Thursday, October 15, 2015

An Open Letter About Testing to Massachusetts State Representatives

October 15, 2015

An Open Letter to State Senator Kathleen O’Conner Ives and Colleagues:

I’ve recently read about your work crafting legislation around the choice and use of standardized tests in Massachusetts Schools.  As a parent and career educator, I always applaud when government officials spend time reflecting on education policy in search of what’s best for our schools and our children.  I want to offer a word of caution on this matter, though, as it has become so politicized and obscured by misleading biases and poor press coverage.  I fully believe that you’ve done your research, so I won’t get into too much of the background itself so much as speak to the article that ran in Newburyport’s Daily News on Monday, October 12. ( )

It is obviously important to think about the cost of transitioning to PARCC.  There are technology costs, curriculum costs, time and staffing expenditures for the training and setup, and costs to the state involved.  On top of the money to consider, there are emotional and classroom costs that go along with this.  Furthermore, since Massachusetts has become so proud of its MCAS being the top rated standards-bearer in the nation, there are costs to our systemic ego.  Finally, we have to consider the costs incurred by our students’ futures, although this will be harder to gauge since all factions in the debate will cite the issues with siding with their opponents.

The biggest issue, though, as I see it, is inaction in either direction.  DESE and Jim Peyser are being absolutely irresponsible by delaying their decision.  Currently, districts are in limbo, either preparing for a PARCC test (and maybe even having taken it last year) that won’t happen or preparing for another MCAS that may not happen, leaving them to scramble if DESE goes with PARCC.  This indecision is not only unbecoming of the leadership we need but also puts all of the aforementioned costs into play.  And what does the state have to gain by waiting...nothing but drama I imagine.  PARCC scores are uncomparable to MCAS and Massachusetts will likely fare pretty well relative to the few other states still considering PARCC.  I was at one of the public forums that DESE had on the transition; nothing new came up, even though dozens of people spoke about both the MCAS, PARCC and dropping all tests.  If there are some unique mitigating circumstances that may affect the decision, it’s irresponsible for them to be discussed in a bubble.  

With regards to your concern, there is nothing “hasty” about the transition over to the Common Core or the move toward the PARCC exam.  These shifts have been in the news and legislative plans since 2009.  The bigger question is why districts and our profession have moved so slowly.  We could push back the switch date by five years and some places will still be at a place of purposeful inertia and other places will be too underfunded to join an evolution, regardless of their motivation to do so.  Your efforts ought to be, therefore, placed towards holding the government of Massachusetts accountable for its unfunded mandates and ineffective funding formulas; fixing those will begin to allow education organizations to concentrate on moving our curricula and students towards readiness for the modern age we’re in, which ought to be our goal under the umbrella of any testing schema..   

I’m not sure how teachers can believe that PARCC isn’t aligned with our updated curriculum framework.  There aren’t enough specifics in the article to question that assertion.  I can easily agree, however, about the fallacy of using standardized test scores to grade teacher and schools and keep students from graduating.  This is a question of Massachusetts’s willingness to stand up and speak to what’s actually important to us.  Value-added teacher evaluations and singleton tests deciding on graduation for students are clearly wrong-headed practices.  They are political grandstands at best.  The real work is devising a means of ensuring that schools are continuously working in favor of rigorous curricula and assessment without objective, for-profit tests.   

The takeaway here is that stopping the testing won’t improve our schools any more than using PARCC or MCAS on their own will.  Schools will only become better at educating and supporting students when we come up with a viable plan and move towards that.  Doing away with testing doesn’t necessarily leave us anywhere.  

If you’d ever like to speak further, please be in touch.  

David Hochheiser

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Lessons from Outside of Schools

Do you know what these are?  I didn’t until a stranger tossed the red one to me, and my seven-year old lit up with a “That’s the kind I usually use.” The joy in his face and the fun we had after will forever be a perfect example of differentiation’s power to me as an educator.

I’m having an amazing summer. There’s been a bunch of work, some solid reading (Lost at School, Switch, Freakonomics), some personal time, and a lot of funs with my kids and wife. Part of this has been three activities that struck me deeply as an educator who has always been in search of the best ways to help all students.  They hit me immediately as examples of things I believe schools absolutely need to continue improving upon.  

