School Choice… A new definition


Illustration of Pogo quote by Walt Kelly, 1970

As some of you know, I’m a fan of Jan Resseger and  her blog.

Jan is a staunch supporter of equitable access for all to a quality education. She has been following and writing about the impact of a largely under-regulated charter school “industry” and, more recently, about the push by the current administration to move the voucher, privatization agenda. I would like to offer some additional thoughts for consideration.

Pogo’s not right but he may be on to something. In the discussion of choice, vouchers, charters, etc. we are not THE enemy, but we are not always our own best friends.

In the time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve found myself returning to a theme. It stems from work done by Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff. Drucker wrote that a focus on efficiency involves a commitment to doing things right; however, a focus on effectiveness involves doing the right thing.

As our world seems to move/change with increasing speed, the expectation for leaders to solve problems quickly has too frequently been at the expense of the need to define the problem correctly. Doing the right thing, for me, involves spending sufficient time to get a clear picture of the problem – i.e., moving beyond solutions that are targeting symptoms and focusing on the identification of the root cause, the core issue.

Repeating Peter Drucker’s thinking about the difference between doing things right and doing the right thing, I wonder what would happen to our national conversations on public schooling, if we conceded the possibility that the choice, voucher, privatization discussions have, as their focus, the need to “do school” better. But what if “doing school better” is a symptom?

Taking this a step further, I wonder what our debate might look like if we seriously explored the possibility that the question is not whether or not charter schools, private schools or public schools are better schools but whether the concept of school as we have experienced it is still the appropriate vehicle for insuring a quality education for our kids.

In my work I’ve spent time in private, public and charter schools. In each category, some are better than others. But they are all a pretty recognizable variation of school. Regrettably, and regardless of label, too many represent a form of “marching backwards into the future.”

Is it conceivable that we are getting deeper into what Drucker described as trying to do the wrong thing righter?   Is it conceivable that “choice” might be the right word, but is being applied too literally and too narrowly?

What would happen if we committed to building our public system around choice? Not choice defined as expanded number of course options within a structure that has changed little in 100+ years. Not the false choice of allowing parents/students to attend another school within the district. Not the ideological driven “portfolio” approach to school diversification.

What would happen if we defined choice as building learning around the needs and interests of the learners? About providing choices of learning within our schools that can occur both within and beyond the walls of a building? What if parents didn’t feel that they had to change schools in order to exercise choice… that choice was central to the ways kids learn in their local, public school?

This is not simply an intellectual exercise.

  • The media is overflowing with reports of district budget crises in both urban and rural districts. Combining this with the success of Grover Norquist and friends have had in labeling any and all taxes as bad, we are seeing the acceleration of funding shortfalls in schools throughout the country.
  • The current examples of choice have resulted in a landscape littered with the hulks of buildings half-empty or abandoned in our urban centers.
  • The current examples of choice have resulted in, and continue to result in, yet one more form of white flight.
  • The current system of underfunding schools and further reducing their resources through monies diverted via voucher, opportunity scholarships, tax credit programs, etc., is not sustainable. What if we look at the urban and rural funding dilemma as the “canary in the coal mine”?

Stephen Covey pointed out that we have gotten quite good at managing the day to day, hour by hour issues dealing with efficiency, focusing on the here and now. He pointed out further that Day-Timers and calendar apps are not a sufficient replacement for the compass, the tool that helps us stay on course as we travel. We need a compass check.

We, and here I mean those of us working in schools, need to confront the possibility that the structures and organizations that we’ve enjoyed as students and have labored in as teachers are neither capable of meeting the needs of the majority of our young people nor are they sustainable in their present form.

We need to confront the possibility that schooling best meets the needs of students whose life circumstances make them best suited to success based on the measures of success that we currently use.

We need to confront the possibility that one of the biggest threats to the system as we have come to know it is our own unwillingness to accept that there is a threat… and that the solution does not involve winning the battle of charter/private school choice options, but in the creation of choice options within our schools. It does not involve emulating programs that have been successful maintaining and verifying the performance of the already successful, but in finding the openness and acceptance necessary to make things like student agency, micro-school options, interest, competency, and community-based learning the defining drivers in the school culture.

To avoid this “right thing” issue is to insure the continuation of arguments over how to make the wrong thing better.

Some time ago, a young teacher asked me what she needed to do to be successful on her path to promotion. I suggested that, although it wasn’t written down anywhere, I had come to realize that as an administrator in such circumstances I found myself asking two questions… (1) Why should I hire this person? Or (2) How can I not hire this person? I suggested that she needed to work at making the second question the only one an interviewer would ask.

While there are numerous arguments possible about the value of school choice, privatization, vouchers, etc., the discussion may miss the larger issue. Why should my child have to relocate in order to enjoy the choices that we know are critical to the kinds of learning opportunities that our young people need and deserve? And, perhaps, most importantly, “How can I not send my child to my local public school?”

What’s next…

  • What kinds of choices do kids have in your school?
  • How would you rate them?  Real world, important, pretty superficial?
  • How might you offer more choice to your students? In your class? In your school? In your district?
  • What are the obstacles to offering greater choice? In your class? In your school? In your district?
  • What questions would you add to this list that might enhance the discussion?


Beliefs Point theWay

compassNote: This post is long… It may require one or more adult beverages.  

It draws heavily on the work of Will Richardson. If his words and thinking resonate with you, you might be interested in checking out these sites: Modern Learners and Will Richardson’s blog . Also, my thanks to Eric Fiedler, the principal at Lacey Elementary School here in NJ.  He is a consummate adult learner.  His questions, his curiosity and his reflections continue to be a guiding voice in my explorations of leadership.   This piece  is much better for his willingness to collaborate. 

