Sunday, February 22, 2015

Art of Welcoming Silence to Become Authentic Leaders

How many times do you find yourself chasing away the silence? In the role of leadership, sometimes “the silence” becomes a reminder of just how lonely the job of being a leader can be. As Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

"We can feel lonely even when we’re surrounded by many people. We are lonely together. There is a vacuum inside us . We don’t feel comfortable with that vacuum, so we try to fill it up or make it go away. Technology supplies us with many devices that allow us to “stay connected.” These days, we are always “connected,” but we continue to feel lonely. We check incoming e-mail and social media sites multiple times a day. We e-mail or post one message after another . We want to share; we want to receive. We busy ourselves all day long in an effort to connect."

As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, we actively avoid silence by filling our lives with as many things as possible. Those things can be electronic devices as Hanh describes, or they can be check-points on a massive to-do list that just keep us busy to avoid the silence of loneliness. Truth is, we can avoid the loneliness that the job of leadership brings with it by filling the vacuum of silence. Instead, we need to welcome the silence.

But as Thich Nhat reminds us, “Silence is essential.” It is the silence that gives us time for us. It is here in the silence that we can begin to look deeply and find out who we are. Is that not ultimately what we want as leaders? To become authentic, we need to shut down the noise around us long enough to connect with who we are instead of Facebook or Twitter.

Hanh, Thich Nhat (2015-01-27). Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise (p. 24). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Evernote's Scannable: A Powerful But Simple-to-Use Scanning App for Your iPhone or iPad

Evernote just got even more useful for me with its new iOS app Scannable. In many of my past posts regarding Evernote, I have made it clear that the Evernote note taking application is my everyday "go-to" app in both my professional and personal life. With all the smartphone apps, desktops apps, and browser extensions, Evernote makes note taking and web curation simple and easy.

Now, they've added an iOS app called Scannable. With this app, you can scan any document with your iPad or iPhone. You can then send it to someone by email, upload it to an Evernote notebook, place it in your photos, send it through the messaging app, or export it any number of your iCloud apps. It's rather simple interface is an added benefit.

Evernote's Scannable is definitely another one of those apps you'll want to download and use with your iOS devices.

Scannable Document in Evernote Desktop App

Scannable Interface in iOS

Scannable is excellent choice for quickly capturing any document, whether it be a handwritten note, receipt, memo, or sticky note. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

NC's New A-F School Grading System: Perfect Measure of Poverty in Schools

Today, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released the school report cards mandated by North Carolina’s legislature. (See those here.) These report cards graded each school with a letter grade A-F. Once again, our state has taken a step backward into absurdity with this action. Grading all the things our schools do with a single letter grade reduces, once again, what matters in North Carolina schools the most, to test scores. Once again, our state has elevated state testing to even higher stakes. Schools will now work in earnest prepping students for tests and getting those numbers up.

But elevating test scores is not only what this exercise in madness does; it also clearly demonstrates what’s wrong with education, and society, in North Carolina. In its article entitled “NC Public School Letter Grades Released, Reflecting Student Family Incomes,” The News and Observer sums up the real truth we learn from these report cards.

We don’t really learn which schools are failing and which are succeeding because the data used for this is narrowly focused on test score data and a few other indicators. What we learn of real importance is stated so aptly in this article:

“Among the schools where 80 percent or more of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, 81 percent received a D or F. Only one of those schools got an A. At the other end of the spectrum, more than 90 percent of schools where fewer than 20 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch received an A or B. Only one of those schools received an F."

In other words, our legislature and North Carolina Department of Public Instruction hasn’t come up with a test at all on how our schools or do; they’ve developed the perfect test for poverty. In fact, it really shows that North Carolina’s barrage of tests are great for indentifying students who live in poverty! Probably much better than actually measuring student achievement.

Sadly though, I suspect the motivation behind this A-F grading system isn’t really about improving public education at all. After all, our North Carolina State Legislature proved during its last session it is no friend to public education, why would we expect different.? No, this grading system is simply another attempt by our political leaders to drum up or even manufacture false charges of failure so that they can continue to push their pet project of school vouchers and their blind obedience to free markets.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Thoughts on School Choice and the Fight to Preserve Public Schools

Is it time for school choice? Before those against vouchers and charters start throwing rotten tomatoes, let me explain. As most who've read this blog know, I am and have always been a staunch public school advocate. I do not believe that anything miraculous will happen if suddenly vouchers were available for every student, nor do I think that an increase of a thousandfold of the number of charter schools is suddenly going put us at the forefront in international PISA scores. Often those who push these choices do so for ideological reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with what's in the best interest of kids. So I am certainly not siding with free market fundamentalists who believe that market forces will suddenly catapult student achievement to first in the world. I simply don't see that happening. I also certainly do not side with those who think public education should be abolished and that the government has no business in it. Public education in this country has done wonders in providing opportunities and futures for kids. Still, what makes me ask the question, "Is it time for school choice?" has more to do with a public education system more interested in preserving itself than being introspective and asking why parents and their students want options in the first place.

