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

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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.

Reimagining, not reforming. Are we saddened and embarrassed enough to do something?

Pittsburgh Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 11.15.30 AMCNN bomb Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 11.20.47 AM

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The recent events in our nation have occupied most of my intellectual and emotional energy. Mired in attempts to find sense in the senseless, I simply had nothing that seemed worth sharing.  Added to this, I felt constrained by advice I frequently heard a kid as (and apparently internalized)… “Never talk about religion or politics” if you want maintain relationships.

Watching our national “dialog” spiral downwards, I began to recognize that as really bad advice. I began to realize that it is precisely our inability to discuss such emotion-laden topics from a perspective of understanding rather than one of winning that is causal in our current disconnected and increasingly tribal response to “the other”.  And perhaps more importantly, it is precisely we as educators who have the opportunity to turn this around.  Certainly not by ourselves and certainly not overnight, but we have the opportunity.  I believe we also have the responsibility.

But I was struggling to express this. And then I received a posting of a piece piece on the Modern Learners site entitled “Designing for Learning” that broke the logjam.  It’s a fascinating piece about the implications of design thinking and references an even more fascinating video clip about schooling.  I urge you to read the post and to take time to view the clip.  I’ll buy you a beer if you think it was a waste of your time.

Design Thinking… What Is It?

The concept of Design Thinking has achieved educational jargon status.  Google reports that a search on the term “design thinking” yielded about 1,350,000,000 results.  Here’s a definition from Interaction Design. Interaction-Design 

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.

What stands out to you in this definition? For me, key terms here are seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and alternative strategies.  Hence, in exploring the notion of ‘designing for learning’, key pieces would be

  • understanding the learner,
  • challenging assumptions about schooling and learning, and
  • exploring alternative strategiesfor where and how learning can occur.

So what would this look like? 

First of all, it would look different. I want to tackle just a couple of differences here.They’re big and scary.

As I have shared here in previous posts and as is reported in numerous studies, the design of our schools and the schooling process is inconsistent with what we know about user learning.  In Will’s post, he notes

If we were really intent on improving learning inside the school walls, we would pay a lot more attention to how learning happens outside the school walls in the natural world and then build our practice based on that. So, at the risk of being repetitive, we know that outside of school kids learn with other kids and adults of all different ages. We know that they don’t learn in 45-minute chunks. We know that learning occurs without any contrived tests.

But what would happen if we didn’t think of schools as the point of delivery for learning?  Why, when we consider looking at how kids (and adults) learn in the world outside of school, would we not feel the need to change schools to reflect this?  Why wouldn’t we re-design schools into places where “real world” learning could be coordinated rather than delivered?  Why wouldn’t we promote the conversion of schools to centers for community learning?… places where learning could be supported, not controlled… places where resources for learning, both human and material, could be housed to supplement those found outside/beyond the walls of the school?

I know all of the practical, adult centered, logistical reasons why this can’t happen (OMG, what about the child care, custodial function, what would I do with 50 “You Tubers”? What if they didn’t want to learn Algebra?, etc. ). I see such thinking as simply an extension of a system that supports chunking learning into 45 minutes segments for the sake of efficiency and adult convenience.

Just as the Industrial Revolution spawned the creation of schools (and schooling as we have experienced it), is it not possible for the Technological Revolution to redefine that model to reflect not only the availability of learning resources and learning experiences, but also the places in which learning can take place and be recognized?

We have the beginnings of such user-designed places in urban community schools… places where the intellectual, social-emotional, and health needs of the learners can be coordinated and extended. Why not elsewhere?  If we are going to “design for learning” why would we continue to use an industrial model for the spaces and ways in which learning can take place?

And speaking of learning… Learn what?

Will continues his piece with the question about what our kids should learn, “What Do We Want Our Children to Be?”  What would happen if we asked the question “HOW would we like our kids to be?” instead of “WHAT would we like them to be?” I suspect that, from the extended description in the piece, the intent may well have been to mean “how” while using the term “what”; however, I think that precision in language is critical to help us avoid multiple definitions and multiple directions/solutions.

Remember back at the beginning I shared that one of the lessons learned in our previous story was to avoid topics of politics and religion.  This advice was based on experiences where such discussions went poorly.  So avoiding them became to be the favored response.  But there was and is another response… a response that forges connections rather than separation.

It’s empathy.

Empathy is the path beyond separation and is directly related to my reasoning for suggesting a focus on how we want our kids to be, rather than what they should be.  Does anyone else notice that we, uniquely, among rich, industrialized countries, have embraced a language of violence?  We fight “wars” on drugs, “wars” on illiteracy, “wars” on poverty and tragically ironically, “wars” on violence.  We define money raised by politicians for their campaign a “war chest”. We see such words as “American” as proud, strong, powerful and words such as “empathy” as soft, weak, and, in a patriarchal society, an even worse adjective… “feminine”.

It appears that suggesting how they should be as empathetic is seen by many as a rejection of the American story of competition, toughness, and hard work. There is a growing sense that this story should be rejected.  The acceptance of that story has created a culture of needing more, and needing more too frequently comes at the expense of others.  It creates and reinforces a sense of scarcity… a sense that whatever someone else gets is reducing what’s available for me. It results is sum-zero thinking.  I must win.  A natural consequence of winners is the reciprocal, losers. We have become a win-lose culture, not only in the acquisition of material wealth but also in the course discussion.  Prized are the winners, losers not so much.

We cannot continue to avoid the topics which divide us.  We cannot continue to “discuss” such issues while focusing more on winning the “debate” than on understanding what it is like to be the other person and how being that person has led them to conclusions/beliefs that differ from our own.