As is now becoming the norm for my writing, this piece, too, started out as something different. I had planned to make the transition from the recent focus on leadership to an exploration of Will Richardson’s contributions to the discussions about the need to move beyond “schooling” to a focus on how do we cause powerful learning. The beginning of what has evolved here remains pretty true to that intent; however, once again, life intervened.

In a recent conversation with Eric, he mentioned that he was now beginning to ponder how he might open the conversation with his staff about the dissonance between the current focus driven by federal/state mandates (dominated by the emphasis on accountability, assessments and test scores) and the need to focus conversations and intentional actions on what kids need to know, be like and be able to do in order to be life ready. He is an excellent school leader and has clearly (and successfully) lived a commitment to caring conversations, the building of strong relationships as well as to the development of a sense of trust and safety for both kids and adults alike. In spite of this, he expressed concerns that his message of the need for reorienting school-wide actions with core beliefs would be heard by the staff as a message of failure, a message of disappointment with their efforts, a feeling of “not good enough”.

I asked if he would join me in the development of a plan that might serve as guidance not only for his work but also for others struggling with similar concerns. What you’ll be reading is the blending of two perspectives: mine, seen largely through the perspective of my coaching role and his, reflecting his daily, on the ground experience leading a school in today’s environment.

A word of caution: In my years working with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) I often heard Bill Daggett emphasize in his talks that each school has “its own DNA”.   What that means is that no model plan will fit each school. What we are looking for as we write are guidelines for a journey, knowing full well that in one school the steps may have already been accomplished and in others that same step may require much greater attention.

The Beginning – Context

In my world context is king. There is growing consensus that the context for the work we are proposing is defined more or less by the following:

  • This is a time of incredible frustration for educators. The longer you’ve been engaged in the work, the more panaceas you’ve experienced, the more distrustful you’ve become of the next greatest solution.
  • The latest panacea – the reform of schools based on the standards/assessment focus – began in the 1970 and was raised to an art form in 2003 with the implementation of NCLB.
  • When this panacea didn’t bring about the desired results, the reformers quickly identified teachers as the root cause of the disappointing student achievement, ignoring all research identifying the role of poverty and class and its correlation with student performance.
  • Alternatives to so-called urban “failure factories” in the form of charter schools and, most recently, voucher and choice initiatives further build upon and reinforce the narrative of ineffective public schools, lazy teachers, and inflexible teacher unions.
  • Within this landscape, there is growing awareness that the policies of the past decade or so have resulted in the lack of time and, sometimes, resources to respond to a growing awareness of the disconnect between what our kids need and what we are being told to provide.
  • The dominant response this context has been fear and compliance. It has also been the devotion of energy to the protection of the system that has been the passion of so many educators, teachers and leaders alike.

It is against this backdrop and within this context that leaders find themselves looking for ways to encourage a fresh look at how we might bring our beliefs about kids and learning into closer connection to our actions and practices.

This post is based on the belief, as well as the examples we have seen, that there is an alternative to the fear, compliance, and self-protective responses. It involves:

  • Moving beyond the fear-based “circle the wagons” response;
  • Moving beyond the comfort of “this is how we’ve always done it”;
  • Revisiting the beliefs that we hold about kids and learning to reinforce with and for another the “why” of our commitment to kids and learning;
  • Collectively and collaboratively identifying practices and policies which are inconsistent with our beliefs and which, in some instances, actually inhibit the realization of these beliefs.

Summary – Context and implications

  1. The leader must establish a common understanding of the context in which we, as educators, find ourselves.
  2. The leader must establish that this context has too often encouraged us to lose focus on our core beliefs and to “hide in our rooms” rather than do the work of aligning our practices with our beliefs.
  3. The leader must establish a commitment to a identifying and doing what Peter Drucker has called the “right thing” in contrast to simply trying to do bad ideas better.

Note: A critical steps in this process involves the development of a collective commitment to understanding of what it is like to be in the shoes of the “other” (whether that “other” be kids, parents, fellow teachers, or school leaders) at this time of intense pressure and waning support.

Moving Beyond Context

In a previous post, I shared that that the primary cause of falling into the trap of  focusing on doing things right rather than doing the right thing is the tendency of organizations to allow the desire for efficiency and convenience to gradually and often imperceptibly move us away from our beliefs.  For example,  while we believe (and have strong supportive research) that all kids (and adults) are different – that they learn in different ways, and at different rates – we have developed organizational practices and patterns which conflict with this belief.

A while back I shared with you a slide from a TED Talk given by Will Richardson in Vancouver. This is an exceptional talk and I would urge you to take the 16 minutes to look at it. It offers a great explanation of the challenges facing us as we look at moving beyond “schooling” to learning. Richardson’s talk along with several by Ken Robinson offer us language that we can use to help the members of our education community recognize that ‘marching backwards into the future’ holds no promise for our students and adds increasingly to the frustrations of our teachers.


Step 1 – Working though the belief process – one approach

But beyond adding to the depth of our conversations about context, Richardson’s talk also highlights the ways in which beliefs and practices are too frequently in conflict.  The slide I previously shared from Richardson’s presentation was one which combined two concepts that he was using to introduce his talk.

Richardson shared that in his years traveling the world to visit schools and do presentations, he has asked over 50,000 people to describe the conditions where deep learning occurs╔ learning that is productive, learning students engage with and which they will remember. I want to take a look at the two concepts here separately.

