logo
Community Members: Log In / Join Us
      

How Many Sacred Cows Does It Take to Sustain A Movement?

How do we transform the quality of teaching and learning in America?

Like a lot of people, I’ve been wrestling with that riddle for the bulk of my career. And this month, three separate events are making me wonder in a new way about how to bring about such a shift – and sustain such a movement.

The first two were meetings that represented parallel, powerful constituencies and ideas – an Imagination Summit hosted by the Lincoln Center Institute in New York City; and an Empathy in Action working group, hosted by Ashoka in Washington, DC. At each gathering, I heard stories and insights from some of the world’s most influential thinkers – from Sir Ken Robinson to Deepak Chopra to Kiran Bir Sethi. I heard compelling cases for helping our education system become more effective at ensuring that all children become empathetic, and develop the ability to think imaginatively, act creatively, and behave innovatively. And I left feeling impressed by the energy and the motivation that was driving each group to push its work forward.

In a few days, I’ll also be attending the Save Our Schools (SOS) March, a grassroots-led movement of teachers and parents from across the country that disagree with the Obama administration’s current reform path – and plan to peaceably assemble in DC to indicate their displeasure. Since I’ll also be covering the march for CNN, I’ve been reflecting on the goals of those private meetings, the goals of this public march, and the essential questions that must be answered for any movement to be successful: Who or what is the movement’s opponent? What is its core idea, and how can that idea be expressed as simply and compellingly as possible? And how can a complex network of individuals, organizations and alliances come together to forge a common agenda?

Our own history tells us just how possible, and difficult, it is to turn ideas and energy into transformational change. That’s because reforming a system requires not just the capacity to know your enemy and forge a compelling narrative, but also a systemic approach to the problem – an articulation of the whole. Too often, what happens instead is we lose sight of the whole out of our preference for a specific piece of the puzzle – I call it the sacred cow syndrome. Instead of a unified movement, we get a cacophony of parallel efforts. And instead of paradigm shifts, we get Groundhog Day.

If you’re a principal, you know this all too well. In addition to everything else you do, you have to regularly sort through the literature from a range of school-improvement approaches and programs that, to your eyes, seem to have similar objectives and research bases: is it a service-learning focus you want to adopt, or a character education program? Is civic education where you will choose to hang your hat, or will you double down on social and emotional learning?

To be certain, each of these field’s approaches to learning is distinct, and each field has its own unique advantages. Each would also clearly benefit from a larger movement that brings about a shift from our Industrial Age model of schooling to one that is suited for the Democratic Age. And yet for years the different leaders of these different fields have sought, genuinely, to unite their efforts – only to fall back, eventually, on their respective sacred cows.

Which returns us to the present. What will the future hold for these nascent Imagination and Empathy networks, and for this weekend’s DC protest? Since all three tribes talk of movement building, will one be able to craft a big-enough umbrella to unite the aspirations of the many? Will we develop the capacity to understand the whole? And is it possible to sustain a movement of sacred cows that, by definition, no one is willing to eat?

Share

What DC Can Teach Us About New Teacher Policies

This weekend, an article in my local paper crystallized three things we need to stop doing if we want to transform American public education for the long haul – and three things we should start doing instead.

1. STOP having a national debate about labor law; START having a national conversation about how people learn.

The article I’m referring to was written in response to the July 15, 2011 announcement that 206 teachers in the D.C. public school system had been fired for poor performance, “a rarity in a big city school system and an extension of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s aggressive drive to upgrade classroom instruction in the nation’s capital.”

Indeed. For the past four years, ever since Ms. Rhee first took the helm of the D.C. public school system (DCPS), the tenor of our national conversation (and my local one) has been squarely fixed on teachers, on teacher evaluations, and on the role teachers unions have played in our ongoing efforts to guarantee each child an equal opportunity to a high-quality public education.

On one level, this makes sense: teachers are clearly the most significant in-school factor to a healthy learning environment for kids; teacher evaluations are clearly in need of an extreme makeover; and teacher unions have clearly been occasional obstacles to some of the larger efforts to remake our public schools. In that regard, any and all efforts to “upgrade classroom instruction” are exactly what the doctor ordered.

And yet, the reality is that the past four years have been more of a national debate about labor law – and less of a national investigation about how people learn. And the problem is not that labor law doesn’t need fixing; it does. But when things like “last in, first out” (LIFO) firing policies, collective bargaining rights, and teacher pensions crowd out our capacity to identify what highly effective teaching and learning really looks like – and requires – what we get are cover stories about personnel dismissals and litmus tests on national personalities, not evaluation tools that are designed to help the vast majority of teachers get better. Which leads to the second thing . . .

