Are We Listening?

Were any of you surprised by the election results? Were any of you disappointed?
I ask only because I’ve come to one conclusion: Maybe we weren’t listening.
To me, it’s clear that America is caught in a gigantic echo chamber.

An Election Day Clue
At 4:30 on the afternoon of Election Day, I was driving home from the airport. I was listening to the news, and all reports were predicting a Hillary Clinton landslide. At the end of one segment, the broadcaster mentioned, almost casually, that 45 percent of those asked refused to participate in exit polling.

I arrived home, walked into the house, and told my wife, Bonnie that Donald Trump would win.

A New ‘Silent Majority’
Here’s my sense of what happened: I think Trump supporters, or voters just leaning towards Trump, were afraid to say who they supported. Why? Because Hillary’s supporters would rip them apart! They were afraid to say anything – especially to the exit pollsters.

A Big Problem for Education
I think we have a similar problem in American public education.

For 33 years, since “A Nation at Risk” was released in 1983, we’ve been talking about school reform. Politicians talk about it. We all talk about it. Yet nothing gets done. (For those of you who may have forgotten, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” was considered a landmark report which concluded that American schools were falling behind other countries. It touched off a wave of local, state and federal discussions about reform efforts.

We talk about reform, but when it comes time to do anything, resistance from the educational establishment stops it from happening. Vouchers, opt-out, charters – you can go down the list. The establishment has thwarted almost every attempt.

Why? Because educators live in our own echo chamber. We know each other, we talk with each other. We mostly think the same way.
Start Listening
The educational establishment is right where the leadership of both political parties were before the country voted. No one was listening. Is there a lesson here? Sure. Start listening. Really listening.

Some of you know this story, but it’s illuminating: I like to jog – it helps keep me centered – so I start almost every day running on a treadmill for about 40 minutes. For the first 20 minutes, I watch MSNBC. For the last 20 minutes, I watch Fox News. It’s amazing how each channel so differently reports the same news event! They clearly don’t talk with each other!

So here’s my advice: Start talking to people who are not like you. Start talking to the other side. Listen—really listen—to the other side. Don’t instantly write them off.
Finally, a word of warning. Most people don’t want to get out of their echo chambers. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. It makes you wince sometimes.

But if we as educators can’t – or won’t – find a way out, we are in danger of losing public education for good.

Just ask Hillary Clinton supporters.


Equity and Excellence – Is There a Conflict?

I believe that economic equity and academic excellence are two concepts that educators almost universally support. In a world seemingly awash with inequity–especially racial and economic—equity sounds like just the right tonic.

At the same time, academic excellence is education’s gold standard in our classrooms and buildings. We all want to produce excellent students.

How do you define excellence?

For us at the International Center for Leadership, excellence means preparing students to become financially self-sufficient and responsible citizens in a fast-changing world.

Equity Is Expensive
As the son of a 97-year-old father who lives primarily on Social Security, and as a father of a severely disabled daughter, I am thankful for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. I am also grateful that my wife, Bonnie, and I can help support them.

But this has taught me an important lesson: Equity is expensive—really expensive!

Relevant Academic Success
Which leads me back to education. This country simply cannot support economic equity unless we also experience economic success–and we cannot experience economic success unless we have relevant academic success. We’re falling short.

Rapidly changing technology, combined with a changing workplace, has redefined what relevant academic success means. What worked in the 20th century doesn’t work 16 years into the 21st century. But as many of us know, most schools still operate on a 20th century model.

As I note in my new book, Making Schools Work: When CollegeReady Isn’t Ready Enough, new technologies have displaced tens of thousands of factory-basedjobs. Half the jobs lost in the Great Recession paid between $38,000 and $68,000 a year. Today, only about 2 percent of the jobs we’ve regained since 2009 pay in that range; about 70 percent pay below that range and about 28 percent pay above it.

The Rigor/Relevance Framework
Whether you support economic equity or academic excellence, you probably realize that both begin with relevant academic skills.

Welcome to the Rigor/Relevance Framework:

The framework has four quadrants:

  • Quadrant A represents simple recall and basic understanding of knowledge for its own sake.
  • Quadrant C embraces higher levels of knowledge.
  • Quadrant B is the application of basic knowledge found in Quadrant A.
  • Quadrant D is the application of higher-order knowledge found in Quadrant C.

