Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Defining and Solving the Right Problem

Too often, we don’t take the time to define and solve the right problem in schools. Because we have great intentions, we jump right to possible solutions instead of being thoughtful about defining the specific problem to solve. We treat most problems generically and solve them with new books, new software, new policies, or even new teachers or new leadership.

In my district, we treat low student achievement like a dartboard, and throw everything we have at it, without taking the time to define the specific problem to solve. We have no shortage of solutions, but we rarely stop and focus on defining the specific problem we want to solve. 

Solving the right problem means taking the time to think about the root cause of the issue. Edwin Bridges, one of my graduate school professors, taught me how to define a clear problem statement, without jumping right to solutions. He offered this as an example of defining the right problem. Initially, the homeowner decided in advance that the solution to his garage door problem involved repair. By not taking the time to define the actual problem, the homeowner essentially threw solutions and money at the dartboard and hoped one would stick. Identifying the actual problem, led to an easy cost-free solution.

A man lived in a neighborhood south of San Francisco. His garage door was opening at odd times throughout the day and night. He threw money at the problem, calling for a repairman, changing parts in the opener, all without success. The garage door continued to open and shut randomly. Some time later, the man was at a neighborhood barbecue, where in conversation, he learned that several of his neighbors were experiencing the same problem with their garage door opener. This new information reframed the problem entirely. Now the problem was that many garage doors were opening and shutting at odd times. This new information led the man down an entirely different path He learned his neighborhood was on the flight plan for airplanes landing at the San Francisco airport. One airline used the same frequency for landing as the garage door opener. With this new knowledge, the solution was to simply switch the channel on the back of every garage door opener, changing the frequency and ending the problem.

In my urban district, we face another hindrance to defining the right problem. We allow the real socio-economic problems we face to cloud the issues of teaching and learning. The fact is we are teaching in a community that is extremely poor. Our students are hungry sometimes, they are coming from single parent homes, students are working long hours after school to help support their families instead of doing homework. Our students do not speak English at home, and they come from families that have not experienced academic success of their own in the past. These are facts. But they have nothing to do with what is in our control and that’s the daily instruction we are responsible for offering daily. These socio-economic factors certainly effect our students, but they do not mean we cannot reach students instructionally. But I am involved in so many conversations where teachers point to these factors as reasons students cannot learn. To be clear, there’s no question these factors influence student learning, and more often than not the influence is negative, but socio-economics are not a reason we cannot offer specific instructional support to our students.

Somehow, the culture in my school district allows us to believe that good teaching is a mystery. A good teacher either has it, or doesn’t. The “It” factor is hard to name, and impossible to define and teach. We treat good teaching like it occurs in a fog or a haze behind the curtain. While many teachers may have innate teaching ability, the truth is teaching is like any other skill. Practice, lessons, and learning make the participant better.

This is a difficult conversation in my district. If good teaching is a mystery, then successful student learning must also be mysterious. Some students get it, most don’t, and neither the teacher, nor the student is to blame. Instead, let’s blame Poverty, that nameless, faceless creature prevalent in urban schools. The result of this culture and construct is that we plow through content and students either get it or they don’t. In this construct, all our students fall into several distinct categories. They either learn something the first time-these are the smart kids, are behavioral problems-these are the bad kids, or are compliant kids- these are the nice kids who will pass regardless of whether or not they have actually learned.

We have to change this culture. Instructional practices and interventions to increase student learning can and must be named. If we articulate clearly the problem we want to solve; what is it students need to learn to understand this concept, and we teach it, and reteach it, student learning can and will improve.

Thanks for reading-Happy holidays to all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Blogging for Real Reform: Name Your Reform

At some point reform became a catchall word. Whether it’s the media, politicians, or unions, reform is most often used to define some us versus them relationship. So much of what we read about or hear about sets up educational reform as an either/or relationship. I’ve spent my career wishing most of the dilemmas I face were either/or scenarios. Rarely is teaching and learning, budgeting, or staffing so simple to solve as “Either this… or that, choose one option.”

