Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thursday Video: A Charlie Brown Education

Moved the video up one day in honor of many being off tomorrow.  I think one among many of the touching elements of A Charlie Brown Christmas is Charlie's quest for the true meaning of Christmas amid the commercialization of the season. It makes me wonder about how the true meaning of education can get lost amid the standardization of the system. Maybe that's why so many students hear "Wah wah wahwah wah" when they should be hearing inspiration for their future.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

...Wonderful Time

"It's the most wonderful time of the year." No matter how you celebrate in December--the lights and tinsel, the gifting and partying, the beauty of new fallen snow and joy of time spent with old friends and family--it is delightful. Whether your holiday journeys have you walkin' in a winter wonderland or wondering as you wander, only the Scroogiest among us remain non-wonder-filled. And even Ebenezer was won over.

Have you ever wondered what wonder is? Some say it is a kind of awe, but that makes for strange translations: "It's the most awful time of the year" doesn't have quite the same jingle. Aristotle said that wonder, the desire to know, is what makes us uniquely human. Anyone who has seen a dog tilt its head knows that animals must wonder, too, but do they take the same delight in wonder that we do? Wonder is inquiry that we delight in. When we are wondering, we are meaningfully engaged in a curiously human experience. And as human, we have an unlimited and insatiable desire to understand and know. Our capacity for wonder has no upper limit. Wonder is curiosity at its hap-happiest.

One curiosity I have, is whether wonder is invited into the school day and year in the same way it is welcomed into this holiday season. Given that it is the force behind engaged understanding, knowing, and deciding, it should be the first guest to arrive at the party and the last to leave. If what passes for wonder in a classroom is questions that have students trying to guess the answer a teacher has in her head, bah! If the only things students are wondering is what questions will be on the test, then it's a humbug (<--haven't you ever wondered?). QISA's Condition of Curiosity & Creativity welcomes neither. Imagine students singing of September to June, "It's the most wonder-filled time of the year!"

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

45 Million Can't Be Wrong

In case you missed it, December 10th's Washington Post carried preliminary news of the Bill and Melinda Gate's Foundation's $45 million study of teacher effectiveness. Though the final report is not due for another year, foundation spokesperson Vicki Phillip said of these results: "In every grade and subject we studied, a teacher's past success in raising student achievement on state tests was one of the strongest predictors of his or her ability to do it again."

Um. I am sure the actual report will have more details and make an important contribution to improving teaching, teacher training, and teaching evaluation. But when, according to the Post, the central finding of this $45,000,000 study "indicates that teachers with 'value-added' ratings are able to replicate that feat in multiple classrooms and in multiple years, I have to wonder what they spent the other $44,999,999 on.

For my money the only finding they needed was that "the average student is able to recognize effective teaching." Given that, save a few bucks and go to Million Voice for getting students' input on school level factors that make for effective teaching and learning and iKnow My Class for getting students' input on classroom related factors for the same.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What is Senioritis?

My oldest is in college and my youngest is a senior in high school, which is what prompts this "Monday musing." Both are good students and both attend(ed) the same good high school and both got senioritis at about this time. Not so much so that it impacted their grades significantly, but both more or less were done with high school half-way through their senior year. Why?

I used to think senioritis was laziness. Having been accepted into college or the military or made other plans post-graduation, 12th graders simply checked out. Why work hard when you don't have to? Why study for tests when you can get by, having mastered the game, with cramming or without studying at all? They tell you that those final semester grades count and that they will be part of your transcript and wah wah wahwah wah.

But the preliminary results of this year's Million Voice Project tell a different story. Seniors are more bored and less engaged than any of their school mates in other years. And these results are long before most colleges have sent out their acceptance letters. For example, just 45% of 12th graders say they enjoy being at school. Fifty-four percent (54%) say that school is boring. And only one-third (34%) agree that school helps them understand what is happening in their everyday life. Maybe senioritis is laziness. But maybe it is the ongoing lack of relevance in our current educational approach that has these students, mine included, disengaged.

If this is not relevant to you...let me put a different spin on it: Why do students (and teachers?) rejoice over snow days?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ski Slope

Yesterday, during a meeting, Russ Quaglia said, "I keep telling people, 'I'm not  as concerned with where kids are from as I am with where they are going!'" Where are kids going? I'm not only asking this in the sense of what are our students aspirations, their dreams, their sense of their future. While that is the core of QISA's work--helping students discover who and what they want to become and inspiring them in the present to get there--I also mean: What are the trends for students? What is moving forward in schools?

Here are some preliminary results from one indicator in the Pearson Foundation's Million Voice Project:

I chose this indicator because as both a parent and educator I think effort is one of the most important elements in education. Carol Dweck (1986) pointed out some students attribute success in school to one of four causes:
  • internal stable (I'm smart/I'm stupid)
  • internal unstable (I work hard/I'm lazy)
  • external stable (I go to a good school/I go to a bad school)
  • external unstable (the teacher likes me/the teacher doesn't like me)
It is no surprise that those who attribute success to their own efforts (internal unstable) are more successful than those who believe their efforts have little impact. The fact of the matter is putting forth your best effort makes a mountainous difference.

Does it chill you, as it does me, that one of the slippery slopes our students are on in schools is giving less and less effort from year to year?  Nine out of ten (90%) 6th graders report that they put forth their best effort at school. From that height, students slide down hill until just two-thirds of 12th graders report that they put forth their best effort. Keep in mind this is a self-assessment. These are not kids trying to snow us with feigned effort when we can see they are not really trying. One in three students is telling us they are not putting forth their best effort. "I know I could try harder, but I don't or won't." Never mind where a kid who admits that is from; where is a kid who admits that going?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Snow Globe Season

The days just prior to Christmas can be a challenging time in schools and for students and teachers.  There is a lot going on. For younger students there is the anticipation of gifts and new toys that wreaks havoc on their already tentative attention spans. For older students there is the anticipation of a week off suggesting they start slowing down soon if not now. There are holiday concerts and decorations to put up and classroom parties and secret Santas. Throw in a random snow day and it's no wonder this time of year can seem like a snow globe in mid-shake.

Not to mention that for many schools a term is closing. There are exams and papers due and grades to submit. When I think about the 8 Conditions under these circumstances they sparkle. Obviously I believe they ought to be a year round phenomenon in schools, just as evergreens are ever green. But at this time, even with the swirl of activity, and maybe because of it, they light up. Belonging wraps people together more tightly. Heroes become more present. Fun & Excitement twinkles. As students collect toys for those in need, Leadership & Responsibility shines.

The real challenge is not to keep our heads about us mid-shake, it's how to keep our hearts about us. I mean that in every punny way you can think of. Try hooking your weighted-down sleigh to the 8 Conditions for the next week and a half, and see if it helps you pull through.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Leaning Tower of Adequate

Last week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the results of its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The report compares test results for school systems in 65 countries in reading, mathematics, and science. No matter how you slice the numbers, the United States comes up in the middle of the pack in all three areas...not great...not horrible.  There have been ever so slight improvements from previous PISAs, but again those have been modest at best.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan fit the results into his ongoing call for major reform. In his official statement he writes, "Today’s PISA results show that America needs to urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive in the global economy of the 21st century." The numbers and rankings and relative position of US schools given a "flat" require further study and interpretation. Google "PISA results" and you will see that the news and blogosphere are already abuzz with both.

