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Saturday, November 23, 2013

What We Say, What We Actually Do

I am nearly through a very interesting book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, written by Chip and Dan Heath. Their previous two books, Made to Stick, and Switch, proved to be extremely resourceful so I was anxious to indulge their latest effort.

Earlier in the week I attended a training session designed to promote evaluation skills attendant to the state mandated APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) process. It was a small and intimate gathering of four superintendents and a couple of trainers that allowed for an earnest discussion on issues related to our responsibilities. It was a casual environment that produced constructive exchanges. It was the type of professional interaction that I enjoy because there is a lot gained by through the informal conversations that feature sharing experiences and examining ideas.

I subscribe to the tenets serving as a foundation for the APPR. That is, there should be annual evaluations with a protocol borne of research based pedagogical practices operating in a mutually respectful clinical supervision model. However, by pairing this process with outcomes intended to discriminate among specific ability levels of teachers and principals, I believe that the positive effect of the carefully crafted evaluation process is discounted by the manner in which the linkage tenders anxieties and stress that can undermine progress.

Rather than continue on with my opinion of the APPR, I want to focus on a connection between the book I'm reading and that experience in the training session. On page 187, within the chapter entitled "Honor Your Core Priorities," the Heath brothers write:

       "In one series of interviews led by William F. Pounds
       of MIT, managers were asked to share the important
       problems they were facing in their organizations. Most  
       managers mentioned five to eight problems. Later in the
       interview, they were asked to describe their activities
       from the previous week. Pounds shared the punch line
       that 'no manager reported any activity which could be
      directly associated with the problems he had described.'
      They'd done no work on their core priorities. Urgencies
      had crowded out priorities."

and later on the same page, they continue

       "Our calendars are the ultimate scoreboard for
       our priorities. If forensic analysts confiscated your
       calendar and email records and Web browsing history 
       for the past six months, what would they conclude
      are your priorities?"

Now, back to the training session. Our small group focused on the rigors of the evaluation tasks, and the APPR in general. I found myself reflecting on the quote above while listening to my colleagues. I was aware, through the media, that each one of them had recently had their calendars held hostage by urgent issues that occurred within their districts. These were pressing concerns that would expand legally and become distorted politically if not addressed with the full force of energy, effort and considerable time on the part of the superintendent.

One school was faced with a group of fans allegedly shouting racist chants at the opposing team in a football game. Another district was contending with a handful of students who had uploaded a video on the social media platform You Tube that was a prime example of bullying. The video clip identified individual classmates and linked them with inappropriate acts and statements. The third school system was wrestling with the fallout of a decision made at a Board of Education meeting to not rehire a varsity basketball coach. The discord was rumbling divisively through the community and impacting the entire program and causing people to question the credibility of those on either side of the issue.

Each of the superintendents responded effectively to the challenges embedded with the examples I illustrated in the previous paragraph. They were successful in resolving the problems and reorient their respective districts back on track. But what happened to the momentum and direction district's educational goals and instructional strategies during the period of time it took for leaders to ameliorate the issues? How about all of the mandates and deadlines that must be completed for compliance? What of the impact on the plans and designs that were interrupted?

I'm not suggesting that the concerns (claims of racism; bullying; and disputed personnel appointments) were not important. In fact, I'm pointing to the opposite and claiming that the urgent matters had to be addressed in order to avoid further displacement of priorities, distraction of staff, and depletion of valuable resources.

Many days take on the image of a superintendent playing the carnival game, "Whac-A-Mole." Here's how the editors of Wikipedia describe the game:

               "A typical Whac-A-Mole machine consists of a large,
                 waist-level cabinet with five holes in its top and a
                 large, soft, black mallet. Each hole contains a single
                plastic mole and the machinery necessary to move
                it up and down. Once the game starts, the moles will
               begin to pop up from their holes at random. The object
               of the game is to force the individual moles back into
               their holes by hitting them directly on the head with the
               mallet, thereby adding to the player's score. The quicker
               this is done the higher the final score will be."

This is the daily triage that must be performed as superintendents, and principals, and teachers juggle urgency with priority while engaging with the intense, stressful mandates developed by policymakers who lack an understanding of the challenges and realities of public school educators. Those politicians who raise the banner in state capitals proclaiming "No Excuses" as a simple and inexpensive elixir for the inadequate outcomes they often attribute to ineffective educators whining about inequitable funding, the impact of poverty, declining state aid, ... gloss over the multiplicity of factors that intrude on well intended plans of educators attempting to meet the unrealistic accountability measures adopted in legislative chambers (and back rooms crowded with lobbyists and textbook and test publishers) far removed from the classrooms.

Unlike the Whac-A-Mole game, the quicker this triage is done does not necessarily translate into the higher score on state assessments.

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