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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Coverting Data Into Information

This evening's Blog post on data and information will feature several quotes extracted from business books that have made a difference in my leadership career.

We'll look at the goal of converting data into informed instructional decisions - leveraging success with optimal learning experiences in the classroom.

First, from Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler
The Power of Performance Measurement
* What gets measured gets done
* If you don't measure results, you can't tell success from  failure.
* If you can't see success, you can't reward it.
* If you can't reward success, you're probably rewarding failure.
* If you can't see success, you can't learn from it.
* If you can't recognize failure, you can't correct it.
* If you can demonstrate results, you can win public  support.

The list of advice provided above by Osborne and Gaebler offers a great starting point and platform for our efforts. Now, let's differentiate between data, which schools have in abundance, and information.

From The Marketing Imagination by Theodore Levitt

"The difference between data and information is that while data are crudely aggregated collections of raw facts, information represents the selective organization and imaginative interpretation of those facts. Information represents the imposition of order, categories, and ideas on the collected data."

We can begin the process of converting data into information by utilizing an expansive view on examining data, as expressed by Roy Rowan in his book, The Intuitive Manager ---
"Kaleidoscopic thinking is the ability to see new patterns in old phenomena. Take the set of existing fragments, twist them, and come up with an exciting new view."

-- rather than employing two ill-fated techniques (below) John Sculley, former CEO of Apple Computer, referenced in his book Odyssey,
"As the great mathematician Leonhard Euler said, "Science is what you do after you guess well."
and "SWAG = Scientific Wild Ass Guess."

Finally, from Shaping the Managerial Mind, by John E. Flaherty, we are cautioned to remember that

"The financial bottom line could be metaphorically compared to a sundial, which reveals the time of day only when the sun shines and gives no information on a cloudy day or at night."

Monday, January 30, 2012

What Is Done With All This Stuff?

As my mind wanders away from the task of filling small boxes on endless requests for data on various and frequent state education reports, I wonder what it must be like to have the responsibility of compiling and analyzing all of these reports from all of the school districts throughout the state. Once I reflect on that scenario, I return to completing the forms, with sympathy to the individual sequestered in a cubicle in the bowels of the state education building, and feel that I have the better role in this equation. But, the question arises, and echoes with each form I fill out, what do "they" do with all of this data?

Here's a relevant quote from Managing the Non Profit Organization, written by Peter Drucker:
"Most of our current reporting systems don't reveal opportunities, they report problems."

Too often the data reviewed by organizations is more of an autopsy than a diagnosis. While the results of an autopsy shows how someone died it doesn't always or necessarily lead to any specific actions that can be taken to prevent additional deaths. This point is a refrain cited earlier in a Blog post that featured the poem, The Ambulance and the Valley, in which townspeople spend valuable resources on ambulances to pick up all of the people who drive off the cliff overlooking the valley instead of simply investing funds (far less than the money required for ambulances) in making a better fence as a deterrent to further casualties.

Another concern (which was the source of a previous Blog post) is the prospect of schools becoming so overwhelmed with collecting data that they become a DRIP school - Data Rich, Information Poor. In order to leverage success we must be capable of converting data into informed instructional decisions. That means looking for a difference that makes a difference. That begins with making sure that you have identified the right metrics. Peter Senge, author of Schools that Learn, offers the following point to consider:
"We tend to think that we believe what we measure, but it's more likely that we measure what we believe."
Let's return to Drucker's book for another important perspective on the work of schools:
"We need to remind ourselves over and over again that the results of a non-profit institution are always outside the organization, not inside."

Finally, a reference from Passion for Excellence, written by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin:
"The number one sin (in terms of development or change) is the excessive quantification of the imponderable."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Don't Water Your Weeds

Harvey McKay writes a weekly, nationally syndicated column that is usually found in the business section of the Sunday editions of newspapers. He has also written several best selling books that offer insight accrued from his extensive business experiences. This Blog entry emerges from one of the many quotes I have extracted from his thought provoking essays:

"Don't water your weeds!"

[spoiler alert - there will be some whining in the following paragraphs]

With resources of time, money and material becoming more scarce it seems obvious that we can ill afford to waste any of our valuable assets on issues and items that may inhibit our progress - or worse! Yet, public schools largely continue to water their weeds. I am referring to the tendency to merely sustain traditions, such as the outdated industrial, assembly line model of production relying on outmoded command and control management (not leadership) of an organization that does little from year to year other than change the date of the calendar.

Ah, you think, before asking, "How can you say that when schools boast the latest in technology and the greatest of research based instructional practices?" The retort to that question laments that we woefully under utilize technology while maintaining a relatively unchanged physical environment of school buildings. Too much has been spent on electronic worksheets or newly minted instructional tools that far exceed the staff development reaches of schools to sufficiently train teachers as users capable of harnessing and exploiting the full capacity of the devices. Textbooks still represent the coin of the realm. Learning is still expressed as work measured in the number of words written in an essay or report, or the number of pages read or worksheets completed. Policies confine the breadth of technology (try researching breast cancer for a health class project - most filters prevent the search) or stunt the depth of the impact of technology (what happens to learners from homes without computers or Internet connections during out-of-school hours/days?) when schools limit access to computers to the school day.

Not only are subject matters at the secondary level still quarantined from each other for fear of infection or dilution of academic discipline, but we are still packaging class time in forty or forty-five minute blocks as we did decades ago, despite the exponential growth of advances in science and the incredible events across the globe in social, political and economic arenas.

