Unintended Consequences

When I consider the amount of time I spend on various things during a day, the majority of my time is spent addressing unintended consequences. We have procedures, policies, rules, and a host of other structures in place that are meant to make things work… but they often have unintended consequences. For example, we allow students at the middle school to choose their own cafeteria tables. And there are only 16 seats at a cafeteria table. Students sign up for the table at which they are going to sit for the year. This makes sense; we need to know where kids are if a parent comes to school to collect them or if we need them for some reason. But of course, this creates problems if you’re the 17th or 18th student who wishes to sit at that table. Who decides who is going to move? How do we keep you from feeling left out? You may or may not believe me when I tell you that I spend a good deal of my day dealing with issues like this, issues that are unintended consequences of good, fair, and apparently sound procedures which we put in place.

When this happens I listen patiently and carefully to parents, to students and to teachers. I listen and I strategize with all the different people who are involved in creating these procedures. Sometimes the procedures change; sometimes we make decisions that they have to stay the same. Sometimes exceptions are made in the case of one or another student because that’s what’s right or necessary for them to be successful.

It’s not just cafeteria tables either. There are unintended consequences of accelerated math, assembly programs, locker decorating, locker assignments, air-conditioning, lack of air conditioning, too much air-conditioning, walkathons, cafeteria food, spelling bees, recess, essays, math projects, science projects, plays, clubs, sports… You name it; there can be unintended consequences of every well intended educational program and policy we put in place here at the middle school. And every time a child is on the other end of that consequence, we give that dilemma the same level of attention, patience and concern that we gave to crafting the policy or procedure when we made it. Because children are the reason we are here in the first place.

This is exactly the dynamic that I do not see occurring with the New York State Education Department (NYSED). If you have read the news, spoken to a neighbor or to an educator you know that there has been a great deal of frustration in the field about New York State’s implementation of testing related to the Common Core Learning Standards. I believe that the frustration from the field is that NYSED officials are not willing to acknowledge the unintended consequences of reform efforts taking place throughout our state and country.

For some time now I have been a middle-level liaison to the New York State Education Department (NYSED). As such, twice a year I travel to Albany to attend two days of meetings and workshops with other middle school principals from throughout New York State as well as listen to presentations by key figures from the NYSED. At the meetings I attended two weeks ago we heard presentations from Deputy Commissioners Ken Slentz, Ken Wagner, and Ira Schwartz. They briefed us on the various policies and assessments coming out of NYSED. Of course, given all the controversy about the assessments, our group of passionate middle school leaders asked assorted tough questions of the officials. It was a lively exchange but nevertheless professional and polite. I have to say, I like Ken Slentz, Ken Wagner, and Ira Schwartz. Ira Schwartz is a poet and a mensch. Ken Wagner used to be the principal of the middle school in Shoreham Wading River, a Long Island colleague. I could see hanging out with them and watching a ballgame. As I recall, once, after a meeting, I did have a drink with Ken Wagner; the Yankee game might’ve even been on the TV. Ironically, at the same time that I was sitting in on these presentations, the YouTube video of John King in Poughkeepsie was beginning to circulate. You can watch it yourself but to summarize, Commissioner King is basically shouted at by a number of audience members at a town hall meeting he organized to talk about NYSED initiatives. My initial reaction to the video was that the audience was being rude to Commissioner King. But this is the problem with a YouTube video. You’re only seeing about 2 minutes of a meeting that went on for two full hours. As I understand it, Commissioner King spoke for an hour and 40 minutes before he opened up the floor for questions the last 20 minutes. While I don’t condone rudeness, the frustration of those in the audience who wished to be heard is understandable. People express frustration when they feel they are not being listened to; when they feel no one cares. This seems to be the case with educators and parents across New York State. We don’t feel listened to. We don’t feel like NYSED cares.

My colleague Tony Sinanis wrote a brilliant piece urging Commissioner King to listen to the field and work together with us to sort out the problems with testing and the Common Core. I agree with him. I don’t feel that the officials at State Ed are bad people, or malicious, or trying to hurt children. I’m certain they’re not. But they need to acknowledge the consequences of the policies and programs that have been developed at the state level upon children in classrooms. They need to acknowledge these consequences and work with the field to make the necessary adjustments so that children here and across the state can be happy and successful.

