The World According to Principal Gladhand, Dept.

In my book “Confessions of a 21st Century Math Teacher”, I described my experiences as a long-term sub at a middle school in California. I filled in for a math teacher who was put on a special assignment for reasons never fully explained. (Or at least explained why her special assignment occurred with little notice; i.e, why the principal had two days to find a sub who had a math teaching credential.)

The principal at the time was in his first year at this school  so things were in a constant state of transition.  It was also during a time when California was about to implement Common Core the following year, and schools were also transitioning to the new standards.

He scurried around the school with a wide grin on his face and was always outwardly friendly and optimistic. He presided over staff meetings with messages of the future; i.e., what it would look like next year when Common Core went into effect.  “No more teacher at the front of the room telling students to open their books to page X and work on the problems.”  The Superintendent of that particular school district had a distinct philosophy of education that he outlined in a paper he published on his web site that was strictly constructivist. Students construct their own knowledge. Since we now live in an age where facts/information can be Googled, facts were no longer as important as they once were.  Facts  in the Superintendent’s vision were “low level” and his aim was for “higher order thinking skills”.  I.e. teach students how to learn, and they’ll get the facts on their own.

The new principal was and has been an adherent to such philosophy.  Although I didn’t give him a name or nickname in my book, he has stayed in my mind and acquired the name of Principal Gladhand.  Gladhand writes a weekly newsletter to the parents, available at the school’s website. I read it every week to see what the current level of thinking is.  The most recent one summarizes his last “principal’s coffee” in which he chats with interested parents (i.e., those who don’t have a 9 to 5 job and can take the time for such activity) about their concerns and his vision(s) for the school.  I reproduce his latest here and offer an occasional translation, but am interested, of course, in your reactions.

We had a good turnout at our principal’s coffee on Thursday. For those of you who couldn’t make it, our casual conversation covered a broad range of topics. Up first was high school- many of our 8th grade parents are looking ahead, and rightly so- we’re only a few months from our students transitioning to their next step. We discussed student concerns and the fact that our students go to the high school well prepared.

We had a lengthy discussion about the topic of Powerschool, students turning in work on time, and how we communicate student progress to parents. This has been a challenging topic for our staff of late because our focus and our curriculum have shifted significantly from when parents were in school. One fundamental shift in curriculum is that students are not only expected to know facts, but are expected to be able to use or connect them in new and novel ways.

A bit of confusion here as to the difference between a novice and expert. Sweller has written about this, but in short, expert’s are able to make connections in new ways through experience and much practice which novice’s are still in the process of acquiring. At the novice stage, such connections are usually guided by the teacher, but in the ed reform world, if a student can’t do that it’s because teacher’s have failed to teach students how to learn and acquire the cognitive skills which apparently exist independent of any prior knowledge.

To truly master a concept takes time and all students learn at a different rate.

See above; difference between novice and expert

In the classroom, this has impacts on how we teach. More teachers are allowing students extra time on assignments, retakes on tests and re-dos on assignments.

Ah, so that difference is accounted for by allowing for extra time, and retakes on tests, etc.  Then how is this preparing them for high school; he did say students left the school well-prepared. Could it be extra help via tutoring and learning centers? They are doing a burgeoning business where this school is located.

This shift does not mean students aren’t expected to do the work. In fact in most of our classrooms, lessons are structured so students do more of the thinking work than the teacher (as it should be). In class, this looks like students talking, questioning, challenging and defending answers, and looking for novel approaches to problems rather than simply answering comprehension questions or worksheets. 

The standard dictum of ed reform: Worksheets-bad; discussion and talking-good

What it does mean is there is less focus on deadlines (though they are still important) and “one and done tests” where students don’t have an opportunity to ever go back and show they learned the material, and more focus on students actually understanding what they are supposed to. As you can probably guess, then, our old, easier “do this and get the points, then that’s your grade” methods don’t show well enough where our students are on their path to mastery in the way we want. 

It’s obvious that he hasn’t considered the possibility that if teachers taught in a more explicit and direct style with important topics emphasized and procedural skills mastered that there wouldn’t have to be so many test re-takes? He hasn’t considered it because he thinks that such a traditional “old ways” approach has failed thousands of students.

Many of our teachers have a foot in both worlds- trying to make our old ways of reporting fit a learning philosophy that embraces deep understanding and allowing for more time and attempts. 