What are we eliminating if we teach American history today, for instance, in the same block of time that the subject was taught four decades ago? Imagine everything that has occurred in the meantime. I know, I know, what about the recent trend of block scheduling adopted a high schools, you ask? Okay, I'll reply with a question - What about it? Beyond the smoke and mirrors and the fanfare that splashes new paint on an old car, how many schools have worked with teachers to exploit the extended time (the total time for the course remains the same but in ninety minute blocks every other day instead of forty-five minute periods every day) with changes in instructional delivery? Are we merely teaching two different forty-five minute lesson in one single ninety minute block without changing the way we teach? Are the learners any more engaged as active participants? Are the classes any more relevant and meaningful? Has research demonstrated any appreciable differences in achievement? Is it yet another cosmetic alteration that offers a change in style without really precipitating a change in substance?

Regardless of the introduction of innovative teaching techniques, they are still being exercised in the all too familiar "egg crate" buildings with a long hallway separating identically constructed classrooms (or cells) located directly across from each other in two equal rows. Teaching appears as a private act performed in public, as Dan Lortie pointed out thirty-five years ago in his class book, Schoolteacher: a Sociological Study. Whole Language or Phonics, Cooperative Learning or Direct Instruction - it doesn't matter what name you call it, the game is still played in the conventional twenty-five feet by twenty-five feet room with a single teacher interacting with twenty five learners.

We need to plant seeds, not water weeds. This admonition is especially true in states like New York where funding to public schools has been frozen or decreased for three years now while the allowable number of state approved charter schools has been significantly increased. This contradictory pattern, like Dr. Doolittle's famous Push Me - Pull You, the four legged animal with a head on either end of its body, is a ready made recipe for a continued increase in enrollment figures of charter schools operating unfettered of the myriad state mandates and the decrease in public school enrollment at schools struggling to swim against a steady stream of confining regulatory practices. (Did you know there is a curricular requirement that New York public schools teach about the Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid 1800's? - That must be a tribute to a powerful politician of Irish heritage who long ago inserted the regulation into the state education guidelines in exchange for a political favor exchanged with another politician)

I am as guilty as anyone in that we are operating too much like any school of thirty years ago. Rather than point fingers at the bureaucratic imprint of the state education department, or unions, or any other readily available whipping post, I must commit to leadership that reinvents what we do and how we do it - all in support of why we do it. Failing that, I would expect to see our school, and other public schools, suffer from the gradual migration of learners to charter schools that can promise appealing alternatives to "business as usual."

I am gardener of a small patch of land, weary of watering the upturned soil that includes weeds. The faucet has slowed to a trickle and a drought is approaching. Tough choices have to be made about resource allocation.

One, albeit small, adaptation to the changing environment has been our introduction of over one hundred different accredited on-line classes (a process made more challenging by the nuances of requirements imposed by the state education department) for those high school learners willing and anxious to stretch themselves and become better prepared for college. Another attempt to grow and increase our yield has been the decision to focus more sunshine on our plants by expanding the reach of our school to consumers through a variety of social media outlets like facebook, twitter, and a blog.

What else can we do, or should we do at Heatly? We need more Inquiry Based Learning projects that integrate an important repertoire of learning skills with a multidisciplinary approach. We need to expand the school year (summer school or mini instructional camps) and school day (more extracurricular choices outside of the conventional menu of activities of sports, student council, and foreign language clubs). We need a more direct and clear link to the outside through school-to-work internships and college level classes on and/or off campus. We need to reconfigure our teachers and time to the extent possible within state regulations to adapt our responses to the wants and needs and hopes and dreams of our learners. We need to continually look around the corner and over the horizon for opportunities and possibilities if we wish to remain a viable learning enterprise as a small school with BIG ideas.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Riddle Of Time

This Blog opens with a riddle from J.R.R. Tolkien:

What is:

This thing that all things devours,
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays kings, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down

The answer = Time.

Time is one element that is surely limited, regardless of how much we need it or how much we value it. No matter who we are and how much we have, time is dispensed equally in that it is offered in the same amount each day to everyone. Yet, how we use it determines much of who we become and how our future unfolds. This is similarly as true of schools as it is for individuals.

The amount of time available to schools is usually governed by negotiated contracts. State guidelines often shape how the time is distributed, per regulations addressing various subject matter. However, there remains some time, albeit a fairly small quantity, that beckons the discretion of the school's policymakers in distributing those valuable remnants.

We have chosen to invest this discretionary time in a manner that would be considered unusual in 2012, and perhaps even blasphemous. At a point when schools are redistributing minutes away from curricula not tested by state assessments and spending it on those learning areas subjected to high stakes testing, we are avoiding that knee-jerk reaction and acting in a way that could be described as counter-intuitive.

We have added daily recess to our elementary school schedule. That's right, we went from not having any recess for our young learners and carved out time for them to experience a recess. We opted to promote opportunities for children to engage in physical and social exercise. Playing and interacting with classmates in a far less structured environment can earn dividends that are at least as valuable as what these same learners would gain if the minutes had been returned to some area of formal study.

I keep reminding myself of reading a study not long ago conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor that cited the number one reason most people lose their jobs results from the inability to work with others (although the current depressed economy might substitute fiscally induced lay-offs as the new top reason). Not lack of competence, but inability to get along with co-workers. This is especially telling when one considers the growing number of workplace environments that require groups of people to collaborate on tasks.

