Category Archives: Uncategorized

Rise of the Architect-Leader in Schools

I kept a blog from Tom Olverson pinned to my browser for most of a week, letting it stew to see if I could add anything to what is already a tremendously elegant argument on school leadership.  I think I can, but only because I am building on such well-crafted thinking by Tom, and by the original authors of “The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School”. Published in the Harvard Business Review in 2016, Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard conducted a study of leadership and impacts in underperforming public schools in England.  Tom’s blog correctly suggests that the results are highly relevant to American independent schools. I would like to take it one step further: the results are highly relevant to ALL schools and, most importantly, ALL educators, not just those tasked with “leading” struggling schools.

As and aside: why are all of the good stock images of male architects, when so many great architects are women?

Please read Tom’s blog, but I must summarize the key findings here so I can get on to the extension of my thinking.  The authors identified five types of leaders, but only one that had real success in turning around a struggling school.

  • Surgeons, who try to find that one thing that will produce quick and measurable results. They are often successful in this in the short term, but there is no meaningful long-term change in the organization, particularly if the leader leaves.
  • Soldiers, who squeeze more out of the organization, without adding additional resources.  The authors say that people in these schools are often left with low morale, forced to sacrifice quality to meet a bottom line outcome.
  • Accountants, who “try to grow their school out of trouble”. Olverson rightly points to the failed hope in American tuition-charging schools over the last two decades that there is some magical non-tuition source of revenue that will mitigate a school’s financial woes.
  • Philosophers, who believe that good, well-supported teachers alone are the solution to pretty much all problems. They are loved, of course, by the faculty for having strong educational vision, but are not competent at actually running a large, complex organization.
  • And, finally, architects, the one group that was by far the most successful at dealing with the full range of issues facing a troubled school and, in my opinion, any school.  Quoting here from both Tom’s blog and the original article:

these leaders “combine the best parts of other leaders, but they make these changes in a different sequence and for different reasons—to transform students and communities.” Just as importantly, architects possess humility: “They are visionary, unsung heroes. Stewards rather than leaders, who are more concerned with the legacy they leave than how things look whilst they’re there.” According to Hill, et al. these are the only educational leaders that bring about long-lasting change and often they go unrecognized for their performance.

I have worked with some extraordinary architects, including Greg Papay and Brandi Rickels of the firm Lake/Flato in San Antonio.  I learned a great deal from them, particularly when architects “design charrettes” were a relatively unknown forerunner of what now call “design thinking”. In my experience, good architects are good because they:

  • Observe and listen.
  • Create a vision for the future that meets the needs of the user.
  • Work from a large pallet of options, not one cookbook solution.
  • Want to build for the long-term.
  • Create solutions that work for all members of the team—plumbers, roofers, electricians, landscapers, framers, etc—not just for their own aesthetic sense.
  • Are willing to make changes after a first iteration, even if those changes run contrary to their initial ideas.

I think the research showed that this kind of leader was most successful not because the schools studied were struggling, but because this leadership style fits today’s challenges in education and the other leadership styles simply do not.  We know we are dealing with rapid changes and a vastly more VUCA world (look it up if you don’t know the acronym), and the architect-leader has the tool kit and DNA to succeed in VUCA world.  Organizations outside of education have understood this for about the last two decades; schools are just now starting to realize the critical importance of this leadership style, for both successful and struggling schools.  One of the seven big levers of school transformation I write about in my new book, Moving the Rock, is simply to make modern organizational leadership training radically more accessible for educators, something that is just now starting to evolve.

The other critical point is that, while both the original researcher and Tom Olverson focus on leadership “at the top”, I think virtually every bit of the argument is just as relevant for other administrators and for teachers.  We all know the “surgeons”, “soldiers”, “accountants”, and “philosophers” who teach at our schools, and I would argue that school transformation requires that each of these add a chunk of “architect” DNA to their genes.  That does not mean that we totally discard the value of the other archetypes, but when we ask teachers to lead rather than always follow; to take risks rather than play it safe; to create rather than just consume; to work as a member of a learning organization, not as a separate cog working in an isolated silo, then the value of the “architect-leader” DNA is highly evident.  When we get enough of this DNA into the gene pool, the school changes in very positive, unthreatening, even joyful ways.

Thanks to the original authors and to Tom for bringing this work to my attention and allowing me to add a few pinches of spice to the stew!

