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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

On Work In Progress

"There is no end to education.  It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education.  The whole of life, from the moment you are born until the moment you die, is a process of learning."  Jiddu Krishnamurti

A couple of weeks ago I was driving home from open house at one of our RVSD schools and I began wondering how many of these events I've attended over the years?  I remember going to open houses as a kid, where I'd proudly show my parents my completed work and anxiously await my teachers' response to the inevitable parent question, "How is Rick doing?"  I remember open house as a parent, where I'd have a chance to see our daughters' finished work, time to visit with fellow parents and of course, the opportunity to ask our kids' teachers the same question my parents asked mine so many years before.  I also remember open houses as a teacher, where I'd work for hours to make sure my students' completed work was well displayed and my classroom was as perfect as I could make it.  As an administrator, open houses are a great opportunity to see and experience a school in its full context and to chat with many parents, students, teachers and staff.  In every role I've always loved open house and now, as Superintendent, these evenings have become my favorites of the entire year.  I feel like I get to be a student, parent, teacher and school leader, all at the same time.

This year open house has been extra special, mainly because I've noticed a small (but incredibly powerful) shift in the way many of our teachers are presenting it.  Instead of a showcase for all our students' completed work, this year many of our classrooms also featured examples of what we refer to as "works in progress."  These are the rough drafts, sometimes very rough, of whatever our students are working on. They are sometimes messy and smudged, with words here and there spelled phonetically, math problems partially solved and projects half-built.  They are not yet the polished and perfect products they will one day become ... they are physical representation of process thinking, exploring, trial and error.

And in their imperfection, I think they are all beautiful.

As parents and educators we all want to see and be proud of our kids' finished work, but we also want to know how they got there.  When we see and admire a work in progress, we see beyond the object and into its creator.  We get to see how our kids think, reason, adapt and persist.  We get to see and be proud of who our kids are becoming, by celebrating the journey with them.

I must also mention that it takes more than a bit of courage and self-confidence on the part of teachers and students, to display and share unfinished work.  After all, the open house "tradition" has always been to put out whatever grade-appropriate version of "perfection" our students can produce.  Showing imperfection goes against the grain, yet I proudly applaud our RVSD teachers and students for doing so.  Don't get me wrong, I love seeing our students' finished work. But there's something truly special about watching a student explain to her or his parents, the process s/he is working through and how s/he is overcoming the challenges encountered along the way.   

The whole of life is indeed a process of learning and I so appreciate the many ways in which our professional teaching staff and our students, make the learning process accessible and visible to us all. 

Friday, April 12, 2019

On Bullying - Part 3

"Someone out there will hate you now. But what you take is what you allow.”  Sarah Bettens (song: “Come Over Here”)

In spring 2014, I was applying to be Superintendent of the Ross Valley School District. The search firm employed by the RVSD Board of Trustees conducted a comprehensive process that included a detailed application, writing samples, current letters of recommendation, several rounds of interviews, in-person conversations with more than thirty colleagues from my former district, extensive reference checks and a background investigation conducted by Baker-Eubanks, LLC.  


At the same time the District was conducting their due diligence on me, I was conducting mine on them.


One of the first things I learned about RVSD from the May 22, 2014 "Leadership Profile Report," was that the top challenge facing the District and its new Superintendent would be "Manor School traditional/MAP conflicts."  As I progressed through the many steps of the recruitment and selection process, this conflict kept surfacing to the point where it became a theme.  In retrospect I had no idea of the full context regarding this long-standing and complex issue, but I knew this was an area I needed to research more closely if I intended to keep my hat in the ring.


Candidates for Superintendent positions typically have networks to call upon for candid information about school districts. I was no exception. Given my 36 years of experience serving four amazing Southern California school districts (two of them hired me twice), I'm blessed and thankful to have friends and colleagues throughout the State and beyond.  This includes several contacts who either had direct knowledge of RVSD or could refer me to reliable sources who did.  I reached out to a few of these contacts to learn all I could about RVSD and the conflict that seemed to be consuming it.


What I learned then, and virtually every day since, serves as a real-life study in bullying characteristics, behavior and the consequences to come for those who dare challenge it.  


During the recruitment and selection process I spoke with several people who consistently described RVSD as a district "suffering from a 20+ year history of harassment and bullying."  They used terms such as "broken," "demoralized," and "hijacked," to describe the ways in which a small "alternative" program headed by two former RVSD Trustees, dominated the District's focus, energy, resources and time.  The result, among other things, was years of tremendous leadership and governance instability through constant turnover of Principals, Superintendents and Board Trustees.  At the time I was being recruited to come to RVSD, the District had just lost its ninth Superintendent in fifteen years, another Manor Elementary School Principal, another Director of Student Services/Special Education and another Chief Business Official.  


Of all the information shared with me about RVSD, perhaps the most memorable comment I heard about the District's decades-old conflict was, "In a nutshell, RVSD is a scene out of 'The Magnificent Seven'."

That seemed like a bizarre reference and comparison, to say the least.  It definitely piqued my interest.

For those who may not know, "The Magnificent Seven" was originally released in 1960 and included a star-studded cast of veteran actors (see below). Adapted from the 1954 Japanese film, "Seven Samurai," the movie tells the story of a beleaguered farming village whose elders hire seven men to stand-up to a gang of marauding oppressors.



