Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Nation at Risk: Think About It, Part II

A Nation at Risk: The [Tired] Imperative for Educational Reform
In 1983, the Federal Government commissioned a report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Its charter stated that the United States' educational system was failing to meet the national need for a competitive workforce and required the commission to assess the
“quality of teaching and learning” at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, in both the public and private spheres and to compare “American schools and colleges with those of other advanced nations.” The report covered five major areas: Content, Standards and Expectations, Time, Teaching, Leadership and Fiscal Support.

Clearly, this 34-year-old report represents the touchstone of America's current educational reform efforts, policies, beliefs, and practices. It was based, of course, upon the science and knowledge of the time. Thankfully, science has evolved.

In 1983, I was 14 years old and a student in a public school system in a small community in Michigan's Thumb region. I lived next door to my grandmother, who was beginning to exhibit the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. At the time, very little was known about the disease and it was scary to see my grandmother devolve from a proud, intelligent person to one who struggled to function on her own.

Recently, I heard an interview with a medical researcher who specializes in Alzheimer's disease. Given my grandmother’s suffering, I am particularly interested in this topic, including my own risk. The researcher, Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, shared five adult lifestyle, activity, and intervention factors that are key to a healthy brain:
  1. What’s good for your heart is good for your brain - exercise is critical.
  2. A shortage of sleep is as damaging as smoking. Seven to eight hours of sleep a night are vital.
  3. Eat a healthy diet, including less red meat and more fiber, olive oil, and nuts.
  4. Move mentally and socially, meaning learning in ways that truly challenge your mind; and engage in positive, caring relationships.
  5. Manage stress and anxiety.
(See the entire PBS program, Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts)

As I devour the research on child development, talent and intelligence, well-being, and achievement, I am struck by the similarities found in Alzheimer’s research. Not just in middle age or older adulthood, but throughout the entirety of life, every single one of us needs these things, every day, in order to achieve. In fact, Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, states this about stress and anxiety:
“The belief that bad events are caused by personal, permanent, and pervasive factors
robustly predicts depression and poor school achievement… Pessimism is a risk factor
for depression in school-children in exactly the same sense that smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer, and may even be a bigger risk factor.”

Research has certainly evolved since 1983. We know so much more now about the brain and human development. We understand that there is a strong link between our mental state, our physical state, and our levels of achievement.

Eleven years ago, I came across a school of thought called “Cultures of Thinking.” Here, teachers in schools create conditions in their classrooms where thinking is valued, made visible, and advanced as part of the regular school day. After all, if educators are not aware of what a child is thinking, how can they help the child grow their knowledge?

Within a Culture of Thinking, the idea exists of a dispositional view of intelligence - what you can do with what you know is as important as your knowledge level. The skills of open-mindedness, collaboration, creativity and innovation, communication, and metacognition (or, thinking about your thinking) are vital.

As I studied Cultures of Thinking and worked to create them in the schools I lead, I was not aware of the relationship between metacognition and health. Admittedly, I did not realize that helping a child develop his or her thinking skills could contribute positively to lifelong physical and mental well-being. Only through further study did I come to understand that an acute awareness of the source and accuracy of our own thinking is determinant, along with other lifestyle, intervention, and activity factors, in the quality of the lives we live.

It is Time for a New Foundation for Educational Reform
There is much debate in the public, private, and educational sectors as to the quality of our schools and the best ways to make them better. And still, A Nation at Risk (1983) presents the touchstone of America’s educational reform agenda. Yet, without question, newer knowledge, research, and science drives reform efforts in many of the advanced nations to which America’s schools are compared.

It is time for America to take up a new foundation upon which to base its educational reform efforts, policies, beliefs and practices, particularly with regard to the relationship between social, emotional, and physical well-being and academic achievement. Alas we know without question that you cannot have one without the others.

Think about it, please!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Passions Pursued Prolifically Produce Profound Achievement: Think About It, Part I

Passions Pursued Prolifically Produce Profound Achievement: Think About It, Part I
by Rod Rock, Ed.D.
Superintendent, Clarkston Community Schools

Scott Barry Kaufman, a researcher and author, stated this about passion and learning:

"By a lucky coincidence of factors, prodigies find their domains early. But once anyone, whatever the age, finds his or her talent, the learning process can proceed rapidly. Passion and inspiration can spark a drive that substantially accelerates the learning curve and also set off immense creativity. We are all capable of extraordinary performance; the key is finding the mode of expression that allows you to create your own unique symphony. Anyone who has observed a child knows what passion means."

