The Greatest Lesson in Life from the Commencement Address Never Given

Leave a comment


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.

Peer-Led Anti-Bullying Efforts Yield Payoffs

Leave a comment


No matter how diligent teachers and administrators are, it’s easy for bullying to happen under the noses of adults at school. In the bathrooms, the hallways, and on social media, students are often the only ones around to police themselves.
That’s why researchers at Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale universities are analyzing middle schoolers’ social networks to find the students most likely to change their classmates’ attitudes around bullying. They are finding that bullying is generally driven not by a few bad apples but by a majority of students within the overall culture of a school. Shifting alliances and cycles of harassment and retribution can all play into that culture, and undercut adults’ anti-bullying campaigns.

“Adult-identified leaders are often very different from student-identified leaders,” said Hana Shepherd, an assistant sociology professor at Rutgers University. “Adults look at traditionally defined ‘popular’ kids, the ‘good’ kids, while kids who are leaders of smaller groups might not be on the social radar of adults, but often are [influential] too.”

During the 2012-13, school year, Shepherd, Elizabeth L. Paluck, a Princeton psychology professor, and Peter M. Aronow of Yale University repeatedly surveyed more than 24,000 students across 56 middle schools about the students they respected most and liked spending time with online and in person, out of a list of every student in their schools. They also asked students to list peers they had conflicts with, and the social norms in each school around behaviors shown to increase conflict, such as retaliating on behalf of a friend who has been bullied.

Not Just ‘Popular’ Kids

The researchers used the data to create network maps of student friendships in each school, identifying not just the most popular students or those whom teachers considered leaders, but the students who are most influential to different peer groups throughout the school. Of those so-called “seed” students, the researchers randomly invited half to participate in the Roots program, an anti-bullying program intended to support students in recognizing and finding ways to improve their own school climate around bullying.

In a study published late last fall, the researchers found schools using Roots had 30 percent fewer discipline reports on student conflict than similar schools not using the program.

Through 10 sessions over the course of the 2012-13 school year, Paluck said a “breakfast club” of influential students in different cliques in each school met to think out their own responses to bullying and discuss ways to reduce peer conflicts. Even the wording mattered. Rather than discussing “bullying”—a term that prior research has shown is linked more with stereotypes of physical intimidation and lunch-money theft—the students typically referred to conflicts as “drama.” Students talked through exercises among themselves about how they would respond if they either saw or heard about conflicts among students.

Critically, the seed students also discussed how their peers would react to their responses, and how they could influence their classmates better. In each school, students came up with their own projects, such as creating positive GIFs, or looping animations, for Instagram or handing out wristbands to reward a student who is seen de-escalating a fight or supporting a bullying victim.

Teacher evaluations no longer required, but useful with changes

Leave a comment


The nonprofit New Teacher Center recommends using evaluations as a tool for improvement

Armed with research about a teacher’s impact on student achievement, policy makers have required states and school districts to evaluate their teaching force, and the most readily available data has been standardized test scores. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act effectively back-tracked on this accountability strategy. No longer is there a federal mandate that schools evaluate teachers. And those that do will not be required to base their analysis on scores.

But former superintendent, principal and teacher Lisa Andrejko does not believe such evaluations will become a thing of the past.

“With so much time and effort undertaken at the state level in the implementation of accountability measures such as Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), prescribed teaching standard frameworks or rubrics and student achievement data, I cannot imagine a scenario in which states would abandon their new methods for grading teachers,” Andrejko wrote for PeopleAdmin in May. She expects revisions, but not necessarily another overhaul.

Still, ESSA creates a level of freedom that some districts may find exciting. The law provides for the use of federal dollars to survey teachers about working conditions and offer professional development, professional growth and leadership opportunities. And, importantly, it offers an opportunity to recalibrate after the last 15 years of No Child Left Behind.
Anne Udall, executive vice president of program strategy at the nonprofit New Teacher Center, hopes district administrators stop and think carefully about where to take teacher evaluations in the coming years. NCLB attached accountability to test scores, primarily, and Udall says research clearly shows that is not a useful way to gauge educator effectiveness. “My hope with ESSA is that we’ve learned enough from what didn’t work that we’re going to try to find the more comprehensive, nuanced approach,” Udall said.

What, then, should this new approach entail?

Udall and Andrejko agree evaluations should be used to help teachers improve their craft. That means they have to come with more nuanced feedback and targeted professional development. While many advocates of test-based accountability demanded it to weed out the worst teachers, advocates of new teacher evaluation systems aim to use it as a tool for improvement.

