Monday, December 31, 2012

What is a normal year?

December 31, 2007: We go to Yosemite Springs, to some fancy country-clubesque New Year's spot. It isn't particularly fun.

December 31, 2008: We spend New Year's at our house in Fresno. My father-in-law is in town, so we have a half-Venezuelan, half-American New Year's celebration: We watch the ball drop AND he drinks scotch.

January 1, 2009: We awake and my car is gone. We call the police, only to find out it has not been stolen but repossessed.

June 2009: Our school, KIPP Fresno, closes. I won't get into the nexus of causality right now, but it was heartbreaking.

June 2009: I am selected to become principal of the new KIPP middle school in Florida. I begin traveling, first to spend the summer in New York and then to visit several of the best schools in the country.

November 2009: We drive six days to Jacksonville. Maria and the kids go to Venezuela for an extended holiday vacation; I stay in Jacksonville.

December 31, 2009: A somewhat-cousin and I drive to Miami to stay with his wife's (real) cousins.

January 1, 2010: I wake up vomiting.

August 2010: Our school, KIPP Impact Middle School, opens in Jacksonville.

December 31, 2010: We are in Miami, I'm running a lot (and watching every available episode of Dexter on Netflix) and writing something like 60 mastery quizzes in a week. We have dinner at our (real) cousin's friend's house - a very Venezuelan affair. Everybody (else) drinks scotch, and we eat bread filled with ham, bacon, and capers.

June 2011: Our school receives a school grade of 'F' from the Florida Department of Education. A lot of people don't take it well. About this fact, I believe two things to be true:

  1. In our first year of existence, we did not do a great job of teaching our kids, and
  2. Our low scores largely reflected that our kids came in with some pretty significant challenges, and still, by April, couldn't read most of the tests. Yes, our kids didn't 'show growth' on the FCAT, but they did beat the KIPP national average in terms of 5th grade math growth (which is true but still hard to believe), and they did grow 1.5 years based on the DRA. Lest you think these are excuses, see point #1 above.
In any case, this is when things really start to get bad. I have picked a reading approach that makes sense to me, based on some great work being done at Uncommon and Achievement First, and the approach is eyed with suspicion. From this point, with the exception of the FLDOE's reading expert sent to monitor our school (a wonderful, knowledgeable, and brilliant woman named Charla Bauer) and my friend Chi, every single person who purports to know anything about reading instruction who observes a reading class concludes that we're going about it all wrong - and points to our F as evidence.

December 31, 2011: We celebrate at a friend's house. The school year is not going well. I am not happy. I am working with one teacher who has become openly antagonistic, and several others whose priorities aren't what I think they should be, or what our kids' parents would think they should be. Many are just very confused about what they want to do with their lives, or how much work is a reasonable amount of work to be expected, in order to earn a salary. Some of this is generational; some is individual. Some of it I still find incomprehensible.

Some things are going better than others. Our Data Czar, Joseph, and I have essentially taken over math instruction. Our reading teachers Anna and Tanesha, and Warren (our nonfiction teacher who also put more effort into teaching math than our math teacher), are rocking it out. Our music program continues to improve, and our kids are sounding amazing. By this point we have crushed our MAP goals, showing more growth than 99% of schools nationwide on 3 out of 4 tests, and more than 95% of schools on the fourth. Most importantly, we have done everything in our power for the elementary school to be allowed to open, which feels good. So we're proud to have done what we can to make this happen.

Note from the present: I'll cut out the majority of the details here because I can't find a way to write about them that will come across as positive or reflective. The fact is that I learned a lot, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do what I did in Jacksonville, but I feel a lot of regret and guilt about how absent I was from my own kids' lives during this time, due to the sheer amount of work that I had to do - in some cases because the people who otherwise would have done this work decided not to. Things at this point were not going well, and I was simply looking forward to things improving, to all of this hard work paying off, sometime. The hard part at this point was that I saw at least another year of intense struggle before we could be in a place to perhaps begin talking about sustainability.

So December 31, 2011 was not a very happy time in my life.

From April to May 2012, it is decided that I'll resign at the end of the school year. Though I am sad to be leaving all of the good kids, parents, and teachers I had a chance to work with, I am equally grateful for the opportunity to do something else. Note from the present: I didn't realize just how miserable I was until after I left, and remembered how positive feels to feel appreciated, to add value, and to have a much more reasonable amount of work expected.

May 16, 2012: I call MATCH, AF, and TFA Jacksonville, to see if they're looking for somebody (me!)

Michael Goldstein from MATCH and his team are great, Chi and AF are great, and I eventually go out to New Orleans, New Haven, and Boston, for interviews. For the two days I'm in Boston and New Haven, I feel valued and appreciated, which I hadn't really felt since June 2011. In what is a really tough decision that I'm once again blessed to be able to make, Maria and I choose to raise our kids in New Haven, rather than New Orleans. There are many other things to consider here, and I think I/we would have been happy in either place, but this seems like the right move.

July 2012: We drive three days up I-95 to New Haven. I begin working at Elm City College Prep Middle School and fall in love with education again, remembering what it is like to be surrounded by like-minded people, to add value, and to be part of a functional team within a functional system single-mindedly focused on everybody in the building (kids, teachers, leadership) learning and growing.

December 31, 2012: We are here at our place in the East Shore neighborhood of New Haven. Our kids are happy. We are happy. It has snowed, so we've spent the last couple of days sledding. In terms of work, I feel lucky every day that I get to work with such amazing people.

So as this year wraps up, I am feeling very blessed. I am reading to my kids most nights. I love what I do. We get to explore New England on our breaks. I just don't know how to classify 2012 on the whole, other than to say that it has been on an upward trajectory for the last half.