Oscar Wilde once wrote, "life imitates art far more than art imitates life."  I can't really say whether RVSD had become a scene from this western-period classic, but I do see interesting parallels between what RVSD has endured over the years and the on-screen actions illustrated by some of the "Seven's" most infamous lines: 
  • CALVERA (Eli Wallach): "If I leave here with empty hands, everyone will answer to me when I come back."  In real life and on the silver screen, bullies issue demands and make threats about what will happen if their demands aren't met.  In the case of Ross Valley and the alternative program that morphed into a State-approved charter school, we've yet to have a single interaction where there hasn't been at least one "... or else" attached.  It's almost uncanny and people who haven't lived with it can't grasp how this commonly used bully tactic so profoundly diminishes everything.  There can be no rational conversation with people who make threats, much less what some refer to as "mediation." Ultimatums are the bully's bread and butter, at least so long as people are willing to tolerate them.  This brings me to the next infamous line from the "Seven" script ...    
  • CALVERA (Eli Wallach): "If God hadn't meant for them to be sheared, he wouldn't have made them sheep."  Another common characteristic of bullying is they typically see their victims as weak, defenseless, disorganized, afraid and powerless.  Yet as we've explored in parts 1 and 2 of this "On Bullying" series, the balance of power can shift dramatically once people declare, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"  Here in RVSD the real-life shift occurred when so many in our community decided that their public schools had been held hostage for far too long.  Even so, standing-up to the bullying in RVSD has come at a steep price for all of us, but particularly those children who (for years) were discriminated against on account of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, English proficiency and/or their disabilities.  We've paid the price by enduring endless personal attacks on social media and in the local newspaper, where we are called names, our integrity and character are impugned by anonymous posters and historical context is manipulated beyond recognition in repeated attempts to propagandize a hateful narrative.  We've paid the price in defending against the repeated frivolous lawsuits filed against our District and community.  We've paid the price politically, in the words and actions of local politicians, self-described "journalists" and others, who are part of the bullies' entourage and seek to restore their myopic version of "peace in the valley." The good news is, these are all clear signs that standing up to the bullies is working.  As the bully's tactics go even lower, it's a sure indicator that desperation has taken control.  I don't like the personal attacks any more than anyone else, but it's important to remember that these are more a reflection on the attacker than the attacked.
  • CALVERA (Eli Wallach): "Seriously ... that was my first mistake.  I leave these people a little bit extra and then they hire these men to make trouble.  It shows you, sooner or later, you must answer for every good deed."  This particular line illustrates a couple of important points about bullies and their behavior.  First, bullies who are challenged somehow miraculously find a way to twist the narrative around so they become the victim.  Second, twisting the narrative around supports the bully's false belief that their prior actions were not only justified, but somehow beneficial to those they bullied.  We've seen this scenario play-out in our own local situation, where those who held the District's spotlight for so long, now see themselves as the bullied, jilted by others who (to their "Monkey Mind" way of thinking) should actually be grateful for all the wonderful "choices" they've created.  Another interesting aspect of Calvera's quote is the notion that the men hired to help the local townspeople are "making trouble."  Indeed, at least from the bully's perspective, changing the long-held status quo is troubling.  In our real life situation, the historical turnover of school and district leaders fed nicely into the status quo that reigned in RVSD.  That all changed in 2014.  When new leadership stood-up to the bullies' threats, attacks and intimidation tactics, that leadership (including me) became "trouble."  The bullies want us gone at all costs, but the problem is, too many in the community are now fully aware and engaged. They are all standing-up, too, and I've a good feeling they'll continue standing long after current leadership "rides into the sunset."   
  • VIN (Steve McQueen): "[a] Fella I once knew in El Paso ... one day he took all his clothes off and jumped into a mess of cactus.  I asked him 'why?'  He said it seemed to be a good idea at the time."  I consider myself fortunate to have had a good number of leadership opportunities over the years.  Back in 2014 I was finishing my third year in a Deputy Superintendent role I'd originally promised I'd only do for two, yet the Board had recently extended my contract for an additional three year term (through June 2017).  Great school boards, by the way, are a treasure and far more important than most people realize.  In my former district we had one of the best, brightest, most student-centered and "personal agenda-free" boards I'd known to that point - it was an honor to work with them and a Superintendent I'd known and respected for over twenty years.  Also, I was surrounded by a dedicated, talented and loyal team in a beautiful community where there were definitely challenges (we all have them no matter what we do), but the successes far outweighed the failures. Together our work was having a positive, documented impact on the lives of so many students. And like here, the voices of a few detractors occasionally seemed louder than those of the supporters who far outnumbered them, but that's just how it is sometimes.  Overall I'd adjusted to that "mess of cactus" and so, you may ask, given all I'd learned about RVSD and its history over the past two decades, what made me decide to jump into this one?  The simple answer is, in RVSD I saw a unique opportunity to join forces with a caring and committed Board of Trustees, to fix what many said was broken, empower those who felt demoralized and return this small but amazing district to its primary focus. It was, without question, our RVSD Board of Trustees who made this opportunity unique above the others I had, including the opportunity to stay another three years in my former position. From my earliest interactions with them, I knew the RVSD Board was the group I wanted to jump with into this particular "mess of cactus."     
Through all my research on RVSD and after having gone through a fairly grueling recruitment and selection process, I felt I had a pretty good idea what I was getting myself into.  I've dealt with bullies before, in many forms, and been around the block a few times.  In hindsight, I completely underestimated the magnitude of this particular situation and all it would take ... from all of us ... to cope with it.  I was once just like every other person who looks at our local situation, reasonably and rationally, from the outside in.  I thought, "How bad could it really be?"  I also thought, "We'll all just sit down and work things out."  That's what everyone thinks, until they learn through their own experience, what this little community has been living with for over twenty years.  This is where real life no longer imitates art.  On the movie screen it may take only seven people to bring about meaningful change, but in real life it takes far more than that.  And, unlike the movie cowboys who "... deal in lead, friend," our bully challenges are more than twenty years in the making and won't end just because the popcorn runs out.  Our script is still being written.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

On Economies of Scale

"What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one.  Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core."  Hannah Arendt
In a recent op-ed published by our local newspaper, a community member suggests, "It’s time for a bigger conversation in Marin about education and about what’s hiding under the guise of the “local control” argument that has brought us 19 school districts..."  The writer goes on to urge the community to engage in, "...a bigger conversation about the impacts we could have by combining forces to address the diverse needs of all kids in this county."
According to Ed-Data, in 2017-18 Marin County's seventeen school districts, County Office and one State-approved charter school, served approximately 33,741 students.  That same year, in California overall there were 944 elementary, high school and unified school districts (Ed-Data, 2018).  The op-ed writer theorizes that by "combining forces" (e.g. consolidating districts) the talent pool for Superintendents and Board governance teams will produce leadership that is more effective and skilled at addressing the "diverse needs of all kids."

For the time being, let's ignore that the writer of this op-ed has been an outspoken supporter of a local charter school and that charters in California have ballooned in their numbers to 1,248 (Ed-Data, 2017).  Let's also ignore (for now) the fact that these 1,248 additional autonomous entities create massive redundancy, significant cost burdens, endless distractions and are governed by self-appointed private citizens whose expenditures of our taxpayer dollars are accountable to no one.  On every level this op-ed is a full-scale hypocrisy, but its premise is worth addressing.

The essential question being asked is whether the consolidation of public educational entities in California would result in more skilled district leadership and therefore greater success for the overall population of diverse learners?  How do we answer this question?  

Time for a "data dive."

In 2014-15 the State of California began to annually assess students' proficiency in meeting the new Common Core State Standards for English-language arts (ELA) and mathematics.  The tool used, known as the "California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress" or "CAASPP," is taken each year by students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11.  A key metric is the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards and thanks to technology, it is relatively easy to dis-aggregate out the data by a variety of factors.  For example, we can analyze CAASPP data by ethnicity and then observe trends in students' proficiency for up to four school years (2014-15 to 2017-18).  We can also compare performance by ethnicity, thereby determining for example, the difference or "gap" that may exist in proficiency between student groups.  If we then look at these gaps over time, we can see the degree to which progress is made in closing the gap.  

If we assume that the answer to the essential question above is "yes," then we'd reasonably expect to see progress made over time toward closure of the proficiency gaps between student groups.  This should, if the op-ed writer's premise is correct, be particularly apparent for school districts run by what we assume to be highly talented and skilled leaders.

Let's begin our data dive at the top.

By all accounts, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the largest "combined force" in California's public education history.  In 1961, two separate Los Angeles school districts merged to become the nation's second largest public school system, currently operating 1,007 schools and 279 charters (Ed-Data, 2017 and 2018).  Since 2000, LAUSD has had nine Superintendents, including a former admiral, former governor, several career educators and currently, a billionaire businessman.  LAUSD must certainly draw its leaders from a very select and exclusive talent pool, and because it takes so much time, expense and political capital to be elected to the LAUSD Board of Trustees, that pool must be pretty exclusive, too.

