Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Grading on a Curve

I need to have this one explained to me again.  Not the math.  It's not the number crunch of graded curving that escapes me.  It's the underlying principle.  Yesterday evening my college sophomore received an email from a professor explaining that the calculated average for her class was 88 and that the standard deviation was 10.  Presumably this was to help my daughter (and her classmates) calculate her curved grade given that she knew her actual grade.  Though she started slow, she finished strong, and my daughter did fine.  What I could not adequately explain to her, despite my chosen field, was why a professor would distribute grades as if there were a limited number available.  Why she hadn't been graded on what she had demonstrated she learned, independent of what other students had or had not learned.  Why is my B related to someone else's A or C?

Earlier in the day I had spoken with Dr. Quaglia fresh from some high powered meetings is Washington, D.C.  One of the things he remarked about was how surprised people at that level in our educational system are whenever he offers to share our data base with them.  "It seems like everyone is competing with one another.  Aren't we all in this together to make schools better for kids?" 

After failing to explain things to my daughter, the days dots started to connect.  Competition for whose program is better for schools, curved grading, "Race to the Top" (which I had been reading more about).  Our educational system from national to local, from the Department of Education to the school classroom is rife with competition.  I understand that competition can be highly motivating.  And certainly competing against oneself for personal bests is a sure path to ongoing success.  No doubt there is a time and a place for competition at all levels.  I am just not sure it should be the underlying framework as it has been in the past.  Knowledge is not a zero-sum game.  If I learn more, you don't learn less.  My A does not inhibit your A even a little. 

I think our education systems are evolving slowly towards a more collaborative, less competitive, set of practices.  One more aligned with the true nature of teaching and learning--one the most profound and necessary forms of human collaboration and partnership.  I see much more group work in the classrooms I visit and much great collegiality among teachers.  It was just interesting to run across three vestiges of the competitive mind-set in one day.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Pre-Vacation Videos

I just read an email from a high school principal who each Monday sends his staff a preview of the week.  He politely asked teachers to limit the use of videotapes and remind students they are looking for three normal school days.  Last week a friend complained to me that her third grader watched The Santa Clause 2 in school.  I recall when my daughters were in elementary school, parents complained in the parking lot about this same practice.  Some wrote a letter to the principal saying that if we wanted our children to watch movies, we would have kept them home.

Some argue that our educational system is at a disadvantage over other countries in the number of hours our students spend in school.  There is a thought-provoking documentary that compares how teenagers in the United States, India, and China spend the 2 million minutes of their high school careers. Between summers off, holidays, winter and spring recesses, and a relatively short school day, there is just not enough "time on task."  We can debate that issue.  Those on the other side could argue that learning requires breathing space. What seems inarguable is that while in school students should be engaged in academic work. 

Clearly we are not talking about educational videos or movies being watched to teach media literacy.  We are talking about "fillers"--using a movie to avoid teaching at times when it is most challenging to teach.  The week before the winter break, the Friday after a Thursday off, the two and half days before Thanksgiving, June after final exams.  This practice (like having summers off) is one that gives teachers a bad rap as professionals. That principals need to send reminders and that parents complain should prompt those who teach to do a little introspection before they pop in Frosty.  While we are at it, instead of our managers and clients having to call us on this, let's clean up this worst practice as colleagues to one another.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Video: Dreams and Education

A 16 year old who gets the connection between education and aspirations and one of three winners of the The U.S. Department of Education's “I Am What I Learn” video contest.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Happy Whatever

I recently spent some time with my nephew who is a student in a public school in New Jersey.  He was sharing his excitement about singing in his school's holiday concert.  "What are you singing?" "We are singing: The Marvelous Toy, Over the River and Through the Woods, and Silver and Gold."  Although this last song has a reference to Christmas trees, the songs are all safely secular.  In my travels into lots of different schools, I have seen at least three different strategies for dealing with our society's current we-can't-call-it-Christmas-or-anything-else-religious paranoia.
  1. Some schools celebrate everything--Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus--you name it, they celebrate it.  They mark the day, learn about that religion in social studies classes, sing songs from each tradition, create art projects, and generally celebrate the rich cultural heritage of all their students.  E pluribus unum.  Out of many, one all inclusive celebration.
  2. Some schools celebrate nothing.  There are no decorations of any kind.  No Christmas trees, no Menorahs, no wishing a merry this or a happy that.  When a student or anyone else asks about this practice, they say they don't want to offend anyone.  A strict separation of church and state (not that this is what the first amendment actually calls for).
  3. Some schools celebrate the generic, secular "holidays."  Not withstanding that the root of the word holiday is "holy day," in these schools people greet each other with "Happy Holiday," have Snowflake parties, and decorate the hallways with snow people ("snowmen" would be sexist) and ginger bread houses.
Each school must accommodate this tricky time of year in a way suited to its community.  I have been in public schools in very conservative areas that unabashedly hang posters that say "Jesus is the reason for the season" and others in which there isn't even a symmetrical construction paper snowflake in sight.  

At The First Amendment Center, Dr. Charles Haynes advocates an educational, non-devotional approach to the holidays for schools.  A school's role is to teach and, in that respect, as long as religious holidays are treated as teachable moments, they can form part of a school's December.  Teachers, administrators, chorale directors and the like who choose to mark the holidays must have a clear educational purpose, a sensitivity to those who may be made to feel like outsiders, and a concern for balance and fairness in whatever they are doing.  This approach fits best with QISA's definition of Belonging, the first and most foundational of the Conditions:  Being a valued member of a community, while still maintaining one's uniqueness.  During December, a school can celebrate the unique and special holiday tradition of each and every member of its learning community.

P.S. The Kwanzaa stamp was designed by artist, Daniel Minter, illustrator of QISA's children's book Sam's Adventures in School and the designer of all of QISA's graphics and logos.

Monday, December 14, 2009

To Co-ed or not to co-ed...

Another difference between that high performing school in Cincinnati and most traditional public schools was that, although the school is co-ed, classes are single gender.  For 9th and 10th graders this is true for every class, with some mixing going on in the upper grades as students take on electives.  The students are allowed to socialize with whomever they want at lunch time.

There is a debate about single gender education and advocates on both sides.  There are even a few books written about brain differences in boys and girls and the implications for schooling.  If you read the U.S. Department of Education's latest report on this topic you will see that the jury is still out.  Most of the studies, however, look at entire schools that are either all male or all female.  This school is only separating the genders for classes and is mixing the genders as they are more mature (there are logistical reasons for mixing as well as electives made single gender classes untenable).

At the school we visited administrators, teachers, and students, for the most part, applauded this approach.  Teachers told us they are able to teach differently, use different examples, and work at different paces given a roomful of all boys or all girls.  Students told us they feel it is an easier environment in which to learn and that as they became more mature it becomes ok to mix together for instruction.  The only complaint is the lack of moderating influence one gender can have on another's behavior.  They said this is true for both boys and girls.

