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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Who, What, When And Where Versus How And Why

Our school has recently been engaged in a number of productive experiences that speak to qualities that contribute to success in virtually any workplace our graduates may encounter in the future. Activities like anti-bullying assemblies, volunteering to serve and clean up at senior citizen dinners, fire safety essays and poster contests... all promote cooperation,commitment, and a sense of community. These experiences offer the participants an opportunity to see why their efforts are important and how they make a difference. Yet, these characteristics are not cultivated in the state mandated assessments that solely cultivate academic progress as a measurement of the success of a school in the state of New York.

I certainly don't question the need to promote academic success and measure achievement. These are accomplishments necessary to encounter future success. However, among the challenges of such tests, and the criticism of these assessments, is the emphasis on answering questions asking - what? That is, there is a tendency to solicit knowledge based largely on recall and comprehension level questions.

Just as teachers are encouraged to stretch learners by advancing up a taxonomy (see Bloom's Taxonomy) that begins with questions requiring knowledge, then comprehension, with application next, followed by analysis, synthesis and finally, evaluation; tests should also engender higher order thinking skills. Paper and pencil, fill in the bubble oriented large scale tests often require responses that are short (true/false or multiple choice) and black and white (universally accepted answers instead of essays that can result in different "correct" answers). This likely precludes the use of many questions that require analysis, synthesis, or evaluation.

In other words, there is a tendency to ask "who, what, when, and where" type questions of the test takers. For example, who was the first European explorer in America? what were the name of his boats? where did he land? and, when did he set sail? Answers to these tests are much easier to assess than answers to questions like, how did he create and sustain his course of direction, or how did he maintain the focus of his crew when dangerously exploring beyond the boundaries of the known world? or, why did he decide to colonize the new world in the manner he chose?

The "what" is fairly easy to see and describe. For example - "this is what I do," or "this is what it is." Just like answering the question, What is the capital of New York? Let's step out of tests for a moment and enter the real everyday world. Let's move away from test questions and examine meaning and purpose.

The future belongs to those people who can consistently extend themselves beyond the obvious "what" and progress toward the "how" and "why."

Harvey McKay pens a weekly syndicated business column that appears in the Albany Times Union. His latest installment was entitled - Why you should ask 'why' to be successful. It's an essay worth reading. He describes the difference in the workplace among people who are limited to knowing what, versus workers who can explain how, and others who can tell why.

McKay begins his summary of the essay with a quote from Diane Ravitch: "The person who knows "how" will always have a job. The person who knows "why" will always be his boss." Finally, he concludes by advising - "It's not enough to know how to do things - you must know why you do them."

How will we ever encourage the acquisition of higher order thinking skills if we are forever expected to prepare learners for state tests that ask who, what, where, and when instead of challenging them to answer the all important how and why?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Searching For Gold

Tonight's Blog post centers on a thought provoking statement that I've discovered during the course of reading books on business and leadership.

It's a quote from Nuts!The Story of Southwest Airlines, co-written by Kevin Freiberg and Jackie Freiberg:  "People who work in gold mines will tell you that tons and tons of dirt must be removed before the miners hit a vein of gold. They focus on the search for the gold rather than the dirt."
I believe that this reference offers an interesting suggestion on how we view our goals, objectives and personal visions. It seems that many people are too often distracted or overwhelmed by the dirt and lose sight of the gold. I guess it can be summarized and reduced to a parallel of the old question, "is the glass half empty or half full?"

In this case, you could substitute several different words or terms for "dirt." Think of misrepresented facts, or high volume vitriol that contribute to obscuring what's right, muting optimism, or draining desire. It's not about who is right - it's about what is right.

Public school education is afflicted by the impact of people who choose to maintain a focus on the dirt rather than the pursuit of gold. That's much easier and requires far less energy than removing tons and tons of dirt in the quest for gold. Horrendous headlines and blaring broadcasts spout oft-stated criticism of schools that generally lack sufficiently supported facts.

