Friday, December 9, 2011

What Do We Really Want for Our Children?

What Do We Really Want for Our Children?
By Nelson Coulter

Imagine with me for a moment.

Suppose that we, as the citizens of Texas, decided that having physically fit children is collectively a worthy aspiration.  Certainly, current data with regard to health, medical, productivity, and absenteeism costs would support a decision that promotes physical fitness.  Suppose also we decided that, in order to ensure that all children in the state achieve minimum levels of physical fitness, the state must take the lead in making that outcome a reality.

In order to achieve those goals, suppose we decided to require the public school students of Texas to compete in a three-pronged “exam” each year consisting of:  1) 100 meter dash, 2) high jump, and 3) shot put.  To determine for us what an acceptable level of performance in each of those exercises should be, we would assemble an assessment team to set the standards. That assessment team would consist of some fitness gurus, some experts in each of the three events, a few manufacturers of stopwatches and strength equipment, and maybe some retailers of high jump mats.  

Our blue ribbon assessment team would determine “passing” or “failing” standards for each age level of student, student subgroup, and school.  Minimum expectations would be set irrespective of ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status.  The nutritional and exercise history of the students, the environment in which they live, their emotional state, the current state of their physical development, their natural physical “body types,” and other performance impacting elements will be disregarded in setting the performance standards.  Some exceptions may be granted complicating factors.  For instance, standards might be modified for a child that has only one, or no, legs (but only if their school doesn’t already have too many of these “types” of students).  Other than rare exceptions, ALL students will be expected to meet expectations for their chronological age group, as determined by our blue ribbon assessment team. Period!
(Note: the blue ribbon assessment team w ill be empowered to change the standards from one year to the next).  

Once those standards are arbitrarily set by our blue ribbon panel, each child’s performance in the individual events is measured, and each child is then labeled as a success or a failure accordingly.  Thus, a child that runs quite fast but cannot put the shot very far is deemed to have some sort of deficiency that requires focused attention and remedial work in order for him/her to eventually meet the arbitrarily set shot put standard.  A child that can put the shot very well but may have had some difficulty clearing the high jump bar must be required to spend extra time and effort to become a better high jumper (irrespective of body weight, height, coordination, muscle mass, etc.).  Finally, a few of the children may be known to be slightly delayed with regard to physiological development (not flawed, just delayed).  These children may not perform well in any of the three events.  Yet, because of poor performance they will be required to attend “boot camps,” to engage in extra training sessions, and to work with hired specialists in order to bring their performance(s) up to par.  No matter that their biological clock is ticking slightly slower than the “average” child in that age group.  (Note: It will be deemed reasonable and acceptable to medicate some low-performing children with steroids or other drugs to enhance the likelihood that they will meet minimum performance expectations on the prescribed physical fitness “exams.”)

All children that don’t meet standards (standards that are arbitrarily determined and that change yearly) will be made to feel that they are failures in some respect.  The adults that love them, care for them, and nurture them daily will be compelled to prod, push, coax, harangue, and cajole the children to work hard enough and long enough to improve their performances in order to meet the expected fitness standards (again, arbitrarily set standards).  An underlying assumption in this story is that the children, and their parents, and their respective communities should want and expect ALL children to be good sprinters, good high jumpers, and good shot putters.  Another underlying assumption is that if all the 9-year-olds in a community don’t perform at exactly the same acceptable standards as all 9-years-olds in all other communities, then the community itself is somehow flawed and must be publicly castigated. 

One more thing:  Any students who cannot master all three events to the minimum standards by the end of their senior year will NOT be allowed to receive a high school diploma.

You may be appalled at the absurdity of this story, as am I.  A student that doesn’t sprint well shouldn’t be made to hate the joys and benefits of running because some group of adults decides that the child must reach a predetermined and arbitrary level of sprinting proficiency.  Neither should children that don’t high jump or shot put very well be relentlessly driven to meet the arbitrarily set standards.  Adults who believe that general physical fitness cannot be sufficiently measured through a narrow menu of fitness tests such as sprinting, shot putting, and high jumping should not be viewed as na├»ve, ill-informed, and/or regressive in their thinking.