Karate: You’ve all most likely heard of the different belts martial arts students earn.  I can’t speak for all styles and all dojos, but the one where my son takes lessons has multiple belts that signify an attained skill level and different age brackets that - more fluidly than the belts - help put students in classes with other students who approximate their ability level.  Mind you, this isn’t “tracking” at all.  There are two or three belts within each class for each age group, each of which covers around 7 or so years.  There’s a definite range in each class.  What are they doing that we should move towards replicating?

  • Multi-age classes work
  • Badges that signify the appropriate time for students to “level up” can be effectively used if each level has a clear set of desired outcomes and students are offered repeated lessons and coaching that include formative assessments and a summative exhibition.
  • Timing must be fluid.  It takes some people longer to become proficient with skills and knowledge than others.  Once a student has been to a required number of classes, he/she becomes eligible to come for testing on that level’s skills.  Attendance is a baseline requirement.
  • The comments given to students by the Sensei at their promotion all have to do with the character they’ve shown and the work that went into the achievement.  It’s never about the height or the force of their kicks or the speed of their punches.  The students there are just that, students.  There will be a time when perfection of form and nuance of movement becomes important, but while these things can be attained by some students at all age groups and level, the ethic is around growth.     

Yoga: I spent July really enjoying an unlimited pass to a Yoga studio (via Groupon).  While I certainly believe in the benefits that mindfulness and Yoga practice could have for all adults and students, I’m not going to write about that here, other than to offer you a link to my Diigo library on mindfulness: .  Instead, I’ll tell you how amazed I was that a single teacher could help a room full of up to forty students greatly benefit and grow from their time during class.  All poses came with options for less stressful and more advanced movements, all of which were discussed under the umbrellas of: “If it feels right for you...” and “If it’s within your practice today…”  The teacher modeled each version as the classes went through them.  What can schools learn?

  • The beginning of each class is spent bringing the students out of the rest of their day and into class, both spiritually and physically.  Music, mannerisms, greetings and time are all used to bring people into their class.
  • Every student is supported in bringing their practice forward.  From wherever they are to whatever’s next.  Using aids such as blocks, straps and blankets, by the way, is encouraged instead of called “cheating.”
  • Moves go through what are called “Vinyasas,” which means that everything is done in a flow, or context of other moves.  Yoga classes don’t just have students do one move, stop, and then do another move.  Things make sense together.  
  • At the end of class, students are given time to think about their practice and drift into a bit of meditation in a way that clears their heads and creates space for being successful throughout the day.
  • Teachers always thanked us for coming and sharing our time and practice at the end of class.  

Tennis lessons This is the big one, the one that got me writing.’s the shortest, smallest moment I’m explaining in this post.  My son is seven and went to our city’s tennis camp for a few weeks this summer.  A week or so afterwards, I thought it’d be fun for the two of us to hit the ball around for a while.  It’s a twist on the old-school, father-son baseball catch, and we were both psyched.  The problem was that he’s seven, and I’m not at all a tennis player, so enjoyably volleying was proving difficult.  And then, a pro stepped in.

Next to us was a guy giving lessons.  He must’ve overheard me trying to teach Declan to either go towards the ball as it’s going to bounce or back away so that he gets it as it’s falling from its bounce.  We only had three balls with us, so there were a lot of misses and a lot of time spent getting the balls back from out of play.   The instructor tosses me a red-striped tennis ball and put a bucket of them next to our court and says: “Try these, they have less compression.”   One hit, and I was sold as the ball only bounced enough to get up to my son’s racket at a speed that he could manage.  “Daddy,” he says, “that’s much better.  These are the balls we used at camp.”  Volleys came easily.  His face continued to light up.  He loved even showing off his “mad skills” for me with serves and backhands.   What can schools learn?

