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

Summary of Reform Ideas

The following outline summarizes the SchoolsRetooled thinking on K-12 reform as of this morning.

Current situation: 3-tiered system…

  • Excellent school districts with some subgroup failure
  • Average school districts with some quality issues and recent AYP failures
  • Troubled school districts with persistent underachievement

All would benefit from some national/state/local improvements…

  • No-fault reform – any reform contingent upon incumbents and/or blame is faulty in and of itself
  • Better data standards for…
    • Funding formulas and financial statements
    • Student outcomes
    • Teacher effectiveness
  • Incentives to address pension fund issues leading to…
    • Solvency for traditional pension beneficiaries
    • Portability for non-vested employees
  • Resetting NCLB accountabilities targeting…
    • Near universal proficiency in ELA and Math beginning with 2019 graduates
    • Sliding scale for classes of 2013-2018
  • Reorganization of schools…
    • Realignment of school grade clusters to mission and benchmarks…
      • PreK-3rd grade (free public PreK for at-risk students)
      • 4th – 8th grade
      • 9th – 12th grade
    • Redefinition of leadership hierarchy with…
      • General manager leading each organization
      • Balance of instructional leadership and parent/community leadership at the next level of management
      • Teachers and support staff assigned to small learning families with administrative assistants as needed
    • Restructured incentives for professional growth…
      • Annual self-assessment, goal-setting, and evidence-based review
      • Review team including supervisor(s), peers, students, and parents
      • Bonus pools for interdependent staff and leaders
  • New incentives for Students with Special Needs, English Language Learners, and other subgroups for accelerated progress toward grade-level proficiency
  • Advancement of pedagogy to…
    • Realize new potential with technology
    • Maximize student access to personalized learning…matching style, overcoming obstacles
    • Combine memory banking and critical thinking for synthetic and deconstructive problem-solving

September 26, 2012 at 8:00 AM Leave a comment

Demand Management for Public Schools?

Public education has the mission of educating all of the nation’s children. The marketing of this government service has never been much of a consideration. However, with the development of competitive education options for children, public school districts are feeling the squeeze. How can districts attract enough students to keep their schools open?

Who would choose to send their children to neighborhood public schools? The ideal response would be, “anyone.” Sadly, in many cities and towns, that response needs to be amended to say, “Anyone who doesn’t have better options.” While there are many strong school systems across the nation, the cost of living in those communities has risen with the relative value of the education system. In more affordable communities, the quality of education has come into question, and the number of children applying to the better public schools far exceeds the number of spaces available. Even financially strapped parents are opting out of public education, choosing to home school their children or give up precious child care hours for extra jobs to pay for private school options.

The federal government has attempted to drive improvements in schools through No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. There have been pockets of success under NCLB, but far too many public schools are failing to deliver adequate results for the children. To date, educators have responded with calls for alternative measures of success, greater funding for their efforts, and expanded social programs to meet the needs of the children whose achievement is complicated by conditions of poverty, homelessness, and fractured families.

Regardless of the validity of the educators’ point of view, the public school customers are actively voting with their feet and opting out of the system. Or they are gathering in the mayor’s office to communicate the strength of their votes in the absence of remedy. Public school closings are looming because anyone with a choice tries to go to the alternative program. Districts no longer serve a captive market.

Loss of citizen support for schools must be recognized and addressed. Educators need to wake up and acknowledge the precariousness of their positions. Schools must be customer-focused, offer high quality educational services, and meet the needs of the vast majority of local citizens. Because a surprising number of constituents are proving they do have a choice.

September 21, 2012 at 11:18 AM 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

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

Response to Middle School Conundrum

To the Editors of the New York Times:

The Middle School Conundrum debate, published on 6/18/2012 on, left room for another conversation. While each author addressed emerging adolescence, any policy on elementary education must consider younger children as well. I propose a neighborhood campus solution based on adjacent PreK-3 early elementary and grade 4-8 upper elementary schools.

Separate PreK-3 and 4-8 learning communities are better aligned to mission, as defined by 3rd and 8th grade academic benchmarks. The children would be more appropriately clustered for physical and psychosocial development. And building proximity would support inter-age connections and underwrite shared facilities for libraries, cafeterias, and physical education. This plan is superior to either grade 6 transitions, which are disruptive to academic performance, or K-8 schools that are already being overloaded with the addition of pre-kindergarten students from early intervention programs.