The fable you have just read is, I believe, a vivid analogy of exactly what we have done to the students of Texas (and nationally) in the cognitive realm.  Children that don’t write, do math, remember history, and understand science concepts as well as expected (against arbitrarily set standards) are made to feel less than the rest of us.  Our system of educational accountability has not only made each of these children feel like they are failures, it also indicts the homes, schools, and communities in which those children live.

Please do not write me off as one of those crazy “liberals” who believe in an anything-goes or standards-less education system.  I believe in a strong and sensible curriculum, I believe in measuring student understanding of that curriculum to inform how we (the schools) and our students are doing, and I believe those results should be made publicly available so that each community can assess how its respective schools are doing.

What I don’t believe is that students and schools should be stigmatized (even traumatized) by that process.  I do not believe students and schools should be labeled as failures by external entities (e.g., the state and/or the federal government) against standards that are dubiously set, via assessments that are suspect in validity.  I do not believe that a team of experts from outside a community can “fix” a school that is failing its students.

I do believe local communities should be empowered to determine the relative quality of their schools, and to change those schools if they so choose.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  We should, and do, provide a viable and rigorous academic curriculum.  But, what is happening in the cognitive fields (and would also happen in the physical fitness realm of our fable above if the same approach were taken) is that students are driven to a fear and consequent hatred of those disciplines in which we have deemed them deficient.  No lasting appreciation develops as a result of having been labeled, stigmatized, traumatized, and demeaned.

Zhao, in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way (2009), points emphatically to what has made American education a model to envy:  an embedded appreciation, assumption, and deep respect for individual differences.  He also insists that while the drivers of extreme homogenization and accountability are diluting that model, our primary global competitors (e.g., China) are moving in exactly the opposite direction.  Zhao asserts that we must commit (or, re-commit) to emphasizing creativity, global awareness, multicultural literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence as the primary components of our educational system (without forsaking attention to content-specific knowledge and skills).
 
Enough is enough!  When learning becomes viewed by the learner as a traumatic, toxic event, then it is time for us to re-examine what it is we (the adults) are doing and why we are doing it.

Some might dismiss my thinking as the disenchanted ramblings of an old educator at the end of his career.  However, I have five grandchildren who are now or will be attending the public schools of Texas.  What I want for them is something different than a system designed to press out technicians and automatons.  I want for them a system of schooling that focuses first and foremost on values, and that fosters reflective thinking, personal and social responsibility, a deep appreciation for and commitment to service, meaningful life pursuits, and (perhaps most importantly) a love of learning.  I want for my grandchildren an educational experience that makes them better people (not better test takers, and not haters of learning - or running, for that matter).  I am convinced that it is time for parents, grandparents, educators, and citizens of all stripes to stand up and take control of the direction of the education of OUR children.

I am extending to you an invitation to join me in re-setting the educational direction of our children.  If interested, email me at nelsonwcoulter@gmail.com.

Nelson Coulter is a father (of children who graduated from and now serve Texas public schools), a grandfather (of children who are and will be attending Texas public schools), a husband (of a retired Texas school educator), and an educator in Texas public schools (as teacher, coach, principal, superintendent, and professor).

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Nature of Knowledge

The world seems to be a rather unsettled place.  My guess is that the constantly changing nature of our world is not a new development.  What is “new” about it is the fact that we have instant access and awareness of those changes these days, due to 24-hour cable, satellite radio, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Students studying history or government in our schools no longer have to wonder, guess, or even dig for how the overthrow of a government affects its people.  They can simply access the hashtag “#Libya” on Twitter and immediately read thousands of posts by current Libyan citizens who are posting real-time accounts of the street fighting, assemblages, mayhem, celebrations, etc., that accompany revolution.

What, you might ask, does that have to do with “knowledge”?

Knowledge is NOT a thing.  Perhaps it would be best to rethink how we view “knowledge” and think of it more as a fluid and changing construct. We should probably think of knowledge as a verb, rather than a noun.  To be sure, certain facts are constant: 2+2=4 is a pretty well-established fact, as is the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as is the distance from New York to Los Angeles (well, maybe that one is changing, if you accept the idea of continental drift and plate tectonics).  But, my point is this: certain facts are set in stone, unchanging.  However, perhaps we should think of those elements as just that, “facts,” or “information.”  “Information” should be thought of as the noun (a person, place, or thing), while “knowledge” is thought of as a process. What we “know” changes, grows, bends, connects, morphs in an ongoing manner.

