Rigor is not what you think it is

An English vocabulary word tossed around education today is “rigor”. As the Common Core standards became de rigueur, teachers were told to teach with rigor. We’ve been encouraged to raise our expectations of our students by raising the “rigor”.

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“Rigor.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 25 July 2016.

I’m not sure edu-experts know exactly what rigor is. Harsh inflexibility, strict precision, rigidity, severity? These words are not what I would want to guide my own child’s education, and they are certainly not something I feel comfortable aspiring to as an educator.

If the standards call for inflexibility then how can we, as educators, say we meet our students where they are and move forward? Some child is getting left behind.

What would I want? I would want a standard that allows me to differentiate for students who are challenged linguistically, intellectually, and experientially. I would like those same standards to be appropriate to the development of a child. Perhaps in place of teaching for rigor, we should aspire to teaching for responsiveness to how our children learn? Or flexibility of thought? Or inclusiveness?

How about trusting the professional judgement of educators and allowing teachers who know their students best determine how and when to push children up to and beyond what is expected?


School Committee Meeting, 20 July 2016

School Committee Meeting, 20 July 2016

IMG_0190All present

Meeting once a month instead of twice means that monthly meeting is extra long – this one was 3 hours without the Executive Session.  Next meeting will also be on the Committee’s Summer Schedule on August 17.


2016/287, 2016/288, 2016/289, 2016/290 (Mayor Kennedy) All four motions requested reports from the Superintendent regarding Lowell High. The reports request will be to review curriculum needs and plan for curriculum in tangent the design of Lowell High. Since an architect has been selected and named, consideration of how the building is configured to address curricular needs is timely.

Motion 289 requests a report in response to DESE’s recently published information naming Lowell’s expulsion and suspension rates (along with several other school districts). The DESE report and news release can be found here. Ms. Durkin assured the committee that discussions are already underway to better understand and address this report.

2016/296 (Mr. Gignac) Request superintendent provide full year-end financials to the entire School Committee prior to year-end audit.

2016/297 (Mr. Gignac) Requests report on opiate prevention program/awareness programs.

2016/301 (Ms. Martin) Request status on Central Office hiring along with a current organization chart reflecting changes made in Central Office personnel due to retirements and resignations.

2016/305 (Mr. Gendron) Request Facilities Subcommittee name Butler School Auditorium for Maryalice Foley.

2016/306 (Mr. Gendron) Request Facilities Subcommittee establish quarterly meeting with the Lowell High Project Manager (Skanska OPM).

SubCommittee Report

The July 13th Joint Policy and Student Services subcommittees met to revise School Policy for students with severe allergy and to address Mr. Hoey’s motion suggesting the creation of an early candidate pool for Lowell residents seeking employment in the Lowell Public Schools.

Ms. Laura Ortiz spoke on behalf of 200-plus students who have life-threatening reactions to allergens other than food. The Joint Committee is in favor of revisions suggested to the Lowell Public Schools Handbook which will include non-food allergies such as latex, insect bites/stings, and other allergens that can be life-threatening.  The Joint Committee proposed the changes to the Handbooks and have requested their adoption. This was accomplished in Item 2016/299.

A second topic for this joint committee was Mr. Hoey’s motion regarding creation of an early hiring pool for Lowell residents seeking employment in the Lowell Public Schools. With the addition of language specifying that the Lowell residents needs to be qualified and certified in the area of the open position, Lowell residents are to be granted an interview.

Reports of the Superintendent

There were 12 reports from the Superintendent addressing motions and regularly scheduled reporting (Personnel, Motions Report). Additionally, the report regarding the possibility of reconfiguring school zones is progressing as a Task Force consisting of parents, school personnel and community members is being formed. This group will meet beginning in late August or early September with the giant task of exploring rezoning the school district while respecting the Desegregation Order as well as being mindful of the capacity issues. Dr. Khelfaoui expressed that this process will be a multi-year phase in so as to respect the needs and desires of current LPS families as well as being mindful of the factors such as capacity that may be affected. Three reports received extra attention.