I thought yesterday’s New York Times article, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” (NY Times, 11/21/2010), was a great example of this either/or relationship. The author set up a construct in which students are either engaged in the content-based learning in school and are successful at warding off technological distractions, or technology has grasped poor unsuspecting teens and is thwarting their best efforts to be successful high school students. Articles like this don’t tell the story of classrooms across the United States where teachers and students are struggling and succeeding to meaningfully integrate technology. I read teacher blogs and tweets all the time, and so many teachers are succeeding at engaging students using new media, tools, and classroom paradigms. Anyone who has spent even one day in a classroom knows that some days it works, and others it doesn’t. Technology integration in 2010 cannot be distilled into “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” sound bites.

Good teaching is another reform issue that cannot be distilled into either/or statements. A school committee, superintendent, or principal who bases an entire teacher evaluation on a ten-minute snapshot in a classroom, or a standardized test result cannot begin to understand the myriad issues, decisions, actions that every teacher must make each and everyday. Distilling classroom reform into test results or one quick evaluation cannot begin to address the depth of understanding required to make meaningful decisions to improve the quality of teaching and learning in a classroom.

I recognize the current education reform vocabulary as the same terminology I use when I talk about getting in shape. For years I’ve tried to improve my own health and wellness by talking about going to the gym. I understand that actually working out and eating less would significantly increase my chances of being healthier, but that’s much more difficult than just talking about action. Education Reform has been the same way; lots of words very little action. I’d recognize my strategy anywhere. I don’t have a solid strategy for getting into shape and I can only speak in generally ambiguous terms about increasing exercise and decreasing late night snacking. But when it comes to school, I do have details to offer. I don’t believe there ought to be one definition for Real Reform, but I do believe that the people with the experience, those with the ideas and good sense to know how and when to try ideas, have been relegated to the fringes of the conversation. It isn’t always the case, but the loudest voices in the debate seem to know the least. Everyone reading this post already knows what the loud voices are calling for regarding high stakes testing, charters, and the other hot button issues. So in the spirit of the day, here’s one more small voice, attempting to contribute some substantive ideas for Real Reform.

         The traditional high school model in this country is fundamentally broken. High Schools are considered successful when many of the graduating students do not pursue post-secondary education or do not graduate. The bell shaped curve defines our notion of success. If some people get F’s and others get A’s what we are doing must be fair and equitable. This model was fine when a high school diploma could still be a ticket to the middle class, and there were jobs for all those students. But most of those jobs simply no longer exist, and we keep on feeling positive about the bell shaped curve.  

     The comprehensive high school model does not work for most inner-city students. I don’t know which model is the right one, but the shopping mall high school just doesn’t work with the students I know.

     There isn’t one right reform model. Making positive change in schools requires knowing your students and your community. What’s right for me may not be right for the kids I serve. What’s right for my students may not be right for your students. 
     The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) 2011 Standards offers a positive template for meaningful reform. No matter where you may be in the country, if you are reading this post, check out the new standards at 
      I do not believe these standards offer the way to reform schools. They offer a roadmap to developing a school aligned to what each community wants and needs. The standards don’t cover everything. They fall far short in defining meaningful technology use at the high school level. But here’s what they do define that I value:
      The first standard requires a clear statement of Core Values, Beliefs, and Learning Expectations. The authors say “effective schools identify core values and beliefs about learning that function as explicit foundational commitments to students and the community.” (NEASC Standard 1, 2011) When done correctly each school is identifying their own core values, beliefs and learning expectations. Asking the question, “What are your beliefs about school?” is so different than stating “These should be your beliefs about school.” NEASC further requires that the school define their own 21st century learning expectations. While some schools may take someone else’s laundry list of skills, the opportunity is there to define 21st skills meaningfully for your community.

      The curriculum standard shifts the learning outcomes for each course away from content knowledge and towards using content as the vehicle to learn skills. In my view, this is an example of naming Real Reform. In an economy and technological age where skills are valued more than content knowledge, we need practical and meaningful tools to make the shift. NEASC provides language and a roadmap to make this happen.