  • Differentiation comes in many different forms.  It should be - as Universal Design for Learning tells us - all about doing whatever it takes to help students access the lesson we want accessed.  Whether it’s modifying the tools, the context, and/or the assessment, my goal was to play tennis with my son.  My other goal is for him to love playing enough that he’ll keep at it over the years.  Regulation balls would have had us fail at both of those objectives.  “Modified” balls made both possible.
  • Everyone needs a coach.  I wasn’t taking a tennis lesson that day, but that coach gave me a quick hint at an instructional modification that changed the day for us.  How many of us instead ignore and / or even push away help when it’s offered?

I know we don’t have the same conditions in schools as were there for karate, yoga, and tennis, but let’s not forget that we can create a culture in our classrooms that make it a place where all student want to come and learn.  In fact, that’s really the heart of our careers as educators, isn’t it?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On Running For School Committee

On Monday, I went to Newburyport City Hall and collected the necessary papers to begin my effort to get elected to the School Committee for a two-year term.  It was an amazing experience, one that made me feel as if I was doing the right thing.  It’s not that my family and I have a ton of extra time in our days or that my wife and kids think I don’t obsess enough over all things related to teaching, learning, and education policy.  I also would never claim to have answers to everything Newburyport School’s need.  That being said, I feel my involvement would play a highly beneficial role in the present and future of Newburyport Schools, my own family, and the amazing City of Newburyport, where my family has chosen to move and live.  

What do I see as my strengths?

  • I believe in Newburyport’s capacity for greatness.  I love living here.  I’ve always loved visiting here.  The people I have met and come to know - whether they are new to the area or have deep family roots here - are also psyched to be here.  There is no reason why we can’t have a flagship school district.

  • I believe in communication and transparency.  People in the community - and the schools - want and deserve to know what’s being discussed and decided upon, whether or not they can make it to meetings and sit there for hours on end.  While our hired educators are the professionals who best understand how to run schools and create excellent opportunities for teaching and learning, the community at large - those with and without children in the district - need to be informed about and allowed to be involved in setting the values and logistics that steer our schools.

  • I have perspective. I’ve now been a classroom teacher and school administrator in positions that span all grade levels and a variety of settings in four different states.  Since I’ve always felt that the mission of all schools is to support students’ growth through as wide a variety of opportunities as possible, that has been my goal when I’ve been in rural, suburban and urban public schools as well as when I’ve worked in group homes and detention centers for adjudicated teens. I’ve seen a wide variety of strategies used to work with a breadth of schools’ needs.  I believe I’ve come to understand how to grow schools without top-down mandates that crush teachers’ individuality and students’ dreams.   While having local history and long-standing relationships is vitally important, I also see having fresh eyes as being highly beneficial.

Specifically and most relevantly, I taught high-school English in Maine and New York for fourteen years, including six years as a department chair overseeing programs for grades 6-12 ELA.  I’ve also been a high-school assistant principal in New York City and am currently an assistant principal at a K8 school in Malden.

  • My kids are young, so we’re all in. Declan’s going into 3rd grade and Avery’s going into 5th.  Not only do I realize that my discussions and decisions will play a part in shaping their future, but also fully believe that Newburyport seems to be at a pivotal time in its evolution.  The debates over PARCC v MCAS, teacher evaluation systems, school start times, and best leveraging the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks are as vital as those the city is having about its waterfront’s future and smart-growth neighborhoods.

I both want to be a part of this key time in our history and model to my children the idea that democracy and community are not spectator sports.  There’s almost always a sacrifice to doing so, but it’s important to become involved in our future.   

This week, my “campaign” will officially start as I gather up the needed signatures.  Over the next few months, I’m hoping to meet as many people as possible.  If I do get elected in the fall, I plan to show up optimistic and enthusiastic, ready to talk through tough discussions and work towards the things our students and community members need from the schools.  

For those of you who don’t know, you can comment here on my blog or find me at:

  • @DavidHochheiser on Twitter
  • #EdChatMa, the Twitter chat I help moderate for Massachusetts educators
  • Port Parents Facebook page a place for voice and information for Newburyport parents, which I also co-moderate.
  • I’m also downtown a lot with my kids, my wife Kellie, and our puppy, Izzy


Friday, June 26, 2015

An Open Letter to MAs DESE About Switching to PARCC

On Monday night, I attended a forum designed to accept public comment on whether Massachusetts should continue forward on its path towards adopting the PARCC exam or stay with its own MCAS exams.  This year was year two of the PARCC pilot, in which approximately 60% of districts statewide chose to switch over to PARCC for its grades 3-8 math and ELA exams that are required under Race to the Top.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the whole night because of a meeting at my own school that I wanted to attend.  It was also clear that because the Dept of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) invited a number of people to speak first and there was so much “public testimony” being heard, that I had little chance of speaking anyway.  

