Sunday, June 26, 2011

Farewell, Mansfield...

Thursday marks the end of my tenure as principal of Mansfield High School.  Per usual, I still feel like I have a zillion things on my "to do" list before I leave.  I guess the more things change...

I leave this school community with a sense of gratitude for serving as its principal.  There is a strong sense of pride over so many programs- and there should be.  I am proud that I worked with an outstanding professional and support staff.  The past few years have been so challenging, with increased enrollment and numerous staff cuts.  Nonetheless, our students still have received a high-quality education and have achieved at the highest levels.  MHS' teachers are the heart and soul this school and that will never change.

I also appreciated the support of parents who pushed me to be a better principal. I had the pleasure of working with bright, personable individuals who strived to stay abreast of current research and best practices in education so MHS could continuously improve.  For that, I was blessed.

I thank my administrative team, assistant principals Mike Connolly, Dave Farinella, and Dawn Stockwell for their support and collegiality. Having a cohesive team is integral to having a smooth running school, and these three have always shown nothing but professionalism and loyalty to MHS.  I am a richer person for working with them.

Most of all, I will miss the students of MHS.  It's not exactly a military secret that being a high school principal can, at times, be a stressful job.  The times that always brought a smile to my face were when I was in a "kid's world," i.e., sitting in a class, watching any of our music groups perform, or being at an athletic event.  There was no stress here- only joy.  I will miss MHS students and their character and passion they bring to just about all things in our school.

So I leave.... a little nervous but also with excitement as I take on my new professional challenge as the Superintendent of Schools of the Mendon Upton Regional School District.  I invite you to stay in touch, as I will continue blogging, this time reporting the news of a new district but also commenting on other larger (dare I say relevant?) topics affecting schools.

Perhaps I should not say "farewell" here.  Instead, let me close borrowing a phrase I learned earlier this year... À Bientôt, mes amis.

See you soon, my friends...

Monday, June 20, 2011

What Happens When the "Everyone Gets a Trophy" Generation Fails?

As I have been coaching both of my daughters in softball for the past nine years, it invariably happens every game. A girl will strike out by weakly waving at a pitch two feet over her head... and then I'll hear it... Out of the stands or even from another coach, "Nice try! Way to go! Good job!" with the gratuitous clap.

I stand next to the dugout and think to myself, "Um. No.... that wasn't a good job."

Now don't get me wrong. I believe in giving praise to kids in my role as a parent, educator, and coach. To my girls who strike out or botch a play, sometimes I like to give them give perspective that this is only a game, and I'll usually remark, "Let's get 'em next time."

But false praise in the face of failure? Never.

As a coach, I stress the same things that I do as a teacher, namely: Learn from your mistakes. Effort = Achievement, so practice and you'll get better. Hard work makes all of the difference.

To be sure, those lessons were taught to me by my parents and my teachers. It was an era that was less politically correct, one where there was less emphasis on cultivating a child's self esteem and more on teaching life's lessons- where there are winners and losers and natural consequences.

This point is driven home in the cover story of the July-August 2011 issue of The Atlantic. This captivating piece, entitled, "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," details the repercussions of what is becoming more commonplace: parents' obsession with their children's happiness. The author, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, traces how the generation of young people in their late teens and twenties (commonly referred to as "millenials") are increasingly unable to handle adversity in life due to over-parenting. The end results are young adults who are anxious, withdrawn, and/or depressed while seemingly having all of the external trappings (e.g., great job, good salary, positive relationships, etc.) of a successful life.

The article describes some disturbing trends. First, college professors and administrators at competitive schools now refer to some freshmen students as "teacups" because without their hovering parents to ward off the pressures of school, they are very fragile and crack under the slightest pressure. Second, Gottlieb describes (see video below) an increasing phenomenon that today's employers cite. Twenty-something aged employees report that they feel "unappreciated" and devalued because they are not receiving praise from their bosses when they do a good job... over things that are in their job description!

As Gottlieb points out, sometimes failure for children is a very good thing, as it is part of the natural growth process. However, helicopter parenting does not allow this to take place.

Will the pendulum ever swing back the other way? From my perspective as a principal for the past 13 years, I see it getting worse. I have dealt with many cases throughout the years- from ones of discipline to academic integrity- where parents will "go to bat" for their child at all costs fully knowing that their child is in the wrong. With increasing regularity I hear appeals of administrative decisions for that very reason.

I also wonder if in K-12 public education we are part of the problem vis-a-vis "everyone getting a trophy"? In an era of grade inflation at all levels, do we feed the beast as evidenced by practices that lead to endless honor rolls and too many awards for kids?

All kids should- and can- achieve rigorous content and performance standards, but are they achieving them to the degree that we say they are? Nationally, the follow-up data tells a mixed story when looking at measures such as the number of freshmen in remediation courses and college graduation rates.

Are we all that parent in the stands, clapping and yelling "Good job!" for something less than that?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Congrats and Godspeed, Class of 2011!

To be sure, last Friday night was special. Our annual commencement exercises for the Class of 2011 resonated as a memorable ceremony, one where there was a positive energy and flow to the evening. It was a fit conclusion to a class that has achieved so much during some of the most challenging economic times.

I am very proud of all of our student speakers. Bridget Davis, the class president for all four years, (pictured above)started the program by reflecting on the accomplishments of the class. She concluded, "we can take prided in the fact that we've excelled in the classroom, in music and the arts, and on the playing field throughout our high school career."

Salutatorian Amanda Zieselman (pictured above), battling laryngitis, worked her speech around the famed Dr. Seuss work, Oh the Places You'll Go! Her reflection on the class took a longer view (the K-12 one), as she remarked, "Bottom line is we care about each other- we've laughed together and cried together, worked together and procrastinated together... and being in school for a grand total of 2,340 days or 14,040 hours we've become a family."

Valedictorian Walter Xu (pictured below) struck a cerebral tone with his speech, painting a wonderful metaphor around our feet and the steps we must take in life's journey. He spoke of two separate journeys he had recently taken- one to a clifftop in Nice and the other to the top of the Empire State Building (using the elevator to get to the top). The one to Nice was much more satisfying, as he could reflect on where he had been. "Though the steps may be fatiguing, enjoy every moment as it is the steps that will comprise most of your life," he surmised.

Per usual, the music selections were spot-on. Hats off to graduate Allison Passanisi (pictured below) for arranging and conducting the senior choir presentation of "Footprints in the Sand." Simply outstanding! The band's rendition of "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the orchestra's presentation of "Zooster's Breakout" were equally strong.

