Monthly Archives: May 2013

Leadership Voids In An Era of National School Reform

Leadership is not rocket science, but rather the science of knowing, understanding, and appreciating people to help change for the better, “How we do things around here.” Leadership is the science of empathy, creativity, accountability, flexibility, humility, levity, fidelity, and sincerity. On the topic of leaders and change, John Kotter (2002) wrote, “They succeed, regardless of the stage in the overall process, because their most central activity does not center on formal data gathering, analysis, report writing, and presentations—the sorts of actions typically aimed at changing thinking in order to change behavior.  Instead, they compellingly show people what the problems are and how to resolve the problems.  They provoke responses that reduce feelings that slow and stifle needed change, and they enhance feelings that motivate useful action” (p. 8).

Leadership is ofttimes lonely and fatiguing, dogged in its efforts, and always selfless by its nature. Being a leader is a hard job. Period. Ironically, the need for quality leadership within our education system has never been greater. Never is a big word, but the hyper-paced nature of our digital society and the high-stakes competition for knowledgeable, skilled workers in a flattened world is unparalleled in our history. Education demands leaders that understand the change process and the impacts of change on people and systems. We’re talking people who have high EQs. After all, change is an emotional process, and it is the leaders with emotional intelligence who are most able to help others navigate the choppy waters of school reform.  As Bolman and Deal (2003) write, “Many change efforts fail not because managers’ intentions are incorrect or insincere but because the managers are unable to handle the social challenges of changing” (p. 176).

We must have educational leaders capable of filtering out the noise and clutter to get at the heart of critical issues and necessary actions. Individuals who have a keen sense of what matters most, and a self-efficacious mindset to implement the difficult changes in our schools that may run contrary to “How we do things around here.” Hell, the whole notion of “How we do things around here” no longer applies in today’s education. Race to the Top, ESEA, the Great Recession, Sequesters, Stressed Pension Systems, Increased Rigor in Teacher and Principal Certification Exams and Protocols, EdTPA, APPR, Student Testing, Online Courses, Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core Standards, Instructional Shifts, Review Rooms, Dignity for All Students, etc. have changed the proverbial paradigm for good.

Peering across the regional landscape, it is worrisome to find fewer individuals willing and able to take up the once coveted torch of district leadership. Superintendent positions are not easily filled, and the ranks of interested applicants are at historic lows with some boards of education reopening searches in hopes of a better outcome. Meanwhile, the increasing burden on principals and the void of teacher leaders are problems that can and must be addressed through some form of teacher leader certification at the state and or national level. We can not expect one person to do the important work of leadership by themselves, and now is the opportune time to reform how we define leadership at the school level.

As our schools move through the final weeks towards graduation, so ends another year of school reform. Next year will bring with it new expectations for teachers and administrators which include implementing protocols for data driven instruction, embedding Common Core instructional shifts with fidelity, improving the writing of student learning objectives, and preparing students for the next round of assessments. With all that lies ahead, it’s urgent our state and national leaders think out of the box in terms of educational leadership. More rigorous, valid, and reliable certification exams are a good step forward, but so is a more concerted effort to grow leadership within the ranks of educators and to make the job of district CEO more alluring. Let’s offer certifications that recognize the value of teacher leaders, and reward district leaders with salaries commensurate to their roles and responsibilities. We can’t afford to do less if we wish to continue the reform agendas scattered across this great nation.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2003). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kotter, J. (2002).  The Heart of Change:  Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.


Let’s All Celebrate College Graduations

Three graduation ceremonies in 48 hours! SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury Branch Campus students graduated with SUNY Adirondack students on Thursday evening in the Glens Falls Civic Center, and on Saturday, SUNY Plattsburgh Main Campus students graduated in either a morning or afternoon ceremony. This was one of the last “firsts” for me as I close in on beginning my second year as Branch Campus Dean, and I must say it was one of the most satisfying and celebratory two days I’ve ever had in my professional career. The energy and excitement within the graduation chambers were palpable. Students were beaming, families and friends were hooting and hollering, professors were decked out in robes and medallion, and through it all, our next generation of college graduates walked across the stage, diploma in hand, to officially conclude a major milestone in their lives. What a wonderful thing for them and for us. In fact, we all should be celebrating their success!

Saturday’s eloquent student speaker, a young woman from Port Washington, Long Island spoke about both the extrinsic and intrinsic values of a college education to her classmates. Being a business major, she included in her talk the ROI, or Return on Investment, for dollars spent earning a Bachelor’s Degree. She shared that 30.98 is the ROI one can expect from one’s invested dollars. In other words, for each dollar you spend on your college degree, you will receive 30.98 dollars in return. As an example, if I invested $50,000 to earn my degree, I can expect $1,549,000 as a return on my investment (You won’t get that kind of return in your IRA account). That sounds like a real good investment. I didn’t check the math, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics provides all the data demonstrating how valuable education is to one’s employment and earnings (See The Costs of Education Versus Ignorance). In any case, a college education pays off handsomely.

