It’s Time for a Culture of Learning

Note: In part one of this exploration I shared that we would use this  post to look at concrete steps that we might take. The steps that I will share come from observations that I have made as a result of more than 10 years spent visiting schools around the country. These, by no means, represent the only steps that we as educators might take. They are offered as one possible approach and are based on observations of both successes and failures in the schools I’ve visited.

It’s not lost on me that I’m beginning work on a piece about the attack on our public schools on December 7th. As Sir Ken Robinson quipped in one of his TED talks,” Who says Americans don’t get irony?”

Quick summary of Part 1.

Our public our system of public education is under attack. There are many forces involved in this attack. In previous blogs I’ve explored a number of these forces. For this piece I want to focus on our role as educators in this development.

This is, by no means, intended to minimize intentionally orchestrated strategies by politicians, educational “reformers”, or agendas driven by profit or ideology. These groups, sometimes independently but often in collaboration, are the major force driving this attack.

It’s critical to recognize, however, that we have inadvertently helped to create the conditions that have fed their agenda and left too many people questioning the value of a public system of education. We have created and helped to maintain a culture that is more focused on teaching than learning. Our focus has been and continues to be on the process of teaching. Our structures have been built around this focus. Out of economic necessity and, not infrequently, adult convenience we have built daily schedules, school hours, yearly calendars, grading policies, etc. We have focused administrative efforts on teacher observations, on the act of teaching, on the professional development of teachers, on the delivery of ever more tightly defined curricula, etc.

Although we certainly do not own sole responsibility for this development, it is important to recognize the ways in which we have contributed to the situation and to be willing to identify and address conditions which are under our control.

Let’s just face it.  We are, and have been for some time, trapped in an improvement loop that places the greatest emphasis on teaching and relegates the process of learning to something that is measured increasingly by large-scale assessment.  We have grown to resent the bull’s eye” that has been increasingly placed on our backs while, at the same time, we have continued to accept the lessons we learned, both as students in school and in our professional training, that reinforce the focus on a culture of teaching.

On to the actions…

NOTE: For a more detailed and comprehensive plan of action, I’d strongly recommend the work being done by Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon, Missy Emler, Lyn Hilt and their team at Modern Learners. You should check out their site their site.

 I think it’s safe to assume that as a reader of this blog you have been thinking of ways to improve the opportunities for learning for our young people and our adults. For most of us, however, the focus has continued to be on what is best described as the culture of teaching. This is about changing (unlearning) that culture. It’s about a few concrete steps that can be taken to begin the process… a process which is not unlike the birthing of elephants – painful and loud!

Overarching Principle

Just as the culture of schooling and teaching is school-wide, the responses must involve the entire school community. Such whole school efforts are extremely difficult and likely to begin on a much smaller scale. Significant culture change in responses to the reality of the culture of teaching, however, must at some point involve larger school community.

As we have explored in previous posts, any significant change must take place in a culture of safety and trust. I’ll be blunt: No conversations, no relationships, no trust, no change. Asking people to unlearn and reassess beliefs that have guided their work for years is doomed if we haven’t created a culture/environment in which they feel valued, cared for, respected and safe.

Getting Started

Here are “laying the groundwork” steps which will enhance the likelihood of whole community buy-in:

  • Start small with exploratory conversations –  i.e., What do you think we must believe in when you look at our practices and policies?
  • Invite others to explore with you – i.e., I’d like to explore ways in which we can avoid abandoning our commitment to the development of our students and adults as we continue to work towards increasing student academic success? Want to join me?

Using this is a starting point what follows is an exploration of the actions you might take to widen the circle of safety and support – to create followership and commitment to action.

It is ironic that we would be having a discussion about the creation of a culture of learning about schools. By their very nature, schools should be learning organizations. But the reality is quite different. Too often the structure of our schools facilitates isolation and independence rather than institutional or organizational learning and collaboration.

This takes us to our first step in the action plan… the creation of a school-wide conversation that begins with our understanding of why we exist. This is a question which seems to have an obvious answer. That is, until we look at the results of a very simple exercise.

