Last year, I placed Rod Rock of the Clarkston school district in Michigan on the honor roll. A member of his staff sent me his latest letter to his colleagues, and I realized I not only respect Rod Rock, I admire him. He represents the highest values of American education.

He reminds us how adults are supposed to care for young people. He is not subservient to fads or gurus or politicians. He is not intimidated by Arne Duncan or Rick Snyder.

He is an educator. Don’t you wish there were more like him?

Here is the letter he sent to his staff:

From: Rod Rock
Date: Sun, Feb 24, 2013 at 10:26 PM
Subject: Thoughts
To: All CCS Staff


I know that I write often to you and I hope that you will tolerate one more rambling (at least until the next one). Also, I may have said this already to you, so I apologize if this is a repeat.

When my daughter, Haley, who is now a freshman at MSU, was in third grade, she stood one evening in our tiny, outdated kitchen, leaning against the wall next to the refrigerator and cried. When we asked her what was the matter, she said that she was certain she wouldn’t do very well on the MEAP test the next day and that she didn’t want to let anyone down.

At that moment, I said to her that no test will ever define her. I said that she is Haley Rock and that she is talented in many ways. No matter how she performs on any test at any point in her life, I stated, she will always be Haley Rock and possess many talents. No test, person, or relationship, I reiterated, will ever define who she is or what she is capable of becoming.

On Friday as I drove in to school through the snow and slush (with more winter predicted for Tuesday), I listened to a story on the radio wherein three academics from Stanford (or thereabouts) discussed America’s place in the world specific to academic achievement. One of the academics stated that achievement in America has flat-lined for 40 years. Another said that there is tremendous disparity in funding in schools, using two neighboring California districts as an example, one of which is funded at twice the level of the other. She (Linda Darling Hammond) stated that the highest achieving countries pay their teachers at the same levels as engineers. Another of the panel members said that even if we dramatically improved the levels of achievement of our African American and Hispanic students (who generally perform at the lowest levels), our students would only be in the middle of the international comparisons. The three agreed that we can do much to close opportunity gaps for America’s children.

Last week, I watched Beauty and the Beast. Last Thursday I watched our girls’ basketball team. On Monday, our boys ski team will compete for a second consecutive state championship. This week, I will enjoy watching our boys basketball team play (and they also played on Friday). Next weekend, our district will host an a cappella competition. The poetry slam is forthcoming. Talent shows are happening across the district. Kids are volunteering and making differences for others. Over 1,000 of our students sat in the high school auditorium last week and listened respectfully as a mother–who had lost her teenage daughter to a traffic accident, while the daughter talked on her phone–spoke to them about the choices they make. Many other performances of understanding will occur, under your guidance, today, tomorrow, and beyond. We currently have students who are attending colleges all over the world, competing with students from many other countries. When our students graduate from college, they go on to get jobs as engineers, doctors, teachers, plumbers, electricians, custodians, musical directors, and writers. They posses skills beyond test taking and they make contributions to their communities and the world (many of them come back to Clarkston and many of them are you).

If our students weren’t achieving in engineering school or college in general, our community would be very upset. The reason that our kids do well (one of whom is currently earning a PhD in physics at Cornell, having been inspired by one of our teachers–Mr. Ned Burdick, and the reason that Haley will be okay (and I wish she could have attended Clarkston–and so does she after watching Beauty and the Beast with me) is that she and most of our graduates posses skills beyond test taking. They posses agency which means that they believe in themselves and their abilities to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of their dreams.

You know our kids by name. You know who they are and how they are smart.

If we want to compare our students to those in other countries, why do we not use the same test as they use? Why do we assess every child every year? Why do evaluate every teacher every year? Why does a portion of our society not value teachers and other school employees at the same level as other professionals? Why is our government trying to expand instead of close the opportunity gap? If college or training beyond high school is essential for every child, why don’t we make it affordable for every child? These are not the practices of the world’s highest performing countries.

I was recently invited to a meeting to give comments on proposed administrator evaluation systems. I am not going. Robert Marzano, who is a leader in teacher evaluation, is coming to a meeting in Detroit in some weeks. I am not going. Every time I receive an e-mail that states a silver-bullet on how to improve achievement, I delete it before reading it. I am going to focus on research and not politics. We have to do what is right for our kids. We will do what is right for our kids.

Please do not allow any test score, number, grade, or moment define our children. Please see them as works in progress. Please look at their strengths and not their weaknesses. Please help them become owners of their own futures and steadfast believers in their abilities to overcome any obstacles that stand between them and their dreams.

If America didn’t posses the best educational system in the world, why would parents from other parts of the world fall over themselves to send their kids to American schools?

What messages are we sending to our kids today about learning? How coherent is our system? What do we need to change in order to ensure that our values of learning are clearly communicated and advanced? How do we respond to criticism or judgments? How do we demonstrate for our students the capacity to look at evidence and contradict it with other, more substantial evidence?

Perhaps we are not solely in the business of shaping minds. Perhaps our business is also about changing minds–including our own.

If the MEAP parent report says that a student is a 4 and needs immediate attention, provide also those parents contradicting evidence that resolutely shows that their child is much more than a 4-and-in-need-of-immediate-attention. Perhaps, you can show them, it is the test that needs immediate attention. What we say and how we say it matters.

Last words: Stress affects kids physiologically. Learning is a mind and brain endeavor. We cannot separate one from the other. I want to thank each one of you for any efforts that you make to support our kids as whole people. I want to thank you for any moments that you spend helping a child feel certain. I want to thank you for any moments that you spend convincing a child that he/she is able (or not what another child or adult said of him/her). I want to thank you for any moments that you spend giving kids something that helps them overcome an obstacle, whether this something is a pair of shoes, a pat on the back, a word of encouragement, or a sticky note. When they know truly that we care deeply, they care deeply about what we know (this is paraphrased from John C. Maxwell and perhaps others who believe in people).

Last, last words: Please don’t let anyone or any moment define a child. Please help our children discover, create, and continuously recreate their own, unique definitions of themselves. If they don’t know themselves, they’ll struggle to contribute and become.

Enjoy the week (I am going to see Haley on Tuesday, which is her 19th birthday),


Rod Rock, Ed.D.


Clarkston Community Schools: Think Beyond Possible

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