A Lesson from Detroit… and Jan

I hope you will forgive the erratic posting schedule (and there absence of clever graphics). For the past month we’ve been immersed in the process of moving. Having been raised and educated in the Catholic tradition, I am no stranger to guilt, but even guilt hasn’t added more hours to days filled with sorting, packing, unpacking, re-sorting, etc. (wondering why the hell I thought I should keep all the stuff I’m throwing out now).

To prove I haven’t given up all hope for our mission, I’m including a piece from Jan Resseger’s blog . In it she revisits the importance of the connection between strong, vibrant system of public education and the threats to such a system posed by the direction of the current federal administration.

In today’s piece, Jan highlights a beautifully crafted vision statement shared by The superintendent of Detroit. Here is an excerpt her post:

Nikolai Vitti became Detroit’s public school superintendent last April. Last week in the Detroit News, Superintendent Vitti published what sounds radically counter cultural: a school district vision statement that leaves out charter schools, school choice, blaming and firing teachers, and any mention of test scores (though the Every Student Succeeds Act will require that Detroit keep on testing its students). Here is some of what Superintendent Vitti says:

“We now have an empowered and elected school board for the first time in years….” “Detroit will not reach its full potential without a stronger traditional public education system. Children need to feel safe, empowered and supported when attending school. Students will make mistakes but learn from them through a more progressive code of conduct focused on positive behavior support, restorative practices, not exclusionary strategies.” “(P)riorities are rooted in developing a child-centric organization that ensures college-and career/technical-ready programing exists across the district in every school; retaining, developing and recruiting the strongest teachers and leaders, and being more strategic and aligned with our resources. Our other priority to focus on the whole child will expand access to enrichment activities such as art, music, athletics, chess, cultural field trips and electives… This spring we will launch a Parent Academy to empower our parents to play a more active role in their child’s education. Teachers will visit students’ home to create stronger relationships with parents… While our schools must own the challenge and opportunity poverty presents, we must recognize that public schools cannot lift children out of poverty alone. We must face the truth that although poverty affects all people, historical and institutional racism exacerbates poverty based on race.”  Vitti also describes schools as centers with wraparound services like health, mental health and dental services for students and families.

Vitti’s vision cannot be realized without nurturing collaboration, building trust, and honoring the professionals who will work with children every day.  It is also grounded in Vitti’s belief in public responsibility.

I’m somewhere near the end of a piece on our role as educators in forming the public perception of public responsibility. As the number of boxes remaining to be unpacked dwindles, I’m getting closer to putting this up. Stay tuned and be well.

Fake News and Grading… A Windmill Worth Tilting At

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Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Jules David – Wikimedia Commons

I guess I just can’t put this off any longer. It must be my inner Sancho Panza.

Cliff Notes Version: There is growing recognition of the problems caused by continued use of grades as a means of reporting/communicating the level of learning that has occurred. This piece addresses another aspect of the grading problem… the ramifications of past and continued use of grades as major components in decisions that have a severe economic impact on students and their families. The issues of instructional and financial impact are closely intertwined and the piece moves back and forth a bit between the instructional issues related to grades and the economic ramifications.

Bottom line… We are spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money to maintain systems of grading students (and now teachers) that are neither valid nor consistent in their results and which, when “gamed” by savvy students, unintentionally but needlessly deprive too many students of both academic and financial opportunities.

Note: In an upcoming post, I’ll explore the ways in which our experience with grades and the experiences of most people who have experienced school have contributed to the challenge facing our system of public education


As some of you know, I curate several “magazines” on Flipboard (Flipboard.com). I’ve found this to be an excellent tool for sharing resources as well as a great way to organize thinking and articles. In recent weeks I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of articles, blog posts, discussions about the schools and districts that are in the process of abandoning their grading systems. I’ve placed, or flipped, several of these into one of my Flipboard magazines, EdRethink or Quantum Learning . {check out links here}.

Some context

As a student and later as a teacher I, like many who have experienced school in either capacity, took grading and grading systems for granted. They had apparently always been there and didn’t seem to be going away. As an “alternate route” teacher (I began my career teaching in a Catholic boys prep school), I had little formal training in the development of grading systems. I experimented, each year trying something different, fine tuning… looking for what would work best, that is, what worked best for me. I never really considered in any serious way the impact of my grading “system” on students.

Over time I began to question my conclusions about the usefulness and durability of grades and grading system. As my experience grew I realized that my learning was, in fact, a kind of unlearning. What was I unlearning?

