Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Real Innovation...or School as We Know It?

Recently I sent out the following Tweet:
Of course, innovation is one of the hot words in education currently. It has followed right in the footsteps of creativity. (I can’t recall what the word was before that.)
                I know that aside suggests a degree of cynicism, but I don’t mean it that way. In fact, if you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I believe in the immense power of education and that education would benefit from some fundamental changes. But my referring to the series of hot words is a way of introducing my theme. We go through a series of words, trends, reforms, latest-greatest…yet it remains school as we know it. So no cynicism, but some skepticism.
                Let’s go back a few years, when schools were first developing 1:1 laptop programs. The move, we were told, would prove transformative. Was it? Perhaps in pockets. A school here and there really shifted. But at most of the places I studied or visited, except for a few classes, it looked like school as usual. In most classes the only difference I could discern was that the kids had replaced traditional binders with expensive machines.
                Still, I remain hopeful. Thus, I have been following with great interest Grant Lichtman’s blog The Learning Pond. For the past 14 years Grant has filled many roles in association with The Francis Parker School in San Diego, one of the largest independent schools in America. Over the past several weeks he has undertaken a remarkable journey. As the header on the blog reads:
What does the future of K-12 education look like? What programs are leading the way? How are educational organizations changing in order to promote real innovation? Join me as I visit 60+ schools across America this fall to learn and report on how leading educators are implementing significant change to meet 21st Century challenges.
I’m incredibly jealous, as I often have imagined taking such a trip (but without all the driving). The chance to visit so many excellent schools and to meet with so many top educators would be stunning. As great a job as Grant does at sharing his experience—and, Grant, thank you for that!—I wish I could see all this for myself. First, I think of all I could learn and bring back to my own school.
                But, more than anything, I want some assurance that my hopes remain true possibilities. In at least some cases, even emerging realities. As I read his entries, I find myself asking pointed questions. For example, I will see that a school has implemented a new program or created a new position; and I wonder how it truly has changed the learning experience, if at all. Changing curricula does not guarantee anything; it may just emphasize different content. Adding an administrator does not ensure a pedagogical shift. I want to observe the classes. I want to talk with teachers. I want even more to talk with the students.
                Even though I lack the tangible, first-hand evidence, Grant has deepened my hope, primarily for two reasons. I find it truly heartening that he found over 60 schools he judged worth visiting. Also, what he found showed enough variety that suggests the innovation is becoming part of each school’s culture, that each is remaking parts of itself in line with its mission and culture and not just grabbing onto the current flavor. Consequently, Grant has given me another hope: that when he finishes the journey, he can summarize the lessons learned in a way that enables to see what these schools have in common. How did they become transformative? Each entry has some of that, but I think we all would benefit from a synopsis from the person who has made the actual journey, because it strikes me that we’re talking about changing the DNA of many schools and educators. Then I hope we would see even more real innovation and not just school as we know it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On Blogging during Break

The first day of Thanksgiving break, and I woke up with an idea for a blog post racing through my head. As usual, it didn't crystallize completely at that time; instead, as I was running around through the day, I found myself mentally drafting as bits developed. At several points I wanted to begin writing, but either I was doing something else or I resisted the temptation. But now early evening has arrived, and I can begin composing. However, I am not expounding on that initial idea. Instead, I am reflecting on the anecdote.

You may be reaching some conclusions about what this scenario says about my work habits, mainly that I don't know how to turn it off. Perhaps. My wife says I don't know how to simply be. Again, perhaps. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. She is right in that, unless I am watching a soccer game, I tend to keep busy, often with tasks. But, while my mind seldom shuts down, I do not put in ridiculously long hours that often.

The real point of the post has to do with my relationship with blogging. Even before I came to St. John's, I had toyed with the idea of starting a blog. But I was sort of like the shy boy who gazes longingly at the beautiful girl, fantasizing about their relationship but never gathering the courage to ask her out. Basically, I couldn't imagine an audience. Then when I came to St. John's, the Director of Communications encouraged me to start one as a way parents could begin to know me better. I don't know how well the blog achieved that goal, but two years later the audience has grown. Now I feel as if I wooed the girl and convinced her to marry me. As in any marriage, effort is required to keep it going, full of both pain and reward. The pain comes from difficulty of the writing itself--each facet of the process, the self-doubt, the public nature of it. It's very different than turning in a paper for a class or submitting a manuscript for possible publication. The blog is all you, all the time, responsible for every aspect of it.

I find it incredibly disappointing when a blog dies, abandoned by its creator, no longer lovingly nourished through regular cerebral feelings. You can see it coming. The posts become less frequent, the content less stimulating, as if the author has begun to bore him- or herself. Though the author owes me nothing--and, I hate to admit, I did not encourage through comments or Tweets--I still feel somehow betrayed. When reading a book or article, you know it will end, even wonder how it will, appreciate the fabulous wrap up. But a blog seems to carry an inherent pledge of infinite development.

Therein lies another motivation. I see that infinite development as indicative of the blogger's own growth. I will use first person, but I suspect this point is axiomatic. For this blog to flourish, I must provide stimulation not only for readers, but also myself. In fact, I doubt I could do the former without the latter. So the blog becomes another motivation, another impetus to keep discovering more and to figure out how it fits into this incredibly complex pursuit of education.

Thus, the rewards. Yes, a larger audience and burgeoning view count is nice. The reflection is wonderful. But perhaps more than anything, blogging puts me in the position of student, with the pressure of having to deliver something that passes muster. As a head of school, I don't have as much contact with students as I used to, and it's critical that I keep in mind their experience.