For now, my only comment is that I think these are exactly the results to be expected in a school system that defines success as making "Adequate Yearly Progress."  Being average is "adequate." Making slight improvements every three years (the term of PISA's study) is "adequate."  Adequate means not great and not horrible and because it is the principle metric of No Child Left Behind, it is what every school is striving towards. All PISA tells us is that we are getting exactly what we are asking for.

When this topic comes up it is hard not to go into soap box mode.  Really? Adequate Yearly Progress? This is the standard of success in the United States of America? We want to be adequate? Not outstanding? Not Exceptional Yearly Progress? And I don't mean in relationship to other countries. I mean in relationship to yourself, the improvement/progress each school makes from year to year. I think words matter. And I think that if and when we reauthorize NCLB we hope, among other things, to improve on our PISA results from this year, we ought to re-imagine what we choose to call success.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Everyday Insights

Yesterday I had a conversation with an acquaintance about education. When people find out what I do for work, they frequently have stories to relate about their own experiences with school--either as students or parents--and thoughts about how to improve things. Though Steve was not a professional educator, his ideas about learning and how to engage students were insightful. Distilling the casual conversation into three ideas:
  • Students need to be moving. Is there a way to integrate movement into all subject areas? A designer by training and profession, Steve was thinking through how to do this with an art class he had been asked to teach at a local extension program.
  • Some students are who, what, where, when thinkers; some are why thinkers. He had a good friend who was the former and did very well in school; he was the latter and struggled. Is it fair that so much of our current schooling system is based on the kind of learning that can be assessed on a scannable form, rather than in essays and explanations? Steve shared that he still remembers a high school teacher whose final exam question was based on a historical novel they had been given a choice of reading. The questions was simply: Why did you choose the book you selected.
  • Students need Heroes. They need adults who challenge them, believe in their capacity to meet the challenge, and provide support as needed. Steve turned his mediocre school career around when a teacher noticed the doodles in his notebook and suggested he take an art elective. 
Hungry for stories (and blog fodder), I love sharing briefly about the work we do and hearing those whose only connection to school is having been a student chime in with what worked and didn't work for them. If you find yourself at a holiday party and needing to make small talk, ask someone who their favorite teachers was or what their favorite subject was when they were in school. And why.  Report back.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Video: Polish School Reform

Not just because it uses the word "aspirations" three times, this is worth spending 15 minutes on because it shows the power of reform at the structural level.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Experts Among Us

I thought I would connect my first Research Thursday to yesterday's blog. In addition to surveying, half a million students, we have surveyed over 20,000 teachers with QISA's My Voice-Staff Survey. In the results, four out of five (81%) agreed that professional development (PD) is an important part of their educational growth. And nearly all (99%) said they enjoy learning new things. So much so that 94% said they seek out opportunities to learn new things. I assume the others just wait for the new things to come to them. At least it would seem all teachers are open-minded. Which doesn't quite square with yesterday's "this too shall pass."

Perhaps because just over half (55%) of those surveyed said that meaningful professional development exists in their district. Obviously there is no way to know if the 45% who did not agree that district-sponsored PD holds any significance for them includes those who are waiting for those PD opportunities to just go away.  Another explanation could be that what teachers want in their PD is new learning and the PD offered just seems to be more of the same old same old.

I think there may be a related disconnect here. Actually a double disconnect. First, teachers have shared that they don't have much input on the PD that is offered in their district or school. Most of that is selected by administrators based on what they feel the needs of the schools are. Second, many teachers believe the best PD comes from inside, rather than from outside. Experts in education themselves, highly expert in the unique needs of their particular students, many teachers feel they would be best served by PD led by their colleagues. This correlates with a growing sentiment I have picked up in schools of teachers feeling administration doesn't trust them. It is one of the reasons I see my work not so much as bringing to schools an expertise that is not already there, but as facilitating the expertise of the staff I find when I arrive.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How Much?

One of the realities I bump up against in the work I do is teachers who try to wait out whatever change their colleagues and I are trying to implement in their school. Change, even when positive, is difficult. And unfortunately, schools and districts can get into what Michael Fullan terms "projectitis." Some schools even seem addicted to external programs as they attempt to "close the gap" or "raise standards" or "meet the needs of all children" or "race to the top" pick the buzz cause.

In the beginning QISA's work looks a lot like one of those bottles of sunshine, so it is not surprising that some teachers take a "this too shall pass" attitude. If you read the label, however, you'll see Aspirations work is more a list of ingredients than a recipe. And the essential ingredient is the voice of your students and their particular concerns, rather than some think-tanks 9 Scales of Individualization or a Matrix for Learning for Life based on national averages. Sure, the 8 Conditions emerged from 20 years of research into what helps students be successful in school, but I challenge anyone reading this blog to read the list and argue that any one of them is not something students need if they are going to be successful. Now mix in what your students are telling you is the state of those Conditions in your particular school and this too shall never pass. Students' aspirations walk into your school building everyday and always will.

I was in a professional development session yesterday for administrators in a large urban school district that has, no doubt, seen its share of programs come and go. When one principal raised the issue of teachers waiting out new programs, another responded that she had friends in other professions and businesses and didn't know of any that were not asked to constantly be learning and adapting to a changing world. As veteran educators, she remained mystified that some teachers think schools are so different that they don't need the same level of ongoing support. The superintendent--typically the one responsible for bringing in new programs--responded economically, "I would want to ask those teachers, 'What is the cost of your waiting it out?'"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Define "Educator"

When I do a workshop or keynote for parents, I usually begin by asking those present to raise a hand if they are parents. They look at me dumbfounded, and everyone raises a hand. Then I ask them to raise a hand if they also happen to be teachers. A few people raise their hands. Then, I look dumbfounded. "Wait a minute. Let me try that again. Raise your hand if you are a parent?" All the hands go up. "OK. Now raise your hand if you are a teacher?" The penny drops and all hands go up for a third time.

Cathleen P. Black, the Chancellor-in-waiting for the New York City public school system, and the mayor who tapped her for the job, have come under a lot of criticism because she is not an educator. Many are thumbing their nose at the idea that someone can hold the reins of one of the largest school districts having never had to file a lesson plan, correct a test, or run a faculty meeting. That's because Ms. Black's career has been in the field of publishing, much of that as a high-powered, ground-breaking executive. She also happens to be the mother of two adopted children.

I have already alluded that her being a parent qualifies her as a teacher. And I am sure that as a publishing executive she has had to assess a few manuscripts, teach a few lessons, and create an agenda--the end result in each case being the informing, if not the educating, of thousands of people. Ms. Black has had more than her hand in Ms., New York, and USA Today.

