Priorities

How many decisions did you make today? This week? This year?

Were they the right ones? How do you know?

Better question, when will you know?

Are we basing our answers on short-term test and assessment scores? Do they measure what we really are about?

Schools are measuring what did the students learn. I understand that. I was part of a team that worked with the Senate HELP committee while ESSA was being drafted. Our focus was on assessments, and how the new law could possibly correct what we believed were flaws in NCLB that led to SBAC, PAARC and an overemphasis on short-term, high stakes testing. We celebrated when ESSA was signed into law by President Obama. We didn’t get all we wanted, but we understood that politics is the art of compromise. While we didn’t necessarily agree with the language of ESSA, we realized that is was an improvement over NCLB, doors leading toward authentic and competency-based assessements have been created.

While schools are asking what students learned, the world we are preparing our students for is asking can students learn.  There is a bit of a difference in priorities.

Luis E. Torres, an amazing educator and leader, recently reminded me that for many of his students, as with many of mine throughout my career, education is, at best, the 5th priority in their lives. It follows food, shelter, safety, and health. That is their reality. For too many of us, we believe that education should be the 1st priority in their lives. Someday, we will realize that we have to take care of the Maslow stuff before we can really worry about the Bloom stuff. We are now raising our students as much as we are teaching them, and many of us were not trained to do that. It isn’t in the Common Core, and it isn’t assessed in the annual School Improvement Plan.

We work at “engaging” our students, hoping to excite them about our content, our interests, and curricula that we know to be important.

School is no longer about passing the tests. It’s about survival. It’s about life.

I suggest that until we see our schools as the people who need us most see them, we are never going to be able to engage them.

This was brought home to me while listening to a TED talk presented by Kasim Reed, Mayor of the City of Atlanta. He shared a story about a visit to a home located in a rather interesting Atlanta neighborhood while he was running for the office. He gave Mrs. Owens his elevator speech about the booming Atlanta economy, how the city was home to the busiest passenger airport in the world, and was proud of the many fine restaurants located all over the city.

Sidebar – as a former resident of suburban Atlanta, I can vouch for his elevator speech, I could move back there in a heartbeat. End of Sidebar.

Mrs. Owens then invited the candidate to see the Atlanta she knew. She pointed to the city park across the street from her house, noting the boys shooting dice in a swimming pool that should have been filled with water, and the gang graffitied gazebo. She told Mr. Reed that she was a pretty good cook, so she didn’t eat at any of the fine restaurants, and didn’t feel very safe riding the bus after dark. She also didn’t fly, so the airport really didn’t matter to her. Mr. Reed left her house feeling that he didn’t get her vote. But he changed his approach, and won the election.

We need to change our approach.

With apologies to those of us who follow Charlotte Danielson, Robert Marzano, et al, we don’t need engaged students, we need empowered students.

We need to see our schools through their eyes, giving them the knowledge and skills to pursue their passions, their interests, and enable them to become the architects of their futures. We need to play with them in their world, not expect them to play with us in our world.

We empower others by listening to them. We need to listen to our students. And we need to listen to those who will eventually hire them. They don’t care as much about what kids know as they care about what kids can learn and do.

Ian Jukes captured it in his book Living on the Future Edge, “In a world where change is constant, you can’t trust your eyes. You think they are showing you reality, when, in fact, they are showing you history.”

And so it goes…

Back In The Saddle Again

I recently retired after a 38 year career in public education. The last 11 years, I worked as an administrator for a district in Montana. I was not “a good fit” there. In a blog post written when I retired, I stated that “the best days of my life haven’t happened yet, and I don’t intend to spend them growing old.” I concluded that post, “Maybe, someplace, I will again be ‘a good fit.”

I have found that place, and am back in the game!

I am a Teacher Assistant at a local public charter school. We are a PK-12 school, I am working at the MS/HS campus.

So what does it mean to be “a good fit?”

Ask yourself these questions:

* When was the last time you felt really listened to?

* When was the last time you felt that anything you said made a meaningful difference?

* When was the last time the work you did felt really valued?

* When was the last time you felt that your efforts contributed to winning?

* When was the last time you could connect your specific actions to school results?

If your answers don’t excite you, you are not alone. Only 30% of employees are fully engaged (Gallup Annual Employee Poll). The vast majority of our human talent is not showing up to innovate, create, build, change, and find better ways of doing things.

During my tenure in Montana, I was part of the 70%. And I was not a good fit.

