American Promise

I was fortunate to watch the full version of American Promise over the December break. Everyone will have the chance to watch it in February on PBS. I am extraordinarily grateful to the parents and to the Dalton School for participating in this multi-year effort. I highly recommend the film.

A film that runs a 12 year course is one that cannot pretend to a single unifying vision. It is enough to evoke certain reflections, to raise particular issues about race and otherness. The filmmakers take care not to case blame or demonize any one person or group in particular for the disappointments that students and parents feel at various points. There are triumphs as well.

As an educator watching the documentary, I kept thinking about how best to foster quality communication between teachers, administrators, and parents. How can schools better support parent communities such as the African-American parent group that gathered in the middle of the film? When and how can schools send teachers and administrators to visit some of the communities and households that they serve? How do we all maximize transparency and open communication?

All parties seemed to strive for partnership in this film. Again, I am thankful that they shared their journeys with us.

“What are you trying to accomplish and how do you know you’re accomplishing it?”

So I have finally caught up with the Fall 2013 edition of Independent School Magazine. I mistakenly judged the magazine based on a particular image, and that image deterred me from picking it up earlier. However, vacation has given me time to reconsider my initial impression. Count me in as a major fan.

This issue focuses on teacher evaluation and support. In his anchor article, Robert Evans does not shy away from revealing the flaws of many independent schools (my title for this post comes from that article). Here are some key excerpts.

The plain fact is that large numbers of independent schools have weak traditions of performance appraisal and professional development …

The best public schools not only hire teachers who are already trained in pedagogy (teaching methods, not just curriculum), they offer them both continuing oversight of performance and continuing opportunities for advanced learning about instruction and assessment (again, not just about curriculum). Independent schools, by contrast, hire many people with little pedagogical training, offer them comparatively little supervision, evaluation, and professional development, and tend to concentrate little of what they do offer on classroom methodology …

The teaching I get to see [in independent schools] is not usually poor, but it is often pedestrian. Nonetheless, students generally do well. They ought to. There is abundant evidence that non-school factors (socioeconomic status, level of parents’ education, family stability, and the like) play a much larger role in most children’s achievement than do school inputs. And independent school students are the most teachable in America: they are typically bright, motivated, and well-behaved, and they typically come from supportive, upper-middle-class families. Plus, they are generally placed in small classes and their teachers generally have small pupil loads. Given all this, the essential question is not whether the outcomes are good, but are they as good as they should be?

Ouch. Double ouch. No resting on our laurels, folks!

I love the ideas inside the pages of I.S. Lisa Cetroni, Beth Miller, and April Waylett do a great job laying out several quality instructional coaching and peer support structures. I am intrigued by Erica Hamlin’s model of multi-year evaluation and compensation at University Prep in Seattle. I am grateful for the McDonogh School and others for promoting The Folio Collaborative. Thanks as well to Marc Baker and others for bringing up the complex role of the head of school in the area of instructional evaluation. So many great practices to consider.

Good people have written volumes on the subject of teacher evaluation. Most have understandably focused on public schools, and the topic often becomes political between unions and districts, giving independent school educators a convenient excuse to sidestep the conversation altogether. But surely we could all agree that all teachers deserve to be evaluated via a system that adheres to the basic standards that Grant Wiggins recently elucidated. Standards can and should be the same for everyone in the field, although we might have some different priorities (I will share some of mine in a future post).

Autonomy in the classroom is a great asset. But so is professionalism, peer collaboration, and institutionally-supported growth and renewal.

What would I change about this issue of I.S.? The cover.


For me, this image evokes the notion of a static, one-time classroom evaluation measuring irrelevant information — or worse. Doesn’t a wooden ruler measuring head size raise the spectre of scientific racism? As a history teacher I am probably more sensitive to that interpretation than others. Regardless, this cover image does little to convey the initiatives described within. Readers, let the words speak for themselves this time around.

ADDENDUM: Clearly, the editors intended a humorous entry into the magazine. I am 100% positive that they had no ill intent. In my reckoning, their plan just did not work out as originally intended.

Hard Questions on Teaching, Learning, and Innovation

Happy Holidays! Although I cannot turn back the clock and write in the quantity I hoped for this past fall (see my pending “New Year’s Resolutions” post!), I can get return to my blog by sharing a few critical posts from the fall that have stuck with me.

1. Can we finally let go of an educational theory that has no scientific basis? Annie Murphy Paul (whose posts are invariably interesting) wrote a piece to remind us what educators should already know: a “learning style” is not an idea supported by empirical research. Howard Gardner recently offered his own repudiation of the concept, noting that it is “unhelpful, at best, and ill-conceived at worst” (Gardner has, of course, himself met criticism for his theory of Multiple Intelligences, such as this 1998 article from The New Republic).