  • Grades communicate useful information – My unlearning began with the realization that although grades were billed as a means of providing useful information about student learning to students themselves, to other teachers, to parents, to college admissions folks, and to prospective employers, in most instances they failed on all counts.
  • Grades are valid and reliable measures of student learning – The development of teacher grading system was at best unscientific and, too often, highly personal. These systems were so personal, in fact, that teachers in the same sequence of courses – i.e., language arts or math – had no idea about the grading system used by their colleagues.
  • Grades serve as motivational tools and levers for student engagement – In fact I learned that the dissonance between what a student expected as a grade and what they actually received was frequently listed as one of the greatest sources of loss of student motivation and declines in engagement.
  • Students recognize a causal relationship between their efforts and the grades they receive – On the contrary, while students regularly report that teacher A gave them an A, B, or whatever, they rarely accept their role in the grade assignment – i.e., Ever heard this from a student? “How did you do in Mr T’s class? Oh, not too bad. I earned a B.”

Let’s put some of this together… A few years ago I was working with a district in Nevada. It was large district both geographically and numerically. The district had implemented a computerized grading system which allowed teachers to input categories of experiences – i.e., test grades, quizzes, project work, homework, class participation, etc. … nothing that we haven’t all seen in grading systems that we’ve developed ourselves or have observed in our colleagues. Additionally, teachers could also designate the number of points that students could amass and the percentages assigned to each of the experience categories. For example, in teacher A’s class, students might accumulate 100 points out of a potential total of 1000 point for homework – i.e., 10% of the grade – while in teacher B’s class a student might accumulate 500 points out of 1500 possible points or 33% of the grade. Teacher C might not include homework as a category for which points could be earned. Additionally, the point system developed by each teacher was viewable by district administrators.

After some conversations with his son (scheduling his senior year classes), the administrator I was supporting decided to complete a bit of research. He had picked up some comments by his son that piqued his curiosity. Here’s what he found. In reviewing the grading systems for three teachers assigned to parallel sections of English 4 (senior English), one teacher’s system was based on a possible 1800 points (with 50% based on student projects), the second teacher’s system was based on a possible 1200 points (with no points for student projects and 30% for homework), and the third teacher’s system (also based on 1200 possible points) valued major tests as 70% of the grade.

While this system was somewhat unique in its design and use of technology, it was not terribly different than what one might find in many schools throughout the country – i.e., teachers develop systems which include a variety of categories, often each differently than their colleagues, and use such a system to calculate grades.

What was also not terribly unique to this system was the lack of consistency for the calculation of grades among teachers teaching the different sections of the same course. What it took to get an “ A” from teacher #1 might vary considerably from what it took to get the same grade from teacher #2.

If you doubt that students fully appreciate the implications, spend some time during the scheduling process discussing with students the reasons for the requests they’ve submitted – not much homework, lots of projects, not many tests, easy A, etc.

While grading systems differ in approach and complexity, one things stands out… the highly personalized systems, often individually developed and honed from year to year, are wildly inconsistent and, consequently, are of questionable value in meeting the need for clear and comparable sources of information that can be understood and used by students, teachers, parents, colleges and/or employers!

Are there exceptions? Of course there are. But even the exceptions are inconsistent and may vary considerably from building to building as a student moves through the grades. For years there has been tacit understanding of the implications of the inconsistencies inherent in locally developed grading systems. This recognition gave rise to the development and acceptance of the SAT’s and ACT’s as alternatives for the assessment of college readiness. It did nothing, however, to resolve the consequences of the continued reliance on locally developed grading systems on the lives of students and quality of learning experiences.

We had grown up with grades. We took the concept for granted.

We looked at ways to improve it, most often on an individual basis. Periodically, we engaged in spirited discussion about whether letters of numbers would provide a better/more accurate picture of student learning. Teachers with 20 years or so experience may have been fortunate enough to experience this thrilling debate several times.

For me this entire process, whether it involved the ideal number of points to be earned, whether the grade should be reported as a number (with greater potential for precision) or a letter (should we also allow plusses and minuses), whether behavior should count, etc., is yet another example of the Drucker/Ackoff dilemma… trying to do wrong things ‘righter’ rather than trying to do the right thing.

emperor no clothes Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 3.04.29 PMThe Emperor Has No Clothes

Let’s take a closer look at impact of trying to do wrong things right – i.e., improving the concept of grading.  Here’s a short list of grade-related decisions made in places I’ve worked and/or visited.

  • Class assignments – honors, college prep, remedial
  • Eligibility for AP courses, advanced programming, National Honor Society
  • Class rank
  • Scholarship awards (both those awarded locally as well as those awarded as a part of a student’s financial aid package)
  • Valedictorian selection
  • Participation in co- and extra-curricular activities

Can you add any additional ways in your school/district in which grades play a significant or, perhaps, a major role?

