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.