A Eulogy for a Leader

img_1182-1A while back I shared what I consider to be the key components of leadership.  My reflection stemmed from a conversation I had a long time ago with Tom Sergiovanni who suggested that “leadership was the capacity to build followership”. In piecing together my own experiences in various leadership positions and the lessons learned from my work as an executive coach, I identified both what I considered the key components of leadership as well as the process by which prospective leaders moved the  “capacity to build followership” into actual followership.

The “journey” begins with honest, sometimes “fierce” conversation, builds these into deep, caring, trusting relationships and creates what Simon Sinek calls “circles of safety”… places where the presence of such caring, trusting relationships help us overcome our fears of change, of risk-taking, of ‘following’ to places that might be unfamiliar.

This week I had the opportunity to read in a local paper a tribute to a superintendent who had died suddenly in tragic circumstances.  I’ve included the link to the piece  here and I urge you to read it. It is more than the story of one very talented and highly respected educator.  It is a course description of leadership… of the skills and dispositions that resulted in a kind of “holy” followership.

The author, Rob Anthes writes…

Two years have passed since a car driven by a Robbinsville High School student struck and killed the Robbinsville Schools superintendent and his dog, Gertie, April 19, 2016. That day and the days that followed changed Robbinsville forever.

But it quickly became clear that [Steve] Mayer wouldn’t be defined by how he died. He had long been mindful of his reputation and the path he led, and the school district followed suit.

This could be applied to practical things, such as the way the school district looks for alternative revenue sources, the cultivating of the Robbinsville Extended Day program, the creation of an energy savings improvement plan and the hiring of a school resource officer.

It could be seen in the way he approached education, believing in opportunities and access for all students. He felt strongly that students needed to learn how to be citizens and to have a voice, which is why he encouraged involving students in discussions. The district continues to hold student focus groups so the education in Robbinsville Schools reflects those the district serves.

It’s seen in Robbinsville’s curriculum, which prioritizes research and communication skills thanks to Mayer’s push.

…But, on the surface, these are things every superintendent does. So why does Mayer continue to serve as a guide for the Robbinsville community?

The district’s current superintendent, Kathie Foster, explained…

“He made so many deep, abiding and personal connections,” Foster said. “That’s why we talk about him. He was such a genuine person. His heart was so big and so visible. He shared with everyone. You talk with people, and they say that he was such a close friend of theirs. You hear that from so many people. Part of that is the openness to love everyone. That’s who he was. He was not afraid to love and accept.”

This has been made apparent to every person who walks through the front doors of a Robbinsville school. In the vestibule of each of the district’s three schools, there’s a plaque. On it is Mayer with his trademark smile and the phrase, “Make someone’s day today.”

Anthes continues…

The district has worked so its students learn these attributes, the ones that made Mayer so special—empathy, compassion, resilience. The corporate world calls these “soft skills,” but people who crossed paths with Mayer know better than most there’s nothing soft about them. Foster suggested a more suitable term would be “human.” For it was with those skills, Mayer changed countless lives—merely by embracing others’ humanity. It’s also what those same people miss most about him.

Anthes concludes his piece with an excerpt from a description written by Dr. Mayer’s administrative assistant.

Steve Mayer…Boss. Friend. Seeker. Good Steward. Family Man. Scholar. Sports Fan. Nature Lover. Teacher. Leader. Champion of Justice. Inspiration.

An open minded enthusiast for children, families and the Robbinsville community, Steve had a passion for new ideas and loved the process—and the challenge—of helping people to see the world in new and different ways. He had a quick mind and was rarely at a loss for words. My friend was as smart as he was fun. He was committed to excellence and couldn’t help but look to uncover the quiet hero in every individual that crossed his path. By nature, he was an optimist who fostered independence in others by encouraging them to fly. He provided me, and countless others, with wings to soar and a soft place to fall in the event of a crash landing. I am just one of many whose lives are richer and more meaningful for having had the good fortune to have known him.

I recall a story written about Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln, in the throes of the Civil War did not grant interviews.  He did, however, invite a reporter to spend the day with him as he went about his work.  At one point the reporter was ushered into a room in the White House which had been converted into a miniature battlefield. The reporter asked Lincoln, if he was, as Commander-in- Chief, trying to plan a victorious battle. Lincoln replied. “No. I’m trying to save lives. For if too many soldiers die in this war, it will be impossible to reunite the country.”  The reporter wrote a short article praising Lincoln and asking readers if all wouldn’t want a leader whose goal was to save lives.

When Lincoln was assassinated, in his pockets were a few dollars and a dog-eared, folded piece of paper.  People then recalled that in times of stress, Lincoln frequently pulled a small piece of folded paper from his pocket and read it.  It was a copy of the article.

In our work as leaders here are a few words to carry with us…

He was committed to excellence and couldn’t help but look to uncover the quiet hero in every individual that crossed his path. By nature, he was an optimist who fostered independence in others by encouraging them to fly. He provided me, and countless others, with wings to soar and a soft place to fall in the event of a crash landing.