What does this mean for each of us?  The creation or acquisition of knowledge is an ongoing and dynamic process.  Our brains are constantly taking in new information, new stimuli, and reconciling it against what it already knows and believes.  From that process of continual mushing, mashing, synthesizing, we come to know things in new ways, in better ways, in different ways (but rarely in permanent ways).

Learning is now as much about finding the information one needs as it is about memorizing the information.  There is simply too much information to memorize, anyway. Even the physicians I visit have changed from relying on their memory and intuition about what maladies my symptoms might be suggesting, to using their computer (whatever shape it may take) to quickly filter the mass of information about symptoms, combinations of symptoms, the impact of my age/weight/medical conditions/drugs/lifestyle before making a determination about how best to treat me.  I for one like the fact that my physicians are leveraging the sum of all accumulated knowledge regarding my status before making a decision about my treatment.  It seems wise to me that they would choose this more exact approach before dosing me with medicines, or cutting me open.

Schools, too, are changing in response to this way of thinking about knowledge.  Schools must equip our students with the skills to learn on their own, to unlearn that which is no longer useful or relevant, and to relearn the things that will better prepare them to be successful in their work and life. 

Standardized testing, as we have known it, does not represent an adequate, perhaps not even a useful, means of telling us about whether or not students have those skills.  Blanchard and Hodges (2005) describe the process of moving through stages toward mastery.  They tell us that one begins as a Novice, then becomes an Apprentice, then a Journeyman, and finally a Master (or Expert) in whatever field they have chosen to pursue (whether a vocation or an avocation).  When you think about it, each of those phases implies a level of desire, of collaboration, of coaching, of mentoring, of stretching, and of growing (even at the Master level).  In effect, the “knowledge” is fluid, changing, growing, being revised, on a continual basis.

In my mind, we ought to be rethinking how schools serve our students, who will be living and working in a world that literally “changes out from under them” on a daily basis. We need to focus our efforts on helping students learn how to learn, how to unlearn, and how to relearn.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Value of Booksmarts?

I’ve spent a large chunk of my 54 years on the planet either formally engaged in the act of learning, or thinking about how learning happens.  It seems to me that we’re all engaged in the learning process, pretty much all day, everyday (whether we’re aware of it or not).  Much of that learning is done on automatic pilot; for instance, once we get a ticket (or two) for passing a school bus with flashing red lights, we learn to STOP when the bus has its red lights flashing.  That powerful lesson was probably not something we got up one morning planning to learn.  It’s just learning that occurs in a happenstance sort of way.

Other kinds of learning we do in a very intentional way, some of it because we really want to - like learning how to put make-up on to make ourselves beautiful, learning how to drive so we can get that precious drivers license, learning how to operate our cool new iPhone, etc.  Sometimes it’s a very intentional AND formal way of learning – like going to college or trade school to learn to be an accountant, or teacher, or welder.

Looking back on many of my learning experiences I see that I learned from a variety of sources and through various “teachers” such as:  the school of hard knocks, books, observing events and people, trying and failing repeatedly, many sermons (mind you, I didn’t learn from all of them), loved ones, teachers, experiences of all kinds, coaches, allies, hundreds of hours of college work, even my enemies.  Again, that learning was the combined result of both formal and informal processes.

My guess is that my experience is not all that different from yours.

Since we all engage in the process of learning every day, then one might argue that there is little point in accumulating the formal evidence that documents our learning (such as diplomas, degrees, and certifications). 

Howard Gardner, the noted Harvard psychologist and educator, says that intelligence “…is the ability to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings.”  That’s a fairly high-brow way of saying that smarts is when you know something or can do something your friends and community value.  In that case, there’s a whole lot of stuff that would make one “intelligent.”  I’m thinking of my grandfather on this note.  He dropped out of school in 8th grade, and went to work to help support his family.  I’ve not personally known anyone with a brighter mind than he had.  However, his “smarts” were not “booksmarts.”  Translate that to mean that he didn’t have any paper credentials documenting his learning/intelligence.  But, as Gardner has rightly noted, my grandfather was held in the highest regard by his community for what he knew and the skills he possessed.  So, what would have, could have, possibly been the added value to him had he actually formalized his expansive knowledge and skills repertoire?

