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Why don’t people and systems change — even when the writing is on the wall?

By Blog, Leadership Insights One Comment

I recently read a book that has caused me to look deeper at the actions of some educators I have come into contact with over the past few years in multiple contexts – both as a McREL consultant and a parent. The book is called Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Ori and Rom Brafman (2008) and as the title indicates, it focuses on looking deeply at the “why” of irrational human behavior. Now, before you start to characterize me as somebody who views the glass as being half empty, please know that I see much more that is positive in my roles, but I am still troubled by this notion of rational and intelligent people engaging in irrational decisions.

Here is a real-life example I will apply to the concepts in the book. For obvious reasons, this has to be anonymous since I am highlighting irrational behavior:

Over the past three years, I have watched a school district fall from being one of the best district’s in a particular state to one that is now below average as measured by student achievement, property values, community support, employee satisfaction, and compensation. I know what you are thinking now is probably the usual “suspects” that we often believe as educators cause such rapid declines in school systems – demographic changes, budget cuts, mass teacher turnover or retirements, etc. This example, however, does not include these “suspects” except for the economic downturn that is currently affecting all school systems in the US.

This example follows the characteristics illustrated in Sway:

  1. Loss Aversion – some of us are so afraid of loss that we simply will do anything necessary to keep things the same. In the school district example, the school board, superintendent, principals, teachers, and parents were not able to understand that “losses” were necessary in order to stay current and relevant. This district continued to build schools and new facilities, even when enrollment projections were in decline. Rather than close or re-utilize schools that were under-enrolled, this district built more schools and continued to expand capacity in the face of declining enrollment.
  2. Commitment – this characteristic goes closely with the first one. When we are afraid of loss and so committed to one way of doing business, we cannot let go or see the writing on the wall when changes need to be made. In the district example, once a commitment was made to expansion and building more schools, it was almost etched in stone. This made perfect sense in a different time when there was exponential growth and a robust tax base. This district was not able or willing to look long-term at the reality of over-building, nor were they able to sustain it. They were so “committed to their commitment” that changing the focus in light of leading indicators was not an option. This led to a reaction that was quite predictable – closing and consolidating schools to save money and more effectively use facilities which led to upheaval in the community.
  3. Value Attribution – by placing value on certain ideas or ways of doing business, we can be blinded by the amount of value we place on a single idea or group of ideas. In the district example, building and maintaining new schools was truly a core value of the district culture. The entire community came to know this district largely because of their shiny and new school facilities and the fact that schools were minimally populated or utilized by students. This was largely touted as a characteristic that set the district apart from others in the area and used widely by realtors, city council, businesses, and others to draw homebuyers and new residents  to this geographic area.
  4. Diagnosis Bias – in concept, bias exists when we view our world through a certain lens and close our minds to other explanations. A good example of this is the emergency room doctor who spends his day diagnosing and treating a relatively predictable array of injuries and ailments including flesh wounds, broken bones, heart attacks, stomach flu, etc. Not to be taken lightly for certain, these diagnoses become so common that the ER doctor (or any doctor) can easily mis-diagnose a patient by incorrectly focusing on the most obvious symptom. On the rare occasion that a patient shows up with an atypical ailment, the doctor is likely to mis-diagnose if the symptoms are similar to common ailments because of Diagnosis Bias. Now to the school district example where Diagnosis Bias is found in a history where funds are spent to build new schools on a priority basis. In this example, the diagnosis is incorrect – new schools with small student populations are needed to effectively educate students in this community. While this diagnosis may have never been correct, it is a core value of the community and very difficult to challenge or change. It has become an expectation.
  5. Procedural Justice and Fairness – as a culture, Americans value justice, fairness, and procedures that ensure fair treatment. This value is found at the core of our justice system and is embedded in modern society – actually nested in the concept of the “American Dream”. The problem occurs when procedures and protocols based on the idea of fairness cloud perceptions. In the district example, we have a community that values new school facilities with few students enrolled. The question becomes: How does this cycle get broken when money gets tight? The expectation of fairness means that an older school building with a large student population would not fit in this district. In the interest of fairness, it is easier to stick with an old value that is not economically feasible or sustainable and not think long term about what happens when resources are limited.