I guess the issue I have is how the criticism implies those in the business of schooling have a closed grip on education. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not among those who think that if only business people ran our schools, all would be well. Ms. Black will have much to grasp about schools on the job. And I applaud the waiver that required Ms. Black, in order to accept the position, to appoint a Chief Academic Officer (nice title) who once had to clean mimeograph fluid off his fingers. But to deny that someone of Ms. Black's experience and skills can't steer the Ship of Schools because she has never had to brush chalk dust off her blazer is, hands down, too narrow-minded for me.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Supporting Structure

So as I reboot the blog here is what I am thinking:

Monday Musings (thoughts about education)
News Tuesdays (commentary on something in educational news)
8 Conditions Wednesdays (highlighting one of QISA's 8 Conditions)
Research Thursdays (a piece of research and commentary)
Friday Videos (funny or thought provoking videos from around the web)

Which brings up a quote I can't remember and couldn't find about the relationship between structure/form and freedom/creativity. I believe it is by the French composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez. The general idea of the quote is that creativity emerges when one has completely mastered structure and form. One has to be firmly grounded in the framework within which one is operating in order to attain freedom. I don't mean this in the sense of paying one's dues before one can be inventive. I mean this in the sense of it is the framework that creates the possibility of interpretation, ingenuity, and invention.

If you are a teacher, you probably know this to be true from your own teaching practice. I know I am at my least creative when I try to wing it, and I am at my most creative when I have planned diligently. The 8 Conditions are like that. They are a framework. A plan for developing students' aspirations. I am hoping my little structure for the week will inspire me in similar ways. Consider this Monday's musings.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Scotch Hop

In international news the last few days, we learned that Ireland is in deep debt and England is in deep snow. Well. Deep by Old England standards. If you go to this BBC report about the snow and school closings, scroll down to where Scotland's education secretary, Mike Russell, is said to have written to local councils asking them to keep schools open where they can. He reportedly went on to suggest that staff who were unable to make it to their normal place of work because of inclement weather should try and report to their nearest school in the hopes of fielding enough staff to keep the school open. What a curious idea.

So maybe I live in Waltham, MA and I teach a few towns west at Framingham High School.  On a normal day it takes 25-30 minutes to get to work. On a typical snow day in the Boston area it would take over an hour assuming the roads were plowed and passable. This inability of the school staff to get to school is, in part, what causes schools to close. (I know there is also a student safety with me here.)  Mr. Russell is suggesting that instead of making that drive, I should report to Waltham High School. I could actually walk to Waltham High in the snow and be there in less than 20 minutes. Teachers who live in Framingham, but work in another city would, presumably, take my place. Assuming everyone plays musical schools like this, we could keep most schools open.

Half of me likes this. It seems workable. I am a teacher after all, and kids are kids. A new school. New students. Seeing after 25 years in one school, if the grass is any greener on the other side of the snow drift. Maybe we wouldn't get as much done as if school were in session normally, but something tells me teachers and students alike would enjoy the change of scenery and maybe even learn something from it.

The other half of me thinks this is the most unworkable idea I have ever heard. I am a teacher, not a replaceable gear in a snowmobile, and those kids would not be my kids. An unknown school. Unknown students. After 25 years, as green about another school's policies and procedures as if it were my first day. A day that became chaos as teachers drifted in and out of classroom and students snowed anyone who looked over 21 they did not recognize. "Excuse me, is this the way to the teachers' room?" "Sure, mister, right through that door marked 'Exit'."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Prezi Aspirations

Sorry to have been away so long. Hope to get back on track with blogging. For those of you who wonder what I do, here is an explanation (without narration) using a new presentation software I just learned how to use. Click MORE and then FULL SCREEN for best view.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Meritting Attention

No doubt due, in part, to the the election cycle we are in, merit pay for teachers was again a hot topic last week. A Boston Globe editorial led with the line: "Money isn't the main motivator for people who go into teaching, but nothing shows appreciation quite like a check in the mail." I have met a few teachers who would say, "You're darn right!" and many others who would say, "How dare you!" Similarly, in New Jersey, the battle between Governor Christie and the NJEA (NJ's teachers union) raged on when the Governor announced plans to reward the most effective teachers and fire the least effective. All this even as a Vanderbilt University study reported that bonus pay alone for teachers does nothing to improve test scores.

The controversy is that merit pay proposals make sense to many in the "real world" where success is rewarded, often monetarily, and make little sense to many in schools where the variables that contribute to success (at least as measured on test scores) cannot be isolated to the individual we might want to reward or get rid of. Parents and previous teachers, to say nothing of the students themselves, all make meaningful contributions to the bottom line. Even so called "value added" proposals really can't account for everything that might happen in a given year to help or hinder student performance.

What if we accept the first part of the Globe article's lead line as true and the second as editorial license. Aside from seeing their students learn, what else motivates teachers?  Our My Voice Staff Survey (n=20,913) indicates that while 98% of teachers say they put for their best effort, just 53% feel recognized when they do their best. I have interviewed many teachers around these questions and besides seeing in their answers a recipe for burn out, never once have I heard a teacher define "recognition" with a dollar sign. Those interviews convince me that the currency with which we should reward effective teaching is gratitude.

As a society, we do need to look at whether or not teachers are paid what they are worth. But that should be a conversation about what other professionals (doctors, lawyers, business leaders) are paid in our society and connected to attracting the best and brightest into the profession. In many important ways that is a separate conversation from those seeking to incentivize teachers (98% of whom need no further incentive and the other 2% of whom more money would not make a difference) with cold cash.

Friday, October 1, 2010

College Too

Yesterday I had lunch in Somerville between two school meetings.  At a table nearby, I overheard a young woman talking with her mother (I think) about her classes in college. I must be forgiven for eavesdropping because when I catch words like "teacher" or "class" or "learning" I immediately go into research mode.  The demographics as best I can figure out are that she was a first year college student.  Once I tuned in, the first thing I really heard was "The professor I have for calculus is a terrible teacher.  He has no social skills. He doesn't even acknowledge us when he walks in. He just goes up to the board and starts writing gibberish up there." She went on in a similar vein about him not offering help when asked, not providing office hours, and saying things like "If you don't understand this, I can't help you."

Besides wanting to tell her she might consider drop/adding the course, I noted that even at the college level, a student's evaluation of what makes for a good teacher was primarily non-academic.  She didn't say, "He doesn't know calculus" or "The way he teaches calculus is too lecture oriented" or "It would be better if he gave more examples." She said, basically, he makes us feel like we are irrelevant. 

The other day I heard someone say, "The world is divided into two kinds of people.  Those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't." I am the former and in my many encounters I have noticed that teachers fall into roughly two categories: Those who teach students and use some subject matter (e.g., science, literature, etc.) to do it and those who teach some subject matter and the students are, well, beside the point. Probably a gross oversimplification, but one with real implications for at least one college freshman.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Enthusiasm is Contagious...

 and so is the lack of it. So goes an unattributed quote.