How does this change?  It changes with us as educators, as school leaders, as teachers, as members of our education community.  It changes with parents.  It changes with a generation of young people we are charged with preparing for what appears to be an increasingly precarious time. It changes by helping our kids encounter the world around them as it really exists, not as it exists inside the walls of a school building, not as it exists in programs that were designed for another time and a very different set of needs, not in programs designed by large publishing houses seeking their share of a lucrative education market place.  It changes with creating the habit of civil, empathetic discourse and discussion.  It continues with the creation and nurturing of a culture that rejects violence as the response to differences in thinking. It changes with the rejection of demonizing and vilifying those whose skin color or beliefs differ from our own.  It begins with a discussion that illuminates how empathy can be intentionally nurtured and developed in young people as a part of learning how to be. It doesn’t change by doing more of the same.

As always, be well.

The Space Between Stories

Ace Ladder Aug 14 - 2

Gary Larson – Far Side Gallery 1984

Hi all,

Note: This began as a note to the folks at Modern Learners explaining my lack of presence on our video calls during the past several weeks. It grew! It became a reflection of some big picture issues that I’ve connected to some fascinating experiences I’ve been able to enjoy during the past two month. I’ve included the first paragraph in this piece because I’ll still be sharing it with them.

I wanted to check in and affirm that I haven’t dropped out of the group. Over the course of the past several months, I’ve had the good fortune to be engaged in a number of thought provoking events, not the least of which has been my interactions with the Modern Learners Community. In addition to ongoing reflections connected with the readings, conversations and exchanges that you have made available, the universe appears to have offered me a number of additional challenging and thought provoking experiences.

The first of these was a weekend “gathering” of approximately 200 people who came together to spend time with Charles Eisenstein whose writings and reflection struck a very responsive chord in me. His descriptions of the death of an old story and of our current time as an “Age of Separation” have become a kind of introduction to a body of thinking that has been poking at the edges of my mind for some time.

Charles speaks of the interconnectedness of things and our need for the recognition of this reality. His description of our age as a time of separation from individuals, separation from our institutions, and separation from our planet gave voice to concerns that simmered within me without a name or framework. It has also awakened me to see the increasing number of articles which, although sometimes using different vocabulary, seek to call attention to society of increasing fragmentation, tribalism, and isolation.

Charles speaks of the need to consider a different approach to the change process… an approach which moves away from the exhortation to adopt specific changes to the work of creating spaces where change can occur… not specifically the changes that I would “suggest” but those which come from the hearts of those freed by the opportunity. This spoke powerfully to me as I could easily recall a list as long as my arm of change initiatives which someone thought would be good, which were more or less mandated, and which faded quickly when replaced by the next “good” initiative.

But Charles wasn’t done with me. He offered a path to interconnectedness. He offered the path of empathy. The path of asking, in the face of opposition, “What must it be like to be that other person?” What has their life been like/what is their life like that has brought them to resist what I find so right?

He is best known for his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible and for his appearance on Oprah after his publication in 2016 of an essay entitled “The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story”. His most recent work, Climate, A New Story, is now available.

Not too long (less than a month) after my experience with Charles, I ventured once again to the Hudson Valley for another program… this one a retreat facilitated by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his son, Will. This was a 5-day program in Mindfulness entitled, “The Way to Awareness”.  Kabat-Zinn  is widely recognized as a world leader in the development of mindfulness practices. This was a gift from my wife (which I suspected might have been a thinly veiled suggestion about my somewhat intense focus on fixing the nation’s schools). This program, too, had attracted about 200 or so participants who all seemed to have much clearer senses of purpose for attending than I.

When asked to reflect on our/my purpose for attending I reflected on the impact of a little book given to me by my good friend, Tom Welch. The book written by Clark Aldrich is entitled, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About School and Rediscover Education. In it Aldrich posits that there are really only three types of learning that are critical for our children: learning to learn, learning to do, and learning to be. In visiting, assessing and supporting schools throughout the country for more than 10 years I saw that the third “learning” (learning to be) was largely absent or, at best, only unintentionally developed. I realized that part of my rationale for attending was to see whether or not mindfulness had a place as a way of helping our kids learn how “to be”. As I reflected on this during the next meditation session, I realized that I, too, was struggling with how to be…how to be in a world in which elected leaders seem determined to reject all of the values that I had grown up taking for granted.

Perhaps the most lasting impact of the retreat, though, was the realization that here, just like at “the gathering” with Charles Eisenstein, was a group of people searching for a response to the end of a story. Whether it was Charles offering a vision of a world of interconnectedness… interconnectedness with people and the living world around us… or Kabat-Zinn offering a practice of increased awareness of our actions and their impact, there was a powerful sense of “not aloneness”. It is this “not aloneness” that may be the greatest gift of the Modern Learners Community and others whose work seeks to dismantle separateness and offer connectedness as a better way.

Finally, and from deep in left field, I discovered via Medium, Umair Haque. Haque is listed among the world’s foremost keynote speakers, has written extensively for the Harvard Business Review and has authored a number of books. His primary field of focus has been economics, society, and human development. His essays, both current and archived, are published through Eudaimonia and Co.  His book, Betterness, Economics for Humans, suggests that much like education, we are struggling to unlearn a paradigm that no longer serves us.

And here is the intersection. In describing the business paradigm, Haque unintentionally offers a description of the education paradigm that continues to govern (and limit) the possible. He writes:

“So little have the components of this paradigm changed over the decades, that most of us see them not just external fixtures of the landscape, but as the landscape.”

Assume for a moment that Eisenstein’s concepts of ending stories, an age of separation, interconnectedness, empathy, and the creation of space for change are right-headed. That Kabat-Zinn’s connection of mindfulness practices and the power of collective consciousness leads to increasing awareness of our thoughts and motivations. And that Haque’s thinking about moving beyond outdated (and counterproductive) paradigms is right on. How does the intersection of these thoughts from the world beyond the walls of the school impact what we do for kids?

The old story of education is dead. The old formula of work hard, do well in school, get good grades, score high on the SAT’s/ACT’s, get into a good college, graduate and get a good paying job ensuring a secure future may work for the sons and daughters of the wealthy, but for the majority of working class Americans, it’s dead! We are in a time between stories. We are in a time of writing new stories.

