Friday, August 6, 2010

Farewell, My Friends

This will be the final post here; I am working toward moving my evolving spiel to a new venue, "Not Your Father's School." My hope is to unify some of my thinking, which has been split between this blog and "The New Progressive."

Part of my desire is to lose the specific focus on teaching and professional culture here and what I am feeling are my overly restrictive ties to what I have been calling the New Progressivism over there. There is something new going on in independent schools, and it has progressive roots, and it's very much tied to the way we organize and manage schools and their curricula, but I'd like a fresh start.

I also want to take a deep breath and try to sort out what's really important. I am feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of truisms and banalities gushingly tweeted by educational (and especially ed tech) gurus and conference-goers alike; there has been a plethora of communication about education lately but a dearth of real discourse. I want to be helpful, and not just another Jeremiah or self-styled Answer Man.

I don't really blame all the excited posters and tweeters under whose words and reasonably good ideas I am feeling buried, but I'm not sure I really need to spend time analyzing yet another iteration of someone's breathless assertion that "Never before has teaching creativity been so important" and "Do we want our students trained for the last century, or this one?" I can't blame the writers, because it's all so, well, timely; we're all more than a little swept up in the craze of the moment and a sense of mounting anxiety that if we don't capture and harness the ideas that might drive the changes we need right now, the moment will pass us by and we'll all be doomed to living out the gurus' dystopic vision of an eternity of teaching and learning in schools based on Henry Ford's assembly line.

I've expressed before, here and elsewhere, my unhappiness with the ways that educational experts have begun to feed on teachers and schools in the same way the politicos and mass-media journalists have been doing since 1983 or so. Too many educator fingers are being pointed at teachers and administrators as the cause of all the inertia and resistance that prevents schools--and here I refer in particular to independent schools, who are not enslaved by NCLB testing requirements--from enacting the changes that will make our programs and institutions sustainable into the foreseeable future.

So, it's time step make a formal declaration of my intention to step away from this site, hunker down in my secure undisclosed location for a while, and try to figure out what the school(s) of the future--which will indeed not be my father's school--will need to be like, and how they will need to conceive of, recruit, train, and treat their (I certainly hope and expect) admirable faculties.

73, friends

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Long-term boards, strategic plans, and board chairs

I recently spoke with some independent school folks in Maryland on the topic of change and innovation. Along the way to putting my thoughts into words, I had a couple of ideas that might be useful for people in schools wanting to but mired down in the challenges of change.

As educators and especially as change agents within schools, we sometimes neglect or regard as an insurmountable obstacle the role of governing boards. While good boards should have a healthy admixture of innovators and steady hands, often enough the culture of boards produces a kind of stagnation, or certainly aversion to change.

Boards are important, and their members are important are good, and they want like crazy for your school and its leadership and its faculty and its students to succeed. They are the school’s most important friends and allies, and they deserve all the help and patient guidance that we who are desirous of change can give them; we can’t write them off.

But we know the challenges of trying to tell the board that some new approach to curriculum is going to set college or next school admission committees’ eyes all aglow. These are among the wisest, most influential people in the school, and they care as deeply about the place as its faculty and administration, although probably in different ways depending on their personal relationship with the institution. Some of the most conservative (and sometimes, face it, most annoying) trustees are those who are most quick to remind everyone that they have a fiduciary responsibility to the school, that they are responsible before almighty God and the state for every penny that goes in and out. Innovation costs money, and when people start throwing around wild ideas, they want proof that these ideas will work and that they aren't going to necessitate raising tuition or otherwise jeopardizing the school’s fiscal stability.

Here are a couple of suggestions that can’t happen overnight, because they require cultural change and possibly a modification of the rules by which the board operates. Start planting the seeds now, though, and you may live to see them bear fruit:

If your school tends toward long-term trustees—seven years or more without a sabbatical, board chairs who took office in the time of Bush One—perhaps there should be a reconsideration of this practice. New blood matters, and so does the opportunity for old blood to step outside a long-term role in order to acquire some new perspective.

The board leadership ought to see to it that the full board, or certainly the nominating committee and the educational policy committee or (best of all) the annual board retreat ought to involve some mandatory and high-level learning every year about current thinking in education; this should happen regardless of the length of board terms.

Your board members need to know not only how to read a balance sheet and ask their peers for ungodly amounts of money, they also need to understand something about how independent schools and teaching have been evolving. You don’t seriously want them learning everything they know about 21st-century education from Jay Mathews or Forbes, do you? You can start by getting each of them an annual subscription to Independent School magazine—it’s only twenty bucks a pop.

