Valid email addresses are required to post comments. If your comment is not posted, I will send you an email with an explanation.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Scoreboard Revisited

This is an update of sorts.

You may recall that one of the earliest Blog posts (The Scoreboard: September 9) involved a general assembly held with the learners in grades 7-12 in the gymnasium on the second day of school. The purpose of that meeting, beyond introducing myself to the learners as the new superintendent, was to acknowledge the school’s history of athletic success (evidenced by a recently awarded banner for the league championship in basketball hanging on a wall of the gymnasium) while also challenging the learners to realize the importance of competing for college admission and roles in the workplace against the same schools we regularly compete with in sports. It wasn't enough to beat the other schools in sports, more importantly, we had to beat them for admission to colleges of choice and opportunities in the workplace.

We were just notified that our girls’ varsity soccer team has earned recognition from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association as a Scholar/Athlete Team. To qualify for this award, 12 members of the team, must average a 90% GPA for the first marking period.  Our team average was a 91.632. 

This is a fine example of the successful fusion of attributes common to both sports and academics: goal orientation, commitment, time management, self-discipline, motivation, determination, focus, and practice-practice-practice,... among other qualities.

Here's an essay I prepared on school improvement that supports our continuous improvement efforts at Heatly.

Losing Weight and Gaining Adequate Yearly Progress: A Fraction of the Traction and None of the Action

Lose thirty pounds in thirty days!! Take this pill and you too can shed inches from your waistline!! Simple weight loss from applying this lotion each night!! Eat all you want and still lose, by wearing this work-out suit specially designed by our research technicians!! If these advertisements really worked there surely wouldn’t be any overweight people and schools wouldn’t be implored to respond to the increased percentage of children experiencing childhood obesity.

There is no instant weight loss for those who suffer from excess pounds. Yet, despite study after study identifying the elements of a successful weight loss program, generally involving reduction of caloric intake, good nutrition, and increased exercise, anxious people depressed by their weight or concerned about their health quickly turn to any of the many quick-fix pills and programs as alternatives. In fact, the authors of Influencer: the Power to Change Anything cite the findings of the National Weight Control Registry which demonstrate that the vital behaviors associated with sustained weight loss are: exercising on home equipment, eating breakfast, and conducting daily weigh-ins. (1) The temptation of a quick process losing maximum pounds with minimum effort is simply too alluring, hence the tremendous market of products and the countless infomercials teasing those in distress.

Similarly, there are no instant gains for schools suffering from low success rates and missing AYP. Nonetheless, many schools cited as being in need of improvement also appear to extend their hands with the fistfuls of dollars provided by the state or federal government and reach for the secret and rapid antidote for their maladies in the form of the right textbook series; the best test preparation program; the one best, scientifically proven way to teach Reading; the preferred ratio of computers to students; or some out of town prophet/consultant. If these solutions were indeed viable and easily replicated then there wouldn’t be any schools listed on state education department hit lists.

Unfortunately, there is an ever increasing number and endless variety of ready made, recipe-like improvement plans emerging in the wake of the No Child Left Behind legislation. The political and financial landscape is littered with commercially produced programs touted by skilled salespeople and erstwhile consultants all angling for position in the burgeoning marketplace of school improvement. The disadvantaged schools that shamefully appear on state lists of underperforming schools and embarrassing headlines of their local newspapers are especially vulnerable to the promise and prospect proclaimed by purveyors of vehicles touting lightning in the bottle methods of success.

Efforts to change and improve the operation of the school may be viewed by staff members with indifference or detachment. Such initiatives are too often either externally imposed on them by an outside agency or generated from within the school/district in a top down driven strategy without reference to the reality as perceived by the staff. As a result, the proposed change lacks or loses momentum because the staff has not sufficiently been involved in the developmental stages. Improvement strategies that do not embrace staff members as active participants in the action, lack traction.

If I have learned anything from my thirty three years of experience in public school leadership it is that success more likely emerges from a social, political, financial or cultural transformation, not a series of transactions. And, transformational change generally requires more time and patience than transactional change, though changes evolving from transformations are typically sustained longer. There are no short cuts or quick fixes. Once again, turning to Influencer, (a book well worth reading) the authors present six sources of influence in successful change efforts, either on an individual basis or an organizational level. They are; make the undesirable desirable; surpass your limits; harness peer pressure; find strength in numbers; design rewards and demand accountability; and finally, change the environment. This proposal, coupled with what we have long known as viable ingredients of effective schools, would serve any school interested in continuous improvement. The information is out there and readily available, the skills can be developed, and all that’s waiting is the constancy of purpose and the collective and sincere commitment of a school community. Warning: It’s hard work and it takes time. 

My recommendation of a guiding template for school improvement follows: 
a) communicate a credible and inspiring vision, b) manifest a mission that is believable and enduring, c) identify data points that leverage success, d) generate plausible goals that stretch the organization, e) nurture a productive and collaborative organizational culture, f) accept change as a process rather than an event, g) empower all staff members as learners and contributors, and h) recognize that leadership is distributive and situational rather than the purview of the few.     

Remember that this is not intended to represent a recipe. One must add, subtract, and modify according to the local needs and interests that make each and every school unique.

We will continue to promote progress at Heatly, monitor our efforts, and provide periodic updates along the way. It will take a while, but we'll get there.