In response to Connie Martin’s motions requesting information about 2015-16 educator evaluations, Anne Sheehy spoke to the process and the resulting reported data (see packet). As reported, any licensed educator in Massachusetts must be evaluated using the Commonwealth’s Teacher Evaluation Protocols.  Currently Lowell Public Schools focuses on 15 elements (out of 30) during the evaluation cycle. The resulting evaluation data shows 12% are Exemplary, 86,7% Proficient, 2% Needs Improvement, and less than 1% Unsatisfactory. As Ms. Sheehy pointed out, this is phenomenal and further gives credence to the high quality of the educational staff in Lowell.

The process of educator evaluation applies only to licensed staff at this time – from Superintendent to Teachers, Nurses, School Therapists and other support personnel, all go through the same process. Only licensed educators are evaluated using this process; those personnel who do not need Massachusetts licenses in order to work in the schools are not.

A lengthy discussion accompanied this report as this is a fairly recent initiative that has come through the U.S. Department of Education via DESE at the state level.  It is quite involved and unless you have been through the process – and I have – it is difficult to understand.  I will write a more thorough explanation in an upcoming blog. The short story is that any licensed educator undergoes a two-year evaluation cycle whereby goals (personal and student-based) are set, data-evidenced progress checked (Formatives) and end-of-cycle achievements proven (Summatives).

A second longer discussion was reserved for Item 2016/300, the Year-to-Date Budget Report. Mr. Frisch (CFO) updated the Committee as to outstanding Purchase Orders amounting to about $3.45 million as of July 20. On July 29, the City will close the books on Fiscal 2016 and cancel any outstanding purchase orders as of the final run on that date.

The School Department’s Finance people have preliminarily spoken with the City about creating a Suspense Account equal to the totality of those outstanding Purchase Orders so that vendors can be paid even though their invoices may not arrive before the City closes the books.  That way the June Purchase Orders still awaiting vendor billing for Fiscal 2016 will be fulfilled through the 2016 budgeted amounts.

Another point made during the discussion of this report was how there could be a “fifth quarter” payment for the Circuit Breaker (money for extraordinary Special Education costs provided by the Commonwealth). There was some confusion about how to handle these funds (include in Fiscal 2016 and then transfer to Suspense Account?) and whether the proposition from Central Administration would have financial implications for Fiscal 2017.

The inclusion of  a “5th quarter” Circuit Breaker payment from the Commonwealth appears to be a point of confusion. Apparently the Fiscal 2015 fourth quarterly Circuit Breaker payment was made in July last year which, with new administration is several key positions, resulted in the funds being allocated to Fiscal 2016 instead of Fiscal 2015. There was some question as to why the auditor did not discover three (not four) such deposits in 2015. Through this discovery, there is a proposal under consideration to use the fifth quarter, or windfall, to offset the loss of the 2017 Kindergarten Grant funds, and thereby preserve 17 paraprofessional positions for Fiscal 2017.  (Those who follow the state budget will recall that Governor Baker vetoed the Kindergarten Grant funding during the state budget process. The loss of the state budgeted Kindergarten Grant could potentially result in 17 paraprofessionals being displaced or laid off. This is one of the ways LPS is proposing to preserve those positions. The final decision on how to make up the loss in funding will be voted on in August at the next Committee meeting, 8/17.)

Finally, an additional long discussion took place regarding sizeable negative balances in several line items. Mr. Frisch noted, the City takes a charge for Health Insurance (monthly) and Dental Insurance (bi-yearly?) and when doing so, some of the accounts impacted turn negative. When those charges occur, the line item charges may result in negative balances showing on the financial reports. As far as the City and City Auditor are concerned, the bottom line, not the specific line item balance, is what is important.

Several School Committee members expressed discomfort with that process and suggested that the School Committee may need to consider meeting to make the financials more reflective of what actually happens with these costs/charges and transfer of funds.

