Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Politics Can Hamper School and Curriculum Reform Efforts

If you have been educator for any length of time, you know how difficult it is to get the education system to change. During the nineties, I remember all to well the struggles my high school had when we were trying to switch to block scheduling from the traditional six-period day. It took an entire two years to get the idea finally implemented, because it honestly takes long time to win over students, parents and teachers. One of the obstacles to any change or reform in schools is the common belief out there, that schools "should be just like they were when I attended." Everyone has some kind of idealized picture of how school should be, and attempts to change that picture receive very hostile attention.

A recent illustration of this hostility was North Carolina's attempts to revise the social studies and history curriculum. Basically, the state wanted to spread out the study of history over multiple grades so that students could get a more in-depth look at history and social studies. In a memo June Atkinson, State Superintendent, states that "one of the over-arching goals of the new curriculum standards was to give our students the opportunity to study U.S. history in depth to the present day." Because of this the team that wrote the proposed curriculum so that students would receive multiple opportunities to study U.S. history through reconstruction before they entered high school. In effect, STUDENTS WOULD RECEIVE MORE HISTORY RATHER THAN LESS. This mess all started after FOX news misrepresented the facts, as they so often do. They published a story that stated that "North Carolina Schools May Cut Chunk Out of U.S. History Lessons." The proposal from the North Carolina curriculum team was an attempt to restructure the U.S. History curriculum so that students encountered more of history. Well, after FOX News did its magic, our state education leaders found themselves battling the lies and half-truths spread by a national news network.

To make matters worse, it seems our state politicians are now voicing their concerns. In a letter published here, and written to our state superintendent and State School Board Chairman, one of our state senators, Marc Basnight voices his opposition to any changes in the high school history curriculum. His rationale is simply that only high school students can understand and appreciate our country's history like the Civil War or our country's founding. His suggestion to "offer history as an extracurricular activity outside the school day" demonstrates just how far removed this man is from the realities of the modern school and classroom. I'm sure we would have a million students waiting in line to study history after school! His argument in a nutshell is that "U.S. history must be taught in its entirety during the high school years." No room for experimentation or change. What is really interesting is the veiled threat placed at the end of the letter. "I look forward to working with you as we continue improving education in our state." My personal translation of that is, "Keep you hands off our history curriculum, or I will introduce and get passed a law that mandates that all U.S. History is taught in high school." It does not take a long look at our state's history to see that our legislature has no qualms about meddling in curriculum.

This incident illustrates the same forces at work that are keeping or trying to keep schools from moving into the 21st Century. The tendency to want to keep schools like they were in some earlier ideal time is extremely strong, and it is very difficult to introduce and implement change because of this. Whether it is suggested curriculum change like this one, or some kind of restructuring of the school calendar, politics sometimes dictates that schools should be same as the schools of yesterday.

I suppose the question at this point is, how do we break out of this rut? Usually a crisis of some kind is the easiest way. It took Sputnik and the belief that we were behind in the Space Race to change science and math instruction. Perhaps it is going to take the same kind of crisis, perceived or real, to force us to really and truly rethink our schools. When America is on the brink of becoming a true third world country because of an outdated education system, people might finally wake up and see that the schools they attended were first of all, not all that ideal. The old schools only educated a small number of our citizens. Now we are charged with educating everyone. They will also see that our schools, especially high schools are obsolete. Perhaps the true way we are going to really move our schools into the 21st Century is by attacking head-on this outdated vision of the perfect schools of the past, and replacing that image with what our high schools could really look like. Fellow 21st Century Administrators, that is no small order.