Your Turn…

While it may be beyond our pay grade to write new stories for the economy, for health care, for tax reform, etc., it is we as educators, whether we are school leaders or classroom teachers or district administrators, to create the emotional spaces in our buildings, classrooms, and districts where new stories of learning can be written. Taking a page from Jon Kabat-Zinn, how aware are you of your thoughts about creating safe spaces for change, for new stories? Of your own role in creating such spaces?

Be well.

Five Reasons Why NJ Will Once Again Fail to Resolve the Testing Issue


Gary Larson  – Far Side Gallery 4

NOTE:  I recently responded to articles in our local press.  The articles dealt with the seemingly endless debate here in NJ about the use of PARCC as both a graduation hurdle and a tool for teacher evaluation.  As I developed my response, it became increasingly clear that the issue was much larger than ‘to PARCC’ or ‘not to PARCC’. So, while this piece focuses on testing, the reasons that I’ve shared here suggest why, at least in part, we fail to effectively address the entire process of school reform.

Recent articles in New Jersey Spotlight and an editorial in (“On PARCC, Murphy is failing the neediest kids”) continue the discussions concerning the New Jersey administration of the PARCC high stakes assessment for New Jersey children. Once again we are offered the opportunity to reflect on why such discussions inevitably fail to resolve anything of significance.  Make no mistake, however, these, too, will fail to resolve the issues involved in our continued attempts to do the wrong thing better.  Here are five reasons why this will happen.

  1. We don’t know what we believe. Or who to believe.

We live in a time of changing “stories”… a time when many of the stories with which we were raised no longer seem to apply.  In education one of these stories goes something like this… Go to school.  Study hard. Get good grades. Go to college.  Get a good job.  Have a secure future.  Ask a parent of a young college graduate with a $100,000 or more in debt and no job in their field of study if that story is working for them. For an increasing number it is not.  But the story persists.

We are between beliefs in our understanding of school and learning.  We’ve had decades of reform following Sputnik and A Nation At Risk.  The story was that better, more rigorous standards and equally challenging assessments would “solve the problem” of “underachievement”.  But what do we do when our belief in such strategies is shaken by disappointing results, relatively flat academic performance, significant increases in costs, and continued gaps in achievement? Do we revisit our beliefs to see if we’re headed in the right direction? No. We hang on to old beliefs and we get trapped in what Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff call the confusion of trying to do the wrong things right versus doing the right thing.

The path to the right thing begins with learning and

  1. We refuse to learn.

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy

We remain committed to hurling beliefs at one another as if they increase in validity the louder we shout them. There are 50 states that have a mandate to evaluate their students.  There are now 2 that remain committed to the use of PARCC.  Why is that so? How do we discern this?  Not by continuing to provide forums for folks who have refined their talking points more than their listening skills.

How can we grow in McLuhan’s “insight and understanding”?  Maybe those charged with making decisions about the ways in which testing can/should inform and improve student learning might begin to learn more about testing and focus less on winning the testing debate.

For a place to begin this process, Daniel Koretz, a testing proponent and Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at Harvard University offers a highly readable and informative work, The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better..

  1. But we’re more committed to solving proxy problems than to thorough problem analysis.

We, as a society, have grown to expect and demand quick solutions.  We have no patience for the time it takes to analyze a situation thoroughly to find deep/root causes.  We place great value in leaders who propose quick, aggressive solutions.  When such solutions inevitably fail, we focus on the assignment of blame, refusing to revisit the wisdom of the original solution or the accuracy of the original problem definition.

The current iteration of the testing debate will fail because we continue to have no idea or willingness to confront what all previous large scale assessments have revealed to us in large font… such assessments reflect the socio-economic status of the test taker far more accurately than the quality of instruction or the innate ability of the test–takers.  But poverty and racial divides are too big and too inconvenient to deal with.  Better to throw multi-million dollar testing solutions at the wall with little or no understanding of the folly of expecting all kids to reach identified levels of proficiency simply because they have lived the same number of years as their peers.

  1. Because sensible argument cannot compete with good theater.

“There are some stupid mistakes that only very smart people make, and one of them is the notion that a sensible argument seriously presented can compete with a really good piece of theater” — Laurie Penny in Longreads, Sept 2018

A quick review of the research on confirmation bias will reveal what we all know to be true.  We exist primarily in the echo chambers of our beliefs and these beliefs are less susceptible to alteration than we might like to admit. Regardless of our feelings about the direction of the current administration in Washington, it should be clear to most of us at this point that our (to us at least) logical arguments in support or opposition go largely unheard by those who hold the opposite positions.  Over time the talking points get more sophisticated and often better reasoned, all with limited impact.  Theater may not be in the form of high-energy protests or rallies.  Theater may be the convening of yet another group of “experts” or interest group representatives whose qualifications may reflect shared ignorance as much as shared knowledge.

  1. And we don’t want to

Perhaps the most important reason for the predictable failure of attempts to resolve the issue of large-scale assessment, its promises, its shortcomings, and its impact on learning is that the various participants see this as a win/lose contest.  Winning is critical… critical for the support base, critical for the political gain/damage, critical for testing companies, etc.  Interestingly enough, it is also critical for a group that may never have been represented in any such discussions… the students affected by these decisions.

The bottom Line

It is tragically ironic that, in the pursuit of measuring learning, we persist in demonstrating an unwillingness to make our own learning/understanding about testing the cornerstone of our deliberations.   Hurling beliefs at one another makes marketable theater and further demonstrates the doing wrong things right/doing the right thing distinction.

In an essay written in 2016 and posted on the Ackoff Center Weblog, Will Richardson offers a quote from an interview with Russell Ackoff …

“Peter Drucker said ‘There’s a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.’ Doing the right thing is wisdom, and effectiveness. Doing things right is efficiency. The curious thing is the righter you do the wrong thing the wronger you become…Almost every major social problem that confronts us today is a consequence of trying to do the wrong things righter.”