Action #1

To have meaningful, productive conversations about critical issues, it is vital that we have a shared vocabulary. Without this commonality, it is possible (even likely) that participants will be nodding their heads to their own definition which may be wildly different from the meaning held by the speaker. Action #1 is a test of this commonality and comes from Dan Pink, whose work on researching engagement and motivation is generally recognized as leading the way. If you like to see Pink’s podcast (90 seconds) here’s the link link.

Distribute index cards to all participants.

  1. Ask the participants to answer in one sentence the following question “What is the purpose of our school?”
  2. Gather the response cards.
  3. Read them aloud.
  4. Share observations about the responses.

Questions for reflection:

Based on our responses are we clear about doing the right thing or are we trying to focus on doing things right? Is there clarity and consensus about what you are doing? Is it the right thing or simply a series of attempts to do things better?

Too often our responses reveal that we have developed a whole series of policies, practices, norms, and behaviors as an attempt to do things right – i.e., improve what we are doing – even when what we are doing may not be the right thing or when there is no real common understanding about our purpose, leaving staff members to work independently at achieving purposes which may differ substantially – i.e., Ever had a dress code policy which is enforced inconsistently based on the buy-in of individual staff members?

Action #2

I am not a fan of school or schooling. As it is conceived and as it operates it has and continues to have greater emphasis on the development and preservation of a culture of teaching rather than a culture of learning. It is the creation and preservation of that culture of teaching that has gotten us in trouble. It has caused us to confuse school/schooling with learning.

“Schools are places where kids come to watch adults work hard”

Quote widely attributed to Bill Daggett, ICLE

What are the things that you think about when you think of school? Are the things we think of contingent on our role? Do we see school/schooling differently if we are educators working in schools, students experiencing school. parents of school-age children, or adults recalling their school experiences?

  • Make a list of your responses to the question.
  • See if you can get a list from the other groups listed above.
  • What are the things that you noted you see as positive/negative?
  • What are the things that you noted from non-educators that were positive/negative?

Action #3

Examine the culture of your school/district. Is it, like the majority of schools, more culture of teaching than a culture of learning?

Note: It’s easy to be defensive about this one. Teachers are by nature helpers/givers, seeing much of what they do as “kid-centered”. It might be useful to make a list of what practices, norms, policies, etc. are dealing with teaching activities – i.e., who talks more, who’s at the center of any given lesson, what’s the purpose (and effect) of the grading system, where does “learning that counts” occur? What do we actually mean by “culture of learning?

How are the norms, behaviors (“the way we do things”), policies and practices seen by teachers, students, parents, community members? What are the beliefs that you hold about learning? Are they consistent or at odds with research? You might want to use the following slide by Will Richardson as a guide for this.


  • Make a list of the norms and behaviors, policies and practices that are teaching centered and what are those that are learning centered?
  • What are the norms, behaviors, policies, practices which are aimed at efficiency?
  • Using Richardson’s list, comment on the contradictions he highlights between what we know about learning and what we do in your school/district.

Closing thoughts

I’ve watched this work.  When I worked with the International Center for Leadership In Education much of our work focused on the concepts of Rigor, Relevance and Relationships and the ways in which these concepts could be made a part of a school’s culture.  As the  work progress we recognized an evolution in our thinking.  The core concepts should have read:

  • Rigor
  • Relevance

A second aspect of this change mirrored a quote from Bill Gates that I’ll paraphrase here, “It’s too easy to overemphasize what can be done in a year, but never underestimate what can be done in a decade.” We began by thinking that change was a 3-5 year process.  By the time I left ICLE that had changed to at least 5-7 years.  I personally think Gates was closer to the truth.  We can’t underestimate the difficulty of changing decades of culture or the time changes of such magnitude take.  Nor can we underestimate the sense of pride and accomplishment that accompanies the recognition that we have replaced trying so hard to do things right with doing the right thing.  Moving to a culture of learning is the right thing.

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

Enemies Accumulate… often more than friends… and they’re louder too.


Spoiler Alert: I recall an incident in grad school in which one of the students (who regularly sought ways to minimize his own work load in the class) got on the last nerve of the prof. He looked the student in the eye and quietly said, ”I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work.”