Beating “The Bind”…

Recognizing and stopping our contribution to the rise of childhood stress, anxiety and depression.

Hello again,

I know it’s been a while.  Although some of my colleagues might dispute this, I’ve never been particularly good at writing simply to fill up space. As I’ve noted previously, this has been a time of reflection… a time to immerse myself in the thinking of others and to see where I might find connections or patterns that might be useful.

As was reflected by my last post, I’ve been touched by the increasingly persuasive data that tell us that our young people are suffering. What struck me about the situation was the description offered by psychologist Dr. David Gleason about our role as educators in the process.  He uses the word “bind” to describe the conflict facing parents and educators… We are relying on a narrative of hard work, good grades, college entrance and completion to insure our kids of a future that we quietly fear may not be as possible for them as it was for us. We know that this increases stress but know no other path.  We fear that if we take another path we might fail and fail them. So, with the help counselors, psychologists and outside resources, we do our best to identify and provide help for those in most obvious need, while at the same time we continue to resist making changes to the systems which are, at least partially, causal in the increases in stress, anxiety, and depression.

I want to call your attention to the work of Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon and their team in not only highlighting this problem but also offering a guide to what can be done and how. My hope is that you will find in this post, and in their work, a growing recognition of our unintentional role in contributing to the dilemma facing our kids, their parents, and their teachers and see the possibilities/steps offered by Bruce and Will as a viable alternative.


For the past few months I’ve been participating in an on-line professional growth group, Change Leaders Community, that is focused on supporting folks who are interesting in, or who working on, bringing new learning opportunities to our students and change to our system of schooling.  The group was begun and is moderated by Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon and their very talented team at Modern Learners.  Bruce and Will bring an incredible depth and range of experiences and have founded the community in recognition of the need for those involved in the change process to have access to others attempting the same work. Participants come from a variety of countries and bring a wealth of experience and experiences to our discussions.

This week’s call was focused on the sharing of a recently published eBook, 7 Strategies to Win the War on Learning, written by Bruce and Will.   This is a very practical work (I believe there is more to come) and, as a concrete sign of their commitment to change, they have generously offered it under a Creative Commons license allowing for the free sharing of the material.

Note: The link provided above will take you to a free download page which also serves as a bit of an introduction to their work.  While there is a fee attached to participating in the Change Leaders Community, this is a “no strings” download.

And so…

The book focuses on what Bruce and Will consider one of the largest areas of need for change… assessment.  There is a growing understanding of the failure of our current system of assessment and large-scale state testing to provide any kind of reliable information about the learning of our students or the effectiveness of our teachers.  Perhaps of even greater importance is the growing recognition of the role that our current assessment systems play in adding to the stress on our students. When we look seriously about how schools contribute to the rising levels of stress, anxiety and depression among youth, our system of assessments ranks as one of the top factors.  It is in recognition of these two issues, that Bruce and Will decided to focus on assessment as a critical aspect of school change.

Another Note: I’ll be looking at the issues of grading and the growing interest in mastery transcripts in my next post. 

There are three pieces of the book that struck me.

The first of these is a superbly organized (and well researched) section about the origins, development, and misuse of testing.  What I found fascinating about these chapters was the recognition of the need to help parents, students, and other educators (who have had some form of testing a part of their schooling for as long as any of us have been alive) understand that their initial distaste for tests was well founded.   Not too many of us sat there breathlessly and excitedly anticipating our next big test! Bruce and Will handle this insightfully and usefully. I consider this the “WHY” of the book.

The second piece that captured my attention was the “WHAT” section… the 7 Strategies that they identified. They entitle these: 7 Strategies to Support Assessment That Supports Learning.

  1. Beliefs must drive assessment.
  2. Challenge assumptions, biases, and orthodoxies that influence assessment practice.
  3. Communication beats compliance.
  4. Explore status-quo busting assessment solutions to provide more authentic and real-world choices.
  5. Let students learn about how they learn.
  6. Measure what matters.
  7. Invest in TRUST.

Moving people way from their long-held beliefs involves a lot of “unlearning”.  This is no less true when we think about assessment.  Note that their focus is not to eliminate assessment but to design, select and utilize assessment practices that support learning.  The strategies they describe and explore represent steps that, while they may differ in sequence and depth from school to school, are critical to the success of any change plan.

The third piece that interested me was the way in which they had formatted each section of the “7 Strategies” descriptions.  Each strategy contains an expansion of key aspects of deep explorations: Why This Matters, From Strategy to Action, Questions to Further the Conversation, and Resources.  For me this was the “HOW” of the book.  It is less a concrete action plan that a guide for engaging stakeholders in the kinds of conversations/explorations that encourage ownership of the conclusions rather than and expectation for compliance with a new orthodoxy.  Having facilitated such change processes in school as a consultant (often with mixed results), I appreciated the guidance they offer.

Your turn

I hope you’ll take the time to read 7 Strategies and share your thoughts with us.

“Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch” –  Garrison Keillor

If We Know This Stuff Why Aren’t We Changing More?


Note: My thanks to Will Richardson and the team at change leaders.community for the inspiration for this post. If you’re interested in exploring and collaborating with like-minded educators about the why and how of school change, I strongly recommend checking out the change leaders community. Their work has added considerable richness to the reflections during my self-imposed retreat and leads me to a further exploration of a couple of themes that have occupied my thinking and writing, leadership, and change. 

“Dylan Bueno is buried. Did pressure from school contribute to his apparent suicide?”

This the headline from a blog post on March 14th by Bob Braun, a retired education editor/writer for a major NJ newspaper. Mr. Braun continued:

Dylan Bueno–at 14, not quite a child and still not yet a young man–was buried Wednesday by his family. Five days earlier, he apparently committed suicide not long after he learned he would not be able to participate in his eighth-grade graduation from Newark’s Ann Street School

Just hours before I read this story, I had finished listening to a podcast/interview which featured a conversation between Will Richardson and David Gleason. Gleason is a psychologist whose book,  At What Cost on the growing problem of student stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide is generating significant questions about the role of school in this alarming trend.

It was no accident that I found my way to this podcast. A few days ago, I revisited a piece written by (here’s that name again) Will Richardson, entitled “Our Moral Imperative”. In this  article Will shared his experience meeting David Gleason and encountering his notion of “immunity to change”. More about that in a bit.  As I read and listened I heard two distinct threads. They represent what Gleason refers to as the “current bind”… the dissonance between our public and open commitments and what our behaviors reveal about less public commitments.

The first thread involves the evolution of our culture. From a cultural perspective the school children of this generation are living at a time when their parents have lost considerable faith in the likelihood that their children will have a better life than they did. Furthermore, they have accepted (and contributed to) a conventional wisdom that defines what path is most likely to present their children with the best chances for “beating the odds” – study hard, do well in school, get above average SAT, ACT scores, submit great college applications, get into the best possible college, be the first in our family to attend college, etc.

In his book, Gleason describes the bind that we find ourselves grappling with

Behold the bind. For years and years, we have been encouraging parents to send their young adolescent children to rigorous and high-achieving secondary schools. Once they’re admitted, we instill our students with hope, and we promise them challenging academics, close student-teacher relationships, and a nurturing and supportive environment—and we mean it. Further, with their admission, we extend a seemingly equitable opportunity for a diploma, itself an implied “passport to a better life.” This is the parents’ and students’ aspiration, and it’s the aspiration for which we, as overseers of these schools, have pledged our support and have dedicated our careers. However, when our young students actually enroll, against our best intentions but driven by our own fears, we overschedule, overwork, and sometimes overwhelm them. We set them up for frustration and failure when we expect them to think and act like adults long before they have actually developed those capacities. We reward high achievement over effort, and most of all, we overfocus on the college process almost from the moment they arrive (38-39).

Schools are seen as the primary means by which the fears of parents (transmitted very effectively to their kids) can be addressed. We, as educators, in responding to these expectations and to the pressures imposed by state and federal requirements have been complicit in the creation of a culture of high expectations, imposed at increasingly earlier grades, with the promise of dire consequences for both students and educators when expectations are not/cannot be met.

The second thread that I found in my explorations of the Richardson/Gleason resource is a part of Gleason’s work identifying why we find change so hard. Gleason’s explanation for our reluctance to change makes a comparison between the body’s systems for rejecting threats to our health (our immune systems) and the idea that we also possess an emotional defense mechanism which he terms our “immunity to change”. The system helps us reject change that might threaten our sense of self or our personal comfort. You can read about his study and the details of his interview protocol here

The thread that Gleason highlights in describing the current bind we are facing is not surprising… it is fear. As educators, while we recognize that our focus on trying to insure a successful future for our students has resulted in unhealthy pressures and is contributing to the historically high anxiety levels of students, we have done little to address this.

In October of last year, the NY Times reported on this problem as follows:

In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.

“Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety”, NY Times, October 11, 2017

Here is Richardson’s description of what Gleason has learned:

“…we say without hesitation that we want authentic engagement with our students, that we want to promote a healthy school culture, and we want to produce happy learners (and much more).

But when you ask teachers and leaders what they are doing (or not doing) that actually gets in the way of achieving those goals, they readily respond that they over schedule kids, they focus too much on college admissions, that they emphasize grades too much, and that they assign too much homework (and much more). Nor surprisingly these admissions make us feel uncomfortable.”

In their conversation Gleason (in the podcast) and Richardson (in the article) point out it is the next step in the protocol that gets interesting. Participants are asked to identify what fears they would have if they did the opposite of their negative practices. Here are a few of the fears that Gleason got when conducting the protocol around the issues of excessive focus on college, over-emphasis on grades, homework assignments, etc. I’ve paraphrased a few of his findings from his interviews.

