Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Are "educational reformers" legitimate?

Think back to the best teacher that you ever had.

How many teachers did you think of? I immediately remembered six.

Miss Harriger - 2nd grade Inez Elementary School - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Miss Hixenbaugh - 4th grade Inez Elementary School - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Mrs. Chapman - 5th grade Inez Elementary School - Albuquerque, New Mexico

(Evidently I had a really good experience at Inez Elementary School!)

Miss Getz - 9th grade Lanaguage Arts Monroe Junior High - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Miss Ely - 10th grade English Sandia High School Albuquerque, New Mexico
Coach Braig - Latin I and II Sandia High School Albuquerque, New Mexico

Great teachers - everyone of them.

Why did I believe that they were so good?

They respected me. I had a voice. The valued my opinions and ideas. They gave me freedom. I knew what to expect day to day. They treated everyone in the class fairly. They made me work hard. They challenged me to become better.

I thought of those teachers as I read Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. In his chapter on the limits of power Gladwell talks about the principle of legitimacy.

It turns out, according to Gladwell, that leading and moving and motivating and encouraging and managing people turns on this principle of legitimacy.

Students view good teachers as legitimate. Students respect the teachers because we believe in them. As a result, we follow those teachers. We follow them to places that we never thought we could go. We become better than who we thought we were.

Students also are very senstive to teachers who are not legitimate. These are the teachers who cannot relate to students, do not believe in students, have poor classroom management skills, do not challenge students, and who do not move students forward.

I can think of some of those teachers as well.

As I read Gladwell's chapter I also thought about the educational reform battles we are waging. Why are the battles so fierce?

It is possible that the battles are so fierce because those of us in education do not view the "reformers" as legitimate.

The "reformers" don't give educators a voice.

The "reformers" keep changing the rules.

The "reformers" treat groups differently.

The "reformers" are not actually in schools working with students every day.

The "reformers" talk about the changes that need to take place but they have never actually demonstrated that they have the ability to make these changes.

As a result, those of us in education don't believe the reformers.

Do schools need to improve? Absolutely.

But does that mean teachers are terrible, administrators are incompetent, and public schools are a failure? Of course not.

But the rhetoric of the "reformers" castigates educators. Instead of trying to listen to our voice or inviting us to participate in the dialogue, the reformers push us away.

They know best - that is the message they send.

As a result, those of us who work with students and parents every day, those of us who understand the variety of needs within the students who come to our schools every day, those of us who have committed our lives to being in and beside students, don't believe the reformers.

I am not suggesting that the reformers do not value students and that they do not genuinely want schools to improve.

But the reformers by pointing fingers and claiming to have the answers undermine their legitimacy and go against Gladwell's points on the limits of power.

As Gladwell states, "when people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters - first and foremost - how they behave."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Imposing my will

I began my teaching career as a 6th grade teacher in Hale Center, Texas. Go Owls!

During my first year of teaching I, at times, struggled.

I received plenty of advice. Some advice I sought. Some came to me unsolicited.

My principal suggested I needed to be tougher. More discipline. Don't let the little things slide. Stop misbehavior in its tracks.

Impose my will!

I tried that approach. It wasn't me.

What I discovered was another approach.

I made my class interesting. When I did interesting things that connected in a meaningful way to my students interests I had few, if any, discipline issues.

I thought of that as I read Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. In his chapter on the limits of power, Gladwell talks about a teacher named Stella. He suggests that the students in Stella's class misbehave because Stella does an "appalling job" of teaching the lesson.

Gladwell states that a natural response to disobedience in many situations is to crack down. Use your authority to make people do what you want them to do. But, Gladwell makes an interesting point: "Disobedience can also be a response to authority. If the teacher doesn't do her job properly, then the child will become disobedient."

As I read this chapter I was once again struck by the tremendous responsibility those of us in leadership have to do the right thing.

Gladwell says it best when he says: "When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters - first and foremost - how they behave."

I can get compliance as a leader.

What I want is commitment and passion.

Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes. Teachers lead. Parents lead. Friends lead. Colleagues lead. Creating a space that is productive depends not on power and the ability to impose your will. It depends instead on creating a space where people are engaged, invested, and committed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Threats - real, perceived, and created

Threats are all around us.

Some are real. Some are perceived. Some are created.

Take, for example, birds.

Birds face real threats. Cats, high tension wires, cars. Each of these threats kill lots of birds.

But the biggest threat to birds are buildings and windows. Out of every 10,000 bird deaths, buildings and windows are responsible for close to 6,000. (See chart below.)


Yet, wind turbines and windmills used to generate electrical power are often blamed for bird deaths. True wind turbines and windmills do kill birds. But the numbers are incredibly small when compared to the other threats that face birds.

What does this have to do with education?

Our students face many threats to learning.

Some of the threats are real. Poverty, lack of opportunity, safe learning environments. Each of these present real threats to students learning.

Yet, there are some who would have us believe that teachers are the greatest threat to student's learning.

It is just not true. Teachers, by and large, have a tremendously positive impact on students and their learning. Teachers help connect students in meaningful ways to their lessons. Teachers create enthusiasm for their subject. Teachers help students learn.

Are there teachers who pose a threat?

Yes. But the number of teachers who pose a threat is so very small. I understand that when teachers do pose a threat to learning - through indifference, through neglect, through incompetence - the outcomes can be devastating. I am not trying to minimize that negative impact.

But there are some in our society who seem to promote this idea that it is the teachers who pose the greatest threat to students. These people then work hard to create policies and pass laws that unnecessarily focus on changing teachers.

There are other threats to student learning that are so much more powerful and devastating than teacher indifference or incompetence.

Instead of creating a threat let's focus on the real threats to student learning - poverty, societal indifference to learning, learning environments that are not safe, and on and on - and work hard to eliminate those threats.

That will make a real difference in our students' lives!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Let's Read!


My wife and her book club recently celebrated their 15th anniversary. For 15 yeats this group of women has met monthly to discuss books and to support one another.

Why would a person be willing to commit to a group for such a long period of time?

First, books are powerful. They can move us to action; they can move us to tears; they can move us to reach beyond ourselves.

Second, groups are powerful. We develop strong bonds with one another that become difficult to break.

Combne the power of books and the power of a group and a wonderfully engaging and strong combination emerges.

In conjunction with the Novi Public Library we have started a Parent-to-Parent Book Club. Our first meeting will be on September 23 where we will discuss The Motivation Breaktrhough: 6 secrets to turning on the tuned-out child by Richard Lavoie.

I would invite you to join us. Books are available at the Novi Public Library. Or you could buy a copy like I did.

Sign up with the Novi Public Library. (Click on the "Adults" tab and find the information on the Parent-to-Parent Book club.)

Please come join us!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I'm OK and evidently you are as well

The vast majority of Michigan teachers are rated as effective or highly effective. The latest numbers posted by the Michigan Department of Education are from the 2012-2013 school year. They show that 97% of teachers were rated as effective or highly effective. (Look here for details. For the percentage click on the "percentage" tab.)

Outrageous! Unacceptable!

But why?

How many doctors are rated effective or highly effective?

I don't know. I can't find on the state of Michigan's website a list anywhere that rates doctors.

My guess is that most doctors - probably over 90% - would be rated effective or highly effective.

Yet, there are a lot of people who are obese. There are a lot of people who don't exercise. There are a lot of people who have high blood pressure. There are a lot of people who do not engage in a healthy lifestyle.

Still - most doctors would be rated as effective or highly effective.

But we don't know. Because the state of Michigan does not publish a list that rates doctors.

How many Certified Public Accountants are rated effective or highly effective? Or financial planners? Or dieticians? Or legislators?

My guess is that in most professions the vast majority of professionals are rated effective or highly effective. After all most professionals have college degrees, have lots of experience, and participate in ongoing training.

Yet, there are a lot of people whose finances are in trouble or who can't plan a meal or who can't legislate. But do we blame the accountants or the financial planners or the dieticians or the politicians?