This is about seeing a future for our system of public education and the signs that it is not working for too many kids. The current infatuation with school choice in all of its iterations is less a result of the huge influx in philanthropic money than it is confluence of that money with the responsive chord it strikes with many adults whose school memories are not positive.

This post has grown in length and complexity. You might want to take a moment to fetch a glass or two of your favorite adult beverage before settling in. I apologize… not for the length, but for not making it better. I think it was Benjamin Franklin who, in response to criticism about something he had written, quipped, “If I had had more time, I could have made it shorter.” Contrary to Franklin’s experience, I have taken more time and it’s still not better.


Walt Kelly Poster – First Earth Day – 1970

It’s hard to keep current with the field of teaching and learning without being confronted by the latest utterances about the wisdom or folly of the school choice movement. I realized while writing my last post about the problems caused by building meaningful decisions about the future of our children on the quicksand-foundation of grades and grading policies that there is a connection between that topic and others which affect how parents look at schools and school choice.

In that post, I shared how our use of inconsistent systems for evaluating and reporting student progress colors the school experiences for far too many students, creates a quicksand- like foundation for often substantial financial awards, and subtly erodes confidence in our schools. This post continues the theme of the growing cost of further inaction.

For those of us who work or have worked with students in schools, it should come as no great surprise that some kids didn’t like school. For those of you who know me, you will also not be surprised that I connect this lack of excitement about school to the quality of the relationships that kids experienced there… sometimes these poor relationships were with other kids and, too frequently, they involved their teachers.

Kids grow up (at least they age) and as they do they bring their memories and conclusions with them. If they didn’t much care for school as students, they are not very likely to like them more as adults. In my opinion we’ve paid too little attention to this dynamic.

For the majority of time that I’ve spent working in and around schools (over 50 years now) this dynamic didn’t matter too much. Kids passed through schools. Teachers taught them. Some liked it. Some didn’t. It didn’t much change the way things worked. Kids still came to school. Teachers still taught them. Some attended private schools. Some were home schooled. But the vast majority of the nation’s students attended a school that was a part of the public school system. In too many instances, schools were places that kids came to watch adults work hard.

The seeds of educational “reform”…

As the dynamic of school and student opinions about it continued, the number of students who didn’t like school increased faster than the death rate of that same group – i.e., the group of adults who did not recall their school experiences with any degree of fondness accumulated new members. For years these members remained a fairly non-threatening group. They were happy enough just to leave their unhappy school days behind them and get on with life. Then the ground shifted.

The Russians launched the first satellite and the world order was threatened. Not folks to shy away from using blame to deflect any responsibility for their own role, politicians looked for scapegoats. Where do kids learn (or, in this case, not learn) the science necessary to win the space race? Why schools, of course. Those places that many of the politicians didn’t much like as students.

Additional seeds of concern were sown with the release of a document originally intended to call into question the continued viability of the federal Department of Education. The report, A Nation At Risk, painted a dismal picture of American students’ academic performance. The report resulted in barrels of ink being used to feed the articles seeking blame and forecasting imminent doom. Far less ink was expended on articles which challenged the accuracy of the report’s data and conclusions.

Fast forward to the most important stuff for us… Four important developments for consideration

  1. The increasing attention to the performance of U.S. students on national and intentional tests revealed the size of the potential market that education presented to businesses.
  2. The realization by libertarian political groups that education (although receiving little financial support from federal sources) represented a relatively defenseless target for the advancement of a their smaller government agenda.

Note: This blog was trolled at one point by a writer who, in comments extolling the failure of schools and the advantages of parental choice, used the term “government schools” in place of public school throughout his/her comments.

  1. The Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, enabled those with deep pockets and a political agenda to capture the attention of those whose school memories of experiences were unpleasant. Groups such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), or those that could envision the financial rewards of a “market-driven” system of education, added dissatisfaction with school to their opportunities to promote a budding charter/choice movement.

Note: While traveling the country working with schools, I noted that in all four of the states in which I was working in 2014-15, each had introduced legislation for a revision in teacher evaluation. Although denying any connection to ALEC, the governor in my own state introduced legislation that was remarkably similar to that in the four states in which I was working. Coincidence? Not likely.

  1. Proving that politicians do, indeed, have a sense of irony, they passed a comprehensive, narrowly focused education bill, No Child Left Behind, which left millions of children behind.