2. STOP spending so much time talking about the best and worst teachers; START focusing on everyone else.

Although mass firings of the sort DCPS reported last week are rare, the number of personnel affected was still quite small – just 5% of the total workforce. In fact, very few teachers were rated as either great or horrible; the vast majority – nearly 70% — were simply rated “effective.”

This underscores a rather obvious point: the only way to transform the teaching profession is by crafting policies that help the vast majority of educators improve the quality of their practice over time – not by lionizing the master teachers or demonizing the ones that should find a new line of work.

Is that what’s happening in DC? I believe our new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, when she says that IMPACT, the city’s new teacher evaluation system, is designed to build capacity, not just weed out the unwanted. Perhaps over time IMPACT will even become a useful national model for a different sort of evaluation tool that can provide feedback, reinforce high standards, and help ensure a high-quality teacher in every classroom. However, based on a recent in-depth review of IMPACT, we’re not there yet – and we’re still way too focused in our public rhetoric on the best and the worst teachers. It would be nice to see the rhetoric and the reality get more in line with each other. And it would be nice to imagine that some worthy educators won’t recklessly lose their jobs along the way.

3. STOP viewing poverty and education as an either/or; START viewing them as a both/and.

Anyone who lives and works in education knows that an ongoing argument has been occurring between some who feel you can’t fix education until you fix poverty, and others who feel you can’t fix poverty until you fix education.

The reality is that both sides – and neither side – are right. Poverty and education are inextricably linked, and the ecosystem each child inhabits – from his home and community to his health and his school – has a massive, complicated impact on that child’s capacity to learn and grow. Therefore, any new policies that fail to account for that complexity aren’t just poorly designed; they’re patently unfair.

This point was reinforced in the article about the DC firings and the IMPACT evaluation system. As Washington Post reporter Bill Turque wrote, “a breakdown by ward confirms, as it did last year, that the overwhelming majority of highly effective teachers work in schools with lower rates of poverty and other social problems.”

This news shouldn’t surprise anyone – how could it be otherwise? – and yet too many of us are still suggesting the path forward must be lit by signs saying either “It’s The Poverty, Stupid,” or “No Excuses Means No Excuses.”

We can do better. We have the capacity for greater nuance in our understanding of something as complex as teaching and learning. And as we spend the summer months preparing for a new school year, we would be wise to be more mindful of what we must stop, start and keep doing in the months and years ahead.

Share

Let’s End the Battle of the Edu-Tribes

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

There’s a revolution underway – and no, I don’t mean in Egypt or Tunisia.

I mean the growing, hopeful, tech-savvy, solution-oriented tribe of educators who attended last weekend’s EduCon 2.3 in Philadelphia, an annual event that bills itself as “both a conversation and a conference, ” and a place where people come together, “both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools.”

Hosted by the Science Leadership Academy – an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st century learning (what a concept!) – EduCon was as much a revival meeting as it was a conference. To spend time there was to bear witness to the development of a different sort of tribe – a confederacy of educators from across the country, united by inquiry, connected by social media, and committed to solving the intractable riddle of public education.

See for yourself – scroll through the #EduCon tweets and you’ll find two things in abundance: a communal language of potential and partnership; and a rapid-fire establishing of new relationships based on possibility and hope.

This is, in short, the essential recipe for bringing about a paradigm shift in any profession or organization – and it is painfully rare in contemporary conversations about public education. As Dave Logan explains in his must-read book Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, “tribes emerge from the language people use to describe themselves, their jobs, and others. . . When a person looks out at the world, he sees it filtered through a screen of his words, and this process is as invisible to him as water is to a fish. . . Instead of people using their words, they are used by their words, and this fact is unrecognized.”

Logan goes on to characterize five tribal “stages” – informal groupings in society, a field, and/or an organization based on an individual’s predominant worldview (as constructed through the language s/he uses and the types of relationships s/he forms). The extreme stages range from a complete sense of hopelessness about the world and its possibilities (“life sucks”), to a transcendent space of endless possibility and collaboration (“life is great”). And, of course, the bulk of us fall somewhere in between.