Now, given the reason that people lose their jobs, as stated above, why do we continue to reduce opportunities for socialization of peers at school? That is, recess more closely mimics the reality of socialization than a school orchestrated scenario in which adults closely monitor interactions. Playing games and understanding and observing "rules" of the game, resolving conflicts (was it a fair ball or foul ball?) cooperating, and even competing, are the many attributes that can emerge from typical recess activities.

Beyond recess, we have introduced a twice weekly "Morning Program" on Monday and Friday mornings at the start of school for our elementary level learners. This event is designed to reinforce the hallmarks of a community and nurture the relationships we desire among inhabitants of our school. There are shared rituals (singing happy birthday to those celebrating their birthdays that week; reciting the pledge of allegiance) and reinforced meanings (selecting recipients of "Gotcha" awards that recognize those who demonstrate noteworthy behaviors that promote a positive and constructive school culture,...) that are considered valuable means of shaping the orientation of our school community. Parents are invited and encouraged to attend the program and they are introduced and acknowledged. The Morning Program sacrifices a collective total of about forty minutes per week from the time available for delivering our formal instructional curriculum.

The concerted effort and collaborative decision on the part of our staff to reallocate our time is predicated on values that generate faith in the belief that learners will more likely reach their potential when they feel comfortable, accommodated and socially engaged within their environment. In contrast, too many schools have eliminated recess and Morning Programs in an attempt to raise levels of performance on state tests by spending as much time as possible on test preparation ---- at what expense???

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Debate

No, I'm not going to Blog about the Republican presidential debates. There are enough pundits critiquing every word uttered and interpreting every meaning possible. Instead, I'm writing about a seed that has been planted in Green Island that has started to sprout and produce.

I stopped by and visited the Debate Club during one of their recent meetings after school. I have been very interested in this group because it has emerged from an initiative generated this year by a couple of our high school learners who sought to expand possibilities at Heatly. Additionally, it exists largely on the generosity of an extraordinary teacher who has volunteered her time to supervise the club and freely provide expertise to participants.

Despite concerns I had that the teacher and learners who started the group might struggle to attract members in a small school where athletics traditionally appeals to and occupies a high percentage of the body of learners, the Debate Club has survived and actually grown. This fact has been rewarding to me as I continue to invest energy and effort in nurturing an organizational culture oriented toward our goal of being a small school with BIG ideas. Expanding programs and opportunities at a time when many schools are retreating from support to extracurriculars is reaffirming. This has been particularly true when one considers that Debate Club are generally not found at an overwhelming number of  high schools. In addition, another noteworthy measure of the group's success is the increasing number of females participating in an event traditionally and disproportionately represented by males.

On the day of my surprise visit, the club members were about to begin a "flash debate" in which they had only a mere five minutes to prepare their position on an issue and ready themselves to defend their stance with logic and resolve. The performance of competitors was impressive. I couldn't help but notice that they were routinely exercising skills that would serve them well in the future as adults in virtually any endeavor they might pursue. There was evidence of deductive and inductive reasoning, deft deflections of intellectual thrusts with cognitive counter-attacks, effectively communicated gestures that augmented verbal repartee, well articulated opinions supported by research and references, and the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. This last point differs sharply from the performances of presidential candidates currently involved in far more publicized debates than those at 171 Hudson Avenue in Green Island.

The Debate Club is exactly the type of enterprising activity we need to develop and sustain if Heatly expects to grow and stretch as a learning community. It's my responsibility now to provide the support and the conditions to not only keep the Debate Club operating, but to also have it spawn other clubs designed to involve learners who are not otherwise presently engaged with a school extracurricular program.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Customer Service In School???

With all of the attention that's recently been devoted to high stakes tests, new learning standards, and complicated teacher evaluation instruments, a significant contributor to improving performance within schools has been neglected or shoved aside. What about the condition of the school's social and psychological environment? What about how people really feel while they inhabit the building for six or seven hours each school day? Doesn't it stand to reason that we all have a better chance of reaching our potential when we are secure, comfortable and accepted? I don't simply refer to our learners but the adults as well. Think of your own work climate, in whatever field or occupation it might be.

Take a moment and describe the context of your best day at work - you know, the time that everything was going so well that it didn't feel like work anymore. Did you reach that peak level of performance under near excruciating pressure exerted from those outside of your field of work? Did you achieve at extraordinary levels as you labored with fewer and fewer resources to support your efforts? Did you realize a high rate of success while people openly questioned and belittled your commitment? Did you arrive at the height of achievement alone, or with the help of cooperative colleagues? What factors contributed to your personal triumph that day at work?

No, I’m not idealistic or naive enough to suggest that if everyone is happy and engulfed in a warm and fuzzy atmosphere that work levels increase. Not at all. But I am confident that research on workplace environments supports the creation and maintenance of an organizational culture that is respectful, supportive, and constructive.

To that end, I am sharing the summary of a report that appeared in a book that has influenced my leadership ability Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, by Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan and Switzer. The authors reference a study conducted to identify behaviors that increase customer satisfaction in hospitals. The list that appears below does not contain anything that has to be purchased, nor does it require any skill that must be developed through extensive and expensive staff development. Yet, these behaviors collectively make a difference in satisfied customers (patients). Would anyone disagree that patients are more likely to recover faster when they feel satisfied?