Richardson’s first slide lists the most frequent and most consistent responses to the question “What are the conditions that are present when we experience deep, powerful learning?”

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 9.11.55 AM


On this next slide, Richardson lists what most of his audiences (and I suspect you as well) have listed as the conditions which actually exist in most schools.

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 9.12.26 AM

Gap Analysis

Richardson’s two slides about the dissonance between what we know about the conditions for deep powerful learning and the actual conditions under which such learning takes place in schools seem an excellent starting point. In ‘olden’ days this used to be known as “gap analysis”,  looking at the difference between “what is” and what “we wish” and looking at ways to close that gap.

Example: Look at the first few conditions that Richardson identifies as being at odds with the conditions that promote powerful learning – sitting in rows, fixed time blocks of 45/60/88 minutes, one sized curriculum, one subject area focus, aged grouped co-learners. And now we come back to the role of leadership. Without the relationships, trust, and followership that we explored in earlier blogs, a serious discussion of the gaps between our beliefs and our actions is unlikely. Suggestions (or worse, mandates) for eliminating or modifying these result in responses dominated by fear and self-preservation of the status quo – i.e., the safe and familiar. At best, one gets compliance and another ‘program’ that staff members can add to the already too long list of things “we used to do”.

And so the first step in that “belief gap analysis journey” comes back to an understanding of leadership and an assessment of the current culture of the building.

In the best of all worlds, the school has a great culture, one where the relationships are deep and caring, the levels of trust high, and the sense of safety and openness to risk taking are pervasive. But what if they’re not? How do I deal with obstacles when the culture in my building is less than ideal? Perhaps I’m new to the building and have inherited the results of less effective leaders. Perhaps my previous behaviors have contributed to the culture and I lack confidence in the level of “followership” in the building.

As we’ve explored such possibilities and reflected on the places we╒ve seen where such obstacles exist, we decided offer two approaches. The first of these is based on schools in which the desired culture of trust and safety has been successfully formed and nurtured.

The second approach is geared to places where there isn’t sufficient trust and safety to move beyond responses that would be characterized by fear, self-preservation, protection of the status quo, etc and involves the need to work on two fronts: the development of the desired components of a positive culture and the commitment to what we call “little bets”. The work in such circumstances is not necessarily harder, but it is slower.

Once the context for the discussion has been established, a leader’s next step in the process of developing understanding and commitment to the ways in which the school as learning community might approach discussions relating to the need to align beliefs and actions is an honest assessment of the culture.

If the DNA supports and nurtures a culture of trust and safety, productive and  meaningful discussions with the entire staff are possible and, most frequently, welcomed.

If the DNA of your school does not include a pervasive culture of safety and trust, it is unlikely that whole staff discussions of beliefs and practices will lead to much.

In short, where the school’s DNA does not include a wide spread culture of strong leader/staff relationships or a culture characterized by feeling of trust and safety, it is possible to engage smaller numbers of ready and willing staff in conversations of context and belief/action consistency. Not only does this move the issue of belief/action resonance along, it also provides onlookers with the opportunity to reassess their concern about trust and safety.


  • Establish the context for moving beyond compliance with the so-called “reform culture”.
  • Make use of the many resources like Richardson, Robinson, Kohn, etc. to help make the case of moving beyond the focus on “schooling” to a commitment to deeper, more powerful learning.
  • Assess the degree of staff readiness – i.e., is the culture of relationships, trust, and safety strong enough to engage the entire community in the discussion of beliefs and the completion of a “gap analysis” – i.e., the dissonance between beliefs and current policies and procedures.
  • Begin the work of belief alignment

Strong cultures

  • Engage the entire staff and community in the process
  • Reaffirm beliefs – Richardson’s list of conditions provide a good starting point; Clark Adlrich’s purposes for school –  i.e., help kids learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be –  are also an excellent starting pointIdentify intentional practices which are consistent with the beliefs and which will reflect themIdentify the practices which inadvertently impede progressIdentify actions that will enhance the supportive practices and eliminate or modify those which are counterproductive

Weaker cultures –

Immediately and longer term –

  • Commit to introducing and enhancing practices that lead to cultures characterized by the strong, trusting relationships, and the sense of safety required to encourage risk taking behaviors.

Immediately and shorter term

  • Begin the process of seeding small bets –
  • Identify staff members who are regarded as leaders – i.e., they have attracted followers
  • Personally invite them to an informal meeting at which you indicate you wish to engage them in a conversation about the context that you’ve previously shared
  • Schedule and publicly announce the general topic of the meeting along with an open invitation for interested parties to attend
  • Engage the participants in the Richardson task of identifying conditions that support learning as well as the conditions that exist in the school.
  • Invite engaged participants to participate in one or more “little bet” initiatives aimed at closing the gap between beliefs and school practices and policies.

Caveat – the activities of their “bet” cannot disrupt the lives of those not involved in the initiative. In an earlier blog earlier blog I referenced the Apollo School in York, PA. This “school within a school” or micro-school exists within a larger high school and serves as an excellent example of the ways in which little bets can provide “test kitchens” for ideas without negatively impacting the less adventurous.

What next?

This is a pretty long piece.  There are more details that we can share; however, what to share would be best determined by you, the reader.  If you would like to dive deeper into any of the steps or thoughts in this plan overview, let us know and between the two of us, we’d be happy to continue the conversation.

Be well.

