Good Work: Challenge by Tom Vander Ark March 27, 2011
I climb not only for the solitude, beauty, phsical exertion, or bonds of friendship I found in the mountains, but also because of an attraction to danger. -Jim Wickwire
In sports, recreation, and in my work, I have always enjoyed a challenge. But more than anything before or since, being a public school superintendent is a challenge. I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks after meal with current and former superintendents. It’s a challenging job the way it is constructed–reporting to a revolving door elected body, inheriting a maze of contracts and policies, and whipsawed by state politics and budgets.
There is so much that I didn’t know when I took the job. It is hard to explain to the onlooker the shock of jumping in with both feet. The leadership agenda is quite similar to other sectors, but there are three fundamental differences: the people, the politics and the economics.
People drawn to education as a profession are usually mission-driven and caring, but often risk adverse. The bulk of veteran teachers signed up for an employment bargain that valued longevity and loyalty and granted classroom independence. Given who they are and what they signed up for, it’s important (for folks like me) not to assume that performance incentives and attempts to measure contribution won’t work the same way they do in business. Another surprise about the people in education is that it is even more seasonal than retail–you get one shot to change stuff in the spring around budget time and then you’re not supposed to change things during the school year.
Working with the other half of the people equation–parents–was a whole different shock. Parents can be either very critical or completely disengaged (or worse); in twenty years we have gone from “the teacher is always right” and “wait until your father gets home” to “my child is always right” and “my attorney will be contacting the governor”. Emotions are at an all time high as parents and teachers, who share the common experience of the American comprehensive high school, try to figure out why everything is changing so rapidly. They recall a high school experience that worked for them but fail to realize our high schools are not preparing most of our young people for their future.
The politics of public education are like a big red union, intense and multi-layered. Working between five elected officials and nine unions is topped only by the thousands of pages of state and federal regulations that govern education. Education is the most over-regulated, and as a result inefficient, segment of the economy. Decades of well-intentioned legislation have created layers of special programs, each having gained a vocal constituency, which now weigh down a system struggling to improve outcomes.
The economics of public education are convoluted. Money comes from a variety of sources in little buckets with lots of strings attached. School districts are required to monitor and report on program compliance not whether it made a difference for children. The accounting requirements look like they were designed by waves of politicians (because they were). All too often the schools that face the greatest challenges receive the lowest per pupil funding. Super majority requirements for renewal of local funding in some states give residents one of the few opportunities they have to say “NO” to the high cumulative tax burden which they bear. The inability of districts to fund school construction is a national problem created by the collision of the baby boom echo and an aging population growing weary of tax increases.
In my mid 30′s I was clear about my calling to work in education but found it frustrating and occasionally overwhelming. During my first few years as superintendent, I frequently found myself driving around wondering “what makes you think you can actually do this job?”. The weight is heavy, the questions are complex, the temptation to simplify and blame is great.
The superintendency can be frustrating and draining, but, like mountain climbing, the rewards are occasionally equal to the challenge. The greatest reward is watching students grow, whether it is seeing thousands of graduates becoming productive citizens, or receiving one letter from a child whose life was turned around by a teacher that cared. The challenges are greater than they could have described, but so are the rewards.
Every job has its own unique challenges and rewards. The challenges are often self evident, but the rewards can be subtle, long-term, or indirect. Take time to remind yourself of the rewards that make the work worthwhile. Taking up your calling, living into your voice and living out your convictions will challenge you physically, mentally and spiritually. Pick challenges great enough to stretch, rewarding enough to satisfy, but not so big that it will devour you. Don’t attempt a superintendency unless, like Wickwire, you have a strange attraction for danger.
by Hilderbrand Pelzer III
You can model success after a school that looks and feels like a prison!!!
I offer insight into the instructional and resourceful leadership strategies that I applied to transform a correctional environment into a high-functioning academic learning environment.
by Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Today, while participating, with my daughter and wife, in West Chester University's Student Acceptance Day, I think I heard the President of West Chester University say that only 27% of American have a college degree. I know I was listening to his speech closely, trying my very best to hear him say all the right things that would help my daughter feel good about the campus culture, academic program, and academic support. The President, along with the other speakers throughout the program, really put forth their best to connect with the audience and profile the university as an excellent college choice. As a result, my wife and I are excited about the role that West Chester University will play in supporting our daughter's next steps in life. However, getting back to the topic. Did I hear the President correctly - only 27% of Americans have a college degree (Bachelor's Degree)? So, I did some fact-finding of my own, and here is what I learned.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the American Community Survey, 52.7 percent of Americans have some college education, but only 27.2 percent have actually obtained a college degree. The percentages are higher in other industrialized countries. This led me to begin thinking. While there are a lot of people who have achieved success in life without actually obtaining a college degree, I am sure one factor that has prevented Americans from attaining a college degree is the cost of a college education. College tuition, at many colleges and universities, is just not always affordable. I don't care if both parents are hard-working, making decent salaries, and trying to put away savings for college for their child(ren). Tuition cost is just too expensive. And, there is no real correlation between paying a higher tuition for college and a better college experience or a successful career afterwards. In fact, colleges and universities that have lower tuitions oftentimes have the same accreditation and level of academic quality as colleges and universities that have a much higher tuition or more prominent name in the higher education world.
The average college tuition for four-year colleges can cost upwards to $35,000 or more yearly in tuition and fees (that is $140,000 for one child), according to the College Board. And, that does not necessarily include room and board, cost of books and computers, spending money for your child(ren), and other incidentals that go with attending college and enjoying college life.
