Posts filed under ‘School Transformation’

Consumer Focused PreK-12 Education

I am not a fan of privatization of government services; however, I strongly urge public school educators to look at their services through a consumer focus. School-aged children are not members of a captive market. Enrollment in many school systems has declined, sometimes quite precipitously, and consumer confidence must be won back to keep public education alive. And this will require changes that will cascade through the entire delivery system.

Political conservatives are all about privatization of schools to give parents choices for educating their children. And they make a fair point that children are owed better than what many struggling school systems have to offer. The liberal counterpoint tends to vilify the privatizers themselves and to recommend barriers to entry into the PreK-12 arena. For the good of the children, neither side should win. The children need public education that meets their needs – not those of private shareholders or adult stakeholders in public schools.

Consumers of public PreK-12 education services are the children and their parents or guardians. They have a wide variety of needs that must be taken into account to achieve free appropriate access to public education. For them, a strong, responsive education delivery system defies the confines of a nifty mission statement or TEDsplaining of beliefs. Instead a dynamic equilibrium must be maintained through a substantive on-going dialogue between educators and consumers.

School leaders are in charge of this this new parent-teacher paradigm, and their leadership teams should represent great depth in instructional services as well as a quality assurance function that ensures community satisfaction and persistent enrollment. The latter group is convened as part of the team for attendance, support services, and achievement in benchmark assessments as well.

This approach can be differentiated from that of reformers who cite the importance of parental buy-in with their value systems. In reality, they do not sell their plan to parents…they just exclude the parents who do not immediately agree with their mantra. Public schools must serve all members of the community and, frankly, be more flexible than that.

Going further, public schools need to be organized to deliver 12-14 years of education services that culminate in students becoming adult citizen with readiness for college and career development. Today, they are centrally organized with physical or virtual access to broad-based resources. That may change, but for the near-term school services should be available through neighborhood or regional access with transportation appropriate to age. Parents may decide to send their kids across town for a school, but the system should not be designed to require it. Walking to school for PreK-8 would be ideal.

In cases of poor education delivery, the school transformation process may take many forms – from reorganization to complete reinvention – but the problems implicit in this change process should not be exported to the kids and their families. Such projects should be managed for seamless transitions and timely communication. Voluntary change should be implicit in the contract between consumers and their service delivery systems – not contentious battles among stakeholders or regulatory intervention.

Back to the real world. No one seems to like change. But we need it. Building dynamism into the day-to-day discussion between teachers and parents probably means more highly skilled leaders as facilitators. And it will require greater autonomy from district oversight. The pay-off should be success for the children, a more robust model for problem-solving, and less need for blunt regulatory instruments.

Like I said, I am not a fan of privatization of government services, mainly because I think it distracts investors from better options for real economic development. In addition, ideal models for schooling generally offer exclusive services rather than general access. But we can take a lesson from the presence of competitors and learn to beat them by playing the game better.

November 14, 2013 at 12:45 PM Leave a comment

How to Create a Legacy in Education…for New and Returning Mayors

Yesterday we honored our nation’s democracy as voters in state and local elections across the country. As we congratulate new or returning mayors, why not set aside politics and offer a few guidelines for education leadership? 

1.  Align schools to mission and benchmarks…

  • PreK through 3rd grade
  • Grades 4 through 8
  • Grades 9 through 12

2.  Manage education for balance between supply and demand…

  • Students organized around equitable access to education and bridges to their communities
  • Academics organized around student needs and  instructional effectiveness

3.  Streamline business functions around the mission of education…

  • Student-centered funding and resource allocation – school as locus of control
  • Information systems that integrate finance, teacher effectiveness, and student outcomes
  • Matching of support services to student needs

4.  Develop results-oriented approach to services for outliers in the system…

  • Accelerated progress toward grade-level proficiency in Special Education
  • Two-pronged approach to ELL with growth in literacy in 1st language translating into more rapid assimilation into English language content
  • Level playing field in academics for students at risk

5.  Reward leadership that…

  • Achieves successful student outcomes
  • Values continuous growth for professional staff
  • Attracts voluntary enrollment
  • Is responsive to all community constituencies
  • Monitors key indicators of student satisfaction, service delivery, culture, and safety to anticipate disequilibrium and address it proactively
  • Allocates resources effectively and efficiently

6.  Seek alignment with evolving standards of information and technology to…

  • Get the best data on student outcomes, teacher effectiveness, financial management
  • Transcend the evolution from traditional media to digital tools for learning, communicating, and managing educational efforts
  • Create a vision for achievement that relegates regulatory compliance to the lowest common denominator among educators

With achievement of each of these strategies, mayors could spend more time creating a legacy in education and far less time dealing with NCLB failures, Parent Trigger campaigns, union battles, or random disruptions to the business of running their cities or towns.