Meanwhile, dedicated and industrious educators continue to labor at creating and sustaining the efforts that will eventually uncover gold. It's a dirty job.


Monday, November 28, 2011

A Bad Taste

I can't help but ponder the impact of the various state and federal mandates imposed upon public schools. More is expected of us at a time that less is offered to us in the form of material and monetary resources. The image comes to mind of the "pushmi-pullyu" animal from the story, Dr. Doolittle. The pushmi-pullyu (pronounced "push-me—pull-you") is a "gazelle-unicorn cross" which has two heads (one of each) at opposite ends of its body. When it tries to move, both heads try to go in opposite directions. (Wikipedia)

I will paraphrase an excerpt from the book Making It Happen, by Alan Weiss to explain how this process of mandates ultimately filters down to the individual classroom.
A dog food company launched its new approach to 'lifetime canine nutrition' with great fanfare, using innovative techniques in its promotion, packaging, and dealer incentives. However, after a brief sales surge, the company was horrified to see their market share decline by 15%, with prospects of continued decrease. In an effort to find who to blame the crusty CEO convened a meeting and pursued this question with each of his vice presidents. "All right," he bellowed, "who blew it! Each executive exhibited a great deal of anxiety and sweated as they explained how they used the latest, most sophisticated techniques in customer surveys, packaging displays, rebate offers, dealer discounts, etc...

This did not satisfy the angry CEO. "Well, if everything followed the strategy so precisely," screamed the president, "then why isn't the stuff selling?" Finally, a raised hand appeared at the rear of the room. It belonged to a lowly management trainee. "I think I know what the problem is, sir."

"You do! Well tell me what is it, since all of these highly paid department heads can't seem to explain the reason!"
"The dogs," reported the trainee matter of factly, "just don't like the stuff".

Ah, after all of the regulations from Washington and Albany, the end product eventually produces a poor taste. I believe the process is actually the reason for resistance more than the proposed product. In particular, these requirements may be disdained by those who decry the loss of local control of public education. Boards of education and school leaders are deprived of opportunities to exercise policies and practices preferred by the community they serve - from curriculum to evaluation, from resource allocation to assessment standards.

It just doesn't seem practical to levy uniform requirements across such a disparate array of schools. A plan like this appears to ignore the vast differences inherent in a diverse population across the state with respect to values and beliefs and the ability to generate revenue juxtapositioned with the needs of each community.

There are plenty of examples of two school districts equal in the number of learners they serve yet widely different in the amount of funding available to them to respond to the needs of their learners. Equal in this case is not equitable. The gap between rich and poor schools is widening. The concern is not unlike the issue playing out in headlines across the country whereby a greater share of wealth is distributed a tiny minority of our population.

In sum, there are many schools struggling to meet basic instructional needs while a similar number have the capacity to go well beyond needs and address instructional wants. That scenario leaves a bad taste.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I Am Thankful For ...

I became an educator because I wanted to make a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others, just like the high school teacher who voluntarily exercised a caring, compassionate intervention at a difficult time in my life. His consideration, sensitivity and responsiveness encouraged me when I felt hopeless and helpless. His guidance leveraged future success. I continue to pursue that goal as a moral compass point that guides me as a school leader during my interactions with learners, staff and parents.

However, an interesting by-product emerged while I invested my energy and effort toward a commitment of making a difference in the lives of others. I discovered that these same people were also making a difference in my life. I derive great satisfaction from my attempts to nurture the dreams and sustain the hope of those I work for. It's an example of reciprocal benefits. By pledging to support others you receive reinforcement from their smiles, their progress, and their personal growth. The process proves to be reaffirming. I have grown from the insight and experiences of others. It's also greatly enriching. Those feelings in turn maintain the momentum that allows me to endure the challenges I face. It is not an easy task. There has been frustration and exasperating circumstances along the path. But that sincere smile, a simple thank you, or a contact years later from someone who has not forgotten your help, all contribute toward replenishing my reservoir.

I am thankful for all of the help I have received as I have endeavored to help others.