Do you think the college tuition for four-year colleges is too expensive? Do you think the cost of college prevents people from attending? What must the United States do to increase the percentage of Americans attaining a college degree and outperforming other industrialized countries? What will be the impact of states' cutting their higher education funding to their public institutions be on the future of college attainment, which in some states is almost a 50% budget cut?
Please share your comment.
by Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Worldwide, experts say superior educational services for school-age incarcerated youths are a rarity. They say that reform of juvenile-corrections education is a decade or more behind reform in regular public schools and just has not been a priority. Making matters worse is the school-age youths arrested and awaiting trials as “adults” in county jail systems across the nation find themselves part of a larger system that fails to educate them. Local school districts and their local county jail systems blame each other for the problem. As a result, states and counties are in a state of uncertainty as to what to do. In Colorado, state legislators are considering legislation to work out who should and how to provide education to school-age students in county jails.
Do you think school districts should be responsible for providing public educational services to school-age students in county jails? Please comment.
by Hilderbrand Pelzer III
New Mexico State Rep. David Chavez wants to send kids on jail field trips. What? He introduced a bill Tuesday that would require public middle school students to visit jail and juvenile detention facilities, reports KOAT. What? Chavez believes the reality check would keep kids in school and out of trouble. What?
Has the middle school experience come down to this? Are you kidding me? Schools are taking field trips to jails and correctional facilities in order to keep middle school students in school and out of trouble. Whatever happened to focusing on teaching and learning in the classrooms and making certain that children are exposed to learning opportunities that inspire them and bring about experiences that will propel them toward a successful future. For instance, why not take a field trip to major universities to experience higher education? Why not take a field trip to the state capitol to experience the legislative process (and maybe even eyeball the state legislators foolish enough to vote yes)? Why not take a field trip to NASA to experience science and research? Why not take a field trip to the White House to meet and chat with the President of the United States? Why not take a field trip to the United Nations to learn about world affairs? Why not take a field trip to the headquarters of Google or Facebook or Apple or Microsoft, to learn first-hand the impact of technology innovations on the 21st Century? Why not take a field trip to the local school board meeting to ask the idle-sitting school board members, why they are allowing State Rep. Chavez to "require" them to visit jail and juvenile detention facilities?
In a speech to the National Association of Counties, Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General, said, "Put simply, it’s time to broaden our approach to juvenile justice – and to ensure that sound research and respected analysis are a part of our decision-making process." Is the Chavez legislation what Holder meant? I hope not.
The best way to prevent young people from engaging in activities that could lead to jail or prison is to keep them engaged in school. Schools must just do school! Expand the instructional core. Scale up teaching and learning practices in the classrooms. Graduate students with a quality education. And, most importantly, take field trips that will broaden the minds and spirits of young people, and provide them with experiences that consider their aspirations and great potential.
With New Mexico having the second lowest graduation rate in the country, according to Education Week's 2010 report, I am sure, if they try hard enough, the state legislators can do better than plan field trips to jail and juvenile detention facilities for students.
Are jail field trips an approach you think could work? Please comment.
by Hilderbrand Pelzer III
"As a nation, we have a moral and economic imperative to give every child the chance to succeed," says President Barack Obama. Do we really want every child to succeed?
County jails and prisons continue to receive an influx of new school-age youths at an enormous rate. While studies link that increase to the lack of education attained by school-age youths prior to their incarceration, matters are made worse when education programs in county jails and prisons are not effective. County jails and prisons can save some lives, but only if the transitional process begins early for school-age youths and quality educational opportunities are available to help them make a difference in their thinking process. Do you think spending tax dollars for education inside county jails and state prisons is a wise investment? Should school-age incarcerated youths have the opportunity to succeed? Please share.
by Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Recently I purchased and watched one of the year's best films: "Waiting for Superman." While I wasn't shocked about the film's look at public education in the United States, I was drawn to Anthony's story. As a young boy living in Washington, D.C., he had a will to learn and a belief in school. When asked if he was good in school, he quickly replied YES! However, he was once held back in the 2nd grade. What school does not have strategies to work with a 2nd grade student? All across the country, schools are failing to teach and engage 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade students. As a result, they soon fall behind academically and socially, and often times do not ever catch up. Once they reach middle and high school levels, they have lost their zeal for learning. That is not to say that they don't want to learn. They do! In fact, they dare teachers to teach them.
In the movie, Anthony was eager to learn. He participated in class. He wanted to excel. His family wanted the best for him despite their circumstances. Anthony and all the other children profiled in the movie inspired. Their stories are the reasons why public education in the United States must get better, today! Did you see the movie? What is your thought? Please share.
by Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Today’s thinking, by many people across the country, is that good educational leaders don’t necessarily need to have the traditional credentials or come from within the educational establishment. In fact, there is a national push to recruit non-traditional school leaders and superintendents.
With education across the country changing rapidly, and President Obama calling for innovation and creative thinking to build our country’s future, a variety of education organizations and individuals, from a variety of professional backgrounds, are providing outstanding educational opportunities for students. These organizations and professionals are leading and stepping up and taking responsibility for the education and achievement of students, once reserved for traditional principals and superintendents. What do you think about this trend in education? Do you think it is time to develop new educational leaders and expand the focus on who can and should lead schools and school districts? What do you think? Please share.
Welcome to my blog, a collection of articles and commentary about urban education and correctional education. Feel free to comment, send me an email, or share my articles with others on your Twitter or Facebook pages.