SHOULD HAPPINESS TRUMP RIGOR?

With the new Every Student Succeeds ACT (ESSA) spelling out that every state must include non-academic factors (such as school climate) in how school success is measured, schools are now more than ever focusing their attention on creating a positive school culture. This shift in focus is also a result of the national move away from the strictest forms of “no excuses” discipline models and a growing awareness in ensuring students’ civil rights are honored in all contexts.

A good school climate is a real element all schools must cultivate. Seemingly, the better everyone feels, the better the results will be, right? In the article from nprEd  “How A Happy School Can Help Students Succeed,” Kat Lonsdorf outlines how one elementary school works to ensure kids feel happy – and they’re seeing attendance and punctuality rates, as well as teacher retention rates, go up, as a result! Kudos to them. Everyone would love to have results like this.  

But heed this warning: Focusing too much on making sure everyone feels good could compromise expectations and rigor (and ultimately, student achievement).   

Hard work should make students sweat. They’re not always going to be smiling and dancing their way through it. High expectations and rigor should push kids to the edge of their potential without making learning so difficult they can’t latch on. How, then, do we get kids to be authentically happy in those moments? That’s a real outcome we want to achieve, too. I imagine, though, when realistically implemented, every kid might not realize the value of the hard work until after the fact. They might, in fact, resent being pushed in the moment – but, should that make us stop so they don’t feel badly?

During my graduate studies at Harvard, I conducted an action research project on classroom climate in a public school in Dorchester, Massachusetts. I studied four classrooms for the entire year and administered tailored surveys regarding how kids and teachers perceived their classroom climate, measuring those perceptions over time across the four classes. The findings were fascinating (and some of them very common sense). The classrooms with the best classroom climate, obviously, demonstrated strong relationships between students and teachers.

However, my findings indicated the classroom with the most positive climate as perceived by the students and teachers actually had the lowest achievement. In my observations, I noticed that while the teacher and students truly respected each other, enjoyed being together and functioned like a tight community, the teacher’s pacing and delivery of instruction were slow and mostly an afterthought as she worked to ensure everyone felt good. It was standard for the class to spend at least 20 minutes off topic during a typical 45-minute lesson. They were happy, though!

Time, which is the rare resource schools must work to maximize, was being used in other ways than on content instruction. Sure, everyone felt good. Kids were happy. They loved and respected their teacher. They were kind to their classmates. They even took their shoes off before going to sit on the rug. It was a gentle, loving, harmonious classroom all day long – one I very much enjoyed being in. But, when the student assessment results came back, the fact was that happy class had the scores to prove they had spent far less time on content. They were the worst performing class of the four I had studied – yet their classroom climate scores were the best by far.

Of course we want our kids to be happy in school! Creating a school culture that cultivates true joy and community among everyone is an ideal we should always continue to strive for as we lead schools.

Leaders, though, must be mindful that they are giving as much attention to high expectations and rigor as they are to positive climate - and not replacing those high standards with simply making everyone feel good. Lowering the bar to make staff and students happy is a subconscious action many times in schools. No leader wants to do that intentionally, I don’t believe. But, sometimes, when the backlash from pushing folks to their potential gets to be too much, it’s an easy place to go to start deciding to make everything a little easier – to make everyone a little happier. And, so the slippery slope goes…

Let us not over correct so much that our prioritization of happiness puts the rigorous work of learning on the back burner. The best outcomes, in my opinion, will come from a school that honors both always. Even better, when a school helps kids to realize that those moments when they’re sweating and struggling to get to understand their content are actually happy moments – blessings – that’s when we've achieved real school climate nirvana. 

Mind Shift at researchED - 10/31/16

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending researchED in Washington D.C. For those of you who aren't aware of researchED, it is a tremendous resource for educators in terms of connecting with great folks as well as linking research with practice. Read more about it and how you can participate here.

In addition to my love of nerding out and being inspired by amazing educators from all over the globe, researchED reminds me that the world is a good place. Being with all these folks who donate their time for free and everyone who comes out on a Saturday just to learn more so they can be better for kids, so education can be better - it restores one's faith in the world, I think. At least, it restored mine.

It goes without saying that our country is going through a tumultuous time right now. Time with educators who are thinking deeply about how we can improve education and seeing the camaraderie among so many from all over - it, again, reminds me that the forces of good are still strong and thriving in our world. 

Whether it was Stephen Dykstra's demand that we know what works in reading instruction and we must implement with fidelity and urgency, Robert Pondiscio's proposal that the purpose of public education is to build our students' knowledge of civics, Seth Andrew's presentation on Rapid Evaluation Cycles and the tool he created to ensure teachers can do random control trials on the most granular levels to determine what works best in real time, Tom Bennett's presentation on positive and effective classroom management, or TNTP's findings about teacher growth and development in schools (just to name a few of the sessions) - everyone is pushing for us to raise the bar. And as an audience, it was evident that we all cared very much to consider how we can be better as a result of all this learning. 

