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Opening the Door: An Alternate Path for Public Education

Today's guest blog is written by Dr. Michael J. Hynes, the Superintendent of Schools for the Shelter Island School District.

"I saw firsthand how this "reform agenda" was beginning to suck the life out of creativity inside the classroom and leave in its place anxious children and discouraged educators."

Our public education system is truly at a crossroads. The question is, do we just sit passively and watch big business tycoons, lawmakers and our elected educational leaders at the state and national level to continue the perpetuation of unproven mandates and lies? The over testing of our children and super standardization of curriculum, coupled with stripping our teachers of their professionalism and dignity is not what's best for our kids. There is another way...

This past October, I found myself becoming more and more frustrated with the New York State Education Department's (NYSED) rollout of the Common Core, and the rest of their reform agenda. In addition to the implementation, I saw firsthand how this "reform agenda" was beginning to suck the life out of creativity inside the classroom and leave in its place anxious children and discouraged educators.

Interesting enough, there were two other Long Island superintendents, Dr. Steven Cohen from Shoreham Wading River, NY and Mr. David Gamberg from Southold, NY who not only felt the same way I did, but were already having conversations about the book Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan.  

As Steven, David and I met to discuss the book, we decided to provide a platform for a constructive discussion about what successful schools do in other countries, namely Canada and Finland. Three months later, the three of us co-organized an education forum on March 13th at Stony Brook University. It was called Public Education at a Crossroads.

Book co-authors and education advocates Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves joined our panel which included Steven Cohen, renowned Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg, award winning South Side High School principal Carol Burris, and Plainview-Old Bethpage assistant superintendent Tim Eagen.

David Gamberg moderated the event and I represented the Shelter Island School District as their superintendent. Our panel spoke about an alternate narrative for public education but interesting enough, many educators and parents don't realize there is alternative. We do not have to settle for what the U.S. Department of Education and NYSED continue to feed us.

Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves focused on building the capacity of teachers and the positive use of their talents. They also articulated how New York State's model for evaluating teachers was designed as a deficit model construct. Our panelists had much to say about how little teachers have opportunities to work together and how they usually teach in isolation. "The worst teachers teach alone" and don't collaborate with others. "How hypocritical to put them in competition?" Dr. Hargreaves said, in reference to proposed teacher incentive programs tied to student test scores.

Hargreaves and Fullan explained that the "professional capital" approach toward education is about creating a comfortable atmosphere for teachers to encourage curiosity and creativity in students. They also described the U.S.'s current direction with education as "business capital" since the focus of measuring academic success has shifted toward the reliance of test scores and unproven methods to evaluate teachers and principals.

From a practical sense, teachers need time to collaborate. Most respected professions allow for this. School leaders must break the industrial revolution mental models of public schools and how they operate as a system. Now more than ever leaders need to make difficult decisions and find ways to alter the internal structure (schedule) of their school day to promote "social capital". This is where teacher collaboration comes into play and why it is so important.

The Shelter Island School District has taken the bold step of designing a schedule which provides our teachers with forty minutes every other day to meet with their peers. They meet to discuss best practices, share ideas and focus on the type of programs they would like to design for our students. I do not micro-manage them while they meet. The results have been nothing short of astounding.  Imagine that!

Since our education forum, three of our eastern Long Island school districts decided to partner together and begin a district-district collaboration process to promote our human and social capital capabilities. Dr. Cohen, Mr. Gamberg and I are committed to walk the walk of this alternate path for public education.

In an effort to change the state's current path toward their misguided view of public education, we are also forming a new lobbying effort called "Summer 2014 Education Action Institute." It is currently in the conceptual stages. Its purpose is to rally parents and community members to encourage elected officials to participate in future workshops and events.

Public Education is at a crossroads but it is not broken. Many will lead you to believe it is. Private sector business billionaires do not have the answer nor do our elected educational leaders. Our answer and solution is not through over-testing, standardizing and evaluating every single little thing within our schools. It's about trusting and building the capacity of our teachers. The door is open to a better way of educating our children. The question is... will you enter and join us?

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