Ask yourself this question - "What am I thankful for?" - and reflect on your answer throughout the year, not simply on Thanksgiving Day.

I hope that everyone enjoys a safe and pleasant Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Calling All Parents

It's difficult being a parent. The economic climate is anxiety producing. The threat of downsizing and layoffs has bred insecurity in the workplace. Costs are increasing, salary and benefits are stable at best, decreasing at worse. Time is also endangered by a fast paced, stressful daily routine. There doesn't seem to be enough time to do everything that a parent needs or wants to do regarding the tremendous responsibility of helping their children invent and build the future. There's no instructional manual accompanying the birth of a baby.

Monitoring and assisting a child along the path of their education is among the tasks that fall upon a parent. So much to do, so little time to do it. Efficiency can improve effectiveness. That is, if there are just a few things you can direct your attention and time toward in the role of guiding your child through school, then the key leverage points you need to exercise are featured in the article by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (linked below)

Friedman references a study conducted by the National School Board Association's Center for Public Education. A critical quote from the study - "Parent involvement can take many forms, but only a few of them relate to higher student achievement." The author of the study, Patte Barth, continues by identifying these positive parental actions - "Monitoring homework, making sure children get to school, rewarding their efforts and talking up the idea of going to college. These parent actions are linked to better attendance, grades, test scores, and preparation for college."

Here's the link to the column.

It's important to note Friedman's concluding paragraph:

"To be sure, there is no substitute for a good teacher. There is nothing more valuable than great classroom instruction. But let's stop putting the while burden on teachers. We also need better parents. Better parents can make every teacher more effective."

We held parent and teacher conferences at the elementary school level last week. Report cards will soon be distributed. How would you grade yourself as a parent? Please read and reflect on the column linked in this Blog entry.

I call on the parents of learners in Green Island to accept responsibility for partnering with the school staff to cooperatively construct a better future for our children. I also encourage parents to assist us in the effort by maintaining high standards of performance and accountability for staff and parents regarding achievement.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Going To College

Mention the word "college" and a typical 9th or 10th grader will either respond by echoing the desire of their parents for them to attend college, or listing their favorite college sports teams.

Unless a learner at that age has parents, older siblings, or relatives who have attended college their view is rather limited and their understanding is abstract. By the time they reach that age level they have doubtlessly been encouraged to go to college innumerable times by various adults. They have a sense that a college education will likely offer the prospects for a higher income than if they terminated their formal education at the conclusion of high school. They have heard or read about Notre Dame football, Duke basketball, and other distinguishing college athletic programs.

However, what do they really know about the college experience that they have been urged to pursue? How many 9th and 10th graders have gone beyond an internet college visit and actually toured a college campus, walked through a dorm, listened to professors, engaged in a question/answer session with college students on admissions procedures and financial aid, participated in a video project in the communications department, or eaten at a college cafeteria? Well, twenty-three of our 9th and 10th graders did exactly that today.

Thanks to a local pastor who also happens to serve as the Director of Community Service at a nearby, private four year college located in Albany, our group can now create their dreams for the future with more concrete and meaningful images based on this excursion. Now they have mental pictures to fuel their personal visions of college. Now they have a better understanding of what they need to do to prepare for college during their remaining two or three years of high school.

It was reassuring to observe how interested and excited the high school learners were throughout the visit. That was our objective. Fill in the blanks by providing an experience to gain insight and whet appetites. Stimulate thoughts and reinforce hopes. Clear up a fuzzy picture. We weren't promoting this particular college and the school's representatives understood that we simply wanted the teenagers to see what a college is like and how it operates. We expect to offer another tour of a different four year college in the capital region later this school year.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Which Way Did They Go?

Yesterday's Blog post discussed the dangers of blind obsession in developing and pursuing goals, particularly when the stated goal may not be the "right" goal. Today's Blog entry uses an excerpt from The Eighth Habit, a book by Steven Covey, to examine the need for goal clarity.

