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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Haste and Waste???

I attended a day-long conference designed to refine skills of evaluators in collecting evidence during the teacher observation process and interpreting the data according to the rubric employed for the purpose. First, allow me to back up and express my initial concern regarding the state mandate to implement an evaluation system across the state per the provisions embedded in the federally sponsored competitive grant: Race To The Top. Although I do not disdain the goal, I fear the process.

Rather than spend a year training principals to become adept or enhance instructional leadership skills, including the ability to exercise proper and effective evaluation techniques and then unfolding a new system for evaluating teachers the year following, the state has dictated that they occur simultaneously. So, many principals, certainly those least experienced, are developing evaluation skills at the same time that the state has required a high stakes process that begets an expedited process for dismissing teachers. Oh, and the new evaluation system also links learner performance on state tests to the overall assessment of teachers.

Let me propose a potential problem that may emerge from this dynamic. I'm not sure that all principals understand the relationship between their behaviors as instructional leaders and the instructional behaviors they expect and measure in teachers. For example, one of the chief premises expected of teachers is the genuine belief that all learners can experience success in acquiring the skills and concepts we hold as a platform for productive citizens. In short, all kids can learn what we feel is the most valuable cognitive survival skills. Yet, I have been present in enough conversations during coffee breaks and lunch (a valuable forum at conferences) to learn that many principals do not hold such an opinion regarding teachers. That is, there are many who do not subscribe to - "all teachers can teach."
The proviso of course, is that all kids can learn and all teachers can teach given the necessary support, resources (time, training,...) and conditions.

I believe the primary leverage point rests on principals developing and wielding the same instructional skills we expect of teachers. Are faculty meetings and staff development activities viewed by principals as their classroom, with teachers as their learners, or do they drone on delivering administrivia ad nausea? Do they introduce the objective within a context of meaning, value, and relevance, or do they simply make condescending pronouncements? Do they use an effective questioning strategy that will elicit response from teachers that demonstrate their level of understanding, or do they entirely abandon any attempt to check for understanding? Do they actively engage teachers as participants in the learning, or carelessly treat teachers with indifference? Are principals conscious of the need to promote higher level thinking skills among the teachers, or do they assume everyone will simply process the information as intended? Do the same principals who encourage teachers to differentiate instruction for learners treat all teachers the same in the supervision process, no matter their experience or expertise?

This is not an attack on principals. I value the thirty-three years I invested in that very same role, at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels. It was a truly rewarding experience. But I feel that we would all be better served if we staged the roll out of this evaluation system differently and equipped principals with the necessary training and support prior to expecting them to implement the evaluation process. As a result of the current mechanisms, principals are adjusting to new evaluation platforms governing their own performance while at the same time learning how to evaluate teachers within a new system. We are perpetrating a disservice upon people who serve a crucial role in the educational equation. Haste in implementing this evaluation system to gain $700,000,000 in the competitive federal grant make very well lead to some waste.

I’m not merely voicing a concern about technique, but also perception and attitude. I get the impression after attending these conferences that some principals unconsciously suffer from the Longfellow Syndrome. As in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous quote, "What you do thunders so loudly I cannot hear what you say." The cognitive dissonance between what we say and what we do undermines one's credibility. I suspect many former college students majoring in education have experienced the irony of professors who lecture on the value of individualized instruction rather than seeking to practice it in their own instructional delivery style. Likewise teachers may be urged to become empowered by educational leaders who callously use the possessive (and paternalistic) term "my teachers" when referring to the instructors they supervise. I recall when the state education department directed all public schools in the early 1990's to adopt shared decision making. Imagine that, mandating cooperation and collaboration, particularly at a time when many schools were operated in a manner that may not have fostered or embodied much of a degree of cooperation among the adults. Mandating shared decision making. Isn't that some odd form of a conceptual oxymoron? And, on that note - conceptual oxymoron’s - I'll end this Blog entry.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Choice and Change

Education in Transition

I suspect that anything as broad as the field of education is always changing at some point in time and some degree of alteration. As the French author, François de la Rochefoucauld, once stated, “The only thing that is constant is change.” With that observation, I’d like to suggest that perhaps the direction and rate of change in education is happening at levels without precedent.