For those involved on either side of the “discussion”, positions have been repeated so frequently that they have become deep-seated beliefs, taking on moral implications.  Conversations continue to focus on adversarial positioning, a type of bargaining strategy that is based on the consequence of winning or losing.  As long as egos continue to be more important than thoughtful problem analysis and mutual acceptance of common interests, there is a predictable (and regrettable) end to this story. It will be a “doubling down” on trying to do the wrong thing better.

What Is the Tipping Point?

red and gray seesaw in the playground

Photo by Mike Anderson on

This piece started out as a continuation of an exchange between members of the Modern Learners Community in response to a video clip, “What Is School For?” It’s gone viral and is really worth the look.

As the piece evolved I decided that it went beyond the topic of the thread and decided it might be better to share it here.

Spoiler alert: This is not my usual thoughtful and somewhat measured reflection.  This one is rooted in emotion.  Emotion that stems from our inability to move beyond what we have all learned in and about school.  I was tempted to substitute “unwillingness” for “inability”. But in my career as a teacher, administrator, state department mucky-muck, and consultant, I’ve met too many folks who care deeply about kids to be that casual about the use of language.  But be warned right now. Before the end of this piece I will seriously challenge that caring.

Here’s the exchange that inspired my decision to write this.  It begins mid-thread with my response to a question/comment about change in schools and the video clip linked above. It continues with a response by Bruce Dixon, one of the founders of Modern Learners and a life-long educator who lives in Australia.

Rich…Am I correct in thinking that large scale change in existing schools has occurred largely as a result of the need to implement state mandated (or heavily subsidized) direction/regulations? Pessimist that I am, I see no large scale adoption of Modern Learner principles without significant external pressure.

Bruce…Your last question raises many others Rich. I fear your observation is correct, so maybe the problem isn’t that the majority of educators don’t know that change is needed, but rather do not know, or will not face up to the fact that tweaking is not the answer?

Rich…Bruce, I’m thinking of a variation of your observation.   I think your response touches on something very important.

And so on to the blog…

Educators have had an extensive and highly effective indoctrination/apprenticeship program – at least 16 years of schooling before entering the profession and then x years of reinforcing experience within the system.  This has been an exceptionally effective way to have people internalize the norms and practices of any system.  So what if, based on their experiences, the majority of educators can no more envision the need for substantive change in the system they know than our great grandparents could see the need for anything more than slightly faster horses? At that time, they certainly couldn’t envision that what was needed was a metal box with four wheels and an internal combustion engine.

Is this example so different from teachers and school leaders who don’t can’t (my deliberate substitution of a different word) recognize the need for change or can’t accept that tweaking (making small improvements) isn’t the answer?

How did Henry Ford overcome the resistance to the drastic difference between the status quo and a horseless carriage? Moving closer to contemporary times…how did Sony convince so many of us that we needed a Walkman? How did Apple make it hard to conceive of leaving home without our cell phone?

Relating this to making change happen, I‘m thinking it’s about need creation.  An increasing number of the things we “want” are the direct result of very sophisticated process of need creation. Needs and wants are created and sustained via emotional connections. Advertisers understand this all too well. For example, I’m fearful about my deteriorating memory and Prevagen can remove this fear.  Even knowing the manipulation of my fears, it’s tempting to head out to my local pharmacy.  (At least it was until I just read that the FTC has labeled the advertising a hoax.)

I don’t want to beat this to death.  If the need creation concept resonates, I’m sure we could fill a few pages with additional examples. The key question for me is: How can our experience with need creation through advertising inform us in the development of a movement away from our test and punish culture to one which is focused on kids’ needs and their development as healthy, thoughtful and caring creators of a story that moves us beyond our current time of separation and fragmentation?

I believe that “the reform movement” was a response to need creation.  The need was created through an intentional appeal to fear (see introduction to A Nation At Risk) and the connection between student performance and national security (See also federal response to Sputnik and the emphasis on threats to the nation… NDEA and the focus on math, science, and foreign languages).  NCLB, Race to the Top, ESSA, etc. are simply continuations of the fear-based problem definition/problem solution begun after Sputnik.

Much of the attention on moving away from “schooling” is based on a focus on learning. But if teachers labor in a system which measures, values, and evaluates based on content based goals and expectations, why would we be surprised and/or disappointed with their lack of engagement in yet one more change, program, fix, etc., especially one which asks them to reject most, if not all, of what they have experienced and internalized about what happens in schools?

What if the way to build change momentum lies in a need creation that defines the benefit not in terms of what is/isn’t good for kids, but rather in terms of the impact on a nation’s security and economy? But what about the needs of kids? Yeah, what about them?

As a nation we have consistently demonstrated that we care for kids more in the abstract than in the concrete.  How can I state that?  Here’s how.  We have already demonstrated that, rhetoric to the contrary, we really don’t care that much about kids.  We have cities filled with black and brown kids in poverty. We have kids killed in our streets. We have kids killed in schools. We place children in concentration camps when they or their parents are caught trying to seek refuge in our country. We have a dramatic increase in kids in schools presenting symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.If we can continue to allow/tolerate such violence being visited on our children, what’s to give us confidence that changing school because it’s good for kids is a likely future?

We in schools didn’t put those kids in poverty. We in schools didn’t kill any kids in school shootings. We in schools didn’t put any kids in concentration camps separated from their parents. But what else didn’t we do?

We in schools didn’t go on strike to force action on school violence.  We in schools didn’t initiate civil actions to protest kids living lives in poverty in the richest country in the world.  We in schools didn’t refuse to make Algebra or Calculus gatekeepers for high school graduation.  We in schools did not force conversations about why our kids are suffering from record incidences of stress, anxiety and depression.

As I write this and rewrite it multiple times, I realize that what we haven’t done as educators reaches far beyond whether we should focus on teaching or learning. It involves revisiting our commitment to our children. It involves supporting the actions of caring teachers, administrators, policy makers and students to do the right thing.  It involves the creation of physical and emotional spaces where each and every adult and child can feel safe, loved, and empowered to discover and be the person they are meant to be.