How does this story end? It is difficult to tell currently, but based on this model, we can be fairly sure that the district will continue to suffer through many of the phases of a difficult change process as they grieve for inevitable losses. Blame will be placed on many and school board and staff turnover has already begun, but it will be hard to see this problem through any other realistic lenses. The school board and leadership, whether new in the district or veteran will have to look at the obvious problem with few solutions to keep the status quo. Schools will have to be closed, consolidated, and re-utilized in order to stay within budget. The community will be forced to shift their value system out of economic necessity.

Do IWBs change instruction?

By Blog, Technology in Schools 13 Comments

There seems to be a lot of controversy lately over the impact that Interactive Whiteboards have on instruction. Some say that they increase student engagement and achievement and help to create a 21st-century classroom. Others argue that they are simply a modern tool for an outdated method of learning and that they only promote teacher-directed lecture & instruction.

I left the classroom in 2004, several years before IWBs were common tools in school buildings, so I never experienced actually integrating one into my instruction. I wanted to find out for myself: Do Interactive Whiteboards change instruction? When Bud the Teacher Tweeted about his district’s upcoming Flipchartapalooza,  I knew this would be an ideal opportunity to see how teachers integrate both the hardware and the software into their instruction. Bud and his fellow teachers in St. Vrain were gracious enough to let me come and observe and ask questions. (And I thank all of you!)

What I saw were teachers learning simple, but vital, programming and scripting language as they created interactive activities for students. I saw teachers realizing that the ultimate goal was having students use these tools. One teacher even stated, “My goal this year is to have students at the board more. [My first year using it], I was the one at the board.” I saw professionals collaborating, teaching, and learning together. If technology and learning are going to morph the way I think they are (fingers crossed), teachers are going to have a plethora of tools that they can use to script & program to create individual games & learning modules for students. Having a basic understanding of this level of tech know-how now will be paramount if this comes to fruition.

What I hope to see in the future are students using interactive white tables (of which I’ve seen prototypes), manipulating and building interactive learning modules to increase their own understanding and to demonstrate learning. Where we are now with IWBs is simply a stepping stone to a more differentiated, authentic, interactive classroom.

In other words, it isn’t really about having a big interactive board up in front of the classroom to do your usual thing. It is about creating activities for students to increase their knowledge and understanding.

And, yes, having something that looks like it was invented sometime after the 1970s can’t hurt the engagement factor, either. 😉

What is cheating?

By Blog, Future of Schooling 7 Comments

I recently found myself re-reading this article from eSchoolNews about how students don’t see using technology to answer questions as cheating. When the article came out on June 18, 2009, many bloggers, including Teach42, ConcreteClassroom, and an excellent article on The Future of Education is Here, further examined the issue with their own posts. Almost all, including those who commented, questioned: if a student can look something up, is it worth memorizing? If the question can be answered with a quick Google search, how deep of a test question could it really be?

ReadWriteWeb made a similar point in their post about Wolfram Alpha, the “computational knowledge engine” that came out early this summer, including various points of view from an earlier article on ReadWriteWeb asserted:

“…it’s clear that Wolfram|Alpha and similar computational software will force the education system to adapt and change. Students now have a new (and certainly easier to use, as it’s on the Web) platform on which to compute things. There’s no point in the education system pretending it doesn’t exist.”

In reading these many posts and responses, I was reminded of Daniel Pink’s three crucial questions for the success of any business:

  1. Can a computer do it faster?
  2. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?
  3. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?

Many of the facts we ask students to memorize and skills that we assess would be a resounding “YES” to #1 and #3 and a firm “NO” to #2.

As adults, we often intuitively know what we actually need to remember and have available at a moment’s notice versus what we can release from memory and look up if needed. It is what we actually DO with the data, however, that is the most critical to assess and the hardest at which to cheat.

