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…

A Short Course in Human Relations

The 6 most important words are:

”I admit I made a mistake.”

The 5 most important words:

”I am proud of you.”

The 4 most important words:

”What is your opinion.”

The 3 most important words:

”If you please.”

The 2 most important words:

”Thank you.”

The one most important word is:


Be Like Ella

We have all been there. The administrator is scheduled to come into our classroom for a walk-through or the formal observation. We have planned for every contingency, prepped the lesson, prepped the kids, anticipated every question and have rehearsed multiple answers to all of them, materials “are hung from the chimney with care.” We are READY!!!

Then Murphy’s Law strikes – anything that can possibly go wrong will. Or the correlary – things that work in theory never work in practice, things that work in practice never work during the game.

A trumpet has been part of my life since 4th grade, my undergrad diploma states that my major was music, education was my minor. Before becoming an administrator, I taught kids in the band and orchestra. Given a choice, will always listen to a live recording, (captured music) over a studio recording, (manufactured music.)

Live recordings capture the passion and enthusiasm of the moment. They are raw, unfiltered expressions of the musicians and the music. You can’t put make up over the blemishes, they are there for all to see.

A lot like our classrooms, on Observation Day.

In 1963, Ella Fitzgerald and the Paul Smith Quartet were in Berlin to record “Ella in Berlin.”

Like us, highly trained professionals. They had rehearsed and prepared for hours before taking the stage that night.

Then Ella forgot the words to Mack the Knife. And being a live recording, it is saved for posterity.

She couldn’t stop and start over. The audience was there and the quartet was playing. She had to improvise and come up with something.

Enjoy what she came up with…

Ella Fitzgerald – Mack the Knife

Did the critics pan her performance? Did the audience boo her off the stage? Did she feel like a failure after embarrassing herself in front of a packed house?

Quite the contrary! Because of that rendition of Mack the Knife, she won a Grammy for Best Female Performance on a Single and Best Female Performance on an Album. The recording is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

I try to share this with new teachers every year. Nothing ever goes as planned, and sometimes, our best moments happen when we rely on our instincts and training and improvise.

Let’s all work to Be Like Ella!

And so it goes…

Who Do You Want on Your Team

Part of my PLC is following educational groups on Facebook and twitter. Now that the school year has ended for most of us, the hiring season is on. It is interesting to see the requests posted by some for sample interview questions, and the responses to the requests.

Hiring and growing the right people is the single most critical skill of leadership. Hire the right people, support them, stay out of their way, and let them dazzle you with their brilliance. Tell them what you want done, let them figure out how best to do it. Elite organizations have the greatest teams, not necessarily the highest performing individuals.

Hiring is based on predicting future behaviors/job performance; abilities, values, personality are a good fit for both the job and the organization.

In order to attract the right candidates, you need the following:

1. Precise and specific information about the role – which skills, experiences, expertise are needed to to the job well?

2. Precise and specific information about organizational culture – what are the formal and informal rules for interaction that determine how people behave?

3. Objective tools to evaluate a candidate’s fit with #1 and #2 above – does the candidate have the potential to perform well on the job, and enjoy it? Are they candidates a minimal risk choice?

Most hiring processes are not set up to address the three items effectively. References from previous employers are rarely objective regarding the key attributes that will make the employee successful in your job. Besides, your school probably isn’t anything like the previous school. Organization tend to have distorted understandings of their own cultures. Simply because the leadership continues to confuse climate with culture. Climate is what is talked about during staff meetings. Culture is what is talked about when the staff meets in the parking lot, and leadership usually isn’t there.

Most of us default to subjective evaluation methods, relying on gut instinct on overrated characteristics known as the 4C’s:

1. Confidence. We over-emphasize the candidate’s ability to charm and impress during a relatively brief interpersonal interaction. This favors confident people who are less likely to project insecurities and self-doubt. We confuse confidence with competence. No problem with that, except that ample psychological research shows that measures of actual and self-perceived ability overlap by less than 10%.