If the teachers didn’t continue with the current practices…

  • They would be perceived as intellectually ‘soft.’
  • Their students wouldn’t get in to good colleges, and they would eventually lose our jobs.
  • We might find out that ‘maybe we’ve been wrong all along.’
  • If they actually tried to implement developmentally appropriate practices, they fear that they might try and fail … They do what they’re comfortable doing.
  • If they did commit to a more developmentally healthy culture… they’d have to face making adjustments in their program, which could have an impact on their jobs.

As the convergence of events and ideas continued, it struck me that my exposure to these resources during my time of “retreat” was no accident. Rounding out this I’d like to offer the following for consideration.

What Gleason has described is a real and complex bind… a combination of forces have conspired to create a condition which has significantly increased the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in our young people. Our current solution to this situation is to get better at identifying young people who are exhibiting signs of such distress and to provide support resources to heal or “fix” them. Once again, relying on the wisdom of Russell Ackoff, this is a classic example of trying to do the wrong thing better. We know what the right thing to do is… it is to fix the system that is causing the stress, the anxiety, the depression and placing the lives of too many children at risk. It is to stop over-scheduling our kids. It is to stop the overemphasis on grades and college admission. It is to stop the madness of hours of time devoted to test –prep and high stakes assessments. It is time to stop transferring our fears about the future of kids to our kids.   It is our fear that allows the bind to continue. The cost of this fear is too high. Just ask Dylan Bueno’s mom.

Be well






Stupidity May Be Contagious

.Just when you think you’ve begun to understand the almost daily dose of zaniness emanating from Washington and suffer from the momentary delusion that the stupidity is confined to our nation’s capital, we are confronted with the possibility that stupidity may, in fact, be contagious.

I’m fairly certain that readers of this blog may hold differing positions on the issues relating to gun control. My intent is not to enter that debate in this forum.

A recent article in Ed Week highlights the need for a much larger set of questions. The article addresses responses to a 17-minute nationwide walkout that is planned for March 14, and another protest planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine, Colo., school shooting, which left 13 dead.

In the Needville Independent School district in Texas, the superintendent has said that the district will not allow students to protest during school hours and warned students that they will face a three-day suspension if they chose to do so.

(Although not one of the questions I wanted to offer in this blog, can anyone else not wonder about the irony of the community’s name?)

Obviously, the folks in Illinois are a bit more subtle than their colleagues in Needville. As also reported in the Ed Week article, the superintendent of Peoria

…wrote on the district’s website that teachers and students in Peoria, will not be participating in the upcoming walkouts and protests against gun violence.  There were other ways to show support for the victims of gun violence without disrupting school, she said.

This isn’t a disruption for scheduled brain surgery. It’s a few hours out of a school day in which, if Peoria is represented in the recent Gallup polls about student engagement, less that 50% of the upper class students are engaged in what’s going on anyway.   In all likelihood, however, the protests also represent a disruption in the routines and schedules that adults find so comforting and which are so important to cultures of compliance and control.

Regardless of your interpretation of the 2nd Amendment or the status of your NRA membership, this situation is filled with teachable/learnable moments for both adults and kids alike.

I believe with increasing conviction, that we have lost our way with our current iteration of education as it is reflected in our commitment to schooling. I believe that, borrowing from Clark Aldrich and his book, Unschooling Rules, education should focus on three core principles: a commitment to help kids learn how to know; a commitment to help kids learn how to do; and, finally, a commitment to help kids learn how to be.

With a request for forgiveness from any math teachers who are reading this, can you imagine a universe in which a deeper understanding of parallelograms would be more important than helping kids explore what and how they can/should should Know about issues relating to school safety, gun control, political actions groups, and the 1st and 2nd Amendments? What about how to Do a peaceful and thoughtful demonstration of concerns about their own safety? What about helping young people learn how they want to Be in the world they see around them?

Oh, but wait. I forgot. We can’t disrupt the school day.

Why Is There Wrongness?


Pixabay – 2012

Hello. It’s been a while.  It’s interesting that I feel guilty and a need to apologize for not keeping to a schedule I never really set.  I’m thinking that a significant part of life might be a series of agreements that we don’t recall making.

As I found myself struggling to maintain “my schedule”, I decided to take stock of why I’m writing.  I find that I write for two reasons.

Often my writing is driven by a need to pass along some insights that have been shared with me. I use “that have been shared with me” deliberately because they come to me from a variety of sources most of which I can’t remember. I can recall only that they are rarely original and frequently reflect a clarity of insight that I continue to find elusive. It would be wrong to claim ownership. I have learned, however, that the clarity of such insights comes to best in stillness. In such times I sense both clarity and an obligation to share it. This has not been a “still” time.

My second reason for writing is more selfish. I write to bring order to the thoughts that I encounter. Most times it works.  But in the past several weeks I’ve begun 4 pieces. They didn’t actually begin as separate pieces; however, in each case new thoughts intruded, demanded attention, and added not clarity, but further complication. They apparently paid no heed to my pursuit of clarity. They reminded me that I don’t find clarity. Clarity finds me.

