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#Leadership in permanent crisis, what’s required to survive? #cftrecommendations

July 13, 2014

Having just read the article, Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis, by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky, I have a renewed appreciation the value of adaptive leadership.  Their article appeared in Harvard Business Review, July/August 2009.

Ronald Heifetz has shared in thinking about adaptive leadership in other venues as well.  Here is a You Tube Video interview that was aired on Faith and Leadership.

Here are some of the many bright spots from the article.

Heifetz advocates for adaptive leadership and building capacity in your team because:

The organizational adaptability required to meet a relentless succession of challenges is beyond anyone’s current expertise.

Leaders should surround themselves with people from diverse perspectives, being sure to have members of the team that are willing to challenge ideas.

He writes:

That is because you will need people’s help-not their blind loyalty as they follow you on a path to the future but their enthusiastic help in discovering the path.

I like how Heifetz sees leadership as a process that requires some improvisation.  He sees good leadership as requiring some of the artistic attributes we would associate with creative people.

He makes a strong case that effective leaders “confront loyalty to legacy practices.”  I don’t believe he advocates for abandoning legacy practices, but he does advocate not following them blindly.  That often gets leaders into trouble or keeps them from taking the organization from ‘good to great.’

While an adaptive leader allocates time and resources to eliminating practices that might be poorly suited to a changing environment, Heifetz writes:

you must distinguish the essential from the expendable.

Throughout the article, Heifetz makes the case that building leadership capacity in the “team” is one of the primary responsibilities of an effective leader.  A leader does this by nurturing:

a culture of courageous conversations.

When organizations are faced with difficult situations, effective leaders engage their team in difficult conversations.  He writes:

Dissenters who can provide crucial insights need to be protected from the organizational pressure to remain silent.

One way to achieve a more distributed form of leadership in times of crisis is:

to distribute leadership responsibility more broadly…mobilize everyone to generate solutions by increasing the information flow that allows people across the organization to make independent decisions and share the lessons learned from innovative efforts.

This ideas strikes me as being quite relevant for K-12 school leaders.  Typically in K-12 schools, principals (or other school leaders) hold their power and information “quite close to their chest,” rarely distributing leadership to their faculty in meaningful ways.  As a result, the faculty miss out on the opportunity to impact school reform or become change agents because they lack power and information.

Finally, some of his best advice in the article is that leaders need to care for themselves.  A leader who is married to their job is more than likely not going to be as effective as he or she could be.

Taking care of yourself both physically and emotionally will be crucial to your success.  You can achieve none of your leadership aims if you sacrifice yourself to the cause.

His suggests that to become an effective leader you have to:

  1. give yourself permission to be both optimistic and realistic
  2. find sanctuaries
  3. reach out to confidants
  4. bring more of your emotional self to the workplace
  5. don’t lose yourself in the role

So if you are a leader who is looking for some professional wisdom, I suggest reading Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis, by Heifetz and his team.  It is critical to see that he believes we lead in “permanent crisis.”



Investing in birth-to-age-3 #education programs is a great bet!

July 4, 2014

In a recent post, Added Value from Effective #pre-K programs, Reform Requires Courage, I made the case for investing in universal pre-K programs, especially for students from underserved families.  The research is quite strong that investment in high-quality pre-K programs pays dividends for children in their later years.  A reality is that most state governments, as well as the federal government, are struggling getting their arms around this reality.  While some states understand the value of the investment, others ignore the research.  Even those that value investment in pre-K programs for underserved students struggle funding them in sustainable ways.

Vicky Schippers recently wrote a commentary in Education Week, Waiting Until Pre-K is Too Little Too Late.  Schippers writes:

Numerous studies have confirmed that children from poor families like Jasmine’s are already at a significant social and academic deficit by the time they reach their third birthdays. That makes a solid case for birth-to-3 programs for these youngsters, who have a very steep slope to climb to start kindergarten on par with their middle-class peers, even if they attend prekindergarten at age 4.

Once such study, Early Childhood Education for All: A Wise Investment, was completed in 2005 by the MIT Workplace Center.  The authors, Leslie J. Calman and Linda Tarr-Whelan, write:

Investments in quality child care and early childhood education do more than pay significant returns to children—our future citizens. They also benefit taxpayers and enhance economic vitality. Economic research—by Nobel Prize-winners and Federal Reserve economists, in economic studies in dozens of states and counties, and in longitudinal studies spanning 40 years—demonstrate that the return on public investment in high quality childhood education is substantial.