I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to work with many caring adults and wonderful young people.  And yet… and yet I realize that I missed so many opportunities to demonstrate that kids matter… so many times I thought of my own or other adult conveniences.  A tipping point for me took place on the boardwalk in Ocean City, NJ at a post-Parkland rally/demonstration where with a small group of friends we gathered along with a few hundred others to support efforts of students to speak about the ravages of the violence they had experienced. As one of the students spoke passionately and eloquently, I was moved to tears.  My wife asked if I was OK.  I nodded and said I had spent much of my life wanting kids to be able to have the confidence and courage to do just what the young lady was doing.  What she said mattered.  She mattered.  In this time of camps and tent cities for separated children, I believe we have to model the confidence, caring and courage to support and inspire our children to rise above such insanity.

Be well.




Kids These Days…

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Microcroft Word Clip Art

A while back I wrote a piece about the work being done by psychologist Dr. David Gleason.  In his book, At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools,Gleason describes the ways in which schooling contributes to the rise in adolescent mental health issues.  The title of Gleason’s book is misleading.  While his own work focused on interviewing students at highly competitive schools, the studies he cites in his work refer to students in middle and high school years, regardless of their school type. Additionally, the pressures associated with performance on high stakes, large scale assessments have dramatically changed the cultures of many “non-competitive” schools for both students and educators.

Gleason’s work builds on studies which indicate that the rate of anxiety, stress, and depression in our young people has risen dramatically since 2010.  For additional detail about this development (many would accurately use the term “crisis”), check out this article which appeared in the NY Times.

Gleason points to what he called “the bind”… the realization by many parents and educators that the old story of “work hard, get good grades, go to a good college, get a good job and enjoy lifetime security” is no longer applicable for many of our young people.  The “bind” occurs when we recognize that we have no consistent advice to share with our children and our students other than the “old story”.  What do we do?  We know that the old story is dead/dying, but there is no similar consensus about a new story… a new path to share with our kids and students.

In the studies cited by Gleason and detailed in the NY Times piece, the students are included as statistics.  The problem is described and viewed from the perspective of the problem it presents for adults. While certainly not Gleason’s intent, “the bind” reflects a kind a hierarchical thinking that prevails in most schools.  In most instances the employees are engaged in conversations about the students while, with few exceptions, the voices of these “customers” are largely absent.

In today’s post, I wanted to call attention to two pieces of work that offer insight into this threat to our kids as seen by the kids themselvesI was in awe of the eloquence of the student voices following Parkland. I am no less awed by the eloquence of the students as they describe the pressures and the stories of their experiences with navigating a path through an increasingly complex time.

In his new film, Eighth Grade Bo Burnham, adds texture to this complexity though the voice of the most affected by this dilemma, the students themselves. In Eighth Grade, Burnham shares the way this complex story is unfolding for those reflected in the statistics.  In a recent article from the Atlantic which includes an interview with Burnham, “In Middle School, You’re Trying To Build a Parachute While You’re Falling”, Julie Beck describes the dilemma faced by the film’s main character, Kayla.  And here’s a short trailer with Kayla’s own words.

In the film, a 13-year-old girl named Kayla is feeling her way through the dark forest of middle-school social life. On-screen, the scenery keeps changing: How should she act in the classroom? At a popular classmate’s pool party? At the mall with a new group of friends? And is she a totally different person on the internet, in the vlogs she makes in which she offers advice and pep talks? “Being yourself can be hard,” she says, “and it’s like, ‘Aren’t I always being myself?’” Kayla’s sweet and stumbling attempts to answer that question in these different scenarios—in real life and online—are the driving force of the movie.

While Burnham captures the dilemma of increasing complexity faced by kids, a piece in last week’s EdWeek by high school senior, Gabrielle Weber, calls us to action.

Let me give you a bit of a preview of Gabrielle’s insight and I like to urge you to read her piece.  It is both eloquent and touching.  Beyond its eloquence and emotional impact, however, lies a truth that we must confront.  We have allowed the efforts of educational “reformers” to drive our system of public education to a place far removed from what we know in our hearts to be a better place… a place which nurtures the unique talents and needs of each child in our care.

In Gabrielle’s words, …

Achievement is blatantly valued above health. This prioritization instills in students the feeling that we’re not good enough, making it difficult to reach out. In short, it sabotages learning. You know, the thing we go to school for?

…No one advocates for the students struggling to live up to unreasonable standards because that struggle is viewed as ideal. It’s seen as virtuous, when in reality, it’s extremely detrimental.

…In order to solve this problem, schools must prioritize well-being as the fundamental foundation of learning. It should never be a question for kids whether they’ll have someone to turn to when they need it. Expanding supportive staff in schools—including psychologists, counselors, and social workers—would provide the kind of support students both need and deserve. Students with disabilities, disorders, problems at home, and many other disadvantages are particularly affected by the current lack of support in schools. We can do better for them and for our community as a whole. We need to do better.

I urge you to read Gabrielle’ thoughts and her suggestions.  Her work begs us to reflect on some critical questions. Here are a few of mine.  I’d love to hear yours.  This is conversation that we cannot afford to avoid.  Let’s get it started.


We often read and/or talk about socio-emotional intelligence as a skill set to be developed in our students. What about the socio-emotional health of our students? Why would students think we place greater importance on academic achievement than on their well-being?  What should we do to change this perception?

Have we moved beyond the times when it is fair to demand that school guidance counselors , regardless of case load, be able to recognize and deal with the emotional needs of students presenting symptoms of significant stress, anxiety, and/or depression?

Is our continued use of chronological age grouping ignoring the research relating to the developmental readiness?   If so what fears keep us from alternative grouping approaches?

Summing it up…

From the NY Times Magazine article referenced at the beginning of this piece…

Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t receive one or two blogs/newsletters about the importance of school culture.   While the numbers cited above are taken from surveys of college freshmen, the issues did not begin in summer between high school and college.  Last week I watched a PBS show extolling the benefits of kindergarten boot camp.  Burnham, Kayla and Gabrielle are sounding an alarm.  We have created or, at the very least, are participating in a culture of accountability, expectations of high achievement, and fear which research and our hearts are telling us is unhealthy for both adults and children.