Vital Behaviors leading to higher customer satisfaction in hospitals:

1. Smile,
2. Make eye contact,
3. Identify yourself,
4. Let people know what you're doing, and why,
5. End every interaction by asking, "Is there anything else you need?"

Makes you wonder what impact these same suggestions could evoke if they were sincerely and regularly promoted throughout school.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Feeding Dreams

                           Feeding Dreams

This is a copy of a speech I was asked to present to a regional conference of some very important contributors to public schools who too often go unrecognized – food service workers.
"My presentation this evening has been years in the making. It’s a reflection of my own school experiences related to the food service program. These recollections were not difficult to recall because of their impact.

My family was poor. My dad was a troubled war veteran of the Marine Corps wrestling with a variety of inner demons. My mom was worn down and depressed by caring for the many needs of seven kids, all born before she was thirty. Both of my parents quit school in ninth grade and started their litter of kids without anything but slim hopes.

Food was as important to me as it was for anyone. I remember how all of the kids at school used to collect canned goods for the poor for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remember how ashamed I felt when our principal, Mr. Murray, would come by our tenement apartment later that day and present us with boxes of the canned goods. I remember how ridiculous I felt that first time, because I had even brought in a can of beans or something for the poor, only to find out we were the poor!

Maybe that’s why the subject of food service personnel is so important to me. You see, I received free lunch throughout my school years. It always seemed that the nice ladies who served the food would put an extra scoop of food on my tray. I could tell from their soft and caring smiles, and their sympathetic eyes, that they were mothers and really extended themselves for kids like me. I presumed that they knew about me and my family – either that or they just thought that the extra food might make me grow, since I was always the smallest kid in my grade.

Some of the very best meals I ever had as a child were prepared and served at school, especially those turkey and mashed potato lunches around the holidays. I always ate everything up and couldn’t understand how anyone could throw any of that great food away. Maybe it was because my family regularly dined on the government commodity food we got from the welfare agency. My mom was not creative enough to do much with the white butter, canned stringy turkey, lima beans, rice, powdered milk and powdered eggs, clear Karo syrup and all of the normal things that came in the boxes each month.
I remember that as I grew older and became more conscious of the stigma of being on free lunch, how careful and considerate the cashiers were. They relieved me of some fear and discomfort by hiding my embarrassment and handling my free ticket in a way that the other kids, who could pay in cash, would not see my ticket and ridicule me for being poor. They also seemed to notice whenever I had a haircut or had something to smile about. Their little comments meant a lot to me. These women really took their jobs seriously.

You may have heard of the parable about the three stone cutters, each performing the exact same task. When asked, the first one said he was cutting stone, the second one said he was making a wall, but the third one exclaimed proudly that he was building a cathedral!

My dad was a custodian at the hospital. I can recall one night when he described his job as a “responsibility to provide clean and sterile rooms so the doctors and nurses could operate and do their highly skilled work.” He saw his job as much more than just mopping floors. He made it a calling – just like those women who worked behind the counter at my elementary school and did so much more than simply preparing and serving food. That’s why I suspect these were the same women who brought in the hand-me-down clothes that were given to me by the school nurse and counselor. They always served me a smile with my meals and I wonder if they ever understood how much that meant to me.
Now, as an adult, I aware of the powerful connection food has with people beyond nutrition. Our society emphasizes the social interaction associated with meals, whether it’s just the family sitting around the table at dinner time or a special event or holiday. Food is a reinforcer and it meets more needs than just nourishment of the body.

In addition to these kind and caring ladies, many people helped me along the way as I pursued my dreams – teachers, counselors, and a number of other staff members. I went all the way from the free lunch line in elementary school to the graduation line for those awaiting receipt of their doctorates.
Remember the cliché that the best way to someone’s heart is through their stomachs. Keep that in mind when you serve kids – you’re helping feed dreams!

Thank you and good night."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Can You See It Now?

This Blog entry evolves from two books written by Marcus Buckingham - First, Break All The Rules (co-authored with Curt Coffman) and The One Thing You Need To Know. They are among the valuable reservoir of resources I have collected over the years in search of ideas and information to leverage success as a school and district leader.
Buckingham contends that the most important element of leadership is the ability to understand and articulate a coherent vision that will enlist, align, and elevate followers in pursuit of shared menaing and common goals.
He uses an example drawn from science to explain the purpose of a vision:

"In 1666 Isaac Newton used a prism to examine the spectrum of colors and realized that the prism had pried apart the white light of sunshine as it hit the prism and refracted the colors to different degrees. He discovered that white light was, in fact, a mixture of all the other colors in the visible spectrum and that the only way to create white light was to draw all of these different colors together into a single beam."
That’s what an effective vision must do; create the white light from all of the different voices and perspectives, thoughts and beliefs of followers. Let's continue with another example extracted from the field of science. A laser beam is concentrated, coordinated beam of light. Effective leaders are capable of developing a coherent, laser-like focus on the vision through persistently evoked words and deeds attentive to the vision. Consistency and integrity are required staples throughout this essential leadership task.  

