Requiem for a Dying Story

 

testing Joe Brown Stop Educating

I want to try to connect some dots.

How would you answer the question, “What is the purpose of education?”  Would your answer be different depending on your country of residence? Would the purpose change if the context changed?

How did I get so philosophical? Well, I was reading a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Jan Resseger.  Jan begins her blogs with this quote:

“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

Jan’s page banner reflects her clarity of purpose.  She writes to highlight instances where we continue to fall short of Senator Wellstone’s commitment to “…an equal right through a sound education…”. She writes to hold such instances up to the light of day. She writes to challenge us to refuse to accept the continued failure to make this right equally available to all children, regardless of race, income or zip code.

As I was reading her most  recent post in which Jan explores the purpose and impact of the recent teacher strikes, I wandered into a reflection on the notion of my first dot, clarity of purpose.  I can’t “blame” Jan exclusively for this reflection.  I’ve been participating in a virtual learning community, Modern Learners, for the past year or so.  Recently, I expanded that participation to join a cohort-based learning experience called Change School.  This experience brings together educators from around the world in weekly discussions and largely self-directed learning experiences designed to encourage and support a change away from our focus on “schooling” to one in which student and adult learning is center.

Both Jan and the Modern Learners team place a great value on the development of commonly understood meaning.  Hence my focus on purpose and what we mean by it.  Want to see how far we are from such common understanding?  Define what you mean by learning?  Better still, ask a couple of friends/colleagues to join you.  Can you recall something you’ve learned recently?  How did you go about it?

thinker-28741_1280

Credit – Whoops, another senior moment

Now spend a minute or two (or ten) and write down the purpose of education.  Is it an enlightened citizenry? Is it good citizens? Is it literate adults?   Is it caring, kind graduates? Whatever you picked, try now to define what that is.  What is “an enlightened citizenry”? What’s “a good citizen”? What does literate look like?  What is “caring”, “kind”?

In my time teaching, many of us informally and quite privately determined “our” purpose and tried to make that a reality. I changed my purpose more than once in the years I taught. Based on my observations (we never actually talked about it), so did many of my friends.  I’m tempted to thrash this into insignificance but you get the idea.

What we mostly accepted as our public and dominate purpose was to keep on doing school… to do a bit better what others had done before us.  In 20 plus years as a classroom teacher, I never had the opportunity to participate in a discussion of why we were doing what we were doing.  So my second dot…We just did what was always done.

If you recognize this as somewhat accurate, imagine now for a bit how the general public (parents, community members, politicians, etc.) see the purpose of school.  What do you think might be the major factors in how such folks reach their conclusion/definition? I suspect a fair number of these factors are a result of looking in the rearview mirror… at how they remember school, what worked for them, what the economy needed at the time, etc… a form of “marching backwards into the future”.

Continuing a growing trend,  while the majority of community members see their schools in a positive light, this same majority has accepted the notion that our schools are largely failing – i.e., not doing things as well as they remembered.  Paradoxically enough, this same majority (with the help of Grover Norquist and the Freedom Caucus) has also accepted the notion that all forms of taxation are bad… money given to the government is wasted and, therefore, money given to school is a waste… and the result?  Oakland, Los Angeles, West Virginia, the charter school and voucher movement, etc.

As I have written elsewhere, we are in a time of a story that is dying.  The story of school as the path to prosperity and security is foundering, if not already dead! A purpose for school that is based on this story, regardless of how efficient it might seem, can no longer be used as the driving force for school change.  My third dot…Doing schooling better is a terrible purpose.

What? But wait… am I  saying that we shouldn’t be sending our kids to school? No. Am I saying we should have lots of empty school buildings crumbling in disrepair while kids wander aimlessly through the community or sit comatose in front of their electronic devices? No.

What I am saying is that we need to spend some serious time looking at and deciding exactly what the purpose of our schools must be in the context of our current time… not the context that existed in the 1890’s when the current curriculum for our schools was developed. What I’m asking is that next time a district begins the seemingly never-ending process of strategic plan development, why not begin with a discussion of the purpose of school?  Why not begin with why kids should attend school? Couldn’t we at least begin with a discussion about what learning is? What we are doing to enhance the possibility of learning?  Maybe even expolore what are we doing that actually gets in the way?

Richardson conditions

This one’s easy… all presenters should be so considerate

Years ago, I encountered a book edited by Art Costa, If Minds Mattered.  The contributors asked the question, “If minds really mattered, would school like it does?”  Taking license with that notion, I wonder why we organize our schools and student learning the way we do? I wonder what our schools would look like if learningreally mattered?   Would we group our kids by age? Would we judge them and their teachers by a once a year, large-scale assessment?  Would we continue to use grades as the measure of learning?

fwbrfu4vduqvib4hrqifegSo, for now, a final dot.  What matters to us?  What would happen if we decided that a drop of student engagement from almost 80% in 3rdgrade to something less than 45% by 11thgrade mattered to us? Could we ask kids in our school if this is their experience and why?

What would happen if we recognized that the growth in student anxiety, depression, and suicide is growing dramatically as kids move through school?  Could we look at policies and practices we have in our schools that might contribute to this? What would happen if the way we and kids learn is dramatically different from how we do school?  Could we look at increasing student agency, increasing the control they have over their learning… the how when and with whom part?