How administrators can adapt

Administrators, in this new design, will need to sharpen a few skills of their own.

“You can know what great instruction looks like, but you may not have the skillset to mentor or coach a new teacher because you don’t know how to tell them what they’re doing well and what they’re doing poorly,” Udall said.
Professional development for administrators should cover strategies for recognizing high-quality instruction as well as providing useful feedback.

In many schools, even carving out the time for regular classroom observations will require a major shift. This is where district administrators come in. Central office leaders can provide the support that frees principals from other management duties, delegating administrative tasks to other staff members and leaving principals to focus on staff development.

One trend the New Teacher Center has identified is the formation of instructional leadership teams in schools. These groups bring together principals, vice principals, department chairs and teacher representatives into a learning community that focuses on how best to support teacher improvement, design evaluation systems and approach coaching

After years of watching evaluation be used as a tool to “sort and punish,” Udall is excited to see a new trend of using evaluations to support teacher growth.

A lot is still up in the air when it comes to ESSA. But as the Obama administration finalizes its rule-making and states decide how to proceed, school districts can set their own priorities for evaluation, at least. Now no longer required by federal law, it can provide the foundation for effective school improvement that focuses on bringing out the best in today’s teachers.

Tara Garcia Mathewson I September 14, 2016

New Bill Offers a Good Start on Defining Professional Development

1 Comment


December 4, 2015 4:14 PM

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed the Every Student Succeeds Act by a 359-64 vote. While there is much to explore and discuss in the bill, Learning Forward’s advocacy efforts related to the reauthorization of ESEA have concentrated solely on professional development.

We believe that ensuring a clear and specific definition of professional development in federal policy, one that aligns with our Standards for Professional Learning, lays the groundwork for states, districts, and schools to create professional learning that has impact. The definition of professional development that appears in the bill is important because it applies to every example of professional development mentioned in the bill.

Overall, we are satisfied with the definition that is included in Every Student Succeeds Act, though we believe that effective professional learning requires more than what the bill describes.

We’re pleased with the first part of the definition. It begins: Professional development means activities that “(A) are an integral part of school and local education agency strategies for providing educators (including teachers, principals, other school leaders, specialized instructional support personnel, paraprofessionals, and, as applicable, early childhood educators) with the knowledge and skills necessary to enable students to succeed in the core academic subjects and to meet challenging State academic standards; and

(B) are sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, and short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, classroom-focused….”

While there are additional ways to improve upon this part of the definition — it would be ideal to move away from thinking of professional development as “activities” rather than a continuous learning journey — it is affirming that the key words included within it tie directly to Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning. Congress has affirmed that educators’ professional development must be collaborative, job-embedded, sustained, classroom-focused, and data-driven. The definition is also significant because it so clearly focused on school- and classroom-level professional learning.

The legislation continues with this phrase: Professional development “may include activities that …” followed by a long list of professional learning elements, experiences, and topics. For example, professional development may include activities that “improve and increase teachers’ knowledge of the academic subjects the teachers teach.”

The placement of the “may” is significant. Everything before “may include” is essential and officially part of the definition. Everything after “may include” is dependent on the context and needs of the local educators planning and implementing professional learning. To define professional learning too tightly would overlook the differentiated needs of educators and could contribute to schools and systems addressing adult learning through one-size-fits-all solutions. We trust educators to use the key words before the “may” to assess their needs and design their learning objectives and processes, then identify the priorities that best fit their circumstances among those listed after the “may.”

As education leaders and policymakers make sense of the bill once it moves into law, which is expected to happen next week, we are hopeful that in implementing the definition of professional development, they will also consider the following:

  • Evaluation of impact must be a part of any professional learning, as it is part of so many other school improvement elements outlined in the legislation.
  • The cycle of continuous improvement is the ideal vehicle for making so much of this definition come to life in schools. Through collaborative, continuous problem solving, teachers examine data to understand what student and adult learners need, set professional learning goals and determine learning strategies, apply their new learning with ongoing support, and assess the impact of what they’ve applied in their classrooms.
  • Clearly defining the professional learning roles and responsibilities of educators throughout the system helps ensure meaningful implementation and collective accountability for results.
  • While the definition of professional development in the bill describes that educators gain “knowledge and skills,” intentionally addressing changes in practice is essential to achieving better results for students.

Defining professional learning meaningfully in policy is one key step. But the definition doesn’t equate to implementation. The hard work of planning, facilitating, implementing, sustaining, and evaluating professional learning happens every day in states, districts, and schools.

