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…

What’s Your Walk Up Song

Thanks to Jonathon Wennstrom for suggesting this topic a while back!

Baseball season, and therefore summer, are almost upon us. For some of us, things like the equinox don’t determine the seasons, baseball does. “If you build it they will come” was written about a ballfield, not a school. But that is a story for another day.

A ballplayers walk up song, whether he is walking up to the plate or in from the bullpen, can tell a lot about the player. It can pump up and motivate the player and the fans, and in some cases, intimidate the opponents. In nearly every case, it is an extension of the player’s personality. It fires up the athlete to do his/her job.

As an undergraduate music major, and still an occasional trumpet player, there has always been a song in my heart. As an educational innovator, a couple have always been there, and will always be.

I crossed my personal Rubicon in a class leading toward my Superintendent of Schools endorsement in the summer of 1993. Excerpted from a reaction paper that term, “where I have found myself professionally is very much at odds with the general system of public education in which I work…there are inherent constraints within the system which make it difficult to effect significant, positive change.”

As we worked our magic, my district understood that we had to operate as a business. Our customers were just like every other business, they were the people who walked through the doors every day. We had a special name for them – students. As for product, we had dreams for sale. Their dreams, not ours. We wanted to empower our students to become the architects of their futures rather than the victims of fate.

My first walk up song was from the Man of LaMancha-“The Impossible Dream.” We used a rainbow to personify the dream, and we followed every rainbow until we found our dream.

The song that still plays today is “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. The tune was written to protest a curfew imposed on the Sunset Strip in 1966. It evolved into an anthem protesting the war in Viet Nam. I adopted it as we worked to see our schools through the eyes of our customers, adapting our practices to what the world might be like when they became our age, instead of what it was like when we were their age.

From the lyrics, and my thoughts:

“There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” Things are changing in the world, and we must change with them.

“There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware.” The guardians and gatekeepers of the status quo are waiting to throw water on our passion fires with their rules, regulations, and resistance to change.

“I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.” Let’s all take a step back to see what is happening, and why we are here.

“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right, if everybody’s wrong.” We are choosing a path, and we aren’t sure if we have chosen the correct one.

“Young people speaking their minds. Getting so much resistance from the behind.” Our customers want, and need something different,and like all adolescents, patience is not a virtue. It isn’t happening fast enough for them, they do not feel their voices are being heard.

“What a field day for the heat. A thousand people in the street. Singing songs and carrying signs, mostly say hurray for our side.” Listen to the policy debates in our local Board of Education meetings, State Legislatures and State Departments of Education, Congress, and the good people in the Lyndon Johnson building in Washington, DC. Lots of words, not much action.

“Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep. It starts when you’re always afraid. You step out of line, the Man come and take you away.” A key function of any bureaucracy is to protect itself, and the first response to a significant change is to resist. Particularly when the gatekeepers do not fully understand either the implications or long-term consequences of the change.

Lessons learned from helping write legislation that challenged the status quo, and changed it:

  • There are 2 types of people, those who fear the future, and those who embrace it.
  • A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships were built for.
  • First, break all the rules.
  • If it ain’t broke, break it.
  • Sacred Cows make the best burgers
  • Expect the unexpected or you won’t find it.
  • From Marjory Stoneman Douglas – “Be a nuisance where it counts; Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics – but never give up.”
  • Jim Valvano – “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

That’s my walk up song, for this and every season. Let your music ring!

And so it goes…


Prove It

A report aired on Colorado Public Radio on March 15 about an elementary school in Colorado Springs that is part of the Next Generation Schools. The goal of the project is to creat more relevant, authentic learning experiences.

Parents at the school know that grades and test scores are part of the system students use to move on after high school. Scott Fuller, the Next Generation Coordinator for the district, hit the nail squarely on the head when he said that the system is changing, mostly because future employers don’t equate grades and test scores with success anymore. “Colleges are starting to shift what they equate with success, and are moving more towards ‘prove it to me. Prove to me that you know that. Portfolios, interviews, what have you done with this to apply it.'”

All of our students will eventually become employees, hopefully in a career rather than a job. That may happen directly out of high school, after a credentialing/certification program, a two-year course of study, or a baccalaureate/graduate program.

So in my perfect world, our assessments would no longer rate students as “novice,” “nearing proficient,” “proficient,” or “advanced.” They would describe student work as “competent,” “proficient,” or “mastery.”

Competent – having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully.

Proficient – competent or skilled in doing or using something.

Mastery – comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment.

In other words, it isn’t about how well you know something, it’s all about how well you can do something.