This is likely true; some teachers are trying to teach in a traditional manner because it has been shown to work; at the same time, they need to show they are toeing the party line. A difficult situation for any teacher.

Parents need good information to help their kids achieve. Teachers want parents to partner with them. I will be bringing this issue back to staff to work on ways where we can meet the informational needs of parents while providing a clear understanding of progress towards standards. I will be bringing this topic back to our staff to work on ways we can more clearly communicate student progress to parents. 

In other words: “Parents do what we say, and don’t question it. We will pretend we’re interested in what you have to say.”

Your reactions on this are welcome as always.


4 thoughts on “The World According to Principal Gladhand, Dept.

  1. I’d like to add one more area where School Admin and School Boards really value parents…school fundraisers. In other words, anything that detracts from actual evaluation of how their kids are doing in school are most welcome. But please don’t tell us when what we’re doing ain’t working. Cuz then we don’t want to hear from you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What can parents do at home who believe in direct instruction do to combat this mindset?

    We have dealt with terrible math curriculum and constructivist teaching practices for over 15 years in our district (TERC Investigations has been replaced by Eureka). Our MS principal sounds just like this P. Gladhand in her emails to parents. There are no “old-school” teacher holdouts in our small district either. I remember the impassioned claims our K-6 principal made at a parent meeting in 2013/2014. Incoming 7th graders were failing math in high numbers; instead of addressing problems with instruction, he shifted focus to the “new standards” Washington was adopting as a panacea. Everything would be better and parents need not worry…. We once had a vibrant math community that routinely sent kids to MathCounts competitions (1990s). Geometry is no longer even offered at the MS as of 2016. How sad is that?

    As Ms. Houle states, districts don’t want parent involvement unless it brings in money. They hold monthly meetings and get excited about fundraisers but I’ve been stonewalled every time I bring up what I see as problems in math instruction.

    Recently, the debates have heated up with highly capable math classes because they are not seen as equitable. The district wants to have opt-in advanced classes that all students can take never mind the level of understanding students possess. It is already normal for students to take multiple class periods to complete a math test. They aren’t covering enough material during the year because the students are self-pacing. Now they want all kids to track together. It is a disaster!


  3. “… our casual conversation covered a broad range of topics. Up first was high school- many of our 8th grade parents are looking ahead, and rightly so- we’re only a few months from our students transitioning to their next step. We discussed student concerns and the fact that our students go to the high school well prepared”

    Here it is. Right here. High school is only a few months away. Reality. Traditional teaching with mastery and testing of skills and content knowledge. Kids and parents are finally catching on and freaking out. The after-school SSAT prep test I used to teach for 7th and 8th graders was where I had students telling me that they were completely stupid. This was NOT a casual conversation for those parents.

    How many honors classes can or should a student take? GPAs include freshman year (omg!) and it’s all meaningful for college. Reality versus low expectation fairlyland. And here is Principal Gladhand trying to tell them that everything is OK. Worse, he is trying to tell them that what they were doing in K-8 was not low expectations, but something better with more thinking and understanding. I imagine that the parents’ heads were exploding.

    Some parents might have gotten an inkling of this when their kids got placed into the slow math track in 7th grade, but they were told that kids can cross the gap. I knew some parents who felt like they got whacked in the head and who demanded that their kids get placed in the proper Pre-Algebra class in 7th grade and then took it upon themselves to make it work. I suspect they caught on for the other classes.

    This transition from K-8 fairyland to high school is something that all parents now have to figure out on their own. The K-8 teachers won’t tell them and the traditional high school teachers don’t want to get into that war. Some kids do make the transition and NOBODY discusses how that happens. It’s not natural and now it’s worse because of full inclusion and lower expectations.

    In our schools, seventh and eighth grades are the transition grades between the fuzyland of K-6 and reality-driven high shcool. Our state requies class separation with teachers who have subject certification. They begin to talk more about content knowledge and mastery of skills, and they talk about “toughening kids up” for high school. No more talk of natural learning at your own speed using low expectation CCSS-based rubrics.

    You might think that parents would finally rise up and complain, but we’ve had years of submission training using what I’ve called preemptive parental attacks. We parents have to be supportive or risk being labeled as one of “those” parents. On top of that, it’s really improper to question anything about the lower expectations related to full inclusion. We can’t even talk about the differences between a full inclusion environment versus full inclusion (age tracking) academic classes. They just claim the success of differentiated instruction and in-class grouping which reflects home tracking and is more about enrichment than acceleration.

