Monthly Archives: January 2012

Race to the Top and School Reform: Rubik’s Cube or a Six-Layer Cake?

Is Race to the Top and its numerous components being presented by statewide Network Teams as a layer cake or a Rubik’s Cube? We’ll answer that question in a moment.

Yesterday at the January New York State Professional Standards and Practices Board for Teaching (PSPB) meeting, Regents Task Force member Dr. Lloyd Jaeger shared beautifully the challenges districts, administrators, and educators face in implementing the newest Race to the Top (RTTT) component: Student Learning Objectives (SLO). He began his presentation with the three stages of Wiggins and McTighes’ Understanding by Design, explaining the need to first identify your desired results and the evidences of understanding before you can go out and plan your learning experiences. Lloyd then followed laying sheet after sheet on the table with the titles of Common Core Learning Standards, New York State Teaching Standards, Danielson Frameworks for Teaching, Teacher and Principal APPR, the 12 Math and ELA Instructional Shifts, National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, Response to Intervention, and Curriculum Mapping.

After Lloyd had described each title, there was a row of sheets set across the table. Sweeping his hand across the table, Dr. Jaeger asked if schools are seeing these various components as part of a layer cake, all separate from one another, or as a Rubik’s Cube, interconnected. In particular, he asked if people understood how Student Learning Objectives (SLO) fit in to the mix. Board members nodded their heads, confirming the anxiety some are seeing and feeling in their schools, particularly when it comes to SLOs.

Yesterday reminded me of the complexity of change. From the National Association for Secondary School Principals’ Breaking Ranks, we know there are steps to the complex change  process which must be honored for success. Let’s face it; reform is complex. Race to the Top is complex. In fact, most anything which stretches people and asks them to think differently is going to be complex. We are creatures of habit, after all, and we enjoy structure and continuity in our lives. Consequently, when our schema are altered, it can be both physically and mentally disturbing. However, with rose-colored glasses on, I lean on Paul DiMaggio’s explanation of how discrepancies in one’s environment can arouse attention to details and deliberate modes of processing which we ordinarily might miss. DiMaggio (1997) states, “When sufficiently motivated, people can override programmed modes of thought to think critically and reflexively.  Such overrides are necessarily rare because deliberation is so inefficient in its rejection of the shortcuts that automatic cognition offers” (p. 271). Critical thinking and RTTT: that’s a good combination.

As a New York State Race to the Top Network Team Senior Facilitator, I have found invigorating and challenging the wild ride of rolling out RTTT deliverables with my Network Team colleagues.  Our hard-working members of the New York State Education Department have done their best to provide the structure and support for these important efforts, and we in turn do our best to revise and improve the material for our schools. I appreciate first hand the dizzying speed we are putting our districts through, and my team and I have worked hard to remind people of the interconnectedness existing within the RTTT framework. However, I wonder if most see RTTT more as a layer cake than a Rubik’s Cube. I think we’ll need to do a better job showing how the various pieces fit together.

RTTT is changing the landscape, and unfortunately, the interconnectedness of its components are not yet evident to all. With SLOs now entering the lexicon of teachers and administrators, the depth of complexity appears to be deepening, and with it, anxiety. Building a plane in the air is an apt metaphor for what we’ve been doing, but it’s now time to land the plane and have people step back to see the big picture. Then we can resume riveting the pieces together.

DiMaggio, P. (1997). Culture and cognition. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 263-287. Retrieved from


Raising Rigor and Relevance Through Student Research and Perception Studies

So what’s your impression of the South Carolina primaries? Do you think Climate Change is for real, or is it a ploy of the liberal left? Are the New York Giants going to the Superbowl? Is Race to the Top driving school reform? Should herbicides be used to control or eradicate invasive Eurasian Water-Milfoil in Adirondack lakes? Do you believe we need more revenues to balance the government budget? The variety of hot button issues is endless in this country, and knowing how people perceive them is both interesting and useful information. This holds especially true in P-12 education. If we want to stretch students in school and have them College and Career ready, then we need to bring student research into the classroom. Research stokes student interests and imaginations by delving more deeply into the perceptions of others, and by teaching students how to analyze and infer underlying beliefs, trends, attitudes, and values.