How does LAUSD, the granddaddy of "combined forces" do in terms of bridging the proficiency gap for its diverse population of students?  In the immortal words of Richard Dawson, "Survey says ... keep working on it."  

For English-language arts (ELA), the 2014-15 gap between the percentage of White and African American students meeting or exceeding standards, was 37%.  In other words, 37% more White students were at or above standards in ELA, than African American students.  Four years later in 2017-18, the gap was 35.65%.  In four full school years, the proficiency gap between White and African American students in ELA, narrowed by 1.35%.  The gap closure between White and Latino students fared a bit better, narrowing by 3.25% over the four year period.  Even so, LAUSD's White students performed at or above standards in ELA, by 30.75% over their fellow Latino students.

In mathematics the gap (37%) did not close at all for White students compared to African American students.  For White students compared to Latino students, the gap went from 33% in 2014-15 to 32.05% in 2017-18, a narrowing of just under one percent.

That's a lot of numbers to digest, I know, but in terms of theoretical "cream of the crop" leaders and governance teams successfully addressing the needs of all kids, I think it is safe to say LAUSD has yet to bridge the performance divide between its diverse groups of students.

Maybe LAUSD isn't a good example. After all, the residents of Los Angeles have been trying to break-up its "combined forces" for decades, claiming it is too large to adequately serve the needs of its diverse student population. Perhaps instead we should analyze a smaller district; one that is more the size of what Marin County would be if it were a single district.  

To test the above premise with a district whose student population is closer to that of Marin County, we can go down the list of California school districts, by enrollment, and find Moreno Valley Unified School District located in Riverside County.  Moreno Valley USD has one Superintendent and one Board, serving some 33,134 students - almost equal to the total number of TK-12 students in Marin's 19 duplicated educational systems.

Using the same gap analysis as above, we learn that for English-Language arts, Moreno Valley barely narrowed the White/Aftican American gap (-0.16%) and White/Latino gap (-4.83%) over the same four year period.  In mathematics the gap between White and African American students widened (+1.49%) and narrowed between White and Latino students  (-2.58%).  Moreno Valley USD has managed to narrow some of its students' performance gaps a bit over the past four years, but like LAUSD, this is still very much a work in progress when in comes to making significant gains over time.  

My purpose with all this is not to pick on LAUSD, Moreno Valley USD or any other school district.  The fact is, our esteemed colleagues in these districts are doing all they can, in the face of massive challenges, to close performance gaps that have existed between our diverse student populations for as long as this data has been collected.  It is very complex work and in Marin County we have fared no better.  In fact, our only gap closure over the past four years is in mathematics, where the gap between Marin's White and African American students narrowed by 4.42%. Clearly, we don't have the gap-bridging secret any more than anyone else.

We could do this type of analysis all day long and the results would be more of the same. The notion that larger districts attract better leadership/governance talent and therefore do better at serving students' diverse needs, is flawed.  Equally flawed is the naive assumption that smaller districts don't have strong, effective and talented leadership/governance teams.  Hyperbolic rants in local newspapers, anger-filled on-line posts, phony pledges and anonymous cut-and-paste blogs, will never change the underlying data or help us more quickly bridge our students' performance gaps.

Had the op-ed writer's premise been about consolidation as a means of conserving our State's finite fiscal and human resources, this blog post might have gone in an entirely different direction.  Logically, it makes perfect sense that by "combining forces" and reducing the total number of educational entities throughout the State, costly duplications could be minimized and potentially vast economies of scale could be achieved.  Yet as I pointed out when this long post began, the proliferation of charter schools in California has more than doubled the number of autonomous educational entities in our State and moved the needle far in the opposite direction from "combining forces."  California is now bloated with educational entities it is incapable of supporting and charters, whose regulation and oversight is poor at best, stand as a prime example.  And speaking of talent pools, who is leading and governing all of these charter operations, many of which are tiny in size?   If the leadership talent pool is shallow for Marin's 17 districts, what has the addition of another 1,248 under-regulated entities accomplished?  

Yes, op-ed writer, hypocrisy aside let's all please explore the possible benefits of "combining forces" by consolidating the number of autonomous educational entities to a more manageable, affordable, legitimate and efficacious number.  This will, however, mean having real conversations about what education is and isn't.  It will mean talking about what's hiding under the guise of the "choice" argument that has brought us 1,248 charters.  It will mean that not everyone who imagines they have built a "better system" just because they want it to be true, will be granted permission to hijack everyone else's time and resources in pursuit of their false fantasy. And it will mean having the political courage to once and for all bury the rubber stamp that has repeatedly distorted, undermined, corrupted, over-committed and under-delivered on California's once-proud and solemn promise to provide its children with true public education.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

On Productive Struggle

"A lot of scientific evidence suggests that the difference between those who succeed and those who don't is not the brains they were born with, but their approach to life, the messages they receive about their potential, and the opportunities they have to learn."  Jo Boaler, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics, Stanford University

My parents were born during the Great Depression and entered their teens during
World War II,  In those early years of their young lives, my mom and dad got a firsthand look at sacrifice, struggle, uncertainty and the harsh realities of loss.  Certainly these early experiences helped shape who they would become and, in turn, influence how they would raise my brother and me.

One such influence comes from something I can still hear my dad say, way back when I was a kid.  I'd be struggling with something, frustrated I couldn't master it and ready to give up.  He'd encourage me to press on, try a different approach, or think about it for a bit and try again the next day.  He'd say, "You can pay now or pay later, but if you pay later it comes with interest."  Somehow, even though I really had no idea what interest was, I got the gist of what he was trying to say and I would persist (with his help, support and encouragement) until I got past whatever barrier had slowed me down in the first place.

All these years later I more fully understand the "pay now or pay later" reference and appreciate how aptly this principle applies to so many aspects of life.  One such application is in regard to what many educators now refer to as "productive struggle."

From a quick review of the research, it appears the term "productive struggle" was initially associated with mathematics instruction and the notion that challenging students with material that is neither too easy or difficult, creates just enough dis-equilibrium to foster deeper learning.  Productive struggle in mathematics puts a heavier emphasis on the process than the outcome, suggesting that when we push ourselves to accomplish something just beyond our reach, we learn and accomplish far more as a result of having made the journey outside our comfort zone.

In my view, productive struggle is a valuable and powerful tool that should and must be applied beyond the world of mathematics.  Productive struggle is the essence of my dad's wise words and acknowledgement that today's challenges, put off until some unknown future time, will most likely become disproportionately more complex, difficult, time consuming and costly.  We can all probably think of many applications where knowledge and skill in using this tool could have a dramatic and lasting impact on outcomes for students and ourselves.

One example of productive struggle that comes immediately to my mind, is in regard to special education.

As a student in special education, then later a special education teacher and administrator, I often wondered if our expectations of students with disabilities were sometimes lower than they should have been.  Though I never doubt anyone's best intentions when it comes to educating children with disabilities, I often wonder if we (and perhaps the system itself) sometimes devote more time, effort and resources toward accommodating disabilities than helping students learn to compensate for them.

