Category Archives: Finance and Operations

The Test That EVERY School Must Take

There is surely one thing that unites all educators: we are responsible for both the well-being and learning progress of our students when they are in our charge.  The role that testing plays in schools has correctly become an enormous point of controversy as we question just what are we testing and what the results mean.  Those controversies focus on academic progress and performance.  There is another test that all schools should undertake, because failing on this test means that we might offset all of the tremendous work by our teachers and the students themselves, condemning students to a lifetime of underachievement and health problems despite our very best efforts and intentions.  The test is for lead in the school’s water supply.

imgres-1We live in a time when scientific facts are questioned, and I am sure there some who might even question the science behind the relationship between lead consumption and long-term cognitive and physical health.  Let’s ignore that level of rejectionist ideology.  While there is not complete agreement on what levels of lead in drinking water are “acceptable”, authoritative research suggests that the answer lies somewhere between zero and incredibly small amounts.

As in the article I posted last week on the demise of coral reefs, I argue that when the potential risks of NOT acting are enormous, we should always err on the side of action. The vast majority of research suggests that lead is a remarkably insidious toxin, and practical experience proves that construction standards during much of the last century allowed the use of materials and practices that introduced lead into some parts of our water distribution system.

What are we to do? Is dealing with this potential threat to our students and teachers the responsibility of the federal government?  The water company? Your city or state?  The school board?  The thesis of my new book, Moving the Rock: How WE Will Change Education (due out in August), is that there are some powerful things we can do to transform education that do not require permission from, or empowerment by, the powers and forces that have created decades of inertia in the first place. I did not include a chapter on lead poisoning, but perhaps I should have.  In a time when the federal government may slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, or when local or state agencies may be tied up with political or resource backlogs, waiting for help from the government may be a really bad idea.

Testing for lead in your school’s water is not simple. You can buy a test kit for under $10 and send that water to a lab, but some quick research suggests that those results may not be reliable or tell you much.  It will cost a bit more in time and effort to find a respected, reliable laboratory to perform a suite of tests.  But put that cost and time in context. Look at what you spend in time and money every day at your school advancing the mission of well-being and learning for our students, and compare that to the piddling cost of testing for a chemical that could be permanently moving both of those needles in the other direction every day.

If you do find lead in your water, solutions will depend on the source of the contamination.  Short term solutions include using bottled water until you identify the sources of the problem.  Some solutions may lie on your own campus; others, as we have seen, can require enormous and wide-spread changes to water resourcing and public infrastructure.  Like the dying coral reefs, the solutions may be so daunting as to cause us to hide our heads and defer to hope instead of action.

As educators, we don’t have that luxury. Even if there is a chance that a test will tell us something we really do not want to hear, we are bound by our moral code to take the test, share the results, and then become part of the solution.  Until you can tell your community that have something like 99.9% confidence that your students are not exposed to an avoidable toxin every day, this is a test we just have to take.

New Short Video: “Why, What, How, and Inevitable Future of Education…in 45 Minutes”

I was recently honored to give a short presentation and host a dinner discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. with a group of business officers of independent schools, hosted by First American Education Finance.  The theme  was “The Why, What, How and Inevitable Future of Education…in 45 Minutes”. The “how” and the “future” are primary points of focus of my new book, Moving the Rock, which is coming out this summer.

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Here is the link to the summary video and topics, as well as links to some additional cited resources you can use to help launch these critical discussions at your school.

Hill School is Breaking Some Traditional Independent School Paradigms

IMG_3057I am at The Hill School outside Philadelphia today and tomorrow; I have been working with the humanities departments this year on reimagining their program, offerings, and departmental structure.  But this post is not about the humanities; we are prototyping solutions later today and will have have a lot to report by the end of March.

