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 The school calendar, as we all know, is outdated.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 These two outdated systems conspire to create a frequently fragmented and sometimes sputtering experience of school.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,, and

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.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What Knowles Knew

It should be noted that all three of the public offenders mentioned in yesterday's blog offered apologies, both to the public and to the people to whom their remarks were aimed.  Mr. West apologized to Ms. Swift, Ms. Williams apologized to the line judge, and Congressman Wilson apologized to President Obama.  Each showed a willingness to take Responsibility for his or her actions and that is refreshing.  Hopefully, the apologies receive as much YouTube time as the offenses.

But the real Hero in these seemingly disconnected displays of disrespect was the bystander Beyonce.   Obviously aghast when she heard Kanye West use her name to take something away from another artist, Ms. Knowles later collected her own award for VMA video of the year (making Mr. West's remarks seem even more foolish).  Taking the stage, she graciously and immediately called Taylor Swift from the wings and handed her the microphone that had previously been taken away so that "Taylor...could have her moment."

What I connected with from our work in schools was Ms. Knowles' opening remark: "I remember being 17 years old..." One of the characteristics I have noted in the best teachers and administrators is the ability to slide quickly and easily into the experience of their students from their own experience of having been students. The middle school-teacher who uses the memory of being twelve, the high school assistant principal who sees in the student sent to his office himself at sixteen--these educators are Heroes to those in their care as Ms. Knowles was to the teenage Taylor Swift.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wilson, Williams, and West: A Crisis of Respect?

Within a week, we have seen three very public instances of disrespect in the arenas of state, sport, and stage.  In school terms, these incidents would cover nearly the full spectrum of co-curricular activities: student government, athletics, and performing arts.  Last Tuesday, during President Obama's address to a joint session of congress, Representative Joe Wilson shouted out "You lie!" in response to the president's insistence that his health care plan would not cover illegal immigrants.  On Saturday night, tennis superstar Serena Williams berated a line judge for what she considered a bad foot-fault call.  The outburst earned Ms. Williams her second reprimand of the night and because it was match point, Ms. Williams lost the contest as a consequence.  On Sunday night, at the MTV Video Music Awards, rapper Kanye West took the microphone out of winner Taylor Swift's hand during her acceptance speech in order to say, essentially, that another nominee, Beyonce´, was more deserving of the award.  In a school, the representative would have been kicked out of class, the rapper would have received detention, and the ranked athlete would have been suspended.

Tuesday I quoted a statistic from the My Voice Survey that only 30% of students agree that students respect one another.  In the same survey, 39% agreed that students respect teachers and 54% agreed that teachers respect them.  For years these numbers have caused me to wonder if there is a crisis of respect in our schools.  Perhaps the crisis is more widespread.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bullies in the Mirror?

While we are on the topic of bullying...if you have been in and around and observing schools for as long as I have, you have probably seen school personnel and policies that try to bully students into not bullying, and disrespectfully insist that students be more respectful. Whenever I am in a school that wants to work on reducing bullying as a way of improving the Condition of Belonging, there is always an interesting moment when we are talking about the students' unwanted and aggressive behavior and I ask the question:  Is there bullying among the staff?  Murmurs of recognition and revelation.  Adult bullying may be more subtle, but no less serious an issue.  Whenever I hold up a mirror like that and the staff see in themselves something they want to change in their students, I know we can make progress.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bullies, the Bullied, and Bystanders

In an Op-Ed in yesterday's Boston Globe entitled "How we can end the cycle of bullying," pediatrician Claudia Meininger Gold advocates an early childhood approach to bullying that focuses on improving parenting skills in order to help young children with aggression. This focus on the origins of bullying are laudable and must be pursued.  The Associate Press yesterday also reported on the other end of the effort to stop bullying: law enforcement.  Yet as Dr. Gold states, "bullying is a symptom" and until the underlying causes are treated, legal and disciplinary action remain necessary, if symptomatic, solutions.

Until improved parenting skills are taught, implemented, and produce results, schools must still deal with bullying. In a My Voice Survey of  over 400,000 students in grades 6 -12, 33% agreed with the statement "I think bullying is a problem in my school." This coincides with National Center for Education Statistics that indicate one-third of U.S. students report being bullied in school. There are numerous anti-bullying programs out there.  In our work in schools, we have seen three basic approaches.  Those that
  • Focus on the bully: "Be nicer."
  • Focus on the bullied: "Be tougher."
  • Focus on the bystander: "Be involved."
All three recommend themselves from an 8 Conditions point of view, but the latter seems to involve more of the Conditions more effectively.  Giving bystanders resources to become involved puts more responsibility for reducing bullying on students themselves.  In schools, adult solutions to bullying tend to drive bullying further underground.  When students get involved in meaningful ways, both bullies and those targeted get the message that they are not alone.

Time to Reflect

In his recent blog, Underway, classroom teacher and reading specialist Marty Foley recently wrote, "Students returned to school today and we have begun the long journey through the school year. Realistically, it is much longer for them than me - at my age, a school year represents less than 2 percent of my life. To an 8th grader, it's more than triple that percentage."  I happen to know Marty's age without doing the calculation because he was one year behind me in high school.  This summer we reconnected and waxed nostalgic about that now 8.5% of our lives that was high school.  When we were classmates, that same stretch of years represented one-quarter (25%) of our entire existence.

