Saturday, January 29, 2011

Innovation and Schools

The opening session for Educon 2.3 was a panel discussion centered on the essential question, “Why does innovation matter?” The panel included a distinguished, diverse group of professionals from a variety of fields with Dr. Frederic Bertley, Vice-President of the Center for Innovation in Science Learning, The Franklin Institute, serving as moderator.

Here are some of the ideas about innovation that I captured during the ninety-minute session:

Innovation, which is not just technological advancement, comes with a sense of renewal, hopefulness and excitement. The human race has always had a natural urge to innovate, to find the next voyage, to embark on the next adventure.

Innovation can be dependent on the environment and our pre-conceived notions of the environment's constraints. Traditional school structures can actually inhibit innovation. The physical structures of schools, modeled from the 19th and 20th century ideas about schooling, should be changed to reflect 21st century learning (i.e. technology supported collaborative project-based learning). We can begin simply by NOT calling them "classrooms” which has a centuries-old connotation to it. The way we set up, organize, and name our learning spaces gives people preconceived ideas about what is expected when they enter the facility, including expectations about their respective roles. We must move away from traditional, outmoded school structures starting with names, i.e., institute rather than museum, academy rather than school, community rather than classroom.

It's not just the facility or its contents that will drive innovation. We have to combine the right environment with the right pedagogy and community to create synergy for creativity in an organization.

A number of innovations are coming out of developing countries from need. We're not seeing the same in U.S. because we tend to buy too much “stuff” in our schools. Constrained resources inspire creativity and innovation (Apollo 13 is an example that came to my mind).

How do we get kids to innovate? Start by giving them a sense of purpose and have faith in their ability to rise to the challenge and solve problems. It requires that we give kids (and staff) the spaces they need to be creative and innovative. Allow them to learn to fail fast, fail often, but fail gracefully.

The overarching theme tonight is that innovation does not rely on resource-rich environments and can even be hampered by it. Not having access to resources can make you very efficient at what you do. This is occurring in many developing countries which are beginning to develop more innovative approaches to societal problems than we are in U.S.

Friday, January 28, 2011

We the People...

EduCon 2.3 pre-events kicked off this morning in snowy Philadelphia.  Despite a second consecutive snow day for students, many were out in force at the Science Leadership Academy to help out and provide guided tours.  The school building itself is nondescript located among the many business blocks south of the city center, but it doesn't take long to get an impression from SLA students that it definitely is a place for learning. I was impressed with adult-like conversations by the students and explanations about what they see as to the similarities and differences between their school and others. They emphasized the rigor in their classrooms but also talked about the use of technology and social networking as tools for learning. You could sense from their enthusiasm that SLA is definitely a unique school.

It wasn't lost on me either that we are meeting at a school devoted to creative and innovative ways of learning, in the city where 204 years ago 55 delegates from the several states met to hammer out a creative and innovative form of government. Just a mile away from SLA stands Independence Hall, where George Washington presided over a hot summer of debate around what a "government of the people" should look like.  Interestingly, education was not part of these debates nor is it referred to in any part of our Constitution.  According to the Cato Institute,

...the U.S. Constitution grants no authority over education to the federal government. Education is not mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, and for good reason. The Founders wanted most aspects of life managed by those who were closest to them, either by state or local government or by families, businesses, and other elements of civil society. Certainly, they saw no role for the federal government in education. ~ David Boaz

He went on to note that the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed this position in 1973 and that the reason the founders purposely left out a role for the federal government was their fear of "the concentration of power."  

Public education must change to meet the learning needs of 21st century students and institutions such as the Science Learning Academy are certainly leading the way. However, the overarching question on my mind as I visit this city where the great American experiment began, is whether or not the expanding intrusion of our national government in the area of education will in the long run help or hinder the right kind of reform?

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Problem with the Graded Schools

One-hundred-ten years ago, the Superintendent of Public Instruction for Michigan recognized in his annual report of 1901, the inherent problem of a ridged graded school system that expects every student to pass through grade levels on the basis of age alone:

