration and the union leadership can come to an approach that would give principals (who are in every other way responsible for the quality of education in their schools) a fair and reasonable amount of authority to make the best decisions for their schools. Our city bestows trust upon principals to drive school improvement, to keep our children safe, to lead teachers to excellence, to support families in crisis, and even to tally lunches and immunizations. Surely, principals should also be able to make reasoned decisions about the quality of our teachers.

In difficult situations with our students, we tell them to look for the third way, a compromise, or a different look, at the problem at hand. To find this "third way"-- especially in a time crunch -- we need our most creative, most flexible, open-minded thinkers (the kind of people we want our public schools graduates to be) at the table to come to a solution that will benefit our children -- yours and mine.

Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Toyota, GM and Arts & Letters

This weekend, I was listening to an episode

Think of the best teacher you have ever had. She convinced you you could do it. He visited your home when something went wrong. She gave you hard feedback on an essay. He spoke to you with great respect. She engaged and pushed your thinking, and made you "smarter."

How would you want him or her to be evaluated? Educators and policymakers across the country are considering legislation that could make standardized test scores one of the only -- if not THE only-- measures of teacher effectiveness. While I think it is clear that our teacher evaluation system currently does not reflect what we know about good teacher practice, I know that I am not alone in believing this should not be the only measure.

But, it begs the question: what would a better system look like? A national conversation is just getting started on this topic. There was a recent agreement between Superintendent Michelle Rhee of Washington DC with their teachers' union about a new evaluation system; in New York City, there are working groups and studies underway to increase the effectiveness of the system, especially considering that the use of test scores to evaluate teacher performance is linked to billions of Federal dollars through the Race to the Top competition.

If I could design the perfect teacher evaluation system ( is anyone asking principals and teachers to do this?)  I would include: relationship-building with adults and students, grades and test scores, ability to collaborate, reflectiveness and consistent effort to improve, curriculum and unit planning, among others. I would require teachers to self-evaluate yearly, and to provide a continually developing portfolio of their work.

In my opinion, the best teacher evaluation system would ensure that teachers learn how to be reflective enough in their practice that they hold themselves accountable for high standards and high student achievement, just as the best possible outcome for students is intrinsic motivation towards success.

What would you include in a teacher evaluation system? Why?

Many people do not yet know that there is a major reform coming to special education in New York City. Before leaving the city last June, Garth Harries, former Department of Education executive, wrote a memo that outlined a new, bold vision for improving the way our city addresses the needs of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

Following his departure, Laura Rodriguez became the chief DOE officer in charge of special education. It is her office that created a plan which will be implemented in some schools next fall.

There are many aspects to the plan, and many questions remain about how it will be implemented, but overall it  has two major implications for special education in our city's schools:

1) special education students should be integrated into all schools in significantly greater numbers, not only schools with specific programs (such as self-contained classes, Collaborative Team Teaching, or other support services known as SETTS); and

2) schools should have the flexibility to program students based on their actual IEP-indicated needs, rather than based on a strict set of classroom ratios and program recommendations.

This is an exciting vision that will mean, over the long term, that there is more full inclusion for students with IEPs, and which will mean that all schools will be better able to serve some of the most historically underserved students.

Arts & Letters is part of phase one, a group of about 250 schools which are implementing these changes beginning this fall. All schools will be adopt these changes in the 2011-2012 school year. Under this new plan, with significant support from the Department of Education, schools can plan schedules and programs that are tailored to individual needs, rather than strict program mandates, while still meeting the needs on the IEP.

At Arts & Letters, our faculty is having conversations about how to better meet individual students' needs through more flexible scheduling and teacher programming, and by looking at student learning styles and needs. It is exciting to have this opportunity and we believe we will be more successful with our special education students this way.

However, just as we approach this with optimism, our faculty members have many important questions about funding, enrollment procedures, protocols for coming to common understanding of program recommendations with parents, supporting teachers' work with the hardest-to-serve students in an inclusive environment, space allocations to support flexible groupings, and accountability for school based support team professionals. Even with Rodriguez's office working full-time to provide more details, the plan remains vague about implementation of these big ideas. And, as those of us who work in schools, and have children in schools, know: the "devil is in the details."

We are looking forward to being part of phase one of the implementation, because we hope that our leadership team, teachers, and parents will have an important role to play in the formation of these policies, and we hope that we can help to build the critical supports throughout the system that will be necessary to make these important, but immense, changes happen with the best interests of children in mind.

As this plan rolls out, I'd like to hear from parents about how you think this may affect your children and their schools. What are some of your hopes, questions and concerns?

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