Here’s the deal.  It’s true; learning is learning, whether informal or formal.  True, intelligence is something that is valued by your community, usually (even if it’s the kind of intelligence possessed by mob bosses or gang leaders).  So, like my granddad, what is the need in getting a diploma, pursuing the degree, becoming certified?  What do booksmarts get for you that streetsmarts don’t?

Here’s the way I see it.  The learners that go to the trouble to document their learning and accumulate the evidence that goes with it have a significant advantage over those that don’t.  They get the job interviews the others don’t, they have doors opened that the others don’t, they get the jobs the others can’t.  They’re not one ounce smarter, but they have more opportunities, more options.

It’s really the value of education.  Learning counts.  Proof of that learning counts even more.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Guthrie CSD Enters the Online Education Marketplace


The state legislature of Texas, several years ago, saw the need to begin a process of offering public school coursework in an online environment.  Thus, they created the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN).  TxVSN is funded by the state of Texas and serves three primary purposes:  1) to review courses submitted by potential course providers in the network to ensure quality and rigor, 2) to serve as a “warehouse” of approved courses, which any student in Texas is entitled to take, and 3) to serve as the “cashier” between schools that provide the courses and receiving schools.

At this time, there are only 25 school districts in Texas who are “providers” of courses in the TxVSN.  The list includes behemoth districts like El Paso ISD, Amarillo ISD, Pasadena ISD, Plano ISD, and Spring Branch ISD; also included are universities and some large cooperatives like the SUPERNET Consortium in east Texas.  And then there is little ole’ Guthrie CSD.  If you would like to know more about the TxVSN, go to their website:  www.txvsn.org. 

Courses in the TxVSN are available to public school students, to homeschooled students, and to students of private schools.  The cost for courses taken by public school students is paid by their home districts.  Their home district must approve of the coursework, and must assign a local facilitator/mentor to help the student navigate the process.  The money for courses taken by homeschooled students comes from their own pockets (or rather, the pockets of their parents).  Finally, private school students taking TxVSN courses are funded either by their school, or by their parents.

So, what is the Guthrie Virtual School?  Currently, Guthrie CSD offers Spanish I and Spanish II courses in the TxVSN.  Through a partnership forged with Rosetta Stone (yes, that’s the international language software giant), we have taken their software and crafted high-quality coursework that requires students to listen to, understand, and speak Spanish; moreover, the students learn about the culture, music, history, and art of Spanish speaking communities and countries.  Guthrie Virtual School currently has one full-time teacher (who lives in Jayton) and two part-time teachers (one lives in Guatemala and one in Irving, Texas).  These excellent educators currently serve a total of around 325 students from around the state (that is over three times the number of students that actually attend the school in Guthrie!).  Students taking our courses range from those in our “neighborhood” of districts, like Paducah, Patton Springs, Jayton, and Motley County; we also serve students from Houston, Dallas, Temple and many other points around the state.  We are making preparation to offer a fourth year math course called “Advanced Qualitative Reasoning.”  And, we are in the exploratory stages of crafting a “Web Design” class.  Please visit http://www.guthrievirtualschool.net/ to learn more about the Guthrie Virtual School. 

Finally, WHY would Guthrie CSD enter the online education market?  We are convinced that the future of our students (regardless of the educational or work pathways they choose) will require their nimbleness and proficiency in the use of 21st century tools. Researchers tell us that we are educating our students now for jobs that don’t even exist today.  As well, demographic research data suggests that students who are currently enrolled in public schools will hold more than 10 jobs/careers in their lifetimes.  Our students simply must be able to learn, unlearn, and relearn on a continual basis; and, they must be very independent and self-motivated learners in that process. It is their future; it is our future. The better question might be "Why Not"?