The third report receiving extra attention was the Superintendent’s Evaluation. Dr. Khelfaoui took the School Committee step-by-step through his Formative Evaluation evidence (remember, that is the progress-to-date evidence) and is soliciting the current Committee and the past Committee’s input into his one-year Formative evaluation (next year is the Summative Year in the Superintendent’s two-year evaluation cycle). The School Committee members will meet with and complete their piece of the evaluation prior to the August 17 meeting; Mayor Kennedy will summarize these and the Formative Evaluation and any revisions to the Superintendent’s goals will result. This information is done in public, not through Executive Session.

New Business

The salary adjustments for unaffiliated staff were approved with a request from Mr. Gignac to provide the new job description for one of the positions. Custodial rate approved.

Meeting adjourned from Executive Session. Meeting Packet can be found here.

Teaching Conflict Resolutions Through Pretzel

2013fielddaybPut yourself back in elementary school and imagine your reaction to a classmate calling you a name or hurting your feelings through action or word. Would you speak up or would you allow that hurt to fester and grow into something more significant? Would you feel listened to? And if you caused the hurt would you recognize it as such?

In our adult conversation, do we listen – really listen – to each other even when the conversation is difficult? I am not so sure any more. Maybe what we adults could use is a refresher course in conflict resolution.

Ruth Sidney Charmey, author of Teaching Children to Care and a co-founder of the Northeast Foundation for Children invented a powerful activity for children named “Pretzel” (click on the link to find out how the activity was implemented) as a way to teach children conflict resolution and empathy.

My good friend and colleague, Paula Gendron, introduced me to Pretzel as a means to teach children awareness of others. Although from year to year it morphed into other small treats (Skittle, Sticker) according to the allergy concerns in the classroom, the premise always remained the same: we all need to feel safe in our classroom community in order to do our best work. In my classrooms, we used this activity almost weekly to heighten awareness and sensitivity  in the classroom community.

Two of the rules or norms for Pretzel would be applicable to all of us.  The first one would seem fairly easy: find something positive to say and compliment someone.  It’s easy to see negativity, and that can wear anyone down.  I believe that when I look for something positive to say, no matter how seemingly insignificant, it can change not only my mindset, but another’s as well. For my former students, it was a requirement that there be something positive noticed and complimented whenever we participated in Pretzel.

The second norm is a bit harder to do whether you are a child or an adult. When someone offers a criticism, the listener needs to really listen without interjecting commentary or excuses. It is important for the listener to remember that the words are expressing how someone perceives a situation.

Listening without becoming defensive or commenting defensively is very hard whether or not you are 8 or 18 or 48 or 108. However, listening to another viewpoint or version of events along with an awareness and acceptance of how someone feels is an essential component to developing empathy. When an 8-year-old hears a classmate say that walking away from one friend to play with another caused hurt feelings, the first reaction is denial. We need to notice more when words and actions might cause another person hurt. We need to be more empathetic.

Grownups need to practice conflict resolution now more than ever. We are bombarded daily with bully talk and hate speech that inflames and does not resolve anything. We need to accept that there may be more than one way to perceive a situation, listen no matter how difficult to hear, and develop our adult empathy. And maybe once we adults practice the skills of conflict resolution, we’ll have less conflict to resolve.


What Defines A “Good” School?

2016-Mar-01_0051Recently, the Boston Globe published a letter from Joy Robinson-Lynch positing that if Boston needs more available spots in classical education schools (like Boston Latin), the school department might consider creating them.  After all, Boston Public Schools certainly know how to run a successful classical education institution – they’ve had years to practice and refine that.

Framing that thought in terms of Lowell’s local school issues, I wonder if in Lowell the same thought should apply. Looking at the Wait Lists for our Lowell Public Schools also indicate that some schools in Lowell are more sought after than others. If there is an abundance of students waiting to attend a middle school like the Daley Middle School, shouldn’t there be some thought into why that one school is in high demand? What is it that makes the Daley so desirable? Is the the leadership at the school? The culture? The academics? The staff?  Or is it something else?

I taught for 5 years at the Cardinal O’Connell School when it was a Pre-K to Grade 4 elementary school. As an older school, the building itself had some charming quirks, but it also had a great leadership team and a caring faculty who, because of the small size of the school, really knew each and every student. What it didn’t have was a cafeteria.  Sometimes when a family left for the (new-at-the-time) Lincoln School, that would be the reason given for transferring. Fortunately, not everyone valued separate lunch space as a deciding factor in a child’s educational success.

