Ever attended a Conference and come back pumped up to only be disappointed?

I have attended hundreds of conferences all over the country listening to all the guru’s in education. Many of them have inspiring, lofty, and common sense recommendations on how to reform education.  I have even witnessed a standing ovation when one of these guru’s concluded.


Because the guru’s, say all the right things — kids should learn at their own pace. grades or some grading practices are bad,  kids need time to process, content should be multi-disciplinary, learning should be hands on, technology should enhance learning, it might not make sense to lump kids together because they happen to be the same age, and the list is endless.  All the major gurus talk about what we should do differently to teach kids and almost to the letter those educators in the audience agree.

Then reality sets in for all the educators and administrators that heard the talk.  We leave the keynote and at dinner or over a beer we discuss how we might actually make some of the suggestions work in our current situation or setting.  Almost immediately someone will blurt out — no — it will never work given our current structure and way of doing business.  They will give you that look — come on you know we cannot change the bus schedule! With all this testing — we could never cover all the material on the test doing school the way the guru suggested!  AND my favorite — we have changed so much — if I add one more change the teachers will mutiny!

That is one of our problems in education we have changed just about everything — we have changed instruction, changed the schedule, changed the curriculum, and all at the same time — NOTHING has really changed. That is the irony of the reform/change mantra in education.  If you walk into schools with all this change — it is mostly cosmetic — it’s akin to changing the deck chairs on the Titanic — this kind of change although is hard work does not make any difference in the outcome — she is still going to sink!  Schools are still modeled like a factory and for the life of me I cannot figure out how we became so entrenched in this model that we refuse to give it up?  Is it only because of efficiency?  Is it just easier to organize kids and learning this way?

This factory model has endured and is so strong that despite all the technology available for kids and teachers — we generally still organize the same way.  School cannot shed this model because via educational policy it endorses and perpetuates this model.  We test — then grade — we expect ACT and SAT scores to matter — we count DIPLOMA’s and never measure learning outcomes — we refuse to let go of archaic and often worthless endeavors like spelling bees!  I can drone on and on but the bottom line is — those that want us to reform and change are often the culprits that perpetuate the very system they are trying to reform!  Case in point — during Race to The Top the United States Department of Education had these instructions.  We want you to be creative, think outside the box on school reform, and write your application using one of these four models!  Be creative — but do it this way!

I think genuinely teachers, principals, superintendents want what is best for students.  They actually know what to do — and know what education can look like without using the current structure.  It is not that educators that don’t know what to do to make education spectacular for  kids — it is the very nature of the system that prevents that from happening.   Until we get non-educators out of the educational space we will continue to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic and wonder why its still sinking in spite of our effort!

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Should we take credit for student performance on standardized test?

Think back to a time when someone willingly gave you credit for something you had nothing at all to do with and you took credit without correcting the person. I pretty much think this has happened to everyone at least once.  It happened to me especially as a young boy, someone will assume you did something, like picking up paper on the floor and give you credit for doing the task — even though you did not do what they think you did.  I gladly took credit without correcting them — why not let them think you did the good deed!

All across the country teachers, principals, superintendents and boards are taking credit for student performance when in fact they really have little to do with how kids perform on standardized test. Research study after research study has concluded that socioeconomic status has more to do with how well kids do on standardized test than any other factor.  Despite this fact in today’s crazy system we use those results to rate schools, teachers or principals.  We are all guilty of buying into this false premise.  This is not to say teachers or principals don’t matter — they do — but when it comes to a standardized test they have way less to do with student performance than one thinks.

I remember my parents having a conversation with my teachers around the results of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.  The discussion was always the same. I did well in some areas, needed to improve in others, but overall barely above average.  It was more of a litmus test — a marker to insure you were progressing — but at no point, did I,  my teacher, nor my parents think my performance was a reflection of the school, or teacher.  It was about me…plain and simple.  I don’t know what happened? Who or how did we twisted this conversation away from the student and heaped it on the school or teachers?

Yet this is the world we now live in as a teacher or principal.  We gladly take the pat on the back from those parents, community members, board members, who want to give you credit for the performance of kids on Standardized Testing.  Yet, deep down inside you… you know as a teacher or principal you really did not have much to do with the kids performance at all.  You tell yourself, well I can take some credit because I created a good environment for learning, or choose the right curriculum, or did that professional development on implementation of standards.  All of those are important but may not have much to do with the performance of students.

