Monday, September 24, 2012

"Two Times Tabled to Death" (figuratively speaking)

While out to dinner with our good friends this weekend, the conversation, as it often does, turned to education. Our friends have two children about the same ages as ours. He works in the private sector and wants the best for his kids like most parents. Knowing that I am a school superintendent, he values my opinions and thoughts around education. He will often ask questions about school and his kids' education. He usually begins by saying, "hey, let me run this by you and see if this makes sense to you". We do not always agree on educational issues but I find him to be very thoughtful around the issues. Sometimes I find myself being the defender of public education in some of our conversations, but this one - I could not defend or understand.

He shared that his son,who is now in 4th grade, must write his 2x's tables every night of the week five times each - and has needed to do this for weeks. I naturally asked, "does he not know them?" and he answered that he absolutely knows them - but when it comes to the "timed" written fact test of them he can't write fast enough. His son struggles with some anxiety around performance but truthfully, I find him to be smarter than most adults I know. I asked, "so did you speak with his teacher about this? Specifically, did you explain that he knows the 2x's tables and simply can't write fast enough?" To which he said yes, and the teacher's response to us was, "Oh, I know he knows them, but he has to past the written fact check test to move on. It is a school policy".

Ok, I am not sure if the teacher got this policy right - or if it is an actual policy- maybe she just heard that somewhere, but, if that is a policy we are in deep trouble. *This school (and district) is considered a high achieving district under the current NJ/Federal definitions of high achieving, meaning-our kids all pass the NJASK. Also, in all fairness to the school there are some excellent educators there. Most likely, this is some rule that became 'law' and has taken on a life of its own. It is time to end it.

While it is still important for children to be able to memorize the multiplication facts so they can have them on easy recall, more importantly is that they understand the actual mathematics behind multiplication. I spent the next 10 minutes at our dinner quizzing their son - he knew all of his 2x's table facts as well as what it means to multiply. If the teacher were to just think about what learning outcome she hoped to achieve I think she could see how absurd it is that he is forced to continue writing his 2x's tables every night. Let's move on already, the 3's are waiting.

Education is NOT linear, I do not understand why we feel we must gate-keep - "you can't have the next bit of knowledge until you master the current bits"... hypothetically, their son could spend the rest of his education writing the 2x's tables.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Taylor Mali; "Like, ya know?"

Taylor Mali, one of the greatest voices in education, uses his gift of poetry to shed light on education. Enjoy



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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Carrot and Stick; Rewards Work, Right?

After watching the YouTube RSA Animate (below), which I found on Justin Tarte's Blog
@justintarte shout out!), I was left with new insights that I want to share with you.

The carrot and the stick work to motivate behavior - just reward the desired outcome and punish the wrong outcome- right?

The Carrot and Stick Experiment

A study at MIT took a whole group of students and gave them a series of tasks to do (from memorizing a series of words to shooting a ball through a hoop) - they placed financial incentives in 3 levels of rewards. If you did pretty well, you got a small monetary reward, if you did exceptionally well you got a larger reward. Typical motivation system for the private sector - the results of their study were as follows: if the task was only a mechanical skill the incentives worked i.e. participants performance increased congruently with the increased dollar reward - BUT once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skills, the incentives failed to improve performance and actually higher reward incentives resulted in poorer performance. The incentive experiment was conducted by top economists (who were baffled and in disbelief) and their findings frightened them - so they repeated the experiments multiple times in multiple different environments. The results did NOT change. The higher the financial reward for cognitive taks the poorer the performance. Why?

Pink states that money is a motivator - fact - so you have to pay people enough to take the question of money off the table. This means that we all desire to have fair wage for the preparation (schooling) required to get the job, and fair for what the job requires us to do. Once we get the base salary to a fair level, the research suggests that financial rewards (bonuses) for mechanical tasks (do x then y) will work, but when the task calls for people to use even the smallest amount of cognitive skill, financial incentives back fire. Scientists believe this is because, above all, people want Purpose (meaning in life), Mastery (we want to grow and become good at stuff), and to be able to be self-directed or at least have some say so in the how we do things. To really highlight what Pink means as far as pay people enough to take money out of the equation - if you were asked to be a teacher in 2012 and told the salary would be $25,000 a year - you would feel grossly underpaid based on market conditions, right? This is starkly different that if you were a first year teacher at $45,000 (plus medical benefits), yes of course you may still wish you had more or find a district where first year teachers make a little more or less, but you are in the market range. The researchers determined that so long as you are within the market range, money stops being a top motivator for performance.