We also don't know because the state of Michigan does not provide a rating list of CPA's or financial planners or dieticians or legislators.

Are there bad teachers and administrators?

Absolutely!

Should bad teachers and administrators be evaluated out of their profession?

Absolutely!

Historically, education has done a bad job of evaluating educators.

But, I would argue, that most professions have done a bad job of evaluating themselves.

That does not excuse the historically poor job educators have done in rating teachers and administrators. Rating educators is important. Teachers and administrators work with children and have a tremendous influence on their lives.

We must get educator evaluation right. But just because most end up being rated as effective does not mean the system is broken.





Friday, August 29, 2014

Where we are going, not where we have been!

It is attributed to Lou Holtz, famous football coach and sports announcer, to have once said:

The good Lord put eyes in the front our your head
rather than the back
so you could see where you are going
rather than where you've been.
 
The new school year starts in my district on Tuesday, September 2nd.
 
I am committed to looking forward trying to see where we are going instead of worrying about looking back to see where we have been.
 
The new school year beckons all of us.
 
We could all waste time looking back.
 
We could mourn the loss of last year because we had the best teacher, the best team, the best lunch. We could mourn leaving last year behind because it was the best year of our life!
 
We could also be eager to leave last year behind because it was, like Alexander's day, a horrible, no good, very bad year. We had a horrible teacher, a bad bus route, a no good lunch. So we look back eager to leave last year behind.
 
But instead of looking back. I want us to look forward.
 
Right now it is a clean slate.
 
My hope is that as we look forward we are anticipating the best, not fearing the worst.
 
My hope is that as we look forward we are committing ourselves to solving problems, not creating them.
 
My hope is that as we look forward we will find the joy inherent in learning new things, not dread the work that comes with learning.
 
A new school year starts Tuesday. I am looking ahead to see where we are going.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Our unexceptional schools are really quite extraordinary

The official school data website for the state of Michigan (www.mischooldata.org), lists 51 districts/charter schools for Oakland County.

None are exceptional.

At least that is the impression given by the Michgan Department of Education's school accountability report cards. Official scores were released last week. Scores for Oakland County districts, like every county in the state of Michigan, were perceived to be lackluster.

No Oakland County district/charter school received the state's highest rating of green.

Over half of the districts/charter schools earned a rating of yellow.

In Novi, over 86% of our students were proficient in math. Over 95% of our students were proficient in reading.

For each district and school the state calculates its "bottom 30%". That is the state creates a group that is comprised of the lowest achieving 30% of the students in the district.

In Novi, over 54% of our "bottom 30%" were proficient in math. Over 85% of our "bottom 30%" were proficient in reading.

Yet, the Novi Community School District earned a "yellow" rating.

The state would argue that Novi has achievement gaps. That is true. We do. that appears to be the most powerful indicator of performance and the one the determines the overall rating of any individual school or district.

As a result, districts that are diverse. Districts that are large. Districts that have groups that the psycometricians can slice and dice will have a hard time being rated highly.

I am not opposed to accountability. I understand that parents want to know if their schools are being successful. Politicians want to know if the money that they are spending is being used wisely.

Schools need to be able to demonstrate that students are learning.

Any rating of schools should use test data.

But rating schools using test data alone ignores many of the good things that schools are doing.

Novi has a marching band of over 170 members. Novi has athletics and clubs that create opportunities for students not only to be engaged but to learn how to lead, how to work hard, how to set goals. Novi has a freshman orientation program that links upper-classman with incoming freshman. Novi sends fifth graders to camp and eighth graders to Washington DC. Novi teaches our elementary students about the seven habits. We have computer labs and laptop carts.

The Novi Community School District is exceptional in many ways. We have work to do. Of that there is no debate.

And Novi is not alone. There are many excptional districts and schools throughout the state of Michigan.

Can we get better? Of course.

I appreciate the state attempting to rate schools. But, in my opinion, the rating ignores many of the factors that make schools truly great.

In my opinion, many Michigan schools are quite extraordinary. Even though we are colored yellow!