Leadership and the space between the notes

Background: This past week I came across several interesting articles and interviews that connect to our exploration of the followership/leadership dynamic. The articles approach very similar concepts from very different perspectives. The first of these, by Paul Zak, explores leadership through the lens of neuroscience and Zak’s findings about the connection between a brain chemical, Oxytocin, and trust. Note: Not all researchers on the effect of Oxytocin agree with Zak’s findings.  The second article is by Marcel Schwantes.  While it approaches the development of leadership from a very different perspective, I think you’ll find the similarities striking.  Enjoy.


Building trust is one of the strongest levers you have for improving team performance. There’s actually a simple formula for building the trust your team needs.

 As I was working my way through the items in my inbox, this quote grabbed me and led to Zak’s fascinating (and, for me, challenging) article. Zak has spent considerable time and research on the exploration of improving performance, largely in the business sector. While the experiences that I’ve shared in previous posts about the concepts of leadership and followership have been drawn from my readings and personal experiences in visiting schools and coaching school leaders, Zak approaches his work from the perspective of neuroscience and scientific study.

What caught my attention was his focus on the concept of trust. You may recall that in the components of leadership that I’ve shared, trust (also referred to as the “circle of safety”) occurs as a result of honest (even “fierce”) conversations and the development of caring relationships. These behaviors serve as a basis for the decision to follow the vision and purpose shared by “the leader”.

The results of Zak’s studies can be roughly summarized as follows:

…trust is a powerful lever to improve economic performance because it reduces the frictions that occur when individuals interact. If I trust you, and you are trustworthy, we are an effective team… (italics mine)

Zak’s work reveals that the presence/synthesis of Oxytocin correlates with the motivation to cooperate (trust) and he asserts that a culture of such trust can be created by constantly attending to and monitoring what he considers to be the building blocks of trust – i.e, such building blocks increase the levels of the desired Oxytocin.. While some of his scientific colleagues disagree with this connection between Oxytocin and trust, I was more interested in identification of the building blocks that he identifies as facilitators of trust.

Note: As a frequent guest on national TV, Zak has apparently developed a flair for the dramatic as demonstrated by managing to use the acronym, OXYTOCIN, to help us remember his building blocks.

  • Ovation(recognize those who meet or exceed goals)
  • eXpectation(design difficult but achievable challenges and hold colleagues accountable to reach them)
  • Yield(enable employees to complete their work as they see fit)
  • Transfer(facilitate self-management in which colleagues choose the work they want to do)
  • Openness(share information broadly)
  • Caring(intentionally build relationships with colleagues)
  • Invest(promote personal and professional growth)
  • Natural(behave authentically and ask for help)

What are the results? Zak reports:

My group collected a representative sample of 1,095 working adults and our analysis revealed that those working in companies in the top quartile of organizational trust, compared to those in the bottom quartile, had 106% more energy at work, were 76% more engaged, and reported being 50% more productive. High-trust companies had one-half the employee turnover of low-trust companies, with employees at these companies telling us that they enjoyed their jobs 60% more and felt 66% closer to their colleagues.

Trust matters, a lot.

 The second piece that caught my attention on leadership comes from Marcel Schwantes, the Principal and Founder of Leadership From the Core. The article, published in Inc., is entitled “5 Obvious Signs Someone Has True Leadership Ability (Ask Any Employee)… It’s what every employee on the planet wishes and hopes for in a boss.”

This one is as easy a read as Zak’s is challenging. I urge you to read it. It’s quick. Schwantes approaches the issue of leadership through the analysis of behaviors of very successful leaders. His focus is on effectiveness. In my terms (borrowed from Sergiovanni) he focuses on followership, how it’s built, and the results which flow from such a dynamic. One can get a pretty good idea of where Schwantes is headed when, early in the piece, he notes that very successful leaders…

… are often referred to as servant leaders, conscious leaders, authentic leaders, or transformational leaders. Whatever you call them, one thing is for sure, their helm releases discretionary effort across an organization… The secret comes down to three words People over profit.

Schwantes offers a variation of Zak’s 8 building blocks. Think about the components of leadership that we explored previously and how each of Zak’s building blocks and Schwantes’ skills/dispositions connects to things like conversations, relationships, circles of safety, willingness (maybe even eagerness) to follow.

Here’s Schwantes’ list about successful leaders…

  1. They spread joy and drive away fear – They create the environment where people look forward to coming to work, where people look forward to interacting with colleagues, and where people feel appreciated by the leader whom they know cares for them and takes care of them.
  2. They provide employees with meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging – Echoing Dan Pink’s findings on motivation. Schwantes cites the work of Adam Grant, Give and Take, who reports that when people feel a sense of purpose in their work, they are happier and more productive.
  3. They foster a learning spirit within the organization – He asserts, “People development is not a separate retention activity enforced by HR. It’s ingrained in the mindset of servant leaders.”
  4. They build trust that leads to business outcomes – Trust is a pillar of leadership.
  5. They are open and honest in how they communicate – Schwantes includes a quote from Melissa Reiff, CEO of The Container Store (ranked #49 on Forbes list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For), “…nothing makes someone feel more a part of a team than knowing everything has been communicated to them”.

And So…

As I’ve watched these recent posts on leadership unfold and evolve, I realize that in some ways, what has emerged is a bit of a rubric for leadership self-reflection. But I also had an experience this past week that reminded me that this is still incomplete.