Another question is that of grading and promoting pupils. Close grading assumes that every pupil can do nearly the same school work in the same time. We think we understand the normal five-year-old, sixyear-old, seven-year-old, and know how much reading, numbers, language, science, etc., he ought to compass. Having arranged the course of study accordingly, we attempt to fit every pupil into it. But every teacher finds that pupils do not easily fit into these grades, and then begins a struggle distasteful to pupil and nerve-destroying, sometimes conscience-destroying, to teachers. The questions of aptitude, intellectual development, character-building, are made subservient to "making the grade." Then follows the inevitable cramming process, and the resulting destruction of originality, personality, and self-reliance—a devastation that never ought to be truthfully charged against any institution, much less an educational one.
On the other hand, there are those pupils who by nature or because of environment have a grasp and comprehension that is far beyond that of the normal child. Such find the work too easy. They make no great efforts, and are thus defrauded of the best results of study. The easygoing work makes them easy-going pupils. They become indolent; they are put to sleep. In this manner many a brilliant intellect has been lost to the world. If it is an injury to the dull child to stretch him to the grade, it seems a crime to the brilliant one to cramp him into it. (p. 49)

Despite his reasoning being representative of a limited understanding regarding differences in a child's intellect of the time, generally he was spot-on as to the serious flaw in the one-size-fits-all graded system.

Yet, we still employ this relic of our infatuation with what was seen as the efficient industrialization or our education system and scientific management of schools. We've even made it a key factor determining whether our schools are considered successful or not.  High stakes tests for students at specific grade levels and "on time" graduation ensure that graded schools will be around for many years to come.

Guess we need to think about it a little longer.  Let's not be hasty, after all it's only been 110 years!
Even as far back as 1862, the concept of promoting students from one grade to the next was to be based on demonstration of learning rather than age. W.H. Wells, Superintendent of Public Schools in Chicago wrote this in his popular tome, "A Graded Course of Instruction for Public Schools:"
No pupils should be advanced from one grade to another, till they are able to sustain a thorough and satisfactory examination, by the Principal, on all the branches of the grade from, which they are to be transferred, including the oral lessons, use of slate, etc. They should be able to read any of the pieces they have gone over, with proper expression; explain the meaning of any of the words; give the names and uses of the different marks used; and spell any of the words, both by letters and by sounds. In the Grammar divisions, the examinations should be both oral and written. When practicable, all promotions from one grade to another should be made at the commencement of a school month.
Whenever the scholarship of a pupil falls behind the rank of his class, he should be sent into the class next below, unless by extra effort he is able promptly to regain his position. (p. 106)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Leading Out Loud

It's in plain English for the whole world to see! Well, maybe not the whole world since I have the only copy but sometime long ago, during that mid-winter marking period, Mrs. Sprawls decided that one of her young kindergarten charges talks unnecessarily. It was the only handwritten comment on a four-page report that utilized simple rubrics to communicate progress to parents. Or, as in my case, to let mom and dad know in the opinion of the teacher their second oldest son basically talks too much!

I think I might have been a handful in my early school years since the first and second grade teachers both thought I needed to do a better job of conforming to school regulations, and my fourth and fifth grade teachers said I needed improvement in practicing self-control. As far as my sixth grade year, we won't even go there! It was a disastrous year right up to falling off a two-story roof the following summer, except that I did do quite well during the two marking periods I attended a public school at the end of that year. Did I tell you I had been attending a catholic school since first grade? Never mind what happened but needless to say sister somebody thought I could use a change of venue and sent me off down the road. My new-found success in the public school was short lived however, especially after the roof dive, which by the way really messed up our family vacation plans that summer to the joy of my parents and six siblings. But when I returned to my former school for seventh grade, I managed to pick right up where I left off, receiving unsatisfactory marks in conduct from several of my teachers that year as well as the next. And let's not even get into the high school years!

Sigh. Talks unnecessarily.

From time to time I'm still accused of talking unnecessarily but over the years I've improved on it to where it has become a central component of my leadership style – leading out loud. Trust is important to any organization and in a public school system it begins with the transparency of communications and general willingness of the superintendent to be open about every facet of district operations. Secrecy, outside of narrow areas mandated by law and regulation, begets distrust and a leader cannot stand in that type of climate. Secrecy encourages the rumor mill which quickly poisons any organization.

Leading out loud is about using a variety of communications to create valuable connections with everyone around you.

Unless a leader connects with people, they will fail to achieve their true leadership potential. By connection I do not mean superficial networking. I am talking about the ‘connection’ that leaves the other person feeling that they matter, even in some small way....To make an effective connection you have to use the full range of your communication channels. ~ Martin Soorjoo

Soorjoo concludes by suggesting that “openness about their feelings and beliefs” is an important characteristic of a “great connector.” And while I in no way see myself as a great connector, I do believe that my style of leadership honed over twenty-two years as a military officer and another fifteen years as a public school administrator, is significantly enhanced by my desire to be open and transparent in communications. In the past several years, I've taken advantage of the expansion of real-time communications through technology to build on this characteristic.

