Tuesday, September 22, 2015

How Current Educational Leadership Makes Itself Powerless

Most current principals and school leaders are quite familiar with the discourse that calls for them to focus on their “circles of influence” and just ignore those things over which they have no control. Stephen R. Covey has become the gospel for educational leaders.

For example, if a school principal of a high-poverty school points out the abject poverty that her students live in from day-to-day is hampering their achievement, she is immediately reprimanded and corrected with, “Just focus on what you can control, not those things you can’t. Besides, that’s just an excuse.” The thinking behind these statements elevate the myth that poverty does not matter. All one needs to do is “Pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and they will succeed.”

The underlying belief of all this is, “Poverty is an acceptable part of life. People who live in poverty do so because of their own mistaken choices.” It is this belief that underpins so many school leadership trainings I’ve experienced. Focus on the management tools, and ignore the conditions kids live in outside the school.

The ordered silence (and it is ordered because those who speak are silenced and dismissed) about poverty is the same as saying those who push policies and practices that are pomoting income desparity and poverty are right and to question what they are doing is “political.” It is this thinking that has disemboweled educational leadership today. There’s no “guts” or courage for standing up to those societal and political practices that are hurting children. School leaders are made simply “managers” of a system as it is rather than advocating for a society and a system that gives everyone a fair chance.

When did educational leadership mean subscribing to a societal program that leaves more kids behind than ever?

When did being a school principal who is advocating for the dire needs of the kids in his school become labeled as excuses instead of calling attention to an American society that does not take care of its own?

When does it ever mean that a school leader can’t critique federal, state, and local educational policy, and question political decisions made by our government and state poltical and educational department leaders?

Have we so adopted the hierarchical, non-questioning business approach to just carrying out the latest federal or state mandate so that we can “keep our jobs?”

That is why America still leaves so many children behind! Educational leaders have been neutered and reduced to “business managers” whose job is to follow orders unquestionably. They are encouraged to have a vision “as long as it fits into the program, where the program is guided by federal and state poltiical mandates.

Until educational leaders, from the classroom to the state and federal levels shed the mind of educational managers of the latest mandates, and begin to question and advocate as well as call attention to society-wide policies that are hurting kids, public education will be just as powerless and inffective as its leaders.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

NC SAT Scores Drop Slightly: So What! It Means Nothing

News outlets are reporting everywhere that “SAT Scores Slip Slightly” and “NC’s SAT Scores Drop, Even as More Students Graduate” but does it really mean anything?

Before the state politicians and state educational system leades start to panic, let me make this as clear as I can: IT MEANS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. The SAT is a standardized test and comparing the scores from one year to the next is a meaningless and fruitless exercise. There is no meaning to be gained by even reporting this information. It is about as newsworthy as reporting that it was hot again today and it will be hot again tomorrow!

Educators need to stop responding with panic about the rise and fall of these tests from year to year. Instead, we need to remind everyone of the stupidity of making these comparisons each in the first place. We shouldn’t brag when the SAT scores go up, and we certainly should not accept responsibility when they go down. It is education malpractice to even acknowledge that there is any meaning in comparing national standardized tests from year to year. So what is my administrative and professional response to the SAT scores drop or any national standardized test results? You just read it.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Schools Need Intellectual Leaders Too!

“The role of the intellectual is to expose new ways of thinking: to make people see the world around them in a different light, to disturb their mental habits and to invite them to demand and instigate change.” Johanna Oksala, How to Read Foucault
I want to propose a radical idea: School leaders need to be “intellectual leaders.” If you look at any one of the hundreds of books about educational leadership, you see the words, “instructional leader,” “micropolitical leader,” or “managerial leader,” but what’s missing is the idea of “intellectual leadership.” Educational leaders, as I see it, should also be “intellectual leaders."
If there ever was a time “intellectual leaders” are needed it is now. Intellectual leaders who “expose new and old ways of thinking about education and its practices” are needed in the face of an onslaught of privatization and corporatization. Educational leaders have often blindly accepted the “corporate agenda” for schools often without question. They have bought the idea that “If it works in business, then it will work in education” mantra. They have come to accept without question an audit culture that places results in the form of test scores above anything else. They have blindly followed politicians into this by accepting massive amounts of federal money with chains attached to drag public education in places of destruction. In a word, educational leaders are complicit in the destruction of public education and the destruction of the teaching profession with their unquestioning acceptance of the latest brand of educational reform to travel downward from on high.