I had the chance to listen to an NPR interview with a group of world famous musicians who had collaborated on a new collection. The interviewer asked an interesting question, “What is there that draws you to do these kinds of collaborations?” The answer fascinated me when each of them responded that it was the opportunity to learn. The interviewer then followed up with the request, “Can you give me an example?” It may have been Yo-yo Ma (my memory isn’t that good) who responded, “I was reminded of the importance of tender spaces… the spaces between the notes. I know it but when I heard it in the playing of my friends, I relearned the importance.”

“Tender Spaces” what a concept!   I immediately thought of the constant flood of news about the direction and actions of our new leadership in Washington. Regardless of what position you hold in the back and forth, what is conspicuously absent is the presence of any “tender” spaces… times of silence to allow us to look at the views of the “other” to find ways to connect. This may be wishful thinking in the context of national politics; however, it is not, and cannot be, wishful thinking in our work.

This is a week when the nation annually honors educators, teachers and principals. This has not been an easy time for anyone in education, regardless of one’s place on the pecking order. In some ways the honoring it feels a bit hollow to me.

But it can be a time when we create a bit of tender space… space to reflect on what it’s might be like to be in the shoes of others… the administrators who seek to lead us, the teachers who struggle with ever changing and more oppressive regulations, the kids whose lives are filled with moments which often eclipse the importance of school… space to reflect on how the stresses of everyday life may have eaten away at our sense of compassion and empathy. Imagine if we each took a bit of time and asked someone “what’s it like to be you right now?”

If nothing else in this post resonates, please take just a bit of time to create a tender space for someone.

Be well

I might grow to like Facebook

Bandwagon 2016-08-26 at 2.23.29 PM

Shared publicly by Rolf Degen

This isn’t the blog I began this morning. My schedule has been a bit off the past week or so and, while I haven’t been writing, my mind has been filled with topics. As you might surmise, I read a lot. I have a place on my Flipboard account where I save articles, posts, etc. that strike me as something I might like to explore in writing. I began the morning with the intent of beginning with those articles and then life happened.

As regular readers know, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to make connections between leadership and learning. I tend to see the issue of improving opportunities for learning as a leadership issue. This is probably not surprising as I spent the last 20 years or so of my career in such positions.

One of the things that happened this week was that I had a birthday. In the Facebook world, this means that “friends” can choose to share their best wishes with you. I should point out that I’m a terrible Facebook user. I love to read about how people I know and care about are doing. I’m not too fond of political polemics and I sometimes wonder who actually has the time to film all of the cat videos. I’m pretty clueless about posting stuff. But this time I got ambushed.

The whole thing started pretty much as expected. I got birthday well wishes. I sent (hoping I had figured out the process of replying to all who had contacted me) a thank you and then it happened. I got more responses… responses from some of my former students telling me how important I had been in their lives and in the lives of some of their friends. Wow! And then it hit me. In my core I don’t think of myself as a leader. I am a teacher. One of hundreds of thousands, millions who have made a difference in the life of a student.

I was blessed. I was blessed because I lived in classrooms before NCLB. I lived in classrooms where I could look at the kids sitting there in front of me (yup, it was pretty traditional in the 1970’s and 80’s) and gauge both their readiness and their neediness. I lived in a school where the school leaders understood empowerment and trust. I lived in a school with school leaders who tolerated my quirkiness and encouraged me to explore… leaders who allowed and encouraged me to be the teacher my Facebook friends remembered.

But I also lived at a time when it was still considered both acceptable and expected that a certain percentage of the students would not learn well. I lived at a time when I inadvertently contributed to the need for changing the way our kids experience learning. I lived at a time when I believed that better standards and assessments could and would make a difference… that it was the absence of these in classrooms (and not the very system of schooling) that caused ‘achievement concerns’.

I believed that until I realized four things: (1) teaching is not the same as causing learning, (2) standards and assessments as we have developed and implemented them lead to standardization not to increased learning, (3) school as an educational structure and institution still fails far too many students, and (4) we have expected schools and schooling to bear the brunt of our collective unwillingness to deal with the larger issues of poverty and opportunity

And now it seems clear to me that we have defined leadership and teaching both separately and much too narrowly.

As I began to craft this, I recalled a story I read about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was not a fan of the press. He had not been treated well. When asked if he would give an interview for a major newspaper, he replied that he would not but he would grant the interviewer access to him for a day as he went about the business of being president. At one point the pair entered a room in the White House which was entirely devoted to models of Civil War battlefields. The reported later shared that he asked Lincoln if this was so that he could plan how to win the war. Lincoln’s response was, “No, sir, I’m trying to figure out how to save lives. If too many people die on either side we will never be reunited as a country.”

The reporter wrote a short article asking readers to decide who they would like as a leader… the person involved in trying to save lives or the person who placed winning above all else. When Lincoln was assassinated, police found the following in his pockets, a pocket watch, a few dollars, and a dog-eared copy of that article. Friends recalled (never before knowing what it was) that at times a great stress, Lincoln would remove a small piece of paper from his wallet and read it.

My Facebook birthday experience reminded me… our job is to save lives. We, as educators, must all be leaders in that quest. It is the highest form of both teaching and leadership.

Be well

A Holy Season Reflection…

For many people this is a holy season… a time of reflection and affirmation. This is a short post to respect the tradition

I recently read a post that offered thoughts about the relative impact of words and pictures. The author shared that we now live in a time of expanding possibilities. It’s a time a time when the word can be strengthened and the emotional power significantly increased by our access to the world of video. We laugh, we cry, we respond (and, yes, sometimes cringe) to the images that we encounter.