What would happen if we reversed the numbers? Think of teams you have been on, and meetings you have been in, where the majority of the people were fully immersed and engaged. How productive were you and the team? How much faster did tasks get completed? How much fun did you have?

Prior to moving to Montana, I was part of some elite schools and districts. The paragraph above describes what it was like to work in those positions. I was a good fit, then.

And I am once again, “a good fit.”

The school is quite different from where I worked in Montana, but not very different from one of the elite schools I led elsewhere in Colorado.

According to the Opportunity Atlas: Mapping Childhood Roots of Social Mobility, recently published by researchers from Harvard and Brown Universities, and the US Census Bureau, median family income in our attendance area for Hispanic families, which make up 95% of our enrollment, is $30,000/year. College graduate rate is 24%, employment rate is 73%. Given the income level, the jobs don’t pay exceedingly well.

The local public school district where we are located has been on the Colorado Department of Education Watch List for the last 8 years, and recently became the first district in state history to be ordered by the Colorado State Board of Education to find an outside management group to take over district operations. Obviously, they have not been doing very well with their students, despite the best efforts of a whole bunch of well-meaning people.

Our school opened in 2005. As an open, public charter school, any student in the local district is eligible to enroll with us. Our current demographics: Total enrollment just under 1,000. 94% are Hispanic, 86% qualify for free/reduced meals, (as such, both breakfast and lunch are free for all students), 74% are identified ELL.

On the most recent Colorado Measures of Academic Success, the state report card, our school significantly outperformed the local public district on every measure, and exceeded state averages on virtually all measures at every grade level, including PSAT and SAT scores. Needless to say, we have more than a few “Championship Banners” decorating our buildings.

And there is a waiting list of students wanting to be enrolled with us.

Obviously, we are not a typical school. Our students, and their environment, require that some things must be done differently in order to be effective. If the traditional, typical practices worked, the local district would not be currently negotiating with someone to come on board and take over.

Not really different that what we were looking at in 1993 when we created the Student Centered School program in Center, Colorado.

We don’t look like very many other schools. And I am fine with that. We don’t have their enrollments. What we are doing is working for us.

We are built around an environment of academic success. Every senior is required to apply to multiple colleges, our Commons Area is now decorated with pictures of the senior class, along with the names of the various colleges where they have already received acceptance letters. In addition to our academic focus, we also focus on the the Traits of: Character; Excellence; Nobility; Vision; and Valor. One of them is stressed each week, each school day starts with an assembly where the trait of the week highlighted. Not unlike the Work Ethic Skills that we emphasized at the Central Educational Center when I led the high school programs there and we were a National Model High School.

We are blessed with a wonderful staff who believe in our learners and what we do. It is not an easy place to work, our kids bring a bit more than completed homework with them in their backpacks every morning. But we know that we can, and are, doing all we must to break the cycles of poverty that surround us.

We are led by two very capable, young, and energetic administrators who have high expectations for all of us, and give us the resources we need to achieve them. They realize that both the adults in the building and the adolescents in the building can and will rise to the level of expectation, or fall to the level of what is tolerated. Be that a formal dress code or a level of consistently high academic performance. The key words that describe them to me are “young” and “energetic.” It is pleasure to work with them.

They see to it that I am “a good fit.” I can once again answer yes to the questions at the top of this post.

We are once again empowering our learners to become the architects of their futures rather than the victims of fate. We are once again working for a movement, not a school. Not all of us have what it takes to work in that environment, it is not for the faint of heart. While we pay it lip service, it takes a serious commitment to nurture hope and keep dreams alive in our neighborhood.

But we will continue to evolve and find success. We will end the circle of poverty that I first learned from James Baldwin and Jesse Jackson. We will leave the world better than we found it.

I’m loving going back to school.

And honored to be “a good fit” again.

And so it goes…

Slow Me Down, Lord

Gratitude.

It would be easy to write an Oscar Acceptance Speech, thanking everyone who has made my life and career what it has been. Or as Yogi Berra once said, “I’d like to thank everyone who has made this moment necessary.”

But I am not going to do that.

Because I am most grateful for the small things. The things that most of us don’t notice. The things that we tend to take for granted.

After all, you don’t do life all at once. It is an accumulation of lots of small things. You don’t get on a streak that goes straight up and never fall down. Or get your heart broken or lose your confidence somewhere along the way. What you do is learn. And then you grow. And the seasons still happen. You make some money or finish writing a book or fall in love again. And you think you’ve beaten winter for good, but you haven’t. Winter comes back around, it always does. But you stick with it, and something happens. You get stronger, your roots go a little deeper. Deep down there, until they reach the flow; the life. And it nurtures and sustains you. You find out that joy is something quieter and deeper than summer, than the seasons. It’s life’s heartbeat.