Moving To B/D
To develop a 21st- century education model, we must start by moving our schools from the A/C quadrant to the B/D quadrant. That means getting students ready to be able to work and effectively function in our changing world. It means we must shift away from teaching and a move towards learning. It means educators should start asking this crucial question: What can students actually do? Specifically, we must prepare students to apply increasingly sophisticated knowledge which technology cannot do.

This won’t be easy. It will require a fundamental shift in how we organize our schools, deliver instruction and evaluate our students. But it will be worth the effort.
I want equity and excellence for ALL! 

Learning for All: Leadership is Courage in Action

The following is a guest post by Dr. Chris Weber, expert in instruction and intervention systems and Senior Fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).

The demands of educational leadership have never been more challenging and the stakes have never been higher. Ensuring high levels of learning—particularly for our most vulnerable students—is the most critical task education leaders face today. Of all the characteristics of leadership, the most crucial and difficult is courage—courage to have progressive conversations with stakeholders and courage to challenge the status quo and transform the way teachers teach and students learn.

Fortunately, there is a research-based set of principles and practices that will ensure that we deliver on this mission: Response to Intervention (RTI), also known as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS).

Serving ALL Students
We can predict that students will bring different learning styles, interests, and readiness levels to core learning environments. We can predict that some students will need more time to master core priorities and that other students will benefit from enrichment. We can predict that some students will have significant deficits in foundational skills. If we can predict it, we can prepare for it. Delivering on the promise of RTI requires the courage to proactively and systematically prepare supports for students.

We must also courageously challenge the traditional practice of grouping students based on ability and label. Students aren’t in tiers; needs and supports are in tiers. We must support students based on their needs, not a label. Equally important, we must have the courage to insist that staff support students based on their availability and expertise, not their job title or funding source.

It also takes courage—and a leap of faith—for leaders and staff to prove to themselves that students will learn more (and perform better on end-of-course tests) when we teach less. And yet, it’s true. The quantity of content threatens the mastery of critical skills and concepts.

Delivering on the moral imperative of high levels of learning for all requires courage. All means all; if a student will be expected to live a happy and productive adult life without accommodations and modifications (which is the case for 99% of students, including the majority of students with IEPs), then they are in the ALL category.

The actions of school leaders speak louder than words. Leaders that talk about their professional respect for teachers, but then micromanage teaching and learning with rigid pacing guides quickly lose credibility. High expectations for all combined with tracking and the marginalization of students with IEPs violates the verbally expressed moral imperative of a growth mindset and high levels of learning for all. Leaders’ actions must match their words; a school’s actions must match its mission statement.

Courage in Action
The first way that leaders can behave in courageous ways is to embrace continuous improvement and change. Change frightens many. Leaders must manage the change process respectfully and sensitively. They must also positively and willingly model the reality that learning organizations accept constant, evidence-informed revisions to practice as a professional obligation.

When initiatives are selected and commitments are made, school leaders must lead from the front. It takes courage for leaders to roll up their sleeves and do the work, often because the leader may not imminently qualified. If a new pedagogy is determined to be necessary, school leaders must practice new lessons with students. If the school commits to monitoring student progress more frequently, then leaders must administer the assessments one-on-one with students. Vulnerability and humility require courage; leaders never ask students or staff to do something that they are not willing and ready to do first.

Just as school leaders must monitor how much they say, and place a priority on listening, they also must avoid the temptation to do too much, or to ask their staffs to do too much. Trying to push too hard too quickly will not result in more rapid gains of staff performance or student achievement. The key is patient persistence—and patience requires its own special brand of courage. There is a temptation to engage in many simultaneous projects, and there is often external pressure to do so.

There is no more appropriate or important “project” on which to focus than RTI/MTSS. By modeling necessary transformative actions, leaders can and must exercise the courage to ensure that all students learn at high levels.

RTI Health Check

Are you and your staff proactively and systematically preparing supports for students? Take our RTI Health Check to see where you are, and where you need to go. 

School Boards Are More Important Than Ever

School boards used to be low-key, somewhat mysterious, “what-do-they-do anyway?” boards. Thank goodness, that’s changing! And here’s why.

Public education is at a crossroads, I believe, and a major reason for that is the shifting demographics of the country:
n  Fewer people are working.
n  Baby boomers are leaving the job market.
n  Technology is vaporizing entry-level and middle-class jobs.
n  Today’s late-blooming 30-year-olds are just launching their careers.
n  Today’s students are more technologically savvy than any previous generation.
n  Financial resources at the state and federal levels continue to shrink.