We could dig a lot deeper into the research, continuing to make the case for this investment, but it won’t do any good unless our political leaders face the reality that investing in educating young children is better than investing hundreds of billions of dollars into more and more sophisticated military hardware.  We can’t keep ignoring our responsibilities to educate ALL children and expect our society to evolve in a positive direction.  We have to help ALL children, not just those from families that have resources, develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities to work on addressing complex problems facing our global society.  In addition, ALL children need the opportunity to develop and share their cognitive and creative talents in our society.

Let’s invest now and not be faced with what Schippers suggest might be too little too late.  Every day we wait, more and more children are being left unprepared for school and unprepared for becoming a productive member of society.

“Aaron’s Death Should Radicalize Us!” #pdftribute

June 28, 2014

Aaron Schwartz


I just spent an hour and half watching the Tribute to Aaron Schwartz at the Internet Archive, Part I. The event was a gathering of people who wanted to pay tribute to Aaron’s life, to remember him, and to tell personal stories about how he impacted and shaped their lives.  (see #pdftribute for more)  If you are interested in learning about the work of activists who devote their lives to protecting the public domain, you should watch this video.  Aaron Schwartz is referenced as a “soldier in an army of activists” who are everyday citizens interested in being sure we truly live in a democracy.  It is so interesting to learn what happens when people (prosecutors) abuse their power and go after people like Aaron.  Watch the video to learn more.

I was drawn into this because I knew Aaron Schwartz.  When I was the Upper School Division Director at North Shore Country Day School, Aaron was an incoming freshman.  I met with him on many occasions to discuss his challenges with being a student in a traditional school setting.  He was restless and eager to do creative and interesting things.  He felt that the demands of school tied his hands.  From inside, he attempted to change things in such a way that he could stay involved in the community, but traditional schools are not easy to change or adapt to the needs of students like Aaron Schwartz.  I recall many meeting with his father and mother, Robert and Susan.  They wanted to partner with the school to find a way to keep Aaron connected, but in the end Aaron needed to follow his own path.

Aaron was a brilliant young man.  I remember visits to my office, he would come with his own reading list and then ask for my recommendations.  His wasn’t an ordinary reading list.  John Dewey and Paulo Freire made his list.  He wasn’t a casual reader.  No, Aaron wanted to learn about the roots of different educational movements.  He was interested in soaking up all he could learn about a topic.  I found his approach to be more like a research scientist, methodical and disciplined.  I admired him and wanted him to stay at North Shore, but ultimately he had to let go of traditional school.  It was our lost at the time.

Of course, he went on to  lead a rich and complex life that connected him with people all over the world.  He played a key role in leading the efforts to make the internet an open source environment where knowledge was available to everyone.  It is worth watching this piece and getting to know more about the man, Aaron Schwartz.  “Aaron’s death should radicalize us,” the words of his girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, ring in my ears as I reflect on what I learned about Aaron’s life from this tribute.  Fascinating!

Readings from JSD, @learningforward, that piqued my interest!

June 26, 2014

Summer 2014 is a good time to “read, reflect, and renew.”  This is the tagline associated with JSD’s June 2014 edition, The 3 Rs of Summer.  Learning Forward does a great job of publishing relevant and interesting journals and newsletters.  JSD is just one of their publications.  There are excellent articles in this edition.  Let me just highlight a few of them and hopefully pique your interest in reading more.

Workplace and Wisdom, written by Sheri Williams and John Williams, looks at the lessons schools can learn from how businesses approach their work and customers.  They propose four lessons they have learned from their work in education and business.

Lesson 1: Mentoring matters in schools and workplace.

Lesson 2: Collaboration get results in the workplace and school.

Lesson 3: Leadership cultivates respectful cultures in business and education.

Lesson 4: Mentoring, collaboration, and leadership are all about change.

I liked the notion in Lesson 1 that while the mentor matters, it’s the mentee’s persistence and desire to learn that really matters in successful relationships.  In Lesson 2, they point out that human resource departments in most businesses have elaborate techniques to flush out if a prospective candidate is a good team player.  Could schools learn from applying some of the same techniques when interviewing potential teachers?  With Lesson 3, the authors point out that whether you work for a business or a school, working in a culture that respects your point-of-view can be essential to building a long-term relationship with the organization.  Finally, in Lesson 4, the authors examine the idea that organizational leaders need to support their employees through the change process by investing in their ideas.  In addition, to include employees in the decision-making process to foster innovation and productivity.