Our trend data says that the youngest students start out very excited about school, build to a fever of enthusiasm in the fifth grade, and in middle school start a slow slide into the near coma of the latter high school years. I have observed as much in the field:  First graders flush with making their first paper plate clock. Fifth graders fighting over who describes their science project first. Sophomores more pumped about the softball game after school than the prerequisite of being in school. And seniors slumping into a fifth row seat, cheek to hand, elbow to desktop, eyes half lidded. An exaggeration?  Not as long as every kindergartner, over the anxieties of September, is excited to go to school in October and one junior is considering whether they should just cut class or finally quit coming at all.

I have the good fortune of having a wide age range of friends and family.  This year alone I know and regularly communicate with a kindergartner, a second grader, a third grader, a fifth grader, a seventh grader, and a high school senior. These particular kids don't fit the pattern and I think I have a diagnosis and, maybe, a prescription. Undoubtedly someone's second opinion will be that it is parents or socioeconomic status, but I don't think so. The fifth and seventh grader suffer school, dance when there is a day off, and regularly tell me that school is boring and that they hate homework. The K, 2, and 3 students all enjoy school (that's normal) and so does the senior (that's not so much).

I think it's choice.  As in options. As in I get to decide. Enthusiasm, evidently, is a symptom of having a say. The K and 2 kids talk about "stations" and picking assignments from red boxes or blue boxes or green boxes.  The third grader selects from among chapter books and chooses writing topics earnestly explaining why she selected this theme over three others.  The senior has a schedule filled with electives and (this one lives with me) does homework the way some students do texting. Meanwhile, the fifth and seventh grader talk about getting ready for tests and doing the same math problem over and over with different numbers and only because I ask, "How's school?"  My friends on either end of the K-12 continuum still are eager to talk to me about school.  The two in the middle, after politely answering my question, have already switched to talking about Halloween. Maybe because they get to choose their costume.

If part of your enthusiasm as an educator comes from choices you get to make about curriculum and instruction, what are you currently doing to spread the contagion by way of choices for students? 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Teacher Leaders

One of the lessons in Dr. Quaglia's Lessons Learned from an Aspirations Advocate is: "Administrators Hold the Key, But the Staff Hold Everything Else." When we work in schools we take a student-centered, teacher-driven, administrator-supported approach. Trying to improve a school's climate and culture must be driven by teachers.  The focus can, indeed must, be on the students.  And administrators will have a lot to say regarding scheduling meetings, logistics, feasibility, relationship to other projects and constituencies (parents, board, etc.). But without question, meaningful and sustainable change must be teacher led. An article in the New York Times point out that teachers doing double duty as administrators may be a growing trend.  Don't tell that to our friends in the UK.

One of the interesting things about our work across the pond has always been the effectiveness with which they implement initiatives. One could argue that some schools implement too many new programs and get caught up in a flavor-of-the-year approach. But one cannot argue with how effectively they implement. I put this down to teacher-leaders. Or rather leaders who are teachers. The system over there does not have a clear distinction between leadership and teachers. Most head-teachers, our equivalent of principals, have at least one teaching responsibility.  And the deputy head-teachers (our assistant principals) all have two or more teaching responsibilities.

As in the Times article, I am a bit on the fence about the whole thing. One the one hand, given the inevitable fact of student turn over and the not-inevitable-but-statistically-probable rate of administrator turn over, having teachers lead makes sense. In order for anything to be sustainable, those working in a school for 5, 10, 15, 20 years or more and likely to continue for as long must take the lead. On the other hand, school administration has become an increasingly specialized field. Even the promoted classroom teacher is having a hard time developing the required skill set. The skill set of a job that has become part politics, part CEO, part operations manager, part counselor, and part instructional leadership is different than the skill set of facilitating classroom instruction.  Although perhaps that argues for coming down on the teacher-leader side of the fence. Perhaps a team approach to leadership has a better chance of assembling the skill set than our one school, one principal approach. Why not experiment in your school this year by having a group of teachers really take on something big? That's how we do Aspirations.

Friday, September 3, 2010


One of the 8 Conditions that Make a Difference--those dimensions of school life that our research and practice tell us affect a young person's ability to dream and set goals for the future while being inspired in the present to reach them--is Heroes. Many students tell us that second only to their parents, teachers are their Heroes. Some teachers balk at this.  Oh well. 

It's not really a teacher's choice whether or not to be a Hero.  You don't get to walk up to the 7th grader who is just starting your class and say, "I am going to be your  Hero this year!" And you don't get to turn your back to that student and say, "I am not going to be your Hero this year." Kids choose teachers as their Heroes. If you are a teacher, you get to decide whether you will be a good Hero or a bad Hero, but not whether or not you will be one.

Don't take my word for it.  Today's Boston Globe has a great article pointing this out. So if you are an educator, what's your plan for earning at least one fanfare every day this year? Download a "tada" ring tone and make a commitment to deserve to play it when you leave school each day. Happy Heroing!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Here We Go Again

A friend of mine said the other day, "I blinked and missed August." The whole summer seemed to pass by that swiftly and my eyes were wide open.  I have been on hiatus from the blog not because this summer was a time of half-lidded leisure. Rather it was as blindingly busy as it ever is during the school year. I even skipped a traditional summer's week off, using the time I had set aside to work on a research article instead. Being in the education profession my whole adult life (and a student up until then), I had been programmed to think summers were slower, lighter, more casual. For the past several years that has not been true. But this was the first summer I did not expect it to be slower. So, for once, I was not unpleasantly surprised.

I know administrators and teachers who feel the same way. Labor Day is no longer the threshold between the cabana and classroom. This summer I facilitated three professional development sessions for the schools we work in. Many schools have already started and are in full swing.  We may not be going to school year round yet, as many argue we should, but there is a war of attrition that the advocates of summers off (are there any that are not students?) are losing.  So here is wishing you the best as you start another school year that never actually ended. "Let's be careful out there."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dressing Up the Profession

I have written a few previous blogs about dress codes in schools. There are all kinds of implications for school climate that hang on a school's dress code. Everything from student Belonging to consistency of disciplinary action. When I uncover a tattered faculty, somewhere at the bottom of the pile, typically,  are some members of staff who are buttoned down about the dress code and some members who aren't.

The news out of Manchester, NH yesterday was interesting. If you missed it, the Manchester school board voted 11-1 on alterations to the professional dress of their educators by snipping out 15 articles of clothing. The list includes Spandex, short skirts, jeans (ouch), flip-flops, and sneakers (except for PE teachers--who also have other exemptions). They stopped short of making male teachers wear ties after some knotty debate.

I have been in a lot of schools and conducted professional development for hundreds if not thousands of professional educators. I have worked with a staff who arrived in professional dress on a Saturday and I have seen flip-flops on Fridays. I have observed a teacher in jeans and sneakers commanding respect and a teacher in a jacket and tie commanding none. What is interesting to me about the Manchester story is what you learn when you scroll down past the story to the public's comments. Don't let time hamper this. The back and forth between the teachers who are commenting and the community is tailor-made for insights into how educators are viewed in our society.

There are any number of reasons people site for why they don't respect teachers to the same degree they respect other professionals--lawyers, doctors, business people. Summers "off" is one. "Short" work day is another. I suppose now we can add how they dress to the laundry list.