Good luck, Class of 2011!! You have served Mansfield High School well. I wish you nothing but the absolute best!

Above: Graduate Katie MacLeod performs "Pirates of the Carri bean" with the MHS Concert Band.
Above: Grad Ellie Farrell shows her joy at being presented her diploma by Mansfield School Committee Chair Mike Trowbridge.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Visit from the Commish

Above: Commissioner Chester with Superintendent Hodges, Jordan Jackson Co-Principal Kathy Podesky, and me.

Last Monday was a key day in our district as we hosted the State Commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), Dr. Mitchell Chester. As he usually visits at least district per week, Mansfield was selected for a distinct reason. Michael D'Ortenzio, Jr., a senior at Wellesley High School, and the chairman of the student advisory board for the DESE heard about the campus setup of the Mansfield schools from his colleagues of the advisory board, MHS seniors Justin Deckert and Jonathan Paz. Being curious as how to the campus environment could foster collaboration amongst the schools, D'Ortenzio suggested the visit to Dr. Chester.

During the two-hour visit to all four schools, the commissioner and Michael saw areas that have been focal points for the district in recent years. At MHS, they learned of the work done in the Academic Learning Center (ALC) and the recent efforts to make the response to intervention (RtI) process viable to assist students that are struggling academically. Highlighted was the use of student tutors from the ALC. These tutors work not only with their peers from MHS but also students from the Jordan Jackson and QMS. They also learned about MHS' Senior Option program and how the Career Pathways students perform internships throughout the district's schools and throughout businesses in the community.

Tours of the elementary schools featured an example of how technology is being utilized at Jordan Jackson, demonstrated a smart board lesson at Robinson, and highlighted the theater program at Qualters Middle School. Additionally they viewed the Little Hornets daycare program at the Robinson. This program enables over 75 MHS students to gain a meaningful hands-on experience through the child development coursework.

The visit concluded with a small reception in the MHS library for the guests, Mansfield teachers, students, and parents. During some brief comments and a Q & A session, Commissioner Chester stated, " “I like what I see. It’s down to business but a student-centered atmosphere. The campus atmosphere is not unique to Massachusetts but its not typical. I’m impressed with how Mansfield has taken advantage of that here.”

Virtually all of us were impressed with Michael D'Ortenzio, this articulate young man who will be continuing his studies as a political science major at Boston University this fall. He spoke with ease and confidence on such heady topics such as educator evaluation and school funding. It should be noted that as the chairman of the state's student advisory board, he is also a voting member of the state board of education. Kudos for the state for empowering student voice to this degree! With the young, bright Mr. D'Ortenzio, I could think of no better representation.

Above: Michael D'Ortenzio chats with Director of Buildings & Grounds Walter Parker

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Most Unflattering Pic Ever!!

If you didn't catch Friday's Mansfield News, there was a collection of photos from the annual MHS All Sports Boosters Club 5K, which was held a couple of Sundays ago. A great time, a great race, and most importantly, raises some decent money for our kids...

One of the photos was the one above... copied and pointed out to me by my assistant, Cathi Horowitz!! Yes, that's me, behind a mom and her 2-year old, ready to stroke out any minute as I cross the finish line!

Some random thoughts after seeing this:
  • I need to hit the salad bar.... really.
  • No, the 2-year old did NOT beat me in the race!
  • No, I didn't catch any flies...
  • No, I wasn't in pain.... just winded.
  • My finishing song on my iPod was "Boom Boom Pow" by the Black Eyed Peas. Ummm, didn't exactly charge me up!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

You Wouldnt Believe the Error's

I have to smile when I see my 15-year old daughter correcting her friends' poor spelling and/or grammar while they are posting on her Facebook wall. Most of their errors are in the they're/there/their and you're vs. your milieu. The usual suspects...

I say this since my daughters were practically toddlers, we have been playing a little game. We will be out anywhere- at a restaurant, shopping, at the park- you name it. I tell the kids, "I bet Daddy can find a misspelled word or bad grammar somewhere!" And true to form, I usually can find some sort of error on a sign, advertisement, or menu. It doesn't take much effort...

Over the past year something has jarred me. Maybe it's an epidemic. Maybe I just didn't notice it before. Maybe it's yet another snapshot of the dumbing down of America. I'll state it this way:

How many people were absent that day in the third grade when proper usage of apostrophes was taught??!!

The error I see time and again is the use of an apostrophe to make a noun plural. For example, here's a picture I took at my car dealership's service window last week when I got my car serviced:

"Saturday's"?? Saturday owns who or what at this Saab dealership?

Then there was this posting in the Mansfield News to advertise that MESA (the Mansfield Elementary School Association) would be holding a "casino night" fundraiser:

"Mansfield School's"?? Geez, don't they still have something called a copy editor??

Then there is the opposite grammatical crime: the sin of omission. For example, I was walking the east side of Providence and noticed this outside of a medical office:

"Apostrophe?? We don't need no stinkin' apostrophe at this doctors office!!"

The sad fact is that it didn't take me much time at all to find these errors and take some quick pictures on my Blackberry. Just like the game I play with my daughters...

Alas, I take comfort in the kindred spirits that have started the Apostrophe Protection Society, a group of Brits who formed the society with "the specific aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English language."

To summarize from our friends at the APS, there are only three simple rules for correct usage of the apostrophe:

1. They are used to denote a missing letter or letters, for example: "I can't" instead of "I cannot"

2. They are used to denote possession, for example: the dog's bone
... however, if there are two or more dogs, in our example, the apostrophe comes after the 's':
the dogs' bones

3. Apostrophes are NEVER ever used to denote plurals!

Simple enough, no? The apostrophe is your friend.... don't abuse it!!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Full Steam Ahead for New Teacher & Principal Evaluations

I don't know if you have caught recent pieces in the Boston Globe, but in the next 1-2 years evaluations of principals and teachers in the Commonwealth are going to look different. Very different.

As part of its Race to the Top application, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education laid out a vision that is very much aligned with the national conversation about teacher quality. This conversation, one led by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is really the next phase of accountability for improved student outcomes. It makes the case that no longer can teachers be evaluated using merely a "checklist" instrument where performance is rated simply as "satisfactory" or "not satisfactory." Rather, teacher and principal performance should be measured against professional standards and then differentiated into distinct levels. Furthermore, the best teachers should be recognized and rewarded accordingly and the lowest rated teachers should be replaced. The same is true for principals.

