Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Creating Time

Tick. Tock. Talking with educators about their greatest challenge in school, what tops the list is not unmotivated students, disengaged parents, or a lack of money.  Those consistently make the top ten, but more often than not the number one challenge is a lack of time. I get the feeling that despite all the other issues and pressures schools face, if there were more time administrators and teachers could find solutions.  Administrators seemingly work round the clock and teachers start and end well beyond the scheduled day and students are on task bell to bell.  Yet there is no time.

Part of mastery is being given the freedom to be creative and innovative. And so a result of schools being time-starved is diminished creativity. Not only in the form of cutting art and music to make more time for literacy and numeracy instruction, but also in lessons being rushed to cover material. There is little breathing space to engage material in a way that is creative and so engaging. 

Given that students, as well as teachers and administrators, can be more creative when given the time, how can we alter the hurried pace at which we currently move? If given time enough to be more creative, we might become creative enough to find solutions to other issues--unmotivated students, disengaged parents, lack of money--that would give us more time. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fixing Odds Against Idleness

In case you missed it, at the start of this week, Opportunity Nation, a broad-based coalition of over 250 concerned organizations with a mission "to expand economic opportunity and close the opportunity gap in America," released a report stating that 6 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school nor at work. That amounts to 15% of people in that age range - nearly 1 in 7. Imagine that, in the average secondary school of about 700 students, 100 students simply stop showing up one day.

The coalition also reports on underlying factors such as poverty, public safety, lack of social capital, and declining incomes. It is an all too common litany of explanations that sometimes gets captured (as it does in the AP press story) in terms of "zip code." To quote the article, "Their destiny is too often determined by their ZIP code," says Charlie Mangiardi, who works with Year Up, a nonprofit that trains young adults for careers and helps them find jobs.

I have no doubt that where a young person comes from has an influence on where he or she is going. Without advocates, supporters, boosters, mentors, role models, guides, etc. the odds that a 16-year-old will wind up down a blind alley or dead end street surely increases. But  do those factors determine or destine such a dismal outcome? Given how intractable those social conditions can be, and how immune they can prove against our best attempts to solve them, it's no wonder we find the data depressing.

I am not sure why school factors are absent in the coalition's report, but I do know we must consider schools as part of the solution to this problem of unproductive idleness. Recently the Quaglia Institute conducted an odds analysis on a very large data base of surveys of students in grades 6-12. We inquired of the data: What might help predict whether or not a student is academically motivated (and let's assume for the sake of this discussion that academically motivated students stay in school). Two factors stood out:
  • Students who are engaged in school are 14 times more likely to be academically motivated than those who are not engaged
  • Students who feel they are supported by their teachers are 8 times more likely to be academically motivated than those who do not feel teachers are supportive
It turns out that 40% of students surveyed do not report being engaged and 42% do not feel supported by their teachers. This means if we could "convert" those students, transform their experiences of engagement and teacher support, we could have an enormous impact on academic motivation - and maybe even on how many 16- to 24-year-olds find themselves out of school or out of work. 

Again, I cannot say how malleable poverty is, or quantify how much influence those working in schools have over a student's socio-economic status. What I am certain of is that teachers have a tremendous influence on how engaging their classes are, and how much they convince students that they are supportive. The statistics say that if we improve either one of those factors, the odds go up substantially that a student will stay in school (assuming of course that academically motivated students stay in school). I say let's play the odds.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What Languages Does Your School Offer?

I was recently working with a Student Aspirations Team at the beginning of their Year 2 work. I asked veterans to explain the 8 Conditions to their newer teammates, in their own words. Here is what they said:
  • Belonging means you don't have to pretend to be someone else, and you can just be yourself.
  • Heroes inspire you to strive for your dreams; they give you that extra push you need to be successful.
  • Sense of Accomplishment is when you reach your goals; it's when you are okay with a B or even a C+ as long as you know you did your best.
  • Fun & Excitement is when you enjoy yourself while learning; doing activities in school that show fun and respect can go together.
  • Curiosity & Creativity means being able to share your own ideas in class; you can ask "Why are things like this?"
  • Spirit of Adventure is being open-minded and realizing there are all kinds of things to learn, and just working with it no matter where you are.
  • Leadership & Responsibility means having a big role in what happens at school; you set the standard by doing the right thing.
  • Confidence to Take Action means just doing it! Take action! Knowing I can do this.
You can read our formal definitions on the QISA website, but these students did a great job of capturing it.