What Kind of Leaders Are We Raising?

Does your school value students who exhibit character, grit, and leadership?  Is it in your mission to develop these traits in your students?  Probably, and rightly so.  But as I and others have urged educators to step back and think deeply about the meaning of the word “grit”, an important article by Susan Cain, writing in the New York Times, urges us to take a similar hard look at the meaning of “leadership” and how it is pushing our students into perhaps a narrow vision of their best selves.

We value leaders. We know that many elected and business leaders have been nurtured at “the best” schools and colleges. As Cain notes, many of those schools and colleges loudly stake claims to the production of leaders and the inculcation of leadership skills in their students. But Cain says that we now feel believe that leaders spring from many places, regardless of traditional pedigree:

It’s part of the American DNA to celebrate those who rise above the crowd. And in recent decades, the meteoric path to leadership of youthful garage- and dorm-dwellers, from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, has made king of the hill status seem possible for every 19-year-old.

 I would never argue that we should de-value leaders and leadership training.  The question that Cain raises, that I think is essential for educators to ponder and act upon, is this: what is the nature of valuable leadership?

At one end of the spectrum, leaders direct, prod, or rule over others. They are first among non-equals. Leadership in this construct is about power and position.  This is not a value statement, but a statement of fact. Human organizations often need this kind of leadership lest they devolve into randomness or chaos.

At the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps the end that has been ignored because it is more subtle, harder to find, or easier to overlook, is the person who leads from a place of humility, or the shadows, from the bench, or out of some deep creative passion.  At this end we find those who do not seek a position of leadership, but rather a path of leadership. We find the moral leader (Ghandi); the explorer (Earhart); the knowledge leader (Einstein); the servant leader (Pope Francis), the inventive leader (Musk).

Cain focuses on the nature of “followers”, who may exist at any point across the spectrum, but not in the spotlight; they are harder to see. They are a subset of those who lead from a position other than power. One of our jobs as educators is to combine the strengths of leading and following into human-social traits that help our students to be effective, valuable, and happy during their lives.  Cain says

So now we have high school students vying to be president of as many clubs as they can. It’s no longer enough to be a member of the student council; now you have to run the school.

Yet a well-functioning student body — not to mention polity — also needs followers. It needs team players. And it needs those who go their own way.

 It needs leaders who are called to service rather than to status.

One of the really huge questions for educators as we evolve away from the traditional industrial age model to a deeper learning model of schools is “how might we measure and reward what we truly value?” I tackle this as one of the seven levers of incredible transformation opportunity in my upcoming book Moving the Rock. If high schools largely reward those who get top grades for taking a bubble-test, or are elected to power-based student offices, then that is where students will focus. If college admissions offices are looking for students who demonstrate “leadership” by the titles they have held in high school or the number of “advanced” classes they take, we will have shoved students towards only one end of the leadership spectrum. As Cain says, if

…the outsize glorification of “leadership skills” is to the practice of leadership itself — it hollows it out, it empties it of meaning. It attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve. It teaches students to be a leader for the sake of being in charge, rather than in the name of a cause or idea they care about deeply.

When I work with schools that are interested in transforming away from the rigidity of the traditional learning model, a main area of focus is “distributed leadership” or “leading from where you are”.  We know that human organizations that effectively evolve during times of rapid change (like now) leverage leadership from across the organization, not just from the top. Researchers like Alex Pentland, author of Social Physics, prove that the performance of groups of people is more dependent on how they work together than on the leadership of any one person. In fact, they find, dominance by one person diminishes rather than elevates group performance.

How is your school rewarding the servant-leader, the quiet leader, the non-titled leader, the student or teacher who makes those around them rise through the power of ideas and actions outside the spotlight?  How is your college or university digging deeper into those admissions applications to widen what has traditionally been a narrow view of “leadership”?

Most simply: as an educator, or a group of educators, do you know what you mean when you say that your school values leadership?  In a time when many question the value of political leaders who divide more than unite, and corporate leaders for whom the acquisition of ridiculous wealth is an overriding goal, are our schools contributing to these narrow themes of leadership, or are we “leading” students and teachers to explore vastly richer ways to lead.