The author references a poll of 2,300 employees drawn from a number of companies and industries as a starting point on the importance of relevant goals within a context of shared meanings and the common good. He examines the difference between alignment and compliance, and contrasts the commitment of those who willingly enlist in the quest of a common and understandable goal and those who are merely expected or required to follow the goals of others. Covey explains the level of interest and the rate of commitment by projecting the statistics on an athletic team.
First, the data produced from the research study involving 2,300 workers.

1.  Only 37% said they had a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve, and why.

2.  Only 20% were enthusiastic about their team’s and organization’s goals.

3.  Only 20% said they had a clear “line of sight” between their tasks and their team’s/organization’s goals.

4.  Only 15% felt their organization fully enables them to execute key goals.

5.  Only 20% fully trusted the organization they work for.

Covey breathes life into the statistics using the following example for illustration:

If a soccer team had these same scores (rate of interest, trust, and understanding), only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they play and exactly what they are supposed to do. And all but 2 players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent.”

The findings of this study provide an important message for all organizations, including schools. This is especially true for those organizations that try to "grow" staff members like people grow mushrooms - keep them in the dark and pile fertilizer on them.

Information can be enlightening and empowering. The mission of a school must be credible, believable, and inspiring. Strategic goals should not be secrets developed by a select few people sequestered in a big conference room. Objectives should be relevant and meaningful, collaboratively crafted, discussed publicly, and clearly communicated in varied forms. Encouraging all staff members to become situational leaders lends credence to the saying that, "power is the only thing that multiplies when it is divided." Looking ahead through the telescope of an inspiring vision is critical. You can't move forward if all you're doing is looking behind yourself to cover your rear end. Transparent, transformational, servant leadership can leverage progress through people. Investing in people as human capital is more likely to prompt their enlistment in contributing to goals of the school than coercive, top-down directives that produce compliance at most, resistance at least.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Great Commitment, Wrong Target

An article in Fast Company, a monthly business magazine, attracted my interest a few years back. The author, Marshall Goldsmith, wrote a brief essay about goal obsession in the August 2004 edition. He discussed a 1973 study conducted at Princeton by researchers Darley and Batson.

 In this widely referenced study, a group of theology students was told that they were to go across campus to deliver a sermon on the topic of the Good Samaritan. As part of the research, some of these students were told that they were late and needed to hurry up. Along their route across campus, Darley and Batson had hired an actor to play the role of a victim who was coughing and suffering.

Ninety percent of the “late” students in Princeton Theology Seminary ignored the needs of the suffering person in their haste to get across campus. As the study reports, ‘Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!’

Goldsmith concluded that this was a case of people with goal obsession clouding their judgment. They were well intentioned but committed to the wrong target. I imagine that school improvement is not wanting for either energy and effort. Most schools charge forth with good intentions – but end up shooting at the wrong target. I am worried that the spate of federal and state legislation passed to shape the form and direction of education is narrowing the view of public schools. Add in the enticing financial incentives (i.e the federally sponsored competitive grants available to states through "Race To The Top.") during a time of economic crisis and scarce resources, and you have the potential for a perfect storm that begins with a thick fog enveloping schools and obstructing their vision.

There is no right way to do the wrong thing. The fact that 90% of the theology students who were told they were late simply neglected the person in need along the path to deliver a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan reveals the dangers of a goal orientation bordering on fixation. The current attention and demands on state mandated tests and scores threaten to distort priorities and produce a myopic view. Sir George Pickering, English clinical researcher and professor of medicine, once declared, "Not everything that counts, can be counted; not everything that can be counted, counts." That's an important piece of advice for schools to heed as they develop strategic goals that promote success.

When you think of education, what really counts?    

Monday, November 14, 2011

Good Is A Perception - Tests Are A Reality

Let me begin this Blog entry by stating that I do not feel that tests cores alone are sufficient and appropriate measures of the value of a school. There are many additional factors that influence the overall quality of any school. However, this Blog post will reflect on one such metric used by the state and reported by the local media, and use it as a platform for discussion.

The Albany Times Union just reported on the release of the most recent data evolving from the annual state mandated assessments of learners. Interestingly, the headline proclaimed, "Rules net 'good' schools." 

