Saturday, June 16, 2018

Reading the Book "The Sun Does Shine": What Educational Leaders and Educators Can Learn from a Former Death Row Inmate

"You don't have to be locked up to occupy your mind and your days trying to rewrite a painful past or undo a terrible tragedy or make right a horrible wrong. But pain and tragedy and injustice happen--they happen to us all. I'd like to believe it's what you choose to do after such an experience that matters the most--that truly changes your life forever." Anthony Ray Hinton, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row
Anthony Ray Hinton's book The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row is a emotionally riveting and reader-disturbing tale that every educator should read this summer. In it, Hinton tells the story of his life on death row in Alabama for the crime of murder that he did not commit. He was clearly convicted due to a racist justice system in which both law enforcement, district attorneys, and judges found him guilty of murder because of his skin color and because he was a convenient suspect. What's more, this wasn't something that occurred in the 1950s or 1960s. Hinton was convicted and sentenced to death row in the 1980s.

The real value of this book besides its portrait of a racism that is very much part of our country's fabric lies in the wisdom that Hinton shares throughout. It is clear that through the injustice he experienced, he has a lot to say that we should give attention to. For example, nowhere does Hinton capture both the injustice of his experience and what he learned than when he writes:
"My only crime was being born black, or being born black in Alabama. Everywhere I looked in this courtroom, I saw white faces--a sea of white faces. Wood walls, wood furniture, and white faces. The courtroom was impressive and intimidating. I felt like an uninvited guest in a rich man's library, It's hard to explain exactly what it feels like to be judged. There's a shame to it. Even when you know you're innocent. It still feels like you are coated in something dirty and evil. It made me feel guilty. It made me feel like my very soul was put on trial and found lacking. When it seems like the whole world thinks you're bad, it's hard to hang on to your goodness."
Elsewhere, Hinton shares additional wisdom about the experience of being Black in America:
"Innocent men don't run. Except sometimes innocent men need to run. This is true in Alabama and everywhere. If you're poor and black, sometimes your best and only chance is to run."
"There was no good end to the running in my mind, but there were nights when it seemed like dying on the pavement would have been a whole lot easier than proving my innocence in a courtroom. I shouldn't have had to prove I was innocent--they were supposed to prove I was guilty--but not in this courtroom." 
Hinton's book offers readers one man's experience of what happens when the very institutions that are supposed to ensure justice and fairness align to carry out an injustice. It is this story that reminds us that the institutions we lead can be capable of the same.

Statements like this rightfully disturb our beliefs in what we often see as an infallible system of justice and government. It convicts us of often having a blind faith in our institutions and how it deals with citizens. Hinton's story loudly proclaims that the fight for making sure our institutions are just and fair is far from over. After all, Hinton was released in 2015, just about 3 years ago. In the story he tells, it took him 30 years to avoid execution and prove his innocence, when it was clear from the beginning to the system that convicted him that he was innocent.

Why should educators and school leaders read this one? We should read this book because much of the literature sold to us is about methodologies, technologies, and leadership strategies. If we simply only read that stuff, we forget that our institutions are still engaged in effectively providing opportunities for people, and that our institutions of education, like our justice system, can and does still act in ways that are unjust and unfair. By reading Hinton's story, not only do you learn from a very wise individual who shares what he learned from personal injustice, you also find your own personal faith in our institutions disturbed enough to realize they still get things wrong. Leadership is recognizing that both we and the institutions we lead still exist in contexts culturally and historically constituted, and that means, no matter our intentions, they still act in unjust ways.

As a side not, I am firmly convinced that being an effective leader is more than reading John Maxwell books, applying the tenets of leadership gurus like Stephen R. Cover, and the many other ideas and programs peddled in the leadership industry these days. Being an effective leader means encountering the uncomfortable---the disturbing---so that we find ourselves off-balance. In this state of being off-balance we discover that the world we thought we had figured out isn't really what we thought it was and that perhaps we can't really see things with the level of certainty our leadership gurus tell us we can. Therein lies the value in Hinton's book The Sun Does Shine. It effectively disturbs our world---especially the world of this white male who often sees things through that lens of privilege and culture. Anthony Ray Hinton's story of spending 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit is one every educational leader should read.

