Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Educational Boxscores

I love baseball.  My wife and I are both huge Boston Red Sox fans, however, with our two little daughters, life can be pretty busy and we don't always get to watch their games (at least not all of them).  So what do I do?  In the morning, over a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal, I skip the news and head to the sports pages to read the box scores.  Living in Canada, if you don't follow the Blue Jays, you tend not to get much more than a "BOS 3 NYY 1" (ahhh, beating the Yankees IS so sweet).  I often long for more detail because I know that this score really tells me very little about the game.  But with respect to other teams, I am pretty content just to look at see the score--hmmm, the Mariners are losing again, Atlanta is struggling, and those darn Yankees are in first.  I get my snapshot and go on with the rest of my day because that is the data that is presented to me, and I don't really have the time (and in some cases the interest) to look into it much further.

Currently, I am reading "Accountability for Learning" by Douglas Reeves. In his book, Reeves describes the concept of holistic accountability and finding antecedents of excellence in schools and instruction.  He also talks of the test results that we so often use to judge students, teachers, administrators, and school performance: he describes these as the "educational box score", very analogous to the box score that I read on so many morning over my breakfast cup of joe.  Reeves says:

"Why do we reduce the art and science of teaching to a litany of test scores?  The easy response is to blame a cabal of politicians and administrators, or to expand the conspiracy theory to include big business and the entertainment industry.  But the role of victim is unworthy of the teaching profession, and we must do better.  Why has accountability been reduced to a litany of test scores?  Because WE have failed to tell our story."

I could not agree more with Douglas Reeves.  I moan about the Fraser Institute Reports because they are not remotely representative of what schools actually do--they use some complex formula that combines test scores, parent socioeconomic status, graduation rates, and the cycle of the moon (ok, the first three were true, the last one I am only guessing on because of the FI's degree of accuracy).  Provincial exam scores drive me crazy because they are such a narrow measure of a student learning.  I can only imagine my counterparts in the United States and their frustration with standardized testing. 
But what am I using to tell the story of our school?  Test scores and failure rates.  Not good enough.

In his book, Reeves suggests a number of items that could be included at the school level, including measurable practices in
  • teaching
  • leadership
  • parent involvement
  • extracurricular activities
  • school based indicators that reflect decisions of teachers, parents, and administrators
He also describes schools having narratives that connect these indicators to district initiatives, and describe other things about their building that are not able to be measured quantitatively.

After reading his book, I realize that I cannot continue to publish the box score for my school.  While test scores and failure rates are positive for our students, they do little to describe the successes that I see every day in our students and in our staff.  I need to change this.  I have to work collaboratively with each of the stakeholders in our school to find the antecedents of success, and then use these to tell the story of our school.

So my question to investigate is, "What are the key descriptors of success at my school?"

What are yours?

Reeves, D (2004). Accountability for Learning. How Teachers and School Leaders Can Take Charge.  ASCD. Alexandra, VA. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Are you a Leader or a Matador?

"Leadership is a scary thing.  There are many people that want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with 2000 pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar"- Steve Farber, Extreme Leadership
Yesterday,  I had the good fortune to work with Principals from around British Columbia on a professional development project for the British Columbia Principals' and Vice Principals' Association.  One of my team members introduced me to this quote from Steve Farber, and it really struck home with me in terms of leadership and being a Principal.

At this time of the year, administrators everywhere are being confronted with major decisions that will affect their students, teachers, schools, and communities.  Most of us have projected our enrollment for the fall.  Most of us have had our students select their courses for next year.  Many of us received our budget allocations for September. And now the difficult choices begin.  What programs can we offer?  Do we have to run split classes?  Which classes do we have to cancel?  How will we do the same things next year as we do this year?  Do we have enough staffing so that everyone has a job?  Do we have to surplus people, or worse, lay people off?  

It is times like these when it can be incredibly challenging to be a Principal.  Sometimes the decisions you make, regardless of whether they are the necessary or only thing to do, can be highly controversial.  Students can be upset when a course doesn't run because of low enrollment.  Parents can be disappointed when a program that they thought would be ideal for their child can no longer be continued.  Teachers can feel, angry, de-valued and hurt when their courses don't run, or they are surplussed or laid off.  It is understandable that these people feel this way.   It is really difficult.  Sometimes it does feel as though the 2000 pound bull is bearing down on you.
In times like this, I realize that each day as Principals, we have the opportunity to make many decisions that can positively impact our school.  Sometimes, we can be heroes.  We can help a student out with a scholarship by writing a letter of reference.  We can make a teacher's day by letting them know that their lesson really hit the mark with their students today, or that their new laptop is in.  We can work with parents and help them through a difficult situation with transcripts and entrance to university.  We can be there when one of our teams wins a provincial banner, or stand and applaud with pride at the end of our spring drama productions.   To paraphrase the quote, there are many moments when it may feel like it might feel pretty nice to be standing in front of the crowd like the Matador.