Take a look at these questions. Which ones can you quickly answer? Which ones have you not bothered to commit to memory due to lack of importance or ease of looking up? Which ones pique your interest more? Which ones actually sound like problems you’ve had to solve?

  1. What is your state bird? Bonus: what does it look like? Extra Bonus: what is the official Latin name for the bird?
  2. What is the driest year on record in your area?
  3. What is the driest year on record in your area that happened in your lifetime and that you can recall? Write a brief blog post about your memories and how the drought impacted your day-to-day life.
  4. You order a $13 appetizer and an $8 glass of wine. If sales tax in your area is 4% you leave a 20% tip, what is your total?
  5. You and 3 friends go out to eat. You and one friend each order an $8 glass of wine, but the other two only drink water. Your entrees are about the same, at $13 per person, plus a 4% sales tax. What’s the easiest and fairest way to split the tab and leave a 20% tip?

Likely, you had to look up at least parts of Questions #1 and #2. (If you bothered…but the importance of asking engaging questions is another post for another time.) You may have used a calculator for #4 and answered that in its entirety. For questions #3 and #5, however, even if you did use a couple of tools to get basic facts, you would still have to draw upon your own brainstorming or background knowledge in order to completely answer the question. Finding the answers to these questions likely required more creative thinking…thinking in which it is harder to “cheat.” (And likely, these were questions that much more closely mirror actual problems in your day-to-day life that you have to solve.)

For my own answers to #3 and #5, respectively:

The driest year on record since I moved to Denver in 1998, according to, was 2002, the summer my husband and I were married. I vividly recall the many wildfires that summer. When I took my family and out-of-town guests out to eat the week of our wedding, we would sometimes try to sit outside on patios. Very often, however, we had to relocate indoors due to the ash that would fall into our food.

Though not an exact answer, I would add $5 to my pre-tax total of $21 and have my other buddy with the glass of wine do the same. For the two who had water, I would ask if they would leave $3 for their $13 pre-tax total. This would leave a total of $84. (If my formal calculations that I did later are correct, the bill would come to $70.72, making a $14 tip acceptable.)

Charter school market at a crossroads?

By Blog, Research Insights One Comment

The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of charter schools in the U.S. is likely to mushroom in the next few years as a result of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warning states that if they’re unfriendly to charter schools, they shouldn’t expect to see much of the $5 billion in federal stimulus for schools. Not surprising, many states are now scrambling to create charter-friendly environments.

Last month, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, released a nationwide study analyzing charter school performance. The report was notable for a number of reasons—starting with its methodology. To control for any possible “cherry picking” (i.e., enrolling easier-to-teach students), the study compared the mathematics performance of students in charter schools with their “virtual twins”—students with similar demographic, socioeconomic, and special needs status—in traditional public schools.

Using this analysis, the study painted a mixed picture.

It found that only about one in six (17%) of the 2,400 charter schools studied were actually successful in helping their students perform better than their “virtual twins” in traditional public schools. About half (46%) offered little or no bump for their students compared with their “twins.” And nearly two-fifths (37%) appeared to have a negative impact on achievement; their students learned at lower rates than their comparable peers in traditional schools.

Whither market forces?

So what happened to the market forces of choice and competition that were supposed to make charter schools better than public schools? It appears that these market mechanisms have blunted in at least two significant ways.

First, according to the Stanford researchers, too few charter school authorizers are shutting down low-performing charter schools. Consider, for example, that in states where multiple agencies are licensed to grant charters, charters turned in their lowest performance—presumably because weaker schools have been able to shop around for more permissive entities under which to operate.

Second, it seems that parents, who were supposed to pull their kids from ineffective schools and create market-based incentives to provide better outcomes, have yet to become informed consumers of schools. Conversely, parents choose charters schools on the basis of more than just the academic performance of their students. Indeed, the Stanford study notes that it is often parents and communities who most strongly resist closing low-performing schools, arguing that shutting down their school “does not serve the best interests of currently enrolled students.”

