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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Predicting Rain - Building an Ark: The Importance of Data

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.            

                                           Data Base 
“Quality is determined by the customer.” 
(David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, p. 166) 

Data Gridlock 
     The size of the population of students, together with the frequency that we administer tests and measure everything else, produce an incredible amount of data for schools. We calculate average daily attendance, identify per pupil expenditures, count the number of library books, monitor student grades, figure the ratio of students to computers, and wrestle with who knows what other potential intervening variables.  
     Pouring through the labyrinth of details to explore hypotheses can drive one to drink. Perhaps that’s why there are two different stories about drunks that come to mind whenever I think about the challenge of examining the myriad data confronting school leaders. 
Drunk with Data 
     One evening as I walked home I was startled to find a man, obviously under the influence of alcohol, down on his hands and knees scouring the ground beneath the glow of a street lamp.  
     “What are you doing?”  I asked. 
     “Looking for my keys,” he replied. “Will you help me?” 
     I accepted the invitation out of sympathy and spent the next few minutes searching in the light of the lamp. Finally, out of frustration, I asked the drunk, “Where do you think you dropped your keys?” 
     “Over there,” he said, and pointed to a spot in the darkness thirty yards away. 
     Exasperated I asked, “Then why are we looking for them here?” 
    “Because,” he said, “There’s no light over there!” (Senge, p. 61) 
Robert Waterman, in his book The Renewal Factor, summarized a common abuse of data in this statement: “We use data like a drunk uses a street lamp; for support not illumination.” (Waterman) 
Let the Mission Drive the Data 
     Data can intoxicate you with the power and strength of numbers, figures, and charts that potentially pack as big a wallop as several shots of fine whiskey. Schools need to be driven by a mission communicated in language that inspires people to pursue a commonly held vision of success associated with teaching and learning. Data should therefore be utilized to illuminate the route to the desired vision. The inability to clearly agree upon a mission results in acting on data that may not be directly related to the school's real purpose.  
Keys to the Data 
    Tom Peters refers to the process of such misguided plans as SWAG: a Scientific Wild Ass Guess. (Peters and Austin, p. 16)   
     The keys we are searching for are the keys to effectiveness in schools. And we won't find them looking in the dark. Light must be shed upon the vision and mission so an appropriate data base can be developed to create benchmarks along our journey, much like the mile markers beside long stretches of highway that inform drivers of their progress.  
     The first step in constructing an appropriate database is crafting a mission and relating it to an accepted vision. This beacon will allow us to differentiate between necessary data and confusing, inconsequential data. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once remarked "It's like drinking out of a fire hose, there's such a flood of information." (Rowan, p. 41)  
     In an environment rich and fertile with data we must conscientiously weed out extraneous, bureaucratic intangibles that grow wild with results and instead cultivate appropriate information that yields opportunities. 
Predicting Rain vs. Building an Ark 
     Louis Gerstner, as CEO of IBM, expressed his view on reforming public education as follows; “To turn our public schools around, we need to adopt that legendary Noah principle: No more prizes for predicting rain. Prizes only for building arks.” (Perry, p. 42) Educators have been consumed with wrestling with everything that can be measured in an effort to “predict rain.” It’s time to invest in building arks. The authors of Built to Last put it this way, “… visionary companies tend to be clock builders, not time tellers.” (Collins and Porras, p. 23) 
On a Journey in Search of the Right Data 
     Thus far we have talked about the importance of vision and mission. Now we begin the process of how we expect to get to our desired state. It’s not unlike the safe way to plan a vacation. Such a time for enjoyment should not be left to chance.  
     First, when planning your vacation, determine what your mission is. Do you want to relax, visit family and friends, attempt a challenge or learn something? Create a vision and imagine where you can best experience your desired activity. Reaffirm where you want to go and why you wish to go there. This is especially important if others are accompanying you. Next, schedule the trip at a time that will maximize your experience. Now, assemble your data and make sure your resources will support the trip as a viable excursion.  
    Collecting data assists in our journey. Napoleon once said, “Imagination rules the world.” (Maxims) That may be true, but without a careful plan you can experience a disappointing trip that borders on the agony Napoleon encountered on his ill fated expedition to Russia that met a chilly end during the infamous Russian winter.  
     Appropriate data serves the same purpose as mile markers along the highway of a lengthy trip. It gives you a frame of reference regarding progress toward your goal. These benchmarks are reinforcing reminders of where we are, how far we’ve gone, and how much longer we have to go.  
     We often appear to exhaust our energy analyzing facts and figures in a journey that parallels the quest for the Holy Grail. Someone once described the misdirected optimist as a person who continues to dig through a large mound of horse manure in search of the pony that must be around somewhere. This pilgrimage to piles of paper serves to placate public skepticism or satiate the appetite of state education officials but may not lead to exposing patterns that will impact our business.  
     Roy Rowan, author of The Intuitive Manager, claims that “Research is more of a confirmation tool than a discovery tool.” (Rowan, p. 97) Peter Drucker echoes this point in Managing the Non Profit Organization when he states, “Most of our current reporting systems don’t reveal opportunities; they report problems.” (Drucker, p. 13) 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Final Notes on Vision

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement from a manuscript I prepared for publication. They advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