What would happen if you asked two “I wonder what would happen if..?” questions?
What would happen if you asked two “Could we at least try…?” questions?

What would happen if we committed to creating a space where such questions were encouraged and valued?

Be well

 

 

Where’s Sancho Panza When We Need Him?…maybe he’s us.

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-2-23-02-pmI was reading an article in The Atlantic this morning in which the author described the failure of the Republican party to reject the President’s strategy of using a national emergency as the means to circumvent the Congressional refusal to support his long standing promise of a border wall. The author described this as a “moment of extreme national cowardice.”

I was unsettled by my reaction. Is it possible that in my own field of interest/passion our failure to respond to signs of a system of education that is not adjusting to the changing needs of its students or to the increasing levels of emotional distress experienced by them is, in fact also a moment of national cowardice… cowardice not by our national legislators but cowardice by us, as educators?

 

I don’t mean the kind of self-serving cowardice that we have been witnessing by federal lawmakers. I mean a kind of cowardice which is less public and less intentional. I mean a kind of cowardice which is driven by fear of change, fear of losing what we have, fear of the consequences of acknowledging that we have spent far too long trying to do the wrong thing better, fear that in preserving our comfort with what is, we have avoided doing what should be, fear of acknowledging that the ways in which we have organized our schools and our focus on schooling have stifled, not encouraged learning.

screen-shot-2016-04-09-at-4-07-32-pmMost of us who taught or who teach now have had a minimum of 16 years as students to learn how school works.  While we may/may not have learned everything that was taught, we most certainly learned “schooling”. We learned that “stuff” was organized into discrete content areas, that each of these content areas was taught in fixed blocks of time, that we learned mostly in age-based cohorts, that teachers taught, that tests measured learning, etc. Perhaps most insidiously we learned that compliance was/is more highly valued than questioning.

And so I’m suggesting that we find ourselves confronted with a challenge of courage.  When we recognize that the system we have been a part of, the system that we have largely internalized is not meeting the needs of the very people it was charged with serving, what do we do?  Many of us seek others who have reached similar conclusions.  We seek communities of support.  Far too frequently we have to leave our schools/districts to find such kindred spirits.   We find safe harbors for our thoughts and feel secure in the knowledge that we are not nuts.

But what if being in a safe place is not enough?  What if the impact of our commitment to “schooling” is far more damaging than the parents and community members realize or understand?  Let me offer a possible analogy to this situation. Assuming we have a significant problem with boarder security, it’s safe to say that a comprehensive response to that issue has eluded us.  Not surprisingly, it’s a complex issue.  And so we develop a response which is more understandable… a wall.  Continuing… Let’s assume that we have a problem with what kids are learning/not learning in our schools.  It, too, is a complex situation.  We develop solutions… better standards and large scale assessments. They prove to be our “wall”.

Recently, a member of a virtual community of educators to which I belong, suggested that she would find it hard to believe that I would be anything but gracious in my responses to other members of the community.  I’ll dispel that “myth” with my next few sentences.  We are living at the tail end of a story that is dying. The “story” that told us that if we went to school, did well there, got good grades, went to college and graduated, we would have a good job and a secure future for our families and for our retirement… That story is dead!  Ask any parent of a recent graduate who is drowning in huge debt and depending on the “gig” economy for a job. “Schooling” isn’t working for far too many kids.  We are presiding over and working in a system that is no longer working.

Not all of us are community organizers or political activists.  Not all of us see the world in the same way or, perhaps, with the same sense of urgency.  But what if those of us who do don’t challenge it? If we really believe that a significant part of our calling is to help kids learn who they are and how they can be in the world, is there a place for “moments of cowardice”? What would happen if we added our voices to those of striking teachers… our voices about the need not only to raise teacher recognition and compensation, but also the need to revisit the purpose of education? What would happen if we added our voices to encourage an inclusion of such a discussion in the development of the Green New Deal?

What if watching the dismantling of a system of public education in the name of choice and free enterprise, if watching the largest publishing companies profit from student data and the continued sale of both the large-scale assessments and the test prep materials designed around them, if failing to examine how the policies and practices in our own or local schools is contributing to the dramatic rise in student mental health issues is actually an act of national cowardice?

Just asking.

Time of Fear – A real time drama

thinker-28741_1280Coming soon … Creating space in a time of fear… in the face of powerlessness.

I should never indicate the topic that I’ll address in the next post.  It’s almost a guarantee that something will happen that catches my attention and “demands” that I share my thoughts, reaction, emotional connection.

This time, the world intruded via an event that has captured national attention… the confrontation of native America veteran and a high school student from Kentucky which took place during the past week in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. What an incredible lesson about life in the time of social media.   After seeing videos of what was labeled as a confrontation, after reading the written statement/response by the student involved, after seeing an interview with the Native American elder, after reading a recent account on CNN (updated at 4:46 am!) which added information about another group involved in the event (the Hebrew Israelites), after being offered links to various YouTube clips and viral videos, and after having had the opportunity to participate in an incredibly thoughtful and sensitive exchange among members of the Modern Learners Community, I haven’t a clue what really happened.