It’s not a rosy picture out there.

Today’s Boards Are Different

Last August, I had the opportunity to address the National School Boards Association Summer Leadership Seminar. I came away impressed: Many of today’s school boards are different from the boards of yesterday. First and foremost, they are focused on policy. These boards try and balance all of public education’s conflicting demands. They represent the electorate and parents. They represent schools and teachers.

A Future-Focused Approach

The best boards also put students first. They take a future-focused look at what our students need, not what’s comfortable for our institutions, or even taxpayers. They know clearly and unmistakably what their mission is – namely to put in place a superintendent who will focus on what students need – and then support that person 110 percent.

Aligning the System

Some of you know this story, but I mention it again because it illustrates a point.

On Sept. 16, 1985, our son Paul, who was 11 at the time, was hit by a car in front of our house. Rescue workers rushed Paul to the hospital, where he underwent several hours of surgery. My wife Bonnie and I felt helpless. Would he pull through? What would his life be like?

Paul survived, but struggled for years. Today, I’m happy to report he has a successful career and a wonderful family. I’ve often thought about that day in September, and also this question: Who were the most important people at the hospital? The CEO? The president? The chairman of the board? Of course not! The most important people were the doctors treating Paul. I came to realize the entire hospital system – from the CEO to the accounting and janitorial departments – was aligned to let those doctors do what they do best.

Support Our Teachers

Which brings us back to schools.

Who are the most important people in your school? Teachers, of course! And that’s another essential role of a school board: Making sure teachers are supported. Their mission is not about the principal or other staff members, or even parents. Rather, their mission is to make sure the district is aligned to make teachers successful – so students ultimately will succeed, not only today but also tomorrow.

How Successful Schools Thrive

Every year for the past 25 years, we’ve scoured the country to identify our nation’s most rapidly improving schools. Every year, we bring them together at our Model Schools Conference, a platform for these schools to showcase and share their innovative practices.

And every year I’m asked, “What makes these schools work?”

The answer is surprisingly simple – although not simple to implement.

Creating a Culture that is Focused on the Future
Above all, these schools focus on getting their students ready for the world after school!

They are not as worried about the next test, the next grade or the next level of education as most schools are. Rather, they try to envision what society and the workplace will look like in three to five years.  They then build their programs back up from that point. They analyze how technology, information systems and the global economy will change what employers expect graduates to know and do.

Our Changing World
These schools understand that technology has vaporized many entry-level and middle-class jobs. They know global competition is dramatically increasing because businesses can move work to workers anywhere in the world.

They know their students live in a digital world, which has transformed how students communicate and socialize. They understand that social media will replace today’s newspapers, television networks and radios.

Creating a Culture
The successes of these model schools are not based on any single initiative. Rather they take a systematic approach: They start by creating a culture that supports change at all levels – specifically, organizational leadership, instructional leadership and teaching.

What is your vision for students? What are your core values? What are your goals? How will you achieve them? What do you believe about student learning and achievement?

You’ve heard me say this again and again: Culture trumps strategy. Until you can articulate a vision, you will be spinning your wheels. Until you create a positive culture for change, any strategy you employ ultimately will fail.

That’s where you start.

I can help you create that culture. Please do not hesitate to contact me.

College Ready Is Not Ready Enough

Can we please bury this myth once and for all?
I’ll grant you that many students benefit from college, and some graduates earn significantly more than those who drop out or don’t attend.
That said, college no longer is the guaranteed gateway to good jobs which ensure lifelong self-sustainability.
            The reasons are clear:
-  Cost: In 2015, college graduates took on the most student debt in history.
-  What students study: I preach this to groups everywhere – what you major in matters.
In 2014, only 17 percent of graduating seniors left with jobs.  Most students are more likely to work as waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined.
We could go on, but this is depressing enough.

The Career-Ready Student
Here’s the point: It’s not about being college ready, it’s about being career ready!
We must prepare our students to know what to do when they don’t know what to do!
We need to prepare them for an increasingly unpredictable future. The world will continue to change dramatically. The gap between the skills our students need to succeed, and what they are learning today, has never been greater.

Train, Train – And Train Again
Ever heard of ASVAB?
It stands for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. If you want to join the military, you must pass this test. ASVAB focuses on four broad areas: arithmetic, mathematics knowledge, word knowledge and paragraph comprehension.
The Department of Defense develops the test and updates it every six months!
Technology is critical to job performance in the military. If you screw up, someone gets hurt. Someone dies. Military leaders understand they must constantly retrain their men and women as standards change and technology grows more sophisticated.
We’d better get a handle on this. As technology grows more complex, we must make our academic requirements much more stringent.
The academic demands of the workplace will only increase.

