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Greatness requires asking tough questions

I recently joined an on-line book club of fellow educators and am finding the conversation to be invigorating after only a couple of days.  The group (over 200 folks!!) is reading Why Don't Students Like School,by Daniel Willingham and participating in rigorous, lively debate in hopes of learning more.  Please accept an invitation to participate as an observer (!!

One of the kickoff entries titled "Curiosity is fragile"  concludes with a question should be tough to swallow for many educators –  If indeed we know that such common teaching strategies as worksheets, end-of-chapter questions, drill and kill activities, etc… are contradictory to basic cognitive principles, why are they so prevalent in classrooms today (reference to principles outlined in chapter 1 of Why Don't Students Like School)


Does Michelle Rhee Have Something Going?

Michelle Rhee has certainly made headlines.  She has hit the cover of Time magazine taking on the "status quo" and demanding a link between student achievement and teacher job performance (,9171,1862444,00.html).  The new (ok, not so new anymore…) Chancellor of Washington DC schools is bent on increasing student achievement and is willing to pick battles to make it happen.  Like other educators, I recognized this as a chance to learn from someone else's mistakes – or at least sacrifices…

A recent article in edweek regarding Michelle Rhee's work caught my attention.  The title, "Union Bashing Won't Reform Our Schools" was certainly a shot at public officials, media, and administrators who sit back and blame the teacher unions for the ills of public education was obviously the slant of the article with that title.  As I skimmed, I recognized a more thoughtful, relevant argument that cried for a better reading.  So I went back and started over…

Jennifer Goldstein speaks to one of the greatest needs in public education – training the leaders to be leaders and holding them accountable to performance.  Make no mistake, she is clear that it is the responsibility of administrators to do the evaluating of teachers and to follow through on the necessary actions.  Bashing unions for the lack of performance of adminstrators or teachers is unacceptable in her eyes – and I see her point…  Tough to swallow for a current principal…  Yes it is my responsibility.  Thank you for your insights Ms. Goldstein.  I will pay attention to what Ms. Rhee does with her administrative team and hope to learn from it.



The Fall of General Motors… Does That Mean Something for Education?

Like the rest of America, I have been following the recent bankruptcy filing of General Motors and pondering what it means for the future of our country.  Certainly we cannot argue that "nobody saw it coming."  People such as Friedman, Toffler, and Pink have been screaming from the mountain tops about the future of world economics and America's need to re-tool for the 21st century or risk being the "country left behind."  Recently Scott McLeod referenced the happenings at GM in a blog post ( linked to the  Bureau of Labor Statistics and GM's website.  The data speaks for itself (graph are from the BLS at… 


Are schools based on the industrial model of delivery (in come 30 students, pour information into them for 45 minutes, out go the 30 students to be replaced by 30 more, repeat process…) still the right framework for todays economy?  Is the fall of GM a precursor to what's coming in public education?  

GM will most certainly emerge from bankruptcy a leaner company more clearly focused on success in the flat world economy that all industries face today.  Manufacturing simply isn't what it used to be in America…  Will the company that emerges offer some insight into what public education should be reflecting?  If the manufacturing jobs that used to offer a "solid middle class lifestyle" in America are now in other countries or in America paying much smaller wages, then what are American schools preparing students for?  Are we aligned to that work place?



Educators Kicking Around “The Test” Excuse…

On the right column of this blog you will find feeds from "Dangerously Irrelevant" and "Leader Talk."  Both blogs attract an audience of educators that seem to be committed to rigorous, scholarly debate about how to best meet the needs of our country, world, and kids.  One of the recent hot topics on Scott McLeod's site was on the excuse of "the test" in educator circles.  Tune into the conversation for some great debate…


Let’s Be Clear About the “Distinctive Impact” of Public Education

In a recent meeting of local admininstrators, a colleague was reflecting on the incredible changes that technology and the movement for other venues of learning have brought about in public education.  His pragmatic style of leadership made his words all the more powerful.  "The public high school will look very different in 15 years, he ruminated.  I wouldn't have said that even 5 years ago, but the ability for a student to hop online and earn credit for a class in just 15 to 20 hours that we require, by state law, 60 clock hours for is going to challenge what we do.  We may need to question whether it's worth investing in buildings like we're currently putting up if indeed students won't be in them." 

These comments led me to reflect on a difficult truth to swallow in public education – students could learn the content they are taught in a 7-8 hour school day in just a few short hours each day if time spent on other "things" was eliminated.  This is one of the main rallying cries of those opposed to public education and one that we struggle to defend against.  "But there are so many other, very important things that students learn in a public school" we argue, yet what record to we have to show for it?  We record credits for Civics, Algebra, and Biology, and we have test scores to assess specific skills deemed important, but we have no documented defense to show all of those other, valuable, "things." 

Jim Collins offers some challenging thoughts to wrestle with that apply to these questions in his monograph "Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer; Good to Great and the Social Sectors."  If indeed we in public education believe that variables such as teaching team work, working toward the common good, establishing an appreciation for equality, and embracing some core American values are part of the distinctive impact that we offer, might we measure progress on those goals and be clear that these are part of what we do?  Without such information to present, how do we set ourselves apart from the online class that a student can complete in less than half of the time? 

Jim Collins calls on social sector organizations to participate in rigorous debate about purpose and how to best align systems to achieve the purpose articulated. 

A great organization is one that delivers superior performance and makes a distinctive impact over a long period of time…  For a social sector organization, however, performance must be assessed relative to mission, not financial returns.  In the social sectors, the critical question is… "How effectively do we deliver on our mission and make a distinctive impact, relative to our resources?" (Collins, pg. 5). 

The basic idea is still the same: separate inputs from outputs, and hold yourself accountable for the progress in outputs, even if those outputs defy measurement (Collins, pg. 5).  What matters is not finding the perfect indicator, but settling upon a consistent and intelligent method of assessing your output results, and then tracking your trajectory with rigor (Collins, pg. 8).

So what is the distinctive impact of public education?  What are the outputs that we deliver on that other education venues cannot?  What do we do better than anyone else in the world?  It must be more than the credits that we print on a student transcript…  A student can earn those much more efficiently elsewhere…