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, 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

Reinventing the Parent-Teacher Paradigm

Parent Trigger laws must be seen as the last straw. The current parent-teacher paradigm is broken in many districts. Whether parents are demanding an elevated role in education reform due to old frustrations or a new interest in their feedback, they are a force to be reckoned with. Rather than fight them in the political arena, education leaders need to welcome their participation. Parents must become active players in school governance, innovation, and improvement. And they need to share in the success of their children.

The existing parent-teacher paradigm is broken. There is more antagonism than partnership on balance, and the children are suffering. Players are choosing sides and behaving erratically as they try to follow power shifts rather than maintain a clear vision of what is right. It is time to stop the music and engage the full education community – students, educators, and parents – in structural solutions.

The most desirable outcomes in elementary and secondary education are summarized below…

  • Students are successful as measured by attendance, performance, completion, advancement, and satisfaction.
  • Students grow and mature consistently along expected physical, social, and emotional benchmarks.
  • Each school is culturally rich and inclusive with a strong vision for future leadership among its participants.
  • Educators match pedagogy to the needs of fully engaged, goal-oriented students.
  • Families are partners in the educational process, fully informed about opportunities, and having voice in outcomes as well as chances to get involved for their own benefit.
  • The school community benefits from a success cycle that demonstrates excellence and builds on that legacy as participants are attracted in perpetuity…students, educators, and community leaders from the larger urban context.

To support this future vision, existing systems must be updated…

  • Ensuring the status of parents and community members in school governance as voting members on boards at the district and school levels.
  • Creating a customer focus among educators, and imbedding student/parent feedback loops in the school systems.
  • Elevating the community liaison/leader to equality with instructional leadership in school administration.
  • Inclusion of the parent community in programs for success…community outreach for education and access for non-educational support services.

The change process must be about facilitating parent involvement, which may mean removal of obstacles created by toxic habits of the past. This legacy must be assessed for such patterns as stonewalling in lieu of information; inconvenience in lieu of access; or outright punishment of parents for student discipline issues in lieu of partnership for proactive intervention for success. Sometimes the first step toward a promising future sounds a little like, “I’m sorry…and I need your help.

Previous related posts…

Mayors and Parents Begging for New Education Leadership

#5 in Seven Keys to Education Reform

Engaging the School Community in the Project Management Approach to School Improvement

August 9, 2012 at 6:59 AM Leave a comment

Engaging the School Community in the Project Management Approach to School Improvement

When major change is needed that minimizes disruption to ongoing operations, project managers from the engineering world can help. Theirs is the world of overcoming obstacles while managing time, costs, and interdependencies to achieve desired outcomes. So, how do you achieve engineering efficiency while educating children? Warm fuzzies, please…

Seismic shifts in education are destabilizing the industry, dislodging the embedded power structures, and creating conditions ripe for change. What changes are to be achieved and how they happen seem to be subject to debate. Nevertheless, the path to the future needs to be crafted with vision, ruthless commitment to deliverables, and equal devotion to personal dignity in the process.

Project management is a formalized approach to problem-solving that begins with the usual steps of analyzing the situation, identifying the problems, considering the possible solutions, and choosing the best responses. However, it takes the added step of intending every stage in the implementation of the solution. Project managers analyze the ongoing operations and the changes to be made, understanding linear dependencies, parallel functions, and overlaps between the two. The process of change is mapped out based on achievement of deliverables along a timeline using available resources under necessary constraints. Time, money, and manpower are limited, but so is the organization’s tolerance for disruption. Benchmarks for success are designed into the process to ensure successful completion.

Specialized project management developed out of the need for precision in engineering; however, it also serves the function of preserving the “business as usual” path as much as possible to normalize the function of the entity that is undergoing change. Nowhere is that more important than in a human services organization such as a school. So, how do we manage the intersection of project managers, teachers, and children?

