Timing is Everything…

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 12.09.56 PMAs an assistant superintendent I recall a conversation I had with one of our truly expert teachers. She taught second grade. She was a source of wisdom and a model of professionalism for teachers and administrators alike. She bore the responsibility modestly and gracefully. I, like many of her colleagues, had grown accustomed to approaching her whenever there was a professional development opportunity for the latest, greatest idea. She could be depended upon to attend, evaluate, analyze, and report. One September, we received a mailer for another “great” presentation and I approached this teacher and inquired about her availability. The conversation went something like this.

You know Rich when you send me to a math conference, I come back inspired to be the best math teacher I can be with all of the challenge and work that that entails. When you ask me to attend a language arts conference, I go and return committed to be the best language arts teacher I can be. What I don’t need from you right now is another friggin’ idea!

It was September. She and all of her colleagues were busily engaged in the annual herding cats process, trying to get bunches of K-3 kids to recall what a line was (“Everybody line up”) or how to positively channel the overflow of enthusiasm that kids of that age bring to the beginning of each new school year. It was not a good time for new ideas!

In the best of times there are windows of opportunity for leaders to introduce new ideas. These windows are rarely open in the last days of schools or in the few days of “deep breaths” that normally follow the dismissal of kids for the summer. Nor are they open during the first few weeks of school.

But these are not the best of times. These are times when the public’s perception of our system of public education is at an all-time low. These are times when teachers are fleeing the system to escape the oppressive and counterproductive structures designed by reformers to raise test scores. These are times when we are living with the results of focusing our professional efforts on what happens in our classroom while paying little attention and even less energy to adding our individual and collective voices to establishing a better definition of what school should mean.

Collectively, we missed the boat with the development and implementation of the standards/assessment approach to improvement. Our voices became loudest when the same approaches were applied to the assessment and evaluation of teachers and administrators. While calling attention to a genuinely terrible (and statistically invalid) idea, we reinforced the narrative of our detractors that we were acting primarily out of selfish interest and self-protection and thereby reinforced the dismissal of our concerns as typically self-serving union responses.

Coming to a school near you…

I’m writing today because I see another challenge on the horizon… the current fascination with “personalized” learning. Sir Ken Robinson noted that part of the dilemma faced during the run up to the standards and assessment reform culture was the obvious charm with high standards. I believe he noted in one of his talks, “Of course we value high standards. Who could possibly argue for lower standards?” The issue wasn’t the rigor of the standards. It was the narrowness of the focus. It was in the definition of the purpose and the means to assess progress towards that purpose. And the result… teachers in tested content areas as test prep tutors and the relegation of teachers in non-tests areas (art, music, world languages, etc.) to the role of necessary evil.

And now we have personalized learning. Who could argue against personalized learning? Luddites, Neanderthals, Socialists?

If we see that the successful adoption of the standards/assessment school improvement/reform model has had a significant impact on the lives of both students and educators, you ain’t seen nothing yet. In the absence of any clarity about what personalized learning should look like and what learning experiences for kids should look like in a ‘personalized’ culture, take a quick look at who’s defining the term for us. I’ll save you a bit of research… Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and a host of tech and publishing companies.

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 11.55.47 AM

Jeff2 – Retro Art

“I’ve seen your future… and it doesn’t work”

Once again dredging up past experiences, I recall a grad class I was taking for my Masters at a very well regarded school of education. In one of my summer session classes, the professor assigned a paper which seemed to a fellow student to be a bit more than he had hoped to deal with during the summer. He rashly questioned the need for such an intensive assignment. The professor looked pensively at him and then uttered, “Son, I’ve seen your future… and it doesn’t work.” Not a highlight in the career of either participant.

We have seen the future when it involves professional educators ceding the role of what’s good for children to politicians and policy makers. It’s a future which doesn’t work, with a past that documents the failure. We cannot follow the path of non-involvement with this latest direction.

I do not see personalized learning as a purchased system built around algorithms that move students though set curricula, varying only the speed and the depth of coverage.

When I think of personalized learning, I think of children being helped to uncover and explore their interests. I see learning experiences for children extending well beyond the walls of the school and the limits of school hours and course requirements. I see teachers (with the term including school leaders and other caring adults) serving as guides to the connection of interests to critical skill development which is not limited by the walls of the school. I see teachers guiding students in the development of personal “playlists” of learning experiences. I see teachers helping student navigate the course selection process and acting as catalysts for the school in the development of procedures and policies that allow students to demonstrate their learning and be recognized for such learning.

Most of all I see personalized learning, writ LARGE, as the means by which we begin to reverse the reality that far too many students grow increasingly disengaged the longer they remain in school. I see this as the opportunity to define the “right thing” piece of education and learning.

How do you define personalized learning? How has your definition been formed? Enhanced? Limited? How does it incorporate what we know about learning (both adult and younger)? What can you do/are you willing to do to insure that personalized learning becomes something far greater than a profit center for businesses? My suggestion… take an hour or two one evening and do some informal research. Commit to sharing your learning (and your questions) with your colleagues.

The best way to sterilize a good idea is to turn it into a program.”