The future looks very bright for Guthrie CSD (and, the Guthrie Virtual School).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Same Old New: School's Start


Guthrie School, like thousands of others across the fruited plain, is welcoming back our most cherished resource, our youth, for the start of a new school year.  I count myself among the most blessed people on earth for a host of reasons, and being able to serve the students and community of the Guthrie Common School District is just one of those many blessings.  Feeling a bit more of my mortality than I used to, I stand reflectively on the threshold of a new year considering what has, and hasn't, changed about the beginning of school.

Some things remain the same.  The students can hardly sleep in anticipation of the new year. Most all of the teachers and administrators begin suffering loss of sleep, too, but for very different reasons. The buildings and buses are all polished up.  Classrooms are adorned to send clear messages of "welcome back" and "learning is our business."   Teams and coaches have begun the painful and exhilarating process of whipping themselves into shape, donning the colors that scream to all that they are prepared to defend and protect the honor of their communities and schools in the arenas of competition.  Cafeterias and concession stands get stocked. Lesson plans get developed. Band uniforms get altered (again). New clothes and shoes are laid out. School supplies are stowed neatly in backpacks. Master schedules and bus routes get finalized. Resolutions for a newer, brighter, more productive year get prayed, promised, and articulated.  New is in the air.  All, much as it has always been.

On the other hand, some things have changed. Schools must do more, with less, far less in the way of funding. Expectations for student achievement are ratcheted up, way up.  More tasks, that have so little to do with student learning, are added to the "to do" list. Students do more of their learning as "digital natives" while being taught by "digital immigrants."  Learning opportunities proliferate, as students and teachers quite literally hold the sum of all human knowledge in the palm of their hands (in the form of computers, smart phones, or iPads). Knowledge that used to be the domain of a few enlightened intellectuals is now available, in full color video, with tutorials, with scored practice sets, at the click of a few keys.  Teachers, more than ever, find themselves cast as co-learners with the students, rather than as sages on the stage. It is all very disconcerting.

But wait!  Some things haven't changed at all. LEARNING continues to be the fundamental reason that schools exist. Learning will still happen, or not, based almost singularly on the skill of the teacher in the classroom (not the curriculum, not the facilities, not the technology, not the administration).  Students will continue to love, perform for, and learn for teachers who love and serve them well.  The powerful learning nested in the the "curriculum of life" that is taught both in overt and covert ways, by parents, teachers, coaches, counselors, principals, bus drivers, lunchroom personnel, maintenance staff, will continue to be the most important learning task we undertake. That curriculum (not math, science, foreign languages, etc.) is best described with words like respect, honesty, compassion, self-discipline, service to others, being involved in noble endeavors that are bigger than one's self. That is the "stuff" that will best equip our students to navigate well the treacherous seas of life.

One of my mentors, Joe, describes himself as being the product of many fine folks who taught, coached, and mentored him through life.  Joe says those folks "left their fingerprints all over me."  School, in so many ways, is the process we use as a community, a society, a nation, to leave "our fingerprints all over" our most precious resource - our children.  What an honor it is to play a role in that powerful process.  Let the new school year begin, and let us make our world a better place through that LEARNING process.

(Oops! Gotta go, I think I hear the tardy bell ringing...).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lessons from "Unbroken"