I’m not sure that matters. While what actually happened may be of critical importance to those directly involved… the student, his classmates, their parents, the elder, participants of the Indigenous Peoples’ rally, the African American Members of the Hebrew Israelites, the teacher chaperones, the school leaders, etc. … to me this is now a historical event and I find myself trying to focus on the how and why of the event, on what we could be doing as educators to help our young people respond with greater understanding, with greater empathy and without resorting the violence as a solution, whether that violence be physical or verbal.

How and why do such events occur? I return to what has become a recurrent theme in my thinking. It’s an observation that I haven’t heard shared on major news outlets.  It’s an observation about our sense of separation… our separation from one another, our separation from our institutions (and the consequent lack of faith in their effectiveness). It’s an observation about what happens when people feel exploited and forgotten.  In some ways, it touches directly on the theme that I had promised to explore.  It’s an observation about fear and powerlessness and the behaviors which seem to accompany these conditions.

It’s the behaviors that accompany fear and powerlessness that I want to explore.

Let’s move this back to school and our continued resistance to calls for change.  Will Richardson (what’s a blog post from me without at least one reference to Will?) noted recently in his writing that teachers and educational leaders often express a sense of powerlessness in response to his inquiries about why there remains such a gap between educator beliefs about learning and the practices we see in our schools.

When I was traveling and visiting schools throughout the country I heard the same responses. In interviews with teachers I learned more. Many of those interviewed looked outside of the school for explanations and, frequently to assign blame… blaming the state, the district office, kids these days, social media, etc. They often named those they perceived to be “the enemy”…  state bureaucrats, the principal, the superintendent, the board of education, etc.  But beyond these behaviors were others, less obvious… feelings of exploitation, under appreciation, fear.

And so the origins and lessons of the DC event are not so dissimilar to those we are experiencing in our schools.  When people feel separated, frustrated, isolated, exploited, under appreciated they lose hope in traditional institutions.  These are not conditions in which innovation, creativity, and commitment thrive.

How often have you heard conversations in which the sense of separation and the accompanying sense of powerless are used to justify a refusal to see what’s in front of us or to remember that it’s our responsibility as educators to find and create the space so those around us can feel the sense of safety that comes from connectedness rather than separation? How often have we blamed the state’s bureaucrats for mandated testing issues while continuing to use grading practices that stifle student initiative, learning or creativity?  How often have we blamed declining engagement levels on our students or ignored the messages students are sending by woeful attendance patterns? How often have we created cultures in which separation and isolation are more pervasive than collaboration or the development or nurturing of caring, supportive relationships.  What have we done intentionally to create spaces where thoughtful reflection and empathy are the rule?

What would happen if…?

  • What would happen if we identified one issue in our schools that might reduce the sense of separation/isolation among teachers, among students?
  • What would happen if we engaged our school community in the development of a response to address the separation/isolation issue we identify?
  • What would happen if we wrote a personal piece to our staff and school community about our beliefs about learning? About how kids learn best?
  • What would happen if we devoted a sacred amount of time each day to improving our relationships with our staff?

Couldn’t we at least try one of these? 

Wrapping it up…

The Modern Learners Community has been engaged in a deep, thoughtful and sometimes emotional exchange of responses to the following prompt, “I’m curious about how you, the people in our Modern Learners Community, react and respond to the recent Convington Catholic event or others like it?  I’m also curious to know what you might need to build your capacity as it relates to leading your communities through these discussions.”

— Melissa Emler, Team Member – Modern Learners Community

I’d like to end this piece with a response from one of the participants in the Modern Learners Community

…It also made me think about this course, and clarify more what I value the most…and what I believe the world needs desperately right now…and they are all qualities of the heart: people who can compassionately listen, non-violently communicate, play, create, feel empathy, develop emotional intelligence, reflect deeply, love themselves and each other.

Susannah Azzaro, Modern Learners Community

Thank you. Be well.

A Time to Choose

Ace Ladder Aug 14 - 2

FarSide Gallery – Gary Larson

Note:  I want to thank Will Richardson for inspiring this essay. He introduced a recent blog post, “2019 – A Time to Choose” with a challenging question:

“What are you going to do to change the experience your students have in school to reflect more compellingly what you believe is the right thing to be doing for kids and learning?”

Will’s piece is, indeed, challenging and, as usual, is a great read.  But I believe that, at this time in our history, we are called to ask Will’s question on a deeper, broader level – i.e., what are we doing to reflect compellingly what we believe is the right thing? 

Since the beginning of this blog a couple of years ago I’ve written a lot about leadership.  I began believing pretty firmly and comfortably that leadership could be defined as the capacity to build followership. As a result of several soul-grabbing experiences during the past six months I’m going to expand on that notion

If you’ve been following my reflections you know that I believe strongly in what Simon Senek  calls ”Circles of Safety”– places where people feel safe to express thoughts, challenge long-held truths, and take the risks involved in change. Senek suggests that these circles of safety are built on deep and caring relationships. They’re built on trust.

Putting my faith in the possibility that your continued connection to my reflection is based on that notion of trust, I’m going to test it. I’m going to test it on several levels.