– – Richard Strong

PS This is really a leadership issue. It is the commitment to the development of a grass roots followership that was missing in the run-up to the standards reform movement and which developed significant power during the opt out movement.

It’s Not Us Against Them…

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 9.39.03 AMNote: I borrowed the title of this post from a book by Ray McNulty. I had the pleasure of working with Ray for almost ten years at the International Center for Leadership in Education. Ray is currently the Dean of Education at Southern New Hampshire University. His book is a great read.

I’m going to share some thoughts about extending Ray’s concept of Us vs. Them in the classroom culture to the broader issue of adversarial thinking that often defines the relationships between and among the various participants in an entire school or school system. Additionally, I’m going to share a brief story of what can and did happen when these traditional Us vs. Them roles are broken down and replaced by a healthier focus on identifying and addressing common interests/concerns.

As many of you know, I’ve spent the last 12 years or so working as a consultant with schools, school leaders and teachers throughout the country. A friend recently asked which of the various things I’ve done in the field of education I had enjoyed the most. I thought for a second that this was a pretty hard question and then realized that it was so much easier than I first thought. It was the people I met and had the good fortune to work along side of. In each place I worked… as a teacher, as a school leader, as a district superintendent, as a state department official and, finally, as an “SOB from out of town with slides” (a not terribly flattering description of consultants)… I found dedicated, caring, incredibly talented educators. I met folks whose presence in my memory, even as I write this, bring joy and sometimes tears.

I also found something else, something less touching and more troubling. As I reflected back, I realized that, in each place I worked, I found evidence of a culture of adversarial thinking. Ray’s book focuses on the need to realize that the classroom should not be and cannot be a culture of Us vs. Them. And yet I found too often that this was just a logical continuation of what has developed into an unproductive reality. In the stratified structure of schooling, it is the Us vs. Them culture that dominates… that maintains the separation between and among the various participants.

  • Too many students see the teacher as “the enemy”. “She hates me. She gave me a “D”.”
  • Too many teachers see the administrators in much the same light. “They don’t know/remember what it’s like in the trenches.” Even the example implies warfare.
  • Too many school leaders see the state departments of education as the problem. “Swell just what we need… another report to complete, another unfunded mandate.”

And so it goes, on and on and each example cuts both ways. There are levels of separation that exist in direct contradiction of public utterances extolling the merits of collaboration… collaboration between and among students, collaboration between students and their teachers, collaboration between principals and teachers, etc., etc., etc. Such cultures are frequently build upon positional thinking… thinking which reinforces opposing positions and which leaves all parties feeling increasingly disconnected from the others.

We know that adversarial relationships and positional thinking rarely produce good results. Such relationships dominate our system of education and continue to contribute directly to the fabric of disappointment and frustration with that system. Cultures that describe and stress differences do not thrive and don’t often end well. On the contrary, cultures that are built upon the identification and nurturing of commonalities offer the best examples of success… success in adult and student engagement, success building circles of trust and safety, and success in defining and intentionally building genuine learning experiences for all members.

We are facing unprecedented attacks on the idea of public education. I wrote previously about the  “Perfect Storm”  that continues to intensify.

Obviously, there are external forces at work that are beyond the capacity of any school community to successfully address. There are, however, concrete actions that can be taken in any school community to acknowledge that (a) Us vs. Them thinking is a choice, (b) it is changeable, and (c) there are concrete steps that can be taken in any district to move beyond it.

To illustrate the possibility, here’s an anecdote from real life. It is about a group of good people who came to a crossroad and chose the road less taken. It is grounded in the decision of people who typically inhabited adversarial positions (board members, teachers, and superintendent) to explore alternatives to a practice (the periodic collective bargaining process) which promised to yield more of the same dissatisfying and emotionally draining results as in years past.

Each entered with differing hopes… a fair and respectful economic settlement, a settlement that honored the commitment to be good stewards of the community’s financial resources, the need to encourage engagement in a number of improvement initiatives. You can match the hopes with the various players.

Historically, the collective bargaining process had left each group frustrated. Salary and benefit settlements were lower than desired. Contract costs were higher than hoped for. All involved were left more or less angry and less rather than more engaged in change initiatives. These results were typical and expected in traditional position based bargaining. A number of positive events had created a willingness by all parties to explore alternatives to the traditional process. Together all parties explored the possible benefits of what was then referred to as “win-win” bargaining, later to be more accurately defined as interest-based (in contrast to position-based) bargaining.

With the support of an exceptionally talented bargaining consultant, the process significantly increased the focus on common interests, reduced the Us vs. Them thinking and combined “labor-management” teams to develop proposed solutions to the resolution of consensus defined common concerns/interests. The result of the process was an agreement which included a performance based compensation system, a tiered teacher evaluation/support system (including a collaborative process for termination discussions), as well as a teacher run professional development academy. This agreement received broad support from members of the board of education and the teachers’ association.

I met recently with the teacher architects of the process and asked for their assessment of how/why this very unusual process was successful. They pointed to a collective intentionality to break down the Us vs. Them thinking that had come to characterize the relationship and interactions with the teachers, board, and superintendent. They noted that a critical piece had been the intentional efforts to include the teachers in important decision discussions and the evolving growth of trust within the relationships.

