The Greatest Lesson in Life from the Commencement Address Never Given

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I remember starting my first job as a systems engineer on an aerospace project. My new boss gave me an unusual assignment on my start day. He wanted me to tell him what “E = mC(squared)” and “You can’t push on a rope” meant.

As part of figuring out the answer he said to first ask anyone you want in the department for advice or insight. Of course, I thought he just wanted me to meet everyone on my own since I already knew the answer to both questions.

It turned out I was wrong on all parts.

Here’s what I told him when we met for lunch in the cafeteria on the third day of my first job.

“E = mC(squared)” While I got the scientific principle right the bigger purpose was to understand how this relates to the real world of product design given competing constraints on functionality, time, cost and manufacturability. The lesson: It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you lose sight of the big picture.

“You can’t push on a rope.” I thought this one had to do with strength of materials, some kind of force diagram and one of Newton’s laws. But it turned out to be about human nature. The lesson: The most important part is that you can’t push the people involved to do what you want them to do despite overwhelming analysis or engineering evidence. You have to understand their needs first.

I learned later that Zig Zigler said it more eloquently, “You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

That’s a principle everyone needs to apply to get ahead regardless of their age or their job.

Here are a few other useful life principles I learned early on in my career.

In my first engineering design class the professor showed a picture of a bridge across some river that didn’t meet perfectly in the middle. There was a six-inch offset. The professor started by saying that in this course you’ll learn how to ensure this will never happen to you. Planning ahead was the big lesson. Thinking of the consequences of your actions was the more subtle point. Stephen Covey’s “Begin With the End in Mind” pretty much sums it up. While this stuff is easy to say, it’s hard to do whether you’re building a bridge or figuring out how to just get through the day.

Persistence overrides intellect. In most of my engineering classes the answers to the problems were given. My non-engineering friends thought this was too easy. I thought so too until I was given one very complex problem to figure out. It took me all night and a lot of trial and error to get the right answer.

There were a lot of lessons learned that night. The obvious one: Getting the answer right was secondary. Figuring out how to find the right solution was the purpose of having the answer given. A lot of smart people gave up too soon. That’s when I realized that persistence is far more important than intellect.

Some similar things happened a short time later as an intern and during my first full-time engineering job. I was assigned two very complex technical projects. In each case there was an initial 2-3 weeks of total confusion. It was clear I was going around in circles, over my head and an abject failure. After stumbling about, talking with people and thinking about the problem from a totally different perspective, the fog starting lifting. Soon a solution emerged. In both cases it took a few very uncomfortable weeks to go from nothing to a potential solution. Of course, getting the actual solution took a lot longer but that was the easy part. The lesson learned again: It’s okay to be confused but it you keep at you’ll figure out what to do.

I learned later that Winston Churchill said it much better, “Never ever give up. Never!”

But that wasn’t the big lesson in all this. By not giving up too soon you build confidence in yourself to take on any project as long as you can figure out a solution and create a vision of where you’re going. As a result I then started volunteering for projects and positions over my head and even asking for promotions in different departments. And I got them by selling the vision to others and getting them to see how this would personally benefit them. This got them to be allies not foes and they became proactively involved in ensuring we were all successful.

The real lesson is that true confidence is contagious. But you need to struggle a lot before you develop it in yourself. So look for some struggles to tackle. A lot of them. And never give up despite how easy it might be to do. I’m not sure, but maybe this is how leaders are developed, too.

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Trends in Teacher Evaluation: At A Glance

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Trends in Teacher Evaluation: At A Glance

For decades, teacher evaluations were little more than a bureaucratic exercise that failed to recognize either excellence or mediocrity in teaching. As such, evaluation represented a missed opportunity for giving teachers valuable feedback that could help them improve their practice.