All this us by way of saying that I’m going to take a week or two to do some reading and find stillness. Retirement afford me that luxury. During that time, I’ll be revisiting some authors I’ve previously read and adding some that I’ve recently encountered and want to experience more deeply.

Here’s a short annotated list in case you’d like to join me in the explorations.

I’ve referred elsewhere to the writing and thinking of Charles Eisenstein. Eisenstein had me with the following, taken from the “About” page on his website.

Eisenstein writes…

”There is a tide of separation (separation from one another, from our planet, from our institutions) that is generating a convergence of crises – ecological, medical, educational, political, etc. …Why does money seem to be a force for injustice and destruction? …It’s just a system of agreements, a story. … What would a new story, a new system of agreements look like that were aligned with a healing planet?”

Can Eisenstein offer insight into our education crisis? What would a new series of agreements, a new story, look like if we were to remove the story of separation from our thinking?

Russell Ackoff – I’ve referred to Ackoff frequently, referencing his distinction between doing things right and doing the right thing.

He describes better than I could why I want spend more time with his thinking in an essay he wrote in 1999 for The System Thinker, published by Pegasus Communications entitled “A Lifetime of Systems Thinking”.

Most large social systems are pursuing objectives other than the ones they proclaim, and the ones they proclaim are wrong.

Example: The educational system is not dedicated to produce learning by students, but teaching by teachers – and teaching is a major obstruction to learning. Whoa!

In discussing Ackoff’s work and thinking, Will Richardson suggested that I read one of Ackoff’s books… Turning Learning RightSide Up : Putting Education Back on Track. It’s on my list.

Peter Gray, PhD, “The Joy and Sorrow of Rereading Holt’s “How Children Learn”. In Psychology Today, December 26, 2017.

Gray’s article stems from his rereading of Holt’s book on the publication of the 50th anniversary edition of that work. He addresses what he terms the sad reality that so little of Holt’s insights have made their way into contemporary education practice in our schools. He offers what he considers to be Holt’s major insights and contributions and begins with what most consider to be Holt’s most significant observation.

Schools try to teach children skills and knowledge that may benefit them at some unknown time in the future.  But children are interested in now, not the future.  They want to do real things now.  By doing what they want to do they also prepare themselves wonderfully for the future, but that is a side effect.

In taking license with a recent post recent post by Will Richardson in which he describes the commitment and capacity to turn this “now” oriented learning approach into a desire to learn more as “the artistry of teaching”, I combine this with Aldrich’s 3 purposes. For me it seems that the artistry of teaching is the commitment and capacity to turn the student’s “now” orientation into the desire to learn how to know, to learn how to do, and, of ever increasing importance in our current “story”, to learn how to be.

If you have the time and inclination to join me in this exploration of stillness and clarity, I hope you will add your own thoughts and experiences in the comment section. In the meantime…

“Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch” – Garrison Keillor


The One Percent and the Future of Our Public Schools

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I possess the ability to recognize trends and movements before they become popular. Since I’ve combined this ability with an almost total absence of business sense, I am no better off financially than had I remained blissfully clueless about the future.

Not too long ago, though, I wrote about the threats to the continuation of public education as we know it. In my mind, this required none of my “see into the future” skills. It was simply a flash of the blindingly obvious… the system of public education as we know it is under attack. In the movie “Other People’s Money”, Danny DiVito explains to people who are angry that their major source of employment has been sold and will be closing, that they are victims of ignoring change. He likens their situation to that of a buggy whip company at the beginning of the automobile era and suggests. “The Atlas Buggy Whip Company made the best God***n buggy whips they had ever made on the day they closed.”

Building on this, I wrote that we were complicit in our dilemma by too frequently resisting change with the same vigor as a buggy whip company, with the possibility of a predictably similar result. I imagine that that post might not have been my most popular. This might be considered “Take 2”.

This morning, Jan Resseger wrote, “Koch Network Plans 2018 Investment Across States to Promote Privatization of Education”.

I urge you to read the entire post (with all of Jan’s links) here.. Because I see this (remember my future telling skills) as a major issue for all of us involved and/or passionate about the importance of a vibrant and effective system of public education I’ll offer some highlights here for your consideration. Should you think that this is a “cry wolf” message, please note that as of right now Republicans have total control of government in 26 states. This is not about which party has such control. It is about the realization that one party had the plan and the resources to accomplish this and there is no reason to think that their efforts will be less well organized as they turn their attention to the privatization of our schools.

The Plan

From Jan’s post… “Here’s how political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Peterson describe the influence of the Koch Brothers in American Amnesia, their 2016 book about the essential role of government for balancing the power of private interests.”