Did the gains last? In a happier world, I could say “yes”. In this world, no they didn’t. Changes in key players… turnover on board members, relocation of the superintendent, more traditional philosophy of the new superintendent… all contributed to the erosion of the cultural gains and a return to positional thinking.

What is the message? Why did I decide to write this after so many months of rejecting it? Some times I feel like I’m living in a real life version of Alexander and His No Good, Horrible, Very Bad Day. In my travels I’ve seen and listened to too many educators offer “other directed” explanations for the lack of meaningful change – i.e., if only the board of education would behave better, if only the administrators knew what it’s like in the classroom, if only the teachers would be more receptive to change, if only the kids would work harder, etc., etc., etc.

We are at critical time for public education. It is a time where “business as usual” will continue to inhibit the creation of the cultures we need and the changes our times are demanding. Our kids deserve and need better than continued rounds of ineffective and likely harmful reforms. Change is possible. I’ve seen it and I’ve lived it. But it will not happen by hanging on to Us vs. Them thinking. We have to recognize that we can’t continue to rely on “we can’t” explanations that are simply proxies for “We won’t” excuses. If the process of moving beyond Us vs. Them approaches interests you and you would like additional support in making such a move, I’d be happy to share some additional detail.

Be well

Other Voices, Other Rooms

NOTE:  I’ve stolen an album title from Nanci Griffith.  In her album she records the music of other artists.  For this blog I’ve copied Nanci’s idea and shared the voices of two people I think you’ll enjoy.

It should be pretty obvious by now that I don’t have a monopoly on good ideas or great writing. I do a lot of reading. It provides a healthy alternative to watching the news and seeing the latest examples of what appears to be a country in the process of losing its way.

This past week, I encountered two pieces of writing that I thought you might enjoy. The  first piece, by Bruce Dixon, speaks specifically to issues of teaching, learning, and the rethinking of our system of schooling. I’ll share a brief teaser here and urge you to spend some time with Dixon and his thinking. In previous blogs I’ve shared works of Simon Sinek in which he deals with issues relating to the relationships between and among trust, leadership, and followership. In one of his more widely viewed TED Talks, Sinek also addresses the importance of beginning with “why” as the critical first step in the creation of engagement in the change process. Dixon addresses a specific kind of followup to Sinek… once we know why we exist as educators, what should we be emphasizing? I hope curiosity will lead you to spend some time with his thinking.

If you find Dixon’s work as compelling as I, I’d suggest a further exploration of his collaboration with Will Richardson and Melissa Emler…  Modern Learners – A Global Community of Changeleaders and their world-wide collaboration, Change.School. I’ve referenced Will Richardson’s work frequently in these blogs.

The second piece. Sometimes I encounter something that is written in such a way that I know immediately that any attempt to synthesize it will be an injustice. To that end I’ve asked Jay Armstrong if I might include his recent piece here for you.   I’ve referenced Jay’s work previously and find that he has an unusual gift… an ability to help us make connections between seemingly innocent and, even innocuous, events (like a four year old on monkey bars) and critical life questions. Enjoy. I’d love to hear your thoughts/comments about either or both. (Here’s the link if you’d like to experience more off Jay’s writings.)

How to Persevere Like a 4 Year Old


Total Read Time: 4 minutes

THE MONKEY BARS. The playground’s proving ground. The callouser of hands. The skinner of knees. A horizontal symbol of strength, of perseverance. Conquered by only big kids.

 On a sun-splashed day, my wife and I take our 3 kids to a local park. When the kids find the playground, our youngest, Dylan rushes to the monkey bars.

He stands underneath, looking up (the littlest one is always looking up), sizing up the bars with his big blue eyes. His little head swirling with possibilities, willing to disregard his physical safety to answer his own little “What if’s…?”

Dylan shouts, “Hey mom, dad watch!”

Cindy and I plant ourselves, across the playground, on a stone bench anchored in some shade. Like a little gymnast, Dylan stands on the platform and eyes up the bars.



Jay Armstring pic 1

A buzzer sounds in his head and with both hands Dylan grabs the first rung and pulls his feet from the platform. He dangles. And dangles.

And dangles.

Feeling the fullness of his own weight for the first time. Valiantly, he tries to muscle his right arm forward but the distance between rungs is too great and he crashes to the ground.

Cindy and I let out that familiar parental gasp.  But before we could push ourselves from our seats Dylan unknots himself, springs to his feet, ”I’m ok!” and dashes back on the platform. Unfazed. Determined.

Cindy and I sit down and find our breaths.

They don’t know it, but these children are fantastic teachers. Little daredevils who remind you about the power of perseverance.

And if you’re struggling, questioning your limits (and let’s be honest…who isn’t) observe children discover their abilities, their potential, their unflinching desire to persevere, to answer the “What if…?” and you’ll be humbled.

Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat. –F. Scott Fitzgerald

Begin with the End in Mind

Dylan is standing on platform again, staring down the length of the monkey bars. It’s only 6 feet, but in his eyes it must look like crossing the Grand Canyon.

How quickly do we think about falling before our feet leave the platform? How quickly does doubt extinguish our fires of victory?