I use Medium as a curating site to find writing that interests and engages me. Each piece published in Medium contains a brief description as well as an approximate reading time. So borrowing from both of Mediums approaches, here’s a brief description, “How the age of separation has threatened (and continues to threaten) the future of our kids and our country.”  And now the real test of trust… this essay and related tasks are going to consume at least 30 minutes of your time (and probably at least one or two adult beverages).

First, as context, I’m going to ask you to view a video clip prior to considering continuing with this essay (think blended learning).  I’m going to continue with a departure from my narrow focus on education. I’m going to share some observations that have found a voice as a result of the learning experiences I mentioned above. They’re impacting me deeply. They extend well beyond the field of education but on some levels they cannot be separated from it. I’ll leave it to you to decide the value of my observations and the connections you might see. I encourage you to share your reaction.

The clip is one I’ve referenced previously. It is the commencement address by the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education given by Dr. James Ryan in 2016.  In it, he suggests 5 powerful questions that graduates should incorporate into their lives. Even if you’ve viewed it previously, I urge you to invest another 21 minutes to see what stays with you this time.

Welcome back… I hope.

In his writing, Charles Eisenstein describes what he calls the “Age of Separation”.  He describes it as a time in which we are increasingly separate from one another, a time in which we have become increasingly separate from our institutions, a time when we have become increasingly separate from our own planet.  Can you identify examples of each of these?

In addition to his description of our time, Eisenstein also describes us as living in a time of “interbeing”… a time when we are “being” between stories… a time when the stories with which many of us grew up are no longer valid… a time when the promise of the American Dream seems false and out of reach for an increasing number of people.  Umair Haque describes our time as one of increasing exploitation. In his detailed descriptions of a rich country in which increasing numbers of people are only one pay check away from serious financial trouble (government shut down stories, anyone?), in which people have to go online to beg for money to deal with health issues for which they are uninsured (or insufficiently insured), in which the producers of goods/workers have wages which have been stagnant for decades while wealth continues to grow at staggering levels for the richest among us, Haque substitutes the word “exploitation for Eisenstein’s “separation”.

I make the following connections.  It is not hard to extend the notion of separation to schools and schooling.  A friend once described schools as 30 classrooms connected by a common parking lot.  In my visits to schools throughput the country over the past 15 years, I have seen school after school in which separation dominates… kids separate from teachers, teachers separation from leadership, kids separate from one another. In many of these schools, teachers in adjacent classroom have no idea what is happening next door. Teachers work in isolation with little or no understanding, commitment, acceptance (pick your noun) of a common direction, vision, purpose (with the possible common commitment to have their kids achieve arbitrarily determined cut-scores on state assessments).

Haque, using a different measure (exploitation), has no trouble finding examples.  He suggests that, as a country we have progressed from the wealthy exploiting human resources (during the era of slavery and pre-union factory work) to the exploitation of natural resources (industrial pollution, strip mining, unregulated fisheries) to the final phase, the exploitation of one another.  Using education as an example, I don’t have to look too hard to see examples of student exploitation (sale of personal data, treatment of students and schools as “profit centers”, growth of charter management companies, so-called “portfolio” policies that see “free market” alternatives to public schools as valid approaches to “improvement”).

In accepting and, often, encouraging separation (Google “rugged individualism”) we have minimized the value of commonly held beliefs (my beliefs are just as good as your beliefs regardless of their basis in reality). We have, in an age of separation and exploitation, determined human value by the level of acquisition and, conversely, have limited the value of others based on the same criteria.

Perhaps words like separation or exploitation seem too harsh.  I want to raise the issue that regardless of which words we choose, there is a high likelihood that we, as a country with all of our institutions, have drifted off course – have lost sight of true north.  How far off course we have drifted may require more exploration; however, off course remains off course.  Are we separate from one another?  Does that separation seem to be accelerating?  Do we see examples of exploitation, not only of adults but also of children? If so, what do we do?

And so the reason for the Ryan clip.  What do we do?  We act as leaders.  We ask questions? Here’s a quick review of Dr. Ryan’s 5 questions:

  • Wait …What?– (asking a clarifying question) – understand an issue before advocating for it – at root of all understanding
  • I wonder (why/if)– at the heart of all curiosity
  • Couldn’t we at least?—getting past disagreements – beginning of all progress
  • How can I help?– relationship builder and alternative to “savior complex” – how we help matters as much as that we helped – at the base of all good relationships
  • What truly matters?– gets you to the heart of life

I mentioned at the beginning of this essay that I had modified my definition of leadership.  Part of the reason for that modification was the attempt to answer the questions that I’m raising here.  My revised thinking doesn’t alter the notion of developing followership.  What it does do is add another piece.  It is this… leaders create space where change can occur.  They build,  and build on, trust.  They build on the circles of safety they created.  They create spaces where separation doesn’t thrive.

If the direction of this essay strikes a responsive chord, how can you create spaces where separation and the effects of isolation are discussed and actions to eliminate them are valued and intentional?  As a start why not discuss this essay with one colleague? Maybe several. Why not take each of Ryan’s questions and develop a personal response?