Friday, April 20, 2018

NC Legislator Suggests Arming Educators: Gun Worship Continues in the Tarheel State

In February, in the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas, I posted my opinion about the idea of arming educators. (Arming Educators: A Bad, Smelly Idea That Won't Go Away) Now, even with two month's perspective and email exchanges and personal discussions with both proponents and opponents, it still smells as bad as it did then. Turning our schools into armed camps just isn't the answer. Yet, one of our very own North Carolina legislators is still sounding the call for gun-toting educators roaming the halls of our buildings. What's worse, he's saying that if they (the legislators) don't arm our teachers, administrators, and others within our schools, then "their blood will be on the hands" of the state legislators (see "NC Legislator Says Children's Blood 'Will Be On Our Hands' If State Doesn't Allow for Armed Teachers").

I can think of several things that could happen if guns were suddenly a prominent appliance within the school buildings, and none of them are good. One of these possible scenarios seems even more probably after a Stoneman Douglas teacher was arrested for leaving a loaded gun in a public restroom (see "Stoneman Douglas Teacher Arrested After Leaving Gun in Public Restroom"). I can only imagine an absent-minded and distracted teacher doing the same within a school by leaving a loaded gun on their desk or in a restroom. Or, a student wrestling away a gun from a teacher in anger, then unloading it on that teacher and anyone else standing by. The bottom line is that the potential for harm is greater than any possible deterrent value that gun might have.

But I honestly didn't mean for this post to get back into the argument about arming teachers; what I really wanted to point out that this NC legislator's argument and call to arm teachers points actually to the cause of all this violence in the first place.

It may be rather simple: We Americans put all our faith in the ability of firearms to solve all or most of our problems. After all, when our forefathers settled the score with the British, and when developing our Constitution, they made sure that if a pesky tyrannical government every arises again, "We'll be ready for'em." Our guns, with this way of thinking, are a necessary deterrent for anything seen as our enemy. That's often the spoken and unspoken rationale for the 2nd Amendment too. But perhaps at heart, we as Americans have settled so many of our differences with guns, and naturally, like Mr. Pittman, our North Carolina legislator, arming more and more of our populace is the answer. This kind of thinking may also provide some explanation for why we like words and phrases such as "Shoot first and ask questions later," or "Go ahead, make my day." We simply have an infallible faith in the power of Smith and Wesson as the means to solving our societal problems. That thinking will probably be the end of us though.

But getting back to Mr. Pittman's call for arming educators. It is still a "trainwreck" of an solution. It is also amazing how he can try to make a "moral" argument for carrying a weapon, but then again, that seems to be how we solve our problems.

The bottom line is that until we begin to see that our real enemy is ourselves, none of this gets resolved. Having a bunch of gun-toting teachers and administrators isn't the answer, unless, of course, your want to turn out schools into battlefields.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

How 21st Century School Leaders Can Tell If They Are Infected with "Metric Fixation"

"Metric fixation is the seemingly irresistible pressure to measure performance, to publicize it, and to reward it, often in the face of evidence that this just doesn't work very well." Jerry Muller, The Tyranny of Metrics

Metric fixation is the incessant and unending belief that you can only tell if you've been successful if there's a measurement. In other words, results that are quantifiable are the only measure of success. If you're wondering whether or not you have the metric-fixation disease as a school leader, take a look at your present actions. If, at this time of year, you find yourself speaking of "Test-Prep Rallies" and of climbing on the roof of your building and eating chicken manure if all your students give their best on 'the tests', chances are you're badly infected. You have the metric fixation disease or what Muller (2018) simply calls "metric fixation." 

Actually, there are other symptoms too. First of all, if you believe that it is possible to replace entirely, professional judgment based on experience and talent with "numerical indicators of comparative performance based on standardized data," chances are, you are fully in the clutches of the disease of metric fixation. If you are in the fatal stages, numbers actually matter more than people do, and if the numbers conflict with reality, then you inevitably always go with the numbers.