Computers Don’t Need Health Insurance
If your job is routine, concrete or sequential, watch out! Today’s technology can complete that job more quickly, more efficiently and for less cost than a worker.  
Computers and robots don’t need to be paid. They don’t need health insurance. They don’t get sick or take vacations. As automation technologies become more mainstream and affordable, companies will choose them to save costs. It’s inevitable.

Raising the Minimum Wage
As you likely know, our country is roiling in debate over the minimum wage.
Let’s avoid the politics of the issue and look at it as educators.
First, some quick calculations:  Let’s say you’re a fast-food worker making $9 an hour. Let’s say you work a 40-hour week, 50 weeks a year (highly unlikely, by the way). Your wage, before taxes, is $18,000.
That same worker earning $15 an hour will make $30,000 before taxes.
Is that worker better off? No question! Is he or she self-supportive? Well, I’ll let you make that call.
So far, New York and California have adopted a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Meanwhile, have you seen these popping up?  No matter what workers earn, this is the future.

Food ordering kiosk at a fast-food restaurant.

Journalists Noam Scheiber and Ian Lovett, writing in last March’s New York Times, said this: “Many economists, even some on the left, worry that a potential loss of jobs in a number of cities where wages are comparatively low could largely offset, and perhaps even more than offset, the boon of higher incomes at the bottom of the wage scale.”

Teach What Technology Can’t
To survive, workers will need to do what technology cannot do.
To succeed, we must teach students to collaborate – for it’s certain they will work with people who hold different values and ways of communicating.
Students will need self-discipline and the ability to solve their own work-related problems. They will need to analyze data quickly. They will need to know basic statistics. They must learn technical reading and writing.
Student success will depend on creating, evaluating and analyzing material and applying solutions to read-world, unpredictable situations.
Too few schools teach these skills.
We’ve got a lot of work to do!

Is Social Media Education the Next New Curriculum?

Two of my 11 grandchildren – Brendan and DeAnthony – attended the International Center’s Model Schools Conference this year in Orlando, June 26-29. It was quite the experience!

Question: DeAnthony, what did your grandfather do at the conference?
Answer: Grandpa stood up on stage and told people what to do.

Hmm. Maybe some of you who attended also felt the same way! Both boys, like most of their peers, are what we at the International Center call “digital natives.” They are immersed in, and comfortable with, virtually all forms of social media. At one particular session – in part a discussion on digital tracking – I noticed DeAnthony begin to fidget in the front row. He covered his face. He sighed. “De,” as we call him, was not a happy camper! He started to calm down as the session wound down, but something had shaken him.  “De, what was wrong?” I asked as the audience filed out. “Grandpa, I was afraid you were going to tell them about some of the apps I use.”

Bill with his grandsons Brendan and
DeAnthony (photo by Todd Daggett)

Welcome to Data Mining
Soon – much sooner than we think – we will be able to uncover all sorts of data. Apps are already available to capture information on just about anyone.

As I said in my last blog post, corporations and colleges already are creating social media review departments. Why? To vet potential employees and students.

Think about what this means for some of our students. Might they not get into the college of their choice? Might they be rejected for a good job before even getting a chance to interview?
What about us? Imagine irritating a parent, student or colleague, who in turn decides to check you out. What websites do you visit? What have you “Googled?” What e-mails have to written in the last month, and to whom?

Are you squirming yet? What you share on the Internet stays there forever.

A New World Calls for a New Curriculum
Are we preparing our students for this world? Are we educating them about the permanence and the risks on the Internet? Are they digitally literate? Are we teaching them to use technology wisely and effectively?
We all know the answer to those questions, don’t we?

 While working at the New York State Department of Education back in the 1980s, I helped introduce drug prevention and sex education programs into schools. It was a tough, bruising battle.

Today, social media education may be the new battleground.
What will be the curriculum? Who will develop it? Who will teach it?  

I don’t have all the answers. All I know is that we, as educational leaders, must get on top of this issue in a hurry.

As I mentioned in my last blog, at our Leadership Academy in October we’ll be focusing on teaching and learning in the digital age. It has never been more critical to understand and teach digital literacy, responsibility and consequences. I hope you can join us in San Diego.