In Pondiscio's session, he presented the idea (not his) that perhaps our focus on diversity is having the reverse impact than what we want for ourselves in this country. Continuing to honor the differences among everyone and everything, while noble, may be creating a fractured existence that creates chaos. If we want to be a united country, with shared values and become a more perfect union - maybe we need to focus on what is the sameabout us instead, he posited.

This point made me wonder about the direction of education on a larger scale. What are the aspects of education that we can all agree upon? With all of our differences in needs, opinions, resources, access, etc. - what can we all say is the same about us? 

As Tom Bennett says, "Everyone cares about education. Nobody is going to say they don't." But, what is it that we can get everyone in education to agree upon? What's the thing that is the same for all of us? Though we were all knowledgeable, educated people at researchED this weekend - there was clearly a wealth of differences and varied opinions in the room. That's wonderful, yes. But sometimes all the disagreement leaves us locked in conflict. And, instead it seems we spend a lot of time still fighting over who is right instead of fighting over what is right. Meanwhile, our progress remains stunted.

Unfortunately, this blog post isn't going to end with an answer to my question. But, researchED has got me thinking. I'm inspired by the power of diversity at this weekend's conference (and in education at large) and the notion of focusing on sameness to help create a more perfect union. Can we do both, though? They always say the proverbial pendulum swings in education from one fad to the next. Perhaps, that's what we're getting it wrong; it's not about focusing on just diversity or just our sameness. It's about holding both true at the same time and focusing on the value of each in equal measure. 

Before we shift anything again in education, whether research-based or not, I think we need to consider that we may just need a mind shift first. It's not about either/or anymore - it needs to be about both/and. Diversity and sameness. 

What do you think? 

SCHOOL LEADERS MATTER - 10/27/16

SCHOOL LEADERS MATTER – 10/27/16

Over the past several years, with the debates over common core, high stakes testing and teacher evaluations, it has boggled my mind how much time we spend talking about student proficiency and teacher efficacy but never do we really talk about school leadership quality. How it is that all the accountability for outcomes is focused on the people who are largely subjected to someone else’s decision-making?

While we can continue to go up the educational decision chain and play a blame game, that’s not my intention in making this point. Rather, I want to highlight that school leadership is at the foundation of any quality school, of any great outcomes – for students and teachers. Teachers don’t work for schools; they work for school leaders. And it’s the leaders who know how to treat everyone in the school community, communicate a clear vision, implement and follow up with fidelity, and professionally develop their staff that end up retaining their teachers and building a highly successful school that yields high performing results.

A school is only as good as its leader. It is a huge oversight that school leadership largely gets ignored when discussing student performance results and teacher quality – after all, aren’t they the ones we should be focused on when things go wrong? It is time we begin to comprehensively address the inputs that impact our outcomes, and school leaders are the first place we should start, not the last.

So, for today’s blog post, I’m sharing an article on some practices that make a great leader from the Harvard Business Review entitled The Most Important Leadership Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World. Kudos to all you great school leaders out there! 

Education is just so... complex! - 10/27/16

Education is just so... complex! - 10/27/16

After being rejected the first time I applied to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I was thrilled to attend for my master’s degree upon my second application being accepted. I couldn't wait to get into the classroom and learn from the wisest professors about how to really ensure education is of the highest quality for all students. If anyone was going to teach me, it was going to be the professors at Harvard, right?

And, so, you can imagine on my first day when I got to class, I was a bit underwhelmed when my professor started out with what she thought to be a profound statement to jumpstart the class - "Education is just so...complex." 

That was more than thirteen years ago. And, for as underwhelmed as I was hearing her say that then, I carry those words and that moment with me still to this day. The complexity of education's challenges, variables, goals, etc. can hardly be described in one summary. It's is like a tangled web of layers upon layers upon layers. Many years now after I heard my professor say that education is so complex, after my adventures in classrooms and schools across grade levels and states serving in many capacities and here I am saying, "You got that right!"

With my experiences in classroom teaching, being a reading specialist, dean of students, director of curriculum & instruction, principal, superintendent, and the most important job of being a parent - I've learned that there will ALWAYS be challenges. There are always going to be problems to solve and things to make better. There are always going to be people to grow and teams to build. There are always going to be failures to overcome and achievements to accomplish. 

That's the nature of working in education. It's not just a job - it's a mission. No matter what school or organization you're in at what level - education is a mission. It's a promise to our future. It's an arduous, rewarding, complicated, challenging, thrilling journey - growing people, that is - growing ourselves to the highest of standards - and of course, everyone deserves that opportunity. 

This is why I created supportED consulting. As I've journeyed through the various schools and organizations in my career, I've seen how so many amazing educators face both common and complex challenges. And, even with the best of intentions and sometimes a ton of resources, the outcomes are not always what we want for them to be. 

With my experience, I hope to bring all types of schools and educational organizations the perspective and customized support they need to meet the highest of standards. In education, our work is never done. But, sometimes, it's still nice to have some help along the way! 

Thank you to those who are supporting my new endeavor as I launch supportED consulting! Please spread the word and let everyone know - supportED is here for them - because education is just so...complex!