Buckingham turns to anthropology to declare why it's vital to skillfully communicate a vision:
"Anthropologist Donald Brown researched the universals of human nature in his book, Human Universals.
1. Fear of Death – The Need for Security
2. Fear of the Outsider- The Need for Community
3. Fear of the Future – The Need for Clarity
4. Fear of Chaos – The Need for Authority
5. The Fear of Insignificance – The Need for Respect

Although each fear/need is relevant to your efforts at leading, one of them demands your greatest focus.
By far the most effective way to turn fear into confidence is to be clear; to define the future in such vivid terms, through your actions, words, images, pictures, heroes, and scores that we can all see where you are, and thus we, are headed. Clarity is the antidote to anxiety, and therefore clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear."

Ask yourself these questions as you exercise any leadership role:

1. What are your core values and beliefs?
2. What are your strengths?
3. Who do you serve?
4. What measures will qualify and quantify your efforts toward fulfilling the vision?
5. What will you do today to promote progress relative to the vision?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Critical Path

I think of the lunar exploration flights of the Apollo astronauts when I reflect on our progress at Heatly and monitor our efforts to reach our potential. Imagine lifting off on a round trip of nearly half a million miles! The convergence of danger and desire make for endless possibilities. The threat posed by mistakes was ever-present.

Despite the success of Apollo 11, and the footprints left behind on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, there were many perilous moments along the journey. Consider this excerpt regarding course correction from "Peak Performers," by Charles Garfield, as you plan your path to success:

"For example, on the Apollo flight to the moon the ship was off course 90% of the time but they had the control to correct themselves. It was not a perfect path but a CRITICAL path. Peak performers maintain windows of opportunity to keep sight of a critical path. This is aided by being able to see patterns in an ever-changing environment."

Even the most fastidiously planned strategy must be flexible and adaptive enough to accommodate the need for course corrections along the path. Those alterations rely on the ability of the leader to maintain a commitment to the critical path while vigilantly scanning for the obvious and the subtle cues evident in the environment both inside and outside the organization. This responsibility is best served by a kaleidoscope, not by a telescope or microscope. One must be able to discern trends and patterns from among the clutter of data and perceptions that can otherwise confuse and distract followers.  

Clearly, throughout the state of New York, countless public school superintendents are now analyzing the state aid to education formula that was released yesterday afternoon following the Governor's budget address. These numbers will have to be incorporated into the direction or path for each district. The data will doubtlessly cause course correction techniques, but we must not lose sight of our mission.

It's time to begin applying the aid amounts to the framework each district has developed as they approach the objective of a budget that will meet the needs of learners and also engender confidence in enough voters to attract a positive and affirming vote on the annual operating budget in May.

Here we go. It's time to blast off!


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What's The Difference?

Given that there has been considerably more conformity on what schools teach and uniformity of how they teach, with a growing imposition of standardized curricula across all districts in a state or even the nation (e.g. Common Core Learning Standards), and the current economic climate that has caused school districts to pare their instructional menus of programs that might otherwise distinguish them from other schools, there is less differentiation among public schools for the consumer (parents). Consequently, this widening difference between public and non-public schools, operating relatively free of externally mandated programs and practices, may actually help competitors of public schools market their programs and further undermine the efforts of public schools to retain their present learner population and attract new customers (learners). This places a premium on accentuating the value added impact of relationships between and among the inhabitants of the school. 

Let's turn to Theodore Levitt, author of The Marketing Imagination, for business advice that could be converted for the benefit of public schools.

"The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer. You provide the customer with what is wanted rather than blindly with what you want to produce.

When the substantive content – the generic product – of competing vendors is scarcely differentiable, sales power migrates to all other differentiating ways in which buyers are likely to be influenced.

The generic core seldom has competitive viability by itself. It must be differentiated from competitive offerings."

Think about the message contained in those sentences. With the structure of schools becoming more alike by the day (with differences virtually limited to the color and number of bricks and mortar) the personality of schools becomes the primary point of differentiation and an opportunity to elude the confines.  Fortunately, schools have more influence over their personality than their structure. Now, more than ever, schools must exploit that element in order to flourish in a competitive marketplace. We are in a position to market our diversity of cultures and promote our accessibility and accommodation.

Imagine that you are a visitor to your school. Act like you've never experienced the school - like a parent would who is interested in moving to the school district and seeks information to assist in decision making regarding a relocation. 

Check out the school's website. Is it visually appealing, inviting and informative? Does it offer two-way communication? Is it user friendly and easy to navigate? Does it provide access to staff members? Does it link to other supportive and related sites?

Call the school district. Is the voice on the receiving end a real voice or a recorded voice supplying a lengthy list of contacts (with the most important and more frequently used contacts listed last)? How long does it take to reach a "live" person? What kind of music plays in the background while you're on hold?  How are you greeted when you do reach a "live" person?

Speak with realtors. Did they include the school in their initial presentation of the house to you? What do they "know" about the school (besides, "It's a good school.")? What inferences can you draw from what they say, or don't say (or their reaction - facial expression) when you first mention the school? Do they have readily available artifacts and resources (school newsletters, school calendars,...) from the school in their office?

Visit the school. Who greets you, and how do they greet you? What's the first thing you see when you enter the school, and how does that reflect on the school (for instance, do you find a display of sports trophies long before you discover academic awards)? Do people - learners and staff - make eye contact with you? How do members of the school community interact with each other during your visit? Are you allowed or encouraged to visit during the school day? Are you invited to visit a classroom in session? What do you see (or not see) on the hallway walls during your visit? Is there an open two-way verbal interaction during the visit or do you feel that you're receiving a canned description of the school? Can you notice any strands or stories emerging from the conversation you've had with the school representative that might indicate a sense of values and beliefs present in the school? Were you introduced to an administrator during the visit? Did anyone give you copies of a recent school newsletter or school calendar or summary of test scores or any other sources of information?