While differentiating teacher performance into distinct categories is nothing new (see the work of Charlotte Danielson and the Framework for Teaching, which has been in existence since 1998), the significant piece in this new vision is the use of the results of student assessments (e.g., MCAS scores) as a gauge of teacher effectiveness. This is truly the flashpoint on the issue.

DESE has detailed its Proposed Regulations on the Evaluation of Educators and is inviting public comment on them before the DESE Board of Education votes on their approval on June 28. The overwhelming majority of these regulations is based on current research and best practices. They envision a system where teachers would be evaluated against four major standard areas: Curriculum, Planning, and Assessment; Teaching All Students; Family and Community; and Professional Culture. Each of these standards contains indicators that detail a proficient performance. Using a rubric, evaluators would rate teacher performance in one of four categories: Exemplary, Proficient, Needs Improvement, or Unsatisfactory. The overall rating in a teacher's summative evaluation would have major implications. For example, a teacher would not be granted professional status without an overall rating of proficient or exemplary. A teacher with a needs improvement or unsatisfactory rating would be required to complete a "Directed Growth Plan" to address deficiencies within 90 days. If the teacher was non-tenured, he/she could be dismissed at any time.

The regulations also detail that "student performance measures shall be a significant factor in the summative evaluation." So for ELA, math, and science teachers, the expectation that aggregate MCAS scores and median student growth percentiles would be used as a measure is laid out. But what about the the 10th grade social studies teacher? Or the 5th grade art teacher? How do you measure their effectiveness in terms of student performance measures?

The regs state that "By September 2013, each district shall adopt a district-wide set of student performance measures for each grade and subject that permit a comparison of student performance gains." Furthermore, it states that each district shall have at least two measures per grade and subject area and these measures must be used to determine if the educator is having a "low, moderate, or high impact on student learning."

So what does this all mean?

With the exception of MCAS, the state is truly putting the onus on the local districts to figure out what type of assessments could be used for the purpose of demonstrating growth. This will have HUGE implications for a given district's assessment system and teacher assessment literacy. These new regs state that districts will determine the type of assessments that will be used as evidence of a teacher's effectiveness. Shouldn't these assessments be considered "high stakes" as well? These assessments should be fair, valid, and reliable. They should be collaboratively developed and evaluated.

These assessments should be performance-based, measuring a set of student outcomes and skills in an authentic way.

This doesn't sound like the traditional Scantron-based midterm or final exam to me...

If this is do be done, and done well, two things need to happen. First (as stated in the regs), all of this needs to be negotiated. I believe that this is a good thing, as without teacher ownership, none of this will work. Second, districts will have to make an investment in the degree of time and training in student assessment that is offered to teachers. If student performance measures are going to be used, this will be the heart of creating fair and credible evaluations of teachers and principals.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Au Revoir, Châteaulin

As I write this I am now home for the Easter holiday with my family. I came home three days ago and the rest of the exchange group will be coming home tomorrow. I am still reflecting on the experience, as it was one filled with new learning about people, cultures, and how we best educate kids.

Here’s some thoughts swimming around in my head, in no particular order of importance:

  • Many thanks to Monsieur Gérard Benoît and Madame Leslie Gildersleeve for inviting me to be part of this! They work so hard to make this exchange be the tremendous success that it is!! Magnifique!

  • Their counterparts at Le Collège et Lycée Saint-Louis, Mme. Magali Ropert and Mme. Ani Dréan, and M. Claude Toscer are top-notch teachers and people as well! Many thanks to them.

  • I’m glad I got the opportunity to reconnect with my friend and colleague, the director of Le Collège et Lycée Saint-Louis, Monsieur Olivier Queneuder. He is a fine leader, as he is bright and hard-working, but most importantly, has a vision as to where he wants to take Saint-Louis.

  • To Olivier’s wife, Ann Marie- merci!! You were a remarkable hostess and your excellent command of English was my saving grace as I fumbled through my attempts at French! You’re an outstanding teacher and mother!

  • The 13 students that Monsieur and Madame brought to France are amongst our best and brightest. They have represented Mansfield with nothing but class and pride. I certainly hope that this experience has been filled with meaningful learning for each of them. I know you’ve taken your command of French to a new level… I hope you’ve established some new, life-long friendships as well. I know I have.

À Bientôt!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Off on a Bit of a Tangent...

Why am I showing the above 19-second clip? Because it’s around a topic I feel very passionate about- universal health care coverage.

If you’ve seen Michael Moore’s 2008 documentary on the American health care system, Sicko, you are probably aware that he covers the French health care system quite a bit. Part of his coverage includes a look at how a team of French doctors (the SOS Medecins Service) still make house calls.

I mention this because the above is exactly what I witnessed the other night. My host’s six-year old son had an incessant cough for two days and it probably developed into bronchitis. Thus, Ann Marie, Olivier’s wife, called the doctor service at approximately 8:00 pm and a physician was at the home a little after 11:00 pm.

I was amazed by this efficiency and rapidly pointed out to Olivier and Ann Marie that something like this would never happen in America. At best, Ann Marie and her son would be in the pediatrician’s office the next morning.

The house call was not free; it cost 60 Euro. However, they will be reimbursed upon submitting the receipt to the National Social Security Service. But the money is not the big issue here- it’s piece of mind. This doctor came and spent 20-25 minutes with Ann Marie and Olivier, examined their son, gave them some pragmatic advice on caring for him over the next couple of days, and provided some prescription medication for his cough and congestion. Even though this doctor was a complete stranger, the care he provided was professional, personalized and reassuring.

Sure, this is only a snapshot… but it was one that made a huge impression on me. On the way things should be with regard to the way health care is delivered.

I think we could learn a lot from the French…

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Our Sister School- Le Collège et Lycée Saint-Louis

At face value, Le Collège et Lycée Saint-Louis is very, very different from MHS. First, the “collège” is the middle school and the “lycée” is the high school. The two levels serve approximately 900 students from throughout the region as many students travel from neighboring towns to attend the school. There are also another 24 students studying in a special post-secondary program in technology and communication.

Saint-Louis is private Catholic school spread out in five different buildings on a sprawling campus. Though it is a Catholic school, it does not have the feel of what we commonly associate with a parochial school. Students do not wear uniforms nor do they have to take mandatory courses in Catholic religious education. Parents pay only 400 Euro (approximately $600) for a year’s tuition. The school is clearly college preparatory in its mission as the overwhelming majority of graduates go on to study at a university. It also stands out as a contrast to Châteaulin’s public secondary school, which is smaller and has more of a career and technical emphasis, particularly in agricultural science.

