Ray McNulty: We Must Let Go of Old Ideas


In my last blog post, we discussed how we could begin to fundamentally change our flawed public education model. Today, we turn to one of our nation’s most innovative leaders to help us dig a little deeper.

Raymond J. McNulty is dean of the School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University, and a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). He is a former president of ICLE, director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Commissioner of Education in Vermont, and at various times also served as a superintendent, principal and teacher.

Ray has seen it all, and knows the way forward.

Question: From your consulting and speaking engagements in the K-12 spaces, what do you see as a major concern right now?

Ray McNulty: Most people would say their greatest concern is “change” or “fear of change.” But, I don’t see change as the biggest concern. Most educators know they need to change, and most welcome new ideas. The greatest concern is not letting go of old ideas.  No one is talking about letting go of things — instead we just keep adding things to the system. I work with schools and educators to plan and evaluate their systems, and then sort them into three categories:  Things we should stop doing, things we should continue doing, and new systems and strategies we should begin doing. We seem to not let go. For example, we spend a lot of time today teaching basic skill acquisition, but we can’t seem to find the time for higher levels of rigor. Technology is much better at teaching basic skill acquisition, so using technology — while supported by our educators — provides time for them to use their skills to increase rigorous learning.

Q: Do you see the SNHU online instruction model becoming more accepted among students and even high school counselors in 2017?

RM: We see enormous acceptance for many online learning systems. There are many states that now require students to take online courses to graduate because that’s what is happening in the workforce. Most companies today train their workers using online systems. The real drivers for these new models are competency-based learning anytime, anyplace, and at any pace. Online education has been around for a long time and the systems used today are highly sophisticated. When you match a great online system with a great teacher, together they represent a powerful learning system for our students.

Q: You mentioned competency-based learning. Can you expand your thoughts?

RM: Competency-based education is attracting a lot of attention for its potential to resolve many of the challenges we face.  I can’t believe we are still using equal amounts of seat time for learning, clustering students by age, and using a grading system that lets students move on after only understanding 60% of the content! In a competency-based system, students who are the same age may learn at different rates in different subjects while progressing to more advanced work once they master the material. Mastery in a competency-based system pushes everyone to a much higher standard because you do not move on until you demonstrate proficiency (over the 80% level). Forty-two states have granted public schools the flexibility to incorporate and explore competency-based policies. Although there is no agreed-upon definition about what “competency-based” means, there is agreement on three basic core elements: Mastery, where students demonstrate their grasp of skills and content; Pacing, where students progress at different rates in different subjects or areas; Instruction, where students receive customized and personalized support so they can reach mastery.

Q: Is there a strategy that you believe schools should begin to work on as we see a push toward more personalized learning models?

RM: I don’t believe there is one strategy that will help the push toward more personalized learning. I think you just need to look around and realize that one person is not the same as the other. What works for Brian in class likely will not work for Ray or Mary. And what works for Brian in math class likely will not work for him in English class. We need to have schools and learning systems with multiple models and multiple pathways for all our students. Therefore, technology and learning management systems will be critical to the success of the systems we design in the future.


Ray will be a key presenter at the 25th annual Model Schools Conference. Spots are still available—join us!



From Buzzwords to Fundamental Change

Admit it: We love buzzwords!

“Competency-based,” “personalized learning,” “standards-based,” “21st Century,” ‘college- and career-ready,” “real world,” “student-centered,” “big data.”

That’s just for starters.

These buzzwords were rooted in important initiatives, although it’s true many of these concepts have come and gone. Don’t be fooled, the winds of change driving these initiatives are again starting to blow – and more strongly than ever.

A Crazy Model
Those of us who work in public education know the time-based model is fundamentally flawed.  At the beginning of each school year, we are expected to take a classroom of 20-30 students, all at different starting points, with different interests, learning styles, aptitudes and home lives and get each one to the same academic place on the same day—and then measure their performance with a state test.

This is lunacy, and we know it!