On my drive home from Plattsburgh following the afternoon ceremony, I reflected on the scope of change the graduates had experienced in such a short period of time.  From their very first day at college, they had to orient themselves to new surroundings, expectations, rules, and protocols while learning course content and skills that stretched them beyond their comfort zones. The stakes were high.  Thousands of dollars and hours were being invested on a hope and a dream, and in the end, their success hinged largely on their individual efforts and the collective support they received from SUNY Plattsburgh college professors, support staff, administrators, and classmates. I felt a sense of pride for being a small part of such a critical milestone in our students’ lives, and I know I return to my Branch Campus office on Monday with a keen sense of appreciation for the services and supports we offer students in the field of education.

Congratulations graduates!


Why We Need the Common Core Literacy Standards

Scenario: You stopped at the supermarket on your way home from school to pick up a few items for dinner. Unfortunately, you forgot to bring your reusable cloth shopping bags.  When you get to the checkout line, the clerk asks you, “Paper or plastic?”.  Task: Write a 300-word essay defending the type of bag you would choose. Be sure to use at least two credible references in your defense of paper or plastic bags. A simple problem with two to three positions and a myriad of possible explanations. As a science teacher in the late 80s and 90s, I had my students write such position papers at least once each quarter. Topics were relevant to the units we covered, and required students to use text-based evidence from various sources in their writings. In the process, they read more, wrote more, and learned and used more complex vocabulary.  Sounds a lot like today’s Common Core Instructional Shifts.

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The Common Core Learning Standards call for significant shifts in teaching, particularly for teachers in subjects other than English Language Arts. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Frankly,  it’s been a long time coming for the few but vocal, “I am not an English teacher. It’s not my job to teach them how to read and write.” types. We all have a responsibility for developing student communication skills, whether they be in the form of reading, writing, listening or speaking. Ironically, it is through literacy that our students excel in their understanding and application of subject matter content. With such rich diversity for writing and speaking tasks in the non-ELA content areas,  the opportunities for students to persuade and inform are endless. As a science teacher, my student position paper topics ranged from Antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the poultry industry to Reintroduction of the Gray Wolf into the Adirondacks and biodiversity. We also explored and debated climate change topics, including comparison of Bill McKibben’s, The End of Nature with Dixie Lee Ray’s, Trashing the Planet.

My students loved the tasks. Well, maybe loved is too strong a word, but they certainly liked/valued the challenge of taking a position and supporting it with researched details. We would even hold mock town board events and debates on some of our more controversial themes. It was fun, and the learning was deep and meaningful. Sometimes the projects took on a life of their own, with extended searches on particularly controversial topics. With the quantity of content required to get through prior to the state test, these extended activities took place outside the classroom, earning students extra points for their efforts. The key message in all tasks was, “Your opinion carries weight when you can back it up with data and text from credible sources.”

We need the Common Core Literacy Standards to ensure we graduate students who can read, write, speak and listen well, and who use evidence from varied, credible sources when making important decisions. They need to be comfortable with the syntax and language of primary documents, and be able to confidently voice and defend their opinions with others. In a time of information (and misinformation) overload, we need to ensure our students are critical thinkers who have the literacy skills necessary to make logical decisions. Students who are well read, well-informed, and who can speak or write with conviction on substantive topics. In the words of Aristotle, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” 

My Hippocampus and Frontal Lobes Say, “Happy Mother’s Day”

Where would we be without our moms who raised us, nurtured us, fed us, and loved us unconditionally? Mothers who set up humidifiers in our rooms when we were congested with colds. Mothers who tucked us in at night and read to us. Mothers who held us in their arms singing, “Clap hands, clap hands, till daddy comes home. Daddy has money but mommy has none. Boom, boom.” Where would we be without a mother’s unconditional love?  Odds are, we’d be in a lesser place than we are now.

A mother’s love sustains us, enculturates us, and prepares us for life’s challenges by literally shaping our brains. This is particularly so for the developing brain which is extremely plastic and malleable, yielding to the stimuli it receives from the environment.  Deep below the surface in the brain’s limbic system is where the magical effects of a mother’s love are revealed.  Scientists know this thanks to the advent of scanning technologies that have allowed us to peer in on the brain as it grows and matures. The results are stunning and exciting. For example, recent research by Luby and others (2012) suggests maternal support leads to larger hippocampi–the seahorse shaped structures within the primitive brain responsible for long-term memory and stress control. In other words, a mother’s nurturance of her young child changes the child’s brain for the better, allowing the child to learn and recall information more readily, and to manage stress more efficiently. Without such support, a child is disadvantaged relative to other children.

