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Thursday, April 21, 2016

An Rx for Change

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.

An Rx for Change

     George Bernard Shaw was quoted as saying, “Reformers have the idea that change can be achieved by brute sanity.” (Fullan, p. 83) Exercise sensitivity and responsiveness with the same diligence you have previously practiced rational strategies. Change is inclined to be more psychological than logical. Never overlook the intangible human factors. Successful change is made by individuals first, then by institutions. Attend to the people before you devote energies to the end product of the change. Adopt the perspective of those who will be affected by the proposed change, their feelings, their attitudes, and their history. Change is a personal experience.

     Medical research reveals that patients who are cautioned in detail about the agony and after effects of surgery prior to their operation recover in one third of the time of those patients entering surgery less informed. (Peters and Austin, p. 232) And, make no mistake about it, there can be pain in change. Recognizing that will explain why few volunteer for most change programs. Although most people have at one time or another complained about “the way things are,” in their organization, they are more likely to want these things to be different than they are to change themselves.   

     Clearly articulate the reasons for, and purpose of, the change. Understand differences among satisfiers and motivators. Appeal to values. Invite participation. Monitor progress. Model behavior. Keep in tune with the culture of the organization. Provide feedback and encouragement. Manage meaning and symbols.

     Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, asserts that people are more accepting of change than they are of being changed. (p. 153) Unfortunately, as Michael Ray and Alan Rinzler point out in The New Paradigm in Business, the typical process has the cart before the horse: “changes in structure are often made before changes in mind.” (p. 124)

     Perhaps the best advice to those responsible for change is the Golden Rule of treating people the way you want to be treated. Finally, as you embark on initiating change, accepting the challenge offered agents in Mission Impossible, “Your mission, if you chose to accept it,…” remember the words of Alan Weiss in Making it Work, “Who ever heard of moving in any direction when the first question we all ask is ‘How can I cover my rear end?’.”(p. 19)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Adapting and Assimilating Change

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.

Cooking Without a Recipe

     I have initiated and facilitated successful transformations at different schools. I have also felt the frustration and agony when well intentioned, much heralded change activities that were successful in other venues become inexorably mired in quicksand. There is no sure-fire recipe. Change cannot be replicated in a cookie cutter pattern. In many cases the ingredients are similar but the amounts vary according to availability and the unique tastes of the cook and/or consumers, the cooking time is a function of your equipment, and the finished product is often a reflection of your culinary skills. Oh, there’s a lot of clean up afterward too!

     Speaking of cooking, Tichy and Devanna supply an interesting technique for boiling a frog that speaks to the proper method of assimilating change into an institution. (Tichy and Devanna, p. 44) If you place a frog into water that is either too hot or too cold, it will leap out. However, if you place the frog in a pot of water that approximates the temperature of its pond water you can then gradually heat up the water to the boiling point without the frog noticing the imperceptible change in temperature.

     Another view on change that involves temperature is the example of a double loop feedback system. A thermostat is a typical single loop system. It basically asks, “What temperature do you want?”  You set the gauge for the desired temperature, much like you establish goals for the school. Although the thermostat can direct the furnace to meet the requested temperature it cannot effect any further change, that is, if you no longer want that temperature you will have to manually alter the thermostat. It does not answer the question "Do we still want this temperature?" Constant interpretation of data will respond to the question, "Are we still on the right track?” (Waterman, pp. 147-148)

     Robert Kriegel, author of Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers, supplies a story of ignoring the prospects for expanded options. In 1959 a small research firm, Haloid, arrived at a paper copier. They offered the sales rights to IBM. The proposal was rejected by IBM because carbon paper was inexpensive and they forecast a worldwide market for only 5,000 such copiers. Ten years later, Haloid, now known as Xerox, generated over one billion dollars in sales. Although Xerox had apparently outwitted IBM they were soon a victim of similar miscalculations when the advice of their experts steered them away from the small copier business. Japanese firms exploited the opportunity and created a burgeoning market for small professional offices, schools,… and subsequently reduced Xerox’s market share to fifty percent. (Kriegel and Brandt, p. 38)

     Management guru Peter Drucker provides a telling example of how a company can blind itself to opportunities for successful change. In his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, (p. 40) he offers an account of innovation versus bureaucratic maintenance when he describes the emergence of veterinary medicines. He reports that the leading veterinary drug company, a Swiss firm, has never actually developed a single veterinary drug. Instead, they secured the licenses from pharmaceutical companies that rudely dismissed the market. In fact, the medical director of a large pharmaceutical firm decried the application of drugs intended for humans but used for animals as, “a misuse of noble medicine.”

     The Swiss company exploited the disdain of the drug manufacturers toward the appropriation of drugs for veterinary medicine. Now, with price pressure and regulations impacting human medications, that opportunistic Swiss company reaps the financial benefits of a very profitable segment of the pharmaceutical industry at the virtual exclusion of those companies that loathed that aspect of application of the drugs.

     What’s the moral of the story? The same fate may await those schools who ignore the potential influence of policy changes (voucher system, charter schools,…) and display an indifference to consumer dissatisfaction (increased rate of children being home-schooled, more children enrolling in non-public schools, growing public despair,…).

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Change - Whether You Want It Or Not

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.


“Nobody likes change,

except babies with dirty diapers.”