These above-mentioned initiatives – and their buzzwords – came into being to address this lunacy. These competency-based concepts probably would work in a vacuum, but in today’s antiquated model, they would have little impact. You should know why.

Our education system is structured on our old factory assembly line model which made sense 100 years ago. Back then, the purpose of school was to select and sort kids, not get them ready to thrive in a technology-based world. Fast forward to today, and the school year still lasts 180 days, each class typically still lasts 40-45 minutes, no matter the subject, etc, etc, etc. We still set schedules using techniques similar to the old 3x5 index cards. We still govern ourselves by rules, regulations, certification tenure and contracts developed in the 20th Century.

The model simply can’t adopt competency-based approaches.

Our Time Is Now
Advancing technologies have enabled industry after industry to break from their old 19th and 20 century models. Now it’s public education’s time.

Let’s allow technology to take root in our instructional programs. Let’s use technology to fundamentally change the system, not just make the old system marginally better. It’s time to strive for a flexible, automated education system.

Guest Blogger Shows the Way
Our next blog will feature a Q&A with Raymond. J. McNulty, dean of the School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University, and a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education. He will focus on ways we can fundamentally transform public education. Ray also will be a key presenter at this year’s 25th annual Model Schools Conference, coming up soon in Nashville. You still have time to register!


What Have We Learned?

It’s time for a collective time out.

I’ve thrown a lot at you these last few months, and with the 25th annual Model Schools Conference fast approaching, let’s take a step back and ask, “What have we learned so far?”

Lesson #1: Culture Trumps Strategy
What are your core values? What are your goals? How will you achieve them? What do you believe about student learning and achievement?

High-performing schools have developed a crystal-clear vision of what they want to accomplish. They foster a culture that supports and encourages positive change. Until you can articulate a vision, you will too often just be spinning your wheels. Until you develop a positive culture, any strategy you employ ultimately will fail.

Our organizational structure, our entire culture, is grounded in our traditional vision of public education. We exist to prepare students for the middle class. There’s just one small problem: the middle class is disappearing.

This is a phenomenon I call “the missing middle,” and it is being dramatically accelerated by the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Simply put, this revolution is the combination of biotech, nanotech, and information technology. It is creating cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Systems.

That’s a problem. To believe it’s OK to prepare students for middle-class jobs is to believe in a future which will exits for few of them. Unless we change, many students face a life of low-skill labor and no real chance for self-sufficiency. 

Lesson #2: Change Must Be Evolutionary
You know what happens to revolutionaries, don’t you? They get pushed back, if not killed! So, change must be evolutionary.

How do you get started? Step one is to adopt the practice of zero-based budgeting. This form of budgeting forces you to justify your expenses for each new period. More importantly, it encourages continual goal- and innovation-driven thinking.

What if you began building your budget by asking, “What do we need to do right now to prepare every student in our school for successful careers and lives?”

Lesson #3: Adopt a Growth Mindset Model
Most schools today operate with a fixed mindset philosophy. Alas, nothing much changes in a fixed-mindset school.

Schools with a growth mindset philosophy operate differently—much differently. They focus on getting their students ready for the world after school. They don’t obsess about the next test, the next grade or even the next level of education.

Instead they try to envision what the world will look like in three to five years and then build back their instructional programs from that point.

Lesson #4: The Learning Criteria
The Successful Practices Network, of which I serve as chairman, developed — and the International Center for Leadership in Education uses — the Learning Criteria to help schools better evaluate their students, with the goal of creating well-rounded students ready to succeed in school – and beyond.


Most schools focus on foundation learning—knowledge a school requires all students to achieve. Sounds logical. But it’s wrong. Most schools, sadly, can’t get their students beyond foundation learning, and therefore never reach the three other levels.

Rapidly successful schools take a different approach. They focus on personal skill development first, and then move to student engagement and stretch learning.

Guess what? In this scenario, foundation learning takes care of itself!

Effective Uses of Technology

Many schools are excited because they are going “1-to-1.” For those of you who may not know, 1-to-1 is a term for programs that provide students in a school, district or state with their own laptop, tablet computer or other computing device.

