SPECIAL REPORT–Anonymous Letter: Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith

Following the receipt of an anonymous letter, purportedly written by a Wilton teacher and sent to a handful of recipients, GOOD Morning Wilton has put together a multi-part Special Report about the letter’s contents. The letter is critical of several aspects of the Wilton school district, most notably changes to curriculum, teaching practices and administration. GMW has tried to speak with as many players in the situation as possible.

In this interview, we speak with the superintendent of Wilton Public Schools, Dr. Kevin Smith.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  The letter has circulated pretty widely–among teachers, parents and residents. What do you want to say about the letter to families in the district and to the wider circle of residents?

Dr. Kevin Smith:  There are a couple of key points. Number one, teaching today, as we know, is incredibly difficult. It’s changed in the last 5-7 years–curriculum has changed, accountability demands have changed. You factor that in with the fact that we’re facing a very, very tight budget season, and I can completely understand why some folks in the district would react the way they have reacted.

I feel very strong about the choices we’ve made so far, in terms of providing additional support through individual coaching, in terms of providing an early intervention system, including the MAP assessments. So I think those are good decisions.

The next step for us is to circle back to parents who have questions, as well as to our staff, and re-engage in those conversations. That’s exactly what we’re doing–we’re already planning conversations with the faculties at each school. I want to talk about budget, strategic plan. I’d like people to bring their questions and we can talk about where we are as a district and what next steps are.

As you saw, a number of folks have a problem about instructional coaching program, so we’re just going to talk through it. Then we’ll repeat the same exercise with PTAs at each school. We’re in the process of setting those up.

All those conversations are in the midst of next month.

GMW:  Given that it is budget time, some of the concerns are probably more pointed than other, and probably need swifter answers than in the next month. The teachers’ concerns about how much money is being diverted to things that are not directly impacting instruction. They’re concerned about taking paraprofessionals and others who are engaging with students, taking them out of the classroom. And that the strain has increased on the time with students.

KS:  I don’t know what specifically people have shared with you. But Miller-Driscoll, for example, there are a couple teachers–I don’t know who they, they didn’t want to name themselves, at least one, anyway–who had a concern that we were not providing paraprofessionals to support reading. My response to that is, ‘No, we’re not. We have trained reading professionals who are providing reading instruction.’

When we went through the District Management Council study a couple of years ago, there were several recommendations–all research-based. One of the recommendations was to ensure that reading instruction is being done by trained, certified reading professionals. That makes sense to me.

The old model that was in place relied on paraprofessionals for the wrong reasons. That was the conversation that’s been had over the last few years–how do we deploy the paras that we have and make sure they’re doing the right work. The right work is providing behavioral support, but the instructional work needs to be done by the certified teaching staff.

That’s a transition, and I know it’s painful for some, because they see it as a loss. We’ve got a very veteran staff, and as part of budget changes and new priorities, people are worried about their friends and colleagues losing their jobs.

GMW:  The way it’s being expressed is they’re already spread thin, that it is scheduling, with some scheduled to be in two places at one time, and it’s impacting the way the classroom teachers are being able to use their time effectively.

KS:  I can’t even speak to that–those are the kinds of concerns that have to go to the principal. If a para is being scheduled to be in two places at once, that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know that any administrator would willfully do that, it just doesn’t make sense.

But if someone is telling you that, they really should be telling the principal that. That’s an easy fix, but in trying to manage lots of needs and demands, I can see something like that happening, but I don’t know that it’s a pattern.

GMW:  Other criticisms have centered around MAP testing, and that being a significant investment that the district has made–the teacher feedback I’ve heard about it has been that the methodology and the way the testing is done is very difficult for students to manage, and difficult for teachers to get curriculum-specific, applicable data. Everything from teachers not being able to know what’s on the test, not knowing how to adjust what they’re teaching curriculum-wise.