Ready or Not, Here it Comes

     At this point in our discussion, and at this stage in your school improvement process, you have imagined a vision, anchored on a mission, constructed an appropriate database, identified goals that stretch, and adopted a view of a supportive culture. But now it’s apparent that change must occur if we expect to meet with success.       

     Change will occur whether you want it or not. Attempts to prevent change are as futile as the effort long ago of Canute, the Danish king who sought to demonstrate his power by commanding ocean waves to stop. We can heed the advice of two very different wise men. The ancient sage, Heracultis, who stated that “No man steps in the same river twice” (Gardner, p. xi) or cowboy philosopher Will Rogers who claimed that “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” (Moncur: Rogers) Once you accept the inevitability of change you can begin preparing for it by observing several precepts that form a foundation for change.

     Change should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Many of the obstacles we face in adapting to change are self imposed barriers arising from fear of the unknown and the anxiety related to adjusting our ingrained behaviors to accommodate the change. As an example, try putting your coat on by switching which arm you routinely put in the sleeve first. Other daily tasks performed without thinking, folding arms or clasping hands(which arm/fingers is/are on top?), or tying shoes, will present unfamiliarity and discomfort by simply prompting us to alter well worn practices and habits. Now, take the awkward feeling you experienced when changing the way you do simple, habit oriented tasks, and magnify it to understand how challenging it will be for those people you expect to make significant changes in the way they perform complex tasks at work.

The Challenge of Change

     Here’s an example to illustrate how we induce anxiety in meeting change. Look at the dots below. Using as few moves as possible, invert the pyramid so that it is upside down.

    Row 1                    O
    Row 2                  O   O
    Row 3                O   O   O

    Row 4              O   O   O   O

     How many moves did you have to make? How about three? All you need to do is move the corner dots, the apex and two corners of the base. Move 1 = take the dot from row 1 and place it beneath row 4 about at the midpoint of the row. This now becomes the apex of the inverted pyramid. Take the dots at each end of row 4 and place one of them on either side of row 2. There you have it. See, what appeared to be a difficult change was fairly easy after all.

     Changes should emerge convincingly from needs and interests, occur over time at a pace that approximates the ability of people to adjust to the change, and adapt to internal and external variables that serve to shape the scope and degree of change.

     Change should be fluid and persistent like water that seeks its own level. Contrast the tremendous surge of force found in the wall of water in a flash flood that scatters large rocks, with the tenacious and persevering trickle of water that gradually seeps into the cracks of rocks, expands when frozen, and breaks those same large rocks. One power is visibly relentless and disperses boulders like litter over the terrain, leaving a tumultuous wake forever changed. The other power, subtler in its technique, evokes change without violently displacing the rocks.
     Despite well intentioned, systematically developed templates of change, with complex flow charts, thoughtfully designed spans of control, appropriate time lines, and analytical processes, … the nature of change tends to be organic, dynamic, and somewhat unpredictable. It is a process not an event. Tom Peters declares in Thriving on Chaos that “Most quality programs fail for two reasons; they have system without passion, or passion without system. You must have both.” (p. 74) This tenet holds worthy advice for change agents too.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Cultural Effects

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.

A Sense of Security

     Subjects in this study were divided into two groups. Members of each group were led one at a time into a small room where they were instructed to solve as many puzzles as possible in the required time. Each person was informed that there would be disconcerting noise, not music, coming from an overhead speaker. Members of the first group were apologetically told that there was nothing that could be done about the noise. Participants in the second group were assured that they could control the noise with a nearby switch. As expected, the second group (with the switch) solved many times more puzzles than the other group. The surprise however, was that nobody used the switch to adjust the noise. Just knowing it was there increased security and comfort.

     People feel comfortable within a culture when they understand the stated and unstated parameters governing behavior and expectations. The instrumental components of culture identified by Deal and Kennedy include the business of the environment, values, heroes, rites and rituals, and the cultural network. These elements are conveyed in many different ways. Communication, formal and informal, verbal and non-verbal, represents a significant determinant in shaping company culture.

     Language is central to communication. The words we choose reflect values within the school culture. There are buzz words, antiquated words, technical words, esoteric words, words that hold sacred significance within the school, words that signal red flags, and many others that reveal something about the person wielding the words.

     The frequency of the words and phrases reflect meaning. Perhaps it’s a word that the superintendent begins to sprinkle about in conversations with hopes it will later spread to the faculty lounge. Maybe it’s a word that those in authority appear to avoid using. The choices we make in expressing ourselves are revealing.

     An extension of this can be found in the tales and legends transmitted by veterans to the less experienced staff members. The authors of Change and Effectiveness in Schools, contend that two critical aspects of a school’s culture are related to the distribution of knowledge and the extent of conformity to them. (Corbett, Firestone, and Rossman, p. 8) Waterman supports this assertion by stating, “Procedure manuals might have rules, but stories have morals. The latter tend to influence thinking and action more than the former.” (Waterman, p. 269)

Through Rain, Snow, Sleet, and Hail

     Let’s look at the post office for an example. Assume that the culture of the postal service revolves around diligently adhering to the creed of delivering mail, “despite rain, snow, sleet, or hail,...” Legends emerge from stories repeated over and over about how Charlie braved ten foot drifts of snow to make sure that the people on his route received their Christmas gifts properly delivered by the post office. The scope of these stories often mirrors the values of the dominant group within the organization and has the potential to shape the development of others.