If your school has a strategic plan, how old is it? Has it been around longer than a significant number of the trustees? If so, then these newer folks didn’t make it, didn’t approve it, and probably don’t have a lot of personal investment in its success. They’re back to relying on Jay Mathews or those scary articles on college admissions in the Wall Street Journal. If you want to engage the board and move along a few things that are on the minds of the academic visionaries in your school, push for a new strategic planning process every four or even three years.

This shouldn’t be a closed-door, one-weekend, board-only exercise but an open, broadly inclusive, dynamic process that includes some real educational exploration and some provocative, original thinking relating to your school's mission and values in the context of future needs. (Just try to remember the ideas that you were all hot and bothered about four years ago, and you’ll see the wisdom in this suggestion.)

I also happen to think that the rare practice of rolling over board chairs every three or four years is a really good idea as a way of keeping the board paying attention. Even though there will be a regularly reoccurring learning curve for the head and for the succession of new chairs, the school and the board will get a regular new dose of dynamism, and your head doesn’t get to fall into too cozy and relaxed a relationship with a congenial chair. You may also avoid what is much worse: a head and board who manage the school into a state of programmatic paralysis out of fear of offending an iconic, omnipotent board chair whom no one dares cross or a chair who is simply so competent that new ideas seem somehow unnecessary.

There was an interesting and sometimes overheated thread on the ISED listserv in the fall of 2009 in which it was suggested (a la Daniel Pink's Drive) that overpaid heads lead resistance to innovation to preserve what is for them a comfortable status quo. It occurs to me that mere money is probably (mostly) not the problem: many of the longest-term heads, who of course tend to earn the most money, are the creatures of long-term chairs and complacent long-term boards. Well, it’s no surprise that schools with such leadership—and it may be excellent leadership in many ways—aren’t leading the pack when it comes to trying new things.

So, it's important that school leaders think about rattling the cages of boards as well as of faculties if they'd like to expedite the process of innovation. While the roles and responsibilities of governors must be respected and kept within appropriate and statutory bounds, they must also be seen as a fundamental and potentially huge resource in the process of change. The trick is to structure the composition and work of this resource in a way that fosters and does not impede vitally necessary programmatic innovation.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Playing Fields of Eton--and 21st-century Waterloos

Of necessity I have been thinking quite a lot about branding and independent schools lately, and I am hereby decreeing that the most enduring tagline ever created about our schools is that attributed to the Duke of Wellington: “The Battle of Waterloo was won upon the playing fields of Eton.”

The line has a suspect provenance, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the way in which the sentence encapsulates by implication all the virtues that elite British manhood required to defeat Napoleon and, in time, ensure that the sun would never set upon the Union Jack: courage, stoicism, resourcefulness—all the qualities of the student-athlete and ultimately the warrior, suitable indeed for the century and the situation.

Which has me wondering, at the end of a globally discouraging winter, what the battles of our century will be. Right now all the forward-thinking educators I hear and read seem awfully fixated on the vocational skills and workplace attributes enumerated as “21st-century skills” by various employers and business councils, and I am assured that subtle technological proficiencies in social media and other Web 2.0 skills will guarantee success to our students in the world of the future. They will need these skills to conquer global warming and spread health care, peace, and prosperity around the flattened globe. Some of them will be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, changing lives with beautifully designed products that are solutions to problems we never knew we had.

It’s a lovely picture, progressive in its optimism and focused on the things that education is supposed to be preparing kids for: college, jobs, and responsible citizenship. This is all good, and I’m all for it.

But maybe it’s time to take a cue from the past and ponder the kinds of real experiences our students are having in our 21st-century schools and whether we are serving our students well with either our programs or our platitudes. Will our schools prepare students for the battles—and I use the term here in all its meanings—they will face in our century?

The hundred years that followed the famous victory of Wellington and his schoolmates saw the expansion of European empires and European democracy, but hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of people died in the wars of conquest and the revolutions that brought the Industrial, Imperial Age into being. While sun-kissed heroes of Western Civilization like Wellington, George Armstrong Custer, and Kipling’s Stalky pulled on their boots and primed their guns to spread Victorian blessings, European families as well as indigenous communities from Alaska to Arabia to Afghanistan to Australia saw their lives and worlds shattered.

