Graduation Degradation

Graduation Balloons

My son had his Fifth Grade graduation ceremony this week.

The concept of graduating from elementary school seems odd to me. Don’t get me wrong, the ceremony was lovely and I don’t object to giving the kids a farewell. But do we have to call it a graduation?

It smacks too much of giving every child a trophy for showing up.

When I was a kid growing up in New Zealand we didn’t even have high school graduation, let alone a rite of passage in the middle of our school careers. The only person who got a dinky little statuette was the player of the day at rugby or cricket; they kept it until the next game when the coach deftly awarded it to someone else. So yes, I start with an old school bias.

Fifth Grade is not the end of school. You don’t sit any exams to qualify for middle school. It is not the culmination of years of focused study. It is just an arbitrary line that divides children in one school building from another. In our school district, elementary school used to run through Sixth Grade so it is a flexible standard at best.

Finishing Fifth Grade is expected. Yet, even in our middle-class suburban school some kids graduate reading or doing math at below grade level. This is a problem that should be addressed. Letting these kids graduate before they are ready seems a rather perverse way of dealing with them. What sort of message does it send to a child who graduates when they don’t possess the skills to perform at the next level?

I’m not advocating for holding kids back. Clearly that is a vexing issue beyond the scope of this column (if you are interested here is recent study). But, we should be throwing resources at these kids rather than just handing them diplomas.

I get that they are young, and I am all for letting kids be kids and not forcing them to grow up too fast but, sometimes the harsh realities of life get in the way of childhood innocence. If a child is not operating at grade level it is too serious a problem to just be shifted on up to the next school or the teacher on the floor above.

Fifth year graduation is not just a pretence it degrades the value of a real graduation. I mean a college graduation. That is the graduation that is not a foregone conclusion. The one you have to work towards and pass. You might take an extra years or you might fail to finish at all.

In 2012 only 59 percent of first-time, full-time students who began a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution six years earlier had completed the degree at that institution, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nothing guaranteed about getting a degree. You have to work at it. Graduation is a reward not a right.

This matters because these Fifth Grade kids are eventually going to encounter the real world where there is competition and hierarchies exist. Where you have to deal with disappointment. Where showing up at college or work is no guarantee you will graduate or get promoted.

Back in the days when I worked I remember my boss rolling his eyes about one of my Millennial colleagues who threatened to quit because he had worked for a year and not got a promotion. I wonder how many “graduation” ceremonies had fertilized his expectations over the years?

Let’s rename the graduation event we had at school this week a leaving ceremony. We can acknowledge it is time of transition in the kids’ lives. There is no harm in giving them a good send off.

In the last week my son’s class had a students-only party, a field trip to Broadway and they worked on their legacy project. The legacy project is about giving back, which is a quality we should be encouraging in our children.

Last year’s Fifth Grade raised money to put the school name in big letters above the door to the auditorium. This year the departing class has planted native flowers and shrubs on a once overgrown bank behind one of the school playgrounds.

Of course, these projects are heavily reliant on the parents. We had to clear the slope of invasive weeds, lay landscape fabric and buy the plants before the kids came out and put them in the ground. Now the parents need to mulch the beds and water the plants over the summer.

But still in the years to come, I hope these departing Fifth Graders will look up that slope and see the little native woodland they had a hand in restoring. Maybe they will only appreciate the legacy they had a part in creating when they have experienced the ups and downs involved in graduating from college.

The Fifth Grade Legacy Project

New York Parents to Call for Time Out On Gov. Cuomo’s Education Reforms

Parents across the State of New York are mobilizing against a series of education reforms being championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Governor’s plan was unveiled in the final hours of the State Budget negotiations, on March 31. It tied adoption of a new teacher evaluation system to increased state aid for schools and passed the Democratic controlled legislature within hours of being made public.

Groups as varied as teacher’s unions, school administrators and Parent Teacher Associations have come out in opposition. The New York State PTA is advocating a Time Out as an act of peaceful civil disobedience.

On Friday, the PTA Council in the Mamaroneck Unified School District, in suburban Westchester County, New York, is asking parents at the District’s four elementary schools to stage a sit-in after morning drop off. My children attend one of those schools.