A few years ago at Fenway Park in Boston, a group of fans not usually known for their gentility, did something remarkable. On a day dedicated to people with special needs, the Red Sox arranged for a young autistic man to sing the national anthem. As those of us who have worked with special needs students know only too well, there are times when not everything goes as planned. When things go south, they can do so in a hurry. This one had disaster written all over it. But then something special happened. Take a look for yourself.

I have used this clip often at the end of presentations to remind participants of the power we all have when we act together.   But the more I’ve seen this (and I still need tissues), the more I began to realize just how remarkable this event was. Take another look and this time see if you can notice what happens when the young man begins what could have turned the event to disaster. He loses it and begins to laugh at around :38 and the crowd begins to laugh as well. By :51 he’s well on his way to a train wreck. But by :58 the crowd has somehow come together to save him. Not only do they begin to take over, but around 1:04 the entire crowd adjusts to sing with him. It’s still his day.

How did that happen? How did 37,000+ fans come together spontaneously to do something that special? And for our work, how do we tap into the support, caring, of people who came to our schools to do their best for kids?  Can we, as leaders, own the responsibility for making this happen?

Here’s another clip…

A colleague and friend shared this with me recently. In his message he mentioned that his teenage son had shared it with him. Teenagers sharing video clip of rocket launches with their parents… who says the world isn’t changing?

It’s a clip of the successful launch of one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets. I found it powerful and moving.  Take a look.

The feat was inspiring, but what hit me hardest was the pieces of the clip that showed the workers at SpaceX and their engagement in the moment. I know it’s a promo but I also know you don’t fake the emotion that is captured in the clip… the anxiety, the hope, the celebration.

As usual, I connected it to school and the creation of a learning culture. I thought that even at graduation ceremonies I had rarely witnessed what I was seeing in this clip. And I know that the vast majority of teachers I have encountered in the schools I have visited throughout the country began their work with the same commitment, the same enthusiasm, the same anxiety, the same hopes for success.

Perhaps, as leaders, we need to be able to acknowledge this more often and acknowledge the fact that, while they are not likely to put a woman on Mars, in their work they do something far greater. Each and every day they impact the lives of the kids… kids whom they teach, the kids who see them, the kids who excel, the kids who struggle. Perhaps as leaders we can ask them how we can help them, like the SpaceX crowd, hold onto, recapture, live with the joy of doing something that great.

Be well.

Moving Beyond What Is…

In our last post, “How to Climb the Right Mountain”, I suggested that defining what we wanted our students to know, to be able to do, and to be like was a foundational starting point for taking a look at where we are and where we might want to go. I then shared how our beliefs might support or impede our progress.

I hope you’ve been able to take some time and explore the beliefs that are currently driving your school. The schedule, the time of year, the normal, and sometimes crushing, demands of everyday school operations may not have allowed you to look at this deeply as a staff.   Recognizing these pressures, I urge you to do this, at minimum, as an exercise for yourself and, even better, with a small group of “lifeboat” colleagues.  This post adds “Next Steps” to that process.

This past week I had the opportunity to listen to an interview with two theoretical physicists who had recently been able to document the accuracy of a prediction made by Einstein that large celestial bodies sometimes crash together. The scientists, after years of experimentation, had been able to construct equipment that was able to detect the evidence of such activity. The news reverberated throughout the scientific community.

The interviewer asked one of the scientists how he had managed to maintain his sanity throughout such a long and frequently disappointing process. His answer spoke to me and is applicable to all of us who are engaged in the work of trying to shift the direction of schooling. He shared that he and his colleagues discovered the importance of savoring the little advances, the small victories, so that they wouldn’t allow the enormity of their goal to overwhelm and dishearten them when things went awry.

It reminded me of a book that I too frequently forget in my impatience to ‘re-imagine school and learning’. A while back I mentioned a book about the life of St. Francis entitled, Francis: The Journey and the Dream (Murray Bodo, O.F.M.). In it, the author shares the wisdom that it is the dream that makes the journey possible, but it is the journey that makes the dream a reality. And so the dream of reforming the way we value and enable learning begins with the steps of the journey.

One of the beliefs that I’ve developed on my own journey is that we cannot leave important things to chance. To achieve the reality of anytime, anyplace, any pace learning, we have to bring intentionality into our practice and into our culture.   And so, on to the next step in the “journey”… moving beliefs to consistent actions.

In almost all cases within the realm of my experience, the exercise of identifying the core beliefs that we hold has revealed some areas in which we can readily recognize that our actions are either not consistent with our beliefs or are not having the desired effect. Here are several examples.

  1. We believe that we learn best when we see the relationships between concepts but we continue to organize the school day into discrete content blocks with connections occurring only accidentally.
  2. We believe that students learn at different paces and are subject to varying levels of readiness but move the classes through material in lockstep fashion, based almost exclusively on age.
  3. Based on the mission statements in many of our schools, we appear to have a strong belief that the role of schools is to help form/develop productive and contributing citizens but we typically report only on things like scholarships earned and post-secondary acceptances with direct feedback limited to those students who return report their experiences.

As I write this I’m imagining the responses… You mean we should trash the curriculum based on discrete content courses? You mean we should not group kids by age and do away with grade levels? Come on, that’s just not possible! It’s a sure route to searching EdWeek for my next job.

Unfortunately, in most communities I suspect you’re right. Does that mean that you have to give up your beliefs because you can’t get there immediately? I don’t believe that and the interview with our theoretical physicists reinforces this. They took pleasure and acknowledged the small steps along the way. They didn’t give up because they didn’t hit a home run on the first swing. So what might smaller steps look like?