Immediately, when public education begins to argue against charters or school choice, they begin crying about the loss of funding. From my perspective, this is entirely the wrong argument to make. It betrays a perspective that sees each student as an additional dollar sign to be added to a total, instead of a individual student to be taught and provided with educational opportunity. When districts begin using dollar amounts lost to defend against school vouchers or charter schools, they are demonstrating the wrong attitude. Instead, they should be asking why parents and students want to attend charter schools or want vouchers in the first place. Instead, they fight battles with the wrong ammunition, when they would be much better off being introspective and asking the tough questions about why their students are leaving or leave in the first place.

I suspect most parents just want the best schools they can get for their kids. They really don't care whether they are a charter school, private school or traditional public school; they want school to be a positive asset in their child's life. Public school districts, school leaders, and educators can work to provide those schools for parents, or they will continue to pressure politicians to give them options. I haven't the data, nor do I know even if it exists (maybe a reader out there can provide it), but I can't but wonder if there's a correlation between the proliferation of charter schools and school vouchers in places where public schools focus more intently on self-preservation rather than focusing on making themselves better. I realize many schools fight budget constraints, and poorly funded schools who are struggling can't compete. Still, when public schools lose their focus and spend more time on self-preservation than taking an honest look at themselves, schools couldn't possibly be focused on the primary mission of educating young minds.

What I have learned these past few years as a principal of a public school of choice, not charter, is this: many parents are seeking options, especially at the high school level. They want alternatives to the large, often impersonal, traditional high schools that most districts still operate. They are least interested in arguments about why charter schools are a bad idea because big schools will lose funding. They don't care about how efficient these large schools operate, and you can honestly throw all the test data you want to try to convince them of the effectiveness of that school. In the end, they want their child to be in a school that cares about them, that knows their child as individuals and not as test scores or a number. Finally, they want their child in a school where that child wants to be.

So, is it time for school choice? I think that question has been answered, at least here in North Carolina. Public schools districts had better stop fighting the battle of self-preservation, and start looking to see how they can re-form their schools into places that meet the needs of kids.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

No Such Thing as an 'Objective Test'

“Every act of measurement loses more information than it gains, closing the box irretrievable and forever on other potentials.” Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science

The problem with accountability and testing lies within a single assumption: “that which is the most important content to be learned can be reduced to a single test or be captured in a test question.” If life were a dance between a, b, c, or d, then standardized tests could capture the essence of learning, and we could be satisfied that a correct or incorrect answer on multiple-choice questions actually tell us whether substantial and important learning has taken place. Sadly though, nothing worth while or lasting can be reduced to that level of simplicity.

As Wheatley points out, when observations, in this case tests, are created, choices are made as to what is to be tested and what is to be ignored. That ‘subjective choice’ reflects all manner of value judgments and decisions regarding importance. Hence, the very ‘subjective nature’ of tests like those being administered is questionable. The observation choices made by those who write the very questions on tests reflect their own subjective choices regarding importance. That’s why no standardized tests are ultimately entirely objective. As Wheatley points out, “Every observation is preceded by a choice about what to observe.” The person who makes those choices are exercising their subjective opinion regarding that is worthwhile to learning and what is most important.

To claim that state standardized tests or any standardized tests are “subjective” masks this fact: these tests reflect the subjective judgment of those whose wrote and designed them. It is simply their opinion regarding what is valuable enough to be tested. Next time someone throws the term “objective measures” or “objective testing” at you, remember this. The quest for ultimate objectivity in testing is a fool’s errand.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My #Whatif for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently posted this tweet on Twitter:

In response educators and parents everywhere are posting their own “Whatifs” using the hashtag, #whatif,” and attaching @arneduncan. Judging by the #whatif stream, I suspect many educators are expressing quite a bit of frustration regarding Duncan’s education policies. But I wanted to just take a moment and look at what’s problematic about Duncan’s tweet.