But we too often get caught up in the frenetic pace of life that we overlook too many of the small things. At some point in our childhood, we played with a friend for the last time, and neither of us knew it. How we would treasure that moment, if only we knew then how important it was.

Slow me down, Lord. I am going too fast. I can’t see my brother as he is walking past. I miss a lot of good things day by day; I don’t know a blessing when it comes my way.

Slow me down, Lord. I want to see, more of the things that are good for me. A little less of me and a little more of you, I want the heavenly atmosphere to trickle through.

Let me help a brother when the going is tough. When folks work together, life isn’t so tough. Slow me down, Lord, so I can talk, with more of Your children…slow me down to a walk.

Let us treasure the small things, and may we never take them for granted.

And so it goes…

Book That Have Mattered To Mostly Just Me

Our Compelled Tribe task is to share our favorite books that have impacted us professionally. The 3 or 4 of you who regularly read my stuff realize that my career has been a bit eclectic, unorthodox, and rather long, however effective. Not surprisingly, so is this list. Put another way, when I started my professional journey, the US Department of Education existed only as part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Law 94-142 had just become law, my first district was working under a court order requiring bussing for desegregation.

Jon Wennstrom echoed my graduate school advisor when he wrote that the more you read the more you learn. Read a lot, learned a lot.

Here goes, some you may have heard of, hopefully some you have also read, and I’m sure there will be a few you have never heard of. But they certainly mattered to me.

First on the list was my History of American Education class textbook from graduate school. It helped me understand what we do, why we do it, and how we got here. Introduced me to Frederick Taylor, the Committee of Ten, Andrew Carnegie and his units. Savage Inequalities by Jonathon Kozol was also a foundation read. In the words of Daisaku Ikeda, “A healthy vision of the future is not possible without an accurate knowledge of the past.”

By category, here is my list:

LEADERSHIP

  • In Search of Excellence – Tom Peters
  • Thriving on Chaos – Tom Peters
  • Leadership and the New Science – Margaret Wheatley
  • Only the Paranoid Survive – Andrew Grove
  • Enlighten Leadership – Ed Oakley and Doug Krug
  • Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Visionaries Handbook: 9 Paradoxes That Will Shape the Future of Your Business – Watts Wacker, Jim Taylor, Howard Means
  • Digital Disruptioin – James McQuivey
  • From Master Teacher to Master Learner – Will Richardson
  • Why School – Will Richardson
  • The New Culture of Learning – Douglas Thomas, John Seeley Brown
  • The Element – Ken Robinson
  • Leaders Guide to 21st Century Education – Ken Kay, Valerie Greenhill
  • Who Owns the Learning – Alan November
  • Understanding the Digital Generation: Teaching and Learning in the new Digital Landscape – Ian Jukes
  • Reinventing Learning for the Always On Generation – Ian Jukes
  • The End of Average – Todd Rose
  • One Size Does Not Fit All – Nikhil Goyal
  • The Hack Learning Series – various authors
  • Disrupting Class – Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, Curtis Johnson
  • Change Forces – Michael Fullan
  • The Monster Under the Bed – Stan Davis, Jim Boykin
  • The World is Flat – Thomas Friedman
  • Launch – John Spencer, AJ Juliana
  • The Weaving Influence Series – Mark Miller Pretty sure not many of you have heard of any of these, but they are fantastic. Leadership stories through parables. Check out Leaders Made Here, Chess, Not Checkers, and Talent Magnet. More are being published as we speak, keep an eye out for them through the High-Performance Series

INNOVATION / CHANGE

  • The Macintosh Way – Guy Kawasaki
  • Rules for Revolutionaries – Guy Kawasaki
  • The Eden Conspiracy – Dr. Joe Harless
  • A Whack on the Side of the Head – Roger von Oech
  • Expect the Unexpected or You Won’t Find It – Roger von Oech
  • If It Ain’t Broke, Break It – Robert J. Kriegel, Louis Parker
  • Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers – Robert J. Kriegel, David Brandt
  • First, Break All the Rules – Marcus Buckinham, Curt Coffman
  • Paradigms – Joel Barker
  • The Innovator’s Mindset – George Couros
  • The Question Behind the Question – John Miller
  • Flipping the Switch – John Miller

NOT TRENDY ANYMORE, BUT SHOULD BE IF WE ARE TRULY IN A DATA DRIVEN ENVIRONMENT

  • Implementing Total Quality Management in the Classroom – Margaret Byrnes, Robert Conesky, Lawrence Byrnes

Yeah, you didn’t find much of anything by the traditional authors of educational literature. Not many of my titles are offered through ASCD. But I’ve had a great run for about 40 years, changed the rules of how schools work based on what I’ve internalized about how kids learn differently today than we learned when we were their age. I’ve been fortunate to work with, and learn from, some amazing colleagues both within the profession and outside of it. I have no complaints, and I make no apologies, for my resume.