What I wonder is this: What is a normal year? Will I be able to string together a couple of solid years? I sure hope so. I'm not looking for a year with no struggle; I'm simply looking for a year that we don't move across the country, where we have enough consistency in our lives to focus on the basics of being the best people we can be.

New Year's Revolution #1: The Rigor Revolution

A couple guys at school and I have this game, whereby we change one letter in a movie's title and create a plot to go with it. The other guys has to guess the new title. Here are a couple:

1. A mafia leader decides that his life would be more meaningful if lived in service to his country, and finally overcomes his fear of flying to become a helicopter pilot.

This one is Black Hawk Don.

2. This work, reconstructed from historical documents, chronicles the last days of an infirm William Shakespeare, as doctors try desperately to save the dying playwright.

Ill Bill.

If you think this is a great new game to play with friends, welcome! If you think this is one of the dumbest things you've ever heard, you're probably not going to enjoy this blog much. Hooray for free markets!

So in the spirit of this game, instead of New Year's Resolutions, let's play New Year's Revolutions, starting with Revolution #1: The Rigor Revolution.

As a math and science coach, the revolution I want to be a part of is the Rigor Revolution. For the past 9 years, I feel like I've been working to make sure every child is successful with every problem. We have all tried to make our curriculum accessible. We came up with songs and chants, and supplemented with some more difficult variations, but we always set the upper bound of our variations to align with the rigor of our most difficult assessment items. This is the "teaching to the test" that can be good or bad, depending on the rigor and complexity of the test. In Florida, this was a good thing, since it greatly increased the rigor of what we would have taught. In California, as in Connecticut, this has had mostly detrimental effects, since the rigor of our state assessments has been so low, and the scope so wide, that we have been essentially flying through material, "covering" it to the minimum acceptable level of rigor and complexity.

Enter the Common Core. These standards seem to have been created for a system like ours, with our legacy of teaching to the minimum acceptable level. I don't expect this new set of standards to immediately transform every classroom in America, and I'll leave the debate about the Common Core for another post, but I do think it will work wonders for No Excuses schools like ours.

Some will read this and only understand that Aha! They DO just teach to the test. Really, I think the philosophical genesis is a little different - our schools have always aimed to help everybody in the class get to a certain level of proficiency, since they began as a response to the fact that vast numbers of kids were essentially learning nothing, year after year. It was a reasonable response - come to OUR school, and we will make sure you learn this really basic stuff. The good news is that it worked - kids in Houston (at the first KIPP schools) did incredibly well on the various state tests they took. In North Carolina, kids smashed through barriers. At KIPP Fresno, our small school in California, our kids even did better on the 6th grade math test than the gifted and talented school across town. Sure, we learned a year later at a MathCounts competition that our top kids were among the bottom of all top kids in the city, but...results!

Another data point from KIPP Fresno: In our first year, based on the Stanford-10 test, we lost 9 of the top 10 kids. For a system of schools that takes a lot of flack for attrition among the lowest-performing students, I think it's worth noting that we lost most of our high-performing kids. This correlates with our approach at the time, which, sadly, is still close to the norm for No Excuses schools today: Allocate resources so that 100% of kids can meet a minimum bar, which necessarily implies that the top kids get very little attention.

The main problem with all of these results is that, in places with statewide proficiency rates of 80%, getting to 100% passing doesn't really tell you much. The other problem is that it can take your focus off of the goal of "excellence for many", instead focusing on "mediocrity for all." And I don't think all kids actually contribute equally to the learning that happens in a classroom. Anecdotally, I learned a lot more when I was surrounded by brilliant classmates, who were genuinely interested and engaged. All of this points to a case for more attention to the top than we're currently allocating.

As a teacher, this is a huge shift. It means pitching things much higher than before, which means pushing the limits of how well you actually understand what you're teaching. It means asking for connections, asking for creativity, and stretching beyond the limits of what has already been taught this year or last.

Beyond a teacher's own comfort with the material, there is also the issue of being comfortable pitching tasks that many kids won't know how to approach at first. You will feel like a failure. You will feel like you are setting kids up for failure. You will question why our school exists, since this is the problem you imagine left so many of your kids so far behind.

To all of this I say: Our schools exist to provide choice to families, to provide a safe place for kids to learn, and to teach the kids we have in the best way we know how. One of the benefits of being a charter is that we can "fail fast" - we can ditch what is not working as soon as we realize it's not working. What we currently have is not working. Many of our kids are not really being challenged, and that's a huge problem.

So let's do this. This year, let's make sure all of our kids are challenged. Let's make a lot of mistakes with it. Let's challenge ourselves to make our classes difficult enough to make high school and college less daunting. Let's make our school much harder, and watch our kids all benefit from the top half of our student body becoming far more engaged and challenged.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Firste Poste

Some of the best advice I ever received about journaling was to start with the present; if you try to start from where you left off, you'll always be behind, and you'll be writing more out of obligation to the narrative than out of genuine, in-the-moment inspiration.

I started blogging today because I like to write, and I want to get better at it. Besides, half of what I learn these days comes from blogs, and anybody should happen to learn anything from this blog, it will be worth it. If not, it will still be worth it, as the cost associated with blogging is nothing but whatever time I want to put into it.

So here's where I'll start:

Today, it snowed pretty heavily here in New Haven. Combine this with the following:
1. We just moved from Florida a few months ago.
2. Our kids are 5 and 6 - just the right ages to enjoy the snow.
3. My wife and I are 36 and 32 - also, apparently, just the right ages to enjoy the snow.
4. We live right next to a hill.

...and we just had one of the best few-hour chunks of our lives.

Someday, all children I will blog about teaching! But for now, our kids are happy, so I'm happy.