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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Some Thoughts On A Snowy Day

It was an easy call this morning. The forecast had predicted from 6 to 12 inches of snow, with the heaviest snowfall expected during school hours.

I relish the uninterrupted time I have in the office on snow days. No distractions, unexpected calls, or crisis to be found. I believe that I can get more of my school work done in one snow day than I can complete in three normal days of school. It's a great opportunity to catch up on unfinished business. Best of all, it's a chance to address work that requires sustained attention (i.e. the budget). There are some projects that suffer with even momentary interruptions. The time it takes to refocus thoughts, re-create the context, and regain the momentum toward completion extends the time to well beyond what's necessary.

During lunch my thoughts drifted toward two very different perspectives that could describe the goals or organizational culture of many schools - and impact the success rate of a school. I've been thinking about this a lot lately.

As an example, let's look at two different teams, team "A" and team "B," as they approach an athletic contest. Team "A" plays to win while team "B" plays not to lose. The goal of team "A" is focused on victory while the goal of team "B" centers on the avoidance of losing. In that contrast, team "A" seeks to do the best they can to win. That's a pursuit of excellence.  On the other hand team "B" merely has to record one more point/goal/run than their opponent to achieve victory. In that final scenario team "B" can win even if they perform at a mediocre level as long as they're one up on the opponent when the game is over.

Now, replace the teams in the example above with two different schools as they approach the need to meet mandated minimum performance levels on state-wide assessments. With respect to our two schools, school "A" promotes all learners reaching their potential while school "B" is intent on merely having the percentage of learners exceeding the minimum standards that will prevent them from being designated for inadequate progress.

Perhaps another way to explain the philosophical distinction that separates schools is the way a teacher elects to convey the mark a learner receives on an assessment. Let's say that there are ten problems on a test, each worth 10 points. After grading the test the teacher finds that the learner had nine correct responses and one incorrect reply. How does the teacher report that grade on the paper before they return it to the learner; + 9 or 90; or - 1 or -10? What becomes the focal point? The number they got right or the number they got wrong? What they learned or what they didn't learn?

Mathematically there is no difference in the way we record it in our grade books; a +90 and a -10 are the same. But it matters. It reflects a lot on one's perspective and conveys two very disparate messages to the individual learner.

Schools are unlikely to make the progress needed to improve if they emphasize and dwell on the negative. I am certainly not suggesting that schools ignore areas of weakness or discount their shortcomings. But, I don't imagine a school will experience improvement if they ignore their strengths and discount their accomplishments. Rather, schools can identify deficiencies and respond appropriately while a priority is placed on building on their strengths.

Perhaps it's the increased pressure that school personnel feel from critics or mandates and an aversion of critical headlines. Maybe it's something else altogether. At any rate, the view that a school takes toward their goals will determine, in the long run, their opportunities for success. Which direction are our public schools going - running toward success or away from failure? It's not the same thing and it's more complex than deciding whether a glass is half full or half empty, or someone is an optimist or a pessimist. It's a guidepost for organizational culture.

Ah, lunch is over and I must resume my work. And so must schools renew their efforts to advance. But which view and direction will your school take?

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