Celebrate First Downs, Too!

10 Apr

The indictments of 35 former Atlanta educators, including former Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall, have raised our collective ire once again at the harm done to children by their actions, but before we replace the smart looking “A” in the system’s logo with a scarlet letter, let’s not overlook what is hidden in plain sight. Most educators did not cheat.

This may seem little consolation at first glance, but we’d be fools to overlook this. We have a choice. We can stigmatize the 95 percent of educators that didn’t cheat and the entire school district because of the 5 percent that did, or we can build on this good news. The district has already taken important steps to ensure integrity and higher ethics, though there may be more it can do.

So, back to those educators who did not cheat. What shall we say about them or to them? We might simply acknowledge their honesty, integrity, and dedication in helping children learn in the face of education policy roulette. If all we discuss is what is wrong, we miss an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the small wins we need to motivate educators to stay in the game and to win.

We can and should leverage this legitimate good news to reframe the dialogue from what’s wrong with APS to what’s right and to consider how we routinely use good news to breed energy and success into our district. If nothing has been taken to show appreciation for the contributions of educators who have continued to educate children against the backdrop of this ongoing investigation, something should be done to recognize their engagement beyond the check they receive every two weeks.

Most of us know more about APS’ failings than we do of real accomplishments. Here are a few good things I’m aware of as someone who pays attention to APS, but the general public doesn’t know about this, or other good stuff, because no one talks about it. And that’s got to change. For example, per CNN, Parkside Elementary School students won the 2012 Robotics Competition and an APS teacher was selected as a Georgia Teacher of the Year finalist.

Taking time to celebrate and congratulate people for moving things forward can drive greater productivity and performance in APS. After all, educators, like employees in other industries need a sense of accomplishment to keep them engaged and inspired to come to work each day.

Engagement is highly correlated to productivity and performance – - you know, those test scores and graduation rates we’re after. The 2012 Gallop Q12 survey found that over 70% of 1.5 million North American workers are either underperforming or sabotaging the work of their company and co-workers because they are either not engaged or actively disengaged. Instead of pressuring educators to perform, our students might fare better in school districts that know how to motivate educators to do what they already want to do.

Acknowledging and celebrating small wins can go along way to rebuild morale and deepen engagement and satisfaction that can yield greater success for more children. It can also restore public confidence and desperately needed hope that Atlanta’s children are being prepared to do great things. What we celebrate puts the culture of an organization on display.

Celebrating first downs – - each play that steadily advances the ball down the field is essential. Celebrations are the shared experiences that can keep people motivated and invested in achieving the ultimate goal. Educating children is inherently meaningful work. If Southwest Airlines can make its employees feel good about air travel and if Starbucks can make its employees feel good about selling coffee, then APS should have little difficulty making educators feel good about an even higher purpose – - educating our children.

When we simply drill people about performance without pausing to celebrate small victories, we wear them out. Weary people lose hope and without hope, some people lose their way.

Etienne R. LeGrand is an education strategist, co-founder and CEO of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society.

Leaders Wanted. Sheriffs Need Not Apply.

12 Feb

Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of the Washington, DC schools appeared as a guest on Jon Stewart’s “Comedy Central” show the other night. As she talked about her tenure in the nation’s capital, she sounded more like a wild west sheriff than the leader of a school district. In the westerns I’ve watched, sheriffs ride into disorderly towns thinking the worst of the people who live there, pull out their six-shooters, gun down the bad guys, and quickly establish order. That’s an approach that may work in Tombstone, but it has no place in our schools.

Hired to turn around a failing urban system and armed with a point of view that teachers are our best hope for achieving this objective, Rhee and others with this “sheriff” mindset make the mistake of taking aim at teachers rather than engaging them as one key element of a complex solution to our nation’s biggest problem.
This “shape up or ship out” leadership style assumes the worst intentions of teachers – - that they don’t care about the success of their students, and are content to take their paychecks and go home.

School leaders, who don’t trust the people they lead, or respect their intentions and capability, aren’t likely to earn their trust and respect in return. So from the beginning, the objective of achieving higher academic performance through higher quality teaching is in jeopardy before the extent of a teaching quality gap has been measured. There is no argument that quality teaching contributes to student learning. It is also true—though less well understood—that quality educational leadership contributes to student learning, too.