2. Credentials. We can all agree that a diploma rarely, if ever, guarantees competence, yer we still cling to the belief that a valid license and years of experience can predict future performance. Then we spend a lot of time and money on professional development. Something is missing for me in this equation. Professional development is critical to organizational change. Shouldn’t we be devoting those resources to growth rather than remediation, usually delivered in a one-size-fits-all workshop? The focus of recruitment must shift from “what the candidate knows” to “what the candidate can learn.” When we look at “credentials” through that filter, previously unqualified applicants can, and will, emerge as superstars.

3. Conscientiousness. Being organized, structured and hard working are certainly valuable traits in most jobs, but there are drawbacks to hiring people who are conscientious. Research suggests conscientiousness is negatively correlated with intelligence and is a poor predictor of creative performance. In other words, too many people can fake it till they make it.

4. Conformity. We have a hard time admitting to this one, but we value those who fall in line with our perception of our organizational culture. While we pay lip service and try to celebrate the disrupters, it’s safer to hire people who follow our rules and do as they are told. Seriously, how many time have you counseled an employee who needed to “fit in?” How many times have you discussed, or released an employee who “wasn’t a team player,” or “wasn’t a good fit?” Conformists are generally evaluated positively simply because they are pleasant to be around and are a good “culture fit.” Just don’t expect much in the way of innovative thinking from these team members.

I learned this during my administrative preparation program, hat tip to Dr. Ed Stehno and Fort Hays State University. As a building principal, my process to fill a vacant teaching position was a team event. For example, if a third grader position needed filled, the interview team consisted of the other teachers of third graders, a couple of parents of learners who were about to become third graders, a teacher designated by our union, and myself. As principal, I alone screened the applicants to determine who would be interviewed.

The event started with a teaching simulation. The candidate was not presenting a model lesson to adults, our team behaved as typical third graders in our school. After 30-45 minutes, we would ask the same questions everyone always asks, and we would get the same answers everyone always gets. Then we would take a vote, the highest vote getter got the job.

This process took a lot of time, but it gave the teachers ownership of who was added to their group. In nearly 20 years as a building administrator, I never had to recommend that a teacher be non-renewed.

When screening applicants, I looked for the following four qualities:

1. Passion. If the candidate has a passion for what the job can become, we can teach the skills. The secret to success is sincerity, and many people can fake that in the interview. Having them walk the talk first, in the simulation, allowed us to match actions with words. I can tell some fascinating stories…

2. High Bandwidth. This is the ability to assimilate relevant data from a variety of sources. It is necessary to understand a rapidly changing workplace, make decisions, and keep momentum toward a goal. Given a choice between bandwidth and experience, I always chose bandwidth. Experience is frequently a false God. It is better to hire people who can get you where you want and need to be than people who profess to have been there before. Don’t confuse bandwidth with a bandwagon, which is something everyone jumps on after the risks are over.

3.  Ability to deal with stress and ambiguity. Working in a school is stressful because of the pace of change. If the stress isn’t enough, there is also a great deal of ambiguity. There is only enough information to cause paralysis, never enough to make a perfect decision. We must have a high tolerance for stress and ambiguity.

4. High Energy. The tasks are difficult and the hours are long. Sustained bursts of high energy are required. Make sure the candidates, spouses, and families can handle it.

The most effective leaders know that it is impossible to be good at everything, know it all, and be on top of everything that is happening in the building/district. “A” level players hire other “A” level players. “B” level players hire “C” level players. Do you have the security and self-confidence to hire the right people who can help you achieve your goals and turn dreams into reality?

Steve Jobs certainly did. “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

And so it goes…

Reflection on the Last Year

One year ago today was my last day in a building with students in my 38 year career.

The 5 or so regular readers of this tripe know that for the last 11 years, I was working in Montana while my wife was teaching in Colorado, and our kids were living in the Denver area, and our 3 grandchildren have joined the world.

I spent a wonderful afternoon on the golf course, something I wasn’t able to do too often while in Montana. Great time to think back to the last year, and the previous 38. After all, hitting a ball with a stick, when one really doesn’t care much about the number if times it happens makes it easy to reflect.

One of the things I wondered about was why we have a “celebration” when someone leaves or retires. Why don’t we do that on their first day at work with us, let them know they are welcome, and we are looking forward to what they will be doing with and for us, rather than at the end of their tenure when we celebrate what they have done.