But with other decisions that we make, we are not heroes.  We are unpopular.  We are the butt of derogatory comments.  We are the "villian",  we are "inconsiderate", we are "heartless'.  We are directly in the sights of the 2000 pound bull that is bearing down on each of us, and the pants feel way too tight.
But each of us needs to remember that being an administrator is not about the big crowds and the tight pants.   We cannot lose sight of the fact that our decisions can affect peoples' lives and livelihoods.  When we are confronted with these sorts of decisions, we owe it to our schools to carefully think about how our choices will impact students and their learning, teachers and their classes, and in some cases, individuals and their careers.  
At this very pressurized time of the year, we need to use the best information that is available to us at the time to make decisions.  We have to consider the short- and long- term ramifications.  We have to consider each of the points of view of the people involved. And once we make these choices, we have to make sure that we take as much time as is necessary to have those difficult conversations with the people who are affected in a manner that is both honest and sensitive to their personal situation.  
And we need to be aware that if we want to be like the Matador, with a hankering for big crowds and tight pants, we may in fact just end up like this...(and THAT'S no bull...)


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Are we losing THE commodity in schools?

A short quiz for you to take...

Within your Personal Learning Network that you have developed online, do you feel that you
- have caring and purposeful relationships?
- receive encouragement?
- have your knowledge extended?
- can receive dynamic and varied feedback?
- have a sense of belonging as a member of a larger community?

Recently, Bruce Beairsto (@brucebeairsto great guy to follow) wrote an excellent post called "Necessary Disruption - Part 3", which included the following:

"You can get a great lecture on the internet, probably better than any to be had in most schools, but technology cannot provide a caring, purposeful relationship with someone who encourages, probes, extends and acknowledges learning.  It is within such a relationship that assessment occurs and guidance is provided.  I am not talking about testing.  There is nothing core about that.  Summative evaluation is simple.  It can be done easily, and probably better, by a computer, but formative assessment is a different matter altogether.  That is a teacher’s domain.  Computer algorithms cannot replicate the dynamic observation, inquiry, feedback, direction and nurturing support that a teacher can provide.  Some students may be able to succeed academically, and even intellectually, without that, but most will not and none will do as well in its absence.

In addition to the teacher’s vital role in facilitation and support, the school community as a whole provides an essential foundation for both learning and growth.  Within a school there is not only friendship but also membership, and that membership - school spirit if you like - provides an important anchor for young people.  It is in public schools that society is forged, its values and behaviours inculcated.  In communion with others, students grow beyond their family and out of their childhood to become independent adults and citizens.  It is the experience of community that bonds students to their school, not the curriculum."

I could not agree with Bruce more that a student needs each dynamic inquiry and feedback.  I also could not agree more with Bruce that friendship and membership are important anchors for young people.  But where I might disagree with Bruce is around whether or not a school needs to provide this to a student.  I think that a student can get these essential elements anywhere.  At anytime.  At their leisure and convenience.  At their fingertips. With a community that is much larger than any school.  It is their online network, the equivalent to our PLN.

I want to qualify that I don't think that online dynamic inquiry, feedback, friendship and membership are superior to that which occurs in schools.  Similarly, I don't believe they are necessarily inferior for students--I believe that it truly depends whose shoes you are standing in.  As adults, we might feel one way.  As a student, they might have a decidedly different opinion.

When I look at my quiz above, I can honestly answer yes to each of the questions that are posed.  I have forged bonds with people from all over North America that I have yet to personally meet.  I can get feedback and encouragement from a variety of perspectives almost instantaneously.  My knowledge has never been extended further than it has been through my PLN.  And I very much feel like a part of a special community of dedicated professionals who are committed to students and learning.

I say these things only having been connected to my PLN for six months.  Prior to this time, my PLN was comprised of those in my community and a few people around the province that I had worked with, went to school, with, or met through someone else.  Unlike many (most?) students in our buildings, I have not been texting, connected to Facebook or any other social media tool for the past several years.  I cannot imagine the network and the relationships that some of our students have.  And while there are still people behind these keyboards around the world, it seems to me that students are capable getting this sense of belonging from places other than the hallways and the classrooms in our schools.

So I guess the question is, are we losing THE commodity (relationships) that schools provide?  Maybe not, but it IS something to think about.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Introducing Smartphones to the Classroom

Photo by Imke Lass
Today was a Professional Development day for our school, and our morning presentation was called "Cell Phones: A Framework For Learning" by our outstanding School Improvement Leader, Blake Buemann (@edubuemann).  The focus of this presentation was to give our teachers an opportunity to determine where they were with their own cell phone/smartphone use (both personally and in the classroom), and to have a discussion to generate ideas on how these devices can be used to augment student learning.