I share this because when I returned from EduCon I was struck by the clear contrast in tone between tweets from EduCon attendees and tweets from the leading voices of the two main Edu-Tribes – also known as the “reformers” and the “status quo-ers”, although I tend to think of them more as the Old Guard and the New Guard.

As Logan would explain it, the EduCon Tribe is operating at the crossroads of Stages Four and Five. Its members pay almost no attention to organizational or regional boundaries; the only thing that matters is that people contribute meaningfully to the discussion. The language of this tribe is hopeful, solution-oriented, and obsessed with things like collaboration and communication. And its members are all aligned around EduCon’s five guiding principles:

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members;
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen;
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around;
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate;
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

The power of these principles is key; a high-functioning tribe always identifies and leverages a core set of values, and uses those values as guideposts to align around a noble cause. Yet contrast that clarity with the Old & New Guards, still engaged in bitter warfare to influence the mainstream media and shape the Obama administration’s federal education policy priorities – albeit at slightly different cultural stages.

To borrow Logan’s terminology, the Old Guard is operating at a Stage Two level – most simply described as a “My Life Sucks” view of the world. Logan describes people in this cultural stage as “passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they’ve seen it all before and watched it fail. The mood that results is a cluster of apathetic victims, united in their belief that someone or something is holding them down and standing in their way.”

Any of us who live and work in education have seen – or been in – this stage throughout our careers. On Twitter, it’s reflected in a lot of negative, oppositional language: words like “skewer,” “dupe,” and “debunk.” And in articles and Op-Eds, it’s reflected in pieces that are primarily about what the other side is doing wrong – and only secondarily about what its own side is doing right.

Meanwhile, the New Guard is primarily made up of people operating at Stage Three – most simply described as the “I’m great, and you’re not” worldview. As Logan explains, “The gravity that holds people at Stage Three is the addictive ‘hit’ from winning, besting others, being the smartest and most successful.” Not surprisingly, the New Guard uses words like “innovation,” “scalable,” and “results.” Its members love the spirit of programs like “Race to the Top.” And because of its overreliance on intellect and the technocratic answer, its characterizations of schools, and of schooling, can come to sound dehumanizing for adults and children alike.

To be sure, these descriptions cannot provide full accounts of any individual or tribe. All of us defy such efforts at easy explanation, and the current debates about public education cannot simply be reduced to whether we’re pro- or anti-union, reform or status quo, or old guard and new guard.  Still, in Logan’s descriptions I see sufficient echoes of the world I inhabit and the conversations I observe, and I’ve become even more aware of the words I use and the types of relationships I form. For me, that means refusing to contribute to the cynicism and hopelessness of Stage Two, and insisting on an expansion of the “coldly cognitive” worldview of Stage Three.

I want more inquiry. I want less demonization of those I disagree with. I want more community. In short, I want my EduCon, and I want it all the time! Who’s with me?

Share

A Sinking Ship?

During a week in which both Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama will publicly defend their education reform priorities – in response to severe criticism from the country’s leading civil rights organizations – I’m trying to figure out how a set of ideas that was so close to mobilizing a quiet revolution in public education has instead led the soldiers of that revolution to passionately (and loudly) take up arms against each other.

All I can come up with is they’ve gotten some lousy advice. And I think I see where they’ve gone wrong.

Take, for example, the issue of teacher evaluations, which is a major component of the Race to the Top selection criteria. First of all, anyone who doesn’t think our current system of teacher and principal evaluation needs to be completely remade is someone you should never listen to again on any issue of consequence. Teacher and principal assessments in this country are a joke – and do nothing to advance the quality of the profession or improve the overall learning conditions for kids. So the Obama Administration’s decision to shine light on this issue is spot-on.

Why, then, has that issue transmogrified into a bold push for using financial incentives to boost teacher motivation? Who thought that was a good idea, and why did anybody listen? As I’ve written previously, the leading thinkers in the business community have recognized for years the limitations of this strategy (Enron, anyone?). Dan Pink has posted a useful video in which he cites a study by, of all entities, the Federal Reserve, showing how cash incentives work well – as long as the desired behaviors are simple and non-cognitive. Yet this is an issue the administration continues to try and defend. They should drop it like it’s hot.

Similarly, there’s the push to adopt a common set of academic standards across all fifty states. This, too, is something I’ve written about previously, and this, too, is an issue I’m ready to support, provided the projected purpose for the use of the standards is in line with what other high-achieving countries around the world have used them for – namely, to provide guidance, clarity and quality control, not to enforce a strict set of restrictions that prescribe the actions of local educators. We need standards that are viewed as indicators of wisdom our students will need to be successful in college and the workplace, not shards of knowledge that make it easier to devise uniform tests and mandate standardized modes of instruction.