My New Book: Moving the Rock: Seven Levers WE Can Press to Transform Education

The thesis  of my new book is simple: Schools have been stuck for decades, but WE can overcome that inertia without permission from the forces that have created the inertia in the first place. I throw down a pretty strong challenge in this book: WE can change the system of education at scale using these powerful levers that are begging to be pressed.  Please share with your peers as pre-orders and the free Introduction become available soon.  I am offering incentives, including allowing you to donate my book royalties to education charities. Am looking forward to sharing with you comments of support for the book from Dan Pink, Tony Wagner, Yong Zhao, Todd Rose, and more!

How Will Educators Deal With the “Death of Expertise”?

A primary role of education is to give students the skill and wisdom to know how to gain knowledge. A key element of that process for centuries has been the reliance on experts who have invested enormous time, money, and intellectual resources in gaining knowledge and understanding that is deeper, more detailed, and often more nuanced than that of non-experts. We may not always agree with experts; we may question their data or the conclusions they draw; and we are free to interpret their expertise alongside other sources of information and ideas that we value. But the critical role that expertise has played in the rise of human civilization, and particularly democratic institutions, of which education is one of the foundational piers, is indisputable.

There is increasing concern from across the political spectrum that experts and expertise are under threat. To be blunt, a significant segment of American (and likely other) society, mostly on the distal but powerful margins of the political spectrum, has replaced principled disagreement with the rejection of reality. Rather than proving a point based on facts, they just make stuff up.  

Tom Nichols is a respected author, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. Writing in The Federalist, Nichols says that highly vocal and politically potent groups of Americans increasingly decry almost any evidence-based argument coming from  “elitist” experts when such expertise is contrary to their political or social viewpoint. When observable and demonstrable facts are subject to intentional manipulation, experts, who we have have relied on for centuries to help us all make informed decisions, may become an endangered species.  The foundation of our democracy, says Nichols,

…denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge.  It assuredly does not mean that everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.

Experts are not infallible, but they are vastly more accurate at describing the realities of the world around us than are lay people. The weather is fickle, the stock market is unpredictable, the movement of armies and economies are complex, favored sports teams do not always win, and new inventions, medical procedures, and businesses often fail despite the best efforts of entire teams of the best experts on the planet. Experts even change their minds; what they told us one year about cancer screenings or cholesterol is reversed another year based on a study about which not all experts agree. This frustrates us. If they are experts shouldn’t they get it right? But this demonstrates perhaps the most important difference between experts and those who want to cast them out or diminish their authority: real experts are smart enough to know they are not always right, and diligent enough to know how to get closer to “right” the next time. Those who decry the value of expertise because they don’t agree with or want to hear the conclusions, are not.

The dangers of discarding expertise reach every person on the planet. We risk slipping back into a Dark Age where those with political or social power control what we know and think, untested by science or scrutiny, unaltered by actual facts. Because we disagree about how those facts might be used, the anti-expert factions claim they do not exist. Nichols says that marks the point at which

everyone becomes an expert on everything. Take but one horrifying example, we live today in an advanced post-industrial country that is now fighting a resurgence of whooping cough — a scourge nearly eliminated a century ago — merely because otherwise intelligent people have been second-guessing their doctors and refusing to vaccinate their kids after reading stuff written by people who know exactly zip about medicine.

What Nichols warns of as the current “death of expertise” is a rejection of one of the key functions of education. The role of expertise is one of the really big, perhaps even existential challenges, for educators going forward. It forces us to ask and perhaps redefine the boundary between pressing a teacher’s “political” views on students, and encouraging, or in fact insisting, that students investigate ideas and content to the degree that they can discriminate between expert, authoritative sources and unsubstantiated personal viewpoints. Should this boundary be up to the individual teacher? The school? Parents, The district? The government state house? The loudest attendees at the school board meeting?

In my view, we simply cannot allow education to fall into the trap that somehow facts are mutable and experts are no less “expert” than anyone with access to a blog or a social media megaphone. It is up to us as educators to teach our students the value of expertise, and how to find and learn from experts who provide that value, even, and perhaps particularly, when the expert opinions run contrary to our own, less-expert worldview. As educators, we should be helping our students to frame the big challenges they might face in the years ahead, and giving them the tools to succeed in those challenges. They need baseline knowledge to understand the difference between the fiction of political rhetoric and the realities of a complex world. As Nichols argues:

…every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House.