Monday, May 17, 2010

May I Go Outside

Part I: Fun & Excitement is one of three Conditions students consistently tell us gets them actively engaged in their lessons. We do an exercise with teachers where we have them make two lists: One of things they do they find fun and exciting and one with things they do that are dull and boring. We then look for common elements. The former fun lists involve interacting with other people (parties, playing games), being physically active (rock climbing, sports), being outside (hiking, gardening), and having choices (picking a movie). The latter lame lists involve being alone in a crowd (waiting in a line), being stuck inside (because of weather), doing repetitive tasks (ironing), doing required work (cleaning, laundry). Then we ask: "Which of these two lists look more like what we ask students to do each day in school?" Admittedly it's a bit of a "Gotcha."

Part II: I learned in Teaching 101 that you should never teach a class outside no matter how nice the weather or how much the students beg. It's too difficult to maintain focus, there are too many distractions, and it is too difficult to be heard. When I was teaching (pre-QISA) I never taught a class outside--not when I taught in high school, college, or grad school.

Part III: Working on Fun & Excitement, one of our Demonstration Sites developed May, I Go Outside. During the month of May teachers could sign out one of three available spaces to take students outside for a lesson. The catch was that they could not simply move an existing lesson outside (e.g., read aloud on the lawn rather than read aloud on the carpet). They had to incorporate the outdoor environment into the lesson. The outside had to be a focus so as not to be a distraction. Develop adjectives based on things you see outside for a story. Count the links in one chain on the swing set and then multiply to get the total number of links. Collecting at least four different kinds of bugs for science class.

Part IV: When I retire back to teaching, I can't wait to go outside!

Post your Fun & Excitement best practices at

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Teacher Appreciation Week

Last year I undertook a project to send Thank You notes to people who have had a significant impact on my life. In part it was a meditation on Heroes, the second of the 8 Conditions that Make a Difference. You will not be surprised to learn from someone who became a teacher that many of the addressees were teachers. Although I could not find Mrs. Kelton (my first grade teacher) and received a very nice letter back from the wrong Ms. Lovero (my sixth grade science teacher), I did make contact with many others from elementary school, high school, and college and expressed my appreciation and gratitude.

During one of the best openings of a school year I have ever seen, the superintendent of the Laconia, NH school district, Bob Champlain, invited students to be present to be recognized for success they had had the previous year. First up was a high school student who had significantly improved and was on track to graduation in the current year having come precipitously close to dropping out. Bob briefly told his story and he was warmly applauded. Then Bob asked the guidance counselors and teachers who had worked with the young man to stand up. Seven people rose and there was more applause. "Please remain standing," he said. Then he asked any teacher who had had the young man in class or who had worked with him while he was in high school to stand. Another fifteen people including administrators. Then Bob asked his middle school teachers to stand. Finally, his elementary school teachers. Nearly one-third of the room was on their feet. It was a great way of embodying a truth it is often easy not to notice.

This week is for appreciating all teachers present and past. The web of relationships that comprises each one of us is taut with the many people who have taught us. If you know a Ms. Lovero who taught science in the sixth grade in Jersey City, please say thank you for me.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dress Code de Mayo

If you have browsed the QISA website you know that our work in schools is meant to affect a school's systems and structures. The 8 Conditions are a framework, not a program. The goal is for a school, having learned the framework, to ask questions about and make change to the school's policies, procedures, norms, and customs. Aspirations work has implications for everything a school does--schedule, course offerings, budget, professional development. Does our discipline policy encourage Leadership & Responsibility? Does our Language Arts curriculum inspire Curiosity & Creativity? In one of our schools, their study of Belonging had them reconsider a dress code policy that didn't allow some students to be themselves and still be part of the community. The revised dress code was appropriate and inclusive.

I thought of this school last week when I read the news piece about the students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill California who were sent home on Cinco de Mayo for wearing bandannas and shirts with the American flag. Concerned that this would be an offense to Mexican-Americans given the day and that it would spark fights, the administration gave the students three options: remove the offending articles or turn them inside out, receive suspensions, or go home. The students chose to go home.

Maybe we don't know the whole story. Maybe there is history in this school between the flag-wearing students and those who celebrate Cinco de Mayo. What I do know is that this teaches the students in that school something about Belonging, something about diversity, something about the options for difference-that-may-cause controversy being limited to flight or fight. How does the administration's "solution" to what they saw as a problem on the fifth of May, solve whatever issue they thought was behind it? An issue which presumably was still there on the sixth of May?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Dr. King, the Lunch Bunch, and the Achievement Gap

Another blog prompting triple coincidence yesterday. Last night I watched the outstanding PBS American Experience biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have read and watched shows about Martin Luther King before. I have had a tour of Selma, Alabama thanks to Dr. James Carter, former superintendent of Selma, who assists with QISA's Demonstration Site in Perry County, Alabama. I have visited Brown Chapel, where Dr. King started several of his historic marches. But something about American Experience really caught and held my attention. Perhaps it was the program's emphasis on the truth that, although James Earl Ray pulled the trigger on the gun that killed Dr. King, it was the country's racism that "put the gun in his hand." My wife and I both gasped audibly when a very average looking white woman in an on the street interview following the assassination calmly said, "He probably got what he had coming to him." I'd like to think I am not naive. I grew up in an inner city, but the events of those days are always shocking to watch.

Coincidentally, I came across a news story out of Ann Arbor, Michigan that told of a Black Students Only Field Trip at an elementary school there. In short, African American students went on a field trip to hear an African American rocket scientist speak about his work as a way of inspiring them with the limitless possibilities open to them. The students on the trip are part of a group called the Lunch Bunch who receive special attention in order to improve their academic performance in school. The news story includes excerpts from the principal's defense of the field trip, which, according to the article, is "part of his school’s efforts to close the achievement gap between white and black students."

Coincidentally coincidentally I had just previewed a forthcoming QISA research article on the relationship between the achievement gap and what we call the expectation gap (both students expectations of themselves and their perceptions of their teacher's expectations of them as measured on the My Voice survey). So there you have the convergence of three events linked by a common thread.

The thread comes right from the stirring words of that most famous speech of MLK.  The particular words that move me to tears every time I watch a video of "I Have a Dream" are: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." I can't quite make it all fit together. These words, the field trip, the achievement gap. I can't get free from the feeling that, as well intentioned as the Ann Arbor program may be, setting apart a group of students based on the color of their skin promotes another kind of gap in schools that contributes to the achievement gap.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bullying: A Study in Contrast

I had another one of those studies in contrast yesterday.  On a drive to one one of QISA's Demonstration Sites in western Massachusetts, the radio carried news of Governor Patrick's signing into law Massachusetts first anti-bullying law.  Those who follow bullying as an issue will know that this comes in the wake of two students who committed suicide after allegedly having been bullied. Bullying is a serious issue and requires serious action. Law-makers and the governor took the steps they believed necessary to protect the state's children. Challenges to the law are anticipated and the grown-ups, for reasons benign and not so benign, will keep hashing this out for awhile.