The Condition most in play here is Spirit of Adventure, which QISA thinks about in terms of healthy risk-taking.  There was almost universal agreement that boys and girls alike are more willing to take risks in a single gendered classroom and, therefore, learn better.  But it is not just the risk-taking of individual students I want to acknowledge.  I also want to celebrate is the "third way"--being co-ed as as school and having single-gender classrooms--being used by the school itself.  As our traditional educational systems continue to show signs of wear, we are going to need public schools (not just charter schools) willing to experiment with different ways of being school to help all students succeed.  It is this Spirit of Adventure at the structural level that we need to see more and more of.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dress Code whip lash

Although I have blogged previously about uniforms and dress code, I had a compare and contrast experience this week that was interesting.  On Wednesday in Cincinnati, Ohio, I was interviewing students in a public school that had uniforms--dress shirts, jackets, slacks, and ties. The boys wore a traditional men's tie and the girl's wore a uniform tie. The ties did not have to be worn to the neck and many students had an open top button with a loosely tied knot. Throughout the day, there were the usual instructions from teachers and administrators to tuck in shirt tails, and roll down jacket sleeves.

This high school served inner city kids, many of whom came from struggling families.  Although it is a public school, this school is a school of choice.  Students and parents in Cincinnati elect to go there and must take public transportation to arrive.  They draw from over 60 elementary schools and students there seem to be thriving.  When we asked students to tell us what they liked about the school, high on the list was the uniform.  When asked why, we heard:  "I don't have to think about what I am going to wear when I wake up in the morning."  "It saves my family money." "No one makes fun of anyone because of what they are wearing." "It gives you a sense of pride. The other day I was in a store and the lady at the counter knew what school I went to because I had my uniform on and she said she had gone there, too." "It makes you feel safe."

The very next day, I was interviewing students in the lakes region of New Hampshire.  Like the school in Cincinnati, this school has respectful students working with dedicated staff members.  Both schools have a great deal of success with their students.  Unlike the school in Cincinnati, it is not a school of choice, draws on just three elementary schools and, though there is poverty in some areas of the district, it is not the inner city.  There is a dress code, but no uniform.  When I asked an open ended question about what students would change if they were principal, one student said, "The dress code!"  Other students in the focus group immediately jumped in, "Yeah! They just made this new rule that you can't wear ripped jeans." Another added, "Some people's parents spent money on a new pair of ripped jeans and now they won't even let you wear them."

On back to back days, it was startling to hear one group of public school students lauding their uniform and then another group of students bemoaning their inability to wear tattered clothes. I'll leave it to anyone reading this (is anyone reading this?) to draw their own conclusions.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What Makes Class Work

Conversation in the car driving my daughter, a high school junior, home from play practice.  Picked up midway as she was telling me about her day. (Warning:  I've started to pick and choose my "stop saying 'like'" battles.  This was one I chose to leave alone so I could live to fight another day.)

Daughter:  Ugh...and then we had history class and it was like so lame and boring like it always is...but then we had lunch and...
Dad (ever researching): Wait.  What makes history class lame?
Daughter (trying to be patient..this guy is an educator?): Dad, there are three things that can make a class interesting:  Cool subject, cool teacher, cool other students.
Dad: Ok...
Daughter:  Right? I mean either the subject is really interesting, or the teacher presents it in an interesting way, or the other students in the class are interesting and you have like interesting interactions and things to say.  If you have all three of those, that is the best.  Those are like totally the best classes.  But any one of those things by itself could help you deal with the others being lame.
Dad: I see.
Daughter: But history is lame because I am just not into what we are studying and the teacher is boring and there are no interesting kids in that class.
Dad: Are you an interesting kid?
Daughter: Daaaad.  So, like, then we had lunch....

Here in this over-caffeinated conversation with my sixteen year old was something I believe deeply about classroom teaching:  Relationships count for at least two-thirds.  In more formal focus groups and interviews, many students, not related to me, have told me like the same thing.  My words not theirs:  When the teacher interacts with them in positive ways and creates a classroom environment in which they can interact positively with their peers, they learn more....even when they don't like like the subject matter.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


If you have followed QISA's work you know that one of the 8 Conditions that Make a Difference for students is Heroes.  Heroes are the everyday people in your life who believe in you.  They are the one's who tell you that you can succeed even when you are not so sure.  They are the people who show you respect before you've "earned" it.  They are there with a shoulder when you are feeling unsteady and with a back pat when you are feeling accomplished.

Here's a Heroes Thanksgiving break assignment:  Make three columns.  For the header of each column write NAME, WHAT, WHO respectiveley.  In the first column write the NAME of all the teachers (if you can) that have had a positive impact on your life. In the second column make a check mark if you recall the specifics of WHAT they taught you.  Do you remember what books you read in Mrs. Flaherty's English class?  How to do the quadratic equation that Mr. Finnegan taught you? Do you recall the particular art projects Mrs. Kelton taught you?  In the final column make a check mark if you recall WHO this person was.  By that I mean, his personality, her expectations of you, the level of respect and care she showed you.  Do you recall what kind of a person that teacher was?

One of my favorite quotes is from Ralph Waldo Emerson:  "Who you are speaks so loudly I can't hear what you're saying."  I think this is especially true of the teachers I have been gifted with in my life.  From Mrs. Kelton in the first grade to the many professors that guided my doctoral work.  Thanks to them and to all of you who make a difference for students!

Monday, November 23, 2009


Let's see if I can pull off three blogs this week all with a  Thanksgiving theme:

First.  You may have seen the story by AP writer Dorrie Turner that was in many Sunday papers yesterday.  She sites a report by the National Association for Gifted Children that says most federal education dollars and efforts go into helping low-performing, poor and minority students achieve basic proficiency. According to the report, assisting gifted students so that they can reach their highest potential is left to the resources of the states and local school districts.  As one would expect, there is wide disparity in how such programs are supported.

I am reminded of a teacher who once said to me, "All of my students are gifted and talented."  Her statement makes an interesting and obvious point.  The question of equitable funding notwithstanding, a school ought to help each and every student reach his or her highest potential.  In any given classroom, the starting point may differ from student to student, as will the end point in any given term, year, or life.  A teacher is not responsible for many of the prior conditions (genetics, poverty, parenting, etc.) that lead a student to struggle or soar.  Nor is a teacher responsible for all the future influence that will hinder or help a student as they aspire toward some goal.  But a teacher is responsible for inspiring every student--as in "all my students are gifted and talented"--in the present to act on behalf of their goals.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday Video: When Students are Partners

QISA's work focuses on the personal, social, and academic efforts of a school by getting students involved as partners in the school's climate and culture.  The Focus program described here unlocks the same potential of student voice to improve students' health and physical well-being.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Students At Risk

Yesterday I presented at a conference for school personnel who work with students at risk (counselors, administrators, teachers, social workers, school safety officers).  I was co-presenting with Tony Pierantozzi, Superintendent of the Somerville Public School System and Wadson Michel, a gifted counselor who works in Somerville's alternative school.  The conference was hosted and sponsored by the Middlesex Partnerships for Youth, Inc., an arm of the Middlesex District Attorney's Office that focuses on prevention issues in order to keep young people from interacting with the DA's office for other reasons.