(1.) Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan and Switzer, Influencer: the Power to Change Anything. McGraw-Hill Books, NY, NY 2008

Monday, November 29, 2010

The After Thanksgiving Break Blues

I trust that everyone enjoyed a safe and pleasant Thanksgiving with family and friends, near and far. It's a great time to bring people together and celebrate the endless reasons we have to be thankful. Food naturally plays a prominent role in this event. The central dish, turkey, is often considered the source of after-dinner lethargy. Turkey does contain tryptophan, an amino acid that has been identified as providing a sleep inducing effect. But this isn't a health lesson - or else I'd have to confess about the number of slices of pie I ate. Between the tryptophan, and the general tendency to feel compelled to taste a little of everything on the table, you can find yourself becoming weary after the big feast (except, perhaps, those of you who probably skipped the tryptophan to avoid falling asleep in the shopping line while anxiously waiting for early morning sales on Black Friday). I'm a die-hard Detroit Lions football fan and they play so bad each Thanksgiving that the game usually puts me to sleep anyway.
However, beyond the lethargy produced by the Thanksgiving turkey, educators must be aware of a similar threat that the Thanksgiving break can have on the momentum building since the start of the school year. It's easy to unconsciously lighten up a little and coast into the next holiday break. I'm sure we all experience a growing excitement regarding the spirit of the holiday season, especially since stores have been playing festive music since the day after Halloween. The approaching anticipation, snow, decorations, holiday concerts... can possibly sidetrack us a bit and seem to shrink the number of days between Thanksgiving and the start of the winter vacation to appear far less than the actual 18 school days that separate the holiday breaks (that's 10% of the school year). We must maintain our commitment to extend our progress - and still have time to enjoy the holiday spirit.
Let me share a point from a book that I read in preparation for our mentor program at Heatly, in which all learners K-12 have an assigned mentor. The book is entitled, Who Mentored You? The Person Who Changed My Life - Prominent People Recall Their Mentors. It's edited by Matilda Cuomo. The excerpt I'm referencing is from Bill Bradley, former U.S. Senator (1979-1997), Rhodes Scholar, Princeton graduate, and NBA great for the 1973 world champion New York Knicks. He identified his mentor as Ed Macauley, a former professional basketball player who conducted summer camps in the sport when Bill was fourteen years old. Macauley advised the campers that, "If you're not practicing, remember, someone else somewhere is practicing, and given roughly equal ability, if you two meet, he will win."
I'm certainly not a Grinch, and I plan to enjoy every bit of a merry holiday season, but I haven't forgotten our professional responsibilities either. I believe that the advice that Bill Bradley received also holds for many things besides sports. Let the other schools ease up. If we are to improve we need to make every day count, with the same dedication we displayed on our first day of school - then we can rest and relax during the holiday vacation.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

All In A Day

Today reaffirmed both my interest in working in a leadership position spanning Kindergarten through 12th grade, and my decision to serve in that capacity in a small school district. There were several opportunities during the day to interact directly with learners of all ages and still meet other obligations of meetings and paperwork and phone calls and emails and...

After greeting everyone as they walked up the sidewalk and headed to the doors of the school, I helped accompany some five year old stragglers on their way to their Kindergarten class. Their refreshing smiles and charming optimism combine to form a great start to the day.

Next up, a student council sponsored breakfast honoring learners in grades 7-12 who have achieved at performance levels qualifying for recognition as members of the honor roll or the high honor roll for the first marking period of the school year. It was a robust group of learners deserving of the award status. The number of parents attending in support of their son or daughter was a pleasant surprise given that the event took place during normal work hours. It was a nice experience. I performed a couple of tricks addressing the power of creating and sustaining a clear mental picture of a desired future, as well as the benefit of establishing high expectations for yourself on your way to meet your potential.

Just prior to noon, there was lunch with a group of third grade learners who had signed up weeks ago to share time with the superintendent. They were cordial, engaging, and great lunch partners. The discussion was lively and entertaining. These lunches have been a productive social experience that have enabled me to better understand the interests and background of individuals, and for them to get to know their superintendent.

Next up, I sat in with a fourth grade class that had earned a reward for their collective good behavior. I watched the first half of Toy Story 3 with them before departing to attend a meeting. the children were polite and enjoyed the film while munching on popcorn.

Later in the afternoon it was time for our mentor activities. Each staff member is assigned six learners to meet with for twenty minutes every two weeks. There is a schedule of suggested activities and discussion points designed to forge a relationship between adults and learners. The group assigned to me represents children from Kindergarten, First and Second grades. I appreciated the opportunity to use the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday as a forum to examine relationships between people - with family members, friends, and neighbors - and the constructive qualities and attributes of people in terms of healthy relationships.

After school I was surprised to meet an upperclassmen who had initiated a meeting with several members of a particular grade (after school at the start of a holiday break) that has been perceived as under performing. His interactions with a number of members of that class had led him to believe that he should intervene and offer some assistance to them. He invited a handful to meet with him so he could obtain a better insight into their plight. His goal is to listen to any concerns they have and seek to motivate them toward improving their status within the school. I was impressed that this was completely his idea, and the respondents volunteered to remain after school to examine this issue. That collaboration provides some assurance of eventually realizing a positive outcome for the plan. The older learner met with me briefly just to shed light on his interest and inform me why the group had met in the Library. I commended him on his intent and offered to assist whenever he requested help, but would otherwise respect their cooperative venture and refrain from intruding on what could prove to be a very intriguing and rewarding effort among learners, for learners, by learners.

Lastly, the boys varsity basketball team kicked off their season with their appearance at a regional tournament. Our school is the smallest in the league - by far - but the athletic teams offer little ground despite the size differential. the boys opened up the campaign with a narrow defeat. losing by four points. I was proud of their competitive spirit and tenacity. They're a fine group of young men.

That's it for the day!

Enjoy a Happy Thanksgiving - and a break from my Blog posts. I'll return next week.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Juggling Versus Balancing

In addition to performing magic tricks and illusions, I can also juggle. Years ago I exchanged the secrets of a couple of tricks with a friend who in turn taught me how to juggle three objects. I enjoy the act of juggling. It requires constant motion and concentration, with one ball always in the air while your two hands rotate the other two balls - all at once, over and over again. Balancing however, relies on an entirely different skill set. Contrary to what many may believe, balancing is not maintaining an even 50/50 split by finding the midpoint of an object. Rather, it's fluid and dynamic. It more likely averages a 50/50 split between an object, or an issue, or two different items, concepts, beliefs...

Sometimes during an ongoing event or activity there is an imbalance, say 60/40, or at other times a 30/70 split. Over the long term the goal of balancing is to eventually even out in a 50/50 average by continuously monitoring competing sides and adjusting accordingly to find an equilibrium, as temporary as it may be. Some might associate the endless ebb and flow with relationships, such as marriage, where one person may end up getting their way sometimes, while the other person gets their way at other times. It ends up being situational and contextual. In an earlier Blog posting I mentioned how the Apollo 11 rocket was off course nearly 90% of it's journey to the moon, but depended on frequent course correction to avoid straying from its projected path. But this Blog isn't about marriage or space travel - it's about the give and take that public schools experience on a regular basis as they contend with conflicting needs, perplexing issues, and competing priorities as they seek to promote the public good.