Many survey tools exist on the market, and I’ve used SurveyMonkey in my research efforts. I also enjoy AmericasMind, a new site developed in the Southern Adirondack Region of New York by a former school psychologist and a college software engineer. Unique to AmericasMind is the opportunity for viewers to see the hot button issues and responses of others who post on the site and to “Speak Out, Comment, Solve, or Vote” on those issues. Regardless of the instrument used, the instructional objectives of surveys and sites like AmericasMind are to promote analysis, inquiry, and design. To cultivate cognition and metacognition, and unfurl the underlying values and beliefs of others. This type of thinking goes well beyond using text-based evidence to support arguments or claims, and is the right direction to move as we ready students for life-long success.

The Common Core Learning Standards have raised the bar with the six instructional shifts in literacy and math, and we have the opportunity to extend those shifts through student research projects. By teaching students what research methodology truly looks and feels like (beyond the static multi-step scientific method of most curricula), we can cultivate more pragmatic, self-directed learners with the tools to answer questions that matter to them. Rather than accept most anything presented in the media, we can give children an objective lens through self-directed inquiry. In so doing, we will graduate children more likely contribute to a democratic society and more confident to speak out, comment, solve, or vote with conviction on issues of importance.

Close Reading and Literacy in All Subject Areas

Today my colleague, Courtney Jablonski, and I did a full-day session on the ELA PARCC Model Content Frameworks and Common Core Learning Standards for Literacy. Among the various activities and resources we presented was an exercise on text complexity and close reading. We chose a relevant topic, invasive species in Adirondack Lakes, to teach the strategy. Audience members were asked to read a technical passage about Eurasian Water-Milfoil and highlight the words they didn’t know, underline passages that confused them, circle parts they found really interesting, and in the margin write things they wanted to know more about. Our purpose was to demonstrate the practice of close reading, something we did indeed accomplish in that one-hour activity. More importantly, we wanted to show how content area teachers outside of English Language Arts could easily bring literacy into the classroom. A webcast of the exercise can be accessed through YouTube.

Close reading. Hmmmm. Why the focus on close reading? David Coleman and Susan Pimentel write about it in Common Core Publishers’ Criteria. David Coleman and Kate Gerson speak about it in the Common Core videos on EngageNY, and Doug Lemov spreads the good word about it in Race to the Top Network Team training sessions. When you get right down to it, is there any other way to read but closely? To pay attention to details? To delve deeper into the content, positions, and evidences? As with learning and lasting comprehension, it seems implausible to read for understanding without paying close attention.

It dawned on me last evening that close reading is really about attending to details. Paying attention to text, or anything that lasts longer than seven seconds, is becoming increasingly difficult in our over stimulating world. Whether we’re talking scientific inquiry, analysis of primary documents in history classes, using algorithms in math, or plying through a new smart phone app for the first time, we must pay close attention to what we’re doing. As Race to the Top continues to be rolled out in schools across the nation, teaching our children to read closely and attend to details will be the responsibility of all teachers, not just those who teach English Language Arts. Our children will surely benefit through rigorous and relevant instruction that relies more on complex texts and text-based evidence.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, Commissioner John King, and Leadership

What a start to 2012. On Tuesday, Commissioner John King suspended School Improvement Grant funds after forewarning such an action in a December 27, 2011 memo, and Governor Cuomo followed on Wednesday with a statement in his State of the State Address about the lack of progress in teacher evaluation systems and school management inefficiencies. The New York State Teachers Union (NYSUT) promptly responded to both leaders’ actions, and so it goes in this high paced era of school reform. Politics aside, the time is ripe for an entry on leadership, trust, and followership.

Warren Bennis (2009) wrote in On Becoming a Leader about a press conference Nikita Kruschev gave in the 1960s at the Washington Press Club.  When prompted by a reporter’s question in the audience, Kruschev presented a powerful lesson on leadership and followership. “‘Today you talked about the hideous rule of your predecessor, Stalin.  You were one of his closest aides and colleagues during those years.  What were you doing all that time?’  Khruschev’s face got read. ‘Who asked that?’ he roared.  All 500 faces turned down.  ‘Who asked that?’ he insisted.  Silence. ‘That’s what I was doing.’ he said. One of the tragedies of most organizations is that people will let the leaders make mistakes even when they themselves know better.” (Bennis, 2009, p 190)

Years ago in my first administrative job, I had a supervisor who gave me three professional rules to live by.  My favorite was, “Always surround yourself with people who will tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear.”   The rule is simple, but following it requires a culture of trust.  Good leaders know the value of trust and invest time and energy to develop it within their organization.  Good leaders also listen to what their workers have to say.  Perhaps one reason Kruschev never spoke up to Stalin was Stalin’s unwillingness to listen and a lack of trust among Russia’s elite?