More and more educational research finds that a well-established fact in business applies equally well to schools: The quality of an organization’s leadership contributes to its performance and productivity. Many of our school districts and schools are in need of leaders who can motivate and inspire people to do their best, appreciate them for their contributions and who know that they need the “soft stuff” that comes from creating a great culture in order to succeed.

Sustained best-in-class teaching can emerge from best-in-class leadership. Despite our best efforts, it’s unlikely to emanate from mandates and laws that decree it to be so. We need leaders with the skills to “sell” their ideas for achieving success to many different groups of people, instead of simply ramming mandates down teachers’ throats. It is not quite clear yet, but while a background in teaching may be necessary to educational leadership, it is insufficient.

Effective educational leadership also requires a growth-oriented mindset that enables one to see the glass as half full, not empty; the know-how to listen to other’s ideas and engage their trust and talents; the talent to create and sell a strategy with clearly defied metrics that tell you when you’ve arrived at your destination; the capacity to establish the structure and processes to align and focus people to the goal and the forte to create an organizational culture that becomes the foundation for achieving the hard results we want.

How much more effective at producing results for kids might Rhee and other superintendents be if their leadership was less about bringing order to an unruly, dysfunctional organization and more about getting people on their side to achieve success? How inspiring might it be to work for an educational leader who believes in your capacity to contribute, who respects you, engages your ideas, is committed to providing what you need to contribute, and shows appreciation for your efforts?

By now you’re probably thinking this is impossible to achieve in publicly funded school districts, to which I have just two things to say: Being a leader who believes in the capability of her people to contribute and who understands the importance of motivating them to succeed isn’t against any union or government law. And what have we got to lose?

FaceBook was recently recognized as the 2013 Employer of Choice. Employees cite trust in the company’s leadership, clear priorities, company culture, perks, and the impact they are making as reasons they are happy to be working at FaceBook. With this in mind, I wonder what a survey of DC and other school district employees might reveal about working in these organizations? The unspoken reality is that we don’t seem to care. But didn’t you hear? There’s a new sheriff in town.

Are Your Children’s Teachers Effective?

23 Jan

Across America, states are developing elaborate systems to evaluate the performance of teachers. These systems are important— knowing how well teachers do their jobs is a critical step to improving educational outcomes; but, judging the quality of teachers’ performance is difficult —and using the results of teacher evaluation systems effectively may be even tougher.

The development of these systems is spurred by federal funds under Race to the Top. To ensure states prioritize the need to assess teachers, leading advocate StudentsFirst is rating them for their compliance in implementing such systems, among other things. But what do these ratings tell us about the quality of teaching and education in these states? Not much at all.

It is essential to know whether the teachers standing in front of our classrooms are good at their jobs. Every child must have a quality teacher in order to learn and parents shouldn’t be forced to advocate for their child to ensure he is taught by the teacher(s) perceived as the best in that grade or subject. In case anyone’s still on the fence, we need all teachers in our schools to be of the highest quality — to be “best in class”.

Performance evaluation systems are necessary but insufficient. While they provide us with indispensable information about teachers’ effectiveness and identify new skills teachers’ need to respond new teaching challenges arising from poverty and new technologies, the system is missing the mechanism it will use to respond to the deficiencies it identifies. People don’t develop simply from receiving feedback, however meaningful or timely it is received. People grow and develop when they are provided with opportunities to build new skills and acquire new knowledge.

State education and district budgets are shrinking in the face of our commitment to improve the quality of our teaching force. Shrinking budgets notwithstanding, we must realize that spending on new performance systems to tell us how well our teachers are doing without the commensurate spending to help them be their best is short sighted.

Teachers comprise the largest segment of the workforce in our school systems and research finds they contribute 33 percent to learning. Many believe teachers are the single biggest lever to closing the gaps in achievement. If we buy this, it means we need many more great teachers and fast. Nationally, research finds that 31% of teachers change practice as a result of new knowledge and skills, but the changes aren’t sustained. So, in addition to the need to invest in developing new skills in our teachers, we need new approaches for helping them acquire and sustain the knowledge and skills they need to drive us to success.