Monday, February 15, 2010

21st Century Review of Dr. Ben Chavis’ Book Crazy Like a Fox

As a school principal, I am always fascinated with the stories of other principals who have done the miraculous, turned around failing schools. Apparently, Dr. Chavis has done this. He is certainly to be commended for his accomplishment. What turned me off in this book is his constant bashing of viewpoints opposite his own. We all know that the "one-size-fits-all" approach to fixing what ails education is not going to work. The solutions he describes in this book worked for him at American Indian Public Charter School. That does not mean they will work at other schools. I took away some inspiration from this book. However, I see little universal application in many of the things he discusses. For example, he talks at length how "embarrassing students successfully changes behavior." What you do not hear in his book all those students who did not succeed from his high-handed tactics. While I would agree that schools have sometimes went too far with the self-esteem emphasis and the feel-good curriculum, I still have problems with using hurtful words and tactics that tear down students further than they are. But you know, there might sometimes be times when Dr. Chavis's approach could work. I am not the type of principal who can do those things with a clear conscience. Dr. Chavis seems to spend a great deal of time blabbering about his own rise from the ashes of his childhood, for which he is to be commended. His constant pontification about the promise of "free market capitalism" is a bit tiring by the end of this book. His complete dismissal of all efforts to address racial problems and multiculturalism completes his narrow-minded view of the world. Yes, Dr. Chavis has apparently turned around some schools, but his ideas are of limited value to most of us.

I have had some more time to reflect on Chavis’s book since I wrote that review above, and I still remain unchanged about my opinions of him and his school reform tactics. The more I’ve read about him, the more I just can’t bring myself to acknowledge that bullying students is ever the right thing to do. There are just too many educational charlatans and quacks out there peddling their wares. The wise and critical 21st Century administrator is going to look for ample evidence and research to support these products and practices before investing scare time and money into them. Ultimately, we have to remember that educating young people is a complicated task and making learning happen is a messy process.

Crazy Like a Fox by Dr. Ben Chavis: Book Cover

Looking for the Fit: Hiring Staff for 21st Century School

One of the many administrative tasks a school principal faces is hiring personnel for her school. There are certainly a number of philosophies and ways of thinking that guide school leaders in making such selections, but the selection of a teacher, counselor, receptionist, or any other position is a critical task. In all of our school administration courses we heard over and over the importance of a school's culture, and in fact, the one thing I know that has the greatest impact on that culture, is the hiring of personnel. We have all  been in schools where one or two teachers or staff members literally destroy the culture and morale of a school by their presence. There negative attitudes manifest themselves in their interactions with other teachers, students, and parents. In a very short period of time, a person with a negative attitude can bring down an organization to the point that it is ineffective. For that reason, decisions regarding hiring personnel are important.

If you take that one step further in the 21st Century School setting, you not only want positive contributors to the school culture, you want teachers that "are a good fit." We as administrators have heard that statement so much, it is almost a cliche, but when looking for personnel for a 21st Century School, you also need teachers and staff members who exemplify the very same skill set demanded by our world today, such as those outlined in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.One of the most challenging aspects of finding personnel for me, is finding individuals flexible and adaptable enough to meet the needs of our school. For example, as a redesign high school, it has become clear to me that a secondary teacher with a strong traditional teaching philosophy would not be successful in our school. The emphasis on our six week projects, the use of computer labs, and  the relationship focus through groups called families would make that kind of teacher very uncomfortable. During my years in the profession, I have honestly heard high school teachers say, "My job is to get the content out there, and it is the students' job to get it." While I would question whether a teacher with that teaching philosophy would be successful anywhere today, in a 21st Century School, there is no place for that kind of thinking. So, in my search for a staff member with the fit, I need someone who is flexible enough to try anything, and adaptable enough to improvise when that anything fails.

Finding educators who are an addition to our 21st Century culture is a challenging task at this point. We need individuals who have no or very little preconceived notions about what a high school should look like.The staff at our school began the process of transforming a high school model into one where more students could be successful before I even became the principal. As their first administrator, I am conscious of that with every decision I make. This is especially true when contemplating the hiring of new staff members.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sidetrack: Weekend Visit to Biltmore House in Asheville North Carolina

No matter how many times I visit the Biltmore Estate, I am never disappointed. This weekend was no different. My wife and I purchased year-long passes because we do make this visit on a regular basis, and no matter how many times I visit, I always see something new. During this visit, the Biltmore Estate had opened four additional rooms to the house tour, they have added a tour of Riverbend Farms, and of course the Winery tour and tasting is still offered. During this visit, there was also snow on the ground, which added a different flavor to the scenery. I also used the audio tour equipment as well. It was quite interesting because this aspect of the tour allows a visitor to get even more details about the house and the Estate.