     For instance, if the general attitude within the school is negative and morale is low, then people may comment about how “old Fred is so crafty he always beats the system with his sick and personal days.” Conversely, if the climate is one which is positive and uplifting, the legend of how “that Mary sure is something, it seems like she never misses a day!” serves as an example and guide for behavior.

     Another manner in which a school communicates what it believes to be important can be found by examining available artifacts. Walk through the school where you work as if you’ve never been there before and note what you see on the bulletin boards and hallway walls. What is featured in the most prominent locations of the school? What appears to be absent from possible display? Interpret the meaning of these symbols as an anthropologist or archeologist would study cultural artifacts for clues of a society.

     On an individual level you can analyze your appointment calendar as a reflection of how you use your most valuable commodity, time. The way you spend time emits signals to those in the school community concerning value and importance. This is one method that followers use to determine what is regarded as significant and points to another cultural feature identified by Deal and Kennedy; “what it takes to get ahead around here.”[i]

     As a leader it behooves you to develop and enhance the values and meaning that support the direction the organization must take to realize it’s vision. Recognize and reward desired behaviors among individuals. Acknowledge mentors as heroes. Breed success. Create and sustain rituals and ceremonies that make the vision more comprehensible. Orchestrating these social and psychological variables is an essential responsibility.

[i] Deal, Terry and Kennedy, Allen. Corporate Cultures.

Friday, April 15, 2016

See What You Believe

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.

The Power of Perception

     This notion can be taken one step further as we explore the power of perception. Felix Cohen stated, “Facts we disbelieve, we call theory. Theories we believe we call facts.” (

     There’s nothing more futile looking than a dog unwittingly chasing its own tail. Nonetheless, school leaders often indulge in the same exercise when they fail to recognize the relationship between perception and reality. Many times perceptions and reality are perfectly correlated. Other times they are at odds with one another.

     Much of our responsibilities involve the dynamics of human interaction. The leader’s success in untangling the morass of opinions, beliefs, and values of multiple constituent groups is often dependent upon his/her social and emotional coordination. It is crucial, therefore, to understand that an individual’s perception can transform into their reality regardless of facts and data. And, in matters of importance, people can cling to misperceptions with the tenacity of a hungry dog clenching a bone in his teeth.

     The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard remains a classic study on advertising. (Packard. P. 16)  Clearly, advertising firms live or die on their ability to shape perceptions and convert them to wants and needs. Among the many studies supplied in his book, one jumps to mind.

     This study, performed under the auspices of the National Color Institute, involved women (Packard assembled his work in the 1950’s which may account for a sexist slant) who were provided three different boxes of laundry detergent to sample as part of a study. One cleaner was packaged in a bright, eye-catching yellow box. The next one was clad in a box of blue. The third was mostly blue with splashes of yellow. After months of testing the products the group of volunteers was polled on the performance of the three detergents.

     The vast majority of women claimed that the detergent in the blue/yellow box proved superior. Adjectives such as “wonderful” and “fine” were used to describe their judgement. This detergent produced brighter brights, and more colorful colors. The blue box was considered unimpressive. They claimed that detergent left their clothes dirty looking. In contrast, the women were severely critical of the yellow box detergent, stating it was too strong and even accusing its contents of producing stains and discoloration.

     Although the advertising company conducting the study informed the women that all three boxes had contained the very same detergent, the conviction of the women did not waver. They were unconvinced and reaffirmed their contention that the blue/yellow box harbored the better cleaner.

     Another study examined during a college psychology class escapes me now but the point remains. It also involves women and wash. An advertising firm tested the opinions of women with respect to the performance of washing machines from two different manufacturers. The participants were surveyed after months of using the two machines. The administrators of the study were amazed that the women overwhelmingly chose one brand over another despite the fact that the machine they chose experienced breakdowns while the competing brand had none.

     Confused by the women selecting the brand that required repair over the brand without such maintenance needs, they interviewed the subjects. The collective opinion asserted that even though the one brand demonstrated more problems they were confident that the company’s repairman would show up and do a great job. In other words, they trusted the company’s repairman whereas they could not be assured that the repairman of the brand lacking break downs would be timely in responding or skillful in his repair work. In effect, they overlooked the disparity in maintenance records and the superior performance of the better washing machine and instead placed their faith in the ability of the serviceman.    

     Finally, as an exclamation point to this issue, Peters describes another example of the power of perception in his book, A Passion for Excellence. (Peters and Austin, p. 75)  He shares an incident involving a customer’s complaint during a focus group meeting conducted by a supermarket intent on responding to the needs and wants of consumers.

     It seems that a woman accused the store of not providing fresh fish. It didn’t matter that the head of the seafood department could prove that he obtained the fish daily. The woman did not perceive the fish to be fresh because it was wrapped in plastic and encased in Styrofoam.

     Rather than refute the customer’s allegation, the store divided it’s fish into two different packages – half the fish remained under plastic for those customers who felt the fish was “cleaner,” and the other half were placed on a bed of ice for those people who equated this presentation as “fresher.” (note, following this decision to split the way the fish was presented, the sale of fish at the store rose considerably)  

     So there you have it. Opinions are borne out of our perceptions and shaped by our values. That’s hardly a novel thought. But, too few people recognize that injecting logic and/or statistics may prove a worthless waste of time in attempts to dislodge an individual’s construct of reality.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Perceptions Versus Reality

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.