While I was working in the career-tech world, we learned about the differences between apprentices, journeymen, and masters. A master electrician/plumber/mechanic/carpenter certainly earned more than the apprentices and journeymen. Companies hired employees with the expectation that while they started at the apprentice level, they could “learn how to learn” in order to become masters, thereby earning both themselves and their companies higher incomes.

In other words, companies hired mastery, not competency or proficiency.

Put another way, do you want your surgeon to be a master, or will you settle for competent or proficient?

Thankfully, there are people creating a process that will work in my world. Two amazing educators in New Mexico, Ferdi Serim and Mike Archibeque, have created LEVERS, LEarner Validated Educational Resources and Strategies. It is a system that creates learners who can demonstrate they have learned how to learn, who can plan and manage their own work, and can make high quality products in a team.

I was blown away by their presentation at the recent ILC conference in Denver. They have captured how to develop future “employees”, learners who have exactly the skills that employers are looking for. Not just kids who possess high levels of knowledge, but who also have the abilities to apply what they know in real world situations.

Read more about it at

They, Scott Fuller, and many others like them are creating systems so our kids can Prove It. We need to listen to them, and follow their lead.

And so it goes…

Lead, Follow, Or Get Out of the Way

I came across a Simon Sinek quote earlier today, “When we tell people to do their jobs, we get workers. When we trust people to get the job done, we get leaders.”

Some school people I know need to take this to heart…we need to empower teachers and students, not engage them in what the “leadership” thinks they should be doing. As I wrote a long time ago, tell people what you want done, get out of their way, and let them amaze you with their creativity in getting it accomplished.

And so it goes…

Am I My Resume

A long time ago, in a workshop far, far away, the opening icebreaker was something along the lines of “turn to the person next to you, and talk about how you would like to be remembered after you have passed away. What would you like your legacy to be?” The responses were typical of passionate educators: “I touched the future.” “I made a difference in the lives of children.” “I instilled a love of learning.” Except mine. Think I upset the guy I was paired  with when all I told him I wanted my legacy to be, “Damn, he was OLD!”

But I was very serious. And I still work hard to never confuse who I am with what I do.

Note to presenters – most of us in the audience detest the icebreakers. At the beginning of the workshop, we are usually energized and ready to go to work. The icebreaker really serves no useful purpose except to take the air and energy out of the room. Unless you are planning on using the information gained in some useful way later in the day, please don’t waste our time with the icebreaker/warmup. As one who spent several years training teachers for over 40 weeks a year, nobody ever complained when I explained that there would be no introductory activity. Trust me!!!

This topic reminded me of a TED talk by David Brooks in 2014. He talked about the differences between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Your resume virtues are the skills you bring to your job, and what is accomplished while you are there. Your eulogy virtues are deeper: who are you, what is the nature of your relationships, are you bold, loving, dependable, consistent? Most of us would agree that the eulogy virtues are the most important. But are they the ones we think about the most?

In our resume world, we are worldly and ambitious. We want to build, create, innovate. In our eulogy world, we want not only to do good, but also be good. We are constantly trying to balance external success with internal peace and value. And we often confuse who we are with what we do.

All of us wear many hats simultaneously. I am a husband, father, grandfather, uncle, brother, friend, neighbor, musician, golfer, educator, mentor, among other things. All are important in my life. That’s a lot of balls to continually juggle.

A lesson learned from a short, but powerful speech from Bryan Dyson when he was CEO of Coca-Cola was that we all have five balls to keep airborne. They are Work, Family, Health, Friends and Spirit. Work is a rubber ball, if you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four are made of glass. If one of these is dropped, it will be irrecoverably damaged, or shattered. It will never be the same. Work hard during the school day, but leave on time. Give yourself, your family and your friends the time they require. You will be replaced as soon as you leave your job, and someone else will do the work. You cannot be replaced elsewhere.

The opening number of “A Chorus Line” introduces the audience to a group of dancers auditioning for a show. The chorus line is the bottom rung of the performers ladder, no names in lights or in the credits. One of the characters makes the first cut and is asked to give his resume and photo to the director’s assistant. As he is looking at his professional life, he sings: “Who am I anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know. What does he want from me? What should I try to be? So many faces all around, and here we go.” Pretty much captures how most of us feel at various times during our work days.

Through my career, I had the opportunity to be in the room with some recognizable stars and CEO’s. The stars didn’t have perfect hair without the help of make-up assistants. None of the CEO’s ever had a glitch-free project and clean sailing that the books and articles would lead us to believe. Nobody at my gym is cover material for a workout magazine.

Role models are fine, but not when they get in the way of embracing our reality. The reality of not enough time, not enough information, not enough resources, the reality of imperfection and vulnerability. Young people grow old quickly in this job.

Do you want to be remembered for what is in your legacy, or what is in your eulogy?

And so it goes…