I hope that this, then, will have a chance to pass over the eyes - and minds - of those at DESE.  I can even hope that people in other states and those involved with PARCC give this a read, a level of exposure that wouldn’t happen with merely speaking at the forum, since I couldn’t “live tweet” my own testimony.


To DESE and all people who have a stake/interest in the possible transition to PARCC testing in Massachusetts and beyond:

Please accept this letter as the testimony I wasn’t able to provide last Monday during your forum at the North Shore Community College.  Although I wish you would hold these as part of your regular work and have them as an outcrop of your own desire to interact with more parents and educators, I’m happy that the governor has prompted you to hold the forums.  I’ll try to stay close to the allotted three minutes.

1) I am currently a K8 assistant principal.  Before this, I have been a high school ELA teacher and assistant principal for fourteen years.  I have worked in school districts in Maine, New York and Massachusetts.  I have seen a wide variety of standardized testing programs - and their effect on schools - before and since No Child Left Behind.  While they have some room to improve, I have always been a strong supporter of the Common Core State Standards.  While they could have great value for teaching and learning if they were designed, administered and utilized correctly, I have always been leery of standardized tests.  

2) You made an interesting point in questioning the representative from the AFT who used the term “high-stakes testing” in his testimony.  At your request, he defined “high stakes” for you as a test on which a student’s high-school graduation rests.  When you asked him why the Kindergarten and other elementary teachers he supposedly spoke to were so anxious about this test if it was a high-school graduation issue, his answer seemed extremely vague and uncertain for my taste.  I assume you know the actual answer and were just toying with him at some level, but I want to help him answer and help you understand why people refer to standardized testing as high-stakes in the era of Race to the Top.  To be clear, schools and teachers are nervous about these tests, and so many teachers and districts are moving to spend so much time teaching to and preparing for these tests because of their role in teacher evaluation plans.  You can say that this doesn’t count, that you will be measuring student growth and achievement, and that it’s going to look different for everyone, but it won’t matter.  Educators are stressed about new types of questions, new lexile levels, computer-based testing, and the overall increased amount of testing in general.  In some cases, the sense of flying blind and unprepared has left educators at an unhealthy level of anxiety.

3) Not all districts are prepared equally.  If you want something to roll out across the state and accurately measure students’ ability, you should be doing much more to ensure that all districts have a viable plan in place for curriculum shifts, materials acquisition and technology integration.  The differences between the few districts we heard from made it clear to me that your measure will be as much - if not more - about the talents of the districts’ central office personnel and building administrations than the students’ abilities.   These concerns will also, of course, drip into financial issues that will only further skew any findings.    

4) The technology alone should have cautioned all of us more than it did.  In addition to some issues the students had (especially the youngest ones) with manipulating the questions, we had an endless array of systemic, access and usage issues.  If I had been you, I would have strongly pushed for a year or two on paper and pencil before bringing in the computers.  Even if everything worked smoothly, PARCC essentially shut down our classroom technology for six weeks as our labs and carts were all taken up by testing.

5) There are some deep issues with the question formatting on PARCC, the answer for which could be a mixed-media exam that has paper essays and long-form math prompts that can still be answered on the screen.
  • Students shouldn’t be scrolling up and down to read the questions while answering them.
  • Toggling between essays and answer screens is distracting.
  • The notes taken while reading the passages ought to still be there as the final essay is written.
  • Students should be able to see their entire answer(s), and especially their entire essay(s) as they write.  The small essay boxes and condensed format for some of the fill-in-the-blank questions is unacceptable.  

6) I’m nervous about norming the writing portions nationally.  Knowing that some regions, states and districts have always been achieving at different levels than others, I wonder how long it will be before the playing field is leveled, if ever.  In NY, for example, having a state-wide Regents test for decades hasn’t normalized the achievement level between wealthy and poor districts.  