The dawn of the 20th century saw a new version of the elitist avatar, and prep schools worked to embody “muscular Christianity” in their missions and practices. The new heroes were Dink Stover and the Rover Boys, privately educated in the glories of the Strenuous Life, somehow combining the best qualities of Jesus and Theodore Roosevelt. (This version of the prep school hero managed neatly and ironically to ignore the authentically strenuous lives of the majority of teenagers who left school at age 12 or 14 and worked in agriculture, resource extraction, industry, or urban commerce.) The poets of the British trenches and the novelists of the Lost Generation provide us with all too many autopsies on the body of values and beliefs drummed into schoolchildren a century after Waterloo.

Those who survived the trenches and could sublimate their bitterness and cynicism soldiered on into the Great Depression. Their children, of the generation of Phineas (in A Separate Peace) and Holden Caulfield, either missed World War II or they became Mr. Roberts or (a bit later) the self-righteous, over-bred crew of the U.S.S. Caine, deeply affected by but eluding the worst consequences of the war that killed 417,000 American soldiers but as many as 70 million people worldwide.

Ahead of us in 2010 we have global climate change, an exploding population demanding access to shrinking stocks of global resources, and a backdrop of terrorism and war with a daily death toll that would appall us if we paid attention. Political civility even in old and established democracies is seriously on the wane; crazies who fly their airplanes into tax offices are cheered as martyrs, just like Islamic fundamentalists who blow up marketplaces. The rest of this century could shape up into something distinctly unpleasant, and we need to be educating people who can help pull the world out a real nosedive, not just earn a living by their cleverness and sophistication.

On one level, and I’m not ready to linger here, screeds on the irrelevance of the lectures at TEDxNYED are pretty much beside the point. What schools need to be focusing on, along with the effective use of social media in the classroom, is how to provide experiences that are like the playing fields of Eton—experiences that will bring forth (or instill, if you are Old School) the best qualities of resourcefulness, critical analysis, courage, and committed engagement that will prepare students for a world that could look more like that of Mad Max or Blade Runner than The Jetsons.

I’d actually look well beyond curriculum and pedagogy here. Wellington (or whoever) didn’t cite the classrooms of Eton, and I suspect that character—real character: values, courage, optimism, even faith—is still largely a product of advisories, of discussions of school and social values in dormitory common rooms and club and activity meetings, of chapel talks and school meetings, and—yes—of athletics.

Society’s needs, though, have moved beyond a stiff upper lip or muscular Christianity. We’re going to need innovative thinking and the ability to face large-scale, immediate, and even horrific problems—to improvise, lead, and endure when cyberwarriors bring down the Internet, when resource wars threaten to engulf both developing and developed worlds, or when violence becomes a regular aspect of political disagreement even in our own communities.

Where are we teaching our children how to confront challenges on this scale? Where are we even admitting to ourselves and our children what the future might look like if things go wrong?

Neither Wellington’s teachers nor his coevals could have foreseen the struggle against Napoleon, and the faculty and graduates of St. Grottlesex in 1938 didn’t understand that America would soon be battling the forces behind the Anschluss and the Rape of Nanjing. What calamities don’t we foresee, and are we truly giving our students what they will need to face them?


Monday, March 15, 2010

Arne Duncan's Classroom Nightmares

Sitting in the waiting area as my car gets its oil changed, I had occasion just now to hear a CNN news clip in which Secretary of Arne Duncan vigorously supports the firing of the faculty of the "failing" high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, and responds to the questioning of the interviewer about teaching students who have little or no support at home by saying, "If you can't teach poor kids, get out of the profession."

The whole Rhode Island episode represents such a cosmic failure of adult leadership I'm not sure I even know how to feel. It has sounded all along to me like a perfect storm-level convergence of family poverty and disengagement, school board neglect, school administration ineptitude, teacher surrender, and federal and media attention--too little (the feds) and too late (the media, who always make up for their own neglect with histrionics). It also sounded as though the secretary was making a pointed jab intended to let the world know that the Obama administration is not in the pocket of the "teachers unions"--those media symbols for resistance to education reform, however one might construe that idea--or the mollycoddling progressives.

It's all so disheartening I don't even know whom to feel sorry for, except that I don't hear a lot of meaningful sympathy for--or a real set of plans to help--the kids in Central Falls. But I have to say I find the delight that the current administration seems to be taking in the whole situation distasteful and opportunistic, the moreso perhaps because Arne Duncan is no more capable than anyone else of dropping into Central Falls to quickly set things aright.

Which brings me to an idea for a television program, rather like Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares or any of the other "experts come and correct a bad situation in a few short hours" television shows. The genre seems to be British in origin, but it has spread, perhaps because we all like to indulge in the magical thinking involved in imagining that an SUV full of gay men can make us handsome and suave or two judgmental middle-aged women can turn us from Oscar Madisons into neatniks.

