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Lets Not Fear Change in Public Education in 2014

"After living with their dysfunctional behavior for so many years (a sunk cost if ever there was one), people become invested in defending their dysfunctions rather than changing them."

 — Marshall Goldsmith


I for one am glad that 2013 is behind us.  We have seen the establishment in public education work feverishly to oppose any and all new ed reform efforts.  These include the relentless opposition by self interest groups to try and dismantle the Common Core and the assessments attached to it, not too dissimilar from efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.   We have also seen misinformation and paranoia in efforts to bring cloud computing to the K-12 market, and wreck havoc on the efforts of Gates-backed nonprofit organization InBloom to try and create efficiencies with student information and learning management systems WHILE protecting personal student data.   We have also seen feverish opposition to research-backed proposals to evaluate and measure effective teaching.   In all, it's been a brutal year to be an ed reformer.

 Now let me be clear here.  Not all of the policies are the right ones.   We live in republic that after 225 years is still torn between federalism and state-driven policies.   The battle fronts have never been more dangerous than they are at present. Reformers must  work harder to build a spirit of collaboration with educators where possible.   Change will not come easy, and despite the recent backlash over the PISA results, those of us who have worked in Corporate America know full well that despite the incredible wealth of the United States, our education system is not churning out graduates who are prepared to succeed in careers, and life for that matter.  Moreover, our international peers are hungry, and their education systems, regardless of what we might think about their tactics, are working. 

We should be able to use the power of technology to ensure that every child, regardless of socioeconomic background, gets a quality education.   And we know from research at organizations such as CASEL that social and emotional learning might be the missing piece in the puzzle.   There are many programs successfully teaching at-risk youth and removing the excuse of poverty.   A child in a poor home should be able to get a rich learning experience outside the home.

I wish that in the year 2014 we can get all parties to stop clinging to positions and start focusing on interests - our children's interests.  If they embrace the principles of the well-known book Getting to Yes, then perhaps we'll see some progress.  At the end of the day, we know that disruptive innovation works because change only happens when those inventions below the radar start to hit the radar from a position of strength.   I hope that in 2014 we can all get on the same page and create a new spirit of collaboration in order to get the United States back where it belongs:  a leader in educating its citizens, from cradle to grave.

Maybe I'm still the Cockeyed Optimist  of which I blogged about a few years ago.   But hope is what our country is known for.  And it should always be in the hearts and minds of every child.  Public education can instill that sense of hope and wonder - isn't that what learning is all about?


A New Year's Resolution For Educators

I had a hard time figuring out what I wanted to title this blog post.  It can probably be re-titled.

This past week, I caught the attention of Ed Week blogger, Anthony Cody.  A former educator in Oakland Public Schools, Mr. Cody has a blog on this leading trade publication in the K-12 industry.  It is titled Living in Dialogue   Mr. Cody essentially plays the role of Clarence Thomas to Antonin Scalia (played by Diane Ravitch).   I have been nearly always commented on Anthony's blog to rebut his NEA-line agenda time and time again.   His blog states that it is about the following theme: "With education at a crossroads, he invites you to join him in a dialogue on education reform and teaching for change and deep learning."  However, if one looks beneath the surface, what you will find is that the author is proud of the fact that his blog archive shows no less than 80 (that's right, 80) posts related to the Common Core.   He has taken a cue from Diane Ravitch and talks about the so-called conspiracy around the formation of the standards.  In addition, Mr. Cody assassinates ed reformers such as the Gates Foundation at every turn, believing that they have no business meddling in education policy.

Mr. Cody then decided to honor me with writing a blog post that references my previous comments and deducts that I sought to muzzle Cody and the like and that they don't have voice - that they should simply worry about what they can control which is their classrooms.   And this, of course, opened the flood-gates and created a surge of comments on his blog, many of them personally attacking me and calling me a corporate reformer.  One even had the audacity to state that our education system is not broken.