Coming soon … Creating space in a time of fear… in the face of powerlessness.

We’ve Met the Enemy and He is All of Us (Take 2) – Why All Ed Reform Fails

This is a post about leadership.  Not the mechanics of leadership but the need for leadership… real leadership.  Not the kind of leadership that marshals support for doing the wrong things better. No, the kind of leadership that has the courage to confront the need for doing the right thing.  We are not doing  the right thing with education and we haven’t been for a while now.  We been doing the wrong thing and we’ve been allowing the wrong people to tell what to do.

I’m going to share a picture. My picture is not optimistic.  You can decide whether or not that picture matches your own sense of our future.  My picture is one where our system of public education is under assault and where it is  not responding well to the challenges facing it. My picture is about our continued backwards march into the future.  It’s a picture summed up by Danny DiVito’s character in the film “Other People’s Money “.  DiVito is speaking to his audience of disgruntled employees whose factory, unresponsive to changing markets, is about to be taken over by a larger company. They are proud of what they produce but startled into silence when he tells them, “I’ll bet the last manufacturer of buggy whips made their best damn buggy whip on the day they closed.”

My post is about leadership because we are faced with the buggy whip dilemma. We have remained unresponsive to market needs and conditions.

That’s no surprise. Who knew we were supposed to?  We can’t be blamed for not responding to something we didn’t know we were supposed to respond to.  But we know it now.  And we continue to act as if we don’t.  More important than market needs and conditions, we remain deaf to the messages being sent to us by the consumers of our work… the kids. We remain deaf to the declining engagement levels of our kids in schools… a decline which has less than 50% of our kids reporting that they are disengaged in school by 11thgrade.  We remain deaf to record levels of reported stress, anxiety, depression and teen suicides.  Sure we may read about such statistics and express our concern about the impact of “screen time”, the negative effects of technology, and the almost unbelievable levels of school violence.  But rarely do we look at “our own house” to see what school practices, policies, procedures, etc. might be significant contributors to these trends.

We continue to prepare our students according to a story which is dying, if not already dead.  What story is dead?  It’s the story of the American Dream that deals with education. There are stories of other aspects of the Dream that many would also consider dead but I’ll leave those stories to other chroniclers of our history.

Context for A Dying Story –

Most of us have grown up within a story that shared with us a life plan which included the following admonitions:

  • Go to school
  • Work hard
  • Get good grades
  • Do well on the SAT/ACT’s
  • Get into a good college
  • Graduate
  • Get a good job
  • Be secure for life

If this story is still accurate why is it that the largest job growth segment in our society is now the so-called “gig-economy” – the economy based on the growth of independent contract workers – workers, moving on demand,  from “gig” to “gig”? Workers without pension.  Workers without job security. Workers whose productivity has grown while their wages have remained stagnant. Workers, if college grads, with significant piles of student debt.

A  recent study  completed by LinkedIn  (U.S. Emerging Job Report… Forbes, December 13, 2018) lists “The Top Five In-Demand Skills” (Biggest Skills Gap).  The report listed:

  1. Oral Communications
  2. People Management
  3. Social Media
  4. Development Tools
  5. Business Management

Are we seeing many learning experiences for kids in our public school system intentionally designed to grow these skills?  No, you say… but some of these are college level skills. Well, here’s some additional context about college.

It comes via another story which also appeared today, also in Forbes, which asks the question, “Will Half Of All Colleges Really Close In The Next Decade?”. The author of the quote is Clayton Christiensen, best-known for his work in disruptive innovation.  In an earlier, more measured description of the situation, Christiensen suggested that there are a host of colleges and universities that are struggling financially.  Of these the bottom 25% will disappear or merge with in the next 10-15 years (article written 5 years ago).

And here’s how we’ve responded.  Take a couple of minutes and look at the two clips I’ve included here.  The first parallels the findings reported in a recent Gallup survey which looked at the engagement of levels of students as they moved through school.  The engagement levels dropped from roughly 80% in grade 3 to about 40% in grade 11.  Those of us working in schools or who have children in schools don’t need to see these numbers to know he drop off is significant.  I’ve heard lots of explanations about this phenomenon, “Kids just don’t seem to care.” or ”They’re not interested in learning.” or  “They just want to play on the Smart Phones.”  or “Kids just aren’t as responsible any more.” or  “Our absentee rate is a real problem.”  or “It’s the damned state tests. School’s no fun for them anymore.”

What I haven’t heard much of is “I wonder what we’re doing to promote this loss of engagement.”  or “What adult behaviors discourage curiosity?” or…

Take a look at “The Power of Questions” 

This next clip is entitled “I Just Sued The School System”. It’s a bit (!) more hyperbolic.  It’s produced by Ted Dintersmith, author of What School Could Be. Hyperbole aside, can you find some truths? While I’m not a great fan of Dintersmith’s solutions, it’s hard to argue with what he saw as he visited 200 schools in 50 states, observing instruction, interviewing kids and educators. This clip dramatizes his findings.

Here is a comment offered by a teacher in response to seeing the clip.

Comment from “I Just Sued the School System!!!”