At the middle school Demonstration Site, I participated in the monthly joint meeting of the adult Aspirations Team and the newly formed (this year) Student Senate.  The Senators, who represent their grade level teams, had been given the task of devising ways of catching students being good or doing right. The ideas ideas ranged from awards for respectful behavior, being helpful, etc. to be given out each term to postcard-sized certificated to be filled out an awarded on the spot.  All were oriented toward students recognizing students for being part of a culture of support and friendship.

The contrast was two fold: First, adults trying to do things to make schools safer and so more conducive to learning for kids contrasted with kids (with adult support) trying to do things to make schools safer and more conducive to learning for kids. Second, the law's focus on punishing the worst kinds of behavior in schools contrasted with the student's focus on celebrating the best kinds of behavior in school. Sadly, we probably need both approaches. My concern about the legal approach is that some bully's actually thrive on the negative attention that their behavior brings and now they are really going to get attention. My hope for the Student Senate's approach is that it will keep nurturing an environment of positive interactions--one that marginalizes bullying behavior even as the adults deal with whatever bullying continues to occur.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Gap Gap

The devil, as they say, is in the details. It follows that the recently released Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has not much devil in it. That is not to say that those who have one agenda aren't finding fiendish elements to dislike about the bill, even as those with another agenda are singing its praises. The Blueprint, true to its metaphor, embodies Arne Duncan's "tight goals, loose steps" approach. The federal government is telling states they all must build college/career bound schools, but apparently the locals are going to get to pick out the cabinets and curtains.  There may be more to blog on about as devils emerge, but for now let's mind the gap.

The proposal uses the term "achievement gap" as in "closing the..." 9 times. Closing the achievement gap is clearly a worthwhile effort.  More than that, as the president states in his cover letter, having a more equitable education system, that is to say, one without gaps, is a "moral imperative."  My concern is that focusing on the achievement gap with little to no reference to the school conditions that cause gaps in achievement feels like putting on the roof before you've framed the walls. And that's just more of the same.

The achievement gap is not just a function of funding as the proposal sometimes hints and at other times overtly states.  If I take a great blueprint and a lot of money and build a school on get the idea.  Lack of money is one of a number issues, but not the most fundamental. The varying levels of achievement in our schools are as much about students not believing they can learn, not being actively engaged in their learning, and not finding a purpose in learning as they are about a shortfall of resources. These are concrete concerns. A foundation must be laid in supportive relationships, meaningful participation, and high expectations for all kinds of success (not just academic). If we don't mind those gaps in the building blocks for learning, cracks will continue to appear in student achievement.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Snow Day

Given the scope of the change we are inviting schools to--systemic change using the 8 Conditions as a framework and giving students a seat at the table where meaningful decision are made--the work can be a bit of a slog. An optimist by nature, I believe schools can get there if they relentlessly keep after it.  But the amount of resistance we sometimes encounter in the form of schedules, programitis, and we've-never-done-it-this-way-before-ism can be daunting. No one resists the 8 Conditions. That is to say, no one argues against Belonging, or the need to have Heroes, or the desire to have students take on greater Leadership & Responsibility. But sometimes a high school's having silo-ed departments "argues" against implementing a multidisciplinary approach. Sometimes a middle's school's Advisory-decayed-into-study-period "argues" against a reboot as a real Advisory. Inevitably scheduling time to meet "argues" the loudest after the initial enthusiasm wears off and we get down to really trying to push the system around. I am no where near being fatally discouraged, but it would be dishonest to pretend that a whiff of cynicism doesn't occasionally set in.

Last week I was scheduled to visit one of our schools with a colleague. This school does some of its professional development on Saturdays. The visit was scheduled to be Friday with various teams in the three schools--elementary, middle, and high school--and Saturday everyone working together for 5 hours. Friday, school was canceled because of snow.  It happens. You roll with it. On Saturday morning as much if not more snow had fallen and the roads were in worse shape than the day before for it being a weekend. The combined district team numbers 45. My colleague set the over/under at 24. I took the under (note the whiff of cynicism).

Can you blame me?  Year two of the work. A Saturday. After a snow day. Poor driving conditions.

43 people showed up. All on time. 2 called in legitimately sick expressing their disappointment at not being able to make it. It was invigorating. When you get a group of people who care this much and get them focused on improving things for their students and themselves amazing things happen. I am not so naive to think that teachers don't sometimes pray for snow days, too. I did let my mild snow-induced cynicism blind me to how this particular group of teachers would respond to resistance in the form of snow on a Saturday following a day off.  They just plowed ahead.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Olympics 2

Another thing that has caught my attention this Olympics is the web of support around the athletes.  The reflection began while I was watching curling and the announcer mentioned that the Great Britain curling team, comprised of 4 people, has a support staff of 20. Twenty! I don't know that much about curling, but there must be a lot to take care of.  The stones, the brooms, the special shoes.

For every athlete and for every team, there are parents and numerous family and friends and coaches and trainers and equipment managers and fans. Just one or a few people stand on the podium while they play the national anthem, but you have to believe that there is a chorus singing back-up somewhere out of camera range. Once again we come across the foundational conditions of Belonging and Heroes

If we are going to inspire our students to aspirational greatness, they will need the same kind of full on support structure.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Olympic Aspirations

I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Winter Olympics the past several days.  Of course, time spent watching the Olympics is time not spent blogging.  Sunday's US v. Canada hockey game was a dazzling display of everything that is great about hockey--speed, stick handling, incredible goal tending.  I found myself wishing I was watching amateurs rather than NHL players taking some time "off," but even so this was the sport at its pinnacle.

Last night's ice dancing program was no less mesmerizing as couple after couple skated beyond personal bests, leaving it all out there on the ice.  Years of preparation, hours upon hours of work.  Countless bruises and set backs--learning experiences all.  Event after event has revealed the artistry, skill, creativity, and unquestionable perseverance of each and every athlete.

Since this is not a sports blog you are wondering "Where's the beef?"

Seemingly out of nowhere my beef is with the term "Adequate Yearly Progress." I couldn't help sitting there, in awe at the human capacity for greatness, in amazement at the very idea of being an Olympian, and in equal astonishment fume, "How did we come up with so mediocre a goal as 'Adequate Yearly Progress'?" Does anyone believe Apolo Ohno (pictured above) even has the word "adequate" in his vocabulary? Clearly, I am not saying every one can have Olympic aspirations.  I am saying that every one's aspirations should be olympic [To any former teachers reading this: I know it's supposed to be capitalized, but I am taking poetic license to make a point.]

Why have we set our students' sights to "adequate"? Why not instead find out what each one is most passionate about, willing to put the maximum available effort into, and committed to the point of being heedless of bruising about, and then support them as they relentlessly go after it?  Why not have gold medal aspirations in nursing, marketing, graphic design, culinary, teaching, school administration?  Why not have students name their dream and then inspire them to go for it?