Paul instead invites us to consider two general strategies:

  • Students benefit from encountering information in multiple forms.
  • Students’ interest is kept alive by novelty and variety.

Short, sweet, and simple. Mantra-worthy. While we think about larger change movements in education, let’s not forget about mixing it up, day by day.

* By the way, for more on novelty and the brain, see Judy Willis’s chapter  in Mind, Brain, and Education

2. Can we stop having narrow, binary conversations about what’s best in the classroom?On Mindshift, futurist David Price offers a preview of his new book by discussing the lack of vision for education:

This failure to define a clear purpose has fatally held back progress in understanding how we learn best. For if you can’t agree on a destination, how can you possibly agree on the best route? Instead, what we’re left with is a public discourse permanently afflicted by the curse of binary, oppositional arguments. The either/or positioning isn’t helped by constant political interference, resulting in a series of pendulum swings with every change of administration. Polarized arguments prevent real progress being made: selective vs. comprehensive school systems; instruction-led teaching vs inquiry-led; head vs hand; academic vs vocational; knowledge vs skills. Can you imagine doctors in the 21st century arguing over the use of flu vaccines?

3. Are we prepared to foster ground-level innovation in education? Lisa Martin reflects on her exhaustive three-year effort to start an online Model United Nations program — a project that required well more than a one-course reduction for one term! She argues that “educators need the luxury of time”:

You can’t buy off-the-shelf, organic, collaborative, student-driven programs. If this is what we say we want for education, how will we get there? Who will support it? What has to change within the culture of a school to bring ideas to fruition and, once ‘ripe for the picking,’ incorporate them in meaningful ways so that programs can develop and mature within a school’s culture?


Mandela, Community, and Leadership

Today the world observes the burial of Nelson Mandela in Qunu, his village. As I contemplate the passing of one of the giants of modern world history, I am thinking about reflections from my former colleague Temba Maqubela. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, he wrote:

Nelson Mandela would not have led us as he did had he not grown up in his village … That is where the seeds of leadership took root, where he came to understand the common man, and ubuntu, the importance of each one to another. For Mandela, the battle was never about him. It was always about us.

I wonder about Mandela’s teachers and mentors. What values did they impart to Madiba? How did they inspire him? Mandela shares a brief description of Qunu at the beginning of his extraordinary memoir Long Walk to Freedom, but he is more direct about his time living and learning at the royal residence of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, beginning when he was nine years old. Mandela writes of how his enthusiasm for African history began via the vivid storytelling at Mqhekezweni. He also shares specifically how the Chief conducted his court as a form of direct democracy.

As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated by the regent at the Great Place. I have always endeavoured to listen to what each and every person has to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion. I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. (25)

As a boarding school educator, I naturally think of schools as villages. In our small communities, do we demonstrate care for each other? Do we illustrate thoughtful, reflective leadership? What values do we uphold for our community through our collective behavior?

Some reflections on a wintry night.

Do we care whether colleges like our grading systems?

The dust has settled from the start of the academic year, and a few educational bloggers are suddenly plunging into excellent, broad questions about the nature and purpose of school. For example:

  • Annie Murphy Paul has opened a discussion about the degree to which the purpose of schooling is to acquire skills to successfully compete in the global economy.
  • Grant Lichtman has bravely posted twice on the question: “Who is the School’s Customer”?

Thoughtful bloggers are asking great questions. It’s a fine way to start the new year.

Let me, in turn, ask a question that in some ways relates to both discussions above. At my school, students are settled into their first readings, units, projects, and activities. Soon, they will begin receiving grades of various sorts. These grades provide information about various aspects of their education.

Information for whom?

When I posted earlier on Timothy Quinn’s “On Grades and Grading,” I noted that Quinn believes that grading systems should be designed exclusively with pedagogy in mind. In his view, the needs of college admissions officers or employers are irrelevant. After all, they want to rank and sort students, and where is the pedagogical value in that activity? In fact, he suggests that educators might do best by their students by eliminating succinct grades entirely.

Since I posted this piece, I have had some good conversations with friends and colleagues. Some praise what they see as Quinn’s purity of purpose. Others find his dismissal of college admissions detrimental to the prospects of students in their care.