In discussions and classroom visits today, I learned about the economics course that has test-piloted-busted some core assumptions about the student-teacher ratio.  Starting a year ago, an introduction econ class has a single principal faculty member who provides lectures to up to 48 students.  Eight students who took the class last year act as “TA’s” to this year’s cohort. Initially there was fear that parents would rebel against a class of this size with just one principal teacher, but that has not happened.  The students are working on a more self and group-directed basis, and there has been little pushback and a lot of positive feedback.

At lunch I spoke with a junior student who had just come back from “City Term” in New York City.  I asked her to think about what elements of that program might be applicable to Hill, nestled in historic, semi-rural Pottstown.  Len Miller, Hill’s Associate Headmaster, agreed that it would be invaluable for her to present some of her experiences, reflections, and ideas to a group of Hill faculty who have not had a similar experience themselves.

IMG_3058I visited a newly renovated space that houses Hill’s three-year engineering arc.  Students work in pairs and small groups to learn some basics of engineering, and then proceed through a series of design-build challenges.  It is not terribly tech-heavy: some desktop computers, small leg-style robotics kits, one laser cutter and one 3D printer.  There is one principal teacher handling more than 100 students, assisted by two other faculty members  a couple of periods a day, who are learning the program.  They anticipate by next year or the following year they will have 150 students in the program, which is enormous for a school of this size.

I asked the students what they liked about the class, what was different, and what elements might carry over to their other course work.  All of the responses were variations on a theme: “This class is different in that there is not one set answer; we like that we get to figure things out on our own; we are learning to think for ourselves, and that is a more important skill in the real world than learning something for a test.

I will challenge the humanities teams to import these lessons as they re-think their own programs and pedagogy. Chalk up The Hill School as another leader in re-thinking the industrial-era school paradigm, moving teachers out of their traditional roles, and allowing students to own more of their own learning.

Aligning Physical Learning Spaces to Pedagogy

240_f_61433930_iyd90r7z3om9z2pcl4mamkeysn8gigqqi have been fortunate to both design new learning spaces in a major school renovation, and to see dozens of examples of new and re-tooled learning spaces.  A virtual meeting with a pioneering school group yesterday to talk about a new school building, gave me the chance to think about the boundary conditions I would suggest for architects designing for spaces that support and align with deeper learning practices.  Here are some bullets from my comments:

  • Design has to follow pedagogy; teach our architects what lies at the roots of deeper learning or they will repurpose old drawings from schools of the past.
  • Most learning requires very little in the way of specialized space. The exceptions that come to mind are some physical sciences (fume hoods, gas lines, etc), arts, and physical education.
  • When designing, start with as few structural boundaries as possible, and then only add walls when you can justify them from a pedagogical point of view.
  • Adapting spaces for use by children of different ages can mostly be accommodated with different or flexible furniture.
  • Space usage is both fungible (can be used for different activities) and negotiable (how space is used can be determined by adult and student co-workers on an hourly or daily basis).
  • Allow for movement, noise, and a bit of chaos.  Noise attenuation is both a matter of design/insulation and practices, and the later is more important.
  • Writable surfaces allow active learning to be highly visible.

Perhaps most importantly, buildings last a long time; 50 years is not an unreasonable design expectation for the hard shell.  The purpose of physical school buildings over the next few decades will increasingly evolve from “where we learn” to “where we meet”, which is a huge difference.  “Schools” will increasingly be portals into a global learning network that is both physical and virtual. They will be a critical point of connection from students to launch into the broader community, and a place for the community to participate in teaching of the next generation.  Plan for it now!!

Textbooks Will Soon Be On the History Shelf

imgresIn an industrial-age system of education known for rigidity, there is nothing that screams “one-size-fits-all” more than the box of clean, new, un-scuffed, tightly-bound, inky-smelling textbooks that arrives in a teacher’s room once every five or six years, accompanied by an instruction manual about how to efficiently transfer the information in those boxes to groups of students.  Like holy tomes copied by Middle Age monks, these textbooks are one-way transfer points, purchased with your precious tax or tuition dollars from a small oligarchy of publishers to whom we have collectively ceded control over what our students need to know.