Reconciling Dissonance Between Perception and Reality

     Then what do you do?

     1) Acknowledge and accept the power of perception in influencing reality. 2) Examine the key components of the school from an outsider’s vantage point by surveying internal and external constituents. 3) Analyze the survey results and discriminate between: a) What you want to control (ask yourself - what’s most important in sustaining the pursuit of our mission?) and b) What you want to influence (those areas that buttress the efforts of the school and often distinguish the school from others). 4) Define the critical areas and seek to embed them into the culture of the school through rituals, ceremonies, and myths that are articulated and reinforced. 5) Determine what you can afford to divest. Do not divorce areas that compromise the integrity of the school. Create opportunities with limited choices for those areas you wish to influence. Establish guidelines and support that facilitates those participating in the assigned areas. Insure that the work of those assuming responsibility is tangible and mission related.

     Rank order the most important components of your school apart from the obvious – the learners. You will undoubtedly identify the common variables of curriculum, assessment, budget, hiring practices, resource allocation, and discipline, among others. These are ordinarily the areas that are most ardently defended by school staff as vital.

     Ask parents in your school to rank order their interests concerning the school and they’ll likely begin and end with teachers. That’s generally the central issue. Not hiring them, but picking from among those who are there already. Many parents of elementary school children worry most about the relationship between their child and the adults who work with their child. If that interaction is successful then most other concerns are abated. If the combination is not productive then you can expect irate and frustrated parents and teachers and a year full of nightmares.

     If that’s the case, that school staff want control over curriculum, and assessment; and parents want influence regarding the assignment of children to teachers, then both parties can follow their interests and coexist. The operative phrase here is, “choose your battles.”

Choosing Battles and Averting Wars

     Here’s an example. Our school has elected to permit parents the opportunity to choose their child’s teacher. The placement of learners is perhaps one of the most important decisions made in schools each year. This may raise your anxiety and prompt fears of impotency. Have faith.

     Harry Beckwith explains in Selling the Invisible, how and why people select from service providers: “When many prospects choose a service firm, they are not buying the firm’s credentials. These prospects buy the firm’s personality. Most people describe their experience of interaction with a service firm on the basis of feelings. Service businesses are about feelings. In service marketing and selling, the logical reasons you should win the business – your competence, your excellence, your talent, - just pay the entry fees. Winning is a matter of feelings, and feelings are about personalities.” (p. 53)

     Malcolm Gladwell, best selling author of Blink, refers to a study (p. 40) conducted within the insurance industry that sought to identify the profile of doctors most likely to be subjected to malpractice claims. After an exhausting examination of measureable data revealed no correlates, a further review, this time studying the interaction between doctor and patient, exposed the discerning vantage point. The research found that doctors who were condescending and indifferent to the patient’s emotional and psychological needs and interests were more likely to be litigated than doctors who were actively listened and were attentive and responsive to the patient.

     The process of parents expressing a preference for particular teachers reinforces what Beckwith had suggested, people emphasize feelings and personality when choosing among the available teachers. They tend to look for a fit between the classroom environment created by the teacher and their own perceptions on the needs, interests, likes and dislikes of their child. No one has ever inquired about where the teacher received their degree, what their grade point average was in college, or how many graduate credits the teacher has. It’s predominately about how they perceive the teacher’s personality and demeanor.

     We maintain a resolute expectation of teachers covering a common curriculum with high quality performance in the six classrooms at each grade level. That’s our line in the sand. However, we embrace diversity with regards to instructional delivery systems and the structure of classroom environments so parents can discriminate, whether on whim or astute information gathering, among the teachers and classrooms. This requires a concerted effort in the school’s selection process to hire teachers of varied techniques and philosophies that ensure distinctions among instructional practices so parents have a choice to exercise. We try very hard to offer points of differentiation among teachers to appeal to and accommodate the spectrum of parent perceptions and truly extend them a choice.

     Here’s an example of why choice matters, and benefits both the consumer and the provider. Stew Leonard’s supermarket regularly conducts consumer focus groups designed to elicit feedback helpful in allowing the store to maintain and cultivate the interests and needs of the customers. One such meeting prompted a customer to suggest that people have the opportunity to hand pick individual strawberries of their choice rather than be confined to merely picking up containers already packaged with strawberries. The produce manager objected and implied that customers would only select the best and ripest strawberries, leaving the rest to go bad and represent a loss to the store. The store relented and offered customers the opportunity to pick their own strawberries from the counter. While the customers did in fact pass over certain berries they viewed as inferior, which were subsequently treated as a loss by the store, the profits from strawberry sales at the store doubled because the average customer purchased three times as many strawberries than they did when the berries were only available in pint containers. (Haas and Tamarkin, p. 163)

     As a result of extending preference of teachers to our parents they are empowered partners rather than antagonists. We do not suffer a loss of energy by parrying with parents about participation in school decisions because they are content with the ability to wield their opinion in what many consider to be the most vital area. Parents are far less likely to complain about a teacher which they had picked for their child, since they had exercised the selection.    

     We have employed this process for sixteen years. During this time we have not encountered a situation where significantly more parents have requested one teaching style over another. Each year we advance over nine hundred learners to the succeeding grade. Once assignments are made we experience parent initiated changes in placement in less than 1% of the cases, far fewer than we had experienced prior to including parents in the decision. The net result is satisfied parents and teachers. Interestingly, only one quarter of all parents actually submit a preference request!