I just finished reading the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by (Hillenbrand, 2010).  It details the life of Louie Zamperini, child hellion turned Olympic track athlete turned WW II soldier turned POW turned war hero turned social activist.  The book provided me with some powerful lessons on three fronts: historical, psychological, and spiritual. 
From a historical perspective I had previously read the memoirs of Douglas MacArthur (1964) and McCullough’s compelling biography of Harry Truman (1993).  Through those works (and through numerous history classes) I had already developed some understanding of the contexts, circumstances, and perceptions related to the U.S. conflict with Japan during World War II.  In particular, Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus ending the war, has always been a topic of great interest to me as I consider it the classic leader’s dilemma case study.  In those circumstances, leaders are faced with making tough choices from a very short menu of options, all of which are VERY ugly.  Unbroken provided for me yet a couple more lenses through which to view Truman’s decision: that of soldiers-on-the-ground in the battle theater and that of POWs suffering the vilest offenses imaginable at the hands of their Japanese captors.  These new perspectives provided in Unbroken only confirmed in my mind that Truman chose wisely in using the most lethal weapon available to him in hopes of ending the war expeditiously.
 On the psychological front, Unbroken provided an interesting study in paradox.  On the one hand the ability of some human minds to withstand extreme and prolonged duress speaks volumes to me, as it clearly underscores that cognitive evolution has equipped us with an amazing mind with which we can overcome great adversity.  However, only the most disciplined minds seem to harbor the seeds of resilience needed in such dire circumstances. Discipline is a daily practice, not a resource that can be called upon in ad hoc situations.  On the other hand, the book also paints a clear picture of the depths to which the human mind is capable of sinking, when submitted to circumstances void of clear moral direction.  On this end of the spectrum, the undisciplined mind is capable of every bit as much calamity as the disciplined mind is of resilience.   The most powerful passage in the book for me was the following, which speaks to the impact of dignity on the mind’s resilience:  “Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.” (p. 183) 
Finally, on the spiritual front, the lessons of forgiveness have been renewed in my mind through reading Unbroken.  When individuals and nations, through the grace of God, can put aside vengeance and replace it with total forgiveness, despite depredations unimaginable, I am further convinced that more of our “beingness” is attributable to that spirit part of us, as opposed to our body or intellect.  And, I believe that that spiritual component in us springs from well beyond ourselves: it is rooted in the likeness of the God who created us. 
Unbroken was a powerful work, one that I enjoyed thoroughly. 
Thanks for the recommendation, Linda N.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Another Way to Fund Education in Texas: A Modest Proposal

I submit the following modest proposal (at some risk of exposing my ignorance, I'm afraid).  I have made this proposal twice to legislators who represented my district  when I lived in the the greater Austin area, and to a TEA committee hearing three years ago, in the presence of the Commissioner.
 
Here goes:
The negative connotations we associate with the word "bureaucracy" derive from the fact that bureaucracies tend to become slaves to their processes rather than slaves to their customers.  They tend to move ever toward higher levels of incentivizing adherence to process/protocol and their own institutional sustainability, rather than incentivizing the outcomes desired.
 
In the case of public schools we have some very noble, worthy, and clearly stated desired outcomes: 
1) graduate ALL children, regardless of their station in life, and
2) have ALL children college-ready, whether they choose to attend college or not.
 
It seems to me that we would invigorate a rather talented public workforce (i.e., educators) if we were to fund school districts by the desired outcomes (graduates + college readiness) rather than funding the processes (e.g., G/T programming, reading programs, compensatory education, dropout recovery initiatives, compulsary attendance, etc., etc.).  (We already see this dynamic at play in the more successful charter schools).  To be sure, it cost more to graduate a non-English speaker or a student with special needs than it does a student with no apparent cognitive/social/emotional learning barriers.  Rather than funding the process, I suggest incentivizing the outcomes desired. 
 
Some examples:
  • Graduating average old general education Joe would garner a school X dollars in state funding.
  • Graduating Sue, who is an economically disadvantaged student, garners the school X, plus additional Y dollars.
  • Graduating Sam(antha), who is an economically disadvantaged student, but who has also demonstrated college readiness, garners the school X+Y+Z dollars.

You get the idea, the money flows to schools based on the numbers of graduates they have, and the kinds of students they are graduating.  I realize this proposal is akin to the relieve-us-of-the-mandates movement. In this proposal, I am suggesting that schools be given REAL opportunity to be flexible and innovative.  Yes, they are already mandated to to be both, by statute (federal and state); but, "flexible and innovative" have been largely unachievable because of the statutory constraints that prevent them from being both (e.g., length of school day requirements, prescribed instructional days in the year, burdensome attendance policies, credentialing limitations, uniform start dates, etc.).  The change in process would require a phase-in (just like changing from TAAS to TAKS did).

Does this model introduce an element of competition?  Sure does.  Actually, it's more of an acknowledgment of current realities.  Most of those that work in schools already feel it, and the on-line delivery options (even those now provided at the state level) are only increasing that competition.  Thus, schools are all becoming ever more focused on providing a quality product to their constituency (because if they don't, the "customers" take their business elsewhere).