Students attend school Monday through Friday from 8:00 am to 4:25 pm. This sounds like a long day, however the pace is very child-centered, and dare I say, sane. All students have 90 minutes for lunch and 20-minute breaks are built into the morning and afternoon sessions. During these breaks the younger students play outdoors and the older students congregate. All students have schedules that are akin to a schedule a student may have in college, where not all classes meet daily. Students must take scheduled one-hour classes in all core academic areas, English, the arts, and technology. Lycée students may also access German or Spanish as a foreign language. Interestingly enough, the sports teams (soccer, swimming, basketball, table tennis, and gymnastics) practice during the school day as their time is built into the schedule, not after school.

The class sizes vary. Some, particularly in the college, are very large as I observed over 30 students in one class. I also observed very reasonable ones in the range of 20 in the lycée. The interesting piece is that the students do not change classrooms throughout the day- the teachers do. Thus, the same cohort of students stays together all day in the same classroom, much like we do in the US with elementary school students. The teachers move in and out of classrooms based upon their schedules. It should also be noted that the typical teacher schedule involves teaching two classes per day. Time for planning, professional development, and parent conferences is built into teacher schedules and is highly valued.

12-year old students in the collège during an English class. (And yes, they stood for me when I entered the room...)

Despite these many structural differences… kids are kids! Monsieur Benoit, Madame Gildersleeve, and I have heard the same joys and challenges of teaching from the Saint-Louis teachers that we hear back home. Pride over the student who works hard and achieves at the highest level. Finding new ways to use technology so students may be effective communicators and problem-solvers. Frustration over students who are apathetic and don’t follow through on completing assignments. Students who are incessantly tardy. In that regard we are the same and share a common bond with our sister school!

Above is the student library of Saint-Louis.

The gymasium/field house of Saint-Louis. It is used for both students and community members for sports such as soccer, basketball, and gymnastics.

Some Thoughts on French Cuisine

Andrew Marcaccio, Joe Presentato, Andrew Moomey, Pritha Ray, and Chris Menz enjoy some croque monsieurs in a Paris cafe.

This is my first time visiting France and I feel the need to comment on the cuisine. I should say upfront that I generally dislike all stereotypes because they are often untrue…. But not in the case of French food! I can honestly say that I never have eaten more bread and cheese in the past week than in my entire life!

So far our diet has featured the following staples:

• French baquettes- at each and every meal
• Jambon et fromage (ham and cheese) everywhere in every possible configuration
• Crepes... they are a staple as a whole meal or as a dessert. In fact, it seems as if half of the restaurants in both Paris and Chateaulin are “creperies.” As a meal crepes are stuffed with ham and cheese, egg, or chicken. As a dessert they are stuffed with various fruits, jam, chocolate, Nutella (yum), or just topped with butter and sugar.
• Paté is very big, particularly in Brittany. Somehow salmon paté with little pickles on top doesn’t really cut it as a salad for me…
• A bottle of water is always on the table for all. For the adults, wine is always offered.

My best meal was prepared by my host, Olivier, the director of the exchange school: roasted duck! Tres bien!

I’m sure we would all agree that our very generous French hosts have served us wholesome, hearty meals. No one has gone hungry here!

And one more thing: French people really do say “Bon appetite!” before starting a meal! : )

If you like fresh bread and pastries, you'd be in luck in France... with a Boulangerie/Patisserie like this one in Chateaulin seemingly on every corner...

"Get thee to a creperie!!"

Friday, April 22, 2011

Châteaulin: Rich In History and Culture

The center of Châteaulin, as seen from the mayor's office.

The town where our exchange school, Le Collège et Lycée Saint-Louis, is located in Châteaulin. Located about 30 km north from the Brittany city of Quimper, the town is only about a half hour drive from the west coast of France. Nestled in between hills, the town is absolutely picturesque as the center is a typical French village, filled with shops, cafes, and restaurants constructed from stone in the 18th and 19th century. The narrow Aulne River cuts through the center of town, separating the north and south ends. This river used to be a vital part of the community, as salmon fishing was the major industry. However, in the past 30 years the salmon population has greatly dwindled, perhaps due to the increased use of fertilizers by farmers. As a result, there are less Châteaulin fishermen and the overall population of the community has dropped from 10,000 to under 6,000 residents.

As there are very few roads throughout the town, there are no “neighborhoods” per se. Other than the center of town, the community very much has a rural feel, as farms are plentiful. Nonethless, many of the conveniences of modern life, such as a supermarket, exist within the town.

On Tuesday the Mayor of Châteaulin, Gaëlle Nicolas (referred to as “Madame Le Maire”) held a formal reception for the MHS and St-Louis exchange students at City Hall. At the reception Madame Le Maire shared a bit of the history of the town and stressed how important Le Collège et Lycée Saint-Louis is to the community. In fact, all three of her children have attended or are attending the school and her daughter will be one of the students coming to Mansfield in October.

The view of Châteaulin from our exchange school, Le Collège et Lycée Saint-Louis.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bretagne is Beautiful

We are now in the village of Châteaulin, nestled in the heart of the French region of Brittany. Before I post anything about Châteaulin or our sister school Lycee et College de St. Louis, a few words need to be written about Brittany. Bretons are fiercely proud of their land and heritage... and they should be. To say this region of France is absolutely beautiful is an understatement. In the northwest section of France, the region is filled with hills and lush green countryside. It also contains beautiful beaches on the Atlantic Ocean and Breton Sea. Because this region has a temperate climate, people from throughout France and Europe are already enjoying holiday on the many beaches. In fact, most of our students (and myself as well) spent a portion of yesterday at the coast (the picture above is from Pentraz Plage). Nearly all of Bretons are Roman Catholic. In each village the church or cathedral is literally and metaphorically the center of the community. Each village has a church that is very old and rich with history. For example, the town of Locronan is a classic French village with cobblestone streets with shops, cafes, and restaurants (see below). In the "place" (French for center courtyard) is St. Ronan's Church, an amazing church built in the 16th century.

Also adding to the beauty of the area is evidence of the smart way the French have harnessed natural resources- through wind power. In fact, it is the third most popular way electricity is generated in France. Omnipresent through the hills are many large windmills that power turbines. Quite the majestic site!

Maxence, the 13-year old son of Olivier, my host here in Châteaulin, says the following. "I like the United States, but I like France more." After I smiled and nodded, he continued, "But most of all, I love Bretagne!"

Je comprends. (I understand.)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bienvenue a France!