Learning to compensate for a disability is hard and time-consuming work, often with little or no short-term reward. It requires parents, teachers and especially students themselves, to experience much productive struggle in the present (i.e. pay now) in exchange for later having the requisite skills to gain maximum independence and lifelong success.  My perspective, after experiencing special education through a variety of lenses and over a lifetime, is that by shielding our students with disabilities from productive struggle in the present, we often force them to encounter more significant challenges later on.  When students with disabilities learn to rely on accommodations rather than their ability to compensate, they miss out on acquiring the skills necessary to compete and thrive in an adult world where accommodations may be lacking or nonexistent.  By setting consistently high expectations now and creating the conditions for productive struggle, we help students with disabilities avoid the "pay later" scenario, whose interest rate many adults with disabilities will ultimately (and tragically) find to be forever unaffordable.

Whether we apply productive struggle to the education of students with disabilities or any other aspect of life, the concept of "pay now or pay later" necessarily involves trading short-term comfort for a far-off and often blurry destination.  Productive struggle is the long game.  It requires patience, persistence and endless trial and error.  It is often messy and sometimes draws criticism from others, who may not understand or care that paying later means paying more.  Productive struggle is a harder road and therefore a path less traveled.  It can be tiring, even punishing, and it offers no shortcuts.

Paying now may be harder in the short term, but as Joe Boehler suggests, it is the path to long-term success. Productive struggle can teach us much about ourselves and our potential.  It can lead us to opportunities that help shape our lives and the lives of those we teach and love.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

On Bullying - Part 2

I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”  Margaret Thatcher

On June 27th I wrote and posted to this blog, “On Bullying - Then and Now.”  It is part recollection of my own experiences being bullied as a child and part reflection on the ways in which bullying can and sadly does continue to raise its ugly head into adulthood.  To date this post has been viewed over 1,300 times by people from around the world.

A number of readers shared how they found the post helpful, instructive and even inspiring.  Some shared their own experiences with bullying and the strategies they’ve found useful in dealing with it. Still others reached out to ask for advice, ideas or guidance in navigating bullying situations themselves or on behalf of their children.  As a lifelong learner and teacher, these opportunities to openly and honestly share experiences, perspectives, fears, challenges and triumphs, have been wonderful.  I claim no particular expertise in this area, but I am happy and eager to do what I can, even if it may only be to listen and knowingly acknowledge the pain.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, my first post on bullying was not well received by all.  In fact, it has drawn out of the shadows and into the light, some of the very adult bullying behavior I referenced. The relentless personal attacks against our Board of Trustees, administration, community members and me, have reached a level beyond absurdity, with entire smear blogs and social media campaigns devoted exclusively to the promulgation of narratives that at their best are untrue and at their worst, libelous.  Even a couple self-proclaimed journalists joined the bullies’ fray, with their poorly written, ineptly researched and factually inaccurate “news" stories.  All of which underscores one of the main points in my original post ...

This is what bullies can and sometimes do when they are called-out and when their power is challenged.

I think there is an important lesson here and it extends far beyond the local histrionics of people who anonymously post their hateful vitriol or hide behind bogus pledges to justify their endless tirades.  It is a lesson that everyone who has ever stood-up to a bully, learns the hard way.  The lesson is that bullies often fight back and in the process, they say and do whatever it takes to restore the status quo they once enjoyed.

We just witnessed this lesson as it played out on a national stage, over a seat on the highest court in the land.  But it also plays out on much smaller stages, in countless ways, in countless places and throughout every generation.  In each case, sacrifices are made when bullies are confronted and that is a reality to be thoughtfully weighed and assessed, so the situation is approached with eyes wide open.  Call it a "cost-benefit analysis" or whatever you wish, but each of us must decide for her or himself, how much we are willing to tolerate when or if the bully pushes back.

What I've personally endured over the years through various encounters with bullies, pales by comparison to what so many others have experienced, suffered and lost.  But the bully's bite, no matter how small, still leaves its mark.  From my perspective, it is how we cope with those bites and the marks left behind, that enables us to go on, to thrive and to succeed.

In our case and in the decades-long bullying situation our community has endured, coping with the bites and the marks left behind is accomplished by maintaining focus on all the great work our teachers, staff, leaders, community and students, are doing each and every day.  It's accomplished by knowing our community supported and passed a much-needed parcel tax renewal, with a record-breaking majority and only a three-month, grass roots campaign.  It's accomplished when one talented, thoughtful and utterly student-centered human runs unopposed for a second term on our Board and another runs unopposed for an open seat.  It's accomplished when I watch our teachers being leaders, our leaders being teachers and all of us being students. It's accomplished every time a student demonstrates that he or she understands, not by just getting the right answer, but by understanding why one and often more answers can be right.  It's accomplished by knowing we stay the course and continue doing what vast experience, research and data tell us will yield the greatest impact for our students.  It's accomplished by having, what Jim Collins famously describes as, "the right people in the right seats on the bus."

Last night I was once again honored by our Board of Trustees, to have my contract extended for a third, three-year term (through June 2023).  As I drove home I reflected on what our Board's action means and I believe that it too, reflects how we endure the bullies' bites and the marks left behind. All the cut-and-paste blogs, social media rants and amateurish "news" stories, cannot and will not minimize how far we've come or deter us from where we can now go.

The bullies, as Margaret Thatcher said in the opening quote to this post, "have not a single political argument left."

EPILOGUE:  I've received a couple of comments regarding the quote I used in this post.  Specifically, some have questioned my choice to use a quote by Margaret Thatcher, who some have characterized as herself being a bully.  That comment raised my curiosity and I've done some research which leads me to a wondering ..... would people refer to Margaret Thatcher as a "bully" if SHE were a HE?  I realize this raises a whole other topic and perhaps a post for another time, but still, I do wonder ...

Friday, August 31, 2018

On Resilience

"Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor."  Marianne Williamson

A year ago at this time, my knees were about as close to hitting the floor as they've ever been in my life.

My mother was recovering from a recent surgery due to lung cancer and my dad was on his deathbed.  I was traveling to and from Southern California every few days to be with them and to help my mom deal with the many things that inevitably come at us when a loved one is about to die. Meanwhile, in RVSD we were busy trying to replace two school administrators who left the district suddenly and without warning, just weeks before students were to arrive.  Our entire RVSD team was working full-speed and virtually around the clock to take care of the thousands of details that need to be addressed to successfully open a school year.  There were also emails ... so many emails ... with all manner of issues to address, questions to answer and rumors to quell.  And of course, the local newspaper and social media were ablaze with the usual ill-informed rants, personal attacks and distractions that have become the background noise of our daily experience.

I'm not complaining and definitely not seeking anyone's sympathy, as I know everyone faces challenges, hard times, disappointments, sadness, loss and pain.  Instead, I'm observing, reflecting, and appreciating how resilient we can all be when we have people in our lives to steady and support us when our knees can't.