Parents are being ask to sit with their children outside the school building until the bell signaling the start of the school day tolls, then collectively call for a Time Out, by making a ‘T’ sign with their hands.

The aim is to get the politicians in Albany to stop the process of reform that is on track to be implemented this year, and delay any changes until the start of the 2016-17 school year. The PTA Council wants an extended period of public debate in the hope that the reforms can be modified.

That will be the real battle.

In his State of the State address in January Gov. Cuomo signaled his intention to tackle teacher evaluation by calling a system, in which less than one percent of teachers were rated as ineffective last year, “baloney.”

His solution was to reduce the weight of principals’ observations to 15 percent of a teacher’s rating. The judgment of an independent evaluator from outside the school would make up 35 percent, while half would be determined on students’ performance in state test scores.

But many districts, including Mamaroneck, complain they have implemented reforms to the teacher evaluation system, known by its acronym APPR, Annual Professional Performance Review, and the Governor’s proposal is a wasteful power grab.

Dr. Robert Shaps
Dr. Robert Shaps

In a recent blog post “How To Fix Public Education in New York State” Dr. Robert Shaps, the Superintendent of Mamaroneck Public Schools likened the current reform process to a Monty Python movie.

Dr. Shaps and I were unable to arrange an interview for this story on short notice. To call him cautious or calculating would be too negative, but he is definitely a man who thinks before he speaks. So it is no surprise he didn’t leap at the chance to be in the media spotlight.

Since arriving in Mamaroneck in 2010 he has set about implementing a new APPR. School principals and district administrators conduct a minimum of six unannounced mini-observations of each teacher every year. Feedback is given to the teacher soon after.

In a February article in the Lower Hudson Journal News “Stern: Schools can grade teachers without Cuomo’s help” Dr. Shaps framed the evaluation process as a partnership with the teachers.

“We have established a norm that people will walk into your classrooms, but there is a trust that comes with having a professional dialogue,” he told the Journal News.

While the classroom observations are unannounced the goal is to help the teachers improve, and relies on a level of trust built between the staff and the administrators. To that end everything is documented. Teachers are told what is expected of them and given ample opportunity to meet their goals

The point is that an outside observer couldn’t develop the trust and the intimate knowledge of each classroom required to pull off such a detailed teacher evaluation. The Mamaroneck School District makes over 3,000 visits to nearly 500 teachers a year; is the State really going to invest that much time and money in teacher evaluation?

Advocates of reform like to portray district-level APPRs as the rubber-stamp of the status quo. While that might be true in some cases, Mamaroneck is not one of them. Teachers have been denied tenure. It happened in my children’s school last year. As Dr. Shaps told me in the aftermath of some parent dismay at that particular termination, the tenure system puts the onus on him to make the right decision. He gets one shot and is totally invested in making an informed choice.

Chatsworth School PTA President, Kerry Roberts Sneyd calls for a Time Out.
Chatsworth School PTA President, Kerry Roberts Sneyd calls for a Time Out.

Kerry Roberts Sneyd (pictured), President of the Chatsworth School PTA, who is one of the Time Out protest organizers says, “The district has spent considerable time and effort creating a culture of collaboration in the classroom, that seems to be working.”

Her concern is that the governor’s approach would be more judgmental and would result in a step backwards towards a higher-anxiety classroom environment that is too focused on testing and outside evaluators.

Roberts Sneyd shied away from any policy prescriptions, calling instead for all interested parties to get together and explore what is working in terms of teacher assessment in different districts around the state in a less-rushed manner.

“There is a real risk to the joy of learning. Why not explore teacher accountability around the state and see what works?” she asked.

Mamaroneck is not an underperforming district, nor does it have a particularly activist parent body. Student opt-out rates on the 2015 state test were well below ten percent, much lower than some districts. The district’s students performed “extremely well” compared to the state-wide averages on the 2013-14 state tests according to Debbie Manetta, the District’s Director Public Relations.

While parents and administrators have some concerns about the reliability of the tests, their opposition to the proposed reforms is not driven by the fear of being given a failing grade.

Their motivation is to come up with the best solution for their child’s schools. If that means defending an effective local system from the heavy hand of Albany, they will raise their hands in a ‘T’ and call for a time out.