I am always impressed with the level of dedication and commitment of the people who work with the most challenging students in our school systems. I am convinced that these men and women are, quite literally, saving lives. Though the impact is dramatic, their work is much quieter than that, taking place mostly unseen in offices or hallways, at a cafeteria table or even on a street corner.  I learned a lot from the participants and from my co-presenters.

If you know QISA's work, you will not be surprised to learn that we took as a working definition of "At Risk" an Anti-Aspiration approach.  Tony shortened QISA's definition of Aspirations into "Having goals and a plan" which meant students at high risk were those who had no goals and no plan. The contrast in the data between those who have aspirations and those who do not was startling even to those of us who were expecting to see some difference.  We plan to write up what we learned from doing this conference in an upcoming Aspirations Brief. 

For now, try this exercise we used in the workshop yourself:  Pretend you want to open a school that deliberately puts students at risk.  You have no control over their home life (a significant factor in at risk behavior) but you can control their experience of school.  What conditions would you put in place if you wanted students to drop out or otherwise engage in acting out behaviors?  Once you have a list, check out the 8 Conditions and see if your list is a set of antonyms to these Conditions.  What we know is that most students are not at risk because they are intellectually or academically incapable of the work.  They are at risk because they have little or no self-worth, are not at all engaged in the learning environment, and have no sense of purpose in their lives.  At Risk = No Aspirations.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Southern Swing

Geographically speaking I have been in a compare and contrast phase in my traveling.  From the northern Rockies of Montana to the southern forests of Alabama in less than a week.  When I left Missoula last week, my plane had to be de-iced before it rose into the sky.  When I landed in Birmingham this week, a clear sky looked down on roses still in full bloom.

Despite the differences in climate between these two parts of our country, the change in climate to the schools in which we are working in each state is similar.  In one high school, last year 40% of seniors said they were proud of their school.  This year, 69% of seniors agree with that same statement.  "Teachers enjoy working with students" went from 59% in agreement to 82% agreement.  "I feel comfortable asking questions in class" moved up 28% to 82% from 54%.  These are just some highlights.  There are many positive results.

When I asked the teachers what they thought they were doing differently since beginning Aspirations work, they said "We are listening to the students more."  Simple.  They followed the survey with focus groups and many teachers are in a habit of checking in with students more frequently.  The teachers also report that they are seeing an improvement to students' academic achievement.  All the schools in Perry County continue to make Adequate Yearly Progress, but like many of the schools we are working with they have a new target.  No longer satisfied with "adequate" progress, these schools--with administrators, teachers, students, and parents in partnership--are targeting excellence.

If you haven't yet checked out our November newsletter, there is an article in it from some students in Perry County.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When You Ask Students

I mentioned that last week I was in a Montana High School. This week I am in Perry County, Alabama and will share more on that tomorrow. I want to get back to something that happened in Montana that reminded me once again why hearing from students is vital. First, the Student Aspirations Team up there is working on improving the experience of transfer students in their school. In a district that has a fairly high amount of transience, it is interesting to note that the grown-ups to date had over looked this (though they noted it as a concern). After orienting the students to the 8 Conditions half way through last year, they decided that their first project would be to help transfer students acclimate to the school more smoothly. Their plans right now include a welcome basket with school t-shirts, gift certificates to the local hang outs, and various school related paraphernalia: pens, notebooks, etc. In addition, they will conduct tours, make introductions to teachers and co-curricular leaders, and have lunch with these students for at least the first week or two until they find their niche.

The day before working with these students, I met with the staff at that school and we reviewed the school's most recent My Voice data. In my blog of November 9th, I referenced some of the very positive improvements that seem to be the result of a new Academic Coaching system.  They also had very positive improvements to their Fun & Excitement results.  For example 22% more seniors reported that they enjoyed being at school than two years ago.

The funny thing is the teachers were at a loss to explain these improvements.  They didn't think they were doing anything differently.  They were inclined to attribute the change, especially among this year's seniors, to their being a particularly impressive group.  That didn't really hold up in the data longitudinally, unless a lot of students had an academic conversion experience over the summer.  When I asked the Student Aspirations team about it the next day, their answer was almost instantaneous.  They related that more of their teachers were letting them know what the goals of the class were.  Teachers were sharing the reasons they were reading this or that, studying this or that, experimenting on this or that, etc.  One student said, "Knowing the goal makes it less tedious.  You feel like it's not just busy work, but that what you are doing has a point."  Bingo.  Two lessons:  One.  Students notice when we are doing things differently sometimes more readily than we do.  We should involve them as partners.  Two. Goal setting--short, middle, and long term--makes school less boring.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sounds Good

I remember my first pair of eye glasses.  I was a sophomore in high school.  I recall putting them on and saying, "Wow.  Is this the way everybody sees?"  I guess it's an example of not knowing what you don't know.  I had become gradually near-sighted and just assumed I was seeing the world the same as everyone saw it.  One immediate benefit was that I could see the blackboard from anywhere in the classroom.  Until then I had been a front row student or when I was assigned a seat further back, I squinted.  I remember, at the end of a class, if the homework was on the board, I would come up to the front to copy it down before going to the next class.  Glasses made life as a student a lot easier.

The other day, I learned that Native American children have a slightly differently shaped ear canal than other children and as a result suffer from more ear infections.  I learned this because the classrooms I was visiting all had FM speaker systems.  In this school, because there is a significant Native population, the teachers wear microphones and speakers in the ceiling drop the sound down evenly to all parts of the room.  While these systems are not the answer for children with a hearing disability, they do help those students with mild hearing loss due to an ear infection that they may be beginning or recovering from.  From an audio point of view (excuse the mixed metaphor), it is as if every student has a front row seat.

This made me realize how many wonderful breakthroughs we have made in education that are unrelated to curriculum content or pedagogy.  Uncovering dyslexia at earlier ages helps students who in the past would have been labeled as slow learners.  While some argue it is over-diagnosed, there are children with genuine attention deficit issues who in the past were simply seen as hyper-active trouble makers.  Students, who because of poverty do not start the day well nourished, can get breakfast at school before the day begins, instead of being thought of as lazy for having little energy.  Seeing or hearing the classroom from a student's point of view, and making accommodations so they can learn is not just an educational imperative, it is a moral one.

Friday, November 13, 2009

K-12 Kids Today

Thanks to colleague and friend Marty Foley for alerting me to this K-12 Version. Happy Friday.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Veteran's Day

The recent tragedy at Fort Hood and moving memorial services are a harsh reminder that we live in a dangerous world.  The tragedy's proximity to Veteran's Day has heightened the significance of this year's celebration for many.  While some schools mark the holiday with a day off, other schools are in session and have special events honoring men and women in the military.  In a K-1 school I was in this week, students and staff made a special video for those serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  Many schools invite local veterans to visit the school to be thanked in person by the students.