Increasingly, this is no longer the case. Since 2009, over two-thirds of states have made significant changes to how teachers are evaluated. For most states, the change was motivated by incentives available through the federal programs Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers, and Teacher Incentive Fund. State applications for these funds earned additional credit for upgrading teacher evaluation systems so they take place annually and are based in part on student achievement (Bornfreund, 2013). Other states revamped their systems in response to new political leadership. Regardless of the reason, the end was the same: in most states, teacher performance will now be judged for its impact on student learning alongside traditional measures such as classroom observations, lesson plan reviews and others. Combined, these measures make for more accurate evaluations and serves as a tool for continuous improvement.

The changes states are instituting are far from minor. The most dramatic and controversial is the inclusion of student achievement measures in teacher evaluation. The way student achievement data is used, however, varies significantly by state. For example:

  • Most states use student scores from state standardized tests, but many also combine this data with measures such as student learning objectives (SLO), formative assessments, or some other indicator of student achievement.
  • States use different statistical methods for attributing student learning to teacher performance. The most widely used models are value-added and student growth percentiles (SGP), both of which attempt to measure student gains so that the system doesn’t unfairly disadvantage teachers whose students were low-performers when they entered their classrooms.
  • Student achievement data comprises only part of teachers’ overall evaluation score. In no state does it count for more than half; in several states it’s considerably less.
While linking student achievement to teachers is certainly groundbreaking, nearly every state is revamping how classroom observations are conducted, too. Gone are the days when a principal sits in on a teacher’s class every couple years, armed with a checklist of instructional requirements that rarely were associated with high quality instructional practices. In contrast, teachers are now being observed every year — and for many, multiple times a year — by trained evaluators using a researched-based rubric that more accurately judges instructional effectiveness. More importantly, the new classroom observations provide more useful feedback to teachers.

Student achievement and classroom observations are not the only measures used to evaluate teachers. Student/parent surveys, lesson plan reviews, teacher self-reflections and student artifacts are just some of the other measures included in teacher evaluation systems. In most states, districts have wide discretion on which measures to include along with student achievement and classroom observations. Each of these measures has their strengths in providing teacher’s valuable feedback about their instructional practices. There is less evidence, however, that they accurately predict teachers’ impact on student learning. The exception is student surveys. In fact, a recent study by the Gates Foundation found that a high-quality researched-based student survey can accurately measure a teacher’s future effectiveness and can enhance the accuracy of an evaluation system when combined with measures of student achievement and classroom observations.

Keep in mind that identifying teacher effectiveness is a relatively new concept and no system will be perfect. But by examining the different approaches states have taken, state and local education leaders can learn from each other to refine and improve their own systems.

Across states we found:

  • Forty-seven states require or recommend that stakeholders, including teachers, provide input into the design of new evaluation systems. Such input is important to gaining broad-based support.
  • Forty-six states require or recommend that evaluations include measures on how teachers impact their students’ achievement.
  • Classroom observations are a component of every state’s evaluation system; about a third (33) of them require or recommend all teachers be observed at least once a year.
  • Forty-one states require or recommend teachers be evaluated on multiple measures as a more complete and accurate gauge of performance.  No state evaluates teachers on test scores alone.
  • Most states are primarily focused on using evaluation for the purpose of raising teacher performance but also use the results to inform personnel decisions.
    • More than half (31) of states use evaluation results to target professional development opportunities for individual teachers.
    • Teachers can be dismissed due to poor evaluations in 32 states. However, typically teachers are not eligible to be dismissed until they have been rated as low-performing over multiple years and only after being provided interventions to improve. Even if the teacher fails to improve, in most states the decision to dismiss is left up to the discretion of the school district.
  • Local school districts need flexibility in designing and implementing teacher evaluation systems so they are aligned to the needs of the district. But they also need strong support from their states.
  • Seventeen states provide districts flexibility as well as support in developing evaluations systems while 21 states leave almost all the responsibility for developing an evaluation system in the hands of districts.

Developing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system is far from straightforward. But state and district policymakers should make every effort to ensure teachers are being evaluated fairly and accurately.

Whether developing a teacher evaluation system, or implementing a new one, school district leaders should ask these questions:

How is the evaluation system developed?