4 Schools, 1 Goal, written by Rosemarye Taylor and William Gordon, explores the efforts at one school in central Florida to develop a university partnership aimed at improving student reading across disciplines.   When students are unable to read effectively in other disciplines it hinders their ability to be successful in the classroom.  The goal of this Florida school district was to

create common language, knowledge, and skills among intensive reading teachers, literacy coaches and assistant principals; those people responsible for reading achievement in their high schools.

Their efforts were focused on professional development for teachers who help students learn how to read effectively within their discipline.  They accomplished this by setting up a professional learning community of teachers from their district’s four high schools.  Prior to their collaboration they collected reading data from the classroom and identified 9 areas that needed attention.

  • explicit instruction in comprehension strategies
  • scaffolded instruction from direct instruction through independent practice
  • standards-based grade-level expectations
  • reading nonfiction and informational text
  • monitoring classroom data
  • thinking and complexity above knowledge
  • accountable independent reading
  • data-informed differentiation
  • classroom environments with smooth routines

They collaborated for two years on developing expertise in differentiated instruction, using Bloom’s and Depth of Knowledge taxonomies, applying lesson study techniques to build engaging curricula, designing standards-based assessment practices and common balanced assessments, and using learing walks to study their implementation.  While reading scores did not improve in year 1, they did show significant improvement in year 2.

Bridge Builders, written by Jacy Ippolito, Christina Dobbs, and Megin Charner-Laird, looks at the work of three high school teachers in Massachusetts who led their school’s efforts to connect various school improvement efforts.  While this school in MA developed a partnership with a local university to help with literacy initiatives, it was the work of the three teacher leaders that was game changing because they served as an important bridge between different partners involved in improving reading comprehension in content areas.  These teacher leaders describe their impact in these ways:

They helped the professional learning communities focus on “a little less teaching” and “a little more talking.”  Help the PLC build a sense of community.

They facilitated the professional learning communities working respectfully and efficiently.  Using a variety of techniques that came from conversations with their university partner they learned how to use apply various techniques to support effective collaboration.

They modeled taking risks.  Through their leadership, teachers on their teams became more comfortable taking risks with different instructional strategies.

They helped team members see connections among the various initiatives geared towards improving content-area reading comprehension.

They direct, guide, and plan the PLC’s work so that each team stayed focused on its vision.  They were not only an instrumental resource, but they were effective coaches to their team members.

I think this article points out the value of schools investing in teacher leadership.

These three articles are only the beginning of an excellent journal devoted to how leadership within a school can impact school reform, especially when the leadership is distributed to a team that includes teachers.

#cftrecommendations for your desktop: #pbl, #failure, #education

June 22, 2014

If you engage in project-based learning (#pbl) and want to learn what one language arts middle school teacher does to integrate common core into her projects, read this piece on Edutopia’s website, How to Design Projects Around the Common Core.

Here is how the author, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, describes what she does integrate the common core into her projects.

In fact, designing and developing a project-based learning outcome is its own process, and while I don’t tend to invite the standards to the party first off, they do end up being the guest of honor.

In her design process, she leads with what excites her and what she believes will be interesting to students.  She fits in common core where it makes sense, and usually it does.  I love the way she outlines her process:

So designing towards the Common Core Standards becomes a basic process made up of three steps: (1) Design towards what you love. Think about your own interests and the interests of the age group you teach; (2) Look back at the Common Core Standards; and (3) Fill in the gaps

Another piece on Edutopia, Using Entrepreneurship to Transform Student Work, is also a compelling piece that illustrates the strong connections between project-based learning (#pbl), making learning relevant and meaningful, and designing for student engagement and independence.   Here is the opening paragraph from the author, Raleigh Werberger.

As my colleagues and I were building curriculum for our ninth grade project-based program, we found that most of our conversations centered not on potential projects themselves, but rather on building student self-motivation and self-mastery. We realized that our program’s measure of success was whether the students learned to take charge of their own learning and find a joy in it.

I think she captures what is absolutely critical in curriculum design work.  A wonderful piece that deserves special attention.