While yesterday was been set aside as a special day of gratitude, we must recognize that our veterans are heroes year round. Especially in a time of war, the decision to enter the military is a supreme act of service. Though we honor them today, they serve us every day. Just recently, I sat with a young man, a senior on an Aspirations Team in a high school, who said he has known since he was a freshman that he wanted to enter the military.  I have talked with numerous 16 and 17 year olds who told me that after graduation they were entering the Army or Marine Corp, the Air Force or the Navy.  The work I do, listening to students like this young man and taking seriously their ideas and point of view, is in the service of improving schools. Young men and women a mere one or two years older are committing themselves in the service of our country far from the families and teachers that enabled them to hear such a call.  These young men and women make me incredibly proud to be a citizen of this country. If you are reading this and are a veteran: Thank you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Big Sky

At the high school I was in yesterday, in the PD session with the whole staff, a teacher asked me why I do Aspirations work.  I gave a "big sky" answer.  The short version is that I think the inherited school system has outlived its usefulness and we are seeing the signs of its wear and tear in the form of drop-outs, wide spread disaffection, drifting students, violence in schools, and struggling academics.  I believe Aspirations is a way forward inasmuch as it helps administrators, teachers, students, and parents work within the system to improve it.  We live in a flat and googleable world where what you learn (easily measurable on standardized tests), though still important, is less important than how you learn--starting with whether or not you believe you can learn, continuing with whether or not you are actively engaged in your learning, and shaped by what your purpose for learning is.  By helping teachers help their students secure those things--I believe they will be, to use a trite shorthand, "College, work, and life ready."

There was a better answer at that particular school, one closer to the ground, that for being on the spot a bit, I didn't state. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, as a result of Aspirations related efforts in that school, 8% more students this year than last year say they have a teacher they can talk with if they have a problem.  The longitudinal increase among seniors over the two years of the work is 19%.  For juniors there is a 10% increase. With just over 200 juniors and seniors in this school that means 29 more students this year than last year--real kids, with real problems--believe they have another adult in their life they can turn to in difficulty. 

In a small rural town with its share of social ills, I can't tell you if the problems those kids wind up bringing, should they arise, are a poor quiz grade or concerns about a friend contemplating suicide.  And while the latter example may be dramatic it is, sadly, no less real.  There is no way to measure fully the impact of a change like that on the future.  I know it has made a difference for 29 kids in a small school in Montana.  Not a bad reason to go to work.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Academic Coaching

Blogging from Montana this morning, where a high school is working on improving the relationship between teachers and students through the use of an Academic Coaching system.  That such "competence support" has an impact on student achievement is well documented and is an excellent example of a school integrating the 8 Conditions and a school's mandate to assist all students in doing their best academic work.  These are not separate realities, as if parents sent only their child's head to school.  Rather adult support throughout the school day, perceived by students as "care" and "respect" is what effective teachers and schools do that students can succeed academically.

At this particular school, there has been a 5% increase in student agreement with the statement "I push myself to do better acadmeically" (an 11% increase for males).  This correlates with improvements of 6%, 8%, and 8% to the indicators "Teachers care about me as an individual," "I have a teacher who is a positive role model for me," and "If I have a problem, I have a teacher with whom I can talk," respectively.  As with academic effort, the biggest improvements were among males.

At the end of the day, students work harder for teachers they believe care about them and respect them.  I have talked with many students who tell me, "I do homework in his class because he's a good guy, even though I am not that interested in the subject" or "I work hard in that class because I don't want to let my teacher down."  These are personal and social factors that directly impact student learning.  At this Montana high school, they are seeing Student Aspirations as the framework for academic success it is meant to be.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Friday Video: A Vision of Students Today

If you haven't seen this one yet, take the time. It's made by and about college students, but much applies to all schooling today.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


"Everyone loves a winner." So the saying goes. Not so much. Last night the New York Yankees won their 27th World Series. It is a feat unparalleled in professional sports. The team with the second most World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals, have won 10. In football the Pittsburgh Steelers have won the most Super Bowls with 6. The Boston Celtics have won 17 NBA Championships. The only other team to be close is the Montreal Canadiens with 23 Stanley Cups. And yet the Yankees are not a team everyone loves.

It is an interesting phenomenon--bristling at success. We see it in schools.  On the My Voice Survey of over 400,000 students throughout the country, just 57% of them agreed with the statement, "I am excited to tell my friends when I get good grades." 38% agreed that students are supportive of each other. And while only 5% agreed that "I am afraid my friends won't like me if I do well in school" that's over 20,000 students! Imagine 20 large high schools in which every student was afraid to be successful. The adults in schools are not much better in this regard. Only 59% of school staff agree that they are excited to tell their colleagues when they do something well. And one-fourth (26%) of the 20,913 school staff members surveyed last year agreed with the statement "I am concerned my colleagues will resent me if I am too successful." Apparently they know not everyone loves a winner.

We need to do a better job of making it safe to be successful in schools. We need to realize that success in school, if not in sports, is not a zero sum game. One student's success should not diminish other students or remove from them the opportunity to be successful. A successful teacher should not have to hide that success in fear of her colleagues eye rolls or whispered "Who does she think she is." Along with teaching literacy and numeracy, we need to teach students that succeeding academically, like winning a World Series, is an accomplishment everyone can celebrate, whether it happens to you or your team or not.

By the way, if you comment with "the Yankees buy their World Series rings"...you are only proving the point. :)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Student Voice in Teacher Evaluation

While we are on the subject....One problem is that many districts and schools do not have a culture or history of meaningful student voice. Rarely are students invited to take a seat at the table where meaningful decisions are made--despite the fact that nearly all meaningful decisions made will in some way impact them. Students opinions are listened to, if they are listened to at all, more or less informally: A complaint that a certain teacher is "uber-boring" or praise for a teacher who "rocks".  It would be a stretch to call such feedback a "system". The traditional forum for student voice is student council, yet nationally only 30% of students in grades 6-12 say that student council represents all students. Student councils in many schools are popularity contests that go on to plan parties and proms. 37% of students say they know the goals their school is working on this year. So when it comes to students evaluating teachers, the fear of students being unfair or not serious are real and born of the unknown.  "We've never done it that way before."

This can be a genuine chicken and egg issue.  In the absence of a school climate that takes student voice seriously, teachers fear students will not be responsible when asked for their input. Yet schools that do not ask for student input at this level, are hard pressed to develop a culture that takes student voice seriously. For many schools, student opinion surveys like My Voice are a safe place to start taking students’ opinions seriously, provided they follow the survey with concrete actions based on the results.

The My Voice survey, while it does not provide student evaluation of any particular teacher, is used to assess the overall effectiveness of the teaching and administrative staff in providing Self-Worth, Active Engagement, and a sense of Purpose for all students. These are tangible measures of a school’s teaching and learning environment and can be used, in turn, to set goals for individual teachers (e.g., to get to know the out of school interests of five students this month, to allow students to choose from among four novels to read instead of assign one, to let students select the destination of this year’s field trip). Beginning in this way is a step towards a culture that allows students to evaluate their teachers in ways that are meant to advance the mission of the school, not threaten teachers’ livelihoods.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pay for Portfolio

One of the challenges that pay for performance or value-added proposals must face is teacher evaluation. Critics and proponents alike agree that the value teachers add cannot be measured solely on standardized tests.  Studies that compare students tested at the start of the year and then again at the end come closest, especially when they track individual student progress. Yet even such measures are not enough on which to base bonus pay.  Testing may show what goes in and what comes out, but without a fair and consistent look inside the black box that is the traditional classroom, we can only speculate about what value the teacher is adding.