A fragmented market

At the moment, the charter school market resembles what Harvard professor Michael Porter describes in Competitive Strategy (a common business school primer) as a “fragmented market.” No single provider—or even handful of providers—has achieved significant market share. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Web site, 77.5 percent of charter schools are “free-standing,” not associated with an education or charter management organization, such as Edison or KIPP.

My own quick scan of charter school Web sites (see below) suggests that combined, the top four largest charter and education management organizations operate 320 schools—or just 6.9 percent of the 4,618 charter schools nationwide. Throw in the next six on the list and you find that the top 10 companies still only control 11.4 percent of the market.

Top 10 charter or education management companies*

  1. Edison Schools (97 schools)
  2. KIPP (82 schools)
  3. Imagine Schools (73 schools)
  4. Big Picture Learning (68 schools)
  5. National Heritage Academies (57 schools)
  6. White Hat Management (51 schools)
  7. EdVisions (40 schools)
  8. Aspire (21 schools)
  9. (tie) Green Dot (19 schools), Charter Schools USA (19 schools)

Shakeout coming?

Fragmented markets, like this one, can be ripe for “shakeouts”—with increased competition forcing smaller, less effective companies out of business. After the dust settles, usually just a handful of big players are left (consider, for example, video rental stores, roadside motels, and airlines).

So can federal stimulus dollars infused into the charter school market create more competition and ultimately a “survival-of-the-fittest” shakeout?

Probably not.

Simply incentivizing states to allow more charters is not likely to change the underlying conditions that Porter says creates fragmented markets:

  • Low barriers to entry—The abundance of charter school authorizers, especially those with lax oversight, makes it easy for a variety of providers, regardless of their demonstrated competence, to enter the market.
  • Few economies of scale—For the moment, given that most costs of running a school are tied to salaries and personnel, operating in multiple locations doesn’t offer much advantage in terms of marketing, curriculum development, or teacher training; this could change, however, if parents or authorizers were to demand better demonstrated results (which are typically expensive to document) of charter school operators.
  • Diverse market needs—Because parents often enroll their children in charter schools to serve the unique needs of their child, it could be difficult for any single type of charter school to serve a large population of students.
  • Local regulation—Charter schools are typically authorized by local districts or state granting agencies, each with their own criteria or rules, which may favor local, “mom and pop” providers.

Killing charters with kindness?

A fragmented market is not always a bad thing—it can provide fertile ground for innovation and experimentation. However, as Duncan told a gathering at the annual conference of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools that “The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and third-rate schools to exist.”

Ironically, a little more regulation and oversight (anathema in the eyes of some charter proponents) might help to create a more mature market, allowing the effective 17 percent of charter models become the norm, not the exception. By more regulation, I don’t mean red tape restricting hiring policies or the number of hours the schools can operate, but rather, as suggested by the Stanford report, encouraging charter authorizers to raise the bar by more consistently closing ineffective schools (which is, after all, the second half of the charter school “bargain”—less red tape for better results).

States might take that a little further, entering into multi-state compacts that could both raise the barriers to entry by demanding higher results from charter schools, while at the same time, creating a consistent set of criteria for charter applications across multiple that could make it easier for effective charter providers to enter new markets.

To help authorizers make better decisions and parents make more informed choices, better information is needed across the system. The Stanford report recommends, for example, that national metrics be created that would allow for better comparisons of schools and identification of high and low performers. Such metrics could allow parents to more accurately gauge a school’s contribution to their children’s academic success and weigh that value against other less tangible benefits they may perceive their school provides.

While some charter authorizers may have adopted a laissez-faire approach to regulation early on to encourage the growth of the market, the movement may now be at a cross roads. Those who support it may need to decide whether a proliferation of new charter schools is in their best interest, as quantity comes at the expense of quality. More to the point, they should decide whether a continued hands-off approach to regulation is in the best benefit of the charter market or conversely, killing it with kindness.

* I didn’t include Expeditionary Learning or Core Knowledge on this list, both of those organizations offer curriculum to charter schools (35 and 23 schools, respectively by my count), but don’t function as management organizations, actually running the schools. If I’ve missed any CMOs or EMOs, please let me know. I’d be happy to update this chart.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications & Marketing.