Let's first look at an example outside of the educational arena which involved a government agency trying to meet two diametrically opposed constituencies. On November 6, 2010, the New York Times featured a news article ( ) that presented two very different sides to the same coin. That is, a reporter (Michael Moss) discovered that the United States Department Agriculture has been promoting the use of cheese to decrease a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. This effort included allocating twelve million dollars ($12,000,000.) toward a marketing campaign which promoted a national pizza chain's increased use of cheese. At the same time, a different unit within that same United States Department of Agriculture was fighting to address the increase in child obesity. Here's a quote excerpted from that article.

"And Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting."

I am not entirely critical of this government agency. Instead I have empathy for the plight the department faces. On one hand they are attempting to decrease a surplus that impacts the price of dairy products and threatens an important industry at a time of economic distress. On the other hand, they are exercising sensitivity in their attempt to address a health issue that is threatening more and more people in our country.

You can't be all things to all people. There are several sides to this issue and almost any other. Perhaps the best metaphor to describe leadership in the public sector is attempting to solve a Rubik's cube which requires the player to have each of the six sides of the cube display one separate color (here's a link for those of you unfamiliar with this popular game of the 1980"s ('s%20Cube). Each and every move you make imperils a previous move and poses a threat to undo prior efforts. Either that, or playing three dimensional tic-tac-toe, a game that requires you to make a move while simultaneously monitoring the impact of that move on the the other two levels of the board.

For instance, we must construct an annual operating budget for the school that balances the ability of the community to fund with the need for programming and supporting an instructional environment that will promote future opportunities for the learners of the community. It is a delicate balance sensitive to the financial means of the community to avoid imposing an unwelcome burden on taxpayers, while at the same time recognizing our responsibility to foster success for all learners in a manner that enriches the same community in terms of quality of life issues.

There are many other competing interests that become even more challenging during a period of poor economic health at the regional, state, and national levels. An example might include the food service programs of many public schools. On one hand, the consumers (children) express a desire for snacks (chips and other similar items) which, like many other things are not good without moderation. So, to minimize the risk of contributing to weight gains and health threats schools seek to either eliminate these items or seek alternatives with reduced fat content. On the other hand, these commercially produced items provide a higher profit margin that foods prepared by the food service staff and they are a la carte items beyond the meal prepared by the staff to meet nutritional guidelines. The point of contention involves the juxtaposition of the need to generate revenue and avoid conveying the cost to taxpayers experiencing budget fatigue, and the need to act responsibly in promoting good health habits. An added dimension is the reliance public schools have on government commodity foods at reduced prices, like cheese, to ensure that an adequately nutritious meal can be provided at a cost that neither overwhelm the consumer nor overburden the taxpayer.

Similarly, our district, like those all over, was faced with the difficult task last year of reducing the budget while trying to meet the needs of learners with gregarious appetites anxious to experience extra-curricular opportunities and other programs of interest. The decisions of what to cut, and how much to cut, all dramatize the struggle of competition over scarce resources. The renowned English jurist and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, once defined democracy as "the greatest good for the greatest number of people." That principle offers some clear direction, but we must make certain that entire groups or programs are not summarily eliminated because they lack a simple majority of support. It's an exceedingly daunting task of constantly monitoring and adjusting to find a balance without straying from the mission, or meaning and purpose of our school district, ("Every student will graduate prepared for college, career, and citizenship")

I must end the Blog now and return to my ongoing attempt to solve the Rubik's cube.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Behind The Curtains Of The Big Show

When we reflect on our own school experiences the memories are usually framed by the relationship we had with a teacher. That is, the dynamic of interaction is focused on the association between the teacher and learner, since our school day was oriented toward teachers as opposed to the many different staff members with roles and responsibilities outside of the classroom. Nonetheless, like a stage performance, there are various skilled people who contribute to a stage performance but are virtually unseen during the play. Applause is directed at the quality of the performers visible to the audience rather than the many people who constructed the sets, choreographed dance programs, provided make-up, made costumes, prepared scripts, directed lighting, managed the sound system....Without these workers, the curtain doesn’t rise for the big show.
Education is a different drama, though it is a public performance on an accessible stage replete with many people who generously contribute to the overall production presented by the actors and actresses. Unfortunately, the efforts of the support staff is either overlooked or unseen by casual visitors to any school. Nonetheless, not much can be done without their experience and expertise.
To prepare the content for this Blog posting I asked the office staff to record the number of phone calls and emails they received during the course of business today. I also asked the school nurse to document the number of calls and visits received in the health office today. The food service staff computed the number of meals served for breakfast and lunch today. The custodial staff calculated the number of square feet they clean and maintain on a daily basis.
Imagine if you can, what the tallies revealed. I suspect you'd have a difficult time guessing the figures. I know the secretaries had never given it more than a passing thought as they perform their responsibilities because the number they arrived at was twice as many phone calls and emails as they predicted before the count began.
I'll use the data from today as a typical day and multiply these daily numbers by the 180 day school calendar to determine the projected total numbers.
In a normal school year:
The secretaries respond to 17,280 phone calls and emails (an average of 96 each day - not to mention the number of children and staff that stop by personally to request services).
The custodial staff cleans 10,980,000 square feet of space (cleaning hardwood, tile, and carpeted floor areas as well as bathrooms, cafeteria... - in other words, using an average size house, the custodians clean an average amount of square feet equivalent to nearly 36 houses each and every day!!)
The food service staff prepares approximately 46,800 meals during the length of the school year. That's a lot of food!
The nurse averages 31 phone calls per day and receives 46 children or staff visits for aid and assistance each day. That translates into 5,580 phone calls for the school year and an annual total of 8,280 people requesting band-aids, temperature checks, calls home, doctor's notes...
That's a lot of work! Without the concerted effort and commitment of our support staff we could not hope to generate high achievement levels in learning. They are a vital element of our school operation. Make sure that you remind them of that the next time you visit our school - or any school.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Myths And Mission Possible

As a sixth grader I was enrolled in a unique program that featured readings of the classic Greek myths. I was captivated by the tales of Gods and mortals, and their battles of weapons and wits. So when I have a chance to reach back and use a myth to clarify an issue, I take advantage of the opportunity. I want to emphasize the value of a school's mission - the reason for being, the purpose and meaning of the institution.