I have been a Teacher, Principal, and Superintendent.  I have worked in suburban, urban and rural schools and in each setting worked tirelessly on behalf of kids. I did not change — worked hard — yet my results in each setting were different.  Not only can I not take credit for those suburban kids for doing so well — I really could not blame myself when my lower socioeconomic kids did poorly. YET in that suburban setting, I gladly took credit and sometimes compensation.  I took that pat on the back even if I may not have had much to do with how those kids performed.

Think about what this does to teachers and principals and how perverse this system has become.  If deep down you know you really have little impact on standardized test results you tend to focus on things you do have control over — like who you teach — or who is excluded from the scores — or what test taking skills you can teach — making sure kids practice with the test —  teach nothing but the test — and the list goes on and on and on.  I am in meetings with teachers and principals all the time and the obsession around testing has nothing whatsoever to do with kids — it has to do with the adults and what score they personally might get as a result of student performance.

What is really disappointing  — we really don’t talk about learning?  We don’t discuss if we are insuring kids get what they need to succeed in life.  We don’t discuss how we insure they will be lifelong learners and good citizens.  We are so focused on TESTING and how it might make me look as superintendent,  principal, or teachers.


Because we have taken credit for student performance without correcting those who were giving us credit that we have little to do with how well or poorly they did.  What we need to do is reject this whole system and be honest about what impacts student performance.  We all need to stop pretending we have something to do with the outcome and correct those who want to pat us on the back!

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Genius is made — not born!

I was fortunate to be the Keynote speaker at one of our local high schools.  The format was simple — and my instructions were clear “you need to fill about 45 minutes on the program…say something inspiring and upbeat…get the kids excited about the new school year.” Well, if any of you know high school students, you know very well that 45 minutes of listening to anyone drone on and on about how great school is or will be is a “poke your eyes out moment” for anyone aged 14-18.

But I did my best to at least say something interesting.

I decided to share the compelling research of Stanford Universities Dr. Carol Dweck who is the author of the book “Mindset: the new psychology of success.”  Her research and message is deftly simple — you can be in either a “growth mindset” or a “fixed mindset.”  The fixed mindset comes from our belief that people are born “smart” or “gifted.”  They have a certain static IQ — those in a fixed mindset avoid challenges — effort is really the enemy, because if your smart you don’t need effort.  They really respond negatively to criticism and often will give-up if the challenge is too difficult.  They are threatened by others success and often will disparage them to demonstrate how smart they are in comparison.  Those in a fixed mindset see the world differently from those in a growth mindset.

I see all kinds of archetype kids that display the fixed mindset.  It is those students who act bored in classes that are difficult or demanding. The student who refuses to take particular class or teacher because they fear they will not get the “A.”   Students that at the first sign of difficulty simply shut-down.  Students in a fixed mindset make comments about how they are really the best player in a particular sport but simply choose not play.  These are the kids that will cheat on test, make excuses, blame everyone but themselves for failure.  They really spend a great deal of effort and time masking deficiency.

I was fortunate to be the Keynote speaker at one of our local high schools.  The format was simple — and my instructions were clear “you need to fill about 45 minutes on the program…say something inspiring and upbeat…get the kids excited about the new school year.” Well, if any of you know high school students, you know very well that 45 minutes of listening to anyone drone on and on about how great school is or will be is a “poke your eyes out moment” for anyone aged 14-18.

But I did my best to at least say something interesting.

I decided to share the compelling research of Stanford Universities Dr. Carol Dweck who is the author of the book “Mindset: the new psychology of success.”  Her research and message is deftly simple — you can be in either a “growth mindset” or a “fixed mindset.”  The fixed mindset comes from our belief that people are born “smart” or “gifted.”  They have a certain static IQ — those in a fixed mindset avoid challenges — effort is really the enemy, because if your smart you don’t need effort.  Effort to them is a sign of weakness, because if your athletically or mentally gifted why would you need to work at the task?  They respond negatively to criticism and often will give-up if the challenge is too difficult.  Those in a fixed mindset are threatened by others success and often will disparage them to demonstrate how smart they are in comparison.  Fixed mindset people see the world differently from those in a growth mindset.

I see all kinds of archetype kids that display the fixed mindset.  It is those students who act bored in classes that are difficult or demanding. The student who refuses to take particular class or teacher because they fear they will not get the “A.”   Students that at the first sign of difficulty simply shut-down.  Students in a fixed mindset make comments about how they are really the best player in a particular sport but simply choose not play.  These are the kids that will cheat on test, make excuses, blame everyone but themselves for failure.  They really spend a great deal of effort and time masking deficiency.