Jay Armstrong pic 2

 Skin Your Knees, Callous Your Hands

Dylan divorces the platform. Unafraid to skin his knees, to callous his hands.

He dangles with nothing but his soft, little kid arms holding his weight. His right hand moves forward. His left hand remains. In the space and time when he’s dandling by one hand, I’m sure he feels the strain, the familiar flash of human doubt, but his right hand finds the next rung, followed by his left.

Leaving doubt and fear behind on the previous rung.

How many times have we skirted a challenge for fear we might get hurt? For fear, that the risk wouldn’t be worth the reward?

Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go. –William Feather

Keep Your Enthusiasm

Rung by rung, Dylan moves forward. It’s hard and it hurts but he’s smiling. He feels his own momentum. He feels the tide of achievement. He understands he’s on the verge of doing something he’s never done.

He’s happy.

Why is enthusiasm so hard for adults to find? 

Crush Your Threshold

One rung remains.

He’s dangling by both arms. His body like a soft pendulum, swinging back and forth.  His arms are screaming. He’s at his limits. Then, somehow, his right arm pushes forward, and grabs the next rung.

Why is it that the older we get, the more unwilling we are to cross our thresholds? Why do we see thresholds as roadblocks instead of doorways into a new world?

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
— Confucius


Jay Armstrong pic 3

Go the Distance

When Dylan’s feet hit the platform at the end of the monkey bars he smiles, throws his hands in the air and shouts’ “I did it!”

It’s the pure joy of accomplishment. He stands on the platform and looks back at the monkey bars he just crossed.

Cindy and I are clapping. We’re the only ones, in the whole playground, clapping.

And that’s all Dylan needs.

My 4 Year Old Teaches Me About Perseverance

A writer’s life is not for the faint of heart.

There have been plenty of moments, after I’ve poured my blood into a piece, convinced it was my finest work, sure to be liked and shared and explode across the internet only to have it published– not with a bang but a whimper. 

And if I’m still being honest, there have been many late nights sitting at my table, glassy-eyed, staring at the computer, dandling on the rung of doubt. Questioning myself. Why am I doing this? Is anyone really going to read this? Why aren’t I in bed already? What if I fail?

But on a perfect summer afternoon I witnessed my son, a 4 year old boy, strain under his own body weight.

I witnessed him persevere.

He taught me that the strain is our greatest teacher.

And I was humbled.

May you always stay committed to your goals. Because your commitment, your perseverance is another person’s motivation.

May you always have the strength to keep moving forward.

May you always persevere.

Be well,

Jay Armstrong

And while I’m in the “business” of recommendations to help you fill up what little spare time you have, try Fredrik Backman’s book, Beartown. I dare you to put it down.

Be well. Do good work. Keep in Touch – Garrison Keillor




Kindness Can’t Be Random

It’s been a while.

I began this blog in the hopes of clarifying my own thinking and, perhaps, contributing perspectives that may not have gotten (in my mind) sufficient attention. Every now and then I realize that I need some distance.  Some time for reflection. And, as usual, the universe lays a trap and there goes the plan.

The trap this time was a video clip that I saw earlier this week on Facebook. Take a look (spoiler alert… tissues are almost mandatory). It’s a clip from a Garth Brooks concert. . I recall seeing it before but had blissfully forgotten the ambush. In the clip, Garth Brooks is performing and sees a lady who is holding a sign that catches his attention and changes the evening for him, for her, and for the audience.

As I replayed this clip in my head over the next couple of days, what emerged were two words… kindness and compassion. Two words that I hadn’t included in my posts about the components of leadership but should have. I thought of all of the kids I taught who may have been holding up signs that I missed. I thought of all of the teachers and staff members who were holding up signs that I should have seen but didn’t. I thought of kids I didn’t reach with my teaching, adults I didn’t reach with my leadership. And the words echoed… kindness and compassion and I realized that they are two critical elements in the process of building caring, trusting relationships and the culture of safety that makes risk-taking possible.

I thought of how easy it would be to ask kids in our classes, adults in our care, “What is the most important thing you’d like to say right now? What’s the most important thing you’d like someone to hear?” How easy would it be to train ourselves to look for “the signs”? To move beyond kindness weeks?

I’ll close this with a quick anecdote and a few questions. (I’m also working on brevity)

A couple of days ago we were meeting with an elder care attorney. I shared the name of the attorney who had recommended her to us. She never hesitated and replied, “He’s a good attorney… and a kind man.” What an eloquent tribute.

How many of us would be proud to know that people consider us kind? That we had a role in the growth of our students towards kindness? What could we do intentionally to insure that this happens? What might we be doing that incidentally gets in the way? Is kindness a value in your school? Is compassion? How can we grow a culture of kindness and compassion in our school community? What have you done? What can you do?

I Dare You to Share This…


Actually, that’s a lie. I beg you to share it.

A bit of history

Bernie Josefsberg and I crashed and burned together in the 1980’s after having been recruited (Bernie from New Trier HS in Chicago and me from a few miles away in rural NJ) to do something wonderful in a local high school. Our reach for wonderful far exceeded our grasp and, after a few years, we were left with a deep and lasting personal relationship and some pretty tough lessons about bringing change to school cultures. We both moved on in separate directions – each of us exploring leadership roles that would eventually lead us to this point. At one of his “new homes” Bernie penned the following piece which he was kind enough to share with me during one of his recent bouts of file purging.

