Posts filed under ‘School Leadership’

A Blogger’s Reflection

Five years ago, I started the SchoolsRetooled blog and began to gather my thoughts on the US PreK-12 Education Delivery System and, more specifically, urban education. Periodic stints back in the classroom have put the blog on hiatus, and it flagged quite a bit after a family tragedy a couple of years ago. But I stand by my initial vision for education reform, not as a call for competition but, rather, a renewal of the system itself to create the capacity to fully integrate 21st Century innovations and continue to evolve toward excellence.

In December 2011, near the end of my first year of blogging on SchoolsRetooled.com, I published Seven Keys to Education Reform. In this 10-page summary of my approach to system reform, I identified seven levers of change that could improve the system’s functioning by getting more information from data systems, taking a broader view of pedagogy, streamlining organizations around the mission of educating the children, and providing incentives for common ground among educators and between educators and the communities they serve. Beyond organizational dynamics, my thesis presumed an absence of fault on behalf of any of the participants in the education system and, in particular, an end to ageist scapegoating.

In the years since then, policy conflicts defined by political affiliation have shaped the conversations among educators, much to my dismay. My biggest disappointment has been the extent to which the goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) were allowed to slip away and the 2014 deadline passed unnoticed. The Obama Administration relaxed the accountabilities, pushing for the Common Core State Standards and advancement of teacher evaluations. Conservatives renewed their support for competition for public schools, choosing incubation of ideas in charter schools, often with private bankrolling.

By the time ESEA was renewed late in 2015 bipartisan support was achieved in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with very little prescription for how this would be ensured. The clearest policy directive was the prohibition on any further Federal intervention in accountabilities that the legislation defined as states’ rights. The legislature was ruled by Republicans in both houses; the Obama activism in lieu of overdue ESEA renewal was over.

I continue to believe in system reform. The quiet period after the passage of ESSA allows me to reflect here on progress made with my own agenda as well as initiatives needed in the future.

On no-fault education reform

Education reform has evolved such that rhetoric is less about frenzied reactions to missed targets for student achievement on high-stakes tests and more about opportunities for concrete system improvements and real school transformations. However, the worst performing districts often remain trapped in blame-based failure cycles. They will not be able to get out of their own way until they become more inclusive in their solutions, recognizing their allies and working in concert rather than with antagonism and derision.

On a student-centered data system

Data systems have shown great strides within education, but they are not student-centered. ESSA authorizes a limited number of districts to experiment with student-centered accounting, but they focus only on the revenue stream, not really addressing matching of revenues to expenses at the student level. I continue to believe that we will not be able to manage student outcomes effectively until both sides of the equation are in synch. Once the money is at stake, school systems that are reluctant to embrace the challenge of student-centered accounting will realize its necessity. Data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness will follow logically.

On broad-based pedagogy

Software is beginning to catch up with the structural changes in hardware and data. This bodes well for implementation of blended learning, which balances digital resources with tradition methods. In addition, personalized and competency-based learning can be realized with greater potential for educators and students to share management of the learning process.

Educators are accepting technology that combines attendance, assignment completion, and grading in databases that can also support student portfolio development. In addition, these same platforms support collaborative projects that can be pursued and documented on shared platforms. Textual content is available digitally, and learning is becoming an interactive, multi-media experience. Student support is routinely enhanced with multisensory digital options and close-reading strategies.

On alignment to mission and benchmarks

There have been many experiments in school transformation; however, reorganizing the actual schools has not been a priority yet. I believe this will happen organically as data systems provide better information on student outcomes.

On performance incentives for Special Education

New Special Education guidelines from Federal regulators have shifted emphasis toward student outcomes. This promising development should help to accelerate progress toward grade-level proficiency. I continue to recommend earlier student involvement as members of their education planning teams, but there has not been much movement in that direction. For now, younger students tend to be present more so if they have disciplinary hearings than for prospective planning sessions.

On school leadership and general management

A couple of years ago, the time seemed ripe for two trends to deepen. The first was the emergence of empowered parents demanding a voice in troubled schools. The second was the trend toward education schools entering joint ventures with their management school counterparts within major universities.

Threats of parent trigger interventions have given way to mayors and school district leaders joining to speak with one voice, a more politically savvy voice that recognizes the importance of community members proactively. The university-based collaborations have gotten caught up in concerns about educators finding a back door to access to highly competitive MBA programs. I suspect the long-term solution will be dual degree programs that require admission to graduate programs in both the business and education schools.