Secondly, you're infected with metric fixation, you believe that by simply making metrics, or test results public, you can improve schools by just being accountable. This symptom of the metric fixation disease has been widespread since the days of No Child Left Behind. Your thirst for accountability and transparency is insatiable; you simply can't get enough, because you just can't have too much accountability.

Finally, you are infected with metric fixation if you stubbornly hold on to the idea that you can motivate teachers and administrators by rewarding for having more acceptable test scores by giving them more pay and/or higher status. Merit pay lives on despite its never working in education al all. If you suffer from this symptom, you spend your time trying to dream up new ways to bribe and manipulate or penalize teachers in order to get the test scores you want, in spite of repeated evidence showing that such measures just doesn't work.

There is absolutely no doubt that many 21st century education leaders (and politicians) are infected with the metric-fixation disease. The mad illness persists in spite of the fact that no achievement gaps are closing, and no miraculous gains (in their own standardized tests) has occurred.  Perhaps its time find a cure for this persistent disease that is distorting education. The only vaccination against this malady is a sudden jolt of common sense and the realization that not everything worthwhile in this world is measurable. 

Muller, J. (2018). The Tyranny of Metrics, Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Liberal Arts & Humanities vs Science,Math and STEM: What If Educational Leaders Are On Wrong Side of History?

What if we as education leaders are wrong about all this hype about the supremacy of math and science as being the keys to our future and the futures of our students? What if all this STEM hype ends up being just another one of those fads that takes hold of education from time to time?

It's true that education leaders have been wrong before. Just tour some of the open education buildings constructed during the 60s and 70s, when well-meaning education leaders took the idea of open education to mean that education should take place in a physical environment without walls. What did they do? They built school buildings that did not have walls between classrooms. There are other times too when educational leaders have gotten it wrong as well, that's why the never-ending cycle of fads continue unabated. But what if we are also wrong about the current utilitarian fetish with all things math and science? Could it be that we are providing our students with plenty of technical skills, but also leaving them soul-less and unable to to even ask the bigger questions about our existence?

In his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz makes a powerful argument for the value of the humanities and a liberal arts education. This argument is needed now, more than ever, as recent events in Wisconsin demonstrate. There, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, has plans to drop 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences (see article here.) They are doing so to address declining enrollment problems and budget deficits. The real reason for dropping these majors? According to the Washington Post article, "The push away from the liberal arts and toward workplace skills is championed by conservatives who see many four-year colleges and universities as politically correct institutions that graduate too many students without practical job skills--but with liberal political views." In other words, these liberal arts programs are graduating students who engage in thinking that is found objectionable. Instead, what is desired are unthinking workers who will simply go their jobs each day and unquestioningly do as they are told.

There is real danger when educational leaders start talking just about employability, science, mathematics and utilitarian education. Our education system, from pre-kindergarten to the doctoral level needs and must have the humanities and liberal arts. As Deresiewicz points out, "In the liberal arts, you pursue the trail of inquiry wherever it leads. Truth, not use or reward, is the only criterion." Liberal arts and the humanities are important so that we do have individuals who can think beyond the existing boundaries and ask the tough questions about our lives, our society, and our world. If you want graduates who will simply engage in "inquiry that leads to pre-determined outcomes," then the answer is to make all education instrumental and utilitarian, where the focus is technical and on immediate employability.

