First the good news: The person who was assigned a couple of weeks ago to takeover the ghostwriting of the District Office to Staff (DOTS) memos for the super is doing a much better job than the super did. The use of the language has improved dramatically and there are far fewer embarrassing phrases and sentences.
This week, as with most weeks, there a feel-good message about “outrageous expectations” which starts with this outrageous statement:
“Amazing breakthroughs have rarely, if ever, been born by accident or by accepting the status quo.”
This is so factually incorrect that it should be of concern to any informed adult. In my junior year of college, in one of the best classes I ever had, students were asked to write about what they believed was the most important single even of the twentieth century (or 20th “C”entury if you are in the district administration). After much thought, I chose the discovery of penicillin. I’m not too proud to say that I got an “A” on my term paper on this amazing breakthrough medicine which has saved millions of lives worldwide and which was discovered by accident. The “amazing breakthroughs” of the X-ray machine, the microwave oven, and the pacemaker, to name a few, were also accidents.
Having dispensed with that, let’s move on to the more important subject of unrealistic expectations and setting teachers up for failure.
Making a long story short, the super went ga-ga over a presentation about reading improvement, which was followed by this passage:
“The challenge for our entire district is clearly evident: can we get our third graders to read at a fourth grade level by April? This may be an outrageous expectation, especially when we have campuses where children live in dire conditions and excelling is an even greater challenge. It is, however, an expectation we must strive to meet. Further amplifying the urgency is the fact that if students are not at grade level by the end of third grade, their chances of catching up are even greater. While meeting this challenge is clearly a tall order, we must make every effort to take this new information and use it to push all students to be grade level or higher by the end of third grade. It will no doubt be an arduous task, but I believe our dedicated and talented N-MUSD teachers and staff are equal to the task and with a healthy dose of optimism, it is an achievable one.”
Any experienced leader will immediately spot the danger in this section: This is a wish, a hope. There are no defined tasks, no specific assignment of duties, and no additional tools or resources provided to help teachers achieve their goals, beyond the information in the “amazing breakthrough” presentation – a presentation that centered around students at Newport Coast Elementary, which is light years away from the reality of teaching and learning at Costa Mesa’s Westside elementary schools.
The “arduous task” he wants to begin is not only unrealistic, ultimately, it will be demoralizing.
The superintendent has indicated once again that he is out of touch with the needs of the teachers in Costa Mesa’s (elementary) schools. And he has indicated once again that his leadership skills do not include the ability to create the processes required to increase the chances of project success. He writes, “It is, however, an expectation we must strive to meet” as though he were going to be in classrooms with his sleeves rolled up helping Costa Mesa’a kids improve their reading skills.
There is no “we,” – there are only teachers. He admits that his goal is a “tall order” but that he “believes” that is achievable. Unfortunately, he does not offer any specific recommendations on how to accomplish this “arduous task” in four months.
This is more squishy, feel good blather without substance. This time, however, it may do irreparable damage to teacher morale.
Accident or not, amazing breakthroughs require plans. They require patience, oversight, measurable interim goals, and superior communication, to name a few. The superintendent’s amazing breakthrough goal has none of these.
If the superintendent is really interested in improving reading performance, I suggest he move from his home in Long Beach to Costa Mesa and start truly understanding what makes the Westside tick, not just from an academic standpoint but from a cultural one as well. And he can start urging Westide Trustee Walt Davenport to start doing something meaningful to improve academic performance instead of just showing up two times a month at board meetings to rubber stamp every staff recommendation.
Until then, Costa Mesa’s significant achievement gap will affect too many students for the rest of their lives.