The consequences

Here are a couple of examples from my home state. In NJ, the state has implemented a scholarship program to assist students in covering the cost of college. This program, known as NJ STARS, while no longer funded at the initial levels and currently attracting fewer participants, has a GPA requirement. This requirement has varied between 3.25 and 3.5 as the threshold for consideration. According to state records, in 2012 the program funded 3800 students at $2500/student. In 2014 the program funded 1800 students at $3350/student. In both years the amount funded exceeded $5 million.

In looking at data for locally awarded scholarships, I read of an exemplary program that has over 300 contributing donors who contributed in excess $550,000 annually in recent years.

These examples do not include data for scholarships awarded to students by the institutions of higher education as a part of their financial aid package for prospective enrollees. High school leaders and members of boards of education typically take great pride in announcing the total of such awards, usually during the annual graduation ceremony.

A large number of such awards have some GPA and/or class rank criteria built into the award system. What are consequences of this system? While there are a number of happy students and parents who enjoy the benefits of the financial award and accompanying recognition, there are inevitably a number of students for whom the vagaries of the grading system kept them from consideration. But not only from consideration for such awards but also for the chance to even compete for such awards – i.e., grades weren’t good enough to qualify to higher level (weighted) courses that positively affect GPA calculations, or prevented them from enrolling in Advanced Placement courses, or eliminated them from consideration for National Honor Society, etc., etc.

There are promising trends at work. The push back against recent federal and state policies which focus on test/punish systems has resulted in increased interest in alternatives to both test determined grades and grading system in general. Several states have passed legislation enabling/requiring districts to move to competency based grading/evaluation/reporting. A number of schools and districts are exploring the use of micro-credentials (badges) as an alternative or supplement to traditional credit and grade based system of reporting. More and more frequently we are recognizing that the Emperor Grades has no clothes.

Dan Pink in his TED Talk on Drive notes that contrary to popular belief and past practices, rewards and incentives do not improve the engagement and performance of workers (or students). When the work involves thinking, rather than memorized or mechanical responses, there are three key factors which increase engagement and performance: (1) Sense of purpose (knowing why we are doing something); (2) Feeling of autonomy (ability to make choices about how to perform well/better), and (3) the sense that we are improving.

Grading systems which continue to ignore this research are destined to continue to get results which are disappointing to teachers and students alike. Make no mistake. This is big. We have made a huge investment in time, energy, and policies around grades. That doesn’t make it any less wrong. And it won’t be fixed making yet another adjustment to the wrong thing. We now know far more about what student learning should look like and how we can measure it. We need to bring that knowledge into practice. We need to demonstrate that we can be models of learning organizations. We need to stop penalizing kids and teachers with practices that endure only because they exist.


Fighting Back


Note: This Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 12.52.39 PMwill most likely be a two-part piece. The second part will be focused on a response to what I’d term “a call to action” intro. What follows here is a version of what Simon Sinek called “the WHY question”. What follows in part 2 will be some thinking about “HOW” it might be done.

Last week, one of the daily posts from Jan Resseger was entitled “Backpack Full of Cash”. I urge you to take a few minutes to visit her blog and to explore the links she offers.

Some of you may recall that she is a frequent “visitor” to my pieces. She is a tireless researcher and advocate for public education. The quote at the top of her blog captures the essence of her commitment far better than I could hope to.

That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.” —Senator Paul Wellstone — March 31, 2000

A Bit of Context…

As most of you know or have surmised, I am not a fan of schooling. I believe that it (schooling) has become separated from learning and has focused far too intensely on issues of compliance and efficiency. As I have shared previously, work by Gallup (studies revealing precipitous declines in student engagement as students progress through the grades) and Drucker (the critical difference between doing things right – i.e., efficiency – and doing the right thing – i.e., effectiveness) have and continue to highlight the problems caused by confusing schooling with learning.

This does not mean that I have abandoned the idea of public education. I believe strongly that a quality system of public education is critical to providing equitable access to learning. I believe with equal passion that the current system, based as it is on the commitment to schooling, is failing to provide both equitable access and quality to far too many of our children. I believe that, among the reasons for this failure, we must consider our own complicity in defending/maintaining the structure that served us well (forgetting that we represent a minority of those who experienced schooling with us), as well as our society’s reluctance to confront the effects of continued racial and economic segregation and the impact of the poverty which continues to accompany them.

What Else This Does NOT Mean…

  • Our ongoing struggle to unlearn schooling and focus on the creation of centers for, and of, learning does NOT imply that the solution lies with the privatization of education.
  • It does not mean that we allow wealthy philanthropists championing a self-serving libertarian agenda to turn schools into centers for profit.
  • It does not mean that we abandon our commitment to equity and quality for all in favor of limited opportunities… most of which leave the neediest behind.

While Betsy DeVos continues to serve as a focal point for the push for her life long commitment to vouchers and privatization, quietly and largely under the radar, organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and others have drafted, shared, and successfully promoted legislation in numerous states. Jan’s blog from yesterday details the role of Dark Money (See book by Jane Mayer) in the promotion of charter school expansion legislation in Massachusetts. After the failure of this initiative, the state investigated and fined the not-for-profit foundation that had largely bankrolled the failed legislative effort.