Be well.

Living With The Results Of Trying to Do The Wrong Thing Better

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IT Knowledge Exchange – CC Geeks & Pokes

I’ve been spending some selfish learning time recently.  Today my wife and I took some time to drive over to the ocean, to walk, and to watch the beauty of the moving water in our local inlet.  A beautiful way to spend a very hot day.

As you may recall, I’ve been participating for a while now in a virtual community focusing on school change, Modern Learners.   It continues to be a fascinating and engaging learning experience for me. Recently, the group’s community manager has begun to add a monthly focus topic.  For July, the group explored the importance of devoting time to our own refreshment, health, and re-creation.  This month’s topic deals with the importance of relationship building in the learning process (for adults as well as students) and the ways in which relationships can be fostered.  This has been a topic of consistent interest to me.

Earlier today, I opened  today’s post by Jan Resseger.  She titled it, “How We Define Teaching Makes All the Difference”.  I hope you’ll read it.  It’s magnificent.  It offers a stark and disturbing picture of the costs of the culture of efficiency that has dominated the educational experiences of our educators and children since the publication of A Nation At Risk.

Jan introduces her piece with a reference to a Philip Roth novel, I Married a Communist. In the book, the main character, Mr Ringold, is by most standards a model teacher.  Ringold teaches children from his neighborhood. He understands them, He cares about them. He cares what they read and insists that they think about what they read. He is in relationship with his students.

Jan includes a brief excerpt from the book as told by Nathan, one of his students…

Mr. Ringold had stepped over to where the books had tumbled from the basket onto the pavement at the foot of the stoop and was looking at their spines to see what I was reading. Half the books were about baseball… and the other half were about American history. One is about the life of Tom Paine.

“‘You know what the genius of Paine was?’ Mr. Ringold asked me. ‘It was the genius of all those men. Jefferson. Madison. Know what it was.?’”

“‘No,’ I said.”

“‘You do know what it was,’ he said.”

“To defy the English.”

“A lot of people did that. No. It was to articulate the cause in English. The revolution was totally improvised, totally disorganized.  Isn’t that the sense you get from this book, Nathan? Well, these guys had to find a language for their revolution. To find the words for a great purpose.”…

In  Ringold, Roth offers a definition of teaching… the challenging of oneself and one’s students to develop probing intellectual habits.  No doubt Ringold hasn’t had many conversations with today’s education “reformers”.

Jan continues to expand on the notion of “defining teaching”  with the writings of Larry Cuban, professor emeritus at Stanford University.  He offers a picture quite different from that offered by Roth.  He doesn’t speak of relationships or intellectual habits.  Cuban describes instead the “wave of accountability:

The current donor and business-led resurgence of a ‘modern cult of efficiency,’ or the application of scientific management to business can be seen at a host of companies and in U.S. schools…  Turn now to schooling. The… focus on student outcomes can be seen in the standards, testing, and accountability movement launched over three decades ago…. Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., ‘effective,’ using students’ test scores has occurred in many states and big city districts. Such outcome measures should not shock anyone familiar with the spreading influence of the business model (e.g. earning profits, market share, and return on investment) upon schooling.  Policymakers’ concerns over inefficiency in sorting effective from ineffective teachers… led to an embrace of an economic model of providing incentives to increase organizational productivity and efficiency… Faster and better teaching through new technologies producing improved student outcomes in less time and money….

Jan then continues with words from Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of Education…

Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an add-on for a high-tech reproduction of current practice.  Again, we need to change the underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money. By far, the best strategyfor boosting productivity(italics mine) is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.

A fascinating dichotomy… developing probing intellectual habits vs. boosting productivity.

To those of us engaged in rethinking learning and the ways in which a focus on learning can move us beyond the process of boosting productivity, Duncan’s educational reform is a dead story. It has cost us the development of probing intellectual habits.  It has cost teachers and students the time and intentionality needed to see the expansive possibilities of our students.  It has fostered fear. It has disrupted the kinds of caring, trusting relationships that make it possible students and teachers to take risks inherent in moving beyond the simple recall of facts.

In contrast to the standards, assessment, evaluation cycle which so clearly defines the past thirty years or so of “educational reform”, Jan offers the writing of Mike Rose, an education professor at UCLA.  She shares a quote from a piece offered by Rose…

“’ The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,’ says Helen of her technology instructor, ‘is hat she looks at you, she sees the finished product.’ What a remarkable kind of seeing Helen describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible.

Rose continues…

Over the past several years I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professions…about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives… (The students noted that some) teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior – or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend… We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks.

In a new movie,  Eighth Grade, director Bo Burnham addresses an issue untouched by the reform, boost productivity, efforts…the issue of learning  how to be.  This is an issue that confronts each and every one of us as children and, even sometimes as adults. In an interview with Julie Beck for The Atlantic, Burnham discusses his exploration of how one student is feeling her way “through the dark forest of middle school social life”. For the main character, Kayla, the scenery keeps changing.  How should she act in the classroom, at a classmate’s party, at the mall with friends, on the internet?  It seems critical that we consider the possibility that the support that Kayla needs to successfully navigate this time, lies more with the connections she makes with caring, supportive adults than in the mastery of Algebra II.

In his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, Charles Eisenstein speaks about stories… Stories of Our People, Stories of Separation, and of stories that have died.  He speaks of connections, of practicing empathy, of building relationships, of writing new stories.  The story of educational reform is, for many of us, dead.  For others it is dying.  For educators, in whatever role we are at the moment, can we continue, Nero-like, to “fiddle” while the kids who need us burn in fires of ideologically-driven reform “solutions” ?

It’s time for a much better story.  Are we willing to write it?  Or will allow the next story to be written by the next version of Arne Duncan?

Be well.

Death of the Old Story

We are living on the tail end of an old story… a story that extolled the virtues of data, metrics, analytics as tools for assessing the value of our work, our schools, and, distressingly, our students.