Some years ago I received a call from a principal who was in tears over the fact that one of her teachers had simply abandoned her position and left all her first graders wondering if somehow it was their fault.  The students showed-up for school that day and lined-up as they always did, to wait for their teacher to come and take them to their classroom. The kids waited and waited, while all the other kids and teachers went inside their rooms. Their teacher never came.  Finally someone alerted the principal and she came to take the kids into the classroom.  Once inside they found the teacher's keys on the desk with a note saying she was quitting and not coming back.  There was no warning, no "sign" of a problem and no way to protect a group of six-year-olds from what they all knew had just happened.

That day, and several days afterward was spent helping little knees get up from the floor.  Teachers, parents, students, the principal and many of us from the District Office, all pitched-in to help the kids recover, receive needed reassurance and deal with their disappointment, sadness and loss.  The students rebounded quickly. Within a few weeks we found and hired a great new teacher, and the students rebounded even more.  They ultimately had a great year and many parents later reflected it was the best of their children's entire elementary school experience.  Those students taught us all a lesson in the power of resilience through the care and support of others.

In a couple of weeks our calendars will once again turn to "September 11th," a day of unspeakable tragedy, senseless loss and profound pain. All these years later I still cannot comprehend the impact that dark day must continue to have on the lives of all who were so directly touched and irrevocably changed by it. For all of us, but most especially those intimately linked to the events of 9/11, the loss will never go away.  Yet through the care, compassion, understanding and helping hands of others, we've all read accounts of how survivors of 9/11 found, incredibly so, a way to get up off their knees.

Resiliency through the support of others, is the path from darkness to the light.

In my case, I have time and again come to see and appreciate that my resilience is an inner strength I could not have found on my own.  My wife, daughters and their significant others, grandsons, family, friends and colleagues help me find it.  Our incredible RVSD Board of Trustees helps me find it.  Our supportive community helps me find it.  Our inspiring students help me find it.  My mentors and all the special people who helped me on my journey to this place, help me find it.

I don't know if resilience in the face of adversity inspires higher intelligence, nobility or humility, but I do believe resilience is a beautiful thing. Hopefully each of us has others in our lives who can help us find our resilience when we most need it.  May we be there for them as well.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

”In the end, those who demean others only disrespect themselves.”  Rana Junaid Mustafa Gohar

Upon her death last week, Aretha Franklin was hailed as one-of-a-kind, an icon, a national treasure.  Her magnificent talent was a gift to the world for over six decades, as she not only entertained, but inspired.  

About her, former President Barack Obama tweeted, “Aretha helped define the American experience.  In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade - our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.”  

Otis Redding wrote the words and Aretha sang them ... 

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me."

I'm sure most of us strive to be respected by our families, friends, colleagues, neighbors and others in our community, not because of our roles or titles, but for our actions in making a positive difference ... having an impact.  Through our actions and impact, others learn how much we value their respect, that we will go the extra mile to earn it and that retaining it is never taken for granted.  Likewise, it is through the actions and impact of others, that respect is given or lost.

When you think about it, respect and trust are inextricably linked.  We respect those we trust and trust those we respect.  When either goes missing, the other tends to diminish or go missing as well. 

Agreeing or disagreeing with others on a particular issue may or may not influence our respect for them and visa versa.  For example, we’ve all probably disagreed with people for whom we have the utmost respect and agreed with others for whom we have none.  I think what perhaps distinguishes the former situation from the latter is not necessarily the issue being debated, as much as agreement (or not) on certain underlying truths.

Author Santosh Kalwar writes, "Trust starts with truth and ends with truth."  If this statement is accurate, then trust ... and by extension, respect ... are difficult to achieve in situations where there is a fundamental disagreement about what is true. 

The notion that respect is linked to trust and trust is rooted in truth, can be put to the test on many levels.  Whether we are talking huge geopolitical issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or local debates regarding education, the connection between truth, trust and respect is unmistakable as the voice of the Queen of Soul.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

On Equality, Equity and a Few Other Things

"The world is just too complicated.  Life was so much simpler back in the old days."  Ruth Kolman (my grandmother)

I loved my grandma so much.  She is one of the very special people in my life who always believed in me - even in the times when I was full of self doubt.  She is among my personal heroes.  But when she made statements like the one quoted above, I tended to think these were the musings of an elderly person whose bucolic and sanitized memories had become more vivid and real than what was actually going on at the time.

Then again, my grandmother saw and lived through so much change in her 91 years.  She witnessed our world devolve into two global wars and countless other deadly conflicts.  She lived through Prohibition, the Great Depression, McCarthyism, the assassination of a President and near assassination of another.  She lived to see everyone carry cellphones and own microcomputers.  The Wright Brothers touched the sky just a few months before she was born and she died decades after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.  She once lived in a home where the deed of trust prohibited her and my grandfather from selling it to a person of color.

Indeed, my grandmother saw the world change pretty dramatically from the time Theodore Roosevelt won his first Presidential election in 1904.

I now stand at a point where my grandma once stood.  It is that stage in life where those of us lucky enough to get here, realize the road behind is much longer than the road ahead.  I now know, as she did, that this journey and all it entails, rewards its travelers with priceless experience, opportunities to learn and the time to develop perspective.  Is this what people refer to as wisdom?  I don't really know.  What I do know is that while my grandma may have been justified in worrying about a world moving too fast, I believe we've gone the opposite direction in terms of how we communicate information, concepts, constructs and ideas regarding the complexities of the ever-changing landscape around us.

The world today is arguably more complex than it was in the early years of the last century, but paradoxically the ways in which we communicate information about it has become simplified to the point where meaning and context are diminished, distorted or even lost.  Two examples are the news media in general and social media in particular.  Nowadays everything seems to be communicated in sound bites or 140 characters on a Twitter feed.  Dense and complex information, important topics and deep meaning are constantly distilled to a few short words, a headline, a tag line, a Facebook post, a cartoon and yes, even a blog.

To illustrate, below is an image that has been floating around the web for a few years now.  It is intended to communicate, through two simple frames, the complexities of equality and equity.


The frame on the left is intended to illustrate what happens when students are given the same level of support, resources or whatever the boxes may represent.  Clearly, though each figure stands atop a equal sized box, the figure on the right is still unable to see over the obstacle, a fence.  In the frame on the right, the boxes are redistributed and now everyone can see over the fence.  We've simply, efficiently and succinctly communicated the concepts of equality and equity without having to get into a long, detailed and complex explanation.

Or have we?

As a person with a disability I do not see equity here.  And if I were a person of color I think I'd be shaking my head while wondering, "Is the world ever going to get it?"

From my perspective, achieving equity for people with disabilities is accomplished chiefly by one learning how to compensate for his/her disability.  Receiving an accommodation, no matter how helpful, is not the same thing as learning to compensate.  It's like the difference between being given a fish and learning how to catch them.  As the old saying goes, the former satisfies hunger for a day and the latter for a lifetime.