Very truly yours,
Kathleen T. Wright
Executive Director

June 25, 2012 at 6:59 AM 1 comment

No-Fault Reform – a Prerequisite for Sustainable Progress

The bully-and-blame game is the cancer within our education system. It is invasive and thrives under conditions of failure. The only way to win that game is to be in charge, so the fight for the upper hand with the pointer finger will always supersede the mission of educating children. Such power struggles can only be resolved when the need for blame is taken out of the formula.

Scapegoating is antithetical to true leadership. It is the process whereby one stays on top by pushing others down. This is a non-starter for progress. Sadly, a common phenomenon within education is to end each discussion of a problem once the team determines whose fault it is…and, of course, that culprit is always someone else.

Functional behavior models teach us that any behavior that persists, regardless of its prima fascia dysfunctionality, actually serves a function within its milieu. Within schools, obsession with fault-finding has become an established feature of the system wherever there is persistent failure. We feel better when “It’s not our fault,” even though we have taken the short-cut to “It can’t be fixed.” The path out of this toxic culture is to generate conditions of success.

Creating a success may seem like an artificial concept or a pipe dream. However there are a few ways to focus on system reform in education without requiring a change in the players or personification of the problem. Among these…

  • Provide sound data, real information that replaces rumors and truisms with facts.
  • Reorganize resources around critical benchmarks to support their success. (A quick plug for my current favorite…a separate PreK-3 lower elementary school focusing on literacy and basic numeracy)
  • Create funding formulas and financial statements that allow for transparency in spending and performance. Document the matching of resources with need among the children and empower the schools with discretionary spending.
  • Put all the players in the same merit compensation pool so they share in the perks related to achieving their goals and can never be paid for undermining one another.
  • Abandon the value-laden “best practices” label in pedagogy in a system that is undergoing technological change and suffers from a dearth of real information. Change requires taking risks with new methods. We can figure out what really worked once we have achieved more than tenuous results.
  • Break the firing-and-rehiring cycle with a system of baseline funding for districts that reduces or eliminates temporary lays-offs…LIFO matters less when you don’t binge and purge with each academic session.

Our current reform logic presumes people are at fault, overvalues new (young) people, and equates fitness for the job with unsustainable martyrdom for the cause. Each group of new recruits is bolstered with the knowledge that they are the heroes who will save the system, the natural enemies of their dumb, fat, and happy veteran colleagues. We have to get over ourselves and see the real deal. It’s the system…and it will continue to break people until it gets fixed.

June 12, 2012 at 9:31 AM Leave a 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

Reading for Success by 3rd Grade

To hold back or not to hold back…that is the question? Maybe it is, if you are caught up in the trap of binary debate over 3rd grade retention. It is irresistible to enter an argument with adorable children, a high-stakes reading test, and studies that would suggest that 3rd grade is second only to kindergarten in determining lifetime earnings for every citizen on the planet. But we are missing the point. We look back with regret instead of planning for success from Day 1.

Why is it that the dialogue around children who fail does not seem to lead directly to failure prevention? A child who cannot read well by the end of 3rd grade has not been able to read for four years. During kindergarten, that child was the norm, but there was a need for intervention by the end of the 1st grade. Something was not working and should have been changed and changed again through 2nd and 3rd grades until the child was a reader.

One of my sisters – a fabulous 1st grade teacher – has often seemed like my most forgiving advocate in life. It was something I took for granted without knowing why until well into adulthood when she joked about how I had taught her to read. Apparently, she had admitted to me that she couldn’t read one day toward the end of 1st grade. As a 3rd grader, I was horrified and told her to sit down and I would show her how it was done. We worked together at home for a few weeks, which I had totally forgotten over the years. One day during class transition, she decided she was ready. She got up and joined a reading group. The teacher tried to send her back to the non-readers’ group, telling her, “Now, you know you can’t read.” My little sister assured her, “Oh yes I can,” and refused to back down. Her teacher relented and let her show everyone how she could “read.” The class laughed, but the teacher was dumbstruck as a very brave little girl opened a book and read.