7) Finally, there are just too many testing days here.  Standardized tests can provide data for schools to use, but we shouldn’t be foolish enough to think they’re a good format for covering everything.  I couldn’t believe how much time was taken by the testing days themselves, the practice students needed to get used to the formatting, the PD for teachers around becoming prepared, the up-front set up by administration, and the day or two after the testing that teachers needed to get their classes back on track.  I know that PARCC said they are combining PBA and EOY and reducing the amount of units, but I would like to see a full reconsideration of the amount of time needed for administration.  This is especially true at a K8 school like mine, since we’re giving PARCC to 5 grade levels.  It’s just a lot of time and disruption to the school psyche.  

Yes, I believe Massachusetts ought to evolve beyond the original MCAS tests, but it ought to have been done more carefully, with a better review of test questions, a shorter initial trial period and a time to see the test before adding on the technology issues.  Please consider continuing this conversation.  You can always join #EdChatMA or #Mssaachat as ways to be in touch.  Please feel to reach out and let me know how I can help.  

Dave Hochheiser

@DavidHochheiser, #EdChatMA

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Advice to Applicants

I’m neither a researcher nor an HR professional, but because of the Great Recession, I’ve had the opportunity to apply for a new professional position for six of the past seven years.  While I was at it, through a variety of positions I’ve held, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and hiring dozens of wonderful professionals.  Applying for new jobs to be the most time consuming and emotionally taxing work I’ve ever done.  Interviewing and hiring new employees, on the other hand, has always been something I’ve found to be so thoroughly rewarding.  This topic is so huge that I’m not sure where to begin with advice, but I think I want to share some mistakes that are easy for each side to make and how to avoid them.

If you’re applying, it’s far too easy to:
  • Limit your search: We all know that the days of searching in the newspaper for job postings are over, or are they? Truth is that some people still use the newspaper, exclusively.  What I know for sure is gone is a time when a searcher can keep his/her eyes on any single source. If you’re running a wide search, you’ll find that districts are all over the place with postings, and if you’re not checking on multiple job boards, you’re likely to miss a lot postings.  

Here’s another truth, you need to connect yourself with as many people as possible if you really want to be hired.  Applying isn’t going to be enough when so many available positions are gathering anywhere from 75-300 applications each these days.  You are much better off if you have people on the inside working to get you into the interview pool than if you aren’t.  If the people to be interviewed aren’t already chosen when the position is posted, most hiring people just don’t have the time to sift through that many application packets, so they’ll turn to people they know and ask if they know anyone who’s applied.   

  • What did I do about this?  I looked everywhere for postings and began noting those places not using standard listing sites.  I also became deeply connected with local educators through Twitter, LinkedIn, and EdCamps, and then asked to meet face to face with anyone nearby.  I was always overwhelmingly humble and gracious to the dozens of people who either didn’t hire me or didn’t even interview me.
  • Blow your “paperwork”
    • Although I promise that I know people who have been hired regardless of spelling and grammatical mistakes on their paperwork, this is really something that ought to be avoided, especially on your resume.  It’s becoming tougher to do in the age of on-line application systems with those pesky little boxes, but it’s still a truth that most, if not all, hiring people say that they just toss submissions with mistakes.   
    • Never lie in your paperwork, but also be careful to not undersell your work.  Humility comes across as a lack of effort when it’s on paper.  
    • Be sure your cover letter speaks to the position and the school to which you’re applying.  Nothing too much, but you should let them know why they’d want to meet you.  How would you make their school better?
    • Consider having a pro help you write your resume.  At bare minimum, have a colleague read it.  They can help with formatting, wording, keeping it to under two pages (a must) and listing your work with verbs and in terms of tangible accomplishments. The truth, I’d even be willing to read it over.  Message me.  
    • Those essays.  Arrrgggghhh.  I know.  In my next post, which will be “Advice to districts,” I’ll write a bit more about the need to end this practice, but for immediate reality, applicants need to write these things.  Just remember four bits about them and you’ll be fine. 1) These are rarely - if ever - actually designed to get the nitty gritty about your approaches, so write from the heart instead of the textbook; it’ll tell them they’re going to hire a person. 2) Tell stories about examples of your work with faculties and students (no names) 3) Unless the prompt is specifically about your dreams for the far future, don’t present ideas that are too far beyond what you know the school is currently doing.  4) Proofread it.  Have others read it.  If your application journey is anything like the ones I’ve been on, you’re writing too much and are in a rush.  Be careful, though.