And so it goes…

Rules for Game Changers

In a recent post, All The Right Notes, Jon Wennstrom brilliantly captured what all of us believe when he wrote, “There are so many good teachers in the world of education. Those that do the right thing at the right time. But there are also great educators out there too! Educators that challenge the status quo, who take risks and try new things, and whose passion for doing whatever it takes to make students successful is evident in everything they do. That’s the kind of educator I want to be and that’s the kind of educators that I want to encourage ALL our teachers to be!”

He followed it up with, “You don’t have to be bad to want to get better.” I commented on his post that “game changers don’t necessarily break the rules, they change them.”

Early in my career as a change agent, I found a fantastic book by Roger von Oech, A Whack on the Side of the Head – How You Can be More Creative. The lessons of this book proved invaluable in my work.

Educator Rudolph Flesch described it as follows: “Creative thinking may simply mean the realization that there is no particular virtue in doing things the way they have always been done.” It runs as follows”

1. We make rules based on reasons that make a lot of sense.

2. We follow these rules.

3. Times passes, and things change.

4. The original reason for the generation of these rules no longer exist, but because the rules are still in place, we continue to follow them.

To follow up on Jon’s post, Beethoven challenged the rules of composition that Clementine, and others, followed. Music was forever changed. Think about it, almost every advance in art, cooking, medicine, agriculture, marketing, politics, education, and design has occurred when someone challenged the rules and tried another approach.

In my organizations, part of our culture was that Every rule here can be challenged except this one.

What rules exist in your organization that need to be challenged???

And so it goes…

Let’s Get Rid Of The Status Quo

I’m constantly amazed at the number of items that appear in my inbox and social media feeds on a daily/weekly basis that attempt to address the topics of change and innovation in schools. Well meaning and certainly qualified authors post and share articles with titles like “10 Characteristics for Innovation…”, “5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About…”, as if changing the status quo can happen by checking off boxes on a checklist.

It isn’t that easy.

Based on my experiences, it starts with a personal commitment to fundamental change. Second Order change, if I may use that term. Not First Order change, which is usually what I read about. Simplistic definition for those of you not familiar with the terms: First Order change (strategies) – things like smaller classes, site-based councils, 90 minute teaching blocks, small learning communities, and teaching teams with common planning. Things that exist within the status quo. Second Order change (philosophies) – things like changing relationships and teaching philosophies, collaborative ownership,extended teaching and learning opportunities, new interactions/relationships, and coordinated focused curriculum and instruction. Things that exist outside the status quo.

A somewhat poor analogy in these changing times, the difference between doing things right and doing the right things.

What follows is a paper I wrote in 1993 for a class I was taking to earn my Superintendent of Schools endorsement from Colorado State University. My attitudes have not changed since this was written.

At the time, I was Superintendent of a rather small, rural school district in Southern Colorado. Our demographics were rather unique, 95% of our students qualified for free/reduced meals, 85% were Hispanic surname, we were definitely a minority-majority district. As part of a settlement of a lawsuit in Federal court in the mid-1980’s, every student new to the district was required to take a language assessment screener to determine home language, upon which we had to base further instruction. Based on that screener, approximately 10% of our entering students in a given year did not speak any language proficiently enough to consider it a home language.

Our parents had the same hopes, dreams and aspirations for their children as did parents in the most affluent districts. In order to achieve them, we had to change the rules of the game. The playing field was not leveled to benefit our kids.