Great! But the cold, hard truth is 1-to-1 is of little value—and not truly innovative—unless you change how you teach.

We don’t let students use their hand-held devices when they take a test because they might CHEAT by either looking up the answer or sharing the answer with other students. But they would be using resources and/or working with others! Two of the most basic skills needed to be successful in the world beyond school!

Are you trying to force 21st century technology to conform to our 20th century schools OR are you trying to transform our 20th century schools into the realities of our 21st century technology-based society and workplace?

Our nation’s most rapidly improving schools are using technology to fundamentally change what and how we teach.

Best Practice 1 — Flipped Classrooms
Clintondale High School, Clinton Township, Mich.: In 2010, Clintondale became the first school in the country to become a fully “flipped” school. Before 2010, the school struggled to educate its high number of at-risk students. So teachers prepared instructional videos that students watched outside of class. This allowed teachers to provide far more hands-on and personal guidance for each student in the classroom. For more information, please see Our Story.

Best Practice 2 — Leveraging Technology to Teach Self-Directed Learning Skills
Penn Manor High School, Millersville, Pa.: Today’s students are “digital natives,” comfortable with technology and constant change. The school’s goal was to help teachers make the transition to 1-to-1 mobile devices for students, thus placing the power of learning in the hands – and heads – of students. For example, some students have difficulty with concepts associated with writing complete sentences. The solution? Teachers use an Edmodo online assessment which scores students’ responses and shows them their gaps in understanding. Students then learn how to analyze the results and develop an individual virtual learning plan. A recent post-assessment of this exercise showed an average learning gain of 15 percent.

Best Practice 3 — Technology Integration Through “Julius Caesar”
New Milford High School, New Milford, N.J.:  Several ELA teachers asked students to use Twitter to build on and engage in content authentic to William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. The teachers began by researching the history of the Roman Forum. This ensured the ensuing discourse though social media was within a relevant historical context. Teachers guided students through an exercise to deconstruct a typical tweet. They also instructed students how to use Mozilla Thimble to create memes. The integration of technology made it possible for students to approach the topic in a fresh way, while also raising levels of rigor and relevance.


At this year’s 25th Annual Model Schools Conference, held June 25-28 in Nashville, we will showcase schools which are incorporating technology into their lesson plans. Join us!

21st Century Literacy

Many of you have heard me speak about the explosion of data due to Web 3.0 and the “cloud.” Data can now be collected, organized, analyzed and synthesized to find trends, make predictions and make decisions in ways that just a couple of years ago was not possible. It is often referred to as Big Data.

There is so much data that it is becoming increasingly difficult to transmit it simply by text. More and more, we find that information is transmitted via sophisticated tables, graphs and charts. Consider the examples the data presents in the following examples:

Best Practice 1: Make Student Thinking Visible – Reflective Writing Across Content
Catherine Truitt, Diane Jones, consultants, International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE): Reflexive writing allows students to write about their own learning in a rigorous and relevant way. This approach offers both language arts and non-language arts teachers effective tactics to embed consistent writing assignments into lessons. Ask these questions:
1.     Reflect on a prior learning experience.
2.     Reflect on visual stimulus.
3.     Reflect on a reading assignment.

And so on. Teachers appreciate the simplicity of the exercises, while students enjoy the reflective nature of the writing assignments. Everyone wins!

Best Practice 2: Teaching Digital Literacy
Salmon River Middle School, Fort Covington, NY: School leaders realized they had to educate students to use technology in a safe and responsible way. They ultimately selected Common Sense Media’s free Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum. The curriculum empowers students to think critically, behave safely and participate responsibly in the digital world.

Best Practice 3 — Student Literacy Growth Profile
Hamilton/Fulton/Montgomery BOCES, Johnstown, N.Y.: The Literacy Growth Profile is a longitudinal data tool used to track student literacy levels. It is based on the Lexile Framework for Reading and tracks the progression of a student’s reading over time. The profile monitors how well a student comprehends various sources, like high school- and college-level literature and textbooks, military texts, personal use items and entry-level occupational reading. Students are stretched throughout elementary, middle and high school and are at both college- AND career-ready literacy levels when they graduate.