Maybe the malaise in American education right now is not budgetary or philosophical.  Maybe students are struggling because we tell them we will settle for "adequate," when inside each one knows he or she has olympian potential.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Blizzard

Recently I heard a seasoned superintendent say he was ready to raise the white flag.  He had spent a full weekend at the office away from his family in order to dig out from under the weekly blizzard. By 11 am Monday, his desk was again a foot deep in the white stuff. I have written previously about how many principals seem similarly snowed under--some of it administrivia, much of it critical, all of it needing to be shoveled through yesterday. Unlike the other white stuff, this kind does not melt. I have little doubt that many administrators would like to burn much of it.

One superintendent at one desk in one district one winter Monday may not be reason to wonder if there is a paperwork version of "Snowmageddon" on the educational system horizon. On the other hand, this guy is one of the tough ones. Notoriously driven. Perhaps even an undiagnosed workaholic. The white flag?

Is anyone tracking this accumulating effect? Eight years ago, the federal government precipitated NCLB on our country. When it hit the ground in classrooms, students became covered in worksheets, test prep, and optical mark paper. It took a few years, but students began reporting the icy effect of that on their connection to school, their engagement, and their sense of the purpose of school. About five or six years ago, teachers started to tell us they were overwhelmed with their workload. That they were drifting away from real learning and depth of understanding in order to plow through curriculum. "Accountabilty" had the same affect as "sleet and snow predicted." About three years ago, I started to notice that principals were neck deep in district and state mandated files, faxes, and forms.  Now a hard working, bring-it-on district deputy is half seriously saying it might be time to put down the shovel and let the flakes have their way.  Not retire; just stop battling the elements.

This forecast might be easier to make than the weather: When Race to the Top hits for real, state DOE's will be buried in accountability and regulation. It is only a matter of time before the avalanche overtakes the Capitol itself. There is a solution. It involves attention to changing school climate as a way to improve students' aspirations. School systems and those who work in them will inevitably have "snow days." Whether they cause a complete shut down of students, staff, and administrators is not inevitable.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fractured and Flat

Here's another in the category of We-Are-Living-In-A-Different-World-Than-When-Schools-Were-Invented:  Yesterday NPR had a story about a response to the devastation in Haiti known as Crisis Camps. In a nutshell, a dozen or so computer savvy people gather in a coffee shop around their laptops on a Saturday and after a brief orientation and some software training spend the day organized around relief projects based on an area of expertise. Some pour over satellite images of Haiti looking for hospital camps, they pass GPS coordinates to a doctor and nurse sitting a few feet away who put out a "tweet" to see if anyone at those coordinates needs supplies, someone texts back, the text is forwarded to a project manager who locates the nearest supply depot, coordinates transportation, and gets the supplies on their way. There are programmers actually writing new programs to help move information in and out quickly. In the interview on NPR, the speaker was saying they are trying to get teams of people started on projects in London who hand off to people in Cambridge, MA who hand off to a team on the west coast who hand off to a team in Hawaii so that there can be focused, expert, action-oriented attention for 24 hours. Even the fractured earth is part of a flat world.

Because I view the flat world through an educational lens, and because some of the best educational experiences I have observed and read about in the last few years are project-based (moving away from teaching in the "silos" of the academic disciplines), I wonder about the educational implications of Crisis Camps for schools. Imagine high school students in London, Boston, Los Angeles, and Honolulu working together to help a village in Kenya get a well. Imagine a team of students, their teachers, and some community volunteers beginning a malaria vaccination project when the first bell rings Monday morning in Manchester, UK handing it on at lunch to some students in Manchester, NH just starting the day who then pass it on to students in Manchester, CA.  All the while they are learning history, social studies, science, mathematics, project management, and life skills.

Of course I have a biased lens. Put the idea of a school-based version of Crisis Camps in front of you and look in turn at that concept through each of the following 8 Conditions lenses: Belonging, Heroes, Sense of Accomplishment, Fun & Excitement, Curiosity & Creativity, Spirit of Adventure, Leadership & Responsibility, Confidence to Take Action. Only because I don't want to disappoint friends who tell me I frequently belabor the point: Compare such an experience to: "Open your geography text books to page 143."

Educators conditioned in the previous world-view are in the process of making policy that is going to make use of money to make schools make students make "adequate yearly progress" as measured by making marks on a scannable piece of paper.  Why not set polices that will teach them to make a difference instead.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Follow the Money

If you want to start a debate, walk into a teachers' room and ask what people think about paying students for getting good grades.  If you want to turn up the temperature in the room, change the topic to whether or not there should be merit pay for teachers. In my conversations with many educators, there is little agreement on either subject.

But let's follow the logic.  What if central offices allocated funding to schools in the district that were more academically successful?  What if resources were allocated to each school not on a per student basis, but on a per standardized-test-passed basis or some other academic measure?  Am I turning up the heat?  What if state DOE's apportioned money by the same standard? You probably see where this is going. 

Now let's follow the money.  At the student level, money for success kindles minor controversy.  At the teacher level, it sparks righteousness on both sides.  At the school level, it blazes into an outrage fueled by equity issues. But then something shifts and money for success (Race to the Top) becomes warmly received.  There are many things debated about Race to the Top, but the underlying principle is something most states are bending over backwards to adhere to, not pushing back against.

Aren't there only two consistent options involving the use of federal money to improve education?

1. Success leads to Money.  Give money to successful states to give to successful districts to give to successful schools to give to successful teachers to give to successful students.  In this option, the people giving the money get to define what success is and everyone is accountable (literally) to the people they "work" for--that is, the people who pay them for said success.  If you consistently fail to hit targets the people who are giving the money set for you, you are not re-funded.

2. Money leads to Success.  Distribute money equally on a per-capita basis and let states, districts, schools, teachers, and students work together to define and achieve success.  In this option, the people getting the money get to decide what success is and everyone is accountable to one another for doing what they say they are going to do.  If you consistently fail to hit targets you set for yourself without adequate explanation, you  are not re-funded.

Of course there may a third option.  Disconnect money and success altogether.  Let success at all levels be its own reward. And let money be just a resource used to buy goods and services--keeping in mind that you get what you pay for.  Naive?  Un-American?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Was I That Kid?

I learned something from a group of 7th graders the other day. I was conducting a focus group around what students find interesting in school. The topic of working in groups came up, as it typically does. The students were expressing a preference for being able to pick their groups. I was probing a bit and asking about other ways of forming groups--randomly, or the teacher picks, etc. One student said that the problem with such groupings is when there is one "smart" student in the group.

My memory rewound to my own experience in school. I found myself agreeing, internally. There is a problem with that.  My bias is that group work, though beneficial for lots of reasons, does have an inherent unfairness in that the industrious kid does all the work, while the lazier students ride my (um) his or her, coat tails.

The key words are: my bias. What the students went on to teach me is that the problem is that the "smart" kid dominates the group. Other students want to help, want to participate, want to learn, but the smart kid won't let them get an idea in edge-wise.  I had never thought of it from that angle before.  I was an A student in school, at least academically.  After the focus group, I think I may need to apologize to some old classmates for getting a D in "works well with others."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Taking a More Organic Approach

This weekend my 16 year old daughter and I watched the classic Paul Newman movie The Hustler.  The story is a billiard based morality tale about character, determination, and greed.  It's a good movie with some great scenes between Newman and George C. Scott.  As we started watching the movie, I remarked at how young Paul Newman looked.  My daughter said, "Oh. He's the guy that makes the coffee and salsa and stuff." All I could say was, "Um.  Yeah.  That's right."