     We can draw upon a study that Tom Peters and Robert Waterman referred to in their book In Search of Excellence to support this point. (p. xi)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Cultural Audit

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.

Cultural Audit

     What is the culture of your school like? What does your school culture say to visitors? Is there a difference between the perceived and the real culture of the school? Is the culture of the school supportive of the school's mission? How can you find the answers to these questions?

     Assume the role of a visitor. Take a walk through the school when it is empty. Let the building express itself to you. What artifacts of the culture will you discover? For example; what hangs, or does not hang, on the walls? What is in, or not in, the display cases? What are the slogans really saying? What do the bulletin boards and charts encourage or discourage? What is the physical setting like, and why? Where are the classes for disadvantaged learners, special education, gifted, what do they look like? Why? What is the relationship between seniority and teacher assignments? Are there reserved parking spaces for administrators? Do support staff and professional staff share a lounge?

     Examine the available artifacts of the culture. For instance, a brochure on the school, the latest memo from the school leader, the most current newsletter, the PTA news, the literature posted on the staff room bulletin board, the school calendar, report cards, posted rules, your own daily appointment book, and look for any themes or key words that repeat themselves in these samples. What would it all say to a cultural anthropologist?

     Now, contrast these findings with what is known about the stated beliefs, vision, and mission of the school. There shouldn't be a difference. In other words, if the school's mission is described in terms of teaching and learning, success for all learners, you shouldn't be confronted with display cases full of sports trophies and wonder where the symbols of success in learning are. You shouldn't read bulletin boards that give messages contrary to the stated mission of the school. The school calendar shouldn't list athletic pep rallies and not academic pep rallies. You shouldn't discover themes or key words emerging from outgoing literature that are not congruent with the vision of the school. And finally, if you're an instructional leader does your appointment book reflect that role or are you spending time at other tasks? 

The Value of Values

     Values of the school construct a context to measure success in clear terms for the members of the school community - staff and learners. Beliefs are generally influenced by what members of the school community feel it takes to be successful. The ceremonies - assemblies, announcements of recognition and reward, public praise, and distribution of resources, serve to bestow laurels of success upon those heroes of the school community exhibiting the desired behaviors of the real school culture. 

     As Peters and Waterman state, "Let us suppose that we were asked for one all purpose bit of advice for management, one truth that we were able to distill from the excellent companies research. We might tempted to say 'Figure out your value system.' Decide what your company stands for." (Peters and Waterman, p. 279)

     What does your school stand for? Are the actions of the staff, in particular yours as a leader, consistent with what you espouse as the guiding goals for your school? What are the values and beliefs of the school?

     Karl Scheibe says, "What a person does (his behavior) depends upon what he wants (his values) and what he considers to be true and likely (his beliefs).” (Schiebe, pp. 41-42)

     How does this relate to school? Let's look at the results of a study that investigated schools and school leaders. David Dwyer of the Far West Laboratory for educational research and Development examined the roles of principals in instructional management. (Dwyer, p. 6) One of his findings illustrated the significance of the principal's belief system, personality, and previous experience in forming a sense of focus for effective schools. These principals consistently acted upon the direction established by determined values. 

     As the school leader we can take an active role in nurturing a culture that supports and pursues the school's mission. Remember, practice what you preach. Alan Weiss, author of Making It Work, says "perception is reality, and people believe what they SEE, not what they hear or read." (Weiss, p. 17) Or, as Robert Goldstein says, “The eye remembers what the ear forgets.” (Clark, p. 34)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Culture Club: Organizational Culture

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.


     “We make our house and then our house makes us.”

Winston Churchill (Weiss, p. 59)

Cultivating Culture

     Terry Deal and Allen Kennedy, authors of the groundbreaking effort Corporate Cultures, define culture simply as, “the way we do things around here.” (Deal and Kennedy, p. 4)  They contend that the beliefs of a culture are primarily shaped by what people perceive it takes to get ahead. Kenneth Blanchard claims that culture “is an organization’s personality.” (Blanchard, p. 23)

     Perception plays a major role in understanding culture and impact on the organization. One of the keys to introducing and experiencing successful change efforts hinges on the ability to adroitly maneuver amid the nuances of culture. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the school leader to monitor the pulse of the culture and orchestrate the necessary social architecture to produce a positive and constructive culture.

     You can’t do this sitting behind a desk. It takes a conscious effort to make the time to get out and interact with members of the school community. Most paperwork can often be set aside so the task of completing it does not infringe on the time when kids and staff are in the building. It’s a matter of priority. Placing people before paper will yield long term benefits. It extends your time if you end up finishing with the bureaucratic responsibilities after hours, but I can assure you that the trade off will be to your advantage. What you gain by personalizing your interactions is measurably more consistent with a leader’s commitment to a mission oriented around people and the teaching and learning process.

     Be visible. I maximize my visibility by designating certain scheduled times of the day for meeting and greeting. I make a conscious effort to observe sacred times even on those days when my appointment book is uncooperative and I’m only available for a small portion of the school day. I consider those scheduled times when everyone is on the move en masse to be critical. For instance, at the beginning and ending of school while hundreds of kids pass through the doors of the school. Lunchtime is another opportunity to interact with many people in a small amount of time. Making morning announcements provides a presence, albeit not a physical one. Don’t underestimate the opportunity to effectively exercise the morning announcements to infuse values/beliefs supporting the mission.