Note: Coming under attack for the folly of this disastrous piece of legislation, politicians attempted to salvage the public’s perception of their collective sense of humor and irony, if not intelligence, by crafting the Every Student Succeeds Act.

So what’s this all got to do with me?

This is a question which in various forms has been heard in schools and faculty rooms throughout the entire course of the reform movement. The cultures we have created and/or allowed to continue in our schools have a huge component of individual teacher independence. While recent federal legislation and required state responses have greatly limited the content that should/must be covered in our classrooms, how the teachers conduct their classrooms varies greatly and remains largely at the discretion of the individual teacher. The focus of the vast majority of American educators has been to do the best they can for the kids that are in their classrooms, frequently tuning out all of the noise around reform and getting involved only when the changes threaten either their comfort or the well-being of their students. We are traditionally late to respond. While the years of large scale assessment were regularly thought by educators to be harmful to students, especially in the younger grades, it was the introduction of test data into the teacher evaluation process that caused the kind of large scale reaction that powered the opt-out movement.

Without realizing it, however, this penchant for continuing to “do school” as we have come to know it, to find comfort in it, and to “stay above the fray” feeds the growing base of choice advocates. Parents whose school experiences were less than satisfactory (at best) or downright unhappy (at worst) find themselves with the opportunity to give their kids a different (and, in their minds, more positive) experience. Add to that the sanctity of individual choice and you have a pretty neat argument for the extension of that “right” to the “right” of individual families to choose the school that might be right for their children.

The Result…

Public schools in our country are in a fight for sustainability. The system as we know is under assault. We do not have the luxury of sitting and watching from our classrooms.

  1. We have well funded efforts to privatize and monetize our system of education.
  2. We have a significant number of adults whose experiences as students with the public school system were less than satisfactory and whose loyalty to that system is colored by such experiences.
  3. As discussions about what constitutes the “common good” are characterized by polarization and lack of consensus, the commitment to a system of that is based on an acceptance of a “common” good is waning.
  4. Concurrent with these factors, is the reality that school as we experienced it is not a sustainable financial model. It is a model based on a predictable increase in annual costs funded primarily via local, state or federal funds at a time when an increasing number of American citizens are accepting the idea that all taxes are bad.

A call to action…

We cannot do school as usual. We are beginning to see a significant increase in initiatives that are seeking ways to offer greater numbers of students promises of more engaging and relevant learning experiences and to reinvent the ways in which we approach the learning process, both for students and for adults. These are a beginning but are scattered, and do not represent the experiences that the majority of U.S. students are having in our schools.

I may have shared an observation relating to choices. As a superintendent I was sometimes asked by younger colleagues, “What can I do to prepare myself so that I can be considered for a promotional job opportunity?” I responded that, confronted with the choice between candidates/options, there were really only two questions that an interviewer had to answer…

QUESTION #1 – “Why should I hire this person? or

QUESTION #2 – “How can I not hire this person?”

When I found myself asking the second question, I knew I had made my choice.

Thus, these two seemingly simple questions have profound implications for our choices and the implications of these two questions are no less profound when the options involved the choices involved in selecting schools for our children. The deliberations facing parents can be summarized by them: Why should I choose this school for my children? How can I not choose the school for my children?

During my time as an ‘SOB from out of town with slides’ (the informal definition of a consultant), I visited a lot of schools and met a lot of educators. In the vast majority of cases, the assembled talent in the meetings and presentations represented more talent than could be found almost anywhere else in the community. But we’ve wasted it. We’ve locked it up in 40’ x 40’ rooms and largely kept it isolated from any real decisions about learning, especially those which might occur beyond the walls of the individual classroom.

Because that’s how we experienced school as students, we accepted this and the culture it helped to create as “normal” just as we accepted that some kids thrive, some kids, do OK and some just “aren’t made for school”.

We can no longer depend on the occasional visionary leader to drive the kinds of changes that will insure that all students have experiences that result in kids and their parents see Question #2 as the only question.