The… array of Koch-related organizations was no Rube Goldberg machine. It was more like an offshore holding company, designed to shield donors and to make it all but impossible to determine whether money designated for ‘social welfare purposes’– exempt from campaign finance rules – found its way into the electoral politics… they built a rich peoples movement. Beginning in 2003, Charles began to form a social network that could intervene in politics on a grand scale. (American Amnesia, pp 234 – 235)

Jan notes that this weekend, the Koch brothers convened their top givers, their Seminar Network at a retreat. She adds a description from Associated Press Reporter, Steve Peoples

The Koch Networks chief lieutenants renewed their vows this weekend to spend up to $400 million on politics and policy to shape November’s midterm elections nationwide. That’s more than the combined resources spent by the Republican national committee, the National Rifle Association, and the Chamber of Commerce in the 2016 election cycle. The 550 people who were present at last weekend’s gathering of the Koch Seminar Network have pledged at least $100,000 to the Koch’s network this year.

Jan goes on to focus on the educational agenda, stating that “public education policy will be the primary target of the Koch-driven political work. She cites  piece from yesterday’s Washington Post in which James Hohmann explains how the Koch’s plan to “fundamentally transform America’s education system”.

Changing the education system as we know it was a central focus of a three- day donor seminar that wrapped up late last night at a resort here in the desert outside Palm Springs… Leaders of the network dreamed of disrupting the status quo, customizing learning and breaking the teacher unions.

One initial priority is expanding educational savings accounts and developing technologies that would let parents pick and choose private classes or tutors for their kids the same way people shop on Amazon. They envision making it easy for families to join together to start their own ‘micro-schools’ as a new alternative to the public school system.

These people are serious! Not only are they serious but they have an exceptional track record of accomplishment. Take a look at the two maps I’ve included.

IMG_2076 (1)

Pre-2010 – Ballotpedia.org

IMG_2075 (1)

2016 – Ballotpedia.org

They represent the changes in control of state governments from 2010 to the present. This change in control of state government was, like the new targeting of public education, one of the Koch’s highest profile targets after 2010. The changes are striking. From a pre-2010 map in which what is known as a “trifecta” of control (governor, senate, and house) was split 17 blue and 10 red, the 2016 map reveals 11 blue and 26 red. The change in control is dramatic and equally dramatic has been the change in the nature of the state priorities (and, not coincidentally, a state’s receptivity to programs involving some form of school choice – charters, vouchers, scholarships, tax credits, etc.).

Jan provides a quick explanation of education savings accounts, using as an example a program championed by Douglas Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor – the Education Empowerment Accounts. Jan points out that these are… “a kind of Neo-voucher – a debit card made up of public tax dollars that parents who have removed their children from public schools can use to pay for private tuition, online programs, special services for disabled children an and materials for homeschooling. In such plans parents are free to patch together the programming they believe will educate their children.”

Since the funds for such accounts come from a state’s public education budget, such expansive privatization programs have created significant drains on the public share of state education funding and have reeked havoc with the public school systems in urban centers where such programs have been implemented as solutions to “failing”schools.

In responding to questions about why the Koch Network feels so strongly about targeting the nation’s public school system, Jan relies on the work of Gordon Lafer who in his 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, explains why public education policy is a high priority for wealthy plutocrats.

At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact they have each made this a top legislative priority. The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states – thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the largest employer–thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wages and benefits standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education – So much so that every major investment Bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K– 12 education are in order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government. (The One Percent Solution, pp.128-129)

A Response

I see a need for both a short and longer-term strategy/response.

In the short term…

  • We need to arm ourselves with solid and accurate information about the implications of finding solutions to education problems by leaving the system, especially when that “leaving” involves the movement of funding resources away from the school. Jan has shared numerous posts dealing with the financial implications of various choice program that provide a solid foundation and understanding of school finance and its relationship to choice options.
  • We need to be proactive in informing our local publics about the differences between “reforms” organized around the realization of ideological agendas – i.e., the “benefits” of small government and solutions posed by privatization, commoditization of education, etc. – and necessary efforts to move our educational practices to a more student centered focus on learning.
  • Closely related to such “necessary efforts” is the abandonment of policies and practices that exist only because they have always existed.

The longer-term

  • We must co-opt the choice conversation with a commitment to providing greater choice within the public school system. There is no reason that we cannot offer opportunities for learning which extend beyond the walls of the school, beyond the traditional measures of grades and seat time, beyond the things that leave too many students disengaged and, therefore, receptive to alternatives based on their own less than fond memories of school and schooling.
  • We need to tell our stories – In virtually all of the schools that I visited during my days as a coach/consultant, regardless of the quality of the overall program, I saw examples of greatness. Most frequently I heard them in comments from students.
    • In a struggling school with terrible student academic performance, an 11th grade girl told me that, as a struggling young mother she came to school because she felt loved and accepted by all of her teachers.
    • Another young lady in a rural school told me, “The teachers here are annoying. They won’t let me fail.”
    • A principal in a poor school in Kentucky shared a belief that it was OK to lie to kids and convinced them that they could break the Guinness World Book record for the longest conga line by beating a non-existent school in Samoa. They did and he cried.
    • A principal I’ve come to know and admire is a “kid whisperer”, dispensing hugs and direction with no regard for her schedule.
    • I asked a young man in a school that was created to increase the number of Hispanic children who would go to and complete college where he was going to go to college. His teacher told me, “He won’t tell you.” When I asked, “Why not?” He explained… “We have a tradition for our graduation that each senior comes to the stage, accepts their diploma and announces their selection and their aid package, all 100% of them. There’s not a dry eye in the building.”