We do have educators who can exhibit fixed mindsets in all kinds of situations — but the ones that do the most harm are educators who pigeon-hole kids because they believe they are either “smart” or “dumb” — this saps the motivation out of kids and for the most part they will live up to those expectations.

Some people might recall the famous study of the late-bloomers.  The researchers told teachers that  20% of there class were late-bloomers and they identified those students on the class roster.  Those particular students were chosen at random and many of them had lower IQ scores than their peers in the same classroom.  At the end of the study, they measured IQ and those who were identified as late-bloomers significantly gained.  We call this the Pygmalion effect or some have called this a self-fulfilling prophecy — What teachers think about students matters and if they have identified them even subconsciously in one category or another it can have a major impact on that student.

The growth mindset on the other hand, embraces challenges, if they get knocked down they get back up and try again, they have grit, they love to learn new and different things.  Effort to them is the pathway to success.  They really have no expectations that on the first try they will be successful — but they learn from each unsuccessful attempt and keep trying.  These individuals get inspired by others success. The best example of a growth mindset to me is infants learning to walk. They stand up — fall down, get hurt, wobble, but they keep trying and they don’t give up!  With each successive try they get better until they are not only walking but running.  In that moment, infants are in a growth mindset, failure is not the enemy — it is instructive — imagine if after one try infants simply stopped trying to walk?

Geniuses are made — not born is the cornerstone of the growth mindset and we have all kinds of examples — Albert Einstein — Stephen King — Walt Disney — Michael Jordan — Bill Gates — the list is endless. What do they all have in common — they failed lots and lots of times but kept at it and persevered and even after they were famous they tirelessly worked at their respective crafts.

The theory holds that if kids lived in the growth mindset they will do better in school and ultimately in life and for the most part I would agree.  Kids that do not shy away from challenges, learn how to deal with set-backs, respond positively to constructive criticism do better in school and in life. I can remember in my coaching days whether it was coaching football or model U.N. I wanted kids who were coach-able which is just a code word for the growth mindset.

The real difficulty is getting those in a fixed mindset to move to a growth mindset.  Therein lies the real challenge.  I see people all the time — educated — they know better — yet they still smoke.  Even as the overall attitude towards smokers is negative — many fail to change behavior.  We see this in the choices we make with our food — or lack of exercise.  My point is changing behavior is really hard.  Even if I change the attitudes of the teachers and students to acknowledge the growth mindset — changing the actual behavior and beliefs is very hard.  It will take more than a couple of research studies, or a best-selling book to change behavior of staff and students.   In 1964 the surgeon general published an extensive study on the harmful impact smoking has on your health — yet in 2015 we still have some that smoke in spite of the facts.  Something like the growth mindset in education could take decades to gain traction and be practiced overtly by teachers and students and that is kinda sad.

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One year later in Ferguson….

I, like many others in this country are struggling to make sense of what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident has gripped this nation and briefly created a war-like zone in Ferguson that has continued well after the incident bringing people from all over the country to march in protest.

As the one year anniversary has demonstrated the wounds are still open and since that shooting in Missouri — police have shot and killed an additional 53 teenagers — 22 white, 21 black, 9 hispanic and one native american. (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2015/08/since_michael_brown_police_sho.html?cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS2-RM)

Police officers have very difficult and stressful jobs — but we need to do better — all lives matter –including police officers. Our youth is not the enemy — poverty — is the enemy. Yet, most of the commentary has focused on whether or not the 18-year-old was a good person and whether or not the police action was justified. This discussion has of course become political with people siding with one or the other depending on the lense they choose to see the incident. Civil unrest does not just happen…it is often a the result of numerous factors and pent-up frustrations.

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court in a landmark ruling struck down segregation in American Public Schools. We then experienced a tumultuous period in the 1960’s with key legislation that outlawed racial discrimination in all parts of public life.

We may have legislated and litigated integration but what has happened since 1954’s Brown decision that has been pointed out by several researchers and observers — our public schools are more segregated now in 2015, than in 1954. In 2006, Jonathan Kozol declared “Apartheid” in American Public Schools with the publication of his book Shame of the Nation. Public Schools today are more segregated and no one seems to really care about that anymore?

Why is this important? What I see in the tragedy in Ferguson is partially a failure of education. Public Education is the “tide that lifts all boats.” Education was and still is a ticket out of poverty. The reason for Brown decision in 1954 was the separate schools were not equal. Our solution albeit an unpopular one was forced busing to integrate schools. Today’s solution is “choice” to often inferior and failing charter schools. The circumstances that existed in urban schools in 1954 still exist in 2015. In fact, one can argue they are worse.