The advent of technology in the form of computers and the Internet has expanded and increased the democratization of education by enabling an incredible amount of knowledge to be stored, accessed and retrieved with lightning like speed. That’s an obvious outcome of computer technology (and the contributions of a long list of related equipment, like Smartboards, tablets,…). However, the growth of opportunities and possibilities emerging from the expanse of technological applications in the daily life of people has created an environment in which one can stay at home and communicate with people the world over as well as point and click to order products and services from down the street to across oceans. This is merely a logical next step from sitting on the couch and clicking away as you surf channels, or scanning you car radio for a desired station.

In short, we are moving from a “brick and mortar” education delivered in a conventional format of teacher directed learning experiences, to a “click and order” form of personalized education where learning menus are extended to individuals from a teacher who facilitates and guides instruction based on data specific to the individuals. Technology has provided unprecedented means of democratizing education through the ability to collect, store, retrieve, and extrapolate information for the masses. Knowledge has perhaps never been so accessible to so many. We can no longer afford to maintain past practices that were borne of the industrialized manner of delivering instruction to the masses. That may have worked for many people before, but it’s not likely to be successful with people accustomed to both choice and change during a time when expectations have risen and opportunities have expanded.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks

There are times during the challenges we face on a daily basis, when we may lose faith and confidence and question exactly what we have to be thankful for. The following quote puts everything in perspective:

"The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of Thanksgiving." H.U. Westermayer

The true test for all of us is whether we merely acknowledge and confine the values and beliefs of Thanksgiving to a single day, or we extend them across the calendar. Here's a quote from former President, John F. Kennedy:

"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them." John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Door to Door

Setting aside political affiliations and philosophy, and sifting through the white noise of pundits scrambling to spin the results so there are somehow no losers whatsoever, what can we learn from the recent presidential elections that could benefit leaders in education?

Over a billion dollars was spent by the two major political parties on campaign advertisements during the past election cycle. But, if we simply take the round number of $300,000,000 dollars that one political operative was said to have wielded as head of a Super Pac, and examine the return on investment for those funds, it reveals that the party he supported had a miniscule net gain of one seat in congress after the ballots were counted. So, for all of the bluster and relentless campaign ads that were communicated over telephones, television, radio, and the internet, it would appear that the money evidently had little impact on altering the political landscape and power. Instead, several political scientists have advanced the perception that the difference may have been attributed to what has been referred to as, “grass roots advocacy” and efforts to get the vote out. Perhaps the most simplistic explanation is that “going door to door” leveraged more of a difference than saturating communication channels with messages that were conveyed with a blunt force similar to hammering a nail in wood.

School districts may be guilty of the same strategy when presenting their annual operating budgets to the public. Leaders cannot adopt the pattern that American tourists abroad may exercise when experiencing difficulty conversing with foreigners unable to speak English. Speaking slower and louder, or adding a vowel to each English word, will not make the message any clearer or more easily understood. No matter how you dress up the data, how large the font, how fancy the graphs,… there remains a key variable often absent in this time worn equation. That is, the personal and individual exchange of information.

Exchange is a critical word here. Budget newsletters are scattered throughout the district and assumed to be sufficient to explain the financial status of the school system. But, such a plan lacks the opportunity for people to respond. Yes, I realize that every school district in the state conducts a required budget hearing, during which the public can review the data and ask questions or raise issues. That said, how many people actually attend these budget hearings? I once worked in a school district with a budget exceeding a quarter of a billion dollars and there were fewer than two dozen members of the public in attendance. Sadly, that is not an unusual ratio of members of the public to dollars in the budget. Yet, many, many more people subsequently cast votes in the budget referendum that soon follows. It’s no longer enough to just mail out the budget newsletter, present data at the budget hearing, and assume people will do “the right thing” and support the district’s budget because it helps kids.  The current fiscal constraints have changed the reality of many people, and, as a result, their priorities.