My 5th grade teacher and I had a debate on the school system and he said “I have my opinion but I’ll be more then happy of you could change my mind”, I then ask to used YouTube for a video and he said yes, so I turned on the smartboard, hooked up the computer, and played this video. By the end of it he was in tears and said ” Well then congratulations Kiley, you’ve changed my mind, maybe one day you’ll change the system yourself”, he was my favorite teacher, still is.

Unspoken in the comment shared above, is the message, “Maybe one day you’ll change the system yourself.” (italics mine).  The implication is clear… Maybe you’ll change the system. I can’t. I can’t try. I won’t. I won’t try.

This is where leadership fits…

This is a critical moment in a series of critical moments.  Some have described the events of the past 18-24 months as a battle for the soul of our nation. While not every one might agree with that assessment, it’s hard not to recognize these times as different than anything most of us have experienced.

But what if there is another battle going on?  And what if that battle touches each of us who has committed to working as educators.  It’s a battle for the soul of our kids. And what if, consistent with our history of identifying problems inaccurately, we have identified the problem as which schools our kids can/should attend (charters, academies, “regular” public schools), which schools we should fund (public, private, charters, on-line) and how should we fund schools (vouchers, educational savings accounts, local taxation)? What if these are good questions if the issue were actuallywhich schools should our kids attend? What if the real question is not whichschool but whyschool? What if the real question to be addressed is what is the purpose of education today in 2019? Is it the same as it was when schools were originally configured and curricula were original organized (1890’s)?

And so leadership…

What if leadership can no longer be focused on “school” leadership? What if leadership is about creating emotionally safe places where we and our teacher colleagues can explore the differences between schooling and learning? What if leadership is exploring for ourselves the extent to which the story of school and schooling is no longer valid? What if leadership is challenging our fellow educators, members of our school communities, members of the boards of education to explore the possibility that the old story of school is dead? What if leadership is helping people unlearn their old story beliefs about schools and schooling – that learning that matters takes place in a school, that school is defined as a building, that that adults impart knowledge to students?

What? But wait!  Am I saying that leadership means that we have to explore with teachers that their role (the role they grew up experiencing as students and the role they have tried to perfect as educators) has to change and may require a very different set of skills? That we have to align the experiences that our kids have with a new purpose… a purpose beyond preparation for testing hurdles and credit accumulation? A purpose that is no longer the mastery of content defined over a century ago?   A purpose that doesn’t designate schools as the only place where meaningful learning can take place?

This is a time for New Year’s Resolutions.  Thinking of my teaching or my district, I always found these relatively meaningless in January.  I made my new year’s resolutions in the summer in preparation for beginning my new year.  But what if we used the time right now to make one resolution about creating a safe space for kids and teachers in our classroom, school, or district to take risks about learning? What is we used the time right now to explore what policies, practices, procedures we have that might contribute to student stress, anxiety, and depression? What if you filled in the blank with the commitment to explore the conflict between what you believe about student learning and the practices in your classroom, school, or district?

Maybe you could complete the following, “Couldn’t I at least….?

 

Finding What Matters… time to check for true north

compassI have a lot to say. You wouldn’t know it from the time between posts, but I do.  I even made a list and discussed with a good friend which one I should post first.  But still I postponed it.  I’m not usually a procrastinator. There were just too many ideas that, although related, didn’t seem to share a common focus.  If the jumble of ideas left me confused, it was unlikely that readers would be able to sense any unifying elements.

And then I encountered a timely essay, penned by Jon Kabat-Zinn entitled “The Total Incompatibility of Mindfulness and Busyness”. One of his highlighted quotes spoke directly to me.

When we set things up to make any balance in our lives a virtual impossibility, we are evincing disloyalty to what we value most.

On the same day I received a notice from the Modern Learners Team asking us to react to op ed written by Peter DeWitt that appeared recently in EdWeek. In his piece DeWitt suggested “12 Areas School Leaders Should Focus On in 2019”.  Only 12? Talk about the impossibility of finding balance!

I smiled a bit at my contrasting images.  On the one hand, there was Peter DeWitt juggling 12 balls, each labeled with a different area demanding his attention.  On the other, there was the image of Jon sitting cross-legged in a serene yoga pose engaged in the practice of quiet mindfulness.  In my imagination, I was right there with Peter juggling a list of 12 competing themes for my next blog piece, looking longingly at Jon peacefully reflecting on ways he could simplify his life and reject self-imposed busyness.

And then came Oprah to the rescue.  Yup, Oprah.

Actually Oprah didn’t make a personal appearance, rather she showed up at the request of my wife’s suggestion (!) that I read the transcript of Oprah’s interview with Michelle Obama. The interview was scheduled to help promote the release of the First Lady’s memoir, Becoming.

Oprah had me at the first question, Why Becoming?. Michelle had me with her answer…

A question that adults ask kids – I think it’s the worst question in the world – is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As if growing up is finite. As if you become something and that’s all there is.

I realized that all of the items on my topic list dealt in some way with becoming… becoming who we want to be, becoming what our schools might be, becoming what learning is all about, helping our kids become more than a test score, and helping our kids learn how to be in the world they are experiencing.