With support from the District, school leaders need to address each of the following with staff, parents, and community partners…

  • Vision: the future that is now – compelling reasons for the process
  • Beneficiaries: the outcomes for stakeholders
  • Change agents: the people who will manage the project
  • Project outline: the timeline and key benchmarks
  • Stakeholder contributions: what is needed from the staff and school community
  • Seamless transitions: how the staff and children will be shielded from unnecessary disruptions
  • Fall-out shelters: process for seeking remedy with inconvenience
  • Adoption: staff, community buy-in
  • Exit strategies: options for those choosing not to be part of the future vision

Throughout the process, the security needs of the participants must be addressed explicitly. Change is difficult and met with trepidation almost universally. Issues such as control over ones classroom and job security are crucial for teacher cooperation. Quality assurance for the children and their education remains a current imperative. Access to leadership and preservation of voice in the change process are essential for all stakeholders. And, btw, this is probably not a good time to fire half the staff.

August 1, 2012 at 8:14 AM 1 comment

Taking the Project Management Approach to School System Improvement

Whether talking about district, whole-school, or classroom improvement, reformers tend to talk in terms of competing options as though we can only handle one process at a time. Given the seemingly endless list of needs, this mission seems impossible. However, borrowing the project management approach from the technology field can be a game changer. What if we applied a series of parallel processes to the task, reducing the impact of obstacles that shut us down when we get stuck on a linear trajectory?

In Seven Keys to Education Reform I recommend that we…

  1. Build the data infrastructure for the next generation of education leadership, from formulas for government funding to data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness.
  2. Make teacher pensions portable.
  3. Place teachers and administrators in shared incentive programs linked to student achievement in their schools.
  4.  End pedagogy wars.
  5.  Reinvent school leadership modeled on the general manager role and asset-based management. Balance administrative teams with instructional leaders and community liaisons.
  6. Open up the dialogue in Special Education to include the children by 4th grade, and provide incentives for progress toward grade level proficiency.
  7.  Value people of all ages.

This multi-pronged approach seeks to address the system-wide obstacles within education operations without assigning blame on individuals. However, major changes will need to be made concurrently, and lead educators must create an illusion of terra firma within that system while it is in flux.

Meanwhile, schools must be on a path to improved outcomes based on a new service delivery model. Just a few of the innovations within schools will include…

  • Reinvention of the parent-teacher paradigm
  • New curricular standards and assessments, with vertical realignment of grade-level priorities
  • Development of diverse pedagogical approaches and team teaching
  • Implementation of new employee incentives and multiple-measure teacher evaluations
  • Innovations in special education and ELL programs
  • Longitudinal data collection on the whole child
  • Formalization of student growth and development strategies

Either we need a world-class symphony conductor, or we better develop a cadre of project managers to support school leaders and staff.

Whether motivated by Race to the Top, NCLB Waivers, the Parent Trigger, or bootstrap entrepreneurship, school reform requires a complex mix of one-time changes and evolutionary processes. Operationalizing the changes will mean serious task analysis, time lines, and strategic planning. Change agents with the unique skill set of project management must be allowed to become part of the landscape as they guide us through successive cycles of change, evaluation of results, plan adjustments, and renewal.

Rapid implementation of structural changes within schools is not unprecedented in existing public education systems.  The small-school movement happened overnight in many high schools. In addition, we have considerable experience with teacher collaboration as well as multi-disciplinary teamwork, especially in the area of student support services. However, change agents must be prepared to overcome the obstacle of institutional memory for past programs and their stewardship. Deep-rooted cynicism has become the legacy of school improvement fads that flopped as well as promising experiments that succumbed to the vagaries of grant funding.

As mentioned in my last post, high-powered veteran leaders will be needed to engender trust and confidence in the change process. Seamless transitions must be orchestrated by process pros. And meeting the security needs of the teachers and staff throughout the transition will be essential to success. More on that last point in my next post…


July 31, 2012 at 11:57 AM 1 comment

In Support of the Strong Individual Leader

The vision for school leaders of the future has them doing a lot more. Huh? Aren’t they already overwhelmed and looking for relief? How could they possibly be asked to be more hands-on at school, increase fiscal accountability, supervise more people directly, elevate the role of parents and the community, mine more data, implement new motivational strategies for staff, and know every child with an IEP personally…all while raising student achievement across the learning community? It is time for executive manager to enter the picture.