To be fair to Quinn, let me provide his own elaboration on the subject:

Admissions officers and employers can use whatever grades are provided to help them do the sorting, but producing grades that are user-friendly for these two groups should not be a concern of educators. Admissions officers and employers may be dismayed at the prospect of having to do more work in sorting students, but in the end, they will be happier if they are getting better-educated applicants due to more pedagogically sound grading policies. (14)

On one level, I find this perspective quite refreshing. As a participant in a 1:1 iPad pilot this fall, I find myself experimenting with new ways of providing feedback that are more sophisticated than what I’ve achieved in the past. Moreover, I think that there are sound reasons why schools might consider pass/fail or other options for new students in their communities. I am open to those arguments. Let me also warmly acknowledge the fine secondary schools, private and public, who have already experimented with (or proudly uphold) the elimination of letter or number grades altogether.

Yet I also pause to consider the ramifications of a four-year secondary transcript without succinct grades. Colleges are already calculating student G.P.A.s and ranking students using their own preferred methodology. If we do not use a transparent, comprehensible, and (on some level) concise grading system for these external actors, are we losing even more control over how colleges “read” our students? How often will overworked admissions officers actually read our copious documentation, our complex notations, or our course-specific check boxes? Will they misinterpret what we provide? What exactly is our obligation — if any — to our peers sitting at those desks? What is are our obligation to our students?

Will they really know that our students are better educated based on the more pedagogically sound grading systems we use, as Quinn suggests?  I would hope so. But I wonder.

Perhaps I am overreacting. Your thoughts?

Remembering Sergeant Darren Manzella

Yesterday I learned of a tragic accident that claimed the life of Darren Manzella, an army medic who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2008. Manzella was twice a soldier, first in Iraq and then back home, fighting against the government injustice that cost him and thousands of others their careers.

Manzella was the keynote speaker at a diversity conference that I organized with students in early 2009. He shared an extraordinary story. After anonymous soldiers threatened to out Manzella, he preemptively spoke with his superior officer about his sexual orientation and his boyfriend back home. Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” such notification should have led to immediate discharge. Instead, after a short time Manzella found himself cleared of all charges and ordered back to his unit.

Whether through favoritism, sympathy, or just dumb luck, Manzella had been given a second chance. Yet he could not erase the guilt he felt at serving while others were being thrown out. The capricious nature of military investigations upset him to the point that he decided to share his story publicly, knowing that he would be discharged. He sacrificed his career for the purpose of fighting an unjust policy.

Manzella’s talk was unsettling, not simply due to the military policy in question. How many of us, under similar circumstances, would feel emotionally and ethically compelled to act as he did? Would we really be prepared to live by our school motto of being not for oneself? In person, he was generous and kind; he patiently answered many questions. In many ways he was the perfect guest speaker for our community.

In the past two years Manzella celebrated the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and signed up for the Army reserves. He married his boyfriend this past July.

It is a senseless loss. Manzella served his country well. May his memory be a blessing for all who mourn.

Learning by the Riverbank

This summer I planned and enjoyed some wonderful learning opportunities. I worked closely with a group of colleagues on how to translate findings on neuroscience and behavioral psychology into best support practices at our school. I attended a wonderful teachers’ conference on Korea sponsored by the SPICE Institute at Stanford. I read some excellent literature on keeping school, and spent some quality time with friends and family.

However, I have to say that my single most memorable learning experience took me completely by surprise. I am talking about a three-hour introduction to fly fishing. I never had any previous interest in the sport. I only went to the lesson to accompany my daughter. But it was an extraordinary learning experience.

What made it so phenomenal? In no particular order:

  1. The setting — Rocky Mountain scenery, cool and dry on a perfect morning. Meeting our physical needs and inviting a positive emotional response.
  2. The size of the group — five of us total, which offered plenty of focused interaction and collaboration.
  3. Our teacher — a park ranger and master fly fisherman whose 30-year knowledge was only exceeded by his enthusiasm for bringing newcomers into the fold. He was a science teacher who combined the physics of casting with the biology of river trout. He was also genuine, generous, and passionate, an instructor whom we trusted.
  4. His presentation — informal lecture, equipment demonstration, and Q & A. His talk was well-honed and well-timed, but he was completely kind and responsive to our rambling questions. He gave us confidence and cued our positive mindset.
  5. Our performance — fly casting on the river. We made a lot of mistakes, but we trusted and respected each other. We worked through moments of failure together.
  6. The sport itself — an unexpected combination of high focus and low stress. We worked with nature, not against it. It was mindfulness and Daoism at the riverbank.
  7. The novelty– I had no preconceptions of the event, no idea what to expect. Hello, dopamine release!
  8. The bargain cost — part of our $20 per week national park pass, as were the other half-dozen programs we enjoyed and the countless unstructured hours we spent in the park.
  9. Seeing my daughter so enthralled — priceless.

That’s my take on the experience. You might be wondering what my child thought was extraordinary about the morning.

Feeling the rod in my hand. Watching the arc of my line when I cast. Seeing the river take my line downstream.

Learning by doing. That about sums it up.