Archive | November, 2012

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