    The only success we parents have had was to question the K-8 curriculum in two specific areas: language and math. Parents complained (successfully) that what the middle school was doing did not provide a proper curriculum path to optional freshman classes of Geometry in math and a second year language class. They could not argue that at any philosophical level. This caused the elimination of CMP math in the middle school and it was replaced by proper Glencoe Algebra texts. This at least provided a proper curriculum math track to AP caluclus in high school. However, that pushed the wall and preliminary parental wake-up call to the end of sixth grade.

    As I’ve mentioned many times, I got to calculus when I was growing up with absolutely no help from my parents or tutors. This is not possible now and CCSS institutionalizes it. The College Board sees the problem and is pushing content and skill Pre-AP classes in ninth grade where kids will somehow magically go from a proper Algebra I class (remediating skills along the way), to AP Calculus as a senior. The only way to do that is if you double up in math or take a summer class. How many of the kids who didn’t get outside help and get to Algebra I in 8th grade will be able to do that?

    Principal Gladhand expects parents to join them in fairlyland while their kids have to struggle with the reality of high school and college. There is a big reality wall that exists between K-8 and high school, and kids and parents are on their own to figure it out. Educators care about statistics and low end proficiency, but we parents care about high expectations and maximizing individual educational opportunities.


  4. When my son was in 7th and 8th grades, I remember trying to prepare him for the reality of high school. His teachers were saying they they had to toughen them up. No more redos. I never quite understood that since my son never got any redos and I don’t remember it as an option for homework or tests. It was more like lower expectations and lower emphasis on content and skills. They knew that for many students, however, their high school paths expected a lot more than what K-6 had given them. They seem to know exactly what’s going on and put the onus on the students and parents. Freshman year is an awful wake-up call for many students.

    I was once told by a teacher that it wasn’t the lowest level or the best students who struggled the most, but the ones in the middle. It’s not as if the K-8 schools worked well for best students. It was just that they were the best supported at home and were most able to make the nonlinear change to honors classes. However, I still saw many of the best students struggle all through high school with the work load and stress. Add to that all of the pressure on obtaining credentials for extra-curricular activities they will use on their college applications … and don’t get me started on involuntary volunteer work.

    I remember us parents wondering what to do about honors classes. One parent (not the school) with older kids said that yes, many kids take all honors classes. I figured out that the old College Prep I had growing up was now the “honors” level. Their high school has 4 levels of classes – General, College Prep, Honors, and AP, but they changed the General level to include only those kids who were behind grade level at least two years. They pushed all of the lazy (or less behind) kids into College Prep because all kids are now pushed towards college. Parents and kids who wanted to be properly prepared for real college figured this out and moved to the honors level. However, those teachers immediately put the traditional teaching curriculum screws to the kids. My son and many others took all of the honors and AP classes they could. It was a new world – but I no longer had to help my son.

    K-12 educators are unable to be honest with parents of kids who want a proper path to college – what I had as College Prep when I was growing up. Worse, like Principal Gladhand, they are outright lying to parents about the new world of full inclusion and lower expectations K-8. Their talk of thinking and understanding is just cover. They know the problems.

    Their fundamental lie is that less (full inclusion) is somehow more. That’s why it’s now almost impossible to get to AP Calculus in high school without help at home or with tutors. It’s why there is a lot more effort required by unsupported students to make the non-linear change in high school to a proper college prep path. However, K-8 ed-school pedagogues don’t really care about the kids in the middle. They just point to the best students and don’t ask us parents what we had to do.

    In our K-8 schools, any talk of issues related to the now much wider spread of ability and willingness of students, is taboo. There were problems with the spread when I was growing up, but now it’s much worse. Educators just claim the higher ground of thinking and understanding and tell us that differentiated instruction works. They need to adopt the high school model of a full inclusion environment, but they can’t let go of age tracking full inclusion academic classes. They add in-class leveled groups which only hide the tracking kids get at home. Those groups are not natural or equal opportunity. In the end, the schools just lie to parents and tell our kids to “toughen up.”

    The world changes in high school, and the sooner parents figure this out, the better off their kids will be.


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