Purpose - Mastery - Autonomy

In education, it is easy to connect with the Purpose - at least it should be as we want to make a difference for kids. That is an awesome purpose. We want to master our craft so we learn new instructional techniques and try to stay current on the various federal and state mandated reforms that are put upon us. Unfortunately, with the demand associated with the reforms, such as high stakes testing, the consequences of being labeled failures can easily shake us from our purpose and ultimately leave us with a feeling of failed mastery. Further complicating matters, once a school has been labeled as a failure, the federal and state departments of education take away our autonomy, change the game so we can never really gain mastery (example- new instructional programs designed to be the cure are forced upon district leaders). There are actually schools across the country where teachers literally have to read a scripted lesson - and every teacher in every classroom is doing the exact same thing. That is degrading and humiliating and it flies in the face of what the research says motivates people.

Leadership Take - A-way

As a leader, I hope to help my staff stay connected to their sense of purpose - our kids. I want  to make sure they have what they need to do their job. I want them to have a plan for developing mastery of their craft. To me, this means that I don't change our 'plan' or strategy every year. Constant 'reform' leaves staff exhausted and unmotivated - not to mention if you keep changing the target you can never master the performance. Lastly I lead in a way that offers my staff defined autonomy. Defined autonomy is a collaborative autonomy where I respect their input, passion, individual talents and use them to set expectations. Visualize a football field, my expectations is that you get the ball across the endzone without stepping out of bounds - I leave it up to the professional to determine how to get the ball (or students) across the endzone (or achieve at a rigorous level).


This idea that we can standardize education is absurd - we must customize the educational experience by allowing our teachers to connect to their purpose (or calling), become the masters of their craft, and have autonomy (defined) in how they inspire our children. There are no simple answers to improving our schools - there is no magic program that can be dropped in - what will work is building the capacity of your staff by maintaining a focus on our purpose, using an instructional model (or approaches that are proven to be effective i.e. Blooms Taxonomy), and lastly let teachers have autonomy to inspire our children to be life long learners. This can be directly transferred by the teachers to our students - help them realize their purpose in life, help them achieve mastery, and also give them defined autonomy. Students should be able to have input into how they will 'show evidence' of mastery.

Something to think about- Watch below

Friday, September 7, 2012

"Engage Me"

This is powerful! The students are capable of so much, if we just don't limit them. Check this out-

Racing To The Top Of The Wrong Mountain

Recently, I read a response to Obama's Education Grade of A- by Will Richardson of Flemington, NJ. If you are thinking, 'boy, Dr. G has mentioned this Will Richardson guy an awful lot lately' you are right - I reference him a lot because I believe he is a premiere voice of reason in education these days when it appears all policy makers are lost. You should get familiar with his work too.

Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times ( NY Times - Obama's 1st Term (Will Richardson's comments at bottom) cited Race to the Top as a 'cost effective way to create nationwide change'. For those of us in education reality, we recognize that the great race has made education decidedly worse by placing an ever growing emphasis on test scores as a measure of just about everything under the sun. According to policy makers and politicians, high stakes test scores can tell us everything from the value of the teacher, the principal, the school, the district, heck it can even predict winning lottery numbers. When if fact, educators know that these tests kill student's passion to learn. Now, these tests, will place the burden of a teacher maintaing a job or getting a raise squarely on the shoulders of kids (no pressure), they are used to grade schools and even education preparation schools. Tests that ask questions that can be answered by a Google search. Tests that discount the literacies required to live in an age flooded with technology. (See the National Council of Teachers reading and writing literacies at National Council of Teachers Reading/Writing. Your kids literate by that definition?)

All high stakes testing is really good for is telling us the obvious, how a child scored on a narrow assessment of knowledge at that moment, on that day - they can't tell us if the child was given breakfast that morning, or was recovering from a nasty cold, or if they were stressed out over the fact that their teacher can't sleep at night worrying about how their students will score on the state test - Poverty is consistently left out of the discussion of high stakes testing. The students who do not meet the proficient mark have some common traits - largely all come from low socio-economic status (free & / or reduced lunch), are special needs (either special education or english language learners).

Reforming Education is a billion dollar industry. Unfortunately these reforms are focused on the continued quantifying, ranking, sorting, scoring and comparing of learners, teachers, schools and are actually no reforms at all. They are reforms driven by policy makers catering to a growing number of businesses who see literally billions in profits through privatization as long as learning is easy to measure.