Also, that they already know where each of the students are, without having to see these test. To take that time away from them getting to know their students and teach, is frustrating. I understand the data-driven nature of the MAP tests. But teachers are talking about the significant drain on their time to have to gather data, input data, collate and coordinate data–they’re feeling stresses too from it.

KS:  That is absolutely a legitimate concern about time demands. Teachers have more to do than there is time in the day. That’s a concern nationally–it’s where we are as a profession. In my own observation of the testing, having universal screenings is a must. On the whole, Chuck [Smith] has presented this to the board, maybe last year, as part of the comprehensive assessment review that was done. On the whole, we’re testing less, not more. That was one of the priorities.

I don’t want to overgeneralize, because we’re not in a place where we can generalize over every class and grade level. But, in trying to launch our SRBI intervention system, looking at the kind of data that teachers are collecting, and looking at the kind of kids that were being recommended for intervention, there was a wide range. We have kids who are being recommended for intervention who are achieving very highly and we had kids who were not recommended who were not achieving very highly. So the purpose of the MAP–and it’s one data point, it’s not the whole story–but to anchor us in a way so we’re targeting the right kids.

I wouldn’t challenge that teachers know their kids, because I do believe that. But I think the MAP is designed to help their understanding of what kids know and can do. And again, we’ve had it for a year and the entire staff needs to spend more time understanding it. It’s just the challenge of our work is we never seem to have enough time to do anything. All of these things take a long time to develop proficiency.

GMW:  It’s been suggested that district resources are being funneled to the wrong things. That MAP and coaching are expensive things to introduce, and that especially given the challenging budget times, why are funds being diverted away from [instructional time], whether it is de-teaming at Middlebrook–

KS:  That’s not accurate. There is concern that world language would be de-teamed, right? That wasn’t a decision, but it was a conversation point. Along the same lines, when we say, ‘We’re looking at everything,’ we absolutely have to assess:  Do we have the number of coaches that we need, and if we need to make cuts, should that [de-teaming world language] be considered? I would say that yes, we need to consider everything.

The other piece that’s important to understand, and this is the context:  we’re a profession that’s in transition. Wilton Public Schools culturally is a place where autonomy has ruled the day forever. There hasn’t been, until recently, strong evaluation systems. There hasn’t been strong support–system-tied support, so some would argue that they don’t see the value of coaching and that it’s a diversion of funds from kids; I don’t believe that at all.

What we’re trying to do is create a system that assures high-quality instruction in every classroom. That doesn’t happen overnight. Certainly coaching hasn’t been implemented perfectly. We made choices. So if one math and one humanities coach at the middle school and high school for that total number of teachers, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you had teachers in those buildings saying, ‘No, the coach doesn’t support me at all.’

It’s a question of resources. At the lower schools–I wasn’t here when full-day kindergarten was implemented, but my reading of the notes is that it was the kindergarten teachers that really stood in objection to full-day kindergarten. So I sit back and wonder what are the beliefs about early childhood education? If we have an administration saying that full-day kindergarten is really important and we’re going to do it, but the kindergarten teacher are saying they don’t need it, that’s a clear, obvious point of ideological conflict.

Following that pattern, it makes sense we would have some folks who don’t embrace coaching, and may not embrace the writers’ workshop model that we’re trying to implement, or the Singapore math program we’re trying to implement. We have some very veteran folks that just have very strong convictions about the way things ought to be. I suspect if we laid those out on chart paper, we’d have some pretty significant differences in what’s right or best.

GMW:   I haven’t heard from more than one teacher with a positive view of this; everyone else had criticism. If you know of teachers who do have positive things to say, I’d like to hear what they have to say.

KS:   The folks at Cider Mill, they’ve been working in a coaching model longer than the other schools. I’d be happy to.

There’s a broader context here, when you look at what’s happening in teaching across the country. We are a profession that’s in transition. That’s really, really hard for folks.