That story should be anachronistic, but thirty-five years later another sister was advised by a friend to get her child out of a school because of reading. The friend worked as an aid in a 1st grade classroom. She had observed with dismay as my niece and another child in the classroom were left behind. Every day when the reading groups formed, they just stayed at their desks and looked sad. No one intervened. My niece would continue to struggle in various schools for the next five years until my sister moved her family to another county to get access to a district with a good reputation in Special Education. During 6th grade, a reading specialist assessed her reading at a grade level of 2.3. She worked with her for 18 months and raised that to 6.8 before she entered 8th grade. By 9th grade she was reading well and earning a B in Latin. She is entering college in the fall and plans to become a teacher.

Last year, it happened again. A young family member was having behavior problems, getting into fights. He had been the sweetest, most enthusiastic kid. He was finishing 2nd grade with low reading scores. Again, a family moved and the new school was a better fit. Reading was within his reach, and the young man has recovered his confidence and his good nature. But, like his cousin and his aunt, he had been treated to low expectations and interventions only for the symptoms of the problem in primary grades.

Yes, I come from a family of kids who tend to struggle verbally. However, my unrelated practice as a special educator has introduced me to far too many students who entered high school with 2nd to 4th grade reading skills. As a math teacher, I would pre-teach vocabulary and accommodate reading issues with word problems. I loved to build visual models as concrete bridges to abstract concepts. But I worried about my students’ futures as adults trying to earn a living and have families with such barriers to success.

On a hopeful note, some of the lowest performers had picked up at least a couple of grade levels in reading by the end of high school. Ironically, this was during the early years of high stakes testing. Under pressure, the system was able to deliver 2-3 grade levels of progress in 4 years. Unfortunately, there had only been a year or two of progress toward grade level in the previous 6-8 years. What had happened?

My SchoolsRetooled world view mentions my belief in miracles in Special Education. However, a truer translation would suggest that those beneficiaries of the miracles were actually children with far more ability than at least some of the adults in charge of their educations had expected. A missed intervention by 3rd grade can make a middle or high school special educator seem like a wizard. But I don’t really want the heroics; I want the best interventions in place when they still can prevent small problems from escalating into seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Update and Correction – email from my sister…

Good morning Kathleen,

I enjoyed reading your blog this morning. Its well said and to the point. I don’t mind you sharing at all. I tell my students about it every year. I tell them not to let someone else’s thoughts decide what they can do. I also tell them to take up for themselves when they need to. They are always amazed that you could teach me to read. You were actually younger. You were in second grade and I was in kindergarten, but the sentiments are the same. I should find a picture of that teacher and put her up in my room to visually remind me when I need to rethink how I’m working with my children. I bet I could get one from Fox. I may just do that. I should also post a picture of a teacher that inspired me. Thank you. You’ve given me food for thought.

May 15, 2012 at 11:18 AM Leave a comment

Bridging the Gap…A Roadmap to Tomorrow

Play it again…this time we are going to get it right. Let’s put that stake back in the ground and make a promise to the current kindergarten class that they will be the new “no excuses” cohort. For them, there will be no achievement gap. And, because we are smarter this time around, we know we can focus on them without forgetting their older or younger brothers and sisters.

The Kindergarten-Grade Three Cluster – New World Order

Today, make the declaration for all entering kindergarten students who may be at risk that, “This ends here!”  They will become the universal “no excuses” cohort across the nation for whom there will be no achievement gap.

Establish an elementary school grade cluster of K-3 with an administrative leader and dedicated team who are charged with establishing proficiency in basic literacy and numeracy by the end of grade three.

Define benchmarks for progress toward that goal and tracking systems for the whole child. Ensure alignment vertically and assign accountability clearly for academic and psychosocial SMART goals.

Plan proactively, but assess progress and remediate as necessary. Create a planning cycle of continuous plan adjustments and growth.

Offer extended day programs for play, academic support, and social skill building.

Grades Four through Eight – Catch-Up Time

Analyze data from the lower elementary grades to identify students with special needs or risk factors. Pursue academic accommodations in the general education setting. Supplement content courses with special skill-building sessions to bring entering students to a common level of proficiency.

Engage all of the children in the dialogue about their learning. Set goals with them and have them chart their own progress. Accentuate their physical, intellectual, and psychosocial growth in anticipation of puberty. Intend their self-awareness as higher level learners in upper elementary grades – especially prior to onset of puberty.