The pervasive and destructive nature of poverty coupled with a lack of a quality education creates environments that put all youths at risk. It is the same environment that puts police and the publics safety at risk. It is a powder keg of misunderstanding and fear that explodes often with incidents such as the one in Ferguson.

We need a renewed focus on the power of education and its ability to lift families out of poverty. We need to stop blaming teachers, administrators and families for poverty. Poverty is not a disease one catches, but if you listen to pundits who discuss poverty they discuss it like an illness. Sorry to disappoint but you cannot catch poverty! We need to continue to find ways to address those obstacles to break the cycle of poverty. If desegregation of public schools mattered in 1954 it should matter in 2015. Our solutions to this problem has failed thus far…maybe its time we try something else before another police officer or youth is involved in an incident that ends with one or both losing their life.

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Time to send those Kiddos back to school!

I love the energy and excitement of kids, teachers, and administrators as we start another school year. The smell of freshly sharpened pencils, the feeling of confidence you have with your back to school clothes and the unique smell of a school fills the air.  You can feel the energy and excitement. Kids are excited, teachers are excited and parents are elated — that the kids finally went back to school! \

Something that is truly unique to school — kids and teachers enjoy an annual fresh start.

Yes, a complete do-over!  

I cannot think of any other profession that annually has a fresh start.  All the scars and/or frustrations of the prior school year are smoothed over with summer break. We recharge our batteries and are mentally ready to tackle the challenges that are in front of us for the next 180 plus school days.  Kids too are energized and ready to tackle the goals and learning targets that the teachers will present. This is a gift and one that should not be squandered.

Embrace it and build upon that momentum that can carry students and teachers to the end of a school year. Students and teachers need to avoid going back to old habits that are unproductive and do not contribute to learning.  We need to be open to the idea that not only do we change —  but students change and grow as well.

What always frustrated me as an administrator is our unwillingness to embrace this new beginning.  Many of our teachers and students are haunted by the past school years incidents and failures.  They let those feelings overshadow that fresh start.  Teachers need to encourage kids that relapse into old habits and work hard to create new positive habits.  Success in school always breeds more success.  Work on making sure kids are successful and when they do not meet the expectations help them grow and learn from the experience.

Teachers need to truly give each and every child that enters the classroom a fresh start.  Resist the temptation of comparing them to a sibling, or buying into what last year’s teacher had to say about him/her as a student. Truly give them a fresh start and mentally be prepared to insure they have success.

Embrace that fresh start as you begin another school year.  It is truly a gift!

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Gamers and Education — What we can learn from digitial natives!

This past weekend our 4 year old grandson spent two nights with us. He is your typical 4-year old in every way, obsessed with superhero’s and running fast — with one small exception —  he has his own Iphone.   To a 4 year old,  this is like Willy Wonka’s Charlie getting the Golden Ticket to the chocolate factory.  This was the very first item he showed me when I walked in from work on Friday. Super excited to show me his apps!  He excitedly showed me his games including his aquarium with all his fish that would die if he does not feed them every morning.  They are virtual fish but nonetheless he was adamant that he needed to feed them every morning.  Not only at 4 can he use the Iphone he knows how it operates.  He knows the App store to get games, he knows it needs a password, he can take pictures and surf the web and yes he is 4 and still has a tough time with the alphabet but is a whiz with everything electronic.  Without skipping a beat he can operate just about any electronic device.   He predominately uses the Iphone to play games.  All kinds of games and many of the same games you play like the super popular “Candy Crush or Plants Vs. Zombies.” He even teaches his younger brother.  I know some so called “experts” say he is too young for a smartphone, and on some levels I have to agree with that.  However, take a look around at almost any public space with kids and see them all no matter the age glued to a smartphone playing games or watching Youtube.   I really think they should just hands those out at restaurants instead of the three crayons and a coloring page since it is what kids would prefer anyway.

Michael is what they call a “Digital Native” and our schools are filled with them and they play games.  Lots of games.  X-box, Playstation, software games and our kids spend inordinate amounts of time playing games.  Games like Halo, World of Warcraft, Walking Dead, Madden, hours upon hours that force many parents to limit the amount of time spent playing these games.  Did you ever wonder how kids could spend all day playing games, barely stopping to eat, but cannot stay focused in school?  Cannot pay attention for longer than 10 minutes?  How is that games keep them engaged for days, months or even years?