Brain development in children is fascinating and portends many thing later in life. For example, the effects of parental neglect express themselves in adults who struggle with impulsivity, maintaining attention, cultivating social relationships, and cognition (Chugani, Behen, Muzik, Juhuaz, Nagy, and Chugani, 2001). A chilling image of two brains, one of a normal infant and the other of a neglected infant raised in an orphanage, demonstrates just how critical a loving environment is to the developing child.

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The oldest of six, I was lucky to grow up in a loving household. In spite of the challenges, my mother somehow maintained her patience and composure to love us all. Honestly, I don’t know how she did it. How she made time to play with us, teach us manners, encourage us, expect great things from us, and allow us to make mistakes boggles my mind. At one point, I remember there were three kids in diapers–and they were the cloth type (I swear we got our money’s worth out of the Kenmore washer machine in the basement). In any case, we all grew up in a loving home, and I like to think we all ended up in a pretty good place.

On this Mother’s Day weekend, I hope every child and adult with a living mother takes time to thank their mother for helping them grow into the person they’ve become. I hope each of us recognizes that our first and most important teacher was our mother, and that as parents, we too are our children’s best hope for success and happiness. And for those less fortunate to have the nurturing home environment many of us had, I hope they have a charismatic, loving teacher or significant adult to confide and trust in. Someone who will nourish their growth and provide a stable foundation from which to blossom into adulthood.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!!!

  • Luby, J. L., Barch, D. M., Belden, A., Gaffrey, M. S., Tillman, R., Babb, C., Nishino, T., Suzuki, H., & Botteron, K. N. (2012). Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(8), 2854. Retrieved from
  • Chugani, H. T., Behen, M. E., Muzik, O., Juhasz, C., Nagy, Ferenc, & Nagy, D. C. (2001). Local brain functional activity following early deprivation: A study of postinstitutionalized Romanian orphans. Neuroimage, 14(6), 1290-11301.

Public School Educators and Administrators: You Did It!

There’s a poster of fire-throwing pitcher, Nolan Ryan in an old 1991 Nike ad with Ryan’s impressive stats at the bottom and a motivational bucket list on the left side running top to bottom.

  • 99-year-old marathoners.
  • 94-year-old swimmers
  • The back of SI is full of them. People who forgot to retire. And never got old.
  • People who realized:
  • It’s easier to keep going
  • If you never stop.
  • Get up. Get out.
  • Build up the muscle.
  • Get rid of the flab.
  • Go back to school.
  • Sell the TV.
  • Master the curveball.
  • Pound the bag.
  • Rebuild an engine.
  • Jump-start a career.
  • Bench press four big plates.
  • Dig for fossils.
  • Bicycle across Canada.
  • Save an endangered species – yourself.
  • The only one who can tell you you can’t, is you.
  • And you don’t have to listen.

(photo of Nolan Ryan) Nolan Ryan, 7 no-hitter, 5,453 career strikeouts, 44 years of age.

I love the ad. Its simplicity and brevity speak loudly of personal conviction, responsibility, and ownership for what one accomplishes or fails to accomplish in life. The message implores the reader to just get up and do it.

In the Nike ad, the target is the recreational athlete in all of us. But what might such a list look like for educators, particularly those in Race to the Top states? Here’s what I came up with.

  • 41-year old school reformers.
  • 67-year old Common Core Curriculum Writers.
  • 23-year old early adopters.
  • Public school halls are full of them.
  • Professionals who realized:
  • It’s easier to implement than resist,
  • If you stay sharp and persist.
  • Go to, and get out to workshops.
  • Enhance your cerebral networks,
  • And those of your students.
  • Get rid of the textbooks.
  • Go back to school.
  • Sell the TV.
  • Master the Common Core Instructional Shifts.
  • Pound the fluency drills.
  • Rebuild your curriculum.
  • Re-energize your career.
  • Create interdisciplinary units of instruction.
  • Probe student understanding.
  • Write tight Student Learning Objectives
  • Conduct data-driven instruction.
  • The only one who can tell you you can’t, is you.
  • And you don’t have to listen.

And so it goes. With testing and the school year rapidly coming to a close, it’s fair to say, “We did it!” Congratulations to the many teachers and school/district leaders who persevered through a challenging and at times frustrating year of school reform. You did it! Yes, we don’t know our student scores yet. And yes, teacher and principals’ results based on the HEDI scale (highly effective, effective, developing, and ineffective) depend on those student scores, among other things. Regardless, through adversity comes strength. Congratulate yourself on managing the challenges to do the very best you could for your students and colleagues. After all, isn’t that why we entered this profession in the first place: to do what’s best for our students and communities? You did it!