“Holding environments” can be truly electric!

By Blog, Leadership Insights 2 Comments

Last week, I co-facilitated a series of Balanced Leadership sessions for school leaders here at our offices in Denver. As is our practice, we provided participants with opportunities to speak freely with one another, sharing challenges and concerns. I was struck by the fact that despite coming from all over the country (and even the Bahamas) many participants shared a common concern: a perceived disconnect between their schools and districts in which they operate.

At first, school leaders (whom I imagine are normally outspoken back at home) were reticent to engage in a discussion of this issue. But when we engaged them in a “holding environment” activity, called the World Café, which provided a forum for groups to engage in meaningful conversations, an enthusiasm for sharing and deeper discussion began to evolve among the group.

In our work with leaders, we often preach the power of creating a “holding environment” in schools, a figurative “safe place” where all staff members can share concerns, talk about what is going on in the organization, offer strategies, debate, clarify assumptions, or simply dream about initiatives, without fear of repercussion or verbal assault by others who might embrace an opposing point of view.

Too often, school leaders fail to create these “holding environments.” Mistrust and fear prevent teachers and other stakeholders from acting as true professionals, sharing ideas, and committing to a common purpose. But when then “safe zones” exist, they can be truly electric, tapping the power and collective wisdom of everyone in the school.

As you head back to your buildings in a few weeks, ask yourself: does my school have a “holding environment”? Do people in my building believe they can speak freely, even contradicting school administrators, if necessary? Are our faculty meetings a “safe place” to share ideas, challenge assumptions, and grow together as professionals?

School leadership that “sticks”

By Blog, Leadership Insights 2 Comments

Last week I spoke to a principal who shared an interesting dilemma with me – actually a good news/bad news type of scenario. This principal had just learned by way of an e-mail message from the district office that her high school was to be the recipient of a grant for innovative instructional practices that incorporate technology. Her largest problem was the fact that she never was aware this grant was written by her district, so obviously she was surprised by this news.

Digging further into the requirements of the grant, the principal learned the grant would provide hundreds of thousands of dollars for the purchase of technology, which was desperately needed in her school. Her biggest problem was her concern that her staff lacked the capacity necessary to effectively implement and utilize the technology that was to be provided including Smart Boards, ceiling mounted and integrated projectors, new laptop computers for every teacher, wiring the school for high-speed Wi-Fi, and the purchase of 250 student wireless laptops to be utilized in all subject areas.

This principal asked me to help her brainstorm about how to best roll out this information to her staff. In advising her, I relied on a resource that I have found useful in finding strategies for making messages simple and memorable. Knowing that it will be critical for this principal to approach this situation armed with information about the grant and a firm understanding of the needs of her staff, I advised her to use the SUCCESs model presented in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick (2008). The model uses the acronym SUCCESs to outline the key components. Messages that are “sticky” are: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and illustrate points through Stories. At the school level, leaders can enhance their success in leading difficult change initiatives by using this model.

Let’s apply this model to the dilemma of utilizing the technology grant and gaining support for this from the teaching staff:

  • Simple – We have an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of technology integration for high schools and can serve as a model for many others.
  • Unexpected – We have just been awarded a large amount of money that will bring our school into the 21st Century.
  • Concrete – We will be receiving a great deal of high-tech equipment that will enhance our instruction including: Smart Boards, ceiling mounted and integrated projectors, new laptop computers for every teacher, wiring the school for high-speed Wi-Fi, and the purchase of 250 student wireless laptops to be utilized in all subject areas. Shortly, I will have a specific plan for you that shows a building map and timeline and schedule for installation of the new equipment.
  • Credible – This allocation of money from the grant is based on a solid research base and the district entered into this application with the support of the school board, state department of education, and the grant is sourced from federal funds for the specific purpose of enhancing technology in high schools.
  • Emotional – I know this is a lot of information, and this message is unexpected, and as the principal I have mixed feelings about this unexpected change as well. I am however, very excited at this opportunity that has been given to our school and will do everything I can to support the integration of technology into our school for the benefit of our students.
  • Stories – After learning of this opportunity, I did some investigating regarding other high schools who have been awarded this grant and was fortunate to make contact with a high school principal who received this grant and implemented this initiative two years ago. According to him, it was difficult at first for the school to scale-up to meet the needs of technology integration, but through working as a team and supporting one another, the school is now very successful and a national model for this grant. We can do this too by working together and supporting each other.