I cannot tell from the drawing above if the student on the right figured out on his/her own, how to rearrange the boxes (compensation) or if someone else did it for him/her (accommodation).  And if someone else did redistribute the boxes, did the student learn from this experience so he/she could successfully transfer the strategy to other situations?  Was this student given a fish or taught how to catch one?  In other words, with regard to disabilities, I think this image vastly oversimplifies the concepts of equality and equity, while completely ignoring the importance of compensation and accommodation.  It fails in its simplicity, to communicate the whole story.

But what about equality and equity in regard to race?  Doesn't this image help us see that some people of color need more of something in order to, for example, "bridge the achievement gap?"  Actually, there are many (myself included) who see this image as a perpetuation of the myth that racial inequities are somehow physical in nature.  Look at the image again.  The student on the right is experiencing inequity because of his/her physical size.  He/she needs the box (a metaphor for some resource or other) to accommodate his/her height disadvantage.  By extension, in order to achieve equity for people of color, do they need some resource or other to make up for a physical and/or intellectual disadvantage?  Author Ijeoma Oluo would likely say such a notion perpetuates a system of racism.  Oluo defines racism as, "any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power." (2018, p. 26).  The notion that people of color are somehow inherently "less than," ultimately supports a system of power that cyclically reinforces the original erroneous notion (Rothstein, 2017).

As with disabilities, I think this image falls woefully short in terms of accurately communicating the complex meaning of equality and equity as they pertains to race.

I've seen this image or one of its many iterations, used to help explain the massively complex system of educational funding in California.  I've also seen it used to illustrate how the "achievement gap" can be narrowed or closed.  Again, these are vast over-simplifications that communicate incomplete or wholly inaccurate information.  The funding of California's public schools has never been, and still isn't, either equal or equitable. And what if the so-called achievement gap is really (as many suggest) an opportunity gap?  What if we don't need to accommodate people by resourcing them with additional boxes, but instead teaching them how to compensate by tearing down the fence that is the real obstacle in the first place?

Oversimplifying the complex deprives us of important context, dumbs us down, distorts the truth and causes us to lose sight of the forest for the trees.  Much as my grandma may have wished it to be the case, the road ahead is not circling back to meet the road we've left behind.  Likewise, our quest to communicate the complex in simple and theoretically more efficient ways, is not going to guide us in the direction we really need to go.

References

  • Oluo, I. (2018). So you want to talk about race. Hachette UK.
  • Rothstein, R. (2017). The color of law. New York: Liveright.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

On Pedagogy


“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on things you have long taken for granted.”  Bertrand Russell

A half century ago in the movie “Bullitt,” Steve McQueen tore through the hilly streets of San Francisco in his 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback.  This month the Ford Motor Company is releasing its 2019 homage to McQueen’s legendary wheels.


What’s old is new again.  Or is It?

Aside from sharing the same name and all the generic similarities defining a car as a car, the 1968 and 2019 Mustangs couldn’t be more different.

The model McQueen drove was, at the time, considered state-of-the-art for its class.  It had all the bells and whistles of the “modern” sports car and many features aficionados of the day likely considered “progressive.”  For example, the car came stock with new features such as front and rear side marker lights, an energy absorbing steering wheel and three-point lap and shoulder seat-belts.  Top speed of McQueen's 390 horsepower machine would have been about 130 mph and its approximate cost was around $3,500.

The re-booted 2019 Bullitt Mustang sports a host of features that were science fiction fifty years ago, including front head airbags, 4-wheel ABS, dusk sensing headlights, heated mirrors, rear parking sensors and much more.  The car cranks 475 horsepower, has a top speed of 163 mph and sells (if you can get your hands on one) for an MSRP starting at $46,595.

In other words, no matter how cutting-edge the McQueen Mustang may have been in 1968, by modern standards that car is a relic of a time gone by and not something any of us would consider "progressive" today.

Education, like the automobile, has evolved and improved over time.  Many instructional ideologies and strategies once believed to be innovative and cutting-edge, have long since been proven through research and practice to provide little or even no actual learning benefit to today's students (Hattie, 2008).  Others, such as project based learning, seem to have efficacy on their face but sometimes don't because they are often delivered incorrectly (McDowell, 2017).  Interestingly, these out-dated, ineffective and/or improperly executed educational ideas, philosophies and reforms, some heralded sixty to a hundred years ago as "progressive," continue to attract followers to this day.

Why?  If we were talking cars instead of education, it would be like believing a 1968 Mustang is "progressive,"  in an age where vehicles are equipped with fuel efficient engines, satellite navigation, automatic braking systems and self-parking technology.

One possible explanation is that when it comes to decisions (or "choices") regarding educating our children, research has shown that some of us act based on what we feel, what we subjectively think and most important, information we obtain through our social networks (Holme, 2002).  This runs contrary to what we might assume to be the case, particularly in communities where parents and educators themselves are generally well informed, highly educated and well resourced.  Yet more often than not, even when data and evidence say otherwise, a certain percentage of us will make educational choices, with firm and absolute conviction, based on opinion, anecdotal information and the hearsay of others.

For example, if the early twentieth century pragmatist theories of John Dewey are marketed as more "progressive" than our modern instructional pedagogy, some of us will buy into it for all the reasons Holme (2002) discusses.  That's not to suggest Dewey's theories on education, like the 1968 Mustang, aren't classics ... they are.  And classics certainly have their place.  We have great respect for them and all they helped teach us, for it is the classics that put down the foundation of what we know and have today.  But just as we presumably want our everyday cars to have the most up-to-date and progressive safety features, it seems we should also want our public schools to adhere with fidelity, to the most up-to-date, relevant and impact-rich pedagogy.

In the Ross Valley School District, we are committed to focusing our attention, energy and effort on what McDowell (2017, p 9.) refers to as students' "confidence and competence in learning."  We know that before students can self-direct and advocate for the next steps in their learning, they must first have mastery of the skills and knowledge required to do so.  Students' understanding of learning intentions and success criteria, two of modern educators' most powerful tools, is also important to us.

In short, we value, appreciate and respect the pedagogies of old, but like the classic 1968 Mustang, their place is in the pages of history and not on the roads our students now travel.

References
  • Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.
  • Holme, J. J. (2002). Buying homes, buying schools: School choice and the social construction of school quality. Harvard Educational Review72(2), 177-206.
  • McDowell, M. (2017). Rigorous PBL by Design: Three Shifts for Developing Confident and Competent Learners. Corwin Press.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A New Box of Crayons

“You’re off to great places. Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting. So ...get on your way!” Dr. Seuss

With the start of a new school year just a few short weeks away, I find myself reliving many of the same memories and emotions I experienced on my own first days of school and pretty much every year since.  It’s a familiar and nostalgic recipe, blending equal parts anticipation, excitement and optimism with a dash of nervousness and a pinch (or two) of apprehension.

In elementary school I’d wonder who my teacher would be, whether I’d like him or her, if I'd make new friends and whether my new school clothes would be cool, dorky or something in-between.  I’d be excited about the new things we’d soon be learning, yet I’d worry about how I'd keep up with my classmates. Would there be a lot of homework?  What reading group would I be in?  What if the teacher calls on me and I don’t know the answer?  Will my best friends be in my same class? How will I be treated by the kids I don’t know?  What kind of goodies will my mom be packing each day in my new “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lunchbox?