Upgrading the quality of performance evaluation systems for teachers is a good first step. But absent a more robust approach, we’re left with more questions than answers. Once we learn which teachers are great, what are we doing to ensure they become even greater? What structures and processes do we have in place to leverage their know-how back into the people in our schools and districts? How are we using what we learn from these “best in class” teachers to inform whom we attract and recruit into our schools? For those who aren’t performing to par, what is our commitment to enhance their skills, beyond offering insightful feedback? Lastly, what are doing to retain this top talent?

Mandated policy solutions such as performance evaluation systems aren’t likely to be effective at producing higher quality teachers as discreet, stand alone pieces. Without a commitment to developing people, they become little more than a way to weed people out. These systems can be a key part of a larger system designed to attract, develop and retain quality people in our nations schools that drives us toward a simple truth – it’s the people in an organization that make it successful. Mandating only one of these interrelated pieces does not contribute to a high performing district.

To move from higher teacher quality to higher school performance we need to address the overlooked driver of more effective leadership of our school districts so that well-conceived policy solutions have a better chance of producing the higher performance we’re looking for. But that’s a blog for another day.

In the meantime, since we’re offering feedback, let’s add to the algorithm the percentage of states’ budgets allocated to invest in developing the very people on whom we’re relying to drive us to higher performance for our kids. If we going to keep score, let’s at least include all the things that matter.

Etienne R. LeGrand is president and co-founder of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society

What to Learn From Newtown

20 Dec

My heart is broken by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut – the second deadliest shooting ever in the U.S. In 2012 alone, there have been 14 mass shootings not concentrated in any one part of the country or confined to a particular venue. Sadly, our schools are not off limits.

When this type of violence strikes, it makes news for a day or two and then it fades. Although it commands our attention, and in rare instances causes us to act, our actions have been insufficient to catalyze necessary change. As the calls for greater focus on mental health and gun control increase in volume, we must also stop to acknowledge that the violence we abhor is the product of an American culture in which violence is glorified and celebrated.

We demand movies and games that make a fetish of violence, which the entertainment industry is eager to produce. We gawk at blitz-like media coverage of the violent and sorrowful occurrences that unintentionally make heroes of the villains. We refuse to act to prevent violence. Gun owners fail to secure weapons and elected officials shy away from enacting reasonable regulations to limit access to assault weapons.

Through our inaction we are unintentionally allowing this type of violence to become normal in our society and it is a phenomenon that is becoming a dominant feature of our culture – of what it means to be American.

The calamity at Sandy Hook Elementary School is the first incident in which so many children have been killed. Our sheer horror may be the tipping point we need to transform how we protect our children from violence, as well as other detrimental issues like hunger, poor education, inadequate health care and the myriad of other preventable ills that constrain and limit their promise.

According to security experts, the teachers, administrators, and children followed appropriate school security measures, but despite this well-designed school safety plan, we are mourning the loss of 20 little lives and 6 courageous adults. I am filled with hope that this unimaginable loss of life will not be forgotten once the news cycle moves onto the next big story. I want their lives to give us the collective and individual courage to create the mental health services necessary to identify and respond proactively to those who need help. I want reasonable gun regulation and safety measures to keep us all safe no matter where we happen to be.

Let’s not stop at being sad. Get angry and then take action. Here are three things you can do if you want to say enough is enough:

• Sign this WhiteHouse.gov petition.
• Add your name to this call to action from Moms Rising.
• Tweet to your followers using the hashtag #protectkidsnotguns, created by the Childrens’ Defense Fund.

Let’s make our actions and the lives of our fallen angels count.

Etienne R. LeGrand is president and co-founder of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society

Post Election Special News Report: Advice to President Obama

20 Nov

Tuesday, November 6, 2012, the United States of America re-elected President Barack Obama for a historic second term.  All eyes watched as the President took a slow, but sure lead over Republican nominee Mitt Romney in what some assumed would be a close race.  During the days leading up to the election, President Obama made it very clear that the choice ahead for voters was not one of party affiliation, but one of two fundamental differences in strategy for moving forward. Now that the country has spoken and chosen the President, we are assured that the nation’s focus on “nation building” through continued investments in education won’t be lost, but my concern is that our failure to celebrate what is working and to learn from it makes the journey more challenging and a bit dispiriting.