There were many outstanding activities within this presentation (including a cool Smartphone Staff Scavenger Hunt), but probably the most valuable one for me was when we separated into two smaller groups and created Socratic Circles.  Within this literacy exercise, our teachers got to observe and give feedback to each other on their conversation and interactions about the positives and issues around cell/smartphones and their use in the classroom for learning. (As an aside, I strongly recommend that you try Socratic Circles--the quality of the interactions you will see on your staff are truly amazing!).  I have made it evident to our staff that I encourage the use of smartphones used in the classroom, but by listening to these powerful discussions, I got a window into what some of the issues that some of our staff have with them.

Some of the issues (in no particular order):
  • texting during lessons
  • inappropriate picture taking
  • theft
  • plagiarism
  • receiving texts from parents during classtime
  • distraction
  • inequity for those who don't have smartphones
  • cost of texting plans/internet access
  • radiation from wi-fi
  • consistency of policy implementation from one class to the next/no common set of expectations
  • the need for a class/learning objectives to teach students appropriate use of cell/smartphones in class.
We also heard some of the ways that staff members are having students use cell/smartphones in the classroom
  • as a student agenda
  • to contact parents
  • to contact team/club members
  • as a dictionary
  • as an internet search tool
  • as a voting device (with software like Polleverywhere)
  • as a camera
At the conclusion of our PD session, I realized several things.  As much as there are many upsides to leveraging the technology that students bring to class each day, we need to proceed strategically to make sure that these devices augment learning. We need to do this because there ARE issues.  As much as I endorse the use of technology to augment learning, I cannot be so naive not to see some of the potential problems that can come with a 'no holds barred' approach to cell phones and smartphones in the classroom.  We need to have policies that support the use of technology in an appropriate manner that are developed by educators, students and parents.  We need to have the technological infrastructure to allow students to have access to wi-fi within our schools so the use of smartphones is not at an additional cost to them.  We need to make sure that we role model positive use of this technology as adults.  And we need to continue to work with teachers so that they can utilize this technology in a positive and productive manner that is engaging and helpful to students.

But one of our veteran staff members made a very important and poignant comment about the process of adopting new things such as smartphones.  He said "Whenever something like this comes along, we need to do THIS.  We need to talk about it.  We need to DISCUSS it.  Whatever it is, we'll figure it out!".   At that moment, I realized the most important thing--before we do anything with the Smartphones and classrooms, we need to have an open discussion with our teachers.  This will allow us to make sure that we address the issues and reduce the anxiety of the people that will be working with students on the front line.  The Socratic Circle exercise helped us to have a open and honest discussion on a sensitive topic that  generated a number of issues and solutions.   And while we are not totally "there" yet, the discussion has moved us forward.

If you have not moved down the pathway towards utilizing smartphones for student learning, I hope that this post may provide you with a template and some ideas for working with your staff on this topic.  It was a great day for our school, and I am sure it will be for you too!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Reflecting on the Run

It is the "month of AprilMayJune" (so coined because it goes so fast that it seems like three months compressed into one) and like it is for everyone in education, time is just flying.  Students have selected their courses, and we are feverishly working on the timetable in order to maximize choices with a staffing budget that never seems to be enough.  In amongst parent teacher interviews, the New Parent Meeting, starting to prepare Grad Ceremonies, 3rd term report cards, student transfer requests, and putting the final touches on our School Improvement Plan we are busy like everyone else.  I like it, and the days fly by.  As a result of the relatively rapid pace of this three month span that feels like one and the fact that I like being a dad and a husband, I am finding it a bit of a challenge to find time to sit and reflect on my practice as a Principal.

Recently, I revisited one of my favourite quick reads, "The Learning Leader" by Douglas Reeves (I can't lie, I read books more than once, and with this particular book, I have read it four or five times).  In one part of the book, Reeves underscores the importance of a leader reflecting on their practice, even in the busiest of times.  He talks about leaders considering the following questions each day:
  • What did you learn today?
  • Whom did you nurture today?
  • What difficult issue did you confront today?
  • What is your most important challenge right now?
  • What did you do today to make progress on your most important challenge?
Each of us is busy gearing up for the sprint to the end of the year.  But within these frenetic and fun-filled times, I am realizing that it is vital for me to take a few moments to answer simple questions such as these suggested by Dr. Reeves and reflect upon our what I do each day.  By just taking a few moments to be a reflective practitioner, I feel like I can leave a re-traceable set of footprints for next year that helps me look back to avoid some of the pitfalls that can happen during the crazy "month of AprilMayJune".

Are you taking time to reflect, even while you are on the run?