I have struggled at times (most of the time actually) to find the words that might be the key to unlocking the door of understanding for parents and educators… the understanding that the needs of today’s learners are not being and will not be served by trying to create better models of the schools they attended. The necessary responses to this challenge will not be found in doing school better. They must be found in doing learning better.

In his letter to his staff in 1995, Bernie found the words. This letter generated and continues to generate a variety of responses. Both Bernie and I would love to read yours.

I hope you find Bernie’s thoughts enjoyable and his words useful. Enjoy.


The Far Side Gallery 4 – Gary Larson


Prompted by the advent of the 21st-century as well as compelled by the current contents of schooling, many professionals, policymakers and laypeople are offering their visions of 21st-century schools. I’d like to join the crowd and offer the humble suggestion that we get rid of the school disciplinarian. At first blush, this idea seeing might seem nutty. After all, the end of the 20th century does not arouse spontaneous cheer about the human condition nor about the status of such values as honesty, self-control or hard work. Since we are awash in the nasty effects of impulsivity and self-indulgence, it hardly seems sane to eliminate the one individual in the school charged drawing lines and imposing consequences. At the very least, and even in the “best” of schools, a certain number of students experience the kinds of difficulty that require the disciplinarian’s particular attention.

Nonetheless we should forego the disciplinarian, provided we also relinquish the presumption that schools are primarily places that “contain” teenagers on the sidelines while real life occurs elsewhere. From this presumption flows a necessity for the coercive controls embodied in the figure of the school disciplinarian. So long as we perceive schools as places of adolescent containment, schools will continue to invite the very behavior that is properly deplored (though rarely eliminated) through the disciplinarian’s limited arsenal of punishments. Simply put, late 20th century teenagers do not make good inmates. Their experiences and knowledge distinguish them from preceding generations of high schoolers, as do their perceptions of what the future holds in store for them. Nor, given the requirements for healthy 21st-century living, do we want them to suppress their considerable energy and talents. Good inmates do not make for good students, nor more importantly, do they make for good citizens.

Paradoxically, the departure of the school disciplinarian will allow us to focus upon the true source of disciplined and responsible conduct – namely a self-governing interest in sharing the benefits of a community that is “care-ful” of its members. Many of the widely circulated visions of the future emphasize desired economic benefits, to be employed by those who have advantaged themselves through individual merit. Thus, the fully educated student of the 21st-century becomes the competent competitor in a globalized economy. Knowledge is power and the power we value is economic. We therefore envision ingeniously technologized schools that expand the supply of ingenious “knowledge workers.”

This is a legitimate concern. We should safeguard our economic well being by making schools technology enriched learning centers. Because of that technology, it should be possible to associates school with customized learning paths, instant performance feedback on “authentic” tasks and constant interactivity across cyberspace. Such capabilities will go along way toward reviving our schools.

However, my own futuristic vision adds some critical features beyond the technology. In my imagining, school becomes a humanely conceived place where young people acquire the arts of mindful living – a place where they learn to concern themselves with “common wealth” as the best guarantor of self health. Indeed, schools should be a place where students learn to set an extra place for their neighbor at the common table of our society. We each sit at that table and, from the standpoint of the person seated next to us, we are each someone’s neighbor. If nothing else, enlightened self-interest should give us pause not only for thought, but for thoughtful action.

More than machines are required to redeem our hopes for the schools into 21st-century. In its rules, roles, and relationships, the future school of my imaginings enacts an affirmative view of human nature. Its informing beliefs about teenagers, about how they learn and what they need to learn, will anchor arrangements that impel them towards productive and good adult identities. In such a place, the school disciplinarian, for lack of work, will have no role to play.

B. Josefsberg

May, 1995

A Perfect Storm is Brewing — Let’s stop treating symptoms

Note:  The following post was prepared as an opinion piece for a New Jersey media outlet.  While the references are NJ focused, the issues are universal and the suggestions for action apply to any of the states I have visited in my consultant/coaching work.

Perfect Storm SCreen Shot

00:00, 30 NOV 2012

A Perfect Storm is brewing as we see an increasing number of conditions threaten the existence of our system of public education as we know it … and this might not be a bad thing.

The current discussions, proposals, negotiations about the revision of the funding formula here in NJ are a distraction just as they are in other states throughout the country. We are wasting valuable time and resources discussing ways to more equitably, more fairly, more effectively fund a system of education that no longer meets the needs of the majority of American learners. We are watching the world as we have come to know and, sometimes, understand it change before our eyes.

Who could have predicted Uber? Or Amazon? Or Facebook? Who could have predicted that in the 10 years since the announcement of the iPhone our entire means of communication would be upended? Retail chains that have been a part of our lives since we were children are closing. And we are stuck arguing over the funding of a system in which the latest Gallup survey on student engagement reports that by 11th grade, over one third of our students are actively disengaged in school! And our response… almost 30 years of school “reform” based on the development, implementation and assessment of ever more rigorous standards with no significant gains in achievement, declining faith in our system of public education, and continued declines in student engagement.