Make no mistake. This is not a huge victory. It does not signal a reversal of over 25 years of intentional denigration of the concept of public schooling. It does not, with one relatively small fine, change the decades long culture of test and punish as the favored response to “school improvement”. It does not change the conditions which are driving ever increasing numbers of teachers to abandon their profession. Nor does it undo the problems caused by the continued confusion of schooling and learning.

Jan and I discussed recently the high profile nature of the pro-choice, pro-voucher, pro-charter movement and the relatively meager coverage of the negative implications, along with the absence of critique of numerous false assertions by the deep pocket proponents/advocates. We discussed options for action.

One Option…

 The lead paragraph in Jan’s blog this morning reads:

 On Tuesday, October 10 at 7 PM, in the auditorium at Cleveland Heights High School (corner of Ceder and Lee Roads), we’ll screen the film, Backpack Full of Cash, from Stone Lantern Films and Turnstone Productions and narrated by Matt Damon. The screening will be followed by discussion.

Sponsoring this free screening is the Heights Coalition for Public Education, in conjunction with the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union, Local 795 AFT; Reaching Heights; the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education; the Northeast Ohio Branch, American Association of University Women; and Progress Northeast Ohio.

As Jan notes, there is a study guide  that accompanies the film as well as options for connecting with folks who wish to be certain that voices in opposition to the monetization of our children can be heard. Could your PTA sponsor a screening?

Another Option…

Note:   I’ve been struggling with this section. I’ve written and discarded at least 4 drafts. Not because there isn’t another option but because I couldn’t find the words that might be sufficient to grab the heart of anyone who reads it and inspire action on that option. And then I found it…in the words of Gregg Popovich, coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. Gregg’s remarks came in an interview with a reporter for the San Antonio express-News. He was being asked about his response to the latest controversy swirling around the President and his recent remarks to an audience in Alabama. Gregg’s remarks were not intended to be about education but I believe they are.  

“Obviously, race is the elephant in the room, and we all understand that. Unless it is talked about constantly, it’s not going to get better. … ‘Oh, that again. They pulled the race card again. Why do we have to talk about that?’ Well, because it’s uncomfortable. There has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change, whether it’s the LGBT community or women’s suffrage, race, it doesn’t matter. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people, because we’re comfortable. We still have no clue of what being born white means. And if you read some of the recent literature, you realize there really is no such thing as whiteness. We kind of made it up. That’s not my original thought, but it’s true.

“It’s hard to sit down and decide that, yes, it’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. You’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there. And they have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years. But many people can’t look at it, it’s too difficult. It can’t be something that is on their plate on a daily basis. People want to hold their position, people want the status quo, people don’t want to give that up. Until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.” (emphasis mine)

While Gregg was offering thoughts on race, his remarks strike at the heart of our dilemma in education as well. As durable as the culture of schools has been, it cannot continue unchanged. If the history of the past 50 years (time since the publication of “A Nation At Risk”) has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that change will be initiated by us or done to us.

The forces of change are pressing in on us… We see them in the form of threats to public education, the demands for increased personalization (with multiple definitions and the same shallowness that accompanies almost all ‘buzzword’ solutions), the demands for a simultaneous focus on social/emotional learning, career readiness and superior test performance, etc. These forces of change will continue and they will accelerate.

The responses to these forces cannot be ignored and they can’t be superficial. Extending Mr. Popovich’s thoughts…They require that we think beyond what happens in our individual classrooms or offices. They require that we revisit our positions. They require that we challenge the status quo. We cannot be limited by a continuation of organizational cultures that reflect the kind of Us vs. Them. Nor can they be left to others. We have seen the results of sloppy problem analysis, poorly designed solutions, and dogmatic adherence to ineffective programmatic policies championed and mandated by ill-informed policy wonks. It is the voices of people working in schools that can inform the direction of learning for our students. But, and this is a big one, we can no longer spend such a precious resource in the defense of the status quo. “Until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.”

We have been an underutilized and extremely valuable resource. But it can’t continue. The times require a call to action… a call for educators to rethink what we have learned about learning… a call to insure that we create centers for learning that leave parents and students with only one response… I wish my school had been like that. I believe that we have to make our schools “like that” – centers for and of learning… centers which extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom and the school… centers which excite, engage, and inspire kids and adults to see and immerse themselves in the vast web of connections and opportunities that are unique to our times.

So, next we’re on to “how”!  Spoilers: Overcoming Confirmation Bias… how to change minds (or at least open them); Picking the “low hanging fruit”; Scouting for players and team members…

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.

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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




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