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?