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)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Achievement, Success, and Potential

Achievement, Success, and Potential
by Rod Rock, Superintendent of Schools

(here is a link to a YouTube animation of this blog post: 

Achievement, success, and potential are interesting terms to me. As educators, policymakers, journalists, students, and parents, we use them often. In so doing, are we aware of the messages sent in the words?

The mid-sized, Clarkston, Michigan school district where I work as the superintendent employs over 900 people. If each of us took an IQ test, I know for certain that I would not achieve the highest score. If we each took a personality assessment, I am sure that I would not be the most outgoing or self-confident. In painting, welding, wallpapering, economics, history, looks, landscaping, tree climbing, or speed reading, I would not finish on top.

I ride my bike almost every day of the year. My goal this year is 7,200 miles. Last year, I rode 3,800 miles and the year before I missed my 1,000 mile goal by 70 miles due to an accident that left me multiple broken bones. If I compared myself to most people who bike in Clarkston, I would not be the fastest, the most able to climb the highest hill, nor the most technically sound. Yet, I feel like I am growing over time in my strength and working toward a healthy, long life.

What if I were to base my success and potential on how well I achieved on an IQ test compared to the 900 people with whom I work? What if I were to base my success and potential for bike riding on the abilities of the most practiced or fastest rider in the community? I don’t imagine I would very often feel good about myself or about my ability to lead a school district.

Our schools are compared often with those in neighboring communities, states, and countries. Our teachers are by law compared to one another. We measure our students constantly, both in school and in their extra-curricular activities, essentially assigning labels via statements like, "You have tremendous potential," "You’re behavior is really challenging," “You’re unmotivated,” and "You are our highest achievers--our best and brightest, the cream of the crop." What do we mean when we say these things? What do our students garner from these words?

As I ride my bike near the arbitrary lines that separate Clarkston from neighboring communities, I think about the kids who live on either side of the lines. Honestly, I have no desire for Clarkston’s kids to do better than the kids on the other side of the line. I do not wish for them to have a lower quality of life or a less excellent education. I do not want them to have fewer opportunities, lower expectations, or higher test scores. I want every child in every community, no matter where the adults draw the boundaries, to have an excellent education and to feel dignified, included, capable, and certain. I want every child in every community to feel that their community believes in them. I want them to see, for themselves and for the future, that an investment today in an excellent education is a sign of each community’s belief in the future; that each child has significant gifts and powerful contributions to make.

“If the primacy of dignity was obvious to everyone, then we would look more often at children [and adults] through the lenses of their own perceptions of themselves. There would be far fewer labels--such as ‘at-risk,’ ‘tough,’ ‘special,’ and ‘disabled’--applied to [people].*

As superintendents, policy makers, parents, educators, journalists, and students, let us more often view children through the lenses of their own self perceptions. Let us look at each child as a beautiful work of art with amazing intelligence and gifts. Let us educate every child in every community as if each is talented and gifted, which is true--if that is the label we assign and uphold; if that is the expectation we set. Let us send the message to each child that, when they work hard, persistently pursue their passions, and posses self-efficacy, they can define for themselves the meaning of the terms achievement, successes, and potential.

*Senge, et. al, 2012, pp. 176 to 183, “Seeing the Learner.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Never Enough

As my heart beats, I care about children. As I breathe, I want every child to feel safe, heard, smart, and believed. As my blood flows, I desire to ensure that every child has what she/he requires in order to feel safe, heard, smart, and believed. And, knowing what I know; believing what I believe to be true, I am forever uneasy, endlessly restless, and never feeling like I am doing enough for the kids in our nation.

I recently heard a radio story of the lifelong effects of stress and anxiety experienced in childhood. The researcher in the story shared a sense of “surprise” that the data revealed that anxiety and stress in childhood relate strongly to chronic diseases later in life. (“Childhood Stress may Prime the Pump for Chronic Disease Later,” NPR, September 29, 2015). This is at least the third time in three years that I have heard such a story on the radio. I’m not doing enough.

Research says that young children need time for free play in order to develop social skills, interact positively with others, and feel successful in school (Bandura, 1991; Whitebread, 2014). Other research says that our youngest children require nurturing, direct attention, and to hear millions of words spoken to them in order to develop strong reading skills (Tough, 2008). As I hear stories of very young children who struggle with social skills and thus become labeled as difficult or challenging (labels, once believed, are hard to shake), I know that I am not doing enough. As I hear stories of a legislature who wants to punish kids who can’t read by age 8, I know that I am not doing enough.

“Recent research has demonstrated that factors such as anxiety, stress, fear of failure, stereotype threat, and low sense of belonging can substantially impact working memory, executive functioning, and intellectual performance” (Kaufman and Duckworth, 2015, p. 3). As I work in a nation that focuses so intently and immensely on standardized test data to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers, schools, and students, I know that I am not doing enough.

In 1983, Howard Gardner conceptualized the idea of Multiple Intelligences. It says that there are many ways to be smart--the lenses through which we understand the world and our areas of passion. Some express what they know through the arts, others with words, some through nature, and still others through movement. “Gardner’s work reframes one of the subtlest, most pervasive and most destructive mental models about school: the linking of achievement to the most intellectual forms of intelligence and the devaluation of all other forms. This view of intelligence (and thus of human value) has devastating effects on the vast number of children whose gifts are overlooked or ignored in school. (Senge, et. al, 2012, p. 182). I know that I am not doing enough.

Childhood is a gift, experienced by many. For those children who are rushed through it; whose fundamental needs are not met, their paths forward are riddled with potholes and earthen dams. Although these challenges are not insurmountable (after all, our society would never define a child as hopeless), a collective and insuppressible vigor in preventing them is the very definition of humanity.

As long as my heart beats, my breath comes, and my blood flows, I will believe that we can ensure that every child experiences an enriching childhood. Along the way, uneasiness, restlessness, and the feeling that I can never do enough will perpetually accompany me.