February 14 2010 118 View of Biltmore Through the Trees

February 14 2010 132 Front of the House with Snow-Covered Front

Purchasing season passes is really a great deal for those of us who regularly spend time at the Biltmore Estate. This spring, the Estate is also opening a new village area, offering more places to visit, shop and eat. I will visit throughout the spring to take in the scenery.

21st Century School Focus: On the Students

Obviously, one of my own personal gripes about “Race to the Top” and “No Child Left Behind” is the relentless focus these policies place on testing, in some cases even at the expense of the student. But instead of once again digressing into one of my personal polemics about testing in general and legislation in particular, I want to focus on what really should be the focus of schools: the students. Ken Blanchard’s legendary book Leading at a Higher Level has an entire chapter devoted to “Serving Customers at a Higher Level” and I think his words have some relevance to us as school leaders and principals. While it is entirely possible to argue that the “customer” metaphor for our students does not entirely work, I think Blanchard’s principles and ideas regarding a “relentless focus on customers” is relevant. One aspect of No Child Left Behind that everyone will acknowledge to be true is that the legislation did force schools and school systems to focus more on those students who traditionally have trouble learning. In that sense, NCLB did force more conversation about the “customer.” Now that we find ourselves in the role of 21st Century principal, we can rest assured that the same conversation will continue, regardless of what other legislation attempts to shape education, and rightly so, for students should be at the center of our concerns, and they are for me.

Blanchard talks about in his book providing customers “legendary service.” As I read his book, I try to imagine what this legendary service would look like in the educational arena,  I begin to see some of the same principles applying to “legendary learning” which should be the focus of 21st Century Schools. Let me borrow some of Blanchard’s Five Basic Elements of Legendary Service and see if they apply to educational organizations.

First of all, Blanchard speaks of what he calls “ideal service.” In a business sense, this means “consistently meeting or exceeding the customer’s needs on a day-to-day basis on the belief that service is important.” When I examine this principle, I try to think in terms of the following: Are we meeting/exceeding the needs of our students daily, or are there students who are slipping through the cracks in the system? Does the school for which I am principal believe that student learning is the most important reason for existing? As a teacher and as an administrator, I have worked in schools that are far from answering those questions in favor of students. In one particular school, decisions were most often made to the benefit of the adults. The lunch tables were arranged, not for the benefit of the students, but for what was best for the teachers. The lunch schedule was designed to maximize teacher satisfaction. Even the overall school schedule was designed to the satisfaction of the teachers and any suggestion of doing anything different was blasphemy. It is those schools that fail to provide “ideal service” to students, and it is those same schools that will fail in the 21st Century. Schools of the new century must relentlessly focus on students. After all, they do not exist to provide adults employment. They exist for the students. We must commit to providing consistent service to all our students.

Secondly, Blanchard speaks of what he calls a “Culture of Service.” When it comes to schools, this element is even more true in schools than in businesses. Education is a service field. Our focus should always be making schools the kinds of places where providing students quality education is the most important task. There can be no denying that we are in the service of our students. Providing them with classrooms that maximize learning is important. Providing them with teachers that make learning relevant and rigorous is important. Providing students with schools that will make it possible for them to thrive in the global world of the 21st Century is important. We as educators are in the service of all our students, and we need to remind ourselves of that fact moment-by-moment.

Blanchard’s third element of legendary service is what he calls “attentiveness.” This element has to do with listening, and a lot of schools still do not do enough of this. Schools of the previous century prescribed learning for its students. The principals and the teachers knew what students needed to learn, and they taught it to them, even when the students resisted. Today, we can no longer afford to ignore students, parents, and even the business world. We need to be more attentive to our students and their needs more than ever. Recently, our school’s students completed a satisfaction survey and you can bet our staff will look closely at that data. It is important that we be attentive and listen to what our students and parents are saying to us. Schools of the 21st Century cannot prescribe education any longer because our prescription’s expiration date will often be too short-termed to help students navigate their future world.