Conventional wisdom says the headmaster’s job is too heavy for one person. Part of that burden has been lifted through distributive leadership as instructional role models among the teaching staff were tasked with professional development and mentoring. Assistant headmasters and deans handled staff supervision and discipline. Meanwhile, heads of schools attended district meetings by day and managed administrative tasks into the evening. But were they off-loading the wrong part of the job?

The head of a school needs to be strong, visible, and accessible. As change agent, he or she has little time for the central district office. Nor is there time for bureaucratic procedures or focus on squeaky wheels. Top priorities include…

  • Development of measurements for teacher effectiveness and student outcomes.
  • Training and implementation of new motivational programs that include regular goal-setting, professional development, and evaluations for all members of the team.
  • Implementation of diverse pedagogical approaches and team teaching.
  • Reinvention of the parent-teacher paradigm.
  • Absolute accountability for student results.

An effective headmaster must hold the reigns of true leadership tightly and release less critical tasks appropriately.

Delegation of responsibility is an essential component of leadership, but first there must be a rethinking of how to manage top talent, technology, and support staff. Assistant headmasters need to elevate their practices to become more effective in staff development and evaluation, not better bureaucrats. Teachers need to become managers of pedagogy, technology, and para-professionals. Tasks such as paperwork and data management need to be analyzed and reduced, automated, or assigned to support staff.

One of the myths of leadership in schools is the emphasis on administrative minutia. Traditionally, department heads have identified strong teachers and recognized them by giving them content leader responsibilities. In reality, the role was a stipend opportunity in exchange for serving as the department’s administrative assistant…hardly a just reward for classroom excellence. However, such work was considered essential to future success as an administrator in the service of the bureaucracy. A good teacher had to show potential for treading paper while managing a classroom well.

Another myth is the union as an insurmountable obstacle to staff management. The real culprits have been scarce managerial advice and intervention, management by exception, infrequent evaluation and review, and absence of reliable data on staff performance. The headmaster needs to own that history and become the catalyst for change. Supervisors and teachers will rely heavily on their boss as they learn to function in a more effective system of talent management. Union support for this new system will depend on acceptance of collective tools of evaluation and equitable compensation strategies. They will be vigilant in their tracking of the outcomes with each school leader.

Meanwhile, the definition of a good teacher has been in evolution, and it will take unfailing support to maintain momentum for growth. Teachers must be kept energized as they embrace robust pedagogical models and collaborate with one another to reduce redundant efforts. Already, teachers have begun to integrate technology to replace grade books, support communication, and enhance lessons. They must delegate or eliminate more of the paper flow and accept more technology solutions. And they need to renew their relationships with parents. Under the guidance of a fair and collaborative headmaster, the academic goals of students and their parents must be met by the instructional staff; and psychosocial growth and development of the children must be fostered by the team as well.

The new school leader cannot arrive soon enough. Major constituencies have lost faith in America’s public schools. Along the way, we have declared the servants to the system to be lost causes, people to be replaced with high-powered rookies or virtual instruction. In extreme cases, whole schools have been discarded. However, the truly fearless leader can create a world in which new resources and incentives motivate change in the incumbents. They are not talentless or obsolete. They have merely suffered from being badly used.

Anyone who has consistently stood in front of a classroom full of children must be a natural leader. So, decentralize the money, spend a little more of it on automation and support staff, and allow the professionals to realize their own worth. But it all begins with an absolute leader at the top.

July 24, 2012 at 10:51 AM 1 comment

Failure…is not the data’s fault (Part 1 of 2)

When students do well in a school system, the system tends to work well; when students fail, the system breaks down. While there is a chicken-and-egg thing going on here, there also is a game of dodge ball that undermines problem-solving efforts. Dumping an unhealthy dose of blame on the schools with disappointing test results only intensifies that dysfunctional behavior. But making the data go away is not the solution; rather, we need a safe harbor for teachers even as they rush to learn to play by new rules.