I think Deresiewicz offers us powerful reasons to critique and not unquestioningly fall in line with the adoption of STEM and all that hype over math and science. He makes the case for a liberal arts education and its importance to the souls and well-being of our students, and our future. We do need both, and his words below are worth repeating at length:
"Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you to learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free. That's why the humanities are central to a real college education. You don't build a self out of thin air, by gazing at your navel. You build it, in part, by encountering the ways that others have done so themselves. You build it, that is, with the help of the past. The humanities--history, philosophy, religious studies, above all, literature and the other arts--are the record of the ways that people have come to terms with being human. They address the questions that are proper to us, not as this or that kind of specialist, this or that kind of professional, but as individuals as such--the very questions we are apt to ask when we look up from our work and think about our lives. Questions of love, death, family, morality, time, truth, God, and everything else within the wide, starred universe of human experience." (p. 155-156, Excellent Sheep)
I can't but help but wonder that the hype over math and science, and especially STEM and the desire to devalue the humanities and liberal arts is all connected. No one is talking about teaching students to think critically and for themselves any more. No one speaks of asking students to inquire in the greater questions about our world--such as the environment, justice, morality--instead we simply want them to be able to solve 'technical problems" using science and math. We want them to be "good workers." Whatever happened to wanting them to be exemplary humans?

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Educational Leadership, Business Management and Becoming Witch Doctors

Wooldridge (2011) describes four charges against the discipline of management that also have some truth to them when thinking about the discipline of educational leadership. 

First of all, like management, the discipline of educational leadership is currently often incapable of “self-criticism.” In its embrace of practicality and praxis, there is little room left to genuinely critique the discipline of educational leadership. Without any analytical or philosophical reflection, for example, there is little questioning of the marriage between the discipline of educational leadership and business management. It is automatically assumed that leading practices used in business can be directly imported into the practices leading schools. But to make this assumption ignores that these two organizations exist for different purposes and have different structural qualities. What’s worse, when one, like myself, engages in this criticism of the educational leadership discipline, words are construed to be blasphemous at worst, or simply irrelevant at best. Criticizing the ideas, practices, and tenets of educational leadership is seen as a taboo subject. The truth is, mature disciplines are engaged in self-criticism and reflection of any assumptions and practices.

Like management, educational leadership also likes to favors terminology that confuses rather than educates. In fact, education as discipline is guilty of this too. Just thumb through almost any of the latest educational leadership books and you’ll see a common list of jargonistic language that sometimes isn’t really about explaining anything. Words and phrases like “empowering teachers,” “including stakeholders,” “visionary,” “strategic plans,” and so on, are found in many of the educational leadership tomes, and what’s more, these books often say the same thing. The effect of this is that now, like business managers, educational leaders have placed themselves in a echo chamber where words and phrases reverberate back and forth, but in the end really mean little to being a human in the leadership role of a school or organization. Educational leadership, in using these words borrowed from business management, shows that perhaps it is incapable of inventing its own terminology, its own language, and becoming really its own discipline.

In addition, Wooldridge (2011) points out another quality of the educational leadership discipline procured from the management discipline: “neither of the disciplines rarely rise above the level of basic common sense.” In the educational leadership guru literature, much of what is discussed is just common sense to any one who finds themselves in charge of schools. For example, take the idea that people are important. How could anyone expect a school, whose purpose is to educate “people” to view people as irrelevant or not important? There’s no research needed here: it’s just common sense that the people—students, teachers, parents, and custodians—are important. Many of the books I have read that offer principals "10 things they can do improve their schools” are usually simply 10 common sense things anyone who rises to the position should already know.

Finally, like the management discipline, the discipline of educational administration, or leadership is “faddish, fickle, and bedeviled by contradictions that would not be allowed in the more rigorous disciplines” (Wooldridge, 2011, p. 12). Perhaps I am a bit unfair here. Education as a discipline itself is just as faddish and fickle as educational leadership. Both pilfer other disciplines constantly for an idea that can generate a new practices that can be packaged and sold to practitioners. 