     Be certain that your communications aren’t slanted toward writing and speaking rather than listening. Pay attention to what people have to say. Reflective listening can enhance your relations with co-workers. This technique can prove to be a productive investment that stimulates creativity and sensitivity. Don’t underestimate silence or a simple non-verbal expression. Too many people in leadership positions feel compelled to say something, as if the failure to contribute a pearl of wisdom will be perceived as a lack of ability or authority. Research on effective teaching practices suggests the positive relationship between wait time and the quantity and quality of responses. Exercise sensitivity toward non-verbal communication. Also, listen for words that pop up on a regular basis in routine conversations with members of the school community. These words or phrases may reveal a thread within the fabric of the school’s culture. 

Communication and Culture

     The following story demonstrates the value of communication, specifically, the subtlety of language, in a culture.

     Near the end of the last school year I was selected to purchase a gift for a retiring colleague. Armed with the knowledge that he was an avid sailor I decided it would be appropriate to take the collected money and buy something from a store devoted to sailing and navigation. Because he fashioned himself an ancient mariner a sextant emerged as the logical choice. A sextant is a navigational instrument used by seafaring men long ago to plot a course with the stars.

    As soon as I stepped in the store it was apparent that the sum of money in my possession was not enough to obtain a present at such an upscale shop. Therefore, I went to a discount department store and proceeded to the sporting goods department where I asked a lady behind the counter for information about a sextant. She curled her lip, stared at me, and unleashed her reply. "Mister, we have canopy tents, we have pup tents, we have dome tents, and we have many other tents, but not SEX tents! What you do in them after you buy them is your business!"[i]

     What does this have to do with school improvement? After I recovered from this embarrassing tongue-lashing I realized the importance of the subtleties of our language. Communication is significant in human interactions, which, in turn, are central to the study of culture. Much has been written about school culture since Seymour Saranson's research spawned contributions in the field of ethnography and cultural anthropology as it applies to current school improvement efforts. Having a common language with a clear understanding of the context and meaning of our communication is an essential element of any culture. The transmission of “the way we do things around here,” to borrow Terry Deal's simplified definition of culture, relies upon verbal and nonverbal communication. This is significant because the way we “really” do things is more often shared through actions, stories, and anecdotes exchanged among members of the school community than by explanations of governing rules and information in handbooks.

     Culture embodies the basic operational parameters of the school. It involves the nature of work, the way information is managed, how people learn about norms, and the degree of compliance with these norms. The manner in which these forces interact effect virtually every area of the school. The cultural arena also serves to help shape the decision making process, informal power, influence, and status among the staff. Evidence of the values of the culture can be found in an examination of the rituals, ceremonies, heroes, and legends that are associated with the school.

[i] as told by Jane Hammond in a speech in Amarillo, Texas. 1987

Friday, April 8, 2016

Keeping Your Eyes on the Target

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.

Keep An Eye On The Target

     It’s essential that you maintain a realistic target as you fashion your goals. Peters and Austin, in Passion for Excellence, advocate the following by quoting a subject in their study: “We don’t seek to be 100% better at any one thing. Instead, we seek to be 1% better at 100 different things.” (Peters and Austin, p. 59)

     As a former athlete and coach I have too often witnessed a team on the short end of the score attempt to overcome a deficit that exceeds the point total of any one play (behind by more than a touchdown in football, a grand slam in baseball, a three pointer in basketball,…). That is, the team tries to do everything at once. Basketball is a good example. There is a tendency to immediately revert to the higher risk/higher point shots from beyond the three point arc. Assuming that it is not a situation where only seconds remain on the clock, it is best that the team pursue high percentage shots and chip away at the margin two points at a time rather than anxiously throw up low percentage three pointers.

     Statistics bear this out. Most professional teams average nearly a 50 percent success rate with two point attempts versus a 33 percent completion rate for three pointers. In addition to the mathematics that show the advantage of the two point attempts over the course of ten or more possessions, there is another significant difference – there are more fouls committed on shots taken closer to the basket than shots taken from beyond the three point arc. The resulting foul shots produce another benefit for point accumulation.

     The best fit between effort and success results from tight, but not constricting, alignment between your mission and your goals. It is therefore, imperative that you invest high quality energy and effort in creating the right mission because all else rests upon it, like the foundation supporting your dream house.

     Exercise care to avoid pursuing goals with the tunnel vision that obscures or ignores significant and unexpected internal and/or external change in policy, politics, and finances. I remember the day that John F. Kennedy was shot. My elementary school teacher continued to follow her predetermined lesson while we all sat in our chairs beneath an umbrella of fear, anxiety, and confusion, regarding the fate of the president. Though she may have had misgivings about talking of death and assassination to fourth graders, it would have helped to at least acknowledge the subject instead of acting as if nothing had happened.

     Finally, the best advice I can offer for developing goals, and life in general, is embedded in a quote from Charles Garfield’s Peak Performers. “Make sure that when you climb hard to the top of the ladder that you are leaning against the right wall.” (Garfield, p. 138)

Thoughts on Goals

     Don’t presume that the school’s goals must necessarily evolve out of the state’s goals. That is, performance on state mandated tests, with results published on the state education department’s web site and splashed across the headlines of local newspapers for consumption by parents and taxpayers, should not be allowed to abduct the direction and purpose of individual schools. Despite the high stakes nature of state-wide tests and the proclivity of mainstream media to report the scores and compares schools, you don’t have to acquiesce and make improved test scores the primary goal of the school. Note I said primary goal of the school.