The following was my crossing of the Rubicon:

“Professionally, we spend a great deal of time trying to “identify ourselves,” and use that knowledge as a foundation for further professional growth. As was probably obvious (during a classroom discussion), I have become somewhat frustrated because where I have “found myself” professionally is very much at odds with the general system of public education in which I work. As core beliefs, I believe”

1. We teach children, not a subject area or grade level;

2. Every child comes to school with the desire to achieve and be successful;

3. As a teacher, I control the classroom conditions which determine student success or failure; and

4. Since I control the conditions, I am responsible for the success and failures of my students in my classroom.

However, there are inherent constraints within the system which make if difficult to effect significant, positive change. We need to start asking the fundamental questions about what we do and more importantly, why we are doing it. Activities which run counter to organizational objectives are often seen as “perpetuating the bureaucracy” rather than the system impediments they are. It would be nice if Collective Bargaining Agreements and Accountability Reports shared a common Table of Contents. We have paid so much lip service to “restructuring” and “change”, yet we do so little beyond the rhetoric. At what point will we start doing what we have been talking about? As long as we stop just with the rhetoric, we will continue to “do things right.” When we start questioning the fundamentals and aligning our systems’ activities and objectives, only then will we start “doing the right things.”

As I mentioned in class, I believe it is time to tear at least part of the system down, and I am at a point where my core beliefs are being challenged and the question being raised at the personal level is whether or not I am willing to make the sacrifices necessary to “do the right things.” I guess the gut check is whether I will, in essence, sell out professionally to protect what has become a very comfortable lifestyle for my wife and family. Put another way, am I hungry enough to challenge the system or too fat and comfortable to want to change. I am reminded of the film “Teachers” and the conflict between the assistant principal who has been prostituted into the system and the teacher who challenges it. I sincerely believe that the harder you work at something, the harder it is to see it fail. But I am wondering if it is worth staying in the system if restructuring stays at the rhetorical level. Effective change cannot happen from outside the system, but will the system allow it to happen from within? In a nutshell, I passionately want the system to work and want to be part of it. But am I willing to place my family on a sacrificial alter in order to achieve a set of professional goals?”

As for the rest of the story, I took the plunge, went all in, and risk my life and career to to the right things, not necessarily doing them right. I had reached my limit of attending meetings and conferences where we talked a lot about things that should happen, but never did. And we have all attended too many of them. In the fall of 1993, we initiated the Student Centered School Project in that district, which included an immersion into technology enhanced curriculum and instruction, with the requisite staff development. An uncommon event in 1993. Two years later, we were a Founding District of the Virtual High School Global Consortium, and helped invent the model of virtual school currently in use in nearly every state in the US. We changed the rules of how the game is played. And at the same time, using the Colorado Board of Education Accreditation Guidelines in place at the time, we went from being one of the lowest performing districts in Colorado to becoming one of the highest, particularly among minority-majority districts.

The hopes, dreams and aspirations of our parents for their children were becoming reality.

My point is simple, fundamental, lasting change cannot be accomplished with the help of a checklist. It requires a deep, personal commitment to make a difference, the willingness to fail greatly with your career on the line. To light your professional path by the light of the bridges you burn along the way. First Order change cannot be confused with innovation, however comfortable it makes us feel. Second Order change, what our profession and our students are crying out for, cannot happen in the course of a school year, and cannot be described in 240 characters.

More of the same, only louder, is no more acceptable today than it was in 1993. How many of us are willing to step up and give us the future, rather than just talk about it?

And so it goes…

Remembering The Lessons Of September 11

17 years ago today, I was working for the Department of Defense Education Activity, assigned to the Ft. Knox installation schools. My primary duties were as a curriculum and staff development specialist. College prep programs set me up well for the tasks that were expected in that role. I was also the Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Officer for the post school system. That was the hat I wore on this day in 2001, and for the next couple of weeks. The Gold Repository at Ft. Knox was a target of an airliner, fortunately all flights were grounded before it could be hit. Neither college prep programs nor subsequent trainings with law enforcement, etc. could adequately prepare me for the challenges of that day, and the days that followed. We were surrounded by the best trained professional soldiers in the world. We knew we were secure. But we were not safe. We can practice for all kinds of crisis situations, but until we are forced to deal with the very real and human emotions of an actual event, the practice is just like another fire drill. We have a false sense of security that we can handle whatever is happening, but it is just that, a false sense of security. In schools, we deal with people. But we practice dealing with situations. We can’t practice looking into the eyes of our people during and after the event and assuring them that they are safe. Not just that they are safe today, but that they will also be safe tomorrow. Many decisions were made that day that I never imagined I would be a part of, reacting to events that none of us could have anticipated. I was very proud of the team I was part of that day, great people who didn’t do what they could that day, we did what what we had to be done. Wish I could forget some of what I learned that day. I pray that I never have to put that learning into practice again.