As superintendent of a school district that had been acknowledged as a school that qualified for the burdensome and embarrassing label of a SINI school prior to my arrival (School In Need of Improvement) I found it alarming that the newspaper now appears disturbed that school districts perceived as "good" have schools within their systems that display under performing levels of achievement. It's as if the media's concern about performance levels is now heightened because the reach of the state's ability to designate schools for poor test scores has extended into the suburbs.

The State Department of Education presented a list that showed 1,325 of the 4,685 public schools across the Empire State are now considered Schools In Need of Improvement - SINI schools. Despite the inclusion of more affluent suburban schools perceived and assumed as "good" according to the newspaper, Green Island Union Free School District is not on the list of under performing schools that now includes over one fourth of all of the schools in the state.

Although I find it a bit disconcerting that there is something implicit in the headline "New rules net 'good' schools," which infers that perhaps the new rules are to blame for the incongruous juxtaposition of 'good schools' and a negative designation by the state department of education. It sounds like the heresy that leaves good schools exposed on a list of shame. The newspaper lists several schools in the capital district region - many from suburban districts that had been, up until now, immune from the fears and anxieties that constantly shadow the less affluent and financially challenged schools.

Nearly all of the area schools identified in the news article were cited for deficient scores among subgroups comprising the general population of learners. It means at least one subgroup (i.e. gender, special education learners, race,...) failed to meet adequate yearly progress levels. While that may statistically be less significant than if the entire learner population was under performing, it does reveal the underbelly of a school that might otherwise have been free of the scar in the past. Not that long ago, schools were usually assessed by the general public on the bottom line of percentage of high school graduates, percentage of graduates attending college, scores on Regents exams and other statewide tests. In schools that have small numbers of racial minorities, special needs learners, or economically disadvantaged learners (as measured by the percentage of children eligible for the federally sponsored free and reduced meal program) it was possible for these low numbers in subgroups to be statistically overwhelmed and obscured by the sheer numbers of white, non-special needs, and economically advantaged learners in the school who were meeting academic expectations.

Now however, a school is evaluated on all of its component parts and subsequently held accountable for all learners. So, no matter how well the largest group of learners perform on the tests, the school may not escape the clutches of the state department of education if a single identified group falls short of making appropriate rates of progress. For example, even if 95% of the learner population reach a perfect score on the state test the school may still be considered a School In Need of Improvement as long as a single group (i.e. racial minorities) representing 5% of the learners does not meet adequate standards of performance. And that's how it should be. I think that there have been districts throughout the country that overlooked the achievement gap among learners as long as the overall scores of the school were acceptable. There are legions of 'good' schools born when the success of the majority masked the deficiencies of the minority.

We can't tolerate any child left behind, and we certainly can't exclude an identifiable group of learners from moving forward. I believe all children are entitled to a free and equal education, with equal defined in the form of opportunity. We can't guarantee that everyone will achieve at the same level, but we should assure everyone of the opportunities and conditions that promote success. If we continually experience insufficient levels of achievement among the economically disadvantaged, the special needs learners, or racial minorities our society will eventually suffer from the accumulated deficit emerging from disparity and inequity. 

The Heatly instructional team pursued a goal of reducing the deficit among subgroups within the learner population and the data from the most recent state tests indicates evidence of progress as the performance between males and females narrowed, as did the gap between those eligible for free/reduced lunch and those not eligible. Special needs learners also achieved at higher rates of success. The benefit of this focus on specific subgroups is that the same techniques and practices designed and delivered to improve the performance of the subgroup usually precipitates an increase in the instructional skills of the teacher for all learners.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tell Me A Story

We often think of fiction when someone refers to a story. The term conjures up memories of myths, legends, and fables, or bed-time stories, or your uncle's long-winded tall tales he will share once again this Thanksgiving to a captive audience around the table.

However, story telling served as the primary means of transmitting information for the majority of the years that actually span the history of our civilization. When you examine our human time-line you will discover that written communication is a relatively recent concept, and shared widely among the populace only after Gutenberg created the printing press in 1450.