The material in the book might be out of date; some of the books were written years ago and “updated” as the publishers see fit.  The material in the book used by students in Maine might have been massaged or factually compromised by politically motivated state review committees in places like Texas or California because those huge, monolithic markets can drive what is actually delivered by the publishers to every school and district in every other state. Billions of dollars are spent out of the public coffers each year.  Deeper learning principles are ignored or violated. Young students bend under the bulky weight of stuffed backpacks, like Sherpas on a Himalayan trail, hauling thick volumes home only to “read pages 100-106 for the quiz tomorrow” or “do the odd-numbered problems at the end of the chapter”.

The entire process is positively medieval…and it is an unnecessary, wasteful, easily-avoided obstruction to deeper learning for both students and teachers.  Simply, textbooks are the instruction manuals of outmoded education. They tell the teacher, “do the exact same thing you did last year, and the year before…until we change the book for you.”  They tell the students, “just learn what is in here, at the rate at which your teacher tells you to turn the page or read the chapter, know this stuff when the exam is put in front of you, and you will be OK”.  They enforce a false narrative that success in the world is about mastering the art of knowing what is in a book, just like the instruction binder that used to be required reading for an entry-level worker on an assembly line in the age before even assembly line jobs required thought, judgment, and collaboration.

In my upcoming book I devote a chapter to the rise of open educational resources (OER), and the impact this tsunami will have on K-12 education.  If your school is still wasting money on published textbooks, still robbing your teachers and students of the opportunities and expectations of creativity and deep interaction that come with thoughtful selection of curriculum and materials, take a look at the universe of widely-used, fully accredited, standards-based, FREE  OER that are available right now through non-profits like EngageNY, CK12 Foundation, K-12 OER Collaborative, Minnesota Partnership for Collaborative Curriculum, and many more.  Start on your path towards a very near future when this will be the norm in schools, not the exception.  Textbooks are history.

Stay tuned for much more on this rising tide!

Change Practice, Not Buildings

Want to transform learning? If your school has or can raise $20 million dollars, build a new set of classrooms.  Lacking a profound and sustained commitment to changing mindset, pedagogy, and program in how to USE those classrooms, you have just made a enormously wasteful decision.

Want to really transform learning? I repeat several of the most impactful. least expensive, or cost-savings changes that truly help develop deeper learning.

No teacher owns a classroom: Classrooms in which a teacher lives, sometimes for decades, are filled with teacher desks, cabinets full of books that are rarely read, and, in younger grades, shelves and walls filled with “stuff” that is rarely touched and could be just as easily stored in a closet.  Most teacher-owned classrooms have at least 15% less usable space than classrooms that are community-owned, space for students to move, own, and use when they get up out of their seats. And maybe knock down a couple of non-load bearing walls because you won’t need to same number of small, isolated classrooms.

Writable surfaces: When those students DO get up out of their seats (frequently or most of the time!), the walls and windows are not covered in stuff. They are available for writing, working, and creating.  And when the students are seated, their desks and tables are also writable surfaces for frequent collaboration and demonstration of work. White board paint is cheap.

Moveable furniture: No matter how creatively you use fixed furniture, it is prison-like in its rigidity. When you and your students can move the furniture as needed with little waste of time, you have freed yourselves from a collectively fixed mindset about the space you inhabit for as much as 50% of your waking day. Moveable furniture does not cost much more than static furniture.

Get rid of textbooks: There are so many quality open educational resources available today that throwing money away on publishers is lazy at best.  Private school families are taxed as much as $1,000 a year for textbooks; public schools have less flexibility but should use every bit they have to shift to OER. Our continued use of these “one-size-fits-all manuals of assembly line training” is downright medieval.

Go BYOD: If your school is 1:1 or planning on it in the near future, stop buying and handing out computers. With no textbooks, all of your learning resources can be in the cloud, students can bring their own devices, and you can create some budget to hand out Chromebooks to students who cannot afford one The teachers will stumble and have to grow a bit, but the kids won’t bat an eye and you will all save a ton of money.