An alternative to discrete content organization – You may recall a while back I referenced the Apollo School in York, Pennsylvania. This is a high school program within a school that integrated English, social studies and art into one block of time as a starting point or “little bet” to explore a way to intentionally act on and validate their beliefs.

An alternative to age grouping – This involves the practice of flexibly grouping children in Language Arts in grades 1-3 to allow them and their teachers to match learning experiences with their competency and readiness levels. The flexibility comes from allowing the students to fluidly move between groups based on their performance. Can’t be done? Tell that to the Montessori folks.

Take a look at a random sampling of mission statements that I’ve pulled from school/district websites.

Mission statements (Italics mine)

The mission of the XX School District is to create a quality, caring educational environment and to develop academic, vocational and social programs that will enable students to achieve their highest potential in personal growth; and that the family, the community, business and industry will share in the responsibility to prepare students to function as effective citizens in an ever-changing global community.

We, the XX School District, in partnership with our families and community, are dedicated to providing each student with relevant educational experiences that develop well-rounded, productive citizens in our diverse world…

The XX experience, a community partnership, will assure our students challenging learning opportunities that are shaped by the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards in order for them to become contributing members of society.

The mission of the XX School District, a diverse metropolitan “hometown” working together as a unified community, is to provide unlimited opportunities that maximize everyone’s potential to be a life-long learner and a contributing member of society.”

I imagine if you check your own district’s mission statement, it is likely that you will find similar references. We’ll assume for now that the focus on the development of life long learning and productive/effective citizenship are pretty common. Now see if you can find any references to intentional efforts to contact graduates to ascertain the achievement of this aspect of the mission.

I’ve asked this question repeatedly and, with one notable exception, the best I can come up with is something like this… “We tried it once or twice but the return rate was terrible.”

The intentionality lesson resides in the notable exception… having experienced disappointment with the return on their initial attempts to engage graduates in the process, the solution involved having the kids identify their favorite teachers before leaving school and making the survey contact via a personalized postcard from the students’ favorite teachers. The return rate was excellent. This was an excellent example of connecting beliefs to intentional actions.

The conclusion… if you want to bridge the gap between beliefs and actions, you blend beliefs with intentionality. You look at what you say you believe and look for intentional actions that can consistently reflect these or, turning this on its head, you look at what you are doing and deduce from these actions what you appear to believe. The dissonance between what you profess to believe and what your actions and school culture communicate is the starting point for action.

compassIs this a startling or earthshaking conclusion? Hardly. However, the dissonance between our beliefs and how we actualize these is, too often, startling. Our beliefs are our compass. Revisiting them helps us to define the “right thing”. Intentionally, synchronizing our beliefs with our actions is a critical step in avoiding simply trying to do the wrong thing better.

What Can I do?

Start small… begin with a the small group of “lifeboat colleagues” and complete a beliefs analysis:

  • Begin with the Robinson list of the beliefs which have been formative in the development of schools as most of us have experienced them. Here’s a shortened list of just those beliefs that have formed the basis for the ways in which have traditionally approached learning
    • Students learn best when learning is organized into separate subjects
    • Students learn best when learning is separated by ringing bells
    • Students learn best when students work in isolation and within groups organized by age
    • Students learn at the same rate and pace
    • Students learn best when standardization, compliance and conformity are high priorities
  • Do you agree/disagree with his list – i.e., do you feel that school should be organized according to these beliefs?
  • In what ways does your school reflect these beliefs? What actions, policies, procedures support Robinson’s list?
  • Assuming your group rejects one or more of the items on the list, what intentional actions might you take to reflect your belief – i.e., assuming a rejection of Robinson’s last item, what intentional actions might be taken to reflect the re[placement belief?

How to Climb the Right Mountain…


Mountain Screen Shot 2017-03-28

Chugach Mountains Aleska

Note: This is developing into a series of “how to” posts. These will roughly follow Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on leadership, focusing on the three big steps in the development of followership. In earlier posts I’ve shared thinking and experiences about the components of followership.  I won’t thrash them into insignificance here; however, a concept that I  mentioned in the earlier pieces bears a bit of attention… beginning with WHY. Sinek points out that, while it is tempting to jump right in with what we should do and how we should do it, the clearer the sense of purpose is and the closer this can be integrated into the activities and practices of an organization, the greater the likelihood of high engagement. Thus, this series begins with some focus on that need. It continues, though, with a greater focus on “how” and “what”.

In my most recent post, I shared the analysis of the unintended consequences the “all in” approach to the standards/assessment reform agenda of the past several decades. What was new to this discussion was the opportunity to share the thoughts of Bernard Chan whose firsthand experience with the results of this direction in Asia provide us with a pretty interesting glimpse into the future of the current direction. As I noted, the picture isn’t a rosy one. As the Singapore experience demonstrates, there is a significant gap between the value of the learning demonstrated by the high performers in Asia and the needs of their society and that of the globalized and interconnected world.

My continued takeaway from this is that, even should we experience greater success with our current direction than we have to date, we still will not be preparing our students for the college and career readiness goals that we have defined as necessary for entry into a world which continues to experience huge shifts in the definition of readiness.

Almost 15 years ago (after my second failed attempt at retirement) when I began my new career as an educational consultant, I had the opportunity to focus on school improvement initiatives. In visiting schools and classrooms around the country and coaching for Rigor, Relevance and Relationships (the 3 R’s of the International Center for Leadership in Education with whom I worked), I frequently found myself suggesting that the teachers seemed to be working hard teaching students who were no longer in their classrooms. As my experiences grew, I began to notice that not only were we teaching kids who were significantly different than we were as students, we were teaching them things that were not preparing them for the world they were entering, regardless whether that was higher education or the workforce.