Kids easily get lost in their passions--games, chasing bugs, picking up frogs, playing make believe. Rarely do we as adults have to ask kids to do what they love. Rather, we find ourselves begging them to stop so that they can eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom. This is passion and it is the most motivated form of learning. 

I recently attended a concert in a quaint and beautiful venue in Michigan which features a different musical act 300 nights per year. The event began with the lead act introducing a high school orchestra group, which plays Celtic music. The lead act was a part of this Celtic orchestra in her youth. This is where she encountered her passion. Now a member of an internationally famous Celtic group, the lead performer went on the deliver an amazing concert on her violin. 

This experience really struck me. She encountered her passion, pursued it vigorously, and is living a dream. Her life was forever altered, for the better, via her participation in her school's orchestra.

At the Workshop School in Philadelphia, teacher and co-founder, Michael Clapper says: 
“When a student becomes passionate about something, they start asking, ‘How do I write better? How do I formulate a good question? How do I conduct research? How do I go out into the world to find answers that make sense to me and that I can present to others?’ Once the student has the passion; once they have the spark; once we’ve trusted them to do it, we’ve empowered them in ways that normal school generally does not.”

In every school, every day each child must encounter opportunities to pursue their passions, thus demonstrating their unique array of intelligence and growing their potential. 

This is my passion, which I encountered way after I left school. What's yours and where did you get it?

[This is also my opinion]. Think about it.

Friday, May 20, 2016

In DPS Legislation, Aim to Make Kids' Lives Better

This letter to the editor appeared in the Detroit Free Press on May 14, 2016

In DPS Legislation, Aim to Make Kids' Lives Better

Research at the Western Michigan University Children’s Trauma Assessment Center finds “trauma occurs when there is an overwhelming event or events that render a child helpless, powerless, or creates a threat of harm or loss to the child or to someone critically important to the child. Toxic stress has a cumulative effect. Children who have experienced untreated trauma [including poverty] have a greater likelihood of developmental delays, academic failure and future mental and physical health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, depression, and earlier death.”
Absent in the debate about the future of Detroit Public Schools is discussion of the wellbeing of the children of Detroit, the traumatic conditions in which most of them live, and the additional trauma to children caused by the chaos of their schools.
While some Detroit neighborhoods are humming with growth, development, and hope, others are teaming with desolation, poverty, and fear. Children live in both places. The landscapes represent their multiple realities. When uncertainty becomes the norm of school--places that are supposed to foster learning, which requires safety and predictability, coupled with the effects on the brain of poverty and trauma, the ability to learn is challenged and children become powerless.

As the Legislature debates this issue, we implore you to think of the children. Please consult researchers over special interests. Please give children hope. Please use precious resources to improve the social, emotional, and educational well being of the children of Detroit. An unprecedented investment in DPS must make better the lives children live.


James Henry, Ph.D., Project Director,
Western Michigan University’s Children's Trauma Assessment Center

Rod Rock, Ed.D., Superintendent, Clarkston Community Schools

“Family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size — specifically, the surface area of the cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain that does most of the cognitive heavy lifting.”

“Poverty depletes parents’ cognitive resources, leaving less capacity for making everyday decisions about parenting. Parents in poverty are also at far greater risk for depression and anxiety.  When parents are distracted or depressed, family life is likely to be characterized by conflict and emotional withdrawal rather than nurturing and supportive relationships with children. Parents don’t talk and read to their kids as often and make less eye contact with them.”
(Nature of Neuroscience, 2015).

“More than 59 percent of Detroit children lived in poverty in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available.... The number of poor Detroit kids has increased 34 percent since 2006.” (Detroit News,
February 19, 2015).

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Give Michigan's Schools Flexibility in Assessment, Please

Below is the original and expanded version of my Detroit News piece:

Give Michigan Schools Flexibility in Testing, Please
By Rod Rock, Superintendent
Clarkston Community Schools

A recent Detroit News Editorial called upon state lawmakers and the Michigan Department of Education to offer stability to school systems by continuing the use of the two-year old M-STEP assessment. This would be a backward leap for Michigan’s schools and children.

Case in point: Two students I know--one is a recent high school graduate, Jake, who enrolled in Clarkston’s advanced and accelerated educational programs to achieve more than 20 college credits upon his high school graduation. Advanced Placement, accelerated math and science, hard work, and high academic achievement prepared Jake well to pursue his dreams and passions in mechanical engineering at a highly regarded and competitive university.