Imagine a board meeting of Walmart directors facing such results and saying, “Damn, what we’ve been doing isn’t working, let’s do more of it.” But wait, isn’t that what Sears did, what Macy’s doing? Isn’t that what we’re doing with our school funding discussions? Our goal? Let’s make the funding formula fairer. Of course we should make funding formulas fair.  Who would argue in favor of less fairness?  But for the record, we’ve tried that and we’ve demonstrated that (a) we can’t do it and (b) it continues to be an exercise in trying to do the wrong thing better.

Developing a better funding formula so that we can continue our attempts to make schools better is not terribly different than Sears relying on better floor displays and marketing to address changes in the buying habits of their former customers. More floor space and attractive displays were an ineffective response to the convenience and pricing of Amazon and other on-line retailers. Funding the current version of schooling is no better.

Finding a more equitable means of funding schools that serve the needs of a declining “client” base and don’t serve the needs of far too many is a untenable direction. Thinking that various choice options that are now being discussed with greater receptivity provide a better answer is just a sign of our continued commitment to asking the wrong question. Bad questions rarely yield good answers. We have been trapped into responding to bad questions regarding the sustainability of our schools for far too long now. It’s time to move beyond them.

We are beginning to see more creative and productive options. We are seeing these at all levels of learning? What do these look like? In almost all instances, they continue the commitment to concrete – i.e., physical – centers for learning. But they also recognize that a solution based on a refinement of the current organization and structure of schools is no longer either sustainable or effective in meeting the needs of students, families, and the economy as they have emerged. They challenge the notion that all learning that matters must occur within the walls of a school building. They challenge the notion that what is worth learning has been defined and determined by “knowledgeable” adults and is best organized by discrete content and with learners of similar ages. They challenge the notion that teachers deliver information to be learned. They engage their stakeholder communities in discussions and explorations. They make use of learning centers, both physical and virtual, to support expanded choices for learners.

To date these have occurred on a small scale, largely beneath the radar. Without some diligent work you might never encounter the successes of the Big Picture Schools, AltSchool, The Apollo Program, St Benedict’s Prep, the Design Studio, etc. Each of these programs provides an example of one or more responses to the challenges listed above. They represent alternatives to the current system of schooling. They bear witness to a reality that schools don’t have to look as they have for the past hundred years. They need not adhere to the organization, the structure, the staffing and the delivery system of the past. Bringing them to scale as viable alternatives will require some considerable “unlearning and some intentional action.

Removing the obstacles to innovation… dealing with a room full of elephants

I have spent more than 50 years in education. In that time I have worked at all levels of schooling (K-12 through graduate school). I have served as teacher, administrator, union leader and negotiator. For the past 10+ years I have traveled throughout the country visiting and supporting schools and school districts. Like many of us, I have heard seemingly endless cries for innovation, better teaching and more creative leadership. And I have learned that we continue avoid conversations about the “on the ground truths” – those things which demand change but remain unspoken and unchallenged. Here’s a start.

Revise the mission of the state department of education away from its current role of compliance monitoring. If “innovations” are deemed acceptable to the agency only to the extent that they perpetuate adherence to learning that is school centered and organized according to traditional school programming, we can’t be surprised by the lack of genuine innovation.

Encourage through legislation and policy level regulations, the transition from manufacturing unionism to professional unionism. Since the passage of the collective bargaining legislation, the evolution of the unionism in the educational sector has, for a variety of understandable and predictable reasons, focused on what is referred to as manufacturing unionism – i.e, wages, benefits, employee job protection, etc. Both the direction of the role of the state agency and the focus of manufacturing unionism have the consequence of insuring the continuation of the status quo. There have been no examples in this age of technology where protection of the status quo has enhanced a company’s/institution’s response to change.

Lastly, it is time to open discussions and responses to what is widely regarded to be a dysfunctional relationship in the governance of school systems. Analyses of successful responses to change continue to reveal that cultures of positive relationships, trust and transparency are fundamental and causal to the introduction and success of innovative practices and institutional change. At the same time, it has become unusual for new superintendents to complete the three year term of their initial contract. It is well past time for the organizations that represent boards of education (NJSBA) and chief school administrators (NJASA) to engage in meaningful discussions aimed at the development and maintenance of of productive, collaborative and sustaining relationships between board members and superintendents.

The challenge facing our state and others throughout the nation is not rooted the state’s funding mechanism. It lies in dealing with realities that we have chosen not to confront. It lies in continuing to insist that “we can’t” when we really mean “we won’t”. We have demonstrated in the years since Abbott v Burke that the issue of improving the learning experiences for our children is less related to funding formulas than it is to our unwillingness to look beyond what we have always done for solutions. We remain “married to malls” when malls are dying.

A change of Pace…

Jay Armstrong GradIt’s that time of year here in NJ… the time for graduations and, naturally, graduation speeches. Having attended, by my rough count, approximately 35 I’ve become a bit jaded. This week, in the district where my wife works, a remarkable young teacher shook me. In the tradition of the district, Jay Armstrong had the opportunity to share his thoughts as a result of his award as Teacher of the Year last year. He is a teacher and a writer. For more pieces of his writing and additional insight into his approach to teaching, I highly recommend that you visit his web site.