What does the venerable "Bulfinch's Mythology" and the early 1980's groundbreaking business best-seller "In Search of Excellence" have in common with school leadership? The synthesis of the two provide an interesting perspective for school leaders regarding the importance of the value and belief system embodied in the mission of a school.

Although Greek mythology has escaped the attention of reading assignments in educational administration many people have been exposed to the work of Tom Peters and Robert Waterman and other writers over the years who have provided insightful examinations of value systems and culture in organizations. Many of the books of this genre have found that virtually all of the excellent companies were headed by leaders who developed a value set and reaffirmed it with a deep commitment. As stated in In Search of Excellence:
"Let us suppose that we were asked for one all purpose
bit of advice for management, one truth that we were able
to distill from the excellent companies research. We might
tempted to say 'Figure out your value system.' Decide what
your company stands for." (p. 279)

What does our school stand for? Are the actions of our staff, in particular the leader's, consistent with what is espoused as the guiding goals for the school? What are the values and beliefs of the school?

Karl Scheibe says, "What a person does (his behavior) depends upon what he wants (his values) and what he considers to be true and likely (his beliefs).

How does this relate to school? Let's look at the results of two different studies that investigated schools and school leaders. David Dwyer of the Far West Laboratory for educational research and Development conducted a study of the roles of leaders in instructional management. One of his findings illustrated the significance of the leader's belief system, personality, and previous experience in forming a sense of focus for effective schools. These leaders consistently acted upon the direction established by determined values.

John Goodlad, in "A Place Called School," noted the discrepancy that too often exists between the pronounced goals of a school and what actually happens in practice. Most schools, for instance, claim to prepare creative, independent learners. It is a noble target we frequently miss because our actions fail to reflect a firm conviction toward this goal. Goodlad cited the example of a teacher who assigns a book report to students and accepts the report even though they knew it was lifted word for word from a book. This reinforces a behavior in opposition with the stated goal.

An effective leader must utilize his or her position to express the mission of the school by presenting a pattern of acceptable and appropriate values and insure that the activities of staff members are reflective of this attitude. Live the ideology of the school in a visible manner. Create a vision of what you expect the school to be and work with everyone toward attaining that mission.

And now, a message from Greek mythology that will summarize our message. Antaeus was a giant wrestler. He lived in a hut beside the road and compelled all travelers to wrestle with him. He was the son of Mother Earth and was invincible as long as he remained in contact with her. Therefore he always met with victory. The he constructed of the skulls and bones of his victims attested to his ability.

One day Hercules came walking by the road. He had no way of rejecting the required wrestling match to the death. No matter how many times Hercules threw Antaeus down on the ground he got back up with renewed strength. Not long afterward Hercules perceived the relationship between Antaeus and Mother earth. Hercules then proceeded to lift the giant off of the ground and strangled him.

If our organization departs from the mission, and supportive value and belief system, it may suffer a fate similar to that of Antaeus when he was disconnected from the source of his strength.

We must consistently provide evidence of what matters most. Mere lip service, without supportive and demonstrative proof, does nothing but erode integrity and invite skepticism. Actions count, deeds matter. If you don't observe sufficient evidence of that through my behaviors as superintendent then our efforts will dissolve and our credibility will be lost.

We expect to nurture an organizational culture at Heatly that promotes growth, sustains hope, and nurtures dreams. We value relationships and interaction, care and compassion, communication and a sense of community. If we can manifest those qualities then our performance levels will rise, as well as other measurements of effectiveness. It's not a myth, it's a mission that is possible. 


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Who Are We, And Where Are We Going?

Try this.

Find a map of the world. Get a dart and a blindfold. Pin the map on a wall, put the blindfold on, and toss the dart at the map. Flip off the blindfold and discover where you landed.

Far fetched?

We recently enrolled two learners from Algeria. They speak fluently in both Arabic and French. Although they do not currently communicate in English, I expect that they will soon acquire English as a third language. They have travelled 4,000 miles, crossed several time zones and arrived here in Green Island. What a difference!

They appear to be bright and engaging adolescents. They are at a point in their lives when teens the world over are experiencing the growing pains associated with an emerging self-identity amidst an environment of expanded social awareness where peer acceptance and respect are increasingly valued. Imagine navigating this social landscape surrounded by people who speak a language you can't understand, eating foods you may have never seen before, and displaying customs and routines that are anything but customary and routine to you.

It's been a pleasure to observe the manner in which these two new learners have been accepted and accommodated thus far by their classmates at Heatly. I watch them approach the school each morning and notice they bring smiles with them and a cheerful sense of optimism. They have always returned my greeting with a demurring and deferential response in which facial expressions serve to universally communicate a pleasant good morning. I admire their commitment and resolve as they assimilate themselves into a new and very different culture. Their success in adjusting to Heatly will offer as much about our level of cooperation and understanding as it will about their degree of resiliency and commitment.

I've been thinking about how our world has grown more and more interdependent each passing day. Check the tags on the clothes you are wearing today. Where were they made? How about the car you drive? Even manufactured items, such as cars, that are "made in America" are often constructed with parts that originated in other countries. What foods have you eaten in the last week? Chinese? Mexican? Thai? Your electronics - where were they made? How many words or expressions have you used in the last month that have been imported from other languages and recently incorporated into English?

Want an interesting insight into our rapidly changing world, complete with new and startling reference points? Check out this five minute video on You Tube. It's entitled, "Shift Happens

What did you think about the video? The statistics offer an intriguing perspective on our country as we view ourselves in relation to other countries and how technology has democratized knowledge and leveled the playing field once dominated by a few nations. I perceive the message of the video as a clarion for schools to redefine their purpose and redirect their resources in order to compete globally and sustain the very important difference America has made across boundaries and over time. We must adapt and seek strategic leverage in generating the creativity and productivity that has enabled America to maintain its leadership position.

Despite rapid advances and extraordinary progress prompted by technology, I don't believe the solution relies solely or even largely on technological innovation. Ultimately, change is a personal experience and occurs one person at a time, so it's dependent on interpersonal communication and relationships.