Is this reading? Is it statistics? Is it logic? Is it probability? Is it measurement systems? It is writing? The answer is ‘yes’ to each of these questions. Twenty-first century literacy is in multiple disciplines!

Is your instructional program designed to teach these skills? They are in the nation’s most rapidly improving schools.

At this year’s 25th Annual Model Schools Conference, held June 25-28 in Nashville, we will showcase schools that focus on 21st century literacy.


Next week’s blog will focus on the effective uses of technology.

It's All About Literacy

Those of you who have heard me speak know I believe literacy is the single greatest key to student success.

A literate student will thrive today, and more importantly, thrive in the future – a future we cannot even envision. There are multiple ways to approach best practices for literacy. Here are several:

Best Practice 1: Literacy for All
Brockton High School in Brockton, Mass., was forced to address why students performed so poorly on a state standardized test. They assembled a committee of faculty and administrators who asked this question: “Is this the best we can be?” The answer was a resounding “NO!” From this came an epiphany: The school was not teaching students literacy, specifically reading, writing, speaking and reasoning. The committee concluded that literacy must be taught in all classes – including physical education and the arts. Furthermore, literacy would be applicable to all students, from the most gifted to those most in need.

The committee created four charts, called literary charts, to provide visual representation of skills and competencies. The charts listed the corresponding skills for each of the four components of literacy: reading, writing, speaking and reasoning. The charts were posted in every classroom to serve as a constant reminder of literacy’s link to all subject areas and the school’s vision of literacy for all.

As a result, student performance improved dramatically, resulting in higher test scores across the board.

Best Practice 2: Close Reading
Central Dauphin School District, Harrisburg, Pa., developed a step-by-step process to bring literacy and reading comprehension to every subject -- in other words a close reading strategy:
1.)  The teacher chooses an article that relates to his or her unit’s current topic. The article must be at a high enough Lexile measure to warrant chunking and rereading.
2.)  The teacher selects vocabulary to pre-teach, chunks the text for students and creates text-dependent questions that increase in complexity as the lesson progresses.
3.)  The teacher uses a Frayer model after completing an activating strategy or hook with students.
4.)  The teacher distributes the article and reads it aloud; students read the article to themselves.
5.)  The teacher asks students to reread the first chunk on their own. Then the teacher asks the pre-planned, text-dependent questions.
6.)  This process continues, and discussion may ensue as the questions increase in complexity.
7.)  When students have read each chunk twice, they then reread the entire article to themselves.
8.)  The teacher gives students a summary writing assignment (written in the style of a prompt), along with a generic rubric. The question must be structured in a way that requires students to use evidence from the entire text to answer the prompt.
9.)  A performance task may be assigned, depending on time and/or student interest.

Best Practice 3: Literacy Workshops to Improve Literacy Across Subjects
Brockton High School, Brockton, Mass., equipped its faculty to teach literacy wherever possible by creating Literacy Workshops. Faculty members were appointed to guide teachers through a systematic and results-driven approach to teach a certain literacy skill. The workshops were particularly important because by improving literacy skills, students would gain the reading comprehension and language skills to improve in all subjects.


Finally, I’ve included here a few examples of ICLE model lessons around literacy to help guide your instructional efforts, and offer practical resources related to the best practices I mentioned above:


At this year’s 25th Annual Model Schools Conference from June 25-28 in Nashville, we will showcase schools that focus on literacy for all students.

Next week’s blog will focus again on literacy, but this time literacy for the 21st century.

Best Practices of the Nation’s Most Rapidly Improving Schools

As school leaders determine how to respond to the new opportunities available from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I have received many requests for information about best practices in the nation’s most rapidly improving schools.

In our ongoing study of these schools, we at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) have learned that there is no specific formula or program that works. There are, however, consistent practices these schools use at the organizational leadership, instructional leadership and teaching levels.