What is so different about the game(s) and school?  They both have rules and strict ones at that, they both have structure, they both have to do list and task, and they both give grades and even post them as compared to other players often worldwide.  Regardless of the game as with school,  kids know where they rank as compared to there peers.  Tell a kid he/she has a choice — they could either play Xbox all day or go to school — odds are school will never win. Yet games require knowledge, require skill repetition, skill building,  require higher level thinking,  lots of planning, group cooperation and during the game kids fail a ton.  In fact, they spend tons of time failing.  Dying over and over again, failing to achieve the next level, or not making it past some task.  Yet they keep playing never tiring of the challenge.  Why?  

We know in school kids are afraid to fail.  “F” is a negative thing.  Nothing worse than getting an “F” and labeled a failure.  Failure is bad in schools, but in games the failure is instructive.  It is not judgemental.  It contains no value judgement, no ridicule, no scorn.  Unfortunately, schools too often use grades to punish rather than instruct. Grades become a tool of obedience not a tool to assist in the learning process.   If we treated failure like in games, students would simply learn from mistakes and try again and again without labels, judgements and scorn.

Games do not know the difference between my 4-year old grandson and me.  We play the same game and begin on the same level.  Very unforgiving to a 4-year old and the game does not adjust and never judges it simply lets you keep trying.  In fact, in more than one research study gamers over time have developed exceptional mental toughness.  Something that we in schools are just coming to understand how important “grit” is to success in life and school.  In this new era of Ohio’s New Learning Standards we are talking about perseverance and ability to stay on a task with multiple steps.  Something kids have not been able to do with regularity in schools but seem to manage just fine in a gaming environment.

We have much to learn from gamers and the game designers who hook kids and adults into spending money and time on playing a game that often is difficult. These same gamers get kids to read as well. Scouring the internet reading articles on strategy, hints, pointers, and cheats.  Imagine the power of getting kids to read a novel with such veracity.  So what is it about games?

Jane McGonigal points out that all games have four defining traits:

1. Goals

2. Rules

3. Feedback Systems

4. Voluntary Participation

The first three traits are in schools already.

Schools have goals that are specific and give students and gamers a sense of purpose and direction.

Rules are limitations on how players can achieve the goal.  However one key difference in a game as compared to school.  Rules in a game eliminate the obvious ways to achieve the goal forcing players to explore uncharted possible ways to achieve the goal unleashing creativity and strategic thinking.  Many of today’s games are extremely difficult and the answer is not obvious and the rules in a game often block the easy routes and force the player to think differently.  Rules in schools do the exact opposite they limit creativity and strategic thinking they presume one right way to achieve a goal and punish those who do not follow those rules.

Feedback systems in games tell the player how close they are to achieving the goal.  It is real-time very specific feedback and a promise really to the player that the goal is achievable and provides motivation to keep playing.  This feedback is precise and clearly gives the player the reason for failure and the pathway to achieve the goal.  Feedback in schools does the exact opposite.  It shuts kids down and often takes the goal out of reach draining the motivation to continue.  We see this time and time again in schools as teachers lament about kids lack of motivation not realizing it is likely our system that has sapped that students motivation to succeed.

The last trait speaks for itself.  Once a person decides to play the game they have already accepted the first three traits.  The real power in the fourth trait is the freedom to drop in and out of the game in a safe non-judgmental environment.  Believe me the games can me stressful, frustrating and challenging, but choice to drop in and out decreases that stress level and motivates the players to come back.   School is not a choice and for all students it can be stressful — but it lacks the ability to escape that stress like a game.  No choice to drop in and out at voluntarily.  I suspect this is one reason online schools have grown over time.  Freedom to choose and to drop in and out without time as a constraint.  Freedom to linger on a task or do it over without fear of judgement or ridicule.

As my grandson gets older and games become even more instructive and powerful,  I wonder if we as a school system can adapt or learn from games to better engage our students and prepare them for work and careers.  We could learn so much from those game developers who manage to capture our students imagination and consume there time and money willingly.  Imagine if we could just get them that excited about school!

And for all those who read my blog and think games are bad I encourage you to read Reality is Broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. by Jane McGonigal.  

Click the link for more on Jane and her research:


Check out these Research-based Educational Games our of USC






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Do kids FEAR punishment?

School is officially around the corner already this week some of my conversations with parents, teachers and school administrators have centered upon punishment to stem some unwanted behaviors.  Whether it’s tardy to school, failure to pick-up your children after events, turning in assignments, improving test scores, making kids take test, getting parents to pay school fees on time, the list is endless and the script we use is always the same….determine a punishment (often a draconian big punishment) to get motivation for students or adults to do the something we want. We have this belief that if we threaten some punishment that will motivate students, teachers or parents to do something we want them to do…..and we believe this works.