First of all, it clearly indicates that he is still in “silver-bullet” search mode. He thinks that out there somewhere are some magical measures that will magically transform schools from being “unsuccessful” to “successful.” Time and again, his entire career as a secretary of education has been one long search for the magic of school reform. What he has never uunderstood was that reform on a national scale can’t be imposed from his office. He should have taken those lessons from No Child Left Behind; instead, he’s imposed a much more severe “measure and punish” tactics that have elevated testing above everything else that matters in public education. Schools are struggling for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons aren’t due to education policy; they’re due to economic policies that are leaving many in this country behind in income. When Duncan asks the question about identifying what made 5 best schools successful, he automatically assumes that what those schools did to make them successful will automatically apply to all schools. That is at the heart of his “silver-bullet” search, and that’s why there has been nothing out of this Department of Education that will survive once they vacate the premises. Duncan has only searched for quick-fixes without really helping school districts get down to the hard work of improving education.

Secondly, I suspect, Duncan identifies “successful” as those schools with the highest test scores. For the length of Duncan’s tenure, he and his department have repeatedly made it known that high test scores and value-added measures equal success, so why would we believe he would suggest anything different? The problem is that Duncan’s definition of success requires reducing teaching and learning to statistics, when everything we know about learning as educators tells us that tests only measure a miniscule portion of what students learn. Duncan’s Twitter question is actually a statement of his faith. We all know what his “identify” entails. It entails subjecting kids at all levels to tests and then using those tests to judge the quality of everything in a school. Once again, Duncan failed to see the lessons of No Child Left Behind.

Perhaps Duncan was attempting to truly rally educators with his Tweet, but unfortunately, this late in his tenure that’s not going to happen. There are too many educators who have absolutely no confidence in his ability to lead. Judging by all the #whatifs posted since Duncan’s, there are a great deal of educators angry about his education policy. His federal mandates, though he avoids calling them that, have forced states to do more testing than ever. Perhaps Duncan’s tweet should be:

“What if I have been wrong about all this testing? What if my measure and punish education culture I’ve created has actually harmed schools?"

I won’t wait to see this Tweet; however, because it will not happen. Duncan believes in everything he’s done. Why else would someone tour the country and spend so much time promoting what they’ve done? He has repeatedly made the mistake of thinking himself a salesman instead of an education leader.

The 21st Century Principal Blog Anniversary and 1 Millionth Page View

Today, The 21st Century Principal shares two milestones: its 1 millionth page view, and its 5 year anniversary. 

About five years ago, I started this blog with the intention of sharing my own thoughts, ideas, reading, and opinions regarding the public education issues of the day. I have purposefully tried to share my own ideas about technology, teaching, and education policy, and I think I was successful. Over the years, I also think its clear I have not hidden my views because they might be deemed off limits politically. Many times, I have received messages from people who hold different views than myself who want to remind that I "must be impartial" or somehow fair. Unfortunately, that is not my intention for this blog. I'll leave being fair and balanced to the cable news channels MSNBC and Fox News. Personally, I think educators do too much deferring on political topics for fear that they might upset someone else, or maybe even hinder their chances at getting a job in the future. We must question these ideas and policies, and my job as an educator is not to blindly accept everything that comes down from the US Department of Education, nor the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. If an idea or policy can't stand up to scrutiny or criticism, it should die a quiet death, no matter who supports it. 

I have also tried to share my encounters with technology as well. Quick reviews of new software or new tablet apps have been common, as well as the occasional review of new hardware and technological devices. Over the years, I have tried to make sure that I only reviewed technology that I myself have tried, and as far as I know, I mostly did that. I know of less than a handful of situations where I reviewed items that I myself did not specifically try. This was in spite of the countless offers, which I appreciate, from companies wanting me to review their product. It's just difficult for me to honestly write about something I have not tried.

In addition to technology review and tips, I have also tried to share my own reviews of books I have read. I am an avid reader. Though I have been unable to share every item I've read, I have shared reviews of those I felt might offer educator readers something of value.  I have also tried to share my own ideas about leadership and sometimes just plain being human in the clothing of an educator.

Though lately, there haven't been as many posts on the The 21st Century Principal Blog, I assure you there will be this year. My own education in a doctoral program has consumed much of the time I used to spend blogging.  Once again, thanks to everyone who has read this blog. I look forward to sharing more during the next school year. Happy New Year to everyone!