Apple gives all new employees the following memo on their first day at work:

“There’s work and there’s your life’s work. The kind of work that has your fingerprints all over it. The kind of work that you’d never compromise on. That you’d sacrifice a weekend for. You can do that kind of work at Apple. People don’t come here to play it safe. They come here to swim in the deep end. They want their work to add up to something. Something big. Something that couldn’t happen anywhere else. Welcome to Apple.”

Tried to instill that culture in my schools. I wanted teachers with that attitude. Tried not to manage them, rather, I tried to lead them, empower and energize them. Trust them. They knew they never had to ask permission to try something new, exciting and different.

My favorite Steve Jobs quote-“We don’t hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Still have my finger in a couple of pies in the education oven. All that said, walking up to the first green today, realized that given a choice between  students, teachers and administrators in Montana, and wife, kids and grandkids in Colorado, I made the right decision….one year ago.

And so it goes…

Make it Relevant

Make it relevant to the learner, not to the teacher.

It isn’t rocket science.

If your school receives funds through the Carl Perkins program, you are required to have advisory committees to serve as a bridge between your school and the workplaces you are preparing students for.

Rather than have the minimum number of required meetings per year where you talk about how great your career tech programs are with the good old boys who have been on the committee for years with the primary purpose of not changing much, try this.

Expand the meetings. Instead of the career tech staff meeting with the workplace representatives, have the department heads meet with them. Have the department heads define and clarify their content standards to the workplace reps. Then let the workplace reps describe how each standard is actually used, or not, in their particular industry.

If it isn’t used, please don’t waste time teaching it.

If it is used, you have some amazing ideas for cross content area performance tasks that are quite relevant to the learners.

We all know that the the various required assessments miss the mark when preparing students for life after graduation. The world really doesn’t care as much about how much you know as it cares about how you apply what you know.

Let’s make it relevant for them and they will amaze us with how they apply what they know.

And so it goes…

Not about education, but maybe it is…

Reading a news clip this morning about how our Press Secretary is quoted as saying that the comment made by a White House staffer that Sen. McCain is “dying anyway” struck a chord. I lost both parents and a sister to cancer, have beaten it a couple of times myself. The flippancy I read into that remark cannot be adequately expressed. But I will try, in what follows…
I took my required senior government class during summer school before my senior year. Rather than read about how the three branches of government are supposed to function, particularly as checks and balances, we watched the Watergate hearings on tv as they happened, and witnessed the system work as it was designed to work. We survived 1968 and the years that followed, we will survive 2018 and the years that follow. I struggle to understand the big picture of how the government works and how the decisions made in Washington, DC impact both us and the rest of the world, I am confident enough to admit that I have no idea about the nuances, even after having been in a position of senior leadership with a secret level clearance in the Dept of Defense. I was there during the administrations of both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush. Saw first hand how the man in the Oval Office set the tone for the culture of the government. There was a huge sense of relief when Mr. Bush took the reigns of power, optimism and hope returned, it was like a weight was lifted from our shoulders. I certainly didn’t agree with every decision he made during my tenure working under him, or during his eight years, but he remains one of my most admired Presidents. He surrounded himself with brilliant people and listened to them. He was confident enough to be the first to admit that he wasn’t the smartest person in the room at any time, he owned his less than perfect decisions, gave credit to whom it was due for the most successful ones. He represented himself, his family, and our nation with dignity and respect. He is the closest that I can remember that I will refer to as a statesman.
As for the guy there now, he could not give his stump speech, nor most of his addresses since election, in any school where I have worked without violating every aspect of our bullying protocol. He can be correctly described as a bully. We don’t tolerate that behavior with our kids, I cannot respect it coming from him. I’m sorry that the Press Secretary says the comment about Sen. McCain “dying anyway” should not have been leaked, she is right. What she hasn’t addressed is that it should never have been said in the first place. But the man at the top sets the culture, so I guess I am not surprised.
In all fairness, it has become the hallmark of pretty much every campaign today, regardless of party or office being sought. We shouldn’t have to think about when a campaign will turn “negative,” it should never go there. I am looking for a candidate who will tell me why I need to vote “for,” not why I should vote “against.” Which is why I seldom, if ever, vote for an incumbent.
The summer after that senior government class, I was touring Europe with a concert band and choir. We drove through East Germany to perform in West Berlin, a life changing experience for a naive trumpet player from Southwest Kansas. While we were allowed to continue through East Germany into Czechoslovakia for scheduled performances in Prague, our equipment and music were not allowed to accompany us. Also, a life changing experience. Our tour guide while in Prague was an older gentleman who pointed out to us vestiges of the Russian Army’s re-invasion of the country in 1968. He told us of his life growing up in Prague before WW II, during the German occupation, the Russian occupation, the taste of freedom they had briefly experienced before the Russians came back in force in 1968, and life since. He had lived a life that none of us could begin to imagine. His definition of “normal” was nowhere on our radar. He asked us about what was going on with Watergate and Pres. Nixon, he had heard bits and pieces, but was scared about how it would impact his life, and the cause of freedom if the US President were removed from office. We had a fascinating discussion for a couple of hours on our bus about how he needed to put his faith in our system of government, not the person currently sitting in the big chair at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Another life changing experience. Couple of weeks after I got back, Nixon resigned, and the world survived.
I still have faith in the system to see us through the challenges we face. Sat through many briefings with DOD that scared the crap out of me, there is stuff happening in the world every day that we know nothing about. But the people who do the heavy lifting in our government are seeing to it that we are still here. And will continue to be here. Politicians on both sides of the aisle agree with their party more often than I agree with my wife. Nobody is ever completely right on anything. I will never find a candidate who agrees with everything I hold near and dear. I wouldn’t even vote for myself if I was ever stupid enough to run for anything. But I have faith in US, and just doing my part to leave this mess we call the world better than I found it, for my kids, and their kids, and the generations that will follow.
And so it goes…