These, then, begin to form a measurable rubric by which educators should continue to help their students to find and wear the mantle of enlightened learning in these tumultuous times. Are our students capable of forming and defending an argument with baseline knowledge of both or many sides? Do they know basic facts of history, geography, economics, law, and science that intersect with recent news? Are they capable and willing to enter into discourse, not to win a debate, but to learn and inform? Can they find and separate expertise from loud, uninformed banter? If so, then they have the tools to gain value from experts. If not, then their future is, as Nichols says, “endangered by the utterly illogical insistence that every opinion should have equal weight.”

Think You Know Disruptive Innovation? Read On!

From Dumaguete City, Negros Island, Philippines

Changing what we do in schools is uncomfortable, even hard sometimes, certainly complex.  But as you ponder the “why, what, and how” of change at your school, in your district, or by your community, as you struggle with the inevitable discomfort and disruptions, take a look at what REALLY complex school change might be, and how those with the tiniest fraction of your resources are finding ways to succeed.

In 1981-82, as a recent Stanford graduate, I was invited to teach at Silliman University, a highly-respected English language university on Negros Island, about an hour flight south of Manila.  Forward many years, and for the last decade I have partnered with Silliman, first leading the flagship annual experiential  student trip for Francis Parker School, and carrying on with a number of small school and community development projects. So, it is with a great deal of interest that I have followed the path of a MAJOR disruption to the education system here in the Philippines.

About six years ago, the federal government, with input from educators around the country, including those at the Silliman College of Education, decided that the Philippines had to finally disrupt the historic system that ended in 10th grade, and shift to a K-12 system.  Just think about that for a minute: in a nation of 90 million people, 5,000 islands, with huge modern cities and rural villages of subsistence fishermen and farmers, add two grades to every high school and take all graduates out of the college system for two years until the system normalizes.  Oh yes, and at the same time, let’s rewrite standards for the entire system to focus on 21st Century skills, content, and pedagogy.

That, my friends, is a disruption.

I have had only a small window on this process; for example, I watched as my Silliman colleagues designed and facilitated a five-day workshop last year for 1,000 teachers from their region. They had a week to convey new content and pedagogy covering 10 months of school time to teachers who have been teaching in a rigid, static system for their entire careers.  (They also had to kit out classrooms as sleeping quarters for those five days because there are not nearly enough hotel rooms for 1,000 visitors in the entire city of Dumaguete.) Talk about building a plane in flight! Did they get it all right the first time? Of course not. But they are iterating new workshops this year.

The results may already be remarkable to those of us who try to shift one school or district through much less daunting transformations.  I chatted with the principal of the small high school on Apo Island, an idyllic islet off the coast of Negros that I have frequented over the years.  Ten years ago, the high school was one classroom; today it has eight concrete classrooms; in two years, it will have at least twice that many.  They have wooden desks, a few books, and meager supplies. They finally have internet access for the two or three working computers…when the computers are working. Teachers bunk together in a small one-room house, cooking on a gas ring and sharing one toilet and one shower.

The principal is 27 years old, and I would hire her in a second to teach at my school. In a system that five years ago was as tradition-bound and rigidly teacher-centric as you could imagine, she estimates that now, just two years into the real changes, in the average week “teachers are lecturing from the front of the classroom only about 25% of the time”.  They have self-developed group collaborations and project-based learning; they have created a nascent STEM program; and she wants to build a maker-space-like “workshop”…if they can find a few square meters of build-able land in the village.  They are worrying about post-traditional student assessments.  They are asking “what parts of the Finland model will work here?” In other words, I had the exact same conversation with the principal of this high school on a tiny islet in the middle of the Visayan Sea that I frequently have at wealthy American private or public schools.

I asked her and the team from Silliman if the experience on Apo is typical or not.  Their response: “it all depends on the principals”.  Some are digging in their heals, and resisting the changes in program and pedagogy.  Others are moving forward because they see the world changing so fast around them and they know what they have to do.  On the whole, they are just six years in to a reconstruction of the entire system, and the needle has moved dramatically toward what we would call “deeper learning”.

And (here’s the kicker if you want to take the long view), the students and teachers in the Philippines have one HUGE advantage over American or school systems in the developed world. They are born tinkerers, makers, and fixers.  Most have nothing growing up, so they create.  There is no “sit and it will come to you” in their DNA. The teachers don’t yet know what the final product they are building will look like, but they are moving forward anyway.  They are courageous innovators.