Educational leadership, however, has proven itself particularly faddish and fickle, because over its one hundred year existence, it has mirrored closely the fads that have occurred in the discipline of management. For example, when Taylor’s scientific management became the fad of business at the turn of the twentieth century, educational leaders adopted it. In the 1930s and 40s, when the human relations movements that sought to focus on the conditions of work were in vogue in business management, educational leaders procured those ideas as well. In my own life time, when Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management became the salvation of business and manufacturing, the school systems in which I worked began slinging the jargon of TQM around like it was a gospel passed down from on high. Today’s fads? About every book or article related to educational leadership I’ve picked up recently talks of “managing mindsets” and installing “grit” into our students. The discipline of educational leadership seems to simply on the lookout for the latest fads promoted by business and psychology gurus available. It even contradicts itself as well. You hear educational leaders talk about the importance of authentic learning experiences in one breath, then in their next, they're cutting the arts, music, drama, which are the most authentic learning experiences we can provide our students.

With all this negativity about the discipline of educational leadership, I do acknowledge that there are ideas from other disciplines that we can learn from. The borrowing has not been all bad. Still, there needs to be more critical examination within our discipline and its practices, including those borrowed. In his book, Masters of Management, Wooldridge points out: 

“Modern management theory is no more reliable than tribal medicine. Witch doctors, after all, sometimes got it right—by luck, by instinct, or by trial and error.”

Educational administration can't afford to engage it its form of "tribal medicine." Educational leadership can’t afford to “sometimes” get it right when it comes to the lives of our students. When we adopt any practices—those procured from the business world, or those sold to us by the latest educational leadership guru—we have a moral obligation to avoid harming the present lives of our students and our teachers as well as everyone else in our buildings. We also have a moral obligation to not harm nor hinder our students’ futures. There’s no more noble task for educational leaders than that.

Wooldridge, A. (2011). Masters of Management: How the Business Gurus and Their Ideas Have Changed the World--For Better and For Worse. Harper Collins: New York, NY.

What Do Education Leaders Really Learn from Business Leadership and Management Gurus?

"...Management theory is an immature discipline, unusually open to charlatans, or semi-charlatans, and congenitally prone to fads." Adrian Wooldridge, Masters of Management

Wooldridge (2011) writes that “management theory is an immature discipline” (p. xviii). This is true also of educational leadership or educational administration as a discipline. It too, is still an “immature discipline” as well, in spite of its existence since the turn of the 20th century, It lays claim to being a positivistic, emancipatory science very often, but at its core, it still struggles with a means to tell the truth about itself and about how to lead schools. It longs for first principles, but they are scarce. 

And, like management theory, it too is “open to charlatans” and fads. Administrators at every level of the educational system often jump on the latest fad that crosses their desk, uncritically and without question. Just look at the educational administration literature that's coming out. There's books that tell administrators how to win with "mindsets," "grit," "empowerment," "teacher-leaders," etc. What's missing is a true critical examination of these ideas as well. Leadership also requires forcing those selling these wares to go beyond their comments of being "research-based" or "proven-to-work." After all, the snake-oil salesmen of the 19th century made those claims too. There needs to be much more critique of these fads, educational leadership literature, and even our still immature discipline.

What’s even worse, in their quest for short-term goals, such as increases in test scores, they do not adhere to these faddish ideas long enough to really make a difference. When administrators obsess over short-term measurement, they turn their institutions into institutions powered only to exist in the short-term.

The truth is that often there are administrators whose vision is more about their own careers than about seeing their schools through innovations and changes that can have impacts beyond their own lives. That might explain why most administrators don't stay in the same place very long. Our education system mirrors the business environment in this sense. Its innovation and creative endeavor is expended on what can raise test scores in the short term. Short term, non-visionary strategies like eliminating the arts, music, and true authentic learning are too often looked upon as valid strategies. These become casualties in the ever insistent search for higher test scores so that administrators can feel like they are having an impact. In truth, every educator who has had an impact on my life changed me in some ways that became evident much, much later in my life. 

Like management, educational leadership is going to remain an “immature discipline” as long as it continues to borrow so heavily from management theory. It is going to remain focused on short-term visions and goals, because the business world is mostly incessantly focused on short term profit and share-holder interests in the now, not making an impact that outlasts us. I submit as well, as long as administrators remain focused, as business CEOs and managers often do—creating their personal path to professional nirvana—there will be no maturity ever in our field of educational administration. True leadership is sometimes realizing our endeavor as educators reap benefits far after we're gone.