The elementary years eventually came to an end and I moved on to new chapters, varying contexts and different perspectives. Yet the underlying themes I wondered about, looked forward to and worried over, remained remarkably constant throughout my student experiences, through parenthood  and into grandparent-hood, from being a teacher to eventually becoming a superintendent. True, I no longer carry a lunchbox with the faces of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin plastered on the front (probably now a collectors item on Ebay), but every year I still experience that same thrilling anticipation and trepidation of new adventures ahead that can only come from a fresh start ... a new beginning.

As a very young student and even into my teens, nothing said "fresh starts and new beginnings" like our annual late-August pilgrimage to the local drugstore, where my brother and I would excitedly pick out our school supplies for the coming year and then try to convince our mom we really needed them.  From three-ring binders and "Pee Chee" folders, to #2 pencils, pens, rulers, paper and anything else we could get our hands on, we loved it all.  I can only imagine what damage we'd have done if there was such a thing as "Amazon," "Staples" or "Office Depot" back then!

Of all the school supplies I'd eventually take with me on my first day, there was one item that stood out from all the rest. Even though I sadly only had this special item with me for my earliest years of school, it still holds a special place in my heart.  That item was a new box of crayons.

To me, a new box of crayons always looked, felt and even smelled like the first day of school.  Crayons were a little package of magical, vibrant color that could transform a blank page into ... well ... anything.  I didn't know it as a first grader, but a new box of crayons became my personal metaphor for a new beginning.

So, as the start of the 2018-19 school year approaches, let's take a moment to reach for a brand new "pine green," "midnight blue," "brick red," or perhaps even a "raw umber." Whether we are RVSD teachers, staff, administrators, Trustees, parents or students, let's color ourselves a new beginning and as Dr. Seuss encourages, "get on our way!"

Thursday, July 19, 2018

On Facts

“Confabulating is a fancy term for shamelessly making things up.”  Macknik & Martinez-Conde (2010)

In the 1970s a man named Uri Geller gained international fame and fortune for his alleged paranormal ability to read peoples’ minds and alter the properties of physical objects, all courtesy of supernatural powers which Geller himself once claimed were given by extraterrestrials.  He was so convincing that millions of people around the world, including two researchers from the Stanford Research Institute, absolutely believed Mr. Geller’s “psychic powers” were genuine.  Whether he willed solid metal spoons to bend like wax before a German audience of 3,000 or accurately reproduced an unseen and impromptu drawing by Barbara Walters on national television, Mr. Geller was widely heralded and idolized as a true phenomenon with seemingly super-human and "special" powers.

Then came Mr. Geller’s August 1, 1973 appearance on the famed “Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson (Season 12, episode 150).  Mr. Carson, who in his earlier days performed magic as “The Great Carsoni,” was skeptical of Mr. Geller’s authenticity as a psychic. Unbeknownst to his superstar guest, Mr. Carson arranged to have a number of common objects on hand for Mr. Geller’s appearance - objects similar to those Mr. Geller famously incorporated into his various exhibitions of "special" mental skills.  Footage of Mr. Geller’s appearance on the Tonight Show can be easily found on YouTube.  

Spoiler alert ... Mr. Geller failed to demonstrate on the Tonight Show, in front of millions of viewers, any psychic abilities whatsoever.  Why?  The fact is, Mr. Geller is not "special" after all.  He is instead, a performer, an illusionist, a professional trickster.  

But wait, there’s more.

One might reasonably assume that such a colossal exposure of fakery on the most watched and longest-running late night program in television history, would send the humiliated perpetrator of such chicanery into uber-obscurity.  Yet that is not what happened.

Instead, Mr. Geller’s popularity and credibility actually grew after his apparent debunking by Johnny Carson.  Yes, you read that correctly ... people believed in Uri Geller’s authenticity as a psychic even more than before, in spite of what they witnessed with their own eyes.  The explanation given is that when believers saw Mr. Geller fail, they rationalized that his powers must be real because if he was just doing tricks, he’d certainly have been able to perform flawlessly on Mr. Carson’s cue.  Uri Geller’s failure was seen as proof that he is a human, who like all of us, has skills that can be strong one day and not so strong the next.  

How is it that intelligent, experienced and reasonable people can be presented with a set of absolute and indisputable facts, only to then reconstruct them into an alternate reality based on a completely fabricated “fact” set?”

The answer may partially lie in the psychological principle of “cognitive dissonance.”  This principle refers to situations in which two or more ideas, behaviors, facts, or beliefs are in conflict with one another. The conflict is resolved (rationalized) by changing one’s internal narrative to align with one of the conflicting ideas, behaviors, beliefs or fact sets.  In other words, as former President Barack Obama said in a speech earlier this week when referring to the ways in which some politicians today deal with cognitive dissonance, "People just make stuff up."

Cognitive dissonance appears to be as powerful and addictive now as it was in the 1970s, or at any other time.  How else do we explain that "would" really means "wouldn't," that "choice" in education should really excuse decades of outright discrimination, that bullies are really victims, that biased opinion is really news or that surface learning is really meaningful, innovative and different?  Perhaps this quote by author, editor and Presidential historian, Jon Meacham helps answer the question,
"America has long raised political and cultural cognitive dissonance to an art form.  We are capable of living with enormous inequality and injustice while convincing ourselves that we are in fact moving toward what Churchill called the "broad, sun-lit uplands."
I don't know about you, but today's confabulations by those desperately peddling their misguided narratives, alternate facts and revisionist history, is cognitive dissonance that makes me long for the good old days of Uri Geller and his bent spoons.

References

  • Macknik, S., Martinez-Conde, S., & Blakeslee, S. (2010). Sleights of mind: What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions. Henry Holt and Company.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

On Managers and Leaders

“Committed leaders, those with a lust for leadership, a willingness to serve, will, however, be distinguishable by their wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, authority and courage. They will have a human quality and a strong commitment to their cause and to that of those they serve.”  from “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” by Wes Roberts, Ph.D.

Before I begin this post, thanks to all who have been reading the thoughts I've shared on this blog.  As I write this, nearly 1,200 views from the US and abroad, have been logged since June 27th. That's not nearly as huge as some blogs, but it’s a good start and I'm grateful to all who are taking the time to read these words.  I hope the information, ideas, lessons learned and stories told are useful to you in some way.  Now on to the post ....

Prior to becoming RVSD’s Superintendent in August 2014, I proudly served four California public school districts in roles ranging from teacher to deputy superintendent.  In all five districts (two of them hired me twice), I’ve been fortunate to learn from some truly gifted mentor-leaders.  The confidence they placed in me over the decades and the awesome responsibilities they entrusted to my care, have never been taken for granted.  On the contrary, the lessons of leadership and moral courage my mentors shared (and still do), light my own leadership path and serve as touchstones to inspire continuous reflection and improvement.

My first principal once confided in me, “Leadership is hard work and getting it 100% right, 100% of the time, is possible only for those who talk about it with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and no actual leadership responsibility or experience themselves.”  As a first or second year teacher, I thought his comment was a bit cynical.  But after years in a variety of leadership roles, where much has gone right and some wrong, my first principal (and mentor) was a wise man who spoke the truth.  I miss you Mr. B.