Written communication, in the form of an alphabet, was virtually absent among the varied groups of indigenous people of North America. Verbal narratives were used to pass morals, traditions, values, and beliefs from one generation to another and another and... Stories represented the strand that linked and sustained cultures. Look how long Aesop's fables were repeated and repeated before becoming enshrined in print and widely distributed.

It's interesting to note that despite the proliferation of technological forms of collecting, storing, retrieving and transferring information that threatens to almost eliminate personal exchanges of communication, story telling still matters. Here's an excerpt from Encouraging the Heart, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner that illustrates the point.

"Stanford University organizational sociologists Joanne Martin and Melanie Powers studied the impact of stories on students enrolled in a Masters of Business Administration program, an often numbers-driven, highly competitive, skeptical audience. Martin and Powers compared the persuasiveness of four methods of convincing the students that a particular company truly practiced a policy of avoiding layoffs. In one situation, Martin and Powers used only a story to persuade people. In the second, they presented statistical data that showed that the company had significantly less involuntary turnover than its competitors. In the third, they used the statistics and the story. In the fourth, they used a straightforward policy statement made by the executive of the company.
The students in the groups that were given only the story believed the claim about the policy more than any of the other groups and remembered it better several months later when tested." (p. 101)

Later, in the same book, the authors report that, "Research clearly demonstrates that information is more quickly and accurately remembered when it is first presented in the form of an example or story." (p. 102)

What's the point I wish to make in this Blog entry?

Even with the continuous introduction of incredibly sophisticated technology that delivers information at lightning speeds, and the tremendous pressure teachers face from ever increasing demands that compress the time they have to present information - story-telling still matters, regardless of the time required to convey the story, or the lack of flash and splash that might accompany the story. Let's not lose sight of this very important element of our culture and the abundant research that supports the use of story-telling.

That's the end of my story today.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Building The Future

Staff development days are rare opportunities for all staff members to invest common time toward pursuing collective goals of the school district. Generally, people don't seem to comprehend why schools have these Superintendent Conference Days or staff training sessions. The activities appear to be misunderstood by much of the public as unnecessary events that cause childcare problems for learners displaced from the school to accommodate the need for staff members to receive information and instruction attendant to promoting professional growth.

Who would think it wise to seek medical help from a physician who hasn't maintained his/her knowledge or skill based on the latest research and techniques? Why would we accept anything less from the school staff members who are responsible for our children? I'm not aware of any company that expects their workers to receive specific and necessary job related training outside of their normal work hours without compensation. Yet, public schools routinely have to defend their practice of providing growth opportunities to employees during normal work hours.

There was a great deal accomplished at today's staff development. Most notably, there were presentations on the Common Core Learning Standards newly adopted by the state of New York, as well as the Measures of Academic Progress assessments introduced at school by the Northwest Evaluation Association. The combination of these two factors will positively impact the learning program at Heatly.

Perhaps the best summary of the experience of sustaining our pursuit of progress and improvement while simultaneously integrating new programs and practices is represented in the brief video provided in the link below.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fast Food vs. Slow Food. Fast Education vs. Slow Education

I've been working on my weight with a heightened degree of resolve recently. It seems that I've gradually gained weight while I either lost focus or looked the other way. Perhaps I allowed time constraints to lead me toward the convenience of "fast food" more than I should have. Maybe it was the perception that it might also be less expensive too. At any rate, I made a conscious effort to address my concern by examining what I eat in terms of content, how often I eat in terms of intent, and the quantity that I eat in terms of extent. That's it - content, intent, and extent. I've lost twelve pounds since August 1st.

Along the way I also paid more attention to the origin of the food I consume. In this case, I became a frequent visitor to the Troy Farmer's Market each Saturday morning. This weekly event offered an opportunity to support local farmers by purchasing food grown in the area. Organic foods began to represent a higher percentage of my diet.