There.  With all the money you just saved, increase your budget SIGNIFICANTLY for professional development to support teachers in a deeper learning pedagogy and practice. It is the one budget line item that is going to need to increase dramatically, because these very simple changes aren’t even a tip of the iceberg of how schools are actually going to need to change in the years ahead.


Hewlett Foundation Announces Big Push in Open Educational Resources

Why does your school community still charge itself for expensive textbooks when fully accredited resources are available for free?  For some schools the answer is simple: they are controlled by local and state requirements to use certain books.  For other schools where these overly prescriptive regulations do not apply, news out of the Hewlett Foundation is another advance towards deeper, more differentiated learning, and away from rigid assembly line learning. And Edutopia just published this guide to Open Educational Resources.

I have advocated on behalf of efforts like those of CK-12 Foundation to make these resources available to all schools, and am amazed when schools either don’t use, or don’t even know of their availability.  This is a no-brainer in a time when every school is pressed for resources.  Now, the Hewlett Foundation, one of the nation’s leaders in education transformation, has announced they will push even harder in this area, both in the post-secondary and K-12 arenas.

According to Hewlett, 10% of K-12 teachers already regularly use open educational resources (OER), and this number will grow rapidly in the next few years.  What can your school do to move with, not behind, this inevitable curve?

  • Prioritize PD funds for teachers who want to build their own curricula using OER.
  • Allocate PD funds for teachers, including department chairs, to connect with sources like Hewlett and CK-12 and find out what is available for free.
  • Pilot co-development of curricula in high school classes between students and teachers; initiate “write your own textbook” projects.
  • Set a target for adoption of OER; something like a 50% reduction in textbook purchases in the next three years would be highly achievable and result in significant cost savings.
  • Lobby district and state-level leaders to allow use of accredited OER materials.

None of this makes the textbook publishers happy, but they are on the back side of an inevitable innovation in learning, one that will bring costs down and quality up.


New Model For Supporting Innovation/Design at Schools

How might we integrate innovation practices across our school culture, breaking down myopic silos of “that’s not my job”?  This is one of the true challenges of innovation in any organization, and particularly in schools where teachers, administrators, students, and parents frequently and strongly identify with their respective “tribe” more than with an organizational imperative.

IMG_1946At the Tilton School, a day-boarding school in New Hampshire, we are in the initial year of a long-term commitment to ongoing innovation. Inclusive, diverse groups of community stakeholders, including students, developed a list of key areas of innovation focus, and we have now launched diverse teams on a set of design challenges in each of those focus areas.

Here is the part that I think is uniquely powerful. Two of the focus areas have to do with long-term financial sustainability and communications (which should be areas of focus for all schools).  We realized at Tilton that we don’t need to design something new in these areas; we need to provide support in the areas of finance and communications to the other design teams.  At most schools we would just say this is the responsibility of an administrative department or district office.  At Tilton we created “integration teams” that broaden responsibility and authority in these key areas of innovation capacity. Here is what it looks like:

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Like any great engineering design company that is building new products the finance and communication integration teams have embedded a member of their team into each of the design teams. Their role is to keep a finger on the pulse of the design teams; gather knowledge on financial and communications implications; provide templates and ideas; ask operational questions. They will evolve their support for the design teams in real time, in parallel with, not in response to, the ideas and prototypes that evolve from the design teams. In essence the integration teams are constantly asking “how can we help the design teams do their work even better?”  What is new and powerful is that the members of the integration teams are also diverse: teachers, administrators, and parent/trustees.

IMG_1948We are building long-term organizational capacity for innovation and change. This structure embraces key characteristics of successfully innovating organizations: distributed leadership, fluidity, adaptability, interdisciplinary connectivity.  It busts the traditional silos of schools where they need it: on strategic pathways. Teachers are still teachers; students are still students; administrators still have their jobs. But when it comes to innovation and design, we all “own” big organizational responsibilities like long-term financial sustainability and effective communication of our value proposition. 