I realize that each of us is touched by different things… things rooted in our life experiences. Jay’s words touched me and I wanted to give him the chance to speak to you as well. I’ve reprinted the transcript here.

Note: In the event you’d like to listen to Jay’s talk, here is a link to access the audio file.

Transcript – graduation address, Robbinsville HS

Introduction (or my attempt to get the crowd to listen)

First and foremost, I’d like to thank the rain.

Because like study hall or lunch or AP Literature class I used the rain delay to write this speech.

It has not been proofread.

And most of this is written on napkins I found in the commons.

I’d also like to thank…

Dr. Foster, the Robbinsville High School Administration,  the Robbinsville Board of Education, colleagues, family, friends, returning Ravens and of course the graduating class of 2017…Thank you.

I appreciate it. I really do.

But I have a ask to question…

What do you say to a stadium full of people who really don’t care what you have to say?

It’s the predicament I’m in right now.

Understand, I’m honored to be here.

But I know my role.

I am your impediment.

The longer I talk, the longer it will take for us to enjoy the sweet elixir of summer.

My job is to fill the Robbinsville sky with poignant wisdom and worldly perspective as a capacity crowd collectively thinks…

“I hope this guy doesn’t take too long.”

I know how unforgiving those bleaches are.

How the June sun is currently burning a hole through your retina.

How you have surveyed the parking lot and proclaimed, “we are never getting out of here.”

In fact, as irrational as it sounds, some of you are contemplating ditching grandma and her one good hip and walking home and not returning for your car until August.

So… the question remains…what do you say?

Maybe I’m being a little too critical, a bit hyperbolic. I know there are a few people in attendance who want to hear me.

My wife.  Cindy and I are the American dream …we met in high school, married, bought a house in the suburbs, had 3 adorable children and bought a large SUV that looks like a minivan but it’s really an SUV… I’m sure Cindy would like to hear what I have to say.

My mom is here.

My brother Keith is here… Keith told me that he would only listen if I make frequent allusions to the Beatles and give him an air high 5 when I do.

And statistically, one of the 87 Twamley* boys would like to hear me.

(*the Twamleys are a set of triplet boys in the graduating class)

And that’s about it.

4 people.

In the whole stadium.

My wife. My mom.

Keith as long as I allude to the Beatles and give him air high fives.

And one of the 87 Twamleys.

Let’s breakdown my situation even further…

What do I say to 221 soon to be high school graduates who know everything?

Seriously. You do.

If you didn’t, they wouldn’t let you graduate.

That’s a rule in New Jersey… along with other rules like no left turns and knowing all the words to Springsteen’s Thunder Road… the greatest song ever written.

So there’s you–the class of 2017, the smartest people in the world…

And then there’s everybody else.

To most people here I’m a stranger.

And what stranger wants to hear advice from another stranger especially if the advice-giving- stranger is punctuating their suit with a pair of sneakers.

So what do you say to make people listen when the promise of summer and freedom and adulthood are achingly close?

I’ve been turning over this question for weeks.

Turning over the thought that I will spend hours writing this speech, you will spend minutes sort-of-listening and in seconds everything I say will be forgotten.

Then I realized that this moment we are sharing, right here, right now is a microcosm for life.

Because once you graduate, the world is waiting for you and the world doesn’t really care what you have to say.

The class of 2017, for 12 years, you’ve been groomed in a school district that has put you first, has listened to your voice.

A district that has held your hand, entertained you, coddled you, pampered you, made you feel special.

And in a few minutes, once you graduate and if you ever escape the parking lot traffic… the cruel world will turn to you, laugh at your ideas and tell you to be quiet.

So if this is a microcosm for life, and I was graduating high school today what would I need to hear?

I decided the best way to deliver this speech is by telling two stories.

Two stories that have made me the person I am today.

One from high school, one from adulthood.

Two stories that.. ready for this Keith… “come together” (high five) to teach one lesson I wish I learned when I was 18.

Because at 18, I really could have used the…”Help” (high five)

Do you realize what I just did there?

Do you?

That’s two Beatles allusions in 2 sentences.

 The First Story

The first story goes like this…

I’m 14 years old, sitting in freshman English class pretending not to care. Because that’s what the cool kids do– pretend not care.

My teacher, Ms. Baker, is handing back our essays–an assignment that required us to write as a Puritan woman being falsely tried as a witch.

I don’t like high school much. The lesson are boring and the homework annoying. The only class I can tolerate is English class.

As I tell you this I can hear the clacks of Ms.Baker’s heels on the classroom tile floor.

Ms.Baker arrives, hands me my essay, smiles and tells me I have talent, that I should keep writing.

She spins and clacks away and before I can smile the kid sitting behind me, the middle linebacker on the freshman football team, whispers “loser” in my ear.

Right then in freshman English class I submitted.

Right then I began to distrust myself.

If my high school offered a class on intuition… I’d failed.

For a long time, almost 20 years, I silenced my voice, my desire write and connect to others because I was afraid of what other people might say.

I listened too closely to opinions.