Test obsession would seem to be the root of all evil. Results-orientation and accountability have not been nurtured in education historically; in fact, rigid standards have been declared antithetical to a milieu with safe harbors for children. However, it is the grown-ups in the education system who go more than a little batty when there is bad news, and the test data would seem to be the messenger. Get rid of it, and we can all go back to behaving like the professionals we know we are. Huh?

This logic has obvious flaws but seems to play well in a school culture that traditionally has rewarded success and offered excuses for failure. When the children were successful, the adults had their ego needs met and could go about the process of nurturing one another in an exemplary fashion. When the children failed, the scene looked more like the end of Casablanca: the usual suspects were rounded up, there was an inquiry, and the victims remained dead. Terminations happened, but the insiders to the culture developed an invisible hand that could deliver a failed teacher on an “as needed” basis. This latter case was part of failure cycle that tolerated passive aggressive leadership and cemented unofficial hierarchies among teachers.

NCLB challenged that culture, eliminating the protective cloak of the cognoscenti in troubled schools, who could no longer shield more than half the staff, and introducing the notion that successful schools could no longer get away with marginalizing their less successful populations. That alone was enough to wreak havoc on the social systems within schools; however, the legends of bad teachers became one of the hottest topics in politics and popular culture. Throngs of political leaders, parents, and education reformers organized around various themes of vigilante justice on behalf of the children. They were going to find those bad teachers and get rid of them.

School leadership programs changed in response to the new world order, reducing the emphasis on administration and focusing on instructional leadership. Using a distributed leadership model, new principals were trained to focus on data-driven instruction and use of a team of lead teachers to share in the administration of content areas and dissemination of best practices. Unfortunately, this approach was not terribly successful in driving structural change or accelerating student achievement. Perhaps, the new approach was too close to the existing informal leadership model, essentially formalizing some of the unofficial roles and even empowering the old-school bullies in some cases. Teachers walked around with targets on their backs, and relationships with students, parents, and colleagues became strained.

Outside of the system, charter schools were created to compete with traditional public schools and serve as incubators for new ideas. Outsourcing of teachers happened through alternative recruitment and boot-camp prep programs. Technology was brought into play to supplement and/or replace direct instruction. Each approach has contributed to the body of knowledge in education. However, none offered a rapid, scalable and resilient solution to reform within the existing public school system.

What a mess…all caused by those darned test results. Enter the defenders…new vigilantes going after the testing advocates, the test makers, and even the tests themselves.

To be continued…

July 13, 2012 at 1:07 PM Leave a comment

Mayors and Parents Begging for New Education Leadership

The Parent Trigger is a cry for help. Big city mayors want chronic problems in education to get off their desks, and all parents want access to high quality education for their children. Both will seek remedy in charter management organizations as a last resort…but what the politicians and the public really need is a new kind of leadership in public K-12 schools. It cannot come completely from within…but it must be embraced and welcomed within to fend off the real barbarians at the gate.

In the news…

June 17 (Reuters) – “Hundreds of mayors from across the United States this weekend called for new laws letting parents seize control of low-performing public schools and fire the teachers, oust the administrators or turn the schools over to private management.”

Tired of negative responses from parents to the question, “Are you being served?” politicians are seeking radical remedy in parent trigger laws. Educators are furiously fending off criticism and predicting draconian results in this trigger-happy environment.  School management companies are condensing from vapor as entrepreneurs and charlatans salivate over new business opportunities. Hopefully the children are on vacation and blissfully unaware of this hyperbolic folly. Otherwise, the adults may be schooling them in the game of divide and conquer.

A unified solution that links teachers and parents under enlightened school leadership will be the only enduring way out of the problem. Essentially, parents want their children to be well-educated, and they are looking for help in the political arena because they cannot achieve results within their community schools. It behooves the teachers and administrators to settle their differences with their local consumers and restore partnership. This will require a new kind of management and customer focus within each school.

