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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

School Improvement Tipping Points - Symptoms vs. Causes

There are few sights more perplexing than watching a dog unwittingly chasing it’s own tail. Around and around the dog races in a chase that, while often fruitless, is even a greater disappointment when the poor dog finally realizes that it only caught itself.

Sadly, many people find themselves in a similarly misguided endeavor when they spend energy and effort pursuing solutions by chasing symptoms instead of causes. This is true in school improvement efforts. But, before we examine school improvement, let's look at the notion of identifying tipping points and differences that make a difference.

Let’s take a look at an example of an ever-present issue of concern to many people everywhere – crime. In the 1970-1980’s New York City was a poster child for crime induced fears of mayhem, mugging, and murder. The obvious intuitive response and knee-jerk reaction would focus on decreasing crime by increasing the number of police on the streets as well as the penalties for criminals.

That wasn’t the answer, and the lack of police presence wasn’t the cause.

In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell explains the “Broken Window Theory” developed by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling (pages 140 – 151). The reduction in crime in New York City during the 1990’s was attributed in part to this proposal. The basis of this theory rests on the belief that crime is contagious and spreads like an epidemic if uncontrolled. But, how do you control it???

Wilson and Kelling suggested that crime emerges from disorder, and an environment that tolerates graffiti (as opposed to public street art) public disorder, aggressive panhandlers, and broken windows (hence the “broken window”) eventually suffers from an accumulated neglect that becomes inviting for would be criminals – “Minor, seemingly insignificant quality of life crimes were tipping points for violent crime.” (page 146).

Gladwell went further and advised that epidemics can be reversed by identifying and adjusting leverage points that tip the balance of factors in an equation. In the case of crime in New York City, it was borne of minor details in the environment, such as turnstile jumping (avoiding subway fares) aggressive squeegee men (washing car windshields of cars stuck in traffic and demanding payment) and assertive panhandlers… Once those concerns were addressed it changed the environment and the context of social behaviors.

In matters of analyzing and reforming the problems of public education, we are quick to label “obvious” factors (insufficient funding, arcane policies, lack of technology, poverty, apathetic parents, underpaid staff… and the list goes on) and just as quick to confuse symptoms and causes.    

What are the educational equivalents of fare beaters, squeegee men, panhandlers, and broken windows? What are the environmental factors and leverage points that fly beneath the radar of those searching for solutions to the obstacles for success in our public schools?

Molly Stark Elementary School has suffered from the burden of low performing achievement on state measures of accountability. One website that ranks public elementary schools has identified Molly Stark as the 172nd school out of a total of 175 schools. The first response most would exercise likely addresses instruction, as in more time in Literacy and Math, new textbooks, more professional development, and replacing staff members perceived as incompetent.

That would be like adding more police and setting harsher forms of punishment for criminals in the case of our New York City example mentioned earlier. It makes sense, but not success.

Instead, I believe improvement will grow from the same staff, the same learners, the same budget, and the same policies that existed before I arrived this past July. And, let me make it clear, I am not the difference or the answer. Nor is the answer found in some silver bullet of a new series of textbooks, additional staff, expansive professional development or any other “off the rack” solution.

School improvement warrants a tailor fit. It requires a genuine commitment of a critical mass of staff members acting in concert in a cooperative organizational culture of distributive leadership, with the clarity of a credible and purposeful vision, based on an enduring mission of shared meaning, in pursuit of common, measurable goals.  In other words, most schools already possess what they need for precipitating improvement, it becomes a matter of providing the support and conditions and leadership for success, then getting out of the way of staff members once momentum builds.

It’s like the Wizard of Oz (mentioned in an earlier Blog post) when he deferred from magically granting Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Scarecrow, their wishes and encouraged them to discover that they already possessed what they were searching for – the Lion was courageous when fending off the flying monkeys; the Tin Man displayed his heart when he showed Dorothy compassion and care along the journey; the Scarecrow used his brain when he helped outwit their assailants; and Dorothy always had the means of returning to Kansas simply by clicking her ruby slippers.     

Maslow claimed that the self-actualized person was not someone with something added, but someone who had nothing taken away.

In summary, school improvement can be achieved by identifying the essential tipping points in the effort and observing the what, why, and how of Maslow and the Wizard of Oz.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Prepared and Ready Wins the Game

Throughout my career as a soccer player in high school, college, and beyond, and extending my view as a spectator, I have noticed something peculiar about goals tallied in certain time frames of a soccer game.

I have come across statisticians that have confirmed my perception. That is, there are a disproportionately higher rate of goals scored in the first and last five minutes of each half of a game. What does this mean? And, what does it have to do with education and instruction???

First, there are many possible reasons for this anomaly in soccer goals - and we will transfer that perspective to a school setting later in the Blog. 

However, one primary attribution points to preparation and readiness. Teams that are well prepared for the game, mentally as much as physically, and  focused at the sound of the opening whistle to start the game or second half, will have an advantage over an opponent who is prepared but not ready. In other words, teams at risk for winning may begin the contest with an objective and strategy, but aren't at peak alertness in the first minute.

That may account for the percentage of goals scored in the first five minutes, but what about the last five minutes of the half or game?

During that time, goals scored are largely a function of which team is yearning for a break at halftime as a refuge for the physically exhausted and/or an escape for those emotionally weary of the persistent attack or momentum of their opponent, and which team exhibits endurance physically and a relentless commitment to pursue success.

It's a difference between a team playing "not to lose" as opposed to a team that "plays to win." They both reflect an aversion to losing, but their perspectives reveal their potential outcomes.

How does that work in school?

At this time, schools are all preparing for the fragmented November (Veterans Day and Thanksgiving and half days for Parent Conferences) and entering December within view of an eagerly anticipated holiday break of at least a week.
The school staff that limps through this time period, hoping to make it to those days off, is less likely to achieve the gains made by a staff at a school that recognizes the advantage of consuming every minute as an opportunity to advance learning experiences and leverage progress toward instructional goals.

Conversely, how schools re-start after a weeks vacation, be it holiday, winter, or spring break, determines how far they will go toward attaining yearly objectives. Does your school instantly re-focus and pick up where it left off before the break, or do they slowly assemble and eventually stumble to the starting line? 

The moral of the story is to be prepared, ready, and willing to optimize success in school by sustaining focus and intensity each and every day without wasting the valuable resource of time by resting and easing into these breaks in the school calendar. The most affluent and high performing schools have the same limited amount of time as the most impoverished and lowest achieving school. Among the distinctions between the two is how they use that available time. 

Be game ready! (but enjoy the holidays too) 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Facts and Figures - Faces and Feelings

I once read someone muse that nobody gets inspired by charts and graphs. These conveyors of data inform, but they lack the emotion that comes from a narrative or story.  
There's much to be gleaned from educational data, particularly if we can breathe life into the inert data and convert it to informed decision making that makes a positive and constructive difference. Yet, the more compelling forms of motivation that provoke people to invest their full energy and effort emerge from personal sources, like the faces and feelings of those involved with, or effected by, a crisis or a need for improved services/products...

Schools must avoid allowing facts and figures to obscure the faces and feelings behind that trove of collected data.

Understand the stories behind the faces. Be sensitive to the feelings of those embedded in the graphs and charts. Don't lose sight of what's most important, and remember - "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."