Here is where I drew the line.   Mr. Cody's blog has not been living up to its billing.  It is more or less taking the NEA -line about the Common Core and the political forces meddling (as he puts it) in education policy.    Is 80 blog posts overkill or what?  What you find on this blog and many other blogs by educators is that they use blogging to rant and to turn it into an NEA beat down on any reformers who may differ from them in what ails our schools.   Many of the educators on the blog are NEA members, are retired teachers who are free to say whatever they wish, or are educators using an alias, for fear they might face reprimands from their administrators if identified.    Most of the time, these educators personally attack and character assassinate their targets, without using any factual evidence to support their views.  Or alternatively, they will take an outlier situation - and use it to state that the particular practice is killing our schools when it is just one extreme case.  This is a typical weapon of choice by Ravitch, Cody, et al.

Mr. Cody's blog is supposed to be about "teaching for change and deep learning."  I commented that Mr. Cody, as an experienced educator, should use his bully pulpit to try and help teachers improvise and use the limited resources they have - to think differently.  Instead, they talk about compartmentalizing subjects and worried about insufficient time during the school day to add new things.   Mr. Cody should look at the amazing teaching practices happening across the nation  and the fact that there are some innovative programs where they are able to integrate music and arts in their curriculum, as well as crate intrinsically motivating learning environments through digital technology, video games and the like.  In the new year, I hope that educators will spend more time looking at the opportunities afforded by changing their teaching habits, and to be more positive versus the constant rants and complaints seen across the educator blogasphere, which includes Mr. Cody's blog.   If you read this blog and others on Ed Week, you'll find that more than 90% of the comments are simply agreeing with the author's premise, rather than engaging in true civil discourse, or even creating an environment of collaboration.  That's my wish for educators and other key stakeholders in 2014 - a new spirit of respectful discussion and collaboration.  I hope we can see this happen.


The Missing Piece to Reforming K-12 Education?

As co-founder of the Atlanta Music Project, I believe unequivocally in the importance of social and emotional learning on academic learning.  As such, I have been a big fan of the research being conducted at the Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning ("CASEL").   Teacher unions and many teachers have historically blamed poverty as the excuse for why they are unable to successfully teach impoverished youth.  While poverty does make the learning process quite challenging, we know from successful programs such as KIPP and El Sistema that these children can learn under the right conditions.

In September, CASEL introduced a new study titled, The Missing Piece:  A National Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools   Per CASEL:

The central message of this report is that teachers across America understand that social and emotional learning (SEL) is critical to student success in school, work, and life. Social and emotional learning involves the processes of developing competencies, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Educators know these skills are teachable; want schools to give far more priority to integrating such development into the curriculum, instruction, and school culture; and believe state student learning standards should reflect this priority. Teachers also want such development to be available for all students. These and other findings are the result of a nationally representative survey of pre kindergarten through twelfth grade teachers to assess the role and value of social and emotional learning in America’s schools. The voices of teachers on SEL are more important than ever, when expectations for classroom effectiveness are higher, the U.S. educational advantage worldwide is slipping, and a skills gap is threatening American economic growth.

This report concludes that there is overwhelming evidence linking SEL, student outcomes, and school performance.   Is Social & Emotional Learning the secret ingredient to reinventing education in America and around the world?   Feel free to share your thoughts on this blog or on Twitter - @Reinvent_Ed.


Did Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed Really Say That?

Tell me this isn't true. 


I've been meaning to write something about this news story but wanted to take some time to ponder my thoughts before penning something that was intelligent and not emotionally charged.

Earlier this month, Atlanta's Mayor (who has done a solid job as mayor by and large) was on record stating he has raised outside donations to boost the incoming Superintendent's salary to a whopping $600,000 per year!   My first reaction was shock and muttering to myself:  "Are you kidding me?"   But let me explain why this is not the solution that Atlanta is looking for in persuading a best-in-class education leader to be interested in taking the job.

  •  No Superintendent should command such a salary
  • With the governance structure of APS, unless a Superintendent will have the ability to implement a reform agenda, the person is set up for failure.  Why take a huge salary when the probability of failure is so high?
  • What message are we sending our community?   That the only way to fix public education is to overpay a leader at the expense of funding the areas where it's needed the most, such as teachers and innovative learning tools driven by digital technology?


It seems to me that the Mayor has hijacked the recruiting process.   I find it objectionable that he would equate the hiring of the superintendent to "hiring the head football coach at University of Georgia."    The two business models couldn't be more different.