We made it! After a six and a half hour flight and staying up for over 36 hours, this year's French exchange group made it to Paris on Wednesday morning at 6:30 am Paris time. It has been cooler than usual Paris in April standards, as it has barely made it to 55 degrees. Nonetheless, we have all had a great and educational time. Some high points in Paris included a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower (it really is stunning architecture and mind-boggling how high it is!), to the 12th century cathedral Notre Dame, to the majestic Palace of Versailles, and of course, to the Louvre. I can say that our students have been awestruck by the richness of the culture and history of these places.

It has been a whirlwind tour.... very little time to sleep as Madame Gildersleeve and Monsieur Benoit have run everyone ragged. Traveling the Metro, sight-seeing, shopping, and dining everyday from 8 am to 12 midnight!

Above, Lindsey Beise, Laura Burnham, and Ashley Goverman do their best thinking in front of Rodin's famous statue at the Rodin Museum.

Madame poses in front of the beautiful cathedral, Notre Dame.

Andrew Moomey, Chris Menz, Monsieur, and Andrew Marcaccio at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Poetry In Motion

Above you will see the 2011 Class AA Marching Band New England Champs-the Mansfield High School Percussion Ensemble! Courtesy of Arnie Harchik and the Mansfield Band Parents Association, above is a video of their first place performance at last weekend's NESBA (New England Scholastic Band Association) Finals at Dartmouth HS. The ensemble scored an amazing 94.05 (out of a possible 100 points), their highest of the season. This score certainly puts the group in an elite few in the nation... a perfect time as they leave this coming week to compete at the WGI World Championships. This annual event in Dayton, OH features the finest groups from throughout our nation and the world. In years past, the MHS ensemble has performed very well and has even outright won the competition for its class. Let's do it again!

Congrats to a great group of young men and women! There is hardly a night that I leave MHS after a meeting or a sporting event that I don't see or hear them practicing in the cafeteria, auditorium, or bandroom. Theirs is a journey that began last June, and along the way there has been a lot of hard work, meticulous planning, and perseverance. Regardless of the results of WGI, you have already been big winners and have done our school proud! Good luck!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

2011: A French Odyssey

I have to admit that I'm very excited to be going to France in three short weeks with Madame Gildersleeve, Monsieur Benoit, and 16 very smart MHS juniors and seniors that have been studying French for the past 4 or 5 years. As part of the annual exchange with our sister school, Les Eleves du Lycee St. Louis, we will be traveling first to Paris and then to the remote Brittany village of Chateulin, where the school is located. Once there, I will stay with my friend Olivier Queneuder, who serves as the principal of the school. In a sense, Olivier is returning the favor, as I housed him during his travels to Mansfield last school year.

So right now I'm anxious. Real anxious about my knowledge of the French language. For the last 2 months I have been hitting the Rosetta Stone software package, trying to get some of the basics down. It's just so hard to commit the hour or two per day that it really requires. So when I can, I sit on my family room sofa with my laptop, headset in place, looking at screens like this:

With the program there isn't a single word of English, as it is supposed to be "immersion" as you're learning the language intuitively, much like a young child would learn his/her first language. And that's pretty much how I feel with French.... like a toddler! I've been trying to tell Madame Gildersleeve of my latest French understandings, but they're still real, real rudimentary. Last week I was making small talk with Madame and Chris Kalinowski, MHS' math department chair, and Chris said to me, "Hey, how is the French going?" I made a grimace and Chris replied, "What's wrong? You're just not a French kind of guy?" With her typical dry humor, Madame replied, "Well he certainly knows how to say "The cat is under the table" real well!" (BTW, that would be Le chat est sous la table.)

Okay, maybe I'm being a bit impatient. I do, however, feel like a 7th or 8th grade student at QMS learning French for the first time. The Rosetta Stone takes some getting used to, as it does not teach the language in a classic way. From my three years of studying Spanish in high school, I am still expecting to conjugate verbs in the classic way. With this program.... not so much. At this point, I just have to give it my all and put my best foot forward. I am told that the French love the Americans that give a good faith effort at the language. Still... I'm kept up at night with nightmares that go like this:

Me, with a group of teachers from Lycee St. Louis:

Them: Que pensez-vous à l'administration d'Obama ? (What do you think of the Obama administration?.... Those French, they love talking politics...)

Me: La pomme est verte.

They start laughing hysterically. I break out in a cold sweat...

I need to hang with some French speaking people.... and fast! Excusez-moi, j'ai besoin d'étudier mon français!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Heart of It All... Innovation

This week a colleague shared an editorial piece entitled, "Riding the Innovation Wave" that was in Monday's Boston Globe. Written by the presidents of Harvard and MIT, the piece made the passionate plea that the U.S. must continue to invest in education and research if we are to truly emerge from this severe recession and lead the global economy. Citing other challenging times from our history (e.g., after the Civil War and World War II) the authors claim that "America restored its economic momentum with great bursts of technological innovation, paired with ambitious national commitments to education."

The editorial states that there must be a greater commitment to basic and applied scientific research, as in recent years the U.S. has fallen behind the research and development expansion efforts of such nations as China, India, Korea, Russia, and Brazil. Concomitantly, there must be an intense focus on K-16 education. After all, where is the next generation of researchers and developers going to get its inspiration?

The piece warns against having "a national deficit of inspiration," in that we must not give up the push to improve our schools despite the current budget shortfalls. Indeed, this is true now more than ever. We must press on with curriculum and practices that cultivate 21st century skills- problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, technological literacy, and perseverance to name just a few- as they are the building blocks of innovation.

As the price of gasoline quickly creeps back to $4.00 a gallon or you are watching the latest news report on the Japanese nuclear power plant crisis, consider the following simple facts about renewable energy in America:
I chose to underscore some issues with green, renewable energy, but I could have also posed problems from the fields of medicine, engineering, or information technology. I brought up these facts to illustrate the larger point: innovation is the key. We need to give our students the STEM content and skills so they can think outside of the box and have the opportunities to innovate.

Students in our classrooms will solve these problems in the not too distant future. Our very existence and livelihood is depending on them!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Garden Party Part Deux

Who would have thought a year ago we would be back at Boston's TD Garden for our own version of March Madness, i.e., the quest for the MIAA Division I South Championship?

What a magical, miraculous run it's been for both the boys' and girls' basketball teams this season. The boys' squad had an amazing 23-2 record (a perfect 12-0 in the Hockomock League) and went into the MIAA Tournament as the #1 seed. The girls' team had a historic season, going 24-1 (also perfect for its Hockomock League schedule, 13-0) and was the #2 seed.