I want to see Arne Duncan, or anyone else, walk into the classrooms of schools adjudged "failing" and fix things up in a jiffy. C'mon, we've seen this in a zillion teacher movies, so it must be easy. Recent news from Teach for America says it's easy--just take some ambitious Ivy Leaguers who fit a certain profile and add students.

I don't think it's easy. Teaching is never easy, no matter where one is or what kinds of families students come from or what kind of colleges that teachers graduate from. But there are a few principles that tend to bear fruit (just as there are principals who can't do the job), and I bet we all know educators who could walk into Central Falls High School and turn the place around--given some time. The optimist in me likes to think that most of those fired teachers could yet be redeemed, and I hope they get the help they need to have that happen before even more teenagers come adrift from the education system.

Maybe the "Classroom Nightmares" show could represent teaching for what it truly is: a skill, a science, and an art that depends on a whole culture of supports, systems, and above all beliefs that make it possible for young people to learn. Please note that I am not advocating any "one best system" here, just reminding the reader that this can be done.

How about CNN, or Fox, or BBC, or PBS, producing "Teacher X's Classroom Nightmares" as a way of demonstrating to the world at large what teaching is really like and what the challenges are, whether in a poor urban district or even (gasp) an affluent independent school? Of course, it would have to be a continuing series, not a one-hour special. And we know we can't vote any students off the island.

Done well, a program like this could help frame the debate on education and education policy as something more than Arne Duncan posturing or Fox pundits spewing whatever it is they spew.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Treating Teachers Like Grown-Ups

It'll take me a while to collect all my thoughts on the "Leading Toward A Sustainable Future" workshop this afternoon at the NAIS 2010 Annual Conference. I led off with some collective wisdom on school leadership that I amassed for the "Alive & Well" online advisory, then Pat Bassett spoke in detail on financial modeling and how schools need to prepare to face "The New Normal" of limited resources. The interactive part for the good-sized audience (about 63 for a session originally planned for 40) was a panel presentation featuring school heads Vance Wilson of St. Albans (DC), Merry Sorrells of St. Paul's Episcopal School (LA), and Katherine Dinh of Prospect Sierra (CA). Paul Miller of NAIS moderated, and I filled a seat at the far end.

I was gratified that one of the themes I had identified, "Treat adults--especially faculty--like grown-ups," surfaced several times in the panel discussion. The point is that schools need to trust that adults in the community, and in particular teachers, are able to "handle" complex and complete information about finances. Katherine Dinh referred to addressing "the elephant in the room"--possible layoffs or salary reductions-- when discussing possible ramifications of the economic downturn with her faculty (but it all turned out fine), and Wilson and Sorrells urged those in attendance--mostly heads--to do the same.

It used to be considered axiomatic that independent school teachers would either be frightened by or simply wouldn't be able to grasp finances, and so the benevolent paternalists of olden times kept these details from teachers. Thus, a teacher might not know until the last moment that his or her job was at risk, or--worse--rumors took the place of real information. Anyone who thinks teachers don't think about or understand money is badly misinformed, and on any faculty the combination of financial uncertainty and administrative secrecy about money matters is a powerful cocktail, toxic to morale and efficacy like almost no other.

I like to believe that the days of such "benevolence" have long passed, but that may not be true. But there is enough economic uncertainty in the world at large to make it more important than ever for schools to make a point of sharing financial information--including uncertainty--with their faculties and staffs.

There was plenty more to think about in today's session, but it's nice to think that leadership for a sustainable future now officially includes treating teachers as if they might be capable of understanding the financial contexts in which their schools operate. It's just too bad that this message still needs sending.


Saturday, February 20, 2010


Just a quick update:

The Intentional Teacher: Forging a Great Career in the Independent School Classroom is now proudly displayed for order on the website of the publisher, Avocus Publishing.

I understand that the book will also be available at the NAIS Bookstore at the 2010 Annual Conference, which starts in just a couple of days.

I've also distilled some of aspects of the book into a 1-hour workshop at the annual conference. Drop by and listen or just to say hello (the session is opposite some other terrific presentations that I'm sorry I won't be able to get to) at 8:00am on Friday, February 26 somewhere in the Moscone Center West. (Find the session listing in the online conference schedule to download the slideshow; I'll post the show on this blog after the conference.)

Click here to get to a great conference dashboard resource provided by the prodigious Chris Bigenho.

See you in San Francisco, I hope!

That's all--ignore the "Continue" button.