Some might argue that "diploma factories" would spring up.  I don't think so, because of the duality of Texas'  quality assurance checks: 
1)  The state has a clearly defined curriculum and uniform credit requirements for graduation. 
2)  Receipt of diploma requires passage of Exit-level TAKS and/or EOC exams (high-stakes exams). 
The systems in place would make it very difficult to "fake" either of these standards.

Essentially, this proposal would allow schools to mush, morph, and adapt themselves into any shape/form necessary to produce the graduates desired by statute (being additionally rewarded if the graduates are the hard-to-educate kind).

I freely acknowledge that this proposal addresses only the "adequacy" side of the issue, not the "equity" element.  But, it's a start.

Interesting times afford us the opportunity to consider/deploy unique measures. At the risk of sounding cliche, the opportunity to consider real shifts in paradigm.  Perhaps it's time for an idea like this to gain some traction.

Thanks for listening.
nc

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Gift of Attention

I recently read an edited work called The Wisdom of Listening by Mark Brady (2003).  I somehow stumbled across the title as part of my personal research toward becoming a better listener (a process in which I have been engaged for several years).  Brady’s edited compilation included chapters written by academics, psychologists, health professionals, spiritual leaders, and even hospice workers.  It provided a comprehensive and rather eclectic view of the construct of listening.  In synthesizing this work against my previous learning on the topic of listening, I submit to you some interesting and consequential (for me, anyway) conclusions in that regard.
Listening is, perhaps, the most powerful item we possess in our toolbox of communications media.  To learn to listen fully and with complete presence provides for us the opportunity to truly discern not only the message(s) being delivered by others, but also the motivations, interests, and positions that underlie those messages.  If we can learn to listen from the heart, with a genuine sense of empathy, we stand an even better chance of fully understanding the “other.”  In effect, dynamic listening helps us to understand the essence of another person.
A skill that we can hone continually that supports powerful listening is that of being an effective questioner.  It is a rare but highly valued person who can be “lean” of commentary/advice and “fleshy” of significant questions. By significant questions I mean questions that have the real power to make a difference, to drive the thinking of all concerned to deeper levels of intrinsic and extrinsic understanding.  Being able to craft and skillfully deliver powerful questions generates emotional, cognitive, and reflective energy.  Those kinds of questions help tease out options, thus providing all parties with avenues for moving forward against a problem, for mending strained relationships, for taking penetrating looks inward at our own beliefs, assumptions, and motivations. Strong questioning helps shift our focus away from what is to what might be.
Finally, effective skills in both listening and questioning are perhaps best thought of cumulatively as a gift: the gift of our full attention.  They are simply vehicles through which we can focus our attention, without distraction, on the “other.”  If your experiences are similar to mine you can probably recall precious few people in your personal history who have been effective in attending fully to others.  Interestingly, the giving of our full attention to others cost us virtually nothing, and the benefits are immense. 
I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion that becoming a better listener was part of my personal growth plan.  I did not tell you why.  In chance conversation several years ago with a colleague, we were discussing the retirement of a professional friend of ours whom I will call Bill.  Within that exchange my colleague said, “You know, I have never known a better listener than Bill.”  At that moment, it became evident to me that few tributes could be made that would be more valued by me.  Being one who is skillful in giving the gift of attention is, in reality, a reflection of a state of mind and a condition of heart, that is far more important than any advice or counsel I could ever give.
Thanks to Mark Brady for challenging me further in the direction of being an effective giver of attention, fierce listener, and a powerful questioner.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Getting to Yes (or, Learning How to Be a Principled Negotiator)

I finished reading Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Fisher, Ury, & Patton, 1991) the other day.

I found the book to be extremely helpful and pithy in providing guidance on how to hone one's negotiation skills.  The authors assert that we can arrive at wiser agreements, in a more amicable manner, if we subscribe to four fundamental practices: 
  1. Separate the people from the problem 
  2. Focus on interests, not positions 
  3. Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do 
  4. Insist that the result be based on some objective standard 
I found myself wishing that I, like some I know, had been exposed to some formalized training on negotiations and conflict management in my graduate studies.  It seems like it would have been perfect content for the aspiring principal, since much of my time/effort/energy in that role was spent in managing conflict (in a million varieties) or trying to craft unique solutions to complex problems for people/groups with competing interests (negotiating!). 