As always, Learning Forward is eager to provide educators the support they need to create learning that meets this definition and aligns to the Standards for Professional Learning. Please let us know how we can continue to do so.

Stephanie Hirsh – Executive Director, Learning Forward

Teachers integrate technology into classrooms with help from ISU online master’s program

Leave a comment


ISU’s online Master of Education degree program in curriculum and instruction technology has helped 67 educators in the last decade to incorporate technology into their classroom. The online program is part of ISU’s School of Education, and offers the same curriculum as another on-campus program at the university.

“The growing use of technology in the schools was really picking up. We realized that we needed to make available professional development,” said Clyciane Kossatz Michelini, the program coordinator. “Technology is everywhere, most people use technology. But what is effective or a way to really make a difference in their teaching? We don’t want to get technology for the sake of technology. It has to be meaningful, has to be motivating the students, has to be making an impact while they’re teaching.”

The program is offered every two years, with the next cohort beginning next summer, and students are in the program for three years. Students learn about trending uses of technology in the classroom, how to teach courses online and, because most participants are already teachers, students get to conduct their research in their own classrooms.

One course is offered each semester, and Michelini said it makes it convenient for full-time teachers, as they are not required to be on campus for their coursework.

Denise Schmidt Crawford, an associate professor in the School of Education and director of the Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching, said students are asked to visit campus just twice a semester—once at the beginning of the program and once to present their final oral exam. Those who cannot attend are also able to use a video conference set-up to meet the requirement.+

Michelini noted that because the coursework is available online, the program has reached students even outside of the state, and working with teachers across the country has “really brought in another perspective.”Michelini said students leaving the program are entering new jobs that give them leadership roles in technology, and teachers are now “confident in what decisions they make and how they can help other teachers to step up and use more technology in a more effective way.”“Just because you have computers in the classroom, that doesn’t mean you’re making that better for the students,” Michelini said. “You have to really understand how to integrate that to the content and your teaching style and the way kids learn

School Testing 2016: Same Tests, Different Stakes

Leave a comment


It has been a high-stakes year for high-stakes standardized tests.

The debate over renewing the big federal education law turned, in part, on whether annual testing would remain a federal mandate. Republicans initially said no, Democrats said yes. Ultimately the overhaul passed with tests still in place.

On the other hand, this fall President Obama addressed parents on Facebook and released a “Testing Action Plan.” He wanted states to cut down “unnecessary testing” that consumes “too much instructional time,” creating “undue stress for educators and students.”

Meanwhile some parents, notably in New York state, opted out of the tests and made a lot of noise about it. The use of test scores in teacher evaluations was a big bone of contention. And many states dropped out of PARCC and Smarter Balanced, the two Common Core test consortia, in favor of giving their own state tests.

The arguments for annual student testing come down to accountability and equity. If we have accurate data on the academic progress of each and every student, testing advocates say, we’ll be able to compare results and highlight gaps, whether between rich and poor kids or across states. That information, presumably, can spur effective, targeted action to improve.

The outstanding question is whether it’s possible to reform school testing in a way that gets schools, parents and leaders the data they need, while avoiding the problem the president is talking about: an overemphasis on testing.

And moreover, is that reform likely? Here’s what we’ve learned about testing in the past year, and some predictions of what’s to come.

Federally mandated testing is likely to increase, not decrease, next year.

Despite what the president said, the Every Student Succeeds Act still requires states to test at least 95 percent of students each year in reading and math for grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Not only that, a higher percentage of students in special education will have to take the tests. The percentage who are given an alternative test because of cognitive disabilities can’t be higher than 1 percent.

The stakes will be lower, though.

Instead of a federally mandated (and widely seen as unrealistic) “100 percent proficiency” goal, each state will set its own targets and decide on its own path to improvement.

The opt-out movement may have some of the wind taken out of its sails.

According to two national polls last year, most Americans don’t support the opt-out movement.

The 95 percent testing rule continues to give school leaders a reason to try to hold the ceiling on parental opt-outs, which reached above 50 percent in some schools and districts last year. More important, one political justification for the movement may be fading: ESSA leaves room for states to de-emphasize test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations.

There’s been so much test turnover recently, most districts can’t track progress.

Chalk this up to an unintended consequence of the Common Core. According to a report this year by the Council of the Great City Schools, a full 65 percent of the biggest school districts in the country saw a change in their big state tests between 2011 and 2015. These changes, the districts said, made it near-impossible to track student achievement over time. And forget about comparing test scores across states: With all the states dropping out of the two Common Core tests, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, we’re back to a patchwork of tests and cutoff scores nationwide.