My next several blog posts will showcase best practices from schools and districts across the country. To kick off this series, I’m sharing perhaps the most important practice of all:

Best Practice 1 — Create a culture of high academic expectations and positive relationships.

Here are four examples of how these schools and districts helped establish this culture:
  • Johnston County Schools of Smithfield, NC, used budgeting to create a student-centered culture. Every proposed budgetary item—no matter how small—needed justification about how that expenditure would likely impact student performance. The assistant superintendent of instruction had to approve all budget requests. 
  • Pembroke Central School of Corfu, NY, needed to address the lack of positive relationships within the district, mainly to resolve a bullying problem. In 2012, the district created a “Safe and Supportive Learning Environment” committee to help create a plan of action to establish a positive culture. The committee used Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as a framework to guide actions within the district and across the community. It led to the implementation of Covey’s The Leader in Me  program across the district. It has turned around the culture for both the schools and the community.
  • Kathleen H. Wilbur Elementary School of Bear, DE, a large elementary school (1,100 students) with a very diverse population, made a commitment and took action to create a positive culture where everyone — from students to teachers to parents — galvanized around a shared vision of growth and achievement. They accomplished this through a series of pep rallies, videos, daily announcements, songs, back-to-school nights, and community activities built around the following theme: “We are WILBUR, we are INSPIRED, HARD WORKERS, GREAT THINKERS, WE PERSEVERE.” In addition, the school created “Dream Teams” of teachers who presented their “best practices” on rigor, relevance, and relationships twice a month to all staff. Wilbur has become a place where each and every student and staff member develops a growth mindset and is supported to succeed.
  • Brooks-Quinn-Jones Elementary School of Nacogdoches, TX, developed an initiative with staff, students, and the community to begin to develop strong relationships. Inspired by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who notably said, “Why not me in the Super Bowl?”, Principal Thomas Miller led a series of activities that allowed all stakeholders to demonstrate their interest in and support of students, championing them on with signs and songs, and challenging them to commit to the theme of “Why Not Me?” It has led to a culture of support and high expectations for all students.

At this year’s 25th Annual Model Schools Conference, scheduled for June 25-28 in Nashville, we will showcase multiple examples of schools which have created a culture of high expectations for all students.

Next week’s blog will focus on districts and schools that have experienced success by making organizational and instructional changes in their schools.

A School for Today’s Students


An incredible challenge—how else could you describe our expectations for today’s classroom teachers?

The challenge begins when students arrive on day one. Teachers know that their students come to them at very different levels of development. Some are gifted. Some may be disabled. Each one has a different learning style. And we’re not even discussing what goes on at home.

I was a teacher way back when. I shudder to think how I would teach my five now-grown children today. I wouldn’t know where to begin!

The Proficiency Model
The current system is dysfunctional. If you’ve got 25 kids in your classroom, all kinds of upsets and trauma can occur during the school year. Illness. Divorce. A death or injury to a parent or loved one. Substance abuse. The list is long.  But count on it—these will, in fact, happen.

Yet somehow, magically, we expect teachers to take all these diverse students and diverse situations and get them to a predetermined level by the end of the year. Sheer madness! Welcome to public education’s proficiency model.

The Growth Model
Teachers on the front lines know the proficiency model is flawed. That’s why they oppose performance evaluations. Can’t you hear them? “You’re going to tie my performance to my students’ performances? Come on! That’s not right! That’s not logical!”

So the question becomes: What is logical?

What we are seeing from the nation’s most rapidly improving schools is a shift from a proficiency model to a growth model.

How It Works
As most of you know, the growth model takes each child from where they are today and moves them as far as they can in the time that they have. Simple!

Not quite. The growth model will force the classroom teacher to fundamentally change how she does her job. No longer is she “the sage on the stage.”

But technology will smooth the transition. Students today have lived their entire lives in the 21st century. They are used to today’s technology.  They are comfortable with it and use it practically every waking hour.

Teachers working in a growth model school use technology as almost virtual teaching assistants. With the right technology and the right software, the teacher becomes the manager of the instructional process, not the disseminator of knowledge. She breaks down her classroom into like-minded groups or teams and moves from group to group, helping, showing, encouraging. She transforms the learning process.