Another piece that should be of interest to all educators who have an interest in the long-term health of the teaching profession appeared in The Hechinger Report June 20, 2014.  The piece, Controversial Report Paints a Grim Picture of Teacher Education, was written by Alexandria Neason.  Her article summarizes the impact of a study conducted on higher education teacher preparation programs conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).  This quote will give you some idea of the conclusions drawn from the study.

Of the 1,668 programs ranked by the group, only 26 elementary education programs and 81 secondary programs earned the designation “top ranked.” Nearly 70 of the highest ranked programs are at public universities, with Tennessee, Texas and Ohio home to the most. Seventeen states have no ranked programs based on the council’s ratings.

This quote from the article illustrates the challenges we face in improving these programs in higher education (#education).  We clearly have to increase the standards and expectations we have for admitting and graduating students from these programs.  In addition, schools of education may want to invest in more visionary leaders who are capable of building strong partnerships with K-12 schools.

The report blames lax admissions criteria and subpar student teaching programs for the low rankings. Three out of five programs admit students who fall academically in the bottom half of the college-going population. And just five percent (down from seven percent last year) of programs had components for a strong student teaching experience, the hallmark of traditional education programs.

AllThingsPLC, a website devoted to resources on professional learning communities, has a blog site that is worth following.  Adam Young, Principal at White Pine High School, posted a piece on failure (#failure), Rethinking Failure.  There have been many pieces written on “rethinking” our approach to how we address failure with our students.  Starting with Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset, if we have learned anything it’s that our approach in most traditional schools is to build a “fear of failure” in our students.  Many of them have a fixed mindset when it comes to how they approach school.  Here is how Adam Young frames the challenge.

As educators, I think we see this quite regularly with our students both inside and outside the classroom. Many students would rather sit back and choose not to answer a question rather than risk answering incorrectly. In athletics, sometimes students choose not to try out for the team rather than risk getting cut. In music, sometimes students will avoid practicing the more difficult piece because they are afraid they won’t be able to do it correctly.

He puts the responsibility squarely on school leaders to look in the mirror.

How much does this mindset affect us as adults in our professional practice? Are we comfortable with where we are as teachers and school leaders? Even if we have improved our practice recently, are we afraid of taking an additional risk because we may fall short?

Instead of placing blame on students for not being motivated or for letting their fear of failure get in the way of their success as a student, we (teachers and school leaders) should be facing our own fear of failure and learning how to set a better example for our students.  It begins with us.



Are we teaching students to adapt and grow into complex roles and environments?

June 16, 2014

In his article, 21st Century Talent Spotting, Claudio Fernandez-Araoz writes about the idea that “potential trumps brains, experience, and competencies.”  At the beginning of the article, he tells the story of two executive searches he led.  The first one, a highly trained, experienced, proven corporate leader was hired to take the helm of a company but only lasted a few years because he was unable to adapt to the changing circumstances surrounding the company.  In the second story, a less highly trained and experienced leader who did not have a skill set directly transferable to the company he was going to lead, but who was very adaptable and responsive, went on to successfully lead the company for decades.

Why did the CEO of the electronics business, who seemed so right for the position, fail so miserably?  Any why did Algorta (the second story), so clearly unqualified, succeed so spectacularly?  The answer is potential: the ability to adapt and grow into increasingly complex roles and environments.

The author makes the case that the question is not whether an organizations leaders and employees have the right skills, but it’s more about their potential to learn new skills as the circumstances arise, especially since the circumstances change so rapidly in our globally and technologically driven society.

So here is my question: How are schools teaching or helping their students develop skills that allow them to be adaptable and flexible to changes happening around them?  Are schools, and the curricula they have adopted, more interested in filling students heads with knowledge and skills that will not serve them well in the 21st Century world they enter?  Claudio Fernandez-Araoz suggests that “potential is much harder to discern than competence” (p.50).  If so, is it then harder in schools to create a learning environment that nurtures the true potential in each person than it is to fill their heads with knowledge and skills.

What is the parallel in schools to what Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, is quoted as having said: “Setting the bar high in our approach to hiring has been, and will continue to be, the single most important element of our success.”  The implication is that hiring employees and being able to discern their potential to make a difference is critical to the success of a business.

How do we discern whether a student has the potential to be adaptable, flexible and responsive to changing circumstances in his or her environment?  It won’t be through their test scores or their grades from their previous school.  It might be through their “references.”  It would certainly be possible to discern their potential through some interesting and challenging simulation.  Why not?