Would you and your team like to video chat with some really good educators in the Philippines who are crossing the same bridges as you are, with perhaps some very different insights into how they are doing?  Might you like to share some of your own trials and successes?  Might the students get some value out of that kind of interaction with peers a world apart?  Let me know and I can set it up.  (And if you want to spend some time on “my beach” per this photo, that can be arranged as well!) The stubborn rock of education is moving, and despite the seemingly complex path ahead of you, the lessons of success are all around us.  Even on a small island with a poor, concrete school, but surrounded by one of the great coral reefs in the world!

Check Out Incredible Curriculum Spiral via Ross School

Rhetorical question for all educators: do you have or wish you had a really well-scaffolded curriculum?

To be honest, I would have thought by now most schools could answer that integrated curriculum maps and tight alignment amongst subjects and grade levels were well in our rearview mirrors; that faculty who work in the same school but in different hallways had a good idea of what each were doing; that opportunities for interdisciplinary learning and cross-subject project work were as easy to find and pick as proverbial low-hanging fruit.

Unfortunately, that is still not the case at many schools, and even if your school has a good curriculum map, you REALLY might want to check out this mind-blowing tool I ran across yesterday. Thanks to a mention in Bold Moves for Schools (Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Hubley Alcock), I found the Ross School and the Ross Learning System and “Spiral”, which you pretty much just have to play with to believe and understand.

The Spiral is the interactive visual manifestation of a preK-12 interdisciplinary curriculum “with a focus on sustainability and a systems thinking perspective…designed to prepare learners to address the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly complex, globally connected future.” The entire school curriculum integrates all subjects, aligned to their evolution through global and human history.

I have not even connected with Ross School yet, but I will, and will learn and share more, but I wanted to get this out there.

Great Job Posting for Innovation Leader

A you know I rarely advocate for one school, but you also know the high esteem I hold for the remarkable leadership of Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta.  So when they asked that I share a job opening opportunity, I am happy to do so.  If you think of yourself as an innovator, creator, designer, teacher, facilitator, risk-taker, and you want to work with some of the best, check out this job opening for Director of the iDiploma program at Mt. Vernon.

Teaching the Death of Compromise

The tempest that is Washington D.C. these days provides a puzzle for educators: is it an opportunity for learning, or just too fractious to even touch?  What is our role in helping our students to make sense of something, when much of it does not make sense from many traditional perspectives?  Are we, as educators and adults equipped to help our students understand and benefit from critical lessons that don’t fit standard templates?

The vote today to change the rules of the U.S. Senate requires teachers and parents to think about our roles as educators of the next generation, and it is not a question of party or political viewpoint.  We witnessed what is likely a significant tipping point in the history of our country, one we will look back on decades from now, not unlike the run-up to both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the beating of peaceful protestors on a bridge in Selma, the dramatic erosion of the American middle class, or the shooting of students at Kent State and ask “how could they have let that happen?”

This week the Senate invoked the so-called nuclear option; the majority voted to change their own rules in order to win one vote.  The rules they changed have kept the Senate a place of relative civility for more than two centuries, because, in the words of several senators who voted for the change against their own principals, “we have had to reach out and work with those with whom we don’t always agree”.  The rules have forced at least some degree of compromise, a word that, perhaps more than any other describes the great strength of the American Experiment.  It is compromise, codified in our principles as far back as Magna Carta, that often separates democracy from dictators.

Who unilaterally changes the rules of the game when they don’t win? Most frequently it is bullies, spoiled children, autocrats, oligarchs, and dictators.  In school or at home we would never countenance such a solution amongst our children.  The idea that changing the rules to win because, at this moment, I can, and that somehow that is the right thing to do, runs contrary to everything mature adults know about how human social groups work best.

This is not a partisan issue.  The Republicans decry the moment when the Democrats changed the rules on lower court judicial nominations, pointing to it as precedent for invoking the nuclear option on Supreme Court nominees.  Both of these decisions are wrong for the same reason.  There are no innocents who have not been part of this slippery slope at the bottom of which we have now arrived.  Earlier this week, as Democrats, who were on the current losing end rightly railed against the rules change, a few of the more grown up Republicans said that this was a “dark day” in the senate, that every future member would come to regret this decision, that it was the wrong thing to do. And then they voted with the partisan majority to do something that they knew to be wrong.  Democrats did the same thing a few years ago.