The changing demographics, the political transformations, and the volatile economy all present both risk and opportunity to our public schools. The increased diversity of learner populations certainly places a premium on the versatility and adaptability of schools attempting to meet the needs of learners of all languages and backgrounds. Programs like Limited English Proficiency and English as a Second Language aside, the performance of our schools depends on successfully integrating diverse cultures, different ideas, new paradigms -  and an acceptance of change as a constant. It requires tolerance, sensitivity, and understanding as learners interact with people from the far reaches of the globe who have brought with them potentially enriching and enlightening concepts. Think of the advantage our two new learners have when they become fluent in three different languages while living in a world in which technology has erased boundaries and granted access to markets and opportunities for those who can communicate and those who can assimilate. The exchange of ideas and practices among people of different backgrounds hold promise for mutual benefits in a new and common future.

Jim Collins, author of the business best-seller, Good to Great, suggests that success results from organizations that maintain an allegiance to their core values and ideology, but recognize that almost everything else in the organization is subject to change if you expect to survive in a rapidly changing world. I believe that is true for schools as well. There are certain and fairly universal beliefs and values that serve as a foundation and orientation for a public school - i.e. success for all; egalitarian frameworks, equal opportunities... but what we teach, how we teach, when we teach, and even why we teach should all be subject to change whenever that change can project greater success for our learners and forecast increased benefits for the future.

Education is all about transformation. Education can also be viewed and valued as an economic engine if schools can provide the conditions to promote the creativity, ingenuity, and inspiration for learners to contribute to sustaining our nation's prominence in the world through innovation and the pursuit of excellence. But we can't wait. We need to invest in, and commit to, that goal now because the rest of the world isn't waiting and the Shift Happens video provides evidence of that.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Organized Abandonment

This year has certainly provided me with a “moving” experience. I’ll try to explain how these moves are related to curriculum and educational goals and the plight of public schools
In late August, soon after accepting the position as superintendent of schools for the Green Island Union Free School District, my wife and I purchased a home in the area so I would be able to become more involved in school and community activities outside of the normal school day. That required our first move of the year. We boxed up, taped, and transferred the possessions that had slowly and mysteriously accumulated over the nineteen years we lived in that particular house. Neither of us had any idea of how much stuff we had until we started filling boxes. There was way too much to move. Of course, all of my things were important and essential for either monetary or sentimental reasons, so the pile of boxes was her fault. Naturally, she eyed the large number of boxes and pointed her finger at me as the person responsible for so many boxes. (I admit my guilt, there were over forty boxes of books)
Next, our daughter moved into our former house in September. That meant more boxes, tape, furniture, scheduling a moving van, lifting and loading (and taking aspirin for the back aches) as we emptied her apartment and unpackaged her pots, pans, plates and clothes and everything else. It was a hectic weekend.
Finally, this last weekend I went to New York City to help our son relocate. He’s moving in with us, after seven years in Brooklyn, while he awaits deployment with the Peace Corps to an assignment in Eastern Europe this coming March. That resulted in carrying boxes and furniture through narrow halls and crooked stairways, filling up a U-Haul truck, and navigating it through the streets of New York City and up the highway to Troy.
I learned that each time a person moves they should take advantage of a great opportunity to re-evaluate possessions and priorities and determine if the items are worth the time, energy, and effort it takes to move them. We ended up donating many articles of clothing and household items (even books) to the Salvation Army. We had to dispose of things that once were important to keep and interesting enough to purchase, but are no longer valued or needed today.  Not only did we eliminate unnecessary possessions, but we created storage space for new things we might need in the future.
Now, what does all of this have to do with the challenges of public schools? Think back to when you attended school. I graduated from high school almost forty years ago. I studied the same subjects that our current Heatly High learners are studying. Furthermore, I spent the same amount of time in class then as they do now – 45 minutes per period in each of 180 days of school. Now, think about that for a moment. Think about everything that’s happened in science and history and literature in the forty years since I studied those subjects and today, as the present high school learners study the same subjects. It’s been claimed that science content doubles every decade. Thank goodness I didn't have to study nanosecond technology or genetic engineering or the many other advances in science since the early 1970's!! The learners of 2010 have the same amount of time to study American history, for example, as I did despite all of the dramatic events that have occurred since I graduated from high school. There have been discoveries and disasters, tremendous growth and impact of technology, significant political changes, sweeping social transformations, wars of terrorism and ideology, ravaging natural catastrophes, economic recessions, medical advances, and so much more. 
The question arises – if the learners of today have the same limited amount of time, in hours and days, to study the same subjects as you and I did years ago – what’s left out. They can’t possibly be examining everything I studied, plus what’s happened in the forty years since. We can’t simply continue to acquire more, just like my wife and I can’t keep filling more and more boxes of items unless we either buy a bigger house or become more efficient in storing the full boxes. And, our finances are limited, just like our school district’s finances, so buying a bigger house is out of the question along with turning to the taxpayers and simply expecting disproportionately higher taxes to add hours to the school day and days to the school year. Increasing the school day would involve adding expenses (utility costs, labor costs…) at a time of economic distress. It won’t happen. So, if bigger containers are out of the picture, then we must focus on efficiency of storage as a potential answer to the dilemma.
Larry Lezotte, a noted educational researcher specializing in school improvement efforts, has promoted the concept of “organized abandonment.” That is, schools cannot continue to add more and more content unless they expand the school day – or eliminate some of what they had been teaching. Simply put, don't add anything to the school curriculum unless you get rid of something. Therefore, we return to the need to become more efficient in managing our curriculum and coursework.
The power of technology proves to be a great asset in such an endeavor. We are now capable of storing, retrieving and analyzing great quantities of data. Software applications allow us to integrate and manage incredible amounts of information.  Vast resources are available at our fingertips. 
Since knowledge and information grows exponentially at unimaginable rates of acceleration, we can no longer harbor it all within the reservoir of our own brains (at least I'll admit I can't). Instead we must consign it to electronic vaults for access when we need it. A simple and inexpensive thumb drive now has the potential to store countless pages of data – more than enough to satisfy our research needs. Computer technology, and related services, has democratized access to knowledge to a degree unknown since the first printing press.
The valuable commodity then becomes one of discovering and extracting information, discerning fact from fiction, discriminating among sources on the basis of authenticity and reliability, cross referencing and triangulating sources, applying objective interpretations, exercising higher-order thinking skills like evaluation and synthesis. Data is inert and static until we can use analytical skills to convert it into usable information that can make a difference in decisions and leverage knowledge.  There’s far more to it than I could hope to explain, but the essence involves the challenge of schools to confront the overwhelming amount of data and the inability for any individual to be an effective repository of an unimaginable knowledge base.
Finally, I will resurrect a concept mentioned in the November 5th Blog post entitled "Courage and Tolerance" – the difference between knowing “how” and knowing “that.” (Let's begin by differentiating between two ways of "knowing." For instance, "knowing that" generally refers to understanding facts and retaining information, a simple, almost formulaic transactional process commonly found in typical schools. And then there's "knowing how," which involves exercising a skill and demonstrating ability). Knowing “how” becomes every bit as important - maybe more so - as knowing “that.”
It's something to think about.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Parent And Teacher Conferences