Wooldridge, A. (2011). Masters of Management: How Business Gurus and Their Ideas Have Changed the World--For Better and For Worse. Harper Collins: New York, NY

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Arming Educators: A Bad, Smelly Idea That Won't Go Away

NOTE: I originally published this post when the calls to arm educators began after Sandy Hook. It seems with every school shooting, the knee-jerk response by politicians is to once again turn to arming educators. North Carolina Republican lawmaker Larry Pittman once again renewed his
"educator-call-to-arms." (See "NC Republican Wants to Arm Teachers in Response to Florida Shooting.") For politicians who have accepted thousands of dollars from the NRA this isn't surprising; the NRA successfully promotes the interests of gun manufacturers, helping protect the ability of these manufactures to sell these weapons.

At any rate, the arguments and questions I had about arming educators in 2012 are still relevant today.

After the Sandy Hook incident in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been a flood of calls by lawmakers and news pundits on the news networks to call for allowing educators and school employees to carry weapons as a part of their regular duties. That is a Bad idea!

While I understand some people place a lot of faith in Smith and Wesson, I however, do not share that same faith. Introducing a weapon into a school environment, even if that weapon is being carried by a well-meaning individual, has the potential to be disastrous  on so many levels it’s unfathomable. I will concede that I am not opposed to a law enforcement officer being hired to do this, if having gun in the building will allay the fears of those who think guns are the answer, but turning our schools into armed camps is a bad idea and non-starter for me, for several reasons.

1. Keeping these guns secure at all times could be a problem. As an administrator, this would be extremely important. Even if one child were to get their hands on a misplaced or unattended weapon and harm themselves or another, it is totally unacceptable. Or, what about the situation where a teacher tries to break up a fight, and in the process, one of the students takes his gun away and starts shooting? I would not accept the death of any child or individual under these circumstances as “the price we pay for security.” In spite of the common talking point put out by the pro-gun organizations, “Guns do kill.” They kill both when criminals use them, and when “law-abiding citizens” either get careless or give in to powerful emotions and use them. Schools are often very unpredictable places, and introducing firearms into them makes them even more unpredictable and potentially volatile.  Making sure that these guns brought into the building are secure at all times is another impossible task, since we can’t even guarantee that same security in our homes and in our businesses.

2. What Detrimental effects does  “gun-carrying” on the relationships between educators and their students have? Since we do not have many instances of educators carrying guns, there is of course, no research that I am aware of for this concern. However, I can’t help but wonder how an administrator carrying a weapon suddenly changes how students and staff suddenly begin to view this individual. I’m an administrator, not a police officer. I do not wish to be seen as the “law-and-order” sheriff of my building: the one who is going to shoot the bad guy when he tries to get into our building. That kind of relationship is far removed from my current relationship with students and staff. I suspect that if educators begin carrying guns, there will be changes, even subtle changes, in the relationships between educator and student.

3. Lack of adequate fire-arms training. Filling out a form and attending a class or two hardly qualifies you to engage in using deadly force in public. Using deadly force requires making snap decisions while assessing your surrounding environment. It requires thinking like a police officer, which simply having a concealed weapon permit does not qualify you to do. No educator I know is trained to think like a law enforcement officer in these kinds of dangerous situations. Putting guns into hand of educators who do not have the kinds of gun and gun violence training in extremely volatile situations is a disaster waiting to happen.

4. Guns do kill people. The purpose of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines is to kill as many people as possible is a short period of time. As we have seen in recent events, these do that highly effectively. We already keep a number of weapons out of the hands of ordinary citizens because they have no reason to have them. Bazookas, hand grenades, and rocket launchers pose a threat because they kill people, lots of people at once. Just by saying “Guns don’t kill people” does not make it so.

There are certainly other reasons that I personally oppose arming educators. By introducing guns into our schools in the hands of our teachers, what kind of message does a “gun-toting” teacher or administrator convey? I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to worry about is having a “Rambo” as a teacher in my building.