Fear of punishment is not a motivator. Sorry to burst every one’s bubble….but fear of punishment has never motivated people or students.  We humans are not simple stimulus-response, we are much more complicated —  simple “carrots and sticks” are not effective long-term.  No student says….ohhh I don’t want to be late again because I fear a detention and/or suspension.  No teacher says…..ohhh I better work super, super hard this year because my job or bonus depends on student achievement.  What ceases to amaze me, is that people will attribute the tweaking of a punishment if the behavior ceases as a success, when it might not have anything to do with the fear of punishment.

I suspect that some of the reason we believe the punishment worked is because it invoked what Economist call  “loss aversion.”  We hate losing something and many researchers claim this is more powerful than gaining something.   The real reason the student does not want to be late is the potential to lose “privileges” like the use of the family car, recess, personal freedom, loss of respect from adults or other students.  Sitting in detention which is the punishment is not the deterrent — yet we think it stopped the behavior if the student is not late again.  Schools need to learn more about how this powerful aversion to loss can have an impact on how kids and other adults perform and behave in school.

I once had a teacher that told my entire class we all had “A’s.” That if the class ended today we all had an “A.”  He made us write it on the front of our notebooks.  Made us (which we thought was silly) say it to our neighbor sitting next to us.  He showed each of us his grade book with an “A” by our name.  He may not have understood “loss aversion” but he must have experienced that students would work harder to keep the “A” they presume they already have versus the “A” they might get at the end of the nine weeks.

A recent field experiment with Teachers demonstrated this effectively. Researchers published a paper entitled “Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment. (2012)”   They divided 150 teachers into three groups. One group was given an upfront $4,000 bonus and told if scores don’t improve they have to give some if not all the money back.  The second group was told if student test scores go up each of you will receive a $4,000 bonus.  The third group was promised nothing. The results were surprising.  The teachers who received the money upfront outperformed the two other groups by a substantial margin.  The fear of losing something that is already mine is a big motivator and at least in this case it was a bigger motivator than a potential gain at the end of the process.

I have watched grown adults go crazy if they are charged a late fee even if its for a small amount.  They will spend time on the phone, pleading their case to get the fee reversed.  At the same time, they throw away the rebate opportunities because it requires them to spend time online or mail something into the company. Often the rebates are larger than the late fees. Our fear of losing something we already have is a very powerful motivator.

I am not advocating we employ performance based pay based on test scores, in fact, I have previously blogged that is a bad idea.  What I am saying, is our view of punishment may need revised.  Notwithstanding our consistent failure to address the root of the problem when considering behaviors of students or adults, we often — wrongly believe the fear of said punishment makes students behave.  We need to focus more attention to loss aversion and less attention to punishments to truly get the behaviors we want.

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Squashing teacher collaboration

Teaching is a very is a  lonely job — and that statement seems like an oxymoron.    Teachers are social, on stage, the answer givers, the facilitator, the energizer, the thinker, the organizer how in the world can you say they have a lonely job? How can teachers be so isolated from their colleagues? Don’t we want our teachers to collaborate?

So, why are teachers so isolated?  Aside from the obvious layout of a school that places teachers in compartments, the other biggest reason is the culture of teaching.  During my undergraduate coursework,  if you heard once you heard it a 1,000 times that good teachers deal with student issues without calling upon the Principal.  Good Teachers know what they are doing and do not need administrative support.  Good teachers solve problems on their own. Those that need help are shown the door.  Once you graduate you have this fear of living up to this standard.  You would never consider asking your colleagues for help or feedback on a particular lesson. You would never go to your Principal to discuss a difficult student.  That would show weakness and a lack of knowledge and your “boss” (the Principal) might think less of you as a teacher.  But that is exactly what other countries expect teachers to do and do frequently.

And let’s think about the pressures we place on teachers who have high expectations for themselves doing a job that has no defined limits.  We expect them to differentiate, integrate seamlessly with special education students, grow all students, and challenge the gifted ones.  We want them to be social workers, nurses, psychologist, motivators, disciplinarians, and scholars.  We have the outside pressures of accountability, testing, data-driven results, and often archaic bureaucratic regulations. You juxtapose all of this with the constant barrage of criticism from politicians and the media about teachers and teacher quality.  You could easily feel pretty lonely and defeated.