President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, said in an interview in Boston that “Teacher evaluation in this country is fundamentally broken.” Having been in many schools, I can't say I disagree. A number of factors contribute, from overworked principals to overwrought schedules. A much more comprehensive approach than is currently employed is needed. There are at least two ways to improve teacher evaluation if schools are to trust it as a basis for performance pay. 

First, and already in place in many schools, is peer evaluation. If a school prioritizes this and schedules are arranged accordingly, teachers evaluating other teachers improves instruction and provides an accurate assessment of classroom effectiveness.  When a variety of colleagues come in regularly to have a look--from supervisors to fellow subject specialists to grade-level peers to veterans to new teachers--a portfolio of evaluation can accumulate as a fair review of a teacher's work.  Second, students should be part of teacher evaluation, not just in the form of their academic achievement, but also as partners in the teaching-learning environment. They are the most consistent witnesses of a teachers performance. The many interviews I have conducted with students of all ages convince me that students have meaningful and thoughtful things to say about their classroom experiences. Instead of leaving students to share such insights and judgments only with friends in the cafeteria or parents at home, we should include their voice in the portfolio.  Such a "360" evaluation combined with academic results from September and June should give schools an adequate accounting of a teacher's performance.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Pay for Performance

Pay for performance is an interesting idea.  As defined by the American Center for Progress, "Pay-for-performance programs award teachers with differential compensation based on some combination of measurable outputs and observed teacher performance."  Typically, teachers are paid based on years of experience and education level.  Add tenure to the mix and critics of the traditional system say there are teachers being paid at the highest levels of the profession whose "experience" is outdated and whose education is no longer suited to the times. Proponents of pay for performance argue that incentives improve teacher effectiveness, encourage teachers to work in challenging urban and rural settings, and tie salaries to measurable outcomes and indicators.

On the other side are those who argue that the complexities of the teaching profession make it nearly impossible to assess any one teacher's success with students, that such a system would lead to more testing, and that it would put too much power into the hands of principals who may or may not be accurate or fair in their assessments.  There are also those who also argue that financial incentives do not actually have the desired effect, especially in a profession that is driven by non-monetary values.  Neither schools, nor teachers are for-profit.

Here is another interesting idea:  What if teachers were rewarded for outcomes that are tangible though not traditional?  These would be teaching practices we know benefit students and support academic achievement.  What if teachers had incentives, financial or otherwise, for attending students' sporting events or performances?  What if teachers who regularly used formative assessments or who graded students' effort and not just end product were compensated for that extra work?  What if teachers who provided students with options for assessment (more work for the teacher) or who found ways to allow students to have more decision-making opportunities in the classroom received a bonus for doing so?  We know that the 8 Conditions improve academic achievement.  What if school's incentivized teachers for the conditions in their classrooms that they have control over and that promote student aspirations and academic achievement?

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Mother's Influence

My mother asked me yesterday why I hadn't done my homework.  Actually she asked why I hadn't written a blog in over a week.  I had hopes of being able to post every day, but the travel has been  intense lately.  My last blog from Kentucky was followed by a trip to Washington, DC which in turn was followed by a trip to Albion, NY.  The trip to Washington was for a national commission sponsored by the CCSSO called EdSteps.  We are studying Creativity in schools and how best to foster it in young people. Still in the early days, it is an incredibly exciting experience full of practical promise for improving education.  More on that in future blogs.

Note that my mother prompted me yesterday and here is my blog today.  It brings up a critical, and at times controversial, issue in education: the role of parents.  Some say schools should assume that parents are not going to be in the picture and if they are it is a bonus.  Others say schools must work hard to communicate with parents and get them involved as much as possible if they want students to be successful.  The issue of parental involvement is tangled up with class, race, and economic issues.  I see this in the schools I visit across the country from Somerville, MA to Perry County, AL to Albion, NY.

I am currently reading the book Outliers and the influence on future success attributed to parents along class lines is enormous. Drawing on the work of sociologist, Annette Lareau, Gladwell's findings point to the need for schools to learn students' talents and skills and cultivate them in a way that supports their emerging dreams and goals. Such an agenda would level the playing field, as Lareau's research shows that this is what middle and upper class parents do for their children.  Additionally, schools must encourage students to voice their opinions and ideas, another finding about the difference between family's that have and those who have not.  There is a great affinity between these ideas and Aspirations work.  While schools may never be able to stand in for the profound affect of parents in their children's lives, they can do everything they can to help students dream and set goals for the future while inspiring them in the present to reach those goals--whether those goals are long-term, as with a career, or short-term, as when being inspired to do your homework.  Thanks, Mom.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Yesterday Dr. Quaglia and I spent the day with educators in Louisville, Kentucky at the invitation of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.  The day long session was sponsored by Pearson Assessment.  No matter where we go throughout the country, we hear the same thing about Aspirations work and the 8 Conditions:  "This makes so much sense."  "This is what we got into education for in the first place."  "Student Voice must be a part of reform efforts at our school."

Every time we ask educators to share their core beliefs, every time we put up a school's mission statement, we note some version of our Guiding Principles:  To develop in students a fundamental belief in their abilities (Self-Worth); to foster student participation in their learning so that they become lifelong learners (Active Engagement); to help students discover and work towards their goals (Purpose).  This is what educators in Kentucky and across the country espouse and it is the mission they proclaim they are pursuing on their web-sites and written documents.

Yet the two topics in the education news in Kentucky yesterday were that Governor Beshear had formed a task force to improve education in the state and that the explanation for the state's AYP  results dropping from 72.9% last year to 60.2% this year could be that the goals for reading and math had been set higher.  No doubt both the higher standards and the Governor's initiative are well intentioned. After spending time with those working in schools in Kentucky, I found myself wishing two things for their leadership at the state level:  First, that the AYP target stop moving.  Second, that the Governor invite some students to be on his task force.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Doing the Math on Tests

Many high-stakes tests that are given in the Fall to test the previous year's teaching and learning do not get reported on until January or, even February of that school year.  In many schools and districts, Professional Development for teachers may already be set.  Even if it is not, the effect on classroom teaching (if that's what standardized tests are meant to effect) is not likely to come until February or March, and then in some more or less forced and improvised form in order to improve next year's results.