Yes, it's Thanksgiving break. No one expects a post. I don't have to publish one. I just want to.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Evaluating Evaluation

                Last week at the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS) Heads of School meeting, two sessions provided an interesting juxtaposition. On Monday Tim Fish from the McDonogh School (MD) presented an overview of the Folio faculty evaluation system developed there and now being used by a growing group of schools. Tuesday morning we watched the film The Finland Phenomenon and had a Skype session with Tony Wagner. Actually, the juxtaposition was more than interesting. It was almost jarring, and I am just starting to reconcile the issue.
                Folio is a highly systematized system of evaluation which stresses professional growth. Cornerstones of the process include personal reflection, ongoing goals, classroom observation, and multi-dimensional feedback, all occurring annually. A key is informed and honest conversation. The software helps make it more manageable. I very much like what I heard in the presentation. The new system I put in place at St. John’s has many similar features, but without the nice technology packaging.
                Then we watched The Finland Phenomenon. To summarize: for the past few years Finland has led the world in multiple measures of academic excellence, and we need to learn from them. While the film made many compelling points, a comment in the Skype session afterwards is what struck me. Wagner told us that Finland has no formal teacher evaluation system. Instead, teachers are greatly trusted.
                I imagined myself reporting to my board of trustees that I had decided to eliminate our evaluation system.  They are wonderfully supportive, but that would have been pushing my luck way too far. Besides, it’s not something I would do, as I believe an effective evaluation and growth program is essential to school improvement.
                Before I go anywhere else, I must say I understand the myriad problems with many evaluation systems. First and foremost, the entire process evokes dread for most people. Having once suffered as the target of a poorly done evaluation, I know the scars it can leave. I went into the next one fearfully; and while it went fine, I suspect that lessened the experience. Another issue is that in many places the process is little more than a checklist completed after a cursory observation; there is no reflection and subsequent planning for improvement. Consequently, it honors neither the teacher’s individual qualities nor the institution’s higher ideals. Finally, when done right, the process is extremely intensive and time consuming.
                So what makes for an effective system? The highest of standards must be articulated and shared; and everyone must strive to meet them, with the desire to improve being the default mindset. Tied to that notion, rather than being used punitively, the system must function in a way that fosters reflection and growth. This necessitates trust and optimism. In many ways, it should resemble a wonderful classroom.
                In an ideal situation, the level of collaboration would have colleagues making this occur organically, and poor performers would not survive, mainly because their peers would not stand for it. But teachers are accustomed to working in professional isolation, the lords of their classroom fiefdoms. So we’re talking about shifting engrained school culture. And that is where Finland has a distinct advantage. Besides the cultural homogeneity, a teacher cannot take over a classroom without having undergone master’s degree level preparation, much of which involves classroom observation and analysis, a process that continues throughout one’s career. While the evaluation system may not be formal, in reality it is intense and continuous…and very welcome.
                This calls to mind Jim Collins’ admonition in Good to Great (passé, but apropos): “First who…then what.” More than any system or lack thereof, what matters most is having the right people. If you really want to fulfill your mission, they should serve as the true embodiment of your mission. Those will be your best teachers—the ones kids want to grow up to be just like.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Not Voting=Educational Failure

               This morning my daughter ranted with the sort of indignation only a fifteen-year-old can muster. The target of her disgust? People who do not seize the opportunity to vote. While I share her thoughts, I also asked if she would want uninformed people voting. Naturally, that made her question why anyone would remain that way given the privilege we have to live in a place with such a system.
                As I drove to my polling place early so I would be towards the front of the line, I made a mental note to look up how many people have voted in the last few presidential elections. But the radio hosts did my work for me and announced that in the last four elections, the average turnout was around 55% of all age-eligible citizens. Higher than expected, but still disappointing. The natural question arises: Why?
                Many reasons exist. One host said he doesn’t vote because in Texas the result is so clear that his vote doesn’t matter, citing the electoral college system. Others feel one vote does not really make a difference. Many have grown cynical about politics and government in general; like me, you probably heard people darkly joke that one good thing about Superstorm Sandy was the break from political campaigning. Some are simply apathetic. The natural question remains hanging: Why?
                I consider this an educational failure—not one of curriculum or pedagogy, but one of mission and philosophy. If a school has not prepared its students to engage fully in their role as citizens, that is a failure. In fact, I would argue that wise voting captures many of the fundamental skills schools should be developing, particularly in this modern era. A student must learn to slog through tons of information, much of it conflicting and even false; discern a reasoned conclusion; and then perform a relevant act with a real world connection.
                While I have felt to some degree all the reasons not to vote cited two paragraphs above, they don’t hold much weight for me. My belief is someone has no right to complain unless he or she helps to find a solution. I also see deciding not to vote as an act of ingratitude, even entitlement, that disrespects all those who have made doing so possible, from the Founding Fathers on up.
At least people feel they should vote. On Jimmy Kimmel’s show yesterday (when no polls were open) he sent a crew out on Hollywood Boulevard to ask people if they had voted that day. Everyone said either they had or they were on their way. And I just saw that #ivoted is the top trending hashtag on Twitter today. Both are scant consolation.
Ultimately, in the partnership between school and family, a primary goal—perhaps the primary goal—must be helping young people become the type of adults we need to improve the world. And as I once saw on a plaque, “It’s easier to build kids the right way than it is to repair adults.”
                I’m proud that my daughter cares so passionately about this topic. She keeps herself quite informed on the issues, and she can cite factual evidence to support her opinions. From the time our children were young, her mother and I have engaged them in political discussions. I’m grateful they have teachers who take time from the regular curriculum to study the election and that their school encourages active engagement in the larger world. It’s why studies show independent school graduates are twice more likely than students from other schools to become involved in political and civic causes. These strike me as strong markers of success.
                I hope my daughter has a chance to vote before she departs for college. I can imagine the glow of her smile.