If you’re reading this and working in schools, regardless of position you can identify with the image of juggling too many balls.  These balls may be in the form of new or revised standards, new safety/security protocols, new professional evaluation systems, new or increasing focus on “personalized Learning”, new graduation requirements, etc. Hardly a climate suited to peaceful reflection and cross legged yoga positions.  And, by the way, it’s no different for kids.

You might recall my previous reference to a film entitled Eighth Grade.  In that film the young girl who is the focus of the film discusses that each day she is faced with deciding who to be. Who to be with her friends during school? After school? Who to be with her dad while she rides with him in the car? Who to be on social media?  She goes to bed late. Gets up early. Decides what to wear.  Wonders if she’ll see her friends? If they’ll still be her friends? She goes to soccer, participates in drama, has part-time job.  12 balls in the air seems like a piece of cake.

How do we escape the seemingly endless demand to juggle too many “have to’s” or “shoulds”? Years ago, I happened on a book edited by Art Costa, James A. Bellanca, Robin Fogarty. It was entitled, If Minds Matterand posed the question, “If minds really mattered, would school look like it does?”  Would we group kids by age? Would they all have to read by the end of third grade? Would we still focus so much on compliance and efficiency? Would we continue to organize high school content according to the thinking of the Committee of Ten in 1892? (Yes, we still do.) Would we continue to place most of our emphasis on learning that occurs within the walls of a school building?

So, as adults, let’s forget the 12 balls for a bit. Let’s forget the constant introduction of new initiatives, the pressure imposed primarily by the focus on the needs of adults.  Let’s just answer one question?  What matters?  What matters to you? How do we help kids learn/decide what matters?

What would happen if we created space where answering this question was the thing that mattered? For us? For kids?  What would the design of learning look like if it were based solely on the answer to ‘what matters’?  What would your answer to this question be?  What if Aldrich is right and the only thing that matters for our kids is that they learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be? What if you took 15 minutes or so and just wrote down what matters to you as an educator? What if you then looked at what you (or your school) is doing to make your “what matters” a reality?

The Things They Carried

Things They Carried Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 9.29.37 AM

I was talking to a friend recently about the process of change in schools and all of the factors that seem lined up to protect the status quo.  In reflecting on the conversation, I was reminded of one of my favorite books from long ago, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In his book, O’Brien sought to make a point about the terrible costs of war. Using the Vietnamese War as his backdrop, he tells the story about the things that he and his fellow soldiers carried with them. These were not just physical things. Those were small things, easy to carry. Not so easy to carry were the emotional things, things that weren’t so easy to discard.

I begin each piece I write with a hope.  In this case, my hope is that the story I’ll share will open us to the possibility that it’s not the physical things like favored room assignments, favorite lesson plans, predictable schedules that make change in schools so hard. Sure adapting to these is not easy. But often it’s the emotional burdens that challenge us more.  I started to think about the sources of such emotional baggage. Some were obvious but I also recalled something that was equally important, precisely because it represented any number of things that affect our willingness to take risks and accept challenges. It was something that I recalled from my time as superintendent. Since I’ve been preoccupied recently with the concept of stories, I’m going to share one with you to illustrate my observation.

This will be a two chapter story.  Don’t leave yet. They’ll be short chapters, filled with drama, suspense and a happy ending. OK, enough suspense, it’s about contract negotiations. Still here?

Why in God’s name would I share a story about contract negotiations?  Because while almost all contract negotiations end in an agreement, they invariably leave us with emotional scars… things that Tim O’Brien calls emotional burdens.  Things we carry with us and that affect our openness to change.  Here we go…

Setting the Stage – Chapter 1

In case it’s been a while since you’ve been involved in the process, here’s a quick synopsis of how most negotiations proceedings work. There are two sides. Each prepares a list of “gets” or “won’t give’s” and the fun starts.  Most states that have legislation permitting collective bargaining stipulate that areas for negotiations are limited to “terms and conditions of employment”. These typically focus on work hours, compensation (in the form of salary and health benefits), and responsibilities. These topics are not surprising as most model contracts for “labor” came directly from the experiences of organized labor unions.  Remaining true to the tradition, boards of education are described as management, setting the stage for repeating the adversarial process which had characterized the relationships in the labor movement.

Enter stage left… the writing and thinking of Dan Pink who has achieved international acclaim for his work on motivation. In case you’ve missed it, here’s a link to the animated version  of Pink’s viral TED Talk.

Pink’s extensive research revealed that there are very different motivational factors at work depending on the type of work you do.  If you’re engaged in assembly line /production work, monetary incentives can improve performance. But in “thinking” kind of work, financial incentives actually reduce both performance and engagement.  Here’s what Pink’s research revealed. What matters most to workers in “thinking” jobs? Three things: clarity of purpose, autonomy (freedom to focus on what works), and the chance to get better at what you do.

While many of the architects of the “school reform” movement might think of teaching as production/assembly line work (explaining their love affair with performance incentives and punishments), most of can make a pretty convincing case for teaching as “thinking work”. So let’s circle back to the contract negotiations process and its impact on embracing change.