Instructional leadership has been the panacea for education reformers who want educators to stay in charge of themselves. While this is a noble goal…clearly, teachers are natural leaders, and who understands the issues better than classroom veterans…teaching children does not train one in the management of adults or larger systems. Nor does it prepare leaders for the loss of control over their domains. A school leader is accountable for results that he or she cannot deliver without delegation of the process. That is the stuff of more generic management.

To date, a major debate in education reform has drawn lines between process and results, as if one could choose one over the other. In addition, good process has been allowed to supersede results in the face of disappointing outcomes for the children. After all…real learning cannot be measured. That’s where the disgruntled parents come into play. They are in the mayor’s office and not happy, and their votes can be counted. It is time for school leaders to get out of the echo chamber and change the conversation.

Twenty-first century education management must be sophisticated enough to handle more than, dare I say, simple instructional leadership. Schools will be managed by people who can balance a more complex production function in education services as well as an informed and empowered consumer of these servicers. Again, that is a general manager.

Change is afoot within major universities where schools of education and schools of management are negotiating plans for collaborative leadership training that would have been considered heresy a decade ago. Under the best of circumstances, the new education leader will have experience in the classroom and advanced training in management. However, if they are to be successful in future bids to manage themselves, traditional educators must welcome the opportunity for serious expansion of their management models as well as newcomers from the business community who will consider the classroom a step on their career ladders to school leadership.

June 25, 2012 at 8:23 AM 1 comment

Teaching in Never Never Land

Why do educators think that a program based on good intentions and an endless stream of New Heroes is sustainable? Like Peter Pan, each generation of New Heroes will never give up, they’ll never get old…and they will gather in large masses and clap until their dream comes back to life.

Every night I close my Twitter window after getting a glimpse of the latest pep rally of educators who are trying to stop the closing of a school, to put off a measure of accountability, or to prevent the end of funding for a good program. Nowhere do you hear anyone suggest, “I know what we should have done to save that school,”…”We should just do it – take the test and move on to teaching,”…or “That program was good enough to become a priority within our general fund.”

As new teachers become yesterday’s new kids on the block and then veterans, we stop noticing them. They fade to gray and must sustain themselves. And anyone who proposes training in a balanced life style during the school year can no longer be part of the solution. Teachers whose students do well on standardized tests are assumed to be cheating, or worse…teaching to the test. The fact that well-educated children rarely sweat the tests is irrelevant.

Skilled general management is similarly suspect. Administrators offer teachers privileged peers as role models in lieu of individual feedback and motivation. Meanwhile, millions of dollars’ worth of executive talent is devoted to grant proposals for nickel and dime awards; because Special Money is better…regular dollars are always over-committed to something that only the school finance dude really understands.

Yet we are surprised when the adults act like children and pirates become the anti-heroes who would bring grown-up values to a vital milieu. We love the story. We also love Peter, Wendy, Tinker Bell, and even Hook. So why did we all grow up to be Smees?

May 18, 2012 at 7:30 AM Leave a comment

The Teacher Prep Debate – Of Double Standards and Managerial Dodge Ball

Teacher prep programs cannot be forced to maintain a longitudinal tracking system on the career progress of their alums. Such a system would violate the privacy of the individuals who were monitored, answer only genuinely academic questions – not timely solutions to problems, and crowd out more prudent investments in higher education for teachers. In the meantime, districts would be allowed to dodge accountability for talent management while sitting in the real locus of control. All the while, a revolving door of TFA darlings would bypass scrutiny as they churned through the schools with guaranteed turnover. In the end, the only real change in the picture would be a serious fracture in the long history of collaboration between teacher prep programs and school districts – one of the greatest assets we might have leveraged.

Teacher prep programs are being targeted for accountability in teacher quality. Under consideration is a Federal plan to have schools of education track their graduates for up to ten years after program completion. The goal is to sort the good from the bad and hold the prep programs accountable for any shortcomings in future teacher performance. The hair on the back of my neck is raised as I consider the Bill of Rights, school district responsibility for talent management, and the perennial boot camp teacher prep experiments. School districts and teacher prep programs have a long history of collaboration. Why kill this strength by pitting the two against one another?