The other is a ninth grade student here in Clarkston, Noah, who is a brilliant welder and artist. In the shop he built with his father below his elaborate treehouse are tools that any professional welder would envy. Noah has perfected several forms of welding and is also a blacksmith and a sandblaster. He sells his artistic creations to people all over the community, who are awed by his expertise, creativity, and craftsmanship. For Noah, standardized tests, the Michigan Merit Curriculum, and limited access to career and technical education programs represent barriers in the pursuit of his dreams and passions.

In 2001, the Federal No Child Left Behind Act mandated annual standardized testing for all American students in grades three through eight and eleven. Since then, educators, parents, communities, and lawmakers have come to accept single, annual test results as the be all and end all of student potential, school accountability, and teacher effectiveness. Rarely is this mindset called into question.

For the engineering student mentioned above, standardized tests assessed performance well. But asking the second student who is equally yet uniquely brilliant, to demonstrate his knowledge on the same test is both impractical and nonsensical. Despite his vast knowledge and demonstrated aptitude, a standardized mathematical and language arts assessment cannot adequately measure his capabilities.

Standardization makes sense in several areas of life, such as bridge construction, disinfection and sterilization in healthcare facilities, traffic signage, 911 emergency systems, and water treatment. However, it does not make sense when it comes to measuring the intelligence and potential of children.

The new Federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows states flexibility in student assessment, teacher evaluation, and school accountability. It is incumbent upon Michigan to embrace this flexibility in order to move our educational and assessment systems into a post-standardization era. It is time that the assessments utilized to measure the intelligence and potential of future engineers, welders, dancers, civil servants, computer programmers, and neurobiological psychologists match the technological, scientific, and research advancements of the 21st Century.   

Standardized testing is the enemy of creativity and personalization. It is inaccurate and exclusionary in it its intent and capacity. In the 21st Century where innovation,critical thinking, and perseverance are at a premium, Michigan should abandon the M-STEP.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Independence Update, March 2016

The Clarkston Community Schools' Board of Education has been consulting with an engineering and architectural firm to determine the district's short and long-term needs relative to facilities, safety, and technology. The assessment of needs included discussions with several community groups, teachers and support staff from each building, parents, and a community survey. At their March meeting, the Board of Education received a recommendation from the engineering and architectural firm to take into consideration a no millage rate increase bond that can raise $75 million to address these needs. The board decided to conduct another community survey and to hold a public hearing on April 18 at CHS to receive additional community input on this matter.

Please take advantage in the next weeks and months to offer your feedback. It is vitally important that we hear from you. The school system is here to serve our community.

The school district is also working to increase the amount of time that our students spend in elementary art and music classes, along with expanding Spanish instruction. We feel that this is very important for all of our learners.

Our secondary schools, including SMS, CJHS, CHS, and RHS, have undertaken a whole child study. Here, we seek to ensure that each child is healthy, safe, supported, challenged, and engaged at school. We feel that additional counselors and home-room time can help in these areas. We will continue to examine these ideas, including a student and teacher survey, and to discuss them with the Board of Education.

The school district has again applied for federal E-RATE funds to help us improve wireless Internet coverage in the district. These efforts provide great savings to our school district and point to our continued fiscal responsibility.

CCS wishes to congratulate Mrs. Patricia Carter, a CHS teacher, who recently received a Governor’s Traffic Safety Advisory Commission Award for promoting safe driving for teens in our community. She received the award at a luncheon in Lansing. Congratulations to Mrs. Carter and thank you for all that she does for kids.

Congratulations also to Clarkston’s bands, orchestras, and choral groups for their excellent achievements at festival. Our winter sports season has come to a close, with several of our teams advancing through conference, district, regional, and state finals competitions. Many of our students achieved academic and athletic awards, including Jacob Kersten, a member of CHS’s regional championship bowling team, who achieved a 4.05 grade point average and a bowling scholarship to Wichita State University in Kansas.

Lastly, we celebrate the achievements of Team RUSH Robotics, who won a district championship and garnered several design awards, and student members of our Business Professionals of America and Future Problem Solving teams who won state championships and qualified for international competitions.

Our students achieve at the highest levels. Thanks to our coaches, conductors, parents, students, and community members for all that you do to make these achievements possible.