Under the Influence: How Social Media Has Re-Shaped Our Social Circles

Spoiler alert: This post is about our need to address the inherent shortcomings — but strong influence — of social media on our kids.

But first, a question: Who are your friends?

A simple question with a not-so-simple answer, when you think about it. Bear with me here.

You see, in my view, we all have different kinds of relationships, different kinds of friends. One way to illustrate the concept is to visualize a circle containing three rings.

The innermost ring, by far the smallest, represents our most intimate “inner-circle” friends. If you’re married, it might be your spouse. It might be other family members or relatives. It might be a brother or sister, or a very close friend.

This is a tiny circle, two or three people at most. They know everything about you. They can just look at you and know whether you’re having a good or bad day. They are the ones you turn to when you’ve really got a problem.

                                                                                                            Credit: International Center for Leadership in Education


We also have a second level of friends. In our circle, this group is much larger. I call it our “community.” They are our neighbors. They are the folks we work with every day. They are members of your bowling team or book club. If your daughter plays soccer, they are her teammates’ parents.

We know their names. We might know what they do for a living. We might know where they live. We might even know where they went to college.

This community has been important throughout our country’s history. For it is here where the “homogenization” of the nation occurred. This group tends to develop a shared value system. Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that everyone thinks alike – in fact, they probably don’t, especially given today’s volatile political atmospherics. But they do share a deeper common belief system. They agree on what’s right and wrong. Their core values are pretty much aligned.

Single-Issue “Friends”

Finally, we all have a third ring of friends. This band is very narrow in our circle.  These people are the ones you share a single issue.
                                                                                                            Credit: International Center for Leadership in Education

For example, if you are a superintendent attending a superintendents’ conference, you can instantly strike up a conversion with a colleague about “those darn mandatory state tests.” Or ask another, “Are you having the same problems I am with our teachers’ evaluation system?”

I am a Duke University basketball fan. I have a lot of respect for Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

I’m also on the road about 125 days a year.  So when I see someone in an airport sporting a Blue Devils hat or sweatshirt, I can instantly strike up a conversation. “What do you think of Coach K’s upcoming recruiting season?”  Or, “How about the Devils’ tournament run last spring?”

But here’s the problem: I don’t know this person’s name. I don’t know where he or she is from. I don’t know what they do for a living. I don’t know what they believe in.

I don’t know anything about them – except they like Duke basketball almost as much as I do.

No homogenization takes place in this ring. There are no shared values, aside from a love of Duke basketball. It’s a single-issue ring.

Our Kids and Social Media

Which brings us back to our students and social media.

Their widespread use of social media has superimposed this single-issue ring into the second “community” ring. Our students – as well as many adults – are talking with these single-issue people multiple times a day. They know their social media “friends” better than Mrs. Jones who lives across the street or Mr. Smith, their history teacher.

But they likely don’t know anything about who they are talking to. They don’t know because they’re only focused on a single, commonly shared interest.

If you’ve experienced my presentations, you know that I’ll sometimes ask audiences questions. Among my favorites are these:

Q: How many of you have sons or daughters in their twenties?
Q: Are they bringing home a “significant other” more frequently?
Q: As that relationship becomes more serious, do you think more deeply about him or her?
Q: Are you thinking about her high school transcript? His college courses?

Invariably, the audience agrees. No, they are not thinking about high school or college, but rather what kind of person he or she is, and whether or not they will be a good spouse to your child and a good parent to your future grandchildren.

Through our ongoing work with schools across the country, we have determined twelve guiding principles of character that communities and employers believe must be cultivated in children so they mature into high-functioning, productive adults.

Feel free to develop your own list, or consider ours:


A final thought about personal skill development and digital literacy:
Most companies and large colleges today vet candidates’ online profiles. The unfortunate truth is that what our students put online today could stand in the way of their dream college or career tomorrow.

Because social media is “forever,” students no longer have the luxury to make naïve mistakes and learn from them. This adds a degree of urgency to teaching students the underpinnings of character in an effort to provide them with the tools to make smart online decisions.

I believe it’s up to us as educators to emphasize digital literacy. “How” and “why” are up to each individual district – each district has its own unique DNA.

At ICLE’s Leadership Academy in October we’ll be focusing on teaching and learning in the digital age, led by practitioners who have walked the walk with digital learning and its many implications. We hope you’ll join us to gather their wisdom to take back to your teams.

Our number one job is to prepare students for successful careers. So let’s get started!