Let's say a school does not want to teach to the test in that way, but wants to take deficiencies uncovered in it's results seriously.  The teaching and learning that happened in 08-09 is being assessed on tests being given now in October of 09-10.  Results come back in January of this year and teachers, administrators, and curriculum coordinators meet over the remainder of the year to discuss systemic improvements to the curriculum, which they implement for the 10-11 school year.  The effects of those improvements on students will not show up on the test until students are tested in the 11-12 school year with the results coming back in January of 2012.  The students whose test scores  triggered the curriculum revisions will be four grades further along than they were in the year of the teaching and learning being assessed.  For example, 5th graders in 08-09 whose learning is being assessed and reported on as new 6th graders in 09-10 initiating a change to the curriculum when they will be 7th graders in 10-11, will be in the 8th grade in 11-12 when their learning from 10-11 will be assessed and reported on.

Complicate this further in an urban district with a transient student population.  Or a rural district that has a migrant population.  Or in a district that has two or three K-5 schools, a middle school, and a high school that may have to align its curriculum as part of the solution and you get a picture of what this kind of testing is doing to the sleep habits of principals and superintendents as the short term impact of the stakes moves faster than the long term impact of the solutions.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Testing Testing

This year is the first year schools in Maine are using the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP).  In order to fulfill requirements of No Child Left Behind, NECAPs test students in grades three through eight in reading and math and are administered in the Fall to assess the previous year's teaching and learning.

In an elementary school I was in last week, a teacher administering the math test to her third graders noted that one student was tracing her hand on the test paper.  Concerned that the girl was creating an early holiday picture she asked what she was doing.  The girl replied that she had to explain how she had gotten her answer. "I counted on my fingers," she said.  Fair enough.  In response to the same instruction, another student wrote to the eventual evaluator: "Sorry.  I don't know."  The NECAP reading test has section laid out in columns.  In this particular school, the reading curriculum did not teach students to read in columns until the third grade.  Think about that from the student's point of view.  If you have never seen columns before, it looks strange, but everything you know tells you to just keep reading across from left to right.  Under the pressure of your first standardized test, think of the confusion that must set in, and even panic.

As long as we have standardized test we are never going to get away from the fact that at least some of what they measure is a student's ability to take standardized tests.  Knowing how to bubble efficiently, how to eliminate answers quickly in a  multiple choice, how to preview questions when reading for comprehension are just some of the skills that can make for a better score.  This is at least one reason such testing always needs to be put in perspective.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Looking at Things Another Way

One of the driving forces of QISA's work is that very positive things happen in schools that take seriously the point of view of their students.  This is another video that may already be viral, but if you haven't seen it makes a similar point about looking at the same thing from another angle.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Zero Tolerance

If you follow education news you no doubt have heard about the first grader who was suspended for 45 days for bringing a camping tool to school.  He was going to eat his lunch with it.  The school board has since reconsidered the zero tolerance policy which lead to this decision, but the event has stirred up the usual debate about "zero tolerance."

One of the short comings of a "zero tolerance" policy is that it limits a school's options for disciplining students.  It assumes there is a one size fits all approach to certain student behaviors and takes decision-making out of the hands of the living experience of teachers, administrators, and parents.  A zero tolerance approach all but explicitly states that the way to handle certain infractions is best decided by a group of adults sitting around a table removed from the actual realities on which they are passing judgment.  While I understand the message a zero tolerance policy is meant to send to students, it also communicates a lack of trust in the educational professionals dealing with realities on the ground and in real time.

"Zero tolerance" is to discipline codes what standardized teaching is to pedagogy.  There are actually philosophies of education and curricula that try to make education "teacher proof."  Regulation, overwrought supervision, holding teachers accountable to standards they didn't help create are all part of the same mechanistic mindset that tries to eliminate variables (specifically the very variable variable known as a human being) from the equation.  Both "zero tolerance" and "teacher proof" curricula assume IF X, THEN Y in every case, in all circumstances, no matter who is involved, or why.  Tolerance is reduced to zero by reducing to zero the input of those who would tolerate a first grader eating his lunch with a cool gadget, politely collect it from him when he was done, and return it to his parents with the instruction that the school has a policy about not bringing any kind of knife into school.  What they have realized in Delaware is that student discipline is not rocket science, it's much more complicated than that.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Evaulation Variables

In addition to expanding the number of charter schools, another way Race to the Top funding is influencing state legislation has to do with whether or not student progress is a factor in teacher evaluations.  Currently, many states prohibit this by law, in part as a response to teachers’ unions lobbying against it. The argument is that student progress is based on many variables which are outside of a teacher's control--parents, previous teachers, and student ability to name just a few of the more significant factors.

This is true and it betrays two underlying assumptions about school that are part of the problem.  First, when we assess teachers as if they were disconnected from other parts of a system that includes parents, other teachers, and the students themselves, we really do not create and accurate picture of reality.  This does not make for a case against including student progress as a part of teacher evaluation.  On the contrary, it means teacher evaluation should include student progress and parental involvement and the fact that these students came from another teacher previously and any other factors that create an realistic account of whether a teacher has helped each student advance academically.  A teacher should be expected to make the same kind of progress with a student whose parents seem unavailable as he does with someone whose parents are involved, but he should be expected to make progress never the less.

Second, part of a teacher's responsibility is to factor in the myriad variables that help or hinder student progress and to apply her professional, lived wisdom as an educator to adapt and adjust.  Lawyers adjust to an unexpected answer from a witness or they lose cases, doctor's adjust to changes in a person's health or they lose patients, and as educators we must adjust to the variables affecting our students' learning.  It seems reasonable to hold professionals accountable, at least for the variables they are aware of, and for knowing that their will be variables.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Charter Schools

Of all the proposals put forth by the new administration, the commitment to increase the number of charter schools perhaps rankles the rank and file in the public education system the most.  Many states are actually passing legislation to change caps on the number of charter schools allowed in order to be in competition for federal Race to the Top money.  While few can deny the results that many charter schools achieve – several of those with the most difficult students – some argue that charter schools are bound by a different set of rules and so comparisons are unfair.

When one studies the success of charter schools, one sees a significant parallel with Student Aspirations and the 8 Conditions.  Charter schools thrive by creating an environment in which all participants feel valued, where all members of the learning community are actively engaged, and where learning is focused on purposeful action and future success.  In many ways, when successful, charter schools are models of the very definition of Aspirations – providing students with the ability to dream and set goals for the future, while being inspired in the present to reach those dreams. 

They accomplish this by being free of more traditional norms and ways of doing things.  Unfettered by convention and working toward a common vision, each charter school community is free to create the policies, schedules, curricula, and professional development that will lead to the most positive results.  In addition, charter schools seem more adept at using formative assessments, as well as summative evaluations of students.  Perhaps their governing structures make them more agile and able to respond to uncovered needs.  As the number of charter schools increases, we will have to be alert to the way they influence more traditional forms of schooling.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Inspecting Inspections

Here is one other interesting difference in the way we do things on one side of the Pond or the other.  In the U.S. schools are accredited by various independent accrediting agencies. (There are six major ones and the relationship between their standards and the work we do at QISA can be found on our web-site.)  Typically a school will spend the entire year before it is up for accreditation or re-accreditation in a required self-study.  There will be surveys, analyses, committees, vision statement revisions, new program implementation, etc., etc., etc.  I have seen schools consumed by the process and chief administrators working on almost nothing else as a priority.  In the accreditation year, a team of inspectors roles in, clip boards in hand, and takes the school through a process of observations, interviews, and standards review over the course of several days.  That committee will in the end issue a report recommending re-accreditation or some other level of status if "measures" need to be taken for the school to be up to the standards of the agency.