On portable pensions

The issues around underfunding of pension plans continue to dominate the conversation, and most actions are currently being focused around solvency. Unfortunately, the recommendations are more likely to be made by those who have mismanaged the programs historically. The pension beneficiaries have continued to be called out for reasons that baffle me – they are the only people who have given up their pay to the fund without fail through the whole fiasco – and ways to eliminate funding shortfalls that reduce obligations to the pensioners get more traction than ways for the government employers to pay back their missing contributions to their employees. This is particularly troublesome when government entities got holidays from making their contributions in lieu of Social Security, something that would never be allowed in the smallest of entrepreneurial businesses.

On financial incentives linking educators to performance

As I stated originally, validated educator effectiveness reports need to precede merit-based pay. There has been significant progress in teacher evaluations and leadership performance assessment. However, there is more work to be done, which necessitates postponing this objective for a while longer. The recent developments in technology cited above should offer greater options for multiple measures of educator performance, a key to getting beyond controversial value-added test scores as the proxy for overall effectiveness in schools.

On valuing people of all ages

The fervor has died down over targeting veteran teachers as the source of all evil in education, and the conversations around accountability for test scores alone have softened. That said, charters schools continue to be organized with an unwritten rule against hiring teachers beyond a fairly young age. Teach for America and other similar programs continue to be granted exemption from teacher prep rules, giving an edge to youth-oriented private organizations that funnel a revolving door of teachers into public systems. As these groups mature, they are demanding a greater role in leadership at the risk of stifling the voices of educators with a deeper commitment to schools and important insight into the issues.

January 22, 2016 at 12:44 PM Leave a comment

Decisive Courts Fill Gap in Education Leadership…Again

Tenured teachers and their students can have the full benefits of the US Constitution at the same time. One does not need to choose between the two, as implied in the Vergara decision. We all want successful students. And that means good teachers. But streamlining the dismissal process for some presumes guilt on the part of all tenured teachers and weakens their right to due process. This is a harmful precedent.

Reading Jay Mathews’ piece on the Vergara case in the Washington Post, I recognized ideas that sounded right…almost. Peer review is a very sound concept, and it addresses part of the equation for professional growth among teachers. Unfortunately, what has been missing from much of the rhetoric around the case was decisive leadership at the top and fact-based due process. In their stead was a perpetuation of the status quo: the ageist folklore of bad old teachers, milquetoast administrators who underestimate their incumbent power to nurture, motivate, and discipline all employees, and teachers led by self-appointed standard bearers who wield informal authority as bullies yet lack full knowledge of one another’s true contributions.

Instead of carrying the weight of leadership, the prevailing voice in education has once again perpetrated the blame game, waging a successful PR campaign against the oldest and most highly paid teachers and getting a judge to force administrators’ hands to do a job that was already within their powers. Further, instead of motivating all educators to do their best over an entire career arc, it has set teachers about the job of sorting out their own elite and bullying the rest through peer pressure, without the benefit of the top-level view of a legitimate supervisor.

The future requires student-centered good information, motivational leadership, a broad pedagogical base, and educator mobility. The due process for firing a tenured teacher has always been available. It is a measure of last resort, not a tool to be streamlined for the short list of education reform strategies.

June 23, 2014 at 4:08 PM Leave a comment

Lessons from Malcolm in the Middle

Mission-driven, goal-oriented behavior in education would seem like an obvious winner. But it doesn’t come naturally. And intuitive solutions to make it happen probably won’t work. The missing link is that a child-centered world is always going to be driven by the overarching goal of growing up and proving…“You’re not the boss of me!”

Remember Malcolm in the Middle? The TV sitcom about a dysfunctional family featuring a tough-loving mom, her unified team of offspring who lived to undermine her, and her spouse who had learned to be non-committal until he knew which side was winning. The sage of the story was a gifted adolescent who was both a player and an observer. Experience had taught him how the family rolled, that their antics were unstoppable, and that the only way to bring them all together was to introduce a common enemy.

Psychologists have studied the adolescent household and found it to be functional…up to a point. Its foundation is the natural struggle between the child and the adults as the child matures and seeks autonomy. The child is driven to test boundaries, preferably in a secure environment, and parental requests increasingly turn into opportunities to question authority. The adults begin as natural leaders whose authority prevails, but the balance of power shifts with the intellectual and social development of the kid. As roles get blurred, the adults tend to regress toward a state of arrested adolescence.  For the sake of all, however, home must be preserved as the ultimate safe harbor against a hostile outside world.

So how does this apply to school leadership? Perhaps the most important lesson is to look at some of the ways that educators offer the best and worst of what arrested adolescence has to offer. At their best, teachers and administrators keep a creative, fleet-footed approach in a volatile world that is centered on children. At their worst, they band together in solidarity and send a clear message to interlopers, “You’re not the boss of me.”