Is this the path the Obama administration and the National Governors Association seek as well? I’m not sure, but I can see why some people feel nervous.  We are, after all, still a culture intent on overvaluing the illusory certainty that basic-skills test scores provide us. We still seek linear progress in the most nonlinear of professions and experiences. And we still operate in a society where powerful forces driven by the bottom line have the capacity to steer policy decisions to their liking. So although the jury is still out on this one, I feel more nervous than confident.

Finally, there’s the issue of making federal money for states a competitive, rather than strictly a formula-driven, process. If you want to view this one purely by its ability to engineer massive changes in how states operate, it’s a runaway success. States have revised laws to lift caps on the number of charter schools, adopted the new common standards, and poured thousands of hours into finalizing their grant proposals. Initially, two states were awarded money in the first round. Today, 18 more states and the District of Columbia were named finalists for the remaining $3.4 billion in funding.

This aspect of the Obama administration’s proposals is what particularly rankled the civil rights groups. As Schott Foundation president John Jackson put it, “No state should have to compete to protect the civil rights of their children in their states.”

Hard to argue with that point, but in the interest of moving forward, I want to offer three simple pieces of START STOP KEEP advice to the Obama team:

  1. KEEP focusing on teacher and principal quality and evaluation, but STOP doing it via the 20th century notion of carrots and sticks, and START investing deeply in quality teacher preparation programs and evaluation systems.
  2. KEEP emphasizing the utility of a stronger, clearer and leaner set of national standards that can guide instruction and provide quality control to a system that sorely needs it, but STOP viewing it as a way to impose more national standardized exams, and START heeding both the civil rights groups’ recommendation for common resource opportunity standards, and the need for a long term goal (once the aforementioned teacher preparation programs are up to snuff) of having national content standards provide guidance for teachers, who then devise locally-administered assessments based on their detailed knowledge of what they’ve taught and who they’ll be testing. (This is what many of the highest-performing countries in the world do, by the way.)
  3. KEEP saying that providing a high-quality public education to all children is the civil rights issue of our time, but STOP trying to do so by incentivizing competition that results in winners and losers, and START advocating for a Constitutional amendment that makes the guarantee of an equal opportunity to learn for all children something the states cannot ignore.

I think that would help a lot. What do YOU think?

Share

Is It Really All About the Benjamins?

As both a former teacher and a MBA, I’m struck these days by two things: first, the ubiquity of “business thinking” in today’s education reform strategies; and second, the complete absence of the sort of business thinking we actually need to be heeding.

Keep reading here . . .

Share

Privatization or Public-ization?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the growing support for a privatization of America’s public school system, and what it augurs over the long haul.

Typically, that’s as far as the conversation gets before breaking down into myopic talking points that force people to pledge allegiance to one of two camps: these days you’re either pro or anti-charter, pro or anti-union, or — the most insulting — pro-adult or pro-kid.

I can’t predict how it’s all going to play out, but I can see that these binary frames are misleading distractions that work great as sound bites, and prevent us from addressing the primary challenges we face as a nation. I can also suggest an illustrative tale worth paying attention to, on from the other side of the globe where the exact opposite push — a public-ization of the school system — is taking place.

Click here to keep reading.

Share

USA Today Covers Launch of Rethink Learning Now

Greg Toppo of the USA Today covered today’s launch of the Rethink Learning Now campaign. See what he had to say.

Share

What Would Theo Do?

I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan, so as this year’s trading deadline approaches, I’m wondering once again what Theo Epstein, the GM of my beloved Boston Red Sox, will do to improve his team’s chances of winning their third championship in six years — after not winning one for eighty-six.

I’m also a lifelong public education fan, so with the Department of Education’s Race to the Top Fund poised to provide billions of dollars in competitive grants, I’m wondering if Arne Duncan can do for public schools what Theo Epstein has done for the Red Sox — take a maligned institution known more commonly for its failures than its successes, and turn it into a perennial winner.

Duncan should start by asking himself a simple question –What Would Theo Do?

Share

Will We Do What it Takes to Improve Public Eduication?

Want to imagine a different path to improving public education in this country? Take my 15-minute challenge.

Share
© 2014 Faces of Learning
Website by AndiSites.   |  Go back to top ↑