Here are a few suggestions regarding leading out loud:

Bring everyone to the table. In my district, this includes first and second tier administrators as well as labor association leaders. Our teacher association president sits as a member of my administrative leadership team, attending and contributing to all of our meetings. The association leaders also sit at the main table during our Board of Education and administrator work sessions and they have an opportunity to participate in the development of the agenda. There is no “us” and “them.”

Think out loud. I use a variety of technology tools to supplement personal connections to create a climate where everyone feels confident that they know what I'm thinking and where I'm going with something. In addition, I strive to model their use as well as self-learning as new technologies become available. Here are several primary tools I use:

Blogging – I have an official district blog site (Superintendent's Notes) as well as a personal site (Rebel 6 Ramblings) both of which I use frequently to convey my opinions about global, national, state and local matters and share professional knowledge about teaching and learning.

Facebook – I personally manage the district's Facebook page and use it daily to communicate with parents, staff, students, alumni and other community members providing updates on school events, links to my blog postings and other news items, as well as recognition and celebrations of success.

Twitter – this misunderstood and underused tool affords me the capability of updating followers will real-time information while collaborating with my peers in the education field regarding a broad range of critical issues in public education. No other technology communication tool matches the speed and simplicity of Twitter. I maintain a district account as well as a personal one, using both to create valuable connections to not only boost my professionalism but provide me with a platform to help influence needed educational reform.

Of course, our district website and email continue to play specific roles and our expanding use of Google applications has also helped to develop a whole new approach for open communications. As an example, we're using Google Docs to collaborate on the development of agendas for our administrative and board/admin work sessions. Last summer, we set up a Google Site to collaboratively develop a critical school improvement grant application that included many components and a short time deadline.

I've also done some exploration of Ning sites and other social-networking tools. As an example, I interact with students at various grade levels through their classroom Edmodo sites, giving me a window into what they are thinking about school while affording me a chance to encourage them through an interface they are very comfortable with.

Be visible and accessible. Technology certainly is not intended to be a substitute for face-time with staff, parents, or with students. I try to be in at least one school building every day and all of them at least once each week, venturing into classrooms, offices and wherever teachers and students congregate. I also spend a great deal of my time attending after-school events, getting to know the students outside of the regular school day and extending that to their parents, as well. On these occasions I try to spend most of the time listening but I never pass up an opportunity to bounce my ideas off others and gage their initial reactions. Many of these ideas are in their infancy and often have not been well thought out, but leading out loud requires a willingness to be transparent from the start, exposing yourself to personal risk and rejection. It comes with the territory.

Leading out loud is nothing more than developing a culture of open communications in your district. An increasing number of folks in the business world are coming to the realization that open communications – up, down and sideways – can lead to greater employee engagement and overall improvement, yet most of our school systems and other public organizations still operating under a blanket of secrecy, especially when it comes to labor, budget and other difficult issues.

Creating a culture of open communication can be a scary proposition for upper management, but in today’s social mediums, the sharing of ideas and content continues to grow at a rapid pace. If your organization continues to be secretive or less than forthcoming about company issues, you may see your workforce alienate you and seek better opportunities when the market turns. ~ Jessica Nelson, HRRemedy

So, talks unnecessarily? Maybe sometimes at the wrong time but in my role as leader of a preK-12 district and my potential impact on teaching and learning, verbally or in writing, I don't feel I can talk enough.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

MLK and the Purpose of Education

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in 1948 at Morehouse College on the importance of education, fifteen years before his most memorable and oft-quoted "I Have a Dream" speech. It's worth repeating here in its entirety:
As I engage in the so-called "bull sessions" around and about the school, I too often find that most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the "brethren" think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end.
It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the ligitimate goals of his life.
Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one's self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.
The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.
The late Eugene Talmadge, in my opinion, possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America. Moreover, he wore the Phi Beta Kappa key. By all measuring rods, Mr. Talmadge could think critically and intensively; yet he contends that I am an inferior being. Are those the types of men we call educated?
We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.
If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, "brethren!" Be careful, teachers!