I'd like to share some advice on preparing for our upcoming parent and teacher conferences. The goal of these interactions is to promote communication between the school and home in a combined effort to provide the conditions for success of the child. A partnership among the teacher and parents is essential in this process. This is a time for both parties to exchange information and perspectives intended to identify issues and possibilities related to the individual learner. In addition to the presentation supplied by the instructor, you are welcome to ask questions and extend suggestions.

The investment you have in your child's future is worth your sincere interest in this important meeting. If you are unable to attend, please contact the teacher by phone or email and make arrangements for an alternative opportunity to discuss your child's educational program. 

Maximizing the benefit of the conference involves some planning. Here are some tips for parents supplied by the website and authors Peggy Gisler and Marge Eberts.

1.      Ask your child if there is anything that he or she would like you to discuss with the  
2.      Jot down everything that you want to talk about at the conference.
3.      Arrive promptly or a few minutes early.
4.      Begin with positive comments about the teacher or classroom.
5.      Avoid lengthy discussions of topics that are not related to the purpose of the 
6.      Be open-minded to suggestions from the teacher.
7.      Keep your emotions under control.
8.      Take notes about what has been discussed to share with your child.
9.      Express appreciation for the conference.
10.   Do not stay beyond your allotted time.

Friday, November 12, 2010

On Your Mark, Get Ready, Get Set,...

Public schools represent an interesting and on-going source of discussion and debate. Almost everyone has attended public schools, many people for the full thirteen years of the spectrum. That common experience alone seems to offer the populace an opportunity to claim the vantage point of an expert - since we've all shared that experience of observing the process of education first-hand. Contrast that point with the prospect of someone feeling confident enough to question the technique of a surgeon or the tactics of a nuclear engineer or the decisions of a scientist in the field of nano-second technology? That personal familiarity with education ensures that schools are more likely to exist under a microscope than the work that transpires within the walls of virtually any other corporation.

Furthermore, the number of children being served in public schools and the amount of money necessary to operate public schools combine to attract people with passionate opinions on education from every angle. Public funding naturally generates questions regarding policies and finances, as it should. This scrutiny likely becomes magnified because people have more direct impact through the ballot box on the local school budget than they do on county, state, or national tax rates, policies, and finances. Public schools are accessible and more malleable to the will of the public than virtually any other political enterprise. Those who seek office as elected representatives on boards of education confront far fewer obstacles in their efforts to secure positions than those who aspire to a seat in the legislature, the governor's mansion, or any post in Washington, D.C. Additionally, at times I believe that voters frustrated at the direction of state and national governmental programs vent their anger in the polling booths during school budget votes. Where else can they express themselves with the same scale of impact and with such immediacy?

I am not constructing this back-drop as a platform for whining as a potential victim. Rather, the recognition of the confluence of social, political, technological and financial factors, and the potential prospects for change should spur public schools on to be market sensitive, politically agile, financially responsive, and entrepreneurial. Education is rapidly experiencing the effects of free enterprise. Competition and differentiated services abound in the form of charter schools, private schools, on-line programs, home-schooling practices and, soon, virtual schools.

We can no longer adopt the behaviors evidenced in a slightly altered telling of the old tale of Rip Van Winkle. It seems that a man resting one afternoon in the shade of a tree lapsed into a coma in the late 1940's for an extended period of time stretching across a few decades. He was suddenly awakened one morning by a jet airliner that screeched through the sky above. He had never seen or heard anything like it. He was so startled and afraid that he instinctively ran away. He rushed to the sanctuary of his favorite small, country store where he hoped to meet with his old friends who would offer comfort and security from his fear. As he was running, he was almost hit by fast moving cars speeding to and fro on the wide multi lane highway that had long ago replaced the two lane rural road he remembered from his past. When he finally arrived in the vicinity of the old store, he was shocked to discover a huge shopping mall surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of cars. His head was spinning from all of the changes that had occurred since he had fallen into a coma. He was frantic and confused. He desperately sought relief from the anxiety. And so, he plotted his final attempt to make sense of all of the changes. He raced off toward his former school for refuge from the turmoil. Sure enough, soon after his arrival he found solace in the fact that the building and its operation had withstood any changes. It was the almost the same as it was all those years ago.

While that's a bit of an exaggeration designed to make a point, it's not too facetious. Public schools can either maintain a resistant posture in defiance of change and suffer the possible consequences exacted by new and diverse competitors, or they can persevere and even flourish by demonstrating initiative by redefining their direction and reinventing their role. Let's turn to the book, Inventing Better Schools, written by Phillip Schlechty. He addresses the subject of change by using our country's space program as an example as it progressed from unmanned flight to orbiting the globe, to landing on the moon, to the present - a succession of space shuttle flights that are virtually unnoticed by the public and casually met with yawns by those expecting something far more exciting and adventurous. Schlechty explains -

"Recognizing that part of the problem was structural, President Dwight Eisenhower “restructured” the American rocket program, changing it from a rocket program to a space program. The name of the organization, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), reflected this change of position as did the fact it was a civilian rather than a military organization.
The missions NASA undertook subsequent to Neil Armstrong’s “small step” somehow became unhitched from the vision of conquering interplanetary space.
When NASA became a hauler of freight – no matter how exotic the freight may be – the inspiring qualities of the NASA program were, for many people, simply lost."