Continue to plan, defining benchmarks and accountabilities, ensuring vertical alignment, and measuring progress.

Create extended day programs that offer options for skills laboratories, homework support, and extracurricular activities. Identify students with special strengths or talents for deeper engagement and development, e.g., STEM, writing, art, or music.

High School – Rushing Toward Readiness

Engage students immediately in academics with a vision for college and career readiness. Quickly assess entering students for academic progress to date and offer remediation to bring students to a common skill base. Offer extended learning opportunities to make advanced placement accessible to a broader number of students.

Open, or continue, the dialogue with the students about their individual growth plans and goals. Integrate personal interests and objectives into discretionary assignments.

Challenge, challenge, challenge…in preparation for college.

April 24, 2012 at 8:33 AM Leave a comment

Communicating Priorities in Education

If you want it, you have to ask for it. Let’s make it “Show Me” time to assure educators that we care about more than test scores. Ask them for details on other priorities, and support their local analyses of discretionary resource allocation in every school. In addition, update certification and facilities standards for alignment with priorities.

PreK-12 education should…

  • Guarantee that every child has the foundation knowledge at each benchmark year (3, 8, 12) to continue successfully as a lifelong learner.
  • Provide well-rounded instruction in English language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and technology, the arts, physical education, and foreign languages.
  • Be transferable across state lines without excessive need for supplemental skill-building or redundant content.
  • House the academic efforts in appropriate, safe, and efficient institutions with universal access for at-risk populations and reasonable attempts to offer flexibility to accommodate all others.
  • Provide advanced placement courses in all major content areas for high achievers.
  • Supplement educational efforts during out-of-school time to make it a way of life.

Accountability for baseline knowledge is well covered in the national dialogue. The Common Core is addressing the need for interstate mobility. However, there remains an information gap on additional priorities. We care but we do not document the details. It’s analogous to teaching material that never makes it into the grade book. No one believes it really matters.

The first step is to collect data on the financial investments made by every school in its content areas listed above, at-risk population, AP courses, and school facilities. In addition, information concerning enrollment, class sizes, and instructional time should be added to the attendance and graduation statistics. Participation in extracurricular activities and other out-of-school activities should be documented as well.

Tests are being given to inform us about student achievement in benchmark years. However, we do not support certification and facility standards that recognize the importance of 3rd grade. Can we make this an endpoint for classifications of professional preparation or school design?

Beyond building design for age appropriateness, what changing needs do we envision for the future of schools and their extended communities? What else do we need to track?

April 4, 2012 at 10:28 AM Leave a comment

NCLB 50% Rule Needs a Fix

NCLB broken? Not AYP – the children cannot wait until 2055 for a growth model to see results. It’s the presumption of guilt that misses the mark. Where’s the proof that 50% of the teachers are at fault?

 Schools need to turn around any of the following…

  • Large numbers of students not achieving proficiency in math and literacy
  • Subgroup achievement gaps
  • Low graduation rates
  • Poor attendance

There should be no argument that any of these indicators of failure require immediate intervention and persistent management until successfully resolved. Wildly successful schools for the privileged included. The fact that many children benefit from a school’s services does not discount the evidence of a corrupt system if it fails to include specific populations. The latter group cannot be marginalized and underserved. This is America.

That said, Americans also benefit from the presumption of innocence in the eyes of the law. Unfortunately, blame-gamers and union-busters had their way with the wording of the NCLB legislation. Teachers protected by seniority rules and union membership were presumed to be the guilty parties in the under-educating of our children. Accordingly, turnaround status for a school entitled its leadership to terminate up to 50% of the teachers. Pick 50%…any 50%…and the hands of the failed leader would be untied and success would ensue.

Teachers are very important, and every child deserves to benefit from the best instruction available. However, educators have failed to document what good teaching looks like, provide meaningful evaluations and feedback, or match motivation to the mission. It is wrong to target teachers at the whim of administrators who are postponing their own accountability. Objectivity and mutual goals must be cornerstones of education reform.

So, let’s fix this 50% rule and get on with the process of evaluating and motivating teachers with the managerial excellence we are capable of delivering.


April 3, 2012 at 7:58 AM Leave a comment

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