Repeat After Me: Culture Trumps Strategy
How do you get there? It takes work, work which can’t be done in one- or two-day personal development sessions. You must create a new culture which supports finding a different way. Those of you who know me also know my signature saying: Culture trumps strategy. By that I mean: Until you can change your culture, any strategy you adopt will ultimately fail.

Here’s How to Get Started
Creating a new culture is a deep, ongoing process, but the experts at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) can show you the way. Creating a growth model school will also be the focus of our upcoming signature event, the 25th annual Model Schools Conference, held June 25-28 in Nashville. Please consider joining us so we can help show you how to create an effective educational system – one which benefits all students.


6 Ways to Boost Student Engagement

What Is Student Engagement?
I define student engagement as all the positive behaviors students show which indicate full participation in the learning process. When students are engaged, we can hear, see and feel their motivation in completing a task – they take pride in their work and move beyond doing the minimum required. Engaged students demonstrate a feeling of belonging by the way they act, the positive things they say about school and through their passionate involvement in class activities.

That’s why the student engagement element of the Learning Criteria is arguably the most important – because it’s really all about engaging your students. With today’s focus on state assessments, combined with the many distractions affecting young people, it is not surprising that many schools are concerned about an increasing number of disengaged students. This has moved student engagement to the front burner, where it needs to stay if we want all students to achieve the skills and knowledge that will provide them with the basis for success and fulfillment throughout their lives.

Not an Easy Task
Experienced educators know that increasing student engagement is not easy. How many times have teachers – as well as parents and most adults, for that matter – heard students say, “Why do I need to learn this stuff?”

The reality is that students must understand why it is truly important for them to learn a specific topic.  Teachers should continually work to provide a relevant contextual base for the knowledge and skills they teach. Education is boring—if not meaningless— when it is reduced to an unending list of content topics where the student quickly learns the facts, takes the test and then forgets it all. Focusing on a narrower list of priority skills and knowledge makes the importance of learning clearer.

Both Teacher and Student Must Engage
It is easy to observe a lack of student engagement: Students are slouched in their chairs, not listening to their teacher and not participating in classroom discussion. Many teachers who see disengaged students lament that they could be better teachers—and show better learning results—if only they had the opportunity to work with a “better” group of students. But classrooms with high levels of student engagement are not simply a result of “student quality.”

Prior experiences, attitudes and perceptions impact how engaged students are in the classroom. But teachers are not limited to poor learning results because students are not engaged. Teachers must begin to reflect on the elements that contribute to student engagement before they begin to deal with poor student performance.

After all, teachers have direct control and can make changes instantaneously in some areas. For other changes to occur, it will take time to develop new skills for both the student and the teacher. What follows are elements that support and encourage student engagement:
  1. Cultivate one-on-one relationships. The one-on-one relationship between student and teacher is the critical element which can lead to increased student motivation and higher levels of engagement in academic achievement and school life.
  2. Learn new skills and habits. Teachers can learn new skills and habits that help them to develop, polish and enhance their natural inclination to motivate and engage students.
  3. Incorporate systematic strategies. Teachers can learn systematic strategies and approaches which make it easier for students to engage. For their part, students also can develop behavioral skills and habits which lead to increased academic achievement and greater involvement in school life.
  4. Take responsibility for student engagement practices. The teacher’s primary responsibility is to engage students—it is not expecting students to come to class naturally and automatically engaged.
  5. Promote a schoolwide culture of engagement. The best way to achieve high levels of student engagement is to develop and maintain a schoolwide initiative dedicated to creating a culture of student engagement. This means getting students involved in school activities, while providing a rigorous and relevant education for all students.
  6. Use professional development to increase student engagement. Staff development, combined with staff ownership and recognition, is a critical part of developing and maintaining a culture of effective student engagement.

Today, all students need high levels of skills and knowledge to succeed in adult life. Schools must develop a culture of engagement that challenges every student to achieve rigorous and relevant standards.