That leadership is hard, leaders are fallibly human and their decisions will be criticized, is embedded within every leader’s job description.  It comes with the territory.  What’s fascinates me, though, are the elements of leadership that make it so complex and ultimately differentiate those who lead with purpose and moral courage from the rest of the leadership pack.

One such element is the notion that leaders may think they are leading, when in fact they are not leading at all - they are managing.

In 2012, while completing my doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern California, I was introduced to the work of Dr. Warren Bennis, distinguished professor of business administration at USC and a pioneer in the field of leadership studies.  In his book “On Becoming a Leader” (first published in 1989), Dr. Bennis elaborates fully on what leadership is, what it isn’t and the challenges of leading with moral courage.  Dr. Bennis wrote,
I tend to think of the differences between leaders and managers as the differences between those who master the context and those who surrender to it. There are other differences, as well, and they are enormous and crucial.
  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.
Over the years a number of my mentors shared perspectives on leadership similar to those of Dr. Bennis, while also noting that some people prefer their school, school district, business or organization to be led by managers rather than leaders.  That may be what some people prefer and I'm sure they have their reasons, but I did not choose public education as my life's work so I could become a manager.

In fact, most education leaders I know have little interest in managing anything or anyone.  Their interest and mine as well, is to lead ... not for the sake of being the leader, wielding power, etc., but for the sake of giving students true and equitable opportunities to reach their unique potential.  Perhaps that sounds trite, naive, overly ambitious or a bit too much like a typical mission statement.  Yet these are exactly the gifts many of us received through our schooling as we were growing up. We can all recall those special people, those leaders, who helped us find our way and didn't let go of our hands until we could safely navigate on our own.  We are where we are because of them.  What they did for us, we can do for the generations that follow.  It takes bold leadership, not management, to make that possible.

I think the vast majority of us who willingly assume the responsibilities of leadership, likely aspire to be the type of leader Dr. Bennis writes about and we observe in the mentors who so generously share their hard-earned wisdom with us. And certainly, even the most skilled of leaders among us, temporarily lapses now and again into a manager mindset.  Leadership is a constant work in progress for all who seriously engage in it.  I too am always learning and while there have been, are and will be many leadership successes to celebrate, there are also leadership failures to learn from.  Successes and failures are a package deal in leadership and you guessed it, they are also embedded in every leader's job description.

It is important to remember, however, that as Dr. Bennis explains, leadership requires a long-range perspective.  Getting from here to there is a journey whose path will never be a perfectly straight and clear line.  Leadership with a long-range perspective means having the moral courage to make hard, often uncomfortable and sometimes even unpopular decisions.  Taking the long view is not easy, particularly in public education where our children are in classrooms right now and can't necessarily wait for whatever impact may be coming in ten or more years as a result of today's decision.  Balancing short-term needs with a long-term perspective and making decisions accordingly, is what successful leaders do.

Every education leader knows the dynamics of this balancing act is a recipe for decision-making that will result in some level of disagreement and push-back.  This too, comes with the territory and we accept it when we accept these roles.  In the vast majority of situations, such feedback can be very helpful, insightful, constructive and yes, appreciated.  Occasionally the level of disagreement goes beyond feedback and morphs into second-guessing, blaming, vilifying, personal attacking or worse.  This is unproductive, of course, but it happens.  On the rare occasions when it does, leaders take comfort remembering (even if others don't) that everything happens in context, that decisions are not made in a vacuum, that there is ALWAYS more to a story than whatever is printed in a newspaper or on social media and that those of us charged with actually doing the work have access to data and information others do not or cannot have.  In short, my first principal was right ... unproductive and ill-informed attacks on leadership from the sidelines with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight is, plain and simple, just that.

A few weeks ago a parent asked me, "how do you do it?"  She was referring to my role as Superintendent and all that goes on in a school district when one year is ending and everyone is deep in preparation for the year to come.  I responded by saying that everyone in our district (teachers, staff, administrators and parents) has a lot on their plate. Somehow we manage to keep teaching, learning, parenting, continuously improving and above all, leading. 

In reflecting on that conversation, I'm reminded that at USC, every single Trojan is practically tattooed with two words that I'm sure Dr. Bennis himself spoke to his many students.  Those words are, "Fight on!"  Far be it for me to challenge the fine traditions of the House of Troy, but if it were up to me, I think I'd change those words to "Lead on!"  That, my wonderful blog readers, is how we do it.

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Epilogue:  I opened this post with a quote from a book titled, "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun," a book recommended to me long ago by one of my favorite teachers.  Don't let the title fool you, as it and Dr. Bennis' book are two of the best books you may ever read on leadership!

References
  • Bennis, W. (2003). On becoming a leader (Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
  • Roberts, W. (2007). Leadership secrets of Attila the Hun. Grand Central Publishing.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

On Deception

“When one with honeyed words but evil mind persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.”  Euripides, Orestes

Last week I attended the annual fundraising dinner for SchoolsRule Marin and during the social hour I ran into a guy doing magic tricks for a small group of mesmerized onlookers.  What a treat!

I’ve always loved magic, magicians and the sense of childhood wonder I still get from seeing a well-performed bit of prestidigitation.  Privileged to have seen many such performances in my life, I’m awed by the dexterous skill, performing ability, timing, creativity and attention to detail that are the real secrets of magic and the answer to the question, “how did she/he do that?”

My own journey studying, learning and performing magic began at fourteen or fifteen, when I needed an outlet from hours of swimming workouts (a story for another time).  I was so excited when my mom first took me to a local store devoted to performing magicians. In that musty old shop, secrets unfolded as I had my first opportunity to know and learn from some patient, kind and always interesting characters.  These people actually made their living using anything from a simple deck of cards to a stage full of illusions.  If it had anything to do with magic, they’d seen and done it all. To a kid just bitten by the magic bug, these grizzled veterans seemed like human encyclopedias of magical knowledge and I loved hearing their endlessly entertaining stories of magicians past, present and future.

One of the first lessons I learned from these real world wizards, is that a small action can easily be masked by a larger action.  For example, a basic coin vanish involves holding the coin at the fingertips of one hand and pretending to place it in the other, while secretly retaining the coin in the palm of the original hand.  The action of moving the coin from the fingertips to the palm is the small action and it might easily be seen if that was the only thing happening.  But the larger action of moving one hand toward the other creates a visual distraction lasting just long enough to imperceptibly palm the coin and thereby create the illusion the coin was transferred from one hand to the other..

Interestingly, the principle of larger, less important actions masking smaller, more important ones is not peculiar only to purveyors of trickery and sleight of hand.  If you think about it, this same basic principle of deception can be applied to the actions of government, big business, the media and politics large and small.

Deception can be fun when we run into a magician at a SchoolsRule event or see David Copperfield perform in Vegas, but it loses its luster quickly when access, equity and the education of our children are undermined while the larger action is intended to distract us.

Poof! That’s when the magic disappears.