There are many other points of interest and moments of truth that once can acquire as they explore a school. I imagine that school staff members generally take their organizational culture for granted and don't see how it might represent a significant source of differentiation to consumers interested in selecting schools to shape the future of their children. Taking the school's personality for granted does little to help a school distinguish itself and sustain a viable learner population. In summary, I feel that public schools have too long taken the position once held by other professionals, notably doctors and lawyers, who felt that it was unprofessional to "advertise" their business. Why have we waited so long, even after the aforementioned professions, to distinguish our services and market our opportunities?  

Regardless of state and federal initiatives, and no matter what new and exciting research based programs and practices are implemented, success in the teaching and learning equation ultimately rests on relationships. And, one can not merely assume that every adult enters the education profession with both a love of children and an understanding of how to nurture and maintain effective interpersonal relationships. Where does that leave schools and classrooms that do not sustain constructive and positive learning environments?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Here's The Pitch

Years ago Steve Jobs of Apple Computer, approached Pepsico executive John Sculley, attempting to convince him to become CEO at Apple. His plea - "Do you want to sell sugared water the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?" (from Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple - a journey of adventure, ideas, and the future. 1987) Sculley not only accepted, but willingly took a significant pay cut to leave the financially solid Pepsico company for an opportunity with a company that boasted more promise than performance at that point in their organizational history. 

Educational leaders need to discover and refine an alluring pitch to attract talented prospective teachers that resonates as powerfully as the clarion issued by Jobs. Teaching is much more than an occupation. Effective teaching is a response to a higher calling. It's an opportunity to make a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others.

When I review the stack of resumes of candidates I am likely to skip over those that merely state their objective as: elementary teacher; secondary math teacher,... Instead, I search for the applicant who really gets it - that teaching is about the responsibility, not the role. Specifically, the candidate who announces their objective in terms like the following - Grow People, or Help others invent the future,..

It's the challenge of school leaders to nurture and sustain that pursuit of dreams and hopes among teachers who want to make a difference.

I'll conclude with a quote from Viktor Frankl, survivor of a Nazi concentration camp and author of Man's Search for Meaning:

"Striving to find a menaing in one's life is the primary motivational force in man."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Looking Forward

In an earlier Blog entry I mentioned how our school board held a School Board Advance rather than the typical School Board Retreat. I suspect that the agenda for either conference would be similar. It's the subtle difference in language and semantics that suggests a significant distinction in the two events. Perhaps it brings to mind the "glass half full versus the glass half empty" debate on perceptions. At any rate, at that time our district was wrestling with the debilitating designation by the state of being classified as a School In Need of Improvement. Furthermore, the constricting clutches of a steep decline in state aid threatened to suffocate our budget, our programs, and our personnel - all of which put the hopes and dreams of our learners at risk. Oh, and I was in my third month as a new superintendent. Other than that, everything was fine.

In other words, there was no route available for a retreat, no time to delay, no solace in excuses, and no gain in bemoaning our plight. What was done, was done. We could learn from the district's history and use previous selective experiences as a platform for the future, but we could not surrender to the past. We could only look briefly and infrequently at prior events in the same manner that the driver of a car glances occasionally at the rear view mirror as they continue to move forward, Hence, a School Board Advance instead of a School Board Retreat. After all, haven't schools found themselves in a particularly defensive posture for the last few years? Regretfully, too many schools have appeared to reach the point where victimization has become a reluctantly accepted position? Retreating wasn't an option.

Here are two quotes that relate to our position at that time:

First, from Danish Physicist Niels Bohr, "Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward."

Second, in his book, The Intuitive Manager, author Roy Rowan refers to the following:

"Feedforward" is the term Stanford neurophysiologist Karl Pribram uses to describe those images of achievement that spur us to creative action. A mental image triggers the same neural connections in the autonomic nervous system as an actual experience, and research has shown that the body can't distinguish between the two. That's why a vivid mental picture of ultimate success helps steer an individual intuitively to a desired objective."
A little over a year has passed by since that School Board Advance. The primary outcome was a collective vision of our district as "a small school with BIG ideas." While we have made considerable progress and evidenced the implementation of several BIG ideas, we continue to have areas that warrant attention and improvement. Our District Leadership Team, comprised of learners, parents, and staff members, is involved in ongoing attempts to bridge any gaps between where we are and where we want to be. Our successes have served as sustenance for our efforts toward optimizing the learning environment. Confidence and morale show signs of growth.
Most notable among the achievements has been enriching our curriculum to retain our learner population and attract new learners rather that decreasing its scope and losing more learners to competing private, parochial, and charter schools in the area. Examples of this strategy include our investment in the creation of a new multi-disciplinary high school course on the history and literature of the Hudson River (our school is located on the bank of the river - close enough we experienced some flooding this August) and our engagement with an expansive array of on-line classes that offer elective and advanced classes.
We are no longer burdened by the stigma of the School In Need of Improvement label, having escaped its grasp with improved performance levels. Our enrollment has risen by seven percent. We avoided any staff layoffs in our most recent budget. We are on the threshold of additional advances.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Knowing That vs. Knowing How

I attended an interesting learning event acknowledging and showcasing the research efforts of sixth graders. Each class selected an important person they wanted to learn about. They were then allowed to organize and present the resulting material in whatever form they desired in meeting the objective of accessing, retrieving and interpreting information.