What is the goal of the evaluation system?

Do those goals align with the district strategic plan?

What flexibility do districts have to tailor the evaluation system to the district’s strategic plan?

Does the district have the knowledge and resources in-house to develop their own evaluation system or modify the state model?

Who was involved in development of the evaluation system? Were key stakeholders, particularly teachers, involved in some way?

What is included in the evaluation system?

What measures are included in the evaluation system? How much weight does each measure carry in the overall score?

How accurate are the results? What are the evaluation system’s strengths and weaknesses?

What measures are used to determine the impact a teacher has on their students’ achievement?

What statistical model is used to measure the impact? Why is that measure used? How accurately does it isolate a teacher’s impact on student achievement?

Are the same measures used to evaluate all teachers? If not, how do they differ?

How often are teachers observed in a classroom setting? Does the frequency differ by experience or the teacher’s previous performance level?

Do evaluators have enough time to conduct all the observations required without impeding on their other responsibilities?

Who conducts the observations? How are they trained?

Is the observation rubric researched-based and aligned with the district’s goals?

How are results used?

When do teachers receive feedback from each observation?

Are the overall evaluation results used to improve instructional quality? If so, how?

Are the results used for personnel decisions? If so, how?

Are the results made public? If so, what information is made public?

The lowdown on STEM schools

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17309.jpgGiven the crying need for graduates with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees, is a STEM school right for your child?

A high school student tosses a ball into the air and watches it fall. Then he films the falling ball and graphs the movement on his computer. Nearby, a soph

omore scrawls out equations with a blue marker, while a classmate looks over his shoulder and shakes her head. “I think that number should be negative.” They come to an agreement before the teacher stops by, nudging them to explain how they got it. This action-packed hour is a science class — “Scientific Inquiry — Physics,” to be exact.

This type of noisy, exuberant classroom exemplifies what Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) schools are about. Learning is collaborative and project-based; kids work closely together in a hands-on way to solve real-world problems. Learning problem-solving skills — and helping students develop into creative, critical thinkers — is at the core of any true STEM school. “Teachers are not just telling us,” says Jennifer Bailey, 17, a senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. “We use our own data and discovery to realize a concept.” While all schools teach math and science, good STEM schools focus deeply on these subjects in hopes of better preparing students for the high-demand tech jobs of the future.

Is a STEM school right for my child?

If your child has an innate interest in science or building things, a STEM school may be a natural choice. But administrators say these schools cater to all kinds of learners and that most students appreciate the hands-on nature of the curricula. Students who manage their time well may succeed in STEM programs that are self-paced and have kids working on independent projects.

Why you might consider a STEM high school

Over the past 10 years, jobs in STEM fields have grown three times as fast as jobs in non-STEM fields, according to the Department of Commerce, and STEM fields are expected to grow by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, compared to just 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM fields in the same time frame. But without an influx of graduates in these areas, the U.S. will not have enough workers to fill those jobs. STEM schools can help young people gain the skills necessary to succeed in these fields. Over the next decade alone, the U.S. must produce approximately 1 million more STEM-degree graduates than currently projected to meet the demands of the economy, according to a 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Recognizing this gap, educators have focused on getting more students hooked on math and science earlier in their school careers, which is why more STEM programs are being launched nationwide.

You’ll mainly find STEM high schools, but there are some middle schools with a STEM emphasis, too. Some STEM schools are open to all students, meaning there are no tests required; others are selective and consider a student’s academic record in admission decisions.

There are three primary types of STEM programs:

  • A STEM specialty school: The entire school’s focus is on STEM and every student participates in a curriculum of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
  • A STEM program within a larger school: Some schools create STEM academies within their schools that allow interested students to study STEM in more depth.
  • Residential STEM programs: For these intensive programs, students live on campus and attend a STEM school.

Programs may delve broadly into all STEM subjects or they may specialize in a particular area, such as computer technology. Vocational or CTE programs that prepare students for certain high-tech fields also fall within the spectrum of STEM schools.