I wonder, as educators, if we really appreciate how different is the world our students inhabit.  It's far beyond Paul Newman being an organic food purveyor and not one of the great actors of a certain generation. The other day I overheard a college student saying that school was really unnecessary. The point she was making to her friend was that in a Googleable world, sitting in a class room to learn something was obsolete.  As I listened, I heard that whenever a professor assigns a book, she just Googles it, reads a few of the hits, and then says "Yeah, I read the book."

My point here is neither nostalgic nor critical (either the college kid should be a better student or the professor should design better assignments).  My point is that we do not involve our students as full partners in the teaching/learning environment at our peril.  So foreign is their world to ours that their voice needs to be heard at the design stage, not just in the delivery stage.  Active and meaningful engagement is not just about having students participate in the classroom.  That's a great first step.  It must also be about students' appropriate participation in all facets of a school's decision-making. Dare I say that such an approach would be more "organic."  More in touch with the living, breathing experience of our students.  Absent their voice we risk them hearing "coffee" when we say "actor."

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Physics of Recharging

Every once in awhile you get a day that re-energizes. 

Much of the work I do involves emails and writing and research and keeping up with journals and planning and delivering professional development. There is a fair bit of sitting at a desk typing into a computer.  The field work can vary.  There are really positive days when a school staff is all on board and I am helping them make their school better for kids and really draining days when it's a rainy three hour drive out and back to a school that still has a lot of resistance to this, that, or the other aspect of our work. If you are an educator you must have your own version of a typical week.

Yesterday I was at one of our Demonstration Sites for a "Heroes Day." Heroes is one of the 8 Conditions.  A few weeks ago, all the students in this school selected an everyday Hero and, depending on grade level, wrote an essay or drew a picture about why he or she selected this person as a Hero.  Invitations were sent out to all the Heroes to attend the event yesterday.  Some were able to come, some couldn't. The Heroes included many parents, but also brothers and sisters, teachers, grandparents, other students, police and fire fighters. Even the principal was selected by 2 students.

The event itself involved a visit by the Hero (scheduled throughout the day in 30 minute blocks), some refreshments, and then the student reading the essay to his or her Hero. There were people in and out, the principal serving cookies, a patient administrative assistant crossing names off a list and handing out certificates. One grandfather-Hero checked his grandson out of school 45 minutes before the end of the day and wrote in the sign-out book in the Reason column (where most had written sick earlier in the day): personal.  I said, "No wonder you're his Hero!"

I also attended the Hero ceremony of a Kindergarten teacher who had all her students' Heroes come at the same time.  In turns, Hero and student sat side by side at the front of the room, the student shared why this person was a Hero, a photo was taken, the student walked down an aisle to collect a certificate to hand to his or her Hero, and a hug was given. The whole thing from snapshots to cake took thirty minutes.

No doubt the day was disruptive in many ways. Nor do I think grandparents should be pulling their grandkids out of school early. Some parents who felt an obligation to be there may have had to miss an hour or two of work. Yet, despite these short term inconveniences, I could not help glimpsing the long term impact an experience like this can have.  It's easy to forget that every single little thing any one of us does makes a contribution to some kid noting on a Thursday afternoon that there is a person in her life who really cares about her and her success in school. 

We receive many requests to explain how we measure the impact of our work and much of our work is measurable. But some of the work of educators is flat out impossible to measure because it starts with a hug in a kindergarten classroom and turns into a full scholarship to Harvard 12 years later.  For my part, I am grateful for the physics that allows a battery to last a long long time after only a thirty-minute recharge.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

State of the Union's Education

Of course I am biased.  In last night's State of the Union address, I was hoping for more than a paragraph on education:

Now, this year, we've broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. And the idea here is simple: Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform -- reform that raises student achievement; inspires students to excel in math and science; and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city. In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education. And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential. When we renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we will work with Congress to expand these reforms to all 50 states.

That paragraph was followed by one about the importance of college, and then one on the cost of college, providing a rapid transition to home-ownership. So basically the State of K-12 Education is Race to the Top.

In fairness to the President, the State of the Union is not the place for a detailed explanation of his administration's educational policies. For that we should look to Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Yesterday afternoon, before the SOTU, Secretary Duncan said, “We are building bipartisan and grass-roots support for reauthorizing the federal education law to boost standards, promote a well-rounded education, foster competition, and give states and district as much flexibility as possible.  As I often say, our role is to provide a common definition of success, not a prescription for success,”

This last line is something I appreciate and an approach friendly to the one we take at QISA. In practice there is a challenge in that approach.  On the one hand, those working in schools are educational professionals.  Expert practitioners of teaching their students and administering their buildings. Most, indeed, need no new prescriptions to swallow.  On the other hand, we have noticed that many schools and districts have become addicted to the prescriptive approach.  School change expert, Michael Fullan refers to this as "projectitis" (The New Meaning of Educational Change, p. 21).  In a sense, schools, having been force-fed a steady diet of program binders by states and central offices for the past 20 years, have become hooked on them. We have found success in providing schools with a framework for success that allows them to use their expertise to diagnose their issues and then write their own script for improvement.

Finally, my hope is that the "common definition of success" put forward includes students' own aspirations.  My fear is that the common definition will be a metric, or be reduced to one.  Some standard number on an achievement yardstick that loses sight of the living, growing, dreaming, striving student we are supposed to be measuring with that yard stick.  Let's work not to be distracted by the measuring instrument and to keep our eyes on the target: the student.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On Your Mark, Get Set...

Last week, President Obama announced that he would expand the amount of money available for Race to the Top. As you know, Race to the Top is one of the more significant financial investments in education in our country's history. Though there is some debate about this, there is no question that this administration is working hard to take money off the table as an excuse for not being able to improve schools. Appropriately there are strings attached that include setting rigorous standards, attracting and retaining outstanding teachers, establishing data-driven decision-making, and innovating to turn around struggling schools.

The administration has increased funding because, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in the press release, “This competition has generated an overwhelming response from over 30 states in just the first round of funding." That the promise of pumping millions of dollars into states with budget issues has created "an overwhelming response" is an understatement.  The other day I heard someone who moves in those circles say, "This isn't 'Race to the Top' it's 'Sprint to the Money'."

As long as the mad dash has provisions for following the money to the finish line (it is the students' success, isn't it?), I am all for it.  If it is used to prop up local budgets so they can continue the industrial school on the agricultural calendar, I am not so sure.  We need a new way of being schools in this country.  A way that sees students as vocal partners not as silent spectators.  A way that includes attention to learning environment as well as learning material.  A way that values creativity and curiosity as much as the ability to accurately bubble in scannable tests. Finally, we need a way of being school that sees "the Top" to which we are striving as each and every students' dream for his or her life.  That race is a marathon, not a sprint.