On this annual observance of Dr. King's birthday, given the continuing debate centered on the the effectiveness of our school system, it's fitting to we remind ourselves there is a noble and moral purpose to education.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Taking Action During a Storm

If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

Over the past few weeks I've been blogging on the effects that the deepening educational funding crisis can have on our traditional school model, especially when you combine it with the force of evolving technologies and political pressures. My earlier posts include Riding into the Perfect Storm of Reform and For the times they are a changin', contributions to an ongoing grassroots effort titled Blog 4 Real Education Reform. One might successfully argue that you don't wait for a storm to fix or replace your roof. And while that makes perfect sense when it comes to roofs, the urgency being created by the convergence of current forces impacting public education not only require that we rebuild in the midst of the storm but that it's the perfect time to do so.

My primary point is to prepare the Godfrey-Lee Public Schools district for a tsunami of change that will no doubt be rooted in this year's budget cycle. Michigan's economy continues to be in the tank and doesn't promise to get well for another two to three years despite the recent political changes in Lansing. Governor Rick Snyder and our new legislative leadership will be looking to public schools for help in reducing the overall state deficit which in the short term will add to our budget woes. Governor Snyder has called for “shared pain” in pulling Michigan out of the muck by rebuilding our economy and within the next month he'll be outlining his plan in greater detail.

In the coming weeks, our district's Board of Education, administrative cabinet, and labor association leaders will be teaming together to begin reducing a projected deficit that could reach as high as $1.2 million dollars. While we are engaged in this difficult process, it will be important that as a district team we all work together to continue improving student learning in and out of the classroom. We cannot afford to let our students down by using the condition of our state's economy and public education's fiscal crisis as an excuse for not making substantial progress with 21st century reform. It is my intent that we forge ahead with our one-to-one technology initiative as we navigate through this “perfect storm.”


I came across the following excerpt we should all keep in mind as we work together to streamline our programs, expand the availability and use of technology, and at the same time focus on a more efficient, economical, and effective learning system:

...ed reform is not technology reform and...embedded, transformative technology is not simply digitizing what we’ve already been doing . Ed reform is about learning and the instructional practices and environments we need to create for students functioning in a world vastly different from the one we grew up in. This brings to mind the quote we often hear, 'We are educating students for the future they will grow up in, not our future.' As educators we need to take on the role of learners, risk takers, and innovators and gather as much information about learning, innovations, and future skills that our students will need and begin to reform education and work toward change at the grass roots level – our classrooms.” ~ Innovation, Change and Ed Reform For The Future Of Our Children

To help us focus our district-wide reform efforts that will keep us on target for a new and more effective system of learning, I suggest the following action steps as a basis for our work in the coming year. Let's begin by taking full advantage of the current economic and political situation to re-imagine and reform our entire preK-12 system by rapidly phasing out our industrial model of schooling, replacing it with an individually-focused, collaborative learning model. From there, let's work together to:

  • restructure our system from one that centers on an age-based graded structure to a system modeled on demonstration of learning;

  • reduce the amount of large-group, teacher-delivered, control-based instruction;

  • integrate core and encore learning at the elementary level; move teacher planning/collaboration time to outside student day;

  • employ a “School of One” concept or similar structure that provides customized lesson planning to meet the needs of each student and engage them in the labor of learning using multiple delivery modes:

    • a large base group with multiple adults

    • variety of learning stations

      • teacher instruction (seminars)

      • technology-mediated instruction (pods)

      • virtual large group instruction (traditional online learning and assessment)

      • personal tutoring (peers)

      • intensive small group tutoring/relearning (adults)

    • mastery-based rather than age-dependent

    • integrated technology tools providing for blended as well as independent learning;

  • provide dual language learning for all students starting at the early ages as a literacy component of a re-purposed Title I program;

  • require that all students complete at least one online documented learning experience and one college-credit course for graduation;

  • rapidly phase out “cafeteria-style” secondary system of independent courses and replace with project-based, collaborative learning that integrates core and encore content;

  • substantially increase learning time for all using one or more methods:

    • expanding the traditional school day and calendar

    • using technology to expand learning beyond the traditional school day

    • opening media centers and access to computers/wifi after school, evenings, weekends, and summers

    • increasing teacher collaboration and professional learning time;

  • design and provide intensive education and support to parents of children ages 0-3 in the art of home-based literacy (e.g.,“language dancing”) in their native language;

  • reduce staffing and overall labor-related costs maintaining a “just-in-time” level of fund equity to avoid additional costs for payroll loans, etc;

  • design and implement a merit-based compensation system that rewards the most effective teachers, administrators, and support staff;

  • and, promote city-wide dialogue on the concept of community-based, extra-curricular activities that remove a significant financial burden from the backs of school districts and broadens opportunities for students.