What you might find in a STEM classroom

  • Students behaving as scientists: On a typical day, they may be recording observations, carrying out experiments, or conducting their own research. Learning is project-based and sometimes messy, but students learn by doing, not by rote memorization.
  • Connecting STEM learning to a career: To help students understand what kind of STEM jobs are available, schools may bring in tutors from local technology companies or organize internships at hospitals or research institutions.
  • Integrating with other subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math subjects are woven into other areas of the curriculum, with courses such as the “History of Science” or “Environmental History.”
  • Making use of technology: By taking quizzes on their laptops, entering data into spreadsheets, and creating graphs to illustrate the results of their experiments, students are using technology in their daily studies. STEM programs such as L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville, TN, participate in one-to-one programs through which students are given their own individual computer (or iPad, in this case) for their work. Teachers may have web pages featuring necessary classroom materials, which may also allow students to work ahead if they want to or review a lesson if need be.
  • Noise: Classrooms are not quiet and are often arranged so that students can sit and work in groups. This encourages collaboration as students discuss their work and challenge each other’s ideas.

Questions to ask when considering a STEM school

  • Is this really a STEM school? With the recent national focus on creating more STEM graduates, “You see lots of places springing up calling themselves STEM schools, but they don’t necessarily have a clearly articulated explanation of what makes them STEM,” said Christopher Kolar, founding co-chair of the Committee for the Advancement of STEM Specialty Schools. Does the school offer a full STEM program beyond the science and mathematics offered in typical schools? A look at the course schedule may indicate whether the coursework is there to challenge students and prep them for higher-level college STEM courses. For instance, are pre-calculus, calculus, and AP calculus offered? Can students take a second year of physics or engineering? Consider the breadth and depth of the school’s STEM offerings.
  • Does it help prepare students for a STEM career? To be sure the school is properly preparing students for the jobs of the future, ask school administrators if they communicate with students’ potential employers. Businesses should be partners, bringing in resources, providing role models for students, and keeping staff up-to-date on new developments so the curriculum stays relevant.
  • Are students working with computers and other technology? Or are the new iPads sitting in a box in the corner because teachers have not been trained on how to incorporate them into lesson plans? Ask for examples of how laptops (or tablets) help with instruction and if the administration provides ongoing technology training for teachers. Likewise, does the school have the lab equipment necessary for students to do a broad range of experiments?
  • Do teachers have backgrounds in the subjects they are teaching? Science should be taught by teachers who are excited about and understand science. Also, do mentoring programs exist to encourage teachers to improve their STEM skills and knowledge?

What supporters say

If we want to have the scientists and engineers to solve future problems, STEM schools are important to the country’s future: finding sustainable energy sources, keeping water supplies clean, and discovering new technologies that help us compete in a global economy. Supporters say there is an urgent need to attract and educate more students in these fields and keep them engrossed throughout their elementary, high school, and college years. And from the student’s perspective, if they have the skills employers need, they will have an easier time finding a job upon graduation.

What critics say

By increasing the emphasis on science, math, technology, and engineering, some worry that students may lose out on other key skills. Electives like foreign languages and the arts help foster creativity and broaden students’ world view. Some STEM programs try to make up for this by offering arts programs after school; others say they recognize the need and incorporate as much arts education as they can into the school day.

Because girls historically have not shown the same interest in STEM fields as boys, critics say the schools need to do more to reach out to girls and get them excited about science by providing role models in female scientists or crushing traditional gender stereotypes in the classroom.

A final word of advice

Make sure you understand how fully the school has embraced a STEM curriculum. If you are expecting your child to be taking advanced physics courses and the school only offers one introductory course, both you and your child could be disappointed. Ask the school to see sample schedules. As always: visit any school you’re considering. Talk to teachers about the ways students use technology in class. Poke your head in the labs. Ask what professional development opportunities exist for teachers to stay on top of their game and whether the school has networked with local companies and research institutions.