And there is research to support my perspective, not simply a non-educator expressing an opinion about the matter.  I would point the mayor and his advisors to the following article from Harvard Business Review which clearly states the "the correlation between salary and job satisfaction is very weak."   Moreover, the research shows as well as being commonly known that intrinsic motivation is a far stronger predictor of job performance than extrinsic motivation.   What does that mean?   It means that Mayor Reed is "rolling the dice" and lowering the probability that Atlanta will find the visionary leader it sorely needs.

We don't need a superintendent who is nearing retirement, as the Mayor believes.  What Atlanta needs is a rising star - someone young and hungry who may have been an Assistant Superintendent in an urban district in the midst of a successful transformation strategy.    Instead of hiring another Nick Saban, we should be looking for the next Thomas Dimitroff.   But no leader will succeed in APS unless the stakeholders give her the autonomy to be a change agent.   And unfortunately, that's just not going to happen - not when a school system spends $150 million on one high school.



A Moment of Truth for Atlanta Public Schools

The nation has been looking at Georgia's education system recently, and not through a favorable lens.   Why is that?

  1. GA received the lowest grade in the United States on the strength of its proficiency standards.
  2. Citing cost issues, Georgia decides to pull out of the consortium that was developing assessments based on the Common Core (PARCC) and instead, while NOT sharing any details on how it will get there, states that it can develop similar quality tests at a fraction of the cost.   The tab?  Approximately $30 million, a rounding error as a percentage of the total state education budget.
  3. The GA DoE has been warned by the U.S. Dept. of Education that at least $10M in RT3 award funds are at risk because it did not live up to certain obligations outlined in its grant proposal about the timing of the implementation of a new, accountability-based teacher evaluation system.

With all of the backpedaling on Common Core, the current State Superintendent, John Barge, decides his job performance was so stellar that he feels capable of running for Governor against the incumbent in a primary!  

With all of the challenges facing public school systems related to school governance, academic achievement, the Common Core and other key reforms, the microscope continues to shine the brightest on Atlanta Public Schools ("APS").   Crippled by a major cheating scandal, and graduation rates for certain minorities still below 50 percent, the school board decides to spend nearly $150 million on rebuilding one high school - North Atlanta High School.   Plenty of education reformers and public policy officials have question the wisdom of this move, which was featured in a major NY Times story, on whether this will truly transform public educaton in Georgia when it reaches less than 1,500 students.

With this massive cloud continuing to rein over the sixth largest school district in the state (~50K students), it was recently announced that the school board had not only fired its original search firm leading the search for a permanent Superintendent, but that it hired two search firms to take over the effort.  Both of these firms are well respected firms, but they are not known for making waves or finding visionary leaders.  They are skilled at finding leaders who fit PRECISELY into the box laid out for them by the client.

So the question I raise is whether APS is not only capable, but positioned to attract a skilled, visionary, progressive administrator to fundamentally reform this school system, which is one of the largest employers in Metro Atlanta.   I am very concerned that at this critical moment for Atlanta's public schools, that Atlanta will not find the leader they sorely need.   Why is that?

  • They are bringing the public into the process.   The taxpayers elected a school board to make these decisions, with the input of key stakeholders from private industry and city and state government.   I fear this is a terrible move by the search committee and will only add to the chaos.
  • What will the role of politics be in this process?  Will the process be circumvented by political favors and referral candidates?
  • Will the search committee be able to attract serious candidates with the cheating scandal trial not taking place until 2014?  
  • Should APS try and lure a "rising star" with progressive leanings and some experience in urban school districts,  versus an experienced administrator who will command major dollars a la Dr. Beverly Hall?
  • Will APS find the best candidate regardless of race or ethnicity?
  • How will APS address the perceived disconnect between the goals of the school board and what actually occurs?  A recent article outlines the difficulties a prospective candidate will face.

Running a major urban school system in the current toxic environment of public education is a daunting task for any leader.   APS would be wise to look at best practices and identify those administrators who have successfully turned around failing urban school systems (e.g., Nashville) and try and poach key members of their team.   Find a candidate who has been trained in a successful environment - just like the Falcons did when they hired a young, but very smart member of the New England Patriots organization:  Thomas Dimitroff, to become their General Manager.   Seems that hire has worked out pretty well.