Is it just a perception or is there something tangibly identifiable that sets apart the schools perceived to be desirable? That’s something that may be explored further under a new assessment model being considered by a consortium of school districts from across Massachusetts. Measuring positivity in a school’s culture may be more difficult to quantify, but it is equally important to the overall picture of whether or not a school is a success. What are those factors that families value that fall outside of numbers and test scores?

Are we ready to use more measures to define good schools? I hope so!




IMG_0200The New York Times carried an interesting story about Kansas conservatives and the effort to demonize education even further through linguistics. The article “Public Schools? To Kansas Conservatives They’re ‘Government’ Schools“, really confused me for a bit. Don’t most schools – unless we’re talking about private schools, have some government oversight and funding?

As it turns out, Kansas conservatives, and I would suppose others throughout the United States who are like-minded, do have a deeper purpose for referencing schools as “government” schools.

In Kansas, the legislature and the court system have been engaged in a battle royale over funding inequities. There is little to no desire to raise taxes to support schools; in fact, the current governor is quite proud of budget cuts which resulted in income tax cuts. Under a court-threat to close the schools due to funding inequities, the Kansas legislature seems to have come up with a way to satisfy the courts for the time-being, but the ill-will generated in this bloodbath isn’t over.

Referring to public schools as “government schools” in Kansas is not simply a matter of linguistic semantics. No, it is rebranding a public institution to create negative reactions which, in the final accounting, could very well result in less public funding and less support for the public school system.

But the question I had when I first heard the term “government” schools is this:  If the goal is to rid a municipality, a state, or a country of publicly supported and funded schools, then which institutions will be immune?

Here in Lowell many parochial schools receive some support from Title I. Some parochial school students are transported to their school-of-choice via public school bus.  Government funding? I think so. Charter Schools also receive public funding in the per-pupil assessment coming from the City.  And in parts of the United States, some homeschooled students participate in extracurricular activities or school sports funded through… public funding.  Are all of these school “government” schools too?

I believe the purposeful substitution of the term “government” for “public” leaves an intentionally negative connotation, one that is meant to lessen financial support for schools that serve everyone. It is meant to paint hard-working educators as slackers with hands out. It is meant to further the notion that our public school system is irreparably broken and only serves those who are too lazy to go elsewhere.

And what exactly would be the alternative to a “government” school?  How about a corporately run school? Do you know of any of those? It’s pretty clear that the issue is not just that the government is spending money, it also is who controls where that money is spent. The people making the funding decisions couldn’t possibly want control of education funding for their own personal benefit could they?

To me, what is happening in Kansas bears a close watch because it could happen anywhere. Even here in Massachusetts.


I Read The News Today, Oh Boy….

2013fieldday3legsBaton Rouge. Minneapolis. Dallas.

If there is any doubt that this is a messed up world, the last 2 days should clear that up. It is undeniable that we live at a crossroads of how we, all of us, mean to treat each other.

My childhood straddled the Civil Rights movement. In 1963 when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the of the Lincoln Memorial, I was 11 years old. That speech, made 53 years ago in August, spoke of the “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir”.  I reread Dr. King’s speech today and would suggest you do so too. Many of those same injustices and struggles continue to confront us now.

I lived in a world of privilege, a white, middle-class upbringing in middle America. DSC_0442I never worried about what fate my father or brother or husband or son might meet with doing ordinary errands. People don’t, as a rule, lock their car doors when I walk nearby, nor does the conversation stop when I enter a store. So as far as understanding what it means to be
of color and living in the United States, I cannot possibly understand the depth of hurt and resentment and anger. But I can do something.

2013fielddayaWhether someone looks the same or different from me, I can look that person in the eye
and smile. I can nod and say hello. I can be more mindful of the subtle speech that telegraphs cultural and racial differences and take care to object to generalities. I can stand strongly against those politicians who would use the language of intolerance to garner votes.

We are at a clear crossroads and it is time for some introspection into the kind of world we want to live in.