Innovation Limited By Minds, Not $$

CMidrCWWIAAbjrKYesterday I tweeted “Innovation is limited by minds, not $$”. I am in Houston to work for a day with a highly respected independent school. In response to that, a Twitter colleague suggested that innovation is easy for those with money and not for those less well funded. Both historical and current evidence supports my sense of what triggers innovation, not only for schools but for many other organizations and industries as well.

Over the last several years I have asked thousands of educators what they wish they had more of. I have never heard a SINGLE word mentioned other than “time. There are a growing minority, not a few or dozens, but hundreds or perhaps thousands of public schools, operating with frighteningly low levels of per-student support, that are dramatically changing the face of education. I have visited or worked with and reported on just a handful: Design 39 Campus, VIDA, Ortiz Middle School, Science Leadership Academy, Denver Green School, High Tech High, Innovation Academy, and public schools in the Deeper Learning, Big Picture Learning, EdVision, New Tech, and Alt School networks, to name just a few. These schools operate on the same stipends allocated to other publicly funded schools in their respective areas; most serve ethnically and economically diverse populations of students; and all are examples of post-factory model K12 innovation.

Money does not lead innovation, it follows. Radical innovators, from high tech to the arts, started out on shoestrings. Silicon Valley lives on the legends, from Hewlett and Packard to Jobs and Wozniak and many more who worked in their garages before attracting funding. The Allman Brothers camped out in tents and lived off peanut butter sandwiches in Muscle Shoals before anyone recorded them. Shakespeare, van Gogh, and many other artists groundbreaking artists lived hand to mouth much of their productive lives.

What are the key lessons for educators?

  • Lack of funds is not a reason to whine about lack of innovation. Lack of funds may prevent innovation from growing to scale, but it is not an excuse to not pioneer change.
  • Conversely, lots of money is not a reason to put off innovation. If you work at a well-funded private school, or a public school with generous funding and a supportive community, understand that these poorly funded public schools are proving they can provide a superior education and student outcomes at a fraction of what you charge or use. If you think that your school is immune from this disruption, history is not even close to being on your side.

Educators have vastly more control over “time” than they do over “money”, and time is the more precious resource. You can create time for innovation. It might involve discomfort for some, but true innovation rarely comes without discomfort.

What if you want to change and the school system you are working in does not? You have a series of choices to make.

  • You can stand pat.
  • You can try new things, grow your mind and practice, and encourage others to do likewise.
  • If your school or system finds resources, primarily time, to support your innovation, great!
  • If not, you have another choice to make: either work even harder for change, give up and do what the system requires, or find another system in which to work. Not every system is going to change at a pace that is consistent with your personal and professional beliefs. Only you can decide when you have reached that point. I know: I had to make that decision for myself a few years ago. It was very uncomfortable, but it sure was the right thing to do.

Over the last 7-10 years we have increasingly asked and answered the question “why” schools need to change. Over the last 3-5 years we are seeing a growing landscape of schools putting real change into practice. Organizations change for one or both of two reasons: because they must or because it is the right thing to do. Money may be a limiting factor for the first reason: if you are not going to attract enough students to keep your doors open, the school either changes or dies. Money is not the limiting factor for the second reason; there are plenty of schools proving that right now.

The Design of Business/School via Roger Martin

In my metaphor of educator-leader as “farmer”, the principal/superintendent/head of school farmer’s job is to nurture and grow a strong learning organization.  The teacher farmer’s job is to nurture and grow strong students. This interview with Roger Martin, Dean of the Business School at the University of Toronto is a great nine minutes. Translate his business language into words that are meaningful to you, your faculty, and your students…they are every bit as relevant as they are for large, successful companies.  Thanks Brad Rathberger for leading me to Martin’s body of work.