We cannot lose the confidence and support of the public. We cannot lose sight of our purpose and our promise. The challenges that await us are daunting. We may be nearing a crisis, but its important to remember that almost every crisis holds the possibility of a risk and an opportunity. We must exploit the crisis and convert it into an opportunity to emerge in a new form that reasserts Schlechty's belief that, "Schools are the means by which society perpetuates the condition of its own existence and progress." That responsibility is far too important to leave to chance or suffer from vainglorious defenses. Creativity and exploration will be vital in our effort. A consumer focus and increased communication are also essential in a society growing more interdependent and interactive by the hour. But most of all, a commitment and constancy of purpose must be our guide.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Arlo Guthrie And The State Department Of Education - In The Same Sentence!!

American folksinger Arlo Guthrie penned an iconic song in the early 1970's (most of you can take the time now to Google that decade since it may be beyond your personal memory) entitled, Alice's Restaurant. It's a rambling tune, best played near or on Thanksgiving (that's when the story actually takes place) that reflected many different issues and the angst of those coming of age at a time of civil strife in our nation - the late 1960's. Along the way, maybe six or seven minutes into the song (I said it was rambling) Guthrie recounts the experience of the song's protagonist during a physical examination following his conscription into the service (of course he was not accepted, since this song was an indictment on the draft). 

"I proceeded down the hall getting more injections, inspections, detections, neglections and all kinds of stuff that they were doing to me at this thing there, and I was there for two hours, three hours, four hours, I was there for a long time going through all kinds of mean nasty ugly things and I was just having a tough time there, and they was inspecting, injecting every single part of me, and they was leaving no part untouched" and on it went for another handful of minutes.

Now what, you may ask, does Arlo Guthrie (son of Woody Guthrie, who wrote and made famous the song, This Land is Your Land) have to do with the State Department of Education? Good question. It would certainly stump any contestant on a TV game show.

Perhaps the primary distinction between my lengthy experience as a principal and my nascent existence as a superintendent has been the number of forms to be completed, each with top secret passwords, filled with numbers of all sizes and words aplenty - all with strict deadlines. After spending so many years operating in the shadows of several different superintendents, observing them in board of education meetings, administrative meetings, and too many other interactions to count - I thought I really knew what their job entailed. I didn't really. It turns out it was like watching a play and believing that you've evidenced the entire project. You never see the crew that constructs the sets, the make-up artists, the costumers, and all the rest of the specialists that are necessary to open the curtains and present the play. I never witnessed those mundane - but important - responsibilities required of superintendents that transpired in the solitude of an office out of eye-sight of principals and other staff members. To all of those who supervised me from that position over the years, I appreciate you even more now than I did before.

What I discovered was, there are forms. Lots of them. Piles of them. There are forms to fill out to get more and different forms. There are acronyms that can make your head spin around and around and fill dozens of bowls of alphabet soup! It's left me feeling like the main character in Alice's Restaurant - being injected, inspected, detected, neglected, and rejected and all kinds of mean and nasty stuff...

Here's a sampling of the various

Education Stabilization Fund
IDEA 611 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
Title I, Parts A and D American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
Educational Stabilization Fund
Basic Education Data System
State Aid Management System
    Form A
    Form FB
ST-3 Form and Schedules
Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting
Education Law Section 2053 Report
Race To The Top Final Scope of Work
Five Year Building Condition Survey
Annual Fire Inspection
(I sure hope I haven't forgotten any)

If you haven't already been deterred from finishing this Blog post, then I'll tell you that I have thus far, barely, been able to juggle the enormous time consumed by these reports and still engage in activities with the staff and learners of the school that reaffirm our purpose. I'll admit, it's like treading water some times, but I make every effort to address paperwork outside of the times when people are in the building since people remain the focal point of our business. I can fill out forms early in the morning or late at night, but I can only interact with people between 7:15am and 4:00pm. I try to keep a personal pledge to that apportionment, and confess there have been but a few instances of violating that vow (shout out a big thanks to the secretaries that saved me the morning I needed enrollment data, free and reduced lunch statistics, and staff allocation figures hours before an official big deal deadline for the Basic Education Data System submission - whew!).

The wrinkle in all of this is the juxtaposition of the strength and weakness of a school district our size. At times I fantasize about having assistant superintendents who I could delegate the task of being the Chief Form-Filler-Outer, but then I realize that only large districts can justify and sustain the expense of that option. And, a school district that big would dwarf me in terms of being able to really know the learners and personally interact with staff members on more than an infrequent and distant manner. So, you take the good with the bad - and I'll go back to filling in the forms myself for the next deadline - and still feel great about being able to personally greet nearly everyone by name (and they respond by knowing my name and who I am) as they walk up the sidewalk to enter our school. I'd make that decision over and over again - especially since there's no form required for care, consideration, and compassion.

p.s. Please make sure to take the time tomorrow to honor and be thankful for the many, many special people who have served and sacrificed, and are presently serving and sacrificing, in our armed forces on Veterans Day.
Thanks Dad.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Forging A Future

The District Leadership Team met for a full day session today. This group represents community interests in promoting the continuous improvement of our school district. The committee is comprised of several teachers, a building administrator, a liaison from our regional Board of Cooperative Educational Services(BOCES), two high school learners, the superintendent, and two parents.

The agenda included reports from the following committees: Professional Development; Safe Schools; Instructional Design;  Policy Initiatives and Review; Communication; and, Technology. In addition, one of the high school learners is participating in an internship with the Albany County Legislature and he offered some insight in that governing body's debate prior to recently passing a tougher anti-cyberbullying law. The BOCES representative expressed  congratulations on the progress made by the district that consequently relieved the school system of the downtrodden label, School In Need of Improvement, and urged us to sustain the increase in performance as the state adapts to new standards of achievement levels that take full effect this year.