Now, I'm not here to preach to you about your weight, or promote what you should eat or avoid. Instead, I want you to consider the slow food movement versus fast foods as a parallel to a similar contrast in education. Let me explain by first displaying the definition of the slow food movement as related in Wikipedia, along with an explanation of fast food from the same source:

Slow Food is an international movement founded by Carlo Petreni in 1986. Promoted as an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem. It was the first established part of the broader Slow movement. The movement has since expanded globally to over 100,000 members in 132 countries. Its goals of sustainable foods and promotion of local small businesses are paralleled by a political agenda directed against globalization of agricultural products.

Fast food is the term given to food that can be prepared and served very quickly. While any meal with low preparation time can be considered to be fast food, typically the term refers to food sold in a restaurant or store with preheated or precooked ingredients, and served to the customer in a packaged form for take-out/take-away.

Now that you've been able to compare the two terms you can more easily apply them to two very different forms of education. I contend that the steady stream of state and federal mandates (No Child Left Behind is a perfect example) have left schools across the nation more homogeneous. These mandates likewise present a curriculum of conformity that is already prepared and preheated and served in a packaged form. This process of imposition creates a uniform taste of standardization that lacks the nuances of regional interests and flavors and virtually eliminates unique differences that emerge from variations in farming techniques, climate adaptations, ecological characteristics and seeds. The consumer grabs a package from a fast food place that all look the same no matter what state they're in, and taste the same no matter what state they're in, and provided by people in the same uniform no matter what state they're in. Uniqueness is sacrificed for regulatory requirements that insure commonality. This results in fast education.

Slow education, on the other hand, allows each farmer and cook to adapt their element in the overall process to meet the desires of those consumers they serve. Local beliefs and values are central to this process. Differences matter and unique properties are respected. Taste is paramount and reflects the peculiarities of different regions and locales. Care and time are both considered viable investments that contribute to something flavorful worth waiting for and enjoying.The relationship between the farmer, the cook, and the consumer is valuable and personal in slow food, and so it should be with slow education.

What's happened to local input that evolves from the interests, values, and beliefs of a community? As we standardize and nationalize our educational systems we lose intimate involvement and direct accountability. Who selects and plants the seeds? Who nurtures the growth? Where's the connection and pride in providing a service to others in the community? Where's the nutrition in all this?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Working Together

As stressors of various types and forms confront us on a daily basis we must understand the benefit of collaboration and cooperation as a viable means of thwarting threats.

Here's a very brief and entertaining video designed by a Belgian advertising firm that demonstrates the impact a collective and concerted effort can have in response to a menacing danger that imperils a group.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Facilitator Of Growth

I have always appreciated irony. Here's a definition extracted from


noun, plural -nies.
the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning: the irony of her reply, “How nice!” when I said I had to work all weekend.
a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.
(especially in contemporary writing) a manner of organizing a work so as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes, etc., especially as a means of indicating detachment from a subject, theme, or emotion.
an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.
Now, a personal example of irony.

I have served in a number of different leadership positions over the years. During that time I have been involved with innumerable tasks, requiring me to exercise a wide variety of skills addressing countless issues that produced such an expansive array of responsibilities that it was difficult to explain everything underneath the simple title of "principal." There are certainly times when it would appear that I was a jack-of-all trades and master of none.

I was invited to present a convocation address and act as a week-long visiting lecturer at a university out west. Soon after, I was contacted by the president of the student senate (the sponsoring agency of the school) for an interview to provide information for purposes of generating advance publicity. In the course of responding to the inquiries about my work it became apparent that my role extended well beyond one that could be summarized by a traditional title. It was a pleasant and accommodating conversation that increased my enthusiasm for the trip and the unfolding experience.

The time came to fly to Utah and go to work. I had invested a lot of time in preparing my speech for the 1,000 people expected to attend the convocation series. I had also devoted a considerable amount of energy and effort in the information I planned to deliver in the week of lectures and the additional role of consulting on a proposed partnership between the university and the local public school system. The flight itself was uneventful but the scenery available to those flying over the Great Plains and the Rockies was fantastic. The views acted to ward off some of the mounting anxiety related to the expectations I held for the presentation.