Employers are responsible for hiring the best people for every job, supervising and motivating them effectively, and assessing their continuing value to the endeavor. Employees enter an organization honestly and with appropriate preparation. They share responsibility for keeping themselves whole on the job. Continuous growth and professional development must be valued on both sides of the contract. When these conditions are not met, employers and employees have a problem to solve. External parties may be asked to facilitate the process, but nowhere do labor standards call for privacy invasion or deflection of responsibility onto unrelated parties.

Teacher prep programs are supposed to get their students ready as teachers. School districts hire those people, and the locus of control over the situation is transferred. The education schools are essentially off duty with regard to specific students. In fact, just as the districts must have permission from prospective new teachers to seek information from their prep programs, the prep programs have no right to seek and track employment data about anyone except their own employees. They have no right to invade the privacy of their alums. Nor do they have any control over the conditions of employment that exist after students leave their programs.

Employment is always a “buyer beware” situation. If districts suspect they have hired teachers who are inadequately prepared for the job, they are protected by probationary employment contracts. Experienced leaders must assess the situation and, in consultation with the new hire, make a plan to remediate and reassess. A trend in bad hires from particular teacher prep programs is instructive much more rapidly than a gratuitous multi-year tracking system. In addition, prep programs may well have addressed constructive feedback from districts and improved their outcomes before the negative data stream has been aggregated, analyzed and reported.

And what about alternative pathways to credentialing of new teachers? I happen to believe many of these programs bring good teachers into the education field, but they benefit from a double standard in any regulation of quality. Teach for America (TFA) only asks for a two-year commitment, by which time novice teachers are considered barely adequate practitioners. Yet we only hear good news about their contributions and worry about losing them to what is prescribed turnover, not issues of quality.

Schools of education and school districts may continue to leverage their relationships to improve teacher prep as well as sustaining educator vitality on the job. However, their primary roles should not become blended, nor should their respective accountabilities be diffused.

March 5, 2012 at 12:29 PM Leave a comment

Age Discrimination Is Not Just Illegal – It is Wrong

In America, it is illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of race, gender, religion,… or AGE! However, the last attribute is the one I have found missing most often from explicit lists in anti-discrimination policies of public school districts. And the rhetoric in the field suggests that this omission is not accidental.  

I’ve had it. The excerpt below came from a New York Magazine article about a principal in an elite public school in the Bronx, but it could have arisen just about anywhere in education…

“She devised a two-part strategy: Those new teachers who couldn’t or wouldn’t teach her way would not get tenure; the older, set-in-their-ways teachers would retire sooner or later, making room for young ones she could train herself (Reidy generally hires new, unmolded teachers, not experienced teachers who have earned tenure elsewhere). *

Not only does it espouse a pedagogical one-way street, it also embodies the age bias that has become an accepted part of the landscape.

As an industry, we have become complacent about laying the blame for problems in education on people who, upon reaching a fairly early middle age, have failed to die…or at least go away quietly. A system of tenure combined with a pension trap may engender stagnation on the job for some; however, the presumption of ineffectiveness based on a demographic attribute is prejudicial and, frankly, ignorant. Further, an incentive system that fails to facilitate frequent self-assessment, goal-setting, and review over the entire course of a career is the real culprit, to the extent that teachers are complicit in disappointing results.

Age bias hurts everyone and should offend everyone, not become a policy initiative. From a legal point of view, the statement cited above offers prima facie evidence of discrimination. In addition, it bolsters a naive approach to leadership that ignores the combined values of diversity and authentic staff development in the vitality of any organization. Preference for young employees overlooks the value added by age and experience. It deprives younger staff of natural mentors. It eliminates institutional memory. And it has no end game for employees. Being young-at-heart has no value – one simply must not get old.

Finally, if age bias is not effectively remedied by the leadership in education, school districts will get exactly what they deserve…an age discrimination case in the courts which forever protects every charlatan who happens to be an older adult along with all those dedicated teachers of a certain age who continue to devote their lives to the education of children despite the insidious prejudice they face every day. And it should, because they all deserve equal protection under the law and the full benefits of the American constitution.