In the wake of NCLB, too many novice administrators have turned into Lois, the scary mom, whose efforts to kick butt and make changes have only increased the solidarity among her charges. Performance has not improved, and acrimony between school leaders and teachers has only melted into a spirit of collegiality when external forces have threatened the school with closure. The regulators, armed with their legal mandates from NCLB, have become the enemy.

The culture of passive resistance to authority poses a tough challenge for leaders especially if they have been promoted from within education with little or no general management training. Trying to unify the staff around the mission of educating children often has become a trite plea to, “Think about the children.”

Contrary to popular belief, just about everyone in the picture has been thinking of and with the children constantly. They’ve just gone a little too far in thinking LIKE the children. Issues have become binary, with options simplified as good vs. evil. Strategies of distributed leadership and collaboration may have looked good, but they have become two-edged swords that could support adoption and dissemination of school improvements or turn into group think and intensified obstruction of turnaround efforts.

So how do we release the inner child in every educator and turn him or her into that model student who is yearning to learn more and to try new ways to make the world a better place? Hard to say with this analogy. Even Malcolm fell down to the lowest common denominator each week. And he was the hero.

May 1, 2013 at 11:54 AM Leave a comment

The Containment Company

Once upon a time…Lifelong teachers paced themselves. The culture taught them not to get ahead of themselves. And if they did, wise leaders would fire up the ovens in the Humble Pie Bakeshop. Their colleagues could be trusted to organize the party. No one saw the invisible hand at work while order was restored. But what would become the residue of such containment?

Do teachers have lowered expectations of their students because they have been nurtured in a culture that limited them to a long, slow trajectory toward retirement? Or did teachers who were best at containing, er, managing their students get promoted to school leadership and elevate that talent to managing the adults in the building as well? This chicken and egg conundrum doesn’t matter so much as its legacy needs to be acknowledged and undone.

Teachers, like students, are capable of far more than we ask of them. Instead of nurturing them for greatness, we have focused on hiring the best and the brightest only to contain them for a 30-year endurance trial. With such a slow progression, periodic review happened every few years. The path to the top was short, but it was only available to a few young protégés or, alternately, the last guy standing…often a coach who was approaching retirement. For the rest, a closed pension fund limited their mobility horizontally as well as vertically. Being average at best was manifest destiny.

The vast majority of school leaders would agree that this system does not work. Yet, as long as the teachers make good scapegoats, too few administrators are likely to cite their own complicity in the problem or volunteer for professional reinvention. The truism that school leaders just need to keep getting better as models of instructional leadership is too deeply entrenched in their mythology. It takes an unnatural act of leadership to accept accountability and grow in different ways.

As talent managers, school leaders cannot just attract new staff; they must engender continued growth over every teacher’s career arc with frequent constructive intervention. Drawing on other industries, the employee motivation program must include annual goal setting and review. And goal attainment must be supported with quarterly progress checks. Finding time to engage with their staff in this manner will overwhelm them initially. And investments in high-level professional development will require changing the expectations of the entire professional community.

The change process will not be easy, and it will depend on deep commitment from the top of every district and school. However, proactive staff development can be achieved, again with extensive district support in the short run, and sustained through time and effort saved from the problems that will occur less often…like worries over bad teachers and student achievement once disengagement and ineffectiveness are reduced.

January 30, 2013 at 12:59 PM Leave a comment

TFA Alums for Leadership – the Rest of the Story

Comment in agreement with John Thompson and posted here inAlexander Russo’s mention of “TFA Teachers Deserve Better than TFA Alums Are Providing.”

Thank you for raising the issue of the new education leadership by TFA alums. I was certified initially through an alternative program for teacher prep, surviving the trial by fire and staying on for several years. In the first 2-3 years, I drank the Koolaid and accepted that veteran teachers accounted for most of the problems in elementary and secondary education. However, I also had an MBA and studied organizational behavior. As I grew more secure as a teacher, I began to evaluate the claims against reality. What became apparent was that there was deadwood in the system, but it did not die a natural death. The system treads teachers, cycling through a series of new heroes and failing to sustain mature staff. Veterans are trapped in a closed pension system as they become the acceptable scapegoats for naive leaders. A more robust leadership model beyond instructional role modeling (by the new kids in town) is desperately needed.

September 8, 2012 at 7:46 AM Leave a comment

What’s the Worst that Could Happen?

NCLB has a presumption-of-guilt clause that allows dismissal of up to 50% of the teaching staff without due process in persistently failing schools. Across the US, teachers are walking around with targets on their backs and many are undermining themselves in response. Genuine concerns about being tossed from the group, losing one’s job, and forfeiting pension potential are driving conformity among teachers and stifling their natural creativity. Teachers may be turning their worst fears into self-fulfilling prophecies as their schools fail to show improvement. It’s time for counter-intuitive leadership.