It is time for all of us who work in schools to be relentless in the pursuit of the culture which yields “How can I not send my child to that school?” as the only question. This means that we can no longer accept  the fact that not all members of our staff own the responsibility for developing the kinds of relationships that build affiliation, own the responsibility for facilitating learning experiences that truly engage children in the learning process, own the responsibility not only for what happens with the students we guide in our classrooms but also for what happens with the students who are in the classroom with the adult who has checked out.

I see this as a moral issue, but that’s just me. Regardless of your feelings about that aspect of the situation, we cannot continue to think that a system is OK and will get positive answers to Question #2 when, according the Gallup research, it sees a drop in student engagement from 80% (in 4th grade) to less that 50% by 11th grade.

Next Time on Rethinking Learning …Where Do We Begin?

This is doable. It is well within our capacity as educators. It begins with a first step. Do we want people in our schools and in our communities, our area to ask only Question #2? In the next post, I’ll offer approaches that I have seen firsthand. But first, a flipped blog moment.… For those of you who want to continue this exploration, I’d like you do the following between now and next week:

  1. Get a copy of your school/district mission statement and at least one from another school and/or district?
  2. For yours, make a quick list of the key points in the statement – see example below.
  3. For yours, make a quick list of policies and practices that reflect – i.e., intentional actions that make real/support – the key points of the statement
  4. For yours, make a short list of policies and practices that seem at odds with the statements.

Example – sample mission statement

XXX School recognizes that each child is an individual; that all children are creative; that all children need to succeed. Therefore, Community School respects the individual needs of children; fosters a caring and creative environment; and emphasizes the social, emotional, physical, intellectual development of each child.

Key points:

  • Children are individuals
  • Children are creative
  • Children need to succeed
  • School culture and personnel respect individual needs
  • School culture and personnel foster caring and creative environment
  • School emphasizes social, emotional, physical, intellectual development of each child

What would positive, intentional practices look like for each bullet?

What practices might be at odds with any/all of the key points?

Schools as Sanctuaries

Note: In her book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott recounts a conversation with her young daughter who excitedly exclaimed that she had experienced an ‘apostrophe’ in school that day.

I find Thanksgiving to be a reflective time. It wasn’t always so. For too long the day was defined by turkey and football. Then not too long ago I had what Susan Scott’s daughter called an ‘apostrophe’. I didn’t get knocked off my horse like St. Paul or anything like that. My apostrophe came when I was struck by a flash of the blindingly obvious… any successes I’ve had in my career were due largely to the hard work and commitment of those around me. They inspired me, but for too long I was too self-absorbed to say “thank you”. I’m still working on my “thank you’s” and Thanksgiving now serves a dish far better than turkey and football… a time to be quiet (not easy for me) and reflect on the gifts I’ve been given.


MIlada-Vigerova- 36934

In the midst of this year’s reflection I received such a “gift” in the form of a reflection shared by a local NJ superintendent that spoke to me with a grace and eloquence that has been missing in most of what I’ve been reading lately. I asked if she would mind if I shared it with you here. I hope her words will speak to you and touch your soul.


Much has been written recently about the debate over “Sanctuary Cities”.  This back and forth has politicized the word “sanctuary” in a way that changes the context of its true meaning.  I would like to take some time this month to return to the pure and essential meaning of sanctuary and the important way that it connects with our schools.

The term sanctuary is described as “a sacred or holy place; a place that provides shelter or protection”.  By its very definition, it aligns with the founding principles of public education.  As Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann and John Dewey envisioned, public schools were designed to provide all students equal access and universal educational opportunities as a way of developing an active and engaged citizenry in our democracy.  In public education we welcome and educate every student who enters our doors.  We value the diversity and the unique contributions that each student brings to the classroom. In order to nurture, encourage and respond to the needs of each student, it is imperative that we design safe and inclusive spaces for learning.  We must create sanctuary.

Within this sacred space, teachers and students strive to create a respectful, caring community of learners. Teachers build trust with their students by modeling kindness, vulnerability, and risk taking.  Students, in turn, are encouraged to wonder, to try new things, and be willing to make mistakes.  Challenges are undertaken.  Accomplishments are celebrated. When schools and classrooms are considered sanctuaries our students feel safe enough to fully express themselves and begin to see their interconnectedness to each other and to the world.