December 29, 2011 at 12:19 PM Leave a comment

Business Leadership in Education

Education leadership is being given an injection of general management training as traditional schools of education are realizing synergies with business school partners at leading institutions. Instructional leadership will not take a back seat, but there should be real gains in resource allocation and staff development. Philanthropy may be more effective as well when sophisticated turnaround experts refocus funding on the primary mission.

Last week, Yale University’s School of Management announced a design competition for its graduate students. The subject is public education, and it will culminate in a school leadership conference next spring. Earlier this fall, Harvard announced a new PhD program in Education Leadership that is a joint venture between the Graduate School of Education and Harvard Business School. The Ed Leadership doctoral program has already added executive coaching in school turnaround to its curriculum. Similarly, the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia has introduced a dual-degree program with the Darden School of Business.

This is not the first time educators have considered input from industry. Local business leaders have sponsored programs to extend the school day or offer tutoring in addition to job placement for students. Many CEOs have explored Principal-for-a-Day gigs. Mid-career transition programs have brought experienced managers into teaching. School leadership programs have included MBAs in their induction programs. However, all have shared the requirement that newcomers see education through the lens of the profession. Folks have to drink the Kool-Aid to get in the door then go to the back of the line for seniority or access to power brokers if they choose to stay.

As a mid-career transition teacher, I entered the field expecting to share contributions from my healthcare management experience but found little interest among my colleagues. Indeed, most members of my cohort of teachers with prior business lives had left the field in dismay within a couple of years. I recall one particularly frustrated co-worker who had managed the electrical systems at a manufacturing plant. Our school had a complex power outage that he had accurately diagnosed…three days before the problem could be corrected. Each day, he would shake his head as 1300 members of the school community would return to the building only to be sent home after spending a few hours in the dark as the latest sure-thing failed. No one would listen to him…they would rather sit in the dark.

Much has been said about MBAs contributing to education management. Large urban school districts publicly welcome MBAs to apply to their customized leadership programs, which combine coursework with principal apprenticeships. While this seems like a great pathway, it requires as much time as a second MBA, and cohorts are small. Each year, traditional ed schools produce thousands of new administrators whose licenses are rubberstamped. In the meantime, a handful of experienced MBAs are vetted individually by high-level committees for participation in small but visible demonstration projects. Their impact on the industry is limited because of their numbers. In addition, the tight cohort model supports a singular vision of the problems and solutions. Holding onto one’s good business judgment can be confused with failure to “get” the education milieu.

Likewise, philanthropic efforts from the business community often seem like no-brainers. School districts are chronically strapped for funds, and good corporate citizens always are welcome to lend a helping hand to sponsor school programs or to offer support during out-of-school time. However, the benefactors tend to assume they shouldn’t try to understand the setting; rather, they should allow the educators to define the problems and possible solutions for them. Unfortunately, keen insight can be lost when a poorly conceived solution gains acceptance under the guise of the esoteric. Educators can spend a lifetime in a single building. Institutional myopia abounds, and access to executive talent may be undervalued simply due to inexperience.

Education is a field in need of new leadership and vision. The industry is resistant to change and insists on co-opting interested parties and indoctrinating them into the system themselves. Essentially, one must adopt their world view to be allowed access to the problem. There is a real opportunity for schools of management to challenge this status quo as equal partners in a new school leadership model.

December 12, 2011 at 1:50 PM Leave a comment

Securing the Floor to Raise the Ceiling

Sometimes both sides are right. Standardized tests do not confirm that students are doing their personal best work. Yet an inability to pass a grade level assessment does suggest that students have a deficiency in prerequisite skills for the next level. Can we agree to keep all students challenged and making progress…regardless of whether they are catching up or surging ahead?

When you bump your head on the ceiling, it’s the designer’s fault. When you bump your head on the floor, you may need to look in the mirror. It’s that way with student test scores, too. No one ever said that accountability testing was designed to limit how high achievement could get; rather, it was to ensure that no child was left behind because he or she was unprepared for the next level on the climb to the top.