As almost as a twist of fate.... or perhaps symmetry, this year's results were the opposite of last year's: the girls lost to the top-seeded New Bedford, 47-68 and the boys beat #7 Newton North, 48-46. Both championship games were very tight as both featured great play and several lead changes. Everyone saw very exciting games!

The boys will go on to face St. John's Prep, the Division I North champs, this Tuesday night at 7:45 pm in the Garden. To be sure, it will be a tough game. The winner will play the Western MA/Central MA game winner on Saturday at the DCU Center in Worcester for the sole state championship.

I am very happy for both of these programs. Coaches Mike Redding and Mike Vaughan and their staffs have done a remarkable job being first and foremost teachers, and setting the right tone for these great teams. Most importantly, this group of young women and men are great examples for students of all age in our community: they are fine students with great attitudes, have consistently demonstrated good sportsmanship, and have represented MHS with class both on and off the court. Congratulations!

If you are part of the half of Mansfield that wasn't at the Garden Friday night (This town travels remarkably well!), here are highlights of both games courtesy of the MHS alum/Sun-Chronicle sports writer Mark Farinella. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

MHS Student Making a Green Difference

MHS senior Lexie Raczka's passion was sparked in the 7th grade as a student at Qualters Middle School. Her science teacher, Mrs. Meredith Azevedo, had been teaching a unit on alternative fuels. She involved Lexie and the other students with a unique project her husband, Keith Azevedo, a MHS environmental studies teacher, had been developing: a "bio bus" that ran on biodiesel and vegetable oil. This meaningful, project-based learning caused Lexie to reflect on her own lifestyle and consumption. "I converted my whole life to become more green. I became more mindful about waste. I became completely vegetarian, eating organic foods. I got my family to start using green, non-toxic cleaning products," she recalls.

During Lexie's sophomore year her mother Mary had a chance meeting with Robin Organ, the executive director and founder of Green Schools. Green Schools is a non-profit organization with a membership of over 100 schools throughout Massachusetts and New England. Green School's mission is to create healthier and greener learning environments through education and awareness. Robin, a Mansfield resident, invited Lexie to be part of the Green Schools Student Ambassador Program, a network of 35 middle and high school students who have the opportunity to work on innovative projects to make their schools healthier through environmental community service. This year Lexie has served as co-president of the ambassador group. In this capacity, much of her time is being spent planning for the Annual Green Schools Summit on April 29. This year's summit, which will be here at Mansfield High School, will feature Governor Deval Patrick as a keynote speaker.

As the MHS Senior Project must involve a "learning stretch" and encompass rigorous research in a field of interest, Lexie's senior project is a fascinating one. Her essential questions are the following: What is the annual carbon footprint of MHS? And what can all of us do to reduce it? (As a side note, Lexie has to date calculated MHS' annual footprint to be 492 tons of emitted carbon- not including student transportation. This translates to the mass of 107 average size elephants!) As part of the project, Lexie has been and will be showing all members of our school community cost-free and cost-effective ways how they can reduce the carbon footprint. As she notes, "I want people to accept that it doesn't cost a lot of money to go green. Even something simple like using a reusable water bottle can save the landfill space. Every little bit counts."

With that can-do attitude and commitment, Lexie will be presenting the Green Schools latest project to the Mansfield School Committee this Tuesday night. The group is proposing that a greenhouse be constructed on the MHS grounds. Procured through fundraising and Rep. Jay Barrows' Together We Can organization, the greenhouse will be integrated with both the wellness/nutrition and environmental studies curriculum.

One person can make a difference.... and Lexie is the epitome of that special student with intelligence, drive, and passion that can make a difference in a school. That's why it is so fitting that she was honored at the State House yesterday for her fine work with the Green Schools Student Ambassador Program. I know she will continue to make the difference this fall when she enrolls as a freshman at Dickinson College as an environmental studies major.

Congratulations, Lexie.... and keep up the fine work!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

More Schools Embracing iPads

This week featured the launch of the much-ballyhooed Motorola Xoom, the tablet PC which industry analysts claim poses the biggest competition to the Apple iPad. However, I was struck by a front page story in Monday's Providence Journal, "Electronic Tablets Break Down Barriers in RI Schools." The piece highlighted recent efforts in some Rhode Island charter schools and districts to integrate this technology into the curriculum.

The story highlighted iPad use at the Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts, a brand new charter school in south Providence for students in grades 7-12. Over the Christmas break the school purchased the tablets for all 34 of its students and its six teachers. (The school has such a small enrollment due to the fact that it is only in its first year of existence.) The seventh grade students there use the iPads in all content areas- from doing research and essay writing for their ELA class to blogging about the political upheaval in Egypt in social studies. As a major tenet of the school is parental engagement, the school wisely established an online portal that allows parents to review their child's math homework assignments nightly. As standard protocol, students upload their work through the use of the iPad, adding to their sense of responsibility.

Critics such as Stanford University's Larry Cuban state that tablet PCs are just the latest technological fad and there is no solid research yet that shows the benefits on improving student learning. He further states that districts should be investing resources into more human capital, i.e., providing more funds to recruit, hire, and train more teachers, particularly in these economically challenged times.

I don't necessarily agree with that notion for several reasons. First, schools cannot be oblivious to emerging technologies. We need to train our students for the 21st century workplace, one where these technologies are omnipresent. (In fact, you could easily make the case that our kids already have these technologies in their homes!) The real challenge is integrating this technology into the curriculum so that it is not just a "flashy fad" that grabs students' attention, but is a meaningful tool that enables the use of higher order thinking. As I said in an earlier post, the use of a technology like the iPad is only as good as the skill of the teacher who is facilitating its use.

The teachers at Trinity Academy are also using the iPads as e-readers, citing the cost-effectiveness of using it instead of purchasing paperback novels. In fact, many of the books (such as the complete works of William Shakespeare) are in the public domain for free, which could be an opportunity for considerable savings. Also, as yesterday's Wall Street Journal reported, two of the nation's largest textbook publishers are dramatically expanding their textbook offerings for the iPad. This surely is a sign that the tablet is becoming more mainstream in K-16 education.

This is good news from a pragmatic standpoint. But are we there yet?? With a $500 base model price tag, it would be a cool $750 K to outfit all students at MHS with an iPad. Licensing fees for downloaded textbooks would also be a large expense. I believe that like most technologies, the price of the iPad will eventually come down (witness the now-$49 iPhone). We will reach a point in time where it will make more economic sense to go the tablet/e-reader route rather than make a significant annual investment in textbooks. This is the future.... and we are almost there.

Besides.... don't we want to save the backs of a future generation??

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Roll Out the Barrels!