A group of New York principals has published a letter to parents about these problems. I am a proud signatory of this letter. I hope you will read it, consider its implications and do what you can to remain informed and active in the discussion about testing and learning in New York State.

About dfgately

Middle School Principal Jericho, NY
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17 Responses to Unintended Consequences

  1. rdobek says:

    Nice post!
    I think there is a cognitive dissonance surrounding SED officials. They may or may not care about kids, but all of the evidence of the negative effects of these unintended consequences seem to get spun into disingenuous justifications of the current testing culture, and people are fed up with dishonesty.

    I don’t think it was rude for people to object to their twenty minutes of feedback being interrupted, when they were not permitted to attempt to refute King’s comments delivered from his authoritative letter.

  2. rdobek says:

    ..lecturn (not letter)

  3. Thanks for the continued discussion on testing and unintended consequences. Some unintended consequences will invariably occur, and it is incumbent on NYSED to understand and respond to them. Their communication on this point is indeed quite lacking.
    While I share the frustration of those in the video, I’m also embarrassed by their behavior and do not try to excuse it. I suspect (or at least hope) that they would have gotten more than 20 mins time if a civil discussion was taking place.
    I found this letter (link below) from Tony Sinanis to Dr. King a more informative and constructive article – if a bit emotional and sarcastic. http://leadingmotivatedlearners.blogspot.com/2013/08/i-am-nine.html
    It contains many good suggestions that can be followed regardless of what happens to NYS testing. I’m sorry to hear that it got no response, but I also hope that an open letter posted on the web is not the main line of communication to Dr. King. I wish the article also tried address what exactly a 9/20 means, e.g., does it mean the Mean Growth Percentile was ~ 45 percent? I would like to better understand were the flaw in the metric is and/or why it should not count as some part of an evaluation. I found this link below to provide a more quantitative description of the Growth Scores, but still lacking in some areas: http://www.engageny.org/resource/state-calculated-growth-measures-overview
    It does seem that effort was made to make evaluations fair relative to what it measures. I have not seen one of these tests to form an opinion if the right thing is being measured however.

  4. rdobek says:

    Anyone truly paying attention to the decades-long standardization movement realizes that the dissenting views of well-informed stakeholders (parents, “real educators”, and students) have been ignored, marginalized, and disparaged, through the media and expression of public policy. It is disingenuous for the architects and implementers of CCLS and it’s related testing and evaluation schemes to talk about “unintended consequences”, when they know, full well, that they were intended, and well anticipated. It is also disingenuous for people to talk about their embarrassment with respect to people who were simply being inhospitable to unsolicited rebuttals from King, who, to my knowledge, did not accept attempts by attendees to offer rebuttals, during his prolonged monologue. They were to just sit and listen, but Mr. King gets to rebut to comments that he finds disagreeable? This strikes me as political bigotry. Elitist plutocrats and bureaucrats can design and implement misguided public policy, without any regard for dissenting views, with complete impunity, but “Joe-Six-pack” and the concerned parent or educator in the 10th row can’t make a 90-second statement without a well-publicized, unsolicited rebuttal?

  5. My intent was not to get into a debate about the video – but i still feel (genuinely) that a rational discussion is the best way forward.
    I’m really trying to find out more about the Common Core and NYS’s implementation, which are two different things. There is so much rhetoric, emotion, and conspiracy theory out there that is hard to get objective information. I want to know if this is good for my kids, good for my school, good for my district…. I want to see more of the data, methodology, test examples,…
    The educational value of CC is not all in NYS’s hands. The position and attitude that the District takes is equally important. I’m thankful that Mr Gately is trying to keep this discussion objective, informative, and ultimately constructive.

    • rdobek says:

      So far, I see no legitimate reason to question directly, or by innuendo the objectivity or constructiveness of the discussion..

      By definition, a conspiracy is secretive. However, what has been happening at the local, state, and federal levels, is common knowledge. It is simple: bad practice driven by public policy designed and funded by people who are making a lot of money and stand to make a lot more. People like King function as public relations figure heads to get the the public to buy in to it all, hence these town hall style meetings. Do the research, and you will see for yourself what is driving all of this.