There were several different elements within this learning process that reveal subtle changes in instructional methods and philosophy. First, the teacher (library media specialist) willingly extended the learners the opportunity to exercise their choice in what they learned. In that manner, she maintained command of the objective and yielded control of the lesson. She empowered learners by enabling them to pursue their unique interests. That can increase relevance, meaning and value among the class. Second, she engaged in interactive dialogues rather than condescending monologues. This technique embraced learners as active participants. Third, the learning activity recognized that the process was at least as (and probably more) important as the product. That is, the skill of managing a reservoir of resources and data is a fluid, life-long skill, whereas the information itself will always be static in scope and variable in significance.

Knowledge is power, and power is the one thing that multiplies when you divide it. Centuries ago in Europe the ability to read was a prized skill among those in power and shared by few outside of religious and political and financial leaders until an incredible innovation around the year 1439. Johannes Gutenberg c. 1398 – February 3, 1468) was a German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer and publisher who introduced modern book printing His invention of mechanical movable type printing started the printing revolution and is widely regarded as the most important event of the modern periodIt played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific revolution and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses. (Wikipedia)

More recently, the diffusion of vast arrays of individually managed technology, beginning with the computer and taking many different forms, has further democratized knowledge by significantly increasing nearly instant access to incredible databases and stores of knowledge to users of all ages. Given the relative ease of access, retrieval and storage of an endless stream of information that far exceeds one's ability to "know" it, it makes sense that the process of managing the wealth of knowledge becomes an essential element of school curriculum.

A professor I was privileged to learn from thirty years ago in graduate school, Dr. Isreal Scheffler, espoused on the differences between "knowing that" and "knowing how." Schools must make the transition from an emphasis on knowing that (the capital of Maine, the abbreviation of elements in the periodic table,...) to an emphasis on knowing how (to access, retrieve, store, interpret, present and manage information).

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Tale Of Two Teams

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

So begins the Charles Dickens classic novel, The Tale of Two Cities. However, these same words, written in 1859, echo the paths of our varsity basketball teams at Heatly in the 2011/12 campaign. Our girls' squad is undefeated in league competition while our boys' team searches for their initial victory of the season.

The girls' varsity basketball team finds itself in a perplexing circumstance.
The team remains unbeaten in the Central Hudson Valley League. That's great!

But, their average margin of victory in these seven contests has been approximately 38 points, which means that the lopsided outcomes could easily be misconstrued as unmercifully "piling on" their opponents. That's hardly the case, especially since our boys' team has been routinely experiencing losses by many points and our girls could find themselves on the other end of the score in the future. Allow me to offer a perspective rooted in objectivity and sportsmanship and free of boasting and gloating about the triumphs of the girls' team.

The dilemma facing the team and coach evolves from the need to prepare the team for the regional playoffs and the desire to not humiliate the opposition and appear to be poor sports. That is, the goal of the team each year is to extend their season as far as they can - ideally the Section II Championship and beyond. Each regular season contest is a step in that direction, with scores serving as a measuring stick on progress.

The imbalanced nature of the games (in one game the score at halftime was 35-0, and their most recent game saw them shut out the other team for two entire periods) makes it difficult for fans of the other teams to digest. It can be embarrassing for both teams. Whispers of discontent surely make their way around the gymnasium, along with accusations of "rubbing it in." However, I feel the coach has diplomatically orchestrated the players and strategy in an attempt to avoid this from happening. He has inserted reserves early in the game and preached a methodical pace of offense and carefully crafted plays to simultaneously promote execution of fundamentals and prevent running up the score.

Yet, this very restraint also poses a problem for the team and coach. For instance, they must prepare for the playoffs, which mean maximizing effort and exercising certain plans, such as pressing their opponents. How can the team press the opposition when they are so far ahead? If they don't get opportunities to perform this strategy and others now, how will they perform when they face the need to do so during the playoffs? Will the five starters on the team be ready for the playoffs with the necessary "real game" stamina and cohesion when significant leads prompt them to exit the game prematurely and make way for the reserves?

The benefit of these leads allows the team to offer valuable experience that further develops the reserves and helps improve the team in the future. But it does leave the squad in a vexing situation - work toward the goal of a championship without appearing indifferent and disrespectful to their opponents.

Returning to the plight of the boys' basketball team, we are on the right path for success in the future. The team's commitment and effort have not waned despite the mounting losses. Instead, they are gaining much needed experience and developing skills. There are no seniors on the team and the starting back-court consists of two freshmen who improve each game. As long as the team persists in their dedication and keeps their heads up they will mature as a unit and demonstrate far different results next season and beyond. I am as proud of the boys' team for their perseverance and resolve as I am of the girls' team for their unblemished CHVL season.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Student Lobbyist????

According to the Albany Times Union, Andrew Cuomo announced in his recent State of the State address that he has added another job title and specific area of responsibility to his duties as Governor of New York: "Student Lobbyist."