The discussions surrounding the presentation of information and the examination of the reports was very productive. The collective contributions from committee members generated a synergy of ideas that will allow us to push forward in pursuit of stated goals. New thoughts evolved from the different perspectives volunteered by individuals in the group as one person extended or modified the suggestion or opinion of another member. We found ourselves talking about a variety of topics, hopping from point to point as an issue invariably was linked to yet another concept. However, common elements eventually emerged from the exchanges.

If there was one focal point in the wide-ranging dialogue, the central category could be identified as being associated with our expectations - of ourselves as staff members and parents regarding the possibilities and capacity of our learners. The discussion explored the function and value of: study halls as they presently exist, grading and retention policies, timely and responsive communication between home and school involving assessment levels, credit recovery, graduation rates, and other related issues. If I could attempt to convey our future orientation resulting from this meeting it would be captured by one of my favorite quotes. I believe it was attributed to the great artist Michelangelo and it's about changing your perspective and attitude. He advised people to move from saying, "I'll believe it when I see it" to the reverse, "I'll see it when I believe it." That's what we as a learning community - all members - must do if we expect to increase our expectations and meet our potential.

It was exciting to hear people raise questions and hopes. This is an activity that is a favorite of mine. I enjoy experiencing the growth of ideas and the power of people joining together with the intent of making a positive and constructive difference in their school community. I am especially appreciative of the high school learners and parents who have generously volunteered to serve on the DLT. Their vantage point is essential to maintain our focus and remind us of our purpose.

I'm looking forward to working with the DLT as we invent our future together.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Suggested Reading In A Warm Spot On A Cold Night

Today's surprise snowfall is a stark reminder of the vagaries of weather and the premature arrival of winter. I enjoy this season, in part because of the holidays that bring people together and serve to remind us to re-examine our priorities and be thankful for the good fortune we too often take for granted. And, although I appreciate the beauty of winter and the unique opportunities to experience the snow, I use the real cold weather to be a great excuse to find a warm and comfortable spot at home to relax and appreciate a good book.

If you also use the frigid temperatures (my apologies to skiers, snowmobilers, and especially people who ice fish) as a reason to seek comfort in an interesting story then I will gladly share a few books that you might find interesting. First, I hope that you've checked out the books listed in my profile as my favorites. But, the books I will feature in this Blog post each offer an intriguing and different vantage point on education and entrepreneurship. They are all well written, with an easy flowing narrative that avoids research and instead focuses on human dynamics, social climate, and making a difference.

The first recommendation, The Water is Wide, may be a difficult book to find.  It was written by Pat Conroy and published in 1972. You may recognize the author's name because years after the release of this book he became a famous best seller of such books as The Prince of Tides; The Great Santini;  Beach Music; and most recently, South of Broad. The commercial success of these latter books obscures the fact that he began as a writer of non-fiction. It remains a personal and sentimental favorite of mine because, as I mentioned in an earlier post (No Man Is An Island: October 18), I began my educational career teaching in a hardscrabble community on an island off the coast of Maine three years after this book was released.

The Water is Wide chronicled Conroy's experience as a new teacher struggling to teach impoverished children who lived on Yamacraw Island, across the wide tidal river that separated the tiny piece of land from the South Carolina coastline of his home. The difference in culture and the past, present, and future of the teacher and his learners was striking. He is a Caucasian college graduate while the entire class is comprised of black children confined by generations of poverty.

It was a school casually neglected by those who administered it from afar on the mainland. His story reveals how he came to experience personal growth that rivaled that of his learners. He offers a perspective on the learning process that is both insightful and humorous. It is a view with clarity that challenges the conventional frameworks of public schools. I gained a great deal from reading this book.

The second and third books are both written by Greg Mortenson. The first of this pair of stories in entitled, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations ...One School at a Time. Mortenson explains how he discovered his passion for making a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others after he fell ill and injured during a mountaineering expedition in the high peaks of the Himalayas. Lost and disoriented, he was found by a man from a tiny village who took him in and cared for him. Upon returning to good health he pledged to repay the man and his village once he returned from a trip back to America. Rather than receive money or any other material good, the man asked for help building a school so the local children in the remote village could become educated.

Return he did, with a vow to grow people in a mission that eventually spread across the small villages up and down the valley that hugged the sides of the tallest mountain range in the world. He fought against the ever increasing reaches of terrorist ideology with education. This book was eventually considered required reading for U.S. Army officers stationed in Afghanistan as a means of learning how to appreciate local customs and effectively interact with important tribal elders of the area.

Mortenson empowered children and enabled them to create their futures and improve the quality of life and the prospects of each and every village that sprouted a school building. He required the commitment of the village elders and triumphed over adversity. During this time he started the Central Asia Institute designed to promote opportunities for those who sponsored a school. When my father passed away, the staff of the school where I served as principal made a generous donation to the CAI in his name.

This is a book I've read twice. It's fascinating and casts an intriguing and enlightening observation on a region f the world that is otherwise off the radar of almost everyone.The fact that I read the book on a flight to an Islamic country also provided me with the background necessary to understand the people and beliefs of the country I was visiting.

Mortenson's second book, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, continues to describe his commitment to education as a vehicle to forge a better future. Both of these books are easy reading and move swiftly with a writing style that often borders on the elements of a spellbinding spy novel. His exploits are both daring and demanding. He is an outstanding example of how one person can really make a difference in the lives of many.

The last book is actually one I am currently reading. I came across it at the bookstore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy this last Saturday. The book is entitled, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. The author, Jacqueline Novogratz, has recently been selected for an award that recognizes the power of entrepreneurship. She will be featured at three different events at the college campus during the next two weeks. Her book is a description of her own transformation as she left the corporate banking world behind to make a difference in impoverished African communities while working for various not-for-profit non-governmental organizations throughout Africa. It's an engrossing read that opens the eyes of those who have struggled to find solutions to problems plaguing the poor in third world countries. Her perspective offers an alternative view that is distinctly different than the many well intentioned government sponsored agencies that have expended great amounts of money with paltry benefits to show for the expense. It is a moving story of one person's determination to make a difference.

As a final note, my son will be joining the Peace Corps in March and traveling to eastern Europe to teach English to the inhabitants of one of the following countries - Moldavia, Montenegro, Romania, Albania, or Ukraine. I am proud of his interest in helping people and learning about the culture and customs of foreign lands as a way to expand his perception of the world - and make a difference in the lives of others.