Early intervention programs seek to catch developmental issues as soon as possible for young children. They pay off for a lifetime. So do basic reading and numeracy skills developed by grade three…and applied math and literacy skills by grade eight…and emerging abstract reasoning by grade ten. These are benchmarks that secure the floor for each age group.

Every child is born with gifts and challenges; it is our job as educators to provide the best possible platform for learning. This means multi-tasking as leaders. We do not receive our missions and instructions from regulators.  We must actively design our agendas for all children. School leaders who simply following a formula of priorities set for the lowest common denominator are missing the point and trying to blame the regulators. The whole reason for benchmarks is not to define an endpoint, it is to quickly measure achievement of a goal and move on.

We continue to try to build education on a shaky foundation for too many children. Let’s fix that and move on.

November 29, 2011 at 7:57 AM 1 comment

Tarnished Seals of Approval

There is gold in the teacher quality debate, just not for the children. Quality assurance programs are lining up for funding in exchange for promises to track teachers from their prep programs through the next several generations of their progeny. However, there seems to be a charlatan factor that has already gotten under the radar.

A year or so ago, I discovered that my principal certification was not transferable to a new state because the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University was not a quality leadership program for educators. Okay, so the echo chamber of education does not recognize the validity of general management training. Looking further, however, the School of Education at Northwestern did not make the list, nor did the Curry School of Education from my undergraduate school, the University of Virginia. In fact, I discovered that my best chance for adequate credentialing would be enrollment in one of a plethora of storefront correspondence schools scattered across Long Island and the Bronx. They had met the requirements for the national seal of approval.

It seems to be the case that only a handful of major university education programs have applied for accreditation in the new teacher quality programs. And the reason may be that they don’t have to…their work stands on its own merit. Why would they undergo yet another tedious review procedure to prove to the narrow field of education that their world-class standing is, indeed, deserved?

School districts know the sources for strong teacher preparation. They are more likely to have trouble hiring and retaining new teachers from high quality programs because of LIFO and seniority issues, the limitations of career advancement, or the pension trap. Further, teachers who offer promise but deliver less success over time may reflect their employment environments more so than their original training.

I believe in continuous quality assurance. I cannot endorse expending serious resources to raise the barriers to entry in a field that lacks commitment thus far to annual goal setting and performance reviews once access to the field has been achieved. 

PS, What are the chances that you are getting some of your best insights from alums of one of the perennial boot camp teacher prep programs that bypassed most tradition quality hurdles?

November 19, 2011 at 11:40 AM Leave a comment

Saying No to Peer Pressure

Professionals benefit from constructive peer review. On the other hand, teachers calling upon one another to use peer pressure to ensure fellow teachers are up to snuff brings flashbacks of old-fashioned bullying. When compounded by passive aggressive leadership that pits teachers against one another, revival of toxic culture is more likely than reform. True leaders seek positive change and actively intend professional collaboration and review.

After a restless summer of teacher-bashing, budget woes, and discouraging reports from the field, educators are preparing to go back to school, each with renewed commitment to be part of the solution. Something has gone awry, however. In the absence of authentic education reform, well-meaning teachers are trying to fill the void. When talk turns to teachers using peer pressure to make sure their colleagues are up to snuff, it is time for the leaders to step in with a little counterintuitive insight.

Vigilante justice on behalf of students could set education reform back a few decades. A leader with a posse of do-gooders (who, by the way, often got a pass on their own quality review by association) was a hallmark of old-school toxic culture. We have been trying to move forward to a world of objective evaluations and collaboration. Good intentions need to be recognized and commended, of course. But efforts to bypass official channels of supervision should be redirected toward support for the whole team. New forms of evaluation and quality improvement are stressful enough without the distraction of self-appointed standard bearers.

To short circuit this phenomenon, teacher quality programs should formalize a process for peer review as well as professional development to support its implementation. Orientation should address the shared values among staff members, an understanding of roles for each team member, and simulated exercises to explore the process in advance. Constructive peer review can empower professional collaboration while taking the “gotcha” of peer pressure out of the mix.

August 19, 2011 at 4:42 PM Leave a comment

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