I can disagree deeply with the agenda proposed and engineered by the One Percent that Lafer refers to (and I do), but I gain nothing by trashing them and their beliefs. I gain by making their agenda unnecessary, by having the parents in our community confident that we are, in fact, the only choice.

We need to tell our stories. I know we have them. I’m confident we can create more. We need to make our communities aware of all the reasons they can’t not send their kids to us. Tell more stories. Make more stories.

Be well

Another Compass Check

compassWelcome (back) to what is becoming a fairly sporadic blog. I decided a while back that the world has a sufficiency of words and doesn’t need more from me when I don’t have all that much of significance to say. If the stars line up, my assessment of significance will coincide with yours and we’ll all be pleased with the result. By choosing to subscribe, if you haven’t already done so, you’ll get a friendly reminder from the WordPress folks when I’ve posted something new and exciting and I’ll get a healthy dopamine hit when I see that someone has chosen to read my thoughts.

I’ve written recently about what I see as a significant flaw in our growth as a species. It is the combination of impatience and arrogance which has led us to look for quick solutions and avoid deep analysis. Our superficial analysis and misguided solutions yield greater and greater negative consequences as our world increases in complexity. I recently encountered the work of Charles Eisenstein (more about that in a bit). For context, you might want to look at his  About page on his website and check out his thoughts here and here here.

I spend a fair amount of my thinking time trying to connect my professional life experiences with a larger context. The current political climate certainly encourages the posing of big(ger) questions – questions which seem to extend well beyond the realm of public education. It’s in this context that I’d like to share a recent experience.

As many of us have been experiencing, recent weeks have brought a new definition of cold to our region. While the former ski instructor in me would have reveled in the cold and the opportunity for days and night of snow-making, the new, warm weather fisherman in me shivered at the mere thought of having to go out and start the car. As an alternative, I decided to continue my efforts to organize my files and filing cabinets. In the process I found several pages of notes that I didn’t recognize about an author whom I also didn’t recognize.

I found the thoughts summarized on these pages fascinating and later asked my wife if she new the author and anything about the pages I had discovered. She looked at me as if I had only seconds before dropped in from Mars and, recognizing that I was almost beyond hope, she gently suggested that I might like his website. I did just that. Recalling a line from a movie I don’t recall, “He had me at hello”, Eisenstein had me at his About page.

“… I was always consumed by questions like, Where did I come from?” ”Why am I here?” “Where am i going?” so of course, embedded as I was in a culture of science and reason as a source of truth, I tried to “figure out” the answers… My quest had an emotional dimension as well. From an early age I sensed a wrongness in the world. Sitting in a classroom doing worksheets, part of me rebelled. “We are not supposed to be doing this! It isn’t supposed to be this way.” It was half-formed thought, embedded in a cloud of indignation and bewilderment. This perception, abetted by a growing awareness of ecological devastation and social injustice, presented me from whole-heartedly embracing a normal career.”

I suspect I’m not alone in my resonance with Eisenstein’s questions, his concerns, his search.

What I share here is, in large part stolen from my wife or, more accurately, lifted from my wife’s notes about Eisenstein’s book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. This is a new venture for me. In reading Eisenstein’s work, I found a deep longing to gather a group of adults and explore. I see this as an invitation to create an “electronic coffee shop”… a book club discussion group. It’s truly an exploration and an invitation to discuss ideas.

What I’m going to share here is and isn’t about education. Eisenstein isn’t writing about education, but his writing is filled with ideas that beg educational reflection. Here’s Cliff Notes version:

Eisenstein suggests he has found an answer to his question about wrongness in the world. He suggests beginning our own explorations with his most recent book, The More Beautiful World… In it, he introduces the concepts of separation and stories. He suggests that (a) we are all living the same story; (b) It is the story of separation – we are separate individuals in a world that is separate from us; (c) our story creates competition; (d) it tells us that self-interest is the primary characteristic of what it means to be human; and (e) it has a formula that we are told will lead to a happy life.

 Our story tells us that we should (a) go to school; (b) get a job; (c) have a family; and (d) plan for retirement. That story is changing rapidly and, for many, is no longer believable. Other components of the story form a kind of mythology that most of us have bought into. Eisenstein identifies the following examples:

  • The myth of technology enhanced life — Based upon the promise of the 50s and 60s; specifically, the technological utopia that we were told would result in a more leisurely way of life has not come to fruition. Rather, the opposite is true. We are working more and netting less. We are on an unsustainable treadmill.
  • The myth of global leadership — In the 50s and 60s we were told that America was the bringer of peace and democracy to the world. We are now not only hated, but also laughed at by many,
  • The myth of conquest — human mastery of the political and natural environment.

These myths have conditioned us how to see the world.