Kudos to MHS parent Neil Rhein and Keep Mansfield Beautiful for keeping the Trash Can Be Beautiful program going this year! As it was very successful last year, the program allows residents to put their own creative stamp on the town's trash barrels. The project aims to keep our town cleaner and greener. Here's some of the specifics:

  • MHS mom and local artist Kristi Johnson will conduct two barrel-painting workshops on March 20 and March 27, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., at the DPW Garage on Route 106 in East Mansfield.

  • KMB will provide each participant or team with a town barrel that has been cleaned, sanded, and primed.

  • At the March 20 workshop, Kristi Johnson will get you started and offer suggestions and ideas. You have the option of taking your barrel home to work on it, but you must bring it back for the March 27 workshop.

  • KMB will provide basic paint colors and brushes, but you are encouraged to bring your own special colors or artist’s brushes. The paint must be an exterior acrylic latex. Please check the label to ensure that it works well on metal surfaces.

  • Barrels will be deployed in the spring to locations on town-owned property, as determined by Keep Mansfield Beautiful and the Mansfield DPW.

For more information, visit the program's web page or download and complete the registration form. The program has limited space, so register early!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thinking Outside of the (Black) Box

MHS Visual Arts Department Chair Scott Brigante had a problem. A big one.

Last spring when scheduling his department’s courses, he noticed that he had 40 students signed up for the popular and rigorous AP Art History class. With the loss of a teacher in his department due to budget cuts, he only had the available staff (himself) to offer one section of the class. As the course was a considerable source of pride for Scott, he had seen the enrollment grow from 11 to 40 in two short years. Turning students away by limiting the enrollment was not a tenable option.

He was committed to teaching all 40 in one section…. But where to put them?

Scott quickly thought of the Black Box Theatre of the MMAS (Mansfield Music and Arts Society) on North Main Street. This intimate, 75-seat black box theatre has been serving the southeastern Massachusetts community for 18 years, and as Scott points out, “It’s absolutely perfect space for the nature of the AP Art History class, where we frequently lecture, show slides of great works of art, and provide multimedia presentations.” He also notes that the pace replicates many of the larger lecture-style classes that students may experience in college.

MMAS Executive Director Ken Butler was very quick to agree to allow the AP Art History class to use the space on a daily basis. “It was a simple decision, as this partnership is part of our mission to foster the arts within the community. It has been great to offer this opportunity as the kids have been great… and it has also broadened the horizons for people who didn’t even know we exist.”

Thus, since the start of the school year the period 1 class meets either at the start or end of the day depending on the week’s schedule rotation. All of the juniors and seniors in the class arrive or leave using their own transportation. Scott is quick to point that all of them have lived up to the level of responsibility and freedom that they have been given, as attendance and punctuality have been outstanding. This is understandable, as they are committed to the course. However, the off-site learning environment also provides a nice variety to their day.

The MMAS recent expanded its space to include the Morini Gallery (for emerging artists to display their work) and studio space for rehearsal and educational needs. This allows for the students to spread out should they need to, particularly if they are conducting project work. For example, last month the students constructed models of classic Greek temples as they were studying the Ionic and Doric order of architecture. The additional space was invaluable for this purpose.

The non-profit MMAS also owns an undeveloped 10-acre parcel of land along Rt. 140. The AP students have also used that space to create some great photographs in a natural setting.

The bottom line is that this has been a great partnership for both MHS and MMAS. I see it as a win-win for the arts in our community. Kudos to Scott and Ken for thinking outside of the box. Let’s keep this going!

Above: AP Art History teacher Scott Brigante conferences with Ashley Upham and Amy Sterling in the Black Box Theatre.

Above: In the MMAS studio space AP Art History students Josh Marohn, Julia Ready, Megan Alksninis, and Jess Visconte create henna tattoos as part of their learning about Hindu culture.

Friday, February 4, 2011

"Be You" Offers Plenty of Insight

With all of the recent attention on bullying, never has it been more important to start at square one with students and have the conversations about the things that really matter. I'll call them the "other three r's": reality, respect, and relationships. With that in mind, the Qualters Middle School Parent Advisory Council (PAC) has been planning for the past year to provide programming for both students and parents to start this dialogue.

With that goal, the PAC sponsored nationally-renowned author and parenting expert Rachel Simmons to present to girls and parents. Ms. Simmons, the author of NY Times bestsellers Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls and The Curse of the Good Girl, is an educator and coach that strives to help girls and young women grow into authentic, emotionally intelligent and assertive adults. She delivered a workshop entitled "Be You" to over 500 MHS, QMS, and JJ parents and daughters on Thursday night and then to all girls in grades 6-9 on Friday morning. In all three workshops Rachel shared honest and open information on topics such ranging from friendship breakups to social media use/overuse. The feedback from participants has been outstanding!

Rachel is an engaging and dynamic speaker as she aims to relate to girls on their level, frequently citing examples from her childhood in exploring the dynamics of BFFs, or close girl-girl friendships. She used humor in describing how girls frequently "erase" hurtful comments/actions against one another and then ugliness manifests itself through later passive-aggressive actions. The key, according to Rachel, is practicing the expression of emotions through thoughtful, deliberate language. This is the essence of being a confident, assertive person. Moms and dads must also be cognizant that they are modeling these types of behaviors for their daughters at all times.

A tool she shared with girls- and one that could be applicable to anyone, for that matter- for conflict resolution with friends can be summed up with the simple acronym "GIRL": G-ather your choices, I-choose which one, R-easons are for my choice, L-et's think about the outcome. This process allows young girls to think about how their decisions will pan out and serves to make the right choice clearer.

Many thanks to the QMS PAC for all of their hard work in planning and organizing this timely and relevant event! Also thanks to Rep. Jay Barrow's Together We Can Foundation for co-sponsoring the event, and Glee Gifts and the Mansfield Savings Bank for their support. Great work!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

It's Global Climate Change, Not Just Global Warming...

Okay, I don't want this to be my second straight posting on snow.... I'll say that up front. But I want to share some random thoughts that have been floating in my head since our last snow storm a couple of days ago. Call it the science teacher in me.