On November 8, Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, served as keynote speaker during the “Dispelling the Myth” Awards at the 2012 Education Trust Conference in Washington D.C..  The event annually celebrates three public schools that are making huge strides in narrowing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students. He championed these schools for “showing that all children can learn—and that great schools prepare children for college and careers no matter their zip code, skin color, or their parent’s bank account, and national origin.  He also said, “The truth is we don’t do nearly enough to celebrate success in education.”

While he went on to discuss No Child Left Behind’s, failures and its future, it was this sentence about our failure to celebrate what’s working that caused me to pay closer attention.  At that moment I looked around the room to see there was no media present. No one to showcase and inform us that these public schools are  succeeding at educating our children.   The winning schools should be profiled on every national news program and print publication because they represent an incredible case study for how people are working together to create a culture in these schools that gets the hard results we all care about.  It’s as if this conversation is only important to those of us who work within education or when Education Nation rolls around. THIS bothers me.  It’s disheartening to know that the solution is right in front of us, but it’s not sensational and thus uninteresting.

What we celebrate signals what we care about.  Where education is concerned, we’re overlooking the opportunity to motivate greater success when we’re silent about the small wins along the way. We have to celebrate the first downs and the touchdowns.  And here’s the thing: we don’t need policymakers to give us permission to do this, but we do need the media’s help. We have to take action to indicate that we want to know about things like this and this means we have to let them know.  Shout from the rooftops.  Call your local and national media outlets.  Make sure you’re heard.  Success breeds success.

I’m elated about President Obama’s re-election and happy to see that his designees are at least aware of the fact that there isn’t enough focus on celebrating and recognizing success; but, beyond highlighting this fact in his remarks, what is Arne doing about it?

Etienne R. LeGrand is president and co-founder of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

12 Nov

At a recent gathering held at The Westminister Schools, Dr. Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, suggested we stop focusing on testing and focus on how to get all students more excited about learning.  The Westminster Schools hosted Connected Community, a dialogue about transforming Atlanta education featuring Dr. Noguera, a leading authority on how schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment.

I think he’s onto something, but I’d offer a friendly amendment:  Let’s focus on everyone being more excited about learning – students, teachers and parents.  My suggestion for how we get there is pretty straightforward.  Let’s all behave as if learning is exciting. Seriously.

Where would we start? District and school leadership would have to align all people connected to schools around this purpose. They would have to lead and demonstrate to parents, staff, students and the community what it means for everyone to be excited about learning and why it’s important to the school’s productivity and performance.  Without understanding what and why, these stakeholders aren’t in a position to contribute to the attainment of the result – they’re not on the team.

In case you’re confused, people matter in an organization and schools are no exception. I hope we’re finally on the verge of figuring this out.  And the good news is none of this should run afoul of union rules or education policies. Efforts to unleash positive energy and success doesn’t have to cost a great deal of money.  David Novak, Chairman and CEO of Yum Brands! writes in his book, Taking People with You, Achieve Breakthrough Results, that people want to feel appreciated and recognized for their efforts and they want to have fun, but they are more often overlooked and unappreciated. This is a missed opportunity for too many of our schools.  Putting people first doesn’t mean low standards.

Having fun or experiencing satisfaction at work is a theme echoed in an Education Trust report entitled, Building and Sustaining Talent.  It shares howthe conditions for teaching and learning are critical to teacher satisfaction and results in increased learning for students in high-poverty/low performing schools.

And students are people who matter too. Clayton M. Christenson, the Kim B. Clark Professor at Harvard Business School writes in his book Disrupting Class, that despite our appeals to children that education is the key to their futures, the fact is that school is not most children’s first choice of places to be – past elementary school anyway.  In order for school to become a top choice for kids, they need to feel a sense of accomplishment and they want to have fun. Working hard and having fun aren’t mutually exclusive and in many cases, it’s really okay to have fun while you work.  Ask the folks at GE, Target, Southwest Airlines or Yum Brands!.