Trust leads to transparency and effective two-way communications. Bennis describes four “ingredients” that help create trust:  1) Constancy–no surprises to the group; staying on mission; 2) Congruity–“walk the talk”; 3) Reliability–always present to support workers; and 4) Integrity–follow through on promises and commitments.  (Bennis, 2009, p 152).  Trust building is not something we do as a goal or an action plan.  It’s more about the moral fabric a leader holds that garners trust; and it’s something that is earned over time through the “ingredients” mentioned above.

Most of us have worked for individuals who instilled great trust, respect, and admiration for the person and the manner in which they conducted business.  They raised the bar for everyone, and showed us how vitally important we were to the entire school community. Through their talents and personal integrity, they crafted district-wide cultures that ensured high expectations, optimism, and quality human relations which ultimately lead to high performing school districts.  Exceptional leaders empower us to become exceptional as well, moving us towards greater responsibilities and challenges.

When leaders suppress the voices of others, fail to inspire and nurture others, or build a culture of fear rather than trust, problems are sure to follow.   In Whyte’s “Captains Courageous” the Bronzewings’s near wreckage against the jagged Galapagos Island rocks is a powerful example of a leader’s failure to grow his crew’s “inner sense of captaincy.”  “…Raphael [Captain] had so filled his role of captain to capacity that we ourselves had become incapacitated in one crucial area:  We had given up our own inner sense of captaincy.  Somewhere inside us we had come to the decision that ultimate responsibility lay elsewhere.” (Whyte, 2001, p 43)

If we hope to circumnavigate the political world of educational leadership and school reform, then we must surely distribute leadership, listen to the crew, and use our hearts and minds to guide our actions and those of others. Our children deserve no less from us.

Collective Ambition and School Reform

Happy New Year! After a busy stretch of Race to the Top reform efforts, it’s good to have some down time this holiday break to recharge the batteries and clear the head. I hope everyone carved a little time out of their schedules to rejuvenate and ready themselves for what’s promising to be a wild 2012.

While decompressing, I ran across an article in the December issue of Harvard Business Review by Douglas Ready and Emily Truelove on The Power of Collective Ambition (I also read a fiction book to truly “decompress”). Ready and Truelove are business leadership practices experts, and I wondered if their premise of Collective Ambition in the business world holds true in the non-profit field of public education. After all, schools don’t produce widgets, and though heading towards greater use of data to inform practice, a school’s bottom line is much less empirical than in business where revenues, earnings, and margins are directly and neatly tied to inputs.

Collective Ambition as defined by the authors has seven elements: Purpose, Vision, Targets and milestones, Strategic and operational priorities, Brand promise, Core values, and Leader behaviors. Sounds a lot like strategic action planning, SMART goals, and complex change protocols—something many successful schools already do. Ready and Truelove believe the “glue” which holds the seven elements together is collaboration, and the “grease”, disciplined action. The “glue” and “grease” of effective schools are similar, but the analogies get less congruent when drilling deeper.

Of the seven elements, purpose and brand promise seem inconsistently delineated in schools. It’s fair to say schools are designed to graduate young adults ready to participate and contribute to a democratic way of life. However, the brand product each school guarantees its community is being reshaped by RTTT, fiscal constraints, and growing international competition; and metrics used to define success are from outside forces beyond the community. Amidst the background chatter, what is a school’s purpose? Who defines student success, and how does parental responsibility and community support impact the Collective Ambition equation?

The Power of Collective Ambition is an excellent article, and if district leaders and staff take the seven elements to heart and follow them with fidelity, student achievement will increase.  However, I’m not so sure most schools are presently structured to cultivate a sense of Collective Ambition. High stakes testing and school accountability, vilification of public education, and sometimes unyielding labor relations can muddle our sense of purpose and collaboration.

When you get right down to it, the vast majority of us in education are ambitiously here for the children. We came in to this profession to make a positive difference in the lives of every child, and for that, our ambition is unlimited. With sound leadership, reflective practice, and the seven elements in mind, schools can and must use the power of collective ambition to propel change initiatives forward. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.