November 6, 2013 at 2:43 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

False Dichotomy – Testing vs. Search for Excellence

All children should be prepared to pursue lifelong learning with a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding. They also benefit from a strong sense of their own potential for high achievement. These are highly interdependent constructs. Future accomplishments rely on prior knowledge. They are never mutually exclusive options for educators.

Any performance measure, such as an NCLB proficiency test, that begins with, “All students must…” sets a MINIMUM standard by definition. It is not meant to measure how high student achievement can go. It merely sets a standard for documenting baseline skills that are prerequisites to advancing to the next level of education. Students will vary in their accomplishments; however, none of them can be expected to advance without proficiency in the basics.

Proponents of various approaches to pedagogy often set up a false dichotomy, seeking to show that their methods far outshine those of “teaching to the test,” some going as far as demanding elimination of standardized tests. They incorrectly presume that accountability testing limits the scope of their practice. In reality, if their collective practices are working, over time their students will happily join the ranks of proficient children who just take the test and move on. No sweat.

Our children need access to a broad range of instructional techniques to meet their diverse learning styles. Bring them on! Tell us about your methods and hold onto those lofty goals. Show us how to use them, and help us to know who benefits the most from them. But please…check the teaching-to-the-test straw man at the door. It’s irrelevant.

May 1, 2013 at 10:35 AM Leave a comment

From Ivory Tower to Real World Practice

Policy wonks and academics have envisioned grand schemes for the future. However, they have not gone the distance to chart the course for achieving and maintaining those realities. I think that’s where the rest of us come in.

Recently, I attended an Askwith Forum at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The panelists reconvened to summarize their visions for K-12 education after the reformation. The conversation included innovations in teacher prep and professionalism as well as unbundling the job of teaching and the training of leaders in the brave new world of technology and structural change for schooling and, preferably, learning. The brain trust included leaders of the education reform movement, distinguished faculty, and a recent past state education chief. They offered a clear vision for a functionally discordant future…one that could and should evolve out of the natural absence of consensus.

It was a wonderful display of wisdom, save two profound voids. The first was exposed in the form of a giant blank box on the screen that represented the infrastructure to support the collective vision. The second was the absence of an explanation for how to achieve a transformation of leadership and learning without blowing the whole thing up. I had a few thoughts.

On the infrastructure thing, I harken back to my prescription for a functional machine outlined in Seven Keys to Education Reform. Since publication in 2011, it has grown in relevance as the dialogue on education reform has progressed. Further, education reform needs to be reclaimed from policy conservatives with a singular vision that is not scalable or even viable. Their Phoenix leaves too many children in the ashes. It is time to change the conversation.

I believe in a strong centrist vision that can work through reinvention of the underpinnings of public education. But we must be ready to proceed with implementation of…

  • The systems integration project that will create a new standard for data as well as a viable platform for exploiting technology in pedagogy.
  • The pension reform that will create portability as well as solvency.
  • The incentive systems that link to educational outcomes, educator effectiveness, and accelerated longitudinal progress.
  • The leadership model that expands the role to encompass management expertise from other fields.
  • The vision for equity that does not discriminate on the basis of age, ethnicity, income, religion, gender, or any other demographic factor.

February 7, 2013 at 9:19 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

The One Thing I Would Do

Inspired by John Merrow’s blog asking educators to share their absolute 1st step to improve public education…My choice would be to align transition grade levels to mission and benchmarks.

I would reorganize elementary schools into a PreK-3 school and an adjacent school for grades 4-8. The mission of teaching children in a way that reflects their social, emotional, and intellectual development would be better served with this grouping. In addition, the crucial benchmarks for literacy and numeracy would coincide with graduation from a phase of education.

With the younger children, the whole team would work together to ensure every child could read for comprehension, tell a story through writing, reason numerically, and be familiar with patterns and geometric shapes. They would be able to work interdependently with other children and resolve minor conflicts. In addition, they would show independence in managing their own resources for school and have personalized strategies to start solving a problem while waiting for assistance.

A new intermediate school defined as Grades 4-8 would create a safe harbor for kids in puberty that avoids the disruptive grade six transition and still clusters the kids with alignment for intellectual development. Schools need to be adjacent to allow for important mentoring and connectedness across age groups. In addition, facilities could be shared, such as library, cafeteria, PE, and playground.

Related blog entries…

  • My Theory on Math, Puberty, and Emerging Abstract Reasoning…and why Middle School Should Begin with Grade 4 read more…
  • Finding the Best Split for Neighborhood K-8 Schools read more…
  • Middle School Conundrum response read more…
  • 3rd Grade on the Line read more…

November 1, 2012 at 9:23 AM Leave a comment

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