Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Problem in a Nutshell

     In Think Like a Freak, Levitt and Dubner write, "The key to learning is feedback. It is nearly impossible to learn anything without it" (34). A few paragraphs later they add, "But the more complex a problem is, the harder it is to capture good feedback." I'd add this goes for all parties in the process.
     Therein lies the entire problem with assessment/standardization/data/value-added issue in education in a nutshell. It's just too wonderfully complex.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Sacred Trust of Schools

                The phone rang around 7:30 PM this past Saturday. The number was unfamiliar, so my wife almost didn't answer. But she did because both my children are on adventures: Kate biking from Reno to San Francisco and then down the coast to Santa Barbara; Stephen hiking around the Colorado Rockies. Both go with an amazing company called Overland, who sponsor different types of programs all over the world. We've enjoyed being “kid-free” for a while.
                The call was about Stephen. While on the trail, he had slipped and hit his head on a rock. He didn't show any signs of injury other than a three-quarter-inch long “jagged gash” above his eye that would require stitches. Plus they wanted him checked since it was a head injury. Adding to the challenge was that the group (2 leaders and 12 kids) was in real back country. One leader and Stephen would have to hike 2 hours just to reach their van, then drive about 1-1/2 hours to a hospital. Meanwhile we’d have to wait until they reached a spot where they could get cell service for any more word. (They had called the office on a satellite phone, which needed to stay with the group.) So my wife and I simply had to sit tight, unsure when we would hear more, and of course that took longer than we believed it would, knowing it was getting dark on the trail, worried about all the things that could go wrong on the trail, such as one of them getting badly hurt.
                As we waited, my wife commented at one point, “Kids really are sacred, aren't they?” We sort of let that comment sink in. We comforted ourselves by talking about how incredible the leaders at Overland are, the great training they receive, their experience, their optimism. They, as an organization and individuals, take on an incredible responsibility. And they've suffered tragedy, such as when some teens were killed on the ride across America last year. I was struck anew by just how much trust we had placed in Overland by sending our kids on these trips. It was Kate’s third and Stephen’s second. While I was worried, I also had faith in Overland. They honor the sacred trust.
                It should be no different in schools. Our relationship with children and their families should be a sacred trust, ideally one that goes both ways. Parents place incredible faith in us to do what is best for their kids, to appreciate their absolute uniqueness, to forgive their inherent and developmental foibles, to nurture them lovingly, and to challenge them appropriately. That trust is the deepest root of a partnership. During that sleepless night and since, I've found myself thinking about this quite a bit as perhaps the key of a truly great school.
               We heard from Stephen and the leader as soon as they could call, then again from the hospital, then again after he’d been treated. The communication was great, and we heard again the next morning. Stephen checked out just fine, just needing a bunch of stitches. No other problems. Furthermore, he also found the positive in the situation. On the phone from the hospital he gushed that on the trail they saw a “bunch of deer and five moose.”

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Challenging Indy Schools to Take Advantage of Independence

     During some various Twitter chats on assorted subjects, I've often asserted that I believe independent schools (including mine) should take greater advantage of their independence. Out of all my tweets, these seem to generate the most positive responses, retweets, and favoriting. Clearly this notion strikes a chord, at least with a certain audience, one I believe is fairly representative.
     The question becomes rather obvious. Why don't we?
     Let's first consider the answer from a rather sweeping philo-psycho-socio-historical perspective. Recently I've been reading Frederic LeDoux and Ken Wilbur's Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Generation of Human Consciousness. The basic premise is that each major shift in human consciousness has led to giant leaps in our level or collaboration and thus how we set up institutions. Under-girding it is how we perceive humans and how we measure value. Each stage is assigned a color. Currently most of our organizations (and I'd say much of how we live) is based on amber and orange type thinking. This emphasizes power, authority, hierarchy, measurable outcomes--that which we associate with the "business" world but dominates so much of human establishments. It's obvious how this links to the factory model of education that has become so entrenched over the past 150 years. The authors believe we are moving into the teal stage, which is more about extensive collaboration, transparency, and self-management of individuals and teams. It's much more soulful. They cite 22 businesses, both profit and non-profit, that operate in teal fashion, the best known of which may be Patagonia. They do refer a few times to a school in Germany. All, of course, sound like wonderful places.
     I'm not going to question Ledoux and Wilbur's general thesis. In fact, I think it makes great sense. We know, for instance, that schools operate as they do because of large cultural shifts and needs. Now they're changing, albeit slowly for the same reasons. And therein lies the real reason that, in this broadest of senses, we don't take advantage of that independence much, much more than we do. We're rather trapped within a strong historical framework, and such shackles are difficult to break off. Especially if we're not fully conscious of them.
     Even if we are aware, it's all many of us know when it comes to education. It's how we were educated. It's how our parents were educated. It's how much of the world has been educated. And, to a certain degree for a while, it's worked well enough. That's particularly true in independent schools, where we serve a clientele that is highly motivated and thus basically compliant. Tied to that, it's how many of our families want their children to be educated. As some parents have told me, they don't want their kids being used as guinea pigs in an educational experiment. So, yes, it's what we know and what we know is safe.And there, for independent school leaders, reality hits. Like it or not, we are a business; and we need for enough people to buy what we are selling. For us, full enrollment is safe. Glowing next level placement, high test scores, prizes and honors--those are assurances of safety. For us, anyway. Or, I should say, some of us. At least in the immediate and short term.
     The problem lies in a certain failure, or lack of imagination. We know the world is changing, but we do not fully conceive what this means. In fact, we can't except in abstract ways, and that troubles us because we can't fit in in our existing schemes. Similarly, it requires true vision to conceive of truly different ways of doing school. Then come the challenge of actual implementation and courage.
     I realize this post may suggest frustration, even hopelessness. There is some of the former, but none of the latter. Quite the opposite actually. We see wonderful innovation happening in independent schools around the country, and I'm very proud of the strides we've made here at St. John's. I expect even more this year as we focus on creativity in our professional development. As we all work on rethinking and re-imagining education, it's essential to understand the deep and broad complexity. Then we'll be better poised to take full advantage of our independence.