We see this isolation of teachers intensify and on steriods with the new evaluation tools introduced in Ohio and many other states.  When a teachers job or pay is dependent upon the performance of the teacher on a rubric coupled with the performance students, teachers will not be overly anxious to share teaching methodologies and techniques with each other.  We are essentially creating a competitive environment pitting one teacher against the other using faulty data points like test scores of children to determine job performance and pay raises.  They will squabble over who gets the best kids.  Who is going to volunteer to teach in that high-poverty building or take on more special education students?  Who is going to be willing to innovate or try anything new?

This is not good news for kids who need high quality teachers.  Several respected researchers have proven that teacher collaboration directly improves student learning.  When teachers collaborate on the best teaching techniques, discuss student work, plan together, observe each other, formulate cross-curricular projects, share ideas, etc…the learning of kids and the adults (teachers)  improves.   The old adage is “two heads are better than one” is especially true in the field of education and if teachers isolate themselves further the real losers are kids.

I am not so sure that the lawmakers who imposed this new system of evaluation with the expressed purpose to improve teaching and teachers considered fully how that would squash teacher collaboration.  It was extremely difficult to get teachers to collaborate effectively before this new evaluation system and it might well be next to impossible as we raise the stakes on teachers.

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Tenure is not a job for life!

At least a few times a month someone who is outside of education will utter — “if only you educators would run schools like a business we would see better results.”  The subtle message is clear — business does everything better — including educating children and if it was a business those teachers would fear for there jobs and perform better …. Most of the time I can keep my cool — but sometimes a volcano erupts and I challenge this erroneous notion.

The anger is certainly justified…for teachers and administrators its just another example of someone suggesting the corporate “fat cats” can “fix” education better than politicians and way better than educators.  I really don’t understand our fascination and mythology around the idea that “business” just operates better than any other institution.  Little or no evidence suggest this is true — in fact, one could make an argument that all of our economic woes of the last century can be attributed to colossal failures of business.

So here is the theory of the corporate reformers in a nutshell.

Boards and superintendents should have wide latitude to only keep those teachers “they” think are effective — usually measured by standardized test scores — that we know have nothing to do with teacher performance.  They believe if you fire all the bad teachers educational performance will improve. They believe this lack of job security will increase the overall performance of teachers. They view tenure as one of the main obstacles to improving schools and student performance.

This assumption has three main premises:

1.  We have lots of rotten teachers in public schools;

2.  They cannot be fired because of tenure laws; and

3.  We need corporate fat cats to fix it.

WOW.  That is so outrageous where do we begin.  It is true teachers have a great impact on students and they do matter– that is clear in the research.   But in my experience, we do not have large numbers of rotten teachers.  Teachers by and large want to do the very best job they can do — and — teaching as a profession is more of a calling than a job.  I see teachers who work tirelessly with kids who many would deem hopeless.  I know many of them work late in the evening, on weekends, without compensation,  grading papers and preparing lessons.  And yes many of them do work in the summer — sometimes teaching summer school, taking additional coursework, and many of them are working second jobs to supplement their income — because none of them went into teaching for the money.  They work hard at the craft and art of teaching.  Teaching is a complex process that cannot be scripted nor reduced to a recipe. Teaching comes from the heart and our very best teachers have passion and empathy for the kids they work with every day.

Do we have teachers that should not be teaching — yes — and in my experience if you do your due diligence as a principal or superintendent you can counsel that teacher out of the profession or terminate their employment.  Tenure or no tenure.

Tenure is not a guaranteed job for life — contrary to popular belief.   Essentially tenure is just another word for due process.  Tenure gives teachers the right to be given notice of deficiencies, reasons for the action and given the opportunity to improve.  That is tenure — not a job for life and certainly not immunity from poor performance.   Click here for a synopsis of all 50 states tenure laws.  http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/94/93/9493.pdf

Tenure has become a demonized word used as a rallying cry by reformers to remove basic protections from teachers and administrators that protect them from arbitrary and capricious actions.

The last off the mark point of the corporate reformers is this notion that business can save education, we just have to let the Bill Gates of the world make the needed changes and poof fixed.  This reminds me of the short-lived cult obsession with other fat cats like Lee Iaccoca.  Not that long ago we had tomes written about Mr. Iaccoca and his transformation of the struggling auto industry in the 1980’s.  We even talked about Lee running for President.  We routinely elevate these individuals to almost rock-star status believing that because they run a business and made lots of money — they must know better than the rest of us how to run things like governments or schools.  Remember when the great Michael Jordan decided he wanted to play major league baseball?  Most of these CEO’s are great at running their companies but would be schooled if they tried to run another industry.  Different rules, different set of skills and different culture.