Perhaps after reading through this list, and my earlier blogs, you have more questions than when you began. If this is true, great! My primary purpose is to generate a productive dialogue centered around on reform in our district as we work through our upcoming budget concerns and negotiate new labor contracts. We can no longer afford simply to adjust to the demands for higher achievement with incremental changes. The time for disruptive change is here.


Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved."

~ William Jennings Bryan


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

No Office Day!

As a superintendent, even in a small district like ours, it gets very easy to bunker in at the administration office, particularly when dealing with perennial budget deficits and other administrative matters. I use technology quite a bit to create a transparent leadership style and provide staff, students and parents with real-time communications, but technology cannot adequately substitute for personal contact and live experiences in the classroom.

I decided to set aside at least one full day each week to being out of the office and in the schools. Calling it "no office day," I have tried setting time aside before but usually it wound up being squeezed and crowded out by "important" meetings and other emergencies.  The difference this time is that I've locked out the ability of anyone to schedule any appointments during "no office day," and I've given specific instructions to my executive assistant not to tamper with this schedule.  In addition, my iPad provides me with an adequate but non-intrusive way of staying connected with the most critical of my administrative duties.  Otherwise, on "no office day," the central office staff is in charge of the district while I re-connect with the very reasons I retired from military service and took up a career in educational leadership in the first place: students, teachers, and learning.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

For the times they are a-changin'

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

~ Bob Dylan, Times They Are A Changing


As I've stated in previous blog posting Riding into the Perfect Storm of Reform, we are at the convergence of a perfect storm when it comes to public education in the United States. The devastating effects of a depressed economy that shows no end in sight will link with expanding mobile, digital technologies and mounting political pressures to force disruptive changes in K-12 teaching and learning. Talk about technology integration in the classroom and 21st century learning has been going on for at least the past fifteen years (actually, much longer than that but I'll stick with the time period wrapped around public availability of the internet) but resistance to change has been relentless. The excuses run the gamut and typically center on fear of change and the unknown results it can bring. Nick Bilton (2010) describes this fear and provides a litany of examples taken from key moments in technological change:

Time and again, new technologies have been seen as frightening, intimidating, and a sure road to ruin ... When a development is new and just catching on, we rarely have a clear vision of the future, an understanding of the effects. We don't know how to integrate the innovation into our current habits and norms, and we also fear that adopting the new will affect our old ways of doing things. The tension, fear, and anxiety resolve only over long periods of time...”


...the telephone, by bringing music and ministers into every home, will empty the concert halls and the churches (1876).”


There is good reason to believe that if the phonograph proves to be what its inventor claims that it is, both book-making and reading will fall into disuse (1877).”

Even the arrival of train transportation (in the mid-1800's) came with a railcar full of fears that left some holding on tightly to their horses....Many saw the railway as a threat to the social order, allowing the lower classes to travel too freely, weakening moral standards and dissolving the traditional bonds of community.”

The printing press (in 1424) was subject to the same kind of narrow thinking....(It) allowed the spread of information that couldn't be controlled by the clergy, kings, politicians, or the religious elite.”


Publication of Reader's Digest convinced many in the 1920's that “Americans were losing their ability to swallow a long, thoughtful novel or even a detailed magazine piece.”

Television (in 1929) was expected to have devastating effects on the printed word and even the arts.”


Kenneth H. Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, “didn't really see a place for computers in the home (1976).”


The problem is that without the kinds of changes that a sour economy and new technology can offer public education, our students will continue to attend schools designed for a bygone era and lose out on new opportunities. Worse case, they may disengage completely and join the growing numbers of people who have become financial burdens on society. The new year – the first year in the second decade of the 21st century – will offer us one of the best opportunities we've had yet to grasp change and remake our classrooms and schools. But only if we accept it.

You can lament the changes that are happening today – tomorrow's history – convincing yourselves of the negatives and refusing to be a part of a constantly changing culture. Or you can shake off your technochondria and embrace and accept that the positive metamorphosis will continue to happen, as it has so many times before.”

The excerpts above are from Nick Bilton's book, I live in the future & here's how it works: why your world, work, and brains are being creatively disrupted. Crown Business, New York, 2010. Nick is lead writer and technology reporter for the New York Times Bits Blog. I highly recommend that all school leaders put it on your reading list to start out this new year and share it vociferously with your staffs and communities. For those of you with a new Kindle, it's available from

Happy new year, happy new decade!  The future has yet to be written.