Don’t listen.

I bought the fabrications the world was selling.

Don’t buy them.

 The Second Story

The second story is one that most of the graduating class is familiar with.

On the first day of the school year I decide that instead of handing out a syllabus, or introducing classroom procedures I would simply to tell a story.

A story that I hoped had enough drama to hold the attention of a room full of angsty 12th graders.

This year I introduced my students to the writing strategy known as full circle.

Full circle is also a band from Central New Jersey currently on hiatus. They have lovely album called “This Long Used Trail”  available on Spotify and Soundcloud.

In fact….As you wait in post graduation traffic in your SUV that looks like a minivan but is not a minivan, you just need extra cargo space to fit your kid’s beach toys… you should check them out.

To model the full circle strategy it’s only fitting on the last day of school I tell the same story I told on the first day of school which only seemed like… “Yesterday “ ( high 5)

Class of 2017… this might blow your mind…on the first day of class, while you were admiring each other’s tan……I was writing the end to our story.

All at once I was saying, “Hello, goodbye” (high five).

No, Joe Natalie*…

(a student who, after a rousing lecture on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road… if I was God.)

I am not God…

I am the Walrus (Keith … high five)

Senior English…


What… What…

The second story goes like this…

It’s March 2010.

I’m in my car driving south on 95, into the heart of Philadelphia.

After muscling through evening traffic I find myself on North 20th Street, a block away from the Philadelphia Public Library.

I get of my car, shut the door, turn up my coat collar to the whipping wind and walk south along North 20 Street.

At the corner of Vine Street I hook a left, climb a flight of stairs and find myself in the quiet warmth of the Public Library.

I cross a marble floor, move down a staircase, into an auditorium to see and listen to my literary hero- whose words strengthened my beliefs on writing, storytelling and love and beauty and the purpose of life.

For 90 minutes  author Tim O’Brien, writer of The Things They Carried, read from his novel and talked about it. He fielded questions and gave writing advice to novice writers like myself.

Then it was over.

I exit the library, hook a right onto North 20th and march into the howling wind.

I progress up North 20 with the library is on my immediate right.

When I look over to my right… I see Tim O’Brien, alone, leaning against the library, under the throes of a lamp light, smoking a cigarette.

I stop.

I turn toward him.

I must be 30 feet from Tim O’Brien, my literary hero.

I step forward.

29 feet.

Like some anxious fanboy I turn over all the things I’m about to say to him.

28 feet.

I reach into my bag and pull out my copy of The Thing They Carried. One of the most important books of the 20th century.

27 feet.

It’s at 27 feet where I got nervous. Where I began to distrust myself.

I take a step back.

28 feet.

What would I say to a stranger that is compelling and interesting? What do I say that would inspired him to listen?

29 feet.

The march wind whips my back. Why would a ground breaking author waste his time with me?  What if he told me to shut up and go home?

I slip my copy of The Things They Carried into my bag and turn and head north, and open my car door and drive home and pull into my driveway and crawl into my bed and realize in a way I’m still 14, still sitting in freshman English class, still distrusting myself.

Class of 2017, there will be many fine chapters in your book. Stories of victory, love and pride.

Scoring your dream job.

Feeling the love while slow dancing to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” at your dream wedding.

And the swell of pride felt when you buy an SUV that looks like a minivan but is an SUV so your family can enjoy the extra leg room.

But those chapters are often short.

The chapters where sadness, regret, shame are the subjects are the longest, hardest to finish yet they are the stories that make life interesting.

They’re interesting because they test your intrinsic commitment.

My two stories are about regret and judgment and distrusting myself.

Yet I’m so grateful for them, for what they taught me–how you must endure difficulties to find out who you are and what you stand for.

For the last four years you’ve been a cliché.

A brain. An athlete. A basket case. A princess. A criminal.

You’ve played a stock character in a stage production.

But what will you do now?

Those cliches are cute in high school and movies about high school but in the reality of adulthood cliches are boring and uninspiring.

Intuition does not get easier with age.

Self-reliance comes with a real cost.

And a fear of judgement lingers long after high school.

I can only hope that you find the courage to trust yourself, to take the risk to be heard.

You’re impressionable–miles away from figuring out who you are and yet you’re about to change in immense and unknown ways.

Change for yourself and what you believe is right for you.

Trust your change.  

Like this speech, high school will end. Your graduation gown will lie in rags at your feet. And adulthood will begin.

But your identity, your voice, your story is just taking shape and important questions await…

What will be the subject of your next chapter?

Will you be a minor character in your own life?

Will your story be the thing that connects you to others?

It’s so easy to plagiarize your life.

Don’t do it.

It’s so easy to believe your own fiction.

Don’t believe it.

Before I go…

I challenge you…

To relax.

Trust yourself.

Avoid cliches.

Be authentic.

And toil until you to find the courage to tell your story with absolute allegiance to your truth.

Finally, I have a last request…

To quote the ancient Detroit philosopher Eminem…

If you had one shot, one opportunity to

seize a picture  with the class of 2017

would you capture it or just let it slip?”


Class of 2017 and everyone in attendance…

It’s been an honor and privilege…

Good luck with the traffic, thank you and be well.