     Intuitively, one may assume that test preparation, item analysis, prescriptive remediation, increased instructional time, extended day or extended year calendars, and a multitude of other responses to perceived deficiencies, would produce increased achievement. While these interventions may very well work, there are additional strategies and investments that could improve test performance in less direct methods. For example, targeting improvement through instruction alone, without respect to the impact of the organizational culture on learners and staff, empowerment of staff and parents, and alignment of vision and mission with data and goals, could undermine the instructional efforts previously cited in this paragraph.  

     It’s akin to getting the cart before the horse. I believe that there are schools in which the principal (or the superintendent) have been guilty of responding to test scores with a knee-jerk reaction that promotes a “longer, harder” approach to increasing performance on tests at the expense of neglecting the intricate and dynamic interactions of the organizational culture and other elements of schooling that are dismissed or discounted as mere intangibles.

     The authors of Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, refer to this as “representative heuristic” and propose an example by way of a simple and quick quiz. Ask someone whether more people around the globe lose their lives through fire or drowning? Most people pick fire as the cause because the resulting catastrophic stories attract more attention in the news. Since we see stories and film on fires in the news more often than we see articles and photos on people drowning, we assume that sample size as our source of information. More people perish in floods than fires, but, as the authors point out, “we apply a simple mental heuristic, fall victim to an inaccurate data stream, and rarely do we know that it’s happening.” (Patterson, et al, p. 232)

     It requires an almost counter-intuitive leap of faith to overcome fears of negative press and advance progress in significant aspects of the school that are not directly involved in test preparation. Who ever said that leadership was safe and easy anyway?

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Finding Your Way in the Process

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.

You Can Get Lost On Any Road

     Imagine that you are traveling in the vast and empty desert. The barren landscape becomes altered by every breeze that shifts the sand like waves on the ocean. You will become lost if you plot your direction by landmarks that are subject to the winds and susceptible to change. Instead, one must rely on a more constant source of reference for orientation. Just as the sun offers assistance in direction for desert travelers, so does the mission supply an unwavering guide for those involved in goal attainment in your school.

     And, continuing with this analogy, it’s essential that our journey through the desert include stops to obtain water at an oasis here and there for refreshment and renewal. Similarly, planning opportunities for short-term “wins” along the route of our goals will sustain and reaffirm continued efforts.

The Devil in the Details

     In addition to short term wins, we must acknowledge the role of short steps in goal setting. Recognize and appreciate the need to pay attention to details. While the flash and splash events tend to trigger more excitement among observers, it’s the small but important contributions that often facilitate successful goal attainment. Consider the glee and satisfaction that accompany the initial tour of a newly constructed school. The general population may be impressed by the latest technology, state of the art classrooms, glistening floors, and assorted architectural bells and buzzers but the invaluable and invisible infrastructure, the unseen maze of electrical and plumbing conduits, are overlooked.

     The same is true of our conceptual frameworks. When developing goals we must be careful that we do not overlook the necessary but seemingly mundane goals that are essential to supporting the more glamorous goals. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted from formulating appropriate goals by an alluring, mirage like oasis emanating from imagined public pressure and expectations or the inviting promise of short cuts. Senge discusses systems thinking in his book, The Fifth Discipline. He states that the essence of this strategic concept is “… seeing patterns where others see only events and forces to react to.” (Senge, p. 126) Rowan adds, “It takes leaps of faith to sense the connections that are not necessarily obvious.” (Rowan, p. 146)

     I am reminded of the financial plight a nearby school district experienced. They appeased fiscal conservatives by cutting corners in their budget through a reduction of expenditures directed at preventative maintenance. Later that school year they were surprised by the total breakdown of their high school’s two boilers. One hundred thousand dollars and much public anguish later they realized the short sightedness of their wavering financial goals.

     Osborne and Gaebler address this in Reinventing Government, when they site some surprising statistics: “We (U.S.A.) have the highest fatality rate from fire in the industrialized world because we spend most of our money responding to fires, not preventing them.” And, to bolster their claim, “According to the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, our society spends twenty times as much on medical care as we do on self care medication, fitness equipment, and nutrition.” (Gaebler and Osborne, pp. 223-226)

     Let me make it clear that while the above examples relate to finance and plant management, the caution applies to all aspects of goal development. I used the references to express alarm at our tendency to respond to crises rather than strategically planning for challenges through forecasting emerging from utilization of appropriate data. As Roy Rowan quotes former star quarterback Roger Staubach, “It takes a lot of unspectacular preparation to produce spectacular results.” (Rowan, p. 50)        

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Staking Your Claims

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.

Stake Your Claims

     Identifying relevant and reasonable goals that challenge but stop short of frustrating is an important first step.

     In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, includes a reference to a study conducted involving individuals entering a room with a stake standing upright, and three rings.(p. 72) The participants were instructed to go into the room, one at a time, and throw the rings onto the stake. That was it. They were not told where to stand. Observers looking through a two-way mirror plotted where the individuals stood and the distance from the stake.