      Assessment is meant to inform students and stakeholders of progress towards meeting the schools’ 21st century skills. There must be assessment of and for learning. Assessment cannot be just a restatement of facts. If the school values problem solving, how can a teacher set up scenarios that both value and assess problem solving as a skill? Furthermore, assessment cannot only be summative. Formative assessment is informal daily assessment to ensure that all students, not just the vocal ones have learned what was intended today. Formative assessments ought to inform instructional decisions tomorrow, not at the end of the unit.

      When I’m at a party and strangers learn that I’m an inner city educator, they often make broad statements about inner city families, students, and schools. I try not to let this pass. In a non-confrontational way, I try to name what occurs in the schools I know, to address these broad statements about urban education. This is what I hope today is about; naming the reforms we value. Reform is rapidly becoming a non-word because it means everything and nothing at the same time. I don’t know that my thinking is right, but I do know I rarely come across an educational idea or dilemma that simply requires an either/or construct. Together, let’s ensure that calls for reform are articulately naming specific and concrete steps. Otherwise we either reform or we don’t.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rebel Education Reform-An Inner City Perspective

Ron Suskind, a writer for the Wall Street Journal gave a name to the current education reform dialogue. He discussed a belief and a faith in having something better despite the words of those around us that “we can’t”, or “we won’t”, or “why bother” as a “hope in the unseen. (Suskind, 1998).” In his book, A Hope in the Unseen, Suskind retells the true story of a young man’s journey from the inner city to Brown University. Cedric, the main character defined the unseen as “a place, a place I couldn’t see yet, up ahead… an imagined place that I’ll get to someday (Suskind, 1998, pg. 330).” It’s this hope in something unseen that frames my current thinking about education reform.

Tom Whitby has called for posts about positive educational reform today. I wish I could sit down and craft an answer. I wish I could combat all the negative voices on either side of the debate in regular blog posts. I’d like to speak to all constituents in the debate in my regular writing. I wish I had a clearly articulated position that addressed what I agreed with and disagreed with in everyone’s arguments. But I don’t. I am in awe of all of the bloggers participating in this event today. Many of you are such prolific writers, and I am the mayor of procrastinator city. I just haven’t been able to make blogging part of my daily or weekly routine…yet. Part of my struggle is procrastination, but another component is I struggle to find myself, the teachers I work with, or the students I know in anything I’m reading or seeing. The true experience of education reform in the inner city isn’t in the newspaper, or on the nightly news. It’s not in the education nation discussion, or on twitter. What I read each day in the media is so negative, and what’s in many blogs is so positive. My experiences as an inner city educator cannot be summed up with positive blogs or negative press. Inner city education is about living in a shade of grey, and my thoughts on reform are influenced by these experiences.

I know that education reform in action in city schools is like trying to move a mountain. So many factors are stacked against us. It’s difficult to step back from the mountain and provide statements of fact about what I know to be true. So here are two offerings. First, what I experience as it relates to the reform discussion, and second, a set of belief statements that I think are applicable to the reform dialogue. Hopefully the readers will interpret these words as a positive contribution to the discussion.

Education reform is about ignoring perception and beliefs. I love working in city schools. I am passionate about the work I do and the choices I’ve made. But when I meet new people, many assume I’m in city schools because I must not be able to get a job in a better school system. I work in a district where the local newspaper thinks we’re terrible, the school committee says the principals and district leadership are all awful, and the surrounding communities think we are a haven for illegal immigrants. On the days that I get to school ninety minutes before school starts, I feel like I’m one of the last people to arrive. Education reform is about putting in the time to make the changes we expect to see in our schools. Our teachers and administrators are at school before the sun comes up, and they leave long after dark. We know positive change and reform starts with showing up.

Education reform has to be about great instruction and I work with some master teachers. I know a Science teacher who makes inquiry an art. He gets kids to ask questions and think and wonder as they have never before. I know an English teacher who makes words come alive for students. She encourages students to find their voice as writers. She gets students who have never been proud of a sentence they’ve written to publish their work and present before a room full of teachers, writers, and parents. I see teachers who are the eye of the storm for our kids each and everyday.