In his work, Eisenstein posits that this formula, if ever true, has disintegrated. We can see it all around us. Our traditional institutions are a mess – Financial, Education, Health Care, Religious, Political.

These myths have conditioned us how to see the world.

Living Between Stories

“We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it. Some may cling to it all the more desperately as it dissolves, looking perhaps to Donald Trump to restore it, but their savior has not the power to bring back the dead. Neither would Clinton have been able to preserve America as we’d known it for too much longer. We as a society are entering a space between stories, in which everything that had seemed so real, true, right, and permanent comes into doubt. For a while, segments of society have remained insulated from this breakdown (whether by fortune, talent, or privilege), living in a bubble as the containing economic and ecological systems deteriorate. But not for much longer. Not even the elites are immune to this doubt. They grasp at straws of past glories and obsolete strategies; they create perfunctory and unconvincing shibboleths (Putin!), wandering aimlessly from “doctrine” to “doctrine” – and they have no idea what to do. Their haplessness and half-heartedness was plain to see in this election, their disbelief in their own propaganda, their cynicism. When even the custodians of the story no longer believe the story, you know its days are numbered. It is a shell with no engine, running on habit and momentum.”

Charles Eisenstein, Essay – The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story

We are living in an age of hate-based politics which points not further than to a superficial diagnosis: It’s not us. It’s them. This is a reiteration of the war mentality – find the bad guy, go to war. (Wars on Drugs, Poverty, immigrants…or…Trump supporters).

We are using superficial ways to diagnose a complex problem and in the process we are missing a deeper matrix of causes. As Trump supporters judge immigrants or the lying media or the left for wanting to “rewrite our nation’s history” by wanting to remove statues honoring confederates, what are we doing that is any different from what they are doing? Are we not judging them just as harshly? In spite of what we might see as our righteous indignation are we too not contributing to the Story of Separation? Do we not feel morally superior to those on the other side? Are we not implicitly implying that if we were in their shoes we would do it better than they? Both sides are operating from a deficit of understanding. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that you can use hate as a weapon but you can’t use hatred to defeat hate.

Eisenstein suggests that, when we rethink the fury, what lies underneath the rage is a longing for reunion. We are suffering the collective wound of separation. Hate is a bodyguard for grief. Profound change comes only through collapse. And the world around us in collapsing. People feel powerless. They don’t feel valued. They feel alone. We can feel a sense of wrongness that we often can’t describe or can describe only in terms of “It’s not supposed to be this way.” Our idea of what’s normal has come unhinged. Can you hear these feelings, these frustrations in your professional life? Is this a connection worth exploring?

We express this low level suffering indirectly: addiction, self-sabotage, procrastination, rage, chronic fatigue, laziness, depression. These are all ways we withhold our full participation in and engagement with life. When our conscious mind can’t find a reason to be okay with the mythology we have been told is true, we express it unconsciously.

Eisenstein believes in a new story: The Story of Interbeing. The Story of Interbeing replaces a conscious of judgment with a consciousness of empathy. He feels that this has already begun. Grandmothers… kindergarten teachers… anyone doing something out of love, in anyway.

One of the fundamental precepts of the new story is this. We are inseparate from the universe and our being partakes in the being of everyone and everything else. This is why we can feel hurt when we hear of another coming to harm. This is why we hurt when we see mass die offs and bleaching of the coral reefs or see a picture of a pelican tangled up in plastic. We can no longer hold up the barriers that protect us from our feelings. We are a mirror of all things. Everything that happens to the world is happening to us.

The world outside of ourselves is not just a bunch of unrelated stuff but a mirror of self with qualities like consciousness and intelligence that are not just in humans but in all things.

We feel isolated and powerless because we have numbed ourselves to knowing that we are all connected. Everything we experience is geared toward showing us that we are not connected. So we think we can protect ourselves by building more prisons or building walls to keep the bad guys away.

We are destroying our health, we are destroying ecosystems, and we are on an unsustainable path.

The Story of Interbeing says that my very existence depends on the existence of all beings. A basic practice – a way to replace the culture of judgment with a culture of empathy is to ask what is it like to be you? To have more than just superficial conversations with our Trump supporting family and friends…to discover what led someone to become racist.

By simply taking the stance that the other is wrong, we just gratify our egos “You are bad…I am good.” “I am right….you are wrong.”

Eisenstein and School Culture

I believe we seek to make sense of the world through the lens of our own experiences. I believe that Charles Eisenstein speaks directly to us as educators. I see the separation that he describes. I see the end of a story that we have grown up experiencing and accepting. I see the sense of frustration, isolation and powerlessness. But I have been fortunate in my life to have experienced moments of connectedness… moments where a commitment to empathy transcended significant differences in social status, in lifestyles, in ways of thinking and created the beginnings of interbeing and community. I cling to these memories and experiences as proof of the possible.

The war on evil has gone on for several thousand years. It has not worked. Maybe it’s time to give peace a chance. Where better to start than helping our colleagues and young people experience leadership through empathy.