This vote, like others of truly historic moment, did not come about just this week.  It is the result of more than two decades of increasingly partisan divides in our state and national governing bodies, where compromise has become first rare and then nearly extinct.  It will leave a bitter legacy, where accusations and feuds override discourse and reason.  It represents the triumph of the ends over the means in one of the great social systems to have evolved out of centuries of human enlightenment.

I have written and spoken extensively about how systems evolve, and about how the system of education is acting much more like a natural ecosystem than a system engineered for a specific, predictable purpose.  Natural ecosystems are subject to natural selection, a process which creates winners and losers. Some individuals and species are better adapted for the prevailing conditions and live; others are less so and they die.  We tend to place a positive value on this process; we tend to see evolution as “good”; that the “better” succeed.  This kind of value judgement is ridiculous; nature has no such system of values. This week, the evolution of our political system favored those with narrow, short-term, childish natures, and killed part of the system that has thrived in the past: compromise, collaboration, maturity, and respect for the long-term future.

How can we as educators—parents, teachers, coaches, mentors—make sense of this for our children?  What precedent do we have? Do we ignore it as inappropriate discussion for the classroom or the dinner table?  Can we have discussions about it as an opportunity for learning, or has the partisanship in our  system grown so cancerous that it has fatally infected our learning systems as well?

I have been thinking and researching a great deal about what educators, parents, students and community stakeholders can do to transform education in spite of, not with permission from, contrary forces of adult self-interest; it is the central theme of my new book, Moving the Rock. This unfortunate turn of American history gives us a chance to practice empowerment. We can either use this opportunity to teach our students how to make better decisions than the senate made this week, or we must own a piece of similar mistakes that those students might make in the future.

I know what I would do if I were a teacher, but I am not sure if that is what is right for others.  Each must decide.

Two Big Takeaways From Week Focusing on Innovation

I have two big takeaways from a fast-paced, roiling week of interaction with hundreds of education colleagues in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore this week.  The first is a powerful reinforcement of a paragraph early in the introduction for my upcoming book, Moving the Rock: Seven Levers That Will Revolutionize Education (Josey-Bass Education; coming out this summer):

My head hurts every time I see another article, vodcast, or TED talk preaching that education must change. That train has already left the station! All of the arguments about why education must change can be summarized in less than a sentence, a simple paraphrase of the godfather of modern education, John Dewey, more than a century ago: the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate and we have to prepare our students for that future, not for the past.  We desperately need to move beyond the discussion of “why” education must change.

I have a great deal of respect for Sir Ken Robinson, and what he has done over the last two decades to elevate awareness that schools must change. And he continues to be an entertaining and witty speaker. But it borders on tragic that an audience of 5,000 educators perches on a talk that is, or by rights should be, long in their rearview mirror.  Partly this is due to the turnover in teachers; young teachers are still being prepared by our colleges of education for an outdated learning model, so when they hear Sir Ken for the first time, their natural reaction is “Yes!”.  There is no such excuse for those of use longer in tooth.

About my second big takeaway I am far more salubrious.  Pushed in large part by true, transformational innovation in some public, charter, and independent schools, the National Association of Independent Schools dramatically elevated their focus this year on how schools can effectively transform…and those sessions were packed.  In my talk to 60 business officers on Tuesday night in D.C., I commented on the dramatic change in just a few years about how fluent those “non-academic” administrators are on the language and need for substantive change.  In my three-hour workshop on Wednesday with 90 edu-leaders from 30 states and six countries, there was a palpable recognition of the problem and thirst for getting to work.

In listening and speaking with dozens of educators from many schools, I came away with two big points that are driving success at successfully innovating schools:

  • They realize that innovation is not a thing, it is a process.  It is not the bits and pieces, the isolated good ideas being tried here and there in a school.  Those are great, but they will not lead to sustainable transformation.  Successful innovation is the glue that hold those pieces together.  Yes, schools are “people” places, but if you do not have an operating system in place that allows those people to reinvent their respective roles in service of their students, your school will not transform.
  • They are radically inclusive in the processes that create and nurture innovation culture.  Innovation is not something handed down from a board, principal, head of school, or superintendent.  It includes and is done by “we”.