I spent yesterday with Heidi Hughes Jacob, who is a nationally renowned curriculum designer. She’s one of the first to describe the kinds of shifts we need to see in the classrooms, as a result of new work demands, changing society globally. The understanding that kids need to have global competency skills, and be able to collaborate across cultures. All of these pieces that are impacting our societally as demographics change, and technology continues to accelerate.  Systemically, nationally, our schools are outmoded. She says, “We’re teaching 21st century kids with a 20th century curriculum on a 19th century timetable.” 

If you sit back and think what it means, she’s absolutely right. Why is it we go to school from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. for 10 months of the year and don’t have school in the summertime? Where did that come from and why is that still the right thing to do today? Why do we have grade levels? Who said that graduating after 12th grade is the best or right thing for every kid?

Those really big questions make a lot of sense to speak to today. In the short term, we have a very traditional program and it’s served us for a long time. But I don’t know that it can continue to serve us and meet the new needs that we have. Trying to change a system is slow, and the pushback that comes is very natural. We have to go back and spend time, with our staff in particular, who feel in some respect victimized by some of these changes. And just work with them as we continue to move forward.


We’re a profession that’s in transition.    –Kevin Smith


GMW:  So it’s not unexpected to get the feedback that you’re hearing, but this is the direction you’re moving in and you feel strongly that  but allowing for more feedback and working with people who are not happy?

KS:  Absolutely. We have to make it work. If there are folks that don’t see the value of instructional coaching, or don’t see the value of MAP testing, number one (and most importantly) they need to feel safe, minimally, that they can express those concerns openly to me. It’s sad that somebody would say their job feels threatened by speaking out. That’s just not reality. It just isn’t. Even if I was an ogre, tyrant, miserable human being, you still have all of the union, tenure protections. But philosophically, ideologically, I know we’re at our best when we’re open and collaborative. We can disagree on what’s best, it’s perfectly natural and appropriate, especially today.

I respect and admire all of our teaching staff. But I also know that a lot of our staff hold on to these very antiquated ideas about what’s good for kids. If you look at the evidence–and the evidence is student achievement–we didn’t serve all kids equitably. Look at the significant achievement gap between our typical students and our disabled students. We invest incredible sums of money in trying to make that special ed program work.

It came through in that letter that it is not the general ed teacher’s responsibility to provide education to special ed kids, which is to me absurd. We’ve been trying to dismantle a system that was providing a separate and inferior education to some of our SPED kids. It’s plainly inappropriate.

I don’t live and die by our state test scores, but I don’t think, in some cases, they reflect our students’ ability. So that’s a curriculum concern. So when you talk about how to impact curriculum or instructional changes that scale, the most authentic and meaningful way to do that is through a sustained coaching program. That kind of one-off, sit-and-get-trainings that used to be the model, there’s no base to support the effectiveness.

There are a number of studies that support this–it’s the non-threatening, ongoing support that teachers receive daily in the classroom that leads to instructional behavior changes. For us, it’s not a question of whether coaching is worth the investment; it’s getting the implementation right. That’s part of the feedback from the staff, that for some we’re not getting the implementation right, right now. That’s worth a conversation point–how do we adjust and manage it so that it is really meaningful for teachers.

GMW:  Which is hard, in a district our size, with the size of the staff we have, coaching is a higher cost than what some people see as beneficial. Are we going to be able to get there, at the expense that it will take to get it to where you want to be?

KS:  We made some choices. When we started to bring coaches, we had some literacy coaches in the elementary schools, that were supporting teachers. But at Miller-Driscoll, they had split roles–they were also doing intervention. It wasn’t coherent so we had to divide those responsibilities.

As you moved up through Cider Mill, and Middlebrook and the high school, it was a conservative choice to add one mathematics coach and one science coach and one humanities coach, with the understanding that our first priorities were literacy and mathematics. So you’re right, you have one person for a fairly large number of teaching staff. We are working some experimentation in trying to understand what is the right duration and right intensity for a coach.