Despite the negativity associated with the statement, education reform also needs to be about getting bad teachers out of the classroom. What we do in city schools every day is about life and death for kids. When I went to public school it never occurred to me not to go to college. Most of the kids in my district will be the first person in their family to graduate from high school and virtually all will be the first person to attend college. So we can’t afford to have anything but master teachers. But I know plenty of teachers who aren’t. I work with teachers who are bad for kids. I know teachers who don’t believe that our students can be successful. I know a teacher who picks a student to intimidate each year to keep everyone in line. I know teachers who have hit kids, who curse at them, who have decided that the best way to teach English is to yell English louder. I know too many teachers who are immersed in a culture of low expectations and a component of education reform must be about moving these teachers out of the profession.

Education reform has to have room in the dialogue to expect more from your principal, your superintendent, your teachers, your students and your parents. Yesterday, Patrick Larkin asked on the Connected Principals blog if administrators are proud of their schools. Sometimes I am, but I’m not everyday. What a blasphemous thing to say as an educational leader in the blogosphere! But I’ve had parents and students arrested far too many times to always feel proud of what we do and don’t do. I’ve come home from school with blood on my clothing from fights and wondered how this could happen in a place called school. I’ve watched students throw their potential away by dropping out and I’ve felt totally incapable of solving the myriad problems our students bring to us daily. 

There are also days that I’ve felt unimaginable pride for students and my school. I’ve watched students I taught graduate from high school and move on, against all odds to some of the best schools in the country. I’ve known students who made me hope that my son would grow up to be like them. I’ve watched with admiration and pride as teenagers work long hours outside of school to help pay the rent and put food on the table and still find the time to write a history paper or do their math homework. I’ve known our school community to come together to help families in need and rally around teachers and principals who need support. I feel pride for the students who find a way to get to school no matter what is happening in their lives. I feel proud of the knowledge that we offer a safe place for kids each and everyday.

Education reform has to be about more than test scores. Whether your perspective is in an urban or suburban school district, as a teacher or principal, or working with Kindergarteners or twelfth graders, we must be united around refusing to accept that test scores are the result we desire. Education reform must be about changing the dialogue. In my own job, I allow myself to engage in these conversations about whether or not teachers or principals or poverty or standardized tests are the problem. The problem is all and none of these issues.

I attended my son’s preschool open house this week. The director offered these “What We Believe” statements about my son’s school. I’d like the Director to come and give the same talk to the principals and teachers I work with to help us frame what we believe. Here’s part of what she said:

“We believe that all children are interesting, capable beings with much to contribute.”

“We believe children thrive when they are given abundant opportunities to play [and learn] in an aesthetically beautiful environment.”

“We believe each child’s learning is unique and important.”

“We believe children’s work and experiences should be document and valued.”

“We believe that emotional competency is an important factor in school success and overall contentment.”

“We believe play is the work of children and that children thrive when play and creative expression is not only permitted but encouraged.”

“We believe that learning about reading, writing, and math should be enthusiastically facilitated within the context of children’s projects and natural interests rather than as separate academic areas.”

“We believe in building positive relationships between educators and parents.”

“We know that educators are the single most important influence in a child’s experience in our [school].”

(What We Believe, October 2010, JCC Early Learning Centers)

These belief statements begin to give shape to that “hope in the unseen” for me. My experiences as a city educator have taught me that rarely is there a problem with one clear right answer. I just can’t buy the paradigm that either this or that is the problem we have to fix. In my experience, education has very few absolutes and a whole lot of grey. For me, positive education reform begins with elevating the dialogue and redefining our expectations beyond test scores. My son’s preschool director offered up one example of belief statements to elevate this discussion. I have no doubt that I will read more in many of the posts today.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thinking.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My Ideal School...

In order to grow a good school, I have to have some idea of what I want it to be and how it ought to feel to be in the school. I'm eternally frustrated by superintendents, administrators, and teachers who are extremely articulate about what they do not want to see. It's another thing entirely to envision everything a school or district could be, name it articulately, and put that vision into action to make it a reality. My vision of an ideal school is a work in progress, and I recognize that there isn't any one model.

In my minds eye, I imagine a place in some city's poorest area. The school building is open from early in the morning until late at night. It's a public school, grades 5-12. The schools' mission is to develop a community of caring dedicated to addressing the academic and social/emotional needs of the students in a college-preparatory environment. We will offer a rigorous and practical school program through authentic problem solving, application of knowledge, and meaningful tech integration. We'd model curriculum and instruction similarly to what occurs here, and here. Assessment would be grounded in real-world problem solving. 