If you accept that education is ultimately based on the dynamic interaction between teachers and learners then you can recognize the value of relationships. This view should extend between the school and members of the community. Therefore, while mass distribution of budget newsletters offer concrete data for the decision making process among voters, door-to-door personal visits by school administration officials and board of education members are more likely to solicit the faith and confidence of voters. That method enabled one political party to harvest gains in the just concluded election. That method allowed us to increase the odds of our passage of a 12.47% tax levy increase last May and sustain our progress and viability as a school system reaching for the future.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bubbles and Numbers

Bubbles and Numbers

Warning: This is not a political statement.

Set aside your political philosophy for a moment and consider the following with an unbiased view and a chance to apply a different view to the arena of public school education. Regardless of your party affiliation, this message applies to any organization, particularly one that is heavily invested in working with people and for people, such as public schools.

Just as autopsies are conducted to determine how someone died and forensics seek answers to criminal or legal mysteries, audits reveal important trends about an organization. Most people think of finances when they think of audits but there are other types of audits that are equally revealing in producing data that can be converted into useful information. For instance, schools examine data to “listen” to what the numbers say about programs and practices – are we meeting the needs of each and every sub-group of the learner population – by race, gender, economic level, intellectual level,…?

The conclusion of the recent election cycle has provided both parties with fresh data that shows whether and to what degree they connected with the hopes and aspirations of those they sought to attract as supporters. Please temporarily discard ideology before reading any further. Again, this writing isn’t intended to be political or cast aspersions on any party, but merely designed to look at how a group can review data in an organizational audit of services and practices in an effort to develop strategies for improvement in the future.

Many Republican leaders at the national level have analyzed the disaggregated data from the election, much like we break down the data stream from tests to discrete parts that allow us to search for pivotal leverage points to (“look for a difference that makes a difference”) to improve the teaching and learning dynamic. The pundits and analysts have now painted a picture of a party that was “living in a bubble” based on the spectrum of various groups of people supporting their party. That is, it is believed by reflective Republicans that their platform did not mirror the changing fabric of society and thereby appealed to a narrower slice of the population than that of the Democrats. Bear with me. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article by Michael D. Shear that was published on November 7th.

The demographic changes in the American electorate have come with striking speed and have left many Republicans, who have not won as many electoral votes as Mr. Obama did on Tuesday in 24 years, concerned about their future. The Republicans’ Southern strategy, of appealing mostly to white voters, appears to have run into a demographic wall.
“Before, we thought it was an important issue, improving demographically,” said Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union. “Now, we know it’s an essential issue. You have to ignore reality not to deal with this issue.”
The central problem for Republicans is that the Democrats’ biggest constituencies are growing. Asian-Americans, for example, made up 3 percent of the electorate, up from 2 percent in 2008, and went for Mr. Obama by about 47 percentage points. Republicans increasingly rely on older white voters. And contrary to much conventional wisdom, voters do not necessarily grow more conservative as they age; until the last decade, a majority of both younger and older voters both tended to go to the winner of the presidential election.
This year, Mr. Obama managed to win a second term despite winning only 39 percent of white voters and 44 percent of voters older than 65, according to exit polls not yet finalized conducted by Edison Research. White men made up only about one-quarter of Mr. Obama’s voters. In the House of Representatives next year, for the first time, white men will make up less than half of the Democratic caucus.
The Republican Party “needs messages and policies that appeal to a broader audience,” said Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for George W. Bush. “This election proved that trying to expand a shrinking base ain’t going to cut it. It’s time to put some compassion back in conservatism. The party needs more tolerance, more diversity and a deeper appreciation for the concerns of the middle class.”