But, what do these measures tell us about creativity? About a child's ability to cooperate, to solve real world problems, to think entrepreneurially, to continue to learn? The test prep mania that we are in the midst of is creating a generation of kids destined for unemployment because the emphasis of schools remains drumming answers into kids heads most of which they will never use. That's especially dangerous at this moment of huge change.

Please, please, inform yourself as a parent and community member of the dangers of believing a school or district is what the high stakes testing companies say they are. Instead, judge them based on the environment that create for their kids - is it a welcoming place, where children are free to explore their passions and ideas with support from caring adults trained to support learning...lastly, are they fun? As a parent, these are the traits I am concerned about. I propose we start a Bill that would give parents the right to 'opt their child out' of the high stakes - high stress tests. Who is with me????

DR. G.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

This is a must see, Will Richardson discusses the future of schooling - if we want a future, we should listen to his thoughts!

The Extravaganza in Review

If you have been paying attention to the MPS you know we just celebrated the start of a new school year in style! The "Main Street Band" performed throughout the morning and did an outstanding job of  keeping everyone's toes tapping and hands clapping. Main Street Band is a local band featuring a MPS teacher, Wally Maines and his brother Chuck. When asked to perform for our 'top secret' opening day extravaganza we told them, "we can't pay you, we can't feed you, (thanks to NJ code), but we will appreciate 'the daylights' out of you". They said yes without hesitation. If you aren't familiar with Millville, this may seem odd that they would agree to the terms but what makes this city great is that people around here will go out of their way to help each other. I greatly appreciate their willingness to keep everyone's spirits high with their talent.

Respecting the dreams and talents of our staff and students is a central theme this year. Sir Kenneth Robinson said it best, "education is not linear - its a great lie really, to think you start in kindergarten and march straight through college until you land in a great career. Those days are history". Instead, Robinson suggests that the arts and creativity are keys to the future. MPS is on a mission to become a world class school district. We believe to do so, we must create the environment for our students to learn to learn - so they can become 'life long learners'. We will embrace the creativity and respect our students' dreams!

Our opening day Extravaganza was awesome by most accounts. I am so happy that our risk to try something different paid off with good time had by all.

In my address, I shared the W.B. Yeats Poem “He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven”

HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Inwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
W.B. Yeats (1865–1939)

I ended my address with "Very soon, our students are going to come into your schools and lay their dreams beneath your feet – please tread softly!"

I wish everyone a great new school year!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Summarizing Opening Day 2012

"Aspire to serve like the great Gandhi"
This year, I really wanted to do something outrageous and different to start the school year to emphasize a fresh start. I feel we have accomplished that. Just watch the two clips below this post (in order: the Extravaganza then watch my YouTube "Captive Post, Extravaganza Gone Too Far Spoof). We had fun, used the latest technology to generate interest around our Tuesday open day event.

David Tilton, CEO Atlanticare
This year, more than any other, my approach to leading is simple - Service. I read a book recently entitled "The Servant" by James Hunter. This book was given to me by the senior leadership team at Atlanticare (Hospital System). Atlanticare was recently awarded the Baldrige Quality Award and as such are experts in quality. Dr. Moore and I were able to get an hour meeting with their CEO, David Tilton and his senior leaders. During this meeting we asked questions but more importantly listened to their story. For all involved on their side, this journey started back in the 80's. At that time, David ? said a successful day was not being fined by the health department for a violation. As they put it, it was not a lot of fun to work for Atlanticare during that time. Despite their early challenges, there was something about this group of leaders that was determined to improve their reputation and more importantly the quality of care for their patience. Together, they embarked on a journey to become world class - sound similar? Yes, MPS is on a similar journey to become a world class school district. Similarly to Atlanticare, our challenges are great but so is our resolve to become the best.

I mentioned earlier, my approach is based in service - the book which was given to me by Atlanticare, helped guide their journey and I feel strongly it can help ours as well. To serve means that as superintendent, I make sure my senior leaders have everything they need to get the job done - they in turn make sure the building leaders have what they need - the building leaders do the same for the teachers - and the teachers for the students. The primary point I learned in this book is that in order to lead one must serve. And serving does not mean giving  your employees or customers everything the 'want' but rather what they 'NEED'. Hunter makes the clear point, that it is not the leaders role to give employees everything they want, like 50$ an hour wages - although that may seem nice, what they really need is sustained long-term employment at a fair wage - giving them what they want would actually put our organization out of business and not respect their real needs. I am committed, more than ever before, to serve my employees' needs and therefore serve our customers' needs. A want is a wish without regard to the physical or psychological consequence. A need on the other-hand is a legitimate physical or psychological requirement.

This year, in whatever you do, think about serving your customers' needs well.