Such stories become stories as they are repeated and gradually accepted as truth.

Old stories die hard because of how deeply ingrained they have become through repetition and our tendency toward confirmation bias – i.e., our tendency to assign greater validity to information that confirms our beliefs.

Inaccurate tales become stories because they are unchallenged and some may even have resonance with our experiences.  They grow in acceptance due to laziness and/or ineffective challenges.

The “old story”, the story of our people, extols the virtue of hard work, doing well in school, getting into a good college, obtaining a college degree, getting a good job with the accompanying secure future. That story included the myth that such opportunity was equally open to all Americans, as well as a healthy portion of blame aimed at those whose experiences contradicted the validity of that story.

Now, not only the poor and people of color are challenged to find the validity of that story. Far more of us are confronted on a regular basis with a challenge to it.  Many have watched their children work hard, do well in school, be successful in good colleges and find no jobs.  They have watched the security of pensions disappear. They have watched the promise of progress and development rape the land and threaten our continued existence.  Many have recognized the death throes of the old story.

The story of accountability has been told and retold so frequently that it has become a part of the fabric of the old story.  A chapter in that story must be devoted to human arrogance. This arrogance is filled with irony… an irony that names the flagship legislation No Child Left Behind, while designed to leave millions of poor children behind and labeled, along with their schools, as failing.

Our old story is replete with experiences in which we found ourselves trying to “fix” a problem with a new, better idea. We have many memories of failed initiatives, new ideas, new programs… each touted as being “the answer”.  Sometimes we were on the “receiving” end of such solutions. At other times we may have been the force behind the fix.  What most of us recall is the durability of the problem and the frustration of the never-ending treadmill of solutions.  Rarely, if ever, did we explore the accuracy of the problem description/definition.  In the old story we just kept trying to do things right(er)… rarely able/willing to question if we were seeking to do the right thing.

More and more people in all walks of life, in many different professions, are growing in awareness that the old story is a fable.  Accountability, as we have seen it, doesn’t improve learning.  It damages personal connection, empathy, and relationships.  It adds to separation. It hinders connectedness. Equitable access to learning doesn’t exist for all, perhaps not even for many.

We are living in a time of “interbeing”… a time between stories… sometimes torn between the convenience and comfort of our old story and the fear of the unknown that accompanies the writing of new stories.  Writing a new story need not be a continuation of our time of the separation that was/is inherent in the old story.  Our new story can be a story of connection not separation, of sustainability not accountability, of empathy not blame, relationship building not alienation.  Our new story can be a story not so much about making a specific change happen but of creating the space where change can happen… for our students, for our colleagues, for our friends, for our families.

My thanks to Charles Eisenstein for the gift of his thinking and his language of stories.  His generosity allows for the free use of his works and his gifts.  My thanks also to Russell Ackoff whose writings highlighting the differences between “Doing things Right” and “Doing the Right Thing” continue to add clarity to my reflections and Jan Resseger whose tireless work in pursuit of equitable access to learning for all children is nothing short of inspirational.

Be well

Oh No, Not Richard III Again! or How Does Richard III Still Speak to Us?

Hi again.

 There’s been no shortage of the things to write about, just a shortage of time to do it. As I put the finishing touches on a couple of pieces that I’ve been working on (remember, one of the primary reasons I write here is to help clarify my thinking and to give voice to some reflections which might profit from wider discussion), the universe intervened. This is the first of two such “interventions”.

Recently, a long time colleague and good friend, shared with me his reflections as his career working in schools seems to be ending. Bernie Josefsberg has had a very varied and successful career.  It began with his role as an English teacher in a very prestigious and high performing high school in Chicago.  After holding a series of administrative positions (supervisor, principal, assistant superintendent, superintendent) in multiple states, Bernie returned to the classroom, once again as a teacher of high school English. 

I asked if he would mind if I shared his observations and reflections here in this space.  I think Bernie has captured something very essential in the relationship between teaching and learning, something worth exploring. A growing number of us believe that we are experiencing the end of an “old story”… a story that no longer fits our reality or our needs.  As we continue to look for ways to grow learners, we recognize the need to expand student choice and student agency.  

I believe that Bernie’s reflections can help us create a space for exploration of critical how and why questions:  What is the best space for learning to occur? Can there be a  healthy blend of teacher directed, teacher guided, student self-determined learning experiences?  Is there room for a fixed curriculum? These are not theoretical questions.  They are matters of some weight.  What do Bernie’s experiences have to tell us?  Enjoy and please feel free to share your thinking.


Clearing out old files at the conclusion of a career, I recovered my circa ’73-’85 file on Shakespeare’s Richard III. In my memory, that cautionary tale of personal and political deformity served my high school sophomores well.  With Watergate and Contragate as contemporary scrims, it also suited the historical moment.

It included “Decent Is as Decent Does,” a NY Timesop ed piece in which Anthony Lewis savages Gerald Ford’s record on “Human Rights, Law, Secrecy, War, Arms, Amnesty, and Abortion.” He concludes:

It is indecent for those who care about sensitivity and humanity in politics to talk of the decency of Gerald Ford.

Also included: William Sloane Coffin’s “Not Yet a Good Man,” another NY Timesop ed describing the hollowed ethical core of Jeb Stuart Magruder — one of Richard Nixon’s very well educated, highly positioned, and subsequently convicted flacks.  At Williams College, he passed through   Coffin’s course on Ethics.   He concludes:

Teaching is at best a precarious business; the rational mind is no match for an irrational will that needs to place popularity and power above truth. Nevertheless, all of us who taught him, and American society as a whole, could have done better by Jeb. Now we have the opportunity to learn from him the ancient lesson that to do evil in this world you don’t have to be evil – just as nice guy, not yet a good man.