There is tremendous agreement and understanding about the need to change that did not exist ten years ago.  There is a less-pervasive, but very rapidly spreading agreement about “how” schools can transform, the steps, activities, and relationships that lead through the messiness of change to a better place.  We have reason to be optimistic.  But to quote from the last paragraph of the introduction in my new book:

I can’t count the times over the last five years that I wished some smart marketing team had never suggested the slogan “Just Do It” to Nike, Inc.  It is the perfect call to action for all of us who have a stake in great education. But who wants to risk a copyright lawsuit from one of the biggest companies on the planet? So, alternately, and with complete respect, I remind us of that morning in September of 2001, after two planes had slammed into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, that on a fourth plane, United Flight 93, passenger Todd Beamer courageously asked his seat mates “Are you ready?  OK. Let’s roll”.  The first entry in Wikipedia under the topic “let’s roll” says that it is a “colloquial catchphrase that has been used extensively as a command to move and start an activity, attack, mission, or project.”  Well, it is time to stop pushing the education rock back and forth, to stop inactive talk, to stop obsessing over the fine points of disagreement, and to stop pointing fingers of blame about why schools are failing to serve all of our students.  This is our responsibility, our critical mission, not someone else’s, and we can’t shrug it off.  It is time to roll.


Major Education Game Changer Launches: The Mastery Transcript Consortium

Two years ago, Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School in Cleveland, told me about an idea they had to dramatically enhance high school student assessment and how that might revolutionize the outdated drivers of college admissions.  He asked if I thought it would attract support from like-minded school leaders. I told him, simply, “get the first ten schools into your group and you will fundamentally change our system of education.”  Two short years later, with the official launch this week of the Mastery Transcript Consortium and 55 independent schools already on board, they are well on their way.  You REALLY need to know about this!

The MTC is “a collective of high schools organized around the development and dissemination of an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation. This model calls for students to demonstrate a mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence that is then assessed against an institutionally specific standard of mastery.”

Simply, the MTC will design, test, construct, disseminate and help schools prepare for a new set of assessment options that measure what we actually value in student learning.  As I was granted some informal access to the genesis of the group, I was able to focus on the MTC in a chapter in my new book, Moving the Rock: Seven Levers That Will Revolutionize Education, coming out in September:

There is an enormous, rigid dam that stresses students, constrains and frustrates teachers, frightens parents, and kills innovation at most schools. At school after school, district after district, I hear a variation on the same anxious theme: “We can be innovative in elementary and middle schools, but our parents are afraid of changes in the high school because it might jeopardize their kids’ chances at college admissions.”  The twin blocks in this dam, how colleges admit students, and how college admissions in turn drive K-12 student assessment, particularly in high school, kill innovation in schools, even where entire communities want that innovation to explode.  We, the community of school stakeholders, have been complicit in erecting and preserving these blocks, and we have total control over them. We built the dam; we preserve the dam; and we can bust it wide open with no permission from anyone and no threat other than to our own fear of change. The dam is rotten to its core, needing just a stick or two of well-placed dynamite to breach it forever.  Why? Because just about everyone–educators, parents, students, college professors, university presidents and admissions officers, and employers—knows and agrees that the system is wrong and is only getting worse.

One of the most powerful elements of the MTC design to date is the input they received from colleges in advance of launching the initiative. In discussion with directors of admissions and college presidents, Scott and his team found a receptive audience “if you can give us something that we can initially scan in two minutes”.  It is also more than serendipitous that this effort was launched the same year that dozens of colleges and universities signed on to the “Turning the Tide” manifesto that refocuses college admissions on depth, interest, and passion, and away from multiple advanced placement courses, grade point average, and shallow community service experiences.

Another powerful argument for the MTC lies in what we know about the health and wellness trends amongst high school and college students. I go into some detail about this in my book, based both on data collated by the MTC team, and from a number of other research-based sources.  We know that current forms of assessment lead to elevated risks of an enormous range of negative lifestyle and health issues amongst our students and, as Scott emotionally put it to a group of school leaders last year: “We just have to stop doing this to our kids”.

“The mastery transcript is about acknowledging that we live in a changed world,” says Scott. “The MTC believes that the tools of the past may no longer work for students, teachers, colleges and our society at large. We believe it’s time for a change.”  With the overwhelming response to date, it appears that Scott’s timing could not have been better.  I predict that within a year or two school membership will be in the hundreds; this is a club that you absolutely want to join, and many of us eagerly await the day when a fully designed transcript of student mastery will be available to every public and private school in America.