Vision in Action 
     Effective school leaders face the dual challenge of constructing and selling a viable representation of a desired state of being for the school community. This picture must be inspiring enough to engage the commitment of followers to expend the energy and effort required to breathe life into the vision. Without the necessary emotional impetus the speaker’s vision rings hollow and it seems ethereal and dreamlike. Your responsibility is to recruit people for a crusade of a higher calling. Attempts at using charts and numbers to invite followers on such a commitment will generally be doomed to failure. Jon Katzenbach states in, Real Change Leaders, you cannot “capture people’s souls for a number.” (Katzenbach XXXX)  
     As an example of such a challenge, John Sculley, in his book Odyssey, shares the recruiting pitch made to him by Steve Jobs, then in charge of Apple Computer. Jobs enticed Sculley from his much higher paying and more secure position as president of Pepsico with the following; “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?” (Garfield, p. 82) 
     Another example of the tempting bond between a visionary leader and inspired followers comes from the legendary story of Spartacus. (Senge, p. 205) This fact based story of ancient Rome in 71 BC, embellished by Kirk Douglas in the Hollywood version, relates the revolt of slaves engineered by Spartacus. The band of renegades achieved several victories against the superior Roman Legion. Eventually, they succumbed to greater forces and found themselves surrounded in an untenable position. The Romans, however, did not know which man was Spartacus, since the former slaves were treated impersonally without identities and the rebels did not wear distinguishing insignias or uniforms.  
     The Roman leader Crassius promised “You have been slaves, you will be slaves again but spared crucifixion if you identify Spartacus.” Spartacus, wishing to spare his battle mates, stepped forward and identified himself; “I am Spartacus.” And immediately, as the story unfolds, one by one, the others also identified themselves as Spartacus. The loyalty of the slaves was not invested in Spartacus as much as it was in the shared vision of freedom he had inspired them with. They were willing to die free rather than live as slaves.   
Schools and Vision 
     Fortunately, even on our most difficult days, we are not locked in a life and death struggle. But, contrast the story of Spartacus with the beacon that guides many schools today. How inspiring are the many face to face interactions we have with constituents or followers? Do staff members leave faculty meetings with a spring in their walk or do they seem burdened with the weight of frustration on their back? Take advantage of every opportunity to reinforce the vision. Constancy of purpose is how handfuls of authors and researchers have described the message. 
     The accountability movement in educational and political circles is so oriented toward test scores that the accepted “vision” of schools is simply the clarion to “raise the tests scores” or “let’s have scores higher than school district X.” This goal hardly serves as a vision worthy of the sacrifices of valuable time and sincere effort required by those involved. Where is the personal conviction? Where is the emotion? Where is the appeal to the follower’s inner feelings? And we wonder about detached constituents in and out of the school. Lacking a clearly perceived route or direction, or a narrow and murky path, they are unable to be considered followers. 
Vision with a View 
     Remember, as they said during the long overland travels of the Conestoga wagon trains, “The view only changes for the lead horse.” Do you get a clear picture of what image all of the other horses are limited to? That’s exactly the image they will have of you if you don’t, or can’t, involve them in the vision. 
Lack of Vision 
“The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision.” Helen Keller (Van Ekeren, p.182) 
Thoughts on Vision 
     Creating a vision does not require any psychic ability or exceptional insight. As a school leader I accept responsibility for serving as the steward of the organization. That means a commitment to maintain a vigilant and conscientious attitude while monitoring the compass points and staying the course for the school as it navigates through unexpected shifts in political, social, and economic weather patterns. If you expect to hold steady then it’s necessary for you to stand fast on resolute guideposts formed of cherished values and beliefs. If you can’t breathe life into the vision with passion and dedication, then how do you expect others to follow you in such a n arduous endeavor as school improvement? 
     My values and beliefs on the meaning and purpose of schools are embedded within my own personal experiences as a learner. I grew up under the constraints of poverty in a family of nine headed by two high school drop-outs. The casual slights resulting from lowered expectations teachers held for me have not been forgotten. Nor has the shame of walking through the lunch line clutching my ticket entitling me to a free lunch in a school with very few such recipients, or the embarrassment of wearing the hand-me-downs of other boys who were my classmates.  
     As a result, I hold clear and persistent perspectives on the need to democratize learning and make opportunities accessible to all. Obviously, I endorse practices such as Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement and other programs designed to heighten awareness and response to differences; distribution of support services (lunch, counseling, extra help, economic assistance,…) with dignity and privacy; thorough examination of disaggregated data to insure that all constituent groups are progressing with sufficient resources; and many other tactics to expand possibilities for all learners to meet with success. The reservoir of my own personal experiences has produced a wellspring of words, actions, and feelings that combine to propel the birth of a vision. 
     While Horace Mann Junior High and Schuylerville Elementary were sharp contrasts in terms of racial and socioeconomic composition, they nonetheless shared a similar future - a future that should be common for any school, a future of nurturing the hopes and sustaining the dreams for all, no matter their past or present, and a future driven by an expectation that everyone will be able and encouraged to meet their potential. 
     As such, it was a matter of developing a vision that encompassed essential words and phrases (hopes, dreams, potential, opportunity,… for all) and clearly conveyed with metaphors and similes in story form that promoted a relevant and credible context, with enough passion to solicit others in a compelling cause. An open-ended, educational version of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is vital in stirring emotions and sustaining the efforts of followers. 
     Staff members were encouraged to help “make this a school you would want to attend if you were a kid, a school you would want your own kids to attend, and a school where you wouldn’t mind spending nearly half of your waking hours each day.”  
     I preached the message at every available opportunity. It included references to what could be. It spoke of growth and potential, of imagination and determination. Most importantly, I had to pass beyond words and provide visible evidence of my commitment and belief in the vision with deeds. That meant trusting others to develop, that meant providing skill training and conceptual maps, and it meant empowering people by extending responsibility and authority, by accepting their mistakes as an outcome of accepting risks.