In the UK, the accrediting agency is known as the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) and conducts all inspections.  A school typically gets a day or two notice that an inspection team is coming.  There is no extended self-study other than one that is meant to be ongoing and on file.  Inspections are a surprise.  The administrators and teachers get a little notice to shape up the paper-work, the inspection team comes in and conducts their observations and interviews, and three weeks later the school receives a report.  The most effective schools are always on their toes for an Ofsted inspection.

The comparison is an interesting twist on classroom observations.  Typically, when there is a planned observation, teachers are able to put their best lesson forward.  On the other hand, if observations are unexpected, they may capture a more accurate picture of a teacher's preparation and performance.  Both methods for teachers and for schools have their pros and cons.  However, if what we are after is a true picture of a teacher or school's abilities, then the element of surprise may be a better approach.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Decoding Dress

Day Two from London.  Another interesting difference between our two public education systems is that many of the schools in England require students to wear uniforms.  At the secondary level, this is usually khakis and a polo shirt. Some schools go a little further and require blazers and dressier pants. Since many of the schools here are organized by “houses," each house might have a particular article of clothing in common.  For example, if all students are required to wear ties (boys and girls), each house might have a different tie.  In more casual schools, each house might have a different color polo shirt, but all with the same school emblem. 

I know the uniform issue gets debated a lot in the US, with pros and cons on both sides.  What I notice here is that it does create a sense of pride and Belonging.  The outward and obvious association with the school and within the school, a house, helps students feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves.  There really isn’t that “But they can’t express their individuality” that some wring their hands over.  The students' individuality is evident in who they are and how they act.

Nor does wearing a uniform remove the adolescent need to push back in the way they dress.  I have been tying and wearing a tie myself since I was 13, but have rarely seen such an amazing variety of knots and tie lengths--all designed to stay within the dress code while testing its boundaries. Shoes, socks, jewelry, rolled sleeves, shirts tucked in or out, all come creatively into play in eternal struggle between adults and young people to follow the rules.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Head Teachers

Today I am submitting my blog from the United Kingdom. We have worked in a number of schools over here for the last several years and I find the compare and contrast an illuminating exercise. One of the more significant difference I have noticed is that the administration in UK schools, actually called "senior management" (George Bernard Shaw was correct when he said that we are two countries separated by a common language), almost all teach. The principals are called "head teachers" and their assistants are referred to as "deputy heads." More than just semantics this is a fundamental difference between our school management systems.

For one thing, senior managers remain grounded in the day in and day out grind of those they manage. They have to get to know students, deliver curriculum, grade papers, and in general, interact very differently with staff. A second difference is that even in modestly sized schools there are several deputy heads. This has the affect of flattening the leadership structure and puts more oars in the water when driving new initiatives.

Given my experience with the hectic work life of principals in the US, the UK's shared leadership system results in more widely shared decision-making, responsibility, and accountability.  Some things we may want to consider on the other side of the Pond.  More tomorrow.  Cheers!

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Music Lesson

I thought it being Friday we would watch a video. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Timing is Everything

While we are on the topic of things-we-still-do-even-tough-we-know-it's-wrong having to do with schools and time:  In almost every district we visit, the high school starts around 7:30 am and the elementary schools start around 8:30 am.  Numerous studies argue that the biology that takes hold in adolescence points to the need for a later start time for the adolescents taking Biology.  And yet the buses drop-off still dropping off teen-agers at school before picking up the up-for-hours younger students.

The science here is the science.  The case is closed on that.  What seems alarming to me is that we make decisions in our educational institutions, important decisions, based on considerations having nothing to do with education.  We had one district that tried to take on this issue.  The list of reasons why they could not rearrange the schedule included: the bus schedule, the sports schedule, parents needing an older kid off the bus at home before a younger kid arrived, students needing to get to work, and teacher contracts.  All of these concerns should be part of the conversation.  I'm just not sure they should have the most say.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Meatloaf Again????

The New York Times recently reported on President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan advocating for a longer school day and year. The school calendar, as we all know, is outdated. Once upon a time, most families needed everyone home in the summer to harvest crop and prepare the soil for next year. One barrier to more effective education in our schools is that most schools operate out of an industrial age mind-set (more on this in a future post) tied to an agricultural calendar. These two outdated systems conspire to create a frequently fragmented and sometimes sputtering experience of school. Teachers (who enjoy the current calendar as much as their students) will be the first to tell you that they have spent a good deal of September revitalizing, refertilizing, and sometimes replanting.  One solution is to add more days and there is growing support for a more evenly spaced schedule (see the National Association for Year Round Education).

While the economic consequences of an extended year would have to be worked out, what concerns me is what is driving this agenda for the President and his policy-makers.  The desire to level the global playing field is laudable, but test scores are once again being held up as the measure of success.  When higher standardized test scores are the goal (as they are now), then standardized teaching to the test becomes the preferred means.  Better test taking will not necessarily make us more competitive in the world market place, not unless there is a global run on correctly bubbled OMR sheets.

I have often heard Dr. Quaglia quip, "You can't make a bad meat loaf better by making it bigger or leaving it in the oven longer."  Adding hours to the day and days to the year does not involve a new recipe.  We need to completely re-think the way we do school.  If that means a different calendar, I am all for it.  If it just means school as usual for a longer period of time, it sounds like yet another half-baked solution.

(For a related point of view on this, check out teacher Marty Foley's blog from yesterday.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fall Field Trips

Field Trips are a highlight of the school year for many students and teachers.  The chance to get out and explore an art or science museum or nearby conservation land or businesses can bring a level of Fun & Excitement, Curiosity & Creativity, and Spirit of Adventure unavailable in the "boring" building we are confined to day after day.  What puzzles me is why field trips are so often packed into the end of the year.  There are two kinds of field trips--those that are educational and those that are more celebratory and community-building--and both would seem to work better at the beginning of the year rather than at the end.

At the end of the year, I have seen those excursions slide into disciplinary carrots or sticks used to coax or prod students to behave.  They become part of a prize/penalty system used to reward students who have done well or, withheld, to punish students who have not met expectations.  I have also seen them used to check off school days after teachers have reached the end of the text book or the end of their rope!  That precious time spent out of the classroom can be put to better use.  This is accomplished,in part, simply by shifting the timing.