As adults, we share the same desire for safety and acceptance.  We, too, search for and create places apart from the world.  Within the busyness of life and the hectic pace of a 24/7 world, we yearn for our own sanctuary, a place of refuge, in which we can pause, breathe, and rediscover clarity.  Some of us find solace in a walk through the woods where we can stand in the cold fresh air and reflect under the tall pines. Others take comfort in escaping to a quiet room with a cup of hot tea and a good book.  Many seek communion in more traditional ways, relying on the guidance and wisdom provided within a church, temple or mosque. Wherever we find our sanctuary, each one of us needs a place that allows us to feel a sense of peace, practice forgiveness, learn to be more compassionate, and become well acquainted with the freedom derived from cultivating a mindset of acceptance.

Educating our children is sacred work.  My hope is that every classroom in every school becomes a true sanctuary for our students to learn, play, grow and thrive.  We want all of our children to come to school and feel a sense of belonging, to love the challenge of learning, and when they leave us, to enter the world and the rest of their lives as confident, compassionate citizens.  Collectively, we will do everything possible to create safe spaces for our students to succeed.  For ours is a vocation of love.

Kathie Foster, Superintendent

A Lesson from Detroit… and Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fake News and Grading… A Windmill Worth Tilting At

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Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Jules David – Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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


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

Some context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recovering From the “M” Word

Hello again. A writer that I follow describes his newsletter as appearing with “fanatical irregularity”. It appears that I’ve joined his scheduling pattern. I’ve never asked why he publishes so randomly but I can easily explain how this has happened for me. Have you ever moved?

moving 1 IMG_0374Two weeks ago we finished a whirlwind process that saw us complete the purchase of a new home and the sale of our previous home of more than a decade. It was an exciting time.

Things moved along very smoothly with only small doses of stress. But then it was time for the “M” word… moving. Now, 10 days after “the move” our conversations almost all include sentences like, “Do you remember packing xxx”; “What box what it in?”; “Where is that box?”; “How did we get so much stuff?”; and, “Why the hell did we bring it?”

So I hope you’ll forgive me if I ease my way back into some kind of writing routine by relying on a couple of pieces that I read this past week between collapsing into whatever chair was at hand and falling into a sleep filled with dreams of packing boxes.

Will Parker writes a blog entitled, Principal Matters. He has been a teacher, the Oklahoma Assistant Principal of the Year in 2012 and is currently the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Association for Secondary and Middle Level Principals. He’s ‘been there, done that’. As we have been exploring the issues surrounding the concept and reality of school leadership, I wanted to share his recent blog.

Will entitled the piece “Managing Demands, Dealing with Difficult People and Promoting Positive Morale.” It struck me as valuable because it dealt with practical matters in day-to-day leadership and culture creation. Note: Will’s blogs are also available in podcast version.

This is a “how to” piece and Will has organized each section with a short contextual intro followed by his suggestions for dealing with each. I’ve reprinted his sections and, as usual when I reference someone else’s work, I urge you to read the entire piece entire piece and to become acquainted with his work.

Note: After each of Will’s sections I’ve added some of my own thoughts/comments.  These are not intended to critique Will’s observations. Rather they’re intended to tie his work to concepts and thinking previously explored here in Rethinking Learning.

Part 1: Managing Demands

As you walk through a school, you will find teachers, students, and staff rely on you for more than just supervision or observation. People are looking for problem-solvers. In my first year as an administrator, I carried a notepad with me and tried to write down notes on every conversation I was having for follow-up.

I soon discovered I was spending more time do follow-up than I was helping others find their own solutions. In some ways, I was fishing for them rather than teaching them to fish. With that in mind, here are four takeaways to keep in mind when managing questions or demands:

  1. Give up your “Savior” complex.(It takes a team to lead a school.)
  2. Share follow-up.(If it’s important, have them write it down.)
  3. Teach others to find solutions.(Learn to “shift the monkey” as Todd Whitaker teaches.)
  4. Set timers for time consuming tasks.(Your value does not equal an empty inbox. Sometimes mundane tasks like emails or reports can go faster as timed tasks.)