      • I can list reasons to question objectivity, but what is the point?
        Do you have any thoughts on the principles of the Common Core? The 70/30 non-fiction/fiction split? The way possible answers on tests are written to make ‘process of elimination’ difficult? The increased focus on deeper understanding of fewer math topics and less ‘formula’ based approaches to solutions? Is the bar set too high? Do we need a bar at all?
        Or maybe the potential differences in the way material would need to be taught? How do we minimize the time spend ‘training’ to takes the tests? How is it different from previous NYS testing? How should teachers, schools, and the district as a whole resist the temptation to crowd out topics that don’t happen to be on NYS tests? Can we better integrate these tests into normal classroom activities (after all, they have to takes tests anyway)?

        Anything but Dr. King and the people making money please.

      • dfgately says:

        We’re going to talk about some of these issues at the PTSA Coffee Hour tomorrow 9am – MS Library 🙂

  6. Great! I will plan to attend. (just have to wiggle out of a meeting at work 🙂 )

  7. rdobek says:

    Although I can list responses to all of the questions you posed, that feels pointless to me, since you are so belittling about the assertion of established and verifiable facts about the nature of CCLS, and testing trends, as well as the roles of people like King, who, reportedly, is now being “suggested” as a candidate for NYC School’s Chancellor. I can hand you, on a silver platter all the information you would need to answer those questions, but the dismissive remark at the end of your post speaks volumes.

    I am not interested in discussions about ameliorating the so called, “rough edges” of CCLS. I, and many others people with impeccable reputations see current educational policy as what it is: institutionalized educational malpractice derived from distorted interpretations of pseudo-research that is developmentally inappropriate, dehumanizing, and ineffective. It isn’t “conspiratorial” to remark about things that are matters of public record which would be common knowledge, if only more people would pay attention and not attempt to denigrate people for speaking about them. If you find it subjective and silly to entertain notions that you reject as being conspiratorial, you have two other choices: Get the facts, yourself, or engage people who make those assertions. After all, isn’t a blog more valuable than to simply serve as an ideological echo-chamber? Dismissiveness doesn’t advance your argument (whatever that happens to be).

  8. Dear rdobek,
    I’m not trying to be dismissive of your topic. Sorry to have upset you. I don’t mind if you want to continue to talk about Dr. King etc. with others. It is a valid topic – go for it. It is just not the topic I’m putting my effort into and tried to engage on another. I guess I should have put a little smiley face on my post…
    My interest is in assessing the content of CCLS, its impact on instruction, and to some extent, how the NYS tests are used. If it turns out that there is an avenue for me to help improve things – even better. (all those ‘rough edges’ you’re not interested in)
    I suppose that leaves us without something to discuss further.

    I hope you don’t take offense from me not assuming a priori that CCLS is all bad because of where it comes from or because someone makes money from it. I happen to agree with many (not all) of the principles of the Common Core and I was quite happy to see the similar response from the panel at the PTSA Coffee Hour regarding Common Core. I will leave it at that as I continue to learn more.

    Mr. Gately,
    Thanks for organizing and moderating the panel discussion. I was pleasantly surprised by the small dose of politics and pleased with the position and attitude taken by faculty and staff. Please extend a special thanks to the 7th grader you managed to coax onto the panel. I’m sure no one could have talked me into doing that when I was in 7th grade!

  9. rdobek says:

    No offense taken.. In person, you would have noticed the smile on my face, while I made my comments.

    Clarification: If you read what I have said, the objections to the CCLS are not based, “a priori”, because of where it came from, or that someone makes money from it. Those are simply explanatory facts. Objections are based on concerns about it’s efficacy and appropriateness for the stakeholders who are directly affected by it. It is only “a-priori” if people choose not to look at the evidence.

    As far as having something to discuss is concerned, my intention was not necessarily to address you directly, but to address what many people would feel is a misnomer in the title of an otherwise excellent blog post. To many, “Unintended Consequences” is a euphemism for collateral damage.

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