At the beginning of the school year, the field days, picnics, and trips to amusement parks could be used to create a sense of Belonging.  They are opportunities for students to get to know one another and their teachers free from the stress of having to perform academically.  We can discover trust and respect that will serve us for the rest of the year.  Jaunts of the more educational variety, to farms, orchards, museums, and local historical sites become food for thought for the entire year.  "Do you remember when we were in the museum and saw..."  "Here is an apple I saved from our trip to the orchard last month, let's..."  "Open your books to page 72, we are going to read about the battle that took place during the Civil War at the site we visited in October."  While the weather is still cooperating, why not plan a trip in October that you can use inside until June?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Grade Time Already II

The quote I posted yesterday reminded me of a lecture I heard by Peter Senge once in which he talked about a study that traced the decline in the rapid learning ability of pre-school children after they enter school to the introduction of external rewards.  When a child is internally motivated, he or she learns for learing's sake. One year old's learn to talk so they can ask for things.  Two year old's learn to run so they can keep up with their brothers and sisters.  Three year old's learn better social skills and manners because it helps them avoid frustration and time-outs.  Before school, learning, for the most part, is its own reward.  


In school it becomes all about getting the smiley face sticker, the gold star, the A. That shift in motivation from internal to external leads to a decline in the rate of learning as the pursuit of external rewards takes precedence over the learning itself.


I remember my Uncle used to give me $5 for getting straight A's on my report card.  Over time I became more motivated to get A's than to actually learn.  I became an efficient test taker. This was not without benefits even beyond the five-spot.  Getting good grades opened up doors to good schools.  Yet what I said yesterday still holds, not every course I "earned" an A in did I actually learn in.  That brings us back to the purpose of schooling.  Most teachers I know teach so that students will learn.  Does the way most schools do assessment support that goal?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Grade Time Already

Some schools that run on a 4 by 4 block schedule or some other quarter-year system are already sending out progress reports.  We definitely have become "grade conscious" in this country.  84% of students report that getting good grades is important to them, though only 54% are excited to tell their friends that they have gotten good grades.  


I came across this quote the other day by Derrick Jensen:  “Grades are a problem. On the most general level, they're an explicit acknowledgment that what you're doing is insufficiently interesting or rewarding for you to do it on your own. Nobody ever gave you a grade for learning how to play, how to ride a bicycle, or how to kiss. One of the best ways to destroy love for any of these activities would be through the use of grades, and the coercion and judgment they represent. Grades are a cudgel to bludgeon the unwilling into doing what they don't want to do, an important instrument in inculcating children into a lifelong subservience to whatever authority happens to be thrust over them.”


I have seen grades used this way.  I have heard teachers say, "If you want to do well on the test..." or "There may be a quiz tomorrow..." This works for some students, but not all.  And even when it works, it may not work in the way we want it to, if what we want is real learning and not just doing well on tests.  In my own experience, not every test I did well on was a true reflection of what I had learned.  I was an A student in calculus.  I don't know any calculus.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Welcome to Our School

Hazing is always ugly.  In essence, hazing is nothing more than bullying "justified" by tradition.  That so called tradition combines with a peer-pressurized pack mentality that leads more kids to do the hurting and more kids to get hurt.  Yesterday, the New York Times reported a particularly nasty tradition of hazing in Millburn, NJ and the school board's recent response.  It's no surprise that the article describes a heated gathering and a discussion of how best to punish the offenders in order to stop future incidents.  I wonder if the threat of punishment works with all teen-agers.

Speaking of teen-agers:  You know the students at Millburn High School are talking about hazing, too.  Just as students at any and every school where hazing exists talk about it.  But student conversations are not a matter of public record. They are talking about it on their cell phones and over lunch tables. They are discussing it on the bus and on IM.  In the Times article, we hear from board presidents and board members, school administrators and school parents.  But no kids.  And yet students did the hazing, students were hazed, students knew about and witnessed the hazing, and students are planning or worrying about hazing even now.

The schools we have seen successfully deal with hazing are those that put adults and students together, with the students doing most of the heavy lifting.  They wind up getting to the root of the problem, which is a lack of respect and a fear of the new.  Ultimately, the students themselves create positive traditions of initiation.  In a twisted and completely unacceptable way, that is what hazing is: a rite of initiation.  It is a very disturbing and dysfunctional form of welcome.  The impulse to welcome new comers needs a far healthier expression.  Students must create those for themselves with our help and support.

(There are many organizations that deal with this issue in depth:  A few are www.stophazing.org, www.insidehazing.com, and www.hazingprevention.org.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Art of Student Management

Meeting with a high school assistant principal in his office during the school day is an exercise in instructive interruptions.  The other day, in a fifteen minute span, such a conversation was helpfully sidelined by a young woman who had been kicked out of class, a concerned parent whose son had been threatened, a returned phone call from an anxious parent whose student tore a thermostat off the classroom wall, and a male student who kept insisting the the teacher had it in for him and that he didn't do it. This last exchange was especially artful.

Student: "I wasn't doing anything.  All I did was log on to the computer.  I forgot I wasn't supposed to do that and she just starts yelling at me."
AP: "Did she yell at you or did she just disagree with what you were doing."
Student: "Well she didn't yell yell.  She just told me to stop and then I got all pissed."

The conversation continued to both the AP and the student's satisfied resolution, but it is that brief exchange about the word "yell" that I found so interesting.  Had the AP not asked for clarification (based on his experienced guess about what actually took place), he could have had a very different picture of what took place.  After all we have all seen teachers actually yell at students.  I have heard my own children describe my correction of them with that same word: "Dad, you don't have to yell."  Honestly, I wasn't yelling.  What's clear is that young people experience almost any kind of correction by an adult as "yelling."  Yet another lesson in how differently we see and hear the world.  What worked in this situation and nearly all others I have observed is when the differences in perspective become articulated.  I believe the responsibility for doing that is on the adult.

Monday, September 21, 2009

School Doctor School

Harvard University announced last week that it will be offering a doctoral program in Educational Leadership.  The press release states that the program will be tuition-free and "taught by faculty from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)." When Harvard creates its first new degree in three-quarters of a century, the times they are a-changin'. This is welcome news.

One of the lessons we have learned at QISA is that school administrators are the key to effective school improvement and change. Whenever we try to improve the 8 Conditions in schools, the staff and students have to get on board, but it is the principal and his or her administrative team that have to drive the train. Without consistent administrative propulsion, few efforts leave the station, never mind become sustained.

I have worked with many gifted and good-willed administrators. Most have come up through the ranks as teachers, and then chairs of departments or team leaders, and then have been offered the seat in The Office. I get emails from them sent at all hours of the night. Many are over-tasked and under-resourced. As hard working as these individuals are, I believe the days of the promoted-teacher principal have passed. This is not a sleight to those who are doing their best to lead their schools. It is a seasoned judgment that the traditional system for creating principals has outlived its usefulness. The task of administering a school is far more complex than it was even twenty-years ago.  This complexity is not beyond the intellectual or volitional capacity of any of the principals I have worked with.  But the skill set now required--comprising everything from budgets and instructional leadership to personnel management and PR--exceeds classroom experience as a training ground.  Principals have told me this themselves.

I am not advocating that we trade those who have walked the walk for those who have only heard the talk. One of the aspects of the Harvard degree that is promising is that it will be practice based. Undoubtedly those who apply will be teachers and administrators.  I am for a cadre of administrators that enjoys the benefits of everything we have learned in the last quarter-century about schools and effective leadership.  I am also hoping that learning to lead a school that sees students as full partners in education is on the syllabus.