Of course, once we have students in school does our curriculum facilitate and promote the development of skills required to be adaptable and flexible?  Do we help students develop patience, fortitude, grit, perseverance in the face of adversity, good listening skills, the ability to discern, and thoughtfulness?  From my experience, it is pretty hit and miss, mostly miss.  In the article, Claudio Fernandez-Araoz identifies four skills that people who exhibit great potential exhibit.  They are:





Not a bad list.  What if schools were required to develop a rubric that they used to self-assess whether these four skills were actually being taught through their programming?  Interesting idea?

We can do better but we need to pay attention to the development of students potential to respond in creative and resourceful ways to their changing environment.

#cftrecommendations for your #education reading list

June 15, 2014

Reading an @ASCD published book, Engaging Teachers in Classroom Walkthroughs, by Donald S. Kachur, Judith Stout, and Claudia Edwards.  As I prepare to work with local Atlanta educational leaders on developing a classroom walkthrough process in their schools, I’m using this piece to build the case.  This book lays out a compelling, research-based rationale for supporting a rich professional development culture in schools through teacher-led classroom walkthroughs.   These are some questions on the minds of educators as they explore whether to invest in a classroom walkthrough process (page 12-13).

  • What will we do to eliminate potential teacher fear that the purpose of walkthroughs is evaluative?
  • Will the walkthroughs be motivating or demotivating to teachers?
  • How will we provide time for teachers to conduct walkthroughs and follow-up discussions?
  • How will we achieve maximum participation?
  • How will we develop a walkthrough documentation form for which all have buy-in?
  • What meaningful data should be collected from the walkthroughs?
  • Should walkthroughs be announced or unannounced?
  • How will we measure the effective of our walkthroughs?

It is clear from their research that walkthroughs are successful at “opening doors for teachers throughout a school to observe, reflect on, and collaboratively discuss instructional practices and their effect on student learning.” (page 13)

Another “must read” article appeared in today’s New York Times on the Common Core (@achievethecore).  The article, Common Core in 9 Year Old’s Eyes, chronicles the opportunities and challenges of learning in school under the Common Core (#commoncore) umbrella.  This is a rich, colorful, and fascinating look at the Common Core through the experiences of a set of Brooklyn triplets in 4th grade at PS 397 and their teacher, Ms. Matthews.  The article is not a research-based piece that delves into the structure of the Common Core or the challenges educators face integrated the new standards into existing curricula.   It looks at the learning experiences of Chrispin, one of the triplets, as he struggles trying to make school work.  It is less about the Common Core and more about…

  • the value of being a proficient reader in the life of a child.
  • the value of having siblings who work together at home, supporting each other through the challenges of learning new content and skills.
  • the value of having a mother who cares about her children’s successes and failures.
  • the value of a teacher who is persistent in the face of adversity.
  • the value of a teacher who projects a positive attitude about the Common Core
  • the value of a teacher who cares about her students’ struggles with failure, helping them see failure as part of the journey towards success.

In these ways, I found the article to be a compelling ethnography of one families experience with school.  In particular, I loved the way Chrispin’s sister, Haelleca, is portrayed as a helper and cheerleader.  For me, Ms. Matthews and Haelleca are heroes in the story.

It is clear that we shouldn’t demonize the Common Core, which is merely a set of standards to learn and teach by.  We need national standards as a benchmark to measure the progress of our schools and provide guidance from state-to-state so we can be sure all students are learning at the highest level.  If we don’t have national standards then we will be left with some states, like Georgia and Tennessee (Few States Set World Class Standards), that lower the benchmarks for “passing” to such a extent that it becomes unclear whether students master critical knowledge and skills.

If we intend to successfully implement the Common Core, we must invest in professional development for educators, give them ample time to integrate standards with existing curriculum, and model what good instruction using the standards look like.

When Change Has Legs, by David Perkins and James Reese, in the May 2014 edition of Educational Leadership, unveils the four “key factors help determine whether change efforts will be sustained.”  The four factors are:





The authors point out that change or innovation does not happen as a result of applying a formula, but can happen if a community engages in conversations built around the four key factors.  Their model reminds me of Michael Fullan’s work in Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform.  His four drivers for system reform or change are: (1) build capacity; (2) promote and celebrate collaboration; (3) invest in pedagogy or instructional improvement; and (4) design integrated solutions.

Let me know if you find these readings interesting and relevant to your work in schools.


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