It’s pretty well understood that children learn best when they are excited about and engaged in learning and this aligns with their need to have fun and succeed in school.  Likewise, teachers experience more satisfaction in their work and are more productive when their efforts are appreciated and recognized, and when they too have a little fun.  When children come home more excited about what they’re learning in school and are more knowledgeable, their parents become curious, excited and interested to learn what’s happening at their child’s school – or maybe they’re in shock.

Take this example of how a teacher inspired her students to learn offered by Dr. Noguera during his remarks. The teacher brought a hermit crab into her classroom to teach her students about the crab and its habitat.  As the children had never seen one, it made the hermit crab real and unleashed a level of excitement and curiosity in them to learn about the crab that the teacher hadn’t quite seen before. Voila! With this small innovation, the teacher produced excitement and a deepened engagement in learning from her students. I don’t know the results of the paper, quiz or test she likely gave, but I’m confident these  more deeply excited children did a fine job of demonstrating what they learned about a hermit crab.  Given the students’ positive response to her inventiveness, I’m hopeful the teacher became more inspired to look for additional ways to excite and engage her students.

My question is, what if anything did the school leader do to recognize and celebrate her inventiveness, the children’s enthusiasm for learning and parents’ curiosity about what’s happening at the school?

When we recognize and celebrate the creativity of teachers, enthusiasm for learning from students and interest from parents, leaders take an important step to act on what is valued and add meaning to what all the people connected to the school care about.  Actions always speak louder than words.

Etienne R. LeGrand is co-founder and president of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society

Who’s Hurt When We Cheat?

22 Oct

From the flurry of reports in the media about cheating in our nation’s public schools, it seems children may not be the only ones in need of character education.  Educators, it seems, need it too.

Cheating scandals have surfaced in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C., Illinois, Alabama, Indiana, Ohio, and Texas to name a few. It’s a growing epidemic according to investigative reports that educators appear to be inclined to ignore, minimize, deny, contain and gloss over as we fall further and further behind in global academic and labor measures.

Incidences of cheating are being blamed on everything from teachers seeking to earn job security and monetary rewards by producing artificially high test scores, school officials’ lackadaisical attitudes towards standardized testing and a lack of test security measures system wide.

I’ve yet to hear “the devil made me do it,” but I suspect we’re getting close.

In response to these scandals, there are calls for more attention to cheating prevention training, better standardized testing procedures, greater oversight by state and local officials, and calls for more federal oversight – a move that would undoubtedly lead to costly and complicated bureaucracy. Can you say federal testing police?  These solutions all but presume cheating is inevitable; but, what about not cheating?

When educators cheat our children are the biggest losers. The proficiency gains that have been touted to rationalize the distribution of bonuses and awards to educators have been as imaginary and ghost-like as inflated test scores.  Students’ confidence in the adults who they should be able to trust to teach them has been broken.

When our children lose we all lose since, as we know, they are our future. Even scarier is the reality that they are also learning that cheating is acceptable under certain circumstances like when you’re highly incented to perform, under pressure to achieve results or … when no one is looking.  Character is born in the private moments when we are called upon to consider and do what is right.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best – the function of a true education is to teach one to think intensively and critically – intelligence plus character that is the true goal of education.

It is disappointing that educators implicated and not yet implicated in these scandals think so little of their profession that they would choose dishonesty over integrity and their students’ best interests.  The actions of a few have compromised the veracity of the entire profession. Sharon Rideau, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University, found in a survey of 3,000 Arizona teachers that 50% of them either had cheated or knew of a colleague who had cheated.  If she’s right, we’re in big trouble.

Let me be clear, not all educators cheat, but you only need one bad apple to spoil the bunch or sully the reputation of the entire profession. Even in Finland, a country that is out competing the US on most academic measures, only 1 out of 10 applicants becomes a teacher.  It’s a challenging, important job for which we only need the few and the ethical.

Etienne R. LeGrand is president and co-founder of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society.

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