Using the SUCCESs model, and framing her message in a way that is thoughtful and specific, this principal is more likely to build a cohesive and connected school culture that has the capacity to sustain efforts through difficult challenges.

Change or die – A principal’s dilemma

By Blog, Leadership Insights 6 Comments

In my travels to many school locations throughout the United States, I often find myself working with principals of schools that are struggling with issues related to making the organizational changes necessary to improve student achievement. A few weeks ago, I spent some time with a small group of principals in a Midwestern town. One principal’s comments have resonated in my mind ever since. This particular principal, who would like to remain anonymous, shared her struggles over the past three years as she has worked to turn around her school, as student achievement has declined.

For the sake of this blog, we will call this principal Mrs. Jones. Principal Jones described to me a familiar scenario in regards to making instructional improvements in her elementary school. I asked her what she had done up to this point in reaction to her test scores declining and she explained a scenario that brings to mind a book I recently read called Change or Die (Deutschman, 2008). Mrs. Jones story, as you will see in the following paragraphs closely aligned with Deutschman’s “old” change paradigm. In this change paradigm, which is widely used in many fields, the leader of an organization uses Facts, Fear, and Force to bring about changes within the organization. Using Mrs. Jones’ example, she presents the Facts to the staff. Next, the principal uses Fear as leverage, and follows up with Force by letting the staff know that compliance will be expected and consequences will result for lack of compliance.

Let’s expand on Facts, Fear, and Force using Mrs. Jones example:

Consider Mrs. Jones’ dilemma when she learns that her school has not met the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for the third school year in a row and has been labeled by the state as a school that “Needs Improvement”, which is a decline in status from “Acceptable” in previous years. Based on this designation, Mrs. Jones rightfully decides that immediate action is necessary. She shares the Facts of the situation with her staff by letting them know that student achievement has lapsed and gives specific details. Next, she uses Fear by telling the staff that if improvements are not made, the potential exists that jobs may be lost and the school may lose accreditation or even be closed. She then uses Force as she lays out the mandatory new multi-year requirements for all teachers — requiring compliance with utilizing new classroom strategies and eliminating some extracurricular activities for students. Mrs. Jones uses this model as a way to bring about rapid results in student achievement.

While Mrs. Jones did see short-term improvements on interim assessments at her school using the Facts, Fear, and Force model, she did not see sustainable results by using this strategy alone and end of year state test scores still continued to decline over a three year period. Facts, Fear, and Force tends to create a lack of trust among staff and can lead to resentment among the ranks of teachers which hurts the school culture and staff morale.

Let’s fast forward three years into the future:

Mrs. Jones has another option to use as she moves into a new school year. Deutschman’s “new” change paradigm also suggests three components. Mrs. Jones could Relate, Repeat, and Reframe instead of using the Facts, Fear, and Force model. Using Relate, Repeat, and Reframe, she is able to build staff capacity, buy-in, and trust.

Using this model, Mrs. Jones approaches her problem in a different way. She first Relates to her staff in a way that shows support and mutual understanding of the problem at hand. She does this by sharing in the responsibility for increasing student achievement, making the priority universal for all school staff – including herself. Next, Mrs. Jones employs the idea of Repeating by making sure that her approach to the problem is shared and practiced by everyone in the school. Repetition makes the new strategies for improving student achievement part of the daily routine through intensive practice, in turn changing the school culture. In order to Reframe Mrs. Jones needs to help her staff see issues and problems through a different lens. This involves a cultural shift at the school because the staff is required to view students and instructional practices differently and may have to give up old practices. Eventually, the staff embraces the new way of doing business, which leads to student success that is sustainable.