As the standards and assessment strategy continued to evolve during that time, we responded to continued disappointment with the failure of student achievement to grow at expected rates and, in response to that disappointment, we doubled down on these strategies. To this mix of ever more rigorous standards and ever more complex high stakes assessments, we added teacher ineffectiveness (and accompanying blame), new systems for rating both students, teachers, and schools, as well as a growing number of voices that heretically suggested that we had chosen not only the wrong approaches but, perhaps, even the wrong mountain. Sure we paid lip service to advances in learning theory which contested the wisdom of continued reliance on test and punish strategies. We even paid some attention to the impact of things like poverty, challenges faced by English language learners, etc. But, by and large, we continued and continue to this day to rely on strategies that have been demonstrated to be ineffective.

As the voices of dissent grew in volume and searched for alternatives, we saw opt out numbers grow, as did home schooling, on-line learning opportunities and unschooling options. This search continues, as do discussions about options, now complicated by growing acceptance of ideologically driven agendas, aimed not at improving public schools but in equating public schools with government and opening the door to “market driven solutions”.

So where the heck is this going?

While a superintendent, I was sometimes asked by employees a question that went something like, “What do I have to do to get this promotion?” After some years of being one of the “deciders” about such job promotions, I realized that there were cases in which I would be asking myself “why should I promote this person?” And there were other cases where the question was quite different, “How can I NOT promote this person?”

We are increasingly aware of parents asking a variation on that kind of question about our schools and the answer is the same. As school leaders, the only acceptable question for our parents to ask is, “How Can I NOT send my child to that school.” Any other question is a lose! As school leaders, we have a critical choice moving forward… what can we do in our schools so parents have only that one question, “How can I NOT send my child to that school?”

Addressing the “how” question…

And so to the questions at hand? How do I do create a culture of learning in my school in a way that never encourages parents to ask, “Why should I send my child to that school?” How do I help my school climb the right mountain?

Identifying the right mountain… The first part of this one is surprisingly easy. It’s easy because 90+% of the staff in your school know the answer. Ask them one question. “What do we wish for our kids? Specifically, what do we want our kids to know, to be able to do, and to be as a result of their time with us? I’ve done it enough to know the answers. I’m sure there will be a couple of “all of the important characters in Shakespeare’s plays” or “the seven causes of WWII” or “How do I solve a quadratic equation?”. But what I’m equally sure of is that there will be a strong consensus and high degree of frequency for things like kind, considerate, able to work with others, independent learners, flexible, organized, tolerant, problem solvers, etc.

Note: I prefer to do this as a part of a day devoted to this “compass work”. I’m a fan of public discussion about things with this level of importance. I like the idea of being able coach based on group determined goals and plans.

It’s the second part that is less easy and, often, embarrassing. It involves the development of belief statements and principles upon which we base our work. This is, by no means, a walk in the park. It involves deep and, not infrequently, heated discussions that surface the conflicts about what we (both as educators and as former students) have internalized about schooling, learning, and learners and what research (think Dewey, ) has been telling us.

One of the best summaries about the beliefs that have guided the development of our schools and the experiences of children within them is offered by Sir Ken Robinson in his now famous TED Talk, Changing Education Paradigms.

Robinson offers that our schools and schooling are organized around the following beliefs:

  • Schools serve both economic and cultural functions – education achievement is important to the health of the economy and education is the means by which cultural norms are transmitted.
  • Traditional belief that the path to a good life is work hard in school, do well, go to college and get a good job
  • Intelligence is both related to deductive reasoning and to ability to do well academically
  • Not all students are capable of doing intellectual/academic work – i.e., there are smart people and not-smart people
  • Arts compete with academic and intellectual goals of the school
  • Learning takes place best when
    • It is organized into separate subjects into discrete subjects
    • It is separated by ringing bells and when
    • Students work in isolation within groups organized by age
    • Students learn at the same rate and pace
    • Conformity, standardization, compliance and are high priorities

While these beliefs can be more or less dominant from school to school, in 10+ years of visiting and observing schools around the country I can offer with confidence, it is a rare school community that has re-visited their beliefs and how they affect what happens within the school and, most importantly, how they affect learning and learners.

Contrast this reality with the following quote from “10 Principles for Schools of Modern Learning: The Urgent Need Case for Reimagining Today’s Schools” recently published by Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon.

In the modern world, being a self-directed and self-determined learner is the most important skill to develop. School communities without clearly articulated beliefs around learning create wild inconsistencies for students as they travel between classrooms and take part in extracurricular experiences. Without a collaboratively created belief system that is lived each day through classroom norms for learning and a common language, schools cannot develop each child to his or her potential as a learner.

So where to next?

For you?

Can you consider completing two actions with a small group of folks that you’ve already identified as folks you’d to have with you in a life boat?

  1. The first task is the easy one. Together compile a “what we want our kids to know, be able to do, to be like” list. Start by asking for at least 10 and then rank them.
  2. With the same group, look at Robinson’s summary list (above) and edit it. Add examples of actions that are connected to specific statements. Add new beliefs and/or eliminate ones that aren’t reflected in your school. Hint: Challenge the removal of items from the list and ask for examples of actions consistent with new additions.

For me

Post #2 in the series – How to bridge the belief/action gap. Bringing intentionality to actualizing our beliefs.