Have a safe and restful spring break.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Kevin Bickerstaff: A Life and Legacy

3-6-15 Clarkston News Column

This week, The Clarkston Community Schools’ Director of Transportation, Mr. Kevin Bickerstaff, will serve his last day on the job. In 1975, when he started, Clarkston was a much smaller and different place. Many of our schools had not been built, several subdivisions were farm fields or wooded areas, and some of our main roads were not yet paved.

Today, nearly 4,500 students will ride our buses to and from the district’s 12 schools. Before most of them awaken to start their days, Kevin will have already put in several hours, clearing snow off of the hoods of buses, plowing snow from the parking lots, and warming up 55 buses so that seats are warm when students climb on board. As the last bus returns to the garage from dropping kids off for an away basketball game or a track meet, Kevin will turn out the lights and head home, confident that every child and bus driver is safe.

Over his 40 years of service to The Clarkston Community Schools (and long before as he grew up and attended school in Clarkston), Kevin has made countless connections with students, district employees, and parents. He possesses memories of superintendents, teachers, bus drivers, and kids that date back generations.

In the year 2016, our students encounter new information, constantly. To learn and make sense of this information, they must connect it to previous knowledge and integrate it with their experiences.

As a child, student, young person working on his uncle’s farm in Sault Sainte Marie, mechanic, bus driver, and transportation director, Kevin connected knowledge and experience into tremendous skills and relationships that allowed him to do his job with amazing precision and excellence. He did this by naming and noticing, asking questions, listening, practicing, focusing on learning over work, caring about people, and by utilizing a growth mindset.

Few among us will in our careers work for 40 years for a single employer. Regardless, all of us in Clarkston have the good fortunate of having a role model in Kevin Bickerstaff who both did his work well and became synonymous with it. The connections he has made here will influence all of us today and for many generations into the future.

Thank you, Kevin, for all that you have given us, and best wishes to you in your retirement.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Clarkston's Kids: Transcendent Hope for a Wonderful Future

2-5-16 Clarkston News Column

Observing Clarkston’s students on stage, in class, on-line, on playing fields--engaged in their joys and passions, represent some of the happiest moments of my life as the superintendent of schools. In our young people, I see clearly transcendent hope for a wonderful future.

Recently, I became aware of a brilliant Clarkston Junior High School student named Noah Castillo, and saw some of his welding projects. Several people had told me of his talent. I had to meet him.

I was fortunate to visit Noah’s workshop at his home. Under the incredible treehouse that Noah built some year ago with his father, hangs a tarp and sits a metal shed. This is where Noah finds his joy and exhibits his brilliance. He’s a blacksmith, a welder, a sandblaster, a mechanic, and a toolmaker. He’s a craftsman and an artist. He’s amazing; you have to see his creations.

And, oh yeah, he’s fourteen years old.

It’s easy as parents to focus on the work our children do in school and to monitor the completion of that work in comparison to how much work other students do and how well all students do on the work that every student does. In the Clarkston Community Schools, the completion of work is never the ultimate goal of class assignments, unit tests, classroom discussions, field trips, or class projects. Individual learning is the goal. As a school system, we feel it is vitally important to “focus on the learning that occurs in doing the work.” We want to know how each of our students is growing over time as a mathematician, an artist, a writer, a reader, and a scientist.

Noah started welding only about a year ago. Now, he is creating the most astounding and unique works of art. Noah will be the first to tell you that he has much more to learn. And, “he is driven by the power to want to learn.” Noah’s parents do not have to beg and plead for him to go out into his shed and weld. In fact, they have to pry him out of there at the end of the day. He’s found his joy and passion, which will likely afford him a very nice living. It is my true and deepest hope that, as a school system and as a community, we see the brilliance in Noah, along with each child who creates works of art with their hands, plays beautiful music, explores nature with exuberance, writes stories that transfix, and solves math problems quickly. Born and honed in the pursuit of passions are the essential character traits of “optimism, inspiration, curiosity, goal commitment, need for achievement, self-efficacy, self-discipline, self-control, conscientiousness, and grit.” Herein, students turn their powerful interests into works of art.

Whether engaged in a school assignment, studying for a test, or the pursuit of a passion, ask your child of the purpose behind the work: what do they think they will learn and get better at as a result of their work? Then monitor the learning, not the work. Name and notice the brilliance and character traits displayed clearly in each child’s joy and passion.
(Quotes from Ron Ritchhart, Julianne Wurm, and Scott Barry Kaufman & Angela Duckworth)