One of the easier parts of our work is that the 8 Conditions are readily understandable by all the stakeholders in a school. From kindergardeners to high school seniors to the Ed.D. administrator, students and teachers get what the terms mean. I am not sure 4th graders know what "differentiated instruction" is, or if a high school freshman knows whether or not his teachers are using a "culturally relevant pedagogy." They probably think "frameworks" are way to hang pictures on a wall and that "benchmarks" are when someone carves their name into those seats in the park.

We adults can learn about and discuss intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, or self-efficacy, or the pedagogical conditions that are malleable in the teaching-learning environment. But if we want our students to be our partners in helping create better teaching and learning environments, we are going to need a common language that brings everyone closer to the school's goals - whatever they are.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

On Balance

I had a terrific and respectfully contentious conversation with a veteran teacher a while back. What can anyone (consultants like me, ground troops like her) do in the face of scales that are tipped heavily in favor of the entrenched systems and structures? How do you create Belonging in a district that has a bunch of K-5 schools, two 6-7 schools, an 8th grade academy in a separate building, and two or three high schools? How can teachers build relationships with middle schoolers when they only have them for a year or maybe two? Without a foundation in those relationships, how then could they engage students? And how does one create a sense of purpose in education, when the unapologetic reason for the whole system these days is state tests?

This teacher was far from ready to tip over into an early retirement, but she was forthright in her assessment that programs promoting the personal, emotional, and social context for learning have come and gone while structures like grade leveled configuration, the industrial model of teaching in disciplined silos, high stakes testing, and the agricultural calendar have endured.

I had no ready answer for her. It's a question we face as a field team ourselves. Despite our best efforts, despite the fact that no teacher we have ever talked to got into education to help students figure out which one of four answers they should bubble, despite everyone saying that school is more than just about academics, the weight of academic achievement data required by state departments of education keeps the entire system leaning to one side.

However, there are signs that the scales are straining under this weight: Teachers in Seattle refusing to give the state standardized test or, more recently, California resisting changes to national school and teacher evaluation systems. Even the dozens of cheating scandals uncovered across the country are signs that the current system is not just wobbling, it's starting to bottom out.

But what then? Or better: What now?

There is hope in balance. The solution is not to undo the efforts of the last two decades to improve student academic achievement. Though some would argue for that, I would not. What we need is to balance the scales. Neither does this mean additional requirements of schools and teachers who are already overburdened. Rather, it means counting onto the scale what is already there in the form of effective teaching.

When states start to ask schools to report whether they are developing students' self-worth, creating engagement in learning, and fostering a sense of purpose, the system will achieve a better balance. When states encourage teachers to be accountable for creating positive healthy relationships with students and creating confidence in students through high expectations, teachers will feel less burdened for being more evenly answerable for all that they do.

On vacations with my extended family, one uncle always carried two heavy suitcases, one in each hand because he said that it was easier than carrying one heavy suitcase. Now I understand.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


One of the things we work on in schools is helping teachers become what Michael Fullan calls systems-thinkers-in-action. The way I see it, in the history of education those two elements have been separate: there have been systems-thinkers and then there have been those in-action.

The systems thinkers, in their ivory towers at curriculum companies and in government agencies, have developed, planned, and packaged various systems - from numeracy programs to behavioral interventions to acts of congress. Their norming and standardizing and assessing has led to a veritable torrent of approaches, a kind of alphabet soup that has filled schools and districts with binders full of initiatives that end up leaving practitioners "juggling too many balls" or "spinning too many plates" or simply "swamped." I am not sure how much the systems thinkers actually interact with students beyond a test group or pilot study.

On the other hand, those in-action - practitioners (teachers and administrators) - work with students every day. Their calling is not in the ivory tower but in the trenches. They teach and coach and correct and engage. They go to games and listen in on band practice and attend school plays. They laugh when students are funny and offer tissues and a shoulder when students are sad. Many probably assume causal loop diagrams are for roller coaster engineers.

For the most part, in the past practitioners used the systems thinkers' work to good effect. Adapting and adjusting, and appropriately tweaking as needed. But a dangerous term has crept in over the past decade or so, and I find myself meeting it with greater force lately: Implement with fidelity. It's one of those terms that I am not sure I fully understand, and fear that if I did, I would surely not like it.

If "implement with fidelity" means to take a program and use it with fidelity to your own professional judgements and in faithfulness to your students' need to learn, I am all for it. However, if it means what I fear it does - "Shut up and do what we tell you," I have to protest.

Never take your professional judgements, your practical wisdom, out of the equation. Implement new programs with fidelity to what you and your colleagues know about your students. When you do, success is sure to follow.