Here’s where the story gets personal – Chapter 2

From my very first teaching job, I’ve been involved in contract negotiations.  I have served as an organizer of the first “association” at a private high school for boys, the president and chief negotiator for the teachers’ (and later supervisors’) association and the chief negotiator for the board of education while I was a superintendent. What I’m going to describe comes both from what I experienced and what I’ve observed.

For the record, the process used and promoted by both the state teachers’ organizations and the organization representing boards of education is referred to as “positional” bargaining.  As I described briefly earlier, each side identifies positions of importance and proceeds to attempt to persuade the opposing side of the wisdom and fairness of their position, while simultaneously offering reasons why the positions of the “opponent” are unreasonable, unfair, unwise, etc.

Not infrequently the words used to “win” arguments are strong, often insulting, and grow in intensity as they are reported to those not directly involved in the process. In my own case and prior to my arrival as superintendent, negotiations in the district had resulted in protracted, contentious discussions, teacher pickets and demonstrations, as well as vilification of each side within the community.

This was not the time for a new superintendent to ask people to “go the extra mile” in support of program changes.  A culture that I had witnessed any number of times while negotiating as a teacher now had new meaning for me.  All parties in the process were “carrying things in their pocket”.  Kid performance stagnated, budgets failed.  It was not the time to suggest change.

Neither side liked the picture painted of them by the community.  It had become clear that using the same approach guaranteed a future that “didn’t work”. Some research revealed that there was an alternative to the positional bargaining that had resulted in this culture of separation and alienation.  It was a new concept in collective bargaining known at the time as win/win bargaining, more commonly referred to now as “interest-based” or “integrated” bargaining.   It was a process which relied on the identification of common interests and the ways in which these could be advanced via collaboration rather than argumentation. It worked. (At the end of this piece I’ll list some of the areas that were included in the contract for the first time in the district and, in one instance for the first time in the state.)  It worked because the process was designed from the outset not to focus on winning but on the identification of interests and the transparent efforts to acknowledge and find commonality within them.  This was accomplished by organizing the meetings as collaborative working sessions, by acknowledging the identified interests, by focusing on the commonality found in these interests, by working in teams comprised of folks from each “side” to find solutions which honored these interests, and by having the teams present their “solution” to the entire group for approval or revision.

The big idea…

This process and this story extend far beyond the impact of the periodic need to negotiate. They extend to the recognition and elimination of the policies, practices, and procedures which cause separation, alienation, and emotional burdens both for our colleagues and for our students – i.e., they extend to the creation of processes that aim for, and result in, connectedness rather than separation.  This process and others like it provide a direction for how honest efforts to recognize, identify and respond to the emotional burdens we inadvertently create can reverse the fear of change and increase the engagement in the change process.   In the event that anyone involved in this process is reading this blog, thank you for the courage that allowed us to acknowledge the collective hurt we carried with us and for the trust that enabled us to move beyond it.

 Addendum – Agreement high pointsWhile the items listed here reflect the context at the time this process occurred, the process and impact on culture remain timeless.

Summary of Interests:  interests identified and defined in the initial phase of the process – completed in large group setting with facilitator assistance.

Board of Education Interests

  • Change from the image of being the “bad guys”
  • Commit to and be recognized for attempts to be good stewards of the community’s tax dollars
  • Improve student academic performance
  • Improve the quality of teaching/instruction
  • Deal more effectively with poor performing teachers

Teachers’ Association Interests

  • Be recognized for their efforts
  • Receive and maintain compensation that is commensurate with similarly structured districts
  • Improve student academic performance
  • Create a more positive public perception of the district
  • Move away from the district’s history of implementing short term “fixes” to problems associated with poor student performance

 Contractual Agreements – Highlights of the main points included in the multi-year agreement forged via the Interest-based process.

 Revised teacher evaluation and support system

Teacher support systems based on need – i.e., more extensive support for new teachers (years 1-3 and beyond if warranted) including more frequent observations, peer observations; targeted support and support plans for teachers identified as in need of support with this designation resulting from self-identification, administrative identification, parental identification; less frequent observations for teachers recognized as “expert” (with mutually developed definition) as a means of gaining time to provide additional support for new teachers.  Teachers identified as needing support were to be assigned a support team consisting of building administrator, an “expert” teacher of the teacher’s choosing, an association representative, and expert teacher of the superintendent’s choosing (optional)…included was the development of a support plan and responses based on progress toward meeting the goals of the plan.  During the life of this agreement teachers assigned to this support response achieved the plan goals with one exception… based on mutual agreement that teacher left the district.

Teacher run professional development academy

Startup fund provided to begin the academy. Teachers selected by peers subject to superintendent’s input (but not approval). Course offered for credit would be eligible for movement on salary guide but not transferrable to other districts. Instructors selected from teaching staff and/or outside resources. Instructor to receive credits on salary guide in lieu of payment.  Outside instructors paid through tuition charges.

Performance based compensation plan beyond the base salary agreement

Performance target area determined jointly by board of education, administrative team and teacher workgroup.  Plan included the development of performance goals, professional support required, and use of locally developed performance assessments.  Award of performance bonus based in grade level growth from initial baseline assessment (Sept) to third administration (May). Initial target areas was math and included targeted professional development designed to improve math instruction and student performance.