Soon after I arrived at the university I noticed posters on poles and doors all over the campus advertising my speech. There was a picture of me and a brief professional biography. All well and good. But then I read the title listed below the photograph identifying Michael Mugits, not as a principal, or school leader, or educator, but Facilitator of Growth. I was immediately impressed with the moniker since my primary responsibility is directed at growing people of all ages and all stages by extending their reach toward their potential. It was more fitting in many respects than simply using the traditional and formal title attached to my office door - principal.

Nonetheless, you can imagine the explaining I felt compelled to provide following the introduction that the Dean of the College of Education gave me prior to my appearance on stage. Here I was, Facilitator of Growth, standing before the audience at a mere five feet five inches tall...  Had I truly been a facilitator of growth I believe I would have been six feet two inches. Actually, that contrast allowed me to begin my speech with a humorous exchange and led to a productive presentation that I was very proud of and it seemed to elicit great appreciation by those in attendance.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Question Why

Can you imagine anyone dreaming of becoming a teacher at a time when public schools are eliminating teaching positions in the wake of severe budget reductions? At a time when educators everywhere are operating under scrutiny due to perceptions of not meeting ever more demanding performance levels?

Can you imagine the emotional and psychological devastation that you would feel if your father was murdered in a senseless tragedy?

How about this to further complicate the scenario. Can you imagine leaving medical school to enroll in a college program to become a teacher? That's right, leave a path to a profession that promises much more financial compensation and security to enter a profession of fiscal uncertainty and insecurity.

Puzzled as to why a person would pursue the situation explained in the preceding paragraphs?

Click on the link below and read/listen to the story on the National Public Radio website about a Nigerian who left medical school to become a teacher after his father was murdered in Chicago by hopeless and helpless teens.

Answering the question, Why? is often much more difficult for people than responding to questions that begin with, What, Who, When, and Where. The Why question usually requires one to reach deep down inside for an answer that is often more personal and reflective of values and beliefs than replies to questions that begin with different prompts.

For instance, in the book, Made to Stick, by Dan and Chip Heath, the authors refer to an Algebra teacher who responds to the inevitable question generated by a learner who is skeptical of the relevance of a particular subject - "Why do we need to study Algebra?"

Here's the response:

"Most teachers usually reply that Algebra provides procedures for manipulating symbols to allow for the understanding of the world around us, or more simply, you need it to get your diploma,… Dean Sherman, a high school Algebra teacher responds – “You will never use Algebra. Think of weight lifting. People don’t lift weights to be prepared should, one day someone knock them over on the street and lay a barbell across their chests. You lift weights so you can knock over a defensive lineman, or carry your groceries, or lift your grandchildren without being sore the next day. You do math exercises so you can be a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison warden, or parent. Math is mental weight training."

Framing an objective in a meaningful manner, and introducing the objective with value and relevance to the lives of those we teach is a vital strategic leverage point. Dean Sherman, the teacher in the example above, understands that. If the learners (of all ages and stages in life) don't perceive a connection between what they're expected to learn and their daily lives and projected futures, then they are less likely to invest the time, energy, and effort necessary to meet with success in attaining the objective.

I suspect the same also holds true for each of us when we select a field of work for our careers. I didn't choose to become an educator to make money. I had a stronger interest in making a difference rather than making dollars. I followed a path created by desire not default, by opportunity not convenience.Teachers who consistently meet with success and leave their learners with lasting memories more often than not enter the profession with the goal of making a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others. The young man in the NPR story certainly qualifies in that respect. Instead of devolving in an emotionally downward spiral following the senseless murder of his father, he sought to act in a manner that would help reduce the conditions and context of those who might otherwise pursue a life of crime borne of desperation, helplessness and hopelessness. I can't imagine a better example of a noble enlistment in a morally uplifting cause. Our society needs more people to answer the call for the right reasons and meet the needs of others through teaching in the right way.