You cannot lead alone. And the sooner you realize you need a team, the better. It is easy for leaders to fall into the trap of believing their job is to save the day. That kind of mentality will lead to burnout. Instead, shift your mindset so that you approach the complex problems of your school with the idea that it will take everyone on your team to find solutions, create strong environments, and reach new goals.

Comment:  It is assumed that, in order to be a good leader, one must be a good problem solver.  There is no question that problem solving is an essential part of the leadership role; however, too frequently this expectation leads to two unanticipated and undesirable consequences: (1) we become better at ‘problem solving’ than at problem analysis (leading to solutions that seem, not surprisingly, do not solve the problem) and (2) we reinforce a hierarchical structure in which only the “one at the top” solves the problems – i.e., we create dependence among our colleagues rather than building the kind of ownership that follows engagement in broader problem analysis and solving.

Part 2: Dealing with Difficult People

It’s easy to remember hard conversations—especially ones where people lose it emotionally. No one ever learns to perfectly manage difficult conversation(s). But there are some ways you can shift your mindset so you learn to better manage them. Here are six tips to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure you’re not the difficult one.
  2. Seek to understand before being understood
  3. Be firm but friendly.
  4. Change your posture and use humor when appropriate.
  5. Agree to disagree
  6. Consider bringing parties to the table.

Keep in mind that others want to be heard and understood. Sometimes the goal is not finding complete agreement as it is being a sounding board and helping find solutions together. Simple things go a long way in deescalating emotional conversations: like keeping your hands open when you talk, taking notes to show you are listening well, and repeating back what you hear someone saying. At the end of the day, you want to know you’ve given others the courtesy you would want if the tables were turned.

Comment: My experience in working with school leaders has taught me that there is little or no intentionality in leadership preparation programs in the area of productive conflict resolution or the development of confidence in what Susan Scott refers to as “Fierce Conversations”. I would add the intentional development of this skill to Will’s suggestions.

Note: See Susan Scotts two books entitled, Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership

Part 3: Showing Appreciation and Maintaining Morale

It is easy to lose sight of the culture and morale of your team members when you’re focused on managing demands or difficult moments. I talk to a lot of principals who ask what they can do to keep their team members encouraged. Here are eight suggestions on ways to embed appreciation into your routines:

  1. “Kudos” emails(These are quick summaries of great things you see happening when you do a walkthrough of your building.)
  2. Video shares(Use your smart-phone to capture great learning moments and share via email, social media or link in a newsletter.)
  3. Hand-written notes or cards (All of us enjoy the thoughtfulness of a handwritten thought or word. I once had a 25-year veteran teacher who told me she had never received a hand-written note of encouragement from an admin till I gave her one.)
  4. Monthly awards(Use your faculty or team meetings to highlight great team players once a month and publish it out to others.)
  5. Newsletter/website publicity(Have a frequent, consistent summary of communication for parents and community members; use it as a way to brag on your teachers, students, and staff.)
  6. Face-to-face(Take advantage of observation follow-ups to look a teacher in the eyes and tell them something specific you appreciate about what they do with students.)
  7. Food, food, and more food(Maybe it’s because I love to eat, but I always feel encouraged and loved when someone adds food to a meeting.)
  8. Social media shares(Never before have we had access to so many free, accesibile ways to share and brag about our teachers and schools. Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LindedIn, or Voxer: find ways to celebrate and encourage others.)

Comment:  Think of each of the suggestions that Will has include above as ways in which relationships (whether they be with students, colleagues, parents and/or community members) are strengthened.  I connect this to the conversations, relationships, trust, followership model previous shared in some of my earlier posts.

Will ends his piece with the following thought:

As school leaders, we are directly involved in the kind of environment where learning can happen. How we manage demands, deal with difficulties, and encourage positive moments will lend to the outcomes others have in our learning environments. Don’t think you will ever do this with perfection. By sharing tasks with teammates, learning to navigate tough conversations, and highlighting successes of others, you will find yourself cultivating the soil for positive outcomes for your teachers and students.

As always, your comments and thoughts help each of us grow,  Be well.

Fighting Back


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

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

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

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

A Bit of Context…

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

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

What Else This Does NOT Mean…

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

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

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

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

One Option…

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

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

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

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

Another Option…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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