We need to ask ourselves “why” the business community is so enamored with the business of schools?  We need to ask ourselves “why” that same business community would want to remove basic protections for teachers and administrators? I question the motives of that business community and doubt it has the best interest of kids at heart.  If we want to reform education lets just for once let the people who work in that industry day in and day out give it try instead of the politicians and rock-star CEO’s.

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10 Valedictorians? REALLY?

I live in your typical midwestern small town and like all small towns we have a local newspaper that NEVER carries national or state news.  In fact, you’re more likely to find recipes, Rotary club activities, kids participating in some afterschool event sponsored by the public library, church news, athletic events, and your neighborhood garden club photo.  This is the kind of newspaper that is truly full of only good news!

These kinds of newspapers are Americana at its best.  It is there that we also find photo’s of the valedictorian and salutatorian of all the local schools.  The number 1 and number 2’s of their respective classes all of whom boast a 4.0 or better depending on the grading scale.  All of them are pictured wearing their caps and gowns with cords signifying a multitude of accomplishments. My local hometown paper publishes every school’s valedictorian and for salutatorians three counties.

This normally goes unnoticed by me, I simply look to see if I know the names of the kids whose families I might know — but normally it is just a perusal of those best and brightest from each school. However, this year it was different.  Full and half-pages had to be dedicated to this ritual because of the number of valedictorian listed.  One school district had 10 valedictorian with 7 salutatorians! Very few districts had a true number 1 and number 2 and for that I am happy — It is impressive to see so many kids “ACE” all their classes….


As I looked at all those smiling faces — I know that in some cases — the drive to become number “1” overshadows learning; it often makes kids uber competitive and at odds with one another.  I have witnessed kids get snippy and downright nasty with one another over grades, schedules or classes they plan on taking.  They obsess over the schedules, who is taking what, plot out possible scenario’s and often attempt to outmaneuver their closest rival to better their rank.  What is even worse is the classes they refuse to take or the teachers they avoid at all cost.  Kids who often have those pictures in the paper as the Valedictorian are often the ones that played the game the best … not necessarily the brightest or the smartest — but savvy enough to game the system.

They game the system by taking a study hall instead of that AP physics course with Mr. So and So who is demanding and tough so they can raise their GPA!  HUH?  Yes — do the math — kids who are on a mission to be Valedictorian have not only figured out how to mathematically raise their GPA without taking courses — but they also know who to take — when to take it — and the only thing that really matters to them is the GRADE — not the content or the learning.  This to me is the exact opposite message we should send to kids who really need to be challenged and pushed academically to insure future success.  How often have we heard the stories about those Valedictorian college drop outs?   The reason this happens is some of those kinds of students have never been challenged — really don’t know how to study — and if something is hard they really never acquired the skills to overcome those obstacles.

Some of the most successful college students — the ones that graduate on time — are often those middle of the road students.  They worked hard, took the tough classes, did not always get the “A” but managed to work through those classes.  Those are the students who excel when they reach the next level — they have perseverance, skills to overcome obstacles, stick to it ness, drive etc….

The whole notion of ranking and sorting runs counter to truly making schools a place of intellectual development.  By focusing on grades and rank we send a mixed message to kids — on the one hand we say we want to develop them intellectually to become life-long learners while on the other hand we are ranking and sorting them like a baseball scorecard.  We simply send the wrong message.  I want kids to love learning for learning sake — not for a grade — but because it piqued their interest and they valued the knowledge gained.

I am willing to bet if I asked those students pictured in the newspaper what the word “valedictorian” means they would look at me with blank stares or might blurt out erroneously it means number “1.”

Valedictorian means the action of saying farewell.  It is the student  commencement speaker — the one that addresses the class one last time.  Most schools have fortunately ditched the traditional commencement speaker — you know the ones that drone on and on about nothing and no one can remember them to this day — and they have limited the student speakers.  Instead many schools have made graduation more of a showcase of the talent of the students and a reflection of the entire high school experience with photo’s of each graduate often juxtaposed to a baby photo and highlights of the last four years. Commencement is about all the students not the one that gets to say farewell.

I really think it’s time to ditch the whole idea of Valedictorian and Salutatorian and move more to the college format using Magna Cum Laude, Summa Cum Laude, Cum Laude —  Using this system means no one is competing to be number “1” everyone has a chance to be honored for the hard work and commitment they made to their classes and schools can focus kids on learning — developing them intellectually and giving them the opportunity to be lifelong learners.

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