Let The Games Begin

Spring training has ended, and the regular season has begun for my Colorado Rockies and Kansas City Royals. The games, and the stats, now matter.

In our schools, High Stakes Testing Season has begun, and the results of these assessments tend to matter much more than all the others we have administered during the first 3/4 of the school year.

Schools, like professional sports, are data driven institutions. But as was pointed out in a Wired Magazine article a few years ago, the numbers crunchers don’t always “get it right.”

Why Quants Don’t Know Everything

Schools exist to create successful students, students don’t attend to create successful schools. If all students are successful, it follows that the school will also be see as a “high performing” school. The oxymoron, however, is that high achieving schools are not always filled with a high percentage of successful students. Test scores are neither the only nor the best measures of a successful school, they are just the easiest measure to derive. The growth of individual students cannot be reduced to, or expressed by a single score. Higher test scores alone do not meet the test of continuous improvement.

We tend to work with three types of assessments: comparison; instruction; and evaluation. Comparison assessments look at score-based differences between individual students or among groups of students. This naturally leads to classification. Instructional assessments tell us how well the students are doing so instructional decisions can be made on how to improve instruction.  Evaluative assessments help us answer the question of how well did it work.

Comparison dominates during this season. The results provide few instructional insights and lead to inaccurate evaluations of instructional quality.

I have seen too many schools aggregate the data, then analyze the results. In my elite schools, we analyzed the data, then aggregated. This let us find patterns with individual students rather than find patterns within the groups. Instructional evaluation starts with the individual student, not with the group. This perspective kept us from falling into the trap of seeing the scores of our lowest performing students staying static, scores of the highest performers increasing, deluding us into believing that our test scores were rising. Yet the gains did not happen for all students. In other words, not every boat rose as the level of the water rose.

Ok, Gary, that is clear as mud. What would you look at if you were looking at the performance of my school? How would you determine if we are a successful school for all students, and meeting our stated goal of continuous improvement?

Most of us have swallowed the RTI kool-aid. I would look at:

  • How many students are at the lowest level for multiple years? Which students are at the lowest level for multiple years?
  • How many students drop a level between spring testing one year and fall testing the subsequent year? Is this an acceptable number?
  • What is the correlation between end of year course grades and high stakes assessment scores in the tested subject areas? If the high stakes assessments truly reflect the curriculum being taught, should there be a correlation?
  • Look at scores through the filter of quartile of age. What percentage of the lowest performing groups are also in the youngest quartile at that grade level? Are the low scores a function of age? Particularly important for those of us who screen our entering kindergarten students, is their performance a function of academic preparation, developmental age, or both? How do we know?