What is needed to counter this downward spiral? Intellectual leaders willing to expose these mandates, these policies to the scrutiny of critical examination. Intellectual leaders who don’t just accept as gospel that tests are the equivalent of learning and that test scores are the only worthwhile measure of learning. It is intellectual leaders in the schools who would scrutinize and resist policies bad for kids, and bad for public education.

One other thing about intellectual leadership: it also involves “distubing the mental habits” of others within the school organization. These others also need to question the reasons "why we have always done things this way” or “why we are going to do them this way now.” With the questions, spaces for resistance open up for true leadership. Change begins with seeing outside the boundaries; not with accepting the boundaries as given.
"The intellectual is not the moral conscience of society, his or her role is not to pass political judgments, but to liberate us by making alternative ways of thinking possible."Johanna Oksala, How to Read Foucault

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Is Education’s Sole Purpose to Prepare Students for the Jobs of the Future? I Say No!

Is education’s sole purpose to prepare students for the jobs of the future? I am positive that many educators who read my headline immediately ask, “What a dumb question! Sure, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.” But, is that really the case?

Educators have long accepted as a maxim that education should be about preparing students for the jobs of the future, jobs that don’t even exist yet. But is that possible? Can we actually, without a doubt, predict the kinds of jobs our students will have twenty or thirty years from now? If not, then are we not gambling with students’ lives by teaching skills to students declared by gurus and educational prophets funded by corporations to be necessary for our students’ survival?

We all know that the future can change suddenly and drastically. The fortunes of one industry can be sunk by a single invention. Examples? The record industry, video rental stores, etc. A whole family of industries can become obsolete with the changing times and literally, in the blink of the eye. Why then would we want to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, especially when there is not a single human that I know capable of seeing into the future enough to tell us what our students need?

Take my own hometown community. Fiber optic manufacturers sprang up all around, promising to make our area the “Silicon Valley of the East.” To foster the promise of a future boom, our local fiber optic industry spent a great deal of time speaking and working with our schools, talking about the kinds of skills they needed kids to have in order get good jobs with their industry. There were joint workshops with their educational experts, exchanges literature and teaching ideas, and even visits to our schools to speak to our kids about the importance of obtaining the skills that their businesses sorely needed them to have. These evangelists of prosperity were everywhere, preaching and teaching the kinds of skills they wanted kids to have so that they could work in their factories when they graduated. Six years later, the bottom fell out of the fiber option industry. Companies closed and consolodated. Thousands were laid off. Plants were closed. Many of those employes of those companies were left stranded, with a knowledge specific to the cabling industry, that was now useless because the only industry around was in a downward spiral, with little hope of things ever returning back to the earlier boom days.

I am certainly not suggesting that we should not prepare students for the future. I am suggesting that to prepare students according to current industrial and corporate specifications is shortsighted and morally wrong.

Our job as educators should be much broader. Instead of providing graduates with industry specific skills, we need to prepare students who can leave our education system and do anything. They should be be able to act intelligently, learn as demanded, and be active citizens of the community. We should not be job trainers for the local factories. Those factories do not have the interests of our students at heart, nor should they. Their interest is in short term profits. Educators have to be visionaries and interested in the long-term. This means thinking about the educational big picture. We can work with our local industries and businesses to provide them citizens who they can then train for their jobs. To allow ourselves as an educational institution to become solely job training institutions is shortsighted, malpractice, and a disservice to our students.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Beware of ‘Educational Snake-Oil Salespersons’: Ask Them to Provide Evidence

I was having a conversation the other day with a salesperson of an educational product, and he threw out the words, “My product is research-based” at least five times before I decided to call his bluff. I asked, “If your product is research-based, can you provide me with the studies that validate the effectiveness of your products?"