Many people agree there is too much testing, but where to cut back is not clear.

In a national poll last year, two-thirds of the American public agreed there was too much testing in schools. The Council of the Great City Schools study showed students take an average of eight standardized tests per year, often in overlapping subjects and at overlapping times. The director of the CGCS, Michael Casserly, called school testing “redundant and uncoordinated.”

The federal government’s “testing action plan” promises resources for districts and states to audit and streamline their testing programs.

But how, exactly, to cut back? Four out of 10 districts in the CGCS survey reported having to wait between two and four months before receiving their state test results. That lag makes it near-impossible to make decisions — like grouping students by ability or signing them up for special tutoring — before students pass on to the next grade.

So, if schools want timely data-informed decisionmaking, they’ll still need to give their own diagnostic tests. And if districts want to know how they’ll do on the state tests, they still need to give their own benchmark and practice tests.

States will turn to new forms of accountability.

Under the ESSA, states create their own accountability formulas. Along with test scores, which are mandatory, these may include graduation rates, measures of student engagement, teacher engagement and school climate (such as attendance or behavior). Some states and districts are also including student projects and surveys that try to measure noncognitive skills.

Leaders and Moral Courage

Leave a comment


One of the most difficult things to do is to let go of the familiar, of the terrain you have crossed and mastered.  It is, for some, frightening to ask if habits and practices that have developed over time and served well are still the right answers for the present problems and purposes. Personally, some of these habits helped us learn and grow; some of them guided us through professional and personal hard moments. Professionally, all of us have habits and practices that contributed to our success at our jobs.  We even wonder if we are wasting time to reexamine those well-worn paths to success. But…these past few decades are unrelenting with daily challenges and unanticipated demands.

Two Right Options
The educator’s dilemma arises within the domain of what’s good enough. An “acceptable” number of students graduate, and an “acceptable” number of students go on to college or join the work force.  Where did that “acceptable” number come from and whose hand moves it when we glance away? We lead schools, institutions that exist at the core of our society; they are expected to both keep pace with change and hold true to tradition. We choose often between two right options, trying to find which one is the better one or which serves a higher good.

Finding Moral Courage
Enter the need for moral courage. Nearly every decision or action is accompanied by some degree of risk, however small.  Here, from Rushworth Kidder:

So it is with moral courage, where danger is endured for the sake of an overarching commitment to conscience, principles, or core values.  Here too, the key lies in properly assessing the “measure” of peril.  Underestimating the danger, and our moral courage will be written off as imprudence.  It will be seen as pointless self-sacrifice, doomed from the outset because we never understood the difficulties we would encounter.  But overestimate the danger by inflating mundane annoyances into fantasies of fright-and then riding bravely out against them in battles we’re sure to win-and the world will credit us with nothing more than bluster, bravura, and rant. (pp. 109-110)

In another book read a long time ago, with a title and author long forgotten, a compelling story about a well-liked Superintendent’s generosity reveals the real dangers that lurk for leaders.  It was Christmas Eve and the Superintendent, who lived in the district with his family, was getting ready to head home and decided to offer the custodian, who had been suffering hard times, the Christmas tree that had been decorating the office. Following the holiday, a Board member accused the Superintendent of stealing district property. Those in the district who had some disagreements with the Superintendent joined in the attack. It was on the front page of the local newspaper, was embarrassing to him and his family. Ultimately the accusations continued. He lost his ability to be effective as trust was eroded. He left the job and the people he loved working with and for.

From Where Do Our Dangers Emanate?
It is plain common sense that if the ways schools are organized and operate, if teaching and learning continue as they were in the century past, can we state with confidence that we are serving our students well?  A danger exists in ignoring the danger in remaining with habits and practices from years past. If following one’s heart to offer someone in need the opportunity give away a tree rather than discard it is a simple and quick decision before schools close for a week or more. Yet the fallout strongly impacts a well-intentioned leader’s life.  We wonder if the tree created a family memory for the custodian and that in the long run, that human exchange of a gift during the giving season enriched both men’s lives. But, who knows?

Know Yourself and Be Yourself
Leading in this century will always happen under the cloud of urgency. And, criticism is always just around the corner.  So as the days grow shorter and we light trees and our homes, families gather and we think about the important things in life. Our message is: Leaders, know yourself and be yourself.

Change is something we talk about so much it becomes an abstract, academic exercise. But, every decision and every change leavens possibilities, some we plan and others surprise us. The most important thing is that we can live with whatever arises because our hearts were clear and true to our calling.

By Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers

Older Entries