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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?

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The Big Picture on School Performance

On Feb. 1, President Obama vowed to toss out the nation’s current school accountability system and replace it with a more balanced scorecard of school performance that looks at student growth and school progress.

I love the idea. Mr. Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan have repeatedly criticized the No Child Left Behind Act for keeping the “goals loose but the steps tight.” On their watch, both men aspire to introduce a new law that keeps the “goals tight but the steps loose.”

With that more flexible standard in mind, I have a scorecard to propose: the ABC’s of School Success.

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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?

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Why Send My Son to Public School?

Earlier this week, Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced the latest hopeful sign for D.C.’s public schools – a spike in citywide student reading and math scores. “We’re thrilled at the progress we’ve made this year,” said Rhee. “We still have an incredibly long way to go.”

I’m grateful for the early improvements in the D.C. schools – and I share Chancellor Rhee’s caution. We all know standardized test scores offer just one window into the health of a school system. Any business school student also knows it’s foolish to judge an organization’s overall health based on a single measure of success. And yet the United States is the only nation with an accountability system based solely on standardized test scores.

We can do better. That’s why local leaders like Michelle Rhee, and national leaders like Arne Duncan, should lead the charge in demanding a better accountability system for our schools.

Here are four things we could do that would make a difference:

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