I once heard a wise man say that the three problems we face in organizations are:  1) people, 2) People, and 3) PEOPLE.  He also said that the same three things were the solutions to the problems.  An interesting perspective, and one that I find hard to argue against.  The authors of Getting to Yes believe that the "people problems" can be categorized into Perception problems, Emotion problems, and Communication problems.  That seems to be a helpful way to conceptualize it.

Probably the most powerful sentence I found in the book was this one:  Active listening improves not only what you hear, but also what you say.” (p. 34)  I have personally been working diligently for several years to improve my listening skills.  I already had evidence that I was a better, more informed, more creative thinker as a result of improved listening; I had never considered the fact that those efforts at improved listening might also be improving what I say.  Cool!

I'll resist the temptation to write a full-length book report here.  Suffice to say, I can highly recommend the book and am very grateful to Jodie R. for recommending it to me.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Partnership of Learning

     On February 14, 2011, faculty and students of the Guthrie Common School District (GCSD) Elementary School continued their journey of learning in the use of technology in the instructional setting in ways that are meaningful and relevant.  For the past two years GCSD learners (young and old) have engaged in a joint learning venture of collaborative learning to make the classroom instructional setting ever more relevant and ever more meaningful for both students and teachers.  In the process they have been leveraging the many technological tools available to them.  The GCSD Board of Trustees has been very progressive in their thinking and aggressive in their pursuit of World Class learning by providing substantial resources to support this 21st Century learning model.
     On February 14, the elementary classes and their teachers displayed the results and impact of their learning over that two-year period.  The agenda for the day was designed by Technology Director Darren Wilson.  He charged teachers to participate with their students in presenting for the rest of the campus demonstrations of they are using new tools (both hardware and software) to enhance learning in their classrooms.  Each class was given approximately 20 minutes to present their learning.
     To be sure, there was a bit of anxiety associated with the process, both on the part of students and teachers.  However, the event came off beautifully.   The result was that all students and all teachers ended up learning with and from each other. Teachers Lynette Sweeney, Buffy Wilson, Shirley Hurt, Tammy Hatfield, Kelly McNeill, and Lynn Hill assisted their students in demonstrating use of the following kinds of technology: recording audio, digital cameras, Brain Pop, Edmodo, blogs, word processing, using the Internet, making presentations, Google Earth, etc.
     At the end of the day, Mr. Wilson said, “Referencing back to my show-and-tell story from 1976, Mrs. Bowen [his elementary teacher] would never have known what hit her today. With terms like: SoftSchool, Starfall, Shuttercal, Twitter Pals, Edmodo, Funbrain, Wordl and  Glogster, we sound a lot more techy than we give ourselves credit for.”

     It was a VERY good day of learning at GCSD!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Refresh of Previous Learning

I just finished rereading Improving Organizational Effectiveness Through Transformational Leadership (edited by B.M. Bass and B. J. Avolio, 1994).  I first encountered this work back around 1999, as part of my continual research on the topic of leadership.  Bass is perhaps the most prolific empirical researcher of the construct of leadership, to date.  A quick Google or Wikipedia search will provide you a plethora of works he has authored.

In my view his most powerful contribution to the study of leadership is his Full Range of Leadership Model, which is a conceptual "lens" through which we can view the concept of leadership.  Below is a quick summary, with the effectiveness range running highest at the top of the list, sequentially diminishing as you work your way down:

Transformational Leadership - the leader impacts followers through four operational leadership skills - 1) idealized influence, 2) inspirational motivation, 3) intellectual stimulation, and 4) individualized consideration.

Transactional Contingent Reward - followers compliantly do what the leader wants, and get rewarded for doing so, somehow.

Transactional Management-by-Exception (Active) - the leader actively monitors for deviances from expectations in follower behavior/performance, then reacts punitively when violations are identified.

Transactional Management-by-Exception (Passive) - the leader does not actively monitor for deviances from expectations in follower behavior/performance, but when those come to his/her attention, punitive responses follow.

Laissez-faire - the complete avoidance or absence of leadership.

We can probably all think of concrete examples in our experience that align with each description.  The more important response to me is examine carefully my own behaviors, thinking, and skills, and work actively to move my daily performance toward that Transformational level.