Sometimes it helps to face one’s worst fears. Let’s say it happens…most of the staff is laid off at the end of the year. How can teachers get ready for the job market after an epic failure and turn that into success? Ironically, this is a case in which readiness might be a good dose of preventive medicine.

In any school under NCLB sanctions, every teacher would benefit from a glimpse into the world of out-placement. He or she should draft a resume, envision the next job, and write their own best letter of recommendation for securing that position. The next step would be to reflect on these three components of career planning. Is the resume a composite for a model practice? Is that next job a realistic expectation? Does that letter of recommendation ring true? If the answer to any of these questions is negative, it’s time to develop a game plan for personal growth.

Leaders in this situation must have faith in their staff’s resilience and use honesty as a tool of benevolence. By recognizing each person as an individual and becoming an advocate against that worst fear, the leader becomes a partner for success. In addition, difficult conversations happen while there is still time for action. Supervision is directed toward facilitation of each teacher’s transformation into that exemplary job candidate.

Of course, the goal behind this exercise is to activate a vision of excellence for each teacher and create a spirit of renewal for him or her in the classroom. However, the school leader takes the intermediate step of listening to the staff, allowing them to mourn the loss of stability, and bolstering their confidence for taking personal risks to succeed. Ultimately, that self-centered reflection should turn the teacher away from inner fears and toward to a more student-centered practice.

I believe in portable pensions and career mobility for teachers, but they are not the reality today. All the same, teachers need to be liberated from their sense of impossibilities in their classrooms, in their schools, and in their careers. Often it is what is getting in the way of their visions for greatness in their students.

August 17, 2012 at 8:31 AM Leave a comment

Failure…is not the data’s fault (Part 2 of 2)

Data is here to stay, and even hard-core test deniers are tiptoeing into the next phase. “Let’s trade a new list of details for those high stakes tests. Yeah…that’s the ticket”. No way! Clearly, we do not have adequate data, and that’s never the time to start throwing any of it away. Yet, as we move from denial into bargaining…can resolution be far behind?

Embracing student data can be a little like the grieving process. Achievement tests offer one approach to threshold data points – those which capture the minimum acceptable competency levels in a content area – but they can be rejected as inadequate on many counts. However, that does not eliminate their relevance, regardless of how much better that might feel. It just means we need more data.

Even educators who feel victimized by fallout from test scores are grudgingly coming to grips with the fact that data-driven instruction is here to stay. They continue to attack the tests with a vengeance in hopes of discarding their own failing report cards. But, their new tactic is elimination of achievement tests in exchange for other details and benchmarks. Indeed, the opponents of high stakes tests are tripping over one another as they rush to offer alternative data sources that offer a more complete picture of the child…all of which seem to draw the same conclusion. The kids are alright, and so are we.

What’s missing here is the notion, once again, that we can have it both ways. Remember, in many ways we are still in the brainstorming phase for database needs; nothing gets thrown away.

In many public schools, benchmark tests barely cause a ripple in school operations. Students in high-performing cohorts take the tests and move on; students in special populations may struggle, but only a handful of students raise serious concern. Ironically, these institutions also tend to be the ones that have more highly developed approaches to the whole child. They can afford to move beyond basic competencies and pursue higher order needs with their students. Still, subgroup failures persist.

When threshold scores on tests are not achieved, there is a necessary emphasis on sources of failure. Minimum expectations must be met, because the children will not excel at the next level unless they have a secure set of foundation skills. That is why achievement gaps tend to widen over time. However, understanding the children better will help us to serve them better. We just have to accept the test scores as part of the picture of the whole child at any given time over a longitudinal trajectory. And we have to support the growth of that child…including progress toward grade level proficiency in the basics.

Inequity in educational opportunity tends to track with income inequity. It will never be fair. Urban and suburban educators share concern for students of poverty as well as students with special needs and new English language learners. These educators come together and commiserate over the weaknesses of their special populations, ultimately challenging the relevance of tests for them. However, they could benefit more from sharing their strengths.

Many high-performing schools have an edge in programs for the whole child, but they give up too quickly on their marginalized student subgroups. Struggling systems tend to understand students who are at-risk and help them overcome obstacles daily, but they have so many students in need that they have a hard time getting to the whole child. How about a joining forces for the good…to share the secrets to their successes and set a standard for excellence in educating the whole child in every population. And dream and scheme for the day when even poor kids just take the test – no sweat – and move on.

August 12, 2012 at 12:34 PM Leave a comment

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