Additional items included original tests and essay assignments. For example,

Choose one of the following and discuss:

  1. Though Richard orchestrates his own rise to power, he relies upon the assistance of associates. Such figures as Buckingham, Tyrrel and Catesby willingly and directly contribute to the success of Richard’s “plots.” Others, such as Anne, the mayor of London, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, are manipulated to the point where they, too, factor in his triumph. Clearly, Richard could not have “bustled” through his world with such ill-effect in the absence of both witting and unwitting support.
  2. As suggested in Richmond’s concluding speech, England has suffered grievously under Richard’s rule. In keeping with his character, he outlines a vision of England under his prospective reign that contrasts sharply with Richard’s legacy – itself a reflection of character.


Discuss the validity of each following statement:

In his opening soliloquy, Richard presents himself as a bruised soul, tortured by experience. Though he really wishes to be at peace with humanity, he turns to villainy to express his need to be loved.

Richard woos Anne by repeating his “love” for her.  As the audience, we are convinced — as finally Anne is — of Richard’s passion for her which he offers to explain his conduct at Tewkesbury. He subsequently delights in Anne’s acceptance, thereby demonstrating his respect for women and, indeed, for humanity at large.

To teach my students “how to think,” the file includes a “model thesis statement.”

Among several themes, Richard III emphasizes the discrepancy between appearance and reality by highlighting the fatal consequences of foolishly equating the one with the other. Hastings’ dire fate in Act III stems from his inability to recognize the true thrust and scope of Richard’s malevolence – an inability shared by a number of equally ill-fated characters. In disregarding Stanley’s warning that Richard will kill him should his support for Richard’s corruption wane, Hastings relies upon blind faith when survival requires acute awareness. Why “make pursuit where he mean no chase?” he asks, revealing how thoroughly Richard dupes him. Conversely, Lord Stanley chooses flight, astutely gauging Richard’s villainy.  As a result, he is able to fight Richard’s tyranny and contribute to its demise. That discerning judgment – in contrast to Hastings’ smug complacency — sets the standard of conduct needed to thwart Richard’s tyranny.

The file proves that I understood much of the play and could satisfy any teacher quality standard — from then or now – based solely upon such an understanding. It does not prove that my students learned anything:  no such evidence is included.  It seems that my teaching was Hastings-like, relying upon a blind faith in how readily my students students succumbed to my wisdom.  Too bad it is too late for any survey research into how those students voted in the last election.

Many in my generation chose teaching to perform socially righteous work, to contribute to a more just society. In the context of concluding a career at a moment when malevolence is on the move, it might be useful to re-consider Richard III against that purpose.

Richard III’s portrait of “ancient lessons,” concludes with Richmond’s restoration speech proclaiming that, at last, “civil wounds are stopp’d, peace lives again.” But only after “England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself.” Indecencies, evils, wounds, scars, and madness now run deep, as they have done historically, well before 1593 — when Shakespeare staged Richard III—  a hundred years after Richard Crookback’s bustling reign.

Today, Richard IIIis rarely taught in our high schools. Instead Romeo and Julietis taught to almost everyone because, well, Romeo and Juliethas always been taught. Also, several movie versions – including Gnomeo and Juliet– are available to lay down the plot in student minds and moderate the pain they experience confronting text that, for many, might well be Sanskrit. Nonetheless, the play’s conclusion – however adulterated in presentation – offers much to open adolescent minds. “Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things,” enjoins Prince Escalus to those gathered around the coffins.  Do so because, “Some shall be pardoned and some punishèd.”

[A note for the future: after a civic debacle, apportioning blame is necessary. For any prospective reconciliation, how it is done is essential.] 

Concluding his tragedies and histories, Shakespeare typically sends forward a chiding accountant who draws a line down the middle of the moral ledger, with the pardoned on the one side and the punished on the other — not unlike a teacher at the conclusion of a school year weighing student grades. Or not unlike a teacher concluding a career, vocationally conditioned to distinguish vice from virtue, failure from success.

All such past accounting intend to shape future individual conduct.

But who cares whether Richard IIIor Romeo and Julietis under-learned in our high schools?  As Auden writes, “Poetry [let alone teaching poetry] makes nothing happen.”  Few would draw a straight line between under-teaching Richard IIIand current indecencies, evils, wounds scars, and madness. Whatever Allan Bloom asserted in 1987, over-viewing Gnomeo and Julietdid not cause The Closing of the American Mind.

When young, teaching well requires the mastery of craft grafted upon a duty of care. At the conclusion – after experience has “drowned innocence” – teaching well requires everything learned before plus an ongoing regard for what youth encounters in their own existential go-round.  However we teach, they will naturally have their own shot at “bustling through this world.”

Which makes more good teaching even more important.

In 1992, FedericoMayor Zaragoza addressed UNESCO’s International Conference on Education and asked, “What kind of education do we need?”

It is a kind of education that will entail our learning to live together in a world of all-encompassing complexity; having a conscious remembrance of the past, of things discovered and knowledge distilled; and laying down plans for the future. It will entail ensuring the full flowering of diversity …. Instilling attitudes that pay heed to the natural environment and to the attendant human and cultural environment represented by the ‘Other’ to whom we owe our respect …. Education should teach us … how to protect our culture by adopting an open-minded outlook instead of beating the retreat and withdrawing into the prison of our identities. It should also teach us to have the courage to rise up in permanent rebellion in favour of the rights of others and ourselves alike. Learning to be is, above all, learning to relate, learning to take up our stand at the crossing of the ways instead of remaining behind the fortress walls, as well as showing concern for others. It entails learning to conjugate the verb ‘to share’ every day of our lives, so that the future will be less one-sided. This is a Utopia that is in the realm of the possible, the reality of the morrow. Education really comes into its own when it builds bridges and pushes back horizons, for its true calling is to look to the future and inform action. The Utopia of the realm of the possible -the real utopia -appears to be a major contradiction, yet it is capable of cutting a broad swathe through the narrow alleyways of necessity.

No one should doubt that “indecencies, evils, wounds, scars, and madness” are on the move.  Potentially countervailing call for “the future to inform action.”  Who more so than teachers can “go hence to have more talk of these things?”

Bernard Josefsberg