"The only group without lobbyists are the students. ... This year, the students do have a lobbyist: I'm taking a second job," he said, as the image changed to his office with a "students' lobbyist" sign on the door."
This proclamation is implicitly insulting to anyone with any connection to a learner in school. Such a statement infers that parents do not advocate for their own children in school, that teachers are not acting in the best interests of learners, and apparently nor are the administrators, staff members, board of education members or the general public that votes on the annual budget that supports education. He suggests a mass indifference to the needs of learners and issues involving the education of children in our state.
Instead of drawing attention to himself as the sole lobbyist for learners, perhaps the Governor could inject some much needed leadership and political capital toward efforts to ensure more equity in the distribution of state aid to public schools. Please read the following essay written by Dr. James N. Baldwin, District Superintendent of the Questar III Boces: . Baldwin raises several critical concerns regarding the manner in which state aid is allocated to schools.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Cost Of Unfunded State Mandates Of New York Public Schools

Education reporter, Meaghan Murphy, of the Times Herald Record, provides a summary of the work of several school districts that banded together to examine the financial impact of state mandated policies/practices that are not funded by the state despite being imposed upon school systems. (see link to article below) The group avoided concentrating on low hanging fruit, like the Wicks law, the Taylor amendment and state pensions. Instead they analyzed the effect of the less publicized requirements such as testing, data warehousing, special education legal costs, and transportation of homeless children living outside of the school district's attendance area.

The findings of the cooperative effort of these school districts were dramatic. This is particularly noteworthy during the current depressed economic climate. These measures often escape the notice of the public but certainly exercise a considerable influence on the financial structure of school districts and taxpayers.

Please read the attached article for insight on the plight of schools facing increased mandates while contending with decreased state aid to public education.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Proof Of The Pudding

Last night's Blog post renewed a plea that school district's define themselves in terms of investments and economic engines. This was not the first time I proposed that there is a significant difference between spending (i.e. merely adding a percentage increase to the annual operating budget equal to the consumer price index, like a blatant yearly tariff to taxpayers, without reference to effectiveness in instructional programming or practices) and strategic investments (i.e. applying funds toward leverage points to make a difference in the future and maximize pursuit of the mission of the system as a return for the fiscal input of taxpayers).

But wait, some may shout, what about taxpayers without kids? What about taxpayers without kids in public schools, who send their kids to private, parochial, or charter schools instead? What about taxpayers with kids who feel they already pay enough taxes? Well, approximately 3/4 of all households in our nation fit into the first two categories - they either have no kids, or have no kids attending public schools. That makes it a daunting challenge to successfully pass school budget votes. That makes it even more imperative that we communicate to all taxpayers a careful explanation of the value generated by investments in public schools.

That's exactly what the Virginia Beach City Public School District did! Today, coincidentally, the national publication, Education Week, presented the findings of a study conducted by economic consultant, Michael L. Walden, Ph.D. on the economic impact of that Virginia school system.

I'll provide a glimpse of the executive summary and follow that with a link to the actual article.

"The Virginia Beach City Public School System has large and significant economic impacts on the economy of the Virginia Beach-Newport News Metropolitan Area. Every $1.00 spent and retained in the regional economy from the school system's operating budget results in total regional spending of $1.53, and every one direct job in the district is associated with another 0.64 jobs in the regional economy. Also, every $1.00 spent and retained from the district's capital budget results in total spending of $1.55. and every $1 million of district capital spending is associated with 12.6 jobs in the region.
More important are the three major outputs of the school system: the economic value of degrees awarded, the future reduction in public costs associated with individuals attaining a high school degree, and the impact on local property values and revenues from the academic performance of the district's students."

Here's the link for the entire report: 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Beneath The Tree

Well, Christmas came and went.

The approach of Christmas was ushered by delicious treats and heartwarming carols, and goodwill and cheer among friends and acquaintances.

But, on that joyous morning, there were no packages of increased state aid or mandate relief beneath the trees of New York superintendents this year. Not even a promise or hope of such presents.

I guess I'll have to adapt as I did many years ago whenever Santa forgot what I had on the top of my wish list. I need to appreciate what I received and make the most of the presents I unwrapped. It could be worse.

That is not exactly the mantra that one desires as a guide into the new year - "It could be worse." However, some people estimate that 99% of us either have already heard that tune in our head, or can expect to listen to it sometime soon. Moaning and groaning about what we don't have can reach the point of whining. Too much complaining, particularly at inappropriate times, can eventually become counter-productive. We need to express our concerns in an objective, articulate style while simultaneously undertaking efforts to discover creative alternatives and new solutions. Clearly, public schools are not alone in suffering from the impact of a depressed economy.

Rather, public schools must position and define themselves as economic engines that represent worthy investments in the future. Contrast that image with the perception that too many people have of schools as institutions with voracious appetites for expenditures fed by a simple formula, repeated each year, of adding a small percentage to the previous budget - without viable plans for new instructional programs or practices to leverage success, or the prospect of a commensurate increase in measurable performance indicators.

It's not fair to invite guilt on the part of taxpayers by pleading for money "for the kids." Schools need to be marketed for the value they add to a community, for the manner in which they help invent the future by promoting possibilities, for the bridges that learning builds from generation to generation, from the past through the present to the future, and for the transformational opportunities available to those who experience education. Education reaches far more than the learners who inhabit a school. Education is a central element in civilization. Thomas Jefferson advised that, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people."

It's not what education is, it's what education does! That's why education is worth the investment.

Now, it's our responsibility to explain that in a convincing fashion to a public weary of economic stress...