A fourth element of Blanchard’s legendary service is “responsiveness.” I like to think schools have done this pretty well, but in some ways they haven’t. Sometimes we as principals, seem to forget that policies should exist for the sake of students, but yet how many times do we see policy enforced for its own sake? If we are going to be responsive and act on the needs of our students, we need to be ever conscious of how sometimes systems with its policies, laws and legislation can sometimes work against the welfare of our students. For example, take the zero tolerance policies toward weapons many systems around the country adopted in the wake of school shootings. There are stories in the news every day of students being suspended for bringing plastic knives, pocket knives, and even water guns to school. While I would not minimize the dangers of weapons in school, I do think that these are clear instances where the need to enforce policy ignored the needs of the individual student. In other words, decisions were made that were not responsive to the needs of the students in these situations. A 21st Century administrator has no choice  but always serve her students and act on their needs. While I am not advocating violating law or policy, I am just pointing out that we must, in every situation, be responsive and act on the needs of the young people we serve.

Blanchard’s final element of legendary service is what he calls “empowerment.” He talks about providing information and tools to help people meet the needs of customers or exceed customer expectations. Our role as a 21st Century principal demands that we empower our teachers by providing them with relevant and useful knowledge and research about teaching. We also are mandated to provide them with the tools necessary to carry effective day-to-day instruction. There are countless ways for administrators to do this. A 21st Century principal must be knowledgeable, more than ever, about learning, about technology, about students, about teachers, about parents, about community, and the list goes on. Only by being knowledgeable ourselves can we provide useful information about teaching and learning to our teachers. For example, if we want our teachers to integrate technology into their classrooms, we also must have this expertise. A respected principal in the 21st Century is an administrator who is also a teacher and student himself.

Now that I have rambled on for a few paragraphs about Blanchard and his ideas, I have to admit as an educator, I can’t always say I have focused on providing legendary service (teaching and learning) for my students. We might be educators, but we are also human, and that means sometimes we do things selfishly. Still, I am challenged anew by Blanchard. I do want to relentlessly focus on providing the students at my school with best education possible. And, you know, while it is sometimes easy to be distracted and distraught by the noise made by politicians about Race to the Top and the reauthorization of NCLB, I will still go into my school Monday morning, and students will be at the center of my concern.

Friday, February 5, 2010

On Being a Newly Assigned Principal at a 21st Century School

I have now spent the last two weeks, give or take some snow days, as principal at a new school. During these two weeks, I have spent most of my time observing. This school is at a unique crossroads in its development. It has never had a principal other than a lead teacher during its four and half year existence, and I have been granted the privilege of working as their first administrator. It is a restructured high school, and not the typical comprehensive high school. Central to it’s core focus are rigor, relevance, and relationships. First of all, I have observed first hand already the rigor of the curriculum. Students work diligently on health science projects that are to be presented at the end of each nine weeks, and both students and teachers communicate a high level of expectations for these projects. There are also quite a few students taking challenging online courses through the North Carolina Virtual Public School and through the University of North Carolina Greensboro. In talking with students so far, they have reminded me again and again that they sometimes do not make the same grades they use to make because the work is harder and more is expected of them. Secondly, the relevance is also evident in the courses taken by the students and in the work they complete. For example, students are currently working on health science projects tied to water. They are provided with a theme for their projects each nine weeks, and those themes are relevant to their lives. Project-based learning gives learning a relevance that is missed in the old-fashioned,  here’s the info-take a test instructional model. One of the front-line struggles I have learned from my observations is that these teachers struggle hard to make relevance a key ingredient to their instruction. Finally, the efforts on the part of staff at this school to form relationships with students almost hits you in the face when you walk in the door. In my two weeks, student after student has walked up to me and introduced themselves. They are polite, open, and genuinely interested in the adults who enter their building. They have a sense about them that says “I know the teachers in this building care about me.” I could immediately tell that these students are tentatively expecting the same from me as principal. They want their principal to get to know them as individuals, and they want the principal to have a caring relationship with them that is genuine.

Honestly, I plan to still do a great deal of observing in the coming weeks. I am consciously trying to avoid imposing my own high school cultural expectations on this school. I have as much to learn as the students, and it is apparent to me that the teachers at this school are continually learning as well. One of the biggest lessons for me during the past two weeks is, I might just have to find out what the principal’s true role is in this kind of school. It is clear to me already that there are a few aspects of the principal’s role that are similar, but it is equally clear to me that a big task for me in the coming weeks is define my own role in the culture of a redesign high school. Ultimately, it is exciting to me because there are legitimate questions still unanswered about what a 21st Century principal looks like and I am in a position to explore those answers first hand.