How much time does a coach need to spend with a teacher, and focus on what, in order to change behavior that improves student achievement? Those are not easily understood variables. It’s part of the complexity of the picture.

The question I come back to is, ‘What’s good for kids?’ In some of our schools, for some of our people, that’s not always the first question. Or they think [they know] what’s best for kids, but it may not actually be best for kids.

Some of the Middlebrook staff said, if it came down to choices, their preference would be to dump the coaches and retain world language on team.

De-teaming would actually create new flexibility for world language. Right now we have some real limitations about who can receive world language and when, because of the way it’s structured. Taking it off team would allow us to give greater access to kids who otherwise don’t get world language. And if we wanted to add new languages, we would have that flexibility too. Seems to me those are good for kids.

I’m a middle school person. In my bones I embrace teaming, because I believe it is what’s best for kids at that age level. My own personal experience for years has been exactly that:  teachers working in teams to support kids, the opportunity for interdisciplinary instruction makes sense. I think it’s absolutely appropriate, and there’s strong research to support that.

So I think the fear that some of the folks have, is that we’re going to make a decision to de-team world language and then go back to an old junior high model and dismantle the entire team structure. I don’t think I would ever do that. I can’t imagine a narrative where I would move in that direction because I don’t believe it’s what’s best for kids.

GMW:  What I’m hearing from you is that this is a process. It can be painful in places, but it’s a process and it’s ongoing, and you’re open to feedback; and you realize it may not make everyone feel the same way all at the same time.

KS:  Yes, and in a system where you have 500 adults, to think we’re going to have a unanimity of perspective is just not realistic. I want to do everything in my power to support teachers and help them. I want people to want to work in Wilton and feel great about the work they’re doing.

But I don’t expect we’re going to get compete agreement on some of these big decisions that are in the direction we’re moving in. So the best we can do is to be open to listening to the feedback and helping staff work through the change process.


The fundamental question is, What’s best for kids, and what do kids need today?      –Kevin Smith


 

GMW:  In the same fashion, is there going to be opportunity for parents to talk through the concerns [raised by the letter] with administrators? How will that be handled?

KS:  What we thought would be a reasonable approach is to have each of the principals set up their own conversations independent of any central office staff, with faculty, so they can just address whatever particular concerns there are in each building. And then following that, Chuck and I are going to do the same thing.

For parents, we’ll work thorough the PTA and we’ll host a series of evenings, one at each school, and Chuck and I will join the administrators for a forum. Parents can come and raise whatever questions they have, talk through concerns and we’ll keep it as an open dialogue.

GMW:  Anything else about this you think needs to be addressed?

KS:  For me, it comes down to any questions about curriculum, methodology, schooling, I always begin at, What do we believe? What are our core values? What are we trying to accomplish?

I’ve not yet met a teacher who isn’t committed to serving kids. The fundamental question is, What’s best for kids, and what do kids need today?

The second question is, How do we ensure that kids have the best, most effective teachers in front of them, across the district? That’s where you get a lot of the competing philosophies.

The stress that teachers face today is unbelievable. This is not, absolutely not, just a local Wilton concern. There were a number of articles in The Atlantic over the last couple of years about teacher morale across the country, teacher stress, the kinds of new complexities that teachers face in their job.

We see indicators of all of that in a variety of measures. If you look at the number of young people entering teacher preparation programs, those numbers are way down. If you look at the number of teachers who leave the profession after five years, it’s extraordinary. This is a national conversation.

That being said, I absolutely believe in my bones that the way we do things today does not meet the needs of every kid in our system. And we have to begin with the premise that our commitment is to meet the needs of every kid in the system.

We don’t decide what’s right for kids based on the percentage of people who think x, y or z. This is a very, very difficult situation. We talk about technical changes or adaptive changes–we’re talking now about adaptive changes in our classrooms. That’s not an overnight fix.

 

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