Looking beyond the model:

  • How successful are students the next year? Particularly between the transition years – e.g. 5th to 6th between elementary and middle school, 8th to 9th between middle school and high school. Are the high performers in 8th grade still the high performers in 9th? Prepare to be surprised when you dig into this one.
  • In larger schools where multiple teachers teach the same class, compare student performance by teacher. Would a high performing student in Teacher A class also be a high performing student in Teacher B class. Sounds simple, again, prepare to be surprised.
  • Continue to correlate course grades to other assessment scores. At the secondary level, is there a correlation between ACT, SAT, PSAT, and AP scores and course grades in the tested subjects? Should there be?

But Gary, that’s all about test scores, and you certainly don’t believe that test scores alone are the measure of a successful school. What else do we need to look at?

During the 2003-2004 school year, I was the Director of High School Programs at the Central Educational Center in Newnan, Georgia. That year, we were named a National Model High School by the International Center for Leadership in Education, Willard Daggett’s group. Over 300 schools from across the country were nominated, 30 were selected. To quote from the summary report prepared by ICLE, “The 30 high schools included in the Bringing Best Practices to Scale initiative have provided great insight into how American high schools can help all students complete an academically rigorious and relevant curriculum. Especially insightful is the comparison of findings from these 30 high schools to the many good high schools that will need to make some further changes before they can be classified as great in terms of all students’ academic success.”

After we were notified that we had been nominated by our State Superintendent, we had some work to do in compiling data to submit to ICLE as part of their evaluation of our performance. Interestingly, SAT/ACT participation rates and results on prior year state exam results were the only “test score” data points on a very extensive list.

So in addition to the basic demographic data of student enrollment, student racial/ethnic origin, free/reduced lunch count, ELL learners, students with disabilities, per pupil expenditures and staffing, here is the “what else” I would look at:

  • Analysis of curriculum using the Rigor/Relevance Framework
  • Evidence that all students have access to a challenging curriculum
  • Degree of focus and connection of curriculum to real-world requirements and performance levels
  • Evidence that assessment practices are varied, collaborative and shared within the school
  • Instructional practices/strategies
  • Literacy development, which is very different than looking at reading scores or grades in English classes
  • Evidence of instruction driving the schedule, organization of teachers, class assignments of students, and professional development activities
  • Evidence of clear expectations and accountability
  • Internships
  • Community service
  • Availability, training in, and use of technology in the school. Selling out to Google, chromebooks, apps and google docs doesn’t work for this one.
  • Use of data
  • Professional development
  • Extent of professional collaboration focused on student learning
  • Extent the ongoing development of the school is sustained
  • Evidence of a clear, focused, well articulated vision and mission
  • Evidence of high expectations for achievement of all students
  • School policies that relate to student performance
  • Evidence of sustained student relationships with adults
  • Evidence that students are supported to achieve at high levels
  • Evidence that the environment is authorities, safe, ethical, and studious. The staff teaches, models, and expects  responsible behavior; relationships are based on mutual respect
  • Evidence of meaningful opportunites for all members of the school to demonstrate leadership
  • Evidence that leadership encourages the sharing of knowledge, and the development of new knowledge, within and among learning community members
  • Evidence that’s the principal seeks, shares, and promotes leadership among staff members in the quest for continual improvement in School effectiveness
  • Evidence that acquiring and developing a high-quality staff is considered a high priority
  • Types and extent of parent and community partnerships

Quite a laundry list to look at. Data was collected during the site visit through up to 15 classroom observations, interviews, and a review of curriculum and student work. The review team then completed a rubric based on 10 key components fundamental to school improvement.

Obviously, we “made the team.”

We were a public charter high school with an enrollment at that time of  1,123 students, 14 certificate programs, 18 industry mentors, and a 5 year average graduation rate of 98%. We also “guaranteed” our graduates to post-secondary programs and industry, but that is another story for another day.

We all pay lip service to continuous improvement, yet look only to measures of student growth based on test scores to measure our progress. It is more complex than a single set of numbers can measure. Let’s spend more time looking at individual student performance in all the skills and competencies required for high performance once they leave us and become employees rather than just a snapshot taken over a few days of testing. We owe it to our kids.

And so it goes…