What I appreciate about his reflection is the reminder that as teachers and parents we benefit when we see things from our students' point of view.  The way we experience time, a subject, a lesson, an assignment may be very different from one side of the desk than from the other.  Beginning the year in that bi-focal (yes, that's an aging pun) mindset, switching between our view point as teachers or parents and the view point of our student or child, makes us better educators.  Thinking back on our past can be nostalgic, as it was this summer for Marty and me, and it can be an exercise in becoming an adult who is more present to kids.

(If you're interested in what hundreds of thousands of students have said about school from their point of view, check out QISA's My Voice National report.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Being 10 on 9/11

I grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey.  On frequent drives to my Aunt's house along the elevated Turnpike extension, we could see lower Manhattan.  When the second of the Twin Towers was finished being built, I was 10 years old.  Eight years ago this morning that was the flash back I had--being a boy watching in amazement and wonder as the biggest erector set in the world was being built.  Later that morning, I watched in amazement and horror as they came down.

What have we learned since that day and what, if anything, are we teaching our children about that event?  A few curricula for schools are available.  "Teaching 9/11" by the September 11th Education Program and The Families of September 11 curriculum both look like thoughtful and informative programs that cover issues from the way 9/11/01 changed our everyday lives to the importance of global awareness.  Both appear sensitive to the families that were directly affected.

More broadly, when I consider that day through the lens of my work as an educator, it occurs to me that the oldest students I interact with (high school students like the ones I watched the president's speech with the other day) were the same age when the towers came down as I was when they went up.  Although I did not go on to build skyscrapers, I have little doubt that seeing that gradual feat of human engineering at that impressionable age affected my aspirations in some way.  What couldn't be done?  The human capacity for construction seemed limitless.  I wonder if those who were ten on that morning eight years ago were "impressed" with something similar about the human capacity for destruction.  How do we unlearn that?  Should we unlearn that?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Presidents Promoting Aspirations

Tuesday, in his speech to America's students, President Barack Obama said, "I am calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education - and to do everything you can to meet them."  He echoed his predecessor, George H. W. Bush, when the forty-first president said to students, "I'm asking you to put two and two together: Make the connection between the homework you do tonight, the test you take tomorrow, and where you'll be 5, 15, even 50 years from now. You see, the real world doesn't begin somewhere else, some time way down there in the distant future. The real world starts right here. What you do here will have consequences for your whole lives."

At QISA we define Aspirations as "the ability to dream and set goals for the future while being inspired in the present to reach those dreams."  We must teach our children and young people that their present actions influence their future and that setting a goal, having a dream, can be a powerful motivating force right now.  In a National My Voice study, students with aspirations were over ten times more likely to put forth their best effort in school than students who admitted to not having aspirations.  Whether you are data-driven or president prompted, fostering a young person's aspirations is a key to their success in school and life.

What are your students' goals and dreams?  How are you inspiring them in the present to reach them?

(To learn more about how these two elements--present and future--combine to influence students' aspirations, check out QISA's Aspirations Profile.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Passing on a Teachable Moment

Prior to the president's address to the students of the United States yesterday, I was with a roomful of principals and other school administrators. One principal shared that she had already received calls about the speech. One parent said, "My daughter better be watching the president speak today," while another called to say, "My son better not be watching the president speak today."  How did it come to this?

The Sun Sentinel reports that Broward Schools Superintendent James Notter wrote in a memo to principals that students will not be allowed to opt out of viewing Obama's address. The district has encouraged civics education through programs such as Kids Voting Broward and by watching presidential inaugural addresses, Notter wrote, so letting students skip Obama's speech "does not align with our practices and responsibility to provide a well-rounded, quality education for all students." Many other superintendents sent memos saying that principals or teachers or parents or students could opt out.

Whatever your political leanings, how did we get to a place where our democratically elected leader is considered someone a young person should not only not heed, but not even hear?  How did an event as fundamental and relevant to who we are as the president encouraging young people to stay in school and work hard become controversial?  In a school setting, wouldn't this be an opportunity to learn something whether you agreed or disagreed with the president's policies?  Once home, wouldn't it be something to discuss at dinner or before bed?  One of the 8 Conditions is Curiosity & Creativity.  I'm curious:  Where did all the "teachable moments" go?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

President Asks Nation's Students to Set High Aspirations

Today I watched President Barack Obama's address to the young people of the United States with a dozen students at an alternative high school in an urban school district in Massachusetts.  The students listened attentively and respectfully.  When asked what message the president was trying to send, all  responded with some version of "You have to work hard" or "Don't give up on yourself" or "If you give up on yourself you are not just letting yourself down, you are letting the country down."  A few students, coming from challenging economic backgrounds as they do, implied that the president should have included making money as a motivating force along with curing disease and inventing cool technology.  Clearly they heard what he had to say and most thought the president did a good job. 

The principal of the school did an equally excellent job in his follow-up.  He engaged his students--many struggling with emotional and/or behavioral issues and at risk of dropping out--with the president's message of goal setting.  He invited some to improve their reading skills by reading from a book every day.  He applauded one young lady who said her goal for the year was to improve her behavior and another who recognized the truth behind the president's remark that you can't just drop out of school and drop into a good job. 

It was a privilege to witness educational leadership at both ends of the spectrum today, all in the space of 30 minutes.  A president, who himself came from challenging circumstances, inspiring the country's students with a message of personal responsibility and the very American values of persistence and hard work.  And a principal, inspiring the students he will work with, struggle with, and hold accountable day in and day out.  Both are the kinds of Heroes all of our students deserve and need.