During our last snow day on Thursday morning, I was sitting on my family room sofa, drinking my third cup of coffee and watching the Today show while waiting to get plowed out. Per usual, they featured the latest storm, having field reporters in various northeast cities comment on snowfall totals, school and mass transit cancellations, etc. etc.... I found it interesting that Matt Lauer then turned the show's attention to one simple question: Why? Why are we in the northeast seemingly in this pattern where we're getting socked with so much snow? For that answer Lauer turned to physicist Dr. Michio Kaku of the City College of New York, who theorizes that global warming could be behind this weather pattern. Here's the clip:

We can talk about "global swings" as Kaku refers to them, but one fact is irrefutable: our planet is getting warmer. In fact, 2010 was tied as one of the hottest on record since records have been kept since the 1880's. I for one believe it is due to human consumption of carbon, not merely natural ebbs and flows of climate. Kaku's theory of the increased moisture in the atmosphere due to the increased temperature of the Gulf of Mexico certainly is an interesting one. It makes you wonder when you piece these recent snowstorms together with the other weather "aberrations," i.e., floods in Australia, mudslides in Brazil and California, and hurricane seasons that seem to expand in duration and intensity each year. Are they all by products of global warming? Are they our new norm?

All of this made me have flashbacks to 21 years ago when I began teaching. I taught an Integrated Science class to high school freshmen where one of our major units was on climate. One of the the topics we covered was "the greenhouse effect," where we studied the effects of carbon dioxide, CFCs, methane, et. al. on the atmosphere. I showed my kids this fascinating video I taped from Channel 2 entitled "After the Warming". The premise was interesting: British broadcaster James Burke was presenting a documentary fictitiously recorded in the year 2050. In it, he reviews how climate change has affected human history for centuries. The second part is the most fascinating, as he "recalls" was has happened from the 1990's to 2050 to address global warming. In turns out that this part of the video (which was shot in 1989) is downright prophetic, as Burke tells of such stories as $5.00 a gallon gasoline, oil spills in the Gulf, American wars in the Middle East due to oil, cap and trade legislation, and massive refugee displacement due to climate changes such as drought and flooding. The film also paints a negative picture of the governments of industrialized countries (including the US) during the early 21st century for the failure to take meaningful action to control carbon emissions and proliferate alternative energy sources. Sound familiar?

A key part of After the Warming that I distinctly remember is a section where Burke describes potential changes to the Atlantic Conveyor, the convection flow of the Atlantic Ocean that carries warm waters northward and cold waters southward. Most importantly, this "conveyor belt" is a key influence on the weather patterns for the northeast states. As Burke (and many other climate scientists) postulates, as polar ice caps melt due to global warming, the ocean waters are less salinated, thus the slowing the flow of the conveyor. Such a circumstance could bring strange weather patterns to us. Here is a clip from After the Warming:

Right now the data from NASA suggest that this is indeed not the case, but the recent weather does make you think about these global climate change theories.... and how much evidence we must see before there is a true call to action.

Interestingly enough, the After the Warming video is available for free in its entire 2 hr format on on a YouTube page dedicated to all of the scientific videos of James Burke. It's wonderfully educational and I strongly recommend it.

Watch it on our next snow day!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Real Snow Job

It wasn't a good week.

First, our beloved New England Patriots sleepwalk through a playoff game against the hated NY Jets. Then we have another three-day school week due to a holiday and another snow day yesterday. That's three snow days in two weeks! With 50" of the white stuff already fallen in Mansfield this winter, I think we're all starting to get a bit snow fatigued.

In the past week I've had both teachers and students comment to me how challenging it can be when the school week starts up and then shuts down due to a snow day. There's a certain disconnect, where the momentum of learning can be lost. That certainly can be frustrating.

Plus, now we are looking at June 27 as our last day of the school year.... yikes! I have received an e-mail or two inquiring about that one. In the likely event we have another snow day before the end of the second semester (which is March 18), we will extend the trimester so there is an equitable amount of instructional days for third trimester.

I say "likely event" seeing that today is only January 22 and there's a full two months of winter joy left. Then in perusing the online edition of the Mansfield News, I see this wonderful article where Accuweather Chief Long Range Forecaster Joe Bastardi is forecasting that the remainder of our winter will be colder and stormier than usual. This graphic basically sums it up:

Ugggh! That La Nina pattern certainly is not helping us this year. We're in a bit of a rut.... and now they're telling us that there could be yet another big storm this coming Wednesday!

As my late grandmother always told me, there's no sense in worrying about anything we have no control over. So we'll take it one day at a time, keep warm, and pour another cup of coffee...

Think happy thoughts: 22 days until pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers. : )

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Walking Through the PARCC

Now that Massachusetts has adopted the Common Core Standards, what’s next? What is going to happen to the MCAS? I have had many teachers and parents ask me this question for the past few months. Now the picture is starting to become clearer…

Massachusetts is governing state in a new initiative known as the PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness in College and Careers), a state-led assessment consortium with 11 governing states and 26 member states (see above graphic) all together. In fact, Massachusetts’ Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mitchell Chester, is the chair of the committee of governing states. The U.S. Department of Education awarded some $170 million in Race to the Top funds to the PARCC for the development of a K-12 assessment system aligned to the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics.

The emphasis of the PARCC will be beyond the 10th grade MCAS, which establishes minimum competency in ELA and math. PARCC’s goal is to dramatically increase the number of students graduating from high school college-and career-ready by creating a next generation assessment system to help meet that goal. PARCC states are committed to building an assessment system that is internationally benchmarked and anchored in what it takes to be college- and career-ready; scoring “proficient” on the assessments will mean students are on track for the next steps in their education, including postsecondary education and training after high school. Thus, with the PARCC parents will receive results that state how well their child is progressing toward college readiness.

Administered in every grade from 3 to 11, the PARCC will be designed to test students' ability to read complex text, solve complex problems, complete research projects, excel at classroom speaking and listening assignments, and work with digital media. PARCC will also replace the one end-of-year high stakes accountability test with a series of assessments at key points throughout the school year. (For a schematic of that schedule, click here.) The mindset behind this is two-fold: 1) to reduce the weight given to a single assessment given over a day or two, and 2) to incorporate more formative assessment, i.e., giving teachers more ability to access useful information on how well their students are learning. So the turn around time of the PARCC results is shortened, students in the middle and high schools will take these shorter but more periodic assessments online.

Some timelines that have been established for districts: 2012- all ELA and mathematics curriculum should be aligned with the Common Core Standards, and the 2014-15 school year- the administering of the PARCC in Massachusetts and all consortium states. The consortium plans to start the piloting the PARCC during the 2012-13, but it has not yet been determined in which states and with which grade levels. Seeing that Commissioner Chester is chairing the governing states, it wouldn't exactly be shocking to see a pilot in several districts or perhaps even statewide during the 2012-13 school year.

Much work lies ahead for us at MHS. It will be challenging but also exciting, as it all has implications for improving our curriculum, our assessments, and how we design and deliver them. More on this to come...