The author goes on to add:

But the immediate question for Republicans, people in the party say, is how to improve their image with voters they are already losing in large numbers. “You don’t have to sell out on the issues and suddenly take on the Democratic position on taxes to win the black vote or the Latino vote or the women vote,” said Corey Stewart, a Republican who is chairman of the Board of County Supervisors in Prince William. “But you do have to modulate your tone.”
What does all of this mean for public schools? Let me be clear, I am not comparing public school education with the Republican Party. However, a case can be made that public schools are facing a similar challenge – successfully meeting changes in society and the marketplace of ideas by clearly defining our purpose and scope while expanding our ability to accommodate more followers.
The nature and direction of our society has changed drastically over the last few decades. Not only have the needs, interests, and backgrounds of children walking through public school doors changed, so has the market, and so has technology. Charter Schools are growing in number and increasing their reach. According to statistics from the U.S Department of Education, Home Schooling is actually the fastest growing source of alternatives to public school education. Add in private and parochial schools (and the potential for virtual, on-line schools) and one can readily see how competitive the educational market has become.

Are we, as public school advocates, prepared to objectively analyze the social/political/cultural/financial landscape and gain a realistic orientation? Can we redefine the central tenets of our purpose and clearly differentiate ourselves from the host of competitors that are continually encroaching on a market that was nearly monopolized by public schools two generations ago? Are we clinging to a past that has grown more distant each year? Are we denying the reality of our situation.
What do you think public school education will look like five years from now?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hospitals and Schools

I am sitting beside the hospital bed of my daughter and investing some time in generating this Blog entry while she takes a medication induced nap. I'm supporting her as she undergoes some tests and observations along the road to recovery. Her body reacted unexpectedly to minor surgery and she's been admitted for a week.

Earlier this morning a nurse came in, used a hand held device and scanned her medical identification bracelet. This process authenticated her identity and ensured that she would be matched with the appropriate medications and procedures.

I couldn't help but wonder how soon public schools will equip all learners with similar ID bracelets that will be scanned as they enter the classroom. We are fast approaching such an accounting process in New York as we link every learner with each and every teacher they interact with for the purpose of correlating instructor and assessment data used to by the state to measure the "value added" impact of teachers.

The unusual time available to me on what would otherwise be a hectic and full staff development day allows me to reflect on other studies or articles I've digested that involve medical practices/procedures that could benefit education.

1. When patients are informed, prior to their surgery, of the expected after-effects of the operation, their recovery time is generally 1/3 less than patients who are less aware of the pain, discomfort, and symptoms that often result from surgery. (How much do we share regarding expectations and outcomes and the experiences and sacrifices learners are expected to expend and endure?)
2. In Blink, (page 40) author Malcolm Gladwell (one of my favorite authors) relates studies performed by insurance companies of the dynamic relationship between doctor and patient that reveal that the "bedside manners" exhibited by physicians (eye contact, appropriate and clear communication as opposed to condescending speech patterns, humor, non-verbal cues, empathy and care) largely determine the patient's perception of the quality of care they receive, and, hence, the likelihood of subsequent litigation against the doctor if there are problems. (How is this any different than the relationship between school employees and those we serve - learners and parents?)
3. Research showed that a disproportionate amount of medical mistakes arise from the communication patterns (transference of data and narrative) that occur when nurses transition during shift exchanges. Communication lacking clarity between speaker and listener as one leaves work and another arrives, contributes to misunderstandings that could produce negative consequences for patients. (Think of the many service providers that work with individual learners during the course of a school day or school year and examine the process used to traffic the attendant information between classes and grade levels as the learner progresses through school).

There are many more ideas that could be extracted from medical research that could be adapted and applied toward increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of educational practioners. In fact, many of the most pivotal leverage points and difference makers I've exercised in a lengthy career in educational leadership have emerged from engaging with resources outside of the educational arena.