He stared at me a moment before muttering something like, “Well, the product’s methods are research-based, not exactly the product. There have been studies that point out that the method our product uses is research-based.” I could not let it go yet. I asked, “Well can you point me to the studies then that validate the method behind your product.” He said nothing at first and a glimmer of frustration appeared for a moment. Then, he said, “Well, I’ll be glad to find those studies for you and email them to you.” We shook hands and he walked away a lot quicker than he did when he arrived. Needless to say, I never received those studies outlining the research that supported the method behind his product.

I tell this story because way too often, we as educators allow those selling us products to get by with using the words “research-based” and even statements about how their product increases student achievement without asking for the evidence.

I think we should always ask for that information even if we are familiar with it. It will tell us a great deal about both the product and the people selling us the product.

As a lot, educators are a trusting bunch sometimes, but they shouldn’t be. When someone makes claims about their products, we should ask for the research they claim supports their product. We perhaps should even ask for it even if we know that research.

Our budgets are tight enough as it is, but more importantly, we need to always disturb these notions of research-based and claims of effectiveness. It is not impolite to be skeptical and demand people selling us products to back up their claims. There are way too many salesmen of “educational snake oil" out there. That’s how we end up with those curriculum closets full of instructional materials that no one uses.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

“In Pearson We Trust!” Trust Corporations Not Teachers

In this recent story from NPR entitled “How Standardized Tests Are Scored (Hint: Humans Are Involved),” it becomes clear how companies like Pearson have purposely created a “facade of objectivity” in order to make it appear that their scoring of tests has some kind of legitimacy. This kind of test wizardry has become more common as the quest for “objective measures” has heated up in recent years. The NPR story helps cast doubt on this so-called “objectivity-from-afar!”

Somehow our education policymakers from President Obama through Arne Duncan down to our state departments of education have decided we can’t trust classroom teachers to tell us how students are doing. Instead, the motto in public education has become “In Pearson We Trust!”

Check out the NPR story here.

Friday, July 3, 2015

July the Fourth: Celebration of Our Commonalities and Our Differences

As this July the Fourth approaches, we hear the usual calls for “patriotism” and “love for country.” American flags fly everywhere. Fireworks blast during the afternoons. Barbeques and cook-outs with families occur throughout our neighborhoods and cities. But due to recent events in the United States, our divisions have become more apparent, and this July holiday might be more of an opportunity to celebrate our commonalities as citizens of this country, and our differences as individuals with the recognition of our sameness as human beings.

All to often, it is frequently an American practice to turn this holiday into celebrations of pride. In that celebration, are the uses of phrases like “greatest country in the world.” No doubt, this country has done some amazing and great things, and it has done some things for which no one would be proud. That’s because countries don’t exist without people, and people make mistakes. But I do not think we should seek to just celebrate of national pride or a confess our national mistakes.

Instead, it is in times like these, where the world and our country seems most divided, I think it is more important to use this July the Fourth to remember our humanity, and that we all have a place in the world. We, no matter which country in which we live, are part of humanity as well. We can celebrate that too.

As we celebrate, let us remember these words from His Holiness, the Dalai Lama:

In a sense, all human beings belong to a single family. We need to embrace the oneness of humanity and show concern for everyone— not just my family or my country or my continent. We must show concern for every being, not just the few who resemble us. Differences of religion, ideology, race, economic system, social system, and government are all secondary.

The Dalai Lama His Holiness; Hopkins Ph.D., Jeffrey (2002-02-12). How To Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life (p. 80). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.