Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hoping for Better Conversation

       On June 22, 2016, The Atlantic published "America's Not-So-Broken Education System." Contrary to what we see from too many education writers, the author points out several ways America's education system has improved slowly and steadily: improved teacher training, a more cohesive curriculum, and certain measurable outcomes. We could dispute his case and even the underlying philosophy; we could argue all of what he says may be true, but it's not good enough. I certainly maintain these bits of progress are not really worth celebrating all that much and we still have plenty to fix.
       But that's not really my point. The article prompted some new reflection on my dismay over the often nasty nature of dialogue about education. (Two examples: here and here.)* Granted, in many ways education presents a fairly easy targets. Even people not in the field offer strong opinions. I point out them out not because they shouldn't be commenting, but because I think they fail to grasp the complexity of what a school is trying to do. With the one-to-one teacher-student relationship complicated enough by itself, consider the mosaic of an entire school, especially ones as diverse as our typical public schools. Sometimes I'm a bit awed by how well many schools do in their circumstances, whether the myriad needs and backgrounds of their students or larger cultural forces. That seems forgotten amidst the negative criticism.
       Still, I generally agree with the basic content of much of the criticism. It's often based on legitimate concerns and frequently raises important questions. I ask them myself. My frustration grows for other reasons. The first is the tone and stance many of the critics regularly adopt: pure negativity, laced with snarkiness and sarcasm. There's something stereotypically adolescent about it. As much as I dislike the smugness, I'm more annoyed by what's usually missing.
       Ideas, answers, new models, solutions--those seldom appear. In other words, the critics, while great at pointing out problems, are not nearly as good at fixing them. Any ideas, even the better ones, remain overly general or simplistic. Certainly they fail to account for all the challenges of implementation, especially in a system as complex as a classroom, a school, a district. Yes, sometimes it's a communication issue, depending on medium or lack of larger context. Too often, though, it's attitudinal. I think of fans who slam professional athletes competing at the highest level.
       As frustrated as I am with "outside" people who operate this way, I become even more annoyed with "inside" ones who respond in certain ways. Perhaps they chuckle at the flippancy and scornful gibes. Perhaps they think they aren't part of the issue. Perhaps they shift blame to the system or administration or parents. It amounts to self-absolution. They seem to plead, "I would have ideas and make things better, but I don't have that power; I just have to accept the way it is even though I complain about it."
       That's when my mad morphs to sad. I don't think many of these people are by nature cynical. Many are probably crushed idealists. Whichever is the case, it can't be great for kids. However we want to break down mission or philosophy or purpose, education should be about helping kids become the best possible versions of themselves. That means empowering them to develop agency. Kids need educators who model that quality in purposeful, positive fashion.
       Yes, the challenges may seem insurmountable. But they're not. We know of amazing success stories, miracles conjured through all sorts of hocus-pocus. I certainly don't have the answers, illustrated by a rather motley resume of hits and misses as I keep swinging. I do know, however, a great place to start would be to insist on more mature, measured, meaningful ongoing conversation.

*I realize that someone could read this post and accuse me of hypocrisy based on what I am about to write. I'll take that chance and hope my overall records shows otherwise. If not, I need to rethink some things.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Leadership as Obsolescence

       A true paradox for most leaders in appointed positions is that, if you've done your job well, you render yourself obsolete. We are hired for a particular reason at a certain point in time, usually based on clear institutional needs and/or desires. A clear list of objectives thus exists; they may even be part of some larger strategic plan. Check off the items as you achieve them by using the skills in your toolkit and fly the mission accomplished banner. Then, however long that process, arrives the time for the next person to take over.
       That's a rational, utilitarian perspective. It makes sense, and it fulfills our desire for tangible progress. It's realistic. It's also too shallow.
       On some levels, working through a check list is relatively easy. It can become procedural, systematic; people comply with the items and do their jobs. But do they embrace them? That's where we start to sense the deeper reasons we should aspire to leadership as obsolescence. It's about culture. It's about what Peter Miller called "the smart swarm," those organizations which function like flocks and hives. They are in sync yet without an obvious hierarchy, the common goals leading to great efficiency fueled by each member's contribution. In a human institution this produces a virtuous cycle and subsequent long-term sustainability. Meanwhile, the leader fades into the background, having helped to create something that endures long after that person is gone.
       We can have a hard time looking at leadership this way. Daily minutiae obscures the horizon, and this stance demands the longest of views. Plus it's in our short-term interests to make ourselves seem indispensable. And certainly we need the right leaders at any given time.
       Can a leader avoid obsolescence? Perhaps so, although the way may involve another paradox, or at least some irony. It may take less ego, making things more about others than one's self. It may take more humility, realizing--and admitting--how little one actually knows. Then one can grow and learn and evolve right along with the institution. Because the truth is not that the institution needs that particular leader. When the culture is right, they benefit from each other.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Measuring a School Year? The Real Questions

                 A couple of Junes ago, Jessica Lahey, author of the excellent The Gift of Failure, had a provocative post on The New York Times Motherlode blog: “How Do You Take the Measure of a School Year?” Around the same time, unaware of her post, I wrote “Good Year?” Recently I’ve been pondering these same questions, although in a very different frame of mind. Usually come May I’m so, so ready for the summer. While I’m still working, the pace is very different, and there is time for some refreshment. This year, though, I’m ready to keep going. At St. John’s we’ve had a wonderful year; and because I’m energized by the great things happening here, I want to maintain the momentum.
                Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a bit about Jessica’s question. She presents some different thoughts from parents and school folks, most of which are conclusions. I’m going to take a slightly different twist and begin in a different place. First, of course, you have to make some attempt to clarify what success would mean. What it would look like. We know any sort of large-scale consensus on that remains quixotic. But hope remains that we can reach it on a school-wide basic. Most certainly in an independent school, where we should have a clear mission and approach and culture. An ethos, if you will. This clarity then leads to the questions one should ask in taking that measure. 

                Knowing one size does not fit all, I offer you, in no particular order, questions that schools should ask in taking the measure of a school year:
  • Are we a better school now than we were at the start of the year?
  • Whose needs did we put first--adults' or kids'?
  • Did we take enough risk? Did we let the kids?
  • How farsighted were we in thinking about the purpose of education?
  • Did we recognize and tap into the value of each member of our community?
  • Did we aim to inspire and enchant?
  • Did we give kids the right sort of headaches? Did we make them good tired or bad tired?
  • Are we asking the right and better questions?
  • Were there times we became so enthralled that we lost track of time and other frames?
  • Is our lens one of healthy skepticism or viral cynicism?
  • How often do we start with why?
  • Have we held ourselves to the professional standards we often expect of kids?
  • Do we practice what we preach?
  • Was our first reaction constructive--"yes, and"--or destructive--"no" and "but"?
                 Certainly some will reject this set of questions, perhaps even the approach. I've heard the argument often enough: you can't really measure these things. I try to understand the sort of mindset that requires the certainty and affirmation that can come with hard data.The questions do point us to softer topics.But as the cliche reminds us, soft is hard and hard is easy. We can measure plenty of things in education, and we put plenty of faith in them. Certainly the questions above demand more of us. That's because they remind us what really matters.