The school would also be a community resource center charged with offering services to the community before and after the school day. Through collaboration and community partnerships, we would prepare our students to chart their own path toward post-secondary success.

A key piece to all this, and one I'll hit on again and again in future posts is the need for the school to be replicable. I've taught at good schools, visited others, and read about so many more, but they are one school in a city or town, and so often they are dependent upon the vision of one leader, or one group of teachers. I believe that for education to change, really change meaningfully, we can't rely on the successes of stand-alone schools across the country. While there doesn't have to be one model that works, we need to be able to point to districts that are dramatically changing teaching, learning and student success rates, not just individual successful schools. That's why I work in an urban district and not at a great charter school somewhere. I want to be a part of turning around a district to show that it can be done.

I could write pages about the specifics of the school I envision. But writing it doesn't make it a reality. It's enacting the vision that is the real work. With the school year rapidly approaching, I'm focused on deciding which tools and strategies to use to ensure visible progress is made this year towards growing our good schools in Lawrence.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Getting Started: My first post

A little background:

Last October, I stumbled upon my first blog when I discovered Robin Cicchetti's Concord Carlisle High School library blog. Her words inspired me to set up my own RSS feed, and begin exploring the edu-blogosphere. I've been a blogging voyeur ever since. This summer, Patrick Larkin, @bhs principal on twitter, reached out to MA administrators to expand his own PLN. He showed me how to join twitter and I decided it's time to join the conversation, instead of just observing from afar.

What's this blog about:

I intend for this space to be a place for me to reflect, discuss, learn and struggle. I am both a district leader and a member of a campus team. We have six distinct high schools on our campus of schools. Each school has their own building, administrative team, staff and 500+ students. I'm leading efforts to try and change teaching and learning on campus from a traditional comprehensive high school model to something distinctly new. I must lead, but also follow because each principal and each school has their own voice, and their own ideas about how these schools should develop. What we become must be collaborative for it to be successful.

Fundamentally, I believe that high school, as it has been traditionally structured just doesn't work. In my experience, the comprehensive high school model certainly doesn't work for urban students who, in many cases, will be the first person in their family to graduate from high school or go to college. I used to use terms like "reform", "restructure", and "reinvent". But I no longer believe these words apply to what we're trying to do.

The title of this blog, "Growing Good Schools" refers to the slow, nurturing process that is required to grow anything successfully. Now full disclosure, last summer my wife and I managed to grow a tomato. That's one tomato for the entire year, so growing anything isn't necessarily the analogy I should be using. But I've learned that changing urban schools is like nurturing a garden. We certainly have successes, but we don't see obvious progress daily. I believe that growth in the garden doesn't happen overnight, and I know it doesn't happen overnight in schools either. This blog will hopefully be a place for me to discuss how our growth is going.

Moving Forward:

I've been trying to exercise regularly this summer. I managed to ride 180+ miles in July, but most of it was on a rail trail that passes through my town. This weekend I decided to take a 15 mile loop out on the roads. About three miles in, I realized my heart was pounding. It wasn't because I was out of breath, or tired. Instead, I realized I was scared. I knew that several miles ahead was a massive hill, and I wasn't sure I could climb it. Initially, I decided to turn around and head back on the more comfortable path. But then I thought about all the #leadershipday10 posts I read this weekend. Teachers from around the country called for administrators to lead, to try new edtech tools, to open up blocked sites, and let good innovative learning occur. I thought about all the times I have asked teachers to change something about their practice, and step out of their comfort zone, and I knew avoiding the hill was out of the question. I climbed it, thought I would die, cursed it mercilessly, and with a little walking, succeeded.

I was scared to climb the hill and I've been scared to enter the conversations I'm reading in blogs and on twitter. But growing good schools requires stepping out of our comfort zones and making changes. If I plan to lead, I'd better be willing to be in the discussion. So with that in mind, I'm hitting the publish post button and I'm headed out towards that hill on my bike.