  • Skip the multimedia
    • This will be another call you’ll have to make, but it our world, there are a lot of people who are going to expect a level of media savvy that you’ll have to live up to. This ought to start with a professional presence on social media sites like FaceBook, Pinterest, Twitter, and LinkedIn but could continue on to include a YouTube channel, blog, and/or any other site that you feel could showcase your professionalism and abilities.  
    • You can’t use these as your interview, but you need to make them available.  You can’t expect potential employers to sift through all of it, but some of them just might.  
    • The best thing that all of this media can do for you - outside of all of the learning you’ll have access to - is to help with your networking.  You’ll be able to meet acres of people before the interviewing even starts.  That is how you’ll get into the interviews.  
    • Obviously be careful about being too controversial here.   

  • Become impatient:
    • This one’s easy.  Applying and being hired takes a long time.  Schools and districts have things to do besides hire you.  Don’t be in a rush.  Don’t get grumpy when communication takes time.  As an applicant, you need to redefine patience.  
    • Once you send in your paperwork and hopefully get to interview, all you can do is wait.  Some places will call that afternoon with an offer for the next step.  Some places will never get back to you.  Some places will call for a next step, but it’ll take weeks or months.  That’s just the way it is.  

  • Don’t get prepared
    • Many districts these days have a lot of information available.  You need to be aware of what’s going on in the district.
    • In the interview, most places will ask if you have any questions.  I’d suggest finding something interesting to ask about.  I’d suggest asking them about what they’re doing instead of questioning their practices.  

  • Interview like a robot
    • People want to like spending time with you.  Yes, they’re interesting in your professional approach and knowledge, but they have to feel good about talking with you.  
    • Be sure you’re speaking with them instead of at them, regardless of the tenor in the room, which can often be distant.

Don't go too far, in the next little while, I'm hoping to put together some advice for districts and administrators.

As always, I'd love to know what you think.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Too Many Teachers are Working Too Hard

I’m not about to approach this typically, meaning that I’m not here to remind - or inform - readers that the teachers I’ve known spend countless hours beyond their “work day” grading, planning, learning, reflecting, etc.  Instead, I want to address the time spent during class and what I’ve seen in far too many classrooms over my years observing teaching and learning.  Teachers - during class time - are working way too hard.  

I’ve seen it time and time again, a teacher’s leading a discussion and/or presenting a lesson, and he/she will own all of the moments’ verbs...speaking, figuring, sharing, connecting, solving, graphing, diagraming, questioning, writing, drawing, thinking,’s looks exhausting, truthfully.  The other problem, of course, is that all of that work implies that students are on the receiving end of a relationship instead of playing an active and collaborative/participatory role. Quite likely, there’s more “teaching” than learning going on in the room when this happens.  

Thankfully, this is one of the issues in education that’s pretty easily fixed. It doesn’t need funding, consultants, building renovations or an act of congress.  We just need to relinquish some control. It’s all about handing over some of the verbs to our students.  In the model I’ve seen so often, students are listening, copying, and - maybe - potentially answering.  Perhaps they’re even writing if the teacher is good enough to promote note taking during classes. Instead of these, though, let’s promote the evolution that lifts the bar for students and creates an atmosphere in class that has them working hard and owning the learning.  I’m sure there are others, but here are some verbs I’d like to see students engaged in…

Questioning Producing Considering Creating Solving
Proving Evaluating Consuming Validating Debating
Crafting Representing Portraying Discussing Collaborating

Go ahead and pick one, two, or even three of them to try out.  I’d bet that:

  1. You wouldn’t have to work so hard.
  2. Your students will be more likely to achieve your lessons’ objective(s)
  3. Everyone will enjoy being in class more