     They found three distinct groups. One group practically stood over the stake where it would be difficult to miss. Another group located themselves at the opposite end of the room as far away as possible where it would be unrealistic to expect success. The third group was about halfway between the two; far enough away to pose a challenge, but not so close that it would be easy.

     This is not dissimilar from the distinctions drawn among learners when pursuing their goal of learning. As educators we understand that there are three general levels of instructional delivery when developing lesson plans for learners; frustrational, instructional, and independent. The frustrational level is a task too difficult for the child to meet with success. The instructional level requires teacher intervention for the learner to experience success with the task. The independent level is one which the learner is able to experience success with the task without direct interaction with the teacher. An appropriate goal is one which stretches the school with a realistic challenge that is neither too hard nor too easy. It has to be imaginable and credible, worthwhile and inviting enough to enlist followers.

     Goals facing your school are no different. Progress can not be expected overnight. Follow the advice of whoever suggested that the best way to eat an elephant is “one bite at a time.” Additionally, I’ve heard a Chinese proverb that offers, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

     Make certain that you begin constructing goals by insuring that they evolve out of your database and point directly toward your mission and vision. These incremental goals, when linked together like connect the dot exercises, will eventually yield a recognizable and complete picture.

     Next, acknowledge that the conditions and environment that exists when you author your goals may very well vacillate and require periodic modifications. In Peak Performers Garfield discusses the critical path course correction central to the Apollo flight to the moon. (Garfield, p. 199) The most efficient or appropriate trajectory to take toward a target is referred to as the critical path. Within this path is room for mistakes and corrections. During the Apollo trek to the moon the capsule was off course ninety percent of the time. However, the astronauts had the ability and control to correct their path. Those involved with goal attainment must feel the same latitude to practice course correction in order to land on target.

     Another point regarding flexibility in creating and pursuing goals is made by Waterman in, The Renewal Factor. He states that the problem inherent in the plans of many organizations is the “attempt to overlay a rational, linear, deterministic technique called strategy on an underlying process that is random and full of surprises.” (Waterman, p. 31) 

Monday, April 4, 2016

WhereAre You Going? What is Your Goal?

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.


     “If you don’t know where you’re going,

any road will get you there.”

The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland

(Lewis Carroll)

If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.”

The Philosopher, Seneca



     A friend of mine was recently touring the back roads of New England. He is a rifle instructor with an ROTC marksmanship group. As he rounded a curve in the road the sight of several targets covering the side of a large barn surprised him. Each target had a bright red bullseye. And, smack dab in the center of each bulls eye was a bullet hole.

     His curiosity aroused, he pulled in the driveway and made his way to the farmhouse, intent upon receiving advice from the accomplished marksman responsible for the excellent target shooting. Certainly this information would help his students.

     An elderly man greeted his knock on the door. Brief introductions revealed that the old man was the sharpshooter. The man accepted my friend’s invitation for a demonstration.

     Moments later the farmer emerged from the house, grasping a rusty bucket in one hand, and an unimpressive, outdated rifle in the other. The man faced the barn, checked the wind, raised the gun, (though my friend could not see any target) and blasted a shot. Then the elderly man sauntered over to the barn with his bucket and calmly painted a target around the bullet hole he had left in the side of the barn.

     “Works every time!” exclaimed the farmer.

The Starting Line

     Does the school where you work establish targets in the same manner that the farmer in this story did - identifying goals after you've already acted? It is both accepted and expected that the staff member's goal, or “reason for being,” is the vague but noble declaration -"for the kids." This guiding statement, handed down through generations, entrusts school workers with a tremendous responsibility without specific direction. Ask the first 100 people who enter a shopping mall what they think the goals of public school education should be and you may receive nearly 100 different perspectives.

     This fallacious practice appears successful and is exercised by all too many organizations. Author and business consultant Tom Peters calls it “the Ready, Fire, Aim” strategy. (Peters and Waterman, p. 142) The trouble with this technique is that it seems to work when you consider the finished product. However, this process fails miserably as a plan to meet goals. Leaders of public agencies who indulge followers in such a “pin the tail on the donkey” effort would be irresponsible.

     These targets should serve as helmsman in navigating through the choppy and changing waters of the open sea, inextricably linked to the vision, the lighthouse beacon shepherding the ship, and the mission, the harbor of destination.

Results Versus Rules

     Armed with good intentions we set out in search of a purpose. The words of philosopher George Santayana come to mind, "A fanatic is someone who loses sight of his objective and consequently redoubles his effort." (Weiss, p. 3) We are in danger of becoming fanatics engaged in educational orienteering on a political terrain of fiscal constraints, accountability, interest groups, state mandates, and much more. One of the obstacles encountered in our development of goals is the tendency to plot a predictable, prudent, and precise topographical map on a terrain that may change as frequently and randomly as the desert sands.

     Rigid rules are an example of such an inhibition to creating appropriate goals. In discussing the change process in his book, What America Does Right, Robert Waterman asserts that principles, rather than rules, shape progress in empowerment, employee satisfaction and decision-making in successful companies. (Waterman, pp. 162-163) This thought is echoed by Osborne and Gaebler who encourage a “focus on results, not rules.” (Gaebler and Osborne, p. 19)

     Then how can we craft goals that are appropriate and motivating? Now that we have a shared mental picture of the vision, a commitment to the mission, and an appropriate database, we must establish goals.